Hawke’s Flight, Chapter Twenty-Nine
Ferventis 9:37 Dragon, I’d been an accredited mage of Gallows Circle for all of four months – yes, I met and passed the trials and the Harrowing, no, I won’t talk about it, and you’ll never find anyone who will. Anyway, I won’t pretend that life was good in there. A cloistered sister eats better, dresses better, has more time to herself, feels safer, reads better and wider, even, and doesn’t have to stare at the floor all the time: but as I told my fellows, it beat the ever-living – glance at templar – smallclothes off living on a farm.
I mean, they were complaining about having to get up at dawn for Lauds now that the templars had decided the mages were to keep religious hours – I suppose it was something that our guardians noted and appreciated, that I noted as we filed out of chantry to breakfast one morning that in Lothering I’d have been out in the fields for quite a while by the time the sun was properly up. We lived indoors in a nice well-kept place, except for those days when the weather was good in which case we might inhabit the courtyards and balconies if we chose – the place was never cold – dull the food may have been, but it was never short – we didn’t even have to do our own chores – but to hear my fellows talk, we might’ve been on bread and water in an oubliette.
The bit that I did mind was the fact that they didn’t want us adding colour to our daily lives; I mean, if they’d just let us run our own kitchens we could’ve fed everyone far better, and with the same ingredients even. Why weren’t we allowed to write or read about subjects other than magic? Why were we stuck with this awful poor-quality devotional art on the walls, when Enchanter Drielra had taught us all from anatomical drawings that seemed to leap off the page? What’s wrong with a mage wanting to be a poet, or a chef, or an artist, or anything at all that doesn’t involve magic? And the continual restriction was like an itch that wouldn’t go away.
Sit people in the lap of luxury and put a cage round it and some people will chafe, yes – but for all that I say that our principal complaints were that our luxury wasn’t so luxurious, that’s all because we all were afraid that if we complained about the templars and their restrictions and their rules about magic, then we would go away and not come back. There was a girl in the same dormitory as I when I first came to the Circle, two years ahead of me as an apprentice, pretty she was, two years younger than me, and one day she disappeared; we never knew her crime. And a month later I saw her among the Tranquil. So – yes. We were scared. We all knew the danger of dwelling on any negative emotion. We all were trained against it. We were still scared. Nobody can stay strong forever.
Where was I when everything went mad? As it happens I had a front-row seat. Four of us were sitting on the Evocation faculty’s balcony, watching the city; this was technically a study group, and the templar we had with us didn’t have the education to know that nobody could with a straight face call themselves an evoker if they hadn’t internalised this stuff already. What this was was an opportunity to sit out in good weather, boil some water by a magically abstruse method and then ‘test it’ by using it to infuse some of Enchanter Iocasta’s stock of spice tea (which clearly had to be carefully measured by drinking it, and any appearance of pleasure taken in this arduous task was entirely in the imagination of the templars).
And then a source somewhere in Hightown reached up, evoked out of nowhere one instant of perfect, beautiful light, and pumped pure hell through it by igniting more lyrium than I’d ever sensed at once before. An instant later we saw the flash, and the plume of dust; a moment again and we heard the sound, echoing around the harbour like thunder. My chair overturned as I stood, hand over my mouth. Of course we all gathered power – for the exact same reason that our templar put his hand on his hilt when he saw us do it.
And then he made, as it turned out, exactly the wrong call. Did I mention he was a new recruit, younger than me even? He drew. He actually drew, and levelled his blade at Iocasta and yelled for her to stand down. She didn’t, of course, and he stepped forward to try and shatter her focus with skin contact, and that would have been terribly hazardous. So I spoke up.
“Stop right there,” I said, and I didn’t look down when he turned his gaze on me. It came to my mind that we probably looked quite intimidating to him, given the way that we were washing every single shadow out of the room just right now.
“Which of you did that?” He looked from the city back down to us and his voice cracked in panic.
“None of us, of course. That was -” I floundered a second – “It caught us by surprise. There’s no reason to believe someone won’t try and do another one, and we can maybe stop that from where we are.”
“And I gave you an order.” His sword wobbled and he dropped the point, and if I’d had a mind to I could have literally taken it off him with one hand.
“And under the Rule, I’m going to exercise an Enchanter’s professional discretion and tell you that I didn’t hear you right.” Iocasta’s aura of power deepened. Her control was impressive – I couldn’t have achieved that sort of thing without setting my surroundings on fire. She hadn’t turned around and her eyes hadn’t moved from the column of dust and smoke where the chapterhouse had been. “This is beyond you three, I think. I can feel him, out there, but hell knows where. Felicia, could you run and get Enchanter Parthis, please? Levitia, be a dear and clear the glassware and the furniture away? If this turns into a mage-duel I don’t want flying splinters. Bethany, I’d like you to go and ring the bell for assembly, if you’d be so kind-”
“You are forgetting your place-” The young man was shaking.
“Don’t believe so, dear; you could always make yourself useful and-”
“Look at me!” He pointed his sword at her again and I felt the slightest pressure of his aura.
Her voice was very clear, didactic. “That was a magical attack on the city, ser templar. I am this Circle’s expert on that sort of magic. The moment I can get someone to stand in for me, I am going to brief the Head Enchanter and then he is going to brief the assembled Circle and then you can have my undivided attention. In the meantime? I’d appreciate it if nobody jogged my elbow.”
I got to the assembly bell to find a templar arriving with the exact same idea; we exchanged a glance and I bowed my head to him and he rang it. We filed in to the hall in dribs and drabs, but everyone was there, and they’d just come as they were, whether from classes or practice or reading or whatever – and the templars as well, forty of them, all in their full armour for all that some of them looked like they’d literally just thrown it on.
And the Head Enchanter didn’t get the chance to make his briefing. Turned out that the templars were going out there, and they wanted mages with them – my heart leaped, because as an evoker I was exactly what they wanted – I’d sort of expected them to ask for volunteers and was halfway through taking one smart pace forward when they stepped into the crowd of us like sheepdogs cutting a flock, and took the dozen mages standing nearest the door and the Head Enchanter. Didn’t speak to us directly. Kind of shocked me. Ever been literally treated like an animal, complete with no attempt to actually communicate? They didn’t even check if the mages they were taking so much as had a pair of shoes on, or if they knew what was going on – they couldn’t have been more insulting if they’d – the room was filling with a heady mix of fear and anger and everyone there could feel it, and nobody was going to speak up because we could all see the murder in the eyes of these templars.
And then the expedition left, and there was a slight awkward moment when the templars remaining in the room realised that there were three times as many of us as them, and then the duty lieutenant silenced our talking among ourselves and barked a curt order to lock down. Curfew until further notice, everyone to retire to their cells. What the hell good he thought that was going to do, I wasn’t sure. Let everyone stew in their own juice? I suppose it stopped us egging one another on. Suppose I was in a better position than most, given that I at least knew what was going on at all –
At least every mage had their own cell and the only lock was on the inside. It was a relic of a more civilised time, I suppose. The apprentices had dorms, supposedly to promote discussion and study and also because illicit relationships are an awful lot harder when you’re sharing a room with the equivalent of your younger siblings; but everyone with a credential had a cell of their own, doubling as a study room unless they rated a separate office, and before the current set of restrictions apparently they’d been encouraged to decorate and furnish it as individually as possible. Sometimes a mage really just needs their own safe space, I think is supposed to be the message – I think the message they wanted that day was that we were being sent to our rooms without any supper.
Someone knocked on my cell door; I opened it, a little cautiously. It was Enchanter Iocasta – I’d never seen my teacher looking other than competent and collected, and here she was knocking wild-eyed on her youngest protégée’s door when we were supposed to be confined to quarters. “Come,” she said, simply. “Put your shoes on.”
“I’m wearing – what’s this about, Enchanter? Who’s keeping a watch on the-”
“Head Enchanter Orsino is on it. Come on.” Her expression was worried as I hastened to obey. “Enchanters Drielra and Ethan, their advanced study group and half of Abjuration, Creation and Metamagic didn’t take the quickest turning if they were going to their own cells. I happened to check on Almaxi on the way here – you know, she used to be the sane wing of Illusion before they closed it entirely? – and she’s not there either.” She wrung her hands. “And I’ve had approximately the most terrible thought, and you’re too new to be in on anything Ethan’s doing, and so you and I are going to check on the armoury.”
I paled. “You think…”
“Until I have seen otherwise, Bethany, I’m just paranoid.”
Nod. “Right. No reason to believe that it’s anything more than an impromptu and calming pyjama party.”
Very slight hysterical edge to the enchanter’s laugh – “Yes! A party! A Resolutionist tea party! They’re going to anentropically heat all the water in every Circle, whether or not we want it, and there can be tea and scalding for all!” Her smile died young. “It’s the usual suspects, Bethany, it’s exactly the right people, that’s why I had my eye on them. The only reason I don’t think they did the chapterhouse is because they don’t have the – Maker’s breath.” And she broke into a run.
Because that was an evocation, within the Circle’s walls. Nothing nearly so large as the chapter-house had been. But someone had just reached out and frozen something large, a careful spellcasting, nothing that a specialist would have put together.
Round two corners, up some stairs and we were too late. The door was on the floor in splinters – as was –
I suppose my experience as an apostate was suddenly helpful. I’d seen, I’d done worse in my time, while the Enchanter stopped dead and turned distinctly green. Two sets of mortal remains. Just frozen solid, then shattered. Hard to tell from the remains of two pairs of lower legs, but mages don’t usually wear metal boots.
And out from the door, moving under a veil of shifting shadows that would’ve fooled no mage for an instant, came two figures. They were wearing battlemage’s garb, light mail over layered leather, and both of them carried staves. Took me a moment to recognise two men from Abjuration.
“Those were Templars.” Iocasta sounded every bit as sick as she looked. “Tell me there’s an alternative explanation. Tell me you didn’t just-”
Light sprang to the tip of both staves. I called to my power and it came and every single shadow fled from near us. Iocasta in an instant was a nearly bottomless well of strength, though if I could feel her disgust through her magic then I’d bet that they could. One of the staff-wielders spoke. “They started it,” he said. “They drew on us without warning. They accused us of conspiracy.”
“Are you not a conspiracy?” Iocasta had a barrier abjuration on the tip of her tongue. I knew my own strengths. “Are you not here against orders?”
Another two people at the door of the armoury. Again, staves. Again, armour. One of them was Enchanter Drielra, the Circle’s doctor, and green light played up and down the staff she bore. “Orders,” she spat. “From fools, heretics, idiots and oppressors. This is the day. This is the hour it all changes.”
“To bite the hand that fed?” Iocasta was incredulous. “In the middle of all of this?”
“Oh, my dear.” Drielra smiled, faintly. “Do you think this is an accident, that we have this opportunity?”
“Great Maker,” my teacher breathed. “What have you done?”
“Me? Nothing.” She shrugged. “It was going to happen anyway. We’re taking advantage. Perhaps we were forewarned.” And she brought the butt of her staff down onto the flagstones with a click. “Now. We’re on a relatively tight schedule. You can join us, or you can get out of our way.”
“Or what?” I was slightly horrified to realise that that was my voice. “You’re threatening us?”
“Don’t back us into a corner, my girl.” A point of light hovered about an inch over the unornamented crystal on the end of the staff she’d chosen. “We’d all grieve that.”
“Like you grieved to be complicit in the murder of those two? And I don’t know how many more?” I kept my voice from rising. “We were watching that. You’re telling me that building was empty?”
“Matter of fact, it was full. Mostly templars.” Even my murderous brother would’ve been less sanguine. “Don’t see the relevance.” Again, power deepened around her. A doctor she might be, but she was every bit as much of a mage as my own mentor. “Step aside.”
I was too angry to be terrified. “You’re threatening-”
“Stand down, Bethany,” said Iocasta.
“What?” I threw her a look born mostly of shock and surprise. “You don’t mean to-”
“We’re too late.” Her voice was dull. “They’re not wrong about what the templars will do when they come to the conclusion that none but the Circle could’ve done this. This is not a hill to die on. There are, what – twenty of the Resolutionist Party in Gallows Circle?”
The healer sneered. “Try thirty-five.”
“One in five rather than one in six; doesn’t matter. My point is that there are more than the ones we can see. You and I could fight. Slay them all -” she shot a challenging look at her colleague – “and make no mistake, Drielra, I didn’t bring my youngest research assistant solely because I knew she wasn’t one of yours. But we wouldn’t succeed in stopping this.” Her shoulders slumped. “The Templars will make what they’d call an investigation. They will, I strongly suppose, discover that nobody was capable of committing what I also suppose was the worst atrocity the Resolutionists could manage – unless our supposedly Loyalist head enchanter was lying through his teeth. In the face of such betrayal, they come back here with murder in mind and they’re met by armed resistance. How am I doing so far?”
“You always were competent where straightforward logic was concerned.” Drielra smiled. “I really doubt that the death of every one of their leaders will be taken well – and the moment they meet one mage who does not bow to their every arbitrary whim? They will be coming in here to kill us all. In a very literal sense, Iocasta, and as you know very well. Unless we all stand together, today? We fall together.”
You know what this felt like, more than anything else? It felt like the ancient witch’s spell all those years ago, the one that got me and my family the length of a kingdom in a night’s walking. It was just – helpless, like a great wave was carrying us, and for all our power, none of us could control our course, not me, not the Enchanters, not even the Resolutionists who had started all this. I think all that kept me functional was my mentor’s brave face, her apparent firm belief that, you-know, just maybe we could land on our feet, or at least control how we fell. Roll with it. Like what my brother would’ve done.
So everyone who had a battle-magic credential, the Resolutionists lined up – creators, abjurers, entropomancers, anybody with staff training, generalised evokers like Iocasta and Levitia, true elementalists like Felicia and me and even the lady who lived in one of the attics and spoke to the wind. And with a little shudder I realised they’d opened the cells and let out the prisoners and all.
They told us what was at stake in terms so broad that they had me fuming silently. They told us that they had incapacitated our guards and warded us in – that the Templars would consider every single one of us culpable for the crimes they’d deliberately gone and committed. They told us that nobody out there, not even the traitorous Head Enchanter, had the art to cast a Rite of Annulment through Enchanter Ethan’s wards and just wipe us out without a fuss. So the templars would seek permission from, well, from themselves to come in here and try to kill us all. And what d’you know, they’d probably give their own request the due and careful consideration it deserved before granting it summarily and handing out the lyrium and the weapons.
So given all of that, they said, they were asking for volunteers. Every one of us could either kill with magic or save lives with it or both, and every one of us had at least basic first-response healing. That bloody stand-together-fall-together line again. They’d broken out the armouries – there were staves, armour, swords even, those pieces of enchantment the Tranquil hadn’t quite finished with, all serviceable. And they were calling on us to use our powers to defend the Circle against our supposed protectors.
So, of course, it didn’t wait more than a moment before it tried to go wrong. A man stepped forward, not one of the prisoners, one of the Entropy faculty. Bowed his head to Ethan and said yes, he’d be proud to serve. And he ran his thumb down across his palm and blood flowed –
So uh. Possibly it was just because I was on edge anyway. But while most of the room wasted time in shock and horror, my shiny new training kicked in. The mnemonic word I used for a hot, brief, intense burst of flame was shirt – a memory of mine, of a time I’d focused my mind and just wished something gone and it went, in fire – Iocasta had laughed when she first heard it and said that we’d have to work a little on my dignity or people would be calling me a bumpkin all my born days. And as on one side of me Iocasta threw up an opaque double layer of ice between him and anything he might be looking at, and on the other Levitia used an old Tevinter word for lightning and threw a hot white spike of power underarm – their spells met mine at a point and interacted and the blood mage died. Instantly. There was nothing left of him, not even ash, and the wall of ice caught the shockwave and all it did to anyone else was dazzle and deafen and bring some dust down from the roof.
And, well, you might say that the faculty drew a few eyes with that.
And the Enchanter stepped forward, and I couldn’t let her do that on her own, and the other two clearly felt the same. And she swept her eye over the line. “Yes, Ethan,” she said. “I volunteer. Appears my students do, as well. And we shall defend the Circle. And we shall not forget that not every threat is from outside, and not every rule is there for no reason. And if any other individual here feels that we need to turn maleficar to defend ourselves?” She didn’t draw in her power. She just smiled, or something like it, and just for a second stars danced in her eyes. “I have one or two here who would like to take issue with your statement.”