Thursday, December 8, 2011

Smoke and Rain

Disclaimer for the faint of heart: what you are about to read is fanfiction. It's good fanfiction, certainly readable, hopefully free of major spelling and grammatical errors, and hopefully not overly reliant on a previous familiarity with the lore, but the fact remains: this story is a fanfic. It is what it is; take it as such.

That being said, this is the prologue to the Dragon Age II rewrite that I've been working on for a while. There was so much undeveloped potential in the game that I had to take it and run. Haters, as they say, gonna hate, and many people have a lot of animosity towards the game and the direction taken by the franchise - to them I say, It's a game. You have the option to not play it. I enjoyed both main games very much, though I felt the second was unfairly rushed and dragged down by some writing that was overly self-indulgent. It seemed to me that the devs enjoyed their own work so much they decided to make us play their version only, instead of letting us choose our own paths. It's not like it's a role-playing game, or anything, right? 

Anyway. Forget the game. Here's where I took the story. Feel free to comment.

Characters are of course all property of Bioware and EA, except Hawke. She's mine.  



Two riders moved a few hours ahead of the main group, weaving their way slowly up the winding, treacherous road to Kirkwall, the heavy autumn rain slowing their pace to a careful climb. The sun was sinking behind the great snow-peaked Sundermount to the northwest of the city; above the stone walls, visible through the smoke and mist, the Keep rose like a pale obelisk, reaching into the sky.
The first rider coughed, lifted her visor, spat upon the sodden earth. “Maker, what are they burning? Garbage?”
“They’ve set fire to their Undercity,” replied the second quietly.
“Faugh! Was this Undercity a sewer?”
“In part, Cassandra. The rest of it was home to thousands of poor.”
The one called Cassandra fell silent, her black steel helmet impassive, her peevishness evident only in the way she spurred her horse on rather harder than was necessary. Eventually she stirred again, reluctantly, staring upwards at the reach of the Keep. “What do you know of this city, Sister?”
The second rider was silent for a long moment before answering. “Kirkwall is a city built on slavery. The Imperials used it as a hub for the slave trade thousands of years ago, and the spirits of those slaves live in the very stones of this place. Those who call this place home, they lack… quietude of the soul.”
Cassandra laughed bitterly, the sound made hollow by her helmet. “Such a delicate way of calling them thieves, cutthroats, and ruthless bastards.”
“You’d do well to recall that the Prophet herself helped lead an uprising of slaves against their Imperial masters,” replied the second rider sharply, her face obscured by a dark gray-green woolen hood. “Change does not come gently; sometimes ruthlessness is the only way to alter the status quo.”
“Careful, Sister. One might almost believe that you sympathize with the insurgents.”
“One does not need sympathy to understand the reactions of the downtrodden. As a friend once told me – hold someone down long enough, and they will fight to get up. This is human nature.”
“The inevitability of this war is irrelevant at this point, don’t you think, Sister?” said Cassandra coldly.
“Lessons in the prevention of genocide are never irrelevant, I feel,” answered the hooded figure, almost breezily, but steel was in the undertones and Cassandra let it drop with a grunt.
They rode on slowly, the steamy breath of the horses fountaining into the chill air, hooves thumping on the earth. Stars were emerging between the roiling rainclouds as they approached the city gates: tall bars of viridium set into the stone, shut tight, blazing with torches.
“Most people enter the city via the docks,” muttered the hooded figure, dismounting. Cassandra followed suit, pulling off her helmet, tucking it under her arm. She had expected… well, truth be told, she had expected the gates to be wide open, and chaos to be pouring out, but…
A smartly-armored guardsman leaned over the top of the battlements. “Who goes? The hour is late,” he called unwaveringly, holding up a torch. Sensed but unseen in the darkness behind the arrow slits, half a dozen crossbow bolts trained on the travelers, awaiting an answer.
Cassandra stared up at him. “We are the agents of the Chantry sent by her holiness the Divine,” she said, frowning, and pulled aside her heavy traveling cloak to reveal the emblem picked out in white on her black breastplate.
The guardsman spoke to someone behind him in hushed tones. After a moment he addressed them again. “Welcome to Kirkwall, Seekers. The Guard-Captain is on her way to escort you to the Keep. Just a moment, please.”
“Polite, for a ruthless insurgent,” said the hooded rider quietly.
Cassandra busied herself tucking her helmet into the saddlebag, pulling off her gloves, running her hands through her short black hair, pushing it back off her forehead. She rolled her shoulders to settle her heavy black armor, straightened her buckles; it would not do to look slovenly.
Only a few minutes had passed before the city gates swung open with a metallic creak and a tall woman in steel plate approached them, carrying a lantern, followed by four guardsmen. The Guard-Captain walked as though she had a personal grudge against the cobblestones; her vivid orange hair was pulled back in a neat, low bun, and her lips were set in a thin line. Her left eye was bandaged and covered with a red leather patch, an obviously recent injury; her right eye, bright green, glittered with barely concealed suspicion.
Cassandra nodded curtly. “Guard-Captain Aveline. I am Cassandra Penteghast.”
The woman nodded, shook her hand firmly. “Seeker.” Cassandra hid her distaste at the coarse Ferelden custom, but noted more than anything the strength in the woman’s grip. Formidable, she thought to herself, eyeing the red patch. She must be, to be a Ferelden Captain of the Guard in the Free Marches.
Guard-Captain Aveline looked from Cassandra to her hooded companion, standing silently beside the horses.
“Forgive my compatriot,” said Cassandra. “Anonymity is imperative to her line of work. If you would be so kind, we must get to the Keep as quickly as possible. Our investigations are already underway as we speak, and the rest of our order is less than half a day behind us.”
Aveline nodded. “So I understand. Your horses will be of no use to you in the city. My men will look after them in the stables here. This way,” she said, her voice low and cool. She about-faced, headed briskly towards the heart of the city; the two figures, one in gleaming black armor, the other cloaked in dark gray, shouldered their packs and followed behind her.
No, horses would certainly be of no use in this city, thought Cassandra, her eyes following the stone staircases on their way up to the keep.  A city made entirely of stairs, constructed in tiers – the same way the ancient mountain dwellers grew their crops. Instead of soil and barley, however, this city was stone, and timber, and the smell of smoke.
“I’ve heard there have been fires in the Undercity,” said Cassandra.
Aveline nodded. “It’s unclear at this point who set them. The abandoned tunnels go for miles – it’s impossible for us to put them all out, despite the rains. So for now, Darktown burns.”
“Those who lived there – where did they go?” asked the hooded figure.
The Guard-Captain glanced over her shoulder as she said, businesslike, “Many died in the tunnels. Those who survived have taken refuge in the ruins of the Chantry, or the few shelters that have been opened in Lowtown. We’re making do. For now.”
 “It’s in the Maker’s hands now. He will not fail you,” said the hooded figure in that calm, contented, and, Cassandra thought, extremely annoying tone of hers.
Guard-Captain Aveline actually laughed out loud, and the bitterness was solid in the sound. “Well, Seeker, we are certainly in someone’s hands.”
They walked in silence upwards, ever upwards, towards the towers of the Keep. All around them, makeshift blockades sealed off what must have been a labyrinthine system of side-streets and alleys; the pale stone of which the entire city seemed to be carved was blackened by fire and spellblast. They passed through a broad cobbled square with a fine center garden of towering topiary and manicured flowerbeds, bizarrely untouched. The grand townhouse at the east side of the square had not fared so well, and was missing a large portion of its second and third stories, as though a hand had reached down from the sky and snatched the very architecture away; half-blackened wall hangings and carpets dangled and fluttered in the open air, rivulets of rain water flowing downwards between the bones of the building.
Cassandra felt a touch at her arm, turned her head. Her companion nodded subtly in the opposite direction, towards the west side of the square. A tall, fine house stood there, dark and cold, clearly unoccupied, but unscathed by the recent strife. Above the large, reinforced door, a crest: two crimson eagles on a field of bronze. On closer inspection, a number of small but significant items – weapons, jewelry, shields, strips of cloth, bunches of wilted flowers – had been carefully arranged below the shield with almost cairn-like reverence.
“Yes, that is where she lived,” said the Guard-Captain coolly, without turning.
“We’ll need full access to the house, of course.”
The orange-haired woman did not answer, though Cassandra was sure she heard. “We—“ she began more loudly, but a whispered voice in her ear cut her off.
“They have built a shrine to this woman, Cassandra. We must go carefully. Do not press this.”
They drew close to the bottom of the grand staircase leading directly up to the Keep. “The Acting Knight-Commander will assist you from here, Seekers,” said Aveline, turning to them, raising the lantern. The yellow light revealed lines of exhaustion on the Captain’s face.
Cassandra raised her dark brow in surprise. “Knight-Commander? But we were under the impression that the Order had been wiped out in Kirkwall.”
“We have been many things in the last few weeks,” came a man’s tired voice from above them, “but we are not yet wiped out.”
They looked up as the tall Templar approached. His steel armor was partially disassembled to allow for a plaster cast on the lower half of his left arm, held tight across his chest by a sling – a shield break, if Cassandra was any judge, not an uncommon injury in the Order. His square jaw and tightly cropped dark blonde hair spoke of his military training, but his hazel eyes spoke only of battle, deeply set in sockets so dark they may have been recently blackened.
He exchanged a look with the Guard-Captain more shadowed than the night falling down around them. “Seekers, you are welcome,” he said, “provided that what you seek is the truth.”
“There is nothing else worth seeking,” said the hooded figure softly.
The Templar nodded, once. “I am Knight-Captain Cullen, acting Knight-Commander for Kirkwall. I will show you to your offices. Thank you, Guard-Captain – I’m sure you have other duties that beckon. In fact I’m certain of it – word has just come by Brennan that there has been another incident in the Pie District.”
Aveline laughed again. “The Pie District is an incident in itself. I wonder who’s blown up whom this time.” The woman nodded briskly – did not salute, Cassandra noted – and strode towards the Barracks, just to the east of the Keep.
“You are Ferelden,” commented Cassandra as they moved on.
“I am,” answered Ser Cullen.
“Are there many Fereldens still in the city?”
The Knight-Captain nodded. “There are,” he said simply.
“Interesting,” mused Cassandra, staring at the back of his head, at the bare skin of his upper arm visible through the sling, at the slice of undertunic escaping where the armpiece of his armor had been removed.
Ser Cullen led them through the massive viridium-plated doors of the Keep, nodding curtly to the sentries – a city guard on one side, a Templar on the other – and up the central staircase, down a long passageway to another set of doors, or rather door, as one had been torn off and was propped up against the stone wall. The room beyond was high, and long, and red: crimson banners fluttered on the walls, crimson sconces burned every few feet, and a red runner stretched before them, leading to a throne on a dais. The throne, Cassandra noted as they drew closer, was two stylized eagles cunningly crafted into furniture, probably by dwarves, and there, upon the seat, a simple steel crown.
The Viscount’s crown, it was said, which she had pulled from the man’s decapitated brow, and placed on the throne; neither would ever again be occupied.
“The Throne Room should suffice as your center of operations, Seekers,” said Cullen, gesturing around him. “The library, as well, is at your disposal, and the North Wing has been cordoned off for personal use by your order. I would recommend, as a matter of safety, that anyone wishing to venture into the city request an armed escort, either of myself of the Guard-Captain. Kirkwall, as you might suppose, is not the safest place to wander these days.”
“Tell me, Knight-Captain,” said Cassandra suddenly, turning to him, “what do you know of our order?” For the first time, she noticed his right hand twitching, the fingers tightening and loosening compulsively, and his brow sweating quietly – lyrium withdrawal, she realized. Since the… events, there had surely been an interruption in the lyrium flow to the city, which must have started to affect the remaining Templars by now. Ser Cullen seemed to be handling himself well, considering.
The Templar looked at her sharply for a moment, then looked away, towards the throne. “I know nothing of the Seekers of Truth,” he said, and Cassandra knew he was telling the truth.
“Good,” she said. “We thank you for your assistance.”
Ser Cullen saluted, turned, headed for the door.
“And keep yourself available. For all eventualities.”
The knight did not stop, but half-turned, his guarded eye glittering in the sconce light, before disappearing into the dark passage.
Cassandra turned, half-smiling to herself. The hooded figure snorted gently. “Nevarrans. So subtle when dealing with matters of the heart.”
“Heart? No, Sister. Besides, our sources say he was involved with her. Undoubtedly he has useful information. If I can obtain it without violence, all the better.” The dark-haired woman looked around her as she pulled off her cloak. “This should do quite nicely.” She climbed up the dais, stood beside the Throne of Kirkwall, her sharp olive face lit with crimson, looked down towards the city, felt it stretching out before her.
“This will do quite nicely, indeed,” she breathed.

Late that night, after the rest of the order had arrived and was settled, the hooded figure went out. The walls were too sheer to clamber down, but luckily the kitchens were virtually deserted at this hour, and she was able to slip out through the servant’s entrance without notice. She moved lightly from shadow to shadow, the dark gray-green of her cloak making her passage all but invisible to all but the most careful observer. The moon was half-full, and while the rains had blown away, streaky gray clouds had taken their place, rushing across the sky.
The streets were nearly empty here, though she could see the light and smoke of fires further down in the city – Darktown, the Foundry, and the Ash District, Kirkwall’s own city of the dead. She didn’t have far to go; in the square they’d passed through on their way to the Keep, she eased around a squat bush in the shape of a whimsical bird, hunkered down in the shadows, waiting, watching, disappearing into the formless dark.
After a time two figures approached the dark house bearing the crimson crest. They held no torch, no lantern, but looked furtively into every shadow as they walked. Both elves, the hooded figure noted, one of them wearing the plate and chain of the guard, the other a plain brown tunic and breeches, barefoot, no cloak in spite of the chill. Drawing close to the tiny makeshift shrine, the elf in uniform held back, eyeing the street. “Hurry, Nuna,” she whispered. A female, thought the hooded figure in surprise. A female elf in the guard! Even five years ago such a thing would have been unheard of in Kirkwall. Only six years ago the elves in the city still had to abide by a curfew.
Nuna crept close to the shrine, knelt down, carefully pulled a small object from inside her tunic, gazed down at it, clutched it to her narrow chest. The hooded figure saw by the set of the elf’s shoulders, by the hang of her head, that she was weeping.
The elf in uniform looked down at her own feet, dark wisps of hair falling into her face, then stepped forward, knelt, put her hand gently on Nuna’s back.
“He shouldn’t have died, Lia,” whispered Nuna, her voice thick with grief.
“I know,” whispered Lia in response. “I know.”
“He was just… just a baby…”
“I know, Nuna. I’m… I’m sorry.” Tears streaked down Lia’s face now, though she clearly fought them.
“My little baby…” wept Nuna, her shoulders heaving, curling around the tiny object she held to her. Her dark blonde hair fell across her face. “I’m sorry, my baby, so sorry…”
The elves’ tears mingled with rainwater in the cracks between the cobblestones. When Lia spoke again, it was so softly that the figure in the shadows had to read her lips to understand her words.
“It will not be for nothing, Nuna.” Lia pressed her hand against her friend’s back again, firmly, urging.
After a moment, Nuna nodded wordlessly, looked at the object in her hands one more time before placing it tenderly on the makeshift shrine. Lia helped her to stand, and the elves fled together, casting a last look behind them.
When they had gone, the cloaked figure detached itself from the shadows, drew close to the shrine, reaching up a gloved hand and pulling back her hood as she did so. Pale moonlight shone off of chin-length auburn hair, straight as an arrow. She knelt reverentially beside the shrine, gently touched the object that Nuna had placed there. It was a doll, roughly made of plain cloth, but hard-loved by some young child: both arms had been sewn back on at some point, and the impression of tiny fingers could clearly be seen around the doll’s middle. Two blue buttons were stitched in place for eyes, and two long triangles of leather made sharp little elven ears, the tip of one seemingly chewed by young teeth.
“Maker watch over you, child,” whispered the red-haired figure, her fingers trailing over the little toy. She could feel the dampness of Nuna’s tears there, and the warmth of her hand where she had clutched it.
The rest of the objects were similar – a broken blade, driven into a crack in the cobblestones, a leather dog collar, a number of tiny runestones, small purple shells, sundry bits of jewelry, feathers, bottles of wine, some coins, even a wooden staff, all laid down reverently in tribute to the crest, and to that which the crest represented.
The cloaked figure pulled her own offering out of an oiled leather pocket on her belt – she lit the tiny white candle with a sulfurous yellow match, let a few drops of hot wax fall onto the stones, and set the candle firmly into its own wax, out of the wind.
Leliana stood, turning away from the shrine, raising her hood again, her ocean blue eyes glinting briefly in the light of the half-moon. As she made her way back to the Keep, walking in shadows, she found herself trembling, and muttered to herself: “Who are you, Hawke, and what is it you have become?”