Rite of the Maleficarum: Book I

Slaver's Reach

Hawke was not prepared for what she found inside that cave. None of them were. After nervously winding their way through narrow passageways, having to backtrack after finding dead ends multiple times, they finally found themselves face to face with a rather large wooden doorway. On the doorway a symbol was painted, with paint, Hawke begged the Maker that it be paint, made of simple lines, not unlike Kirkwall’s ancient Tevinter heraldry. This symbol however appeared to be a depiction of a person, a mage's staff gripped in one hand, her feet raised off the ground, arms stretched out, bleeding from both wrists.

Hawke looked to Fenris, whose look of caution had reset to one of brooding anger. Somehow this reassured her. She pushed the door open slowly, a surprisingly quiet action considering how aged the wood and hinges appeared. It was nothing, however, compared to the silence that befell the group upon seeing what lay beyond the doorway.

Hawke didn't want to continue looking. If her eyes described the scene to her brain, and her mind processed it, certainly it would poison her soul. But it was too late, the process happened in an instant, her gut reaction not fast enough to save face. She heard Sebastian make some kind of noise, maybe a gasp or a whimper. She wanted to turn and show concern for her friends, but she couldn't. Facing them, having memories of them associated with memories of this place, would make it real, not a horrible nightmare she would certainly wake up from any moment.

Hawke steeled her resolve, and gave herself a brief moment of objectivity. She needed the facts of the place, to ignore what she could, but gain any information possible about the people behind this. Because however this started, regardless of Ansor Restin, this just became about hunting maleficarum.

Bunks, rows and rows of them. Two, sometimes three high each. Enough to sleep thirty or forty. Could there be that many? And the blood. Barrels of it, buckets of it, any type of container that could hold a liquid held it, stacked and placed on almost every surface of the place. Except, it seemed, for the surface reserved for the stacking of corpses. Bled dry, apparently, neatly stacked along the back wall. From the look of it, mostly elves. She did not allow herself to count them. It was also in this moment she saw him, crouched in a fetal position, hugging his own legs, not three meters from them by the nearest set of bunks.

"Ansor?" Hawke managed, though the word came out cracked and breathy. The templar convulsed slightly, apparently not having heard the group enter. The spitting image of a young Lord Restin looked up at her, eyes weary. He looked defeated, harmless, so she went to him, offering a hand to help him stand, which he accepted.

"You're Lady Hawke, aren't you? The Champion?" he asked, wiping an errant tear as it ran down his cheek.

"Yes, Ansor. Your father sent me to find you, he's very worried," Hawke said.

"Rightfully so," Ansor mentioned, staring off into the distance.

"Do you know what happened here?" Hawke asked. Ansor didn't make any kind of motion to reply, he seemed lost in thought.

"Maybe we should speak with him outside," Fenris suggested. His warm, deep voice almost startled Hawke, she had half forgotten about her friends. She turned to agree, but only saw Fenris standing there, his sword sheathed.

"Sebastian and Anders… will meet us outside," Fenris said. Hawke nodded, sheathed her sword and gestured to Ansor to follow Fenris out.

Hawke felt that such a short time period had never felt so long in her life as they wound their way through the narrow chasms back to the mouth of the cave. She tried to find things to focus on: Fenris's swinging white hair, the templar crest emblazoned on the shield strapped to Ansor's back, but when the latter two proved dangerous she decided it best to try and focus on the uneven, rocky soil beneath her feet. It was night by the time they reached the salty air outside the cave, the glow of the sun still barely visible on the horizon. Hawke took a moment to notice the stars through the haze. What were they? Had the Maker created them? Were they very small and close, or very large and far away? She thought they would have to be impossibly bright if they were so far away. This made her feel very small, which at this moment also made her feel very safe.

"I'm sorry, Hawke," Sebastian broke her thoughts, and she looked to him, "The Maker had abandoned that place, I could not remain."

"I understand, Sebastian, it's no trouble."

"I'm sorry too, Hawke," Anders appeared behind her, putting an a hand on her pauldron, "Justice felt… very uncomfortable."

"Understandable, nothing about what happened in there could be considered justice," she turned to Ansor, "If there is anything you can tell us about these people…"

He nodded, seeming to regain some of his composure, "Of course Messere, I'm sorry, I'm still somewhat in shock." Ansor took a moment to collect his thoughts, then started his story, "A few weeks ago I caught wind that a few known apostates were forming a group of some kind, and attempting to recruit from within the circle mages."

"What was the purpose of this group?" Hawke asked.

"I wasn't sure at first, I thought maybe to help each other escape. I am… friends… with a circle mage named Irinna, and one night they approached her. She told me about it right away, she knew some of them were blood mages. She was afraid not to go, that they would think she was going to turn them in. But she was also afraid to go alone, so I accompanied her, every other night for almost a week. At first their meetings were about gaining the strength and resources enough to live on their own, so they could travel and live their lives, similar to the Dalish, I think. But as they starting formulating plans, things went down a path Irinna wasn't comfortable with. She was afraid of being caught; she didn't want to be made tranquil. I told her if I could gather enough information on the apostates to help the templars find and stop them, that I could vow for her, keep her safe."

"Didn't it seem dangerous to come alone?"

"I knew that if I told the Knight-Captain or any one else, that Irinna would not be safe. I had to find proof, so they would be certain she was spying for me."

Hawke raised an eyebrow at this, clearly the boy had feelings for her.

"I did find this," Ansor reached into his pouch and withdrew a piece of paper, handing it to Hawke, "It's crudely drawn, but looks like Darktown to me. Either their new meeting place, or a secondary location."

"So the other meetings Irinna attended, they were here as well?"

"Yes, this… occurrence… must have only happened recently. We were here two nights ago and… none of that… was there."

"Thank you Ansor, this is helpful. Rest assured we will find these people."

Ansor sighed with relief, "That's a relief to hear, Champion. I know I should have told the templars, but I know that you'll take care of it." Hawke nodded, hoping her discomfort at being called Champion didn't show.

"Where's Irinna now?"

"She left as soon as we arrived late this afternoon… she had much the same reaction as your friends here. I thought she'd be waiting, but the discomfort must have been too much. Knowing Irinna, I'm sure she returned to the circle," Ansor said, sounding mostly like he was trying to convince himself. Hawke nodded, but was confounded. She looked to Anders and Fenris, still obviously affected by the air of instability these tragedies had created.

"Ansor, were you not… also effected by the thinness of the veil here?" Hawke probed.

Ansor rubbed his temples with his fingers, "Right, you said my father sent you?"

"Yes, he hired me to find you. He got your letter and was worried when you hadn't returned... he thought maybe Irina had turned you to blood magic."

"I'm not a mage, Messere Hawke," Ansor said carefully.

Hawke raised an eyebrow, "Your father seemed quite convinced."

Ansor nodded and took a breath, as if to prepare for confession, "Maker save me, I lied to them."

"How? Did they really never see you do any magic?" Hawke asked, stunned.

"A mixture of a few choice ingredients and well-timed 'incidents', praying on their worst fears… it wasn't hard to put on enough of a show to have them convinced."

The four just stood, staring at Ansor blankly.

After a moment, Anders broke the silence, "I didn't think the mage pretending to be a templar story could get stranger, until it turned into the regular boy pretending to be a mage so he can actually be a templar… story."

Hawke felt some normalcy return along with Anders' quip, only to have it dashed moments later.

"Why? Seems a strange route just to escape… nobility…" Sebastian seemed confused by the end of his own sentence.

"It wasn't to escape nobility… it's my mother. She was not… nice… to me as a child. At the time my father traveled a lot, making business deals in Antiva and the like, and we were often alone," Ansor looked very uncomfortable, but came up with the resolve to continue, "She abused me, mentally and physically. I needed a way out, but I was their only child, I knew they would never allow me to go elsewhere or join the Chantry, or do anything that would allow me to get away from her. I had heard them both speak in fear of mages before. I thought… at best she'd send me off to live with some foreign relatives, at worst she'd kill me." Ansor shrugged, "Landed somewhere in between, I guess."

Hawke suddenly felt very tired.

"I'm so sorry Ansor, I had no idea. I don't think your father does either."

Ansor shook his head, "No, he doesn't. Please don't mention it to him, I'm afraid of what he'll do to her." Fenris gave a look of shock, and Ansor clarified, "Not for her sake, for his. He's a good man, he doesn't deserve a life in prison for killing someone like my mother, just because she's a Lady of Kirkwall."

Hawke took a breath, "Your father didn't want me to tell you this, but it seems it might bring you some relief. Your mother is dead, Ansor."

A palpable energy spread over the air. "Truly?" he asked.

"That's what he told me, I'm sure it was the truth. He was worried you'd lose control over your powers if you heard, that's why he hasn't told you."

The briefest glimmer of a smile washed over Ansor's face, "Thank you, Hawke. I'll touch base with my father as soon as we're back to Kirkwall so he knows I'm alright."

"Consider not coming clean with your father. He would truly be heartbroken if he learned about your mother," it was a suggestion, but Hawke had a way of making things sound like they were the right thing to do.

Ansor nodded, "I won't, he's old, frail. That's best left with the dead, I think."

"Let's head back to Kirkwall together, eh?" Anders suggested, "Safety in numbers."

Hawke nodded in agreement and the five started making their way back through the rocky outcroppings, a task far more treacherous in the dark. As urgent as the matter seemed, Hawke knew they could not pursue the maleficarum until tomorrow. After all the injustices they'd experienced over the last few hours, the group would want to get some much-needed sleep.

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