A NOTE TO RETURNING READERS: Hey, folks! Boy, Icarus has not aged well. I've finally finished Inquisition and it's given me a million Mage Rebellion AU ideas! I really want to push forward with my dream of what DA:I might've been like with this alternative path for Anders, Hawke and crew... but before I can do that, I need to clean up the backlog. It's time for a rewrite.
Icarus will be back – better, funnier, and sweeter than it was. In the meantime, please don't fret about missing chapters. I've temporarily removed the ones that need severe overhaul and will replace them with new and improved content, now that I've got a proper post-boom arc in my head. If for some reason you really, really, really want the original copy, I'm happy to send you the old draft privately. Just drop me a note.
Oh, and if you prefer to read this on Archive of Our Own, I'll be uploading there under the name rednightmare.
Thanks so much for your interest!
Mission Statement - SHORT: Icarus will focus on developing and, if you feel the same way I do, rectifying* my favorite mage in combat boots.
Mission Statement - FULL: I found the idea of Vengeance unfulfilling in the way of the deus ex machina. Rather than a presto! resulting in an entirely new character, I'd have liked to see Anders and Justice mature together, a combative but gradual symbiosis between two people (?) who have extremely different ideologies but want the same thing. Ultimately, I would've really enjoyed getting to watch Anders grow up on his own, without the quick-fix explanation of a demon warping him. Right there – that's the purpose of this fic.
PC Info: This is not a Warden-central story, but here-n-there I'll mention a Warden Brosca (Annie-Lynn from Cake) and several non-Warden renditions of various Origins starts. Though this world adheres to the canonical setting, significant deviations from the plot and timeline will take place, including character background details and especially regarding the mage rebellion/eventual foray into DA:I territory.
Art!: People drew beautiful stuff! pickledpoopers and Lesatho made some fantastic pieces related to Icarus. Go check out their homepages; they're both talented artists, and have been of great help bringing the narrative to life. Links in my FF profile.
Blah-Blah-Blah: I reeeeeally prefer a Greg Ellis Anders reading of Icarus, but that one, friend, is up to you.
*see post-script for realtalk rant (don't do it)
Never regret thy fall,
O Icarus of the fearless flight
For the greatest tragedy of them all
Is never to feel the burning light.
- Oscar Wilde
Anders's boots were getting tired.
The mage's feet, mind you, were fine. Sure, slogging through Fereldan moorland isn't a personal favorite – and, yes, clambering over Sundermount rocks is not exactly therapeutic for the knees – and granted, his caps were beginning to pop and his calves had hardened and his twisted ankles were sore – but they held together. They stuck.
Anders stuck, too.
You wouldn't think so, but as it turns out, he could. The mage found he could trudge on, gingerly favoring a yoinked hamstring or an injured foot, making a walking stick out of his staff. He could scrape along. Anders always was a persistent bugger if he was anything at all. As for motivation and the new back muscles? Those he liked to think of as Justice's doing – a little righteous contribution to the team.
And they held – all of them, together, every fickle little piece.
No measure of magey whining or hot-tempered spiriting could fix the apostate's boots, though. There were deep cracks in the soles from walking the sun-warm limestone of Kirkwall's docks. Wounded Coast sand jammed into them. Swamp water'd worn down the treads. They smelled of salt, like sea shells cleaned up and sat upon a shelf – like brine and oil rubbed into the black leather – like beaches and soil. Eyelets popped out. Laces fell apart and were replaced. The toes weakened; the heels eroded; the necks loosened until his sad gray trouser legs went sadder over their edges. He'd tied a length of bandages around one to hold it together. It was a damn shame.
Just throw them out! Get some new! All right, but do you have any idea how hard it is to find a good pair of boots? These were a hardy set of troopers, broken in just how he liked – worn to the perfect rakish, clever thud – no new shoe creaking or squeaking (because creaking, squeaking fugitives generally prove to be poor fugitives). You can't just shimmy up to any old leathersmith and find yourself some like this. Not ones you could actually move in, run in, live in. It always seems to be plates or stockings in the Marches. And Anders, contrary to popular belief – or at least Oghren belief – didn't like the insignificant feeling of prancy boots on his feet. He preferred something a little more substantial, with a little more weight.
Something, you might say, in-between.
It was in-betweenness on his mind as the apostate ambled slowly down a slippery Sundermount trail, enjoying the gentle climate, careful not to cramp his tender ankle. He was in no hurry today. Rare that Anders doesn't feel the need to rush, but so far – knock on about five hundred pieces of wood; on every decrepit, knotholed little soldier in his clinic – and at least for the time being, rumors of Ferelden Greys had kept Meredith's overeager recruits away from his doorstep. (Good thing, too. It's not as if he'd any resources to combat them in his current state, dodging drooling holy-rollers and Gallows guillotines in tandem, and do you know that's an awful strain on a mage's nest egg?)
Besides, the evening he had tonight was peach-pie-perfect. A blazing Marches afternoon had darkened to a lush, dewy cornflower, with tendrils of sunlight glazing the oyster bluffs ahead of him, warming the northern moss to rusty orange peel. This grassy path took its time, scattered with white dogwood buds and dimples of rainwater. It smelled like chickweed and evergreens. It was nice, really. Best to just go about his merry ol' way.
His merry way picking plants. Ah, yes. Merry plant-picking! Would've been a tad merrier had Kirkwall's iron factories not choked all the medicinal plants miles from its gates, sending Anders into Dalish territory on a bad foot, looking for delicate sage fingers and the little thumbs or morels. But the stunted bearberries punching their way through sooty Darktown wouldn't do; he needed fresh polk for anti-inflammatories (which were, for some 'mysterious' reason, always in high demand). And the only place to find this certain edible leaf happened to be these foothills, where greens got dramatically greener, and ferns bounced in a mildly threatening way.
Did you know that elf roads leave a lot to be desired?
Because they aren't even roads, really. These were snaking, skinny stretches where the bracken had been marginally stomped down, but the reeds were still hip-high around him, full of menacing boulders just waiting to trip up an innocent mage. Blooming wonder Kirkwall managed to survive this long without his very affordable merchandise and his willingness to hike to the ends of the earth for a plant.
"So affordable, it's free!" Anders blustered for no one, addressing a gnarled lilac bush. There was a fox squirrel sitting pretty inside, chewing on a walnut shell. It took one steady look at him and bolted. "Come on down today and pick up a bottle of Doctor Anders's Miracle Salve: For Every – And We Do Mean Every – Itch!"
Good thing the Dalish clans didn't bother skulking after him anymore. They'd been quite imposing the first time he'd run afoul of them: longbows hoisted, arrowheads teeming, menacing threats about bumbling shemlen spitted on ironwood pikes, halla horn spears adorning their shields. It scared the 'spawn blood right out of him, but Anders played his "harmless little healer" card with stirring effect. (Does a card really count as 'played' if it's true?) They left him alone after that, figuring the distressed-looking human for some kind of loopy hermit. "Oh, no, da'len – don't throw rocks at the nutty abomination – he'll turn us all into newts!")
"Why is it that people always seem to figure I'm bonkers? Is it the talking to myself, do you think?" he asked a particularly amiable-looking daffodil. The flower had no answers for him, but a breeze rippled through his stitched yellow coat, and made its petals give an appropriate little shrug.
Anders quite liked talking to himself. He'd developed the habit while cramming for alchemical exams – and it spiraled to necessity in the Tower prison heights, where the sound of his own voice and Mr. Wiggums's purring body were the only proofs of reality. Andraste, poor Mr. Wiggums! The apostate used to carry out detailed philosophical conversations with that patchy old mouser. He'd rant about templars, tell off-color jokes, sob occasionally, conspire escape. Once, during a low point, Anders had genuinely tried to talk the decrepit snowshoe into stealing keys for him. Wiggums would simply blink, give a garrulous meow, and rub his clover-leaf mouth along one of the shackles holding Anders's wrists.
And – whatever his mental state – the mage would "aww," pick him up, and press his face into that stinking old tom.
The mage scrubbed a hand over his sharp chin, feeling the rough of stubble there. "Rest in peace, Mr. Wiggums, you unhygienic little beast. May you smell better wherever you are," he declared, a dash of melodrama to make him feel better, grinning and sweeping one hand in salutation to the powder-blue sky.
And, as usual, the moment of silliness was chased by a remote twinge of impatience – a weary sigh jutting out, like a stalagmite, from somewhere deep in his gut. Justice always did have an abysmal sense of humor. Anders sulked inside himself, hoping it'd scratch the metal surface that was his Fade parasite. Make him feel guilty, like hey, maybe I shouldn't squash the man's fun one hundred percent of the time. He wasn't sure if this had any real effect.
'I'm just being myself, you fat suit of armor; me being me, is all; and if you don't like it,' Anders thought into himself, 'you could've picked a different mage.'
The apostate smoothed his feathered shoulders and stooped to pull a fistful of wild spinach. (Good for restoration potions. Also good in salads.) He gathered a sloppy bunch, shook off the dirt as best he could and bushelled them, cutting excess twine with his teeth. He picked a hank of strawlike hair away from his ears and poked the straggler messily back into its rope. There was still a little room left in the satchel for more.
Maybe some willow bark, Anders decided, eyeing up the nearest trees. True, you could buy flakes in the marketplace, but fresh produce is higher quality. And living trees have added benefits: green shavings for decongestants, twigs for corks, acorns for analgesics, berries for cough drops, and sweet sap that nicely masks the rancid flavor of elfroot tonic. Plus, they're the best smell in the entire world.
Anders had mentioned that to Justice once, years ago, as they stumbled upon a magnificent fir outside Amaranthine. A perfect tree, rich with sparrows and ants, right at the edge of cobblestone and smashed-flat farmland. It inspired him. "Ah, take a breath of that! Smells like wilderness!" he'd said, taking a deep whiff.
"Smells like cow shit where I'm standing," Sigrun observed by his waist, black pigtails amuck, knocking the caked field mud off her boots.
"You're just too short," Anders suggested, earring blinking snobbily at her. It tumbled right out of his mouth: "Smells wonderful up here. Smells like freedom!"
The mage wasn't even really sure what he'd been thinking, but there it was. Their dwarf flashed him a bizarre, scrunched, ridiculous look. Then Sigrun had pushed forward, breaking into a girlish, inglorious race to the city gates; Nate had followed; Anders had been left standing stupidly beside his freedom tree.
And, as unlikely as it seemed: the apostate thought Justice had smiled at him.
Sometimes he missed old Justice. Well – not missed him, per se; Justice was grafted onto his brain – but Anders did miss talking to the idealistic Fade Ser. Speaking, that is, out loud, using actual words. Seeing a form that could be touched, knocked on, left from in a huff, told to go away. Now Justice was only ideas. He announced himself with internal barking, odd compellations, foreign emotions, strange images, memories stirred up and altered, ones that could not have been all his. These messages could be subtle. Sometimes they were so subtle, the mage had a hard time separating his own beliefs from that muddle of feeling. Smoke and cinder, blood on his knuckles, chains on his feet, fear in his heart, blue vapor in his mouth. It was more and more like trying to peel skin off the flesh. It was getting harder and harder to keep his anger all his own.
It was all very frustrating, really. Anders wished for bygone days, when removing Justice was easy as lurching up and stomping indignantly someplace else. The mage had done that a lot when the ghostly crusader started harping liberty after Ser Pounce-a-Lot. Once, he'd even trotted towards his Vigil's Keep room to find Justice kicking wide the door and belting out: "Run, gentle knightling! You need no longer serve the magister!" Pounce had chirped curiously and wrapped himself around one menacing black sabaton. What an old tin can.
"Yes, you heard me. You're an old tin can," Anders mumbled, reaching up to boost himself into a low-hanging horse chestnut limb, shaking conkers to the ground. He leapt down and snatched up enough for a rheumatism mixture. His boots gave an uneasy sigh.
Telekinesis would've been easier, of course. But as a healer, and as a self-respecting libertine, he had a slight aversion to unnecessary magic. Perhaps that wasn't as true as simply saying he liked a good clamber every once and while. It gave him an opportunity to think about foot placing, hand grips, sturdy eaves – things that had nothing to do with mana or spellcasting, thanks bunches. You need to salvage happiness from basic fun wherever you could; that's one principle he rallied around.
(Not to mention this was excellent practice for when Order mabari chased him up into the oaks. Yes, it happened. Several times. The templars kept mean, lardy, righteous bitches – dogs who saw a mage and hoped with all the hate in their little canine hearts she would run.)
(Dogs and Anders never got on well. Ser Carroll, "Queen of Antiva," kept a big, burly mutt he fed raw steak and sicced on lippy apprentices. Half-mabari, red-furred, stub-tailed, with floppy wolfhound ears. It was a slobbering bully of a creature that lunged to shred robes but never quite drew blood. Anders had been a very lippy apprentice. Trees were an early ally.)
When he'd become a Warden, too, the magnetism between Anders and trees persisted. He remembered thunking down beside the company fire pit one evening outside Wending Wood, moping a little because he'd been treed yet again – this time by giant spiders. One moment, hairy legs were upon him; the next, he was screaming like a schoolgirl and scrambling over and up. And – after, when the arachnids were paste – he'd dropped out of his cottonwood, landing straight in a torrent of laughter.
Anders had been a little sore about it. As his fellow Wardens dispersed to collect firewood, he'd tossed himself heavily on a log, shooting an unenthused glare at their staid spirit companion. Justice was sitting upon a rock with his mighty sword rooted neatly into the ground. He said nothing. Anders glared harder.
"You even think about a cat joke, and I swear, I will broil you," he said.
Justice eyed Anders suspiciously thought his helmet slat, in that critical sidelong way he always analyzed the mage. "No. Cats imply poise. You are an awkward creature. You remind me of a bird."
"You think I'm songful?" the man tried back, cocking his head, a flutter of mockery. " That I have a large beak, is that it? Or maybe—!" A snort; a snicker into his palm. "Maybe you think I can fly?"
The spirit frowned – or, at least, Anders figured it did – Ser Kristoff's withered face twisting inside the heaume. Perhaps that 'beak' jibe had been in bad taste, because Justice's nose had broken off last week. No exaggeration – snapped clean off, popped by a bandit's shield, and landed in the courtyard grass. He always wore the helmet now. This body frightened people. And the spirit, too – he'd frightened people since Blackmarsh had grappled him into their world, ether in a dead thing, an intangible booming voice that resonated in your chest cavity. He was used to motivating, to leading the charge. He was used to being solid, unmovable, passion-bound, a beacon of wrongs-made-right through the application of fire. And now, he'd begun falling apart, mortal body unstitching, too weak to support the cold burning below the skin.
Anders did what he could to eliminate the odor. He channeled reparative energies; he applied sharp, astringent evergreen balm; but there is no making dead meat come alive again. It hung off his ribcage in loose sacks. Tissue dried away around his eyes, leaving horrifying, striking whites that bulged from the sockets. You could still see them, if you squinted hard enough. They shone light through the helm's dark face.
Justice turned had turned his head to look full at him – blunt, unsparing fact. "Not yet, no."
He didn't have long to dwell between worlds, and it made Anders profoundly, dismally sad. The mage admired the spirit's – backbone, for lack of better word – that fearless, dedicated absolutism to what is right. He admired it more than he would ever admit. Odds didn't scare him; nothing scared him; his ideals were ultimate and uncompromising. Justice never ran.
"You are exceptionally weird for a spirit," Anders said, because he refused to give that trumpeting judge the satisfaction of inspiring him.
It's obvious why a paragon of righteousness would be concerned with the Circle's plight. But he was never quite sure what Justice saw in him personally.
Doesn't so much matter now, does it? There's no undoing a possession; no scholar, enchanter, templar, or witch could cure abomination. Did he qualify as a proper abomination? Anders did not feel abominable. Justice had treated him all right so far.
He and Justice understood the same things. Now, one-bodied – with both a spirit and a soul – Justice understood the things about Anders no one had. It wasn't as though he fancied being secretive, or that he didn't like to talk, or that he hadn't looked for the language – hadn't tried to curl his tongue in a shape that might say something better than hey mate want to hear a joke? But how do you say these things to other people? How does he tease it into making the sense he's not needed to make to himself – that his favorite smell is wet pine and milkweed (freedom); that he sickens at the whiff of cut, orderly grass; that lovers are safety and happiness is having enough safety to sun your belly, stretch your toes, and sleep like a cat. That you shouldn't pick pretty flowers, but let them lie. That the best sound in the world is Tabby and Soris bickering at the rickety kitchen table where they drink buttery lemongrass tea as, just outside, elven children play hopscotch with charcoal and pebbles, and ocean wind flirts in the vhenadahl tree. That fear – the worst fear – is not Fadefire or a templar knife but tight, dark space (suffocation); that nothing scares him more than the panting of a hound (this is the sound of being pursued); that the best taste in the world is Calenhad water from the wild-weedy east side of the lake; that his favorite color is Five O'clock October Sundown on the Back of Nathaniel Howe's Black Hair. How do you put words around these pieces of yourself and keep the meaning of them as they mean to you?
It was getting late. Indigo crept in like upturned ink, leaving the sun squinting enviously at a peeking moon. He held up a hand and engulfed it with flame. Fire was never Anders's forte – tended to make his nerve endings tingle from palm to elbow, like smacking your funny bone. He clasped his five burning fingers around a dried-out branch, letting it take. Now it's a torch, look at that; isn't being a mage nice.
"Ouchouchouch," Anders whispered, blowing out his hand, shaking the memory of fire back out.
Better get on back, anyhoo. Sundermount isn't especially dangerous to a seasoned fugitive, not as far as woods go – I mean, even the jackrabbits'll eye you like a side of ribs in the Korcari – but his clinic had a bed. A hard, creaky bed that spat straw at him if he flopped in it, but he'd slept in dirtier patches. And it seemed inviting now that his ankle throbbed in earnest. Justice is only willing to do so much.
Anders hopped a puddle onto his uninjured leg, sweeping his halberd-ish staff through a line of tall weeds, clearing any snakes (because snakes are annoying). Last week he'd grabbed for some pretty ginseng and ended up with a copperhead in his hand. Check before you reach, dummy. If he's going to belly-up, it's not going to be running from an irritated snake.
His boots were wearing down, after all – soles were sticking to the planes of his feet – and who knew how much running he'd got left in them.
Before Justice, Anders had always run away. Oh, he joked about that now – "Time for Renegade Mage to cast Expeditious Retreat!" But every time Anders ran – every latch he'd sprung, every galleon he'd jumped, every box he'd crunched into – he was afraid this would be the last escape, his great finale. Every time the templars caught him, Anders was sure that this was it; they were really going to Tranquil him; or kill him; or tie a bow around his neck and kick him off a stool; surely he's not all this trouble to end up in handcuffs again. Every time he was shut away – thrown into a cell by a gold scruff, carried up an isolation tower, sealed behind a metal door that slammed daylight right out of the world – he thought: that's it. That's it, I'm finished, I can't survive this again – a frantic tightness that shuddered through his chest and quickly crumbled to: "I'm choking, I can't breathe, I'm going to die!" The darkness would lick inward from the sides of his eyes – it was always dark in a Chantry prison; inhumanly dark – and he would pace and pull his hair and hyperventilate until panic collapsed him. He was always so calm when they rounded him up in a hamlet or at a dock. He would laugh: "Hey, mate, thought you'd never get here!" He would be stupidly, desperately brave. And yet, every time they began the long, excruciating haul up those spiral stairs, all his runner's pride would disintegrate. Hadley would cart the hysterical apostate and Anders would struggle, squirm, kick, and bite his way back towards the waning light, pleading and screaming at the templar not to do this to him. Don't do it – not again – don't do this! Kill me! Don't put me away!
But, for all that – all that snotting and all those please-kill-mes and all the carrying on – he always found a loose bar, a rotten tether, a way out.
"Stop your whimpering, pole-twirler. Wardens'll keep your arse out of Andraste's randy fingers," Commander Brosca had grunted out when the templars began to sniff around Vigil's Keep, smacking her tongue at him. She shrugged theatrically when he'd asked why, tossed a blithe eh! She'd kicked out a heel and leant back, head clanking into the chair, chewing a tobacco leaf in one pudgy red cheek, coarse black wolverine with a little silver at her temples, too many teeth. "I know what it's like to have nobody watching your backside, mage. Nothing good about it. Can't help how we're born. Aye, no. Bee-sides, I like you. Remind me of this whiny blond I used to run with. He worked those sad ickle puppy-bitch eyes, too." And she pulled on her own, sniveling, lip ripening, a little joke all to herself. "Yip yip yip, don't make me, Annie, don't make me; I don't want to go to Lothering; I don't want to lick that lamppost; I don't waaaant to!"
And anytime her healer would complain – or hesitate, or quail, or say this is barmier than a Tranquil on a pogostick! – then on out, it was that sidelong squint, and Annie-Lynn's terse yip yip.
Anders wasn't much for the Gray Wardens, but had to point out that Commander Brosca was All Right.
The mage thought of her occasionally after he'd fled Vigil. Mostly when he was hungry and missing his comfy Keep room, sure, but sometimes when he was frightened, too. He thought of her when the templars almost caught up to him south road from Amaranthine. He thought of her when he'd jolt awake, mistaking the rustling of trees for the jangling of scabbards, shivering inside his makeshift tent. He thought of her when he would turn Justice's ring in his hand, stolen off Kristoff's desiccated corpse before they could burn it, wrapped in a satchel, tucked in a pocket. He thought of Warden Brosca and her unfortunate birth and her brave stand and how everyone had hated her, too. He thought about standing sometime. He thought of her words to him when he'd ended up upon a precipice one day, Waking Sea wind tearing at his back, forest like an army of black watchmen around him, seeing nothing but Ser Rylock's bitter-green eyes. Nothing good about it, he thought. Yip yip yip.
This is what happens when you let yourself run out of friends. An apostate without friends has only the chill and the promise of rain over him – a wet, harrowing charcoal. She'd torn his staff out of his hands and splintered it. She sent her men down the river and cut him off. She had him chased out here – chased, literally, like a dog in a wolf-trap, panting with his tongue in his mouth and his heart blocking the air from his throat – until he'd nowhere to go but over a seacliff. The templar's aura weighed down something in his soul and made his magic stupid, slack, and quiet. Pitch waves smashed the rocky coast eighty meters below. He stood staring at her, bedraggled, pupils mineshafts, feeling like nothing in every part of himself. He thought of Annie. That's it, he thought. I am done.
He had looked at the templar, his back to the end of the earth, and said, with clarity that startled him: "I will never go back. I will never go back to that place."
"Irrelevant. You have no choice in the matter and nowhere to run." Rylock's voice was metal; it shuddered the tree leaves, ignored the wind.
Anders breathed in. He tasted the brine and the pine trees and the rosewater perfume in her hair. He noticed the stitching on her cape. He looked at the cuffs around his wrists – silver, heroic, eagles burned into the plate. Not eagles. Griffons.
He thought about Annie-Lynn Brosca with her fat belly and her crooked teeth and the brand of a whole peoples' contempt cut into the red of her cheek, looking a dragon in the eye and running forward.
He pulled a knife out of his coat and he stood where he was. "Then come and get me, Chantry bitch."
She drew her sword.
It had been his last hurrah. Or so he thought, at any rate.
He stuck the blade into her cheek when she rushed him, pavise swinging like a battering ram, breaking four of his ribs. Blood flung itself airborne. Anders almost believed hers would be blue, but it was red – bright, gushing red that splattered across his neckline. Rylock roared. The handle was still there in her gums. She tore it out, whipped it aside, faced with the taste of her own blood, facing the apostate where he lay with scarlet spilling through her teeth.
Anders fought to find some air, gasping, thought his lungs were crushed. His fingers plunged into the gritty sand. He tried to stand. He did stand. The right hemisphere of his body was vibrating like a hammered bell; he searched for something to defend himself with, brown-eyed and bleary, but there were only sticks, little things that would smash uselessly against her cuirass. The nullified ground pulled at his insides, and he could feel the essence of him draining – down veins, through his soles, withering into the pale gray rock. His head was ringing. He thought someone called his name, but when the mage looked again towards those ebon trees, they were alone.
Ser Rylock, skin hanging from her gash, tossed the shield. Blood gnarled dark curls. She ran at his left flank, excellent form, longblade catching the thin, morose light through thunderheads. Dust swirled. He could hear her boot steel pound the earth.
Will you die for your freedom?
Anders swallowed. There were demon whispers pushing at the edge of his mind, a crusader hurling herself at him; he shut them out. Time slowed. He knows this is cliché, big action adventure story, but it did – it's true – he can't help it if it's true. His vambraces caught a fringe of that scarce light and cast it upward, glittering. Thunder rumbled far over the dark waves. He dug himself in and he stood.
He threw himself backwards over the ledge, out of her anti-magic, away from the murmurings – all gritted teeth and hate stronger than himself. He hurled a fireball as the seawater reached out beneath him. He watched it sear Rylock's face from the wickedness of her skull and pummel the knight's body far into the murky elms.
He was tumbling through the air, graceless. Wind through his hair and clothes and it deafened him. Salt burning. Cold, blasted down his throat too hard to breathe. He had no weight or sense of time. His hands, flattening the air, looked far away. The clamshell sky engulfed him. The black ocean yawned wide to gobble him up.
He closed his eyes and he fell and fell and fell and fell.
Anders, you know me.
Justice. Justice, is that you?
I have been following you.
Where are you? How can you be here?
You are meant to be more than you are, mage. You have a purpose.
Am I dead?
Not now – though you might be.
It doesn't make sense. It doesn't make sense, is all. I wasn't dreaming; I know I wasn't. If I were dreaming, I could make myself – I'd have woken up.
Where are we, Justice?
It is a place inside you. More I cannot explain; this is the concern of spirits, so do not tire your mind on the asking. Be content in the knowledge that I have reached you in this moment. Let us speak. When we are through, you may make a decision. What is after will be after. As it must, when it must.
You can't leave it at that – not just "as it must," that's all, that's it, be content. I watched you die. Do you know that? I had to see it, Justice; I had to stand and watch them do that to you. They burned you to nothing. The Wardens did. Ser Kristoff's body, I mean. Armor and all. Just – oiled it – liquefied. The Seneschal was afraid your remains might be dangerous. They said it didn't matter; you weren't there, anymore. I tried to save your helm, at least, but he would have none of that. It wasn't important. It wasn't as important. "Demonic taint," that's what they said.
I'm sorry, Justice. I told them you weren't a demon, but no one cared. They wanted to destroy your ring, too, so I stole it from them. When I left. I thought you'd want it… you know. Kept.
I am aware; that is how I found you. No apologies are required.
Why is this happening?
I would like to help you. I would like to help you see your purpose. Will you give thought to what I say?
I can't see it making much difference now, Justice. But yes. You know I will.
I have spent much time in the company of mortals. You know this. I have observed all that I may of them, so I might understand the appeal your world holds to my enemies, and I have tried to pass my judgment on your kind.
It is because of this trial – yours, and also mine – that I feel the need to make something known to you. Do you recall when once we discussed the plight of the mages? – why you had done nothing to aid them, despite the fervor of your beliefs, and the rightness of your anger.
I do recall that, yes.
You called it slavery. You have weathered the sting of injustice, the yoke of power sanctioned by fear. And yet you told me that you did not believe the duty to change their fate belonged to you. It was too large to be fought, and so you would not risk your prize to try. You felt, so you said, that your duty was first to you, and the pains you had borne to claim it made this freedom from change your right. I was gravely disappointed in you.
That's an understatement. You called me a coward.
Yes. Your shamelessness about your cowardice angered me more than the cowardice, itself.
You're wrong. I think I am very brave, and I don't care what you think. Else I couldn't have done what I did. I would never have been there to say any of those things to you. I would have done what was expected of me and died. Or been made Tranquil, or been executed, or been stuck in that tower forever, starving, spoiling. I wouldn't have lived like that. I'd have killed myself.
Bravery is not courage unless a sacrifice is made.
Do you want me to admit I'm selfish? Fine. I'm a selfish little prick. I've had to be. And I'd rather be this lowly coward than be anything the templars wanted me to be.
And once I would have agreed with what you say of yourself. But I have rethought you. I do not think you comprehend what that scale of change requires, or what it might look like, enough to fail in it. You do not see your position. You are not selfish by nature, I think – merely by circumstance – but you are fearful. And I do not think you appreciate that there is a difference between cowardice and fear.
Riddle-speak. Cowardice is just the expression of fear. Is this why you came to me – to pass judgment? What makes you think I am interested in being judged by anyone, least of all you? I don't see how it matters. I still can't see how any of it—
Of all the beings I have met in my time here, you have the strongest understanding of what Right is. Your selfishness is not the product of greed, malice, or uncaring. You are kind, and I have watched you be generous. What you are is afraid. You use apathy as an excuse to avoid becoming relevant. Tell yourself and others what you wish; I have passed my judgment, and there is nothing stopping you from purpose but yourself.
Will you tell me, mage, if you are afraid now?
Will you say why?
You wouldn't harm me.
No, this is true. You have never given me a reason to cause you harm. But you have thrown yourself away. This I cannot understand.
And I can't explain to you. It won't make sense to a spirit, I'm sure, but it's – done, I suppose. It's done and I did it. I always sort of knew, I guess. How could you not.
You think the price of your freedom has not been paid.
I didn't want to jump, Justice. I don't want to die, really. But I've had it. I've had enough. Enough, do you understand? I'd rather die than go back to that life. I am afraid of what… comes after this. But I am so much more afraid of being locked away – for good, forever. It's like seeing gray all your life and then waking up to a sunrise. Would you let them take that back? I can't.
Why did you leave the Wardens?
Because they were keeping me! Same as the Circle was. Longer leash, but a roomy prison's still a prison when you're not there by choice. What do you want me to say? I never belonged there.
You would die before being kept.
I would. I – will, I suppose.
Most would rather have a kept life than none. You do not. Why?
Because! It's fucking – it's wrong. It's wrong. To keep. But that's what we do, us mortals. We get one inch of space on someone else and we keep it. By any means necessary. By sword and chain if we want. Or by money, or promises. What do we care! Power, palaces, people. It's all wrong. It's wrong, I tell you. I wasn't meant for that sort of a life.
Have you also considered that perhaps you were not meant to follow?
I don't understand what you're talking about. Or why you're talking to me. Or how. Or where. Or anything. Justice, why is this—
I have come to make you an offer, mage.
Oh. Oh no. What, exactly? What are you suggesting?
This is a pointless death. Allow me to spare you from it.
The same way that any Fade creature walks this plane: an implicit contract between spirit and host. Invite me to assist you, and I will.
You want to possess me.
Know that I will respect your decision in this. Refuse and I will leave you to the end you have found. Permit me, and I will aid you. I will be your shield and your weapon. I will see you to your purpose, Anders.
Will you stop saying that? I don't believe in purpose. Neither should you. Especially not you – you're always telling us to be change, like it's everyone's choice where they stand. You think "purpose" allows for that? All that word means is that you think some silent god has this grand scheme for all things, and we're powerless – powerless – to control it. It means we can't choose our—
You deliberately misunderstand me. But I know you hear what I have to say.
Can I believe what you say?
I know you, Justice. I think I do, at least. But you forget I know magic and what it means to me. I know the nature of spirits. You've lost your hold here – and you claim you aren't like your cousins – but here you are, following me? What should a mage think of offers like this? You say these things so I'll listen. You say these things so you can get a foothold. So you can—
I will not lie to you. Your world is beautiful. I would very much like to stay. But it does not mean I have lied. I will change you. But I will not keep you, as they have.
Is this forever?
Truly, I do not know.
People won't see any difference. You know that, don't you? You will make me a maleficar.
You have never much cared what the templars believe. Are you curious to know what it is like not to be afraid?
I would be an abomination.
You would be a free man.
Do you trust me, mage?
Yes. I do trust you.
Then let it be.
All right. All right. Yes. Fine. Yes.
This is your permission?
It is. I agree.
He woke up.
He woke up – with tears and seawater in a tight, thick crust across his face, washed into a sandstone cove, sopping. He had a string of kelp and a fisherman's lost net snarled around his leg. His right shin and foot were horribly broken. Blood, but not much of it – he felt himself and found some, dried around his mouth and swollen eyes, brown and crackling as though it wasn't even his own. The whole side of his torso where Rylock's shield hit had morphed the sickly cranberry-purple of burn-blisters. All five nails on one hand were missing, replaced by ugly stubs. He couldn't swallow. He couldn't breathe without pain prickling against his lungs.
But he lived. And his raw fingers radiated a soft, blue glow.
When he touched things, they lived, too
His snapped tibia, cracked ribs, crushed toes. An unconscious Dalish scout Anders stumbled upon when he finally found the strength to leave that damp, rocky cave, and the elf's bleating halla, hoof pulverized in a hunter's bear trap. An Imperial Highway patrolman with a rogue's arrow throbbing in her gangrened calf. An Amaranthine girl with a wasting cancer. A dock worker with a knife in his throat. Three plague-ridden slaves wandering outside their master's galleon. A good quarter of the Denerim alienage. A guard whose eyes had melted shut in a tenement fire. About two-dozen feral cats brained by carriage wheels. A boy five hours dead.
Anders had always been a healer. He is a selfish person, really, but he had always wanted to help. Yet it had never been like this – his magic so easy, so potent, not a spell but a pouring – as though it came from somewhere far outside of him, a womb of life over his palms, a membrane over the skin. He did things that should not have been possible. He made works he could not explain.
He'd never advertised or tried to find patients. But they always seemed to crop up, tripping the mage as he tried to run, stumbling blocks in his road.
Now, in Kirkwall – after so much time had passed and so many miles were behind him – his boots began falling apart. Justice thought it was a sign.
So, against all the instinct that needled Anders to get on, get out, keep moving, he'd ended up renting an old warehouse from some side-a-ways Darktown contractor and opening this damn clinic. He brewed medicine for pauper elves too poor to pay. He patched up Ferelden refugees who'd sold themselves as pit-fighters. He healed fugitives; he stitched together thieves hiding in the Bronze City's underbelly; he cured citizens evicted from their homes because the taxes surged too high; he splinted aged warriors now too old to find work; he sutured frightened immigrants, hindered by language barriers; he purged impoverished drunkards; he soothed lepers; he soothed addicts; he fed the occasional Gallows runaway who had nowhere else to turn. Justice rarely handed out a compliment. But there was a placidness from the spirit among all this, a sureness. And Anders itched less when he was doing something Right.
This all happened much later, though. When the sodden apostate had first come back to himself on that rock-strewn shore, he'd mended his own body, and ran.
It was months before Justice spoke to him again after that fall into the Waking Sea. Only those fuzzy urges and the calmness that didn't seem natural told Anders his survival hadn't been a fluke. There were times he feared their joining failed – that maybe he'd obliterated the spirit somehow, gulped him, destroyed what Justice was. But not so. Justice couldn't be destroyed by somebody like Anders. The thought was kind of arrogant and funny now. Justice had just been sitting back and watching, wondering what his host would do with this new power. He was content to pick through the workings of the mage's mind – and Anders's mind must've been at least a little interesting, because weeks went by, and it was still almost, but not quite, like being by himself.
But the running did not stop.
Justice's dissatisfaction made Anders's stomach hurt, made his palms sweat, gave him very unnerving dreams – but you can't turn a flight animal to a revolutionary in a couple flyaway days.
So there were caravans, stolen horses, ships, carriages, a long line of campfires, dirt-cheap hotel rooms, and holes in the dirt.
Until one day, he had simply stopped.
It was in Sundermount. It wasn't far from where he was strolling now with his quarterstaff and pockets full of sage. It was on the far edge of this stretch of forest, standing with his back to the treelip. It was last year, in the final weeks of a wet spring. It was right after he'd hopped onto Kirkwall's harbor for the first time, his belongings crammed into a shabby backpack, each step swaying uneasily after so many days at sea.
There was barely time to resupply. A suspicious templar saw him disembark that morning, he was sure. So one handful of jerky, two water canteens, a tarp to use as his tent, and the mage was climbing through the wilds again, hastening away. Anders had slogged all day through underbrush, scraping his arms on thorns and awkward twigs. He moved quickly. He'd been walking for hours, cutting through the woodland, pressing forward until he stood at the other side.
And when he had reached it – tree needles thatched into his feathered robe, tongue dry – he'd stopped.
There was gravel beneath his boots. There was a large pillar of redwoods and conifers behind him. The mountain's shadow leant backwards over Kirkwall, a dark spot now looming in his wake. Before him, the sky was enormous – eggshell, smoky gray – leading into tundra and flatland. He could smell a fire somewhere. He took a breath. He felt as though he was standing at the farthest edge of the world.
And came a voice inside him, then – clear like a memory – or maybe a holy bell:
"Where are you running to, mage?"
He had no idea. This had never bothered him before, but suddenly, he felt very, very tired, a kind of tired you cannot reverse, like something had slipped and fallen inside his bones.
"Hi, Justice," Anders said, and sat his weary runner's legs on the ground.
"You will never reach your destination until you know what it is."
He thought. Yip yip yip.
With nowhere in particular to run, Anders stood up, turned around – saw the City of Chains gleaning dully in the distance – and he walked back.
And he wasn't sure why Kirkwall reeled him in, an apostate in a city made of stone and brass. But it felt Right, so Anders picked up his plants, and he walked home on his exhausted boots.
REAL TALK RANT:
BioWare, as usual: I am in love with your concept of libertine mage-turned-liberty mage, and I love me some Anders, but boy howdy, is that execution messed. No offense intended to anyone who writes a canon-adhering Anders, of course! I've no disagreements with those who uphold his real design - just disagreements with the vision of the original designers.
Number A: "Vengeance" disappointed the hell out of me in that it struck me as an utterly unnecessary and painfully artificial way to make Anders grow. IMO, "a demon warped me" isn't growth – it's cringey creative laziness. Sadly, the neat-o rivalry vs. friendship mechanic of DA2 matters nothing here, since Anders is insta-corrupted instead of organically developing or essentially conflicted. It's not like supporting him exhumes more of the Anders personality and obstructing him facilitates Justice. So what's with the smoke and mirrors, BioWare? Why not use Justice's influence to gradually grow Anders from a selfish-but-compassionate runner to a would-be martyr, instead of hand-of-god + retconning him? Character growth, schmaracter growth.
Number B: BioWare, don't you even talk to me about that high school lunchroom bullshit "romance" path. Not only is the dialogue extremely poor, but the relationship you've depicted is mutually abusive in gross and – most importantly – noncritical ways. "Fundamental rights? More like SEXY TORTURED LOOK" – oh my god, BW, did you really write this as a successful flirt line for us? And lo, canonically obsessed Anders returns with: "I'LL HURT YOU SO PUSH ME AWAY BECAUSE THAT'S YOUR RESPONSIBILITY!" Look, in no universe will I accept that's believable behavior for him. It's fine to write an unhealthy relationship in fiction, but it's not OK for writers to avoid showing it for what it is. Like, I can't even decide who's the bigger dickbag in this equation – Hawke, who responds to an admission of being systematically abused for years with "A DARK PAST, THAT'S SO HOT DUDE," or Anders, whose idea of a come-on verges on an actual physical threat. Plus: cheesy. That romance writing is Kraft American singles. I mean, how many creatives had to nod, you-know-what-would-be-cool, and sign off on that shit? How many writers with résumés were like "JUSTICE DOES NOT APPROVE OF MY OBSESSION WELL HEY SOUNDS GOOD TO ME BRAH."
Number B.5: Conditional sexuality/bi erasure. Anders is canonically bi. Oh, except he's not – not quite – because in DA2, he's either straight or gay depending on your Hawke's gender. Let me say that again real slow. DA2 Anders's performed sexuality is dependent on the gender of your character; all dialogue referring to male lovers (Karl, specifically) disappears from DA2 if you play a female Hawke. This is egregiously offensive. It's tantamount to: all of the representation, some of the time. It's tantamount to making him "straight" if he's in a male-female relationship. TL;DR: Anders is bi and should be bi all the time.
Number C: Smalls, you're killin me; you had all the pieces already set up, you had what I still think is a pretty fantastic political plot arc, and you had a beloved existing character in position to do some hardcore transformation that could've challenged us all. What do you do, son?
JUSTICE IS RIGHTEOUS, JUSTICE IS HAAAAAAARD SO HARD MMMM
Since BioWare's cool with retcon, I was holding out wild hope that Anders might show up in Inquisition like: "Varric my man, it's great to see you and all, but what the fuck was that dialogue you wrote for me; you made me sound like a total dweeb; now half Thedas thinks I'm an undersexed, melodramatic, brooding bleedy-heart tart – so basically, Nate Howe*."
"DROWN US IN BLOOD TO KEEP YOU SAFE." Andraste's peach fuzz, I have never seen a seasoned group of grown ass writers fuck up so bad.
Yeah. These are the points I'll be addressing.
*to be fair, Nate "It's Not Like I Like You Or Anything" Howe is, as the gentle fanfolk say these days, my dorky rogue son**
**I'm Rendon Howe***
***TWAS I WHO KILLED YOUR PRECIOUS COUSLANDS