And When I'm the Champion, Will You Still Be Here?
Chapter Six; The Reward
"You don't get it, do you? Mages used to shape the world how they saw fit. They could move buildings with their minds; pull the air out of someone's lungs. The Templars are to blame for our fear of using power now. Demons might prey upon us, but we can dismiss them without a thought. All we need is one mage to regain the power we used to have, and then we can show the Templars what we're really capable of!"
Anders scares Hawke more and more with each passing day. Or Vengeance does. Hawke's not entirely certain what one he happens to be talking to sometimes – thought the glowing blue does help. He remembers the argument clearly – it was so far one of the only things that Merrill and he managed to talk like civilised people about. Hawke remembers the look Aveline had given him. It had been shared by Carver. Distrust. Fear. Nervousness.
Hawke had dismissed it as propaganda from a man who lives only to free mages. He wonders if maybe there's a bit more truth to it than he thought, given Flemeth and what she can do.
Regardless, he puts the thought out of his mind. He can't think about mages and their ancient tricks when there are more important things happening.
The chill winds of Hightown caress him like a forgotten lover. Hawke takes a moment to feel them embrace him and sighs. It's so quiet here – the gangs of Hightown are working their magic and stopping the pompous nobles from ever coming outside when it turns dark. Aveline mentions something about how they should work on cleaning up the streets. For a moment he's tempted to just let them be and enjoy the silence it brings.
But when cloaked figures leap out towards them and demand their coin, Hawke considers that maybe ridding Kirkwall of them might be doing someone a favour. He could even charge for it!
It seems to take no time at all to get rid of the bandits. Aveline backhands one with her shield and sends the man flying backwards. She wants to keep him alive, but her blow sends him towards the stairs to Lowtown and tumbling all the way down. Hawke grimaces. There's no way he's getting up from that again.
Merrill roars as the stone beneath her comes alive. It punches into a man and sends him flying into a nearby stall. He doesn't stop there and the stall flies along with him, crashing into a nearby pillar of stone with a tremendous crash. While Varric settles for merely filling every enemy he can see full of bolts, Hawke watches as Shepard leaps at a bandit and removes his throat in less time than it takes to breathe.
All in all, he considers that the bandits really didn't know who they were dealing with. He's more than aware they're merely part-time enthusiasts; able to pick off a few people here and there, but against a trained army, he knows they wouldn't last long. He wonders if perhaps they should do something about that before they find themselves outgunned.
Though he also wonders if he'll actually stay in Kirkwall long enough for that to happen.
He rolls out of the way of a blade and stabs his daggers into the person's leg. Blood gushes out in a fountain as he rips his daggers free, spins and kicks the man in his wounded leg. He drops and Hawke kicks him in the skull hard enough to break something. The man moans for what seems like an eternity before Aveline storms over to him, picks him up with only one arm and demands the location of their base.
Predictably, the man says nothing.
Varric's the one to break the silence with a chuckle. "My friend, do you not see the destruction around you?" He spreads his arms and for the first time, Hawke becomes aware of the stones covered in blood. Pieces of people line the small market courtyard and he's fairly certain that if he took a drink for every person they killed here tonight, he'd end up in a coma.
"Now, if we disposed of them so easily, what do you think will happen to you?" Varric's all smiles, but Hawke can tell that the dwarf wants to just get the information and be done with it. Varric doesn't like the gangs any more than the next person, though his approach is considerably gentler than Aveline's.
"Tell me where your base is!" she demands, shaking the man as he bleeds out. She holds up her free hand and presses a dagger into the man's face. "I don't have time to play games. Tell me where it is and you might live long enough to spend to enjoy the brig."
The man coughs out an address that Hawke's unfamiliar with. Aveline seems to know something about it. She nods and drops the man. He's dead from blood loss before he even hits the floor.
"Are we going there?" Merrill asks. "I don't think they'd be very happy to see us. It's polite to let people know you're going to their house first, isn't it? But do you suppose they'd let us in, even if they knew we were coming?"
"Merrill," Aveline sighs. "We're not going there tonight. We have other business. Hawke wants to help out a whore," she says, casting a scathing look his way.
"What?" he says innocently. "She said she was in trouble and could pay for our help. I thought that as a member of the guard, you would like to see these people who stalk lovely young women and force them to fight for their lives."
Aveline scoffs. "More like you wanted a chance to get in her pants. Don't think I don't know about Isabela, Hawke. I'm fully aware of what she gets up to – she's been in the brig almost every day this week."
"There's nothing bad about that," Hawke says.
"She's only been in Kirkwall a week."
Hawke laughs and says nothing. Shepard comes up to him, pawing at the ground and searching for treats. With a sigh, Hawke pulls a piece of dried meat from his pouch and tosses it to the mabari. It's gone in less than a second and he's accosted for more.
"One treat per skirmish," he says, tapping him on the nose. "Otherwise you'll get fat. And then what would I do, when I need your help and you're too fat to rip someone's throat out?"
Shepard whines again, stubby tail nearly wagging itself off. Reluctantly, Hawke groans and tosses him another piece. "I swear you'll eat all the coin I'm meant to be funding this expedition with."
"You're going to the Deep Roads, aren't you?" Merrill asks as they start walking again. Hawke sees the way Varric cloaks himself a little more into the shadows as they near the Merchant's Guild. Perhaps they're still after him for missing meetings – Hawke supposes he and Aveline will have a task on their hands if Varric disappeared. Who would be behind it? Angry gangs or equally angry dwarven merchants? He honestly doesn't know which of the two he'd rather fight.
"That's where all the darkspawn live. Why would you want to go there?" Merrill continues. "Carver told me all about it, but I don't think he realises much about darkspawn. I've fought them before. Back in Fereldan, when we were travelling through the south. We found… something in a cave. It stole away two of our clan – tainted them until they were nothing but ghouls. One died. The other disappeared."
She sighs sadly and looks away. Varric takes her hand, smiles and tells her it's all going to be okay, that they're not going to turn into ghouls, die or disappear. She seems to brighten at that, though Hawke sees that Aveline is thinking much the same, if her expression is anything to go by.
"Well, well, well."
Hawke looks up and finds Isabela sat atop one of the smaller houses. She smiles in amusement at them all, a nearby torch bathing her in bright orange light. Her eyes seem to sparkle like a predator's as she leans forwards and places her chin in her hands.
"Seems like you've been busy," she says and nods towards the bodies they've left in the distance. "Can't say I blame you. But can you imagine how sore you'd be if it was your job to bury all of these idiots? Wait, do they bury or burn the dead here?" She frowns for a moment before waving a hand. "Bah. Not like it matters. I don't plan to find out."
Aveline's frown is quite impressive. "Hello, Whore."
Isabela's all smiles as she jumps down from the roof and lands with a grunt. "Hello to you too, my favourite guardswoman." She dusts herself down as she stands back up and winks at her. "I wouldn't have thought I'd be seeing your blade pointed with me. Usually it's always against me. Tell me; do you find yourself complete when you point your blade at people? Does it make you feel powerful? Are you the sort of woman that wishes to penetrate others with her tools?"
Aveline turns a shade of red so dark Hawke thinks it's becoming purple. "So help me whore, I will end you right now," she growls as she stomps towards her.
"Careful," Isabela says, smiling still. "Can't kill an unarmed woman. What would your boss think?"
Aveline growls and sends a very clear threat of death Hawke's way. "This is your idea, Hawke. I'll put up with it for now, but so help me, if you can't keep this whore in line I'll lock her up in chains for the rest of her life."
"Kinky," Isabela snorts.
Aveline snarls at her, but Merrill is the first to say anything. "I don't get it," she says, rather cluelessly. "Have I missed something? Was it dirty? Do people like being put in chains?"
Isabela's laugh seems like she secretly wants to pat Merrill on the head and protect her from the world. "You're such a sweet, innocent kitten. There are many things in this world that people like, my dear. Maybe you'll even let me show you them, sometime?"
Varric makes a sound that's either clearing his throat or choking on his own saliva. Either way, Hawke finds it amusing. He looks down at Varric at the same time Isabela does and catches her eye. She sends him a look so smouldering he nearly physically shudders in delight. Shepard nudges his leg, growling at him as if he's admonishing him for thinking with his loins.
"Perhaps we should get to the reason of why we're here?" Varric suggests.
"Right." Isabela dusts her hands together and sighs. A flicker of worry passes through her face before she covers it up again. "So here's the problem; this duel was meant to start hours ago. Hayder hasn't come by here. Nor have any of his men. I'm starting to get a bad feeling about this."
"And now you've just jinxed us," Varric sighs dramatically. "Andraste's tits woman! Have you no idea what usually happens in a story when someone says that?"
"What happens?" Merrill asks. "Our hahren never told stories that had someone ask that."
Varric chuckles. "Usually –"
"There she is!" A woman screams from behind them.
"-That happens," Varric finishes sourly. Hawke spins and finds a woman with a stern face and a large broadsword leading a group of bandits all towards them. From nearby, Hawke hears Isabela grunt something in a different language, just as he sees the bows being aimed at them all.
Hawke curses the air blue. He just about manages to dive to the floor before the arrows whistle overhead. He hears everyone around him do much the same. Shepard growls at them all yet won't advance. It's only when the earth between them cracks and splinters that Hawke remembers they have a mage on their side.
A wall of pure earth and stone rips from the ground and stands between them. Hawke laughs as Merrill whispers things in her native tongue, no doubt tired and drained. He presses his back against the stone wall as Aveline does the same next to him. One by one the bandits move around the wall and are cut down by them. A few more run around the sides and are cut down quite quickly by Merrill or Varric.
Finally Merrill drops the wall with a shout. It thunders back into the ground and leaves a tremendous gash in the earth. Isabela's already racing across it and meets the woman with the broadsword with just her daggers. The woman swings for her, but Isabela is far faster. Each time she goes for her, Isabela has moved and cut her just a little bit more. It's obvious she's toying with her, showing her how much better she is and waiting for the chance to strike for information.
Finally it seems Isabela grows bored. She dodges a slash and brings her daggers across the woman's throat. Her eyes bulge and Isabela jumps backwards just as the woman's throat erupts blood all over the street.
"That was rather boring," Isabela sighs. "Next time, can we not fight a bit more? As interesting as magical walls are, there's nothing quite like the rush of a fight."
Hawke doesn't know what to say to her. Isabela winks at him before she squats before the fallen warrior and reaches into her pockets. She grunts in amusement and comes up holding a piece of bloody parchment.
"Huh," she grunts as she tosses it aside. "They're in the Chantry. Or the remains of it at least. I've been wondering about that actually; what happened there?"
Hawke and Varric share a guilty look. Aveline looks clueless but just as intrigued, while Merrill questions just what a Chantry actually does outside of singing songs and amassing huge crowds of old people and orphans.
"Who even knows?" Varric says quickly. "People tell people, who tell more people and a few nosy people. After a day, the story's so clouded with what people have heard, no one knows the truth anymore."
"Huh," Isabela grunts, though it's obvious she's fully aware Varric's bullshitting. "Shame. Oh well, I suppose we have no choice but to go to the Chantry." She laughs, seemingly to herself. "Never thought I'd hear myself say that."
Hawke smiles at her as he takes point. She saunters just a step ahead of him, her gaze never quite meeting his, but constantly sweeping over him as she scans the darkness. He feels like a piece of cloth on a stall, being appraised constantly before a purchase is made. She manages to fall into line with him so easily it's almost as if she's done so without thinking about it.
"So," she says slowly, "want to tell me about what happened there? I know a bullshitter when I see one; you're so full of it, I can practically see it growing out of your ears."
Hawke laughs quickly, nervously. "I'm sure I have no idea what you're talking about. Even if I did, there would be no way I'd spill."
Her smirk seems to take over her face. "Oh, Sweet Thing. I can make you spill again and again if I want."
She leaves him once more, scouting out the darkness again. Varric laughs from his side, tears shining in his eyes.
"Sweet Maker, Hawke. I wouldn't have thought this was a family trait. I don't think I've ever seen you blush!"
Hawke touches his cheeks with two fingers and realises he is, in fact, burning as red as a tomato. He tries to laugh it off and knows that Varric is fully aware of every thought going on in his head, somehow. Aveline is behind him, constantly muttering words under her breath about Isabela. Meanwhile Merrill wonders happily about the pirate, openly asking anyone if they think she has a hook for a hand or a parrot that lives on her shoulder.
When they finally reach the Chantry, Hawke's breath stops in his throat for a second. Sure, it's not completely demolished, but he can see the cracks where stone has slipped. A large portion of the roof is missing and there are no windows in the entire building. From what Aveline and Varric both say, it seems as if the inside is nearly completely ruined – supposedly when construction started, the stairs fell away as if by a mind of their own and crushed a few Templars who were patrolling.
Hawke's stomach does a strange little flip. He's uncertain whether he's more afraid of Anders going all glowy at them or more afraid for Carver and Bethany, should he keep them around any longer. He decides that if he's leaving them both at home, he's taking Anders into the Deep Roads, whether the mage likes it or not. He'd much rather deal with the threat of the abomination than living with the constant thought of him being anywhere near Bethany or Carver whilst he's buried under several miles of solid rock.
Isabela cracks open the doors to the Chantry an inch. She peers inside and pulls her head back quickly. "It's empty," she says, almost as if she doesn't believe it. "What happened to all the workers? I thought this was a day and night job? I don't like this."
"Neither do I," Aveline says and Hawke is terrified because these two shouldn't be agreeing on anything. "There's an ambush waiting for us in there – or at least there will be, if these people have any wits about them at all."
Isabela shrugs. "They might do. They won't be too hard to get rid of though. Hayder plays dirty – he should be in there alone, but he's going to have a few guards everywhere. You deal with them, I'll deal with Hayder." She smiles at them, eyes sparkling before she slips inside and seems to become one with the shadows. Hawke watches after her, concentrating just hard enough to follow her.
"Much as I don't like it, we should follow her," Aveline says. She stops just before the Chantry doors, turns and pokes an armoured finger into Hawke's chest. "And you're going to tell me what really happened here. Don't try and play innocent, Hawke. I know you're involved in this, somehow."
Hawke looks away and catches Varric's eye. 'Scary,' the dwarf mutters, and Hawke can't help but agree. He slides in through the doors, Shepard following him dutifully, claws patting softly against the cold, hard stone.
Hawke looks up and sees that Andraste is still in pieces. She seems to look a little better than she did before and it seems that someone has been busy scrubbing all the blood off her. Merrill makes an offhanded comment about how cross she looks, which has Varric quipping about how no one would be happy if they'd been demolished.
"This isn't right," Isabela says quietly. Hawke watches the way she plays with a large earring, rubbing it as if it's a good luck charm. She places a hand on her hip, sighs and finally shrugs. "Hayder!" she screams into the building. "Show yourself before I have to skin your worthless hide!"
"…And there goes our element of surprise," Varric grunts.
Isabela just shrugs. "Even if Hayder won't play by the rules, I still will. A duel isn't something you cheat in – not any more than is necessary. Bringing extra people or hiding in rubble is just bad manners."
"And here I thought you had nothing but," Aveline quips.
Isabela goes to retort, but she's distracted by someone moving in the rubble. A man walks towards them, dressed in hard leathers and with a long dagger dancing between his fingers. Flanking him are an imposing woman with an equally imposing blade and a lithe man with a long staff.
Hawke wonders when mages will realise that carrying round a large wooden stick is practically screaming, 'Look at me, I'm a mage!' His father had always mentioned that while a staff streamlined a mage's focus, it could be done with any weapon embroiled with sufficient lyrium.
"Isabela," the man – Hayder, Hawke assumes – growls. "Should have known you'd find me here."
"Tell your men to burn the letters next time."
His face hardens. "No games, Isabela. Where's the relic. Castillon isn't happy you survived that shipwreck and didn't let him know."
"Haven't you heard?" Isabela says playfully. "I lost it. Funny thing about shipwrecks; they tend to bury everything you own at the bottom of the ocean. Balls to Castillon and his relic – do you know how many hats I lost in that damned storm?"
"You lost it. The same way you lost a ship full of valuable cargo?"
Isabela actually takes a step towards him. "Those weren't cargo, Hayder! They were people!"
"And they were worth a hundred sovereigns a head!"
"As interesting as this is," Hawke says tiredly. "Can we just get to the point where you two try to kill each other? Not that watching you argue about the merits of slaving isn't riveting, but I should probably remind you that you're having this discussion in front of one of the city's guard."
"Bah!" Castillon grunts. "This is what you bring as back up, Isabela? A dog-lord jester?"
"Dear, sweet, delusional Hayder," Isabela says, her arm reaching slowly for the inside of her leg. "Whoever said I needed back up?"
Her arm snaps out and suddenly the woman by Hayder's side drops, a dagger in her eye. Hayder snarls and promises revenge as the mage beside him tears open the Fade. Hawke watches as Merrill responds in kind; ice and lightning clashing over their heads and peppering the landscape with frozen clusters of electricity.
Hawke finds a man between him and Hayder. He only has a moment to wonder just where the hell he came from before he pulls a sword on him. Hawke swears, catches the man's wrists and tugs him out of the way. He sees Shepard picking off the remains of someone that came too close, Varric shooting archers before they can even line their shots and Aveline simply pummelling her way through people that seem to have come out of nowhere.
He grabs the man again, spins him and smiles as an arrow whistles into his exposed throat. He drops him, spins and throws his dagger and finds it buried in the chest of an archer that thought himself safe.
Hawke sees that everyone seems to be dealing with their foes easily enough. Isabela is in the throes of her duel; sweat glistening on her forehead as she fends off parries that come surprisingly fast from a man so large. The daggers in his hands seem no larger than fingers. Yet he moves with an undeniable speed that Hawke can barely keep up with.
Isabela, it seems, is accustomed to these sort of duels. Though her forehead glistens with sweat and her jaw is set in a fine line, she keeps up well enough. Or at least, Hawke thinks she does. He can't quite follow the blades, but he hears the clangs of metal every second and assumes that she's at least parrying his blows.
Hayder fights dirty, Hawke notices quickly. He launches a snap kick from his waist and catches Isabela on the hip. She grunts, more surprised than annoyed – or so she sounds – and slices a thick line down his arm in payment. He growls and feints with his dagger. She goes to block it – instead he balls his fist around it and smacks her in the face.
She drops to the floor with a cry and a loud thump. Hayder grins as he stands above her, twirling his blades without a care in the world.
"Any last words, Isabela?" he snarls.
She smirks up at him. "Just a thought; I wonder if you scream like a little girl." Hawke sees a glint of silver on her boot. She kicks Hayder between the legs with all the force she can muster and makes Hawke wince, even from a distance. There's a wet squelch and suddenly the most inhumane, high-pitched squeal Hawke has ever heard comes from Hayder's throat.
Isabela rolls backwards and jumps to her feet. She draws a dagger slowly over Hayder's face, even as he drops his own and places both hands above his groin, bleeding freely as it is.
"This must be the only time you haven't disappointed a woman," she says, quietly, yet loud enough to carry in the ruins of the Chantry. Hayder doesn't even have the time to look up at her before she slides behind him and pulls her dagger across his throat. He spasms and she digs deep, bathing the floor around her in blood and pieces of neck.
Hayder drops to the floor, twitching slightly. After a moment he stills. Isabela takes the chance to give him one good, last kick to the side.
"Well," she says, wiping her brow and leaving behind a trail of blood, "that certainly was fun, wasn't it?"
Carver doesn't trust this woman.
He realises it with startling clarity. Though she claims to be their cousin – and though it pains it to him admit it, she does look like their mother – he doesn't trust her. She's come out of nowhere, with nothing more than a bow and rags to her name. She claims to have the key to their old estate but really, who are the Amells, apart from a bunch of crinkled old has-beens, who now happen to be nothing more than a greedy old man who won't even look after his own nephews and niece?
Bethany seems to have been taken in completely, however. Carver knows she always wanted another girl around when she was growing up. There was only so far their brother and Carver could pretend that dolls were interesting. Carver remembers having to entertain Bethany so many times by hosting tea parties for her dolls. More often than not, he remembers her accidentally setting fire to a doll when he used them as puppets for his evil world domination plots.
"The estate is around here – or at least, that's what the slavers were saying," the woman – Charade – says with casual ease. Carver watches her with scorn – the way she wraps her eyes over every detail this part of the sewers hold, the way she presses her fingers against the cold, mould-covered stone and searches for a hidden switch. The way she moves in the shadows, as if she owns them, is eerily familiar. Carver can admit to seeing their own brother do such a thing countless times. Though it means she might be truthful in her claims to be part of the family, Carver still doesn't throw his support behind her.
"Finding it sooner rather than later would be preferable," Carver growls. If he strains his head enough, he can see the firelights of Anders' clinic burning against the omnipresent dark of the tunnels. Though Carver can't see far in the dark, Bethany wraps flame around her staff for some sort of light. His stomach still runs in circles every time he sees it, though Charade's only reaction was a small grunt and a passing mention that her mother had told her magic run in their veins.
"I should have worn thicker boots," grumbles Saemus. He flicks his leg and Carver watches as something thick and hairy flies out and hits the wall with a wet splat. He hopes it's a dead rat. Considering it to be anything else is just detrimental to his mental health.
"I did tell you we were venturing into the sewers," Carver points out. He wonders how his brother manages to do this all the time. Looking out for three people is more than a little bit of a hassle. Bethany gets distracted by the slightest mention of Templars and hides away like a frightened mouse. Saemus gets distracted by near enough everything, pondering the historical purposes of a loose stone that might have been part of something. Charade meanwhile is cloaked in mystery, her purpose and goals unknown. Carver doesn't like it, but as long as she helps him clear out this estate and one-up dear brother Hawke, he won't complain.
"I thought these would be thick enough," Saemus mumbles, scraping the remains of something away with his sword. Inwardly, Carver hopes he knows how to use it. Sure, Saemus says he's been trained in the sword and shield since he was young, but practising against wooden dummies happens to be a lot different than thinking, moving, brutish thugs.
"Men," Bethany sighs as she trudges past them, heedless of the dead rat that swims past her leg. She holds her staff to the wall, squinting until she finds something that elicits a gasp. "Here!" she says, pointing frantically. "There's a door. I think. It's got the Amell crest on it – I recognise it from the descriptions Mother told me when we were little!"
Charade bends down in front of it before Carver can see it. He considers just shoving her out of the way before remembering that she happens to have the key and losing it in the nearly knee-deep sewer water won't be beneficial to their plans.
"I've found a keyhole," Charade says slowly. She reaches into her top and pulls free a battered, ancient-looking key from between her breasts. Carver says nothing as she slides it into the lock, biting her lip as she twists it slowly, ever so slowly until it finally clicks. The sound bounces around the old mining tunnels and for a moment their breath catches as one. When no one comes, they all sigh in relief and share a quick, small laugh.
"Keep the light near me," Carver says, striding forwards. "Charade, you keep an eye out for traps. Slavers are bastards, but they're usually smart bastards. Saemus… you keep rear guard and keep people off our backs."
"The sharp bit is what you stick them with," Charade says, a smirk in her voice.
Carver can imagine Saemus turning red enough to light up the tunnels. "Maker above woman, I know how to wield a sword!"
"I bet you do."
Carver shares his laugh with Bethany as Saemus stutters. He sees Bethany grab Charade's arm and whisper something in her ear that turns the little smirk into a disappointed frown. As quick as it happens, she wipes it into an impassive mask and gestures to Carver.
"By all means, lead us, oh fearless leader."
Carver considers the merits of simply knocking her out. Of course, given that she's still supposed to be resting, he wonders if it will somehow split open her wounds. Instead he just settles a glare on her, knowing that in the low light, she probably won't be able to see much. "Just keep quiet. I don't want any piss-eared slavers finding us before we find them."
He sees her salute him and the way Bethany stifles a giggle. He growls under his breath words that even he can't understand. His blade is in his hands, familiar and itching for blood. He sees nothing in the little corridor they walk into – though truth be told, he doesn't really expect to.
He sees a wooden door to his right. Strangely it's still perfect – even varnished. He tries the handle just once and finds it locked. He growls, grits his teeth and is about to just kick the damn thing down when Charade carefully pushes him out of the way. She motions towards a small trip wire on the lock and smirks up at him.
He glares down at her, not letting them see the way his spine shudders. He thinks of the explosion that could have gone off and knows that he wouldn't be waking up from it. Neither would Bethany, and he's more than certain their brother would travel to the Maker's side just to chew him out for failing to protect her.
"Done," Charade whispers, tucking a set of lockpicks back into her blouse. Carver wonders just how much she happens to store down her top before deciding he just doesn't want to know. He presses his hand gently against the door, still wary of an explosion about to happen, counts down from three and flings the door open.
He peels his eyes open slowly once he's sure he hasn't been blown into smithereens. The first thing he notices is the stench. Even the sewers smell more fragrant than this room! He places the back of his hand over his mouth as he moves in, balancing his blade in his spare hand. He sees nothing but a bare room, complete with cages barely large enough to contain a mabari. In each are the remains of humans or elves, some decaying, some just bones and others still recognisable. He sees the cuts across their arms, necks and legs and in a flash is back to his childhood, in the middle of a field in Fereldan somewhere, being lectured by their father.
'Blood mages do this,' he says, pointing towards the body. Carver wants to throw up as he looks at it. The skin seems to have been peeled away. The eyeballs have been removed. There's cuts that run along the body, marking out a peculiar pattern he only notices because Father points it out.
Bethany gasps and presses her face into Carver's back. He stands strong, even as Garrett turns a little green. They share a look – Garrett is barely even a teen, Carver remembers – and it's like a silent promise is made, never to let Bethany reduce herself to this.
"Maker above," Bethany breathes, bringing Carver back to the present. He touches the bars on one cage and is more than a little relieved when nothing inside moves.
"This is what my father sold the family estate to?" Charade hisses. "We should burn this entire place down – slavers included."
Carver wants to agree. For the first time, he finds himself liking this supposed cousin, just a bit.
Saemus is quick to point out the flaw in their plan, however. "The Amell estate is a large place," he says, pointedly ignoring the corpses and staring at the walls. "We would need a considerable amount of fuel – even for a magic-assisted fire. Then we also run the risk of the fire spreading into nearby houses. Granted, the Amell estate is rather large and doesn't link onto many other houses, but it still could. If it did, the results wouldn't be pleasant."
"Fine," Carver growls. He kicks the metal bars of a cage, listens to them hum and uses it to steel his anger into a fine point. "Then we find the bastards responsible for all of this and end them."
"Damn right," Bethany growls. Carver's quick to hide his shock as he looks at her. Her gaze burns with a fire that speaks of nothing but vengeance. Were she anyone else, he would be afraid that a demon had come along and possessed her. He wonders if maybe she's spent too much time around the abomination healer, but the quick glimpse of pain hidden behind her anger shows him that she's still there. He breathes a relieved sigh – considering the horrible thought of bringing Bethany back to their brother, possessed, wasn't exactly something he wanted to think about.
"Oh, hello brother. Don't mind Bethany if she appears to grow horns. You see, she might have gotten a little bit possessed when we went out the other night to one-up you. But it's all alright, she's got her demon under control now. Even named her."
He decides that were that to happen, he probably wouldn't last that long at all.
They move from the room and into the hallway again. Carver tells Charade to inspect the next door they come across. She declares it safe, though even so, Carver has her open it, whilst he stands just in front of Bethany. Saemus doesn't seem to know what he's planning, though his shield is almost constantly in his hand, waiting to hide him from something horrible.
They find themselves in a wine cellar. Carver takes a step into it and barks out a quiet laugh. He considers taking one and drinking it straight from the bottle. As quickly as he thinks about it, he decides it's probably a bad idea. He hasn't eaten in a long time and he knows it would go straight to his head. Whilst that might normally be agreeable, he doesn't want to charge into a slaver's den with his sister whilst completely blind drunk.
"These are expensive bottles," Bethany whispers, her anger seemingly cooling.
"Imported from Tevinter," Saemus adds. "These people have good taste." He shrinks back under their combined glares and clears his throat awkwardly. "Aside from the slaving issue. Moving on! I think a number of these may be hiding a message of sorts – see the way only a few are removed, in what seems to be a pattern? It could be hiding a message – I've heard of something like that being done before."
"Can you read it?" Charade grunts.
"Then does it help us?"
"It might," Carver says quickly. "But not anytime soon." Somewhere behind the walls of wine, he hears a cough. "Quiet!" he hisses, holding up a hand. They fall in line instantly, weapons drawn. He sees Charade already readying an arrow in her bow. Silently, he's impressed she has the upper-arm strength to keep the bow drawn for so long. He feels the prickle of magic run down his neck as Bethany draws on the Fade and the sound of steel as Saemus draws his blade.
Carver presses himself against the wall and slowly makes his way across it. He pokes his head around the corner and finds a single guard stood there, a bottle of wine in his hands. Another guard lies on the floor nearby, red spilled out all around him. Carver thinks just for a moment that he's dead, killed by the other, but then he sees the bottle of wine clutched in his hands.
He smiles grimly to himself as he creeps around the corner, blade heavy in his hands. He makes it up to the guard and dispatches him with an eerie calm. The man makes nothing more than a short, wet gurgle before he slides off of Carver's blade and onto the floor.
"Was that truly necessary?" Saemus whispers. "He was only working for them."
"Working for slavers," Charade says, a bite to her tone. "To take their coin and look the other way is no different than locking people in cages yourself."
"I suppose you're right," Saemus says, tone heavy. "I cannot believe that Father would allow such an operation to exist in Hightown."
"I can't believe you're so blind to it all," Charade says. "Everyone knows coin buys silence. You might not want to think it, but your father has a price. Does he care about a few people he doesn't know? Does he really care if a few elves go missing from their slum?"
"Of course he does!"
"Really?" Charade slides her hand over her hip. "Tell me; when was the last time your father went down to Lowtown to see what the world is really like outside of his pretty palace."
Saemus' face is bright red. "I'll have you know he cares a lot! He helped to fund me when I was giving out food rations for the refugees!"
Carver resists the urge to groan at the memory of that alone. Just over a year ago, and he's not entirely certain Saemus has gotten any smarter in regards to anything requiring any sort of common sense.
"Saemus," Bethany says in a harsh whisper, "firstly, your father only donated funds because he needed the guards to stop more mercenaries from trying to take your head. Secondly, he's so far under the Knight-Commander's thumb that even the youngest of babes know about it."
"Thirdly," Carver says gruffly, slapping Saemus' shoulder with the back of his hand. "Keep quiet. We don't want them to know we're here, do we?"
He feels a slight tingle that runs down his spine. Nerves, he puts it down to. His arms tremble a little with the weight of his sword and he's certain that he needs to start eating a bit more, just to make sure he has the strength to keep lifting the damn thing.
"Can we hurry this along?" Charade whispers. "I'm getting awfully tired."
"So am I," Saemus says. "I apologise about before. I assume that my fatigue in using this weaponry is causing me to lose my temper."
Carver sighs. He feels a trickle of sweat run between his shoulder blades. He frowns, certain that it's nowhere near hot enough for something like that. Sure, Kirkwall is far warmer than Fereldan, but it's not exactly warm out either. He glances at the others and sees their brows slick with sweat, though their surroundings aren't hot.
"Something's wrong," Bethany whispers. Frost thickens around her hands and cools the air a little. Even with the cold in front of him, Carver still feels the sweat running down his chest and back. He can't help but agree with her.
"What's happening here?" he wonders. "Magic?"
"None I've ever seen," Bethany whispers. "I-!"
She cuts off with a shout of pain. Carver runs to her, but a sudden lance of pure agony runs through his skull. His blood feels like it's turned to acid in his body. His arms move without him willing them, turning in ways that make his bones scream in protest. He gets up like a puppet on a string, collapses to the floor and is pulled up to his feet once more by an invisible hand.
He barely has the time to register the thought of blood magic before something smacks him in the back of his head and turns everything black.
"Anyone home? I bring gold and the smell of stupid, dead people."
Hawke grunts as he looks around his hovel and finds no one there. Shepard sniffs curiously at the surroundings, gives a quick bark of appraisal and launches himself on the bed. It groans under his weight but manages to hold strong – even if Hawke is certain a wooden slat manages to fall free.
"They must have gone out," Hawke muses, rubbing his beard. "Probably with Saemus. Or Carver's gone to collect Bethany from the sewers."
It's not exactly a new thing for Hawke to come back to an empty home. He's used to his siblings having lives of their own, though he wishes they would take the time to leave a note. Sure, they might not have much money to spare for letters and may have to scrape the old ink off first, but they still know how to write! He sighs, rubs his hands together and quickly uses the privy, since no one else is going to run in on him.
He smiles as he thinks back to Isabela, promising him untold fortunes, should he decide to come and visit her. She even mentioned completing their duel, telling him that if he can best her, she'll let him do whatever he wants to her.
He's fully aware his face is plastered with a goofy grin. Of course, he had to relent at first, if only to walk Merrill back to her house – otherwise she would probably be found in a week's time, sat atop a beached seal in the docks and wondering why people were worshipping her as a goddess of the sea.
He looks around the room as if to try and find something that will force him to stay. Shepard perks up, whining curiously.
"I'm going out, boy," Hawke tells him. "Be a good dog and wait here for Carver and Bethany."
His reply is nothing more than a grunt before he curls up and starts trying to sleep. Hawke locks the door behind him as he leaves, embracing the bitter wind that Lowtown has to offer. He hears the sounds of whores plying their trade in a nearby alley, complete with shady deals being conducted in the shadows nearby.
He muses that should they feel like doing so, he and his friends could quite easily clean up the streets. Of course, that would also come with the problem of drawing attention and possibly a bounty. He considers that perhaps it's safer to let the streets be filled with crime, for the sake of his own family. Maybe it's cruel, but he will happily let a stranger die so that his family can live.
He arrives at the Hanged Man just as a drunk is being literally thrown out of the door. Hawke casually steps around him, stopping only to kick his hand away when he grabs for his boot.
"Hawke!" Varric cheers, noticing him instantly. He's got a crowd around him already, Hawke notices, all enthralled with another story. Perhaps it's another one about the dragon-lady and how he supposedly flew to Kirkwall on her back.
He shudders at the thought. He doesn't trust that witch any more than Anders trusts anyone who's not a mage. Varric smiles widely as Hawke walks through the doorway and is nearly knocked over by the smell of stale beer.
"I knew you couldn't stay away for long," he says loudly. "Try not to burst into a giggling fit. Andraste only knows I could never look you in the eye again if Junior is better with women that you are."
"Thank you, Varric," Hawke says through gritted teeth. His first reaction, naturally, was to grab his crotch and tell him that therein lies the only eye Varric is level with. He knows Varric will take the joke well, but he sees the familiar faces in the crowd that he knows will start trouble the moment someone says something bad to Varric. The dwarf might be aware of them, he might not, but Hawke doesn't want to anger mercenaries that the Merchant's Guild have hired – especially those that look like they could pick him up and use him as a sword.
"Good luck, Hawke," Varric says with a grin, "I'll buy you a pint if you're in there longer than an hour."
Hawke goes with the most mature option he can think of; sticking his middle finger up at the dwarf. Varric laughs and sweeps his people back into another tale of something Hawke assumes has to be grandiose and insane. He finds his way up the stairs towards the rooms without much hassle – other than a few drunks asking him for coin and one man, rambling to himself about there being more mages around than he remembers.
Hawke dismisses them without a moment's thought. He stops in front of the room he knows to be Isabela's and finds his heart suddenly running just a bit faster. He frowns at himself and only barely stops from hitting himself in the face. This is nothing new to him! He's been with women before, countless times and he's never felt this stupid bundle of nerves before! He tells himself that this is just a visit to a very promiscuous woman… a visit which will likely start off with a duel of one kind and end with another.
He's about to knock on the door when it opens, revealing Isabela behind. She smiles at him, her hair wet and fixed over her face and shoulders. She wears nothing more than a bright white towel that Hawke's certain is about to burst open at any moment.
"Hawke!" Isabela says cheerily. "So good of you to visit. Did you bring me a gift?"
For a dreadful moment, Hawke realises that no, he doesn't have a gift and that's going to make her shut the door on him and never see the sight of her dripping wet and nearly naked again. He swallows and banishes the thought, covering it with as much bravado as he can.
"I'll say," he says with a smirk, "it's packed dreadfully tightly though. I'm afraid you'll have to help me to get it free."
She snorts a laugh. "I think I can deal with that." She doesn't give him even a moment to react before she snatches his belt and drags him into her room. He barely manages to take in the collection of daggers strewn across a wooden table, the large bed made up in the corner of the room and the fireplace roaring, cooking something extremely spicy before Isabela pounces at him, her towel holding up remarkably well.
Hawke falls back and catches himself on a small table. Isabela leans over him, water running from her hair. Maker, he can feel the heat radiating off of her! She smiles at him, drawing a finger ever-so-slowly up the length of his arm.
"Well," she says slowly, like she's considering meat at a market, "I do hope this gift is in working order. You wouldn't believe how many times I've been let down by a gift that wasn't able to meet my demands."
A sudden switch goes off in Hawke's brain as her fingers wrap around his arm. He flips her so that she's against the table and smiles at the quick take of breath she can't stop. He trails his fingers across her leg, never taking his eyes off of hers, daring her to look away with only a small smile. "I think you'll find," he says, his words moving as slowly as his fingers, "that this gift will never let you down." He leans in close, suddenly bold as a little moan comes forth from Isabela's lips. He presses his mouth against her neck and is rewarded with the smell of her hair. It's like limes, spices and the sea, all at once.
Her fingers bury themselves deep in his hair. "You're a tease," she accuses. "And here I thought you came here for a duel." She laughs, but she pulls his head closer to her neck as she does so.
"There are many types of duels," Hawke says.
"Indeed there are."
Hawke barely notices her hand move away from his head. He's lost in the smell, the feel, the heat of her. He brushes her hair from her neck and hears her laugh as his beard tickles against her skin.
Only barely does he register her moving away and the flash of silver in time. He throws himself backwards as a blade appears in her hand and nearly cuts his face off. Panting, he looks up at her and finds amusement written across her face.
"I thought you wanted a duel?" she asks innocently, stroking a finger across her blade. "You've been talking the talk so much, Sweet Thing, I wanted to see if you could multitask. I do like a man that can do two things at once."
The flirtation is lost on him. His heart is still racing and his brain and body are sending him two different ideas at once. Finally he recovers control of his body in order to point at her blade and squeak, "Where did that even come from?"
"I have many secrets," she says, tapping the blade against her cheek. "I have even more tricks up my sleeve. As for this," – she spins the blade in her hand without even looking at it – "I find that sometimes, all you need is a little adrenaline to make things really exciting. So how about it Hawke?" She meets his eyes, her fingers moving deftly across her chest. He can't help but look as they grab the top of her towel and rip it free from her body.
He's more than a little surprised to find that she's wearing a blouse and incredibly small pants underneath. He's treated to a marvellous view of her body, sculpted as it is underneath the wet clothes that cling to her.
"Can you still duel, if you're distracted like this?"
She doesn't even give him the chance to answer. She leaps at him with deadly speed. He doesn't even have a chance to draw his own daggers and defend himself. He moves by instinct alone; catches her blade on the thick padding of his elbows, sweeps his hands around her wrist and makes a grab for her blade.
She seems to expect it. She spins around, him, letting him grab the blade for a moment. He goes to throw it away but stops as he feels her hands slide around his waist and retreat quickly, leaving him noticeably lighter than before.
"These are nice," Isabela says, spinning his daggers in her hands, "mind if I borrow them?"
She attacks again. Hawke curses her and kicks a pot in her way. She laughs and jumps over it without even a pause. Hawke slides between her arms as she lands, grabs her chest and pins her against the nearby wall. He feels the daggers pressed against his back, the hilts digging in between his shoulder blades. More than that, he feels the heat that comes from Isabela as she moves her legs to make herself more comfortable.
She makes a sound somewhere between a moan and a laugh. She slides his leg over his, hooks her foot behind his knee and suddenly the floor slams painfully into Hawke's back. He gasps painfully, distantly thanking the Maker that she threw the daggers to one side before he fell on them.
"Well, well, well," Isabela says, her hair falling down and brushing over his nose, "so you do have some fight in you."
He growls and spins her over. She doesn't object, even as they roll into a cabinet and something smashes against the floor nearby. She laughs, grabs his head and pulls him in deep for a kiss. He can't argue with that. She rolls over him, knocks them into something else and pulls back, her eyes burning with victory as she shows him a dagger that she's pulled free from Maker-knows-where.
"Face it Hawke," she says, holding the dagger to his throat, her mouth against his ear, "you're just not good enough to beat me in a duel."
He snatches her hand before she can move away. His hand wraps around hers and pries the dagger away. Before she can make a grab for it, he drops it against the floor and knocks it away with his elbow. Isabela pouts and yelps as Hawke flips her over once more. She grabs for something again but Hawke slides his hand against hers, linking their fingers together.
"I'm learning your tricks, Isabela," he says, his face just above hers.
"Oh, Sweet Thing," she laughs, "Isabela has lots of tricks – she might even teach you some of them." She grabs him by the collar, pulls him down and kisses him.
The world comes to her in a spinning haze. Bethany groans and places a hand against the side of her head. Her everything hurts. Her spine tingles with the pure, unadulterated fear that she knows means that the Veil has been torn apart somewhere nearby.
Everything comes back to her slowly. She remembers attacking their estate. She remembers the traps, Charade disarming them, the blood magic as it tore through their bodies, Carver being felled by a phantom hand –
The world suddenly springs into focus. She smells the acrid harshness of mould. The sounds of water dripping constantly wraps against her ears. She feels cold, hard stone against her cheek and bolts straight upright, her eyes snapping open and treating her with the grim ruin of a dungeon that makes even her hovel seem like a royal palace.
She's in the cages they'd found within the Amell estate, she realises. Bethany swears as she launches to her feet and presses her hands against them. Charade is in the cage with her, unconscious and with a huge welt on her head. Bethany sees the blood starting to dry on the woman's blouse and checks her wound. It's opened again, but Bethany heals it as best she can.
She spins around and searches for Carver. She finds him in the cage across the room from them, alive but clearly not with it. Saemus has been dropped in the cage too, both of them stripped of their weapons and left to rot.
Footsteps echo from somewhere in the shadows. Bethany watches as the door swings open, revealing a man in purple robes. His face is hidden behind the shadows of his cowl, but Bethany sees the bright blue of his eyes that burn like ice. She shudders and back away involuntarily. She does not want to be near this man, whatever the cost!
"Four fledgling heroes," the man says, his accent clearly Tevinter. "We should have killed you where you stood, but two strong men and two fertile, young women happen to fetch wondrous prices at auction. You however," he says, staring at Bethany and making her stomach boil over in hatred and fear both, "you're a mage. Great things lay ahead of you, my fellow mage. Promise yourself to me, as my apprentice, and I shall teach you things you never thought possible. I will show you the world and how to hold it in your hand. I will even make sure your friends are sold to kind nobles, rather than miners or something worse."
Bethany feels her emotions boil up inside her. She hears the whispers of the Fade; the demons and their false promises. Allow us in, the whisper, we will give you the power you want.
She shuts them down by habit alone. Magic serves that which is best in me, not most base. Father's words. She clings to them, makes them her shield and her support.
"You," she says, approaching the cage bars, "are nothing more than a little whelp of a man who will get exactly what's coming to him." She feels the rage build up. She knows exactly what the man plans to do to her – to do to her cousin too. She sees it in his eyes. She sees that Carver and Saemus may even suffer the same, or worse. She sees the man killing Carver in her mind's eye. She sees a hundred different situations, all ending with her brother beaten, starved and dying.
She sees Carver skewered by the sword again, the shock on his face and the way his blood ran freely over her hands.
"Do you really think I would choose to serve you, over protecting my family? My friends?" The air around her begins to heat up. She feels it rolling of her in waves. She lends a little bit more of her power to it, ignoring the calls of the demons as she does so. "I would sooner see you burn than ally myself with you."
The cage bars moan and warp. Fire bursts into existence from the Fade, brought into life by Bethany's will alone. She directs it against the metal of her cage and watches the bars become red-hot. They stretch in front of her eyes, fall apart and sag to the floor. The man – the blood mage – yelps and reaches for a dagger. Bethany glares at him and his robes burst aflame.
He screams. Guards in the halls answer his cries. Bethany pays them no mind. She simply wants them all to burn. Guards pour in, weapons drawn. She sees them all trying to kill her, trying to kill Carver.
She washes her eyes over them, and they each burst into flame.
Their skin starts to melt. Fire pours free from their mouths. Their eyeballs puddle in the bottom of their sockets, their tongues fuse against the roofs of their mouths.
"You want me to become your apprentice?" Bethany hisses as she approaches the blood mage, fire bursting into life beneath her feet. She reaches down for him, picks him up by the collar and looks him dead in the eye. She sees his fear, sees him plead for his life and she smiles.
"I'm more powerful that you could ever hope to be," she snarls. She tosses him aside like he weighs nothing. He goes to run. She clicks her fingers and the room loses all heat at once. The mage freezes over, becoming solid ice in an instant.
"This is why mages are feared," she says to no one in particular. She reaches over to Carver with her mind and fixes everything that's wrong with him. He stirs, but she's already moved on, healing Charade and then Saemus.
Carver startles awake, alarm in his face. "S-sister?" he chokes.
"You're always trying to protect me, brother of mine," Bethany says. She looks from him to the corpses of slavers, still burning on the floor. "Did it ever occur to you that perhaps, I don't need protecting?"
She smiles at him, but he recoils away in fear. Bethany can't understand why. This is the power the Maker has given her. This is her power, without the aid of demons. She sweeps her gaze over the room, sees her friends, her family looking at her like she's become possessed and feels pity for them.
"An apostate should never remain in one place for too long," Bethany says, recalling Father's words from long ago. She considers them, the wheels in her mind turning faster than she ever thought possible. She reaches into her knowledge and finds spells she had barely been able to process now simpler than breathing itself.
"Take care of yourself, brother," she says, offering one last glance at Carver. She reaches into her magic, finds the spell Merrill had only begun teaching her and masters it without any real effort. The ground beneath her groans, warps and swallows her up without complaint.
She emerges several hundred miles away on a beach in the middle of the night. She's alone, the wind whipping in her hair, the gulls ahead screeching to each other, ignoring the small woman who has appeared beneath them.
Bethany looks around and considers her options. She has no coin. She doesn't know where she is. Her staff is missing, the blood of slavers still fresh on her hands. She pays it no mind.
She's free. That's all that matters now.