Alternative Origins Chapter Ten

by artrald

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*

You know when you’ve had maybe two hours’ sleep and your eyes want another eight? That is how this feels. I can hear Leliana swearing softly in Orlesian and I can smell hot metal – movement, behind me, is Alistair peeling himself off the floor. Morrigan and Wynne are there on the stair looking wrung-out, kneeling beside another mage who’s coming around.

Two mages and a templar should be waking, says Morrigan, and we find ’em – they’re not in a good way, and too busy feeling lucky to be alive to raise hackles at the unfamiliar mage. The others – they won’t wake. Wynne says not to try, they’ll have a specialist look at them, but she doesn’t look hopeful. We do what we can for ’em – Leliana busies herself looking after the three Morrigan saved and thinks we don’t see that she won’t even glance at the sleeping victims.

The templar’s only barely there, really, and one of the mages isn’t much better – we send them down to the Tranquil, who will doubtless look after them as well as they would any other. The other mage is pretty much good enough to give us his story of what’s going on here.
“It’s Uldred,” he says, sitting propped against the wall there on the wide decorated landing. “Uldred did it. Blood magic and maleficence and – Maker’s balls, the Templars, the Templars. They knew?”

“You aren’t making much sense, dear.” Wynne’s got the grandmotherly mask back on. “Why don’t you start with the beginning?”
Deep breath. “All right. So. Yesterday. You know how Enchanter Uldred has been after that council meeting? The one where none of the enchanters would-”

“Yes, dear.”

The words come out in a rush. “So there was a message come in for him this morning and he called a department meeting and I was late, because I was finishing off a preparation that just wouldn’t wait. So I was down the corridor when I just… I felt a surge of power, like when Adiana spilt that batch of lyrium decoction, and I – something told me something was wrong, so I set myself as ‘out’ and went and hid in the washroom. And, well, there’s a mirror in there and I’m not a fool, so when the bell rang, the emergency bell, I turned the mirror on Uldred’s office to see what was going on, and there he was and there was, there was blood on his sleeve, just on the end of it? And there was Ser Malon sitting at his desk calm as a little lamb and nodding and smiling, and like half of the Transmutation faculty standing there and looking all intense and I could just about see Topher lying on the ground with his head all funny.” He pauses for breath. “And I turned the mirror on Head Enchanter Irving’s office and he was sitting on the floor and Elaine from Metamagic had a staff trained on him! A-and I hid. And there were the most terrible noises, and I’ve had a horrible time, and then eventually my nerve broke and I ran and there was obviously a spell on the stair and like an ass I was caught.”

“You’ve been under for about thirty hours, dear. Don’t beat yourself up too hard for being trapped – it caught me, and I’m not exactly a newcomer.” Wynne gives a grandmotherly chuckle. “Now think carefully – is there anybody you are absolutely certain isn’t in on this?”

He frowns. “The Head Enchanter?”

“Alternatively, Elaine from Metamagic.” Wynne’s voice remains kindly. “More?”

“Um.” He counts on his fingers a moment. “Yes! Enchanter Leorah.” He nods firmly. “I couldn’t scry the library – she’d raised the wards – but she did it the moment the bell rang. And I overheard someone saying they couldn’t get into the library, and someone replying that that was all right, because the Transmutation and Evocation faculties had already taken out all the books ‘they’ needed, whoever they were.”

A gentle frown. “And did they say what ‘they’ needed grimoires for?”

“N-no. Just that they couldn’t get into the-”

“Library. Very well. Thank you, dear. Is there anything else you can tell us, before we go and sort all this out?”

“All the noise has been coming from the Harrowing Chamber, I, uh. I think they’ve genuinely torn the Veil up there.” The nervous mage looks to the limp form of the templar I’m carefully carrying down the stairs. “Are they going to, to Annul the tower, Enchanter?”

Wynne snorts. “Not with me inside, Will. Harrowing Chamber, you say. We’ll have this sorted by teatime, most likely, and don’t you worry.”

With the mage helped away to see the dubious ministrations of the Tranquil – well, at least they should feed him – we head on up, Wynne in the lead. The main stair will be watched, she says, so she takes us into the library – and, well. These people house their books better than they house their apprentices. The place is vast

Too vast. It’s a maze, says Leliana, a deliberate one, and Wynne nods. These shelves are nothing but illusion. The defence doesn’t bar the door – it just hides the contents. I look at the titles of the books – see, humans, every child can read where I come from – and they’re gibberish to me. Morrigan looks at Wynne as we follow the path through the shelf maze and says she hopes she knows the way, and the reply of ‘perhaps’ is appropriately vague –

Whether by luck, good judgement, or unseen assistance, we find ourselves what we were after – stairs, a hidden stairway up to the Head Enchanter’s offices, and Wynne leads us upward saying that they were originally built not to facilitate late-night reading, as you’d expect, but rather a clandestine affair with the librarian.

But our luck doesn’t last beyond the door at the top. A young fellow, reading papers on the desk of the ransacked office, is facing straight at us as we open it – his eyes widen – Wynne’s first reaction is one of shock as well, and he’s rabbited by the time we’re out of the narrow stair. We can hear his voice echoing in the corridor yelling that Enchanter Wynne’s here – Leliana and Morrigan and I take places beside the door and Alistair and Wynne set up to greet anyone coming in.

And, well, I suppose they come in thinking to see an old lady who wants a fair fight or possibly a polite little chat – they just about have time to notice Alistair standing there beside her when Leliana and I move at the same time. She grabs her man by his long ponytail, pulls him down backwards in a choke-hold; I take the two to the other side and bang their heads together with strength they were maybe not expecting from a girl whose head don’t quite come up to their shoulders. One of the two at the front turns to discover that he’s got a glass jaw; the other starts speaking words of magic only to stop at the second one with Leliana’s knife’s point behind his ear and Alistair’s sword’s point under his chin.

Wynne can do the talking. Some family lost a fine matriarch when the Maker decided to give his Gift to this woman. “Mage Jolyon. How kind of you to join us.”

He bares a rictus of a smile. “Ah… Enchanter. What a… surprise – we’re so very – it was – surprise, that’s all.”

She nods. “Absolutely, absolutely. I do quite understand these things – after all, we were all young once. Now, listen carefully, because I don’t want you to mistake me.” Her smile vanishes. “Explain in as much detail as you can, immediately I’ve finished speaking, everything you know of what is going on here, and I may be disposed to be lenient. Prevaricate, evade or dissemble and I’ll throw you to the templars, boy, I’m sure you don’t need a scrying credential to understand the general line of enquiry they’ll be using. Speak.”

“I know the punishment for maleficence as well as you do, Enchanter. There is no going back for any of us.”

All of you?” She blinks. “There surely can’t be that many secret blood mages in the Tower.”

“Oh, yes. He made sure of that, enchanter, he gave a crash course.” He gives a slightly hysterical little laugh. “Those who would not are dead, fuel to the fires. Name your co-conspirators, Mage Jolyon. Name those who drank the cup beside you. Enchanter Irving. Enchanter Leorah. Enchanter Veretha. Mage-”

Her voice mostly just sounds disappointed. “Did I not tell you what would happen if you lied?”

“Oh! But you cannot afford it. Your oldest friends, enchanter, your prize students! We all know their names, every name of those that wouldn’t bend. You think we won’t all know enough of them? You think that if we’re going down, we won’t take you down with us?”

He’s bitten his lip. Blood runs from it. Wynne narrows her eyes. “Cast on me, boy, and you’ll wish the templars had got you. Suppose I got where I was without knowing how to take down a blood mage, do you, especially one who was a little reluctant in the first place?” He spits at her and she flicks her fingers and the bloody spit flies back in his face. “Now, then. Let’s stop playing games. Either you’re useful to me, or you’re not. What’s it going to be?”

He shakes his head. “You can’t deliver on that, and I’ll not give you the satisfaction.”

Her eyes are sad, but the rest of her is quite unperturbed. “Have it your way.” She gestures with her staff and in the same moment he spits blood into the air again – the droplets seem to slow down, the feeling in the air one of a summer thunderstorm, of pressure – and then Morrigan says “Goodnight” sweetly and he folds up just like the abomination did, and Alistair has to get his blade out of the way pretty quick.

“Sleeping spell?” Wynne looks at the witch sidelong.

“Concentration duration.” She shrugs. “Blame my mother; it’s her staff. Did you want to do something more permanent?”

Wynne nods and repeats the gesture she made with her own staff. “Careful pressure on the jugular vein. Unconsciousness without the requirement of continuous concentration. But what he did wasn’t exactly silent – bind and gag them and we should move.”

Raised voices from down the corridor. Damn right we should move.
The place is panelled in wood, and there are costly hangings on the walls, the odd statue perched in an alcove, the whole place with the air of long-accumulated luxury, the kind of thing you’d cringe at the thought of bringing violence to. This is the way I’d imagined that the lords and ladies lived, though looking at how they actually live, I’m coming more to the conclusion that the kingdom houses its mages best out of anyone. And no, seeing as you ask, it don’t make the fingers itch. Just because I was brought up in muck don’t make me a thief.

Nothing here that’s light enough to carry, neither.

We set another ambush, taking cover behind statues and in doorways. I hear them coming down the hall – know we’re spotted, because the genius who spotted us says in what he considers a hushed voice, “Four of them, just around the corner.” Alistair’s grin is humorous, I can’t help but smile back.

“Fireball ’em.” … Okay, maybe not quite too daft to live.

I glance back at Wynne, who gestures approximately ‘stay where you are’, and nod an answer. She holds up a hand, her lips moving quietly, and I hear four loud harsh words from the mage down the hall, and a little red thing about the size and shape of a dry bean flies around the corner and straight into Wynne’s hand. She closes her fingers and smoke rises around them, and we all hear the loud surprised voices.

“What? Where’d the fireball go?”

“You can’t tell? It’s your bloody fireball.”

“Shit. The fire suppression must still be active. What now?”

“Lightning?”

“Oh, you want me to just throw undirected natural forces around in the hope that some of them will stick, do you? Look, are you sure there are four people there?”

“Yes.” The mage raises his voice. “Oi! You! Come out with your hands where we can see ’em. There’s no way out of there!” A pause. “We can stay here all day if we have to!”

A mouse goes past at ankle height. I, uh. It’s odd to say, but I think I recognise that mouse.

“Shit! What was that?”

“A mouse, you idiot.”

Pause, just long enough for them to look at one another. “Up here?” But that’s all it took. I hear an incoherent yell and a heavy crash and I’m around the corner just as quick as I can, but by the time I get there there’s Morrigan standing there calmly with a hand around the throat of a struggling young man just barely old enough to shave, the other one sprawled against a wall ten feet away as if flung by some inhuman force. Moment later the one she’s holding goes limp, and she lowers him gently to the floor before looking up at Wynne.

“Careful pressure on the jugular vein,” she says reflectively. “You’re absolutely right.”

Wynne pokes the unconscious man with her toe. “You can kill someone like that.”

“Mm-hmm.” Morrigan straightens. “I didn’t. Which way?”

So two more suspected maleficars are added to the growing pile. And we’re carefully not thinking about the fate we’re leaving them to. Wontering if it wouldn’t be kinder to kill ’em. Dammit. A girl could grow to hate magic.

Both of our mages flinch at once. It’s Leliana who asks, “What just ‘appened?”

Morrigan makes a face that says don’t ask her; Wynne shakes her head. “Release of power. From upstairs, which means the Harrowing Chamber. Blood or lyrium. Abjuration, by the flavour, deliberately unsubtle. My guess? Uldred, or whoever it is, just locked his door in a way you could hear through the whole tower.”

“Can you open ‘is lock?”

“He’s used the wrong spell. Always does.” Wynne smiles. “If he’d actually paid attention in Abjuration class back in the day – hell, if that was me in there and him out here – then we’d be royally buggered. But we shouldn’t complain about providence when it drops in our laps. C’mon.”

*

You know? I can see why a person could grow to hate living in this tower, for all the luxury I’ve seen. It’s the stairs. I mean, stairs built for shems are a pain anyway – when you’re taking a pace and a half for everyone else’s one, you do notice things like stairs with steep risers – but there aren’t half a lot of them here. It’s another flight up and round to get to the top, and they’re steep and functional for once, and it’s a right pain, is all I’m saying.

And these stairs are lit not just by a candle but by a glow from the landing at the top, a blue-white glow like nothing natural, and as we get to take a look it turns out that it’s in the shape of a man in armour, drawn blade, mouth wide open in a silent scream, encased in white light, and Morrigan takes one look at him and takes the three quick steps to look at him close before Wynne can cry “Don’t touch!”
She stops just in time, head on one side, staring. “What… the… The poor man. What am I seeing?”

“A distraction.” Wynne turns her attention to the door off the landing. “Here’s our locked door. We’re unlikely to-”

“It’s a templar.” Morrigan walks around the glowing shape. “There’s a templar in here. Alive.”

“Yes -” Wynne’s voice is a little testy – “it’s Ser Cullen, Maker alone knows how he got all this way on his own. And there are people coming. Do you really want to face both the mages in there and the mages out here simultaneously?” She doesn’t wait for a response. “Then leave him.”

Morrigan looks from the templar to the door and back a moment, then tears her eyes off him. “Just because you may happen to be right,” she growls, “does not make me an apprentice to come at your beck and call.”

“Fantastic,” says Wynne through gritted teeth. “When we’ve solved our blood mage problem, we can have another little cage-fight all of our own, and won’t that be amusing.”

“Do we need to separate the two of you, or something?” Alistair has his sword out, point down. “What’s in there?”

“Circular room, completely blank and bare. The focus is at the centre. Expect anything. Go for anybody casting anything who isn’t a friend.” Wynne puts the back of her free hand on the door; the other’s got her staff. “As I thought – this is a simple wizard-lock, with too much power into it. It’d fall apart in a strong wind. Morrigan, I’ll be exposed for an instant and there’s a trap on the far side of the door. I’ll defend thereafter, but you’ll need to counter that trap and anything else that happens before I can get going.”

The witch nods and cracks her knuckles. Leliana gets on Alistair’s other side from me. “Go in quick,” she says, “and split from the mages as fast as you can. I will go for physical threats – Kallian, you go for anybody who looks like a wizard, Alistair, find anything that looks… unnatural, and hit it in the face with your shield. They can’t cast on what they can’t see. Stop their mouths, get them on the back foot, make your kills quick and sure. A mage with nothing to lose – you saw how I dealt with Jowan.”

I take a deep breath, tight grip on my knives. “Mages, you ready?” They are. Sudden thought. “Blessed are they who stand before the wicked and the corrupt, and do not falter. Blessed are the peacekeepers, the champions of the just.”

Leliana and Alistair and Wynne take up the words. There’s no magic to the prayer, but it don’t half help clear the mind. Heart pounding. Wynne holds up an open hand, starts counting down on her fingers. “Blessed are the righteous, the lights in the shadow. In their blood the Maker’s will is written.” Two. One.

Wynne taps her staff to the door sharply and it explodes inwards – Morrigan makes a hand-gesture that seems to go through more directions than exist, and a bright sallow flash from just inside the door leaves us half-blind with after-image and the only sound is Morrigan’s high disbelieving cry of pain. We smell blood, move fast. Alistair goes right into the room, I go left.

The room is as they said, circular, bright marble, very plain. There’s a circle incised in the floor. It’s probably not supposed to be full of blood. There’s probably not supposed to be all this smoke in the air. A blackboard off to one side, a corkboard covered in pins and little scraps of parchment and pieces of string. Piles of books. A table, it and its glassware scrupulously clean, though the floor under it is smirched with blood. A hollow-eyed old man with a knife, blood to the elbows and holding a pewter bowl that stinks of the stuff. Ten people in total, nine of ’em with staves, each with a different colour of light gathering at the end. And bodies, I remember a pile of pale corpses just kind of stacked. And in the centre of that circle in the floor there’s something I can only really talk about in terms of a blind spot at the corner of the eye, ’cause I can’t bring myself to look at it straight.

So I go for the nearest one with a staff. I don’t think she even saw me ‘fore I hit her, knife up under her chin and the other one in the side of her neck as the staff falls from her hand. I hear the distinctive noise of Alistair hitting something hard with his shield. Light flashes in the corner of my eye and I whirl, sheer good luck bringing the dying mage I’m holding across in front of me, and the gout of flame that washes over her doesn’t hardly scorch my hair. It’s a moment before they can do that again, right? I throw a knife at the fire-thrower to keep him distracted – a thrown knife ain’t so good at hurting someone, but it’ll make ’em duck – and go for him low.

Over in the centre of the room, Wynne has her staff up in front of her vertically – one of the mages steps forward, speaking the last words of a spell, and she moves her hand imperiously and the two of them are connected for an instant by a bar of white light that casts harsh black shadows, and she rocks back on her heels and he collapses with his hands over his eyes. I see the spike of green light from Morrigan’s staff at the same instant as a blue flash from the other side of the room, and the air is riven by a clap of thunder as a thin finger of lightning links the two mages’ staves and they’re both driven back into opposite walls of the chamber with identical cries of pain. But it’s notable that she gets up, and he doesn’t.

And the one I went for, the one who threw fire, he knocks the knife spinning aside with his staff and brings it down like a shillelagh, but he’s got no inking of how to swing one. The stone floor splinters where the end of the staff hits it – behind me – but I’ve gone past under his blow already, and as I come up behind him I grab his hair in my hand and pull him over backwards to cut his throat. Blood sprays.
The man that Alistair punched staggers back, but pretty much bounced off that blow like rubber; he grins, opening his mouth wider than you’d think possible, and gestures; there’s a crunch that I can hear from where I am and Alistair goes white. The man laughs – or starts to – Alistair punches his sword out in a lunge that shows his point out the back of the mage’s neck. So that’s five down.

Two of them with staves just have light gathered to them and ain’t moving, so I leave them for the mages. The man with the bowl – yup, blood. I knock the bowl from his hand – is he distracted or unresisting? Never mind – and it splashes on the floor, I grab the wrist of his knife hand and spin him down to the floor and break his wrist. A mage can’t work much magic without a staff or a diagram or time to speak words, right?

And the eighth man with the staff sees what he thinks is his opening and hurls flame at Wynne, a spear of the stuff that she can’t avoid, and her robe goes up as if it’s soaked in pitch – she blithely ignores this, reaches her hand out towards him and closes her fingers and he crumples to the ground with a scream, and the fire on her dies down to a smoulder around her hem immediately.

And the ninth one drops his staff – and Leliana yells something like “Get him!” – and Alistair and I charge for him one from each side as Leliana throws a knife to try and distract him – and he smiles and clicks one finger then the other, and it’s like every muscle in my body convulses itself at once and I crumble to the floor like a babe who forgot how to walk. I can taste blood. I hear Alistair go down as well in a clatter of armour. Leliana gets out a scream as she doubles over; Wynne and Morrigan remain standing, but I can see the sweat rolling down Wynne’s forehead. And the other two mages with staves, the ones we ignored because they weren’t making a move? They go down too, silently, painfully.

The knife bounces off his forehead, hilt-first, and he smiles, and allows a deadly silence to settle before he speaks. “Enchanter Wynne. How good of you to grace us with your arrival.”

“Enchanter Uldred.” From Wynne’s voice, you wouldn’t know the strain she looks to be under. The air between her and him is pretty much fizzing. The shadows at the edge of the room are growing deeper. It’s like the only thing in the world that matters is the two of them. “Always a pleasure to come visit you. For – ugh.” She stops talking long enough to wipe her mouth with the back of her hand; blood comes away. The hem of her robe is still smouldering and smoking. “For the sake of the histories, dear boy – would you mind awfully letting us know which fools, and what you believe you will show them, show them all? It would be an awful bother to try and reconstruct that from your laboratory notes.”

By the way? Can I just enter for the histories to say that lying on your face with both arms and both legs cramping and your back arched like this, is not just painful but embarrassing. And I hate it. It hurts to breathe. It hurts to blink, for fuck’s sake.
Uldred is still talking to Wynne. He shakes his head, smiling. “Oh, my dear Wynne. Always so set in your ways.” He looks down for a moment, back up with a broader smile. “And I sense that my disciples are outside – waiting, as it were, to see which horse to back – and they won’t dare come in, but they can hear us very well indeed. So tell them. Tell them what happens if they back your horse. Tell them the fate that awaits them all – that awaits those that your lackeys have doubtless thought they spared by taking them bloodlessly – that awaits me, should I take the offer of mercy you’re surely about to give.”

Wynne takes a slow step forward, moving for once like the old lady she is. “Oh, grow up, Uldred. If I or Ser Cullen had wanted them dead or worse, I’d have pulled back to the lakeshore and Annulled the tower, as anyone with a shred of brain would know. And yes, I’ll offer you mercy.” She leans on her staff. “Release your spell and I’ll kill you instantly. Make me take you down and I’ll take you alive.”
His smile widens and he spreads his hands. The sense of tension between them intensifies. “Do your worst.”

“Murdering – bastard.” She winces, speaking through gritted teeth. “Eat shit – and die.” The wave of hate, of revulsion that spreads through the room is enough to make my gorge rise – because, you know, today continues to find entertaining ways to get worse. I hear Leliana whimper, and the one whose wrist I broke lets out a soft moan.
And he takes a good couple of steps forward, baring his teeth involuntarily, and he raises his voice. “Oh, I do hope you’ve got better for me than harsh language, you sanctimonious old bat. Or maybe I’ll have to bring this to a conclusion?” He raises a hand and twists it and it’s like the whole of everything twists a little along with it, and Wynne lets out an involuntary gasp of pain.

And a tiny little bit of motion catches the eye behind him. Morrigan isn’t standing leaning heavily against the wall where she was just now. If I was to guess where she was, I’d say she was that little brown scrap crossing quickly behind him. Wynne lifts her staff from the ground like it weighs a hundred pounds and taps it back down, and a symbol etches itself into the ground between them in white light – he looks at it and then at her and laughs. “Quite literally a symbol of defiance? How… quaint. I’d almost think you were mocking me.” And he spits on it, and there’s blood in that, and the symbol turns black and it’s nothing but ash on the ground and he takes another step forward.

And then the little brown field-mouse darts out from the shadows of the wall behind him, and as it comes it unfolds and expands like smoke and fills out and I get an instant’s view of a great dark fanged clawed beast before Morrigan knocks him down with one swipe of her massive right paw and falls on him with sheer animal brutality and complete silence.

The pressure goes. The cramping pain in my arms and legs and belly starts to fade. I breathe again, freely, and judging from the sounds I hear I’m not the only one. Nobody who’s struggling and clawing for every breath can swear as… creatively as Alistair is doing right now. Wynne helps Leliana to her feet. And I go for Uldred – he’s probably down, but ‘probably’ isn’t good enough.

Alistair pulls himself off the floor, one leg clearly not working properly. Morrigan changes herself back, and she’s kneeling by Uldred’s dismembered body breathing hard and the thing that’s really disturbing is the way the body’s in several pieces and she’s covered in blood from the nose down, and – yeah. He’s dead, all right. I offer her a wordless hand up and she takes it and leans on it. Coughs blood into her hand. Won’t look me in the eye.

Alistair and Leliana are coming over, same idea as me. Got to see for ourselves that the man is dead. We look at the body. Someone’s got to say something. Guess it’s Alistair. “Okay,” he says. “He’s dead now. Clearly he was the root of all the evil in this place and everyone who hasn’t taken up arms against us is an unwitting dupe, and let this be an end of it. Right?”
There’s a pause.

There are a variety of unamused stares.

*

The man whose wrist I broke was High Enchanter Irving, and to hear him tell it he and several of the others had been unwilling puppets in their own bodies since all of this began. Apparently the woman who was the first to die by my hand was one, too, and his eyes are sad as he says that nobody blames me, that Uldred had deliberately set that up to get the other Enchanters killed – Did anyone mention yet how magic just makes everything worse?

And with their help, Wynne and Morrigan shut off the insane working at the top of the tower. They give it a name, apparently it’s something out of a Tevinter book, a working specifically outlawed by the White Divine because it goes against the Maker’s writ, and they won’t tell me more than that and to be brutally honest I don’t want to know.

There’s a stand-up row over Cullen. Apparently Uldred bespelled him like that after he killed three of the man’s cronies, and Irving wants him left like that until it’s all sorted and templars can bring him out of it without mage help, and Morrigan refuses to just leave him there as a bloody light-fitting, and I have to step in and promise we’ll carry him back down ourselves before she’ll back down.
So then the question is, what then? Because to hear Irving tell it, every mage in the Tower was forced to come into the Harrowing Chamber, where they test the apprentices, and shed a drop of their own blood and show Uldred they were willing to break the Chantry’s prohibition. And to hear them tell it, every single damned one of them, no doubt, they were forced into it and the alternative was to be used to feed that insane working at the tower’s summit.

Of course, if we go and tell all of this to the Knight-Commander, there will be what I might as well call a witch hunt – the only people who can be held blameless are the librarians, who managed to lock themselves away, and Wynne’s lot. And we did rather come here looking for support, and what support would we get from a total of nine competent mages and twenty apprentices?

I make an excuse for the four of us to confer, over having Morrigan treat Alistair’s injury; she makes somewhat of a production of scolding him for running on what turns out to be a broken kneecap, and he complains that who ever heard of a break-your-kneecap spell? Anyway, I look at each of them and say what the hell do we do.

Morrigan says screw it, we carry Cullen down wordless, we make the mages and the templars sort it out and negotiate with whatever’s left once the arguing is done. Their problem, they should solve it. Alistair says he’s very tempted by that, but it looks bad – we’d like the mages’ and templars’ support as friends and allies, and surely there’s an opportunity here to make some peace, for all that that means (he shudders) getting further involved.

Leliana favours him with the only brilliant smile she’s shown since setting foot inside (at which he doesn’t know where to put his eyes), and says that he’s pretty much right. She blinks slowly, looks me straight in the eye in the way she knows makes me want to flinch, and says trust the Knight-Commander. He’s in charge for a reason. She had heard the man in command of the Tower was a man of compassion, and she took his measure when we spoke. What she’d do, is to lay it before the Knight-Commander in private and give him an opportunity to do some good. Challenging look at Morrigan.

And all Morrigan says to that is she’d better go and wash up. The mages will soon forget what got this blood on her, and the templars won’t understand.The mages unsurprisingly elect Wynne to go down and let them downstairs know that the threat’s gone, and she sticks with us all the way down the tower. With the focus at the top closed off, the whole place is a little less of an outright danger on our way down – the door at the bottom unlocks itself for her and we step through to a worried half-circle of templars and Greagoir’s expression as we ask to talk in private ain’t exactly a relieved one.

So in his quiet soundproofed office, with a guard posted, we lay it out for him simple and plain, and he pinches his brow when he hears we killed Uldred. “I don’t suppose,” he says, “that there’s anything so simple as, I don’t know, some kind of believable confession that Uldred was a lone if powerful lunatic, exonerating all the rest of the Tower? Possibly naming as his collaborators exactly and only those individuals you have already killed or arrested?”

“I already asked that,” Alistair says quietly. “No joy.”

Ser Greagoir sighs. “Quite.” He puts his elbows on his desk, steeples his fingers. “My – thanks, Wardens. Without you… this total and utter disaster wouldn’t just have been the worst such thing since the Orlesian conquest, it would have been – well, for starters, the death of us all. But while your part is over, I suppose mine’s just about to start. I’m going to have my own people at each other’s throats – d’you think we’ve no hearts, either? Today and yesterday my little community lost a third of its number in the worst way it damned well could. And the best of us aren’t these people’s jailors – we’re their confessors, their priests. Their friends, dammit. We share their lives.” He swallows. His face is pasty, his voice hollow. “It’s not just the mages this is going to break in half. And that’s exactly what Uldred bloody wanted, may demons feast on his roasted testicles in the darkest hell the Maker ever dreamed of. It’s like he spent his whole damned career waiting for this chance.”

“You could keep quiet,” Leliana says reflectively. “You could allow the mages to deal for themselves with their shared sin. You could-”

He shakes his head. “No. I won’t do that to them. They need to -” He bites his lip. Starts again. “Whatever else happens, the mages must not be forced to punish their own. Far better that I lose a few friends than that they begin to hate the only peers they have. They need someone to blame for this punishment, someone who isn’t one of their own. I can reassign templars who won’t toe the line. I can deal with a morale problem in our ranks, far easier than in theirs. And since when, exactly, has the Maker’s justice best been done by turning a blind eye? No. I won’t do it.”

She smiles slightly. “I told you that ‘e could be trusted. Knight-Commander, it is likely that Uldred genuinely did force people to do what is said, and for the goal you see – to give them in their minds no way they could go to the Chantry for ‘elp.”

“And such people are victims.” He’s not so much speaking to convince himself, as seeing if the argument will fly with us. She nods. “But for all their sakes and mine as well – to prevent this same damn thing happening in another couple of weeks’ time – we’d bloody well better make sure we got all of those who went willingly.”

“There’s more.” Wynne catches his glare, like, what else could possibly make his day worse, and she takes out a crumpled piece of parchment. “Irving gave me this to give to you. He said you’d understand. It’s what made him set off the contingencies. He intercepted it on the way to Uldred, but he didn’t think to detain the messenger, and the message got through by word of mouth.”

And Greagoir reads it, and passes it to Alistair (Bloody humans. I can likely read better than either of them) and he closes his eyes a good long moment and then he says to us, “Wardens. D’you mind if I take a wild stab at why you are here in the first place?”

“Go ahead,” I say. Out of the corner of my eye I can see that whatever Alistair just read, now he wants to kill someone. (Else.)

“So I think,” he says slowly, “that you might be here because a highly-placed courtier – a teyrn, say? Has committed some terrible act of treason.”

I nod. “Loghain betrayed our people and his king to death and is spinning lies aimed at putting himself on the throne.”

Alistair’s voice isn’t much more than a growl. “And sent Enchanter Uldred a letter promising to have the Templars of the Tower neglected and revive the position of court mage, in return for support in an unspecified strategic matter.”

“The working,” Wynne says. “Knowledge, is what it’s for – repeatable accurate scrying of locations and strengths of armies wouldn’t have been out of reach if the tower contingencies were disabled. It wouldn’t even have required blood – just the lyrium his people stole from the stockpiles, that and a healthy disregard for the writ of the Divine. Doubtless Uldred was trying for a quiet bloodless coup.”

Greagoir looks down at his desk. “And Irving was just quick enough to respond that he forced Uldred’s hand, and the whole thing snowballed, and feeling his back against the wall Uldred resorted to blood magic.”

“And once he started down that path…” Morrigan’s expression is sour. “When we finally reached him – his reason was completely unhinged. He was becoming more and more like a demon – his actions increasingly monomaniacal – perhaps there was even a demon of rage or hate riding him. His actions were certainly vindictive enough. Unlock too much power at once, especially with any sort of emotion behind it, and that door you unlock will never be entirely closed again.”

“Don’t expect me to empathise with him.” The templar grits his teeth. “Your story, it’s alluring, for the very reason that it means that the blood magic was a means, and not an end – it was his downfall, not his cause – and so we’re not looking for a conspiracy of the bastards. But it’ll be a bugger to prove, and worse still if it’s not true. And regardless, Uldred has still crafted us a bloody nightmare. I’m going to have to wake us from it.”

“And in the meantime the Circle is useless to anyone.” I bite my lip. “I don’t envy you your task, ser.”

“No.” He sighs. “But you can tell the mages they don’t need to worry for the moment, Enchanter. Irving and the surviving senior faculty will be summoned, and I’ll come and set the whole damn thing up, and any arse that needs to be kicked among people demanding all of your deaths will be kicked by me personally. And lastly?” He looks at me over his desk. “The Wardens came here after something. Least we can bloody do is give it to them.”

“The first and largest one? You’ll do by yourselves.” I nod at the letter. “I’m afraid I don’t have as much to offer as the teyrn does, but it looks like I’m going to be on the other side when he tears the kingdom in half. We’re not talking about asking for your help in some kind of civil war – but when it’s done, we’ll be taking the field against the Blight. And the darkspawn have mages, I’m told, and based on what I’ve seen happens when you try and fight a decent mage with a sword – we will need everybody you can spare.”

“I thought it might be something like that.” He looks at the letter like it’s poisonous. “As you say, it’s the Circle’s duty to supply mages against a Blight. And our best war-mages and half my templars are already with the army. The wrong army.” He frowns. “I’ll do my best. There’s something else, though?”

“Yes.” I clear my throat. “I’d, uh. We came here originally looking for a master healer to attend Arl Eamon of Redcliffe.”

He nods slowly. “Who’s likely not to be on the side of Teyrn Loghain?”
“In a word, ser.”

“As it happens, I might be able to do that.” He looks at Wynne. “You know that Irving won’t be able to keep his job.”

She nods. “And you’re thinking that the best person to take over afterward is someone who was not only definitely not to blame but not present for most of the shouting?”

“I am.” His expression is pained. “I know you’ll want to be here for your people -”

“I’ll live, Knight-Commander.” She pats his hand. “I will be there for them, my friend. After, when they need me, rather than right now, when they need somebody to yell at.”

*

We spend the night at the Tower, choosing to quarter in the templars’ barracks rather than the luxurious quarters set aside for visiting nobility – I do catch Morrigan giving that door a bit of a wistful look, and I tell her next time with a smile she returns wanly.
From her appearance the next morning, I don’t think Wynne slept. I figure what time wasn’t taken up with talking to people and sorting out what she can would’ve been taken up with stress. The atmosphere’s somewhere between sour and sad and sepulchral, and we just get ourselves out of there and onto the road south as soon as we possibly can.

I’d been worried that Wynne wouldn’t be able to keep up on the road, but she’s got a human’s long legs, and she confesses to using ‘just a touch’ of magic to help them along. Apparently being out of breath and footsore is something a spell of healing – she calls it ‘creation’, she’s got a special word for everything – can fix. Wynne’s from Highever originally, up near the sea, but she came to the Circle more than half a century ago and it’s been her whole life. Even when they’re not in the Tower, it’s there in the back of their heads, like the alienage is in mine, I’d guess. Certainly it’s in anyone’s heads when they trade words. And she meets my eye as she says that and she nods and says exactly.

She knew Duncan? A little, she says, and smiles as she does. Apparently he was ‘interestingly foreign’ when he was Alistair’s age. King Maric’s court, this would have been twenty years ago, was an interesting place: it often had a contingent from the Circle, and just as often it had a Warden or two there, and Duncan was popular with those who could get past that foreignness. I guess twenty years of working on that will get rid of Rivaini ways and accent.

And she asks Morrigan for a few more details on Arl Eamon’s condition, and the two of them are soon talking magic and trying to find themselves a common language for it – they spend much of the afternoon’s extent trying to work out if they have the same definitions for a series of words I never even heard before. At the end of which Wynne firmly advises Morrigan she could pass easier for a mabari hound than a Circle mage, and Morrigan asks for Wynne’s impression of a mabari hound, and that starts a discussion about illusions (which they both do – I think) and shape-shifting (which to the witch’s quiet amusement, Wynne had never seen done outside the Fade before).

Wynne does a funny thing when we make camp – after we’ve eaten and cleaned up she draws a circle with her staff round where she’s going to sleep, and it sparkles and fades. “Against bad dreams,” she says, and asks if Morrigan doesn’t do something similar – the witch just smiles and does her party trick of turning into an owl again, and Alistair has his by now good-natured growl about unnatural acts with animals, and warns her as he does every evening what happens to birds that crap on Grey Wardens.

And he and I pick up sticks and it still feels a little bit like a children’s game, trading blows with slowly increasing speed and dexterity until our movements are a blur in the twilight, as Wynne watches fascinated and Leliana pulls her blanket over her head and complains under her breath about how you never heard the heroes of legend clacking bloody sticks together from dusk till dawn.

Two days it is, from the Tower to Redcliffe, and as I think I said on the way up here, it’s pleasant enough country. Okay, fine, blame the pointed ears if you must, but I like being able to see the horizon, and it’s nice to think that the ancestors of the trees we’re passing were planted by my ancestors back when this place was ours. There’s a song that’s about this, one of the ones we understand most of the words to – and I hum the tune as we walk. Kind of funny to think I’m humming a tune that’s older than things like the Chant of Light and all but one of the human countries. And it’s like, just occasionally? Just occasionally maybe a body might smile for a reason other than to make a point or put someone at their-

A curious, high rushing sort of a thud, and Morrigan makes a quiet surprised noise and puts unbelieving hands down to the wooden shaft that’s this moment planted itself in her belly just above the belt of her tunic.

Of all of us, Leliana’s the first to react, yelling to take cover and half-dragging Morrigan off the path before her legs give way. Alistair swings his shield off his back – something comes winging down the path, and more out of reflex than anything else I catch it. An arrow? We’re being ambushed? I draw. Have to get off the path.

The bushes part, behind Wynne. An olive-skinned shem in grey and green surges up like he appeared out of nowhere and goes for her with a slim blade – she taps her staff on the ground and he’s picked up and thrown right back where he came from; there’s the sound of him hitting a tree. And someone steps out from behind a tree and goes for Alistair’s back, but he gets the edge of his shield to that and his counterstroke is turned by a little parrying dagger in the guy’s other hand.

Leliana calls for help as I’m standing there like a lemon – I hear blades clash over where she is. Another arrow, this one clearly for me, and I cut it out of the air as I rush to give her a hand –

Someone drops out of a tree and that should have been onto my back; I see his shadow, sidestep and fetch him a kick in the side that sends him sprawling. Leliana’s on one knee in front of Morrigan, a blade in either hand, just barely fending off two of them – I come up behind one and yes, he may turn to face me but that just gets him my thrust in his other armpit. I leave the dirk in him and I’m going for the other one, my long blade halfway out of its scabbard at my shoulder when the one that I kicked comes at me from behind – I just about catch his one-handed thrust with my dirk, sword still half-drawn as I spin around.

And facing him for that instant my eyes widen with shock, absolutely not what I should be doing, as I realise horrified that this is an elf, that I’m crossing blades with one of the People. He’s wearing light armour that looks like it was custom-made for him, overlapping plates of boiled leather and metal on a tight jerkin that’s going to allow a lot of movement. His eyes are a cat’s green, his chin pointed, his skin a pack of shades darker than my own light amber, but he’s blond-haired, and he’s got a long curving brown tattoo down one side of his handsome face, and he kicks me very hard in the kneecap.

Pain flares, but nothing breaks, and my sword’s drawn in my left hand, and let’s find out how good he is. He goes for me like a snake, but I’m not there – just like me, he’s used to being smaller than his enemy and faster, and neither’s true. Flat of the dirk in my right hand against his blade to control it, moving with him as he passes me, look right in his surprised eyes as we spin almost like a dance, but he’s got nothing to put any weight behind the thrust of his short blade and my armour turns it, as I bring my own blade across his side in a draw-cut that doesn’t do much beyond discover that his own protection is pretty good. My reprise is instant, a thrust that he catches in a textbook parry, taking the strength of my blow and turning it, and I find my arm flung wide; his own response is a flashing stab to the inside of my arm and he isn’t expecting me to catch that on the dirk in my other hand and try to bind his longer blade with my shorter one. He dances back and I flash forward after him and that’s very nearly an end of it – there’s suddenly the tip of his short blade at my face and even as I flinch aside faster than a cat I feel the burning tip score a line down my cheek.

Alistair makes short work of his man. Nobody’s expecting a fully armoured man-at-arms who can still move like that, and the plan of ‘keep him busy until the archers can feather him’ is struck a mortal blow when Wynne sees an archer, speaks quietly and the man falls to the ground immobile with skin a flat grey. The assassin’s eyes bulge – his back is open to that wizard – and his next parry isn’t angled quite right; the sheer force of Alistair’s blow strikes the blade from his hand, and he ends it with a clean thrust.

And I’m still fighting this elf. I’m faster than he is, and effortlessly stronger, and we’re evenly matched for height and reach, but if I weren’t this fast or this strong then I’d be quite dead. He flicks a cut at my head and I give him a perfect parry in quinte, and he goes to give me what looks like the same again with a cry – I go for pretty much the same parry, but what looks like a cut turns into a cunning downward thrust that slides right past my blade, and there’s all his weight on that and all I can do is clumsily void it, but my sword is under his, and it’s drop the blade or take his point in my gut, so I let him have my sword and spin away and he swaps his off-hand short blade for my sword and kisses the hilt to me with a rogue’s smile.

Leliana has fought her man up from the ground. He’s no slouch at this, but neither’s she, and she fights with a focused intensity that gives him a couple of long bleeding scratches and wears him down and backs him against a tree. Three chances at quarter she gives him, and he spits at her, so she swears in Orlesian and has his throat out. Alistair’s gone after the other archer. He turns her last desperate shot with his shield and leaps ten feet up the bank she’s on to knock her down with the edge of it and put the point of his blade to her throat – she twists, going for him with a long knife she produced from somewhere, but he stops her with a thrust, and then it’s me and the elf.
He holds the blades before him, crossed, low. I go for him like I’m trying to rush him, short springy steps, and as he whips a waist-high feint of a cut out to me I leap, see his eyes widen as I go over him entirely, twist in midair, come down behind him and snake an arm around his neck before he can turn, put a blade’s point to the soft skin beneath his right ear.

Mi’in da, lethallin,” I whisper to him, and I tighten my grip on him just enough that he’s off balance. Drop ’em, coz.

“Or what, you’ll kill me?” He struggles a little, but as I said I’m stronger than him. His accent fits his face: Antivan. “You got the courage to push on that hilt? Eh, lethallan?”
Better explain in case you aren’t following. By calling him cousin in the old tongue, I’m telling him I understand the ways of our kind, and by responding in the same words he’s telling me so does he. It’s like a code. We don’t bob or gull one another, we don’t lift one another’s purses – among our own, we don’t play for keeps. We might scrap a bit, but to actually deliberately permanently go to hurt – The People are family. It’d be like raising a hand to my own brother. If I had one.

But on the other hand, if I hadn’t got out of the way of his blade, I’d be dead a dozen ways by now. So I’m more than a little conflicted as I go to one knee behind him, pulling him irresistibly down to his knees, and say “Won’t we have fun, you and me, as I see if I can?”
Wynne’s kneeling next to Morrigan, and together the two of them are pulling the arrow out of her wound; it’s coming out without blood on it. Leliana’s wiping blood from her blade, keeping her eyes up for more trouble; Alistair’s walking back up the road to us, his blade still drawn. “Any more of them?” he asks.

“How many did you get?” calls the man I’m holding. Whatever else he is, he’s brave.

“Drop. Your. Weapons.” I hiss, and I just break the skin with the blade’s point, and I feel him shiver.

“And do what, hmm?” His voice is quite steady. “My employers, they have a dim view of failure. I drop my weapons, you question and eventually release me, I go, well, anywhere – the crows, they find me, I wish you’d just skipped a few steps and sunk that knife in me. Or you take me captive, bring me to shemlen justice, I am killed by them for brigandry or some other way to justify ‘he stepped out of line and we can’t have that’. So tell me again, lethallan. What is your plan for me?”

“Not my concern. Drop your weapons.”

“No. Kill me.” He takes a deep breath, steeling himself. I tighten my grip. Blood beads on the end of the blade –

I can’t do it. I can’t bloody do it. Sudden thought. “What if I told you there was a way for you to live? Are you resolved to die? Set on it, like?”

There’s a long pause. He’s trembling, just very slightly, fighting to keep his breathing even, but his pounding heart is giving him away. “If you had asked me how I’d have liked to pass beyond, I might well have said ‘in the arms of a beautiful woman after a battle I am not ashamed to have lost’. But now I stand on its precipice?” More silence. A slightly unsteady breath. “Tell me, lethallan. Tell me and I shall see if I can find it in me to believe.”

Leliana and Alistair are watching, like, because they’d rather not watch Morrigan being healed. I look in Alistair’s eyes a moment and they’re unreadable. No help there. Leliana is off to the side where the man can’t see her, but I can’t look to her for advice. My call, this is. “D’you know how we Wardens add to our number?”

“Let me guess for you.” He looks at Alistair. “You find people – skilled people – with their tail in a crack. And you give them the grey surcoat to cover all their past sins and you wield those ridiculous legal powers of yours to give them a way out, and you do it in exchange for their allegiance to your nebulous cause.”

“Not so nebulous. There’s a monster we will kill. What you do after that – well. Soon as I do, I’ll let you know.”

He takes a deep breath. “My alternative is death?”

“So you say. Far as I’m concerned I’d let you go.”

“For my part,” says Alistair, “you tried to kill us.”

The elf chuckles. “I did, rather. I won’t be doing that again, if that helps.”

Leliana glares at both of us like we’ve never interrogated a prisoner before or something. “Who sent you?”

“Ah, the traditional question. The Crows sent me. I am a crow, and you know that is not a name people in this profession claim lightly. There were eight of us, by the way, and a handler our client insisted on. Did you get him?”

Leliana does a quick count with her eyes. “You will lead us to him.”

“I will. I’d tell you who hired us, by the way, but you have no way at all of proving that, and I might have mistaken, so better to show than tell.”

“What,” she says, “no misplaced loyalty? No code of supposed honour?”

His eyes narrow. “Just before you get the wrong end of any stick – I’ve no particular emotional attachment to my employers or those who hired them. How much do you know of the Crows?”

“Enough to believe your line about being a dead man. You’ll ‘ave seen it, too. What they do to-”

Finally he snaps at her. “Yes! I have! Do you want me to make you kill me?”

Abrubtly she turns away. “‘E can be trusted.”

“Just like that?” Alistair hasn’t put away his sword.

“Yes. There are some things I would not say you could fake – and if their employer is disclosed, I would say that even a triumphant return with our ‘eads will not be sufficient to sate the Crows. We are genuinely this man’s last chance.”

I meet Alistair’s eyes. “You do have a say in this one. I’ll know your opinion even if I don’t take it.”

His mouth is a flat line. “Trust is earned. And we, uh. We’d need to go to Orlais to arrange a proper Joining – everyone in the kingdom who knew how to prepare the rite is dead.” He sighs. “But Fearghus was a highwayman. Daveth was a poacher. Duncan was a street thief. You were a murderer. I will watch him like a hawk – but, well. He’s more of a fit to this organisation than I am.”

“Don’t do yourself down, but the point is made.” I lower my blade slowly. I need to give the man a hand to his feet. “Your name? I can’t just go around calling you lethallin.”

His teeth are quite white. “Crows don’t have names. But I wasn’t born a crow, and I suppose I’m not really to be such a bird any more – my mother, bless her, my mother gave me the name Zevran Arainai.”

I raise my eyebrows. Not an alienage I’ve heard of, that last name. “When I’ve got my dignity on, Zevran, I’m Sera Kallian Dener, Warden-Commander of Ferelden, and that means I’m in as much charge as there is of us. The blond fellow the size of an ox is Ser Alistair Cliffe. The Orlesian woman is Sister Leliana; the younger mage is Morrigan and the elder one is Wynne. Can you cook?”

He blinks at that last one. “I, eh. It is a most terrible stereotype, but yes, I can -” He trails off, because Morrigan, arrow wound now quite healed, is sitting against the tree laughing helplessly. “I am sorry. Did I walk into some incomprehensible Fereldan joke?”

She shakes her head through the giggles. “Just comparing your reaction to – mine -” She keeps laughing till she has to put a hand over the little tear in her tunic, evidently pained – “The Grey Wardens have a little bit of a habit of finding the world’s greatest heroes and setting them to the arduous and storied task of providing such things as food and shelter. And then they eat like starving wolves, and they hardly seem to sleep.”

“They didn’t ask me to cook,” Wynne chips in.

“Can you?” A smile suits him, I decide.

“No, dear.” She chuckles. “I’m terrible!”

“Come on.” I scowl at the whole laughing pack of ’em. “We’ve got a man to catch.”

*

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