Well, his friends were going to find out sooner or later. Tobias spends time adjusting, and Leandra has home furnishing plans.
Kirkwall is going to hell around him, but Tobias remains preoccupied.
Back to Justice in Surrender: Contents
There were only a few gaggles of people in the clinic when Tobias arrived. A woman sat on one of the pallets, jogging a baby in her arms, though the child seemed too weak to be doing much more than keening softly. Anders was with her, peeling back the shawl that wrapped the child, his face lined with concern.
He didn’t notice Tobias’ arrival; just carried on examining the infant. He lifted it from its mother’s arms gently, its scrawny body dangling limply between his hands, and it began to cry more loudly. He tried to hush it, tried to soothe it with the gentle pulse of healing magic, blooming forth from his palm in a glow of soft blue light, but the tiny lungs heaved out a great wail, and Anders frowned, looking worried as he passed the babe back to its mother.
He went to the back of the clinic, where the coppers were boiling, and fetched one of the girls. She came quickly, carrying what looked like a jug of caudle, and an extra blanket, which she wrapped around mother and child, speaking quietly to the woman as she led her away.
Anders stood there, alone in the pale chaos of the clinic, one hand on the back of his waist, the other swiping over his hair as he watched them go. He rolled his neck, his back evidently stiff and sore, and he looked so disquieted that Tobias wanted to call out to him. He didn’t, because there were two dockhands close by who were soon clamouring for the healer’s attention, and an old woman complaining in shrill tones about pain in her hands.
But, as Anders turned to address the next of his patients, he caught sight of Tobias waiting by the door, and shot him a small, weak smile.
It wasn’t exactly a burst of sunshine and roses, but it was better than nothing. It showed, maybe, that he was all right—or at least as all right as he ever was—and that started to calm a few of Tobias’ nerves.
He’d worried that the Fade had been a mistake. He shouldn’t have let Anders do it, and he was afraid of what it might have caused… as if Justice had caught the scent of freedom, and now couldn’t rest.
Oh, there was more to it than that, of course—a great deal more—but Tobias wasn’t prepared to dwell on it, just as he refused to examine all the reasons that drew him down here, into the Undercity’s dankly beating heart.
Anders was dealing with the old woman and her crabbed, twisted, arthritic hands. Tobias nodded to him across the tangle of patients and linens and ailments, and then went to the back of the clinic, where he smiled at the boy manning the coppers—the most recent runaway, apparently, and still new to the work—and lent what little skill he had.
Watching boiling pans and stirring the scummy green roil of herb parts, or rolling bandages and pegging up wet sheets and squares of washed dressings never really felt like doing much. Tobias nursed the fond hope that he might actually learn enough to be useful, in time, but the names of the different herbs never seemed to stay in his head, and he struggled to tell the difference between many of them when they were fresh, much less anonymous dried green powders, or boiled wet sludge. None of the things Anders tried to teach him seemed to stick, either, and Tobias was afraid of trying even the simplest healing spell again, in case he did worse damage than scorching a few floorboards.
So, he contented himself with the messy, menial things. He stirred coppers, dealt with wet linens, strained herbs, and sluiced out pisspots and bowls filled with all manner of unpleasant fluids… and, at the centre of it, Anders worked on.
There was something off about it today, though, Tobias noticed. He was doing less actual hands-on healing, as if he wanted to keep a distance from the patients themselves, and yet he looked even more tired than usual.
The afternoon wore away at him and, by the time the clinic was growing quiet, emptied but all of the sickest—and, with the year turning cold and hard, there were more than there had been of those—Anders looked paper-thin and exhausted.
“That’ll do, Neryn,” he said with a small smile, dismissing the young, wide-eyed runaway from the rank of coppers, the fires banked down now and the herbs all emptied out and duly worked into plaisters or salves. “Just pop some more wood in the braziers, would you? We need to keep everyone warm. I’ll finish up here.”
The lad bobbed an obeisant bow and scampered off. Tobias smirked at the retreating figure, and shot Anders an enquiring glance.
“Not particularly talkative, is he?”
The healer shook his head, and the faint smile still clinging to his face turned solemn and melancholy. “No. But then you wouldn’t be, if you’d been through what he has.”
“Mm.” Anders nodded absently, and gave Tobias a thoughtful look. “I didn’t think we’d see you down here today. You look tired. Thought you’d rest after the business with the Dalish.”
Tobias shrugged. “I got some sleep. More than you, by the looks of it. Is everything…? You know, with Feynriel?”
Some focus seemed to seep back into those dark eyes, and Anders nodded again, more firmly this time.
“Yes. Thank you for following through. I knew you would.”
Tobias basked in the warmth of pride. “Well, you knew the coin was there if you needed it. I said that much.”
“Saying and doing are different things… for a lot of people, anyway. Gethyn made the handover this morning. It’s arranged, and the fact we could put the money down is thanks to you.”
Anders’ voice was low, in deference to the other people around, but each word seemed to buzz its way straight into Tobias’ head, as soft and insidious as a whisper in his ear. He swallowed heavily, and wet his lower lip.
“A merchant caravan, right? Then a safe house somewhere in the Imperium? How—”
Anders chuckled, lines of tired amusement creasing his eyes. “Gethyn said you were curious. Yes… we have a contact in Minrathous who arranges things. A few in other places, but no one tends to stay anywhere for long. It’s not safe. Tevinter isn’t safe, generally speaking, but I think it’s Feynriel’s best chance. And you helped that happen.”
Tobias squirmed a little under the sudden warmth in the healer’s face—the swell of pride and gratitude and respect that, all at once, was both wonderful and frightening. It made him feel vulnerable to be the focus of so much.
“Still,” Anders said, tipping his head to the side, that familiar tone of light, dry sarcasm perfuming the word, “I don’t know Gethyn was that struck on you ignoring all the rules.”
Tobias sniggered. “No. Mind you, why should he trust me? As far as the Underground knows, it’s only you vouching for me, and apparently they already think that’s because— I mean….”
He winced as he pulled back on the words. Damn. It was hard to remember, when it was so easy to talk to the man, that there were things he shouldn’t say.
Anders’ expression grew a little more distant, though the hint of a smile still touched the edge of his lips. He seemed to be thinking of something that either amused or saddened him—or possibly both—and then he shrugged, tossing Tobias a rueful glance.
“People talk,” he said simply.
Tobias watched his face, watched the guarded light in his eyes, searching for some suggestion of what he was really thinking, but Anders had himself locked up far too tightly. That frustrated him. It stung, too, coming so hard on the heels of the Fade. Tobias took a slow, deep breath, and tried not to remember the sweet spring air wafting through the window of a cottage that wasn’t real, or the warm, soft laughter of a man who probably couldn’t even be that happy.
He cleared his throat, pushing them both back into calmer waters before the stilted, choking waves of things that were too difficult to address pulled him down.
“Could be worse,” he said lightly. “You could have taken Merrill along to a meeting or three. I bet they’d just love her.”
Anders snorted, and a brief but beautifully sunny grin split his face. “Maker… no. Although, if it would sway her from some of those ideas of hers, it might be worth considering.” The smile faded, replaced with a melancholy frown, and a certain tightness around his eyes. “Blood magic’s never right. I mean, power corrupts, but in that case it’s not even the power… it’s what it opens the door to.”
Tobias watched a strange, speculative look settle over his face, and wondered at how mercurial his moods seemed to be when he was tired. He wondered, too, just how far he could push Anders when it came to conversations of Merrill and demons… and exactly how far Justice himself differed from their kind.
The spirit’s hatred of demons in the Fade had surprised Tobias, and made him curious. After all, it seemed too simple to say that his kind and Torpor’s were different from each other the way that vices and virtues were. Wasn’t a virtue running unchecked just as dangerous as a vice? What was unmetered justice, except the warped face of Vengeance that Anders feared so much?
Part of Tobias suspected that that itself was nothing more than rage, but he didn’t want to linger on the thoughts, because they led to dark and frightening places and, besides, Anders was a lot of things… but abomination wasn’t one of them. Tobias believed that more strongly than he believed anything and, as he looked at Anders in the clinic’s subdued quiet—with just the odd handful of sick and scared people huddled up on the pallets, and the Circle runaways ladling out soup and small comforts—the healer never seemed more human.
Anders blinked then, as if forcibly dragging himself away from some distracting chain of thoughts, and gave Tobias a weak smile, like a thin shred of sunlight on a winter morning.
“Anyway,” he said, a teasing note lingering in his voice, “they will be suspicious of you, won’t they? It’s just… well, you. Hob-nobbing with the nobility. Personal meetings with the viscount, old friend of the Captain of the Guard….”
“Aveline?” Tobias wrinkled his nose, and the texture of the air between them thinned a bit. “We’re not exactly friends. She tolerates me for Mother’s sake, I think, and the fact we left Ferelden together, but that’s all. Anyway, after last night—”
Anders nodded sympathetically. “I know. I know, but you can see how it looks.”
“‘How it looks’?” Tobias frowned. “Can’t say that I can, no. Why?”
The healer looked uncomfortable, like he wished he’d never said anything. Across the clinic, on one of the pallets, an old man coughed; a great, chest-deep wheeze, hauling phlegmy gasps on weak lungs and rattling in the breaths he struggled to take. Anders glanced up, and there was a flicker of worried resignation in his face, like he knew exactly how little he could do for the man.
A muscle clenched briefly in his jaw, and he returned his attention to Tobias with a minute shrug that made the feathered shoulders of his shabby coat rustle.
“You know what I mean,” he muttered, looking vaguely apologetic. “You’ve seen who we are. It’s not just people like me, or Gethyn, or even Selby. Many of the Underground are merchants, guildhall members… a few are even minor gentry. They risk a great deal doing what they do. But, for someone to have too much involvement with the guard and the nobles? That’s asking for trouble.”
A cold ache scythed through Tobias’ gut. “What, you think I’d—?”
“No!” Those dark eyes locked quickly onto his, and Anders shook his head emphatically. “No, I don’t. I don’t think that for a minute. I’ve trusted you with my life before… I would again.”
His gaze seemed to melt its way right to Tobias’ core, and he felt his cheeks begin to warm. A frown pinched Anders’ brow, and he looked sheepishly at the dusty floorboards between them.
“But they won’t see it that way. Even with all the coin you’ve dropped… or maybe because of it. I don’t know. Just… just be careful, is all I’m saying. It takes time to win people around.”
“Mm.” Tobias folded his arms, and tried to resist the urge to say something snide. “I want to, though.”
Anders glanced up enquiringly. “Oh?”
It was true. His zeal hadn’t lessened in the weeks since the meeting, however full up they’d been with other crises vying for his attention. It seemed a little silly to say it—especially standing here, with the dregs of Kirkwall’s population wrapped in blankets and wheezing into a dark, cold night lit by smoky braziers and greasy tallow candles—but everything since that evening had just convinced Tobias further. The demon at the Harimann place, the Dalish ritual… it all meant the same thing. Mages would never be free from the hatred and fear inculcated by those whom the Circle failed, and Kirkwall was a perfect example of why Circles never would work. There would always be those who sought power, and those who couldn’t control what they already had, and trying to herd them all together like identical cattle only exacerbated the problems.
Not all mages were created equal, and magic was a curse and blessing in different measures… and of different strengths. To pretend otherwise—and to pretend that it could be locked up—was ridiculous.
Someone needed to show the world that.
However, those were big, shiny, glamorous words, and they were all wrong in this quiet, poky, decidedly unglamorous place… even with the enquiring look on Anders’ face, and the almost irresistible urge Tobias had to pledge everything to him all over again.
He shrugged as nonchalantly as he could manage. “Well, there are plenty more Feynriels out there, aren’t there? Maybe not all with those kinds of powers, but… people the Circle are failing. People who don’t want to live their lives shut in like cattle. And, if the way Meredith’s been running things is any indication, it’s only going to get worse.”
Something dark sluiced behind Anders’ eyes, and he nodded fervently. “You’re right there. Do you know how many mages they turned Tranquil last month? The Rite shouldn’t even be used on a Harrowed mage. The templars are invoking it over and over, just to silence anyone who steps out of line. If someone doesn’t—”
He stopped abruptly and took a deep breath and, just for a moment, the air itself seemed to flex against Tobias’ skin. He frowned.
“You all right?”
Anders smiled weakly. “Too tired to talk politics, that’s all.” He took another long breath, centring himself, and ran a hand over his hair, smoothing down the errantly frizzy bits that always seemed to stick out, whatever he did. “Don’t know why you hang around here… I can’t be much company.”
Tobias shook his head. You know perfectly well, you bastard. “I like watching you work,” he said airily. “Is that so bad?”
Anders grimaced incredulously, which made him smile, and Tobias followed his glance around the clinic. The apprentice, Neryn, was sweeping the day’s rushes out of the side door, which might possibly do something about the pervading smell of piss and old vomit that always mouldered away in the clinic, even beneath the regular cleanings and the astringent-smelling little dishes of copal incense.
The healer shook his head, and moved to finish off hanging the coppers upside down over the benches, evidently deciding the two of them had dallied enough.
Tobias followed, helping him lift and turn the heavy pans, and check the stoppers on some of the big stoneware jugs in which herbs were quietly macerating. The fire still glowed softly beneath a mantel of ash, and the smells of the newly made plaisters, the tinctures and powders all twisted together in one woody, green, sharp scent that made Tobias’ nose itch. Three thick stubs of candle guttered in saucers on the workbench, and they threw a dozen different shadows around Anders as he worked, pale hands like ghosts in the darkness.
“Watching you,” Tobias said, lowering his voice a little as they overturned the biggest copper, sluicing out the last of the dregs it had held, “makes me think everything’s all right, even when I know it isn’t. You always look so confident, so… focused. Dedicated.”
Incredible, beautiful, powerful… I could go on.
Anders winced. The last of whatever noxious weed had been boiled in the copper spattered to the ground in dark green droplets, and Tobias sighed tersely, realising that was yet another thing to add to the list of stuff he shouldn’t have said.
“I wanted to talk to you, anyway,” he said, as they set the pan on the slatted bench. “To apologise for forcing you into the Fade like that. I should have known how uncomfortable it would be, and—”
Anders shook his head emphatically. “No. I couldn’t have just stood by and done nothing. I couldn’t have let you… well… you know.”
Die like an idiot? Face demons alone? Kill Feynriel?
He could have meant any of them, Tobias supposed, though he decided to hope for the second option.
“Do you, uh…? D’you remember it?” he asked, as casually as he could. “I mean, what was it like? With— well, with him in charge like that?”
Anders pulled a sour face, and it was hard to tell whether it was really such a deeply unpleasant memory, or if he just didn’t want to talk about it.
“It’s hard to explain. I told you before that there’s no way to tell where Justice ends and I begin. His thoughts are mine, his… reactions….” Anders trailed off and shook his head, frowning vaguely. “It’s difficult to… you know. I’d stayed out of the Fade since we merged. I don’t much like being a passenger in my own skin. Still,” he added thoughtfully, worrying at the cuff of his coat with one hand, “I suppose Justice feels like that every day. Shackled to my body and every decision I make. No wonder it’s become a prison for him.”
Tobias bit the inside of his lip, eager to find something to say, but not sure what possible response there was to that. Were things really that bad inside the healer’s head? He wondered if Anders talked about it to anyone else. He probably did. Maybe. Selby, and those elusive friends of his in the Underground that Tobias wasn’t quite prepared to admit being so jealous of… but did it help? How did you talk about something that half your own mind was the subject of? It wasn’t exactly like he could get any privacy, or mutter about Justice behind the spirit’s back.
Like always, Tobias found himself shying away from the practicalities of the thoughts. He was afraid that, when it came down to it, he didn’t want to know, if wanting to know was too much like staring into a hopeless darkness. He didn’t want to believe there was no way out.
Silence had fallen between them again, and that was never a good thing, however comfortable and natural it felt. It was a deceitful sensation, he supposed, because there was no clear, familiar honesty here to base that kind of comfort on, and pretending that there was—pretending they understood each other, or that anything about this was fine—was a foolish, naïve thing to do.
Tobias cleared his throat, one hand rising to scratch awkwardly at the back of his head. “Look… about all that, though…. Did I…? In the Fade? When the demon—” He broke off, an exasperated sigh drowning the words. “I just mean, if I said anything, or if—”
“I don’t remember,” Anders said softly.
He turned his head, looking at the copper pots and their round, shiny bellies, buffed to a dull shine by dint of so much scrubbing and elbow grease… just like the lies that lay between the two of them, Tobias thought, and all the effort they depended upon.
Oh, Maker. I did, didn’t I? Oh, shit.
“Well, um—” He cleared his throat awkwardly. “I suppose that’s all right, then, isn’t it? I mean, they get into your head and— and….”
“Yes. It’s all right. Please,” Anders added, his tone purposefully mild, “don’t worry. Let’s just—”
Forget about it? Pretend it didn’t happen? Maker’s breath, you’re a piece of work….
“—let’s just leave the Fade where it is, shall we?”
He turned abruptly, and set to straightening up the disorder of the most recently used pallets. Tobias followed meekly, searching out whatever scraps of something useful he could be doing. Further down the rows, the old man was coughing again, and Neryn was still sweeping, working up the room with his broom; scrubbing now, and dislodging Maker knew what from between the boards.
“All the same,” he said thoughtfully, glancing at Anders, “you were the only one who didn’t turn.”
A small, lop-sided smile tugged at the healer’s mouth. “Well, nothing like being possessed to keep you on the straight and narrow, right?”
Tobias smiled mirthlessly. He didn’t like hearing Anders talk that way, but he knew better than to complain. Still, it wasn’t just that, he felt sure… or maybe it was. Maybe he was a fool, trying to read meaning into every tiny crease and wrinkle in the things between them.
He flinched then, surprised by the sudden warmth of Anders’ hand on his bare arm as he reached across the narrow breadth of the pallet. It was just a brief touch—a gentle, comforting squeeze—but it made goosebumps rise on Tobias’ flesh, and sent the pulse thudding in his throat.
“You should go and talk to them both,” Anders said, meeting his eyes steadily. “Especially Aveline. I mean, Merrill was hardly a surprise, although I do hope it taught her something about demons, but… Aveline won’t understand how it happened. I expect she could do with you telling her it’s all right.”
Tobias gazed blankly at him, just drinking in the tiny details of his face: the dark smudges of fatigue beneath his eyes, the thin crows’ feet forming at their corners… the little gold-and-brown filaments of beard growth on his cheeks. He found himself noticing the strangest things. There was, for example, an infinitesimal dent right at the very tip of Anders’ nose. It only appeared visible close up and, from a distance, apparently served to make the nose itself look more defined… an element of that haughty, chiselled angularity of his, Tobias supposed. He noticed it, though, and noticed the squareness of his chin, and the uncommon width of his mouth, and virtually anything else that didn’t involve the guarded, complex warmth in his eyes.
There was affection there—plain as day, bright as starlight—but it was chained up, choked back, and Tobias wanted, all at once, to bury himself in the healer’s arms, and to run so far away from him they’d never see each other again. He could still feel Anders’ touch on his skin, as if his fingers had burned into the flesh.
“You’re right,” he said dully. “Thanks.”
Anders shrugged. “Hey. You did a good thing. And you’re a good man, Hawke. A brave man.”
Tobias shook his head. “No. I’m just frightened of failure. Thank you, though. I mean that. For… all of it.”
They looked at each other for a moment longer, and his fingers flexed against the air, as if he might have reached for Anders’ hand or arm—until he thought better of it, smiled weakly, and turned to go.
Anders didn’t stop him, though, however slowly he walked on the way to the door.
He wouldn’t have done anyway, Tobias supposed. Maybe he never would. Maybe all they would ever do was keep skirting around each other, avoiding every intimacy like it was some kind of weakness; eternally coming to the brink of something, and always pulling back.
He hated it… hated Anders, almost.
Almost, but not quite.
The walk to the alienage was enough to let the mental recriminations and spite work themselves out, and the repetitive thud of boots on dirt-packed streets brought Tobias as much solace as it ever had.
Lowtown smelled of salt and tar, like usual, but there was a coldness in the air. The year was definitely turning, and it would be harder to find work, harder to buy food… harder to do everything. That weary restlessness rolled again within him. Tobias hated Kirkwall winters. He supposed they would have been worse if the weather got as bitterly cold as it used to in Ferelden, but there was something unremittingly bleak about the cool, damp drizzle and the grim way the city just seemed to squat there, waiting for the spring.
Too much waiting. Everything is always waiting, like we’ve been holding our breath for the past three years. Are we ever going to breathe again?
Merrill wasn’t hard to find. She was shut up in the little hovel she was so damnably proud of, and Tobias tried to avoid the looks he got from the alienage elves as he slipped through the dirty, foul-smelling streets of the district, making his way to her front door.
Oh, a few of them mistook him for a client—Maker knew there were more than enough whores here to put the Rose out of business—but several recognised his face. There were plenty of thieves, pickpockets, petty thugs and smugglers, too. Not that it mattered. Nothing mattered within the alienage walls, where he was just another human to be scowled at and avoided. They scattered from his path like ants, all huge eyes and pinched, dirty faces, with the same hard, blank look on them as people wore in the Old Town slums.
He could see the light of a candle seeping through the ill-fitting shutters, and he rapped quietly on the peeling wood of her door. It opened after barely a few moments… as if she’d already known he was coming.
Merrill stepped back meekly from the threshold, dropping her gaze as she motioned him inside. She looked awful: red-eyed and lank-haired, her skin pale and papery. Tobias ducked his head and followed her into the shack, wincing a little at the smell of mould and damp. It was worse than Gamlen’s place, though Merrill had a lot more books. They spilled out of the few wooden shelves she had, and covered every available surface. Some were even drying in front of the pitiful little grate she had—evidently she’d been treating them for mould or paper mites or something, for a little pot of liquid and a brush sat on the table, while four volumes had their pages spread out in the meagre warmth the fire afforded.
Tobias tried not to think about what might be in them. Knowing Merrill, they could just as easily have been fairytales, or distinctly nasty texts on Tevinter blood rites.
She stood in front of him, her hands clasped and her head bowed, and she didn’t meet his eye when she gestured vaguely around the room and told him to make himself comfortable.
Tobias sighed. He’d been hoping he’d stay angry enough to yell at her. He’d been angry, in the Fade. Damn it, he’d been angry when he woke, and angry with her all the day after, and… and then he’d been distracted by the things that had to be done if Feynriel was actually to be saved, instead of just being given a reprieve from his powers and somehow, on reflection, Merrill’s wanting to save her whole clan—her people—hadn’t seemed like the worst thing in the world to be tempted by.
And now, she looked so bloody miserable and so utterly, completely crushed that it hurt him just to see it. He shook his head.
“You have my apologies,” she murmured, staring steadfastly at the floor with those great, leaf-green eyes. “It’s… easy to forget that one cannot bind demons with words.”
“Merrill, it really—”
She looked up at him, her face filled with grief and regret and disbelief, and the words started to spill out, the apologies piling on apology in a tumultuous babble.
“It’s just I… I can’t believe I turned on you. Ma serennas. I mean, I-I’ll understand if you can’t forgive me, but…. It was a shock, you know? I didn’t think it could possibly happen like that. I’ve been so careful in all my dealings with spirits until now. To make such an obvious mistake…. I’m so sorry!”
He couldn’t help it. A grin slid slowly across his face, and she looked affronted and confused.
“You’re… why are you smiling?”
Tobias shook his head. It was just so much better to hear her prattling than it was to see still, serious, reserved Merrill, with her stiff gestures of apology and serious, heartfelt words.
“It’s all right,” he assured her. “Honestly. I forgive you.”
“You do?” She looked genuinely perplexed. “But—”
Tobias shrugged. “I know the power demons have… what it’s like to w— to want something that much. For what it’s worth, it got you with the promise of saving your people. There are worse things to give into, aren’t there?”
Merrill’s wide, clear face crumpled into a frown, and she hugged her thin arms around her middle, digging her fingers into the thick tunic she wore.
“Maybe, but… well, it was pride, wasn’t it? Wanting to be their saviour because I— because of everything that happened before I left. That’s not exactly selfless.”
“It’s redemption,” Tobias said carefully, thinking of Aveline and the handsome face of Wesley, offering her an impossible, better life, far off in some perfect version of fate. “Everyone wants that.”
Merrill exhaled deeply, and seemed to visibly deflate, her shoulders growing hunched and rounded. She bit her lip thoughtfully and frowned.
“Would you like some tea?”
Tobias didn’t really want to say yes—especially given the fact that what passed for tea in the alienage was usually the leaf of some peculiar straggly herb, and tasted like blackberries washed in mud—but she clearly needed it, so he agreed.
They ended up drinking small, scalding cups of the stuff while sitting together on the blanket-strewn divan that served as Merrill’s bed and, apparently, impromptu study area. There were more books, more papers… and some of them were indeed written in what looked like Tevene. Tobias didn’t try to decipher it, and steadfastly ignored the temptation to ask her, or to say anything about Feynriel’s new life.
“It frightens me, though,” she said, her voice a small, shallow whisper. “It takes so little for a mage to fall, doesn’t it?”
Tobias leaned back against the rough plaster, with its musty, homely smell, and swigged the vile tea.
“What made you give in?”
Merrill sighed deeply and shook her head. She had her knees tucked under her chin, her arms linked around them, and her half-empty cup dangled from one thin hand, the dregs of the liquid sloshing as she shrugged.
“It felt like… like every word the demon spoke reached out and pulled at my heart,” she said, frowning. The fingers of her free hand touched her chest, resting lightly against the deep russets and green of her Dalish clothes—because she still looked like one of them, even if the clan had all but cast her out. That troubled Tobias, though he didn’t want to admit it. “Do you know what I mean?”
He nodded stiffly. “Mm-hm.”
“That’s it,” she agreed, taking a speculative sip of her tea. “It reaches right inside you. Makes you think things. Makes you see them. I didn’t want to believe it, but I just… had to.”
Tobias suppressed a shiver, and tried to stop the memories of that night crowding back in his head. The further away he got from the Fade, the more the dreams grew blurred at the edges, and the harder it was to separate the fantasy of that little cottage from the image of Justice wearing Anders’ body like an old coat.
Merrill leaned across him to put her now empty cup on the small table beside the bed, its uneven leg wedged up with a small chock of wood that looked like it had fallen off one of the shutters. As she did so, he smelled the delicate, green, woody fragrance that she had about her—like soap and some hint of the forest that even Kirkwall’s grime couldn’t fully erase—and the sleeve of her tunic pulled back just enough for him to see the thin, pale brown lines of scars on her arm.
He held his breath, and tried not to think about it.
“Did you have the same trouble?” she asked as she settled back down. “Aveline didn’t say much, but I got the impression—”
“Mm.” Tobias nodded curtly, not really willing to discuss it. “Yes, there were… well, there were plenty more of the bastards.”
“You got through it, though,” Merrill observed, with a trace of something that sounded a lot like envy. “You didn’t—”
“There are some things that can’t be real. Aren’t there?” Tobias drained the last of his tea, and stared fixedly at the flaking plaster and cracked wooden supports of the far wall. “That’s how you know, right? How you protect yourself from demons. We all learn that.”
There was a beat of silence. He knew Merrill was looking at him in quiet consideration; he could feel her gaze on him, her chin propped on her knees, her wide eyes slowly picking him apart and evaluating every piece of him. She never had been half as naïve as people thought she was, had she? He’d known that since the first time he saw her use blood magic… and he remembered it still: the dark, bitter swirls of power, coursing and whipping around him.
He owed his life to it.
“The Keeper taught me that, in the Fade, you must believe nothing but yourself,” Merrill said slowly, balancing every word. “Everything there is a lie, or a trick, or a trap. You are the only real thing.”
Tobias snorted softly. “Everything’s an illusion. Even what you think you want.”
She shrugged. “You can’t trust the things they show you. I knew that. I knew not to trust… I don’t know why I did.”
Because there are some things you’d give up anything for, even when you know it’s a terrible idea. It could mean burning the whole world to ashes, but you still wouldn’t say no… couldn’t say no. Not in that single moment, if it was offered, because it’s like it’s not a choice at all.
He swallowed heavily, the muddy taste of the tea thick on his tongue, and said nothing. There was nothing to say… nothing he wanted to say to her, anyway.
In the corner of the room, beneath its sheet of oiled canvas, the elven mirror Merrill was working on repairing glimmered faintly in the dim dustiness. The thing had made Tobias uneasy from the first moment he saw it, and Merrill wasn’t keen on talking about it, except to say it was an artefact that Marethari had given her. It was about five feet high, like one of those ornate cheval glasses they sometimes had in the market in Hightown. Orlesian imports, with curlicues and brasswork all over them… only the glimpses he’d caught of this looked much older, and much less shiny.
Tobias turned his attention away from it, and wished he could shake the feeling that the thing was watching him.
“Well,” he said, in a vague attempt at dry levity, “as long as you’re worried about it. I mean, that proves you’re still sane, right?”
Merrill frowned. “What?”
“The demon thing. You know it’s crazy to trust them, and you shouldn’t, and yet you do it anyway. As long as you know how daft that sounds—”
Merrill elbowed him in the ribs reproachfully. “Hawke! It’s not the same. Well… not quite. Anyway, all magic is dangerous. It always attracts… attention. You said it yourself: all mages know that, and we all have to learn to defend ourselves.”
“Yes, but… oh, never mind.”
We don’t all have to end up slicing our wrists every time we want to cast a spell. There’s a difference between power and possession.
He didn’t say it, didn’t go off into the tirade that he knew Anders would have done. There was no need. The elf was a stubborn bitch at the best of times, and if she wouldn’t listen to Anders, Tobias strongly doubted she’d listen to him. Besides, he’d never been comfortable dishing out edicts on how other people should life their lives, or taking up the mantel of determining what was right and wrong… however uncomfortable her magic made him feel.
Merrill sighed deeply. “I disappointed you, didn’t I? I disappointed myself. I should have known better, and I’m sorry. It won’t happen again. I’ll make sure of that.”
Tobias marshalled a small smile, and patted her arm.
Maybe she was right. Maybe it wouldn’t.
Maybe believing in yourself was enough for some people.
Back to Justice in Surrender: Contents
They were taken at once to the Keeper’s aravel, and more than a few of the clan emerged to watch them. Evidently, Marethari had been awaiting their arrival, Tobias decided, though he wondered if she’d expected him to bring quite so many people with him.
The camp was a different place at night. A huge fire burned at its centre, making shadows and glancing swathes of orange light dance against the packed dirt and the great, dark shapes of the land-ships. Several elves sat on the steps of their aravels, watching the interlopers with quiet, hard-eyed interest. The most striking thing about the scene was its silence. Despite the number of people, the only sound in the camp appeared to be the crackling of the fire. Not even night birds seemed to come this close to the Dalish.
It was the boy’s mother who came out to greet them, her thin frame wrapped up in a dark brown shawl and her face shrouded with worry and anxiety, visible even beneath the faded lines of her tattoos. The shadows cast by the aravels’ sails fell thickly over her, and her eyes—of that very pale, elven green—seemed to leap from the darkness, sharp as blades and wet with unshed tears.
“Serah Hawke!” she exclaimed, reaching out to him with one work-worn, thin-fingered hand. “Oh, I’m so glad you’ve come. Ma serannas,” she added, turning to Merrill and clutching her arm; thanking her for bringing him, Tobias supposed.
“It’ll be all right, Arianni,” Merrill assured, patting the woman’s hand. “You’ll see.”
That sounded like false optimism, but he didn’t like to say so, especially when the woman looked at him, her lips trembling and her cheeks pale.
“You’ve done so much for my Feynriel already, messere. I can’t tell you how grateful I am… how grateful he is. I know it. He hasn’t wanted to see me since he came to the People, but I know. My friends have told me, and Keeper Marethari—”
She stopped as her voice cracked and the tears began to spill, making it painfully apparent just how bad Feynriel’s condition must be.
Arriving just in time for the deathbed scene, Tobias thought bitterly. He forced out an unwilling smile, uncomfortable with the woman’s palpable fear and grief. Merrill put her arm around a now sobbing Arianni, and nodded towards the heavy curtain that hung across the door to the Keeper’s aravel.
Tobias nodded, and moved towards the small rank of steps, Anders at his shoulder and the others following close behind.
“I don’t know what they expect me to do,” he muttered, just loud enough for the healer to hear. “Yell really loudly in his ear? Give him a good shake?”
Anders snorted, but the look he shot Tobias was dark. “If he is unable to control his powers, that might not be the issue.”
Tobias winced. “Mm. Thanks. I was trying not to think about that.”
Inside, the aravel was surprisingly spacious. They really were like ships, Tobias supposed; smooth-shelled, dark husks, windowless and curved like hulls. There was more opulence—more in the way of furnishings, and brightly coloured rugs and hangings, with thick furs on the floor and walls—but he still had to fight not to be reminded of the boat he’d spent so many unpleasant weeks on from Gwaren.
Keeper Marethari stood in the centre of the dim, candlelit space, her white hair bound back and her green robes hanging loosely around her arms and shoulders, with the glint of a golden amulet hidden within the deep, cowl-like folds the fabric formed. A carved wooden screen lay to one side of the aravel, next to a large, heavy, iron-bound trunk that was probably both of human make and even older than the elven woman herself. The light-fingered magpie in Tobias wondered what interesting treasures it might hold, but the majority of his attention was occupied by the slender figure on the bed opposite. He heard Anders draw a long, soft breath between his teeth, and then the feel of it all suddenly hit him… like dark rain under his skin, crawling and pulling.
Feynriel lay motionless—a slip of a boy, with no trace of elven grace or delicacy in his gangly, adolescent limbs—yet his power crackled in the air like the greasy static of a lightning storm. He’d been undressed and placed beneath blankets and furs, his head supported by a large, dark red pillow, and his single braid of blond hair lay pale across the fabric, like a newly cleaned wound.
His eyes were the worst thing. They were open, unblinking… like dead eyes, staring out from a waxy, slack face. Someone had tucked a small rag toy beneath the blanket, so old and tattered that it had long since lost its colour and most of its identifiable shape, yet it was still nestled close to the boy. A toy drum sat on the foot of the bed, discoloured and missing one beater.
Discomfort prickled at Tobias’ spine, and he felt goosebumps rising on his bare arms. Behind him, Fenris padded in through the doorway, his posture guarded but politely reverential—or at least as close to it as he ever got—while Aveline and Varric crowded by the curtain. The aravel was comfortably spacious, after all, but not big enough to accommodate everyone.
“Serah Hawke,” Marethari said, her words quiet but heavily accented. “Thank you for coming. I… did not expect so many.”
She glanced over his shoulder at the others, as Merrill edged her way through, her arm still protectively around Arianni. Tobias shrugged.
“I have loyal friends.” He tried to pass it off with a cocky grin, but the dim little room was choked with the feel of magic, behaving in a way it shouldn’t do, with the dark promise of demons prowling beneath it. The attempt at a grin stagnated and died on his lips, and he nodded at the boy’s unmoving form. “Is he…?”
Marethari shook her head. “His lips still fog a mirror, but that is all. We must act quickly. That is why I sent for you in the manner I did.”
Arianni, still sniffing wetly, left Merrill’s side and moved to her son. She smoothed his hair and tugged at the blanket, as if she were tucking in a sleeping babe. Her fingers brushed against the little rag toy, and her shoulders began to shake with renewed sobs.
“Has Merrill explained the nature of Feynriel’s power?” the keeper enquired, as if it might distract them from Arianni’s private grief. “He is… what the Tevinters call somniari. One who has the power to shape the Beyond. The People once had magics of that nature, and they were very powerful. I believe Feynriel is a throwback to those times; what we call a Dreamer, and he is the first in two ages to survive.”
Tobias furrowed his brow. He wanted to know why it was so rare, but his mind felt slightly fuzzy, and then it was Anders’ voice he was hearing, not Marethari’s.
“So, he’s trapped in the Fade—sorry, the Beyond—and you think he can be reached through his dreams? Guided back here?”
The elf nodded, the wariness in her expression giving way to a cautious willingness to answer.
“I believe so. Arianni has brought his childhood things. We’d hoped his mother’s presence might be enough, that all this might anchor him some, but… no. There is an old Dalish ritual that I think is his last hope. It involves sending someone Feynriel trusts to guide him home.” The keeper tilted her chin, a flicker of pride crossing her face, beneath the tawny, faded marks of her tattoos. “A long time ago, we had the knowing of that—of sending anyone into the Beyond, even those without magic—but so much of our knowledge is lost.”
Marethari winced a little as she said it, as if admitting that truth pained her. She blinked, and fixed Tobias with a grave look that made his stomach clench.
“Feynriel trusts you, Hawke. And—”
“And I’m a mage,” he finished, as the pieces slotted neatly into place. “Which makes this that much easier. Right.”
A thin kind of tension hung on the air in the cramped aravel, as so many different faces turned to watch him. Tobias clenched his jaw. This was definitely going to go down in the diary as one of his more memorable days—and for every single wrong reason known to man.
How in the name of Andraste’s arse cheeks do I get myself into these things? I don’t remember pissing on the statue of any particular god. Never stole from a collection plate, or kicked a beggar… I’m not a bad person. Am I?
Beside him, Anders shifted uneasily, the pauldrons of his coat damp and spiky, like ruffled hackles.
“I’ve heard of rituals like this. They require at least three mages, and a great deal of lyrium—” He glanced sidelong at Tobias, his discomfort evident. “—or some other source of power.”
Marethari’s expression tightened. “There will be no blood sacrifice, if that’s what you’re implying.”
“I meant no disrespect,” Anders said defensively, though Tobias saw the way his gaze shifted to Merrill for the briefest of moments. “I apologise, Keeper.”
Marethari inclined her head and let out a long breath, returning her attention to Tobias. “I believe I can perform the ritual, if you will consent to it. But it must be tonight. Feynriel has little time left.”
The atmosphere was getting worse. That breath of magic crawled over his skin now, lodged itself in his mouth and nose… a dark and shapeless sense of thick, crowded time, full of unseen things and horrible possibilities. Tobias suppressed both a shudder and a lurch of doubt. This felt like a bad idea, and yet he couldn’t refuse. Not after the way he’d been brought here, and not with Arianni looking at him like she was all of a sudden, standing by her son’s bedside with her thin hands worrying at each other, her face bleached of colour.
“Please, messere?” she prompted, the candlelight picking at her swollen, red-rimmed eyes. “Will you think on submitting to the keeper’s magic, if it means saving my son’s life?”
Oh, sod it….
Tobias sighed brusquely. “Yes. Yes, I… I’ve had dealings with the Fade before. I’m certainly willing to try.”
Her face crumpled into a look of heartfelt relief, and she came towards him jerkily, her hands extended. “Thank you! Thank you, truly. You have been so kind to us, serah…. Kinder than we had any right to expect.”
Tobias winced uneasily as Arianni took hold of his hand, clutching it between her hard, dry palms, and began to weep anew.
Marethari cleared her throat and looked meaningfully at Merrill. “Arianni, why don’t you go and warm yourself by the fire? This has been such a long and difficult day for you.”
“Oh. Oh, of course, yes….” The woman blinked, looking flustered until Merrill took her gently by the shoulder and led her out of the aravel, muttering encouraging things about nice hot bowls of soup.
As she passed Tobias, Merrill glanced up at him, and her eyes grew deep and wide. “Thank you,” she mouthed.
The weight of all those assembled gazes sat heavily on him, and Tobias disliked the feeling. He shrugged, turning back to the keeper as the women left.
“Yeah, well… not often you get to ‘submit’ and still come out the hero, is it? Ow,” he added, barely aware of Anders having kicked him until he glanced down and saw the healer’s dusty boot snaking back across the floorboards.
If Marethari had noticed, she didn’t say anything. She’d moved to the wooden screen, and was rummaging behind it, bringing out a large bronze disc, two beaten bronze bowls, and a large leather pouch.
“We will need to begin at once. I cannot stress how much your help means, but we cannot delay.” She glanced across the aravel, eyeing Aveline and the others with as much uncertainty as Tobias had ever seen on her. “Perhaps your companions would prefer to—”
Varric held up a hand, and Tobias realised how quiet the dwarf had been up until then. It wasn’t like him at all… and he couldn’t recall ever seeing Varric Tethras stunned into silence before.
“So, you’re sending Hawke into the Fade, to drag this kid out of a nightmare?” Varric curled his lip. “I’m no expert, but there are demons and whatnot there, right?”
Marethari nodded. “It is dangerous, yes.”
Tobias glanced over his shoulder, readying a look of cheerful assurance. “I’m a big boy, Varric. I’ll manage.”
He didn’t look appeased. In truth, Tobias was hardly crazy about the idea, either, but there wasn’t much alternative.
“This ritual,” Anders said, addressing the keeper as she began dragging the iron-bound trunk across the floor, the bowls and the bronze disc balanced on top of it. “Can you send more than one person? If… if you were going to—”
Marethari straightened up and surveyed them critically. She gave Tobias a thoughtful look, and then the smallest hint of a smile curved her lips.
“They are indeed loyal friends, aren’t they, serah? Yes,” she added, nodding at Anders. “It is an old and powerful magic. It does not act on a person, but on a place. What I shall do here will make this space a gateway. For a limited time, it will draw aside the mist, and allow passage into the Beyond.”
“You’re talking about tearing the Veil,” Tobias said, aware of how slow and stupid he sounded, and yet shocked all the same. “On actual purpose?”
The keeper nodded, her hands busy setting the bowls—and a number of other, smaller implements she’d drawn out—into what appeared to be a complex arrangement on the top of the trunk.
“Well, I have to admit,” Varric said, cutting through the gravid silence with forced jovialness, “I’m a little fascinated.”
Marethari smiled. “Ah. I don’t think one of the durgen’len would take well to such a journey. Abelas.”
“No? Ah, nuts.”
Tobias snorted, despite himself. Typical Varric… drawn by the promise of bloodshed and otherworldly horrors. He turned, and looked at Fenris and Aveline.
“Listen, I don’t expect anyone to do this, but—”
If you want to, don’t let me stop you… please?
The words hung unspoken on the air. Fenris narrowed his eyes.
“I have no wish to enter the Fade, although….” He winced, and looked uncertainly at Marethari. “If the power of lyrium is required, I may be able to assist.”
She looked confused until he pulled off one gauntlet and flexed his hand for her, his face growing tight as the brands that criss-crossed his flesh flared blue. Tobias stared. That was definitely unexpected.
Marethari murmured incredulously under her breath, reaching out to touch Fenris’ arm, though her fingers stopped halfway. She gave him a solemn look, and nodded, a surprisingly humble gratitude on her face.
“Fenris—” Tobias began, because he felt he ought to say something. He knew using the abilities Danarius had forced upon was uncomfortable for the elf, if not outright painful… perhaps Feynriel’s plight had hit more of a nerve than he’d let on.
Fenris shook his head irritably, refusing to comment. The curtain across the doorway swished as Merrill reappeared, looking enquiringly at the ranks of stern, serious faces.
“Is it going to begin?” she asked, eyes widening as her gaze moved to Marethari. She gave Tobias a small, awkward smile. “I’m coming with you, of course. Keep you safe,” she said encouragingly… which Tobias somehow didn’t find all that heartening.
“And you have my blade,” Aveline put in, drawing herself up as far as she could without hitting her head on the aravel’s beamed ceiling—presumably in an attempt to disguise her nervousness. “If you need it.”
Tobias nodded hazily. None of this somehow felt quite real. It was as if everything was a part of the mildly scratchy, fuzzy feeling at the back of his mind.
“Appreciate it,” he said quietly. “Thanks.”
Anders stood, alone, in the middle of the floor, looking worried and conflicted, the fingers of his left hand worrying at his right wrist.
Tobias shot him a questioning look. Of course, he’d want to come too, wouldn’t he? Leaping to my defence. Any minute now. Probably.
“Anders?” he prompted, feeling suddenly a little lost.
The healer swallowed heavily. “I… I don’t really want to,” he murmured, looking taut and panic-stricken. “I mean, I’ve tried to avoid the Fade since Justice. I worry what it could bring out in me.”
Well, those sounded like ominous words. Tobias pressed his lips together, his memory prodding him with insidious recollections of the night at the chantry, when he’d seen Justice in action for the first time. He tried not to let himself think too deeply on it.
“It’s all right. I understand. Why don’t you—”
“But this won’t be easy,” Anders blurted, giving him a solemn frown. “You will need help, and I don’t know if….”
He trailed off meaningfully, his brief glance in Merrill’s direction not half as subtle as he apparently thought it was.
Oh, yes. Great time for the mage rivalry. Perfect.
Tobias crossed his arms. “Fine. If you think you can keep Justice in check, I’d value your help.”
Anders nodded mournfully.
Merrill, apparently oblivious to his suspicion, went to help Marethari with the preparations. There were a lot of herbs involved, Tobias noticed. Jugs of water were fetched, and poured into the bronze bowls, together with small pieces of resin and a few scatterings of something that looked like bark. Those who would be entering the Fade were encouraged to sit on the floor, in a rough circle beside the bed on which Feynriel lay, and a line of chalk and salt was inscribed around them. The bronze disc was placed in the middle of the floor, and Marethari set a mage-fire to burn upon it, conjuring a brilliant blue flame from thin air and feeding it small discs of charcoal until it grew fat and smoky. Merrill knelt beside her, watching intently as each bowl was held over the flame in turn, until the water began to heat and the smell of the herbs began to rise.
Anders sniffed, and peered with interest into the bowl. “That’s Black Sampson, isn’t it?”
Marethari nodded cautiously, obviously not keen on sharing any details with a human.
“It is,” she said curtly. “There are many parts to the ritual. The herbs are but one.”
“I met a Dalish mage in Amaranthine,” Anders said thoughtfully, as she made another pass with the bowl over the flame. “I kept asking her to tell me more about her people’s magic, but she never did. S’pose I shouldn’t have made those remarks about her tattoos,” he added, apparently half to himself. “Is that splintweed?”
Marethari arched an eyebrow as she crumbled a pinch of dried leaves into the bowl. “Yes. But now we must have silence.”
Anders shut his mouth and sat back on his heels, looking oddly like a chastened schoolboy, Tobias thought, stifling a smile as he glanced at the healer. He was clearly intrigued, though—even more so than Varric, who sat hunched up in the far corner, Bianca propped against his knee as if he expected to be shooting at demons before the night was out.
Marethari said nothing, instead fixing Tobias with a solemn stare as she set the second bowl down again, the smell of resin and herbs rising thickly with the curls of white steam and blue-tinged smoke.
“Before it begins, you must know this: dreamers like Feynriel have great power in the Beyond. They attract powerful demons, though most prove too frail of mind to survive a complete possession. A dreamer-abomination would be near unstoppable… and you understand what this means?”
Tobias nodded stiffly. It had been obvious from the start, and even more so when the boy’s mother had been sent so unceremoniously from the aravel.
“I… won’t let him become a danger,” he said carefully.
Marethari nodded, apparently satisfied. “I wish you luck. Now, if you and your friends are ready…? Remember, trust nothing but your own selves. You will all face temptation.”
Tobias glanced across the circle at the three uncertain figures. Aveline had shed her breastplaste, sword, and shield, and looked as if she felt naked without them, while Merrill seemed pale and frightened, and Anders had that inward sort of expression that seemed to mean he was either thinking, or trying to ignore Justice.
“We’re ready,” Tobias said, wishing he actually believed it.
Marethari began to murmur a stream of quiet words. Merrill tossed a handful of charcoal and herbs onto the flames, and Tobias felt the world starting to grow hazier.
The smell of whatever they were boiling in those bowls itched in his nose, at once bitter and sharp and acrid, and yet with a sweetness to it. He wanted to cough, but he also wanted to listen to the keeper’s lilting Elvish chant, because it was so smooth and lyrical, like the movement of rounded pebbles in the bottom of a crystal stream. Like a song, he realised, but a song without music or melody. A dirge murmured to the elven god of the dead, the one who walked the Beyond and guided spirits to their rest. It was… oddly beautiful, Tobias thought, and he was very dimly aware of Fenris standing in the candlelit gloom, holding a bottle of bright blue liquid, with his hands just beginning to glow.
It enveloped him, then; the kiss of the Fade, like falling asleep and waking to something perfect. It was cool cotton and warm spring air, and the silent breath of a moment’s bliss, and it sang to the power beneath his skin.
Tobias inhaled sharply, hardly aware of closing his eyes, and yet he must have done, for as he opened them again, the world receded. The aravel was gone. Marethari was gone. The smell of herbs and burning charcoal was gone, and he was standing in a great, dusty bowl, like an amphitheatre of some kind. Everything had a shrouded, fuzzy feel to it, like the grainy quality of a dream, and as Tobias turned, surveying this strange place, a stale wind tousled the dust at his feet.
“I’ve never done this before. Is this normal?”
He turned again, spinning almost in a full circle at the sound of the familiar voice. Aveline—fully armoured, her sword and shield on her back—stood close by, squinting uncertainly at their surroundings.
Tobias grinned. “About as normal as it gets. Don’t look at the sky. You’ll get a headache.”
She did, of course, and winced almost immediately. Nothing in the Fade was quite as it ought to be. Most things were poor facsimiles of the mortal world, and details such as the horizon were very badly copied, in this case leaving an undulating line that seemed to pull and suck at a person’s eyes, never changing and yet always shifting around them.
“Ugh!” Aveline recoiled. “It’s not like this when I dream!”
“That’s because this isn’t a dream,” Merrill said, materialising beside her, as if she’d just come skipping through a door. “This is where dreams come from. Are we all here?”
Tobias frowned, and turned once more, relief filling him at the sight of a slightly blurred shape with feathered shoulders.
“Ah. There he— oh.”
The figure that faded into being before him was… well… it was Anders, but not Anders. His movements were far more direct and rigid than usual and, when he raised his head, the face that Tobias saw had been made frighteningly foreign by its blankness. There was no Anders there; no pale look of worry or reticence, no spark of a smile or fleeting moment of wit. The shroud-like wisps of the Fade’s air clung to him like wet sand, and veins of blue light crazed his skin.
“A-Are you all right?” Tobias managed, trying to pretend it didn’t scare him.
The eyes that swivelled to meet his were not human eyes. They were pupilless, opaque shells of electric blue, dancing with fire.
“Hmm.” The voice wasn’t Anders’ voice, either. Oh, it was using his mouth, but there was something else there… some dark, rolling boom that felt distinctly unfamiliar. His head tilted to the side, and he appeared to be surveying the world around him. “I had not thought to return in such a way. Still, it is good to feel the breath of the Fade again, not the empty air of your world.”
“Huh.” Tobias cleared his throat. “So, er, Justice, I presume?”
The spirit nodded, easily closing the few steps that lay between them. Tobias couldn’t stop himself from staring at those veins of light, like cracks in a sculpture, or loose threads holding an old coat together.
Anything but looking at the eyes….
“I am Justice,” it announced. “Anders has told you of me.”
Tobias swallowed, his tongue feeling thick and heavy. “He… certainly has,” he said carefully.
The power rolling off the spirit made his skin—or the memory, or the dream of his skin, whatever this was—feel like it was crawling with ants. He wondered how in the Maker’s name Anders stood it all the time… if it was even like this for him.
I don’t want to know what it’s like, having that inside your mind. I don’t even want to think about it….
Justice tilted Anders’ head to the other side, in a curiously bird-like motion, and seemed to be regarding Tobias thoughtfully.
“You are Hawke,” he stated.
Tobias nodded uncertainly, unsure why this should be a point of such apparent interest. “Yes.”
Justice appeared to consider this for a moment, then turned and nodded to Merrill and Aveline.
“Come. I feel Feynriel’s mind straining. We will not have much time.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Merrill called, bobbing a clumsy little curtsey as, without further comment, Justice strode off into the Fade, wearing the pretence of Anders’ body like a coat.
Tobias shuddered, and followed obediently.
It would have been all too easy to get lost in the Fade, turned around by the ever-shifting landscape… a place of sand and doors, where there were no real directions, no real movements of time or space. Tobias had heard it said that the Black City stood at the centre of the Fade—its corrupted, withered heart, tainted by the sin of mankind—and that, wherever you looked, you would always see it. Wherever you went, the Fade rearranged itself around that central point, a lynchpin of chaos and darkness that stood as a permanent reminder of human frailty.
He wasn’t sure he believed it. Certainly, no twisted spires stuck up against the strange, clouded horizon, and no ghosts of old sins seemed to make themselves visible in the featureless, blurred landscape. The blank sands shifted, though. As they followed Anders—Justice, he corrected himself—the world around them began to change, and the shiver of power against Tobias’ mind, like the smell of salt on a sea breeze, told him the Fade was not responding to his presence. It felt odd, that; a sensation of being a visitor instead of a participant in a world where, so often, he’d walked as a dreamer, and felt its forms shift and pull around him.
Tobias glanced nervously at Merrill. “Can you feel that?”
She gave him a sober nod. “Mm. So quiet. It’s like nothing here even notices anyone else. They’re all focused on Feynriel.”
He grimaced. It wasn’t a pleasant thought.
Aveline squinted, discomfited, at the landscape around them. Sand was turning to stone with every step, walls growing out of the ground and rising up around them like the soft creep of encroaching moss… every moment that wasn’t a moment, but a blink in fathomless time, building one more piece of a dream that belonged to another soul. Doors that seemed to hover just beyond the edge of sight shimmered before vanishing while, underfoot, flagstones had begun to bloom like flowers.
“I feel like I’m being swallowed,” she murmured, stepping slightly closer, so that she was walking in between the two mages. “Swallowed by someone else’s mind.”
Tobias shrugged, eyeing the buildings that were taking shape around them. Up ahead, Justice had stopped and appeared to be staring at something. Exactly what was anyone’s guess.
“You’re not far wrong,” he said darkly. “This is Feynriel’s doing all right. The Fade isn’t usually so… orderly.”
Aveline looked down at her feet, her sturdy guardsman’s boots now resting against sharply delineated flags, complete with cracks and the occasional crop of weeds. She frowned and shifted her weight experimentally.
“It’s like Hightown,” she said, sounding distinctly nonplussed. “I’ve done that patrol a hundred times. It’s… it’s the route from Viscount’s Way to The Gallows.”
“Stands to reason, I suppose,” Tobias said grudgingly, as a horribly recognisable shape began to take form ahead of where Justice was standing, gushing forth from the ether like a silent cloud and piercing the not-quite-sky with its ugly silhouette. “Feynriel was afraid of being turned over to the Circle. We’re… we’re all afraid of it,” he admitted, the words slipping from him with quiet unease.
As they drew up to where Justice stood, the shifting finally ceased, the dream enveloped them completely, and they were standing in the courtyard of The Gallows. It was empty, devoid of the usual clutches of templars, and the massed ranks of Tranquil selling their wares, but the details were quite complete. Every frieze, every architrave and pilaster… every barred window and iron gate, and every dark bronze statue of slaves huddled in despair.
“How cheery,” Tobias said, glancing around them. “Isn’t it? Isn’t this nice?”
Justice turned towards the heavy gates that marked the entrance into the compound itself… somewhere Tobias had never been, and had not even the slightest inclination to go.
“Our presence has been observed,” he remarked, as the dream seemed to flicker, and a shapeless shadow formed behind one of the great columns of The Gallows’ walkways.
Tobias knew what it was before it began to coast towards them, gradually assuming the ragged form of a shade. Why demons didn’t make the effort to appear at least a little bit more aesthetically pleasing, he never knew. This one was a particularly nasty specimen; like a bipedal cockroach wrapped in rags and hanks of old meat, its shiny carapace swaddled in cloth-like folds, and its arms like sharpened twigs, held in front of it the way a bird tucks in its wings.
There was no face to speak of, nor legs. They never seemed to bother to do legs. The light of unnatural eyes—rather like the pits of fire currently burning in Anders’ face—glimmered from within the shadowed recesses of the cowl effect but, when it spoke, the creature’s voice oiled its way right into Tobias’ mind without the effort of any actual mechanics of speech.
“Well, well… it’s rare to see two forgotten magics in one day. The Fade is usually such a slow place. Not many surprises,”it said dolorously, the hint of a languorous yawn behind its words. “Yet this one potential.”
“A demon of sloth,” Justice observed, distaste dripping from the words. “It exists to make men forget their purpose and their pride. Do not relax around it!”
The demon waved its twig-like fingers in lazy dismissal. “Call me Torpor. I trust you’re here for the mage, Feynriel, yes?”
Tobias said nothing, concentrating on ignoring the sense of heaviness that tugged at his limbs. He didn’t want to fight the thing; outright challenge would only risk them being noticed by more demons, and he would much rather not have had this expedition turn into an all-out war.
“Why would you want to know what we’re here for?” Merrill blurted, and Tobias winced at her inability to just shut up and stand quietly. “It might not be that, anyway.”
Yes, that’s us. Just out for a nice stroll in the Fade….
Torpor appeared to ignore her, though the pretence was shallow. The demon was working on them all, Tobias knew. He’d encountered more potent examples of its kind, however, and the fuzzy-headed sense of tiredness that tugged so insistently at him began to lift as he refused to succumb to it. The demon pulled back, trying another tack, its demeanour now wheedling and seductive.
“I merely wish to help,” it oozed. “The dreamer’s presence is disrupting our world. Two of the most powerful demons in this realm are vying for control of him. You will need help to defeat them.”
Tobias bared his teeth. “Thanks, but I came equipped.”
Torpor’s low, rumbling chuckle—a sound drawn deep from its ferreting in his mind, Tobias suspected, which was not comforting—sounded very like his father’s.
“You cannot trust them, these mortals you bring with you. And it is such a burden, isn’t it? Just relax, and listen to the proposal I would make. All I want is to secure my position against my own kind. I am no warrior, no fighter… would that I were, I might restore some balance here.”
“Do not listen to it,” Justice snapped. “Creatures such as this prey on your trust. It lies!”
Really? You think so?
Tobias sighed irritably. “We’re not here to make deals. We’re just here for Feynriel. And we won’t be bringing him to you, so don’t bother asking.”
The demon wavered a little, seeming momentarily uncertain, and then annoyed.
“You would heed this tiresome little spirit?” it demanded, indicating Justice with a furl of its fingers. “I ask only what it has already taken: a willing merger with a human host.”
Justice positively quivered with indignation. The light spilling through the Fade-held version of Anders’ flesh grew brighter, his face contorted into an expression of outrage that looked unnatural on him. Tobias swallowed heavily, wishing he’d never allowed the healer to make this trip. Would he still be Anders when they got back?
“This is a creature of complacency!” Justice howled, glaring furiously at the demon and then, just as suddenly, turning his anger on Tobias. “Of injustice! My kind and this have been opposed since the beginning of time. I will not let you treat with it!”
Tobias blinked. All right, so he’d never been entirely comfortable with knowing about Justice, but he’d never actually been frightened of the spirit before… never believed that it might really tear his head off because it disagreed with him. Yet, those terrible, inhuman eyes blazed, and it was so hard to separate the rage in that face that was not quite Anders’ from the memory of seeing templars virtually torn in half with the full force of his power… and that roiled on Tobias’ tongue: a metallic, bitter taste, crackling with the spark of potency.
Torpor tasted it too, he imagined, and the demon seemed to jostle impatiently, like a hungry dog, though it gave the impression of being lackadaisically unfazed.
“One wonders,” it said dryly, as Justice continued to scowl at Tobias, “what manner of human wanted to merge with a prig like that?”
Yes. Doesn’t one.
Tobias didn’t take his eyes from the raging, twisted visage he’d rather thought he knew quite well.
“I have no intention of it,” he told Justice quietly. “Do you want to do the honours?”
The spirit looked confused; an expression Tobias wasn’t used to seeing on Anders’ face. He sighed.
He concentrated, biting down hard on his lip until the feel of his power coalesced, magic crawling and sparking in his flesh. The crackle of energy began to swell around his fingers, brighter and purer than it ever was in the waking world and, as Tobias raised his hand, he felt the ripples of the action spread. Everywhere, in every corner of the courtyard, every whisper of the dream that saturated it, more demons were waking. They tasted it, smelled it… felt it, and they came spilling from the cracks in the unreal stones as he released the first bolt of energy, a violent wave of force that sunk itself into Torpor’s ragged frame. The demon squealed, recoiling and almost seeming to shrink as the magic splintered around it. He’d been right, Tobias realised: not a powerful creature at all, though that didn’t stop the demon fighting back.
He ducked, feinting and then diving left as it leapt on him. More magic burst through the Fade’s thickened air; Justice and Merrill, both striking out against the demons that now seemed to be everywhere, flowing towards them like a river of darkness, drawn by the promise of power. They were small things, and mainly insubstantial—little more than sprites or wisps, in some cases—but even the tiniest creatures were annoying, like a horde of mosquitoes whining and biting.
The fight was messy, chaotic… drawn out into a protracted, awkward struggle that felt as if it would never be over until they’d cut down every creature in the Fade. Aveline was at their centre, a whirling force of steel and shield striking and pummelling. Amazing, Tobias thought, what the simple force of will could achieve. She believed hitting them with a sword would work and, here, the sword was an extension of her, a part of the way she saw herself, and so it did work. He supposed it was probably best not to frame it to her in exactly those words, in case she started thinking about it too deeply.
Finally, it was over. The dream of The Gallows was as solid as ever, which meant Feynriel—and all those big, unpleasant demons that were so terribly interested in him—had either not noticed their presence yet, or just didn’t care. Panting lightly, Tobias ran a hand over his hair. There should have been blood all over the place, but there wasn’t. The shades didn’t even have the decency to leave corpses where they fell, and he hated that. It left him feeling unnerved, as if the whole thing was incomplete.
He glanced at the others. Merrill looked strangely focused—far more solemn than she did most of the time, as if she’d aged twenty years in ten minutes—and Aveline was as pale and unsettled as Tobias expected her to be as she sheathed her sword. She peered at the dull shine on the blade as it slid home, her brow wrinkled, as if she too would have preferred the honesty of blood.
Anders… Justice… was completely composed, which was a stark and frankly unpleasant contrast to the ferocity they’d just witnessed from the spirit. There was a joy he seemed to have in ending the demons that Tobias disliked intensely; it wasn’t even the roar of victory, the bloody mist of battle… it was like balm being poured into a hollow wound, as if every death fed some kind of internal score.
He found himself glaring at Justice, squaring up to the spirit wearing the borrowed body it should have had no damn right to, and snapping irritably.
“That would have a bloody sight easier if you could have shut up and let me handle it!”
The electric blue of his eyes dimmed slightly and, for a moment, Tobias almost thought they might turn dark, but there was no trace of Anders in the spirit’s perplexed, stilted response.
“It would have demanded the dreamer’s soul in payment,” Justice said, in that rolling, deep tone that had a slight unnatural echo hanging from it. “You acted well to end it, and I fought beside you.”
“Fine, but if we’d just lied to it, we wouldn’t have had to fight any of them at all!” Tobias growled, raising his voice further than he meant to. “Maker only knows how many more of the bastards smelled that dance. We’d better get a sodding move on before we’re knee-deep in every poxy demon in the fucking Fade, hadn’t we?”
Justice actually took a step backwards. Inasmuch as what he did with Anders’ face was recognisable as human, the spirit seemed bewildered but, when he spoke, a tremor of resentment moved beneath the words.
“I… could not let you parley with such a creature. It is wrong. And you would have… lied?”
He tilted Anders’ head to the side, still frowning in confusion, and Tobias suppressed the urge to shout, swear, and kick things. For a start, most of the blocks of stone in the immediate environment might not be real, but he’d certainly feel it if he smashed his foot into one.
“Yes! Lying is good! Lying makes life a lot easier! You, of all people, should bloody well know that,” he spat, even though he knew he wasn’t even talking to Anders.
You probably can’t even hear me, can you? You’ll never know about any of this. Just wake up with a sore head and wonder what we got up to. I hate you sometimes.
“Hawke,” Merrill said gently, placing her hand on his back.
Tobias stiffened. Whatever was real, or not real, or any combination of the above, he could feel her touch through the leather of his jerkin, and he nodded crisply.
“Right. Yes. Feynriel. Let’s go.”
They moved on in silence.
Of course, there was logic to the dream… at least of a kind. Feynriel’s mind had created the form of The Gallows, and so the things ensnaring him must have lain within it, or so Justice said.
Tobias nurtured a few misgivings about following the spirit but, as they edged ever deeper into the boy’s envisioning of the place—full of side passages, imposing doorways, and forbidding, heavily barred windows—he supposed he was grateful for Justice’s presence.
They came up against few other demons of significance. Oh, the things were distinctly there, snuffling about as a constant pressure on the fringes of his mind, but they were rats at a banquet… the ones that were too weak or cowardly to engage in the tussle Feynriel was caught at the centre of. Only a couple of them attacked; blind spirits of rage and hunger that only knew that they’d sensed life, and were infuriated by it. They were dispatched quickly, and everyone kept moving.
Tobias had never been deep inside The Gallows, and he had no idea how accurate Feynriel’s rendition was. Justice seemed to know the way, and he wondered just how many times Anders and the other members of the Underground had sortied into the fortress. He knew they had, even if the healer never spoke of it, and Tobias found—perhaps because of Justice’s presence, and the roiling, constant annoyance weltering in his own chest—he resented that fact more with every passing second.
Bloody Anders. Bloody mages. Bloody Kirkwall. Bloody… everything. Fuck it.
Perhaps Justice was simply following the scent of demons. That seemed equally possible, especially given the fact that, the deeper into the dream they drew, the more distinctive the pressure against Tobias’ mind became. He felt them, yet wasn’t sure if they felt him. Perhaps they were preoccupied, or perhaps he was beneath their notice.
One can hope, I suppose.
Either way, he didn’t look forward to finding out what was at the end of that oppressive sensation of dark, sinister hunger.
“This way,” Justice stated, gesturing towards a large door that stretched the entire height of the opposite wall, opening like a wound from the corridor’s blank stone wall. “A creature of great iniquity lies within.”
Great iniquity? You can’t just say ‘sodding big demon’, then?
“Oo-oo-ooh,” Tobias quavered, unable to resist, as his fingers curled around the cool iron ring of the handle.
He glanced over his shoulder, momentarily amused by the look of disapproval Aveline and Justice were sharing—probably the only time he’d ever seen Anders’ face have anything in common with the guard-captain’s—but the levity didn’t last.
Something felt wrong. Light enveloped him, and the world seemed to turn soft at the edges, and as Tobias spun, reaching for the door he’d barely stepped through, it was no longer there. Nothing, in fact, was where it had been—and he was entirely alone. He swore, and scrabbled at the stones that were no longer the stones of The Gallows, but the mellow bricks of a dappled courtyard.
Marethari was there, standing beneath a tree in full, sharp green leaf. At first, Tobias thought something had gone wrong enough for her to have followed them into the Fade, and visions flashed behind his eyes of demons pouring out into the aravel, swarming the Dalish camp and leaving none alive.
The keeper, however, was not herself. She had her arms raised, her voice ringing out clearly as she made some speech or other. Snatched words about ‘pride of our people’ and ‘blood of the Dales’ caught Tobias’ ears, even as the fibres of the Fade twisted and nudged at him, and he found himself enveloped in their weft. He was part of Feynriel’s dream, part of the fancies the demon was feeding the boy.
Something else felt different, too. Tobias looked down at himself in dismay. Dark robes hung from his frame, and he touched… hands that were not his to them, puzzled at the heavy folds of fabric where there should been nice, tough, dependable leather. A wide sash encircled his waist, and he fingered the insignia, grimacing as he realised what it meant.
Oh, fuck. I’m the sodding First Enchanter?
It seemed that a part of Feynriel’s mind—that not given over completely to the dream—was fighting back, casting the only anomalous thing here into the role of opposition, waiting for him to argue back against the demons.
Well, chin up. Only time you’re ever going to find yourself in a dress, so you may as well make the most of it!
Tobias frowned. Other shadowy figures peopled the courtyard: other elves, and Dalish, so perhaps Clan Sabrae? Some of the wispy profiles he wandered amongst seemed familiar enough, but he was hardly on first-name terms with most of them.
Tobias stopped pondering when he saw Feynriel. The boy was standing beside Marethari, and the power practically hummed off him, turning the air to a steady thrum. He stood still, his eyes glassy, his face a blank mask of acceptance, and he seemed to be listening to everything the keeper was saying, nodding his head from time to time in agreement.
“Though his features may mark him as human,” the Marethari-creature continued, clapping its hand to Feynriel’s shoulder, “this boy is of our blood. He came to us to learn his heritage… to release to us a power as ancient in lineage as our race….”
Uh-oh. This doesn’t sound good.
Tobias edged through the crowd. Most didn’t seem to notice him, but the few faces that turned his way soon lost their semblance of elveness. They were demons—weak, snivelling little thralls of things, bowing and scraping before the two here that had real power—and they retreated at the sight of him, hissing and glaring with their blank, dead eyes.
He bared his teeth at the nearest one, which seemed to be considering putting up a fight, and allowed a thin crackle of magic to coalesce around his hand. The creature snarled, but pulled back and slunk away, leaving him to face Feynriel, and the demon with its claws sunk into his shoulder.
It glared at him, oily flames leaping in eyes that were so unlike Marethari’s it was a wonder Feynriel could ever have been fooled.
Amazing what people are prepared to believe.
Ugh. I wouldn’t sound good as an elf. Or look good. And are robes really this draughty?
The boy blinked and looked uncertainly at Tobias.
“First Enchanter? What are you doing here?”
“Yes,” the demon in Marethari’s skin grated, tightening its hold on Feynriel’s shoulder. “What, indeed? Would you take this young man to the Circle, traitor? Shut him away from life, rather than let his talent burn free?”
A soft sigh seemed to run through the heavy air, like the shifting ripple of silk.
Ah, so that’s what you want….
The dreamer’s power, unchained, uncontrolled; blazing like a flame that would light up the Fade, and raze the mortal realm to ashes. The feeling of hunger, of teeth whetted on the furious hope of an idea, tore at Tobias’ mind.
He held firm, held out his hand, and hoped fervently that he was about to say the right thing.
“Is this what you want, Feynriel? To turn to the old magic the Dalish forgot?”
The boy’s brow crinkled, his eyes clouding for a moment. “I… I know you,” he murmured, beginning to move away from the demon, until it dug those thin fingers deeper into his shoulder, dragging him roughly back towards it. “You’re—”
“The Circle wants you to submit, child!” the demon growled. “They would chain you, bind you, burn the soul out of you. Are you not better than that? You are our scion, our hope… you are bringing Dalish magic back to the world!”
It glared at Tobias as it spoke, Marethari’s mouth moving out of time with the words, and those black, featureless eyes blistered with dark fire. Tobias bit the inside of his lip.
Happy thoughts, maybe?
He could feel it now. A powerful, violent presence—hard and glassy, like polished stone—pressing in on him; probing the boundaries of this insolent interloper. It took a great deal of his power to resist, and he succeeded in holding it off simply because it was so focused on Feynriel, and on defending its prize from the others of its kind. A demon of pride, he decided, trying to needle the boy’s insecurities and secret hopes.
“With you at our head,” the demon purred, lowering its mouth to Feynriel’s ear, “we will take back our land, our dignity… our immortality. You will be the saviour of your people, boy. Don’t you want that?”
It bared its teeth at Tobias in a self-satisfied challenge, daring him to try and tempt its toy.
Huh. There are two ways this could go. One is definitely not pretty….
“This one would stop you,” it whispered. “The Circle comes to take you. See?”
Feynriel shook his head slowly. “No… no, Serah Hawke saved me from the Circle. They don’t know about me. They’d never…. Why would they send the First Enchanter here?”
Hah. Screwed this one up, didn’t you, Ugly?
Tobias shrugged. “The Circle doesn’t want to stop you, Feynriel. All the mages should work together. Bring freedom for everyone, elf or human… or both, like you. Don’t you think? A brave new world.”
The boy started to brighten at that. “Can… can I do that?”
“I’m sure you can.” Tobias nodded enthusiastically. “Just ask Keeper Marethari how you should use your magic.”
The demon pulled its lips back in a hideous grin of triumph, at almost the same moment as Feynriel’s look of wonder began to fade. He shook his head, seeming troubled and confused, as if trying to recall something important through a mist of murmured lies.
“She…. You said these things—the things I can do—they’d been lost for generations,” he said slowly, turning to face the demon. “You said we would need to control them. That I—”
“You will!” the demon protested, the shell of Marethari’s form flickering slightly as it tried to maintain its grip on the boy. “You are our hope, Feynriel. You—”
“You said it was too dangerous,” he murmured, and then glanced at Tobias. “Why is she telling me to do the things she said would hurt people? Why?”
“Don’t listen to him!” the demon snarled, grabbing at the boy as he twisted away. “The Circle will bind you, trap you, take you away….”
The claws of a dozen demons began to scrabble at the fringes of his borrowed body, but Tobias held his ground. Feynriel was in front of him now, his pale eyes wide and full of fear, the glassy indulgences of pride and selfish hopefulness slipping away like rags.
“What’s happening to me? Tell me!” he pleaded, reaching for the heavy folds of Tobias’ robes.
Tobias moved to catch him by the shoulders, but the boy was insubstantial, like a reflection or a spirit himself.
Not all of him, then. Just one piece of the dream. Bollocks.
“This isn’t real,” he told Feynriel, with as much gravity as he could muster. “Do you understand? You need to wake up.”
The boy shook his head frantically, looking around the courtyard with wide, panicky eyes. The shadowy figures of other elves were moving, their forms changing as they shifted; no longer clanmates and friends, but attenuated, prowling demons, their bodies collations of shadows and hunger as they caught the scent of power fragmenting.
“Wake up, Feynriel,” Tobias repeated, feeling the fibres of the Fade shifting around his own body, taking away the fiction of Orsino’s robes, and finally starting to give him back his own form, and his own voice. “Wake up.”
Feynriel’s eyes widened even further, his mouth slackening in alarm, but it was too late. Everything seemed to change again, in that swirl of light and the plunging, nauseating fall of the world blinking.
And then, the boy was gone, and Tobias was back in the dream of The Gallows. The others were there, and he turned to reassure them—though he had no idea whether they’d even noticed he was gone, because who knew how time moved in the Fade—but they weren’t looking at him. Justice, Merrill, and Aveline were all staring past him, and all but the spirit had an expression of horrified shock.
The sensation of vile, concentrated power burned up Tobias’ spine, and he winced at the feel of the demon reaching out, tasting his mind.
I’m going to regret turning around, aren’t I?
The pride demon had every reason to pretend it looked like someone else. Anything else, really. It was massive, like some monolithic, scaly ogre, all spikes and club-like limbs, but with a dozen eyes set into its pointed head, as black and shiny as beetles.
“Yuck,” Merrill murmured.
Justice blazed with predictable anger, apparently infuriated by the mere fact of the demon’s presence.
“Destroy this creature!” he demanded.
Aveline just looked pale and nauseous, and Tobias sympathised. He rubbed his forehead wearily, tired and sore from being caught at the centre of so many different flavours of magic. The Fade itself, the demons, Justice’s incessant burning ire… everything hurt, and everything took so much effort, and all he wanted was just to lie down and—
No. Because that’s demons again, isn’t it? Maker, I’ll be glad to get home….
“You took my dreamer from me,” the demon rumbled, in an altogether darker and more unpleasant tone than it used to simulate Marethari; a sound like the buzzing of flies and the creaking of rotten timber. “You will pay!”
“Wouldn’t expect anything less,” Tobias said dryly, dropping into a defensive half-crouch.
The thing looked far too much like an ogre for his liking. Memories that had been behaving themselves better than they had for years started to surface, and their bitter taste made him itch to see some blood spilled… though preferably not his own.
The demon chuckled raspily. “You think it that easy, mortal? You have the arrogance to assume you can merely fight me? You assume you have allies?”
Tobias frowned. It… did seem harder to move than it ought. And no one else was exactly rushing to his aid.
“And what would it take to turn you, hmm?”
It spoke, but the voice grew low and soft, and the words seeped into Tobias’ mind without passing through his ears. He closed his eyes, fighting it, but that was a mistake, because you are Serah Hawke, are you not? The problem fixer, the man the low- and high-born alike come to when they want their dirty little troubles mended. You always knew you were too big for Lothering, too big for Ferelden. No… no piss-poor little barbarian mudhole for you, messere. They all need you, don’t they? Need your wit, your expertise. Your skill. You’re clever, aren’t you? Quick and ruthless, and I can make sure you get everything you deserve.
Why wait? Why content yourself with crumbs? This estate… the old Amell house… it will be a palace, and you the prince at its centre.
The jewel-like glimmers of bright colours flashed in the darkness of Tobias’ mind. Huge rooms festooned in tapestries, filled with people. Parties, balls… all the things Leandra wanted to bring back from her halcyon childhood. Fine clothes, good food, and his mother, smiling as she hung from his arm, propelling him past successions of noblemen: smiling, because he had made it possible. He had provided for them all, and restored their name. Made it happen….
I hate parties.
Tobias forced his eyes open, aware of the demon’s irritated hiss. He felt dizzy and groggy, like the world was swaying around him.
“No matter,” the creature purred. “You are not alone.” It gestured to Merrill, with a flex of one claw that almost seemed tender. “This little elf, with her innocent face. She already knows the power of an offer such as mine. That much, I can see….” Its dark, shiny gaze roved over her, like the scuttling of a dozen insects. “So? Would you take what I offered the boy? Scion of the Dalish? Saviour of elvenkind?”
Merrill blinked. “C-Can you… can you do that?”
Tobias groaned inwardly. Wonderful. Great job, Merrill.
“I am the greatest of my kind!” the creature snarled. “Whatever tricks your little pet has taught you will pale in comparison.”
“Merrill!” Aveline protested, as the elf moved forwards.
“Bring the power of the Dalish back to the world,” the demon crooned, as Merrill drew closer, her eyes oddly unfocused. “Give your people back their dignity, their honour… the Eluvian is only the first step….”
What’s an Eluvian?
Merrill turned and gave him a helpless look, her eyes wide and her lips trembling, and Tobias knew he’d lost her.
“I… I cannot put you ahead of the fate of my people,” she stammered. “I’m sorry, Hawke.”
“Traitor!” Justice bellowed, as the world flashed white, and the dream began to splinter.
The demon roared, and charged.
It was a hard, vicious fight, all the bitterer for the fact Merrill anticipated so many of their moves. Tobias even found himself hesitating to strike her, afraid of what a death in the Fade would mean. Would she wake Tranquil, or perhaps not even wake at all? The thought of inflicting either fate on someone as irrepressibly alive as Merrill seemed incredibly wrong but—when she threw him to the ground with a spell that felt like a fist of solid rock—he managed to get past the issue.
Like the demon—which they finally felled, with Justice roaring out his rage and vindictive fury in a wall of searing blue flame—she didn’t leave a body behind. She just… went… and Tobias had to struggle not to dwell on the questions that followed.
“What in the Maker’s name just—”
“Shh.” He held up a hand, silencing Aveline’s indignation. “There’s no time.”
“That demon could have had any one of us,” he said shortly. “Now, it’s done. Leave it, and let’s just find the boy and get the hell out of here.”
Tobias didn’t wait for her response. He hunched his shoulders and stalked away, scowling at the subtly shifting walls around them.
Wherever the rest of Feynriel was hiding, his dream was starting to fracture.
Back to Justice in Surrender: Contents
After the day Tobias had been having, heading to The Hanged Man felt like going home.
His crotch was still sore, he was knackered, and all he really wanted to do was sleep for a week in a warm feather bed, but—since the only other option was going back to Gamlen’s, where there was a distinct lack of feathers, not to mention the added inconvenience of Leandra’s fussing—he decided there was absolutely no harm in a swift half or three before retiring. Besides, he rather wanted to forget the past few days completely.
Tobias slunk into the tavern and made for Varric’s suite, following the sound of drunken laughter and someone playing a particularly shrill pipe whistle.
Oh, Andraste’s tits. Not minstrels. Please let there not be minstrels….
There were minstrels. The doors to the suite stood wide open, and their performance spilled into the adjoining chamber. A man, with the offending pipe whistle, sat cross-legged on the floor, his vividly patched clothes contrasting with his shaven head and thick, dark moustache. A girl in matching colours—jewel-like reds and purples, her dress artfully cut to show off her shape without exposing too much skin—danced beside him, holding a tambourine in one elegant hand, and managing to catch the coins people threw into it as she jiggled.
Tobias edged around the crowd, many of whom were clapping in time, and headed towards the end of the suite that held Varric’s table. The fires were roaring, and the whole place smelled of sweat, beer, and meat stew.
The dwarf was, as usual, holding court, and Tobias noticed Fenris slouched at his right hand, a bottle of wine cradled protectively in the crook of his arm. It surprised him to see Anders there too and, even as a smile began to curl his lips, he stopped dead and stared.
What in the Maker’s name is she doing here?
Of all people, he certainly hadn’t expected to see Aveline sitting at Varric’s table, nursing a pint, and Tobias almost turned around and walked straight out again, but it was too late. He’d been spotted.
“Hawke!” Varric called cheerfully, lifting a goblet at him. “I was hoping you’d be in.”
Just my bloody luck….
Tobias swore inwardly, but plastered a smile to his face and moved over to join the throng. Discomfort aside, he still noticed the way Anders glanced up at the mention of his name, and that brief moment of gazes meeting and fleeting smiles touching faces that otherwise pretended blankness did warm him, however much he wanted to ignore it.
“Evening,” Tobias said as he arrived at the table and, folding his arms, jerked his head in the direction of the travelling minstrels. “They staying, are they?”
Varric grimaced. “I owed somebody a favour, all right? Here, get that down you. After the third one, it doesn’t seem so bad.”
He poured a measure of something that looked greasy and dark into one of his flashy glass goblets, and pushed it along the table.
Tobias took the drink and tried not to waste time wondering how it would mix with Lusine’s cheap brandy. He knocked back a mouthful as he folded to the bench, taking the empty seat one down from Anders, and was pleasantly surprised to discover it tasted faintly sweet, with a hint of perfume, like dark Antivan wine.
He slipped a glance along the table towards Aveline, and raised the goblet at her.
“Mon capitain,” he said teasingly, tossing off a haphazard salute. “Haven’t seen much of you recently.”
She eyed him suspiciously over her pint, the fingers of one large, broad hand perched delicately over its rim, as if she was afraid someone might try and spike her with something when she wasn’t looking. That wasn’t likely, and not just because it was Varric’s suite. Even before her rather unorthodox promotion to Guard-Captain, Aveline had been an easily recognisable—and very formidable—figure in Lowtown. Now, she might have a different insignia on her chest, and her armour might be a bit shinier, but that didn’t mean as much to the tavern’s clientèle as the sword at her hip… or the continuing legend of her reputation. Tobias would have wagered that at least three of the sodden regulars in the dimly lit bar out front would swear they’d once seen her knock a man’s teeth out with just her forehead.
“No.” She narrowed her eyes, but there wasn’t so much hostility in her face as weary resignation. “Well, are you surprised? You’ve been generating enough chaos to keep me busy, and confined to my office.”
Tobias raised his brows and tried to affect innocence. “What, me?”
Aveline’s gaze reminded him horribly of his mother’s. She had that same gift for spearing him on twin shafts of bright honesty… and that was a horrible place to be.
“You know perfectly well what I mean, Hawke. Everything you’ve been up to; and it’s been more than just scraps in the back alleys and a few dubious imports recently, hasn’t it? All that business with the Merchants’ Guild and those traders from Orzammar, now the qunari and their poison gas—that business with the Harimann estate—and every single time, your name always seems to crop up.”
“Oh, play nicely, children,” Varric admonished, as Fenris cracked open another bottle of wine. “Don’t make Papa come over there and spank you.”
Tobias grinned, aware of the snort of laughter at his elbow. He slipped Anders a glance, enjoying the bright-eyed mirth on the healer’s face.
“You’d enjoy it far too much,” Tobias told Varric laconically, without quite looking away.
Anders’ smile spread into a flat-out dirty smirk, and he shook his head disbelievingly, burying the grin in his cup of wine.
For all the abuses it had suffered over the past week, Tobias’ groin still managed a half-hearted contemplation of tightening, and he grudgingly returned his attention to Aveline.
“Maybe it’s your fault for keeping tabs on me,” he said lightly, smiling innocently at her terse sigh.
“I’m glad I have been,” she snapped. “And not just for your mother’s sake. How is she, anyway? I’ve been so busy, I haven’t had much chance to call in. I know she was finding it hard, what with Carver gone, and—”
Yes, Mother’s beloved baby, who is twice the son I’ll ever be, off fulfilling his shiny new duty. Thank you for the reminder.
Tobias winced, his good humour fading a little. “She’s all right. Worries about him, but then she would anyway, whatever he was doing. It’s good, really. Gives him the chance to be his own man.”
He peered into his goblet, because it was better than trying to lie while looking at Aveline’s face, which was altogether far too full of strength and independence, and memories which he never wanted to relive again.
“She’ll be better once we get out of Gamlen’s place. Won’t be long now.”
“Yes.” Aveline sipped her ale thoughtfully. “That’s another thing. I heard about the estate… and your new connections at the viscount’s office. The Keep’s been buzzing ever since you stormed in there. I’d have come to watch the fireworks if I hadn’t been out inspecting patrols.”
He smiled uneasily. The suite’s fatty candlelight was ripe with soot and smoke, and the noise of the minstrels’ performance was becoming increasingly intrusive.
“There, uh, there weren’t really fireworks. You know how many times we lodged that paperwork? I mean, if Seneschal Bran didn’t have it in for me—”
“You got it, though, right?” Aveline hunched her shoulders, and the dark reddish brown of her cloak and neckerchief—like the rich auburn of her hair, a sharp contrast to her highly polished guardsman’s uniform—made her seem vivid against the thin veneer of opulence in the suite; a further emphasis of the fact that she belonged here even less now than ever. “The estate? They’re hardly talking about anything else in Hightown. You’ve turned the whole place on its ear, and you haven’t even moved in yet.”
Tobias grimaced. “You’re well-informed. That’s your job, though, I suppose.”
“Yes, it is. And don’t think I can look the other way if you do something stupid,” she said, her voice low and her tone aridly serious.
Oh, go and preach to the beggars, you patronising cow.
“Wouldn’t expect you to,” he said dully, fingers tapping at the gaudy glass stones on the side of the goblet. “Anyway,” he added, looking up at her dispassionately, and raising his voice just enough to encompass the rest of the table, “I’m a legitimate businessman now. Well, practically. Worked out a deal on an interest in a mine north of the city, just this afternoon.”
Varric broke off from whatever he’d been talking to Fenris about, and shot Tobias a look of surprise. “Really? You struck a deal with Hubert? And you didn’t kill him?”
Tobias wrinkled his nose. “You could have warned me about what an annoying git he was.”
“Must have slipped my mind,” Varric said, with an unimpeachable smile.
Tobias snorted, and gave a brief, slightly cleaned-up summary of the business proposition Hubert had offered him… neglecting to mention the bit about the threat of extortion.
“So, all you’ve got to do is clear it out?” Aveline looked uncertain. “But you don’t know what’s down there, do you?”
Tobias shrugged, chugged back the rest of his drink, and stifled a belch. “Listen, how bad can it be? After the sodding week I’ve had, it can… it can be bloody demons, or— or things made out of rocks, or whatever. Doesn’t matter. I bounce, me. Bounce right back. Bam,” he added, slapping a hand flat on the table for emphasis.
“That’s not bouncing,” Anders pointed out helpfully. “That’s just going ‘splat’. It would probably be better if you didn’t do that. You know… when fighting unknown foes?”
Tobias turned to give him a withering look, but he was smiling that unconscionably attractive smile, laughter dancing in his eyes, and there wasn’t much use in pretending to be cross.
He chuckled dryly and looked away, and let his attention drift to the round of top-ups Varric was making with his pitcher.
It must be obvious to everyone, he supposed, as he held up his glass for a refill. How things were… the way he just sat here, making pathetic puppy-eyes at a man he couldn’t manage to bed. They were probably all laughing at him behind his back and, as Tobias considered that, the frustration and embarrassment welled up in him, and the suite’s smoky warmth started to burn against his cheeks.
The minstrels were still playing, and the conversation had moved on apace without him. Varric was furnishing them with a highly embellished tale allegedly about Isabela’s latest attempt to con a ship out of some poor unsuspecting buccaneer… which had apparently resulted in a bar brawl that had engulfed half the docks.
Aveline snorted. “Yes. I know. We had to dedicate four shifts of men to clearing up the mess.”
Tobias slumped back in his seat, drank, and was, just for once, happy to be ignored. By almost everyone, anyway.
He glanced up at the sound of Anders delicately clearing his throat, and he tried nominally not to breathe in the scent of boiled elfroot and wet dog that clung to that sodding coat, or to watch the long, pale fingers idling on the rim of a cup still half-full of the same wine it had held all evening… or to meet those dark, inquisitive eyes.
“Still, you smell… nice,” Anders said dryly. “Rose oil again?”
Oh, bloody wonderful.
Tobias stifled a groan of frustration, and braced himself for the inevitable lecture, even as he willed the tide of a blush not to crest his cheeks. Out of everything, the very last thing he needed was for Anders to find out exactly how he’d spent his afternoon.
“No. Almost definitely not. Well… maybe.”
It was a difficult thing to admit, this business of not being able to lie to him. All Anders had to do was give him that look, and Tobias somehow found the truth spilling out of him, the omissions and the half-fibs tripping over themselves as they scuttled away like beetles.
He wanted to say it wasn’t the healer’s business, and it wasn’t… but they were friends, weren’t they? If that was true, he had to be able to take the kind of gentle ribbing from Anders that he would have done from Varric, or even Carv, if he’d still been around.
That didn’t make it easier, of course.
“Ah.” Anders nodded sagely. “Doesn’t look like it was much fun. You look… peaky. You all right?”
The word was out too fast, a clipped and desperate response that meant the exact opposite of what it said, and Tobias quickly realised he’d given himself away. He snuck a sidelong look at Anders, watching the slow, considering, tight-lipped nod as the healer took a swallow of his wine.
Tobias winced. “‘Hmm’? What’s ‘hmm’?”
Anders sniffed eloquently, lowering his voice as the table erupted into another ripple of laughter at one of Varric’s jokes.
“Is it clap, drip, or hot itch? Because two of those just need a salve, but—”
Tobias closed his eyes, willing himself not be hearing this.
“—otherwise the infection can really take hold, and you’ll just feel worse, not to mention complications, so—”
“I’m fine,” he said through gritted teeth.
“You don’t look it,” Anders retorted quietly, still in that same infuriatingly calm, soft tone, looking straight ahead all the while, as if they were simply talking about the weather. “You’re pale, sweaty… walking like a hobbled goat. And don’t try to bullshit me, Hawke. I see enough cases in a week that I can tell one from thirty paces. Look, I know there are worse places than the Rose in the city, but all the same—”
The discomforted embarrassment congealed itself into a blade of nausea that speared Tobias’ gut, and he put his goblet down abruptly.
“Anders, I’d really rather not talk ab—”
“Well, that’s tough, isn’t it? Because if it’s clap and it hasn’t been treated—”
“It’s been treated,” he snapped. “All right? I… I’m fine.”
There was a beat of silence. Aveline appeared to be explaining to Fenris why the matter of his occupancy of Danarius’ mansion was a cause for concern among Hightown’s residents—not for the first time—and Varric was busy brushing away her complaints with a suave hand wave and a barrel of jovial excuses.
Anders frowned. “Ooh. So, clap, then? And you went back to…?”
“This afternoon. Yes.”
“And you saw Lusine about it?”
“Ah. Did she get Gabrielle to—?”
Tobias blanched, then tried to hide his surprise… and then realised how pointless that was. His shoulders slumped.
Shit. Shitting, fucking, bloody…. She’s part of the Underground, isn’t she? There isn’t a sodding mage in this town that he doesn’t know, and he’s going to hear all about it. Every single bloody detail. Oh, hell. What did I do to deserve this?
“Yes. She fixed it,” he said abruptly. “Lusine owed me a favour anyway.”
That wasn’t entirely true, but it was good enough. At least they were square now, and that was what counted. Heat climbed steadily up the back of his neck, and humiliation scalded his cheeks.
“Fixed it?” Anders winced as he sipped his wine. “Ouch. I’ve heard Madam’s preferred method for that. Bet you’re sore.”
You’re enjoying this, aren’t you, you bastard?
Tobias gritted his teeth and said nothing, fingers tapping against the sides of his goblet while Anders appeared to reflect on this new knowledge.
“You know, if you want me to—”
“No!” he blurted. “No. Maker, no, I…. Look, it’s fine. All right? It’s all… fine.”
“If you say so.” Anders smirked as he went back to his half cup of wine. “All the same, I admit I’m… surprised.”
“By what?” Tobias asked bitterly. “My boundless stupidity? My selfish hedonism in the face of all common sense?”
He turned to glare at the healer, bruised and chastened by Anders’ evident enjoyment of this particular torture. Anders just met his gaze calmly, with a quick flick of those dark brows, and an infuriatingly smug curl at the corner of his mouth.
“That, yes… and the fact you have to pay,” he said mildly.
Tobias gritted his teeth again, harder, and scowled. A self-satisfied smile twisted Anders’ lips and, ordinarily, Tobias might have found some delight in that. It was, however, difficult to do when all he really wanted was to smack the man in the jaw.
You are, you smug sod. You’re a twenty-four carat bastard… and I still wouldn’t change you for the world.
“No lecture, then?” he managed, unclenching his teeth just enough to scrape the words out. “No telling off because I might have given the game away? Revealed myself? Revealed myself to be an apostate, I mean,” he added, as Anders opened his mouth in a preparatory leer.
Anders shrugged, the feathers at his shoulders shifting like soft sand, and the grubby smile faded. “Is there a point? You’ll do what you’re going to do. Even if I think it’s a bad idea, I can’t stop you.”
Tobias slouched back in his seat, trying not to show how deep that one cut. It stung like a rejection, and yet packed with it the dull, aching thud of disappointment.
“S’pose it doesn’t mean I should stop trying, though,” Anders said eventually, in a contemplative sort of tone. He took a sip of his wine and shot Tobias a sly grin. “Come by the clinic tomorrow. I’ll, um, get you something to deal with the bruising.”
He chuckled to himself as he wrapped his fingers around his cup. “Well, ‘thank you, Anders’ would be nice, but never mind.”
Tobias glowered at him and, further along the table, Varric let out a guffaw of laughter at the punch line of one of his own stories. It had apparently been a good one; even Fenris was smiling… though that could potentially have been the wine.
Tobias finished his second drink and reflected on how strangely pleasant and convivial the evening was, despite the caterwauling of the minstrels, and this odd gathering of people who, in the main, could barely stand each other. He wondered why Anders was there; whether it was his bloody-minded stubbornness, or the kick he seemed to get out bating both Fenris and Aveline that had prevented him from leaving.
Maybe he was waiting for me.
Tobias tried to shake those thoughts, to lock them up and tuck them tightly away where they couldn’t do any further damage, but it was too late.
Nevertheless, they sat, and drank, and talked, and the evening passed well enough. It was certainly better than being at home, or being pressed under the weight of paperwork to do with the estate, or any further errand-running for Viscount Dumar.
He was almost feeling good when Merrill lurched into the suite, wide-eyed and rain-spattered, scattering chairs and patrons alike in her wake.
“Daisy?” Varric was the first out of his seat, the laughter dying on his face as he looked at her. “What’s wrong?”
The elf lurched across the room towards them, the firelight glancing off the tattoos that criss-crossed her face and making them look like fresh and vivid scars over skin whitened by fear.
“Oh, thank the Creators,” she murmured, those great leaf-green eyes flitting over the assembled group. “Hawke… I was looking for you everywhere….”
Tobias had already risen, and he gestured to her to sit, noting the way those long, thin hands were knotted in the shapeless grey cloak she had wound around her skinny frame.
“Well, you’ve found me. What’s so urgent? Sit down and—”
Merrill shook her head. “I can’t. You’ve got to come. Now. Please.”
He frowned. She was breathing hard, and he guessed she’d gone to Gamlen’s house first, found he wasn’t there—that’ll have pleased Mother, no doubt—and then run almost all the way to the tavern. What reason could she possibly have had for that? She looked frightened, but unhurt, and if there’d been serious trouble breaking out in the alienage, some hint of it would probably have spilled over. Proper riots were few and far between, but Merrill had been living there long enough not to get excited about a minor scuffle. That meant something bad was happening.
“Come where?” he asked, reaching out to put a hand on her shoulder.
Even beneath the voluminous cloak, Tobias could feel her shaking, and he glanced back at Anders. He apparently understood, rising to his feet and coming to Merrill’s other side, looking her over with that quick efficiency he reserved for patients.
“What’s happened, Merrill? What d’you need Hawke for?”
“F-Feynriel,” she gasped, replying to Anders, but fixing her eyes on Tobias, pinioning him with that glassy green gaze, as bright and fragile as spring buds. “The boy you saved from the slavers and brought to the People. The mage. He’s dying.”
Her words were breathy, panted whispers, but they cut through the suite’s thick air like steel. Tobias was faintly aware of the sudden silence… that intense quiet that comes only from a large group of people all trying to pretend they’re not listening to something that doesn’t concern them.
“All right, you gawpers,” Varric said loudly, ushering the nearest group of rubber-neckers towards the door. “Party’s over. Everybody out. My friends are tired, and I need my beauty sleep. Go on. Move it!”
He set to clearing the suite—which went much quicker once Fenris unfolded behind him and glared at a few people—and barring the doors, while Tobias tried to coax an explanation from an increasingly tearful Merrill.
“What do you mean, dying? How can he be—”
“Hawke,” Anders reprimanded softly, taking the elf by the elbow. “Merrill? Is Feynriel still with the Dalish?”
She sniffed and nodded. “I’ve been up at the camp all day. Keeper Marethari sent for his mother, but it’s not helping. He’s… he’s trapped in a nightmare. He can’t wake, can’t control his powers. Marethari said Hawke might be his last chance. I came to get you as quickly as I could,” she added, looking imploringly at Tobias, unshed tears trembling in her eyes. “Will you help him?”
Well, there wasn’t much refusing that.
Tobias sighed, aware of the weight of five gazes on him, and a whole breadth of expectation. “Fine. Let’s go. Sundermount, you said?”
She nodded, though the relief washing over her face didn’t push away the fear. Things were obviously bad indeed.
“I’m coming with you,” Anders stated flatly.
Tobias glanced at him, but the words were an undeniable refusal of any possible challenge. The thudding of leather packs and the creak of a chest opening in the corner of the suite heralded Varric bringing Bianca out from her velvet-lined resting place, and the dwarf all but cooed as he caressed the crossbow’s stock.
“Well, you never know, right?” he said, looking up with a fleeting trace of guilt on his face, like a man caught scratching himself in polite company.
“For once, I agree with Varric.” Aveline drew herself even further to attention than was her normal default posture, and tossed Tobias a steel-eyed glare. “It’s not safe to travel the coast paths at this time of night. Anyway, if you’re going to cause havoc, I might as well be there to keep an eye on you… just like old times, right?”
“Right,” Tobias echoed, not sure that this was a good thing.
It’s turning into quite the little social party, isn’t it?
Alone amongst his companions, Fenris hadn’t bothered to make a declaration of his support. He was simply waiting by the door, his face a taut mask except for his eyes, which glimmered with the anticipation of a hound scenting blood.
Tobias patted Merrill gingerly on the shoulder. “Right, then. Shall we, um, shall we go?”
There didn’t seem to be much point in suggesting anything else.
It was a long, dark, chilly route up to the Dalish camp. Several times, Tobias felt foolish for carting the others along with him. If what Merrill said was true, there probably wasn’t much anyone except Anders could do for the boy… although he did like the idea of having friends with him when he stepped into the camp. The Dalish were extremely standoffish at the best of times, and the handful of occasions he’d been there—despite the cordial hospitality with which the Keeper had received him—had always left him wondering whether he was going to come away with all his limbs intact.
Merrill explained more of the story as they walked, relaying Keeper Marethari’s words, and what she’d seen for herself as they tried to help the boy.
Feynriel’s gifts were complex. Of course, no mage was ever merely a mage; everyone had his or her own degrees of talent, and in different areas. Anders was a spectacular healer, Merrill—the blood thing excepted, Tobias thought with a shudder—excelled at drawing on the power of the earth around her, and Bethany had possessed an affinity for ice and water, like their father, while he was basically good at smashing stuff, and useless at anything intricate or complicated. Naturally, talent, as with so much in life, was not fair.
However, few could do what Feynriel could.
“He… I don’t know… he changes the Fade,” Merrill said, a trifle breathless as Kirkwall receded into the night behind them, a nest of vipers and winking lights in the gloom, and the mountain reared up ahead. “Forms it around himself.”
Tobias frowned as his feet bit into the sandy, scree-laden path. “That’s what everyone does. Even non-mages. When you dream—”
“No, I don’t mean like that. It’s… it’s an incredible power. He doesn’t just dream, he shapes it. Makes it real, inside the Fade. Makes it happen,” she insisted, thin fingers worrying at her cloak. “You can feel it. I felt it, when it started, and Marethari was so worried… only it was getting better, and then it started getting so much worse, and—”
“What are we meant to do about it?” Tobias asked bluntly, intending to stop her going into another panic. The reproachful look Anders shot him suggested he’d probably been a bit too blunt, so he tried to minimise the damage. “I mean, how am I going to be able to help?”
Merrill turned those great, quavering eyes on him, and he was unsettled by the way the darkness played across her face, throwing strange patterns of light and shadow over her skin, and obscuring the specifics of the pinched, guarded expression she wore.
“The Keeper has an idea,” she said quietly. “But we can’t do it alone. Anyway, Feynriel trusts you. He talks of you often, says how much he owes you for saving him from the slavers, and for not turning him over to the Circle.”
Fenris had been striding along in long-legged silence, but he snorted at that.
“Hm. Even though it would have been the better place for him?”
Anders scowled at the elf. “The fact you can even say that demonstrates you’re either ignorant beyond belief or crueller than anyone credits you for. I never have worked out which.”
Fenris curled his lip, the thin moonlight glinting on his hair, and tracing the lines of his brands in an eerie bluish grey. “You know nothing of cruelty, mage.”
Whoops. Best stand back and wait for the explosion, then….
Varric sighed wearily as Anders drew breath for what would probably have been a particularly vitriolic riposte. “Ladies, please. Enough. You know, this is why you two never get invited to the swanky parties. At least, not at the same time.”
The healer relented, his mouth snapping shut with a taut kind of finality, though he did glower quite impressively. Fenris muttered something that might well have been in Arcanum, but said nothing to the rest of the group.
Tobias wondered whether he ought to have weighed in, but he wasn’t entirely sure he disagreed with Fenris. Maybe Feynriel would have been better off in the Circle… unless he’d have died there anyway. In that case, rather a free death than one in fear and imprisonment, he supposed.
The first suggestions of Dalish campfires were beginning to leaven the darkness on the ridge ahead of them. They’d made good time, and without running into any trouble.
Tobias wished he could believe that augured well for whatever would come next but, as the lean figure of a Dalish scout—complete with longbow and haughty frown—appeared to melt out of the rocks and move towards them, he found he doubted anything would be that simple.
Back to Justice in Surrender: Contents
The following months seemed to improve things, in their way.
No worse for wear after his encounter, Tobias healed. Life continued much as it had been before the Deep Roads, but with the comparative security of wealth behind him. Days and weeks were lost in a comfortable minutiae of letters to the Viscount’s office, bureaucratic replies and copies of more letters from the seneschal’s assistants… and Varric’s frequent assurances that the buyer he had lined up for the best of the artefacts from the ancient thaig was ‘due from Orzammar any day’.
Still, that was fine. Leandra appeared to be recovering from Carver’s departure; all the more eager to fuss over Tobias now he was the only child she had left to coddle. He bore it with gritted teeth, and as much grace as he could manage, and held onto the thought that, once they did reclaim the Amell estate, it might even be big enough to misplace her in.
There was still work. Still people who wanted certain delicate jobs done… as there always were in Kirkwall. Tobias hadn’t sprouted enough pride to turn his nose up at them, especially now they were asking for him by name. He could pick and choose, though, and that was a nice change.
The only dead end he kept hitting—well, all right, one of the only two dead ends—was the Underground. Every enquiry he made, every word tossed into a darkened corner in The Hanged Man or the back end of The Gallows, and it got him nowhere. Nothing. No one would even admit to knowing a man named Elias, though the denials stank of falsehood.
Tobias didn’t know what to do about it. Openly showing his hand after so long hiding what he was did not come naturally. Malcolm’s voice seemed to gnaw at the back of his mind, murmuring warnings and reproaches. Admittedly, there were plenty of people in the city who knew Tobias for an apostate, but he didn’t relish the thought of the knowledge becoming widespread, especially not with the possibility of reclaiming the estate still on the table. And he definitely wasn’t prepared to push the information out there, where it could end up being used against him, simply in order to trade it for answers to questions he shouldn’t be asking.
No. If he wanted to know what Anders was involved in, he ought to approach Anders himself… which was a problem. He hardly seemed willing to talk.
That, of course, led to the second dead end: an infuriating, maddening brick wall of a man whom, despite everything, Tobias couldn’t quite bring himself to leave alone.
Anders drove him crazy. There was no point denying it… and it wasn’t just, as Carver had so eloquently put it on that Void-taken night at the chantry, like that.
It was, Tobias admitted ruefully, everything. The contradictions, the hidden things… the power. The more Anders had kept himself withdrawn, shut up in his clinic and barely seeing sunlight, the more fascinating he became. Equally, with every crumb of information he dropped about Justice, Amaranthine, the Wardens, or any of the other myriad things he seemed to so hate mentioning, Tobias wanted to dig for more.
It seemed, over time, as if his wish was gradually being granted.
Anders appeared, if not exactly to loosen up, then at least to make more of an effort at not keeping himself in total isolation. As good as his word, he even started showing up at The Hanged Man every so often. They all gravitated there, Tobias and his eclectic band of sometime followers… something about the attitude of the place, he supposed. Like Varric said, the bar was special.
The beer was dreadful, most of the wenches were ugly, and on any given night of the week you could find at least a dozen criminals, reprobates and mercenaries getting steadily bladdered at the rough wooden tables, but it had its charms. More than that, it was a space apart. Tobias had no idea how many bribes Varric had been required to pay for the privilege, but the city guard rarely looked any further than the front door, and none of the big rackets had a foothold inside, either.
You were just as likely to see Coterie faces drinking at the bar as any other outfit, or any number of independent mercenaries or… contractors, as Tobias liked to term it, foreign or Marcher. Yet, in here, their loyalties were their concern and no one else’s. Turf fights stayed outside, and any business transactions happened in the strict privacy of back rooms. If there were fights, the clientele would generally study their drinks with intense interest until the noise died down, whereupon Corff, the barkeep, would tut gently about the mess and toss a bit of sand over the bloodstains. It took at least three stabbings and a decapitation before the patrons of The Hanged Man would make much of a fuss.
So much more laid-back, Tobias thought, than the taverns further downtown, where the dockworkers and the labourers drank, and everything was divided by the intense loyalties of which street you lived on, or who was the better Wallop player.
Often, they’d take over Varric’s suite for the night, and the dwarf would get to play the magnanimous host and sprawl back in his chair, telling stories that made Merrill’s eyes grow even more enormous. Isabela would be there, smelling of cheap ale and whiskey, and Fenris, knocking back drink after drink that, very gradually, would start to erode his aura of portentous brooding. Occasionally, even Aveline might look in, and they’d all pull themselves a little more upright and smile glassily, then breathe a sigh of relief when she went. (Tobias respected the woman, but she cast a damnable pall over a great deal of his business, and she’d never made any secret of her disapproval, which annoyed him immensely. He also struggled, even now, to look at her without remembering the flight from Lothering, and all the things he’d so badly wanted to leave along that blighted roadside.)
They were good times, made better by the fact that things were truly looking up. It might not all be sunshine and roses just yet, but life was finding balance. Tobias was glad of it. And then, into all that, in would walk Anders, with his terrible coat and his tired eyes and—Tobias was a little surprised to discover—a wicked, filthy sense of humour and an ease among people that he’d never expected to see. He’d thought, he supposed, the man would be timid, awkward… unused to company. Maybe that he’d brood and keep himself at a distance, the way Fenris did (at least until the second bottle), but he couldn’t have been more wrong.
For a start, he knew a lot more dirty jokes than Tobias expected… and some of them were apparently drawn from personal experience.
“I’ve got it!” Anders exclaimed suddenly, on one particularly boozy evening, thumping the table with the flat of his palm then pointing at Isabela. “The Pearl, in Denerim. Wasn’t it?”
Tobias frowned, catching at the loose threads of conversation that had been floating around him like jetsam. Ah, yes… Isabela had mentioned that she felt as if she knew Anders from somewhere. There had been a general muttering of laughter, and the suspicion voiced that this was merely one of her varied pick-up techniques. Varric had chastised her for a lack of originality—but it now seemed there was actually a grain of truth to it.
She held her mouthful of ale, eyes widening and cheeks puffed out for a moment, then swallowed and nodded emphatically.
“Yes! You know, you’re right….” A predatory grin curled her lips as she tipped her head to the side, gold jewellery clinking, and regarded Anders in open appraisal. “Mmm. It is you.”
“What pearl?” Merrill piped up, from the end of the table. “Who had pearls? I don’t think I’ve ever seen Isabela wearing pearls.”
“Only as a necklace,” Varric muttered into his pint.
“Drink your beer, Daisy,” he said kindly.
The elf looked confused, thin fingers curled around her mug. “Did I miss something dirty?”
Tobias, legs stretched out and feet up on a spare chair, chuckled. He most definitely wasn’t going to be the one to explain it to her. Besides, he was distracted by the knowing smirk Anders was giving Isabela and—as he brought his mug to his lips—busy attempting to convince himself that the twinge at the base of his chest was utterly, definitely, not jealousy.
Anders’ smirk widened into a flat-out dirty grin. “Yeah. You really liked that girl with the griffon tattoos, didn’t you? What was her name?”
Isabela smiled and traced a finger suggestively around the rim of her mug. “Ah… the Lay Warden. She was special. And you….”
The finger was raised, levelled at Anders, and then wriggled lewdly. It never failed to amaze Tobias just how obscene the woman could make virtually any simple word or gesture seem, purely by intonation or expression. It was probably a gift.
“…you were that runaway mage who did the electricity thing. I remember that.” Isabela picked up her pint, took a sip, then sighed happily. “Mm. That was nice.”
Tobias coughed, ale dangerously close to making a painful exit out of his nose. He’d almost mastered his splutters when Merrill frowned, evidently more confused than ever.
“What electricity thing? I saw one of those mages we fought in the caverns up in Sundermount use an electricity spell. That wasn’t very nice. Took weeks for my eyebrows to grow back.”
Varric put a hand to his forehead and rubbed wearily at his brow, shoulders vibrating a little until he got control of his sniggers.
“Oh, it’s not the same, sweet thing,” Isabela said, leering at the elf over her pint. “Not the same at all.”
“Isn’t it? Oh. But—”
“Here you go, Daisy.” Varric topped up her ale from the earthenware pitcher that sat in the centre of the table. “I’ll explain it to you when you’re older.”
Merrill’s clear, soft brow furrowed, and she looked as if she might protest, but then she lapsed into mildly perplexed silence. Isabela lifted her greasy mug to knowingly curved lips, dark eyes fixed on Anders with a stare part nostalgic warmth and part speculative hunger, and chuckled to herself as she sipped.
He just grinned, and went back to nursing the same half-empty tankard he’d had all evening, gaze dropping to its scummy innards and pale fingers worrying at the handle. Tobias tried nominally not to stare, but now there was a whole new edge to that sharp profile, backlit by warm firelight and torches smouldering smokily in their sconces. He didn’t think he’d be able to imagine Anders in a whorehouse—for what else could they possibly have been talking about?—especially given how disparaging he was of Kirkwall’s red lantern district, but maybe it wasn’t so improbable. He’d known pleasure for pleasure’s sake once, hadn’t he? A man who hadn’t ever been carefree couldn’t possibly look as weighed down by life as Anders did. Only prisoners who’ve known freedom can truly feel the pain of its loss.
Tobias’ thoughts wandered lazily as he looked at the other mage and—not for the first time—touched on who he might have been, before Justice. He’d have liked to know him, he decided; to have met the man who lived on in those brief flashes of wicked, playful glee, and dirty jokes about templars, tarts, and priests.
“You should explain it to Fenris,” he said idly, causing Anders to glance up at the mention of the name. “Might convince him mages are good for one thing, at least.”
Isabela gave a throaty laugh, but Tobias wasn’t looking at her. He was watching the unabashed, delicious grin spread over Anders’ face, and the amusement dancing in those dark eyes.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, meeting Tobias’ gaze levelly. “I can think of six or seven, easily.”
The close, rich air of the suite—thick with grease, ale, sweat, soot and spices—seemed to press in just that little bit more. A blade of unsullied, pure want skewered Tobias right through his middle, leaving his gut clenched and his breeches slightly pinched.
He shouldn’t keep doing this, he told himself. It wasn’t the first time. More importantly, it wasn’t fucking fair.
Anders only ever drank a quarter of what the rest of them put away, but he was always the life and soul of the evening for the time he was there. It was like watching the years peel away, as if his troubles could lift off him as easily as grime, and he’d suddenly seem so light and happy… a different man entirely, but for that same core, that same dark fire that burned within him, intense and unwavering.
And they kept doing this. The flirting. Tobias would catch himself starting it; throwing out some double entendre or gaudy quip as bad as one of Isabela’s. Anders would bat back something flippant, and then they would grin at each other, and the air would grow heavy… just like it was now. And neither of them would seem to want to look away.
The first few times, it had been fun. Tobias wasn’t used to seeing Anders so relaxed, and he liked it. He enjoyed the freedom, the warmth of this glittering, winking flame of a man who felt so familiar—as if, just for once, magic wasn’t a barrier between him and the rest of the world, but a common ground he could share with someone—but it never bloody came to anything.
Now, he could feel Isabela’s gaze on the back of his neck. He blinked, and Anders looked away first, a small smile tucked at the corner of his mouth as he shook his head and drained the last of his mug.
Tobias buried himself in his own ale, and tried to avoid catching Isabela’s eye.
He didn’t listen to much more of the conversation, such as it was. She had another lead on her damn relic, so she said. Varric had heard more rumours about various things… but then he always had.
The night slipped on and, eventually, they went their separate ways. Merrill left first, with the customary jokes about bits of string. The rest of them got in another round and, once Corff had called time and the regulars were being poured out of the doors, Tobias supposed he must have been drunk enough to think it was a good idea to engineer leaving the tavern at the same time as Anders.
It was late, and dark, and outside The Hanged Man, cool air blew down the alleyways, a thin lance to an otherwise rather sultry night. Tobias still couldn’t get used to how much warmer it seemed here than in Ferelden.
Varric had offered him use of a bed, but he’d gracefully declined, protesting that he should get back to Leandra before Gamlen actually gambled the house away from under her.
Anders, naturally, looked practically sober. The light breeze ruffled the shoulders of his coat, and he was already a few paces ahead of Tobias.
The alley smelled mainly of piss and slops. Tobias quickened his steps to catch up, wondering which route Anders would take back to Darktown. If he only had his company for a handful of cross-streets, it didn’t give him much time… though time to do what, he hadn’t quite worked out.
Fully caught up, walking side-by-side, Tobias staggered, throwing a hand out to the wall for support, his body lolling closer to Anders as he sagged. Lovely stuff… just the two of them, weaving an unsteady, companionable path into the night. His palm grazed rough stonework, other hand brushing against Anders’ arm for support. Anders stumbled, but didn’t bow, and gave him a mildly reproachful look, mouth loosely wreathed in a smile. Tobias breathed in that familiar, sharp scent; herbs and grease, overlaid with beer and the piquant ambience of the tavern. The murky light—just the yellow-edged sickle of a pale moon, and the few torches burning at the end of the street—picked at the hard lines of Anders’ face, and set twin points of silver in his eyes. There seemed to be the faintest sheen of blue to the dimness that shrouded his cheekbones, and his lips… and it didn’t seem awfully difficult to believe in possibilities.
“You’re drunk,” Anders observed mildly.
“Co-rrrrect!” Tobias grinned, straightening up. “You should try it sometime. Bugger Justice.”
“That… isn’t quite how it works, but— You know, you’re going to have a terrible head tomorrow.”
“Don’t care,” Tobias said solemnly. “Tomorrow’s not here yet. Livin’ for the moment, that’s me. Hedonisis… hedon… thing. Fun. Speaking of which, you’re very handsome. Anyone ever told you that?”
There. They were out there now, those words. Buzzing free between them, batting at the silence as softly as moths. The corner of Anders’ mouth tipped further into an excruciatingly appealing smile, and an undeniable warmth touched his face as he looked away, his gaze turning hazy.
“You really are going to regret all this in the morning, aren’t you?”
Tobias shook his head. “Not everything. Not the things I actually mean.”
“You drink too much,” Anders countered, still ostensibly studying the wall. “Has anyone ever told you that?”
Footsteps scuffed at the end of the alley. Tobias dismissed them as some lone drunk or streetwalker, fuzzily aware that, if they did turn out to be anything violent, Anders could explode with raw blue fury at them. Except he couldn’t, could he? Justice wasn’t a tap he could turn off and on, but a force that burst from him when all other control was lost.
Tobias wondered if it was very wrong that, just briefly, he found that thought arousing, but he didn’t waste time considering it. He shrugged.
“I don’t. You just always happen to see me when I’m drunk.”
The footsteps passed on a bit further, then stopped, replaced by the sound of a man relieving himself noisily against a wall. Anders shot him a look of mingled amusement and reprimand.
“It’s not good for you,” he remarked, as they walked on. “That’s all I’m saying.”
Tobias snorted. “Advice on clean and healthy living? From you?”
“Healer,” Anders reminded him, holding up a hand, index finger slightly extended. “Right here?”
It earned him another snort. Tobias stuck his thumbs in his belt loops, allowing his boots to scud the ground comfortably as he walked; long, loose steps with the darkness flowing around them, elastic and beautiful… and Anders almost close enough at his side. He turned his head, forgetting to speak for a moment—so busy just watching the way the moonlight made the other man seem smoother, younger, maybe even happier—and then, when he did find the words, they came out slightly jumbled, falling over each other in their impatience to get out of his mouth.
“You don’t… I mean, it’s not— You barely leave that bloody clinic,” Tobias managed as they crossed the expanse of the bazaar, eerily empty in the night and devoid of everything but the black skeletons of stalls, and a couple of derelicts bedded down in the doorways. “Getting you out tonight was rare enough. You don’t visit the whorehouses, or so you say—”
“It’s hard to see the attraction once you’ve seen the pustules,” Anders said dryly, though his voice lacked any real emphasis.
Tobias wrinkled his nose. He’d had occasion to use the redblossom salve Anders had given him after all, as things had turned out, and would rather not have been reminded.
“P-point is,” he tried, as they cut across another sidestreet, which opened out onto a flight of wooden steps that would lead down to the mouth of the Undercity. He could have turned off by now, he supposed. Gone home. Didn’t need to keep following Anders. He was still doing it, though. “Point is… what you do isn’t good for you. Keep yourself shut up… shut away. All alone.”
The steps were treacherous. Tobias had to concentrate on the way down. At the bottom, Anders turned suddenly, and they almost collided next to the damp, salt-stained stonework of one of the old dockers’ colonnades that led off into Darktown’s mess of tunnels and rats’ nests. He stopped, almost stumbled… and not by design this time.
This particular stratum of the city overhung the docks. The faint sound of waves, and the tar-streaked scent of the sea, floated up to take the edge off the filth. A rat the size of a small cat scampered along the bottom of the wall, and Anders started to turn away, ready to start heading back to his own little bolthole.
“Good night, Hawke.”
Tobias’ hand shot out, grabbing at his wrist, surprising them both with the speed and accuracy of his reflexes. He let his fingers flex on Anders’ skin, aware of the supple warmth, the light, fast pulse, and the firmness of corded sinew and bone beneath the slim bounds of flesh.
Green eyes met dark, and the clouds in Anders’ face nearly frightened him.
“Isn’t there ever… y’know?” Tobias shrugged one shoulder, trying to make himself understood. “Something for you?”
Anders stared at him for a long, complicated moment, then shook his head.
“You’re drunk,” he muttered, turning once more to go, tugging a little at the grip still enfolding his wrist.
“Really. I-I can’t— I’m sorry. It’s a bad idea.”
“What is?” Tobias demanded. “Hm?”
Anders gave an exasperated sigh. “You know exactly what I mean.”
“It’s not healthy,” Tobias warned. “Shutting yourself away from everyone. It won’t help keep Just—”
“And what do you know about it? You… you have no idea. All right?”
Anders pulled his wrist away, hard, and Tobias was sure he felt—just in that fleeting moment—the sharp prickle of magical energy nip at his fingertips. Like electricity, almost. He couldn’t help thinking of Isabela’s words, and a beery grin slid across his face.
He moved, shuffling around clumsily, insinuating himself between Anders and the wall, blocking his exit and making sure to be in the damn way whichever direction he turned.
“Oh, come on…. Why not just once, hm? The way you were talking tonight, with Isabela, I—”
“I’m not that man anymore,” Anders muttered. “You know that. You know what I am.”
“I don’t care.”
Anders broke off, his lips thinning to a tight line as he glared at Tobias.
They were close then, facing off in the alleyway with barely inches between them. The familiar scent of the man grazed Tobias’ nose, and he ached to close the distance between them. He could do it, he knew… and he half-wanted to, itching for the chance, and almost hungry to see Anders fight back.
He wouldn’t, though, would he? Wouldn’t fight. He wanted it too much. That was evident from the look in those dark eyes, and the way his mouth had softened, lips tensely curved now, parted in something not entirely a sneer. It seemed so ridiculous to keep pretending, Tobias thought, to keep clinging to the lie that it didn’t matter, this heat and this desire… that they weren’t real, or important.
Sometimes, he wondered if Anders thought he was too good for it. Maybe he did; maybe everything took second place to his precious cause and his lofty ideals. Sober, Tobias knew it was something different… something he couldn’t understand, because he had nothing to judge against. All he knew of spirits of the Fade were whispers and things he’d learned to ignore, to guard against from the dark spaces of his dreams. His father had been adamant on that point. You never even gave them the chance to speak. That way they couldn’t corrupt you.
Not that Anders seemed corrupted. Many things, but… no. Nothing that burned as brightly as he did could be so polluted as to be beyond saving. Tobias believed that more strongly than he’d ever believed anything… which scared him a little.
“I want you,” he murmured, feeling the tension and the longing crack around them, breaking like the dark, foam-topped waves that crashed against the city’s feet on squally nights.
Anders hardly seemed to be breathing. He blinked, and a hoarse, dead gasp of a noise left his throat.
“You’re a pushy bastard when you’re drunk, aren’t you?” he muttered, his voice low and husky, marked with an odd, dry bravado.
A pang of regret prodded Tobias, and he wet his lips, almost sorry for causing that tangle of discomfort and desire written so plainly on Anders’ face.
“I do drink too much,” he said, with a small, nonchalant shrug. “Apparently.”
Anders scoffed incredulously. He didn’t seem angry, though. Just so tired, and sad.
“Justice… doesn’t understand things like this. He—I can’t… I can’t,” he repeated, little more than a whisper.
Tobias let himself sway just that little bit closer. He probably shouldn’t, he supposed. He should back off, stop all of this. It would be better for both of them. He was making a complete arse of himself—pushy, like Anders said—and trying to force inept, stupid demands on him that weren’t even all that much to do with what Tobias wanted in the first place. And yet, he didn’t seem to have control of his own mouth, or the words slipping from it, or even that ale-roughened burr he found himself using as a weapon, low and seductive.
“Maybe,” he purred, “Justice could use some instruction.”
Anders swallowed heavily, throat bobbing. When he spoke, the words were tight threads, pulled near to breaking over the things he seemed to want to say instead.
“It’s hard enough to keep control. You don’t… you don’t understand. I couldn’t ask anyone to—”
“You keep saying how terrible you are,” Tobias murmured, knowing his breath would be tickling Anders’ lips, in just the same way as he could almost taste the other man’s barely suppressed groan of need. “I haven’t seen the evidence.”
He leaned in then, so ready, so eager… and so not expecting Anders to flinch away, breaking from him with a sudden burst of fresh determination.
He said it forcefully, but without resentment. Tobias expected the dark pull of magic to crackle between them—black fire burning in sweet spirals under his skin—but it wasn’t there. Not from Anders, anyway. Just… perfect control. Complete resolve. He turned from Tobias, turned to face the long, dim tunnel back to Darktown, leaving him with nothing but the view of that ragged, feathery pelt at his hunched shoulders, and the back of a bowed head, touched by the light of a pitted, waxen moon.
Tobias sighed, feeling foolish and clumsy. “I’m… sorry.”
The stubby ponytail twitched a bit as Anders shook his head, and let out a short, terse breath.
“If I’d met you a year or so ago, we wouldn’t have been having this conversation.” The tatty pauldrons shifted over something that looked, to Tobias’ bleary eyes, like a resigned shrug. “Huh… probably wouldn’t have bothered with any conversation, at least for a while. But it’s all different now. Everything’s changed.”
Tobias frowned. There was something about the quality of those words… the way Anders said them. It reminded him of—what did the Dalish call her?—Asha’bellanar. The witch with the amulet, and those strange and cryptic riddles of hers. Something about not being afraid to leap into the precipice of change. Well, that was fine… if you knew there was going to be something soft there to land on.
“Anyway,” Anders said dully, “that part of my life is over.”
He was trying to keep his voice firm, even… like he really thought that was true, and wasn’t worth regretting. All the same, there was no disguising that broken, discordant note of remorse, or the hollowness in his tone that spoke of more than just unnecessary melodrama.
Tobias puffed a long, resigned breath out through lips that felt loose and flabby, and decided he should probably lay off the drink for a while. Anders was right; he’d regret this one in the morning.
Still, if he was already going to regret it… well, in for a silver, in for a crown.
Tobias reached out, laying his hand gently on the back of Anders’ waist… or where it would have been, somewhere beneath the hard-edged fabric of his coat.
“Fine,” he said quietly, feeling him tense at the uninvited contact. “I’m sorry. I’m an idiot. Forget it. Doesn’t matter. But… as your friend? You’re too hard on yourself. Justice might not be human, but you are.”
Anders raised his head, turning to look at him, mouth half-open and the seed of some argument or rebuttal probably already prepared, but Tobias was ready. He leaned in, swift and brief, and pressed a light kiss to Anders’ cheek.
“You are. So, be careful,” he said, pulling back as Anders stared, blinked… and looked so ball-churningly lovely with that mix of confusion and affronted pride on his face. “Please?”
Tobias shook his head. Everything seemed crowded and dizzy, and he could still feel the prickle of beard growth against his lips, the firm warmth and the undeniable scent of Anders’ skin.
This was it, he told himself. Starting tomorrow, no more drink.
He moved away, awkward and clumsy, turned, pointed himself back at the steep rank of rough, wooden steps, and forced unwilling legs to start making the climb. The night air felt cold… cold right down his bones. Tobias had made it halfway back up to the street before he raised one hand in a gesture of farewell to the man he’d left behind him.
“Night, Anders,” he called, not bothering to look back. Didn’t trust himself to, in all honesty.
He didn’t listen for a reply. Just walked away, unsatisfied longing beating a violent tattoo at the base of his gut, and his skin tingled in the cool air.
Tobias’ feet found their usual stride and, before long, Lowtown’s familiar streets and walls and landmarks were slipping by, and he didn’t even have to think about it… just as he didn’t have to think about the ache of loneliness and the sting, not of Anders’ rejection, but of realising just what it was he wanted from the man, and how badly he wanted it.
You’re an idiot. A prize-grade, first-rate fucking idiot, Hawke.
At least, Tobias supposed, with Carver off playing soldiers with the templars, he had the bedroom to himself. Easier to whack off in the dark and pretend it solved the problem… pretend it was just bodies, just the lure of forbidden fruit that appealed to him so.
Maybe he could make himself believe it.
Back to Justice in Surrender: Contents
Back to Justice in Surrender: Contents
Varric beamed cheerfully at him, arms outstretched, though he didn’t bother to get up from his chair.
Actually, Tobias decided, it was more of a throne. Gaudy and lavish, like his whole suite—which it was a pleasant relief to see The Hanged Man’s management hadn’t touched, despite the unexpected length of Varric’s absence, and Bartrand’s exaggerated reports of his demise. Now, it looked like the dwarf had never left: the merchant prince, holding court at the centre of his own little world, bathed in lamplight and with the invisible threads of a hundred puppets tied to his spread fingers.
“I was beginning to think you weren’t coming.”
Tobias shrugged and mumbled something non-committal. There was a festival air to the suite tonight, with people crowded in and a constant buzz of chatter and clinking mugs making the space feel small and cramped.
“He has family in the city,” said a familiar, deep voice, like the light of a warm dusk poured over dark blue velvet. “He is the only one of us who does, aside from you. Why would he not spend time with them?”
Fenris was seated to Varric’s left, draped over one of the carved chairs around the table with that customary artful elegance of his. Like some kind of otherworldly creature, Tobias thought, eyeing the shock of white hair, the arm propped casually over his bent knee… that body whose sinuous, exotic lines belied its hard, often brutal strength. The elf lifted his chin, fixed Tobias with the sharp sliver of an icy green stare, and nodded.
“Fenris,” he returned. “Good to see you.”
“Family,” Varric announced, mouth curled into a moue of distaste as he poured red wine into a fresh goblet and pushed it towards Tobias, “is not the first word I’d use to describe Bartrand right now.”
A girl in a tight blue dress edged past between him and the table, her perfume a strong wisp of flowers in the sultry, beery warmth. Tobias stepped aside, gave Varric a knowing grin, and slipped into one of the empty chairs.
“You wouldn’t use any of the others in polite company, though, right?”
The dwarf smiled mirthlessly and raised his cup to Tobias, as if in a toast.
“Of course. Good thing it’s just us, isn’t it? Two-faced, back-stabbing son of a— you know he’s skipped town?”
Tobias took a sip of the wine, raising his eyebrows in approval. Deep, rich, fruity… it looked as if Varric was already spending his share of the proceeds. He swallowed, mildly annoyed at the fact unpleasant memories of Bartrand’s betrayal cloyed the taste on his tongue.
“Can’t say I’m shocked to hear it.”
“Huh. Neither was I.” Varric’s lip curled slightly. “Still, first I hear of him, I’ll let you know. He can’t have gone to ground completely. I’ll find him… and when I find him—”
“We,” Tobias corrected. “You better not think of cutting me out of this one.”
Varric nodded solemnly, the gleam of an utterly cold, ruthless hatred in his eyes. It was a bargain sealed, an accord struck, but then—as the candles at the centre of the table flickered—the lamplight seemed warmer, the dwarf smiled expansively, and he was the charming, jovial raconteur once more. A gesture here, a word there… everyone was having a good time, and everyone would leave the tavern knowing Varric Tethras was back in town—and back on top.
Tobias glanced across the table, catching Fenris’ eye. That the elf still had anything to do with him surprised Tobias slightly. After his circumstantial, rather chaotic introduction to the Hawke brand of Kirkwall underworld, Tobias had imagined he would leave, perhaps never to be seen or heard of again, except in whispered rumours. A tattooed ghost who could move like a shadow and tear the living heart from a man before he realised he was even in danger… well, such an individual might command ridiculous fees as a mercenary or assassin. Tobias could think of no end of sensible applications for someone with Fenris’ talents—and yet the elf seemed quite happy squatting in his old master’s mansion and surviving on whatever scraps of work he bothered to take. Well… inasmuch as Fenris ever seemed happy about anything, of course.
It seemed strange to Tobias, but he had trouble enough with Fenris’ prickly, offish manner that he didn’t want to question. The night they’d first encountered him—saved his life, as a matter of fact—he’d spewed vituperative bile at Tobias for being a mage instead of actually thanking him. He’d made his opinions perfectly clear, and Tobias supposed he had no choice but to respect them.
He drifted in and out of the conversation, picking up loose ends about this or that, such-and-such who’d left town or been knocked out by a rival since he’d been… away. Kirkwall was constantly changing, its underbelly a roiling pit of vipers all thrashing against each other, seeking a way out of the tunnels and into the sun. The few months he and Varric had been gone had been a lifetime for some people—albeit a short one with a particularly messy ending. Tobias listened, nodded, filed away mental notes concerning shifts in power between the Coterie and some of the other, smaller guilds.
There were rumours—because there always were, when you sat at Varric’s table—that tensions with the qunari were running high again. All that business with the explosive powder, whatever it was they called it…. Grutlock? Gratling? Tobias couldn’t remember, and he frowned as he stifled a whiskey-flavoured belch and swilled more of Varric’s good wine. The… stuff, anyway. The fact the bastards had it was common knowledge now, thanks to Javaris. Whispers were running through the alienage like wildfire, saying how the grey-skinned devils wanted to blow up half of Lowtown, and how the elves would be the first to suffer, like they always were. There had been some minor unrest, apparently. Nothing the guard hadn’t been able to clamp down on with arguably undue force, naturally.
Varric pulled a face. “Oh, tell me Daisy didn’t—”
“I doubt Merrill even noticed the guards,” Fenris said dryly. “She is possibly the least observant person I have ever met. I have not seen much of her. She appears to spend all her time with… books.”
The word seemed to carry a slightly disparaging flavour for him, but then the elf shrugged and shook his head. Tobias watched the fall of white hair move with the gesture, candlelight dancing on it in soft reflections.
“Your Guard-Captain has kept a close eye on her in your absence.” Fenris glanced at Tobias, eyes glittering in the warm light. “As she has many things.”
Tobias snorted. “Aveline’s hardly my captain,” he protested. “She refused point blank to overlook certain… trade routes… when I asked her.”
As a matter of fact, it had been a blazing row. Tobias had rather thought the woman owed him for her new-found position, and he would have made a damn sight more coin a damn sight more quickly if she’d swallowed her bloody principles and just done what he’d asked. A certain section of the coast, left unpatrolled on a particular night. Not hard, but no. Obviously far too much of a boon for the mighty Aveline to even consider granting.
Well, bugger her. He didn’t need her now. Didn’t need anyone. He was… made. Yes.
Tobias upended the goblet and drained it, peering at Fenris and Varric, and their worn, slightly blurry profiles. They were discussing other news now. Names, places… things that had happened without him. The exiled whatsit was still in town, apparently, despite certain persons having usefully abetted his revenge upon a certain mercenary company. His Highness, the holy-brother-turned-prince… thing. Sebastian. Tobias squinted, recalling ridiculously shiny white armour, perfect hair, and a big, fat… coin purse.
There was talk of envoys from Starkhaven, Fenris said, though he had either had no opportunity or no inclination to learn more of the political complexities. Tobias didn’t really mind. It was very easy to lose himself to simply ogling Fenris when he was drunk. All the interesting questions, such as how far down those curious tattoos extended, and exactly what sorts of noises that rich, gravelly voice made at the point of crisis, became less coloured over with the fact of what an arrogant prick he could be.
“What about Blondie?” Varric asked eventually, topping up the goblets. “Still fighting the good fight? My sources tell me the templars haven’t caught up with him yet.”
Fenris curled his lip. “I am sure it is not for want of trying… or for want of Anders giving them cause.”
Tobias’ goblet stopped en route to his mouth. There were still people everywhere, raised voices and extravagant good cheer as the drink and the coin and the gossip flowed. His gut roiled, and he swallowed heavily.
Fenris shot him a guarded look, head very slightly inclined. “I… heard about Carver joining. For what it is worth, I’m sorry. I imagine it must be a difficult position to be in.”
What, that my own brother thinks I’m aberration of nature and should be caged like an animal? That he’d turn his back on everything our family gave up—just so Father could spare Bethany and I that fate—and claim that he’s doing it for some sense of the greater good, instead of just admitting that he’s reacting like the spoilt little brat he is?
Tobias didn’t say it. He allowed his mouth to twist into a curl of uncertain regret, and nodded.
“Thank you, Fenris. I, uh… imagine Carver believes he’s acting for the best. And there are good people in the Order. Perhaps a few more like my brother will help turn the tide.”
That one was met with deathly silence. Tobias swigged his wine, and wished they were talking about something else. He was getting over-warm, too; the sickly smell of rose oil seemed to rise off his skin, and he wasn’t sure whether he was the only one who could smell it.
He made his excuses not long after, as the crowds began to thin out and Varric started asking questions about what he planned to do now.
They’d talked about it a little before, down in the dark. The three of them. Isabela wanted a new ship, naturally. Tobias wasn’t sure whether she’d keep chasing Castillon’s relic if she got one, or whether she’d simply point the prow at the horizon and be nothing but a speck on the waves before the people she owed even knew she was gone. He suspected the latter and, all things considered, hoped she got her wish. She probably deserved it, one way or another.
Varric had been cagey. He meant to buy out this damn bar, Tobias guessed, and spend the rest of his life sitting back telling stories, and paying off the representatives from the Merchants’ Guild. Good luck to him… even if he had laughed at the mention of Tobias intending to reclaim the old Amell estate.
You, Hawke? Nobility? Hah!
Tobias supposed it was a ridiculous notion. But, if it gave Leandra some peace, it was worth it. Anyway, after coming on to two years in the Maker-forsaken pit of Lowtown’s slums, he found he was rather intrigued by the idea of a mansion… not that what he’d seen of its filthy, ugly belly—full of slavers and the detritus of years of misuse—had been all that enticing.
It didn’t matter.
Tobias told himself that, as he made his way back to Gamlen’s. The rough walls of buildings wobbled a little under his skating fingertips, and his loose strides flowed through the soft darkness.
And it was dark… but that didn’t matter either. Overhead, visible through the crowded, leaning shapes of tenements and sloping roofs—a collage of silhouettes that dented the sky—there hung a waxy, pitted disc. An almost full moon, flanked by the points of stars that glimmered between the clouds.
Tobias stopped and gazed upwards, grinning madly at the sight, and aware of every breath of breeze, every tang and pinch of tar and salt and filth on the night air. The bare skin of his arms rose to goosebumps, and then the hair on the back of his neck began to rise, too.
Tar, and salt, and filth… and some bunch of clever buggers who just won’t bloody learn….
He turned, ready to confront the figure that appeared at the cross-section of two alleyways, about eight feet in front of him. Thin, not terribly tall, swaddled from tip to toe in dark clothes, head and face covered by a cloth mask… could have been human or elf, male or female. Didn’t matter; Tobias’ gaze took in the narrow blades, one in each hand, like twin shreds of moonlight. He’d already snatched out the dagger he wore at his belt—a weapon he was familiar enough with, even if it wasn’t the most powerful at his command.
If Tobias’ father had taught him anything, it was the value of secrecy. All the years they’d spent moving from village to village (and, oh, how ironic that Lothering was supposed to have been the last place they would ever call home….), shifting on every time suspicious tongues began to wag, so that they stayed forever ahead of the threat of discovery. Every time, Tobias and Bethany would have Malcom’s litany drilled into them: do nothing unless you have to. Magic is a tool, not a yoke. Don’t be ashamed that you have a gift, but be wary of those who lack it.
At the time, most of the words seemed stupid. Where Bethany had wished for nothing more than to be normal—or at least treated as if she was—Tobias had been arrogant. He’d wanted to believe the rules didn’t apply to him, that they were proof of nothing more than his father’s weakness… right up until the day, when he was thirteen years old, that Malcolm lost his temper and, to teach him a lesson, bested his son with the most ferocious blast of magic Tobias had ever seen. He’d learned what it was to be caught in a vice of pure energy, to feel his body tear and rend from the inside out, and he had seen the fury in his father’s face—motivated by a dark, blind weight of terror—and only then had he understood: it is better this than nothing. Better hiding than being caught, better freedom than submission… better together than alone.
Right now, Tobias could have wished he wasn’t alone. Or drunk. Or both. Or—
“Oh, balls,” he murmured, as another four attackers emerged from the sidestreet opposite.
All part of the same gang, no doubt. Maybe they were hungry. Maybe they were all refugees. Maybe they just thought they were tough, and all had matching tattoos somewhere under the heavy folds of clothes.
He didn’t know but, when the tension finally broke and they rushed him, Tobias ducked, dived, and jabbed his blade at the first available set of ribs. Two of the gang were next to useless fighters, adding weight to the hungry refugee theory. He kicked one in the groin, the crumpling and pathetic mewling suggesting it was in fact a man, and elbowed another in the face. Pivoting on one foot, Tobias landed a fresh punch to the assailant’s stomach and disarmed the figure while it was still doubled over and retching. Pain seared his knuckles, but he gripped the extra blade tight and shoved it forwards, into the next body charging towards him. He kicked out, smashing the sole of his boot flat across a kneecap, twisting away from the glimmer of steel and the threat of blood.
Something—someone, maybe—hit him across the shoulders, and he stumbled, spinning out of the press of bodies shortly before a fist connected with his mouth. Tobias shook his head, spat, tasted blood… and gasped at the cold feel of metal in his flesh.
Malcolm had possessed a staff. For as long as Tobias could remember, it had stayed locked away in a trunk—and not just because it had a naked woman carved into the neck, although that particular decoration had caused no small amount of furtive giggling when he was young. It raised all sorts of questions about his father’s past—a past which, aside from the briefest mentions of the Circle Tower, and how it was no place for any normal human being—Malcolm had never been eager to discuss.
The staff, though… apart from the nude lady, it was nothing more than a carved bit of wood, like something a goatherd might carry. On closer inspection, there were runes and sigils etched into its surface: wards of protection and blessing. Malcolm rarely used it. After all, nothing would scream ‘apostate’ quite so much as running around with a bloody great stave strapped across one’s back.
They were useful, he’d said. Tools for the channelling and concentration of a mage’s power, and concentration—as Malcolm Hawke had so often told his children—was important. Their wits were their greatest defence against the dangers of the Fade, and against the things to which they must never give in.
Never give in….
Tobias pressed a hand to his side, blood welling stickily between his fingers. His vision blurred, and it was hard to count who was down and who wasn’t. He flung out his palm, feeling the energy flow even before he was ready for it, and it burst from him. Searing, bright, hot… and the other things came with it.
Even as the bolt of light left his hand—a jagged thing that shot through the nearest body, singeing flesh and scattering the rest of them in shock and fear—Tobias could feel the interest snaking through him. Metallic whispers… voices he usually only heard when he was asleep. His hand burned with the uncomfortable heat of the spell, and the blood beneath his other palm sang to him with all kinds of hidden dangers.
Think how Merrill did it, up on Sundermount. One cut, and the power was there for the taking. You could use it… you don’t even need to learn how. You already know, really, don’t you? You’ll know. You will. You’ll feel it, and it’ll feel so right….
He’d never been sure whether they were the voices of his own temptation, or truly the whispers of demons. Malcolm had died too damn young, leaving as many unasked questions as he had unanswered ones.
At least one of them was dead. A raw-edged, bloody hole through his—or her, or whatever—stomach. A hot, meaty smell hung in the air, and Tobias raised his hand again, fingers half-curled, as if to fling a fireball at the nearest chancer. Somebody muttered ‘fuck this’, and the whole pack of them ran, splintering away into the shadows.
He straightened up a bit, wincing at the blazing rod of agony lancing his side, and allowed himself a triumphant grin.
“Yeah… better fuckin’ run,” Tobias muttered, shortly before the one masked figure he’d missed punched him in the kidneys.
He wheezed, doubled over, and felt the next blow land on the back of his head. Lashing out, dagger in hand, his blade caught at a sleeve, ripping cloth and tearing at the resistance of skin. His palm crackled as he began to summon another blast of power, but he was groggy, unsteady… afraid. The feel of something blunt and heavy—a jemmy, maybe, or a handy bit of wood—swung and cracked at the backs of his knees, wiping them out from under him, and Tobias fell.
His head hit the ground with a hard thud, and then through the stars swimming across his vision there was blood… so much blood, whirling like raindrops. He could taste its oily, bitter power, which was odd, because he was almost certain it wasn’t him doing that.
There was a horrible noise, and someone screamed.
“Ooh, will you look at that!” cried a familiar voice, light and breathy and full of excitement. “Look, I got one! That’s right… you leave him alone, you!”
Tobias tried to sit up, but the world had other ideas. His body seemed weak and empty, cold and full of nothing but pain and slippery voids of uselessness where he was accustomed to finding muscles. He groaned, and let his head drop back against the stone with a small thump.
A shadow fell over him, and he peered up, wincing. If there was a Maker, Tobias decided, He had a very odd sense of humour.
The elf looked down at him, her face that peculiar mixture of innocence and wildness: huge eyes, green as leaves and phenomenally expressive, and peachy skin criss-crossed by those strange, arcane tattoos that apparently had meaning for the Dalish.
A thin, clammy hand patted his cheek as she frowned at him in concern.
“Hawke? Hawke, you’re not dead, are you? Please don’t be dead. It’d be really inconvenient if you were dead, and I’d probably get into horrible trouble….”
Andraste’s bosom band, did she have to talk so much? He groaned again, aware of the light-headedness brought on by loss of blood, and unable to resist the soft, fluffy clouds of soothing, dark warmth that wanted to fold over him.
Just a minute to close his eyes, that was all. Just to catch his breath.
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