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Rise of the Maleficarum: Book II

By amailia

Adventure / Fantasy

Chapter 1

Anders struck his staff at Hawke's kneecaps. She barely managed to step back in time, the end of his weapon only able to scratch across the very tops of her leather greaves. Knowing she was about to lose her balance anyway, Hawke rolled out of the clumsy maneuver and away from the lethally swift mage as he spun through his attack, continuing to swing the staff in a wide arc in an attempt to catch her again.

She raised her greatsword to meet it, just narrowly so, before it was able to connect with her temple, which was already bleeding into her eyes. The staff shattered on impact, shards of splintered wood exploding impressively outward. Hawke flinched away from the unexpected debris, then used the gained momentum to spin into a quick retreat as Anders furiously tossed the remaining useless chunk of wood to the ground.

He glared at her menacingly as she retreated toward the wall of the cave, knowing she was putting herself in a tactically terrible position. She wasn't sure what choice she had – he'd been relentless in his pursuit. She had the advantage now, briefly, with remnants of his weapon littering the ground of the cave behind him. She wondered how accurate that was, however, as he stalked toward her seemingly unaffected by the loss.

He thrust his hand outward and a vicious-looking orb of purple light shot forward toward her. It moved too quickly for her to dodge it, though she managed to turn herself in time to catch it in her shoulder instead of fully in the chest. It had surprising impact and startled Hawke as it sent her flying backward the remaining couple meters to the cave wall.

Her arms splayed outward as she turned in an attempt to take the coming impact against her chest or shoulder instead of her spine. She wasn't fast enough however, and before she even met the wall Anders had shot another orb toward her. This one was blue and white and freezing cold, and it quickly pinned her left arm to the cave wall in a casing of ice.

Hawke cursed at the prone position it put her in, and quickly dropped her sword, pulling at the ties that held her leather gauntlet in place. She was able to slide her wrist out of the armor, leaving it stranded in the ice, but before she could manage to roll away and grab her sword again, Anders had fired another orb, catching her other arm and freezing it against the wall in a similar fashion to the first.

By now he had closed the distance between them, and Hawke was surprised as he brazenly approached her, bracing his left hand on her shoulder and punching her firmly in the stomach. Her breath left her completely, half from disbelief and half from the brutal impact, and her body attempted to recoil inward with the pain of the attack. The compulsory thrust forced her wrist away from the cavern wall, breaking the ice that held it in place and dropping Hawke to the ground. She landed on her knees and still breathless, fell forward onto one palm, holding her injured side with her other arm.

She reached again for air that wasn't hers to have, causing her head to spin and vision to falter. She could only watch from the corner of her eye as Anders gracefully stepped away from her, then spun on a heel, delivering a vicious kick to her rib cage. She felt the bones break as the impact knocked her into the wall, further removing her ability to bring air into her lungs. Her sight began to spin upwards and away from her. She fought to keep it, though she wasn't sure why, as all she saw was Anders stalking again toward her, ready to deliver another brutal blow.

"Anders! That's enough!" Aveline's irate voice rang through the cave. Given a mere second of reprieve, breath finally found Hawke and she gasped for it voraciously, the rapid intake causing her head to spin even more. She closed her eyes, suddenly feeling very nauseous, and remained on her side while she grasped her stomach with both arms in an attempt to calm it. She heard the sound of many feet pawing at the floor of the cave, then a vicious inhuman growl. Through her still upset vision she was able to see her Mabari hound, Legion, as he placed himself between her and the still sweltering mage.

"It's ok boy," Hawke managed in a meek, breathless voice. Legion gave Anders a long glare before he turned and padded lightly toward her, his ears flattening pathetically as he approached his prone master.

"It's not ok, Hawke," Aveline continued in that tone of hers that was at once authoritative, inspiring, and frightening, "This is supposed to be training, not just beating each other senseless."

Hawke attempted to speak up, but her body rejected the idea and she instead focused fully on not upheaving the contents of her stomach onto the cave floor. Anders appeared to be coming down from his fury, but when he turned and spoke to the guard captain his voice didn't reflect it.

"If you think these mages are just going to hide behind things and cast spells at them, you're sorely mistaken. There are plenty who have been trained martially, Hawke has to be prepared for a physical fight," Anders argued.

"That doesn't need to involve broken bones! Take it easy, this is about tactics and preparedness, not about kicking her while she's down… literally," Aveline retorted defensively, finishing her descent into the cave and stopping by a table near the entrance. They'd commandeered one of the cave systems they'd found while hunting flocks of the Prophet Malefica and turned it into a kind of training center. Some rough terrain, rocky outcroppings, and a small network of narrow passages connecting to the main cavern made for ample opportunities for strategizing. The main area was large enough for a good-sized sparring space surrounded by makeshift targets, as well as a lounge area with a large table and mismatch of chairs appropriated from various sources around Kirkwall.

Their upcoming hunt for the mages involved in the creation of the Belhim'irsa, or 'One of Many', had Hawke looking to improve her skills against those who wielded magic. Though she'd been trained and tested quite thoroughly in martial settings, she often relied on her companions to help control and take down magic users, and the vote was still out as to who all would be joining her. Fenris, Merrill and Varric had readily accepted, but she hoped to convince them all. She knew it was a lot to ask however, as the journey would likely take several months.

Beginning to recover from the loss of oxygen, Hawke felt she might be able to rise, however the broken ribs begged to differ, and shot vicious stabs of pain through her chest. She decided to stop struggling, and resigned to lying prone on the floor while speaking to her friends.

"He's right Aveline. And it's my fault, I was too focused on the magic, I wasn't thinking about it turning physical," she managed breathily, then winced as the breath she took to recover sent more punishing lashes of pain through her torso. She heard Aveline sigh in resignation, then felt Anders slip his arms under her waist and neck to scoop her up. His hard, determined glare was turning softer as he carried Hawke away from the sparring ring and laid her onto the table across from the guard captain.

"I get it," Hawke smiled at him, "You're sick of healing sprained ankles and communicable diseases, you just wanted some good old-fashioned broken bones and flesh wounds." Anders didn't seem to find this funny as he began to delicately unbuckle and remove her leather cuirass. Though she generally preferred her plate armor, Hawke had thought it best to become comfortable with something lighter that allowed for more agility, since the plate would provide her no assistance against most magical attacks. She was questioning this line of thought though, now that Anders had managed to fell her so easily by mostly just beating her with his quarterstaff.

He had been ruthless with her of late, for reasons that weren't clear to Hawke, but she hoped it was because he wanted her to be as prepared as possible. He knew she wouldn't resent him for that, even if her companions did. She hoped it wasn't because he was angry with her decision to pursue those responsible for creating the Belhim'irsa, what he had more than once referred to as their 'mage-crusade'. He was probably right, but she couldn't let it go. She knew as soon as she looked at that map and saw the locations of those apostates, or whoever they were that somehow shared the blood of that demon, that she absolutely would have to see it through to its end.

She knew it was dangerous and would be supremely difficult and time-consuming, and very likely result in her death, but she couldn't get over the thought that those responsible for that creature were skulking around Thedas. It kept her awake at night, and when sleep was able to find her, it plagued her dreams, vague apostate-shaped creatures going from door to door in Kirkwall, finding and murdering each and every one of the people she loved.

Anders began work on her broken bones, numbing the pain a bit and allowing her senses to be assaulted with reminders of the other injuries she'd incurred prior. The gash on her temple bled out onto the table, and she grimaced in disgust. Recently the piece of furniture acted far more often as a convenient place to heal her injuries than somewhere one might gather with friends for a good laugh over a pint of ale.

Though they had been diligent about training, they hadn't otherwise spent much time together of late, and she wondered why that was, as she frowned apologetically at Aveline through the haze in her eyes. The guard captain sighed, pulling out a chair and sitting down heavily in her full plate armor, likely having just come off patrol with Legion, who had found a spot under the table to whimper dolefully.

"Maybe you should think about taking some time away from training, just for a while," Aveline said, amending her more earnest sentiment with the caveat in an effort to make it seem a more realistic suggestion to Hawke's ears.

"I can't, every second we spend preparing counts. If we stop training – it needs to be because we're ready," Hawke insisted.

"Ready for what? To travel, to leave? That won't prepare you for what's to come. No amount of self-torture will make you more prepared to leap into the unknown."

"I'm not torturing myself, Av, this isn't about me, or any of us. What if those marks on the map are the creators and they try again, make another Belhim'irsa somewhere else? And it all started here in Kirkwall, and we didn't stop it?"

"Merrill checks every week. There has been no increase in the number of markings, and the markings never converge, and it's been months," Aveline argued. She leaned back in her chair, already looking defeated. This wasn't the first time they'd had this same conversation, and Aveline already knew how it was going to end.

Hawke was frustrated that they didn't know more about what they were walking into. They once thought it likely that the participants were consumed in the process of creating the beast, but this appeared to dispatch that line of thought, as the only reason they would show on the magical ancient Elven map was if their blood had been part of the same concoction.

Hawke was rudely wrenched from her thoughts as Anders pressed hard on her tender rib cage in an attempt to set the bones. She groaned in pain and Aveline winced.

"Maker's breath Anders, be careful," Aveline said, concern creasing her forehead.

"Aveline's right, Hawke, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to heal your injuries," Anders said, not looking up from his work, "When you haven't fully recovered from the previous ones first, I mean." The two women glared at him accusatorially and he looked up to meet their gaze as if in response to the heat of it. He looked almost sheepish for a moment, and Hawke felt a surge of nostalgia for the more humorous temperament of her old friend. But as fast as it came, it was gone again, replaced by the hardened, serious look that all but constantly plagued the mage's face these days.

Hawke was so caught up with the searing pain, she managed to overlook the fact that her companions had just outvoted her. Aveline stood up, her chair sliding back loudly against the hard stone floor.

"That settles it then, Hawke, doctor's orders," Aveline stated resolutely.

"What just happened?" Hawke gaped as Anders leant some much-needed support to help her sit up. She was surprised at the amount of pain she still felt, Anders's treatments often left her feeling even more rejuvenated than before the injury. Maybe they were right, maybe her body did need time to heal on its own.

"I'll take her home," Aveline offered, crossing to the other side of the table and taking Hawke's arm over her shoulder, "You should get some rest as well, Anders, you look like death."

"Thank you," he said dryly, wiping a few beads of sweat off his brow. Hawke hadn't noticed until now, but he really did look spent. Maybe she had been pushing too hard, pushing them all too hard. It was easy for her to get caught up in the pursuit, to forget that people had limits, that she herself had limits.

She winced as Aveline helped her down off the table and started to hobble toward the exit, cursing under her breath as she realized that it was going to be a very long, painful walk back to Hightown.

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