Fear & Surprise, Chapter One

by artrald

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*

These truths the Maker has revealed to me:
As there is but one world,
One life, one death, there is
But one god, and He is our Maker.

They are sinners, who have given their love
To false gods.

Magic exists to serve humanity,
And never to rule over them.
Foul and corrupt are they
Who have taken His gift
And turned it against His children.

They shall be named Maleficar, accursed ones.
They shall find no rest in this world or beyond.

All of Humanity are the Work of our Maker’s Hands,
From the lowest slaves
To the highest kings.

Those who bring harm without provocation to the least of His children
Are hated and accursed by the Maker.

Those who bear false witness
And work to deceive others, know this:
There is but one Truth.

All things are known to our Maker
And He shall judge their lies.

All things in this world are finite.
What one gains, another has lost.
Those who steal from their brothers and sisters
Do harm to their livelihood and to their peace of mind.

Our Maker sees this with a heavy heart.

1 Transfigurations, Chant of Light
attributed to Andraste, Bride of the Maker

*

Waking up was like hitting the ground.

Face down? Check. Headache? Maker’s Bride, yes. Blurred vision? Mm. Yup. Dizzy? Uh-huh. Unexplained injuries? Seemed as I’d cut my left palm, or at least it stung like a bastard. Taste of stale wine and vomit?

Actually, I was drawing a blank there. I could taste blood and ashes and the main thing I could smell was smoke – not honest woodsmoke but dirty, horrible stinking sulfurous fumes, but from what, I couldn’t have told you.

It was twilight, and it was foggy – or at least, I couldn’t see very far at all, for all that there was a sordid grey glimmer to the sky. I wasn’t lying in a gutter, neither. Cold under me it was, and damp rather than wet, little shards of scree that scraped and shifted as I pushed myself to a knee. And it wasn’t flat, either. I’d – passed out – blind drunk – on a mountainside? The hell?

A sound beat its way up through the roaring in my ears, and it wasn’t a nice one. Like someone drumming fingernails on a countertop. Coming from downslope. I looked. Swear something was looking back, and all. There was a shape in the mist. Dark, broad, low. That sharp drumming skittering tapping came again and it came to me that it was footsteps.

You know, eight of ’em.

I hate spiders. I hate the way they move, the way they look, the way – everything, everything about the creepy little fuckers. If spiders were the size of dogs, I always said, you’d hate them too.

And this spider wasn’t the size of a dog. It was the size of a small pony.

I think I may have actually shrieked and I certainly fell on my arse. And then I saw its eyes, eight beady black heartless little bastard eyes fixed on me, and I saw it take a few hesitant steps towards me and I turned (the floor shifted under me and nearly dumped me on my face again) and I ran like all the spiders of Hell were behind me.

And I tell you, they might as well have been. Moment I started to run. More surefooted tapping skittering running – they were downslope, I ran upslope – slipped half a dozen times, kicked scree in their faces, must’ve skinned my hands because my left palm was bleeding and it hurt like buggery.

Light was ahead of me. A woman’s shape. She was reaching out a hand to me and I ran for her like she somehow had an answer to spiders, which I sure as hell didn’t. I slipped again, grabbed for her hand – touched her fingers –

I fell –

Hitting the ground was like waking up. Damp, uneven, and roughly level. Rain in torrents plastered hair to my freezing cold scalp.

“Sar’nt!” A man’s hoarse incredulous bark. “Sar’nt, he’s alive!”

I turned over and sank back into oblivion.

*

Rusty pain in my hand dragged me back into consciousness, and let me tell you, it did it with a team and plough. I’d apparently been on my knees, and they ached like a bastard. My feet were asleep. Crick in my neck. Moved my head and it clinked – I had – a collar around my neck? Manacles? A solid iron bar holding my hands apart? There was light, a little glimmer of a lightstone overhead putting me in a shaft of light. I was in a cell. More than that. I was in a dungeon. One of the expensive ones. The things you put – I don’t know – royalty in, or captive generals, or wizards maybe.

About this point I heard a quite unnecessarily loud voice from behind me. “He’s awake!” I tried to twist around, see who that was. About all I accomplished was to learn that my collar was chained to the floor three ways – one glimpse, I got, corner of my eye. Steel boots. Hem of a deep red robe. A sword’s point.

Well, Harry, you asked, and you learned, didn’t you. I turned my eyes front and centre and I stopped clinking, in case maybe templars went away if you stuck very still.

The cell door opened. Bright, the far side. A tall figure stalked in, and she was all done up to kill: that was my first impression. Half-plate, she was in, some foreign make, and a black surcoat with some heraldry I didn’t know – white staring stylised eye. Might’ve been pretty before some bastard tried to have her eye out and got her a long curving scar. And she was angry, incandescent with hatred and rage, and that’s what had me thinking here was a murderer in a knight’s outfit. She wanted my head on a pike. This wasn’t going to be the nice polite kind of-

“Tell me,” she said, “why we shouldn’t give you to the mob right now.”

I looked up at her and my mouth ran all by itself. “Devastating charm?”

I got her boot in my kidneys and shut my big idiot yap.

“Divine Justinia is dead,” she hissed. “There are somewhat more than a million people who want her murderer, to themselves, and a knife, be it never so blunt.” She walked behind me. “Me, I am not one of those, for I have always preferred the flame – do you understand what it is that I am saying to you?”

I sat there a moment just stunned. The Divine – and this woman thought that I – “You’ve got the wrong man! Lady, I’ve seen the Divine but once in me life-”

“You are Maxwell Trevelyan of Ostwick, son of the Viscount of Ostwick, of the Free Marches?”

Blink. “Uh. No? I’m-”

“Funny.” She continued her circle. “If I am not mistaken, ser, we met at Lady Ehvara’s ball in the spring of thirty-five. I suppose you can’t be expected to remember everything you did when you were twenty-one; and I have cut my hair. But as I remember, you were quite taken with the Nevarran in the blue dress. Have five years taught you to dance, Max?”

“You’ve, uh. Got the wrong man.” I laughed nervously. “Funny story. They always said how much I looked like his nibs, said I should nick off with his-”

She kicked me in the other side. I’d have fallen over if I weren’t chained upright. By the neck. I think mostly I screamed. “Do you know how we found you, Max?”

I got my breath back as quickly as I could. “Last thing I remember I was face down in a gutter and the rain was coming in, lady, please, I’ve got no idea why you even think I’d be-”

She squatted down, grabbed my blood-caked left hand and forced the fingers open and holy hells did that hurt. Green light flooded the room, bright enough to hurt the eyes, spilling and flickering in all directions from a dirty ragged horrible mark down my hand. Somewhere between a burn and a cut – I swear I could see bone – and as I looked at it, more blood was oozing from around the edge and dripping on the floor. I felt sick. She looked me in the eye for a moment, then dropped my hand like it was a snake. “Explain this to me,” she growled, and all that flashed through my mind was the stories of a bear chewing off its own paw to get out of a trap.

“I can’t! It wasn’t there the last time I looked!”

Her fist took me under the ribs and drove all the wind out of me. Got the feeling that it wasn’t by accident that she’d hit me where and how she had. She stood up and took a step back as I reeled and retched and she was going to kick me in the face –

“Raven.” A quiet hand on her elbow. Black-gloved. I hadn’t seen this second one come in. Grey and black she wore, with the same staring-eye heraldry on a black armband. Blackened mail under her coat. Shorter. Auburn hair. “He’s no good to us dead.”

So I had a name for the tall one. Raven. She paused, turned her head to regard her colleague. “Time is short.”

“So by all means, let us spend what little we have in indulging ourselves?” The redhead turned cold unsympathetic eyes on me. “You. Where we found you, there was no other living thing within a hundred yards. No complete corpse within twenty yards, nor yet stone upon stone. And you live. Tell us what happened before.”

I coughed. “I woke up lying face down. I have no idea where, but it wasn’t where you found me, I, uh. There were spiders.”

A perfectly level unimpressed gaze with all the friendliness of a hammered nail. “Spiders.”

“Big ones, you know? Like, the size of a house! I, I ran away, and there was a slope and they were downhill, so I went up. Kept going, they chased me, so I ran. And I – there was a woman -”

“A woman?” She raised an eyebrow. “Describe her.”

“I -” I shook my head. “There was light, and it was all from her. It was like, there was darkness and depth and death and fear behind me and all that was in front of me was her, and there was light. And I stretched out my hand and just as I touched her fingers – I – thought it was a dream.”

As a moth sees light and flies toward the flame, so she should see fire and go toward the light?” Poison dripped from each of Raven’s words. “You’re lying. You are telling me what you think I want to hear.”

“I swear, I’m not.” I glanced from one to the other. “What I said is what I saw.”

Her eyes narrowed. “So give me more description. How old a woman? What hair? Describe her face and clothes.”

“I uh.” Deep breath. (Ow.) “She was a little shorter than me, I think. Middle-aged, maybe? Long flowing robes, like a revered mother’s, sort of-”

“What colour?” The redhead’s focused attention was like to bore a hole right through me. “Were they red, or purple, or white?”

I shook my head. “Gold. I remember that the light was golden.”

“Did she speak to you?”

“If she did, I -” I racked my brains. What had made me look for her? Had I heard her calling to me? “I don’t remember.”

Redhead let a hiss of frustration through her teeth. They looked at one another. Raven spoke. “Go on ahead, Nightingale. See if the elf’s plan is workable. We’ll join you there.”

‘Nightingale’ gave me a disparaging look. “He did say that the mark is no use to anybody if-”

“Pah. You think I cannot keep a man alive for one poxy mile? My word is given. Get on with you.”

“Sera.” Nightingale turned on her heel and left.

“Keys.” Raven held out her hand and the templar behind me slapped them into it. She knelt. “Now listen here, all right? You will stay with me. You will stay in front of me unless I must draw my blade, at which point you will stay behind me. You will not even so much as think of running from me. You will do everything I say, when I say it, how I say it, without complaint or hesitation. And just so we are clear, here? I am not asking for your word of honour.” She put the key into the shackle around my neck. “I am Seeker Cassandra Pentaghast, the Right Hand of the White Divine. Or in words you are more familiar with? I am the hand to bear the torch that gives the flame. The hand to draw the sword that purges the unrighteous. If you disobey me, little man, if you run from me, I will chase you. I will hunt you down. I will catch you. And I will burn you at the fucking stake.” She turned the key and the first shackle popped open. “I trust you understand me.”

*

“So, you know. If it isn’t too much trouble?” I massaged my aching wrist. “Where in all hell am I, and what in all hell happened?”

“Funny you should use that word.” The last of the locks sprang open. She grabbed my undamaged hand and hauled me up without so much as a grunt of effort. “We are in the little town of Haven, and you’ve only ever heard of it because of the Sanctuary of the Ashes.” She looked me in the incomprehending eye. “You know, the Bride’s last resting place?” Nothing. “Andraste? Bride of the Maker? Singer of the Chant? Her ashes rested here after the Betrayal? Any of this making sense?”

I nodded slowly. “You mean the place they were holding the synod thing.”

She actually growled at that. “The peace talks. At which you and Lord Sigismund were representing the Marches.”

“I tell you, your handship, I’m not him-”

“My style is ‘lady’ or ‘sera’. And you might consider that lying to a Seeker of Truth doesn’t endear you.”

Sigh. Anyone will tell you there’s no talking to the aristocracy when they use that tone of voice. “Yes, milady.”

“Right.” She led the way down a dingy stone corridor past a couple of Templar guards, making bloody little allowance for my limping. At least I’d been left my shoes. “And as for what happened?” She turned a corner, pulled an oaken door open and didn’t say a thing.

There was a hole. In the sky.

I mean, it was the same green as the light coming from the hole in my hand, and it was just there, raggedly circular, looked a little like a mouth, maybe. And there was a cloud around it and the cloud was swirling in a spiral and as I watched lightning crackled across the face of it and my left arm spasmed and twitched.

So I kind of flapped my mouth and didn’t say anything, and she was studying my reaction, and when I tried perfectly naturally to run back inside the building she grabbed me by the arm.

And I know I’ve said it already, but bloody hell that woman was strong. Didn’t move an inch. I kind of struggled for another moment, then I stopped, and she let me go.

Then I tried to rabbit for proper, and she kicked my feet out from under me in a single move and knelt down beside me, put the point of a knife down on the floor right beside my head. “Enough,” she said, and nerveless I stopped trying to get away.

“Please, my lady -”

“Listen to me, and listen well.” Her voice was quiet, and it was penetrating. “Recall I said ‘mob’. I exaggerated only in number: here in Haven there are only perhaps one thousand who want your blood, counting elderly and children, though mercifully few of those. Yes: this number is perhaps one-fourth of those who had congregated for the talks.” She threw a look of pure hatred at the hole in the sky. “The rest, including the Most Holy, were up the hill at the Sanctuary. And of those, if there are survivors, we have not yet discovered them. And that? Is growing.”

“…Run. I – Maker’s Bride, why aren’t we running?”

“Because according to my mage? There is no way in which we could get ourselves far enough away.” Her voice was as cold as the winter rain still pattering down outside. “You expected an answer involving duty, perhaps, or heroism? I did tell you the name of my order, yes? Now. Our only hope? Any of ours? Is to stop that thing growing any larger.”

“And you think that somehow I c-can help? Because I’ve got a hole in my hand that’s the same colour?”

“You walked out of that,” she said, making the knife go away. “And the mage says -”

I shrank away from her. “Fucking – magic?”

“Now, I make no pretence to be an expert. But does that thing perhaps look a little unnatural to you?” She extended a hand to me. “Come with me if you want to live.”

I took the scary lady’s hand.

*

That point in my life, I wasn’t what you’d consider fit. The climb up to the Sanctuary is supposed to build character, it’s supposed to make you feel every inch of Andraste’s journey, each little bit of her suffering, once per step. It’s one of the reasons they picked it for the talks, I suppose; and Cassandra was taking it at a pace that had me crimson-faced and puffing, and when I’d stopped once to put my hands on my knees and breathe, there had been genuine fear in her voice as she’d told me to hurry it up.

So when we got up to a place where the path flattened a bit, I wasn’t really paying much attention. Once this had been a stand selling hot drinks to freezing pilgrims; now it was a ruin. I just about noticed there was a little crowd here, dozen or so people in armour milling around, and in midair in the middle of the square, it was like the world had been tied in a knot – pain shot through my hand and I fell to my knees.

“Finally they arrive!” A loud clear voice, a man’s tenor, with a slight burr I couldn’t place. “Aim! Loose!”

You never forget the sound of half a dozen crossbows going off at once. They call it musical. It’s not. Music doesn’t kill people. As for what it was they were shooting at? What the bolts just landed in like they were so many butts at the fair?

It looked like people. Exactly like people. Loose little crowd, and they’d just kind of been standing there, leaning forward like against a strong wind.

Until they didn’t fall over. (I fell over, onto my arse. Cassandra was suddenly in front of me and her bright-bladed broadsword looked like an extension of herself, like it just simply grew there.)

And then someone I hadn’t seen – a very short bald man in a green coat – spun the staff he was carrying in his hand, slammed it down, cried out an unrecognisable word in that same voice and the whole world seemed to fill with thunder and lightning, and everything with a bolt sticking in it fell into a blackened heap.

“Smartly, now!” The mage – he was an elf, with the pointiest little ears you ever saw – was running over this way. “Took your time, Seeker –  Can he stand?”

I proved that I could before Cassandra could haul me to my feet yet again – the elf walked right up to me with a businesslike expression. “Left hand,” he said. I gritted my teeth and held it out and he grabbed my wrist and pulled. “With me. Smartly, mind, we’ve got about thirty vhen’ain.”

“I’m beginning to get tired of being manhandled, you know-”

“Bully for you.” He half-dragged me all the way up to that knot in midair, lifted my hand. “Pay attention, now.” And he pushed my hand out towards empty air and it was like it tore – my arm went cold, freezing cold up to my elbow, and I yelled – and he twisted my hand nearly a right-angle, felt my palm catch like it was hooked on something, pulled it back sharply. “Close your fingers!”

So I did, convulsively. And the cold went away and the knot in the air, it was like it – untied, somehow. And my vision greyed, but I kept my feet. The elf, watching me closely, gave me a careful smile. “Good. Very good. How do you feel?”

“Like, uh. Like I just lost a pint of blood?”

“Huh.” He shook his head. “Nowhere near so much. Still your own self in there, though, which is good.”

Another voice, while I was working out what he just said to me. One of the warriors, a brown-haired beardless dwarf in ill-fitting kit that looked like he’d lifted it off a human. Still pointing a massive, rune-carved crossbow at a charred corpse. Mostly sounded scared. “Solas? We good?”

“This breach is no more, if that is your meaning.” He cast a calculating look at the hole in the sky. “There are now eighteen of them within five li, and four downstream of this one, and that’s doubly unstable. I believe the first-order re-emanation of this configuration to be unstable as well: that’s why we came here.” Turned to Cassandra. “I sent Nightingale ahead to the tertiary, with the templars. Easier for them, her and me if I didn’t have to pretend myself a knowless fool.”

Her frown was an invitation not to push his luck. “Will it work?” She gestured to my hand.

“Maybe. If it doesn’t kill him or drink his soul all dry.” The elf – Solas, was it? – patted me on the offending arm. “Which gets more likely by the sul’an. He’s bleeding, you know.”

Cassandra gestured to the soldiers and they fell in. Much more obvious now, that the dwarf wasn’t one of them. “Can you fix that?” she asked, as we walked.

The elf made the sucking noise of a tradesman faced with a knotty one indeed. “D’you have an elu’vi’an hidden under that tabard of yours?”

“A what? Can you contrive one in the time we have?”

Solas frowned. “I was practicing sarcasm. Repairing the injury to Lord Trevelyan’s hand at this stage without literally breaking the world -”

I believe my terrified swearword drowned out everything else that he might have been saying. The elf looked at me. “Surely somebody told you of the stakes, here?”

I opened my mouth and shut it a few times. Pointed (with my right hand). “Hole in the sky?”

The elf’s expression was pained. “Big hole. Big hole get more big, will eat us all up.” He tapped my hand. “You have bit of sky on your hand. Come put back.”

“Or you kill me, yes?”

His eyes twinkled. “If I die here, shem, you die too, and first.”

*

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