Tell me, would you kill to save a life? Tell me would you kill to prove you're right?
Crash, crash and burn, let it all burn
This hurricane's chasing us all
- 30 Seconds To Mars, Hurricane.
Anders is cold. Alone and cold, and he's certainly felt this kind of miserableness before, but it feels different now. It feels new, and all the more miserable because of its newness. He huddles against the rock, slick with moss and seawater and probably worse things. It smells foul. If he is honest, it smells, overwhelmingly, like shit. He's seen a few things in his time that really disgusted him: the Deep Roads were home to plenty of spectacular horrors. He'd spent some time in the slums of Denerim and among the desperate homeless of Amaranthine, not to mention the refugee camps and caravans along the way. But this is the first place he's ever seen people forced to crowd into the sewers because there is nowhere else for them to scrape a living. This is Darktown. This is Kirkwall. He hates this city with every fiber of his being.
Hunger gnaws at his belly, and it churns into a heavy knot of pain made worse by fear. He is afraid. He is no stranger to stealing food, and money, when he needs to. He'd spent weeks on the road, lifting crops from the fields and coin from the pockets of market-goers. But the guards here pay far more attention, overwhelmed as they are with floods of refugees from Blight-stricken Ferelden. Anders is one of them. He tells himself that, over and over. It's not really a lie. He doesn't have to work very hard to look downtrodden or lost. But he has to remind himself not to draw attention. It's hard. He'd never realized before how - as much as he'd hated the Circle for not letting him do anything - magic was woven into every part of his life there. Even when they'd taken away his ability to access mana, he could still feel it, surrounding him, a close pressure. It was woven into the very air of the Tower. How could it not be, with everyone in the place both drawing on mana and creating it just by their very presence?
Even though they were punished for it, isolated and controlled and threatened, the Circle, in every real sense, gave Anders and the other children who'd grown up with him their identities as mages. Without that, he isn't anything.
It's your fault, whispers the voice in his head, a voice he's very familiar with after spending almost a full year alone in a cell. The voice of his own doubts and uncertainties is as loud and obnoxious as any demon. Worse, even. More insidious, harder to fight back against. He can't escape his own thoughts and he doesn't want to, because the only way to do that is to die, and he won't let that happen. But he still grinds his teeth. "Shut up!" he mutters.
A few feet down the alley, a woman with tangled dark hair glares at him suspiciously. Anders swallows hard, and ducks his head. Don't draw attention. He's not crazy. "I'm not crazy," he says, slightly louder than necessary. The woman smiles, and it seems genuine. Anders feels a little bit of warmth. He relaxes a little. The knot in his stomach begins to untangle. He smiles too.
"Where're you from?" the woman asks him, with a noticeable Ferelden accent. It's the slow, rural speech of the farmlands, but there's a harshness behind it, enough for Anders to recognize that she's spent enough time in Kirkwall and cities like it.
The question isn't simple. Not for him and maybe, not for anyone. Amaranthine is a safe enough answer, he figures. But no, that's not right either. He doubts the Wardens would follow him here (They wouldn't, that voice in his head insists, that desperate, angry voice. She wouldn't). But he still doesn't say Amaranthine. He isn't sure if that's because it feels too much like a lie or if it's that residual need to protect himself by not giving anything away. He just shrugs, and shakes his head. "Nowhere," he says. Which feels more or less true.
The woman raises an eyebrow. "Well, aren't you mysterious?" She looks him over, with an intent stare that Anders wants to pull away from. It's obvious that she's intelligent and focused, with the kind of eyes that don't miss anything. "I'd wager you're a soldier, eh?"
Anders shakes his head, instinctively. He's not. He hates fighting. "I'm..." he starts, but then stops himself. He's not anything. Just a ghost.
He begins to turn away, already unsettled by the way this woman's eyes are tracking his every movement. He huddles against the cold wind that blows in like icy knives off the water, cutting through to the bone the second he moves away from the dubious safety provided by the walls of rock.
"You hungry?" the woman asks, and Anders jumps. His heart pounds in his chest, and he is paralyzed, caught between the desire to run and the urge to fight. The woman stares him down with the kind of cautious curiosity that is the only way to stay alive in Kirkwall's rough streets. He almost says no. But although he does not know if he can trust her, one glance around the desperate shantytowns clustered near the docks proves that other options for food are unlikely to come around any time soon. So he nods.
"Well, it ain't much," the woman tells him, honestly. "But it sure is better than nothing." She rummages around in her traveling clothes, pulling a bit of hard tack from a hidden pocket.
Around them, other refugees begin to push in closer, spying a bit of food and willing to kill for it. Anders can feel the threat, a heightened sense of anger in the air. He holds tightly to the biscuit, and his eyes dart wildly from person to person. There are more than he can easily count. The Kirkwall Guard had shoved them all in together, and anyone who complained received the same response: they're welcome to try their luck out on the open sea, if they've got the coin to buy passage on another ship. No one has the coin, that much is obvious. But they are still better off than those on the ships still arriving, holds loaded with people who won't even be let into the city. Sometimes the captains dump the refugees anyway, leaving them to fend for themselves on the other side of Kirkwall's gated walls. Others don't bother, they simply turn around to try their luck at another port, one with a thriving slave market.
So they are stuck here, all of them, languishing here without home or work, but unwilling to leave. Though older people are squeezed into these alleys the same as Anders and his unexpected new friend, it's the younger ones - boys ten and twelve years old - who approach him now, with lean, hardened bodies and narrowed eyes. They are the ones still young enough to fight for survival. Anders has watched these gangs of feral children beating people in the streets, sometimes to death, to get at scraps that a dog wouldn't touch. And he hadn't done a thing to stop them. What could he do, without bringing dangerous attention?
There's the part of him that wants to give up his food, because they're just kids, and he can go hungry. But this isn't Ferelden, where he could do something simple to help someone else and then move on. If he shows that he's willing to just give up whatever they ask for, it'll only make him a permanent target.
He can feel power and potential stirring inside him, his body reacting in its natural way to his very real fear. His head hurts, and his muscles tense up. Exhaustion and starvation and raw panic blend together to make him jumpy. His training as a Grey Warden combines with the reflexes ingrained in him in the Circle, voices that scream at him to fight. He forces himself to breathe, but it grows more difficult as adrenaline overwhelms his ability to calm himself, or think rationally.
The dark-haired woman steps out in front of him. Anders flinches as her hand brushes against his arm, as she pushes him back out of the way. "Get out of here!" she barks, confronting these children without a hint of fear. Anders swallows hard.
The tallest of the boys spits onto the ground, but he hesitates. He watches the woman with uncertain eyes. He does not turn to leave, but he does not advance. One of the other boys doesn't feel the same sense of deference. He lunges forward, launching himself at the woman, and Anders. He knocks her to the ground but ignores her. Anders is the one with the food. The child leaps at him, kicking and clawing and scratching. His small body is a hard target to grab onto, and he fights dirty, moving fast, aiming to quickly incapacitate. His fingers jab at Anders' eyes, and the mage tries to throw the boy off of him, but small fingers close around his throat. Fireworks of pain explode across his body as the boy's companions join the fray. They pummel and kick, doing to Anders what he's seen them do to dozens of others.
It's no longer about the bread, which has fallen to the ground and been trampled into crumbs, a small bit snatched by an observant toddler who streaked away fast as lightning. No, now it's simply about releasing their rage. These boys will take control in the only way available to them, burning up their impotent fury against a helpless target.
But Anders isn't helpless. He is only weak, and afraid, and out of practice. His head spins, and he lashes out with frantic desperation. He grabs at the boy who is on top of him, his foot pressing down, impossibly painfully, on Anders' groin. His knee digs into Anders' stomach. Anders' groans. Darkness crawls at the edges of his vision, but he lashes out, with raw, uncontrolled magic. A ripple of kinetic force blasts outward, pushing his attackers away. One of them hits the nearby wall with a sickening crack. Anders hears screaming, but he slowly becomes aware that he cannot feel the pain that signals a continuing attack.
He shakes his head, and his vision clears, although his breathing is still labored and heavy. Inside, he is empty. He is shaken. He begins to realize what he's just done, and total panic overwhelms him. He runs.
His breathing comes in painful gasps as he carries himself as far away from the scene of his crime as he can get. He runs blindly, without a care for the people he tramples in the process. His feet slip on the water-slick streets, and he trips over a rotting board, landing hard. Someone grabs his arm, hard, and he cannot pull away. There is nothing left in him to fight with. He spins around to see that same dark-haired woman. Memories mix in his head: another woman, another fight. She hadn't been scared of him either. She had let him kill her. He shakes his head, tears pooling up in his eyes as he squeezes them shut. "No!" he murmurs. "No, no, no..." The image of Rylock's sightless eyes bore into his head, accusing. His fault. He can't control himself. They were right all along, she was right. He deserves to be locked up. He wraps his arms tightly around himself, too weak to stand. Too weak to fight anymore.
His head snaps backward as a painful slap lands on his cheek. He pulls away, afraid of this woman's touch. But he literally up against a wall, completely drained, too tired to run.
"I'm not crazy," he repeats, completely unconvincingly. His voice is heavy with exhaustion, slurring his speech. He sounds drunk. He wishes that he was.
The woman sits next to him. "You're a mage," she says simply, and with about as much care as if she were remarking on the weather. Anders is still exhausted, but at least he isn't seeing things anymore. And the only voice he's hearing is the one that's actually talking to him.
He feels like someone has suddenly doused him with a bucket of cold water: the danger he is in is all he can think about. The certainty of capture always has brought a strange kind of clarity to the end of his panicked flights.
"Templars," he murmurs, trying to articulate the threat. But the woman doesn't seem at all bothered.
"Eat," she tells him, acting as though she doesn't hear him at all.
She pulls another bit of bread out of her travel sack. Anders can see that there's nothing else left in there, but she won't take no for an answer. So he eats, tearing into the scraps of bread like the starving man he is. It's not enough to satisfy him. It wouldn't be enough for even a normal man. For someone with a Grey Warden appetite, the tiny meal is only a terrible tease. Pain still rips at his stomach. His skin is pale, the veins visible underneath are unnaturally dark. He knows that if he could see his reflection, his eyes would be sunken and bloodshot.
"You look terrible," the woman says gently, and he can only nod. And wonder why she's helping him. And wonder why no one seems to be chasing after either of them anymore. "Feel better?" she asks. Anders swallows the last of the crumbs, and nods, even though he's mostly lying. The look on the woman's face proves he's not fooling anyone, but she must also realize by now that she's given up everything she can. More than she should've. "Come on, then," she orders, with the sound of a woman expecting to be obeyed. Anders is already on his feet and following her before he realizes that it's the same tone that had slowed the gang leader at the beginning of the fight.
"Who are you?" he asks, curiosity mixed with outright awe.
"My name is Lirene. I take care of people around here." She pushes open a hastily bolted door that opens into a Darktown shack like any other, walls formed mostly of shipping crates and other miscellaneous debris. Anders has always been impressed by how resourceful the slum-dwellers of most cities are when it comes to constructing their houses. "You'd be surprised how far a little kindness can take you," Lirene insists as she practically shoves Anders into what must be her home.
On a cot in the corner lies the boy Anders had thrown against the wall in his desperate fight. His wounds have been cleaned up, though not bandaged. Blood and bruises stand out even against his sun-darkened skin. Though his eyes are open and track Anders' movement as he approaches, he doesn't react to any of the conversation. He doesn't even move when Anders sits on the cot next to him. His skin feels disturbingly cold when Anders takes his hand.
He sends a bit of calming magic into the boy, using the touch as a conduit. The child relaxes, leaning against Anders, without fear or protest. Anders gently lays him down on the cot, watching him sleep.
"What happened to him?" he asks softly.
"He's high on Haze," Lirene replies. "Most of them are. It kills the hunger, for a while."
Anders sighs. He combs his fingers through the boy's hair, trailing flickers of blue light as he does so. Looking at him like this, all he can see is a vulnerable child, one that he hurt, and could've killed. He can feel the corrupted lyrium inside the boy's body. It's the only reason he's able to heal the child; without the added boost from the drug, he'd be too drained to manage even something as simple as this.
"Who controls the drugs?" he asks, as the worst of the young gang member's cuts and scrapes fade.
Lirene shrugs. "Coterie. And there's a few other small-timers of course."
"And the Guard doesn't do anything to stop them? Or the Chantry?" The Chantry is supposed to control the lyrium supply. There'd be no way to make these dangerous derivative cocktails for sale on the streets if they were doing their job. Anders has no love for the Chantry, but it infuriates him that they can expend so much energy controlling people, mages who have done nothing wrong, only to let criminals profit from the suffering of others, suffering caused by their lack of control over a physical object that they are supposed to keep safely locked away.
Lirene laughs at that, a harsh bark with no humor in it. "You think the Chantry cares about what happens down here? Don't be stupid."
Anders nods, conceding the point. Their apathy is what lets him hide, after all. Well, their apathy, and the occasional short-term alliance with a sympathetic civilian. It's always been that way, since he was a teenager. Ducking templars here isn't any different from doing the same thing in the villages of Ferelden. Right?
He holds Lirene's gaze, trying to read her. He likes to think he's fairly good instincts regarding people, that he can figure out who to trust. But it's harder when there's that part of him that won't stop insisting (with proof that he doesn't want to remember) that he can't trust anybody. "Why are you helping me?" he asks carefully.
"Because you need help," she replies immediately. As if there's nothing else to it.
Anders doesn't believe it. Not for a second. He raises an eyebrow. "And?"
People aren't just nice for free, in his experience. Especially not in this city. There's always a catch.
Lirene sinks into the chair across the table from him. It's the first time he's been able to pick up on the should've-been-obvious fact that she's just as exhausted and hungry as anyone else here. "And I've seen what you can do," she admits. "The people here need you."
He shakes his head before she even finishes speaking. No way. "Do you have any idea what you're asking?" His voice shakes, just a little, as he tries to make her understand.
It's true that this woman helped him when she had no reason to, it's true that she's not the one turning him in. But if she's even half as well-informed about this city as she seems to be, she must know the kind of bounty Kirkwall's Knight Commander is offering on any information leading to the capture of a mage.
"Do you think they haven't already run to the templars, boy? As many as saw you out there? Someone has."
It's true. He knows it's true. That's what scares him. He's already started running through all of his possible options. He's still a Warden. Maybe that can save him. It's a long shot, but it's possible, isn't it? He's never been the type to just give up, he's always been able to talk a good game. Maybe, maybe, maybe... he turns the wheels over in his head, but his stomach still hurts. He can't shake the feeling that his luck has run out again, because it always does.
"I can protect you," Lirene tells him.
"No you can't!" he snaps. She's already more involved than he wants her to be. He's sick of other people getting hurt because of him.
"I can. But only if you want me to."
Anders finally nods. What other choice does he have, really?