Title: Separation of Powers - Chapter 3
Wordcount: ~4700 (3 of 3)
Characters: Elissa Cousland, Marian Hawke, Anders, Bethany, Justice
Pairings: Anders/Hawke, Alistair/Cousland in the background
Spoilers/Notes: See Chapter 1, Chapter 2.
The forests of the Fade grow thicker and more impenetrable with every step Bethany takes. She pushes aside one tree branch, then another, then uses gravity to nudge aside the thick underbrush that threatens to capture her feet. "Should have worn boots," she mutters under her breath before catching herself with a quick chuckle. She is in the Fade -- if she wants boots, all she need do is wish for boots to appear. But she dares not work any unnecessary magic; it might draw the wrong sort of attention. These shoes will have to do.
She closes her eyes for a moment, refocuses on the task at hand. "Anders?" She calls his name, sidestepping the writing mass of vines that springs from the ground -- he must have learned that trick from Merrill. Leaning forward, she peers into the dark grove. Is that a glow she spies ahead, a mage-spark, a sign of life? She presses through the thickets, time slowing as she pushes past the barrier, the ground sucking at her feet like swamp mud, each step harder than the last, the air growing thicker, colder, her breath forming into ice droplets that hang before her--
Bethany senses the incoming blizzard just in time to lift a hand against it, summoning a fireball to counter the snow; they vaporize together into a fine mist, and she breathes deeply of the warm, humid air. No question, now. This is Anders at his full power, treating her as he would any invading enemy, and she must be on her guard. Carefully, she unhooks her staff and twirls it in front of her, creating air currents to gather the fog about her, obscuring her from view. A trick her sister taught her; she shuts her eyes again and longs for Marian: her confidence, her tactical genius, her steadying presence. But Bethany must do this alone, for Marian's sake -- she has seen the fear in her sister's eyes, the sadness, whenever she talks about Justice and the burdens he makes Anders carry. Marian has sacrificed so much for her family, for her friends, for Kirkwall; surely Bethany can do this one thing for her in return.
The light in the distance dims, then snaps out of view, only to reappear several yards to the right, and Bethany realizes that chasing it is folly. Anders is at least ten years her senior and a powerful mage, Circle-trained; Justice is an ageless spirit, a creature of the Fade. She is no match for either of them singly, much less their skills combined. Her only hope is to meet them on a ground of her own choosing, bind them, and then reason with them. She closes her eyes and traces the lines of force leading to the center of the world -- gravity may be mere illusion here, but it is an illusion that mages agree to treat as truth, just as they agree to believe in the heat of fire, the cold of ice, the restorative powers of healing. Following the lines to their source, then through the earth, then to the patch of ground where Anders stands, Bethany gathers them together in her hands and pulls with all her might. Reality groans and warps around her, a swirling vortex of force, and she yanks the threads harder, pulling them toward her, hand over hand, like hauling a full bucket out of a well. And then, with a sucking sound, her target comes through the vortex and pops out in front of her: Anders, but Anders as she has never seen him. He towers over her, taller than usual, and his eyes glow with a white hot light, righteous fury personified. Six years ago, three years ago, Bethany would have cowered before him, but now she draws her back straight, determination stiffening her spine and her resolve.
"Who dares?!" It is the voice of Justice, Bethany knows, though she has only heard it twice before: six years ago, during their failed attempt to rescue Karl from the Chantry, and only a few days past in the grove -- a grove, she suddenly realizes, very much like this one. The mages outside brought them this patch of Fade, but she wonders how much Anders influences its form. She returns her staff to its place on her back and opens her hands, showing, she hopes, her intentions to negotiate rather than fight.
"I am Bethany Hawke, and I'm here to help you keep your promise to my sister."
Justice lifts his chin, the white fire covering him, almost too bright to look at, but Bethany forces herself not to look away. "We made no promises of any sort," he replies, a haughty force behind his words. "Anders said he would try, but what does that mean, in the end?"
"It means that Anders loves Marian and will do what he can for her."
"Love." Justice shakes his head. "What is love, in the face of ending a thousand years of oppression?"
"Everything," Bethany counters. "Why else would Anders have agreed to this meeting?"
Justice narrows his eyes. "Our reasons are our own, not to be shared with anyone else. Including you. Now, begone! and leave us be." He lifts his staff overhead, twirling it over his shoulders, and Bethany sees a lick of lightning forming along the wooden shaft. Sideways she leaps, just in time to avoid the swirl and strike of electricity, a scorch mark appearing on the ground where she had stood.
"I don't want to fight you," she calls out, turning around to face him again.
"No." Bethany reaches over her shoulder to pull her staff free, and with a swoop of her arm she drops a bright purple swirl of spirit energy around his shoulders, twisting the lines of gravitational force to bring his arms to his sides and hold them there. Too late, Justice realizes what is happening; he wrestles against the heavy bonds to no avail. Circle training has been good for something, Bethany reflects, as she speaks the words they taught her for holding demons: "Creature of the Fade, here I hold and bind you; you will not leave this spot until I speak the word of release."
"Foolish girl!" Justice struggles harder, the light of his aura glowing even hotter than the bright bands that hold him in place. "Do you think you and your Circle can defeat us?"
Bethany can hear, now, the echo of Anders in his voice, the higher tones floating above Justice's ringing bass, and the effect is somehow more menacing than Justice alone. But she stands her ground, tightened her fingers on her staff. "It's not my Circle, but yes, I do. But as I said, I do not wish to fight you. Please, Justice. Can't we talk this through like reasonable people?"
Justice stared back at her with unblinking eyes. "We have made it clear. The time for talking is done."
Time crept slowly by: one hour, then two. Elissa and Hawke perched together on the sofa as Ser Pounce-a-lot napped between them. The three mages had stopped chanting, but they continued to trace circles in the air with their hands, weaving through and around each other in perfect harmony. And Bethany and Anders remained frozen in place, hands joined, staring at each other through closed eyelids. Of everything that was happening, that was the most unnerving to Elissa: watching the two of them, wondering if any progress was being made.
Hawke turned to Elissa, cleared her dry throat. "Did it take this long, before? In Redcliffe?"
"No," Elissa replied, voice hushed as though she feared to wake a sleeping child. Even though she doubted whether a parade of ogres marching through could break the mages' trances. "But that was different, because Jowan wasn't worried about protecting the demon -- the plan was always to vanquish it. This situation is more delicate."
"I suppose." Hawke's head fell forward, and she rubbed her temple. "If it weren't for fear of harming Anders with a forcible separation, I might have-- Anders!"
The interruption came from the couch, a groan followed by a sobbing gasp, and both women's heads snapped up. Anders was twitching, twisting from side to side as if to wrench himself free from some trap, but Bethany's hands held him in an iron grip, her knuckles white from effort. The noise even woke Pounce, who opened his eyes and looked around with a questioning mew. Hawke's eyes were wide, and she moved as if to get up, but Elissa placed a firm hand on her shoulder, holding her in place.
"Let it play out," she said. "You don't know what you might be interrupting."
"You're right, I know, but..." Hawke groaned and dropped her head in her hands. "Maker, I hate this."
Elissa squeezed her hand, attempting reassurance this time. "I know. But it should be over soon, either way. Do you trust Bethany?"
Hawke looked up, and her eyes were bright. "With my life. And his."
"Then hold onto that." Elissa patted her shoulder one last time, then let her hand fall. "It'll be enough." She scratched Pounce between the ears; the cat looked up at her with a curious chirrup. "It'll be enough," she repeated, partly to Pounce but mostly to herself.
Power flows between Bethany and the cage around Justice. He is strong, but she makes herself stronger, planting her feet against the earth and drawing from the forces there. She is not sure how long she can keep this up; she only knows that she must.
"Please," she murmurs, shuddering under the force as he attempts to send a surge down the connection, attempting to overload it and break free. She smooths the line, throwing the extra magic off into space. It crackles like lightning but does not ignite, and she breathes more easily, steeling herself for the next attack.
"No!" the spirit snarls, and Bethany looks up. He is lowering his head, gathering more power, the light he throws off too bright to look at. "You will not take this from us. We will all be dead first."
A thrill of fear whips through Bethany at these words, but she only sets her mouth into a determined line. "Then so be it," she says. She knows what she risked, coming here. Death is frightening, Tranquility more so, but she will see her choice through to the end.
The magic is rushing back toward her, whipping back and forth between them, gathering momentum, and she is powerless to stop it. They are stronger than she is; she knows it now, and all she can do is hold steady, attempt to channel the energy through her and hope it does not cause too much damage. The first spark is not too much, but the second buffets her with enough force that she has a hard time remaining on her feet. She takes a deep, painful breath, preparing to let it out, breathe fire if she has to, but she can feel her center burning away, burning, burning, too much magic to hold in one human body, soon she will have to let go...
The cry is in Anders's voice, and the heat, the pressure, the pain all release together. Bethany shudders, gasping in relief. The figure of Justice blurs, then splits into two: one is a man in full-plate armor, face hidden by a helm, and the other is Anders, dressed in what looks to be Grey Warden robes, somehow both younger and older, his skin smooth but his eyes ancient, haunted. The white glow fades from them both, and they turn to face each other.
"It's over," Anders says, softly. "Let it be."
The man in armor -- the spirit of Justice -- shakes his head. "But... the cause... there is so much left to do..."
Anders lifts a hand to Justice's shoulder. "Yes, but not by me. I always meant for you to be free, after. I thought I would die for my crimes, and that my death would set you loose. Perhaps it's not happening the way I envisioned it, but that doesn't mean it isn't right."
Justice is still shaking his head, but more slowly, as if trying to get his bearings in a new space. "I have been a part of you, living in the mortal world, for so long. I cannot imagine what losing that will be like."
"Nor can I." Anders steps closer and touches the helm at the jawline, and Bethany turns away -- this farewell is too personal, too terrible; she should not be here, she should not be watching. Instead she breathes, recovers her strength, lets the lines of gravity hold her steady, until she feels a hand on her arm: Anders. "I'm ready to go," he says.
"Then let's wake up," Bethany replies, and she opens her eyes.
Elissa sat up with a jerk -- had she fallen asleep? Was she dreaming? She looked at Hawke, who looked back at her; no one else moved. Even Anders had ceased his twitching and groaning, fallen instead into an ominous silence. "Did you hear that?"
Hawke frowned. "Hear what?"
The call came from behind, and so Elissa turned around, craning her head over the back of the couch; there was no one there, but she could swear she'd heard a voice speaking her title.
"Warden-Commander?" It came again, louder this time, and then she saw something: light sparkling at the edge of her vision, forming into a human shape, a man in a suit of armor. She stood from the couch and took a step toward the vision. It flickered out of view, then reappeared, more substantial this time. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Bethany let go of Anders's hands, and they both collapsed back into their seats; Hawke cried out and ran to them, but Elissa could not look away from the figure hanging before her.
"Justice?" she said, hesitantly.
And then, the rushing cold, the shiver to the core of her bones, the blackness, and she fell, down, down, down...
Colors muted, sounds dull, and Elissa's thoughts are slow, as if dragged through mud: the Fade. Before her stands Justice, in a set of full plate much like the one he had worn on their first meeting in the Blackmarsh Undying, except that it has turned from brilliant white into a shade of black darker than a moonless night, light sliding off its surface like water poured onto a puddle of oil. She looks up into his visor and resists the urge to push it back, reveal the eyes she has never seen. "Justice?"
The spirit shakes his head, and when he speaks, his voice is hushed and solemn, more like the one she remembers. "I am worthy of that name no longer, Commander. Call me Vengeance, for that is what I have become."
"Vengeance," Elissa repeats with a sorrowful nod. "I wish it hadn't come to this."
"Do not burden yourself with regrets," Vengeance replies. "I certainly do not. You made the choice you believe will serve the greatest good, just as we did. We cleared the path for justice and freedom, and the mages after him will walk it with pride. I feel no remorse for the decision we made, although I do wish I could have done him less damage in the process."
"Is he-- free?" Elissa asks as Vengeance lowers his chin, lets his shoulders slump. "Will he recover?"
The response is slow in coming. "Anders is strong," the spirit finally says, "but our years together changed him, much as they changed me. He will never again be the same man you or Marian knew."
Elissa nods. "Will I see you again?"
"I expect not." Vengeance lifts his gaze up and away, to the horizon and the Black City beyond. "I must take some time away from the mortal realm, to see if I can rediscover my purpose, or if this change, this thirst for revenge, is a permanent one. That can only be accomplished with distance. It is harder than I expected to part from him. Both of them. His love for Marian..." He pauses, words trailing off into the dull silence of the Fade, and when he continues, Elissa can almost imagine a catch in his voice. "Even after almost four years, it is not a feeling I have the proper words to describe. I am richer for having experienced it, and yet leaving it behind is the most difficult thing I have ever done. Is that strange?"
"No." Elissa shakes her head, a lump rising in her throat. "That's exactly how love should be."
"Then I will take the sorrow with the joy and let them become one and the same. Please, give her a farewell from me."
"Of course." Rising up on tiptoe, Elissa leaves a light kiss on the visor of his helm, in the spot where his cheek would be. "Good luck Vengeance, Justice, whichever you may be. I won't forget you."
"Nor I you, Commander." He nods, then spreads his arms and fades into nothing, and she follows him, the entire world twisting into a vortex that leads to the Void...
The first sensation Elissa registered was the hardness of the floor beneath her back, and as she opened her eyes and sat up, she winced at the throbbing in her head. Apparently she had not gone down easy, entering into the Fade. Rubbing at the small lump rising off the back of her head, she stood up, surveying the scene.
It was a sorry sight: five mages, each collapsed in their own particular state of pain and exhaustion, and Hawke looking not much better, curled up next to Anders on the sofa, stroking his hair, which was lank with sweat and sticking to his brow. Elissa cleared her throat, and Hawke looked up. "Is he--"
"Still here." It was Anders who replied; his voice was cracked and weary, but it did not bear the flat affect of the Tranquil, and Elissa let out a breath of relief. "Cold," he whispered, wrapping his arms around himself. "So cold, so... empty."
Hawke laid her hands on his, then looked up at Elissa with some alarm. "He's shivering."
Elissa pulled a blanket off the back of one of the chairs and handed it to Hawke, who wrapped the colorful cloth around his shoulders. "Shock," Anders muttered, his eyes fluttering open, a hand clutching at the blanket. "The patient has experienced severe trauma, and his body is shutting down as a defense mechanism." He looked at Hawke with just the smallest gleam of humor. "Good thing the healer is here, wouldn't you say?"
"Hush." Hawke touched her lips to his forehead. "We'll take care of you." She lifted her eyes, turning her concern on Elissa. "Are you all right? What happened to you?"
"It was..." Elissa paused, then decided, "Justice. He asked me to bid you farewell."
Hawke huffed. "Right. As though he cared about me."
"Oh, but he did," Anders said, softly, sadly. "How could he not, love? Being a part of me, for so long?" He closed his eyes again, weary with emotion. "In his own way, he cared for you very much. And now that's gone too." He shuddered hard, and Hawke gathered him into an embrace.
A soft groan came from the chair, and Elissa turned to check on Bethany, who was stirring now, a hand to her forehead.
Hawke's head whipped up and around at her sister. "Bethany--"
The younger woman looked her way, and Elissa noted that she, too was unchanged. "I'm all right. Just tired. Anders--"
"Is fine." Hawke's reply was flat, firm, brooked no argument. "He'll be fine."
Bethany stood, swayed; Elissa caught her arm, and she steadied herself before sitting back down. "I would cast a healing spell, but I fear I'm drained dry for awhile. Elissa, do you have any lyrium left?"
"A couple of vials," Elissa replied. "For you, or Anders?"
"Give them to him." Bethany slumped back against the chair, raising a hand to her forehead. "Anders has depended on Justice for so long, he needs it more."
Elissa rummaged through her satchel and pulled out the two remaining bottles and contemplated them for a moment, watched the blue liquid swirl in their depths. Then her eye caught something else that rested on the couch -- a sleeping cat, curled up in a ball in the corner, oblivious to the fuss going on around him. She shifted both bottles into one hand and scooped up Pounce with the other. The cat muttered a sleepy protest, which turned into much louder mew when she deposited him on Anders's lap. "Here," she said, "a couple of restoratives for you."
Anders lifted his head enough to look at the cat, managing a weak smile. "Hello, kitty." Meanwhile, Elissa handed the potions to Hawke, who held one to Anders's lips, and he tipped back his head, closing his eyes and swallowing greedily. He glanced at Hawke with a quick nod. "Enough for now," he said. "Save the rest." He lifted one of his hands to the back of Pounce's head, stroking it, burying his fingers in the fur. "Healing won't help me, anyway; my body is fine. The rest, though..." He looked up at the ceiling and fell quiet.
Elissa knelt on the floor, laying a hand on Anders's arm. "I'm surprised that Justice only gave me a message for Hawke, and not you. Wouldn't he want to say goodbye?"
"There was-- no need, I already-- know." Anders squeezed his eyes shut, tears leaking out from beneath his lashes, his voice breaking. "He's gone, he's gone forever, and I can't-- I don't know if I--"
Elissa tightened her fingers in the crook of his elbow, then pulled away as Hawke brought an arm around his shoulders, coming as close as she could without disturbing Pounce; Anders hugged his cat fiercely and wept, his hands in Pounce's fur and his face in Hawke's shoulder as she stroked his cheek and kissed his temple. It was heartbreaking, and Elissa felt a stab of guilt as she turned away, unable to watch any longer -- it was she who had caused this outpouring of grief, who had demanded that Anders suffer it. And also Justice-- Vengeance?-- no, Justice, Elissa decided, then and there; her friend was good enough and strong enough to rediscover his purpose. She had every confidence in him. And maybe it was better that he was free to do so; tied to Anders, no retribution would have ever been enough to satisfy their anger.
No, this was probably better for both of them, in the long run, despite her nagging doubts.
Meanwhile, there was nothing left to do but make herself useful, and so she went to check on the three mages piled up in a corner of the room. They were all awake now, leaning on each other, talking softly. At her approach, Ella looked up, concern in her eyes. "Did it work?" she asked.
"The spirit went on his way, and Anders lives." Elissa held out a hand to Ella, who stood up. "As for the rest, only time will tell."
Ella helped up her companions, and then lowered her eyes. "I believe our agreement with you is completed, Warden. Probably best for everyone concerned if we are not aware of what happens next."
"I couldn't agree more," Elissa replied. She handed over a sack of sovereigns -- more than the agreed-upon payment, by a goodly sum -- and Ella took it with a bow. "Thank you for your service."
"If you need our aid in the future, you know where to find us." All three mages turned as one and slipped out the door, not looking at Anders or Hawke, not another word spoken. Once they were safely gone, Elissa turned back to the couch. Bethany's color was better already; she sat straight up in her chair, the strength returning to the set of her shoulders. In contrast, Anders still leaned back into the couch cushions, his breathing shallow and rapid, feverish drops of sweat across his brow. And Hawke still looked worried.
"You won't be ready to travel tonight," Elissa said, a flat statement. Hawke met her eyes, shook her head, but Elissa held up a finger for silence. "Just don't. Give Anders and Bethany a night to recover their strength. I'll get us a ship to Tevinter tomorrow." Was it even vaguely possible that Isabela had come back? If not, Elissa had other, even less savory connections she could work. The Wardens used every tool at their disposal, including the lowest of the smuggling rings.
Hawke raised an eyebrow. "We?"
Elissa shrugged. "Whatever promises he makes, I don't know that the Wardens will just let Anders waltz back into their ranks. I'll probably need to speak for him. And I don't trust a letter to do the job. Better to be there in person."
Anders opened his eyes, sorrowful. "You'll be gone for months," he murmured. "Away from your home -- your king? You'd do that for me?"
"If this is to work, I don't think there's much choice," Elissa said. It was a realization she had slowly come to, while waiting on the couch, and though it hurt her heart to say it, to think of how long it would be until she saw Alistair again, this was the bargain she'd made by staying a Grey Warden. The Wardens came first, no matter how painful the choices might be. She came a little closer to them, nudged his leg with her toe. "You're my friend and my teammate, so protecting you is my duty; when will you get that through your thick skull?"
He leaned back again, closed his eyes with a sigh. "Perhaps this will do it."
Elissa smiled and smoothed the hair back from his brow. "Get some rest, and I'll see you tomorrow." And with that, she left, wondering how on earth she was going to tell Alistair.
The gate door to the stables closed behind the last of the knights, and Alistair finally allowed himself to relax, just avoiding a fall off his horse. His legs hit the ground and almost gave way beneath him from exhaustion -- it had been a long, hard ride to Kinloch Hold and back, and the frosty negotiations there had been nearly as tiring as the journey. But cooler heads had prevailed, for now, the mages of Ferelden's Circle agreeing not to break free for now. It helped that Petra had inherited Irving's Aequitarian leanings, and as such had no taste for instant revolution. With his help, she had convinced Greagoir not to clamp down on the mages, and so the uneasy truce prevailed. But for how long? Alistair would have to keep a close eye on the situation, along with about a thousand others.
He trudged out of the stable and into the palace, down the corridor that led to his rooms. Many affairs of state awaited him after so many weeks away, he was sure, but first he wanted his wife, and he wanted a bath, at the same time if at all possible. But before he could find either one, he was interrupted by a page who ran up to him, waving a note in his hand.
"Your majesty!" The boy knelt, bowing his head, and Alistair stopped in front of him. "The Queen bade me deliver this to you immediately upon your return."
"Thank you, lad." Alistair took the note with a frown. So, just the bath, then. "Did she say anything else to you?"
"No, your majesty."
"All right. Good work, then, you're dismissed." As soon as the page was gone, Alistair unfolded the sheet and read the words printed in Elissa's delicate hand:
"Delivering a package to Tevinter via Weisshaupt. Do not follow."
Brief as it was, the message told Alistair all he needed to know: Elissa was arranging shelter for Anders with the Wardens, and would come back when she could. He closed the note and tucked it behind his armor, close to his heart. "Maker preserve you both," he murmured, and wondered when he might see her again.
This entry is also posted at http://owlmoose.dreamwidth.org/593339.html. There are currently comments on DW.