I hope you've been able to bear with me through this 'quest'. Again, I promise it is going somewhere further down the line. And I am trying to do Anders and Fenris justice, but admittedly I am not quite as interested in either of them as I am the more heavily featured characters in this story. I thought they deserved a bit of page-time, though, particularly to give Merrill and Hawke the opportunity to say a few things to them both that I always want them to say in-game. I may have also added a not-strictly canon element or two... well, you'll see.
xxx H xxx
Someone is shaking me...
"Hawke... wake up..."
Wake... was I asleep? But... I wasn't in the Fade... it was dark... but there's a light, now... dim... prying its way past my lashes... the air is musty... stale...
"Hawke, can you hear me?"
Cold, hard stone beneath me, and a pounding in my ears...
"Hawke, come on, wake up!"
My eyes snap open and I blink in the dull half light from the sputtering torches on the wall, suddenly registering a presence beside me, a dark shadow in my slowly focusing vision.
"At last," the figure says, the relief in his voice almost palpable, and I squint as his wavering form gradually resolves itself.
"Anders?" I sit up slowly, taking a deep breath - then immediately clap my hand over my mouth and nose. "Maker's breath, that smell! Where are we?"
Anders shrugs a little, sitting back on his heels. "Your guess is as good as mine; I have no idea how we got here. The last thing I remember is passing out..." He puts a hand to his forehead, grimacing. "He drugged us," he growls. "With nightshade. I can't believe I didn't pick that up. We're locked in, too, I tried the door already. What in the Void is that wheezy old carcass playing at?"
Nightshade... bloody Xenon. I groan as it all comes flooding back. "He... seemed to think he was doing us... a favour," I remember, my mouth twisting a little in scornful irritation. "To stop us worrying about when the potion would wear off by... putting us to sleep so we didn't have to wait, or so we wouldn't risk ourselves getting through Darktown, or some absurd excuse like that..." I struggle to remember through my fogged, clouded mind. "Xenon told his golem to put us in the cells until we woke, to make certain we were safe, and collect us later... and..." I think very hard, I'm certain there was something... something else he said, something...worrying... but the memory slips from my grasp. Well, it can't have been anything too important, then, can it? "That's all I remember."
"Cells, is it? Well, that certainly fits," Anders says, crouching back on his heels. "We must be in those ruins Xenon mentioned, beneath his shop. In the dungeons, perhaps." His eyes grow hard. "Or slave quarters. An interesting idea of a safe place to recuperate, but then..." He glances about, a faint look of disgust marring his features. "This was probably the only place he could think to put us. I suppose being locked in a cell vaguely qualifies as being made 'safe'." A weary sigh escapes him as he turns his wry gaze on me "Once we're out of here, remind me not to accompany you on any more shopping trips, won't you?"
"You asked to come," I remind him absently, rubbing my aching temples. "You know you travel with me at the risk of encountering ridiculous disasters." I look about the cell, taking in our situation. We are in a tiny, dirty stone room; a cell comprised of cold, rough hewn stone blocks, the rusted remains of manacles hanging from iron spikes imbedded deeply in the damp, stained walls. What little light there is shines through a small metal grate set into the door at eye level, from a single sputtering torch mounted on the wall of the corridor beyond. One corner is piled with a thick cushion of rather mouldy straw, but that's it. There is nothing else in the cell, apart from us...
Us... Me, and Anders, and... that's all... but where's... where's Merrill? Maker, where is she?
My head is suddenly as clear as though I plunged it into an icy mountain stream, and I struggle to my feet, casting my gaze desperately into every corner of the tiny cell as though I could possibly have overlooked her.
"Merrill... where's Merrill?"
Anders stands with me, placing his hands on my shoulders, looking alarmed at my behaviour. "I don't know. Hawke, listen!" he says loudly as I instinctively try to pull away, my heart writhing with irrational terror. "Calm down. Think about it. If we're alright, then chances are she's safe too. These cells are far too small for four people," he continues, and I make an effort to stop panicking, holding myself still. "If that golem brought us here like you think, then it probably put her in with Fenris."
"Is that supposed to be in any way comforting?" I ask, but it's not a joke; the slight quaver in my voice betraying my frantic anxiety. Oh, Andraste, what if-
"You don't really think he would hurt her, do you?" Anders interrupts my panicked thoughts, frowning. "I mean, I know he's a surly bastard, and he hates mages and all - blood mages especially," he adds with a pointedly disapproving note in his voice, which I ignore. "But he has far too much respect for you to harm anyone you care for. Anyway, the way things are at the moment, it isn't as though he can crush her heart, or anything."
As comforting as I'm certain he probably meant those words to be, I can't help but flinch at the image they put in my head. I run my hand anxiously through my hair, staring at the door, resisting the foolish urge to throw myself at it; I'm certain all that would gain me is a bruised or broken shoulder. "I don't think he would hurt her intentionally... but if she wakes first, and tries to rouse him, and he thinks he's under attack before he's fully conscious... even without lyrium markings, his reflexes are faster than lightning-"
"Hawke. Calm down. I'm sure he has more control than that," Anders says softly. "And despite how he feels about mages - and Merrill in particular - I think he is an... honourable sort," he reassures me, sounding as though saying such a complimentary thing about Fenris is about as comfortable as having all his teeth pulled at once. "As far as you're concerned, he has the loyalty of a dog," he continues, evidently feeling the need to make up for his genuine compliment with a backhanded one. "I doubt he'd do anything to risk losing the protection you represent."
No. Fenris won't hurt her, I should know that... but what if... no. I shouldn't think such ungenerous thoughts about him. I'm sure they'll be fine, trapped together in a small, confined space, under odd and somewhat incomprehensible and distressing circumstances... I take a deep breath, trying to calm myself. Panicking isn't likely to be of much help either, after all. Maker, Andraste, Creators, whoever, just... just keep her safe until I get to her. I mean it. And I'm not asking.
Don't make me come up there...
I raise my left hand to rub at my neck in agitation, and then pause, suddenly noticing the rough, blood-stained bandage tied tightly around my palm. I peer at it in confusion. "What...?"
"You had a cut on your hand," Anders explains, and I turn to look at him. When did I get that? "I always keep some bandages and poultices in my belt pouch for minor injuries. I may not be able to heal it, but I did what I could. I could kick myself for not bringing any mana-restoratives, though."
"It probably wouldn't have helped. We'd need to drink a lot more than we could carry to overcome this potion, I think..." I reply absently, still staring at my hand. Perhaps I cut it on a shard of the broken flask when I fell? Well, it doesn't matter, right now. The fact that Anders wasn't able to heal it recalls me to our far more pressing problem. "You still can't feel your magic either, then?" I ask, even as I unsuccessfully reach once again for my own mana, my stomach lurching unpleasantly as I feel that awful sensation of nothingness, like missing a step in the dark.
"No, it's just... gone," Anders replies, sounding as lost as I feel. "I can't stand this feeling. It's like I'm back in the circle after a failed escape attempt, being kept drained as a punishment." He glances around the tiny, filthy cell. "Only the accommodations are nicer," he comments humourlessly, his mouth twisting, and then he looks back at me with worried eyes. "He did say the potion would wear off, right?"
"Yes. He just didn't know when, although he seemed to think that it would only take... however long we've been asleep for, so far. Perhaps we woke up too early. I'm sure it will wear off soon," I tell him, although without a great deal of conviction.
Anders appears to share my doubts. "It's just... from what he said, I gathered that he'd been hanging onto that potion for centuries... and that he didn't know a great deal about its power. He said it was strong, but... some magic only strengthens with age. What if it doesn't wear off as quickly as he thinks? Or, Maker forbid, at all?"
"It might also have lost some of its strength over time. Could be that it will wear off quicker than it was meant to," I counter, trying to sound more reassuring this time. Although it doesn't really seem like it's much of a possibility, considering the suffocating strength of it when Urchin broke the flask... and the fact that it must have been some hours, now, and I still can't feel so much as a trickle of mana inside me... If he's right...
I don't even want to think about that possibility. "There's no point worrying about it now, not until we get out of here," I decide grimly. Bloody flames, but I wish I'd never thought to come here. What a mess.
"You said Xenon was going to send his golem to get us, once he figured we'd be awake, right?"Anders asks.
I nod, feeling extremely exasperated. "I think so." I can't believe Xenon. I mean, I knew he was eccentric, and perhaps wasn't quite in his right mind, but... this whole situation is nothing short of nonsensical. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised; doubtless being trapped in a decaying, immobile body for three centuries would be enough to tip anyone over the edge. Though... simple insanity isn't really a particularly satisfying explanation for all this... Again, I feel that niggling feeling in the back of my head, like I'm forgetting something very important, something to shed light on our current, ludicrous predicament-
"I suppose we'll just have to wait for him, then," Anders says, shrugging. "Looks like we have a bit of time on our hands to talk." He narrows his eyes a little, suddenly scrutinising me closely. "So, then... you... and Merrill..." he begins, his voice shrewdly hesitant. "How long have you been... together?"
I look at him a little suspiciously. That's what he wants to talk about, right at this moment? My love life? "Only a few days... or hours, depending on how you look at it," I answer after a moment. I suppose there's hardly reason not to tell him. Admittedly, this is slightly uncomfortable territory, but... I won't hide what she is to me. "But I've loved her far longer than that."
Anders lifts his eyebrows. "Well. Either you've been extremely good at hiding your emotions - up til now, at least - or I am exceptionally poor at reading them," he comments wryly. "I had no idea you cared for her this much. Though I suppose it may go a long way to explain why you've kept her company for all these years, knowing what she is..."
Oh, Maker's blood, not this again. I know exactly where he is headed. I suppose I should have expected this when I saw his reaction back in the Emporium, but... I hoped he'd be convinced to drop it when he saw us together, saw how ineffective his other warnings about Merrill have been. More fool I, clearly.
I glare at him in annoyance, feeling extremely irritated. "Maker's breath, do you really want to do this now?"
Why, yes, apparently he does.
"I wasn't going to bring this up again after our last... talk," Anders begins, and I shake my head. Argument bordering on shouting match, you mean. Andraste, just take the hint and let it go. "And considering this new... development in your relationship, I'm sure my words will be lost on you. However, since we appear to be stuck here, we have some time... and you won't be able to storm away without hearing me out..."
I make a concerted effort to ignore him, hoping he won't continue, turning away and pressing up against the door, trying to see through the small grate. All I can see is a cell door opposite, illuminated by the sputtering torch.
"Merrill?" I call hopefully. "Fenris?" No answer. Perhaps they're still unconscious, or their cell is somewhere out of hearing-
"Hawke..." Anders says wearily, and I fall silent at his quiet but determined tone, glancing at him over my shoulder. He gazes back seriously, his eyes grim.
Maker, here we go. "Anders, don't. Don't bother."
"I can't just stand by while you're risking yourself like this. You know she uses blood magic," he says doggedly, and I exhale in frustration at his tired diatribe.
"That has nothing to do with how I feel about her-"
"Did you never think to ask where she learned it?" he interrupts suddenly, and I frown. This is a new tactic. "Surely it must have crossed your mind at least once these past three years." I open my mouth but he continues talking before I can say a word. "Unless the Dalish keep scrolls on the subject - which I doubt - there can only be one explanation. She looked a demon in the eye, and accepted his offer."
I turn and give him a level look, holding his gaze firmly. "I know that." I do now, anyway. But I see no reason to fill him in on every bit of withheld information on Merrill's part, or my own foolish doubts, which I have now completely overcome. I know she will be able to handle herself; especially if she has my support. Which she will, from now on. "And it changes nothing."
He looks taken aback. "But-"
I cut off his objection impatiently. "She isn't possessed, Anders." Not like some people I could mention. "She isn't dangerous to me, or to anyone else," I continue, determined to get through to him. He's not really in a position to judge her himself, after all, is he? "And she has never once used her blood magic to hurt an innocent. She doesn't even resort to it in self defence unless there's absolutely no other option for survival. Surely you must have noticed this?" He opens his mouth and then closes it slowly, looking away as he leans back against the wall. I can't really defend her further without explaining about the eluvian, and I don't think he knows about it yet, he seems rather behind the times. No doubt he'll find out eventually, but frankly, I could do without the headache of explaining it right now. I take a deep, calming breath, and look steadily at him until he meets my gaze again. "Look - this is neither the time, nor the place. Can we postpone this futile argument for a time when we aren't in a strange and potentially dangerous situation?"
He looks at me in silence for a moment, then gives a short sigh and a small, wry grin. "In other words, never?"
I manage to offer a smile in return at his quip. "That would work for me."
He sighs again, deeper. "Alright, I'll drop it. I'm sorry, but... I just worry about you."
"I know you do," I tell him. "But there's no reason to worry about me, or Merrill." He looks doubtful but doesn't press further, apparently content to leave the subject. Hopefully I managed to make myself clear. For now, at least. Though I imagine it might be a good idea to steer the conversation back to more immediate issues. If Xenon thought the potion would have worn off by the time we woke, and we've been awake for a while, shouldn't he have sent his golem for us? I chew my lip worriedly, looking at Anders. "How long has it been since you woke up?"
"A while, actually, before you started stirring," he answers. "I would have thought that Xenon would have had us out of here, by now. Do you think he's forgotten us?"
I shrug. I don't know, but... I think it's been too long already; I don't want to wait anymore, I want to find Merrill. "I don't have a great deal of faith in his lucidity at the best of times. If I ever had doubts that he was completely barking mad, they're long gone after this. We can't sit about hoping to be let out, anymore, though; we need to get out of here ourselves, find Merrill and Fenris, find the way out of here and go."
Anders nods determinedly. "Agreed."
I examine the door. It seems fairly sturdy, although the wood is quite moist in parts, and splintery in others...
"You're the resident escape artist. Do you think we could kick this down?" I ask.
Anders examines the door, running his fingers over the hinges. "No good. The wood isn't exactly in good condition, but it opens inwards. We might manage to kick it in eventually, but it would take quite a while, and we'd end up nursing several broken toes." He bends down to peer into the keyhole. "The lock is old, and quite simple. If I hadn't left my belt knife back in the clinic, I might be able to pick it," he says, glancing up at me. I raise my eyebrows at him in surprise, and he grins. "I'm no Isabela or Varric, but I had some... interesting friends in Vigil's Keep, back in Amaranthine. The Wardens take all sorts. I picked up a trick or two from some of them."
"Well, then," I tell him, unsheathing my own little blade and handing it over. "Let's see you perform one, then."
After a few minutes of poking around at the inside of the lock with the point of my knife, accompanied by some inventive cursing, Anders gives a quiet exclamation of triumph, grinning in self satisfaction as the door creaks open on rusty hinges. He hands the little blade back to me with a flourish, and I peer cautiously out into the gloomy tunnel beyond, blinking in mild surprise as I see our staves leaning against the opposite wall, the flickering light from the sputtering wall torches glinting along the long, sharp blades at the ends of them. I snatch mine up in relief as Anders reaches for his just as eagerly. Not that they'll be incredibly useful to us as we are now except as a melee weapon, at least, not unless... until... we get our powers back, but still... the familiar feel of the smooth, warm wood beneath my fingers is comforting nonetheless.
"How many animals do you suppose he has down here?" Anders wonders, peering into the dark cell opposite us. Bloody flames, I forgot about Xenon's 'rare and interesting' creatures. Great. "There's definitely something in there... I think it's a bronto."
"That would account for the smell," I comment, glancing down the passageway at the other closed cell doors. These cells must all be full of different unfortunate animals, all trapped down here in the dark. Poor beasts. I'm growing less fond of Xenon by the minute. "I imagine he has enough to fill every cell, unless they die, or he sells them. That's probably why Fenris and Merrill aren't near us; no free cells close by."
Anders turns back to look at me. "I would have thought they'd all be making a lot more racket than this. Why are they all being so quiet?"
As if on cue, a none-too-distant screeching roar suddenly shatters the air, reverberating from somewhere the corridor to our left; a sound identical to the cry we heard earlier, back in the shop. The bronto in the cell before us gives a low, frightened moan and falls silent again.
"Can't imagine," I say wryly. "Though I vote we don't go that way, for the moment. I suppose that might be what we needed to be kept 'safe' from... although I don't see why, if it's confined to a cell too, whatever it is." I feel a sudden, urgent sense of wrongness as the animal roars again, another mysterious warning, I suppose. Maker's steaming blood, what good is that to me now? Why do these feelings keep coming too bloody late to be useful? We're already in trouble, trapped down here. Another unearthly shriek assaults our ears, and the feeling returns again, stronger.
All right, I get it, already. Don't go near the vocal mystery creature. Very helpful, thanks ever so much.
I look up and down the corridor, lined with identical wooden doors stretching as far as I can see in both directions. Maker save me, it could take forever to find her! Unless by some miracle, I happen to get lucky, and she and Fenris just a few cells away. Unlikely, considering they would certainly have heard us by now, unless...
No. If we're awake, and unharmed, then they are too. They must just be in a different part of the ruin. I start walking down the corridor, in the opposite direction to the hungry, ferocious-sounding beast. I suspect in all the commotion, 'feeding time' might have been forgotten altogether. Might be wise to get out of here before it decides to try and feed itself; I definitely recall Xenon saying something about the 'carnivorous creatures' growing excited by the smell of fresh blood... and I've never heard a herbivore make a noise like that.
I beckon to Anders. "Come on. We'll look through every door grate until we find them; they've got to be here somewhere. You take that side, I'll take this."
We walk slowly along the corridor, peering into each room, each occupied with very sorry looking creatures - nugs, deepstalkers, giant bloody spiders, even a dragonling or two - but no Merrill, no Fenris, and I feel my anxiety mounting with every door I try. Andraste, please, the next door... the next cell, please... come on, they have to be here somewhere...
Bloody, bloody Xenon. See if I ever come here again. Oh, Maker, I hope they're alright together. Anders is right; Fenris won't hurt her, but... I doubt he'll be pleasant company, though. I hope he will at least try to be civil.
xxx M xxx
"I don't want to hear another word out of you."
"But I was just-"
"Not. One. Word."
I sigh, leaning back against the rough, cold stone of the cell wall, feeling very exasperated now. I am getting tired of bearing his scorn and derision, all the time. I really don't see what I've done to earn such ire from him. Yes, I'm a blood mage, but I've never done anything to harm him, have I? And I was only trying to help, just now. "Is it alright if I hum? Or maybe whistle?"
Fenris turns from his examination of the keyhole and gives me a very cold look, almost as frosty as his ghostly, halla-pale hair. His lip curls in a dangerous sort of sneer. "Not if you wish to keep your tongue."
Alright, don't panic. I'm sure he didn't mean it, not really. Think positive, Merrill. So. You are locked in a filthy cell, deep beneath the city. Trapped with a very cross man who hates magic, loathes blood mages, and has a tendency towards violent outbursts. You don't have any mana. And you aren't with Hawke, and you have no idea where she is, or if she's even alright. But just... don't panic. She's probably with Anders; he won't let anything happen to her, certainly, and besides, it isn't all bad. I am feeling quite well rested now, after all. I'm also not likely to get rained on. And there's almost no chance of being attacked by bears. Fenris, maybe, but not bears.
Unless... unless Xenon has some in his collection, down here...
I shake my head at myself as I sit quietly in the corner by the door, arms wrapped tightly about my knees. That seems unlikely, really. Not that there might be bears down here, of course; all that roaring we heard in the distance just now could easily have been one, after all. It's just unlikely that any animals will manage to get out of their cells, since Fenris is having so much trouble, and he's certainly at least as smart as a bear. I hope Hawke is having better luck, wherever she is. Oh, I hope she's alright...
Andruil, Great Huntress, protect my Hawke. Ghilan'nain, guide her to me.
Oh, Mythal, how did we end up in this mess? Why am I with him, and not with her?
I draw a deep breath to calm myself, trying to squash the panicky little voice in the back of my mind. We're not really in that much trouble, I don't think. I heard Xenon tell his golem to make sure we were safe, after all, right before I fell asleep, and I'm sure he doesn't mean to harm us. I can't see why he would, after all. Obviously this probably isn't really most people's idea of a comfortable or safe place to rest, but then, Xenon is a bit strange, isn't he? And I suppose he didn't really have anywhere else to put us, after all. I'm sure he did his best. And if Fenris and I are all right, relatively speaking, I'm sure Hawke is too. And Anders. And I'm certain I will be with Hawke again soon enough; if only we could get out of this cell, that is. I feel my irritation grow as I watch Fenris poke uselessly at the lock with the clawed tip of one if his gauntleted fingers. I bet he's wishing he could just ghost through it, like he normally would, using the magic under his skin. I think he can be as big of a hypocrite as Anders, sometimes.
"Do you actually know how to pick locks at all?" I ask after a few more fruitless moments of silence, unable to keep a hint of exasperation from my voice. I probably should be more careful not to provoke him, but I am starting to get very anxious, now. I want Hawke. I want to know she is safe. Anders, too, I suppose, but mostly I just want to find her, if I'm honest. I hope she's alright.
He jerks his hand irritably away from the keyhole and rises, thumping his fist against the door in irritation. "No," he drawls slowly, as though barely managing to restrain his temper while speaking to a very foolish child. "I do not. But I would rather try to improve on our present situation than to sit uselessly in a corner and do nothing."
My eyes narrow at the unfairness of the jibe; especially since he told me to sit here in the first place, after I broke off the blade of my knife in the lock trying to help him with the door, earlier. Which only happened because he pushed me away, after all, and besides, that's what he normally does, isn't it? Squatting in that old mansion in the dark, never doing anything with his freedom apart from follow Hawke around and making comments about how horrible mages are to Anders and me when he thinks she won't hear, and being bitter about his old master-
I shiver suddenly; not from my anger, or the cold, even; but from another deep feeling of sadness and loss that suddenly washes over me. Almost as though in connection to the thought I had just now, about... about Fenris's master... the magister. This place... if it was once a magister's palace, then this... this must have been where the slaves were kept. There was such pain here... I'm sure if I could touch my magic that I would feel how thin the Veil is, but even completely drained I can feel it, on some level. Elves are very sensitive to such things, after all. Well, I know the Dalish are, anyway, even non-mages; I remember that Mahariel and Fenarel could feel the echoes of suffering too, when we ventured into that ruin to look for Tamlen, so long ago. From the strained look about Fenris's eyes, and the way his shoulders are bowed, I think he can sense it now, here in this place. Perhaps that is also why he seems more... agitated than usual.
"You feel it too, don't you," I say quietly, although I try very hard not to look or sound too pitying, or anything. He doesn't exactly respond well to that, I've found.
"What?" he says impatiently.
I glance about the small cell, at the rusted chains on the walls, the old, dark bloodstains on the floor just visible beneath the scattered straw. "There were slaves here, once, kept in these cells. Our ancestors. The stones remember their pain, their sorrow. You can feel it, can't you?"
"I can," he replies after a long moment, his voice dark, but almost... civil. That's certainly new. I was afraid he would be angry with me, thinking I was trying to offer him sympathy. He has made it quite clear he will not accept it. Not from me. Still, all this must be bringing back terrible memories for him...
"Your master must have been a terrible man, to make you hate mages so," I venture quietly after a moment.
Fenris blinks, and looks at me in surprise before he glances away, his mouth twisting. "He is a terrible man," he growls. "He's not dead."
"We're not all like him," I say softly, but he just shakes his head disdainfully at my words. Short-lived civility, then. Well, it was nice while it lasted, the whole ten seconds of it.
"How often I hear that, and yet, how often I find it's not true," he scoffs, and I breathe out sharply in irritation.
"When, though?" I ask, hearing an edge of frustrated anger come into my voice. Why do I keep trying? "Who do you mean, besides Tevinter mages? Anders, because of the spirit in his head? I've never seen him attacking anyone who didn't deserve it."
"Do not be so naive. He is an abomination, no matter what he says of his intentions," Fenris says dismissively, crouching back down to scratch uselessly at the lock again. "Sooner or later, he will lose his battle for control with that thing inside him, and we will all pay the price. And how many others of your kind have you seen fall prey to demons? Dozens by now, at least. It is only a matter of time before you succumb fully to yours."
So. He knows about the demon too, then? I suppose everyone does, by now. I swallow my anger, closing my eyes in a defeated sort of exasperation; it's pointless trying to argue with him about this, but...
"Have you ever seen me hurt anyone with blood magic?" I ask him quietly. "If you know about the demon, you must know about the eluvian by now, everyone must." Well, except Anders, perhaps. He doesn't exactly seem on top of things. "That is the only thing I needed blood magic for, and it is my blood, my sacrifice alone. For my people, our people; not for myself. All I want is to restore a part of our heritage-"
"And you dealt with a demon in order to do so," Fenris snaps. He looks at me out of the corner of his eye, a sneer on his lips. "You can't even begin to imagine the number of mages that have walked down the path you're now on. It won't be long before you can justify using the blood of another to get what you need when your own strength is not enough. And it will become easier every time. That is the nature of blood magic. The nature of mages."
"That's not true!"
"No?" he growls, shooting a glare at me."I once saw Danarius kill a little boy to fuel blood magic that let him impress his fellow Senators at a party. They thought nothing of it. All of them blood mages."
He truly thinks I could be so monstrous? I bristle at him angrily; I have had enough! "All of them magisters! Not all mages are like that, whether or not you believe it." I don't know why I'm bothering; he will not listen to me. "You said yourself once that any magister who didn't do that sort of thing would be killed by his rivals, so they all do it. It's just part of that culture, now, but it is not like that here and it is not just... born into mages to do that sort of thing! The Keepers are different. They exist to preserve the old ways, and to protect our people."
"And none of them would ever fall prey to a demon. Or perform blood magic. If that were truly how far the Dalish are prepared go to preserve elvish history, then it would be far better to let it lie forgotten." He looks at me out of the corner of his eye. "But it is not what the Dalish do, is it? That is why your clan cast you out," he sneers, his mouth twisting cruelly. "Lie to yourself if you must, but I see through you. You have bartered your soul for the power all magisters crave, the power of blood. Repairing that foul relic is merely the excuse you give to yourself to justify it."
"It's impossible to talk to you!" I cry, frustrated. It's useless, but somehow I still can't let this go. And I have not sold my soul. "Not everyone with magic just automatically wants that sort of power, or uses it, any more than every maniac with a big sword on his shoulder wants to go round killing at random just because he can! What about Hawke, then? She would never be like the magisters, not even a tiny bit. You must see that, at least."
"No," he concedes after a moment, and that strange look is back in his eyes again; confused misery and longing. "She would not. She is... unlike any mage I have ever met."
I meet his eyes challengingly, still angry. "It must be very hard to have a mage as a friend, then, if that's how you feel. Far easier to keep seeing the world in dark and light as you do. Except Hawke doesn't belong in the dark, does she? She doesn't fit your definitions at all." He looks away, apparently at a loss for a reply or a contradiction, and I keep going, pursuing the attack relentlessly. I'm so sick of his misplaced anger. I can understand it but I can't tolerate it any more, not on top of everything else. I know it's a terrible idea to anger him in such close quarters with no means of escape, but I don't care right now, I've had enough. Hawke is so good to him, always, and he yet always goes on and on about the curse of magic and mages... I glare at him fiercely. "She's nothing but kind and helpful to you, despite your scorn. She's bright and pure and good and beautiful and she takes your easily clear little world of black and white and mixes it up until it's all grey and muddled and you don't know what you think is right anymore. She contradicts everything you've ever thought about how evil mages are. It must be very uncomfortable for you. And lonely."
I watch him, breathing hard as I try to calm myself, expecting him to get angry, or scoff at me, or something, but he just sort of... stands there, staring at me, like a great, lanky lump. "You know Hawke is good," I press. "You know she is. And if you can accept that she is good, then doesn't it follow that there must be others like her? I know it's different in Tevinter, but here no one uses blood magic or becomes an abomination unless they are forced to, driven to. If I had found another way to fix the eluvian, I would have taken it." He scoffs disbelievingly, turning away. "I would! And now that Hawke is helping me-"
He rounds on me suddenly, towering over me with a very frightening look on his face, and I am suddenly very aware that if his markings still worked, they would be bathing the whole cell in blue lyrium light. "What do you mean, Hawke is helping you? She refused to be a party to your deal or your blood magic, I know she did, I heard her say so! What have you done to her, witch?" He advances toward me, his face a mask of snarling thunder. "No wonder she seems so infatuated with you. If you have harmed her, no demon or filthy blood magic rite will keep you safe, I swear it!"
He thinks I am... controlling her? I feel a hot, sick swoop of anger in my stomach, and I leap to my feet to face him, glaring fiercely up into his furious face. "I would never do that, Fenris! I would never hurt her! Hawke is trying to help me find a way to fix the eluvian without blood magic, that's what I meant, if you would have just let me finish. So I won't have to use it again." I match his disbelieving gaze glare for glare, feeling my chest heave in fury. "She believes in trying to recover elven history, even if you don't care about it. She doesn't want me to use blood magic, any more than I want to use it, but she believes in what I'm doing. I am not controlling her; she believes in me. Because she loves me."
He grimaces, his face contorting as though in pain. "Shut your mouth, little witch," he snarls. "I do not want to hear it."
I look at him in surprise, taken aback. That sort of childish reaction is unusual, even for him. Why is he acting this way? It's almost as if he's... no. He can't be... but... oh.
Oh... it would explain so much... all his odd behaviour; the way he was staring at her, how he reacted when she touched him, how angry he was that Anders wanted to put her at risk...
Oh... poor Fenris...
My eyes widen as I stare at him. "You... you're in love with her?"
Fenris flinches, avoiding my gaze. "Don't be foolish."
"You are, though, aren't you? And... and you're jealous of me, for being with-"
"Enough," he says, flinching back, his lip curling as he looks away. "I do not wish to speak of this."
No wonder he was so confused... feeling that way about Hawke... a mage... and no wonder he has been especially... spiteful towards me... I'm sure I would feel much the same way if Hawke loved him and not me...
I look at him sorrowfully, not the least bit angry anymore. "Oh, Fenris... I'm so sorry."
"Keep your pity," he snarls as he looks away from me, moving to crouch with his back to the wall in the corner opposite me. "Mage or no, she is... a remarkable woman. One whom you do not deserve," he says after a moment, lifting his head to fix me with an icy glare. "Bring harm to her, and I will kill you." He keeps his threatening gaze on me for a few more moments and then twists his head away.
Well, I suppose I should have expected that sort of reaction. It suits me, though. If I ever hurt Hawke, then I would wish for death anyway. Though, probably best not to mention that, I think. I don't really want to encourage him.
"I certainly don't ever intend to give you reason to make good on that threat," I comment quietly. "But it's fair enough, I suppose."
We sit in a very uncomfortable silence for a few more minutes.
"Are you... going to tell her?" Fenris asks suddenly, his voice low, still not looking at me.
I blink at him for a moment, staring incredulously at him. "No, of course not, Fenris. It's not my business to tell her your feelings. They belong to you, and no one else."
He lifts his head and stares back at me, his face carefully emotionless. "I... appreciate that," he says after a moment, his tone grudging but clear of any scorn or venom, for once.
I nod gently at him. "Of course."
He hesitates for a moment, then inclines his head gracefully in return, and I almost feel as though we've reached, if not an understanding, then a... a truce, of sorts. Well. I hope it lasts, then. I briefly consider giving him an encouraging, friendly smile, but rapidly think better of it. No sense testing him, not now, anyway. It was probably hard enough for him to show me that much civility, I bet. I wouldn't want him to overdo it and hurt himself.
Suddenly I raise my eyes to the little barred window in the cell door, alert and watchful... I thought... I thought I heard something, just now... faint voices, echoing down the corridor... I tilt my head and listen closely, hardly daring to breathe...
"... thought I heard voices, we must be close. Merrill, where are you? Can you hear me?"
Oh! I would know that sweet, silver voice anywhere. I break into a joyful grin and bound over to the door, stretching on my toes to see out of the little iron barred window in the cell door. "Ma vhenan, we're in here! We're locked in!"
I hear hurried footsteps in the distance, coming down the corridor toward me at a run, and then suddenly she's there, smiling at me with a look of utter relief. "Oh, thank the Maker! Are you alright?" she asks anxiously, and I nod quickly to reassure her.
"Yes, we're both fine. Were you locked in too? I heard Xenon tell his golem to bring us here until we woke, but he must have forgotten about us, I suppose; it's certainly been long enough," I tell her, my words escaping me in a hurried flood, as usual, but I don't care, I'm just so awfully happy to see her! "How did you get out? How did you find us?"
"Anders picked the lock with my belt knife," she answers as he appears behind her. She grins. "And as for finding you, well... we followed the noise. What were you two shouting about?"
I glance at Fenris. "Oh... nothing really. We had... um... a philosophical disagreement."
"Alright, then, I believe you," Hawke smiles. "Anything I'd be interested in?"
"Perhaps you could continue your conversation in a more convenient location?" Fenris breaks in hurriedly, looking very uncomfortable. "The corridor, for instance?"
"Alright," Hawke says, raising an eyebrow. "Point taken."
"Let me pick the lock," Anders offers, but Hawke shakes her head impatiently.
"No time for that. The door swings inward from this side, right? Merrill, move back. I'm going to open it," she says.
How is she going to do that? With a stone fist, or... or... but no, she'd have to have mana for that, and I don't feel mine at all, yet, so how can she? Unless the potion wears off humans more quickly? "Do you have your magic back, then?" I ask excitedly as I obey, pressing myself up against the wall next to the door as Fenris does the same opposite me.
"Afraid not," she answers, taking a step back from the door. "But I think this will be dramatic enough to make up for it."
The door suddenly bursts out of its frame with a very loud bang and crashes to the floor, its edges splintered and broken where the hinges used to be, the resulting cloud of dust clearing quickly in time to show Hawke outlined in the doorway just as she lowers her booted foot, her eyes already searching for me through the gloom and dust, and I feel my heart swell inside me. She... she actually kicked the door in to get to me... oh, I bet Varric would love to put that in his stories! She walks into the little room, reaching for me as I dash forwards, throwing myself into her arms. "Oh, ma vhenan, I missed you!" I whisper into her ear as she laughs, clutching me close. I know we were only apart from each other for a little while, and most of that time we were sleeping, but still... I did.
"I missed you, too," she says, a smile in her voice. "You have no idea how much."
Behind her, Anders glances away from us, staring moodily down the passageway. Fenris brushes past him as he leaves the cell and leans against the wall a few paces away, both of them wearing the same expression of irritated displeasure. Well... that seems a bit odd, doesn't it? I mean, I know why Fenris is looking so surly, at least, but I can't see why Anders is reacting this way. Unless... oh, I bet he and Hawke had another fight about me. I did think he wouldn't be able to hold back for long, after all, the way he reacted back in the shop when he found out about us. He probably jumped on the chance to caution her about me. From the stony look on his face, she just told him to leave me alone again. I tighten my arms about her neck, pressing my head against her shoulder, feeling more grateful and blessed than ever that she chose me, that she... she is mine. That she loves me, no matter what anyone says.
Hawke steps out of my embrace at last, and takes my elbow, leading me out of the cell and into the corridor. She smiles down at me, her fingers slipping down along my arm until she grasps my hand... and then I gasp sharply, suddenly feeling a stinging stab of pain as her fingers graze my palm. I look down at my hand just as Hawke does, a look of concern flashing across her face.
"You're bleeding!" she says, her voice surprised and worried as she gently draws my hand a little closer towards her, examining it carefully under the torchlight. "Anders, give me another bandage, quick."
I stare in surprise at the shallow cut across my left palm. I didn't feel... when did that happen? It doesn't hurt, at least, not enough for me to notice. I am used to such pain, of course, but... I don't remember cutting myself. Perhaps an old scar broke open? I doubt it, though; I haven't used my blood magic since before Hawke mended my wounds last night, and she is too good with creation magic for anything she heals to have reopened like this.
Fenris glances at my hand, too, and his lip curls in disgust. I glare at him; I know what he's thinking. So much for our 'truce'. "I didn't try to use blood magic, Fenris, why would I?" I tell him irritably as Hawke bandages my hand. "It wouldn't have worked anyway, remember? Perhaps I cut myself when I snapped the knife in the door, or something..." I trail off as I notice the bandage around Hawke's hand, too. Around her left palm, the same place as mine. That... seems like an unusual coincidence... "Ma vhenan, you too?"
She glances at her hand and shrugs. "It was there when I woke up. I don't remember getting it. I just figured it happened when we passed out. There was a lot of broken glass everywhere from the flask Urchin dropped, after all."
"Neither of you remember cutting yourselves?" Anders asks, a worried frown appearing between his brows.
We both shake our heads. "I'm sure it's nothing to worry about," I say as his frown deepens. "At least, there's no point us worrying about it now. Couldn't we just try to find our way out of here? We should get back up to the shop and let messere Xenon know we're awake. Perhaps he will have found something to make the potion wear off, if it doesn't on its own, soon."
"Either way, I'm going to have a few strong words for him when we get out of here," Hawke mutters darkly as she ties off my bandage with a neat, well practised knot. "Perhaps with a few sharp blows on his wrinkled old head for emphasis."
I look up at her in concern at her angry tone. "I don't think he meant for this to happen."
Hawke glances at me, and her face relaxes into a gentle smile. "Maybe not, but all the same, I think he needs to work on his emergency procedures a little," she says, a bit more calmly. "And maybe not keep dangerously unstable experimental, magic dampening, suffocating potions lying around within reach of children with slippery fingers, particularly one who jumps at loud noises."
We all start in surprise as another loud roar suddenly rips through the air, reverberating down the corridor towards us, followed by an odd sort of booming, thumping, crunching sound, as though something very large in a temper just threw itself angrily against something solid.
"There goes that creature, again," I say sympathetically. "It sounds hungry, poor thing, whatever it is. I can't say I've ever heard anything make a noise like that, though. What do you suppose it could be?"
"If we're lucky, we won't find out," Hawke says, glancing down the corridor in the direction of the noise. "I'm not counting on going that way, anyway."
"Uh... I'm not sure we will have much of a choice," Anders says, gesturing behind us to where the corridor stops in a bare, blank wall a few cell doors down from us. "Looks like this way is a dead end."
"Of course it is. Great," Hawke mutters, handing me my staff as Anders passes Fenris his sword, which he accepts with a grudging nod. "They were outside your door," Hawke says when I look at her questioningly. "They won't do us a whole lot of good as we are right now, but we shouldn't need them anyway."
"Now who is tempting fate, ma vhenan?" I tease her gently.
"You're right, sorry," Hawke smiles. "Come on. There's probably a lift or something that will get us back up to the Emporium. The sooner we get out of this rat warren, the better," she says, gesturing down the corridor with the hand holding her staff. "And I'd like to explain to Xenon that drugging your customers and locking them in a crumbling ruin full of ill-fed dangerous animals is not a sound business strategy. Nor is it most people's idea of 'safety'." She gives a small laugh. "Sane people, anyway."
"I will lead," Fenris states firmly, lifting his sword in both hands before him in a guarded sort of position. Hawke glances at him questioningly. "Until this potion loses its effect, you are - shall we say - not exactly at your best," he reminds her, a meaningful tone to his voice. He indicates the stark white lyrium scars curling over his upper arms. "I am still a more than capable warrior without these, however. Let me defend you. I will be better able to respond to a threat, should we encounter one."
"You have a point," Hawke concedes, and gives another small wave with her staff. "Lead on, then."
We walk down the hallway for a little while, following Fenris past door after identical door, the only relief from the blank, indifferent walls of stone the occasional horrible mural of a tortured slave, collared and writhing in agony. I try to block out the sight of them, instead listening to the soft rustling noises and occasional low growls coming from whatever strange creatures are locked inside the cells. Mythal, there are so many! What does Xenon do with them? Does he really expect to sell them all? How does he keep them all fed? I don't suppose they get any sunlight or exercise down here, either, poor things. I really don't like this; it seems very cruel, just sort of locking animals up like this, in such tiny, dark spaces. And to think that this place once housed elven slaves, people... I shiver again as another wave of old sadness washes over me, echoes of pain and suffering from long ago, and shift my staff gingerly to my bandaged left hand so I can reach out for Hawke's, seeking the reassurance of her warmth and her touch, feeling a little better as she twines her fingers with mine, pressing firmly. I hope it doesn't take us too long to find a way out of here and get some replenishing draughts. It's really a very uncomfortable feeling, being without my magic. I've been drained of mana before, but never completely, and never like this... It sort of feels like... like I've lost one of my senses, or a limb, maybe. Anders and Hawke seem just as uneasy as I am about it, if not more; they both have the same sort of strained look about their eyes. I'm sure it will be alright again once the potion subsides, though.
At last we reach a bend in the passage and come to an open, empty cell, as dank and tiny as the one Fenris and I were confined to.
"Here's where we started, Hawke," Anders comments quietly, peering inside. He turns to look down the passage ahead of us. It's a good thing there only seems to be one way to go; I don't know what we'd do if this place suddenly turned into a maze. But then, Hawke can always find a way out of anywhere, can't she? "I guess the way out must be down here, somewhere."
"Let's hope it isn't too far," Hawke mutters, motioning us onwards.
We walk on for a few minutes, and then Fenris suddenly reaches out with a gauntleted hand to halt us. He tilts his head, eyes narrowed warily as he stares at a point in the distance.
"What is it?" Hawke asks him quietly, keeping her voice to a low, hushed murmur as we stop and look at him curiously.
He gestures at something a little further down the corridor. "Look there..."
Hawke turns to gaze in the direction he points, and I peer over her shoulder, trying to see what he is so worried about. Apart from another open cell door, I don't really see anything worth noting, except... wait. I blink, and look harder. It's not just open... there isn't actually a door there at all, or at least... not anymore. There's just... just an empty frame, the age-darkened timber beams battered and splintered; broken shards of wood scattered about in front of the gaping hole as though... as though something very large and powerful forced its way through quite recently.
Well... that can't be good, can it?
Fenris takes a few careful steps forward, holding his giant sword up in front of him, and peers cautiously into the open cell.
"Empty," he says, frowning a little. "Whatever was in here must have been sizeable. The cell is far bigger than any we have passed."
"Lovely," Hawke mutters. "I suppose whatever beast was in there got tired of waiting for dinner."
"I think it may have found some," Anders says darkly, gesturing at the cell opposite.
I look where he points, and feel my eyes widen a little. This cell door is broken too, but inwards instead of outwards, which is why we didn't notice it earlier, I suppose; lying on the cell floor just like our door after Hawke kicked it down. Only... only there are great, long scratch marks gouged into the surface of it from what must be some very large, very sharp claws...
Hawke walks over to examine the cell. Anders grabs at her arm, trying to pull her back, but she shakes him off gently. "If anything was still in there, it would have heard us and I rather doubt it would have opted to sit back and enjoy our dulcet tones," she says, and glances into the cell. "There's a little bit of blood in here... not much, though, and no body or remains, except..." She steps into the cell and bends to pick something up from the floor, and then she straightens, turning to show us a small white feather in the palm of her hand. I squint at it, trying to work out what it could be from; I can't really tell from just one little feather.
"A bird," Anders concludes unnecessarily, arching an eyebrow at the feather. "Hm."
"Odd, even for Xenon," Hawke says, peering closely at it. "What sort of bird would be of interest to him?"
"It could be a simir bird, perhaps," Fenris suggests uninterestedly. "Magisters have nearly had them hunted to extinction. They believe the feathers have... magical properties. They would pay a great deal for a surviving specimen."
I sigh sorrowfully. Poor thing. What a terrible fate for a bird, any sort of bird; trapped down here in the darkness for Creators know how long, unable to even see the sky, let alone fly free. And then to just be... eaten... though perhaps it's better than being used in a magisters' experiments, I suppose.
"Wait..." Anders says, pointing to the ground outside the cell. "Look there... and there. There's a trail."
He's right. A few very small drops of blood lead out of the cell and away down the passageway ahead of us, accompanied by scrabbling claw marks scored deeply into the dirty stone floor. And more little white feathers, some of them flecked with crimson, scattered at intervals along the path of the trail.
"Perhaps it got away?" I say hopefully.
"Or perhaps the beast is simply taking its meal elsewhere," Anders counters grimly, a note of irritation in his voice. "That seems more likely, don't you think?"
Hawke glances at him sharply, looking cross at his sarcastic tone. "Not necessarily. There isn't that much blood; whatever it is could still be alive, and trying to escape. Merrill could be right."
Anders exhales shortly, suddenly looking very annoyed. Oh, yes, I know that look; she definitely gave him a good scolding for his temper to be so short, at least concerning me. "Well, it doesn't matter! Either way, we have an obviously large and powerful unknown creature somewhere ahead of us, possibly hungry, definitely dangerous, and likely extremely irritated if its meal is evading it," he says, the irritation in his own voice much more obvious, now. "For some strange reason, I'm slightly more concerned for us than for the fate of its current prey."
Another angry roar suddenly echoes down the corridor towards us, sounding even louder and more ferocious than ever.
"That is definitely not the call of a satisfied hunter," I put in worriedly, though I do feel an odd sense of triumph, since it seems as though I might be right, and Anders wrong, for once. I wish I was right about something more encouraging and less hungry and definitely dangerous, though.
Hawke peers down the passageway for a moment, a look of wry resignation on her face. "It figures. Can't go five minutes without getting jumped, and now I can't even so much as walk into a shop without being drugged, imprisoned, and having something big try to eat me," she mutters to herself. "Bloody Xenon." She turns back to us. "Well, there's nothing else for it; we'll just have to keep going, I suppose," she says, holding her staff out upside down in front of her, so that she can keep the sharp melee blade at the end of it at the ready. I copy her, although the blade on my staff is much smaller, and rather dull... I never remember to sharpen it. "Let's hope that wherever the way out of this place is; the mystery beast's prey leads it well past before we find it," Hawke continues.
"Or if the beast is successful in its hunt, let us hope that its hunger is well sated before we cross paths," Fenris remarks dryly, taking the lead again.
"Failing that, pray it doesn't want seconds," Anders adds as we follow.
The trail of blood and the occasional feather carries on as we follow the corridor, past dozens more firmly bolted cells, the inhabitants along this stretch of the passage all unnaturally silent. We haven't heard any more awful screeches or roars, though, not for quite some time, but somehow... I'm not really so certain that's a good thing. I am starting to get very nervous, now, and the others look no less worried, even Hawke. I don't know what we'll do, if we don't reach the way out before we find this beast... or before it finds us... although I suppose either of those options would be quite as bad as the other, really. I start to offer a silent, fervent prayer to the Creators but then think better of it. Not just because they probably won't listen anyway, but also because it's more likely to be the Forgotten Ones who hear me all the way down here, trapped as they are in the Abyss, and that would be the opposite of helpful; they'd be more likely to set the creature upon us than help us evade it.
We turn another corner and Fenris stops in front of us, hand raised; the passage ends a few paces away, opening up into what seems to be a large room, very badly lit with only a few flickering torches, the trembling flames casting large, dancing shadows over the walls and making it very hard to see inside. I glance down at the flagstones and sure enough, the bloody, feathery trail leads right on into the room ahead of us. Well, of course it does, really; there's nowhere else to go, is there? I... don't have a very good feeling about this, somehow...
"The way out must be through here somewhere," Hawke murmurs, her voice low and hushed, and Fenris nods.
"Let us see."
He stalks forward on silent feet and I pad after him as softly as possible, Hawke beside me and Anders close behind; the ringing of their hard leather-soled boots muted by their careful steps as we move cautiously through the archway into the huge dark chamber ahead. It's so hard to see anything; the light is so dim... Small trickles of dirt drift down from the ceiling above us as Fenris leads the way across the room, sword at the ready. I make sure to keep very close to Hawke.
"Look!" Anders says suddenly, sounding relieved. "Over there." He points ahead of us towards a tall square patch of darkness barely visible at the other end of the room, the two small torches on either side of it flickering faster and more fitfully that the others in the dark chamber, as though buffeted by a very slight rush of air from somewhere close beside them. We move closer to inspect it, and the patch of shadow resolves itself into a lift shaft set into the wall, stretching from floor to ceiling and far beyond, back up towards the surface. "Our way out," Anders says with satisfaction. "About time."
I peer into the shadowy shaft, but it's empty; only dusty flagstones where the lift should be. It must have been raised, then. But... "How do we get out?" I wonder aloud.
"I guess the golem must have taken the lift back up to the shop," Anders says, and walks forward to poke his head into the shaft, craning his neck up. "It must still be up there with its master. We'll just have to get their attention. Hello! Xenon!" he calls, his voice echoing loudly. "Get us out of here, you crumbling old sack of-"
"Shh!" Hawke hushes him urgently, pulling him back a little. "Listen..."
We all fall silent, listening, and suddenly I hear a faint scraping, scrabbling sound echoing out of the shadowy interior of the shaft, and a weak sort of... squawking, only soft, but... clearly very frightened. It seems to be coming from a small hole where the crumbling stone wall of the shaft meets the floor, right in the very back corner. How did I not hear it before? Unless Anders frightened it, yelling like that? Whatever it is, it must be some sort of animal. A few splatters of blood and more little white feathers lie at the mouth of the small hole, and I point this out to the others.
"Look. It must be the bird that creature was hunting. It didn't get eaten after all!" I crouch down to peer into the hole and see a patch of whiteness in the gloom, something small and white huddling deep in the hole as far as it can go. "Yes, it's in here! Hiding at the back..." The bird gives a little cawing cry as I speak, half from fright, half from... pain. The blood... of course, it's hurt! "It's all right now, poor little thing..." I call soothingly into the hole, but the little bird only huddles tighter. Oh, it must be terrified! If only it would come out, we could help it! "The beast must have lost track of him."
"Doubtful," Fenris says, a slight curl to his lip as he looks down at me on my knees in front of the hole. I suppose he thinks I sound foolish, talking to a bird, but the poor thing is wounded and frightened, and a kind voice is something any hurt creature responds to. I can't just leave him, not without at least trying to help.
"Perhaps it couldn't reach him, then, and gave up." I shift a little closer to get a better look at the bird. I still can't tell what sort it is, exactly; it just looks like a little ball of feathers, all curled in on itself like that, hiding in its wings. And it's all in shadow, tightly wedged into that little hole, there. "Clever thing, to think of hiding in there," I coo at it gently, but it still won't come out, although the some of the feathers at the edge of its wing shift a little, and a bright round eye peeps out at me between them. I give it an encouraging smile, and it blinks for a moment, looking at me, and then covers its eye again. Still... that's a little better. I turn to look up at Hawke worriedly. "I think that creature must have hurt him."
"But then... where did the beast - whatever it is - where did it go?" Anders says, looking at Hawke too, who shrugs as she crouches down beside me to peer into the bird's hidey-hole.
"Perhaps, when it couldn't get this fellow, it went looking for other prey... although come to think of it, all the claw marks led into this room, but none led out..."
She breaks off suddenly with a look of dawning, horrified comprehension. "Oh, no," she says, her voice full of dread; just as a very familiar piercing, shrieking roar rips through the air and a great black shadow drops from the ceiling behind us, hissing menacingly as it towers over us. Mythal, it must have been clinging there this whole time, waiting to corner us! Hawke and I rise quickly as Anders and Fenris spin to face the creature too, staves and sword held defensively in front of us, pointy ends first. The great beast prowls forward a few steps into a patch of torchlight, revealing a great, lizard-like monster, slitted pupils fixed on us, cruel talons scraping the stone beneath it, the flames illuminating the lurid purple and yellow markings over its scaly black hide...
"What is it? What in the Void is it?" Anders says, glancing sideways at Hawke and lifting his staff defensively as the creature halts a few paces away, twisting its dragon-like head to look at him.
Hawke shakes her head. "I'm going with 'hungry'. Other than that, no idea," she says grimly.
"A beast with enough intelligence to lay a trap for bigger prey, it seems," Fenris mutters. "It must have caught our scent. I have not seen its like before."
Nor have I, but... a dragonish monster as big as a drake but wingless, a crested serpentine head, its brightly coloured scales a warning of the venom in its fangs, in its breath... just like in Hahren Paivel's stories, oh, Mythal protect us...
"It's a wyvern, I think," I tell them, trying not to let my voice quaver as the creature lets out another rumbling, stuttering growl, swinging its head slowly as it gazes at each of us in turn, as though pondering whether or not to attack. Or deciding which of us looks tastier. "Cousins to dragons, flightless, but just as vicious and very venomous-"
The beast suddenly opens its tooth-filled jaws and roars its hunting-call again as though to emphasise my point, the piercing, shuddering scream echoing deafeningly around the chamber and up the shaft behind us as it lowers its head to charge and crush us inside. Hawke curses and springs toward it before it can, slashing the bladed end of her staff at the creature's eyes to distract it, then dodging to the left as it snaps at her, snarling fiercely.
"Spread out!" she orders, circling the creature, and the wyvern turns its head to fix her in its beady yellow gaze, hissing threateningly as it follows her progress. "Try to get back across the chamber and into the passage-"
The wyvern lets out another deafening cry and swipes at her angrily, roaring again in frustration as she dances back out of reach, then lunges forward with her staff, slicing the creature across the nose. My heart leaps into my throat as she taunts it, backing away further; trying to draw it away from the rest of us by risking herself. And it's working; the wyvern has forgotten all else; its attention fixed only on her as it opens its jaws in a menacing, hissing scream, the fin-like frills on its head shaking and quivering in its rage. "Go!" she cries again.
No! She won't face it alone; she can't, not without her magic! I grip my staff firmly, dashing forward. "I'm not leaving you!" I tell her fiercely, slashing the end of my staff across the wyvern's unguarded hind legs, trying to sever its tendons, but the blunted blade simply glances off the thick, scaly hide as though it were chainmail. Oh, Mythal, I wish I were wearing mine, right now! I strike out at it again, but the wyvern doesn't seem to even feel the useless blows I rain upon it; it crouches low and lunges towards Hawke again, with a razor-tipped three-clawed hand, the wing-like ridges on its wrists slicing the air as it swipes at her.
"Merrill, go!" she yells, lifting her staff to block the creature's strike, then ducking away and slashing at its front legs. "Get to the hallway, all of you! Its movements will be more restricted when it follows-" The breath leaves her lungs in a painful rush of sound as the wyvern strikes, knocking her down with a sweep of its brutish crested head and she falls to the ground several paces away, her staff tumbling from her hands and rolling away into the dark.
"Ma vhenan!" I cry out in fear and rage, beating at the wretched beast furiously from behind with my staff, raking the blade ineffectively over its hide, but it still doesn't notice me, or consider me a threat, at all; its eyes fixed only on Hawke as it advances on her, helpless on the ground. "No!"
"No!" Anders yells, echoing my cry as he runs past me, circling to the wyvern's right flank to search for a weak spot, staff at the ready, and Fenris growls fiercely as he springs forward to attack the creature on the left. The wyvern snarls at him as he stalks into its line of vision, venom dripping from its jaws as it glances between him and Hawke, divided between its downed prey and this new sword-wielding danger.
"We can't... fight it here... it's too open!" Hawke cries, sounding winded, her eyes searching frantically for her staff as she tries to climb to her knees, clutching her ribs, and the wyvern turns, its attention called abruptly back to her. "Go! Draw it back... into the corridor!"
"After it's done with you? Out of the question!" Anders yells, and he swings his staff above his head like a mace, bringing it down forcefully onto the wyvern, cracking the spiked metal butt against its ridged back. It twists to face him, snarling, and he dodges as it claws at him. Fenris seizes on its moment of distraction and sprints forward, twisting and diving beneath the beast and slashing along its exposed underbelly as he slides under it, flipping gracefully to his feet as he emerges from beneath it with a final swipe at its forelegs. The wyvern rears, screaming in rage and pain, and spins on its haunches, lashing out at him with its heavy tail, sending him crashing into Anders, and they tumble to the floor, weapons knocked from their hands; Anders' staff clattering beside him, and Fenris' greatsword spinning and skittering across the stones, coming to rest a few paces from me. The wyvern twists as swiftly as a striking serpent, turning on them as they struggle to rise and spraying them with a misty poisoned vapour from its jaws, and they fall still, breathing, but paralysed, senseless. The horrible reptile stumbles towards them, bleeding heavily from the slash in its belly as it hisses in angry triumph.
"Leave them!" I shout at it foolishly, as though it might obey, but it ignores me, stalking towards the two immobile men as it opens its jaws hungrily, displaying a mouthful of great curved fangs. I cast my eyes about the floor and pick up a sharp looking piece of rubble from the ground, hurling it at the creature's foul reptile head and grabbing frantically for another as the first bounces off uselessly. "Over here, you... vile, mean... thing!"
Hawke scrambles all the way to her feet at last and draws her belt knife. "Merrill! No!" she yells, her voice still breathless and pained, but it's too late; my next rock hits the monster straight in its awful yellow eye and it gives a high pitched roar of fury as it turns on me instead, registering my presence at last. The only trouble is, I'm not sure what to do about it, now... I clutch my staff in a vice-like grip as the wyvern bares its teeth at me in a snarl, holding it up in front of me, the end pointed squarely in the beast's gnarled, scaly face. Elgar'nan guide me, why do I never remember to sharpen the blade? Situations like this are exactly what it's there for!
All-Father, God of Vengeance; get me out of this alive and I'll never forget again, I promise! Oh, what did Hahren Pieval's stories say about fighting wyverns... ah! When all else fails, go for the eyes!
I jab at the wyvern's lurid orbs with the dull and useless blade, but it lunges forward with a clawed hand and I stumble back out of reach just in time, struggling to regain my footing, heart beating in a frenzy of fear. That should have worked, why didn't it work? Oh, what I wouldn't give to feel a fraction of my magic right now! The monster growls thunderously, crouching low as though to spring at me, and then suddenly Hawke is there, leaping onto it from behind, scrambling up its back with her little blade clenched between her teeth, her blue eyes alight in a blaze of fury. She hangs on determinedly she straddles the wyvern's ridged back, gripping tight with her legs as it twists and thrashes, spitting ferociously as it tries to throw her off, and then she plunges her belt knife into its shoulders and neck, driving it down again and again as it roars in frustrated anger. But her blade, no more than a finger length of steel, barely penetrates the tough, pebbled scales of its hide, and at last the beast starts shaking itself back and forth violently, rearing and plunging and then with one final forceful buck, Hawke is thrown from his back and sent flying. Her head hits the thick stone wall behind her with a horrible, sickening crack and she slumps to the ground, unmoving, her blade clattering from senseless fingers.
"HAWKE!" I cry, but she is still, so still, her eyes closed, unconscious, at least, I hope she's just unconscious, oh, Mythal, please! The monster screeches its victory and lunges for her - NO! - and I scream in anguished fury as I leap forward, driving the blunt blade of my staff into the creature's side with all my might before its jaws can close about her. The beast shrieks in rage and pain and whirls on me, and my staff, deeply embedded in its heaving side, is ripped from my hands, throwing me backwards with the force of it. I land on something long and flat and cold and sharp - Fenris's greatsword! - and I snatch it up as the wyvern stalks towards me with jerking, faltering movements, dripping blood with every step, its eyes mad with dying, murderous rage. I cast about frantically for help, any help; "Hawke! Anders! Fenris! Please!" But they can't move, they can't help me now, I'm powerless and alone, but for the monster. I struggle to raise the heavy sword but only just manage to bring the razor point up as the beast coils and springs forward, striking, hurtling into me with a deafening frenzied screech and driving me to the ground, its jaws wide and snarling... my head cracks against the cold stone floor... a sharp, agonising pain pierces my chest, ripping, tearing, burning, a heavy weight crushes me as the wyvern's agonised shriek drowns out my own... the torchlight dims into the blackness of the abyss... and then...
xxx H xxx
The blackness recedes... my eyes open slowly, cheek pressed against cold stone again... on the floor twice in one day, I should be ashamed... Maker, my head... but I'm alive, and definitely not eaten... so that's... that's good, right?
I push myself achingly to my knees, blinking blearily about the chamber, unable to see as my vision wavers dangerously... there's a very faint scratching sound whispering in my ears... but I can't hear the wyvern... The others must have finished it... but... where are they?
I frown a little, shaking my head to clear it, and then I wince as a sharp pain shoots through my skull. I touch two fingers gingerly to the swelling lump at the back of my head and bring them away covered in blood... I was out cold... and so were Anders and Fenris... the wyvern was wounded but not down... and Merrill... was alone with it...
Alone, and powerless...
I stumble as I lurch to my feet, casting my gaze about the chamber, searching for her desperately, briefly noting Fenris and Anders sprawled beside each other a few feet away, stirring feebly and groaning as the effects of the wyvern's paralysing toxin subsides, and then my eyes fall on the still body of the wyvern, its enormous, safely dead form blocking the opening of the empty elevator shaft; Merrill's staff protruding from its scaly side, embedded deeply. She... she did it! A brief surge of proud relief rushes through me at the sight of it, quickly vanishing as I see no other sign of her. Andraste, where is she? I step closer to the wyvern, my sight still hazy, moving slowly and cautiously as I feel a painful twinge in my ribs where the foul beast's head struck them; bruised, probably, or fractured... I reach unhopefully for my mana, and to my great surprise find the faintest glimmer, the smallest spark; not enough to heal so much as a thorn prick, but still very much encouraging. Xenon's wretched potion must be wearing off at last... Something catches my eye as I draw closer to the dead beast; a flash of ivory beneath the dark black scales of the creature. More feathers, perhaps? I squint at it curiously as my vision clears... and my heart stops dead, my blood freezes cold, veins flooded with icy terror as I stand stock still, unmoving, unbreathing, unbelieving, the pain in my side forgotten as I stare at the slender outflung arm protruding from beneath the wyvern's sprawling form, resting in a spreading pool of crimson blood, limp and pale and oh, Maker, no, no!
"Merrill!" I scream, staggering towards her, pushing desperately against the wyvern's side, trying to get it off her, but it doesn't budge; it's far too heavy. I twist, staring wildly behind me at the men still climbing shakily to their feet, Anders gripping his staff for leverage. "Anders, Fenris, help me! Get up! Now!"
"Ungh... Hawke?" Anders mutters dazedly, clutching at his head. Fenris is quicker to recover, shaking his head once and snapping his green gaze to me as he registers my frantic cries, his eyes widening as he takes in the situation, then he seizes Anders by the sleeve of his coat and hauls him over to me.
"Oh, Maker!" Anders exclaims as he looks at the slain beast, seeing Merrill trapped beneath it.
"Help me!" I all but scream again, a loud note of hysteria creeping into my voice, and they both spring to action as though struck by a bolt of lightning, heaving the crushing weight of the monster up as I pull the limp, bloody form out from beneath it, dragging Merrill away from the beast and cradling her in my arms. Her eyes are closed, her skin deathly pale. Her tunic is crimson with blood... the material rent and torn, as is the flesh beneath it; a row of deep wounds mar the blood-smeared skin of her chest above her heart, the cruel, jagged marks of razor sharp fangs...
"Merrill?" I whisper, my voice breaking as I cup her cool cheek, and then I try again, louder. "Merrill, love, can you hear me?" She doesn't respond, doesn't move at all; the only sign of life the shallow rise and fall of her chest; she is breathing, but only just...
The dull thud of a falling heavy body echoes about the chamber as the men drop the beast on its side, and then Anders is kneeling across from me, speaking softly as he removes his coat and spreads it on the cold stone ground, his movements swift, practised and efficient.
"Hawke. Hawke, put her down on this." I clutch her tighter, rocking her back and forth, moaning softly beneath my breath, and his voice grows more insistent. "Hawke, set her down. We need to examine her, treat her."
The healer in me wakes in response to his words, stirring me into movement, and I immediately lay her on Ander's coat, slowly, carefully. Treat her. Yes. I look up at him hopefully. "Can you feel... is your magic returning?"
He hesitates. "Yes; a little, but... not enough to attempt anything. I have to examine her without it."
He reaches out his hands over the wounds, glancing at me as though to ask permission, and I nod impatiently; his experience far outstrips mine, after all, and I'm not nearly as proficient treating anything without magic. Maker, Andraste, let her be alright... I take a deep breath and watch as he bends his head over her, pulling away the shreds of her tunic and examining the wounds on her chest with clinical detachment - oh, Maker, look at them - and I try desperately to calm myself, trying to see the situation with the cool head of a healer; nothing else will be of use to her now. Anders moves his hands over Merrill's ribcage, now pressing delicately as he feels for the damage done to her bones, some of which I know must have been fractured or worse beneath the monster's driving weight, beneath the impact of its fangs - oh, blessed Andraste - and I peer at the deep gashes on her chest, still sluggishly oozing blood, though not as much as I would expect, noting a thick, clear fluid mixed with the persistent crimson trickle...
"... just as vicious and very venomous..."
"Venom," Anders confirms grimly, noting the direction of my gaze as he pulls his remaining stock of bandages from his belt pouch along with a small vial of thick red liquid. He uncorks the bottle, glancing at me as he wets a piece of linen bandage with some of the contents and begins swabbing the awful, ragged bite marks, removing the excess poison. "I have a little elfroot - it won't stop the poison, but it will do something for her wounds, halt the bleeding, at least, perhaps close them a little." Merrill remains as still as death as he cleans her wounds, showing no discomfort, no pain, nothing at all; her face blank, unresponsive. But for the pale, pallid tone of her skin and the sheen of sweat on her brow, she could be sleeping...
Anders voice breaks through into my mind again. "Hawke, lift her up a little, and I'll bind her wound. Mind her ribs, three are cracked and two broken." I obey carefully, my mind now humming a blank, tuneless, unwavering note of terror, slipping my arm gently beneath her slender shoulders, supporting her head and raising her torso from the ground as Anders begins winding the bandage carefully but tightly about her, over the shredded remains of her clothing. Oh, Andraste, Merrill...
A loud, unpleasant squelching sound dimly draws my attention, and I glance over towards the wyvern corpse as Fenris draws his sword from the centre of the dead beast's chest.
"Impaled," he says, his eyes running the length of the crimson blade, and he glances at the limp little body in my arms, something like grudging respect in his face and his tone despite himself. "She must have retrieved my sword after I lost hold of it... and stabbed the beast even as it struck her down."
I moan again and press my lips against Merrill's cool temple, tears pricking with desperate, painful pride at the courage of my beautiful little elf. "Hold on, my love," I whisper urgently. "Just hold on. We'll find a way out of here, and fix you up. I promise."
Anders glances at me, apparently having heard my murmured words. "Hawke... the venom seems to have formed a sort of seal over the wound and kept her from bleeding too much - most of the blood here must be the wyvern's," he says, gesturing one-handed at her crimson tunic and the pool of blood beneath the dead monster as he finishes wrapping the bandage carefully about her chest. "But the fact that she hasn't lost too much blood... given the circumstances... is not encouraging. I don't know potent wyvern venom is meant to be, but..." he falls silent, tying it off and avoiding my gaze.
I cradle Merrill carefully in my arms, feeling her shallow breathing, her faltering heartbeat... I try again to reach for my mana, but there still isn't more than a thimbleful. "But what?" I ask in a whisper, though I keep my eyes on Merrill's face, unable to look at him, dreading to hear what I know he is about to tell me.
"She was bitten close to the heart, Hawke," he says, his voice low and gentle, but firm with conviction. "And with the poison already working through her blood, spreading through her body... without healing or an antidote... she can't have-"
"Don't!" I cut him off fiercely, but my treacherous mind resolutely completes his unspoken sentence.
She can't have long.
I stare at him blankly as my heart and mind and soul are assaulted by terror, panic, anger, guilt. "She didn't put her mail on; she didn't think she'd need it... I should have made her... it was my idea to go to the Emporium..."
"I'm sorry," Anders says softly.
No. No, no, no...
"The beast is still warm," Fenris observes. "It can only have been dead a few minutes at most; we have not been unconscious for long. The venom can only have had a short time to work."
I shake my head to clear it, trying to think past the odd, faint scraping still brushing my ears. Merrill is hurt... maybe... maybe dying, and we don't have much... we don't have a lot of options. We could try to find another way out, but Maker knows how far these ruins sprawl... or we could wait here and rely on that lunatic to remember we've been locked down here... "Xenon... Xenon must have an antidote. It's his blasted wyvern, surely he has something..." If he doesn't... if Merrill... if she dies... I swear by any and every god in existence that I will make certain he spends the rest of his eternally rotting life in excruciating pain. I tear my desperate gaze away from Merrill's ashen face, lifting my head and glancing between Fenris and Anders. "We need... we need to get back up there. Try... try and get Xenon's attention, get him to send the lift back, hurry!"
They nod without speaking and skirt about the dead wyvern, their voices booming and echoing in the elevator shaft as they bellow up into the darkness far above;
"Antiquarian! Assistance would be appreciated!"
"Get us out of here, you decrepit old carcass!"
Their insistent, furious shouting is so loud that I almost miss the sudden, shuddering gasp and quiet moan from the bundle in my arms. I look down in surprise as Merrill stirs feebly, blinking slowly up at me, her eyelids trembling as she struggles to keep them open.
Oh, my love... I cup her cheek in my hand, gazing down at her with a strained mix of joy and lingering fear. She's awake... the elfroot must be working, at least a little, but... Maker, she's still so pale... "Yes, I'm right here, Merrill. I've got you."
She takes a deep breath, and then another, her half-open emerald eyes fixed on my anxious face. "Have... have I mentioned... that I don't really like it here?" she whispers weakly, one corner of her mouth turning up in the ghost of a cheeky half-smile.
I give a soundless laugh of relief, and press a gentle kiss to her forehead. "Have I mentioned that I love you?"
"Yes..." Merrill breathes distractedly, and tries to turn her head, to look about the chamber. "Anders? Fenris? I hear... shouting..."
I nod reassuringly, smiling despite my growing alarm at the faintness of her voice. "That's them. They're alright, they're calling for help."
Her worried eyes find mine again. "The... wyvern?"
"You killed it, with Fenris's sword," I remind her, letting the full warmth of my awe at her courage pervade my voice as I smile at her lovingly. "You saved us, my little hero. Mahariel has competition, it seems."
Merrill smiles faintly in return and opens her mouth to speak, but then suddenly inhales sharply, her back arching, fists clenching, her green eyes filling with pain.
I clutch her to me, searing terror flooding my veins at the agony in her face, her eyes. "Merrill?"
"It... hurts..." she whimpers, and a cold fist seizes my heart and squeezes tight. "It hurts... my blood is... on fire... oh, ma vhenan... I'm... burning..."
The fist clenches mercilessly, shredding my insides; the venom must be working through her more quickly now, if it's reached her heart as Anders said... Maker, no... I cast about frantically, searching for a way to help her, something, anything. My eyes fall on the abandoned vial of elfroot potion Anders left beside me, and I snatch it up, lifting her head a little and holding it to her lips.
"Drink this, love. All of it."
She opens her mouth a little, trusting me, and I feed her the elfroot, just a few sips at a time until the little vial is empty, which doesn't take long. Maker's breath, but I wish I had more. Why didn't I think to bring some? Merrill lets her head fall against my shoulder once the potion is gone, her eyes fluttering closed, the delicate skin of her eyelids dark and purple with exhaustion. I watch her anxiously, but I can't see any real change; she is still pale as snow, her chest rising and falling more deeply, now, but with increasing difficulty, and small tremors wrack her body with every laboured breath.
"Suledin..." she murmurs quietly, her voice delirious. "Suledin... tel'numin..."
I stroke her cheek, unable to summon more than a terrified whisper. "Merrill?"
She doesn't react to my voice or touch; lost in her feverish rambling. "Make... no sound... when receiving the... the vallaslin... da'len... If you cannot... cannot bear... the pain... you are not ready for... f-for adulthood... N-no tears, Merrill... n-not out loud..." She gasps, and her brows draw together in bewilderment, though her eyes stay closed. "But... why does my chest hurt so... s-so badly? It... it hurts... to breathe..."
My breath stops in my throat as I bite back a terrified sob, and she slips once more into unconsciousness, her cheeks more bloodless than ever, paler than should be possible. She whimpers softly beneath her breath, shivering violently all over; her body trembling with pain even in her unconscious state as the venom wreaks havoc through her veins. I hold her close, whispering fervent words of love and encouragement and hope, trying to still the shaking of her slender frame, listening dully to Anders and Fenris still calling uselessly up the shaft for help, all the while feeling the full weight of my helplessness crashing over me in a wave of black despair. There's nothing I can do for her. Even if I had full command of all my mana, I don't know if I could halt the progress of the foul venom ravaging her tiny body without an antidote, and if we don't get out of here soon... or even if we do, but the Maker-cursed Antiquarian has no remedy, or... or we're just too late... I can't...
A glint of silvery white tugs at the corner of my eye, and I look towards it slowly, expecting to see Fenris seeking my attention... perhaps the lift is coming?... but he and Anders are still out of sight behind the dead wyvern, calling up towards the surface in increasingly hoarse voices. I glance away despondently and the tiny patch of pale brightness flits across my vision again, drawing my gaze to the ground between the wyvern's limp, outstretched claws... where a little feathered head is just visible between the creature's sprawling limbs, tilted as though in curious fascination. A white bird, the size of a small cat... the one the wyvern was hunting, that it used to lure us here... I watch it listlessly, rocking Merrill's limp body back and forth gently as she trembles in my arms. It... must have come out of the hole it was hiding in after the wyvern was dead. Perhaps that was the scratching sound I heard, the little animal scrabbling to get itself out... I can see the top of one of its little wings just above the creature's foreleg, held straight out to the side; a patch of blood staining the white feathers... the wyvern hurt it... with talons, not fangs, I suppose, or it would be poisoned too, wouldn't it, just like... just like Merrill... she wanted to help it... I suppose she did, at that...
The little bird leans forward, the shining white feathers on what I can see of its neck and shoulders puffing up as though in challenge, and delivers a sharp peck to the dead monster's snout, then skips back a step, opening its beak in a silent cry, giving a little bob of its head after a moment, as though in satisfaction on confirming the death of its pursuer. It turns suddenly to look at me and I blink slowly in surprise. There's something... odd about its head... it's too far to see clearly, but... something about the shape of it...
Merrill's body tenses and jerks once, and I snap my gaze back to her face as she gives a pained moan, though her eyes stay tightly shut. I feel my throat constrict with a sharp ache, my eyes stinging with helpless tears at the sight of her in so much pain; feel the awful agony of knowing there's nothing... nothing I can do...
A soft cheeping noise draws my attention, and I glance down, blinking blurred eyes, and see the little bundle of feathers now directly in front of me, huddled in on itself, apparently having come over to us now that its inspection of the wyvern is complete. It fixes me in one bright, round avian eye for a moment and then twists its eagle-like head, trying unsuccessfully to see Merrill's face. It gives a small cawing sound of frustration and then unfolds itself abruptly from the huddled cloak of its wings, sitting up on its haunches to plant its little front paws on my knee beneath Merrill, stretching its feathered neck up towards her, perking its pointed furry ears up curiously, tiny claws pricking my skin, its tufted tail swishing behind it...
...no... it can't be...
It is... Maker... Oh, sweet Maker, it's...
A pure white, tiny little baby... griffon.
My shocked intake of breath is sharp enough to draw Fenris and Anders' attention, and they are at my side in an instant.
"Hawke? What is it-" Anders begins, cutting off abruptly as the little griffon on my knee whips its head about to stare at him, feathers lifting in fright and it sinks its claws deeper into my leg, making me wince. For a few moments, nobody makes a sound, and then...
"Maker's breath..." Anders breathes, crouching slowly as the tiny creature watches him, its little beak open as it pants in fear, though it doesn't try and run, or move at all.
Fenris remains standing, one dark eyebrow quirked beneath his gleaming hair as he stares down at it. At the griffon. The baby griffon.
"I... was under the impression that such creatures were extinct," he comments, his voice pitched low and calm so as to avoid scaring the little thing further.
"As far as the Wardens know, they are, or they're supposed to be," Anders agrees. "And the Wardens ought to know." He frowns. "Although, everyone thought dragons were extinct, too, and yet how many have tried to eat us now? Two dozen? Three?"
"It seems Xenon has a rare collection indeed," Fenris intones dryly.
The little griffon flicks its gaze between the two men, watching them closely for signs of attack, and then it turns away, resettling its feathers, and resumes examining Merrill with its large, bright eyes. It seems... fascinated by her... Perhaps it remembers her trying to help it earlier, before... before... It gives another inquisitive cheep, twitching the overlarge furry ears that made its little eagle head look so strange, and then without further ado it climbs gently onto Merrill's stomach, tucking its injured, blood-splattered wing carefully against its furry side as it settles itself safely on top of her, and before I can move, let alone try and get it off her, it opens its little beak and lets out a quavering note, half bird song, half purr, almost like a melody, its pure white feathers beginning to shine with a faint, silvery light...
And almost instantly, Merrill stops shivering. I gaze down in astonishment at this tiny, impossible little miracle, watching as it sings to her, as her cheeks grow less pale and her breathing eases... sweet Andraste, he's... he's healing her...
"Maker..." I whisper, staring.
The baby griffon hiccups, suddenly, and lets out a plaintive, mewling cry, stretching his injured wing out a little, his healing song forgotten, and I stir automatically to comfort him, lifting my hand slowly and running my fingers gently over his downy head, rubbing his fuzzy ears... He is clearly only a baby, after all, wounded, alone, and frightened... The tiny creature gives a little purr and curls itself into a ball, apparently slipping immediately into a deep sleep.
"In all the stories of griffons the Wardens tell, never once have I heard they possessed magic of any sort, let alone the power to heal..." Anders says wonderingly. He places two fingers gently on the pulse point at Merrill's throat, and resting his other hand flat against her ribcage to feel her breathing. "It hasn't done a great deal for her... but she seems more stable. Her heartbeat is regular."
I don't suppose the little creature really knows what he's doing, he's just a baby, but... I feel my heart leap hopefully; maybe... maybe he did do something for her... The griffon promptly begins to snore, his feathers flashing with each melodic little rumble passing though his open beak, and with every flash, I swear I can see a tiny change in Merrill; a little more colour in the cheeks, a line of pain across her brow smoothed a little, a slightly deeper breath...
I reach for the tiny spark of mana within me and channel a fraction of it into her body... next to useless, considering the pitiful amount currently available to me, but I need to know, if I can, need to see... My spirits drop a little as I feel the venom still raging throughout her body, poisoning her slowly with every heartbeat, but... the spread of it seems to have slowed significantly, her ribs are still fractured, but the broken ones are now only cracked and she has no internal bleeding... She has a real chance, now. Then... I need to get her out of here so it isn't wasted.
"The... the venom is slowing..." I manage, looking at Anders, my voice sounding oddly toneless in my ears. I think I'm... I'm in shock. "If we can just get out of here in time, get help-"
Fenris cocks his head suddenly, turning his eyes towards the shaft behind the dead wyvern. "Listen."
And now I can hear it too, the clattering rattle of chains echoing down the shaft as the lift descends, and my heart swells hopefully as the platform finally clanks into view above the still mound of dead wyvern in front of us, groaning beneath the weight of the great stone golem methodically working the lever. Oh, thank the bloody Maker!
The golem beckons silently with one giant stony hand, and I lift Merrill very carefully in my arms, and stand slowly, mindful not to press on her fractured ribs, nor overbalance the sleeping griffon, ignoring my own hurts. They aren't important.
"Let me take her, Hawke, I'll carry her," Anders says, holding out his arms, but I shake my head forcefully, drawing her carefully closer as I move towards the lift.
"No." I won't let her out of my arms. No one else will touch her.
"Shall I... remove the animal?" Fenris asks, glancing uncertainly at the little creature still curled on Merrill's stomach.
I shake my head, glancing down at him, still flashing healing light with every purring snore. "Leave him. He's healing her. I'm taking him with us," I declare firmly, stepping into the lift, cradling Merrill carefully against me as I lean against the lever frame for balance. "If Xenon objects, all the worse for him."
"I do... apologiiiise... most... sincerrrrely..." Xenon croaks again as I smooth the healing salve over Merrill's wounds; a distillation of drakesvein, Andraste's Mantle and winterberry tailored to treat wyvern poison, fetched for me at Xenon's command by a frantic Urchin, once I had explained to the desiccated lump of greying flesh - in a somewhat less than calm and controlled manner - what had happened as a result of his 'help'. "I ooonly meant to keep you safe; I had no intention... of endaaaannnngering you. There is no profit... in allowing harrrrm to come to my best... cusssstomerrrrs."
I barely listen to his feeble blather, leaning over Merrill as she lies unmoving on the stone bench by the walkway where I laid her, watching her face anxiously for any sign that the salve is working. After a few tense moments, a little more colour slowly comes back into her cheeks, and she gives a small, quiet sigh, as though of relief. She still doesn't wake, but her breathing becomes deep and regular; she seems to be merely asleep now, rather than unconscious. The little griffon, now curled up quietly beside her head, is engaged in gently combing her hair with his little beak, giving a soft chirrup every now and then as though in encouragement. It almost seems as though he has... imprinted on her, like a mabari. Or a duckling, perhaps.
"I am not certain a mere apology will be sufficient," Fenris intones dryly.
Xenon makes a small noise at his words; a sound that could indicate either impatient irritation or remorseful distress. I hope for his sake it's the latter."I am... immensely... repentannnnt. In the confusion of ensurrrring... that you were safely housed and commmmfortable, the wyvern's daily meal was... overlooked."
Safely bloody housed and comfortable, Maker's balls! I shoot a livid glare over my shoulder at the Antiquarian. "I'm not interested in your excuses-"
"But you can feel yourrrr mana again, can you not?" he interrupts. "The potionnnn wore off as you slept, as I intended... and you did not sufferrrr the aggggonies of waiting... tooo long... Though if you had onnnly stayed in the cells for your own protection... until Thaddeus came to get you, this would not... have happened. You would have been safe." He gives a long-suffering sigh. "The young are... so impatient and immmmpetuous..."
His resentful words, suffused with a clear undertone of pitying disdain, is enough to lay down the final straw upon my already straining burden of roiling emotions, causing my tenuous hold on my temper to snap instantly. Calling a ball of fire into my palm - a feat which requires the entire meagre pool of mana I have managed to regenerate, though I find I am unable to care - I turn from Merrill, ignoring the stab of pain from my ribs and skull, and rise with my hand held threateningly before me, burning blue flames licking my fingers, their glorious warmth giving power to my words as I stare up at Xenon, snarling furiously through gritted teeth.
"Your 'help' consisted of draining us, drugging us and locking us in an underground dungeon with a hungry, venomous monster restrained with nothing but a rotting wooden door, and you consider that safe?" I give him no time to answer, working myself into a furious rage. I doubt there's anything he could say to placate me. "Merrill nearly died because of you! Give me one good reason why I should not burn this place to the ground and send your desiccated corpse into the Void to give the Maker my regards? I believe you're long overdue to put in an appearance there."
"I would not... advise... trrrrying," Xenon rumbles. "Thaddeus does not responnnnd well to threats, you know... especially when they are dirrrrected at me... Persist, and I will be forrrrced to have him... remove you from the premises..."
I growl deep in my throat, and the sound echoes about the stone chamber, sounding for all the world like the restless ghost of that Maker-blighted wyvern.
"I would not have said that, were I you, Antiquarian." Fenris comments dryly. "It is unlikely to improve your situation."
"We can put your pet rock down if need be, with or without magic," Anders says, glancing disdainfully at the golem, leaning against his staff. I reach for mine as well automatically, abruptly recalling that I left it down in that blighted hole. Merrill's too, and my belt knife. Well. They can be replaced. And I can still burn a decent hole through the madman's wizened chest should the need arise, if nothing more.
"It isn't as though we haven't faced his kind before," I agree, staring challengingly up at Xenon, feeling my anger burn more fiercely. The flames in my palm flare furiously in response. "Set him on us, and I'll remove your premises right out from under you."
He is silent for a few weighted moments before he speaks at last. "Then it seeeeems I am at your merrrrrcy. But please... calm your temperrr... for the urchin's sake, if not for mine."
I turn at his words, looking down to see Urchin crouched beside his master, gazing up at me, his eyes filled with silent pleading and fear. I gaze at the unfortunate child for a few moments, then abruptly release my mana and extinguish the flame, dropping my hand to my side with a sigh as some of my anger drains away, suddenly feeling slightly ashamed of myself. I didn't mean to scare the poor boy. I don't want to hurt him. And... well... it couldn't have been clearer that Xenon is barking mad. Having known that, I can't exactly claim to be entirely surprised that something like this would happen... I suppose... "Very well. I will attempt to restrain myself... for the moment. Though I would recommend a sign over your shop door informing your customers that they enter at their own peril."
"I shall... consider it..." he replies gravely. "I seeee your mana is no longer... dampened. I believe lyrrrrium would be able to surpass the remaining effects... of the potionnn now. I would be happy to offerrrr you a draught-"
I cut him off, scoffing disbelievingly at his words. Really? Another potion? "Not on your unnatural bloody life!" As anxious as I am to recover my full reserves of mana, I'd much rather wait and get some from Anders clinic, which will be our next stop on this shipwreck of a venture. "I suddenly find myself highly suspicious of accepting any more potions from you. Can't imagine why."
"Then please... allow me to offerrrr you... recompense... for your... inconveniences today."
I feel my eyes open even wider incredulously, my anger flaring once again. "Our... inconveniences," I repeat, my voice shaking with quiet rage.
Xenon coughs nervously, sensing danger. Rightly so. "I accept... full responsibility, due to the cirrrrcumstances. And please, allow me to offerrr you a discount... on all future purrrrchases," he continues, speaking unusually quickly, his speech bauble flashing rapidly in his dry, brittle hands. "A heavy... discount. And accept Miss Merrill's tome... free of charge - give her the tome, Urrrchin... and the price she paid for it!" Urchin hurries off to find the tome.
"I'll take the book," I tell him flatly, "but only because Merrill wants it. I don't care about coin; all I want is to get Merrill far away from this place. You can keep your blighted discount too, I don't intend to ever need it." I glance at Anders and Fenris. "High time we saw ourselves out, I think."
Anders gestures to Merrill, looking at me questioningly. "Shall I carry her for you this time?"
I shake my head immediately; I'm not letting anyone else touch her. "No, I'll take her," I reply quickly, then glance at the little griffon, still blissfully absorbed in grooming Merrill's hair. "But would you mind...?"
He inclines his head and moves over to the bench, allowing the baby griffon to examine him cautiously before lifting it into his arms like a cat, being careful not to jostle its wounded wing. It gives a small squawk of protest as Anders straightens, twisting its head as though looking for Merrill, but Anders runs his hand gently along its furry little back, and it gradually subsides, purring gently.
"What do you think... you arrrre doing with that?" Xenon rasps angrily.
I give him a challenging look. "I will also be taking the griffon. Did I not mention that?" I'm certainly not about to leave him, not after he healed Merrill.
"Aahh..." Xenon mutters uneasily. "I'm afrrrraid I cannot let you take that, I may neverrrr... procure... another. I really must insist..."
"This animal might be the only reason Merrill is still breathing," I remind him angrily. "Which, in turn, is the only reason you are currently more or less alive. The least I can do is remove him from your - for lack of a better word - 'care'. I only wish I had the means to liberate all the other sorry creatures we saw down there. I'm taking him." I raise an eyebrow, crossing my arms in challenge. "Free of charge."
Xenon is silent for a moment. "Very... very well," he mutters at last. "A gift, then... to imprrrress upon you my deepest... sincerest... regrrrretssss."
Urchin steps forward, the ancient elven tome in his hands, and offers it to me nervously. I take it from him, wishing I could manage a reassuring smile for his sake. I'd take him with me too, if I thought he would go. I pass the tome to Fenris to carry, and then I bend and gather Merrill gently into my arms, disregarding the pain in my side as I lift her carefully. She remains still, her head lolling against my shoulder, showing no awareness of her surroundings or reactions of any kind, though her wounds and her own cracked ribs would surely be causing her great pain no matter how tenderly I handle her. That she isn't responding even the slightest bit is... not encouraging... but she'll be alright, now. She has to be. She's going to be fine. I look at Anders and Fenris and then motion towards the shop door with my head, trying not to let myself become too frightened by how still and unresponsive she is. Chances are she has merely sunk into a deep, healing sleep as her body fights the venom with the antidote's help. I quicken my step along the walkway towards the lift back to Darktown, eager to get her to the clinic.
"Out of interest..." Anders comments suddenly, stopping to glance back at Xenon. "Where in Thedas did you manage find a griffon? The Wardens believe them to be extinct." He frowns. "It is a true griffon, isn't it?"
I glance back too, despite myself, letting Fenris move past me as he steps through the shop door onto the waiting lift. I'd be interested to hear Xenon's answer myself, considering griffons are supposed to have died out. The ones under Warden control, at least. And Merrill will want to hear it, once she wakes. She will wake.
"I am afrrrraid... I cannot... say," the Antiquarian intones cryptically, apparently in answer to either question, or both. "I often send Thaddeus to seek out... rare animals... for my inventory. He roams far and wide and brings back many crrrreatures... like the wyvern... but he neverrrr... tells... where he finds them. Thaddeus... is almost... as talkative as Urchin... and Urchin... neverrrr... speaks." He gives an almost sinister sort of chuckle, which rises and reverberates about the hollow chamber.
Right. Should have expected that answer. I turn away in disgust, motioning for Anders to continue into the lift ahead of me, and he nods, absently stroking the little griffons head as he steps inside. I follow him as quickly as I dare, trying not to jostle Merrill. She'll be alright. We'll get her to Anders' clinic, take some mana restoratives, and heal her. She's going to be-
I freeze completely as a memory sparks suddenly in my mind, belatedly triggered by Xenon's low, manic laughter... I heard it before... there were words, too, troubling words... right before I blacked out... I try to remember, and they suddenly spring into my mind.
"...their blood is fresh, potent... powerful... they are the ones I need... most fortuitous indeed..."
I glance down slowly at my left hand, curled about Merrill's thin shoulders as I hold her to me, and then I look down at her hand too, resting limply over her stomach, seeing as though for the first time the bandages tied there. On the same hand, in the same place... Small hurts; all too easily forgotten and overlooked in the wake of the wyvern's attack and Merrill's injuries, but... they can't be coincidence, surely.
What has he done?
"A moment, Xenon, before we leave," I say quietly, turning slowly to face him again.
"Cerrrrtainly," he replies, his voice guardedly hopeful. "What... can I do for you? Name it."
I shift Merrill carefully in my arms so that I can hold up my cut hand a little. Very pointedly. "I don't suppose you'd care to explain this?"
For a long moment, there is a ringing silence throughout the Emporium; Xenon's paralysed body somehow managing to give the impression that his stillness is now that of a hunted deer. "Ahh..." he replies at last, rather twitchily. "I am afrrrraid I don't know-"
"Merrill's hand is wounded too," I continue over him. I am uninterested in hearing protestations of innocence. "In exactly the same place. And I heard you before I lost consciousness. You said you needed our blood. You told the boy to take some. Don't try to deny it." At the dangerous tone now infusing in my voice, Fenris and Anders step out of the lift and come to stand at my back.
"Aaaahhh..." Xenon wheezes nervously. "Yes. I did..."
I feel my temper climb higher and concentrate on the feel on Merrill's warm, steady breath against my throat. I have to be calm. If he's done something to us, to her... anything that will prevent her recovery... "Any particular reason?" I ask with enforced politeness. I need to know what he's done to her first. "I warn you; it had better be bloody good."
"Nnnnothing... sinister, I assure you," Xenon mutters, sounding flustered and unconvincing.
I survey him coldly. "You'll forgive me if your assurances don't exactly leave me brimful of confidence. Tell me what you've done," I demand.
"Very well." He gives a rattling sigh. "I need... power... to sustain this form. Lyrium works well... of course... but nothing is more powerful... than... blood." He pauses briefly. "Mage blood, to be precise. Such raw, unadulterated powerrrr, the essence of both life and magic... it sustains me like nothing else. It is an old... magic..."
Oh, blood and flames...
"It is always the same. Always." Fenris growls behind me. "Blood magic, no matter where I turn!"
Xenon chuckles. "Blood magic? After a fashionnn... I suppose... Regardless, this old magic is capable of many things..."
"You didn't take my blood," Anders says suspiciously. "Not that I'm complaining, mind you, but why?"
"You are tainted," Xenon answers simply. "Unsuitable."
I am only half listening, still trying to work through this calmly. "So all of this... everything that happened to us; taking our powers, drugging us... it was all so your servant could steal our blood for you?" Maker save me, I was such a fool to trust this madman... if I had never thought to come down here, Merrill would never have been hurt... Maker save me... "You had this planned from the moment we walked in, didn't you!"
"You never truly thought the potion would work for me," Fenris accuses him angrily. "You startled the boy into dropping it on purpose."
"Then had him dose us with a soporific to incapacitate us, under the pretence of correcting your 'mistake'," Anders finishes. "So we couldn't stop you stealing Hawke's blood. And Merrill's," he adds as an afterthought.
"I required it... to survive," the Antiquarian protests defensively. "Had I requested your blood, would you have given it? I find it unlikely... no one ever has before. Not... willingly... but I have no desire to injure my customers. And no, I did nnnot plan this. When you were deprrrrived of your magical defences... such an unforrrrtunate accident... I merely took advannnntage of the unexpected... opporrrtunity. Though you woke earrrrlier than expected," Xenon grunts in displeasure. "Had all gone as I meant... had Urrrrchin given you sufficient potion to drrrrink," and at his master's disgruntled tone, the boy gulps and looks hastily at his feet, "you would have slept on... until your powers returrrrned. And Thaddeus... would have collected you from your cells... safe and unharrrrmed, and none the wiser."
I draw my breath in through my teeth in fury. "Right. Great plan. Apart from the hungry wyvern a few doors down." Merrill's steady breathing hitches momentarily and I glance at her in concern. I need to get her out of here. Now. "If I weren't so anxious for Merrill, rest assured I would not be letting this go so lightly."
"I cerrrrtainly did not intend... for little Merrill to be hurrrt. I am... trrrruly sorry. I shall make it up to you..."
"Make it up to me? Are you m-" I shake my head, cutting myself off with a dry, humourless laugh. Of course he's mad. Barking, flaming, blighting mad. What a foolish mistake to come here. I turn on my heel and stride down the walkway towards the shop entrance, cradling Merrill carefully, recalling my priorities. She needs attention first, I can deal with him later. "Nothing you could do could ever make up for this. I don't want anything from you, Xenon," I tell him dismissively over my shoulder as I step into the lift, Anders and Fenris on my heels. "Consider yourself extremely fortunate if I don't ever come back at all. Because if I do; it will be with the sole intention of burning this whole blighted place down around what remains of your desiccated ears."
"Thank you for your help, Fenris," I say as we pass through the basement door at last and into the warm, cosy kitchen of my estate. Never have I been more thankful that the estate is so easily accessible from Darktown. Thank the bloody Maker I thought to bring the old cellar key with me this time. "I couldn't have managed it alone."
"There is no need to thank me," Fenris replies, his deep voice accompanied harmoniously by the soft, cheeping purrs of the baby griffon perched smugly on his shoulder as he carries Merrill's tome nestled carefully in his arms. "It was my honour to aid you, Hawke."
I give him a grateful smile and move towards the hallway door. Merrill sighs quietly in my arms, her sleeping head resting against my shoulder, and I shift her gently into a more secure position, easing her slight weight a little. As light as she is, my arms are beginning to ache just a little after carrying her through the cellars all the way from Anders' clinic, as are my ribs a bit, though Anders healed them well enough once he had seen to Merrill. They still twinge a little, though I can't complain, since I refused to let Fenris take her from me. Holding her cancels out any pain, as does the knowledge that she is going to be alright, now. "This way," I tell Fenris as I lead him down the darkened hallway, heading for the front room and bedchamber wing. She needs rest, and a few more healing sessions, which I will take care of, but... she is going to be alright.
"Darling, is that you?" Mother's voice floats into the hall as Fenris and I draw near the parlour, our footsteps echoing loudly on the flagstones. I step through into the warmly lit room, and my eyes fall on Mother, sitting at the writing desk, quill and parchment in hand. "Did you come from the kitchens? I thought you and Merrill were still out; I didn't realise you were home," she says without looking up from her letter. "I'm just writing to Gisele to tell her I'm coming. Bodahn and Sandal are packing their travellers' gear, although I told them I won't be leaving until a carriage is arranged. Sandal wants to take the mabari along too; he was trying to pack him in his trunk when I left them." She laughs lightly as she turns to look at me. "I wish you'd seen how excitable they both got when I asked them to come. Apparently they are well seasoned 'adventurers'..." Her smile vanishes abruptly as she takes in the sight of me with Merrill in my arms, and then she drops her quill immediately, rising quickly to her feet. "Oh, no, what's happened?" she cries, rushing forward, concern etched into her features. "Merrill?"
"She's alright, she's just sleeping," I begin, but Mother shakes her head.
"Don't you try and give me that," she says impatiently, gesturing pointedly at the torn, bloody remnants of Merrill's tunic. "She's been hurt! What happened?"
I sigh. There's no sidestepping any issue when she employs that tone of voice. But the most important thing right now is taking care of Merrill; lengthy explanations can wait. "We were attacked by a wyvern," I tell her simply.
Mother gasps, her eyes widening incredulously. Evidently she's heard of them. "A... a wyvern? What on earth were you doing?"
"Shopping," I answer grimly. Mother blinks at me for another brief moment, and then thankfully simply sighs and nods, apparently accepting this as yet another of the strange unexplainable things that continue to befall me. "The creature was ill-fed and hungry; it got free of its... enclosure and went for us, and Merrill caught the worst of it. She killed it, though," I continue before she can question me further, the proud note in my voice masking my own anxiety.
"Oh, my little sweetheart..." she says softly, placing a gentle hand on Merrill's forehead, as though checking her for a fever. She strokes her hair soothingly, though Merrill doesn't react, still deeply asleep, her head heavy on my shoulder. "Oh, you poor, brave little thing...
"She's alright now," I assure her. "No need to worry. Anders healed her wounds, but her body is exhausted from the stress. He says she'll sleep for some time, maybe days, but she'll recover. She'll be just fine once I give her a few more healing sessions."
"A wyvern, here, in the city..." Mother murmurs to herself. "How could that be? A wyvern..."
"I need to take care of Merrill, now," I tell her, turning and head for the stairs up to the bedroom wing. Mother hovers anxiously at my side as I walk, and Fenris follows uncertainly behind us, still carrying the griffon and the tome. "Then I'll explain everything properly, I promise."
I carry Merrill across the landing towards my bedroom in an eerie echo of last night, save for the fact that she lies limp and unresponsive in my arms instead of clinging to me trustingly; her heartbeat slow and measured rather than racing in nervous anticipation; her breathing deep and quiet, not rapid with flustered excitement. I enter my chamber, minding Merrill's head as I step through the door. Mother crosses to the bed and pulls back the covers, and I lay Merrill down gently, pulling the blankets up to cover her then kneeling beside her, feeling a wave of guilt swamp me as I look down at her, her face so still and drawn...
Mother leans over Merrill, feeling her cheeks and forehead. "She's cold. I doubt the bedclothes will suffice." She glances at the unlit fire. "Darling, perhaps you should...?"
I turn immediately and cast a fireball into the well-stacked hearth at her prompt, hearing Fenris shift a little behind me as though in discomfort as I do so. I am uninterested in coddling his magic aversion at the moment, though; he'll just have to get over it.
"That will do," Mother says, nodding approvingly. She disappears into my washroom, re-emerging after a moment with a basin of water in one hand and a cloth in the other, which she places before the fire to warm before returning to the bedside. "We can get her out of those torn, stained things and give her a bit of a bath once you've given her a healing," she says, now feeling gently along Merrill's throat. "There we are, that's better. I think she's going to be just fine."
She is. She will be. I give Mother a small, grateful smile then turn back to Merrill, reaching for threads of creation magic, basking in the feel of my mana and its healing warmth. But before I can begin, my concentration is interrupted by the sounds of a quiet scuffle by the door; and the rustling of feathers followed by a soft curse in Arcanum. I pause briefly, but ignore them, trying again to form a healing spell, but Mother glances at Fenris with a faint look of surprise, apparently noticing his presence for the first time.
"Oh, hello, Fenris, dear. Were you involved in this, too? I do hope you're alright," she says, and frowns a little. "My, that is an interesting hat-"
I hear the griffon let out a small peep, and Mother gasps, then freezes, her mouth falling open, eyes wide as saucers. I turn to follow her astonished gaze, and in spite of myself immediately have to bite back a small smile at the sight of the baby griffon, which has abandoned its perch on Fenris's shoulder and is now sitting happily on top of his head, with its newly mended wings spread out to either side for balance, spoiling Fenris' dignity rather badly in the process as it gazes around my chamber with bright, inquisitive eyes.
"But... that's... just... ridiculous..." Mother manages in a whisper, staring at the small creature resolutely clinging to Fenris's head. "It can't be... it's..."
"A griffon," I finish for her, turning back to Merrill, summoning my mana once again. "Yes, well, apparently he is."
"I suppose... he got free of his enclosure, too?" Mother asks weakly.
I nod a little, not taking my eyes from Merrill's face. "In a manner of speaking."
"Assistance would be welcome," Fenris comments, trying unsuccessfully to remove the griffon from its vantage point one-handed, his left arm still burdened with the elven book.
"Here, dear, let me..." Mother says, stirring herself into action and moving forward to help him, trying to lift the tiny creature down from his head. The griffon mews loudly in protest and latches on with its little claws, apparently unwilling to relinquish his perch, causing Fenris to grunt in discomfort. "Now, that's quite enough of that, young man!" she admonishes him - the griffon - sternly, and glances back at me. "Or is it young lady?"
"It's male," I tell her absently, glancing at her as I concentrate. The spell is taking longer to form than it should, though I suppose that is the lingering influence of the blighted dampening mixture. Or perhaps it's the continued interruptions. "Anders checked. He said 'it' is just like a cat's. I didn't ask for specific details, but you get the idea."
Mother smiles grimly, turning back to the little griffon. "Good. I know exactly how to deal with stubborn little boys. Bend down a little, Fenris, dear." He complies, crouching down so that Mother can reach the griffon better, and without further ado, she grabs the little creature by the scruff of the neck. He squalls in surprise as she lifts him, and he loses his grip on Fenris, who rubs ruefully at his head as he sets Merrill's cloth wrapped tome gently down on the writing table in the corner of my chamber.
"Thank you," Fenris says courteously to Mother, now holding the wriggling griffon firmly in her hands. He turns to look at me, glances briefly at Merrill, lying motionless on the bed as I stroke her hair gently, and then he looks away from both of us. "I shall take my leave, Hawke. I should return before the Guard begin patrolling the noble estates."
He has an unusually pained expression on his normally impassive face. I daresay the griffon's claws were razor sharp, tiny as they are. "I'm grateful for your help, Fenris," I thank him earnestly. "There's no need to rush off. If you wait until I take care of Merrill, I can have a look at those scratches for you."
He gazes at me for a moment, and then shakes his head, his look of discomfort intensifying. I suppose he must feel a little out of place among us at the moment. "No need to trouble yourself, Hawke; they are only minor. Not worthy of your time," he says, and inclines his head towards me and then Mother, still standing with the griffon by the fire. "Good evening to you both." He strides towards the door, apparently eager to make a hasty departure, and is gone before either of us can form a reply.
A tiny rumbling sound breaks the stillness Fenris left in his wake, disrupting my focus again, and I drop my half-completed spell, casting about irritably for the source of the noise. The baby griffon in Mother's arms utters a soft, plaintive cry, and she hushes him absently. It must have been his stomach growling; he must be starving, poor creature.
"Would you mind taking care of him for me while I work?" I ask her. There isn't anything more she can do for Merrill, and he needs to be seen to. And I need to work without further disturbance. "He needs something to eat and then to rest; his wing was hurt. Anders healed it, but he really ought to sleep and recover."
"You mean to keep him then?" she asks, although her tone is not a questioning one. She already knows what my answer will be.
"Oh, yes, I rather think so." I owe the tiny creature that much after what he did for Merrill, and even if he had done nothing, I would have kept him anyway, who would not? And perhaps he can sing to her again, once he's rested, help her recover more quickly... A real, live griffon... Merrill will be thrilled. Oh, please wake soon, my love. You need to see this.
Mother nods in acceptance, looking pleased, holding the little griffon firmly as he squirms impatiently, rather like a puppy. "Now, now. None of that, please, young man." He stills and chirps apologetically, assuming a cowed expression, and she smiles fondly at him. "Oh, my, he is a sweet one, isn't he? I'll take him to the kitchens, get him cleaned up and fed." The griffon opens his little beak in a wide, silent yawn, and tucks his head beneath her chin, apparently making himself right at home. "And find him somewhere to sleep, of course," she continues wryly, stroking his feathered shoulders as he purrs softly.
"He can sleep in here, by the fire. Merrill will want to see him, when she wakes. Don't name him, yet, though. I want to let her give him one." I turn back to Merrill, smoothing the covers over her chest, watching as the warmth of the fire slowly brings more colour into her cheeks. "She always wanted a baby griffon."
"Then he must have been a gift from the Maker, just for her," Mother smiles, returning to the bedside to run a gentle hand tenderly over Merrill's hair. "Feel better soon, sweetheart. You're in good hands."
She smiles at me encouragingly, and then leaves for the kitchens, the sleepy little legendary creature nestled safely in her arms; by far the strangest addition to our growing family, if not the most wonderful. That distinction belongs to Merrill alone. I gaze at her, stroking her cheek gently as I weave my spell anew. "It's alright now. I'm here. I'm going to take care of you," I whisper, and then lean down to kiss her, very gently. She gives a tiny sigh as my mouth brushes hers and her lips move ever-so-slightly at the touch of mine, just for a moment, before she falls still and silent again. Nevertheless, it's an encouraging sign, and I feel my spirits lift as I summon my mana to cleanse the remaining traces of poison from her veins, placing one hand gently on her forehead, and the other over her heart, mindful of her newly healed wounds, sending love and healing fire through my fingertips into her small body. She stirs again, gasping quietly as my magic fills her, a small, delighted smile of pleasure flitting across her face, and my heart gives a hopeful jolt at the sight.
"You're going to be fine, my heart," I tell her quietly, and she sighs again, as though some part of her hears me, and is comforted by my words. "I'm so sorry I didn't keep you safe," I murmur softly, pressing my hand a little more firmly over her heart, feeling the wonderful beat beneath my fingers as her pulse strengthens beneath my power, my touch. My love. She's going to be alright, now. I'll make sure of it. "I will never fail you again." Never again, my love, my heart, my hope. I promise. She smiles in her sleep as I chase the last of the venom from her body, and my heart skips a beat at the peaceful beauty of her quiescent features. I withdraw my magic from her slowly, carefully, and then lean down to press a gentle kiss to her delicate brow.
She's going to be alright.
Suledin, tel'numin - (roughly) Endurance, not tears.