Justice in Surrender: Chapter 22

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The Bone Pit wasn’t all that far out of town. Clearly, Tobias decided, the Imperium had foregone preserving any pretty vistas in favour of reducing cargo costs from the quarry, and the network of mines and caves that ran off from it. Besides, the smoke that Kirkwall’s Foundry District belched out easily masked any unsavoury smells of industry that might have wafted in. They could still see the smog laying over Lowtown’s terraces like a grey shroud as they left the city behind them: him, Fenris, and Isabela, plus a couple of bulky lads she’d shown up at The Hanged Man with.

He hadn’t been sure he’d wanted to cut her in on the job, but she’d pouted and dropped heavy references to a shipment coming in at the week’s end that, with the guard’s recent arrests of certain smuggling cartels—Tobias couldn’t imagine where the Coterie’s spy had found his information, naturally—was wide open for interested parties to take a share in.

He’d been tempted; he could admit it. He still had plenty of contacts, after all… still knew where to shift hot merchandise, and the right people to fence things further afield than grubby tavern back rooms.

It was a good offer. She knew it, and she knew that he knew she knew it. So, he’d sighed, and agreed to take her and her boys along.

Typical Isabela. She always did know how to strike a deal.

Nevertheless, it gave Tobias a feeling of old times, and he clung to that, just as tightly as he clung to the morning’s brightness, and the feel of the cold air on his skin. The smell of a fresh challenge seemed to hang over everything. It tasted like warm steel and a cold salt breeze, and he pulled it right down into his lungs, eager to savour it and hold it tight.

They were quiet as they walked, taking an old cut up past the cliff path towards Hubert’s mine, leaving the lower terraces of Kirkwall spread out below them, spilling from the city walls like the teeming of dusty beetles. Beyond the jagged shapes of towers and roofs, and the great hard line of the Keep, the ocean daubed a band of hazy greyish blue that met the sky, and a couple of ships coasted lazily against it. Tobias squinted as he looked out across the horizon, a little amazed at how warped and strange the perspective seemed from up here. The coastline cupped a natural harbour, and layer upon layer of the cliffs seemed eaten away, pitted and wounded in the truest sense… just as the name of the place suggested.

Sundermount rose at their backs, though he didn’t turn to look towards it. He had no wish to let his mind drift to the Dalish camp, or any of the other weird things hidden up on those slopes. Instead, he walked on, leading his little group along the rough, sandy path. It was cold, but not properly cold. Not a proper winter at all, in his opinion. He’d never thought it would be the case, but he missed Fereldan mud, and rain, and even snow. Satinalia was less than two weeks away, and it didn’t feel right without at least a proper thick frost on the ground.

“I’m surprised Anders isn’t with us,” Isabela said cheerfully, increasing her pace a little to saunter beside him. “Would have been useful, wouldn’t it? Bring the healer along when you’re poking through forgotten underground ruins?”

Tobias winced. The last time he’d been underground with her had been the Deep Roads, and he had no wish whatsoever to recall it.

“Well, we’re not intending to be down there long. We’d better not be, anyway,” he added, narrowing his eyes. “I didn’t bring a change of smallclothes.”

Isabela grinned happily, the weak sunlight spearing off her jewellery. “Oh, well. Maybe you won’t need them. You never know your luck, after all!”

One of the bulky lads she’d brought made an obligatory ‘hur hur’ noise, and Tobias rolled his eyes.

“Still,” he said, ostensibly to himself, “it might seem like a long trip….”

Fenris snorted. “Longer still if we had the abomination to lecture us throughout. I would rather take my chances with whatever is down there than listen to another diatribe on the woeful lot of mages.”

He still said the word with the same kind of disgust as most people might reserve for having dog shit all over the bottom of their sandals, but Tobias chose to ignore it, and to concentrate instead on the slow, rhythmic thud of feet on the sandy ground. Isabela peered back at the elf, her lips lightly pursed, then elbowed Tobias sharply in the ribs.

“Ow. What?”

The breeze licked around his shoulders, and it lifted her hair slightly where it cascaded from beneath the cloth bandanna she wore.

“No, really….” She lowered her voice as she looked sidelong at him. “Is he all right? Anders, I mean. Especially after that business at the Rose?”

Tobias frowned. “What business?”

The Rivaini’s expression flickered from surprise to salacious glee. “Oh! Oh? You didn’t—? I thought you were there last night.”

A deeply uncomfortable sensation, like the slow percolation of dread and nausea, filtered through his gut. “Who said I was? Why?”

Isabela waved a hand impatiently. “Oh, you go with Jethann. So do I. I was there for breakfast this morning, and you know how word gets around.”

“Hnnmm,” Tobias mumbled, looking away as he tried not to simultaneously recall the taste of the elf’s skin, and the feel of Isabela’s fingers digging into the back of his neck as he thrust grimly against her in the dark. His frown deepened. “What… what about—?”

“Lusine threw him out, apparently,” she confided, leaning a little closer as they walked. “Anders. He was supposed to be taking care of one of the girls, but something went wrong. He didn’t do it, or wouldn’t do it, I don’t know. Jethann didn’t know.” The conspiratorial tone faded a little from her voice, and she looked briefly concerned. “I just hoped he wasn’t having problems. You know… more than usual.”

Tobias glanced over his shoulder. He couldn’t tell if any of the others had overheard. Isabela’s big, stupid, brawny lugs were talking amongst themselves, and Fenris was glaring up at the cliffs as if he could scowl them into submission. He probably could, Tobias decided, if he was given long enough. The breeze still tasted of salt, but somehow everything was bitter.

Obviously, he knew what Anders did for the girls at the Rose, and at half a dozen of the cheaper, less pleasant brothels in the city… not to mention plenty of women from the slums who, married and unmarried alike, had found themselves on the receiving end of unwanted male attention or, sometimes, simply couldn’t bear the burden of another mouth to feed. It was just that actively thinking about it made him feel slightly sick. And the thought that Anders had argued with Lusine—over anything, much less that—was unsettling, because Madam liked to get her way, and people who didn’t cooperate tended to find the Coterie breathing down their necks.

“When… when was this? Last night?”

Isabela shrugged. “Yeah. Late. I don’t know when, exactly… but it was quite the gossip this morning. Madam was livid, apparently. When Jethann said he’d seen you last night, I just assumed—”

“No,” Tobias said distantly, staring at the gritty path, littered with small stones and the glimmer of mica among the rough sand.

“Oh. Because I thought you and Anders—”

He wished she’d shut up, but tact and restraint weren’t exactly Isabela’s strong points.

“—Or,” she corrected herself speculatively, “should I say, you, Anders, and Justice? I mean, I was curious about that. It must be exciting. You know what they say: two’s company, but three’s better, right?”

Tobias grimaced. “I don’t think whoever said that had a Fade spirit in mind.”

“No?” She shrugged. “Whatever you say. I just thought you were quite interested in his, uh, spear of righteousness. That’s all.”

High above them, the sharp black shape of a gull wheeled against the sky, like an embroidered motif picked out on watered silk. The quiet gnawing of waves against the ragged shoreline tugged at the air, and Tobias groaned through gritted teeth.

“‘Spear of—?’ Isabela, I swear, if you don’t stop it—”

“What?” She mugged at him, barely stifling her giggles. “You’ll spank me? Promise?”

He sighed wearily. “No. Anyway, we’re not…. It isn’t like that.”

“It isn’t?” Isabela echoed, that curl of mirthful mockery still on her lips. “Really? You could have fooled me. You’re practically panting every time you see him, and he looks at you like he’s never seen biceps before.”

“He doesn’t,” Tobias muttered automatically, then paused as he glanced out across the ocean. Small caps of white dotted the dark, grey-green waves, and low clouds chased across the hazy sky. They were nearing the mine now; the big, burly lads were getting skittish, the way horses start to shy at the scent of a strange dog on the breeze. He frowned, and peered suspiciously at Isabela. “Does he?”

She laughed, and the sound was like a clay mug shattering. Her mouth spread into a wide grin, the pale glint of a blade against her dark skin, and she shook her head slowly.

“Hopeless. Bloody hopeless…. Hey, maybe he thinks you’re too good a person, so he’s not willing to, uh, smite you.” Her grin widened even further as Tobias pulled another face. “Ooh, that would be a shame, wouldn’t it? Everyone deserves a good smiting now and then. Matter of fact, I could use one right this minute….”

~o~O~o~

Tobias could cheerfully have throttled her by the time they arrived at the Bone Pit… especially when he saw the welcome party waiting for them.

He’d arranged to meet Varric up there: it had seemed sensible to have a cart, maybe a couple of the Carta hired hands the dwarf was on such easy terms with, and other such things as came in useful when one was clearing out a suspicious—and potentially lucrative—area. After all, if Tobias’ suspicions were correct and it was slavers or lyrium smugglers hiding down there in the tunnels, scaring the workers off, then there was no sense whatsoever in just turning their merchandise over to the authorities. Not at the price that stuff sold for.

So, Tobias had expected to see Varric on the ridge above the mine face, and he’d expected the ox cart with the whining driver complaining about being kept waiting, and he’d expected the two heavily armed dwarves who sat nearby, idly throwing dice on a conveniently flat rock… but he hadn’t expected Anders.

“Hawke!” Varric called out as he strode to meet them, every inch the merchant prince in his cuffed leather boots, wide-lapelled coat, and heavy gloves, his gold chain and earrings glinting in the sunlight. Bianca sat across his back, her brass fittings just as highly polished as his jewellery, and he gave Tobias a disarmingly wide grin. “You’re late. And with so much company.”

“The more the merrier, that’s what I always say,” Isabela chimed in brightly, nodding her head at the lunks she’d brought with her. “Mostly. Anyway, I heard about this little trip, and I just couldn’t resist. You know, there was a brothel on the sunny side of Antiva City called The Bone Pit.” She craned her neck, peering past Varric to the worn duckboards, overturned carts and debris evidently abandoned by the fleeing workers, and the eerie crevasse of the mine’s opening itself. “Hmph. Wasn’t a bit like this, mind you….”

Tobias blinked hurriedly. He hadn’t been listening. He’d been looking past the dwarf, and the cart, and not even at the mine’s entrance, but at the lone figure standing away to the side and staring out towards the thin slip of the sea that was visible between the rocks and the rise of the quarry’s steep sides. The salt breeze ruffled the feathers on Anders’ appalling coat, and caught at his hair, teasing a few strands loose so that they whipped across his face. He looked pale, tired, and surly, his whole face crumpled into a blank kind of frown but—in the instant just before Varric called out, just as they were coming down the approach path—he’d turned and looked up, and a weak recognition that was maybe even something close to cheerfulness had seemed to wash through his expression. They’d looked at each other—felt each other, Tobias thought to himself, immediately chastising his own brain for coming up with such stupid, insipidly sentimental crap—and, just for a few seconds, it had been lovely.

And now… now Isabela was grinning at him again, and he just knew she hadn’t missed the look that had passed between them, and he sneered as he turned awkwardly away from Anders, even though the healer had already begun to walk towards them, crossing the distance in slow, loose strides, his hands shoved deep in the pockets of his coat.

“Didn’t think you’d mind if Blondie tagged along,” Varric said, with something serious in his meaningful nod that Tobias gathered alluded to whatever had happened last night at the Rose. “Always worth having a healer on hand, right?”

From somewhere behind Tobias, Fenris scoffed loudly. He ignored the elf, and nodded his agreement, forcing himself to concentrate on the task in hand, and to take a quick inventory of what they had, and how they were going to approach the job.

Varric had procured a map of the mine and its associated shafts from the foreman, who’d apparently last been seen in the Hanged Man, quivering behind a pint and muttering about ‘’orrible noises in the dark’.

The general consensus was—as one of Isabela’s boys put it—that this was merely what Hubert got for relying entirely on a workforce composed of ‘dog-lords bastards what was all superstitious and fick as pig shit’, but he shut up after his captain waved one of her daggers under his nose and pointed out that Hawke was a dog-lord bastard, and might just rip the arms off anyone who defamed his homeland.

Tobias decided that his reputation evidently preceded him, because the threat seemed to be taken relatively seriously; he wasn’t sure whether he was really that imposing, or whether Isabela’s lunks were just dumb enough to believe the stories Varric told about him.

Who knows? Maybe it’s both….

The little strategy huddle broke, and, as they began to get the hired thugs and the gear together, Tobias caught Anders’ eye for the first time. He’d been hanging back, deliberately absenting himself from the discussion and barely coming near the others. Now, he stepped slightly closer, deigning to dip his head in greeting. He seemed… ethereal, somehow. Apart from the rest of them, like he wasn’t fully concentrating on the world.

“Hawke.” His mouth twitched briefly before he spoke, the word falling from it as lightly as an afterthought.

“Morning,” Tobias said brightly, trying to make the word sound casual—too casual, he thought, cringing at his own clumsiness. “Um… afternoon?”

Anders smiled, but it was a weak, vacant expression. He looked terrible: unshaven, unwashed, and as if he hadn’t slept in a week.

“You all right?” Tobias asked quietly, not really meaning to, but not really able to avoid saying anything, either.

The healer shrugged. “Mm. Long night, that’s all.”

Tobias caught himself taking a deep breath, trying to find the familiar tang of boiled elfroot, soot, and wet dog beneath the salty air… trying to place it against that fleeting moment at the Rose, and embarrassed by it. He cleared his throat, wary of letting on that he knew anything about the problems Isabela had mentioned.

“Uh… I didn’t know Varric was bringing you. I mean, it’s no bad thing, obviously, but—” He lowered his voice, anxious of the wind snatching it away and leaking his words to the others. “It’s underground. I know how you feel about that.”

Anders glanced up and, very briefly, Tobias rejoiced in the warmth of gratitude in that lean, hard-worn face. It was, however, quickly subsumed by the realisation that Anders looked even worse than he’d thought: paler than usual, drawn, and with dark circles and heavy bags beneath red-rimmed eyes. His lips were dry and peeling, his skin dull, and his hair looked greasy and lank.

“Figured it was sensible to have a healer on hand,” he said, his voice quiet and burred with a dry kind of roughness. “Just in case. I stayed at Varric’s suite last night, so… he suggested I tag along, and it seemed like a good plan. You don’t mind?”

“Never.”

“Good.”

Tobias coughed gently. “You, uh…? Were you drunk? I thought you said Justice—”

“He doesn’t. It was a very, very bad idea.” Anders smiled mirthlessly, and squinted across the stony ground towards Isabela. “You know I, um… got myself in trouble last night?”

The big, brawny lads were unloading torches, ropes, sacks, and assorted other bits and pieces from the cart. Varric clearly had no intention of being caught unprepared for anything… certainly not after the Deep Roads, Tobias thought with a shudder.

He nodded tentatively, watching Anders’ face for any suggestion of the truth behind the tale. It was blank, mask-like; as if there wasn’t anything left in him. He looked at a point a few inches to the left of Tobias’ shoulder when he spoke, his eyes unfocused.

“She was only fifteen, at most. Nearly five months gone, though she was hardly showing at all. Skinny little thing. Hadn’t said anything to anyone, because she was afraid Lusine would throw her out. She… she wanted to keep it. I said it was too late, and anyway, I wouldn’t do it if she didn’t want me to, and… and the old cow was furious.”

Tobias winced, his head full of things he didn’t want to think about, and his fingers itching on the empty air as he fought the temptation to reach a comforting hand to Anders’ sleeve.

“Well, that was the right thing to do, wasn’t it? I mean—”

“Was it?” Anders exhaled sharply, a bitter breath puffing between his cracked lips. “I stormed out in the end. Said I didn’t care what she threatened me with. But she’ll only have someone else do it, won’t she? Elina, from the alienage, or old Mrs. Slope, who can’t even see the end of her own nose. And that girl… she’ll die, and it’ll be my fault. And… and it’s not right.”

He frowned slightly, his face tightening with that particular inward look that spoke of Justice moving beneath the surface. Tobias had learned to identify the marks of inner struggle, like the dark switches of a fish under murky water, and they usually preceded Anders making his excuses and going home; scurrying back to his bolthole like a rat running through the shadows.

Only, instead, he was going into an unpredictable and probably dangerous situation… and, for the first time since he’d known the man, Tobias found himself wondering if Anders could truly manage it. He seemed dislocated, unfixed, and that was frightening, when any lapse of his usually ironclad self-control could be so potentially destructive.

And there is no way to say anything at all about it without it sounding like I think he’s crazy. Great.

Tobias cleared his throat, awkwardly groping for something to say.

“Uh…. You did what you thought was right. No one can blame you for that, can they? And— well, I could talk to Lusine, maybe. I mean, once she’s calmed down—”

“Oh,” Anders said, looking up, his eyes beginning to clear a little as he met Tobias’ gaze. “Yes. Of course. You’re quite the regular there, aren’t you? I almost forgot.”

There was a dry edge to his words; something that, in someone who didn’t sound so tired, could easily have been mistaken for bitter malice, and his upper lip curled slightly as he resumed his snideness.

“Madam’s valued customer. Especially now you’re better off. Nothing but the best in aged Antivan brandy and well-trained tarts for you, eh?”

It stung. There was no denying that. And yet, Tobias swallowed the immediate flush of humiliation and shrugged, looking steadily into those dark-ringed eyes.

“Sometimes,” he said dully, not sure where this sudden, sullen impulse to be such a complete bastard came from. “I mean, I do like nice things. Not the girls, though. There’s this elf. A redhead. He’s got the most amazing—”

“I’m sure he has,” Anders said, his tone practically arid. He glanced over his shoulder, to where Varric and the others were inspecting the mine’s entrance. “Well… shall we?”

Tobias frowned. “Are you sure you’re—?”

Anders had already turned away. “Yes,” he said, the word tightly clipped.

But you’re not, are you? You’re not all right at all.

~o~O~o~

It wasn’t too bad to begin with. Tobias didn’t know much about mining—as far as he was concerned, men went down and stuff came out, and somehow a lot of people made a lot of gold in the process—and, at first, he thought the whole of the Bone Pit would be like the open pits and quarries that marked the front end of the site.

He wasn’t really expecting how small, dark, and tight the tunnels would get as they worked deeper into the labyrinthine passages, and he certainly hadn’t pictured the gloom, the dust, the dampness, and odd sounds that lurked in the shadows.

“They say,” Varric began conversationally, as one of Isabela’s boys ventured ahead a few paces with a torch, the oval of firelight illuminating great, scarred walls of rock and the pitted frames of timber supports, “that there are all manner of little demons and imps and whatnot that live in mines. They’ll steal your tools if you whistle, drop rocks on your head if they don’t like your face… that kind of thing. Very superstitious bunch, miners.”

“I thought dwarves had a different religion,” Fenris said, padding behind him with his shoulders even more hunched than usual, and casting wary looks at the packed dirt and stone above them. “Don’t you venerate the earth or something, instead of fearing demons? And isn’t there something about ancestors?”

Varric shrugged. “How in the hell would I know? Topsider my whole life, my friend.”

The Carta dwarves snickered, and one of them turned around to give Varric a gap-toothed grin before nodding at Fenris.

“Paragons never did shit for me,” she said, her voice the only marker of her gender, apparent for the first time beneath shapeless padded armour, a leather helmet, and the heavy black brand on her cheek. “What do I got to thank ’em for? The Stone ain’t looked after me, either. I’ve done all that myself.”

Tobias chewed the inside of his lip thoughtfully as a little desultory discussion between dwarves, elf, and humans filled up the dank passageway. As far as he could see, most gods served the same purpose, and he thought briefly of His Royal Shininess, clinging to his Chantry vows and the saintly odour of piety… hiding behind it for comfort and succour. Maybe he really even believed in it. But what good did that do him? Gods, religions… they were either there to keep people in check, or to keep people believing that they were valid, and safe, and that it was all right to ignore everything in the world that wasn’t safe. Even the dwarves, with the Stone at the centre of their culture… it wasn’t the same Stone for rich and poor. Tobias might never have been to Orzammar, but he knew that much. Their whole world was based on strict castes and classes, as immutable and immovable as the rocks around them. They didn’t need the Chantry, because being a dwarf was practically a religion in itself.

And these superstitions… who needed those? Why fear shadows and strange noises in the dark, when you didn’t even need to be a mage to know that demons were real?

He suppressed a shudder, and glanced towards Anders. He hadn’t spoken since they entered the mine. He walked stiffly, his eyes alert and his gaze darting to every shadow, every corner… like he was waiting for something horrible to happen.

Well, it usually does when he’s around me. Guess I really know how to show a man a good time.

The prickle of anticipation ran down Tobias’ spine, an unscratchable itch between his shoulder blades that grew worse with every crunch of footsteps on the gritty soil. He lengthened his stride, moving to the front of the group, listening to their movements behind him and yet feeling as if he was being drawn deeper into the mine, his face fanned by a warmth that seemed to come from deep within the darkness.

“Who wants to play I Spy?” Isabela said after a while, eliciting a chorus of groans. “I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with—”

“Rock,” Varric said shortly. “The answer is going to be ‘rock’, Rivaini.”

She pouted. “It might not have been.”

Tobias took a deep breath. The air was stale, foul… hot. The torch that Isabela’s lad was carrying guttered and went out, to a series of curses and complaints. He started fiddling to relight it, but hadn’t got halfway through the task before Anders had pulled a bright ball of magelight from the air. It cast an eerie, pale glow around the tunnel, highlighting the fading echo of panic on his face—a look that Tobias felt strangely comforted to see, because it matched his own lurch of terror so well.

Ever since the Deep Roads, darkness had felt so much heavier. He caught Anders’ eye briefly, and knew that he understood that feeling, and knowing that helped just a little bit.

He cleared his throat. “Let’s get those torches lit. We’ll want all the visibility we can get. It’s not smugglers… if it was smugglers, or slavers, or even those bloody qunari outcasts, we’d be seeing more mess down here. There’d be bottles, or noises… something to show where they’d been.”

“Hawke’s right,” Isabela agreed, though he wasn’t entirely sure why she felt she had to say so. “You two—get those lights up!”

The female Carta dwarf looked nervously up and down the tunnel, her face lent a greenish hue by Anders’ magelight, and her eyes were like dark saucers.

“If it ain’t that,” she said tentatively, “what is it?”

The smell of sulphur flared against the rocks as Isabela’s boys struggled with their dwarven matches, finally coaxing two fresh torches into flame.

Tobias tilted his head, peering into the blackness ahead of them.

“Dunno,” he said. “But let’s hope it bleeds.”

~o~O~o~

The first hints were the bodies. Some of Hubert’s workers, probably—and quite possibly a few other unfortunate souls—reduced to dismembered, charred pieces of flesh, with the whitish ends of bones poking out through piles of scorched meat, and other, older skeletal remnants crushed to powder beneath them.

“Something feeds here,” Fenris observed darkly, wrinkling his nose at the sour smell that hung in the air.

The torchlight glimmered on his pale hair, shadows shivering against the rocks that surrounded them. Varric said something dry about messy dining, but Tobias wasn’t listening again. He was aware of Isabela’s lads looking scared and sullen, and the Carta dwarves getting shifty, eyeing up the way they’d come—and any other possible exits to dash for in a hurry—and he was very aware of the pallid, sweaty cast to Anders’ face.

Dark. Dark and heavy and thick, like it’s choking you and you can’t get out… you’ll never get out. Never get out again. Maker… pull yourself together! Don’t need both of you curling up in the corner, gibbering….

“Darkspawn do that,” one of the brawny lunks said, his fingers whitening on the torch he held, and his eyes glittering like nervously flitting chips of quartz in his craggy face. “They pull people apart an’ eat ‘em. What if the miners broke froo into the Deep Roads, eh? Whole place could be swarming with the buggers….”

“Darkspawn don’t eat people,” Anders said quietly. “The taint sustains them. They do… horrible things… but not this. This was something else.”

The lunk narrowed his eyes. “How d’you know what darkspawn—”

“He spent a long time in Ferelden,” Tobias cut in. “That’s sort of what we do there. Dogs, cheese, and Blight lore. All right?”

The man looked slightly sulky, but he shut up, even if there were a few stifled mumbles. Tobias was fairly sure he caught the word ‘robe’. It wasn’t the time or place to do anything about it, however, and he motioned towards the fork at the end of the tunnel, where the stale billow of air spoke of another ventilation shaft, and possibly the junction of another cut back up towards the surface.

“This way. Whatever it is, it’s bigger than a deepstalker, so let’s keep our eyes open.”

They found it right down in the mine’s guts, well past the main shafts and chambers. The Bone Pit had grown and changed over time, a grossly attenuated tangle of tunnels and hollowed-out places, and there were all manner of shafts sunk down from the quarry levels, honeycombing the entire place. According to Varric’s map, they led out eventually to the other side of the cliff, where rumour had it that a series of ledges and cuts led down to the shore, making the mine—like so many others in the area—a prime site for smugglers and slavers.

Businessmen like Hubert spent a great deal of coin on paying people like Hawke to clear such places out, and, in many cases, it wasn’t worth the smugglers’ trouble to come back too often… but, in this instance, it looked like the last cartel to try their luck had met a very nasty end.

They unearthed another feeding site, or killing ground, or… something. It was hard to tell exactly what it was through the number of bits of limbs and splintered bone. Several bodies, quite well decomposed, littered a small cavern, and there were a number of weapons either broken or discarded and half-rusted, half-buried in the filth. Varric toed through the mess, and gave his opinion that—whoever the poor bastards had been—they’d died armed to the teeth. The discovery of a huge haul of lyrium, a little further back, packed into a hollow that had been cut from the rock, seemed to suggest that they hadn’t been killed for their stock.

“Huh.” Varric wrinkled his nose. “I owe you a beer, Hawke. Looks like there were lyrium smugglers down here after all. There’s crates of the stuff back here. Potions, dust… gotta be at least three hundred pieces’ worth, in market prices,” he added thoughtfully, with the kind of look on his face that spoke of brief but intense mental arithmetic.

“Much more than that, if you know who to sell it to,” Anders said, his tone bitter and hollow. “Half of the tunnels under the bloody city were built by smugglers. I’m not surprised to see nests this far out, too. I bet people like Hubert turn a blind eye.” He looked up, throwing a baleful glance around the group. “You know the Chantry finances it, don’t you? It’s the templars. They crave the stuff, and if they get cut off… well. Not much they wouldn’t do to get it. They get addicted. Drives them mad.”

The Carta dwarves fidgeted awkwardly, and Isabela’s boys didn’t look much happier. Fenris muttered something about it being ‘no great wonder, given that templars are tasked with keeping mages in line’, and Tobias fought the urge to start smashing heads together. The darkness down here felt thick and cloying, and the lyrium was probably the source of the mild prickling he felt beneath his skin. He wasn’t unfamiliar with its call: the hum that was just a little too disturbing to be called a song.

“Let’s just get on with this, shall we?” he said brusquely, pushing his way past the others, and pushing on towards the acrid sourness that, he fervently hoped, was the way out.

A little after that, they found ventilation shafts, and the site of an older part of the mine that had once extended even further down. Warm air belched up from it, up towards the rocks and ledges that arched away, leading towards the surface… and something else seemed to curl up from the depths, too. There were low, echoing sounds, like growls or deep, roiling breaths, and it caused some consternation amongst the party. Isabela’s boys started muttering about darkspawn again, and Varric had to get sharp with the Carta dwarves when the male started to panic.

Privately, Tobias thought the dwarf had good reason because, as soon became apparent, the thing making the noises turned out to be a dragon.

An actual, Maker-sworn bloody dragon.

A fucking big dragon, made entirely of talons and horns, and teeth almost as long as a man’s arm.

Tobias didn’t waste precious minutes on speculating how it had got down into the mine, although later—once the screaming and the fire and the whole potentially-imminent-death thing was over—it seemed logical that it had come in through the cuts from the rear side of the cliffs, probably from the higher reaches of the mountains, and been drawn to the warmth in the mine’s lowest pits. From there, it had risen to feed… and possibly to get annoyed when it couldn’t get out.

Either way, it wasn’t in the best of tempers when it confronted them. They fought it on a ledge of solid, flat ground at the neck of the cavern it seemed to have made its home, with torchlight glaring off the quartz in the walls, and gouts of flame lighting up the tunnels.

It was a hard fight, too. Hard enough to make the memories of killing an ogre seem like child’s play… not that Tobias made the comparison at the time. He was busy drawing the creature along the cavern, trying to make it stretch its neck out until he could get in one good force blast and slam its head against the rocks.

Unfortunately, a stunned dragon proved to be an angry dragon, and one not without the use of its wings. It tried to take off, and the sheer strength of the movement knocked most of them flying. A few good shots from Varric—and the nasty little explosive canisters Bianca was packing—tore a hole in one wing, but as the beast came down it got a hold of one of the Carta dwarves, and she ended up tossed across the floor in two pieces.

Isabela danced distraction while Fenris went for the dragon’s underbelly, his lithe, white-blue form a smoke of lyrium and danger that ghosted against the darkly burnished scales. Anders worked its head, bolt after bolt of magic popping at its eyes to keep it blind, while the rest of them followed the elf. Tobias could almost taste the power that flared from his brands, and he was grateful for the steel in his fist, relying on it more than his own magic as he rushed again at the dragon’s massive body.

It wasn’t impenetrable. It couldn’t be. If Nevarran dragon-hunters had brought the bastards to near-total extinction, logic said you could kill them. It was merely a matter of perseverance.

Of course, that wasn’t a comforting thought… particularly when Fenris went flying across the rocks, his sword flung from his grasp, and blood pouring from his nose. Tobias yelled for him, aware of one of Isabela’s boys going down too, and aware of the terrible scream the dragon gave—a roar of such condensed fury that he suddenly wondered whether it was the only one of its kind down here—but there was little he could do. His whole world had been reduced to the greyish-red scales and thrashing body ahead of him, with the rank heat of the creature’s breath and its occasional flames toasting the stone beneath him. The stale air burned his bare arms, and the smell of singed hair filled his nostrils. A flare of light behind him made him turn, and he could see Anders—a slim, fair figure lined with electric blue, wrapped in a haze of terrible power—as he worked on Fenris.

Tobias bared his teeth in a grim smile. If the elf lived, he’d be really pissed off about that.

If any of us live, mind you….

With that thought, Tobias gripped his dagger with renewed force, thrust it into the meat of the dragon’s inner thigh—aiming for its softer parts, unshielded by the tough scales on the outer side of its body—and dragged it as far as he could, opening up a long wound that gushed thick, bright blood. The creature’s roar made the rocks shake and, as the great horned head swung around to face him, he balled up every last fibre of his power, pulling the greatest force magic he’d ever known from the utmost pit of his ability.

It felt like he’d ripped his own body into pieces, and he heard Isabela swear as she was knocked on her back and winded, caught in the peripheral blast of the spell, but still… a full-grown dragon’s head could hit the ground much harder than he could hit it, and it bought them a few seconds. Varric howled with glee as one of his arrows took out the dragon’s left eye and, with the mutilated socket bleeding copiously, it struggled to fend them off.

Tobias had the killing blow, if such a thing could be delineated amidst the messy, torturous business of bringing the beast down. His dagger could barely tear deeper than the skin, but Fenris’ sword—a far bulkier weapon than he was used to although, he found as he picked it up from where it had fallen, much lighter than it looked—proved the perfect depth of blade. It was just a matter of avoiding the crippled beast’s last dying flames, and piercing through the back of its skull. Repeatedly. And messily.

Not quite the dramatic end the bards would have people believe, Tobias thought, as—weak-kneed and with a patter of unexplained little lights dancing at the edges of his vision—he half-climbed and half-fell off the back of the beast’s neck… only to find that everyone was watching him.

He swallowed heavily, aware of how thoroughly drenched he was in sweat, and glanced over his shoulder at the enormous corpse. The smell of blood hung over everything in the cavern; even the rocks looked wet with gore.

Panting, Tobias jerked his head towards the dragon. “Is that pissing thing actually dead now?”

“Pretty thoroughly, I’d say,” Isabela observed, wiping the back of her wrist across her forehead.

Like the rest of them, she was smoke-streaked, bloodstained, and knackered. And they were the lucky ones. Tobias looked to the rock behind which Anders had dragged Fenris, but neither was there. The elf had staggered to his feet, and was surveying the aftermath. Tobias held out a hand, offering him his sword back.

“S’lighter than I thought,” he said, noticing the unsteadiness with which Fenris came forward to take it, clutching at the blade like it was the only anchor in a bobbing world.

“It is well balanced,” he croaked, his face sheened with sweat, and those pale green eyes unfocused. “You… finished it.”

“Don’t sound surprised.” Tobias tried to smile, but it came out as a grimace, his lungs burning for air and his head still spinning. “S’what I do, isn’t it? Isn’t it, Varric?” He turned to the dwarf. “Kill unexpectedly aggressive things that are bigger than me? S’my… wotsit… thing. Thing I do.”

Varric gave a short, bitter chuckle. “Huh. Yep… this is going to outdo that ogre story, for sure.”

Tobias nodded hazily, trying hard to hold onto what was real. He suddenly seemed so incredibly thirsty, and he tried to wet his lips with a parched tongue.

“You all right?” he asked Fenris, squinting with concern at the elf’s blurry face. “You were—”

Fenris’ mouth tightened, his eyes growing cool and guarded in spite of his evidently lingering injuries. “Yes. I’ll be fine.”

“Anders,” Tobias murmured, half to himself as he turned, peering around the cavern.

The familiar flare of healing magic called to him through the puffy clouds of this swift and overwhelming fatigue, though he stumbled a little bit on his way across the blood-slick ground. Voices jumbled in Tobias’ ears, and he winced at the sight of the Carta dwarf’s corpse. Varric stood next to her surviving comrade, his hand on the dwarf’s shoulder.

“What d’you want to do, Leske? We could take her back.”

“Nah.” The Carta dwarf shook his head, his face a curious mix of sorrow and complete pragmatism. “What’s the use in that? Leave her here. With the Stone.”

Varric nodded. “All right. Is there… anything specific you need to do? I don’t know, a pile of rocks, or a prayer, or—”

“Huh? How the rut should I know?”

“Well, don’t ask me. You were born in Orzammar, weren’t you?”

“Yeah, but….”

Tobias left them to it, and moved unsteadily to where Anders was healing one of Isabela’s boys.

“’nything I can do?” he offered.

Anders glanced up, his expression oddly impersonal, and nodded curtly at the ground. “Sit down. Before you fall down. I’ll get to you in a minute, once I’ve set this leg.”

Tobias opened his mouth to protest, only to find that he was already obeying.

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Chapter 23
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Ephemera: Chapter 11

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What are you going to do? It’s not like you can just swim across.

You’ll never make it.

You couldn’t do it. No one can. 

They’d find you. Whatever you did, wherever you went… they’d find you.

Karl didn’t mean them that way, but his words had become a litany of reproachful disbelief, and Anders hated that. He hated the fear that hung behind it; the pale shadow of a frightened, chastened little boy in apprentice robes, lurking at the back of his friend’s eyes.

The thing was, he fully intended to do it. That was what Karl didn’t understand.  It was merely a matter of time… and time was, paradoxically, both the one thing that life in the Tower granted in abundance, and the first thing that they tried to take from you. Right from the beginning: grinding it down, minute by minute, until you stopped noticing its passing; they took it, and changed what it meant, and you didn’t even notice. He’d always said that. It was how they started to mess with your head.

Well, he wasn’t going to stick it. What did they expect him to do, wait around like an idiot for his Harrowing, then settle down and play the good little magey until he died? After all, Anders definitely wasn’t enchanter material. He was under no illusions about that. In fact, he could just imagine the horror with which the Circle would regard the idea of him being allowed to teach apprentices. No… there was nothing here for him. No career, no steady acceptance.

After his Harrowing—assuming he actually lasted that long, he thought ruefully—he could join a fraternity, and he knew there was no choice in which he’d pick, although he doubted it would do any good. All the Libertarians that Anders had met in the Tower were moderates, which was a nice way of saying ‘full of hot air’. Yes, they believed mages should have more freedom, and they were prepared to stand up and complain about the Chantry’s strictures, but no one ever actually did anything about it. He supposed, realistically, they couldn’t. Not yet, anyway. Not with the stranglehold the Aequitarians and the Loyalists had on the council of senior enchanters, at least in Ferelden.

He and Karl had talked about it quite a lot, up until a few months ago, when Karl had got annoyed and said there was no point trying to talk politics with Anders. All he’d said was that, if the Aequitarians ever broke with the Loyalists and sided with the Libertarians, it could mean the whole College’s balance of power shifting… a new dawn for mages.

Karl had said that would never happen—not in Ferelden, anyway, and definitely not in Orlais. Nevarra was a law unto itself, though the Chantry was still strong there, and the Free Marches’ Circles were too conservative to allow more votes for freedom, especially when all their councils cared about was keeping political stability. Apparently, in Starkhaven, the ruling clan had incredibly strong ties to the Chantry, and Tantervale was little better. Besides, even if the College of Magi ever did table a motion for autonomy, the Divine was hardly likely to just agree to it.

Anders hated it when Karl talked like that. It was as if he was laying out all the reasons that the Circle was untenable—all the reasons that convinced Anders he physically couldn’t live like this, in this mockery of security and imprisonment—and then he had the gall to get angry when the topic of escape came up.

Karl went the same way with it every time; repeating all those well-worn words about why it was a bad idea, how it could never work, and why Anders shouldn’t even be talking about it, and it was like he couldn’t hear how much he sounded like one of them.

They argued over it, from time to time, and Karl would get frustrated and say he was only cross because he didn’t want to see Anders get hurt, and that was so stupid! It was as if he didn’t understand how wrong it all felt, how oppressive and choking: all this, all the time. The darkness and the closeness of other people, the unremitting intrusiveness, and the suspicion and the pointless bloody rules… and he probably didn’t feel it, did he? He didn’t see it, because he’d been here too long. It was too late for him. They were in his head. They owned him, even when he was saying he believed the system was wrong, and the thing that terrified Anders most of all—far more than demons, or templar swords, or the blazingly judgemental glare of the Chantry, which always seemed to tell him he was a monster—was that he’d end up like that too. One day, he’d wake up, and he’d still be talking about freedom and change, but inside he’d be tame, and all his words would just be a thin veneer over the fact he didn’t know any other life, and he was too scared to leave.

He would rather have died than let that happen, but he couldn’t say it to Karl, because that would have meant admitting what he really thought, and Anders had absolutely no wish to hurt him like that, however frustrated he got with his friend.

It was so much easier just to hide it all, and not talk about it, except at that safe level of make-believe, with silly fantasies about running away and making a life on the road, or in some far-off place full of perfect dreams. Sometimes, when Anders wanted to play those games, he’d see Karl’s face getting all tight, and it seemed better just to stop talking completely, and restrict themselves to the communication of bodies.

That was all right, though. Touching Karl—kissing him, fucking him, finding new ways and new places to eke pleasure and excitement out of life—was one of the few things that felt worthwhile.

Anders still thought about it, though. His plans might have been a little half-hearted—at least for the length of time that Karl kept him distracted—but they were still there. He was never just going to sit back and accept it, never let them win. He couldn’t.

So, he planned. He did it quietly, in his own head, where they couldn’t touch him, and he took hold of the problems and the possibilities, and turned them around and around until he saw little chinks in them that would lead to solutions, like light glancing off a prism. In his free periods—when they didn’t coincide with Karl’s—Anders would walk around the Tower. Most of the other apprentices his age spent their spare time studying or gossiping in the common rooms, but he prowled his prison, learning the stones, the short cuts, the very fabric of the place, well enough to find his way around it blindfolded. He walked, and watched, and learned which templars dozed on guard duty, and which side rooms and store cupboards they knew the apprentices used as illicit trysting or meeting places, and which ones they just hadn’t discovered yet. He found the quickest routes from east to west and north to south through the Tower’s heart, and learned which doors were always locked, and which ones the Tranquil left open when they were drifting between corridors, cleaning or stock-taking, or moving things around.

The lower basement levels were a good way out, Anders decided. There were important, heavily fortified things down there, like the repository where all the really old stuff from the Tower’s days as an Avvar, and then Tevinter, fortress was stored… and of course the phylactery chamber. That gave him some sleepless nights. Oh, to get at that little vial! It was too complicated, though. All that messing around with keys and guards—word had it the chamber could only be opened by the Knight-Commander and the First Enchanter together—and then having to get out undetected… it would mean needing help, and Anders didn’t want to involve anyone else. This was his freedom, and his plan, and he wasn’t taking responsibility for anybody who wasn’t him.

He didn’t trust anyone that much. Maybe not even Karl.

Still, the phylactery chamber and the repository weren’t the only things down there. There were the storage chambers and tunnels cut right back into the living rock—as he’d discovered during his week spent assisting the Tranquil, which he never wanted to think about ever, ever again—and there were service passages, and then all the mundane bits of the Tower and their attendant storerooms: gardens, kitchens, laundry facilities and the rest of it.

There had to be a way. There was probably a lot more than one way. Not being noticed was the key… getting himself tucked away down there somehow, so no one noticed one more body slipping out of some unguarded side door. From there, it was only the lake that was an issue, and there were boats that crossed that a couple of times a week.

However, as experience had taught him, he would need to learn how to blend in better. The problem was in familiarity. The same sets of people usually made deliveries to and from the tower, and he’d be spotted at once if he just tried to tag along with the butcher’s lads. No… it would take something more creative than that.

Anders briefly considered faking some really esoteric sort of illness—the kind that would need medicine more than healing—so that he could be taken across in a boat by the very people he wanted to escape from. The elegance of the idea appealed to him, as did the melodrama, but the details didn’t hold up to scrutiny. For a start, it was hard to fake sickness in a tower full of experienced healers and, even if he did pull it off, there was no guarantee they wouldn’t just shut him up in a room and leave him to die… or, worse, try and bring the medicine to him.

Damn. Apart from that, another very good plan. Ah, well. Back to the drawing board.

He took to spending as much time as he could down by the kitchens and the service halls, skulking in shadowed doorways and at the ends of corridors—just far enough away that the terrifying women with the beefy, floury arms wouldn’t shoo him out, waving and shouting like they were trying to scare geese or something—and watching who came and went. Anders reasoned that the turnover on servants had to be reasonably regular. After all, large kitchens fed on skinny little runts who turned spits, chopped vegetables, and fetched and carried for the aforementioned beefy-armed women… just the same way that the Tower itself fed on the wide-eyed little children poured in through its doors. If he could time it just right—just after the new hirelings were brought in, perhaps—maybe no one would know he didn’t fit in. All he’d need to do would be to steal a set of clothes and find something large and heavy to carry, like a grain sack, which he could hide behind.

It might work. It probably wouldn’t… but it might.

Failing that, Anders suspected his best alternative was slipping out in the dead of night, when all good little apprentices should be in their beds, and trying to swim across the lake. The first glimmer of that as a plan did appeal: the inky water, the thin, sharp slices of moonlight silvering his head as he cut silently through the cold and the dark… but there were logistical problems. He’d need supplies, which would be hard to carry on him, and it wasn’t as if the templars’ patrols didn’t take in the grounds, even in the small hours, and someone splashing around down on the shore would probably attract attention. And, as Karl had so annoyingly pointed out, Anders wasn’t exactly an experienced swimmer to begin with.

That point irked him, and he began to look increasingly at the lake as another oppression. It was always there, every time he snatched a glance from a window, or on the rare opportunities they were escorted outside for their exercise periods. It was there, mirroring the endless expanse of the sky, and it was everything that meant freedom and boundless space, and yet it was also hedging him in, an insurmountable barrier that he began to hate the way he hated so much about the Tower, and the enchanters, and… and just everything.

Just as, before, he’d strayed to every window and every gleam of sky, Anders began to shy from glimpses of the outside. He started to take his walks deeper and deeper into the Tower’s belly, down among the lower levels, where all the apprentice stories of ghosts and monsters concealed in the Pits were based. Some days, he stuck to the central spiral of rooms at the building’s core: the chapel, and the inventory office, and the crowded corridors that ran off along the potions and alchemical laboratories, where the long, curved hallways always smelled of brass polish and herbs.

Karl didn’t come too. He was busy. Karl was always busy: studying in the library, or taking extra classes, or attending open lectures and seminars, or even going to the bloody boring inter-fraternity debates, where wizened, bearded enchanters and spotty little new mages in their first terms would take turns to waffle on in rhetorical circles.

It was mind-numbing. Anders preferred to stay well away. Sometimes, he preferred to stay well away from the Tower’s other enforced gatherings, too… he skipped study periods, assemblies, and occasionally even meals, which was how he came, one evening, to be mooching along the corridor not far from the chapel, while most of the Tower should have been present at dinner.

There was another visiting enchanter being celebrated. A botanist from Antiva, apparently, who had an accent so thick that no one could understand her lectures. Karl had said they were very interesting, all the same, but Anders had been annoyed with him at the time, and said he thought everything was interesting, and Karl had just grinned and said what was wrong with that… and that hadn’t helped Anders’ mood at all.

So, he’d thought ‘sod it’ and hung back in the dorm when everyone else went down for the meal—he’d told the templar on escort duty he had the runs, and hopped about a bit, claiming to be desperate for the privy, and she’d finally left him alone—and now he was just sloping along, hands crunched up in his sleeves, with his slippers scraping the flagstones.

Dusky, bluish light filtered dimly through the high, tiny windows, but he didn’t bother to look up and watch the dust motes dance in it, or to watch the shadows the early-lit torches cast on the venerable stone walls. He knew the tapestries and the statues by heart—every thread, every line, every curve and every stupid, bland inscription—and he knew every crack and colouration in every bloody flagstone.

The corridor that circled around to the chapel’s side door was totally silent; the air itself seemed velvety and heavy, like a physical kind of quietness that could blanket everything. The only sounds were the gentle susurrations of Anders’ shoes and robes, and maybe the whisper of his own breathing… and the only thing that, tonight, kept him from wanting to rip his skin off and pull out his own eyeballs was the fact that Mr. Wiggums had chosen to keep him company on his walk.

The cat had been doing that more often recently. Anders was pathetically grateful for it. They’d been forging a bond of sorts: he’d save scraps of meat or fish from his dinner, and hide them in his pockets until he saw Wiggums next. He’d slip the treats to the boot-faced old mouser, and, in return, the cat would wolf them down, then glare at Anders accusingly and, perhaps, deign to headbutt him a few times and rub his wiry, thick body around his ankles. Occasionally, Anders was allowed a few seconds to stroke the cat’s flat, hard head, or tickle him behind the ears, until Mr. Wiggums got fed up, and half-heartedly tried to eat his fingers.

Once, the cat had happened upon him as he sat in an alcove close by the wine cellars—not too close: the booze was locked behind several heavy doors, naturally—and, having emerged from somewhere with a guilty expression, had hopped up onto the stone ledge beside Anders, and sat close by him for a long while, before getting back down to hack up a hairball.

Now, they walked together in companionable silence, Anders with his arms folded across his middle, hands buried in his sleeves and frown affixed to his face, and Wiggums with his ears at half-mast and tail straight up, the end slightly crooked.

Anders hadn’t meant to skirt so near the chapel. He didn’t even like the place. He was, he suspected, developing a really deep-seated aversion to everything about the Chantry. Karl said they meant well—the actual people; the sisters and the brothers and, anyway, many of them had been given up as children, just like mages were, so they had a lot more in common than you’d think—but that wasn’t the point.

It was their faith that Anders hated. The unshakeable peace they had from something so intangible, so… fragile. It made him suspicious.

Anders was fairly sure he couldn’t even call himself an Andrastean anymore, if he’d ever been one. Did he believe? He didn’t know. Not in the perfect, blameless Andraste whom all the statues depicted: she was an idea, not a real person. Maybe she’d never been a real person. The Fade was real enough—every mage knew that, just as they didn’t have the luxury of doubting the existence of demons—but that didn’t necessarily mean that everything in the Chant was true.

No, there were too many rules, too many constraints… and while the Chantry encouraged the faithful to be good and strive to regain the Maker’s favour, mages were left to believe that, however good they were, they were still cursed. Still incomplete. Still dangerous.

If we can never be as good as them, what’s the point in trying?

Anders drew to a halt near the chapel’s side door and glowered at the heavy, iron-bound wood. The decorative panels over the hinges and lock plate were worked with designs that incorporated Chantry symbols—the Maker’s Eye, the sunburst, the sword of mercy—and an etching that looked a bit like some sort of multi-petalled flower around the keyhole. He pulled a face at it, but the metal remained impassive.

Beyond the door, the chapel seemed unusually quiet… or almost quiet, anyway. It was the sort of still, gravid silence that sounded like someone trying not to make a noise, and that attracted Anders’ attention. He glanced down at Mr. Wiggums, noticing the way the cat’s ragged ears oscillated towards the heavy door. A look of vague disdain flickered across the feline features and, with one last rough shove up against Anders’ legs, the tom wound his way in a circle and then padded off down the corridor, tail held high.

Well, well. If even the cat doesn’t approve… this is probably something interesting!

He tiptoed forwards, listening intently. The muffled sounds of voices echoed within the chapel, but not the feminine murmurs of the sisters, or the mellifluous lilt of one of the lay brothers warming up before the evening service. It was too early for that, anyway, and everyone ought still to be at dinner; even the holiest cleric had to eat.

No, these were deep, male voices, purposefully hushed. The illicit thrill of eavesdropping slipped a grain of glee into Anders’ blood, and he grinned to himself. Lovers’ tryst, maybe?

Ooh, right there in the chapel? Dirty. I like it. I wonder if— nah, Karl’d never go for that. Or would he…? 

He crept closer to the doors, crouched down, and put his palms to the wood as he tried to peer through first the keyhole, and then the narrow gap beside the hinges, where the ancient wood had warped a little. Anders held his breath as he screwed up his eyes and tried to squint through the tiny crack. There was less than a quarter of an inch to see through, but at least he could hear what was going on much more clearly.

There were two templars inside the chapel, near the central platform that held the revered mother’s lectern, the marble Andraste with the outstretched hands, and the brazier that burned with the Eternal Flame. They must have been templars, Anders decided, even though they weren’t wearing their full armour. He recognised the soft grey tunics and wide-legged trousers they wore when they were off-duty and—like this pair of charmers—locked in some pantomime of penitence.

Templars prayed a lot. Far more so than people who were meant to have already received whatever holy benediction their initiations placed on them, in Anders’ opinion. They thought they were made holy, didn’t they? Something like that, he was sure… not that he was overly familiar with their rites of passage. As far as he knew, there was training—years of training, apparently, and education, not that the results of that were immediately obvious—and then the actual initiation and knighthood, which involved a lot of semi-mystical rot about vigils and prayer… and then the Chantry started dosing them with lyrium and putting them in charge of other people.

As far as Anders was concerned, this did not equate to a series of good ideas and, coupled with the continuance of all that praying, and all those frightfully restrictive vows (among several colourful additions to the publicised chastity, obedience, humility, and piety, some of the apprentices said that templars even forwent changing their underwear more than twice a week, but Anders had never heard this substantiated), it wasn’t surprising that so many of them were bastards.

Of course, he reflected, as he pressed closer to the wood, watching the two men kneeling side-by-side before Andraste’s image, if Karl had been here, he’d have said that templars were people too, and they weren’t all the same. Some were Chantry charity cases, given no option, and some joined simply for the academic opportunities. Yes, some thought mages were a blight on the world—a canker that needed to be controlled and thoroughly pruned—and some were sympathetic and supportive.

However, Karl wasn’t there, and Anders didn’t have to listen to his soft-option excuses. He smirked to himself as he considered the possibilities that observing unseen presented: a cloud of noxious stinking gas, fed through the keyhole, or maybe a little jolt of electricity… could he shoot it as far as the nearest templar’s backside? He wondered, and was starting to raise his hand to gauge the trajectory, when one of the templars—the slighter of the two, with fair hair and broad shoulders—broke his sub-voce mumble of the Chant to cry out with unnerving zeal.

“Ah!” The young man threw his head back, revealing a fresh, rosy face, eyes closed tight and brow pinched in a frown of concentration. He still had his hands clasped piously before him. “Ah… Lady! I shall embrace the light. I shall weather the storm… I shall endure!”

The other templar opened his eyes and frowned at his companion, who’d gone immediately back to a rambling mumble of disjointed bits of canticles and aphorisms, his mouth moving ceaselessly.

“Edven? Edven, are you all right?”

Anders shifted position, his crouch growing uncomfortable, though he was unwilling to leave his perch… not when things seemed to have the potential for amusement.

They’re all nutcases. Didn’t I say they were nutcases? Wish Karl was here. He’d have to admit I was right….

The fair-haired nutcase let his head loll back again, his lips slackening around the words as they grew louder. Anders was hardly an expert on the Chant—despite numerous sermons and enforced readings of the jolly, luridly illustrated books of concordance and affirmations that the sisters always managed to slip into the dorms—but even he could tell that the templar’s repetitions weren’t running correctly. They were mangled bits of different canticles, pulled out and stitched together the way people pulled a simplistic few words out of the Chant to illustrate one particular point they wanted to argue. Which was stupid, because the bloody thing was enormously long (Anders had heard it said that, in Orlais, they sang the entire thing at the cathedral, instead of the normal précis version, and it took weeks to get through. It sounded terrible.) and, anyway, it wasn’t like it was one coherent document. There were verses that had been stricken from the Chant, and new ones that had been inserted… it only meant what the Chantry wanted it to mean, didn’t it?

And the stars stood still,” the young templar cried, “the winds did quiet, and all animals of earth and air held their breath / And all was silent in prayer and thanks!

The other man looked up again, this time in distinct alarm. He didn’t seem much older—in fact, though he was broader than the first, his bulkiness seemed to come more from residual puppy fat than muscle—and his pale brown hair, cut short as the order demanded, had a slight curl to it that made him seem perpetually untidy. As he turned to his companion, Anders was able to make out a long, straight nose, and narrow dark eyes.

“Edven,” the templar whispered hoarsely, his hands unclenching tentatively, as if he wasn’t sure whether he was allowed to cease the attitude of prayer or not. “Edven, calm yourself….”

That evidently wasn’t going to do much good. The nutcase was rocking on his knees, his chant growing louder and faster, broken through with excitable imprecations.

“Ah, Lady! I hear her voice… her sweet music! Blessed are they who stand before / The corrupt and the wicked and do not falter. /  Blessed are the peacekeepers, the champions of the just. It is the Maker’s justice, this sweetness! Her holy light! Do you not feel it? Let Him take notice and shine upon thee, for thou has done His work on this day….

Anders bit his lip hard, stifling a giggle at having every ‘templars are barmy’ joke he’d ever made so conclusively supported.

The second templar had started looking mildly concerned. “Edven, perhaps we’ve prayed enough. I know what Ser Rylock said, but—”

“You don’t understand, Carrick!” Edven protested, rising up higher on his knees, his face turned to Andraste’s impassive stone countenance. “Why should I wish this to end? I feel her holy light! She speaks to me! Sings to me, in her mellifluous grace….”

His friend was looked seriously worried now. “Andraste sings for the Maker,” he began hesitantly. “She is His bride, set at His side in the heavens, that She may beg Him to turn His holy gaze back upon we who have yet to prove ourselves pure, and—”

“I hear her!” Edven all but shrieked, piercing the sanctimonious quiet of the chapel with his breathless awe. “I see her! And, oh, brother… she is so beautiful! Do you not see how her cheek blushes with the warmth of life? How her lips part as she breathes out words of love and hope? Plump and red as cherries! The sweetness of her breath is as honeyed wine… her eye is as topaz, glittering with warmth, and her brow a polished shell of purest white. Her hair glistens like gold! She beckons me, brother! Beckons me to her!”

Anders clamped both hands over his mouth and nose, trying to stifle his laughter without actually suffocating himself. Great hiccoughing spasms of hysteria clenched and twisted his ribs and stomach as his shoulders convulsed, and one uneven breath escaped him as Edven staggered to his feet, arms outstretched, and began to lumber towards the plain marble statue.

“I shall come to you, Lady! I am your supplicant, your most devoted servant! I come in love… such love as thou fill me with—as you fill all our hearts!”

“Edven! Um… Edven?”

Carrick stumbled awkwardly to his feet, scrambling after the other templar, who was now clambering up the platform, past the brazier, and towards the statue of the prophet, still spewing ragged bits of the Chant and interspersing them with hyperbolic—and, Anders had to admit, pretty damn sketchy—praise for Andraste’s womanly form.

Bloody dirty bastards, the lot of them… haven’t I always said? I always said….

Good grief, what does he intend to do now?

The light of the eternal flame, and the perpetual glimmerings of candles, painted delicate shadows on Edven’s tunic, turning his fair hair to burnished copper as, arms spread wide, he approached the statue with a look of wild, unfocused bliss on his face.

If Anders hadn’t been trying so hard not to laugh, he might have been afraid of that strength of zeal; it was the dangerous kind, that makes reality feel pale in comparison, and turns the world blurry at the edges, until only the pure white flame of a dream is enough to sustain the mind that birthed it.

Come to me, child, and I shall embrace you. / In my arms lies Eternity! She speaks to me!” Edven cried, his voice coloured with a bright, sharp kind of passion that suggested, whatever he was hearing, he was unlikely to be aware of anything else. “She is my Light, my Guide… O, that we shall know you, Lady! Lead me! Lead me unto my Maker!”

And, with that, he began clasping himself to the rigid marble draperies of Andraste’s graven gown, and running his hands across it like it was a real woman’s dress.

Anders shoved four half-curled fingers in his mouth, and tried not to let his mirth explode.

Maker’s cock… if he grabs her tits, I’m going to pass out….

Carrick was all but hopping from foot to foot now, his face a picture of appalled and desperate panic.

“Edven? Edven…! Oh, Maker’s breath…!”

It was clearly far too late for him to do anything for his friend. The boy was lost to a divine rapture, or spiritual frenzy, or… or maybe just the effect of all those odd vows, Anders thought.

Anyway, what did you call it when the junior templars started dry-humping statues of the Maker’s chosen prophet?

Edven was definitely going for it, in any case: he had his hands cupped to the statue’s cheeks, reached up to smear his lips against the marble bosom and throat, his body a constant snake of movement as he rubbed himself against what would—if she’d had any anatomy under the carved gown—have been Andraste’s thigh. Parts of the Chant still escaped him, together with a series of progressively more ecstatic cries that seemed to be shifting quickly from spiritual zeal to more earthly excitement.

Anders stopped breathing at that point, trying desperately to choke down the disbelieving laughter. Tears wet his cheeks, and his nose was running, and he wasn’t entirely sure he hadn’t actually swallowed his own hand.

“My soul is a channel of Her love!” Edven yelped, pumping his hips.

“Oh… shit,” Carrick intoned, backing away from his now desperately writhing friend. “I… I’m going to go and get Ser Rylock. Or… or someone. Yes. I… I’ll be right back….”

He started towards the double doors, his face pale as death, and Anders almost swallowed his tongue in a combination of hysteria and panic. He lurched abruptly from the door, trying to straighten up while still convulsed with laughter, tears leaking from his creased-up eyes, and yet he knew he had to get out of here—he shouldn’t be here, anyway—before anyone noticed his presence.

The rattle of the door sounded, and he broke into a stumbling, still gulping with laughter that he could now hardly conceal. It burst from him in cackles and jolts as he pelted down the corridor, his snorts and giggles echoing off the high stone walls. He ran, and he didn’t stop until he made it to a small storage room about three doors down from one of the alchemy lecture rooms.

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Chapter 12
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Amantis verendum: IV

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It is not simple. He has tried to explain it, but no one really understands.

It isn’t like he can have a conversation with Justice. The spirit is a part of him, and everyone has multiple facets to themselves. There is, for example, the part of Anders that—though he has always been a little afraid of most animals, and the tendencies they have to possess teeth and claws and the desire to hunt prey, which you can easily be mistaken for when you are on the run in unfamiliar woodland—nevertheless wrinkles up and grins when he sees a cat playing with a skein of yarn. There is the part of him that warms in an entirely different way when he sees a pretty girl, or a good-looking man, and idles in pleasant bedchamber thoughts, even if he has no intention of approaching them.

There are parts of him that worry about things he can’t control, and things he can but doesn’t, and parts that are made of fear, or logic, or anger, jealousy, apathy… and more besides. There is a part of him that, though he has not seen his mother since he was fourteen years old, continues to think like her son, and sometimes repeats silly, idiosyncratic things he used to hear her say, or words of her native tongue, to which he is no longer entirely sure he is putting the right meanings.

And, now, there is a part of him that is Justice. Just as some of those other old thoughts and feelings rise up—the way his self-doubt tugs at him, or his libido nudges him at inconvenient moments—he feels the spirit move in response to certain things… but it isn’t a conversation. It isn’t something he can control, anymore than he can stop associating lamb and pea stew with the first tavern he ever stayed at, back when he escaped the Tower successfully for the first time, only to end up captured again after the girl he spent the night with stole his money and his clothes while he was sleeping. A man really cannot be on the run in the nude. It makes him far too easy to spot. Still, she had a beautiful smile and immaculate breasts, and Anders thinks of her every time he smells that particular dish cooking.

The clinic is busy that morning. People expect him to stride between the pallets, giving orders and presenting solutions. He is meant to be in charge here, isn’t he? For a moment before it all begins, in those few seconds when the doors are opened and he sees the people waiting for him, sweat pricks his back and his stomach turns to water. He is almost paralysed with fear, because he’s sure he can’t do it. This isn’t him. He has stumbled, somehow, into some other man’s life, and he needs to find the way back… but there isn’t one, and he has no choice but to roll up his sleeves and get on with it.

He tries. He tries very hard, and he waits for Justice to rise up in him and grant him that power, but it never quite happens, and he still feels so horribly adrift.

Hawke arrives while Anders is setting a child’s broken leg. It is a bad break, and there is a lot of crushing around the wound, because the boy was caught beneath some barrels when a cart overturned near the docks.

Anders knows from the way people are looking at him that they expect him to wave his hands and make it all right with magic. He is the healer, and that is what he is supposed to do. It was for that ability that Darktown took him to its heart and, in the years since, it has protected him. Well… Darktown and Varric’s briberies, and he knows who he has to thank for that.

They don’t understand, though. They don’t know what might happen if he does it, if he lets the power out… if Justice catches the scent of it on the air, like a hound tasting blood. He doesn’t even dare reach out to the Fade, because what he pulls through may not be the small, sympathetic, curious wisps of spirits that want to help. He isn’t even sure he can control that much anymore.

So, he is relying on his skill with the poultices and potions that his apprentices have made up, and the deft, careful touch that is part knack and part years of experience.

It is a simple enough matter to reset the bone, once the surrounding damage has been addressed. He binds it and splints it, and knows without looking up when Hawke has crossed the clinic, moving from the doors to the rows of boiling coppers near the fires at the back. Part of Anders wants to throw down the plaisters and poultices he is working with and run to him, but it is only a small part—that small, impulsive part that he has so determinedly starved for so long—and, besides, he is aware that despite his efforts, this young boy will probably always walk with a bad limp.

He would not if you used magic. Reach deep, draw upon your power, and you can cause the healing to be quicker, the bone to be straighter…. You could take more of his pain, lessen the chance of infection. You could—

just as equally end up unleashing something appalling on an entire roomful of people. What if he’s “not worthy” of healing?

He is a child.

Yes. Everyone is, once. What if he grows up to be a templar? A sadistic bastard like Alrik?

Then… then he will be a templar with a limp.

Anders presses the back of his hand to his forehead, trying to calm the not-really-a-conversation he isn’t having with himself. It is done. The child is still snivelling a bit, but he is being carried away by a grateful father; a heavily bearded man who doesn’t look Anders in the eye, or really listen to the half-shaped words he realises he is mumbling about keeping weight off the limb, and allowing the splint to do its work. The knots of people are dispersing, and that feels like a relief, like he is finally exhaling… and yet he doesn’t want to be this alone.

He wants to rub his eyes, but his fingers are still coated with the lard and herb mixture he used on the boy’s leg, and he blinks a bit in confusion when a cloth appears in front of him. It is being held by a familiar hand, and Anders smiles faintly as he takes it.

“This is early for you,” he observes mildly, wiping his hands on the cloth.

Tobias gives him that look that is one part withering scorn and three parts naked desire. Anders is surprised by that, because he hasn’t seen it in a while. At the beginning—in those first few weeks when they barely seemed to come up for air between kisses—it was a familiar sight. Tobias would grab any opportunity to pin him against something and give him as thorough a going over as he could without dropping his pants. Anders was no better, either. He can’t even remember the number of times he palmed off care of his patients and his clinic to one of the assistants, and pretended to himself (or maybe to Justice) that it was mostly because he was afraid of healing again, when all he wanted was just to run away.

He abandoned his responsibilities readily, or near enough; snatching nights to spend in his lover’s arms, and not regretting a minute of it. Hawke filled his head like fog then, choked him with the obsessive need to prove it was all real, and that it was really happening. It was intense, incredible… and, yes, worth every moment. Easily.

He hadn’t believed it would be possible for that bare blade of want to diminish, for them to feel sated enough with each other—or secure enough, perhaps—to allow things to calm. It has, though. They don’t tear at each other with such regular hunger, their desperation blunted by knowing that there will be a tomorrow. Of course, if he’s honest with himself (and, ultimately, he has little choice), Anders knows that his tomorrows are limited. Tobias hasn’t fully grasped that yet, no matter how hard Anders has tried to explain it.

Mind you, he can’t quite believe it is real. He can’t quite believe he’s as happy as he feels… even if part of him resents that happiness. It isn’t that Justice doesn’t want him to be content; rather that he doesn’t see things the same way.

Hawke is the problem, of course, because he always is. This man, right here, has the power to make him deliriously happy… so happy that he doesn’t just forget to be angry at the world, but that he could almost forget there is a world. That’s frightening, really.

It’s exactly what he does now, as Anders finds himself dragged into a shadowy corner, behind one of the rough-cut doors that leads to the potions cupboard.

“What—?”

“Just a minute. I need to talk to you.”

Anders is contemplating protesting, but then Tobias kisses him, hard and unyielding, and his embrace is perfumed with desperation. He murmurs small, thin words into the space between them—a breathless ‘I love you’, and then a soft, sweet endearment that makes Anders’ stomach tighten, because he’s never been anyone’s ‘darling’ before in his life—and the breath leaks from his lungs unsteadily.

“That’s not really ‘talking’,” he murmurs weakly, because if he tells Hawke he loves him now, he’ll say it a dozen times, and he may not be able to stop. “Not that I’m complaining… but what’s brought this on?”

Tobias pulls back and looks at him sadly, something bitter and ragged lancing his eyes.

“Are you happy?” he asks, his voice low and thick. “I mean, are we…? Is everything all right?”

Anders winces, and tries to pull out a nonchalant reply. “What, apart from Meredith, and the Circle, and the grand cleric, and—”

“Please, just…. That’s not what I mean.”

He pulls a folded scrap of paper from his pocket, smoothing it out between his fingers, and Anders frowns as he begins to suspect he knows what’s on it.

“Oh.”

“Is it about us?”

Tobias looks so terribly worried, and Anders shakes his head vehemently. “No. Well… no. Not really.”

“‘Not really?’ Huh. How come I heard ‘yes’ when you said that?”

Anders folds his hand over his lover’s, feeling the broad ridges of knuckles tense beneath his grasp. “All right. Yes, and no. It means….” He fingers the edges of the paper, and is reminded in painful clarity of the night he wrote it, when it was raining and the air smelled of copper, and it was a choice between bleeding his anger and frustration onto the page or taking a hatchet to his own head. “It means things are never going to be the way I wish they were. And I hate that. I truly do. If I could change things, I’d want it to be so we could have a normal life… a good life.”

“We can,” Tobias protests, but Anders knows he doesn’t believe it.

There will always be Justice, and the brooding threat of disquiet, whether Kirkwall tumbles into the abyss or not. As long as there is unfairness and injustice in the world, there will be no honest peace, no calm or quiet.

“Come to the house tonight,” he murmurs, tugging at Anders’ wrist. “Please?”

“What’s wrong with the Bells?”

“I want you in my own bed,” Tobias says softly. “Our bed.”

Anders nods dumbly, despite the fact that he dislikes the draughty mansion and the icy politeness of Hawke’s mother, who always manages to look at him with accusation in her eyes. He can’t really argue with the sentiment.

Satisfied, Tobias smiles, and he is quite content to busy himself trying to be useful until the last of the patients are cleared. He rolls bandages, stirs boiling coppers… flirts with rheumatic elderly ladies. More than once, Anders catches himself watching him, and the months don’t seem to have passed at all. He thinks he will never tarnish the way he feels for this man… and then the murmurs of the dreams come back on him, and he’s cold all over again.

It is late when they finally retire to Hightown, and they sneak into Tobias’ house like thieves, padding up the stairs to his chambers on pointed toes. Briefly, Anders wants to giggle, because it’s like being back in the Tower, finding secret hidey-holes the templars don’t know about, and using them to surreptitiously smoke and drink and screw. Then, he doesn’t want to laugh, because his head is full of templars who aren’t the cartoonish, draconic dullards of his youth, who passed down few greater sentences than detentions and slapped wrists.

He almost freezes up for a moment, but Tobias leads him on, up into the plushness of his room.

Our room. Is it our room? I didn’t know it was our room.

That seems to be what he wants. Anders doesn’t wish to complain. He can’t quite see how his few scribbled lines of execrable, angst-fuelled poetry have got them here, but here they are. They reach for each other with desperation as the door clicks shut, but it’s not the desperation of impatience; more a new need for affirmation. Full up with loving and fearing in equal measure, Anders squeezes himself into the kiss that passes between them.

When they part, his lips sting and his breaths taste of Hawke’s mouth.

Tobias pulls loose the laces of his shirt, and slowly tugs the heavy linen over his head. He drops it to the floor—with his usual disregard for his belongings, of course, not to mention whoever has to clean up after him—and he watches Anders all the while… just stares levelly at him, with those hard green eyes.

He is beautiful. The line that marks where the sun touches him shows the contrast between his tanned, strong arms and the paler planes of his chest, normally hidden beneath the tough hide jerkins he wears. Between broad, thick shoulders, his neck rises as a corded column, and his jaw is square and firm. His body is padded with thick, solid planes of flesh, his muscles gentle swells rather than sharply defined peaks, for his is a kind of strength that comes with the business of being strong day after day, as natural as breathing.

Anders reaches for him, and his fingers shake a little as he lays his hand against that wide, lightly curved chest. It is like a shield, and it’s easy to believe that he could find there all the shelter he’s ever sought.

Tobias touches his cheek gently, questioningly, and Anders allows himself to be guided into the kiss. It is sweet and slow this time—just the dry warmth of lips and the soft graze of breath—and his fingers tense on his lover’s body. As their mouths continue this quiet, indulgent dance, his hand slides south, trailing down the centre line of Tobias’ torso, where the hardness of muscle becomes the softness of his belly, and he knows he whimpers a little when his fingers meet the rough leather ridge of Tobias’ belt. It is both encouragement and defeat, frustration and need; tenderness and the admission that he is afraid of the depth of everything that lies between them. Anders closes his hand into a fist, digging his fingertips into the belt, into the fastening of the breeches beneath it, and his knuckles rub against the silken skin that marks the lowest part of Tobias’ stomach, where the crisp curls of dark brown hair begin to rise.

The kiss deepens, filling with urgency and fire in a way it hasn’t done in months. At first it is a slow crescendo, but he finds every ounce of his desire echoed in Tobias, and he is terrible at patience. As the dams break, the flood of complicated, unsettling things is mingled with relief and hunger, and a kind of want that is satisfyingly simple.

Those sun-touched, wind-blasted arms fold around him and, as he feels himself clutched and so very eagerly groped, Anders’ other hand knots itself in Tobias’ short, messy hair. He tugs roughly at it, as roughly as their mouths now move against each other, their soft breaths turned to damp, ragged grunts and, when they break to breathe, Tobias’ teeth snatch at his lower lip. It is a gentle act, cloaked in the playfulness of passion. He grazes, but does not hurt, and yet it is the possibility of pain—the stretching of the tender, sensitive flesh, the sharpness of his bite, and the strength that lies behind it—that makes Anders catch his breath. It doesn’t last long. It is a mere second or two in the ballet of the kiss, and then it is over, wreathed in their small, intimate smiles, and the soft, panting laugher that echoes between their mouths.

By the time Tobias had divested himself of his breeches—and oh, Maker, whenever he is naked there should be a poet in attendance, just to write verses about his thighs—Anders has stripped. He isn’t so bad to look at himself, he knows, though the bloom of his youth is gone, and he is no longer the vain dandy he was at the Vigil, when he had more luxuries than he’s ever had in Kirkwall, even in the security of Tobias’ home. Still, he is the leaner and wirier of them, and he is very pale next to Tobias, not that this seems to be something he finds unattractive.

They clamber into the bed instead of falling upon it, and Anders thinks there is a pleasing kind of domesticity to this. Of course, it may just be the fact that it’s a cold night, and the estate does hold a chill in its stone walls. Beneath the covers, Tobias kisses him again, over and over, and Anders holds him so tightly it’s as if he’s afraid he’ll slip away. They make love like that, just touching and pushing against each other, moving and always moving, locked together in low, urgent gasps. The bed creaks violently, and probably anyone in the house will know what’s going on, but they don’t stop until they are both sweat-damp from head to toe, and liberally smeared with more plentiful libations. Anders’ legs shake a bit as he leans against his lover and pants, waiting for the spots to clear from his vision. Twice without stopping takes it out of him more these days. He worries he’s getting old… or maybe that Justice is cramping his style.

Tobias shivers as Anders’ breath skims his wet skin, and he strokes his hair gently.

“I won’t leave you,” he murmurs. “I promise. I won’t leave you, darling.”

Anders closes his eyes, screws them up tight until bright shapes dance in the blackness inside his head, and as he presses his cheek to Tobias’ chest he can hear the steady pound of his heartbeat. The bed is warm, and the air is close and stifling and smells of sweat and sex, and he cannot possibly have the right to be this happy… but is it happiness, when it tastes so much like fear?

He holds on tight, and exhales slowly as Tobias’ arm wraps around his shoulders.

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” he says, so quietly as to almost just mouth the words.

If Tobias hears, he probably doesn’t understand. They lay there, comfortably tangled in each other, and it feels like a resolution. It feels like there are promises and perfect vows keeping the future safe and honest, but Anders knows better.

Whatever happens, there will be nothing easy in this.

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Amantis verendum: III

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Tobias sits at his writing desk, frowning at the half-crumpled piece of paper. From the look of it, he imagines Anders screwed it up, then smoothed it out before tucking it into the book. He must have been debating whether to leave it there for Tobias to find… or perhaps he just forgot about it.

That seems unlikely, but then this is Anders, and it’s hard to tell. Tobias traces the spidery black shapes of the words with the tips of his fingers, and the writing is so much like Anders himself, full of the dichotomies of strong, hard angles, and the reaching idealisms of long, sketchy lines.

He’s not sure whether it is truly a poem, or simply thoughts set to the fragments of words. Maybe they are the same thing, maybe not. Either way, Tobias reads it over and over again, and his frown grows deeper.

we are the wave, you and I,
pulling on an empty tide.
your breath breaks across me,
the grey water ripples,
and black gulls scream above us.

under full skies we teem,
blood and salt, sand and mud,
and there are things we do
that cannot be forgiven.

I meet you in the even light,
and hide my heart
in broken spaces,
but there is no shelter
from an unending storm.

 

He doesn’t know whether he finds it beautiful or terrifying. It is about them… probably. It may not be. The paper is undated—and Tobias is very aware that he is not Anders’ first love. He struggles with that occasionally, and perhaps in a rather immature, self-indulgent sort of way. He wishes he didn’t, but he can’t help it, because he has never had anyone this close to him before.

There was never the opportunity, back in Ferelden. For most of Tobias’ life, his family was either moving around, or so centred on itself that he rarely had the chance to have more than fleeting contact with anyone outside it. Besides, Lothering was a small farming community—not even the great trade outpost it had been in years past. It wasn’t exactly overburdened with potential lovers.

There were a few boys with whom Tobias skirted the shores of erotic discovery… one of whom he thought he loved, but who shrank from him, horrified, when he found out about the mage thing. Tobias, frightened the templars would come for him (although they never did, and Cal simply took to pretending he didn’t exist, instead of reporting him) never pushed his luck again. Then, of course, Malcolm died, and life got harder… and then there was the Blight.

Anders, obviously, grew up in the Circle. For all he hears about how awful it was, Tobias rather envies the idea of proximity. All those other people who are like you. Not being a minority, not being alone… and Anders wasn’t alone. He had Karl. Tobias has heard quite a bit about those years, in small dribs, drabs, and snippets, because—when he can do it calmly, without letting the anger, guilt, and regret that those memories engender take over—talking about it seems to help Anders.

He loved Karl. Loved him the giddy, intense, desperate way that first love fills a person up, and it’s obvious from the way he talks that Karl loved him just as much. Anyone would, Tobias supposes, and the mental picture he has of Anders at sixteen—all elbows, knees, and rebellion—makes his heart ache a little.

He wishes he’d known him then… known him sometime before the Grey Wardens, and Justice, and the cares that weigh so heavily on him now. He wishes he’d been that first love, Tobias supposes, and he acknowledges that he is jealous of Karl, and jealous of all those unnamed lovers who came later. He doesn’t like that some of them were women, either, though he couldn’t possibly tell Anders that. Anders would think him narrow-minded, because he just doesn’t see those kinds of distinctions.

Tobias has never been interested in the fairer sex. He can perform, but it is a perfunctory act, like the grim, breathless rutting he shared with Isabela, down in the Deep Roads when they both thought they were going to die. Generally speaking, women’s bodies hold no allure or mystique that enthrals him, and while some of them are very nice people, he doesn’t see the attraction of wanting to share a bed, much less a life with one.

Anders, however, has been known to wax lyrical about breasts, and the delights of sweetness and curves, and it makes Tobias restless and uneasy… although he knows it shouldn’t. He should be secure in Anders’ love, because he has pledged it completely and, anyway, it’s highly unlikely that anyone else could give him what Tobias does. They have been through enough together that Anders trusts him—trusts him with his secrets, with his beliefs, and with his struggles. That is the part of his burden Tobias gladly shoulders. He can’t change what has already been done but, when Justice is prowling and rattling at the bars, he can talk Anders down. He can calm him the way no one else can, and that means a lot.

So, this thing—this poem, this cry from the depths—it seems it is about them, or it at least might be, if it is about anyone at all. It was in the book that Anders gave him, and Tobias doesn’t know what to make of that. Had it been there all along, or has it been slipped in recently? It’s difficult to tell.

Either way, he thinks it is beautiful. More beautiful than terrifying, probably, yet it is beauty that is sharp-edged and ruthless, and he wounds himself on its blade. Is this what Anders really thinks? How he feels when they are together? There is a sense of hopelessness about that which frightens Tobias… like a breath of apology, secreted behind the words.

He chews his lip thoughtfully, and slides the paper back between the leaves of the tome. It is late enough to be early in the morning. His eyes ache, his head hurts, and he wishes he’d stayed in bed.

He crosses his too-big-bed-chamber, crawls under the covers, and lets the orb of light he conjured wink out. The moon has grown thin, its light weakening, and Tobias supposes he will lay here and watch it turn to dawn, but at some point he closes his eyes and, when he opens them again, a much brighter light is streaming through the gap in his curtains.

He blinks, and winces, and wonders why he can’t remember having any dreams.

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Amantis verendum: IV
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Amantis verendum: II

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It is a dream. It is a dream like any other, and it is pleasant enough. He is walking on the shore of a beach—a rocky, grainy kind of beach, because this is the Fade, and the things that live here never really manage to make a proper facsimile of the mortal world—and the salt wind catches at his hair. He tastes the ocean on his lips, and feels coarse sand yield in soft ridges beneath his boots. A little way ahead, on the shore’s curve, there is the black mouth of a cave facing out to the grey-capped bob of the waves.

Anders smiles. He’s had this dream before.

In the cave—and it’s amazing how he reaches it so quickly, as if he’s flown the distance—he is waiting. Anders grins breathlessly at the sight of him, and his pulse skitters.

He is naked, sprawled out on the sandy floor with his back resting against a rock, that cocky smile on his handsome face. Dark chestnut hair, with hints of that very Fereldan reddish hue, sits in soft waves at his temples, cut short and slightly tousled, the way it always is. There is a day or two’s stubble on his chin, and his green eyes dance with some unspoken smart-mouthed comment. He holds out a hand, and that is all he has to do.

Anders folds into his embrace, the world collapsing around him as it does in dreams, because only the moment—only the action, the feeling—matters. He has the fullness of those firm, dry lips against his, his fingers kneading smooth, warm flesh. Strong arms slip tight around him, and somehow Hawke manages to murmur his name while kissing him.

I knew you’d come.

Anders doesn’t mind about the impracticalities. He wants to make love, right here, because in dreams the sand doesn’t matter and won’t get anywhere painful. The tide can’t come in and wash them away and—even if it could—he wouldn’t care if he drowned, as long as he was with him.

They touch each other in that luxurious, time-elided way of dreams, and Anders gets what he wants. He’s naked, somehow, and those lean, tanned hands caress his body, trembling just a little… the way Tobias trembles when he’s dizzy with want and hunger, and begging for release. It’s something Anders has always loved, doing that to a man like him. Watching someone so sure of himself, so given to cynicism and sarcastic arrogance, bite his lip and stifle a sob of need as he’s slowly impaled.

Tobias loves to be fucked. He loves the slow, gentle exchange of power and pleasure, giving himself over completely as he surrenders his body… and sometimes he loves to fuck hard and raw, when their kisses bruise and their ecstasy mixes in one blinding star that slices through the night in golden howls of joy.

He gives as good as he gets, too, and he has quite the weapon to do it with. The first time Anders let Tobias have him, it was like the sun itself exploded inside him, although he is one of those rare men who does not do what he does to Anders by virtue of his physical gifts alone. He is handsome—and he is fit, and well-built, and yes, slightly better endowed than Anders is himself—but not stunningly so. He is not the kind of man at whose entrance an entire tavern will stop and stare… but he does have charisma. Anders thinks so, anyway.

Tobias has an irreverent wit, underscored by a compassionate nature he does his best to hide, and they think alike in many ways. They share enough common ground to feel so at home in each other’s presence that sometimes Anders forgets his lover does not understand everything that exists in his world. He knows he gets frustrated then, and he snaps and lashes out, and Tobias grows moody and withdrawn, and yet it doesn’t matter. After a few days, one of them will go to the other, and they will make their peace like swans in courtship dances, bowing and swaying around each other until things are mended.

What they have is imperfect, but it is more than Anders has ever dreamed of.

They fuck, hard and hungry, on the floor of the cave, and Tobias pulls back to look at him with those beautiful green eyes, his mouth a bruised curl of soft adoration. There is love in his face… and it is the real, honest love that he speaks of in the waking world, when he says the bad things don’t matter and that, whatever happens, he will never leave.

Anders has yet to truly believe him, deep down.

The dream echoes with memories then: the low murmur of a voice in a cheap tavern bedroom—neither of them are well equipped to entertain in the places they call home—and the feel of warm skin against his, and a broad hand splayed on his back.

I love you, Anders. I don’t care what you are, what you do… I love you, and I’ll be here.

It is everything he wants to hear, and yet everything he fears. It fills him up until he can’t breathe, and his love for this man overwhelms him, seeping into every crack in his soul even though he knows it is a dangerous folly. He folds against the strong, solid body, his lips cleaving to a mouth that mirrors his own in its need and desire. The comforting touch of familiar fingers soothes his cheek, and he feels himself begin to slip, everything that rises up within him gradually eroding the tentative threads of control.

He feels so much more than he used to. He supposes it was a defence mechanism, once; that glibness of his cut him off from the pain the world dealt him, and he could simply hide within the shell he made for himself. It doesn’t work now. Sometimes he doesn’t understand how people can keep it all inside them. He veers between being so tired that he’s numb, and feeling so much that he thinks his skin is going to burst.

He can’t do it, can’t hold it in. The love he feels is terrible, terrifying: it is the raw edges of lust and soul-deep need, whetted by bone-worn affection and loyalty, and yet it is also a fierce, desperate possessiveness, a hunger that tears at him and can’t be denied. It is a resentful, fearful, jealous anger, because this man must be his and his alone, and yet he can’t believe that they could share this bond to begin with, much less that he is worthy of it. He is afraid, afraid of the depth of his feelings, and of the confusion they engender. This love is not something pure or righteous. It is not a simple concept, distilled the way a spirit’s essence can capture a virtue. It is not—at least not entirely—the kind of all-encompassing, beautiful love that is unconditional and perfect, and resonates at the core of life itself. It is unconditional, yes, but not because that is right. It is unconditional in the same way as breathing is if you don’t want to choke, and this frightens him all the more.

He can’t say it, though. It spills out of him, in the dream, as they make this fierce, clutching love on the sand, and he can’t control himself. He is burning with it, panting and crying out, and his lover writhes beneath him as ecstasy turns to agony, and then someone is screaming. It is Hawke, and the world has turned to the translucent, whitish-blue of a lyrium haze. Anders can feel everything, see everything… it is all too much. He burns with it, feels it break from him—this light, this rawness of life that is too powerful to keep chained—and his very skin starts to fracture, his flesh mutating in boiling masses of crackling power and roiling, blackened blood.

It hurts worse than anything he could imagine—worse than darkspawn spears, worse than templars’ steel, worse than Karl dying in his arms—and when it is over, he is cradling Tobias’ scorched, lifeless remains to his chest, and he can’t wake up. He knows it’s a dream; he has had this dream before, and he thought he had learned all he needed to from it, but it won’t let him go.

Anders must hold his lover’s corpse, and his own twisted lips—pulled back now, like withered darkspawn flesh, as if the taint has swallowed him up and spat him out, this creature that is part ghoul and part abomination—rove over blistered skin that sloughs off at his touch. His knotted, crabbed hands stroke the remnants of dark chestnut hair, and as he finally wakes, the sobs that wrack him are all too real.

He curls up on his side, shivering beneath the blanket and trying to stifle his breathing so he won’t wake anyone. Beyond the ratty curtain hung on a broom handle that marks out what passes for his private space, there are patients in the clinic. There are his apprentices—the ones he shelters for the Underground, until passage can be bought for them somewhere safer than this pig of a city—and he has to show them that he is in control. He must be the example of what an apostate can be, because if he fails, everything fails, and he merely proves the templars right.

That is what Tobias told him, on one of the dark nights when everything was too difficult, and it was all he could do to walk from the door to the edge of the bed.

You’re more than this. From what you told me, you offered what you did to Justice to save him—

Is that true? He can’t quite remember. There were other reasons, maybe… the spirit said there would be advantages, that he would lend a great deal of power to Anders’ mortal body, and of course there were the templars, overrunning the Vigil like rats. They probably had something to do with his decision, but he’s not sure anymore, because he remembers it both from his perspective, and from Justice’s, and the spirit’s view is tinged with this terrible hunger, this fear of—what? Dying? Perhaps so, perhaps not—and this need to know, to understand the mortal world better, and to bring to it what he believed it needed. Justice… huh, well, that was the theory. Trust Hawke to somehow twist that into a fairytale.

—you didn’t do it for your own gain. You’re not an abomination. And look at everything you do here, all those people you’ve saved, people you’ve healed… how can you think, even for a moment, that we’d cope without you?

He closes his eyes, and remembers the comforting warmth of Tobias’ arms, and the curious innocence in his face, like he honestly believes Anders is a good man.

I wouldn’t. I need you. You know that.

He doesn’t, Anders is sure. He shouldn’t, anyway.

It doesn’t matter. Tobias is a better role model than him, a better example… and that’s what people should see. He is a mage who lives free. He has had dealings with the qunari Arishok, and Viscount Dumar, and he is uncowed by the nobles, and the guard. He is brave and honest—mainly, at a basic moral level, most of the time—and he doesn’t hurt anyone… not unless he’s been paid to, anyway. Usually. Or unless they’ve done something to offend or annoy him.

That is not a correct definition of ‘honest’. Nor of ‘good’ or ‘just’.

Anders sits up slowly, his narrow pallet creaking beneath him, and rubs his forehead. He knows that. Tobias’ contradictions cause him plenty of problems… they always have. Things like laws aren’t where justice is, though. Not true justice. There is a more fundamental level than that, and it is that pared-back way of looking at things that frightens him.

So much frightens him now. Things that never used to… and even the things that shouldn’t.

 
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Amantis verendum: III
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Amantis verendum: I

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He wakes, drenched in sweat. The sheets are damp ropes wound around his legs, his skin bare and chilled. When he opens his eyes, the dream is still a patchwork of searing colours against the darkness, and the shadows come pouring in to fill a new reality that feels stark and unnatural. His own flesh, touched with thin highlights of bluish white from the high, small window, seems strange and leaden, and the echoes of that mournful voice roar in his ears like the sound of the ocean trapped in a shell.

You can’t save me, Hawke.

Tobias rubs a hand across his face. It’s a dream. It’s only a dream. Now he’s awake, it’s receding back into the Fade, into the timeless world where things that aren’t real go—the place that dreams come from, and the place where the demons wait—and he knows it doesn’t matter. It’s all right. Everything is all right.

He murmurs the words under his breath like a mantra, but they don’t do much good. He’s cold now, and he reaches for the blanket he must have kicked to the floor.

It doesn’t feel right. This bed, this room… this house. It is all empty stone walls, and it is too big and too cold. The Amell estate, everyone still calls it, because that’s what it is, and what it always will be. His mother’s old family home, not his. He never wanted it; he still doesn’t.

They’ve not been in that long, so it has yet to really feel like home, and Tobias doubts it ever will. If he’s honest, he knows there’s only one place in this city that does feel like home, though he would rather not admit it, even to himself.

The Ten Bells is the cheap dockside tavern where he goes to leave the world behind him on those glorious, stolen nights. From the moment the door closes until the hour of the sunrise—which he watches filter through the grimy window, its pale rays kissing the blond head on the pillow beside him—he is safe, warm, and happy.

He wants to believe Anders feels the same way, because he so badly wants to believe that he is the one thing in the healer’s life that gives him solace from all his agonies… and Tobias knows that is an arrogant thing to wish.

He doesn’t care, though.

They have been lovers for less than six months. Some days it feels like barely a breath of time has passed, and some days it seems an eternity. He wouldn’t change anything, however. All that time they spent, for their own stupid reasons, not acting on the things they wanted to… he hated it. Hated the waiting and the yearning, and the way it felt as if he was missing someone he’d never even had close to him in the first place. Still, it brought them to this point. They trust each other now… Anders trusts him. He understands, at last, that Tobias has neither underestimated nor been put off by the ghosts—or, rather, the spirit—he carries around his shoulders, and he is opening up, although it is happening slowly.

Tobias huddles under the blanket, and frowns at the empty side of his bed. The heavy velvet curtains are drawn but, as is his custom, he has left a chink between them through which moonlight seeps to illuminate the room. Since the Deep Roads, Tobias can’t bear the unbroken dark.

The silvery light touches the place where Anders ought to be, yet very rarely is, and Tobias’ frown deepens as the frail tongues of the dream swipe at him, thick and clouded.

There was the great grey swell of the ocean, and it washed through the streets, pushing the tide of Kirkwall’s iniquity ahead of it. People screamed and, when it broke through the gates of the alienage, it tore down the vhenadahl tree. Merrill was there, saying something about needing the blood of ten thousand slaves to replant it, and Tobias remembers seeing Aveline swallowed by the water as she stood before the wave, her sword drawn, shouting, “I am not my father’s daughter”.

He ran through Lowtown, only just keeping ahead of the flood, and he wanted to find Anders, somehow assuming that the water hadn’t already taken Darktown. He wasn’t where he should be, and Tobias was running and running, trying to reach him. He turned out to be at the centre of the chantry courtyard, his arms flung wide as the tide bore down on him, but when he turned he wasn’t Anders. The bright blue glare that burned from his eyes was Justice, completely unchained, and that unimaginable power welled in him, violent and unstoppable.

His hands blazed with twin flares of light, sparks dancing in his hair and magical energy rising off his skin like a heat haze. Tobias called his name, but he didn’t respond. He just rose up and up, until the toes of his boots barely scraped the flagstones and, his arms outstretched, he tipped his head back to the sky and roared. The light filled him then… or perhaps flowed out of him, like a burning pillar. It was too bright, too painful to watch, and it was like that time beneath The Gallows, when Tobias tried to stop Anders—no, tried to stop Justice, because he does still believe there is a difference between them—from killing an innocent girl. In the dream, he ran across the courtyard, but his hands met raw power instead of flesh or cloth, and that terrible, scything fire scorched his palms, leaving welts and the terror of failure behind it.

Anders pushed him away, the wall of force a frightening, alienating thing—like a blade coming down across the thousand tiny threads that tie them together—and, as the ocean tore through the streets, washing all of Kirkwall before it, Tobias saw him burn. The blue fire, that energy that Justice brings from the Fade, like some pure current of lyrium-infused power, consumed him completely and made the flood waters boil… and that sad, low voice whispered to Tobias as they both drowned:

You can’t save me, Hawke.

But it’s just a dream. It isn’t real. The city is not flooding, and there is no choking scar of water and loss in his lungs.

Tobias takes a deep breath, just to prove this point, and he starts to feel better for it.

He rolls over, props his chin on his knuckles, and snakes his free hand across the bed, where he traces the place that Anders should lay. Tobias has never known the feeling of missing someone to be like this before. He misses his father, and Bethany, and even Carver, despite the fact his joining the templars was an agonising betrayal, as well as a two-fingered salute to everything that Tobias is, and he knows that’s just how his brother meant it. Still, those are soul-true aches that are with him every day… but they are inside him. They do not creep out into his very flesh, tracing the lines of his body like the melancholy kisses of a lover who knows he has to leave. He does not shiver as if physically chilled when he thinks of his sister, or of Malcolm. His chest twists on the memories, sometimes, but this is different.

This… this is something else entirely.

Tobias’ fingers flex ruefully on the empty sheet. Anders is busy at the clinic, as he has been for weeks. Despite what he said after the business with the girl beneath The Gallows, he has trusted himself to heal, although he relies more on potions and poultices than magic now. One of the boys he has been sheltering for the Underground has proved a talented healer, so there is that excuse to hide behind. Anders is fond of excuses.

He doesn’t come to the estate often, anyway. He doesn’t feel comfortable here, maybe because Tobias doesn’t feel comfortable… but more likely because Leandra is here too, and although she is the soul of politeness to Anders’ face, she doesn’t approve of him. She doesn’t approve of what she calls Tobias’ choice, and he is aware that she’s angry because she didn’t know… because he never told her, and she feels embarrassed. That doesn’t ameliorate or change a thing, however.

She wanted him—no, expected him—to make a nice, respectable marriage. Nothing too fancy: minor to middling gentry, perhaps. She told him so. She probably already had a girl in mind; no doubt one of the daughters of the interminable succession of people she was suddenly inviting to dinner as soon as they had the dustcovers off the new furniture.

The first thing she did, as soon as they moved in here, was put him on the meat market. She wants him to continue the Amell line, provide grandchildren, and live like a wealthy man. He suspects she has her eye on being Lady Hawke—or maybe Amell, because sometimes it’s almost like his father’s name is suddenly an irrelevance to her—by next Wintersend.

She turned quiet and withdrawn when he got angry about it, refused to go to some stupid ball and push insipid, over-rouged young women around the floor for the evening… told her why. He will never consent to a marriage he doesn’t want, with a woman he could never grow to love, in a city he doesn’t wish to call home. He hopes he doesn’t have it in him to cloak himself in that many lies. He’d like to think so, anyway.

Anders doesn’t know he is a bone of contention between mother and son, although he has probably guessed. Every time he has spent the night here, a kind of coldness seems to linger in the house afterwards. So, it’s easier to keep going to the tavern when they want time together. Tobias prefers it, at any rate. It feels honest, even if it is stolen time, and even if they’re skulking around like two thieves, plotting in the shadows.

It’s not often enough, though. And he wants—like he wants right now—just to be able to reach out and touch the man he loves. He needs to prove to himself that Anders is there, that he’s all right, and that everything is still under control. He needs not to miss him this way.

Of course, he’s too awake now. Too awake to sleep, too fidgety to lie quietly.

Tobias swings his legs out of bed. The room is still moon-shrouded, but that is not enough light for what he wants, so he flicks his fingers and pulls a small, pale orb from the air. It circles his head as he pads to his writing desk, retrieving a dressing robe from the floor on the way, and slipping it over his naked body as defence against the night’s chill. He cinches the belt tight, and lets his hand rove over the paperwork on the desk. There are letters, bills, receipts… a few books he’s started reading. There is an old copy of Anders’ bloody manifesto in one of them, and Tobias smiles as his thumb brushes the ragged edge. He likes the paragraph that begins, “We who are the subjugated shall no longer acquiesce beneath the Chantry’s yoke”.

Tobias doesn’t necessarily agree with the more radical end of Libertarian politics, though he supports the principles… but he loves it when Anders gets polemical. He flares with something bright and righteous, and it’s beautiful to watch.

There is another piece of paper tucked into one of the other books. It is a new one, a gift for no reason other than the pleasure of giving. Tobias’ smile widens as he flips open the cover of An Introduction to the Healing Arts—and it’s instant death-by-templar if anyone finds this tome in his possession, because who else but a mage would own an instructional volume on healing magic—and the scrawl on the flyleaf fills him with a flush of warmth.

T: Because you need all the help you can get. – A.

They have this running joke, he and Anders, that Tobias’ natural magical gifts are restricted purely to force spells and the occasional fireball… that he is the blunt instrument of mages, useful only for unjamming stuck doors, or removing recalcitrant tree stumps from gardens. His adventures in healing have been almost unilaterally disastrous, though Anders does occasionally try to teach him, and he is eager to learn, albeit terrified of the possible consequences. He once almost set the clinic on fire, so he doesn’t like to imagine what he could do to a live person.

Tobias turns past the diagram of a dissected body, flicks a few more pages, and finds the slip of paper that caught his attention. The scrawl is familiar, but the words are not.

Gradually, the smile drops from his face.

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Amantis verendum: II
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