Follow the Lead
After lying awake long enough to watch the first slivers of sun streak through the wooden slats of her window pains, sleep finally found Hawke. When she woke, it seemed only due to vehement hunger. She made her way downstairs to find that Bodahn and Sandal had stepped out, their weekly supply run most likely. Legion was missing; Aveline must have taken him for a run with the guards. She entered the dining room to find a mostly warm meal prepared at the table for her, Orana's doing. She was certain the elf was off scrubbing her knuckles raw cleaning the floors, or dusting in places even the Maker couldn't see. She was appreciative of her hard work, but often wished the former slave would take a break, just sit and enjoy freedom.
This thought sunk in, and she realized the irony of her wishes for Orana. Hawke didn't feel like she'd had a break since she stepped foot off that miserable boat from Ferelden. However, as she sat alone in a single chair, at the end of a long, empty table, she felt like she wanted anything but a break. Was this it? She found great solace in assisting others with their grievances, but at the end of the day, when evil was vanquished and the innocents saved, she was still alone in a single chair, at the end of a long, empty table.
She ate her meal and then went upstairs to draw herself a bath. She wasn't sure how long she'd slept, but she knew it would soon be time to meet the others in Darktown. She dressed to the degree she could without assistance and collected the rest of her armor, deciding she would stop by Fenris's on the way to walk down together. He was always the most capable of getting her armor on properly. Anders always left it too loose, and Aveline acted like it was a corset. After no answer, she waited a while by his door, watching the errant noble or messenger stroll by. Once the sun had sunk below the mansion across the way, she decided to make her way to Darktown alone.
A few minutes later she entered Darktown, cursing herself now for having the exit in her cellar sealed off. It seemed safest for mother, at the time, but now it would have made for a very convenient passage to Anders' clinic. She made her way past a hovel that always had two children begging for coin out front. She tossed them a few coppers as she went by. As strange as it seemed, she had always regarded Darktown as the most honest of the locales in Kirkwall. There were no scheming dockmasters, dirty politicians or self-seeking nobles. Everyone here was just desolate. The Coterie was here, but everyone knew it. There weren't any surprises. Except, she thought as she rounded the corner to Anders' clinic, for the Grey Warden apostate that healed the sick and dying, with no thought of coin for himself. As radical as Anders' ideas could seem, there was no denying he was a good man.
She pushed the door open to the clinic. Anders was playing cards with a group of Darktowners near the fire, but otherwise the others had not yet arrived. She nodded to Anders in recognition and found herself a seat atop one of the clinic's tables. She watched Anders as he joked with the other men, likely the first time the poor souls had laughed in weeks. She knew from experience that Anders' humor was excellent medicine. He was always working. She knew that Justice played a roll in Anders' vehemence against the discrimination done to mages, and he wasn't wrong. They had talked it through, long and hard, over the years, waiting for a peaceful, amenable solution to present itself, but it never did. Lately Anders', or Justice's, frustration usually ended the discussions early, and on a sour note. They were all but futile anyway. The kind of solution they were looking for just didn't seem to exist.
Hawke was pulled from her thoughts as the clinic's door opened, revealing Fenris, trailed by Sebastian. The prince was immediately approached by a young Darktowner couple, likely asking for guidance or blessings. Hawke was able to catch Fenris's eye, and he walked over to her.
"I waited for you this afternoon," Hawke said with a smile, offering her pauldrons to the elf. He smiled in a reserved way and took the armor from her.
"Sorry, I had an errand to run," he said, not meeting her eye. Hawke eyed Sebastian as he spoke quietly with the young man and woman.
"You and Sebastian friends now?" she jibed as she raised her arms and turned. Fenris tightened the buckle and gave her a look.
"Just arrived at the same time, Hawke. No conspiracies, I assure you," he gave a genuine smile this time, which Hawke returned. This gave her some relief, Fenris had acted strangely before he left the night prior, and she didn't want any insecurities with the upcoming fight. It also just didn't feel right to have things go unsaid with Fenris, she realized. They had been through enough together at this point that complete trust wasn't just an assumption, but a certainty.
Fenris gave her a quick pat on the back to signal his having finished, and Hawke thanked him. She nodded to Varric as he entered and sat in his usual spot to buff Bianca. Just waiting on Aveline, then. She watched as Fenris began to strap on his own gauntlets, and she did the same. She noticed the ease with which he was able to put on his armor. It was second nature to him, a confidence she had never felt with her own. She smiled to herself, imagining him fighting off fiends as he suited up. The impressive thing was that it wasn't really a fiction. In the Deep Roads, after a couple darkspawn scouts had slipped past the guards, she had actually seen the man scoop up his breastplate with the tip of his greatsword, slide it on, clasp the buckles with two fingers, spin, and slice a scout in half in less time than it had taken her to realize the ambush was happening.
Aveline entered, spurring Anders to end his card game and walk over towards where they were rallying.
"Everyone ready?" Aveline asked. She got a series of somber nods and grumbles in approval. Morale was low, it seemed.
"Alright, let's review the facts," Hawke announced, in her best commanding tone. Sebastian would be better at this, she thought.
"A group of apostates, who have been actively recruiting from the circle, have taken refuge in the undercity. Their… previous residence… leads us to believe they are practicing blood magic, and they've murdered over thirty souls. There could be as many as forty apostates, but it's more likely they number in the teens or twenties, it'd be difficult to move a group of more than that into the city without being noticed. Aveline, were you able to get the maps?" Hawke asked. Aveline nodded and pulled a roll of paper out of her belt and spread it across the table in front of her. Hawke moved over to it and examined it for a moment.
"Looks right to me. If this is in fact a match for the map we found, this is where they'll be," Hawke said, gesturing to a large section in the middle, almost as far from an entrance as possible, "I'll need a volunteer to lead the flanking team."
"I will," Fenris immediately offered. Hawke nodded in appreciation. Fenris never ignored an opportunity to assist tactically. He was a very good leader, as much as he preferred to let Hawke take the reigns.
"Great, take Varric and Anders. We'll enter here, likely the front; Fenris's team here, I'll give you the signal. Once we're both inside, Anders, try to cover both groups if you're able. Let's route them to this middle alcove," she said, pointing to a recess in the rocks that would allow them to corner the apostates, "But make sure the exits are covered, they may be more spread out through the tunnels than we realize."
"What if they don't want a fight?" Sebastian proposed. Hawke raised an eyebrow.
"It's possible I guess. If they don't draw their weapons, we stay on guard. I'll speak to them," she said.
"Everyone ready?" Aveline attempted again. The others nodded and asserted approval, seeming a little more cohesive this time. Hawke patted Aveline on the back, and the six filed out of the clinic and headed toward the undercity entrance.
After only getting turned around once, which was actually quite good for the undercity, they found the entrance to the warren. On the shabby wooden door, the same red symbol was painted.
"It's a little obvious, isn't it?" Anders whispered, "It basically says, hey, we're blood-mages, come kill us, please."
Hawke nodded in agreement, as Aveline added in a hushed voice, "It's not as if the guard patrols down here." Anders nodded in assent as Hawke signaled to Fenris to move to the next entrance. Fenris, Anders and Varric made their way down the narrow corridor to their flanking position. Hawke waited a few moments, enough time for Fenris to get in position, though he'd been instructed to hold, in case they were peaceful. She took a breath, steeled her resolve, and opened the door.
Inside, more than twenty red-cloaked apostates kneeled in rows. In front of them stood a tall, thin man who wore the same garb. The man looked up expectantly, as if in anticipation of someone. It had only been a half second, and Hawke waited. After all, Sebastian could be right. But before she knew it, red cloaks were billowing and twenty-five staves appeared.
"To arms!" she yelled, signaling Fenris' team to move. Fireballs, lightning and whiffs of cold exploded across the room. Hawke ducked an arcane bolt and rolled, sweeping her weapon into a wide arc in front of her, felling two of the mages. She watched as an arrow whipped by her face and found it's deadly mark in the chest of another red-cloaked apostate. Aveline rammed her shield into the shoulder of a mage as he raised his staff above his head, causing him to sprawl at Hawke's feet. Hawke swept her sword down upon the prone man, killing him instantly. One of the apostates swung his staff wildly, catching Hawke hard in the temple. She felt blood run into her eye as she felled the man. Then she felt a rumbling in the earth at her feet.
"Demons!" she warned the group as she swung her heavy sword into the flank of the mage who had just summoned them. She watched as three rage demons twisted up from the earth and into existence, one dangerously close to Anders.
"Anders, behind you!" Varric warned. Anders swung his staff out in a wide arc, then brought his hands together above himself, casting a spell that immobilized the creature for a short time. Fenris and Varric took the opportunity to focus it down as Anders sent out a wave of magic that gave the whole group a bout of vigor.
Hawke put the unexpected energy to good use, unleashing another whirlwind attack that slashed through the middle of three more apostates. Aveline had pummeled another with her shield, then turned to cut him down with her blade. Keeping an eye on the doorway, Sebastian stood back and chose his shots, each one deadly. Hawke focused her ire on the rage demon closest to her, as Aveline seemed to be handling the apostates with no trouble. The creature swiped out in anger, and she weaved between its fiery attacks. With a distracting assist from Sebastian, Hawke was able to land a debilitating blow to the creature, who roared in agony and angrily struck back, catching Hawke on the shoulder as she righted her sword from the swing. The wound burned agonizingly for a moment, then she could feel Anders' send out a wave of restoration, numbing the pain momentarily. She finished the demon off in one more swing, and turned to see Fenris and Varric finishing off the third and last demon.
Over half the apostates were down, and there were no more signs of demons, so Hawke squared up with Aveline and the two forced the line toward the alcove where the man had been standing. She saw Fenris across the room, shoring up to do the same. Mere moments later they had the remaining mages trapped against the alcove, and they were easily slain.
Hawke turned to find the last one, the tall thin man who had stood at the front. Hawke stalked toward him, but realized he had no staff, no weapon at all that she could see. She stopped short, raising the tip of her greatsword to his chin, forcing him to look up at her. The intensity of his look was palpable, and a chill ran through Hawke.
"Who are you? What is this place?" she demanded.
"The Mighty shall reign down her vengeance upon those who have wronged us!" the man spat, as if reciting a passage from an angry version of the Chant of Light.
"That doesn't answer my question," Hawke threatened, raising her sword tip slightly higher so it pinched the skin under his chin.
The man simply glared on, rancorous piety in his voice, "The Prophet Malefica will avenge us!"
Suddenly the man thrust a dagger from inside his cloak, directed at the space in Hawke's armor above her left greave. But it was too late for the man. Hawke withdrew her sword from him and strapped it into the sheath on her back. She wiped at the stream of blood that ran down her temple and turned to face the others.
"The Prophet Malefica?" Anders said in shock, "This was a church?" They let the idea sink in for a few moments when Sebastian broke the silence.
"It explains the… sacrifices," he said, revulsion in his voice.
"But not the… blood collecting," Fenris pointed out.
"What do you think the chances are it's a real person?" Varric asked.
"I've seen this kind of thing before, but usually the false prophets are devotees of the Maker, or the Creators, or even the Old Gods. These people seemed to be worshipping this 'Malefica' directly," Anders said, worried.
Hawke nodded, "Alright, let's do a thorough search, everyone's pockets, every crevice in this room. Let's figure out who this Malefica is," Hawke directed.