The alley was a cramped, dark stain between two leaning wooden buildings, their warped boards forming the walls of entry to the district's most notorious black market. Carver made his way carefully, taking deep slow breaths to control his shaking. He'd never gone so long without a draught of lyrium. He felt weak, dizzy. The walls and sky spun in his vision and it took every ounce of hard earned focus to keep him headed in the right direction. Merrill said there was a carta shop here. Dwarves with lyrium and no chantry ties. That promise kept him going, one step after another, his pain a second heartbeat to count the minutes by.
Inside the market, men and women in heavy cloaks clumped around carts and tables of illicit merchandise while others with no visible goods, only services on offer, stood on the fringes, waiting. Money changed hands, and in one dark corner, a gleam of steal, a gasp of pain, and then pooling blood as a client failed to strike a deal. Carver tried to stand straight, a scowl on his face. This was not a good place to look vulnerable. A man to his left laughed as the templar passed, making a rude gesture. Carver glared at him and put a hand to his sword, but walked on. Confrontation would be bad when he could barely grip his hilt for the ice and fire that raged in his bones.
Most of the black market denizens never made eye contact as Carver marched past, watching from the corners of their eyes or glancing from beneath deep hoods, faces hidden in shadow. The secrecy of the black market made it easier to hide his sickness as the templar burrowed deeper into the filth looking for carta merchants. They were always easy to find in places like this, their dwarven runes marking cloak, cart, and table alike. It was no different in this place, he thought, spotting three dwarves. They stood with their backs leaned against the low, stone wall dividing the path from a gutter. Eyes glittered from faces tattoed darkly with the marks of their shame. Beside them sat a table with items salvaged from dead thaigs and darkspawn craft. A cover for their true product.
There was no need for the templar to state his intent. The dwarves smiled as Carver approached, a baring of teeth in greeting. He thought they looked like jackals lounging there, lean and sleek and filthy, eyes cruel. One slid a slim vial from the inside of his coat, just enough to see the edge of silvery blue liquid as it sloshed inside. "Going rate?" asked Carver, his voice rougher than he intended.
"It's gone up," the dwarf informed him. "Unless . . . you want the red?"
The templar shook his head, not sure what he meant and not caring. The need for lyrium sang louder at the sight of that vial, a physical pull so painful it was all he could do not to voice it. "Give me your price, damn it." Carver winced at the whine he heard in his demand.
"Sure, sure," the dwarf laughed. "Some of the blue, a mere gold piece. Fereldan weight mind you. None of that Free Cities crap."
Carver gaped. A gold piece. "It should be half that! Half!" He didn't notice that he was shouting as he said it, though others nearby began to move away, not wanting to be part of whatever fight was about to break out.
"Supply and demand, my friend. You can pay or you can fuck off. I've got other buyers happy to put their money where their mouth is." The dwarves shifted, no longer looking relaxed. One put his hand to a dagger, his grin manic.
At a gold piece per vial, Carver would barely be able to cover his supplies for the coming month. It was ridiculous. The bastards were taking advantage of desperation. Rational thoughts tried to form, to take hold in the templar's mind but he was too far gone to the pulsing need for lyrium. Raw, angry, out of control, he pulled his blade. The pain that lanced up his arm as he moved only served to enrage him further.
"Carver, stop it." A quiet voice, lilting and lightly accented, penetrated his rage. The templar sagged in midswing, the tip of his sword dropping to point at the ground as Carver's gaze settled hazily on the tiny elf that now stood beside him. The dwarves looked from Carver to Merrill and back again, obviously considering whether or not to kill both of them or to stand down.
"No one draws steel on us and walks away, knife ear," one carta dwarf said, spitting in Merrill's general direction.
The Dalish smiled at him, her sweet face belying the terrible power she held. "It's a good thing Carver can't draw then, isn't it? We haven't even got any paper and honestly, what would you draw for steel exactly? I guess a bar? An ore? Hmmm." She honestly seemed distracted by the idea for a moment, mind wandering. She blinked a few times and then shook her head. "I guess it doesn't matter does it . . . why don't we put away our pointy things and talk like people?" This seemed to ease the tension in the dwarves and one even barked a harsh laugh.
The templar slid his sword back into the scabbard and gave Merrill a tired smile. Praise Andraste for small miracles, he thought. If she hadn't shown up, he probably wouldn't be standing. What madness to attack three carta members all alone! A sharp pain followed the thought as his body reminded him of why he was there in the first place. The Dalish seemed to sense his pain and settled her hand on his arm gently. "About that price -" Carver began.
"We'll settle on 75 silver each and not a copper more," Merrill interrupted. "It's what the Keeper pays and I've no reason to think you can negotiate another deal with Elvhenan. Or?" She blinked at them as if uncertain, still smiling. The carta dwarves shuffled nervously for a moment, which surprised Carver. He had no idea the elven rebels' reach extended so far. Had he a clearer mind, he might have thought to question Merrill later, but now he only had eyes for the sweet light of lyrium.
In the end, he bought six vials. It cost more than he could really afford, but the experience left him fearful of what might happen if he ran out. The idea sent shudders down his spine. Merrill squeezed his arm gently as she felt him shiver. "It will be alright, Carver," she reassured him. I should be the one comforting her, the templar thought. The days when Daisy needed such reassurance were over though. Since joining the rebel elves, she had grown stronger and more sure of herself. Merrill could still get lost in a town square, but she no longer doubted her purpose or her powers, and not even the Maker could help you if she thought you stood in her way.
"You shouldn't have gone out alone like this," she chided him as they walked back to the alienage.
"I didn't want to bother you," he mumbled, knowing that was only part of the truth. Carver had not wanted Merrill to see him so weak, helpless in thrall to his addiction. And he needed to escape her, though he couldn't admit that even to himself. Since coming to Val Royeaux, he and Daisy shared one tiny room with Beren and Ellenia.
There was little privacy. Someone was always there, and that someone was usually Merrill. Beren and Ellenia often went out together, renting a room in the nearby tavern to have a lovers' tryst. While the templar did not begrudge the couple their time alone, it left Carver with Merrill day in and day out. Hearing her breathe, watching her elegant, graceful movements as she worked quietly at the room's only small table . . . She would bustle back and forth across the room to get this item or that text, and brush up against the templar with a little smile, eyes going wide as if surprised to find Carver there and his heart beat would race. It was more than any man was meant to bear. It was more than he could take some days.
"It's never a bother to help you, Carver. You stayed with me when no one else would," Merrill smiled up at him.
He wanted to tell her there was nowhere else he wanted to be more than by her side. The words stuck in his throat. "Thank you," he managed, voice heavy.
Daisy nodded. "You should be glad I decided to come after you. I know you're brave but three thugs? Really?" She glanced at him, a smile dancing in her eyes despite the serious set of her lips.
Carver shrugged his shoulders, unable to think of a witty reply. "Sorry," he managed.
Merrill laughed softly and said nothing more as she guided him back to their small home.
The alienage here was filthy and poor, worse than Carver remembered even in Kirkwall. In his haze he did little more than note the obstacles. Piles of trash, sick animals, and the elves sitting or lying down along the walkway and even out in the street. Work here for the Elvhenan had only just begun. In Orlais the problem was poverty rather than slavery, with some elves so desperate for food and warmth that a life in servitude seemed a small price to pay. It was a harder foe to fight than mere shackles and chains. There was no magister to bring down, no slave master to kill. Only hundreds upon hundreds of mouths and minds to feed. When Carver could think about it, it hurt. He wondered how he had been so blind to these people for so much of his life.
The house was empty when they arrived, no sign of Beren or Ellenia. The bunks they slept in sat in shadow at the back of the room, barely lit by one small window, the shutters thrown open to air the place out. The small table that served as Merrill's desk was a jumble of vials and other instruments for potion making, a pile of journals stacked on the floor to one side. Carver smiled at the way her letters looped and swirled across one page that sat askew from the others. Just as sweetly chaotic as she was. He realized his mind was wandering now, unable to focus, but found he did not care.
"Sit down Carver. Your eyes are all glassy. Do you feel sick?" She put a hand to his head, her skin soft and cool. He could feel the thrum of her heartbeat.
"No." The templar sat heavily, his body aflame at every joint. "I just . . . need the lyrium . . . please?" The words barely sounded like him at all.
"Of course," Merrill nodded, face coloring. "Let me get it ready for you." She went to the desk, working quickly. Carver waited, his muscles clenching and unclenching. It hurt so much, but all he could think of was Merrill. She smelled of dried flowers and spice. From half-lidded eyes, he watched the way her dark hair curled past her collar and remembered how soft it felt beneath his rough fingers. Carver couldn't tell if he was remembering or imagining the feel of her lips on his cheek. His pulse slowed, breath barely stirring.
The mineral smell of lyrium washed over the templar, pulling him back. He could almost taste it, a sensation as tantalizing as the touch of Merrill's skin. The hallucination blended with reality, anchoring him in this world. Like an ocean current, desire tossed the templar back on the shores of the living, detritus in the waves of sweet, silver-blue light.
Carver did not remember standing, but he stood now in front of the desk. Merrill pressed against him, face upturned, eyes half closed and he . . . he held the back of her neck in one hand, the other arm wrapped about her to pull the Dalish closer. She set the edge of the lyrium vial against his lips, her mixture sloshing over the edge to tempt him. The templar heard a groan of physical need and some part of him was shocked that the sound came from his own throat. Daisy tilted the vial, pouring the potion into him. Carver's lips parted, letting the drug burn across his tongue and down his throat. Pain and satiation, life and death, he felt anguish so great it made him want to weep as strength shot through his veins.
Merrill set the vial down, laying one cool hand on his cheek, soft fingers stroking the stubble there. "It's alright now," she said, and rested her head against his chest. Carver loosened his grip, letting his hand drift down her back, tracing the line of her spine. It felt so right to hold her like this, delicate, deadly Merrill. The Dalish turned her face to look up at him, a wealth of loneliness etched into her features. Though he knew he should not, the templar kissed her. He tried to be gentle, but so much aching need would not be denied this one transgression. Daisy's eyes widened in surprise, but her mouth was ready for him, eager for his touch.
Desire burned through Carver and he felt himself stir. Maker's breath, but he wanted Merrill and in that moment, for what it was, he had her. Her long, slim fingers twined in the hair at the back of his head and she kissed him with her soul. The templar lifted her gently up onto the ledge of the desk, nudging her legs apart. Even through her leggings and robe, he could feel the heat of her against him. Almost of their own accord, his hands slid beneath her robe, the touch of her skin electric.
And then she pushed him away, breathless and pink-cheeked. "No . . . Carver . . . stop," she breathed, eyes glassy. With an effort of will the templar stepped back, hands dropping to his sides. It was, he thought, harder to deny himself this than it was to forgo lyrium. Merrill straightened her robe, avoiding eye contact while she steadied her breath. "I can't," she said so quietly that Carver wasn't sure the words were meant for him.
Carver offered words of comfort, though it stung to say them. "It's alright. I understand." They rung hollow in the air between the almost lovers.
"I'm so sorry," Merrill faced him, eyes shining with unshed tears.
He had no idea what to say. She was sorry - so was he, and there was nothing either would do to change their path. Merrill was devoted to her people and he, to her. Instead of replying, Carver turned and left. She did not stop him, only watched as he closed the door behind him.
Hawke felt something hard and sharp on her arm followed by a white hot pain. She struggled to stand up, to open her eyes, but she couldn't pull herself from sleep. On the edges of her consciousness, she heard the rumbling of foreign speech but it receded, going beyond the reach of her awareness. The burning pain in her limb spread, and with it came an emptiness so complete Riese could not fathom what she had worried about a moment ago. This was a dream, and all things a part of it. Nothing to be concerned about. It wasn't even the Fade.
She wandered through dreams of friends and family long dead, and dreams of the future where her fondest hopes were realized. From long walks with Bethany to bouncing a baby on her knee, Hawke floated in this place that was both a part of and separate from her. In one sentimental dream that was also part of a memory, she sat at a table on her balcony in Kirkwall talking with Anders. The remains of lunch lay forgotten between them as the two debated the place of mages in the world, the responsibilities of magic and the rights of all men and women. It had been a favorite topic for the apostate, and one that they both felt strongly about.
Hawke knew it for a dream, but was still surprised when Anders stopped mid-sentence and his expression changed. He went from giving an impassioned speech to quiet regret. The apostate looked around, gaze settling on her after a long, silent moment. "Why do you look surprised, Riese? You know I am dead. This is just what you remember of me. I should be flattered that this is what you recall and not - not the other things."
Hawke frowned. "I know. And . . . I remember all of it but these are the things I miss. You at your best . . ."
Anders gave her a tired smile. "I miss them too. The times we would sit and talk, two friends ready to take on the world and make it a better place."
"Did we though? I think in the end it is as terrible as it was before we began. If not worse." Riese wasn't certain he would reply, after all it was only her memory. In essence she was talking to herself here.
"In some ways, I believe we did change it for good. This world we wanted, where mages could be treated as people, free to do good or ill as their hearts demanded, and free to face the consequences of that responsibility - it is being birthed even now. These are just the pains of labor. It is bloody but necessary." Anders sighed, looking down. "I suppose being the agent of that change tarnishes us, but I do not regret it."
Hawke blinked. Did some part of her truly think this? If so, it was a part of her mind she wanted nothing to do with. She stared hard at the apostate, deciding she was done with this dream. Riese tried to change it, to go someplace else, but the balcony and her dead friend did not budge. He only looked at her, waiting for a response. "You aren't me," she said stupidly after a moment.
Anders smiled at her, a genuine grin this time. "No, Hawke, I am not. Nor am I Anders. I dislike misleading you by wearing a friend's face, but I did not want to make you afraid."
The mage surged to her feet, fighting an urge to run or lash out. Without knowing what this creature was, it was not safe to act, and control was of deadly importance. "I'm afraid now," the mage said, speaking carefully. "Whatever you are, if you don't want to make an enemy of me, get out of my head. I don't like being spied on!"
The apostate's face flickered and changed, melding into an older, more careworn visage. Riese recognized it as the man from her nightmare. "This is the face I have taken as my own, my first in the realm of flesh. You do not know me as this," he gestured to himself, robes now turned to armor, a sword at this side, "But you do know me. It was not my intent to spy on you, but we need to speak. Please accept my apology."
"Justice?" Hawke took a step back, wondering if the being before her was spirit or demon.
He nodded. "I am. For a time I questioned myself, wondered if in Anders' desires I had become Vengeance, but no. When we died, we separated again here in the Fade and I was myself. Unencumbered by rage and sorrow, able to recall calmly the memories of my hosts. I am Justice."
Riese did not lower her guard, though this reassurance made her feel more bold. "If you are no demon, then why are you so interested in me? I thought spirits avoided mages."
"They do, and I should. I tempt corruption in dealing with you, but I must. It is my counsel that led Anders to action, and I share the blame. And his fate, I also share the responsibility for." Justice sighed, putting his head in his hands. "It is no easy weight to bear, but I must see it to the end. Will you speak with me then?"
"If Anders is dead, then what is it you want? I can't change what he did . . . do you want me to - to make amends for him? I don't understand." Hawke crossed her arms, tense and unhappy.
"I will take that as a yes, Hawke. You are right. Making amends is not possible, and beside the point. The past cannot be changed and I would not will it so, no. What I ask of you is not so far reaching, though perhaps as difficult." Justice did not look up as he spoke, still as a statue.
Riese began to pace, movement calming her. "So spit it out. Say your piece, Justice." Curiosity warred with caution, and Hawke knew she would be lying if she did not admit that part of her thrilled at the idea of a chance to right the wrongs of her past, but another part felt it was past time she handed the responsibility to another. One soul could only handle so much in a lifetime. Would she need to die in some cause to have peace? And why now, when she had begun to look forward to a long, quiet life with Fenris?
"I told you Anders and I separated when we died and came to the Fade, though each of us arrived in vastly different places. Because we were so long a part of each other, I could sense his presence here, and went to him. I hoped I could ease his sorrows and send him on. It is not good for the spirits of the dead to linger here. They become bitter and wicked, fodder for demons. I would never want that for my friend." The spirit ran a hand over the short hair on his head, looking up though not at Hawke. "It did not take long to find him, nor to go to him. Spirits have ways to travel the Fade that mages do not."
"I know that," Riese frowned. "Please get to your point. I think I know where this goes, and it frightens me."
Justice nodded. "Indeed. When I found Anders, I was too late. What was left of him was enslaved to a desire demon. I thought she intended to drain him here in the Fade. To eat his memories, satiating herself on the lusts he felt in life. Instead, as I prepared to battle her, she ran, summoned to the world of flesh. She took what was left of Anders with her. I was confused, but determined to follow."
Hawke stopped pacing to stare at him. "What are you saying?"
"Peace, mage. Let me finish. On the other side of the summons, I found a powerful mage. In his laboratory lay Anders' body, preserved by some alchemy I do not know. And it was to this corpse that the mage directed the demon. I watched silently, taking no action lest I draw the mage's attention. I have little defense without a body in the realm of flesh. I would be easily bound or destroyed." The spirit frowned, "I would do anything for Anders, but it seemed a pointless sacrifice."
"I'm not accusing you of anything, Justice." Yet, Riese amended to herself. "So Anders is back? Alive? Possessed?"
The spirit nodded and then shook his head. "Yes and no. His body moves and speaks, but there is not much of him there. The demon, Rapacia, she devoured most of his memories, what made Anders himself. She rides him as a chevalier on his horse, and both do this mage's bidding. The mage - he is Orson of Tevinter, or so he claimed."
"You know of him?" Riese asked, recognizing a bitterness in the words.
Justice frowned, fists clenching at his sides. "Orson was a contact we had from Tevinter to help the mages we freed. If it is him, and it may be, I fear what purpose we helped him to in life. I fear more what he plans for Anders now. Whatever it may be, there is nothing good from an alliance with demons. I know my friend would not allow such a thing. Anders was not always right, but he was a good man."
Hawke was already nodding. "I need to free him then and destroy the demon. I can't let this Orson use him. Anders died once already - he deserves peace!" She wanted to let herself consider that the apostate could be brought back, but she knew it would be an evil thing. A spirit trapped in a rotting body was no gift to offer her friend.
"I knew you would understand," Justice replied approvingly. "I have tried to tell you so many times, but you are suspicious and your wards strong . . . it is not easy to reach your spirit."
"I'll take that as a compliment," Riese smiled thinly. "I'd rather not have spirits of any kind peeking in on me at any hour. No offense."
"None taken." Justice stood and dusted off his breeches, a motion he had picked up from Anders. "It was only possible here because the Veil is thin. You should take care where you camp, Hawke. Ruins are often the haunt of demons and the restless dead."
In a heartbeat, Riese remembered the pain of her arm and the strange voices around her. The mage reached for a staff that was not there and then cursed. "Are you saying my camp is under attack? Is Fenris alright? Maker's breath, I need to wake up!"
"You are not under attack by these. I have shielded you, even while 'peeking' as you say. Though I fear things in the world of flesh are not good for you right now." The spirit waved with his hand and suddenly Riese could hear, though she could not see, the world around her sleeping form.
"How much longer do we wait on the Keeper?" someone asked. The voice was lilting, reminiscent of Merrill.
A rougher, masculine voice replied, "I say we kill them and have done with it. We shouldn't bother the Keeper with this nonsense."
"If we slit their throats it'll leave quite the mess. Are you going to explain to the Keeper then that you killed two travelers out of hand and without a word," the lilting voice replied.
"I could suffocate them instead . . ." The voices faded as they went on to debate whether or not the Keeper would care about the death of these two wanderers.
"Justice, let me wake. I can't just lay here and let them kill us! You need me alive to hunt the demon down." Hawke stepped toward the spirit, more angry than afraid now that she knew the situation.
"I am not holding you here, mage. The elves that caught you poisoned your body. I am trying to heal you now, but without Anders it is difficult." Justice smiled, "As you said, it does me no good for you to die here. I think I almost have it."
Riese shook her head, frustrated. "Take your time." There was no point in shouting at the spirit unless he was lying. But that seemed unlikely. She should save her anger for the elves that were calmly discussing whether or not to slit her throat. "Please tell me you're-" Hawke's eyes sprang open, "Almost done. Oh."
The Dalish on guard leapt in surprise when she spoke, one reaching for his dagger. He didn't get a chance to grab it as Hawke flung her magic outward, raw force sending him sprawling to the ground. The woman who'd been lounging near him was close enough to be caught in the blast and landed on her belly in the dirt. The mage stood up, noting the dirty cut on her arm and the ache that leeched into her through it. Riese wasn't sure who these people were but right now she didn't much care. She'd heard quite enough from them already.
Hawke brushed off her arm and walked over to the woman on her belly, setting a foot lightly on the Dalish hunter's neck. "Where is Fenris?"
"I - I don't know a . . . a Fenris," the woman gasped, starting to wriggle.
Riese pressed her foot down more firmly, stopping as she felt the tense muscle begin to give way. "The elf I am travelling with. Where is he?"
""He - they -" she made an odd rattling sound as she tried to breath. The mage eased up on the pressure to let the Dalish speak. "They have him tied . . . sacked and . . . under watch . . ."
"Is that so? I suppose I should go get him then." She considered knocking the elf unconscious but there was risk that the woman would die. That wouldn't do, since she was fairly sure this was the one arguing to let her and Fenris live. She didn't have much time to decide what to do as the man she'd knocked aside leapt to his feet and flung himself at her. Hawke slipped to the side and began to summon lightning. It was simple enough in the overcast night; the sky was already full of pent up energy it wanted to release and she was ready to do some damage.