Rite of the Maleficarum: Book I

Return to Slaver's Reach

The sun rose again on Kirkwall, as it had countless times before. It felt different somehow, to Hawke, as she led her companions down the winding steps of Kirkwall toward the gates to the Wounded Coast. She never went into a battle with trepidation; it wasn't that. Was it eagerness to finally gain vengeance for all the innocents murdered? Was it concern for her companions, whom she had promised herself she wouldn't again put in harms way? Or was it a responsibility she felt to be there, in the end, for someone she loved? To not die for Fenris' sake?

She knew if the man had his way she wouldn't even be at the fight, nevertheless travelling to the Fade with Anders. Though she couldn't die there, the creature's persuasiveness would be more powerful in the Fade, it would be harder to resist its offers. He'd never say it, in so many words, but he wanted her safe, and that meant inactive. She appreciated that, truly, and felt similarly about him, but she also knew the world they lived in. Full of evil and hatred, wrongdoings and innocents dying. She wasn't going to sit safely in her Hightown mansion while the world crumbled around her, and she knew Fenris would never be able to do that either. They would go together into battle, this time and every time after, no matter the risks.

So they found their way to the gates of Kirkwall, onto the sandy soil of the Wounded Coast, over the rocky terrain that led them back to where this mess had all started. The sun beat down through thin, wispy clouds, and Hawke smelled a storm on the salty breeze. Upon gaining higher ground, she could see it resting on the Waking Sea, hovering on the horizon ominously. Lightning flashed inside the storm, its true intensity obscured by the bruise-colored clouds. She felt a sudden wind whip her hair away from her face and knew it was rolling its way towards Kirkwall. By the time it arrived, this would be over.

They had formed a loose circle at the cave's entrance, removing their weapons, tightening buckles and busying themselves generally, waiting for Hawke to say something.

"Ready?" was all she could muster. What else to say? That they knew almost nothing about what they would encounter in there? That they were all but winging-it? What they thought they knew was conjecture. It could all be true, it could all be horribly, deadly wrong. They basically knew nothing. And that speech was not good for morale. So she just put an arm around the two next to her, Fenris and Anders. They did the same to those who stood next to them, Anders to Sebastian to Varric to Merrill to Aveline to Fenris and back to Hawke, forming a tighter knit circle.

"This seems like the singing-around-a-fire thing you were talking about, Anders," Varric quipped, feigning discomfort.

"If you think it'll help," Anders said as if about to launch into a tune.

"I don't sing," Fenris grumbled a reminder.

"I think the correct sentiment is, 'I usually don't sing, but if it helps the group, I will sing'," Varric corrected.

"Me singing will not be a beneficial experience for the group, I can guarantee that," Fenris said.

"You should have knitted us matching scarves, I hear uniforms are good for morale," Anders said, gaining a scowl from Fenris.

"Doesn't really help the Guard," Aveline said in resignation.

So now they had it all out there, the jokes that always made them feel better, making light of the darkness that encroached upon the cursed city every day. Hawke tried again, "Ready?"

Each responded in their own way, and yet as one.

"Of course," Anders said.

"I remain at your side," Fenris assured.

"Let's do it," Varric said, confidant.

"Maker be with us," Sebastian offered.

"Ir sulevin, sahlin," Merrill said, as if in prayer.

"More than ever," Aveline assured.

Hawke nodded, took a breath, and lead them into the mouth of the cave. She stopped at a small alcove in the rocks, thirty or so meters before where she knew the wooden door lay, inside which the beast certainly slumbered. She nodded to Anders, this would be where they would stop to enter the Fade. Hawke stole a kiss from Fenris before he continued, and they pressed their foreheads together, so it could just be the two of them for a moment. He brushed her hair lightly out of her face, then continued, leading the others down the winding path that lead to the wooden door. She watched him go, then turned to Anders who had set an empty bowl on the ground and kneeled next to it. She sat on the floor across from him as he got out a large vial of lyrium, pouring the liquid into the bowl.

"Ready for this, Hawke?" he asked, wrapping her hands in his.

"Yes," she assured.

"Remember, don't believe anything it says, in or out of the Fade," he warned, she nodded again and he added, "I'll see you back here when it's done."

A lump crept up her throat when he said that, but she swallowed it down. She knew Anders was strong, and Justice equally so. She only hoped the spirit would do its best to protect the man it occupied. He nodded, held her hands tighter in his, then lowered them into the bowl.

A brilliant flash of light, and she was there. She realized as she looked around that she did not at all recognize the place she was standing in. She had never seen anywhere like it, not that she had done a great deal of travelling in her lifetime. It seemed much like a barn, it's walls made up of many vertical planks of wood. The dirt on the ground was arid, blowing across the place in sheets. Warm, orange light beat in through slats, causing the dust that kicked up to glow like a fog. She turned to find Anders standing next to her, his eyes and skin glowing with the blue light of Justice.

"Do you know what this place is?" she asked the spirit.

His voice rumbled deeply, "This is the origin of Anders."

"Origin? Like, where he grew up?" Hawke asked in shock.

"He was a child in this place," Justice confirmed.

Hawke knew little of Anders' childhood, he never spoke of it. She knew it wasn't a positive experience for him, and realized now that the demon had likely seen his memories and created the Fade this way in an attempt to dishearten the mage. So this is the Anderfels, Hawke thought in astonishment, as she moved forward toward the door of the barn. She swung open the lock and pushed the door open, the intensity of the sunlight momentarily blinding her as her eyes adjusted.

Rust colored sand stretched out in every direction. The sun was unobstructed by clouds, but sand whipped through the air upon the wind, giving a haze to the atmosphere. There was a rocky outcropping here or there, but otherwise just endless desolation. She wondered if this was how it truly looked, or if this was Anders' version of it, warped by terrible memories.

"The demon is there," Justice announced simply, inclining his head toward the flat, empty field that lay in front of them. Hawke raised an eyebrow at him, but figured the spirit knew what he was talking about and headed away from the barn and toward it. As they grew nearer, the ground rumbled lightly under their feet and Hawke stopped.

Ten or so meters ahead of them, the sand began to fall into the earth as if funneling through a sieve that lay underneath. A mass emerged, a dark purple, ethereal haze twisted around it as it rose from the ground. Hawke followed the creature with her eyes as it continued to grow upward, revealing a head, shoulders, and massive chest. It pulled its thick arms out, taloned claws jutting fiercely from the ends of its fingers, each easily thicker than the width of Hawke's upper arm. It pounded it's fists into the sand then hoisted itself the rest of the way out of the ground, revealing it's short, thick legs. It straightened itself out, standing and stretching up to it's full height, at least four meters. The sand closed beneath it and it stood, a misshapen collection of flesh, pieces that looked like arms and legs jutting from it haphazardly, not dissimilar the images she had seen in Merrill's books. Its face looked like that of a pride demon - multiple sunken eyes blinking at her, a jaw full of long, sharp teeth.

Then it spoke, it's voice deep, layered and raw, "This is an interesting turn of events."

It finished turning fully toward them, it's voice still resonating through the air, and Hawke could feel it in her chest.

"Not only do I get a spirit of justice instead of an obstinate mage, but the woman is the walking dead. Very good," it rumbled. If the creature would rather talk than fight, she had no qualms. Theoretically, that would assist the others in dealing with its body.

"And this place, mage," the demon continued, and seemed to shake its grotesque head, "How sad for you."

"My host's memories are none of your concern," Justice said, his tone growing in anger.

"Yes your 'host' - that's a fun trick, isn't it? I'm very curious as to how you managed that," the demon rumbled.

"But let's talk about the warrior for a few moments. She's… curious," it rumbled, turning its many eyes to Hawke, looking her up and down, "Death incarnate, and my own blood killed you, such an enigma."

"You're not as powerful as you think, beast," Hawke replied defiantly.

The demon continued as if she hadn't spoke, "And blood filled with such great tragedy. It will give me immense power when I consume you."

"What makes you think I will let you do that, demon?"

"It will be simple. Once your pathetic friends fail at destroying my body, I will go and find yours. Can't be far from them, you'd never want to be far, too far to protect them. And the mage will be a bonus, his blood is quite powerful as well," the demon sounded hungry.

"You underestimate my abilities," Hawke taunted.

"Should it be a fight then? We were really starting to get somewhere, I thought," the demon said dryly. She stared down the beast, ready to draw her greatsword, though she hoped there would be a way to keep it talking.

"You don't know me, demon, you don't know any of us," Hawke provoked.

"Oh but I do," it jeered, "The elf loves you, but feels inadequate. The dwarf regrets killing his brother, though he'd never admit it. The holy one, he's wonderful – so devout but such a lust for vengeance. The human female harbors a deep concern for you, it distracts her from her duties. The tiny elf mage, oh my, she's full of dark secrets. Careful with her."

Hawke set her jaw. She knew not to believe the beast, that it was trying to goad her into action. She stood her ground. Suddenly, the beast roared as if in pain, and Hawke drew her weapon. It calmed after a few moments, then turned its evil eyes toward her in anger.

"Your lover is an excellent fighter. That hurt," the demon asserted. Hawke felt a surge of hope knowing that her companions were successful. And alive.

"See, it's very important that I carefully read the contents of my food before I consume it," he continued gravely, "For instance, this mage is more difficult to read, shrouded by this filthy spirit. But he…" The demon seemed to be concentrating very hard for a moment.

"He has plans," the beast roared an alarming version of laughter, "Gruesome plans, but he came here ready to die for you, human. Maybe I'll save him for later. In a few years, he'll be far more devastated, give me far more power."

"You don't have years, filth. You have mere minutes," Justice roared. She suddenly felt very alone as she realized that it truly wasn't Anders standing next to her. She knew Justice, she even trusted Justice, but he was definitely not the same man. She was certain that taunt would lead to a fight, and stood ready as the beast stared Justice down.

"Very well," it said resolutely, then leapt forward toward them.

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