Chapter 69

"Maker's cock!"

Isabela lurked in another alleyway and watched as the small group of qunari moved quickly through the docks, cutting the moorings of any vessel currently berthed and setting them aflame. Clearly, the Arishok was taking no chances that anyone would be getting away with the relic. At least, not by sea. Not from this harbor. There were a few coves she knew of on the Wounded Coast within a day's ride of the city, used mostly by smugglers and occasionally by slavers, but Isabela suspected the qunari knew about them too. They'd been here for three years, after all, and hadn't she and Hawke encountered more than one qunari patrol out there?

As much as Isabela hated horses, it looked like her only option was to ride to Ostwick and find a ship there. First, though, she had to get out of the city.

Isabela drew back into the shadow of two bales of some kind of fiber as the qunari demolition crew moved past her. They didn't seem to be paying any attention to the warehouses themselves at the moment, just on destroying any means of escape for the Tevinter mages. No doubt the same team that was firing the ships would start on the warehouses when they reached the last pier and turned about. Since all the buildings themselves were cut and constructed of stone, they wouldn't be able to burn them to the ground, but they didn't need to. Just torch the contents, and anyone hiding inside would come running out, right into waiting oxmen's arms.

Isabela might know every inch of the docks and a fair bit of Darktown around them, but she really hadn't planned on having to run the full gauntlet of Darktown with her reclaimed prize. In her opinion, that would have been utterly daft. In her opinion, it still was utterly daft, except at this point she didn't see any other option.

Kirkwall had been built to withstand attack from without. The sea gate between the Twins could be raised, protecting the city from attack by sea, and the buildings rose in tiers on the very cliffside from the harbor to the gates of Hightown. Those gates were few, and created chokepoints that could be held by even a handful of defenders. The tiered nature of the city also made it easy for those in power to isolate any particular quarter, should the lowly born (or, as it were, slaves) ever attempt open insurgency or rebellion.

The exception, of course, was Darktown. The sewers went everywhere, and had multiple outlet points. That was, of course, why both the Carta and the Coterie had such a presence there. If she could get into the sewers, and if she could navigate the sewers without notice, Isabela could be in Ostwick in less than a fortnight.

If, if, if.

The qunari knew about the sewers, too. So did every thief, smuggler, and n'er-do-well in the city, and more besides. And that creepy thing, Xenon, was down there too. Isabela might have been obsessively focused on the Tome in Wall-Eyed Sam's arms, but it hadn't escaped her distracted notice that there'd been a golem in the mix back at the old foundry, and it would be more than coincidence that someone else would send a golem after the relic. All of which added up to a pretty wide assortment of ifs she'd have to overcome.

There was some pretty intense fighting happening somewhere further down the docks. It sounded like the qunari had run into some difficulties. Which raised the further question of Hawke, and an additional if. If Isabela didn't get her ass out of here sharpish, Hawke would come looking for her. And Isabela really didn't want to see the look of hurt disappointment that was sure to be on Hawke's face. The sounds she was hearing might only be because the qunari had come upon a ship with more than a few sober sailors aboard, but it could as easily mean Hawke had found them first.

She uttered a new string of curses under her breath and eased out from her sheltered nook, pressing herself against the wall and slipping forward to peer around the corner of the building.

To her relief, it seemed that the qunari had indeed found a sober crew, two of whom were desperately trying to keep an unmoored and burning ship at bay with long gaff hooks while a third was casting off all lines and the remainder were engaged with the qunari saboteurs. Other sailors, drunk or sober, were either converging on the fight or hastily casting off and pushing their ships away from their berths before the qunari could do it for them and offer a parting gift of a cask of burning pitch to boot. Thankfully, there was no sign of Hawke's flame-colored hair or Varric's manly chest among the mess.

The sound of mayhem on the docks was growing, but over the immediate din she thought she could hear that the trouble was not just limited to the docks. Faint and far above her, there seemed to be screaming.

But that was ridiculous. The qunari couldn't be doing some kind of building by building search of the entire city! For one thing, that would take days. For another, the nobles wouldn't put up with it. Oh, they wouldn't much care if the qunari rummaged through the whole of Lowtown, but the moment any of the oxmen turned up in Hightown there'd be hell to pay from the guard, no matter what Lady Man-Hands felt about the situation. And that skirmish would only lead to an all out battle between the guard and the qunari. And nobody wanted that, or nobody now that Mother Petrice was dead.

An image of Shepard, camped between the qunari and the rest of the city, floated into the center of Isabela's mind. Shepard clearly thought it was not just possible, but likely. Isabela had discounted it because she'd known that the qunari were only on edge because they were so close to getting their hands on the relic, just as she was, but of course she couldn't tell Shepard that.

Or she'd thought she'd known.

Another set of screams from the city above mixed with the shouts from the docks below, and Isabela felt the stirring of outright panic.


There was an entrance to Darktown in the courtyard the harbormaster worked out of, directly across from the qunari compound, and another in an alley that the Mage Underground used frequently. But both of those were well-known and almost certainly watched. There was the Coterie's main (and carefully guarded) entrance in a warehouse in the upper docks to the east, but that was likely to be problematic given that Isabela had just killed one of their number and taken his goods; technically, the Coterie was owed a percentage from the sale of the relic, and while it was all but certain Wall-Eyed Sam was planning on skipping out without giving the Coterie their cut, their enforcers wouldn't take kindly to Isabela making off with the source of potential profit.

Isabela knew the Carta had several entrances scattered among a variety of warehouses, given that the dwarven Merchant's Guild owned a good third of the dockside buildings, but had no idea which ones or where and now was not a good time to be playing a game of hunt the passage so she ruled those out without another thought.

But two alleyways to the east of the one she was in there was a grate that dropped down into a large open area where a couple of fences plied their trade, buying and selling goods of questionable ownership and providence, and that "room" had several tunnels leading off of it into the warren that was Darktown. Given the presence of the fences, you couldn't exactly call it a secret by any means, but it was far less known than the harbormaster's and Mage Underground's entrances and it was the closest. With the qunari otherwise occupied, she should be able to slip along to that alley. What was less certain was if she'd find a qunari welcoming committee waiting for her below. Without a doubt, the fences and their assorted hangers-on would have fled at the first hint of trouble.

That was likely the best option Isabela was going to get.

Hugging the wall and moving on noiseless feet, Isabela eased around the corner of the warehouse and ghosted along to the alley in question. As she'd suspected, it was empty. She carefully eased herself to the ground and peered cautiously through the grating to the light-dappled space below. There were crates and buckets visible, but Isabela couldn't see any people. Certainly no qunari, unless they were more adept at hiding in shadows than a Carta skulker.

As quietly as possible, she pried up the grate. There'd be no way to close it behind her - the drop to the floor was too far - but really, given the current situation it could be anyone from the docks fleeing from the bedlam.

She dropped down into soft gloom and rolled to put her back against some crates.

Still no qunari, but Isabela found that what she'd taken for a pile of rags was in fact a pile of rags with a human inside; a skinny man of indeterminate years who rocked and whispered softly to himself.

Lyrium sickness. Isabela had seen it too many times not to recognize the symptoms. Poor bastard was probably a templar. Former templar, that is. The order offered little comfort for its members once they outlived their usefulness. Some were taken in by one or another Chantry houses to live out their days as raving nutters, but many more ended up like this wretch, abandoned and forgotten.

She quickly took her bearings and started down the best tunnel to get her out of the city. Only a few feet into it she was arrested by a firm forearm across her throat and a voice in her ear.

"Going somewhere?"

The last magister fell with a strangled scream.

Hawke, crouched against the mezzanine wall between Thaddeus Three and a lone and badly bleeding qunari, made a final try for a diplomatic ending.

"Look," she pointed out with all seriousness. "The Tevinter mages are dead. We can all put our weapons away and discuss this like rational people, right? The book belongs to the qunari. We all know that. So let's just give it back to its rightful owners and nobody else needs to get hurt." She glanced at the golem. "Or whatever."

Everyone eyed each other warily, like a mixed group of predators over a fresh kill. Nobody attacked, but nobody backed off, either. Hawke tried again to lower the temperature, straightening out of her crouch and lowering her daggers. "See? Let's all just…"

"Uh, Hawke?" Varric was still sighting along Bianca's stock.

"Varric? You're not helping," Hawke replied tightly.

"Because there's a slight problem," her trusty dwarf informed her. She shot him a puzzled glare.

"What problem?"

"The book's gone," he said heavily. "So are Starkiller and Rivaini."

The qunari's eyes narrowed. The golem's fists bunched.

"So much for my brilliant idea," Hawke muttered and dropped a globe of smoke at her feet as the two other combatants charged, vaulting over the mezzanine railing and rolling to soften the impact.

"C'mon," she said to Varric as she got to her feet and started in the direction she'd last seen the thief.

"Come where?" Varric asked, casting one final look up at the two giant forms.

"After them, of course," Hawke answered, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

"And where would that be, then?"

Hawke took stock of the situation. There was an unconscious qunari, some blood and scorch marks, a rime of frost that was quickly melting, a hallway, and not much else.

"Down there?" she suggested, tipping her head in the direction of the hallway. "And maybe quickly, before those two stop waltzing and start thinking?" The smoke was dissipating enough that the qunari and golem could be seen locked in an embrace that was far from friendly.

"But it doesn't go anywhere," Varric pointed out. "There's no way out that way."

Hawke chewed her lip briefly. "Sewers? After all, where there's one entrance to Darktown, there could be another."

Varric looked skeptical, but a glance up at the mezzanine decided him. "Maybe. But you're right about getting out of here; no matter how that ends up there, we should be gone before it does."

They started down the hallway only to pause at a spate of deep barking.

"Griffon?" Hawke wondered, just as the huge fawn mabari bounded into the room, followed by a wide-eyed and breathless Merrill.

"Hawke!" gasped the elven girl. "The qunari are everywhere, and they're angry!"

"How angry is angry?" Hawke asked, somewhat nonsensically.

"Very angry." Merrill insisted. "I think they're killing people."

Hawke's heart and stomach both plummeted to somewhere below Darktown. "Killing people?" she repeated hollowly just as Varric demanded, "What people?"

Merrill sucked air through her teeth and considered for a heartbeat before offering a tentative answer.


"Well, shit."

Isabela froze.

She recognized the voice, of course. She also recognized the tone, which was sharp and not particularly friendly. She calculated her odds of talking her way out of this and found them… unpleasant.

"You shouldn't have left the qunari alone, sweetness," she suggested, stalling for time. "They've gone well and truly mad this time."

"And it can all stop, if you just hand me the damn book," Shepard replied.

Isabela didn't answer. She flung her head with the hope of catching Shepard's face with the back of her skull, grabbing the Spectre's armored wrist in her free hand and ducking and turning into the other woman's body to free herself from the headlock, and lashing out with one heel to either injure Shepard's leg or upset her balance.

But Shepard was prepared for something like that, and anticipated Isabela's movements almost perfectly. Of course, there had been all that sparring they'd done with Fenris; absolutely a good idea at the time, and the source of some very pleasant memories, but ultimately less than ideal now that Isabela was facing her as an opponent for real. Shepard's head was alongside Isabela's, not behind it; the Spectre's legs not only positioned in such a way as to minimize the chance that a move like Isabela's could take out a knee, but well-armored and impervious to the damage even Isabela's hard heeled boots could deal. She managed to get out of Shepard's grasp, but that was all.

The two women eyed each other warily.

"You know how important this is," Shepard said flatly. "Why would you risk the whole of Kirkwall for a handful of gold?"

Isabela shook her head slightly without taking her eyes off of Shepard's. "You wouldn't understand," she responded shortly, moving a little to her left and trying to gauge the Spectre's response. Unfortunately, when she freed herself from the other woman's lock, they'd traded places, so Shepard was now between Isabela and the tunnel she'd planned on using.

Shepard tracked the movement with her eyes, but didn't shift her body. Attempts to feint in one direction and dodge past in the other were not about to work the way they would with one of Kirkwall's more dim-witted thieves.

Andraste's tits.

Isabela took a shuffle-step and led with a jab that was misdirection for a kick to the midsection. Shepard nimbly skipped back a step and Isabela set herself for a counterattack that never came. Shepard just moved back into her loose guard position and waited. "Why don't you try me," she suggested.

"You have no idea what this thing has cost me," Isabela told her. "My ship. My crew." Her eyes searched desperately for a weakness she could exploit. "My freedom…"

"That's why you avoid the qunari like the plague," Shepard surmised.

The pirate snorted. "Sweetness, everybody with any sense at all avoids the qunari."

"Why did you steal from them to begin with, then?" countered Shepard.

Isabela shrugged. "I didn't. Exactly. I stole it from the Orlesians before they could give it back to the qunari."

Shepard scowled. "So you're saying that this isn't the first time you've tried to create an international incident."

Anger heated Isabela's cheeks and her words. "I didn't have a choice," she growled, and in a sudden action that took both of them by surprise, she rushed Shepard, catching her around the ribs and bearing her to the ground.

Isabela got over her surprise in time to take advantage of having Shepard pinned beneath her. Not in the way she'd always imagined taking advantage of the other woman in such a position, and with a small stab of regret she brought her right elbow down and across and clipped Shepard's temple.

Shepard recovered almost as quickly, getting a forearm up to prevent a second strike and bridging to try to shake the pirate off.

The relic had dropped to the ground beside the pair. Not unheeded, for both of them were acutely aware of its presence as they struggled for ascendancy.

"Of course you had a choice," Shepard grunted, grabbing for Isabela's wrist as Isabela's hand clutched at her throat. "People always like to claim that they had no choice when really they mean that the other choices were more difficult than they want to deal with."

Isabela's lips drew back from her teeth in feral parody of a grin. "What? You think dying or being enslaved is any kind of a choice?" she demanded harshly. "Well, I don't."

"You mean conversion to the qun?" Shepard panted after freeing her airway.

"No, I don't. I mean slavery. As in sold in the slave markets of Minrathos," snarled Isabela, snatching for the rough weave of the burlap sack as Shepard finally pitched her to one side. "As in used to quench some magister's lust - for power or sex or blood. Ask Fenris about it sometime."

They each caught a corner of the bag and began a scrabbling tug of war for it.

"Slavers?" said Shepard incredulously. "You're honestly afraid of slavers?" The bag jounced and a few of the heavy threads popped in one of the seams as the ladies contested for it.

"No. I'm afraid of Castillon," Isabela corrected, as the book came free of its wrapping and fell to the earthen floor of the tunnel with a dull thump. She slapped a hand down on it possessively. "If I don't get him the damn thing he'll have me killed, or worse."

Shepard's hand landed on top of hers. "And who's this Castillon?"

"He's the man who thinks he leads the Felicisima Armada."

Isabela groped after a dagger with her free hand and wished she was still able to pretend that she'd be able to get out of this without bloodshed.

"So?" Shepard demanded, her fingers circling Isabela's wrist over the Tome. "If he only thinks he leads this armada, where's the problem? Buy off the one who's really in charge."

The pirate barked an unamused laugh. "Nobody leads the Armada," she said. "The best anyone can do is try to get them all pointed in the same direction."

"So pay him off some other way. It doesn't have to be the book."

Isabela just shook her head mutely, and lashed out with the dagger.

Maferath's poxy ass.

Shepard caught the slash with her forearm, the blade skidding harmlessly across the hard armored plating. Isabela reversed the dagger in her grip and brought it across in a backswing, but Shepard parried that as easily. It did force her to release her grip on Isabela's wrist, however, and Isabela was snatching at the book before her backswing was even complete.

"From what I understand," Shepard pointed out calmly as Isabela fumbled with the heavy book, "the qunari have been looking for this thing for three years. I'm guessing you've been searching for it the same amount of time?"

Unwillingly, Isabela's head moved a fraction in assent. Her eyes darted from Shepard to the tunnel behind the Spectre, and she licked her upper lip nervously. Was she imagining a flicker of movement in the shadows? The longer this took, the more likely the qunari would find them and then Isabela wouldn't give either of them a sheep's chance in a templar commandery no matter how friendly Shepard had gotten with the Arishok.

"And this Castillon guy hasn't come after you yet, right?" Shepard continued, seemingly unperturbed at the seconds slipping away and taking Isabela's odds for escape with them.

"Only because he hates Kirkwall," Isabela retorted. "It hasn't stopped him from sending others after me, and he'll keep sending them."

Shepard tried to ease a little closer, but Isabela's dagger cut the air threateningly and she stopped. "C'mon, Isabela," she said skeptically. "We've fought together. Unless these are some damn fine assassins he's sending, we both know it's nothing more than an inconvenience to you."

"Inconvenience?!" Isabela sputtered. "Unless I get this thing to Castillon, it will never be safe for me to have a ship! That's not an inconvenience, it's a prison sentence!"

Of all the people Isabela could be facing right now, she would think that Shepard would be the one to understand. Without a ship, without the freedom of the empty horizon and a following wind, Isabela just wasn't… complete.

"Shepard, please," she said beseechingly. If she could just get the other woman to put herself in Isabela's place…

Shepard shook her head. "There's a better way to do it, Isabela," she said. "One that doesn't involve causing pitched battles in the streets of Kirkwall."

Isabela rolled her eyes and tried to lie her way out of that one. "Oh please. The qunari don't care about conquering Kirkwall. Once they realize the relic is gone, they'll leave and the city can go back to its normal thefts and stabbings and social inequality."

Shepard inclined her head. "And between now and then?" she asked shrewdly. "The people who are going to get hurt or die because they got in the qunari's way? What about them?"

"What about them?" Isabela retorted, shifting uncomfortably. "There's nothing I can do to help them. If you care so much, why aren't you out there protecting them?" she demanded, answering the question immediately to prove she'd meant it rhetorically. "Because there's nothing you can do either. Angry qunari are like a tidal wave, sweetness. You can't hold them back or stop them; the best you can do is just get the hell out of their way."

"The tide rises, the tide falls, but the sea is changeless," Shepard muttered, as if to herself, her gaze softening and seeming to turn inward.

"Yes," said Isabela desperately. "Whatever. That. Please, Shepard…"

The other woman's gaze sharpened again, with purpose, and Isabela shook her head wildly, denying what she saw there.

I can drop the relic and run, she thought. I can do it. I can.

Her grip tightened on both the Tome and her dagger.

No, I can't.

Anders looked down at the key in his hand.

Around him, Darktown was oddly quiet. Not because the qunari were overlooking the place, but because none of its denizens were wasting the breath it would take to scream. Those who had the skill and means to defend themselves were grimly organizing that defense; the Coterie, the Carta, those collections of thieves that fancied themselves as something more than thugs and ne're-do-wells. Those that did not were fleeing or hiding, and the last thing they wanted was to draw anyone's attention.

Some attracted attention anyway. Not from the qunari, who seemed more intent on keeping people from ascending into the city proper than on pacifying the place. No. But there is a certain kind of opportunist that arises in times of confusion and panic, and Anders' small clinic was filled with their victims.

A pained whimper drew his eyes back to the door, where a young woman was being helped in by an old one. From the state of her clothing and the bruising on her face Anders could guess what had happened to her. He didn't need to get close enough to see the look in her eyes or to hear the old woman's explanation. She whimpered again, her teeth biting down hard on her swollen lower lip to keep from making any sound louder than that.

Anders closed his fingers over the key.

He couldn't do it.

He couldn't leave the people of Darktown to fend for themselves while he escaped to the dubious shelter of Hawke's mansion. Even if the templars came for him in the confusion, he simply couldn't do it. Selfish as he might be, he absolutely could not turn his back on the people who had come to rely on him. Doing so would be as unthinkable as… as… well, as turning his back on Hawke herself.

He turned back to the clinic, slipping the key in his pocket. He hoped Hawke would understand.

With a sigh, Shepard primed her omnitool. She'd really wanted Isabela to make the choice to give up the thing herself. She knew, just knew, that if she only had the time she could talk the pirate around, get her to see why turning over the book was the better course of action for everyone, including Isabela herself. Shepard had a knack for it. From staring down the barrel of Wrex's shotgun on a beach on Virmire to using her own body to keep Garrus from taking a shot she knew he'd regret, Shepard was good at getting her people to do the right thing. Better than she was at getting herself to do the right thing, to be honest. But right now, time was something she was sorely lacking.

Every moment she allowed Isabela was a moment where innocent lives could be lost. She hoped, how she hoped, that Aveline was taking her advice and not futilely throwing the lives of her guards into the path of the qunari. Those men and women had signed up, sure, but they'd signed up to break up drunken brawls in Lowtown and idiotic duels in Hightown. The worst they'd ever had to face were the bandits, smugglers and occasional rogue qunari along the coast. They weren't soldiers, they were police.

She reached out and touched Isabela's shoulder.

The woman stiffened convulsively as the neural shock arced through her body. Shepard saw a fleeting expression of surprise and dismay cross Isabela's face before the electricity short-circuited the higher processing centers of the brain and the pirate pitched forward over the metal-bound tome, amber eyes rolling back in her head.

"Sorry Isabela," she told the unconscious woman, crouching beside the prone figure and gently turning her over. "I really didn't want to do it this way."

For the first time, Shepard was able to study the object that lay at the root of the qunari's occupation of Kirkwall. Huge and metal-bound, with a locking clasp that reminded her of a small, cheap cardboard-bound paper diary she'd once been thrilled to receive for the Christmas holiday back when her father was still alive, Shepard hefted it in both hands and gingerly tried the clasp. It did not budge, and with a shrug she stuffed it back into the burlap-like sack.

Well, at least this thing isn't going to grab my mind by its metaphoric balls and brand its contents indelibly into my memory…

Sighing, Shepard laid the bag to one side so she could wrestle Isabela into a position where she could sling the limp figure into a fireman's carry. Rising, she caught up the Tome, shoving it between Isabela's leg and her own armored torso and prepared to go stop a war.