Alternative Origins Chapter Nine

by artrald

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*
The murder are balked. They don’t like this. It’s not natural. It’s not right. (It’s what they were paid for.)

The trail was hot – the trail was hot as steel in the forge – the quarry was even in sight, physically in actual sight – but their orders were well-worded, and well-written, and very very specific.

So when a group of four travellers left the town with the castle on the hill by the lake and headed north, they were allowed quietly to pass. Because the orders were very specific. Only with their falconer were they allowed to strike – as if they were some kind of Fereldan hawk – it shouldn’t be allowed.

But it had been allowed.

And so the crows watched their targets walk straight past their noses, and were balked. A crow who does a thing which the crows were forbidden? That is not a crow. It is carrion, and is treated as such.

So the murder, they are balked, and they are not pleased.

And yes – a very good description was given. A woman in her late twenties, flame-haired and grey-eyed and average of stature, an Orlesian who dresses for preference as a Chantry sister but wields a blade like a veteran. A second woman of indeterminable age, mouse-haired and green-eyed, tall as some men, striking of feature – if you like humans – a mage of subtle power, who goes without a Templar, and the Wardens have had no opportunity to recruit mages. An apostate witch, then, and a first target. A man, twenty years old, blond-haired and blue-eyed, six feet two inches and built like a destrier, already known to the crows as the youngest full member of the Grey Wardens from Ostagar. And an elf, somewhere between sixteen and thirty, female, pretty, auburn and hazel-eyed, a creditable four foot ten, again, known to them as a rank amateur.

They repeat his description back to him, in their camp, word for word. And then they begin to change things. Correct him. Give details of clothing and armour he had omitted. Give the detail that they walk rather than ride, and list their favoured weapons, and count the knives they carry hidden. Detail where they hide their money, and the likely weight of each person’s pack; detail that the witch walks the wilds as if born to them while the elf is unquestionably an alienage girl; detail that the cooking is shared between the nun and the witch.

Why yes, they have seen them. Funny he should ask, really. Yes. They’re headed north.

What d’you mean, wait for them right here. A crow is not a hawk. What does this man think he is, hmm?

The man with the purse-strings. Good point, well-made.

They settle. You might wonder why they settle. But this is why they are crows, and this is why they cost what they do. They understand the meanings of the word reputation, all of them, and – and this is important – unlike other birds, if the crow does wrong, the murder will know, and they will be displeased.

The falconer’s tent fails, that night, and his blanket is eaten by vermin, and much of his food is found to have been just very slightly rancid.

Nobody said that the murder were not allowed to be pissy.

*

A scream, a proper full-throated scream, and the knife is in my hand and I’m awake, and that’s the order. I take a breath in and I can see shapes, two shapes in the firelight, and I hear a noise behind me and the knife tears out in a waist-high arc as I spin to face it with an incoherent noise of –

Nothing there –

I turn the rest of the way around and coil like a snake and there’s got to be a reason for this paralysing feeling of personal intimate terror –

The shapes are Leliana – similarly with a drawn blade – and Alistair, who was on watch, just crouched there quiet and still and watching me get my breath back. Morrigan will be on a tree-branch. I see no other threat.

“It’s all right.” Alistair’s voice is quiet. “Nightmare, wasn’t it?”

I puzzle out what the sounds must mean, my eyes darting here and there. Eventually I nod, slowly. “Must be,” I whisper, as Leliana sheathes her knife slowly and lies down again, pulling a fold of blanket firmly over her head. (That flutter of movement over there must be Morrigan in owl’s shape, moving to a branch less susceptible to mysterious screaming in the middle of the night.)

A bit of wood pops on the fire and sends sparks up into the night. Now I’m breathing a little easier, I realise I’m shivering just a bit. I move a little closer to the fire, sit on a log. Look into the embers. “I’m guessing that was one of these charming things that comes with the whole Warden thing?”

“You’re hearing the archdemon talking to its minions.” Alistair considers. “Or the minions talking back. Or to each other. Definitely talking going on, though.”

“It just felt so…” I sound weak. I hate sounding weak. I don’t feel weak. “So personal.”

“Archdemon, then.” He nods. “It hates you. Hates us both, really.”

“Bloody mutual.” I scowl, and he snorts with laughter.

“You can say that again.” He sits himself down, around the fire from me. “Can you still hear it?”

Blink. I listen. “I can hear the fire, and Leliana’s breathing, and you. I can hear a creature, thirty yards to my right, probably a rat.”

He nods. “Well, it’ll come – you’re no mage, so it’ll take its sweet time, for all Duncan always claimed it came to him all in one go the morning after his Joining. I can hear ’em now. The archdemon is south-east of us, most of a kingdom’s length away. The nearest darkspawn is a mile and a half below ground and twenty or so yards to my left.”

“You’re showing off.”

He smiles. “I could be sympathetic and chivalrous, instead. Would my lady like a warm blanket and soft words of comfort?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t met your lady. By now you know I’m not anybody’s anything.”

“Heh. More seriously – the new sense needs training, or all it’ll ever be is creepy whispering.”

“Makes sense that it would. I mean, I need training in general, but when am I to get it?”

He looks at the fire. “I travelled with Warden Alejandro for six months, I mean, there were others in our group, but I was his shadow. Every night when we camped, no matter the day’s exertions, we kitted up and drilled in full harness until he tired of it. Duncan -” he pauses – “May he rest in peace atop a massive bloody pile of his enemies, Duncan was different. He’d tell me stories, for the most part. Loved ’em. And we’d cross sticks – he’d never spar with live steel, always said he’d seen one too many accidents, and if I was swinging hard enough to break my stick I wasn’t doing it right – we’d cross sticks as long as the tale went. A warrior has to have a soul, he always said, or we’re not fighting for something worth winning.” He blinks. “Sorry. That went to a dark place pretty quick.”

“It’s all right. I only knew him a week and a half, and he was the first human I ever might’ve looked up to.” I breathe deep. “How are you going to teach your student, then?”

“My-” He blinks. “Some teacher I. What could you learn that would help? You tore darkspawn apart pretty easy; you killed the ogre -”

You killed the ogre -”

“The ogre was killed, and I made a damned poor showing. And out there yesterday you were showing me up, for all I’d absolutely have you in a duel.”

I pick up a stick and poke at the fire idly. “I don’t keep my point up, I move my blade too slow and let it get off-line, I watch the point, not the person -”

“See – you even know what you’re doing wrong. What did you want from me, again?”

I look at him sidelong. “Is that just more self-pity I ought to ignore, or do you actually want me to bite on that?”

“Now there’s an offer you don’t get every day.” The innuendo is out of his mouth before he can stop it, and for a moment he looks like he wants it back. I ignore it.

“So, rank.”

“Rank?” He sniffs.

“Yeah. Leliana said – as a Warden you had the rank to challenge the bann to a duel, and – well – you act it. You carry yourself like a knight, you know? And I think I might need to know how you do that.”

He makes a face. “I’m not sure why you’d want to be one. It’s all rules and oblique politeness and not spitting in public. At least because we’re part of an order I can turn down a duel or something in favour of a bollocking from D- from you.”

“But I am a knight. Aren’t I? With a shield and a surcoat and a horse and a dignity.”

A smile. “Surcoats, we have – and I’ve got a shield, and we should look at getting you one. The Joining is a legal investiture. Given that the Wardens of Ferelden are, like, you and me, and you’re in charge, you’re actually the Warden-Commander, and the treaties I’ve been reading are supposed to make that the legal peer of a Knight-Commander of the Templars. So, uh, yes. You’re a… a knight, and not a minor one.”

Frustration. “And what does that mean?”

He takes a deep breath.”Well, that’s a topic and a half. Legally speaking you’re above common law. You can only be judged by – well, strictly by law you can only be judged by other Wardens, but honour would dictate that you’d submit to the king, or the arl or teyrn whose land you were on, and you’d have to be judged as a noble, not a commoner. You’ve the right to trial by combat, and you can appoint a champion if you’d rather not dirty your hands. Any knight of anybody’s order or realm calls you a name you don’t like – and most people will take your side for anything as simple as not calling you ‘Sera’ – and you’ve the right to call them out, and the closest they can come to refusing is to have someone else fight you. If you show disrespect to another noble, then you can expect a challenge in turn – from their subordinates if they don’t think you important enough to call out personally – and if a noble actually strikes you then they are expecting a duel of honour. D’you want me to go on?”

I shake my head, mostly in disbelief. “So if I’ve got the surcoat on, I’m above the law for true?”

“I think even Loghain will tread carefully around brooking common disrespect to someone who even looks like a knight. The rules benefit him and his, so he’ll likely stick to them like a terrier. I wouldn’t recommend dragging a commoner before a bann’s court for spitting at you, right, but if anyone tries to drag you anywhere then the whole do-you-know-who-I-am thing will go further than you’d think. Hence the dignity, so they don’t need to ask.”

“I think I left mine at Ostagar.”

He looks at me quite seriously. “Nah, it’s in your pack. For true – the nobles all play by this, and if we don’t play their game then it’s like you said, sheep on hind legs time. We did well enough in Redcliffe, I sort of thought you knew -”

“Nuh-uh. It felt like trying to balance a knife on its point, you know? I was mostly taking Leliana’s lead and yours.”

“Yeah.” The fire crackles. “I suppose we can go over all this sort of thing if you like. I learnt all of this as a page, and then again because I was going to be a Templar. I hated it, but it must have stuck.” He yawns. “The only thing I was ever really good at was arms.”

I shiver. “I need to know that, and all, you know. Like you said, you’d have me easy in a duel, and if I’m suddenly going to be the kind of person people duel then – well.”

“I suppose. Just – You couldn’t teach me to shoot, in return, could you?” He shifts on his log. “I’ve never been able to shoot straight.”

“And just where would I have learned to shoot?” I don’t quite snap at him. “I hate to shatter your illusions of the wonders we get up to behind the alienage gate, Alistair, but mostly I’m a dockside tavern wench. I can carry four shem-sized jacks of ale at once, I can dodge a slap on the bum faster than a cat might, and I can spot a brewing fight at twenty paces ‘cross a crowded tap-room. For arms, apart from the knives, I’m a pretty fine hand at darts. I shot a crossbow once, if that counts.”

“You can sing, too – and well. That’s not nothing.”

“Tell you what, I’ll serenade the darkspawn to death.” It’s surprisingly cold.

“Not what I – look. What Duncan always said. You need to understand that we’re fighting for something as well as against something. Or you go mad. The spawn, they’re driven by rage and hate and fear – if that’s all we have, we’re not different enough from them.” He tries to catch my eye. “Does that make sense?”

“More than it doesn’t.” I throw the stick I’ve been using as a poker into the fire. “I still can’t shoot.”

“Fine. I suppose you’d go a funny colour if I asked you to sing for my amusement.”

I snort. “You want Leliana for that.”

“You’ve the better voice.” He kind of says it without thinking. “But more seriously, if you mean it about the arms, we’ll start tomorrow. Sticks, not live steel, but full armour – and the sooner we can get you wearing mail, the better.”

“You serious?”

“Deadly.” He taps a fist on the coat-of-plates he’s wearing. “I don’t wear this stuff just because I’m a dedicated follower of fashion. A day’s foot-march in armour is some of the best endurance training you’ll get – the rich man bespells his arms, but if he’s wise with it he’ll wear a cheaper set to train with, or his fitness goes. We’ve an advantage, of course, but we still gain from hard work.”

I smirk. “Works for humans. Who exactly makes proper warrior’s mail to fit an elf?”

“Dwarves would – although they’d charge the earth. Or the Dalish must, I suppose?”

The smile goes from my face. “We’ve chased enough myths.”

He frowns. “Duncan never spoke of them as if they were myth.”

“Oh, I’m sure there are people who use the name. But come on.” I shake my head. “Noble bands of proper elves wandering the dales of Elvhenan, keeping it all alive in the woods of golden plenty, beholden to no human? Not since the Chantry took offence to their ways and brought half of Orlais in to burn it all down. Arlathan is a hole in the ground and there’s nothing there but ghosts. You know where the oldest trees of Elvhenan are?”

“Tell me.”

“They’re the vhenadahl, Alistair. They are the heart-trees of the alienages. It’s sad, but it’s so. Whatever you tell the kiddies, the fact of the matter is that the elves of the Dales and the elves of the back-streets are one and the same. The last true free people of Elvhenan are us. ‘Dalish’ isn’t even a word out of a tavern tale.” I stare at the stick I put on the fire, watching the bark curl and crisp in the flames. “It’s a name from make-believe, from a children’s game.”

There’s a silence that’s either about half too long or about half too short. His voice is very quiet. “It must have been heart-breaking. To find that out.”

I look up from the fire straight into his eyes and why does my blood still freeze when that happens? I turn away. “Worse if I’d grown up still believing else.”

So I guess we get the other half of that silence.

“You spoke about the dwarves.” I flick him a glance. Enough moping. “I guess it’s too much to hope for that the tales about them are true?”

He shrugs. “They made Duncan’s weapons and armour. I once saw him cut right through someone else’s sword.”

“And Flemeth said they were likely to respond to our call?”

“Yeah. We’d need to be sort of careful – I’m not so sure they’d be terribly happy fighting in a human civil war – but I’ve never met a Warden who’d hear a word against them.”

“And you actually know where they live?”

He nods. “The royal highway goes right to the gate of Orzammar.”

“Well, then. We’ve got ourselves an itinerary.”

“Absolutely. Circle Tower tomorrow, set Redcliffe to rights by magic two days after. Does Orzammar open on week-ends, do you suppose?”

I actually smile without meaning to. “They’re dwarves, right? The only thing they love more than money is the chance to make more money. I’m not sure that gate you mentioned will even be able to close.”

*

The tower of the Circle can be seen from a very long way off. It doesn’t look like it ought to be able to stand. It’s – well. It’s as tall at the top as Redcliffe Castle, and it’s not on a hill, that’s how tall it is. And it’s in the middle of Lake Calenhad.

We decided on surcoats, this time around. Didn’t do us much good, not wearing ’em – let’s try unsubtle. Morrigan’s done something to her staff so it looks a lot more plain than it did, and she’s put on a pair of shoes and a tunic with a longer hem and she looks like her own city-born cousin. And Leliana’s weapons are all in her pack – even her sleeves and her boot-tops are bare.

There’s a templar where you’d expect a ferryman, all runed armour and stern vigilance, and the little boat doesn’t look very used – surely the templar doesn’t row the boat himself? We swing up, and I suppose this is where I try my dignity on.

Of course, he don’t even look at me – he talks to Alistair. “Turn around.”

Of course, the big idiot has to restrain himself from obeying that literally and pissing him off – “I’m sorry, ser?”

The templar looks down his nose, for all that he lacks a couple of inches on Alistair. “Closed. Nobody in or out. The tower is locked down.”

“We don’t need to go into the tower.” He nods to me. “The Warden-Commander is here to see Knight-Commander Greagoir.”

I am? Fair enough. The templar looks at me now. “Warden-Commander.” His tone shows his disbelief. “You’re lost, or so it seems to me. No Blight here.”

Sweet fake smile. “Yes, ser templar. And if you’d like that state of the world to continue, you’ll maybe let us by.”

“I’ll maybe do no such thing.” His voice is mostly a mastiff’s deep growl. “My orders don’t say ‘nobody except funny-dressed elves’ -”

Alistair growls in his throat, takes half a step forward and I put a restraining hand on his arm like we planned that. Not that I could stop him, but he halts. I keep up the smile. “Sounds like it’s bad in there.”

“Maybe. For your own safety, elf, you’ll keep out.”

“Then send for the Knight-Commander.”

He frowns. “What?”

“I think you were gentler raised than that.” I raise an eyebrow. “I’ve no wish to break the Commander’s writ on his own ground, but he and I will speak. Don’t make an issue of it.”

“Or?” Not a mastiff. A lesser breed, a guard dog, a mongrel snarling at the end of its chain.

“Or the Commander will hear of your insolence, and not only will I speak to him but you will fetch yourself a damn good bollocking.” I keep the fake smile and the even civilised tone.

“You little bitch, I’ll-”

I take my hand off Alistair’s arm and the next thing anyone knows is the sound of his gauntleted fist meeting the other man’s jaw. The templar falls with a crash of armour; he pulls himself to a knee and finds that I’ve stepped forward inside his reach. “Warden Alistair, you are out of line.” I fix the templar’s eyes with mine and my voice is cold. “If the honour of the order needs defending, it’d fall to me to do it, thank you ever.”

“Sera.” Alistair puts his hands behind his back.

No way I’m backing down, and the templar would have to scoot away from me on his arse to stand up without leaving himself open. Not like I’ve drawn on him, but he freezes anyway. “It occurs to me,” I say, “that some might be insulted to be spoken to the way I just was. I’m sure that wasn’t what you meant, ser, was it. I’m sure that before you were interrupted, you were calling for the ferryman.”

He bares his teeth. He’s twice my size. I show no fear. “My brothers will only turn you back at the shore, bitch.”

“Oh, dear. I do hope that speech defect of yours doesn’t cause you too many problems in life.” Pure frosted ice. “Get me my boat, boy. I’d like to conclude my business before nightfall, if it’s all the same to you.”

He blinks first, of course, and I take a step back to let him stand.

*

The ferryman looks none too pleased, but he’s quickly enough found; he bends his back to the oars of the little boat and has us across a half-mile of lake without trouble. Morrigan’s trying to hide her childish delight at what’s obviously her first time in any sort of boat, but I catch her staring over the side after fish every chance she gets.

And after the templar’s posturing, there’s nobody at the shore at all. Leliana tips the ferryman, which I wouldn’t have thought to, but of course she should, and we knock on the tower’s big wide ornate door to have the slot in it scrape open immediately. The voice behind the slot is a shem woman, a young one. “Who is it?”

Good thing Alistair’s so tall – that’d see the top of my head if I stood tiptoe. “We’re here to see Ser Greagoir.”

The slot slips shut and just as I’m wondering about banging on it again, I hear the sound of a massive bar being moved and the door swings ponderously and silently inward. Opening it we’ve got three very mismatched shems – a young woman in full plate harness with Templar inscriptions, an older man in a black and white gambeson like you’d wear under such, and a scarred middle-aged lady in soft robes and an incongruous beatific smile.

Moment the door opens, Morrigan’s eyes widen; she bites her lip and remembers herself, but I’d do well to ask her what’s wrong. I step forward to talk to the humans. “We were told the place was closed, but -”

I’m interrupted by the younger woman, wide-eyed. “You don’t know?”

“That’s what the last lot said,” drawls Alistair. “Is anything in this kingdom working right?”

She blinks. “What?”

“Don’t mind Ser Alistair.” I don’t even cast him a glance. “Report, templar.”

It looks like I got the tone of voice just right. She straightens. “Tower’s locked down, sera, since dawn yesterday. We’re currently investigating whether this is a mishap or an insurrection. Won’t you come in and we’ll lock the door? It’s not supposed to be open.”

So as Alistair helps the two older humans push the thing closed and slide the bar, I ask the girl, “You don’t know what’s awry?”

“Best if you see for yourself, sera. I’d point you to the Knight-Commander but he’s asleep – he wouldn’t and he wouldn’t, but there’s only so far a man can push. We’re lucky he fell asleep in the daytime when everything’s a little less bad.”

Keep the momentum. “Understood. Show me.”

She nods quickly. “Fabian. Rose. The door? Don’t open it. If something bangs on it? Shout for me. Okay?”

The man – Fabian? – mutters her orders back to her in an imbecile’s voice. The woman nods and smiles blankly, and now I can see her more clearly I can see the diamond tattoo on her forehead. Tranquil. Ugh. We follow the young templar.

The ground floor of this place is pretty on a scale I hadn’t expected. The carvings are ornate and beautiful, the floors are faced with marble, and even the doors are inlaid with brass as well as bound with steel. The whole place gleams and our footsteps click on the floor, and I can smell blood and sick from the way that she leads us. The wide arched corridors are abandoned. Behind the templar’s back I trade glances with Morrigan; her shrug tells me she’s got no idea what’s going on, but she’s got an eye out.

And this great hall is supposed to be the most impressive. I suppose this is where the noble parents must say good-bye to their sons and daughters, and where the others get their first taste of the gilding on the bars of their cage. There’s an elegant decorated door and a brief little stair up to it which is there purely for ostentation, and the floor is black and white marble and every tile has a verse of the Chant inscribed in perfect handwriting in – surely that’s brass and not gold. And the statues in the alcoves and the murals on the walls are things of gobsmacking beauty and the whole thing’s far, far too rich – but right now, right now there’s a makeshift camp down here with bedrolls and things in one corner of the hall, with a gaggle of people around it in bright robes, and there’s eight armed guards on that stair, and four other robed mages there besides. And the room should be lit from those high arched windows there – but right now, it’s mostly being lit from the other direction, from the door. There’s a symbol on the floor just in front of it, a symbol with seven edges, or it might be eight, weirdly symmetrical and not quite – right – and of course it’s the source of the light, why wouldn’t it be – I take my eyes off it in case it bites me.

“Enchanter!” Our guide calls out, and a woman in a brown woollen robe comes over from the far corner. She’s straight-backed and not overly short, and her hair’s a tarnished silver-grey and the creases on her face say that she likes to smile, but she’s not smiling right now. And the thing she’s using as a walking-stick is steel shot through with bluish veins and topped with a blue crystal. The templar’s voice is a little peremptory, given she’s clearly addressing a woman twice her age and more – “Show these people around.”

The enchanter’s voice is the proud matriarch of sixteen grandchildren. “Well, and good afternoon to -” She meets Morrigan’s eyes. “To you all. Thank you, Leila, you did exactly right in bringing them to me.” And she curtseys to the templar and the templar inclines her head, and just like that is off.

The smile on her face freezes the moment the young templar is out of sight. “Who are you?”

I give her a respectful nod. “Kallian Dener, Warden-Commander of Ferelden. This is Ser Alistair. We’re here to-”

Smile doesn’t budge. “Forgive me, sera. The other two?”

I frown. “Sister Leliana, late of the Lothering convent, and Morrigan of the Chasind.”

“Chasind, eh? Not a well-known Circle, that.” She narrows her eyes; they’re green, and as sharp as I keep my knives. “I’ll say this for you, coming here, you’re not cowards.”

Morrigan raises eyebrows. “No?”

“No.” She flicks a look either way and takes a step closer. “Just before we start telling stories, dear – are you here to, or for, help?”

The witch looks at the glowing sign in front of the door, then back to the enchanter. “Originally the latter – is there truly any help we could be?”

“Never say never, dear. I’m Enchanter Wynne, and I’m a staff member here.” She taps her, well, staff on the marble. “And you’re from a little-known Circle from the Anderfels, aren’t you, Morrigan, and you’re calling yourself Chasind by way of fitting in.”

Sigh. “Among the many things that bugs me about you people -” I regard the enchanter levelly – “is the way you don’t seem to be able to say ‘good morning’ without lying twice. Yes, Enchanter Wynne, if that’s the fiction you need to talk to us, that’s the fiction we’ll have.”

Her smile creaks a little. “I’ll take a fiction over a fight any day of the week you’ll name, sera. Won’t you all come in? I’d offer you chairs, but we’re a little straitened just now-” A scrape against the closed door and her head snaps round immediately; the glow on the symbol in front of the door redoubles and the air in the room seems to set to humming. “Tell you what, dears, I swear on the Blessed Lady’s sainted shinbone that I will tell you anything you ask if you will only do so-” The door creaks, and she turns away from us and raises the staff in her right hand – “Tomorrow -”

The door slams open and a man in a really quite horrible blue-and-yellow robe stumbles through. The symbol on the floor flashes and he’s caught in midair like a moth in a spiderweb, twitches a couple of times and then goes still. One of the four mages among the guards at the door cries “Hold!” and two of the guards step carefully forwards to grab him by the shoulders, pull him out of the trap and to his knees on the floor. Wynne hurries over in a flurry of robe; we follow.

The man’s grey-faced and shivering; the ends of his fingers are covered in dried blood and there’s white visible all around his eyes as he looks this way and that; the templars have him on his knees at swordpoint and are asking him to identify himself. Wynne takes over – and they let her, which tells me more about her than anything else I’ve yet seen. “Who are you?”

The voice is raw and ragged. “Y-you know me, Wynne, I’m, my name is Adrin, I’m in your class for Creation twice a week-”

“What do you want.” There’s no warmth in Wynne’s voice at all.

“W-what do I – I want to, um, I want to get out – you don’t know what it’s like in there-”

“Are you tired?” Strange question, but she says it like it’s deadly serious.

“Am I… Yes! Yes, I’m tired. I bloody – I haven’t slept for -”

“You must be hungry, dear.”

“What? No – I – look, I just want to-”

Scared?” Wynne leans on the word and I feel something grab me by the gut and try and turn me to water and Alistair bares his teeth and Morrigan hisses, and the man lets out a piercing and prolonged and distinctly inhuman scream –

A scream that’s cut abruptly off as Wynne says four quiet sing-song words and clicks her fingers and he falls over sideways, head lolling, and suddenly it’s plainly obvious that the body’s been dead for a day and a half. Alistair looks away quickly and Morrigan looks ill; the enchanter leans on her staff for a moment. “A least demon of fear – where there’s one of those, there’s probably more. Just thank Andraste the wards on the tower held, or they’d be coming in the windows – Kaye, set the wizard-lock back up. Alvin, I’d like that symbol renewed, please. And Rhona?” She looks at the mage who called to hold. “Deal properly with the body, please. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

The mage Rhona casts her face down. “Yes, Enchanter.”

And Wynne turns to us again, and for just a moment she looks so very old, and then the smile goes back on and it’s like a decade of cares fall away from her. “I’m so sorry that I can’t offer you somewhere more congenial, but if I leave this room I swear they’ll have the screaming conniptions. But I’m afraid that if you’ve come asking for the Circle’s aid, well-” She indicates the room. “Until we’ve solved our ‘little problem’ here, we’re not exactly qualified to be aiding anybody with anything.”

“All right,” I say, “your point, it’s made. So what’s actually going on in there, and where do we come in to assist?”

She raises an eyebrow. “What makes you think you can help at all? I’d allow your Morrigan might spell Rhona, say, at the door, but a Warden isn’t a templar.”

“You wouldn’t be talking to us at all if you didn’t want our help.”

She nods. “Not untrue. D’you have more than that for me?”

“Ever seen one of us in action, enchanter?”

“Once.” She sighs. “Handsome devil, he was. Don’t suppose he’s still around now – a Rivaini gentleman, second-in-command under Polara, what was his name – anyway. I saw him fight, just the once – a duel it was. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better. Made the other man look quite the fool, for all it was a stupid matter over a woman in the first place and they were both of them fools. The other man wouldn’t give up, not with four little half-inch slices on him and the Warden untouched entirely, so he – that’s right. He disarmed him, turned him around and gave him his boot to the backside.” Her smile is for the briefest moment genuine. “It was the way he rolled a good ten feet – the King couldn’t stop laughing, which I suppose was the point. I wish I could remember the name -”

“Duncan.” Alistair says, quietly. “You’d never think it of him, but Fearghus managed to get him drunk this one time. Got the story out of him and dined out on it – in the Commander’s absence, of course – for the rest of his life. But yes. Duncan was the best of us, but with him gone, Kallian and I are likely the two swiftest blades in all of Ferelden.”

She looks at me. “Well, well. And you’re Garahel’s distant granddaughter, I suppose?”

I blink. “Um, perhaps? Not a name I’m familiar with, my lady.”

“I’m not a lady, girl – was the staff not a hint?” She taps it on the floor again. “And Garahel is supposed to be the one who ended the last Blight, a very long time ago, and he was one of your lot. Still, this is very nice, but it’s not getting us the tower back.” She coughs. “Thing is, we don’t have much to go on. Beyond that the chained contingencies have all gone off as planned – right now, if you cut the tower off at the base, it’d still stand up up just on sheer magic, like a pair of hose nobody’s washed for a fortnight. We’ve been getting least-demons unlocking the door every hour or so, and some of them have been wearing ancient mouldered bodies, so we guess that the crypts are breached, but a few of them, like that one we just had, they’ve been wearing fresh corpses. So something in there’s killing my students.”

“And not the least-demons?” Alistair eyes the corpse the ashen-faced Rhona is carting away on a floating disc of force.

She snorts. “Heavens, no. We use worse than that to train the apprentices – admittedly with scarecrows for bodies. But hauntings like this are a pretty strong sign that we’re looking at a shallowing of the Veil – that is, the Fade, the dream-world, is a little closer to ours than it should be. I’ve two options for the cause, and neither of them attractive. Either we’ve got an actual breach – that is, somebody’s torn a deliberate hole and it’s fraying round the edges, like you’d see with an unauthorised experiment that’s got out of hand – or we’ve got an abomination on our hands. That is, either a serious experimental misadventure, to the point that I’d half expect to have heard about such a working even if they’d not actually run it by the senior staff – or the unpleasant possibility that we’ve got another insurrection, and this time there’s somebody important involved.”

He raises his eyebrows. “Another insurrection?”

She nods. “There will always be the odd malcontent, the odd person whose wings are too wide for the tower. And despite the constant prohibitions – or perhaps because of them, but I didn’t say that – there’s barely a year goes by without someone ‘unlocking the secret destiny that the rest of us are too weak to face’ and ‘showing them all’ – by which I mean going crazy and committing elaborate suicide.”

“But the place is crawling with templars.” Alistair frowns. “They’re immune to magic, right? Isn’t that the point of templars?”

Wynne chuckles. “Not really, dear, despite what you and they believe. A communicant templar – that is, one who has had their fix lately – has approximately the innate aptitude for countermagic of someone with a credential in metamagic, and if they sing their Chant and mean it then they propagate an aura that’s incomprehensible to demons, which will push most back in fear of dissolution. The demons see them much like we’d see a tall waterfall or a deep chasm with sharp rocks at the bottom. But you can bespell a templar just fine if you catch them unaware, and it is literally the case that their power against demons depends on their resolve and depth of faith. So yes – a mage who knows what they’re doing can face down a templar head-on and come out very much ahead, and a templar who’s only paying lip-service to their vocation is pretty much useless against the demons.”

“So, if it’s an insurrection-”

“Then there are senior staff involved, yes.” The smile wilts a little. “In unrelated news, Irving set the contingencies off manually and got an incoherent warning out to Ser Greagoir, so I don’t think it’s him. Could be any of the rest – I don’t want to rule anybody out, because I’d normally say I’d trust them all not to pull this sort of thing.”

“And – where are all the templars? Most of them are quartered outside the tower, if I remember correctly, because of the whole moral hazard thing. Surely this room should be swarming – that is the only door up, right?”

“It is, yes.” The wilted smile doesn’t show any signs of budging. “At dawn this morning, Ser Cullen took three-fourths of the people and went in, their objective to find the focus of the shallowing in the Veil and make things right. He argued the Knight-Commander out of going personally, and insisted on doing it without our assistance. He hasn’t been heard from since. Nothing living has come out of that door – although I haven’t seen any templar corpses walking, either.”

“So what’s your tale?” I nod to the makeshift camp in the corner of the hall. “How did you avoid being locked in with the rest?”

“Providence, dear. I was teaching a fieldcraft class on the lawn when we heard the bells, and you wouldn’t believe the trouble I had convincing them to let us in the door.” She nods to the mages on the door. “And those are the maintenance crew, who were out here fixing the plumbing – I did have a total of four technically qualified warmages with me, green as grass in May, but anyone with any abjuration training has been doing a turn at that door – and nothing living has come out. Of course, you’d expect that. The least-demons are going to crowd anything that looks like it might be a way out, and it takes quite some balls to go through a horde of the walking dead if you don’t know for sure there would be a welcome on the other end.”

“Wait – you have a crypt up there?”

Didactic. “No, dear, we have a stair from the second floor down to the sub-basement. There are things best done below ground, but we do bury our own down there as well. There’s supposed to be a ward on the crypt, but it isn’t to the quality of the – oops.” The smile plasters itself back on her face as a set of crisp measured footsteps click along the hall behind us – she raises her voice a little and it loses a couple of layers of superiority. “Knight-Commander, your guests are here?”

Commander Greagoir is a middle-aged shem who’s neither remarkably large nor remarkably powerful-looking, but even with two days’ growth of salt-and-pepper stubble and dark circles under his eyes he’s got that same sense of deep collected confidence about him that Duncan had. His eyes flick over us in an instant and this is the first shem I’ve met who’s pointed his greeting at me and not Alistair (meet his eyes!). I match his nod, not breaking eye contact, and he speaks first. His voice is pleasantly deep, if a little rough-edged. “Reinforcements, I’m told, ones of a kind my squire didn’t recognise save from tavern tales.” Half of a smile. “Well, I’ll allow her the latter, certainly. I’m Greagoir, and it appears I’ve already invited you to survey the defences and introduced you to what remains of the senior staff.”

I raise an eyebrow. “I was told you were asleep, ser, and not to be disturbed. I’m Kallian Dener, commander of what’s left of the Wardens of Ferelden.”

Now, that draws a frown. “What’s left? Maker’s breath, what happened at Ostagar?”

“Your people are safe.” Or that’s what I’d want to know first, if I were him. “Mine, not so much, and the King with them -” I see him open his mouth – “but the story’s long, and can wait. The problem in the moment is what happened here, and the truth is that you know little more of that than I do.”

“Aye.” He looks from me to the others. “Fine. But I’ll have that story when we’ve made an end of this, Warden. Wynne – I assume there’s no news?”

She shakes her head sadly. “None, ser. Beyond that a man pushed past his endurance has decided to ignore the advice of his friends and subordinates again.”

“And if he dies of sleep-deprivation, enchanter, he’ll thank his bloody stars. That’s what, twelve hours now, since Cullen opened that door?”

“Around that, yes -”

“Don’t say it. I should have sent you with him, and damn the rules. I’ll give him until morning.”

Wynne’s smile goes entirely, and with it any pretense she may have had of being a day under seventy. “You… still mean to follow through, then.”

Resolve on his face. “I do. Have you looked at our situation, Wynne? You, me, twelve Templars and the same again of second-stringer mages barely out of apprenticeship, bracing a door that swallowed thirty of our best and hoping that nothing comes out that you or I can’t deal with? I know you haven’t sealed the tower to the utmost of your art, as the law dictates, because Cullen could get in – supposing you were to do what any halfway competent mage could do. Supposing I were to open the stockpiles and give you three ounces of lyrium, say, to do it properly. We could withdraw, evacuate everyone we can and Annul the place.”

“Condemning over a hundred people to death, people that you and I-”

“Like as not they’re already dead, enchanter-”

“Faith, ser. In humanity.” She looks at the floor. “We teach it. You can be a far more effective healer if you believe in people, if you care about them.” She allows a note of testiness to creep into her voice. “And one of the side-effects of caring about people when they’re in pain, is, well, I believe I have explained this to you more than once. I’ll not abandon-”

I raise a hand and she closes her mouth. “Enchanter. Knight-Commander. Till dawn, you said? And Cullen’s objective was to find the ‘focus of the shallowing’?”

Greagoir nods, slowly. “You aren’t templars, sera -”

Wynne cuts in. “But in Antiva and Orlais, one of the duties of the Grey Wardens is to assist the Templars in situations where what’s needed is martial prowess with a fearless mind behind it. And may I remind you that you are looking at the only living students of the greatest swordsman Ferelden has seen for a century.”

“All I ask,” I say evenly, “is that you let us try. At dawn, well. I won’t be in a position to interfere with your writ if it still needs enforcing.”

“And you’ve dealt with many of this sort of thing before?” He looks down at me. No, appears he’s genuinely uncertain. For all that he correctly recognised me as a person, he’s no idea what I am. “You know what you’re looking for?”

I do, you know.” Wynne nods firmly. “I could go with them.”

Greagoir blinks. “You’ve someone you’d trust to lock the door without you?”

“Mage Alvin. He’ll do anything you say, and not falter once. If he falls, Rhona – she’s a plumber by trade, really, but she’s got more in her than she knows. Tell her ‘shame on me’ and she’ll do it.”

“You are aware that I know very well you’d do anything to get my permission to go in there and try and solve this, enchanter.”

“Absolutely.” Wynne looks him straight in the eye. “But you’ll let me do it, anyway. Because I know very well that you’d do anything to believe I can.”

*

It’s dead quiet the far side of that door. This is supposed to be a wealthy visitor’s first and only sight of the domain of the mages – they’d come in this far to make a purchase, Wynne explains, this floor’s basically set aside for interaction with the outside world – and it’s certainly trying to look impressive. The sheer cost of everything, – I know gold when I see it, and I can see it veined through the very walls. And the hangings on those walls and the sparse, expensive furniture are strangely untouched.

“So, uh. Which way to the demons?” Alistair glances to each side of the hall. We’d been expecting tight confines, which these are most definitely not.

“Oh, they’re here.” Morrigan is walking almost completely noiselessly on her toes. “Kallian, Leliana, may I recommend not thinking too hard?”

“Not I? You mean to say, they’re repelled by my charismatic masculinity?”

“Or possibly you seem already to be obeying my advice?” She smirks at him. (Is she actually flirting with him? Like we have nothing better to do. Idiot.) “More seriously, the Veil is paper-thin here. Even something as simple as strong emotion might get us unexpected company, so guard your thoughts.”

Wynne nods. “We need to push on quickly. The door at the end of the hall. Please note that if we do meet resistance, it will be templar’s work – I am sorry, I mean warrior’s work – until I say otherwise.”

“I’m used to that.” He settles the shield on his arm. “Kallian, you’ve got my back; Leliana, I’d like you with the mages.”

“On it.”

Three more ornamented doorways, three more echoing expensive empty corridors, before we find the reason the level’s so quiet. The door that Wynne identifies as the stairs up is missing its hinges, half the iron banding on it twisted and torn, the costly veneer blackened and curled back away and the whole thing looking like it’s just sort of propped up in the doorway. In fact, I’m surprised it hasn’t – You know, given that this is a magic tower full of mages, I really shouldn’t be surprised as to the reason that thing hasn’t just fallen out of its frame.

Wynne says a word that endearing old grannies aren’t supposed to know and potters over to have a closer look. “Hmm,” she says. “Well, that’s something at least.”

“For the rest of us?” drawls Alistair.

“This is the work of Enchanter Veretha, our mistress of apprentices, and it’s pretty recent. Morrigan, your opinion?”

The witch blinks hard – or rather, she closes her eyes and then quickly puts her hand over her mouth with them still closed. “So,” she says, “you know our little unofficial game of ‘let’s use the least magic we can?'” Very carefully she opens her eyes again. “Someone may have nearly just forgotten why we were playing that game and changed her eyes rather than use her head. Regardless, no harm done.” She looks at the door. “It’s a spell-working, wrought for strength rather than duration, designed to do exactly what you see, but more than that, it’s taking the edges of an ancient weaving in the walls here and trying to pinch them together. The original person who created the pattern for the spell must have suffered recurring nightmares about large immovable objects – it won’t last past sundown, though. If it were anywhere else…”

Wynne nods. “…I’d advise to wait an hour or so and watch it crumble by itself. Could you unpick it without coincidentally dropping fifty demons on us?”

Morrigan cocks her head. “Yes. Yes, I think I could. Are you sure of what’s on the other side?”

The enchanter raises her eyebrows. “If that was truth rather than bravado, I’d very much like to see this. The far side should be a short stairwell going upwards to a landing with one door – the first three levels of the tower are mirrors of one another, with the only stairs up at opposite ends, before a more sensible design is used for the tower proper.”

Morrigan nods. “Very well, then – behold my incantation, and pay close attention.” She wiggles her fingers. “‘Alistair?'”

He grins. “Any weak spots?”

Wynne matches his smile. “It’s hard, but it’s brittle. Like lake ice in January, the kind you can barely walk on and shouldn’t try.”

“Right.”

And, frankly, score one for brute strength. Everyone else stands back from the door and Alistair takes five long fast paces up to it and slams his steel boot into the corner with a loud splintering crash – here’s something your templars can’t do – and as the spell lets go the door sort-of shatters. The analogy to ice isn’t a bad one as the fragments go flying inwards in a manner that says that they were only really playing at being a door in the first place. And all’s fine and good – for about a heartbeat’s space of time, when we hear a high thin girlish scream from the stairwell beyond and an earsplitting clap of actual thunder.

Alistair’s dodge, not back but to the side, moment he hears the scream, probably saves his life. The tongue of burning light – I won’t call it lightning, not indoors – licks out three feet from the doorway not a breath later and fades to an afterimage instantly. Morrigan wastes time gaping in shock – truth be told, so do I – but the next thing we hear is Wynne yelling “INSIDE!” in a voice that shows none of her age.

And from behind us it’s a whispering like of a good-size crowd talking to one another just too quiet, and something like a human without eyes or hands comes from absolutely nowhere and goes for the door.

I go across under it, opening up what would be its belly with a knife, but the slice doesn’t bleed or anything – just kind of hangs open like I was slicing cheese – an instant later it’s cut in half by Leliana, who by luck or judgement went for a bigger weapon.

There are more of them. They’re just appearing with dreamlike inevitability – they’re just, well, there, and it’d make no sense to question why. Weren’t they there just now, when I looked? Alistair forms our centre with his shield, me on his left hand, Leliana on his right, and we back into the doorway, trusting to the two mages to make right whatever it is upstairs. The cover of the big guy’s shield lets me swap for my long blade, and we set to – each of the things coming at us is different, longer or shorter of body or limb, some with six limbs or five or three, all with a mouth although no two in the same place, all grey wrinkled skin and ivory gaping teeth. You know? I’d love a mail coat at a time like this, just to make me a little bit less wary of those claws. And a pair of heavy gauntlets, to let me punch ’em and have it mean more than a slight stumble.

And Morrigan says calmly that we might want to take another step backward into the stairwell, and Alistair counts down three-two-one and we move pretty much together. The doorway’s only really built to take two people – Leliana ducks back – and we’re occupied with the demon-things as there start to be enough of them to form a press, to start to push inwards as a solid mass.

“Any help, much obliged!” Alistair throws his weight behind his shield and he’s got his sword moving on the one side, I’m there on the other, nothing complicated, just cutting at anything that looks like it ought to be cut. But he’s going to be pushed backwards, and it won’t be long either –

And I hear the sharp tap of Wynne’s staff on the stone and right in front of us a shape etches itself onto the floor in a kind of lurid green light, and it flexes weirdly and the demons are pushed back like so much gossamer by some kind of invisible effortless pressure.

“Right, then.” Wynne sounds satisfied, at least. “That’ll hold ’em for a minute or two. Up the stairs, please; nice and orderly, now.”

There’s a plump redheaded human girl making herself small against the wall just the far side of the door at the top; loose brown belted flaxen robe, might as well have ‘apprentice’ tattooed on her forehead, and mostly she looks ashamed of herself. She’s looking big-eyed at Morrigan, who’s got light gathered at the top of her staff again.

Alistair hauls the door closed behind us and Wynne speaks quietly to the lock and it clicks. “And the door will stop them?” I ask.

“Until it’s kicked open by the people Greagoir sends in to find out what happened to us,” she says, and smiles with it. “The demons won’t break it themselves. Can’t tell it apart from the walls.”

I give the door a dubious look. “So what happened to the one downstairs? That looked pretty kicked-in.”

“I rather see Cullen’s hand in that.” Wynne sniffs. “I won’t impugn him by implying he had the key on his belt at the moment he called for the ram.” She turns to the apprentice, her voice a little kinder. “So, dear. While that was quite a precocious display, and if we’d been demons I’m sure we’d now be toast – I’ll wager that wasn’t the only reason you’re here?”

The shem girl looks from her to us and shakes her head. “I was to let the Enchanter know when the noise started?” She frowns. “Sera, forgive me – who are these people?”

Wynne smiles. “We’re reinforcements for the templars, dear. This is Morrigan of Weishaupt Circle and three of the Grey Wardens. Where is Enchanter Veretha?”

“Um.” She points down the hall. “We’re all locked in the common room, Enchanter.”

“All right. Stay here and keep doing what you’re doing.” And the apprentice nods and picks up the chair she’d been sitting on and the book she’d been reading, and gets back to her vigil with only the odd sidelong glance at our backs.

*

So the flagstones here are plainer and everything’s a little cheaper, the walls bare of hangings and the furniture more workmanlike. We pass a wood-panelled room that’s pretty certainly an actual library – their library is bigger than the home I grew up in, and their apprentices are housed better than most people I ever met. The whole place is lit by what looks like candles, but as I look at them I realise that there’s no smoke – the flame’s likely just an illusion there to explain the slightly unearthly light. The sheer casual wealth – I mean, you hear that magic is expensive, but it’s only when you see how they live that you realise – anyway.

The mistress of apprentices, a thin, fluttering wisp of a woman, has her charges safely corraled in one of their heavily warded dormitories – wards meant to keep apprentice minds from being distracted by great workings elsewhere in the tower must presumably work just as well to keep them safe from whatever might be outside. We trade words quickly, but she’s pretty much no help – I suspect we’d have had better luck talking to the young people, but with two enchanters right there they were keeping their mouths shut. Up a level, and the apprentices’ workrooms and gymnasium – again, all this expensive wood and brass, and this is how they treat their apprentices? – are eerie in their quiet emptines, but our mages pass them without a word and thus so do we.

These doors unlock for Enchanter Wynne as she walks up to each of them, and there’s no sign that this is anything other than just a quiet day – must be odd for her to see them so empty, but to me this whole place is starting to look a little like one of those strange dreams where everyday things take on a great distant sense of unease.

The door to the third level is opened just as we get to it, and it’s lucky that I’m not in the lead or the man that opened it would’ve got a knife in him. As it is, he looks calmly at the point of Alistair’s sword and says that it is against the rules to do corporal harm to tower staff, and he’s sorry but this floor is being cleaned right now and must we truly cross it right now? His eyes are flat and blank and the tattoo of the Tranquil on his forehead can’t hide the diamond-shaped scar. Ugh.

Wynne orders him to let us through and he nods equably and leads the way – this floor smells of smoke and hot metal and spices, and the corridors are dotted here and there with bright-robed men and women of all ages padding about with tools, with bits of paper, with pieces of wood or little burlap sacks, all of them moving with a kind of blissful carefulness like it’s some kind of meditation.

The place that’s being ‘cleaned’ is soon enough seen – this room has half its door and much of the wall missing, and it’s got to be the source of the smell of smoke, and the soot and rubble on the floor is being carefully swept up and tidied away by what I suppose you’d call a swarm of these people. The room was some kind of lockup, with a strong door – I ask Wynne and she says that that was a stockpile of lyrium, and points grim-faced to what looks like a footprint on the floor. A man stood there, a man in metal-clad boots that left their shadow on the stone, a templar most like. No accident, then, all this.

And in each of the lyrium stores, each place where the precious stuff is locked carefully and securely away, there’s a similar tale – although that one was the cleanest. No body at any of them, when they all should have been under guard – were they just gone? No, says our guide, the dead were taken away to be dealt with respectfully, and would we like to see, like Ser Cullen did?

No, I say, that’s fine, not unless – no. Morrigan would rather flee this whole level than go look for men slain by magic, and Wynne shakes her head and asks rather who did it?

The man is sorry, but he may not say – and Wynne’s eyes narrow. That makes it one of ten people, and four of them are her and Greagoir and Veretha and Head Enchanter Irving, and a shape is forming for her and it’s not a pretty one.

But the Tranquil cannot be talked around and threats would be no use at all, and so none the wiser we’re led to the door upwards – bizarrely it looks new-made. He apologises to us with a beatific smile for the lack of enchantment on the door – the previous one was damaged, and no mage has answered their requests for a strengthening of the enchantment.

But the lock is solid enough, and he gives the second key to Wynne as he pulls the door open to reveal a wide, lazily open spiral of a staircase in what must be the spine of the tower-

There is an armoured form collapsed right the other side of the door. I step over it and keep my eyes out as Wynne kneels next to the man – unconscious, she says, and can’t be waked. She gives his name – one of the templars who came in this morning. Why would they have left him behind?

But there’s another, just up the stair, sat against the wall as in extreme fatigue. Another one just on from that, all of them the same. A mage, too, just like the templars in unbreakable sleep. A trap, maybe? Surely not a magical battle – the templars’ blades are in their scabbards, look. What it looks most like is they all just fell asleep where they stood.

Leliana yawns, and draws just a set of sharp looks – what, she says, people yawn, it’s what they do.

More templars on the stair. No kind of – There’s a door here, up to a level Wynne identifies as, uh, something? It’s not important. I cover a yawn with my hand. Huh – a light tread, on the stair. I draw, and we move to each side to set an – ambush, yes.

Wynne shakes her head like she’s trying to fight something off. Leliana leans against the wall in the alcove she’s found. Alistair is behind me – he’s sat down on the floor – Alistair, get up, this is no time to be –

And there’s a bear instead of Morrigan, brown thing, tall as a shem. Fair enough.

Where is the bear going?

I’ll just sit back here and wait for the bear to come back-

*

I open my eyes. The air’s bitterly cold, but it’s a good feeling, a cold one, a fresh one. The muttering, the whispering in the back of my head, the sound I can’t usually hear when I’m awake? It’s a good sign that it’s loud right now. It’s the twittering of the darkspawn wondering where their master has gone. I show my teeth in a smile. Gone to the point of my blade he has.

The battlements are big and wide and they’d normally be grey, but they’re all over dark red right now, just the same as my surcoat, as I’m sure I’ll find my gambeson beneath the bright mail I’m clad in. I take off the helmet and shake out my lovely hair and it streams back in the breeze as I raise my sword to the sky and it catches the light just so – and the soldiers’ voices are upraised in a wall of cheering that’s almost a physical blow to the ears.

And Alistair’s beside me and I meet his eyes and he throws his head back and laughs. I got it, he says, I did it. He knew I could do it. And it’s so easy to share his smile and say yeah, we did. We did it. We. Us. The Wardens, the Grey. My people. And Duncan smiles and shakes my hand and I tell him wasn’t he glad that he stopped those shems from having me for murder, and he laughs – I never saw him laugh before – and he says I’m the best he ever trained.

The best –

he ever –

He never. This ain’t real. This ain’t – right. Magic. Like dreams, they say. How d’you wake yourself from a nightmare?

I scream. I scream and Duncan screams and the world screams and oh, Maker – I’m in a room, I’m on the floor, some shem bastard just backhanded me in the face and those screams are my friends and the floor is slick with blood that’s come from my aunt’s cousin who I can see on the floor right in front of me with her throat cut right across because she stood up to them. I spit blood out – he split my lip, I remember. It was all the blood I ever gave him. He reaches down to grab me by the hair and I get his wrist, spin up and around like a spring uncoiling. He keeps a knife at his belt, an eating-knife, and I take it, shove the point in under his arm and there’s so much blood.

Second man is already raising his blade, a proper blade, and I gave him my heel hard in his cod as I turned around, that’s right, and he yelled at me a word he’d no right using. Keep the momentum going, put the foot down to step forward right at him as the first shem falls, go for his throat with the knife and he gets his hand in the way – fine, I’ll cut that, he tries to back away and there’s a wall he runs into, and I hit him in his gut (no armour on, y’see) and he’s doubled over so I’ve got no trouble now punching the knife in the side of his neck. Blood. It covers me. I sweep up a sword for my right hand and turn.

Man’s in the doorway. They run in packs of three, do the bann’s guards. This one’s bigger than the others, taller and wider, and he’s fair-haired and blue-eyed and not ill-favoured, and I put a sword in his gut and leap for his face, hit him around the shoulders and bear him down backwards, and he lets out a hoarse cry in a familiar voice and I realise it’s Alistair I’ve gone for blindly and he’s got my sword in his gut and he’s breathing fast and his face is very pale and what have I done

This is not real. Alistair’s armoured, that thrust wouldn’t have done much but blunt my blade and my pride, and he don’t go around wearing the colours of the bann of Denerim neither, and most importantly he and I hadn’t met by this day, and there’s no way he’d be against me and not at my back – what’s happening here? I take a deep breath and yell and he screams and my friends and family in the room behind me, they scream, and-

I open my eyes. The air’s bitterly cold, but it’s a good feeling, a cold one, a fresh one. The muttering, the whispering in the back of my head, the sound I can’t usually hear when I’m awake? It’s a good sign that it’s loud right now. It’s the twittering of the darkspawn wondering where their master has gone. I show my teeth in a smile. Gone to the point of my blade he has.

*

Alistair’s got to be dreaming.

It’s not a bad dream, really. Sure, it’s not real, but it’s not like real life’s been a bed of roses lately. Or ever. He deserves some –

he was doing something, he was doing something –

deserves some rest.

Yeah.

He stretches out and yawns and decides he won’t open the curtains on the bed for at least another hour. Besides that, the arm draped loosely but possessively across his waist is very clear on the fact that he ain’t moving anywhere just yet.

*

Idiot.

Useless brainless blind stupid foolish childish – should have seen this coming a mile off, what did she think she was, this is an apprentice’s mistake – nnh.

Morrigan deliberately recalls the memory of that time she fell and broke an ankle, administers herself a metaphorical slap in the face. Yes, it’s not exactly her finest hour that she stepped slap-bang into what one might uncharitably call a rat-trap, but she’s here now. None of that self-loathing rubbish. It’s not true – and even if it is true, it’s not true-true – and besides, it’s not helping, so there.

This is the Fade. It’s all illusion unless there’s something around whose will she cares about, and there isn’t. Let there be safety, hmm? Let there be a little peace – it’s not exactly draining to impose serenity on her environment, and it’s better than the pale spectre that was trying to be her mother welcoming her home. Continuity of experience tells her that that’s extremely unlikely, and if her mother minds being disbelieved, she’ll make it known.

Right. So cocooned, let’s explore. This place is a painted picture, painted in colours of nostalgia on the inside of a trap made of self-loathing coated in lassitude. Peel away the paint and feel the teeth of the trap. Idiot. Failure. Your mother sent you away because you were slow and stupid. Not to grow, but to wither. Have the beautiful brainless man and the maniac and the hate-filled elf done aught but drain you, mistrust you, eat your meat and drink your wine and give you nothing for all your –

No – that’s a load of horse dung. Morrigan remembers kind words and politeness and smiles and above all respect, and she makes of those things a lever and her iron self-control gives her where to stand, and she puts the lever in the rusty jaws of the trap and leans

*

The cell is white on the walls and white on the ceiling and the bed is white and her robe is not, it has the colours of a flame, a red hem and a yellow-white top. Leliana opens her eyes and sees the ceiling and a crease appears between her perfect eyebrows.

This is a novice’s cell. She is not a novice. Nobody but that particular novice may enter a novice’s cell, upon pain of inventive punishment. A novice leaves the cell when they leave, and they never come back. Many of the supposedly formative years of her youth were spent in a cell such as –

She studies the pattern of cracks in the whitewash on the ceiling –

Many of the supposedly formative years of her youth were spent in this cell. And she has not been here – save in her dreams – for nearly as many years as she was ever here.

She swears. Louder than that. Still not enough. She stops, takes a deep breath, and then does it properly, the echoes of her voice rebounding off the walls as if they had physical force. She heaps every obscenity she knows upon the head of the idiot who managed to walk herself and her four companions into a trap that a novice could have predicted – she beats a fist against the bed until it wakes up to the fact that it’s supposed to hurt to do that, she pulls the covers aside and screws them up and throws them at the door (everything else in here, it is bolted down, even that chair), she goes up to the door and shouts at it and bangs on it and kicks it and puts her shoulder to it but it’s really part of the wall.

She’s stuck. At the mercy of another. No idea who or what. Her body completely helpless, unoccupied – memories of half a dozen raids swarm to her like horseflies, memories of breaking open an abandoned cottage and finding things that used to be people stacked up in lines in the stinking basement, still breathing, eyes still open. Memories of leading the templars to – no! She is not at the mercy of such as those – there was no sign, there was no – The castle of Sachefard had no sign either, not until they broke down the wall in the comte’s private apartments. She remembers clear as day the report that the mage gave to Seeker Cassandra of the fate from which those people had been delivered into death – she remembers looking at the people driven to nausea or fainting just from the testimony – she remembers locking herself and Cassandra and Marjolaine in a prayer cell with enough alcohol to fell an ox, afterward –

No! Eventually she calms herself, breathing deep, digging her nails into her palm, biting her tongue, eyes screwed shut. It’s going to be all right. There were mages with her. Sure, they were caught as well, but they’re not likely to stay caught. They will find her, and she must still be sane and recognisable when they come for her or they may take her for a demon and pass straight on by.

It’s going to be all right.

She takes the things that she has thrown and places them back in their order. She kneels at the devotional and she opens the book that she knows will be there, the book of the Chant of Light, the words of the Prophet Andraste, the Bride of the Maker.

And because she does not know how long she will be here, she opens the Chant to the first page, to the words that are sung at the great high festivals, to the tunes that she knew even before she came to the Chantry. And she takes a deep breath and relaxes her belly muscles (as you do, when you sing, if you know what you’re about) and her voice doesn’t shake too much as she begins at the beginning.

*

Wynne’s eyes open, wide, sharply. She must have fallen asleep a moment.

She’s sitting in her favourite chair. The dog comes up, puts his big fluffy head on her knee and looks up at her with loving soulful eyes. Through the open shutters can be heard the sound of the children at play in the garden.

Oh, look. Unnatural surroundings, deliberately nurtured neuroses given form – while she rather likes tulips, she doesn’t have the raving obsession with them that this room would suggest – she’s dreaming, and she shouldn’t be.

Demons can read your mind, the Chant teaches, but that’s a simplification. The truth is that demons could read your mind, if they could read. They see, but they don’t understand. So a Circle mage is trained to have traps, pitfalls, markers in their head, things that a demon would take for obsession and familiarity and deep-seated desire. It’s not perfect, but it’s worked here. This little bucolic tulip-infested widow’s cottage with the two children and the dog is one of hers – it is in fact a painting that lives on the wall in her study. This dream is a fake.

She raises a hand and speaks the four words of a spell-pattern of evocation she’d shudder to use outside of the Fade, and the world around her erupts in a boiling cylinder of flame. Four more words and another evocation pushes the disintegrating wreckage away from her with shattering force, and she’s standing in the middle of a globe spun of her own power and – there! She clenches a fist and twists her other hand through the gesture of one of the old standbys, and a white-hot lance strikes out through her pointing finger and the whole bubble bursts –

Wynne’s eyes open, wide, sharply. She must have fallen asleep a moment.

She’s sitting in her favourite chair. The dog comes up, puts his big fluffy head on her knee and looks up at her with loving soulful eyes. Through the open shutters can be heard the sound of the children at play in the garden.

Oh, look. Unnatural surroundings, deliberately nurtured neuroses given form –

Something is holding her in sleep. She sets her jaw. No point imposing will upon the painted picture that is this illusory dream, not if somebody’s building it as fast as she’s tearing it down. Better to strike at the captor directly. She gathers herself, deep mental breath, and forms carefully the pattern of the spell that she’s going for in the air in front of her. This is one of Irving’s creations originally – strictly it’s an abjuration – gently she lets her power flow along the lines of the pattern, crystallise in front of her, taking the form of the glowing symbol of an idea, and then she pushes it forward with a puff of breath, sees it disappear, and feels it impact onto the demon’s secret hidden self with the force of a good old –

The dream shatters like glass.

Wynne’s eyes open, wide, sharply. She must have fallen asleep a moment –

Like that is it, huh? She frowns and lashes out, good and hard. Entropy, this time, rot and corruption, again a horrible spell that she’d never dream of using in the waking world. The peaceful bucolic lovely scene rots itself apart from the inside.

Wynne’s eyes open, wide, sharply. She must have fallen asleep –

*

The rusty jaws of Morrigan’s trap are weakening. She keeps up the firm steady pressure. Serenity is the key, lack of emotion, lack of thought. Something is distracting the spirit that laid this trap. Don’t push harder because you’re winning, just keep pushing –

There. The trap snaps shut. The dream-Flemeth has a dream-Morrigan to welcome home. Now, then, what have we…

It’s a pattern, a many-pointed star. The pattern itself is too fine, too ordered to be a spirit’s work – think of a gardener’s trellis or plant table, or perhaps a bird-box. But it’s been colonised. A spirit lives in this thing, and not a small one – who knows what the bait was, but the thing that lives here has spun itself a nice little web to catch anything that passes.

Then as the things dangle in its web, caught and carefully wrapped, it inserts a little tendril of itself into the dream and it just siphons, just drinks until there’s nothing but one slightly used body and the complete lack of a soul.

Right now, though, one of those siphons is spinning around and around in fury as its occupant clearly tries to struggle, to make that cocoon more trouble for the spirit than it’s worth. The perfect distraction. But hit the spirit, right now, and not only do you attract its attention but the risk would be that it would just hurt its prisoners even further. Free them first. Ena, mena, mona, mite – She dives.

A dream. A man kneels alone in a garden of roses, humming the Chant to himself. The core of him is a manifold whirling pattern of uncertainty centred not on his words but on the thought I am alone. He has power to him, but he isn’t using it – he can’t hear the loud clear tone of the bells that Morrigan rings for him, he can’t hear it and he can’t see her face or feel the slap she deals him – he’s too far gone, too caught up in his meaningless prayer, in his frozen instant. Morrigan kills her frustrated irritation and her compassion for the poor man in the same instant and moves on. She can free her friends at least – so long as whoever’s making that noise retains their will and their strength. They aren’t here. Move, girl, move on and stay quiet.

Don’t be a mouse. Mice make sound. Be an owl, silent on white wings. Fly on.

*

It’s a four-poster bed in a room that she recognises from Redcliffe castle. The curtains of the bed are drawn against the light that filters in through the room’s shutters. This is the arl’s bedroom. And if there had been any doubt before which of the vices the spider at the centre of this web embodied, it’s vanishing like mist in summer.

Three guesses who this is. Lazy bastard. Morrigan lands on the dressing-table and makes at the top of her voice the noise of the screech-owl whose shape she’s wearing.

Nope; nothing. Vexing. She’s actually going to have to take another shape, isn’t she. And he’ll take her for a desire-spirit, most likely, if she uses her own – pah. Cat’s paws it is. She drops noiselessly off the table and slips up into the bed between the curtains –

Cats can’t blush. Well, what was she expecting? The only problem now is that she doesn’t know which of them it is. There’s only one soul in here, but all souls look much the same from a distance, and from closer in you can’t tell which is which –

She yowls. Perhaps there’s just a little vindictiveness in the volume she puts on it.

There’s a scream and somebody throws a pillow at her, which she dodges – still nothing conclusive. Both individuals’ actions are perfectly in-character for a genuine person. Fine. Claws will bring down that curtain behind her, if she tears with sufficient force.

Alistair goes after the bloody cat and she leaps lightly to the windowsill – he follows her, while the woman wraps herself in a sheet – both reactions are believable, but it’d be unusual for something conjured by a sloth-spirit to be so proactive, or so… detailed

Focus, girl. Not just because it would be embarrassing to have seven shades of shit beaten out of you by a naked man with a pillow. “Alistair.” Dodge. “Alistair!”

The pillow drops from his hand. He frowns. “I’m pretty sure I don’t have a long-repressed and deep-seated longing for sarcastic talking cats.”

“Then you don’t know what you are missing – You are in a trap, my friend.”

He looks around. “You mean to say I’m not the fabulously wealthy, dramatically successful and uncontested master of both my arguable birthright and the heart of the woman of my dreams?”

Is she.” Morrigan gives said female a jaundiced look.

“Hush, you.” He puts his hands on his hips. “Yeah. This is a dream. What of it? I’ll wake when I’m good and ready, and go right back to traipsing around in the mud on a doomed quest with every man’s hand turned against me-”

“Ohh, you love it really-”

“Get ye behind me, demon.” The man really does look ridiculous striking that pose without a stitch of clothing on him. (Nice self-image he’s got.)

Morrigan gives a very un-catlike snort. “You’ve got it wrong, Alistair. The demon – or its excrescence, which is much the same thing – is behind you. Who did you think I was?”

Well, that pulls him up short. All it takes is for her piercing green eyes to flick down and up again appreciatively and he flushes bright pink. “…Oh.” And he actually pulls the other curtain from the bed to wrap it about his nether regions – “If you tell her -”

She doesn’t know what a dirty chuckle sounds like, but she gives it her best shot. “It’s me you need to worry about offending. Do you want to stay in here until the ‘demon’ eats away your mind entire?”

Alistair looks down. “No, Morrigan. Sorry, Morrigan. Thank you, Morrigan. Guess I need to wake now?”

“From your perspective, yes. There are things I need to do here to make that happen, but I doubt you’d be much, well, much help. I’ve found another victim, someone I cannot wake-”

He nods. “You’re right – pretty much no way I can be of service given that I apparently can’t resist a simple bit of temptation.” He gives the beautiful creature in bed and her come-hither gaze a last look. “How much of this will I remember?”

“Little, I’d suspect.”

He gives a boy’s grin. “Shame.”

“Firstly? I have nearly no idea who you think that is, but in the light she looks like none of the women I know.” A cat can’t grin. “Secondly? I will remember, and I am perfectly capable of creating a perfect rendition of the scene for you from my perspective – but I would probably feel the need to notify everyone who might possibly be depicted in such a scene?”

“Let’s go with the plan where I don’t get my balls ripped off.”

She winks at him. “Quite. Now hold still -”

*

Canticle of Benedictions, verse ten.

Blessed are they who stand before

The corrupt and the wicked and do not falter.

Blessed are the peacekeepers, the champions of the just.

Verse eleven.

Blessed are the righteous, the lights in the shadow.

In their blood the Maker’s will is written.

Verse twelve.

Blessed are-

A bell sounds. Leliana’s sweet voice falters and she turns to see the source of that sound. Draws a knife she didn’t even know she had on her.

There’s an owl perched on the end of the bed. Its eyes are a brilliant green. At least this time around, there’s little doubt who’s in this particular cage. “Can you see me?” it asks. “Can you hear me?”

She clears her throat. “Threnodies eight, verse thirteen. Marvel at perfection, for it is fleeting. You have brought Sin to Heaven / And doom upon all the world?”

The owl cocks its head. “I swear. For all the good that you swear that your religion does you, you must admit that it can also be really quite depressing.”

Blink. She reaches out a hand like she doesn’t quite believe it, touches the barn-owl gently on the head and feels the plumage soft under her fingertips. “…Morrigan?”

“In person. How much do you know about what is going on?”

Her voice is steady and sweet. “I am… terrified.” The image of her wavers a little from the flawless perfection of holy innocence – for a moment she’s streaked with dirt and tears and blood and the room is a ruin and then she’s back to normal – “I have no idea how long I can stand this. I have felt no assaults on my sanity save for being locked in a room with my fears, but…” Her voice is still level, still beautiful. “There are, there are a lot of fears. You have to get me out of here.”

It’s not a usual motion for an owl to nod. “I can and will.” As a gasp of pure released tension escapes Leliana’s mouth, Morrigan continues – “You are the second of our group that I have found. So far I’ve found five templars as well – they are-”

“Morrigan.” Here, close to the core of Leliana’s being, her will is enough to interrupt Morrigan when she speaks. “I’ve no art to help you, and I can feel my self-control unravelling moment by moment – please.”

The owl’s voice is a wellspring of calm compassion. “Very well. Peace, Leliana.” It hops across onto the white bed, carefully walking a spiral pattern, and dragging behind it a curiously fascinating green light which unfolds and expands quickly to fill the whole room – “Sleep tight. Wake safe.”

*

The shem doubles over and I stick the knife in the side of his neck and spin to face the third of them. The bann’s guard run in threes, and –

And this one is dead on his back, with a lithe dark beast crouched over him, like a cat but bigger, and nothing I ever met before. It meets my eyes a moment and then it looks down, shrinks back a little. And it talks – “Kallian.”

“‘S my name. Yours?”

The voice is a woman’s, husky and warm. I recognise it, or I did once. “You know it, or rather, you should.”

“Morrigan.”

“That.” The cat-thing sits down on the dead shem’s chest. “It’s curious. You are half-in and half-out of the trap.”

“Morrigan?”

“Yes, Kallian?”

“What in the holy and blessed name of fuck is going on?”

“A sloth-spirit and its trap.” The cat-thing is washing its face with a paw. The voice is somewhat disembodied. “Think of it like a spider caught us in a web. I’m a bit spidery myself, so I am in the business of examining all the cocoons on the web.”

“You know, that made a surprising amount of sense. What have you found?”

“Leliana, praying. Alistair, getting a long morning’s rest. You, apparently, murdering people. My own prison was supposed to be a happy homecoming.”

“The other mage?”

“She’s keeping the spirit busy. But I found something else, too.” She hesitates, fidgeting a little.

“Go on.”

She looks at me straight. “Kallian, there’s two dozen templars and three other mages in here unconscious and still alive.”

“You’ve been able to reach them?”

She sighs and there’s a moment’s uncertainty and then she’s human-shaped and sat on the floor, looking more fed up than anything else. “I can reach them, but I can’t touch them. I mean – I could hurt them, very easily. I can make them see or hear things, feel things even, but – but they don’t care. They won’t listen.”

“So-”

She sighs. “So, if I just break this, they’re hurt. They’re all joined up with the spirit. If it breaks? They might, too. It’s why I came to get you out, rather than just facing the spirit down.”

“But you can’t get them out.”

She shakes her head. “Not without them wanting it. Or rather – no. Strictly their wishes don’t matter.” She pinches the bridge of her nose. “That’s the worst part. If it were one, say, if it were two, I could save them. I could burn this out of them like poison, rather than lending their will a smidgen of power to float them out of it themselves. But not two dozen. Not and retain the power to save my own skin.”

“And Wynne can’t help?”

She shakes her head. “Wynne is exhausting the spirit’s power holding her down. As far as I can tell, the trap it’s holding her in is a veritable battlefield – I will go there last, for that act will give me away.”

I nod. “So why tell me?”

“Are you cracked?” She looks straight at me and lets me see her bloodshot eyes. “Twenty-seven lives I’ve never touched, and I can save – at a stretch – three of them, and you want to know why I want a friendly ear?”

“I’m sorry.” I glance around at our surroundings, the bann’s stinking dungeon, not exactly a place to sit and be kind. “Morrigan, you’ve saved Alistair and Leliana and me already, and you’ll have saved you and Wynne by the time this ends, so that’s not nothing. And you reckon you can save a couple others?”

“But I can’t choose. Clearly doing nothing is the worst thing I could do – but -” She sniffs. “They’re all one to me. The templars would kill me if they knew me, but so likely would these mages. But I’m not like you, I can’t look at an enemy and see someone who’s not also a person. Everyone’s someone’s son or daughter or brother or wife or – Do I gauge by age, save those who likely have the most people grieved by their loss? Do I pick the ones I’d rather see alive? Who am I to choose who lives and who dies?”

I try and look sympathetic. Terrible at this. “You’re the one with the blade, Morrigan. You’re the one on the spot. You can make them live, so you get to choose which ones you can’t save.”

“It’s not fair.”

“Tell the Maker and hear him care. His world don’t.”

“How can you stand there and say something like that?” She hunches her shoulders. “I suppose they aren’t your people.”

“They ain’t yours either. They’d sing glories to know you were dead.”

She shakes her head. “Doesn’t matter. I’m not theirs, for sure, but anybody who draws breath is worthwhile by my lights, that’s the whole point.” She bites her lip. “Look. People have lines they won’t cross.” She looks at me, perhaps a little defiant. “You found one of mine. All right?”

“What d’you want from me?”

“I don’t know.” She turns away. “I should just send you back to dreamless sleep like Alistair and Leliana. I’ll find a way-”

“Really? Don’t sound like it.” I come sit down beside her. “All right, look. You say you can save two, right?”

“Three, if I push my limits.”

“You’ll need those limits.”

Her eyes flash at me. “Worth someone’s life, is that? No. Three.”

“Okay.” I meet her eyes, let her see I’m not just saying it to shut her up. “So you can’t choose, you don’t know ’em from Andraste, and neither do I. So one’s as bad as another.”

“I suppose.”

“And each one’s as easy as the next.”

She nods wordlessly.

“So just pick the first three you find. Just go in a straight line and -”

“And what about the others?” It’s the closest thing I’ve seen her show to real distress.

“Ain’t your fault. You did your best.”

“But if I leave them, if I do nothing, if I don’t break us free, they won’t die, it won’t be my fault -”

“No?” I look at her steadily. “Who’ll save them, then?”

“I don’t know!” Her eyes are brimming, poor girl.

Sudden thought. “Sloth demon, you said it was? Makes you really want to do nothing and blame the world for it?”

“That’s different.” She sniffs.

“Truly?”

“I, uh, thought I -” Her green eyes narrow. “This demon was cultivated here. Somebody laid this trap deliberately.” She shows teeth. Not a smile. Her voice goes very cold. “When I find that individual? The fate to which they condemned twenty-five people will seem like the gentlest of kindness.” She swallows. “Thank you, Kallian. When one tangles with a spirit, one nearly always gets a little caught-up in its paradigm – I shall pretend that this was inevitable, and not the kind of mistake for which I shall be beating myself up for weeks.” Deep breath. “I suppose you want my assistance in breaking free, now?”

“If you wouldn’t mind.”

She stands and pulls me to my feet. “Good. So. Hold… still…”

*

Three to choose. Not ever so much time. Two mages, a man and a woman – that one and that one – and a templar. Mages are commoner than templars in this world, and he wouldn’t save her, but she doesn’t dare start thinking of her enemies as not being people (well, the ones that aren’t actual monsters).

In each case they won’t remember what happened. Won’t remember her stepping out into their prison and with an imagined drop-spindle twisting their little world so tight it snaps, and pulling hard –

The third one burns her, as she casts, and she feels her body’s exertion – she’s out of breath, in the waking world. The guess of three – could there be a fourth?

No. Not and wake alive herself.

*

Wynne’s eyes open, wide –

“Enchanter-”

Morrigan’s voice is drowned out by Wynne’s spell and the world is all of an instant covered in flame. She’s nearly burned, herself. Shield firmly in place –

Wynne’s eyes open, wide –

“Enchanter!”

Flame. The dream breaks. It’s costing the spirit much of its strength to do this, but Wynne surely can’t go on for ever. Right?

Wynne’s eyes open, wide –

“Wynne, I -”

Lightning.

“Look, you’re-”

Flood.

“Will you-”

Rot.

“Please just-”

Spiders. Really?

“Let me-”

Fire. Again.

“Get a word in-”

Pure arcane power. One can do that? Fascinating.

“Please-”

Acid, a great stinking tide. Morrigan’s shield is going to need rebuilding at this rate.

“Look, I’m-”

Fire-

Morrigan reaches for the staff she knows is on her body somewhere and doesn’t find it. Of course – she’s bloody shapeshifted in the waking world –

Ice, then crushing kinetic force.

The next one will be lightning. The spell will be four words. Morrigan knows a counterspell of three – ugly but effective – she uses it, imagining the crossing of two bright blades of steel, and there’s a confused mess that ends up being a rain of silver threads.

The two mages stand facing one another, hanging in what’s clearly just a coccoon, the spirit long ago having given up the strain of making any kind of illusion to go with its trap. Wynne draws back her hand, gathering bright light to it – then freezes. “Morrigan?

Exhausted nod. “In person. How are you?”

Wynne scowls. “Trapped. The others?”

“I’ve freed the Wardens and the nun, and two of your mages and a templar. Much more and my head will implode.”

“You all right?”

“This trap has my tail. I cannot wake without breaking the trap or shedding my tail, and I’m relatively fond of those memories. And I don’t know if I can wake you, not now we’ve the spirit’s attention.”

“Mm. You will want to call them ‘demons’ in the waking world, dear, you sound like a Tevinter textbook.” Wynne actually winks. “The kind you tell the apprentices was burned in the last Exalted March. So. We have its attention – but given where we are, if I hit it again it will just push me under again.”

Morrigan nods. “Your idea, then?”

“Can you evoke?”

Embarrassment. “Um. That’s where you make things burn or fall apart?”

“Hmph.” The impulse to stand and discuss magic theory is rapidly wrestled down and abandoned. “Can you?”

“Not so much. I was planning to shield you while you cast?”

Wynne chuckles unexpectedly. “That’s the exact reverse of my plan. Your shields are good, girl – you’d pass for an abjurer, no issue – but I sincerely doubt they’d match my own. There’s no time to teach you a spell. D’you have anything that will hurt a demon?”

“Emotions, I can do. For sloth, what? Desire? Hate?”

A sharp look. “You’d use the demons’ tools against them?”

Morrigan’s eyes flash angrily – “Better than making one’s dearest hopes into a weapon. I could have left you here.”

“Peace.” Wynne raises a hand. “This is not the place to discuss that. Although… Why not use both? A kaleidoscope of conflicting urges? When one approach sticks, use another?”

Morrigan considers. “It’ll just entrench itself. Close itself off to stimulus -”

“Blind itself, you mean? Why, then I can blow it straight to its hell of choice.” Wynne shows her teeth. “What are you waiting for?”

“Your shield, enchanter.” Morrigan gives a little bow.

“Then with your permission -”

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