Rite of the Maleficarum: Book I


Hawke was surprised, as she walked down the steps towards the docks, to find tears running down her cheeks. A lot had happened in the two days, she supposed, and her mind was still working on processing it all. She dreaded the moment when it caught up and the full wrath of her emotions would be released. So, why not pile on some more, she thought, as she headed towards the Alienage. She wiped the wetness from her face as she turned to go down the steps. Despite it's air of destitution, the alienage was actually quite beautiful. The vhenadahl, or 'tree of the people', as she'd been told, was planted in homage to the elves' homeland. Its base, almost six meters around, had been painted red with white designs reminiscent of the facial tattoos the Dalish wore. The vhenadahl's canopy created beautiful dancing patterns of light on the ground, and Hawke found herself entranced by them as a figure approached her.

She inclined her head to her, "Merrill."

"Hawke," the elf said, a smile pulling at her lips.

"Just enjoying the view," she said, "Should we sit?" Merrill nodded and the two sat side by side on the steps, watching the people of the alienage go about their day. They sat in silence for a few moments, then Hawke reached into her pouch and handed Merrill the Arulin'Holm. Merrill just stared at it briefly, then gratefully took it from her.

"Thank you, Hawke," she said, stunned.

"You've… more than earned it, Merrill. Thank you for saving my life," Hawke said earnestly, "But, promise me something."

"Of course."

"Just… be careful. I don't know what you need it for, and I probably don't want to know, but please be careful," Hawke said.

"I will," Merrill smiled. Things would never be the same between her and Merrill, she knew. The two had their differences, but they all did, it's part of what made them strong as a team. Merrill's studies, however Hawke disagreed with them, saved her life, and she was grateful for that.

"So, Hawke, now that you're alive again, we may want to discuss more thoroughly this whole 'one of many' thing," Merrill said casually, "It sounds like a very dangerous creature."

"Yes," Hawke nodded, "And you think it's still out there somewhere?"

"More than likely."

"Alright, catch me up."

They crossed the alienage courtyard and went into Merrill's hovel. Inside, books and scrolls were sprawled across almost every surface.

"I went and got a few books from Keeper Marethari," Merrill said casually as she crossed the room and headed toward a table near the fire.

"I see that…" Hawke said in surprise, apparently Merrill had been doing some research since last night. Fenris had informed Hawke briefly on what they'd discovered about the origins of the prophet and her flock, but she still didn't fully understand it.

"I should have come to you before, Merrill," Hawke said in realization, "I don't know what I was thinking, I could have saved lives…"

Merrill dug through a stack of books, "The vials they found on the prophet were what clued me in, I wouldn't have known any more about it than you, Hawke."

Hawke looked at the images on some of the open books as Merrill furiously started flipping open more and more of the tomes. She ran her fingers along the pages, not believing the ink. Depictions of massive slaughters, secret summoning rituals, blood, blood and more blood. And a beast so gruesome, she had never seen the likes of it before. It looked like an enormous hunger demon, but with the body parts of other creatures attached haphazardly.

"This is the Belhim'irsa?" Hawke asked.

"Yes, that's what is created from the ritual… a type of… halam'lin demon?" Merrill said, then answered Hawke's next question, "Literally it means final blood."

"It's a specific kind of demon?" Hawke was shocked, "Like pride or rage?"

"Yes," Merrill skimmed the page, "There isn't a proper word for it… it's like hunger for power, ambition, sort of, but with the desire to control others or rule over them."

Hawke sighed, already exhausted by the prospect of fighting a type of demon she had never even heard of.

"I've done some more research, Hawke, and I think this thing is more powerful than we originally anticipated… I think the kind of power needed to summon this beast would have had to come from some very trained and educated mages. Magisters, maybe?" Merrill said quickly, seeming eager to discuss the matter with someone else.

"So in addition to the beast, we need to hunt down the maleficarum who created it?"

"No," Merrill shook her head and flipped the book open towards Hawke so she could see the page, "It looks like the process actually… consumes… those who participate."

Hawke looked at the page, the image showing a sketch of a beast at the center of a dozen or so humans whose faces and bodies were warped and stretched upwards, wavy lines of red and blue connecting them to the creature.

"So the mages that performed this ritual to summon the… ambition… demon… became a part of the demon?" Hawke clarified.

"Yes," Merrill nodded gravely, "Which I can only assume would give it great power."

"How do we know how many… participated?"

"We don't, it could be three mages or thirty mages."

Hawke sighed, "There's… so many issues with this, Merrill, but first and foremost - how are we ever going to find it? It could be anywhere by now, it could be half way across Thedas."

The elf grabbed something off the table and then held up a vial of red liquid. Hawke realized it was the potion the prophet had used to cast the spell on her.

"I can use this to track it," Merrill said.

"Like a phylactery?"

"Yes. The creature uses it's own blood in addition to those of the innocents when it creates the potion," she declared.

Hawke shook her head, "I thought phylacteries just glowed as they got closer to the person – how will that help us?"

Merrill grabbed at another, smaller tome on the desk and handed it over to Hawke. The first thing she noticed was the small hole directly in the center of the book that ran all the way through. She flipped it open to find it was a map, an atlas of sorts, of all of Thedas. She shook her head.

"I don't get it."

Merrill smiled, she always found this kind of thing very exciting, "You put the book down, pour the blood there," she pointed to the hole, "And the blood finds its way into the pages to indicate where its host is. Well it isn't quite that simple, there are some spells involved, but that's the gist of it. Then you just… well, flip through every page till you find it."

Hawke flipped through the book in shock, thinking she would find bloodstains from previous uses, but it must... clean up… she thought.

"The ancient elves were very talented," Merrill boasted.

"This is incredibly powerful, Merrill, do you know what the Templars would do to have something like this?" she asked.

"Well, let's make sure not to tell them about it then," Merrill piped. Hawke nodded in agreement, still quite surprised.

She didn't really have to think about whether or not to go after the beast. All the grief this creature had caused her and those she cared about, all the innocent people it was responsible for murdering. The destruction it was capable of creating. It had to be found. She had to be the one to strike it down. But she couldn't do it herself. Fenris would join her, she was sure, and likely Merrill, but it wouldn't be enough. She needed them all, and they needed to be united, completely. That included Anders and Fenris. Anders and Merrill. Fenris and Merrill. She thanked the Maker for Aveline, Varric and Sebastian, they were so... easy in comparison.

She dreaded the conversation she would have to have with them. They would insist she needed rest, needed to recover. Certainly poor Anders needed a break, she thought. Would they even want to go? Aveline had duties, responsibilities. Anders already made it clear he didn't want her chasing this thing all over Thedas.

But what she really couldn't muster was the strength to ask them to help her again. Wasn't what they'd done enough? Couldn't she just sit quietly in her estate for a few weeks and try really hard to not endanger their lives?

"So," Merrill interrupted her thoughts, "Should we find it?"

"Yes," Hawke said, "But let's wait a couple days, let everyone recover."

Merrill nodded in understanding but looked a little like a child who had been told they couldn't go outside to play.

"In the mean time, learn all you can about the creature. I'd like to have an idea of what kind of plan we'll need when I pitch it to everyone," Hawke instructed, "Thank you, Merrill."

"You're welcome, Hawke," the elf said, still clutching the book, and gave her a genuine smile, "I like being part of the team again."

"Maybe we'll get together at the Hanged Man in a few days, when we're feeling a bit more ourselves," she suggested as she headed toward the door.

"I'd like that," Merrill smiled as she opened the door to let her pass. Hawke found herself hugging the mage, who was quite surprised.

"And thank you for the life-saving," Hawke said as she released the hug. Merrill smiled widely, appreciating the gesture. Hawke knew she didn't like the idea of waiting to track the beast, but it was the right thing to do. After seeing the way Anders looked today, she thought it might be weeks before he was fully recovered, and the amount of blood Fenris lost was significant, or so she'd been told. And honestly, she didn't think any of them were of a mindset to fight that kind of battle right now. She certainly wasn't, and as she nodded goodbye to Merrill and crossed under the protective arms of the vhenadahl, she knew she would sleep for days.

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