Pawn Becomes King
From Act II to Act III, after Night Terrors and Mirror Image, spoilers. Mage F!Hawke/Merrill. Making a pact with one demon does not provide immunity to others. In Merrill's case, the offers have only increased.
The Eluvian shines true one day. Merrill finishes the last few swipes of the arulin'holm over the branchwork frame, and suddenly a luminescent glow starts to leak from the wood, oozing into the glass. Silvery light ripples across the jagged shards like an infection. Where it touches, things change. Pieces flow together, merging into a single pane. One last tremor runs over the frame, and the entire surface solidifies into a smooth mass, shimmering with perfect clarity: alive and welcoming and brilliant with restored power.
Merrill smiles at it. It shows her things.
With the Eluvian intact, Merrill's priorities become altered. For the first time ever, she turns down an offer to go chasing after rumors with Hawke. When the door closes - shutting out the confused, disappointed faces of Varric and Isabela, blocking out Hawke's tense frown - Merrill stares at the rickety wood and wonders if she should reconsider.
But the pull of the Eluvian is a gentle warmth upon her shoulders. It beckons to her all the way from her bedroom. She drifts back towards it, her steps slow and unhurried. Her concerns lie like discarded clothing behind her, a littered trail of second thoughts that she has no need to entertain. Hawke will understand. Varric and Isabela will simply have to be patient. There will be other opportunities.
Once Merrill finally reaches the Eluvian and looks into its depths, she knows she has made the right decision.
She shares the secret with a few elves. Then a few more. They come to her house at night, one by one, sneaking in like stray cats from Darktown. They are discreet, at first. They make certain not to attract attention, make certain to leave before dawn and never, ever greet one another openly in the daylight.
They are not, at first glance, elves that Merrill would have expected to be interested in escaping city life. Yet they hunger for their own heritage - a true hunger, so carefully buried and stifled beneath bitterness that most of them had sneered at the thought of a life without shemlen. They are the ones who crave knowledge the most; they are the ones who never knew how much they wanted to be elvhen until the opportunity was presented at last. Merrill teaches them, corrects their pronunciation during patient lessons conducted by candlelight. They pass her words back and forth in muttered corners of the marketplace, sharing knowledge with each other, until elves that Merrill has not even met yet are coming to her home in the evenings and spending time by her fire. They look to her for instruction on what has been forgotten. In a territory without a Keeper, it falls to Merrill now to take on that role for a new, patchwork clan.
It is fitting. She has been trained. It is her right.
But her work cannot go entirely unnoticed, and one afternoon comes the warning: Meredith's templars are on the march. With them comes the city guard, drawn by whispers of brewing unrest.
The elves have little way out. They are situated in Lowtown, after all, which was designed from the start to thwart rebellions; their only exit is up a twisting stairwell ringed with murder slits. It would be a simple matter for the guard to close the heavy iron gate and starve them all out. Simple, yes, but the templars are impatient; when Meredith's troops charge down the stairs, swords drawn, bristling with lyrium-infused immunities, it seems clear how short the elves' lives have suddenly become.
But while the templars bear protections against magic, they are not invulnerable to physical dangers. The elves flank either side of the gateway, taking cover from the arrows. They group together; they touch the ground and one another, and the knowledge they have learned from the Eluvian flows in a living current through them. The soil underneath their feet shivers. Roots tear up from the ground, fresh growth sprouting forth from the vhendadahl, knocking down the templars like game pieces flicked by an idle finger. Branches punch holes through plate armor, impaling the humans on wooden lances that leak sap along with blood. Brambles choke the murder holes, burrowing inwards and entombing the archers alive within cages of thorns. Spirits obey the same call; they pour out from Merrill's home, flooding past the elves in a black stream, and fall eagerly upon the templars to feast.
The elves push forward. Kirkwall falls.
"Oh," she says, when the demon is done showing her the possibility. "That's... very nice. I suppose."
It wheezes a chuckle out. "Did the outcome not please you?"
Merrill glances back at the rippling air, watching demons swarm through Lowtown. In the vision, Aveline is raging - silently, the noise turned off now that the sloth demon is not paying attention to it, but Merrill needs no sound in order to interpret the guardswoman's anger. Aveline had joined the fight on the only side she could. That side was not Merrill's. "Well. Um." She twists her fingers together. "It could use a little work?"
Kirkwall vanishes in a flash. The sloth demon curls upon itself, muttering and mumbling about how it will have to think for a bit. This last effort was too exhausting, too tiring. It will come back later.
Merrill does not refuse the respite. She touches her fingers to her head. The Fade makes her dizzy these days, though she does not like to show it; it reacts to her anyway, turning distant mountains into soft mounds of sand that crumble at a glance. It was hard for her to grasp this dream, to realize that it was more than just her own mind conjuring visions. At least she realized what it was in time.
As the corner of the Fade starts to slip sideways and take Merrill with it, the demon rouses itself. It swirls upright, swinging its ponderous head towards her. "Your bargain with another of my kind is a shame. That might mean that you are already... taken." The dry chuckle of its laughter is like a caress. "But it is bound, and you are free. Do you not find that limiting? Would you not prefer aid given to you directly - here, in your own home, at your own leisure?"
"I'll have to think about it," she says politely, but honestly. After all, it would be foolish to turn down options.
There is a lot of blood in the next dream. Merrill is slightly perturbed. The demons seem to think that she's fond of the substance, but it's not really her color; she prefers green. Besides, when everything's covered with blood, it's hard to really make out the details. Flayed torsos all look the same after a while.
In this vision, she has already repaired the Eluvian, and has done more than simply seize Kirkwall for her own. Those who have been her allies have been rewarded. Those who have spoken against her have been punished. Merrill sits upon the Viscount's throne and listens to Varric chuckle as courtiers bring forth tale after tale. Hawke is a glorious, aloof figure in the corner, deep in thought about the next great task they will accomplish together. Even Carver is returned, his harsh tongue finally tempered at last.
Isabela - kind, wonderful Isabela - is holding the severed heads of Anders and Fenris. Their eyes are rolled back to the whites. Sebastian's body is broken on the stairs. Isabela treads upon it, laughing, lifting the heads triumphantly by the scalps -
"I think that is a bit extreme," Merrill says.
Anders and Fenris and Sebastian are not dead. They are intact. But they avert their gazes in shame for their previous condemnations when Merrill sails past, descending the stairs with her friends following close behind her.
The vision fades out more slowly this time, leaving ghost-impressions on the air that drift free and vibrate like struck gongs. It is a rage demon that tempts her this time, barely containing its own energies without blackening the landscape. Its body crackles and sizzles as it squirms.
"That," it hisses, "that was satissssfactory, no?"
Merrill discovers that she is touching a hand to her chest. Her lungs are working in short thumps, though she doesn't understand why. That degree of violence was repulsive. She should instinctively reject it; instead, she cannot stop thinking about the throne room. "I'm not certain about Isabela," she hedges. "It seems, maybe - wrong."
The word charges the air. Heat begins to bubble from the ground, encapsulated in rainbow-slick bubbles before bursting into trails of soot, reacting to both her and the demon's presence. The sky ripples with malformed color, oozing gold instead of flame. The rage demon coils backwards; it snarls, raking the air with its claws, each strike aimed towards Merrill's face.
When Merrill refuses to allow herself to flinch, the demon quiets, and the landscape settles back into place.
"You will want it someday," it promises her, and melts away.
Sleep is rarely a mage's ally, but Merrill has begun to dislike it even more. Keeper Marethari taught her how to guard against a demon's cleverness; she did not say anything about preventing them from showing up in the first place. There are tricks, of course, very minor exercises to help reinforce a slumbering will - otherwise, no one with a drop of magic in their blood would be able to get more than two hours rest - but refraining from them had been one of the first conditions that Merrill's demon had demanded. It wouldn't be able to help her otherwise, or so it had claimed. And it did want to help her, so very, very much.
At the time, Merrill had justified her decision as yet another means of strengthening her talents. Now, she does not want to risk jeopardizing any of the progress that she's made. It's a fine line that she walks upon; if she ever had illusions of being completely immune to demons, they were ruined after her failure in Feynriel's dream. Falling prey to temptation once was bad enough. If it had been her demon that had been the one to lure her so sweetly, Merrill would surely have become an abomination on the spot. She was lucky that Hawke had been there to intervene.
Luck is not security. She will not falter again.
Without a solid night's rest, Merrill's wits feel dangerously on edge. She needs a distraction. The Eluvian is good, but the Eluvian is always there, always broken, and when Merrill stares at the walls too long, she thinks she can hear the demons start to whisper again. They should not be pestering her, not this much. She doesn't understand why they are.
When Hawke asks if she wants to go out to the Wounded Coast for a bit, Merrill is grateful - so grateful that she stumbles over herself with eagerness, even though they visit the Coast so often that they might as well pitch a permanent tent there and paint the Amell family crest across the stones. Varric comes too, which is wonderful; Anders as their fourth, which is not. With three mages and a crossbow, however, anything that is determined enough to actually reach them will probably be tougher than they'd really want to fight anyway.
The world outside seems duller than normal. Merrill's senses have been dipped in a layer of numbness, not really registering everything that's happening around her. Sleep deprivation, she figures. She can't seem to focus on the particular task they're chasing this time: something about a missing son or a missing daughter or a missing shipment of Orlesian shoes. The Eluvian keeps bobbing up in her thoughts, nagging at her to return home as soon as possible so that she can continue her research. The sooner the mirror is complete, after all, the sooner Merrill will be able to recover the lost knowledge of her people, save her clan, tame a high dragon, kill an Archdemon, rescue all of Thedas from the darkspawn, and then finally be able to sleep soundly for an entire week.
It bothers her more than a little to be approached by a rage demon. It is not typical for that level of spirit to try for a bargain. Most of the time, they only howl and fight. Merrill must be special, to attract such attention. She must be very, very special indeed.
As they pick their way down one treacherously sandy path, it's Merrill's own nervousness that ends up thwarting her. It manifests through her teeth as she worries at her lower lip. While trying to concentrate, she accidentally tears at the chapped skin a little too hard, and feels an entire flake rip free. The sudden sting of pain freezes her in place. Dismay seeps through her as she realizes how badly she's been chewing on herself. There's already a tiny spark of power welling up from the rip. It tastes like lightning on her tongue.
When he notices her lingering behind, Varric clambers back up the path to her side. He takes in the full sight of her with one long, shrewd glance; before she realizes how guilty it must look, Merrill claps her hand to her mouth to cover up the tiny wound. She lowers it instantly, feeling foolish.
Varric is the best of card players; he does not let his attention focus directly on her mouth. "You don't look like you've been sleeping well, Daisy," he comments, resting the weight of Bianca gingerly against his shoulder. "Red eyes aren't your best features."
"It's nothing," she replies, and focuses on Hawke's back instead, letting the straight line of the other woman's determination carry her along.
The demons choose Hawke next time Merrill sleeps. It is a slow dream, one that enfolds Merrill like honey, full of feathery touches over her body and the sensation of being cradled on silk. The world is a warm pudding of contentment. Merrill floats on waves of serene bliss, consumed by the heat of Hawke's mouth on her throat, the darting of Hawke's tongue against her earlobe.
Buoyed by pure sensation, Merrill moans, skin flushed - and then jerks to alertness, forcing herself to grasp for clarity, uncertain if she is dreaming for real or not. She tries to rouse herself, fails, and then ends up tumbling off the luxurious sheets and onto the floor with a dismayed squeak.
Hawke's expression doesn't change when Merrill scrambles to her feet. The woman simply presses the back of her hand to her chin, wiping off a thin line of saliva. Her lips are damp and full. But her mouth, when she opens it, holds Marethari's voice instead, trembling and strained.
"You love outside the Dalish," the creature observes softly. "Outside the elves entirely - your heart is given to a human. For a Keeper to do so goes against all that we are trying to preserve, da'len."
Merrill gathers her wits together, feeling as if they are a parcel of unspun wool that has begun to burst out of its wrappings. "I choose to be happy," she says to the illusion. "And my people may not like it, and they may not approve of it, but I have already spent years doing things that the clan feels is wrong. If my beliefs are allowed to guide my magic, then surely they can guide my heart as well."
In a flash, the Hawke-Keeper's body shifts into violet curves, with eyes that leak heat like smoking coals. The desire demon floats contemplatively backwards, drifting along leisurely on thin air. "You're distressed," it observes, in the half-curious, half-fascinated tones of a creature that has never had to consider such emotions except as opportunities. "As an apology, I will give you something - a small demonstration of what I have to offer. A little trick that will increase the potency of your own spells. You already have the right training to build upon. Permit me to help... develop that a little more."
"No." The response is pure reflex. Merrill is not foolish enough to refuse demons outright, but she knows better than to accept anything when she's not feeling properly in control. Control is the key to mastering demons. Control is what she is afraid she is losing. The demons are beginning to blur together, night after night; maybe if she were a somniari, she could rework the Fade entirely to keep them away. But if she were a somniari, the Keeper would have performed ancient rituals for her as well, instead of abandoning Merrill so quickly over a piece of glass. "I'm fine for now. Thank you."
The desire demon's tail undulates back and forth in lazy coils around its hips. "Surely you want to learn more? With your current... partner locked away, who else could you rely upon?" One taloned hand runs invitingly up and down the demon's belly, stroking in smooth lines before cupping a tasseled breast. "I'm right here."
"Perhaps later," Merrill tells it fiercely, and then refuses to say anything else until she finally wakes up.
The next fight is a bad one. They are in one of the caverns outside of Kirkwall this time, chasing down stray slavers. Fenris, of course, insisted on coming, which might have made Merrill hesitate - except that she desperately needs something other than the walls of her home to stare at. Isabela's presence in the group is a kindness. But having Hawke there is like a lifeline, one that Merrill has to fight not to clutch at. Hawke is so brave, so strong. Hawke never has problems sleeping because of demons.
They work their way through the caverns steadily, checking room after room for anything the slavers might have left behind. Isabela grouses each time she has to work her lockpicks. Fenris paces and sneers at the tunnels, so eager to be off on the hunt that it is all Hawke can do to keep him in check. Merrill rubs sleep out of her eyes, bringing up the rear of their party willingly, not trusting her own sense of self-preservation to warn of any threats.
They run into so little resistance that - after a few hours spent backtracking in circles - Merrill starts to wonder if they've even found the right spot. There are a lot of nooks around Kirkwall for slavers to hide in, after all. Her sum impression of Kirkwall's natural landscape is that it's composed of nothing but tiny caves which double as supplementary housing units. It wouldn't be the first time for the group to be sidetracked, chasing the wrong lead.
Just as she's begun to seriously yearn for a nap, the caverns narrow down to worm-wide tunnels, their sides smoothed by water until they seem as polished as gems. Distant lantern shadows flicker on the walls. Moisture collects in glistening droplets that dampen the stalagmites, turning the rocks into patterns of saliva and teeth. Merrill wanders among them, bemused by the possibility of stone dragons. If she is actually inside the mouth of a very large beast, then she will make a fine meal - along with Fenris, Isabela, Hawke, and the whole mess of slavers at the end of the hall she's just walked into, all of them looking as surprised as she is.
Fenris doesn't give them time to recover. The elf rushes in, pent-up frustration propelling him forward like a ballista bolt. Hawke breaks immediately into a chase close behind, yelling something about keeping in range this time. The two of them blaze past Merrill in a whirlwind of bristling armor, leaving her breathless in their wake.
Isabela's shout of warning comes too late.
Darts explode suddenly in a shower of metal hail, springing out from everywhere; any attempt at battle formations promptly dissolves as everyone goes diving for cover. Hawke ducks to the left; Isabela's already vanished. Fenris had decided that the best option was to charge through the storm of threats, bringing his sword with him, and the lyrium glow of his markings shines like a moonlit spiderweb in the gloom. Merrill folds herself up behind a sack of grain and peeps around the burlap, feeling like an insect that has just scuttled under a chair.
In the chaos, the slavers attack.
Fenris engages the front line quickly, his blade moving as light as a feather, kissing one slaver and then another. It leaves crimson trails to remember it by, severed limbs as its promises. Isabela flickers through the melee, taunting and dodging as she goes. And Hawke - sweet, beautiful Hawke goes down suddenly with a gasp so soft, it could have been a cry made upon waking up from sleep. It dissolves swiftly in the bedlam, and the loudest noise in Merrill's ears suddenly becomes the ripping of cloth as the assassin's knives finish their downstroke, and then the clatter of Hawke's staff hitting the floor, smeared in blood.
Merrill doesn't actually hear Hawke hit the ground. She doesn't hear anything at that point.
Reckless as Fenris, she breaks from cover and scrambles forward, propelling herself faster with her staff as if it were a walking stick. The assassin has already moved on, leaving their fallen target behind in pursuit of another vulnerable back. Merrill ignores them; she leaves them all for Fenris's gentle care, and kneels beside Hawke, rolling the other woman over. Her hands tremble as she scours through both their supplies. Her personal reserves are exhausted; Merrill's pockets are filled with all kinds of trinkets, none of which are used in medicine. But in the bottom of Hawke's waistpouch, there's a handful of potions, and these are what Merrill digs out. She uncorks one vial and promptly spills it all over Hawke's face, splashing cranberry streaks of tonic like a second wound on the woman's skin. Even when her hands stop trembling and she manages to direct the potion at Hawke's mouth, it doesn't help, because Hawke isn't swallowing.
Frantic, Merrill rolls Hawke over until she can see the open gash, and pours the liquid over the wound itself in hopes that the tonic might be absorbed directly through the blood. Fear giggles in her ears. There is a lot of blood, a lot of Hawke's blood, pooling in a wasted puddle all over the floor. Even with a potion, the flow isn't stopping.
The second potion spills over the lip of Hawke's wound, soaking into the edges of the woman's shirt. Merrill moans: a low, helpless noise, even though she isn't the one dying, even though Hawke is quiet as a stone. Blood is supposed to be her specialty. She can feel the power leaking out of Hawke, can feel it draining away with each second that passes. She can feel it. But she's not a healer. All she can do is destroy.
All she can do is destroy.
Before she lets herself doubt, Merrill rises to her feet, darting away from Hawke out of the panicked terror that she might accidentally draw upon the other woman's ebbing life as a resource. The knife is a hot kiss on her arm. She slices downwards with abandon, not caring how deeply she might be cutting into layers of muscle and tissue. The magic doesn't wait to respond: it bursts out of her veins, ravenously eager. It moves in a wave past her body, past Isabela's mouthed Kitten, what are you doing - and suddenly the slavers stiffen in place, all of them spasming like puppets whose strings have been dragged upwards. Seconds later, hot streams of crimson burst from the pores of their skin, spurting in irregular fountains, their own blood carving a way out through any available opening.
Fenris backs away, shielding his face as crimson spatters over his armor. His face twists up in a revolted grimace. Merrill ignores him, passing over his lyrium glow as she targets the slavers, one by one, watching with satisfaction as they writhe their way into a miserable death.
When she finally recovers, trembling, Isabela is kneeling beside Hawke, the mage's unconscious head in her lap.
"She's alive," the pirate says. Her gaze meets Merrill's, and then drops away. "Let's get her back to Kirkwall."
Anders blames all of them for the incident.
"Having only one healer there is dangerous!" he snaps. The four of them are gathered outside Hawke's bedroom; everyone else chose to keep watch inside, silent in their own judgement. "You know that! Enemies like going for the healers - that is, if they're smart, and your job is to be smarter than they are!"
Overflowing with vindication, Anders whirls, finger aimed directly towards Merrill like a lance. Merrill - in turn - tries very carefully not to think about rage demons. "You're a mage, but what can you do?" he demands of her, upper lip arched delicately in a half-sneer. "You don't know how to shield, you don't know how to protect! You can't even heal. You can't save anyone! Hawke is proof of that!"
"I - " Merrill stammers, backpedaling until the balcony nudges against her spine. It feels like Anders is gutting her with each vicious word. Fenris should feel equally guilty; the elf is a sulking lump in the corner, but he does not speak up in support. He hates her too. "I - I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
"As if you'd have done any better, if you were there?" Isabela interjects, rolling out of her slouch like a prizefighter, and Merrill takes advantage of the sudden argument to escape.
She totters back to Lowtown, losing her way more times than she can count. The wilderness of Kirkwall swallows her; she can't straighten her thoughts out properly. The roads match her mood, becoming as twisted as a dropped wad of knitting. It's like being in the Fade again, or maybe she is in the Fade and she just can't tell. Maybe Hawke isn't hurt. Maybe it's all just a dream.
By the time Merrill makes her way back to her Lowtown home, Varric is there. She doesn't ask how he got in; like Isabela, he comes and goes as he pleases out of people's residences, which is convenient by Merrill's standards because it means that she never has to worry about letting him in. This time, however, she stops just inside the door and stares at the dwarf, puzzled by the way he's shown up this time.
Varric is sitting in the main room. Normal, yes, but today his chair is turned around so that it's angled towards her bedroom. Bianca is resting on his lap. His eyes flick to her when she enters, but his face stays resolutely forward, so that he can continue to monitor the situation through his peripherals. The posture confuses her; she's seen it before, but never in her home. When they're about to be ambushed: yes. In the Hanged Man: sometimes. Never in her home.
One of his gloved fingers caresses Bianca's trigger-guard. "So, tell me, Daisy," he offers congenially, his voice as warm and comforting as clover honey. "Where did you get the glass to fix the holes?"
Of course. The mirror. "I," she begins, then stops. She's been doing that a lot lately, fumbling over words, wanting other people to look at her and instantly know everything she's thinking. The possibility that they could is also terrifying. "I don't think you want me to answer that."
Varric's finger strokes Bianca in tiny circles. The truth sits like a stone wedge in Merrill's throat. To prevent it from escaping, she fetches and starts to fill the pot she uses to boil water, resurrecting a limpid desire to make tea. Tea will help. Tea can stand in for all the words she can't say.
She does and doesn't want to explain further. She's nourished the Eluvian, nourished it the only way she knows how. It's swallowed her blood. She should be proud of figuring out how to do that, but Merrill knows that to any of her friends, the mirror would be mistaken for a monster - sucking up blood, that's all they'd see, as if it could come to life and waddle around the alienage trying to chew on children. Their fear frustrates her. She does not know how to make them understand that she isn't feeding the mirror a diet of blood, she is feeding it power, raw power, in the most pure form she can manage, cramming all her hopes into each drop. The Eluvian is made of Merrill. If she could cry at it to fix it, or hurl curses or praise, then she would do that instead. If the mirror could consume her words as easily as it does her life, then she would substitute anything, if it would only save the world faster.
But even though the Eluvian's surface is repaired, everything else around Merrill seems to be breaking down. The Viscount is dead. The Qunari set Kirkwall on fire. A blood mage murdered Hawke's mother. Anders has callouses on his hands from writing copies of his manifesto over and over, and templars march in and out of Gallows arches, and Hawke is lying like a corpse in a bed in Hightown, breathing shallowly while she recovers from wounds that Merrill cannot cure.
When Merrill tries to hang the pot over the fire, it chooses to sink down near the ashes instead, heavy in her hand. She can't summon the strength to pick it back up again properly. Helpless, she stares at it, willing it to move - and then Varric's hand settles on her back, patting her awkwardly. Her eyes are wet. Her nose is thick, and she's sniffling around the same tears that she wishes she could fling at the Eluvian while the world crumbles and crumbles. Dimly, she can hear Varric saying things that are meant to be comforting, but she barely hears them, she barely hears anything, anything save the fluttering of her heart, the pounding of her blood.
I'm a mage, she thinks, but her mind is broken: it stops there. I'm a mage. What can I do?
"I can teach you something," the demon says.
Merrill, eyes steady, says, "Yes."