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!corruption resulting in a 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: I will be briefly using a more matured Warden Annie-Lynn Brosca from Cake and a few other (non-Warden) created Origins characters. Significant deviations from canon and timeline will take place, but this story is not a proper AU; it follows the overarching plot of DA2, and the boom is a go.
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 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.
His feet and the mage himself 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 – but they held together. They stuck. True!: the caps were beginning to pop at sickly, awkward intervals that made him grimace, but at least they were still around to complain. His calves had hardened and gone sore. Oh, and the poor man's poor ankles had been sprained so many times – rude logs, tactless twigs, riverbed stepping-stones slipperier than they looked, pebbled mountain passes – that he didn't even really feel it, anymore. But most evenings, Anders found he could persist. He could trudge on, gingerly favoring a yoinked hamstring or an injured foot, limping only a bit, making a walking stick out of his staff. Persistence, that. And it's kind of funny, you think of it, since he'd never meted out a very high pain tolerance. But Anders was a persistent bugger if he was anything at all. The good mood and the 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.
Not even a hot-tempered spirit could fix the apostate's boots, though. There were deep cracks in the soles from walking the sun-warm limestone of Kirkwall's midday docks. Wounded Coast sand jammed into them. Swamp water had smoothed 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, remnants of a hungry voyage from Amaranthine. Eyelets tugged at stitches. The laces fell apart and were replaced. The toes weakened, the heels went smooth, and the necks dethreaded until his sad gray pant legs went loose and got 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! Excuse him. 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 down to the perfect rakish, clever thud, no new shoe creaking or squeaking (because creaking, squeaking fugitives generally prove to be poor fugitives). You couldn't just shimmy up to any old town market 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 – does not like the insignificant feeling of prancy boots on his feet. He prefers something a little more substantial, with a little more weight. Something in-between. The mage's mouth twitched as a memory of stout Warden Brosca punching Ser Rylock in the codpiece worked itself across his mind. 'A nice in-between,' he decided. Is there ever anything better than that?
No, nope. He wasn't going to throw them out.
The apostate ambled slowly down this slippery, halfheartedly-beaten trail of forest, enjoying the mild climate, careful not to cramp his tender ankle. He was in no hurry today. It's rare Anders does not feel the need to rush in some form, but thus 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 the strange healer's allegiance with Ferelden's Greys kept Meredith's overeager recruits well enough away from his doorstep. Better not to think about it right now, though. 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 so damned pleasant-perfect. A lush, dewy sky darkened from the bright afternoon blaze to a calmer, cornflower color, 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! It would've been a tad merrier had the choke of Kirkwall's iron factories upon this place not forced him miles away from the gates, hiking into Dalish hunting zones on a bad foot, looking for little thumbs of morels and delicate sage fingers. But you win some and you lose some, as Namaya liked to say, picking her teeth with a skinning knife. No avoiding it. Even had Anders settled with those measly, stunted bearberries punching their way through the sooty dirt around the city, he needed fresh polk for a topical anti-inflammatory cream that, for some 'mysterious' reason, was forever in high Lowtown demand. The only place to find this certain edible leaf happened to be deep in Sundermount's shrublands, right up on the foothills, where the greens got dramatically greener, and ferns bounced in a mildly threatening way. What a bother. Elf roads left a lot to be desired, because they weren't even roads, really; they were snaking, skinny stretches where the bracken had been marginally stomped down, reeds hip-high around them, 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.
"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!" (He should've gone into the market business. His only job should be catchy jingles for too-rich merchant princes – sod all this druidic juniper-picking and wandering through chilly woods. 'Would've made a fortune, most like. And now here I am: ridden by poverty. But! I'm free to shoot lightning at fools whenever I please, so it's fair trade.')
Good thing the Dalish clans didn't bother skulking after him anymore. Sneaky, those elves in their sock-feet – much more so than clanging, clattering templar, anyway – but this particular mage loathed being watched with a special fervor. Oh, of course; they had made themselves quite imposing that uncomfortable first time he'd had run afoul of them, no surprise. Longbow tips hoisted in his face, 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 gave an appropriate little shrug.
Anders quite liked talking to himself, actually. He had developed a habit of it while cramming for alchemical exams, and he'd done it by necessity in the Tower prison, isolated at its height, where the sound of his own voice and Mr. Wiggums's purring body were the only proofs of reality. Andraste, poor Mr. Wiggums – all patchy, white fur sloughing off into his sweaty hand, bald spots yawning wide behind those mite-deaf ears. The apostate used to carry out detailed philosophical conversations with that 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 ankles or 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, rough chin, feeling the stubble there. "Rest in peace, Mr. Wiggums, you unhygienic little beast. May you smell better wherever you are," he declared to Sundermount, a dash of melodrama to make him feel better, grinning and sweeping one hand in salutation to the stretch of powder-blue sky.
And, as usual, the moment of silliness was chased by a remote, impatient feeling – a weary sigh jutting, like a stalagmite, from somewhere deep in his gut. Justice always had 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 all 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 down 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 bound them in a bushel, cutting excess twine with his teeth. He pulled a hank of strawlike hair away from his ears and poked the stragglers messily back into their rope. There was still room between the ginseng and tubers for a few strips of willow bark; true, you can buy flakes in the marketplace for a decent price, 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. Needles clustered its branches, shedding and healthy. Ants crawled along the spine. Sparrows preened around leafy, thorned cones. A perfect tree, 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, lungs puffed to their spilling point.
"Smells like cow shit where I'm standing," Brosca had harped by his waist, black pigtails amuck, knocking the caked field mud off her boots. Sigrun giggled.
"You're just too short," Anders suggested, earring blinking snobbily at her. "Smells wonderful up here. Smells like freedom!"
It had tumbled right out of his mouth. The mage wasn't even really sure what he'd been thinking, but there it was. Their dwarves flashed him a bizarre, scrunched, ridiculous look. Then they trundled away, unaffected, breaking into girlish, inglorious race to the city gates. He had been left standing stupidly between a tree and a trapped spirit, considering his incomplete wisdom, the dropped punch-line.
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 in wayward ideas – internal barking, odd compellations, vague emotions, foreign 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 Justice's drive to change. This was particularly confusing whenever Anders thought about his Circle brethren, locked in that gods-awful circus tower; his mind twisted, painfully sometimes, a tumult of anger and fear and halved desires to do something, but something he could never agree with himself on.
Or, other times, the compulsions were bleatingly obvious: smoke, cinder, blood on his knuckles, blue vapor in his mouth.
Justice surely meant well. Anders generally thought so, anyway. But the spirit was a touch on the violent side.
At least he hoped that was Justice.
Deciphering himself from the undulation of spirit was becoming more and more like trying to peel his skin away from the bones beneath. It was all very frustrating, really. Anders wished for bygone days, when removing Justice was easy as lurching up and stomping indignantly someplace else. He'd done it a lot when the ghostly crusader started harping "liberty!" after Ser Pounce-a-Lot. Andraste's knickers. Even with the damned blowhard fused right into him, right into his throat and his stomach and under his tongue and against the backs of his eyes, believing that rash of encounters actually took place was still a challenge. Once, he'd 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 them up. Maybe it was enough for a rheumatism mixture. His boots gave an uneasy creak.
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, though, 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, thank you very much. You need to salvage happiness from basic fun wherever you could; that's one principle he and Brosca rallied around. Not to mention this was excellent practice for when slavering mabari chased him up into the oaks. Yes, it happened. Several times. Templar Order mabari – mean, lardy, righteous bitches (literally and metaphorically) – who saw a mage and hoped with all the hate in their little canine hearts she would run. Call this mage a pessimist if you like, but he was fairly sure it would happen to him again.
Dogs and Anders never got along well. Ser Carroll, "Queen of Antiva," kept a big, burly mutt he fed raw steak and sicced on lippy apprentices, in fact. Half-mabari, red-furred, stub-tailed, with floppy wolfhound ears. It was a slobbering bully of a creature, identical to his master, a brute that lunged to shred robes but never quite drew blood. Anders had been a very lippy apprentice.
And, when he became a Warden, 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. They closed too swiftly for the mage to let fly lightning; one moment, his hands had been pulsing pink with energy, then next they'd been shoved in the hair from of a massive arachnid, pouncing over him, legs pawing at his shoulders and chest. Yes, indeed – Anders sounded the retreat. He screamed like a schoolgirl, rolled out from beneath the fuzzy, tapping abdomen, and scrambled for the nearest cottonwood he could reach.
Fortunately for the lot of them, Justice stomped the offending creatures into bubbling, venomous paste. The apostate dropped out of his safety tree and into a torrent of laughter. Brosca herself howled and slapped his thigh. He'd been still rubbing out the tiny handprint when she'd darted off to collect firewood, tossing himself heavily on a log, shooting an unenthused glare at their staid spirit companion. Justice was sitting upon a rock with his bastard 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.
"Cat? No. Cats imply poise. You are an awkward creature. You remind me of a bird." Justice eyedAnders suspiciously thought his helmet slat, conclusions made, in that critical sidelong way he always analyzed the mage.
It was impossible to let that one slide, of course, no matter how much the announcement perplexed him, alarmed him, reminded him of how that Tower used to feel. "You think I'm lofty?" the man tried, cocking his head, a flutter of mockery. "That I sing well? 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 massive 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, blue 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 hero to the meek, a beacon of wrongs made right through the application of honest, loving fire – and now, he'd begun falling apart, mortal body unstitching, too weak to support the cold color burning behind the skin.
The healer did what he could to eliminate the odor. He channeled reparative energies; he applied sharp, astringent evergreen balm to cover the spoiled reek of rigored flesh, 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, non-condemning fact. "Not yet, no."
He did not have long to dwell between worlds, and it made Anders profoundly, dismally sad. The renegade mage admired that backbone – that fearless, dedicated absolutism to what is right – 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 equality 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? What about a corruption? Anders did not feel corrupt. 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. Some the mage himself did not and does not fully know. It wasn't as though he fancied being secretive; or that he didn't like to talk; or that he hadn't tried to find the language, 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 safety is lovers; and happiness is having that safety, enough to lounge in open space, sun your belly, stretch to 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 their 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, inhaling, wilting (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?
They just haven't gotten around to cooking up words for that, Anders thinks.
It was getting late. Indigo crept into the fringes of sky, some upturned ink, leaving the sinking sun to squint enviously at a rising white moon. He held up a hand and engulfed it with flame. Fire spells tend to make his nerve endings tingle – never been Anders's forte – sending an uncomfortable crackle of heat from palm to elbow, like smacking your funny bone. He flipped the halberd he was using for a staff, clasped his five burning fingers around it, holding a match to tinder, 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. Not as though Sundermount is especially dangerous to a seasoned fugitive, not as far as woods go – I mean, even the jackrabbits'll eye you like a pink side of ribs in the Korcari – but his clinic has a bed. A hard, creaky bed that spits straw at him if he flops in it, but he's slept in dirtier patches. And it seemed inviting now that his ankle had begun to throb in earnest. Justice is only willing to do so much.
Anders hopped a puddle onto his uninjured leg, sweeping the hot stave through a line of tall weeds, clearing any snakes, because snakes are annoying. Last week he'd grabbed for some pretty polk leaves and ended up with a copperhead in his hand and that taught him his lesson. Check before you reach, dummy. Dying bloated and frothing from poison is pretty useless, isn't it? If he's going to belly-up like that, no warning, it's not going to be running away from an irritated snake.
His boots were wearing down, after all – soles were sticking to the planes of his feet – and who knows how much running he's 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 provisions box he'd crunched into, all elbows and knees – 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, 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 of hair, 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, laughing hey, mate, thought you'd never get here!, stupidly, desperately brave. And yet, every time they began the long, excruciating haul up these spiral stairs, all that 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 rusty bar, a rotten tether, a way out.
"Stop your whimpering, y'bleeding pole-twirler," Commander Brosca had grunted out when the templars began to sniff around Vigil's Keep, smacking her tongue at him. "Wardens'll keep your arse out of Andraste's randy ickle fingers." She shrugged theatrically when he'd asked why, tossed out 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 had to point out that Commander Brosca was quite all right. For such a short person.
The mage had thought of her occasionally after he'd fled the Wardens. 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 that precipice, the Waking Sea wind tearing at his back, the forest like an army of black watchmen around him, having no Ferelden Grays to stop this, seeing nothing but Ser Rylock's bitter-green eyes. Nothing good about it, he thought. Yip yip yip.
Anders had run out of friends. He had only the chill of late evening and the promise of rain over him, a wet, harrowing, charcoal sky. She had torn his staff out of his hands and splintered it. She had sent her men down the river and cut him off. She'd 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 had 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. The pitch waves smashed the rocky coast eighty meters below. He stood staring at her, staggered, 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, away from 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, mage, and you have nowhere to run." Rylock's voice was metal; it shuddered the tree leaves, raking through the wind.
Anders breathed. He licked his lips. 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, rooted into 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 eyes 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 his energy, his mana, 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 her brown curls. She ran at his left flank, excellent form, longblade catching the thin, morose light through these thunderheads, a holiness. Dust swirled. He could hear her steel boots pound the deadened 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, a god-awful trope, 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.
Not ever again.
He jumped. He threw himself backwards over the ledge, out of her anti-magic, away from the murmurings – all gritted teeth and hate and need stronger than himself. He hurled a fireball as the seawater reached out beneath him, screaming. He watched it sear Rylock's face from the wickedness of her skull and pummel the knight's body far into the thick and 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 listened.
Anders, you know me.
Justice. Justice, is that you?
I have been following you.
Where are you? How can you be here? I can't—
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 doesn't feel like the Fade.
This is a secret place, a safe pocket in your soul. Do not tire your mind on it; time and space are relative things, and this is the concern of spirits, not those like you. 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. How do you expect me to accept this? 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 influences," that's what they said.
I'm sorry, Justice. I told them you weren't a demon, but no one cared. They did it. 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 before your morality ends it. If I speak to you here – if were to ask you some questions – 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 as of late, mage. You know this. I have observed all that I may, and done so closely, so I might understand the appeal your world holds to my enemies – and I have tried several theories in order to pass 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, Anders the Apostate. 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 upon your back, 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, or 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 severely 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, disappointing 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 in this life. You are not selfish, I think – 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 apathy 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 laziness as an excuse to avoid becoming relevant. Tell yourself and others what you wish – I have passed my judgment, and found nothing apathetic about you, Anders. There is nothing stopping you from courage but yourself.
Will you tell me, mage, if you are afraid now?
Can you explain 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 suffocating me. What do you want me to explain? I never belonged there.
Have you considered that perhaps you were not meant to follow?
I don't understand.
I have come to make you an offer, mage.
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 – what you want, what you might want. You've lost your hold here. You claim you aren't prey to the greed of 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, use me for you—
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. Those like me never need or abide by a lie. Do not compare me to a demon, mage. You only embarrass yourself.
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. With me, you will have the courage to care not at all.
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, 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 left 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 was not 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 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 of 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 those twinges of 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 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 had been months until Justice spoke to him again after that fall into the Waking Sea. Only those fuzzy urges, the quiet in his stomach, the calmness that didn't seem natural told Anders his survival hadn't been a fluke. There were times he'd 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, considering, wondering what his host would do with this new power. He was content to quietly 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 flight animal to a revolutionary in a couple precious days.
So there were caravan trains, 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 on fire and his 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 spent at sea.
There was barely time to resupply. A suspicious templar had seen 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, uncaring. He moved quickly. He had 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 had just stopped. There was gravel beneath his boot soles. 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.
"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 down on the ground.
"You will never reach your destination until you know what it is."
He thought. Yip yip yip.
With nowhere else to run, Anders stood up, turned around – saw Kirkwall gleaning dully in the distance – and he walked back.
And he wasn't sure why Kirkwall reeled him in, an apostate in a brass city made of chains. But it felt right, so Anders picked up his plants, and he walked home on his exhausted boots.
Andy, speaking from personal experience, you need to THROW OUT THE BOOTS. Isabela can take you shopping for new ones.
BioWare, I'm going to need you to do a couple of things for me before DA2 and me can be buds.
Number A: GET "VENGEANCE" LIKE TEN THOUSAND STEPS BACK OUT OF MY FACE. That's not development – that's some downright embarrassing creative laziness. And the neat-o rivalry vs. friendship mechanic matters nothing here, since Anders is insta-corrupted (KRAWLING IN MY SKIN) instead of organically developing or essentially conflicted. It's not like supporting him exhumes more of the Anders personality and obstructing him facilitates Justice. What's with the smoke and mirrors, BioWare? BOOM, BABY – just snap my fingers, wreck that subplot, obliterate potential for character growth. Character growth, schmaracter growth.
Number B: Don't you even talk to me about that high school lunchroom bullshit "romance" path. That shit is UNHEALTHY, and childish about it. "Fundamental rights? More like SEXY TORTURED LOOK" says Flirty!Hawke!, to which Obsessed!Anders! cries, "BUT I'LL HURT YOU!11!1!" for the ultimate mutually demeaning and emotionally abusive faceplant off the Chantry roof. Like, I actually can't 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. Not even a luxurious, buttery gouda cheese. That romance writing is Kraft American singles. You can't just blame Jennifer Hepler for this, to be honest; I mean, how many creatives had to nod, you-know-what-would-be-cool, and sign off on that shit? How many adults 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 – 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 of the representation, some of 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
Couldn't have ret-conned that shit? Had Anders 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*." Ret-con's already all over the place in Dragon Age. I mean.
"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