Viscount Dumar sent the bodies back to the Qunari compound with a letter explaining our suspicions and what he intended to do about them. With Petrice’s public denouncement of Varnel as the guilty party and so many of the flock dead or fled it turned out to be much harder than we’d thought to prove that she was behind the kidnapping. All we heard from the Arishok was stony silence.
The Grand Cleric was no more forthcoming than the Qunari leader. Though she admitted Petrice had been more and more furious in her condemnations of the foreign religion Elthina could not bring herself to admit that her recently-promoted sister of the cloth would lower herself so. With no clear proof Dumar decided it was pointless to attempt to bring Petrice to justice publicly. I made it a point to stop by the Chantry one evening I knew Sebastian was at The Hanged Man and let her know that she’d better watch her step.
The uneasy peace continued to hold, both sides aware that a third factor was agitating to cause conflict. We found plenty else to occupy our time while the Qunari stewed and the Viscount paced. The bandits and mercenaries outside the walls of the city didn’t care about religious tensions and the thieves inside were too desperate to concern themselves or were selfish enough to use it to their advantage.
I continued taking care of Anders, when he would still let me. Some days even my most ribald jokes and outrageous flirting served to make him sadder yet the more I asked him how I could help the more he pushed me away. When I stayed serious, asking him to let me do what I could, he would thank me for my support and say things like, “I would drown us in blood to keep you safe.”
If you’ve never had someone tell you something that bizarre you can’t know how terrifyingly sweet it is. Whatever obsessions the spirit of Justice fed in him were inflating every emotion to the same vast scale and nothing I could say offered him enough perspective to recover himself for long. I stuck to cheering him up when he would let me rather than provoking more declarations like that.
About this time Merrill finally revealed her own obsession and the reason she’d left her clan. I stopped by to visit and she grabbed my hand to drag me into her bedroom. There she showed me what she called an eluvian. It appeared to be a mirror but, instead of reflecting the room, showed a roiling mass like a thunderstorm under glass. She said that it was to fix this device, something the ancient elves had used to communicate over vast distances, that she had originally taken a deal with a demon and learned blood magic.
Yet every trick she’d learned had been able to take her only so far in repairing the mirror. Her clan had a tool every bit as old as the mirror that Merrill was sure would let her finish the work but only the Keeper could grant her use of it. As Marethari had forced her to choose between continuing work on the eluvian and staying with the clan Merrill was sure she would not be supportive her request. And thus she wanted me to ask for her.
I’d come to appreciate Merrill’s complete lack of guile and belief of the very best about everyone. She showed the rest of us just how cynical our usual occupations had made us and often enough turned out to be correct about someone’s better nature that we found ourselves giving people more chances to speak before we slaughtered them. That change had saved the lives of a few people, mostly desperate refugees that had gotten in over their heads and needed to be saved from the very people for whom they’d agreed to work.
So I agreed to take her to Marethari to ask for arulin'holm . The roads were never safe, despite our constant efforts to help the city guards clear them. We took Varric and Anders, who we had found in the dwarf’s rooms in a rare good mood chatting about some marsh. On the walk up Sundermount Anders revealed something new to Merrill: he told her that Justice had learned to seize control of his body, using it to do things Anders would not. He didn’t specify but from the pained tone of his voice I believed Justice had been making him kill people about whose guilt Anders had been unconvinced. The mage certainly never hesitated in slaughtering the lowlifes we fought together.
The point of his tale had been to frighten her with the dangers of associating with a spirit, to point out that even a force for right as Justice had been could force a good person to do abhorrent things. Merrill had blithely promised to be careful but I found more food for thought in his admission than simple respect for the power of demons. I already had that. But I may well have found an explanation for Anders’s slow withdrawal from us. If only I could find a way to counter Justice’s influence perhaps I could help him after all.
When we arrived in the clan’s camp we were met with hostile glances and muttering rather than the simple caution of our last visit. I ignored the elves and headed straight for Marethari. Merrill was a doll but I wanted an explanation from the Keeper for why fixing the eluvian would cause her to exile her own replacement.
Marethari told me about how they had come to have such a thing in their possession. It had tainted and killed two members of their clan, one a dear friend of Merrill’s named Tamlen, at the very start of the Blight in Ferelden. Merrill protested that she had cleansed this taint, that the demon had taught her how to use blood magic to do so. The mirror had been situated in elven ruins more ancient than any the clan had seen before and Merrill was convinced that it held long-forgotten history that would strengthen the elvish. The enormous statues and wall carvings could not be removed but several large fragments of the eluvian, at least, she had taken.
The story earned her a stern lecture from Anders on the intelligence of using blood magic and consorting with demons. I shushed him after a few choice observations because she’d heard it all before, from the rest of us, and I wanted Marethari to finish her explanation.
The Keeper said she believed the mirror could not be cleansed and that it would bring death to their clan if Merrill succeeded in making it work. I saw nods from the few others who had remained within earshot. None of them thought it was safe. To buy time to consider the implications, I told Marethari why we’d come.
“All elves have the right to use the ancient tools,” the Keeper said slowly, “but it is customary that a task be performed for the benefit of the clan before that right is exercised.” Merrill looked concerned but didn’t interrupt. “Such a task has arisen and your arrival here, work of Fen'Harel though it may be, means that more elves will not be endangered in accomplishing it.”
I exchanged a look with Varric, each of us with an eyebrow raised. This sounded ominous. Marethari told us that a varterral had been killing their hunters. From the surprise on Merrill’s face I took this to be highly unusual but the Keeper merely gave us the location of a nearby cave and tasked us with killing the creature. Merrill explained while we were on the way.
Varterrals guarded elven treasure and artifacts, normally letting any elf pass freely to and from the stashes but killing anyone of another race who attempted to reach them. When a clan prepared to move on it sent members in to place some of their own records in the caves and retrieve the histories of others. It seemed like an excellent system to keep the clans connected, in a loose way, with each other and their common history. If the varterral had begun killing elves then something was very wrong.
We wound our way through the cave and found the bodies of the four missing hunters. Each had a pendant or amulet that Merrill took to return to the Keeper. We could hardly carry the bodies with us but at least this proof would allow the clan to hold funeral services for the men. They had been friends and family for Merrill since she’d come to them as a child to train as Marethari’s heir. She cried steadily as we worked our way forward but her confusion and sadness seemed only to fuel the strength of her magic.
When we arrived at the cavern in which the varterral lived I was thankful for every bit of it. The thing was huge, tall enough on its spindly legs that an ogre could have sat beneath it. It looked like a collections of pointed rocks strung together by limbs so thin I didn’t see how they could bear the weight. The tiny head and arms seemed like part of another creature altogether.
Merrill had warned us that it would spit acid and that its feet could crush us in an instant were we unwary. It was unbelievably nimble. Thankfully she and Anders had spells enough to bind it for a time while Varric fired bolt after bolt and I slashed away with my blades, circling around to attack from behind and below, seeking weak spots in its armored hide. I found none and had to make my own, hammering at it with the hilts of my daggers and jamming the points in where I could.
I danced back each time it managed to break free, dodging the bubbling pools of spit and flinging myself aside when the legs flashed down at me. I should have brought Fenris, I thought. For all the damage Bianca could do I would have welcomed another blade at my side and the unique powers the lyrium tattoos gave him would have made the fight much shorter. One fist phased through the shell to crush the bone inside would have crippled the thing and brought its unprotected neck within reach. As it was I could barely stagger from the cave, I was so exhausted. It was no wonder the poor hunters had died in there, sent in one by one.
As we returned to the camp, Merrill’s steps slowed. “Why are they all so afraid of me?” she asked plaintively. “They all stare as though I were going to going to sprout fangs and kill them! They’ve known me since I was a child. They have no reason to fear me. What has the Keeper been telling them?” Her voice sounded of tears once again before she visibly set aside her feelings and straightened her shoulders. “It doesn’t matter. I will get the arulin'holm and finish the eluvian. They will all see that I knew what I’m doing.”
Anders shook his head and Varric rolled his eyes. Merrill could be such a little girl, sometimes. I gave a wry grin but didn’t see any reason to burst her bubble just then. She’d get a rude awakening soon enough. I led them back down to the camp and Marethari.