Fear & Surprise, Chapter Two

by artrald

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There will be a bonus update on Wednesday because I ended up writing more than I thought I would.

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*

All that the Maker has wrought is in His hand
Beloved and precious to Him.
Where the Maker has turned His face away
Is a Void in all things;
In the world, in the Fade,
In the hearts and minds of men.

Passing out of the world, in that hell shall they wander;
O unrepentant, faithless, treacherous,
They who are judged and found wanting
Shall know forever the loss of the Maker’s love.
Only the Bride shall weep for them.

12 Threnodies 5-6, Chant of Light

*

“Pressganged, eh?” The dwarf ambled along beside me, his crossbow slung casually over one shoulder like it didn’t weigh a good half-hundredweight. “Join the club.”

“Pressganged would rather imply that I was their choice of prisoner,” I remarked sourly. “Least you’re some kind of warrior.”

He gave a snort. “What, in this lovingly tailored jacket and fabulously fitted armour? You do know that ‘merchant-adventurer’ means a guy who’s willing to take a punt on an overseas risk proposition, right, and nothing to do with slaying dragons and battling evil?”

“That’s a bastard of a weapon for shooting at paperwork.”

“Bitch. Her name’s Bianca.” His teeth flashed. “A man’s got to have a hobby. Varric Tethras, by the way.”

“Harry Osten.” I shook his hand. “Hang on. Varric Tethras, as in, Hard in Hightown? The Hawke books?”

The smile went genuine for a second. “Two hobbies. Yeah, that’s me. Meanwhile – didn’t Her Highness call you ‘Lord Trevelyan’, as in, Lord Maxwell Trevelyan?”

I threw up my hands. “I told her I wasn’t and she threatened to kill me, so apparently, yes! I’m actually the heir to the viscountal throne of Ostwick, rather than, say, his manservant.” I saw the dwarf chuckling and shaking his head. “Well, I’m glad somebody around here thinks that this is funny-”

“Laugh or cry, ‘my lord’, laugh or cry.” Varric cast a jaundiced eye up at the hole in the sky. “But I guess nobody’s told you what the hell is going on at all, what with them all assuming you’ve had the best political education a prince could wish for?”

“Too bloody right. The elf’s summary was about the best I’ve had.”

Twist to the corner of his mouth. “Fair enough. So, you know the Apostasy? The way the templars tried to set the mages on fire and the mages turned around and set everything they could reach on fire? And how these were supposed to be the peace talks?”

“Roughly.” We followed the others through a gate. Steps, more bloody steps the far side. “So which side poked the hole in the sky?”

“That’s just the thing.” He frowned. “Nobody wins from this. This was the Divine’s show – she pretty much bullied both sides into coming, threatened to come down like a ton on either or both if they didn’t. The templars sent their second-in-command and a bunch of respected grey-beards. The mages sent, like, half the First Enchanters. And the Divine is – was – here in person. Sorry to prick your supposed ego, ‘my lord’, but your boss was a hanger-on here, an observer, like the emissaries of half a dozen other crowned heads. Everyone lost a pretty fundamental piece when this went down. Most people lost more than one. And the mages have never been known to deliberately sacrifice their own, like, ever, and you’re not telling me the templars would sacrifice their own second-in-command and the Most Holy herself to get at a lousy half-dozen mages who aren’t even a significant portion of the heavy hitters.”

“So they think I did it,” I puffed. “The Viscount doted on his son. Spoiled him rotten. You honestly think-”

Like a shadow crossed his face. “I was there, Harry. At the Rising. I was there in Kirkwall when the mad mage Anders killed four out of five of everyone who ran that city. Literally staring at it. Looked just like what happened up here. It was only Captain Vallenn’s armour-plated backside between me and a one-way trip, if you get me. I’m the reason they were looking for you, because I said that Kirkwall was probably set up in person. And by the same token, I’m the reason you were in that cell.” He shrugged. “Apparently you fell out of a rift.”

“What’s a-”

“Buggered if I know. That’s just what the templars were calling them. I can’t even see them.” He was silent for a few more steps. “Started springing up all over when they tore that dirty great hole in the sky. The thing Solas shoved your arm into. Things go weird around them. Dead people? Walking corpses. Trees? Killer trees. Guard dog?” He shuddered. “I lost a good half-dozen bolts in that bastard, and we still haven’t caught it. And they’re getting worse. And you fell out of one with that on your hand, and Solas thinks it’s somehow part of what’s causing all of this – I – suppose you don’t know what you were doing in there?”

I shook my head. “Ever been so drunk you can’t remember what you were doing the night before?”

“Once or twice. Were you?”

Blink. “Not that… I… Ugh.” Keeping up their pace on the steps and thinking hard all at the same time was, uh, it wasn’t happening. “More like a dream. I hardly even remember arriving in Haven.”

He snorted. “Seriously, then, we’re as much in the dark as you are. Blind leading the near-sighted. Anyway, my advice? Anything worth running from can likely run your fat ass down. Shit goes down? And it will? Stick with me.”

“Least you’re used to this,” I grumbled. “I’ve never raised a hand to anything bigger than a cur on the street.”

“Messere?” He looked at me straight for a moment. “Nobody is used to this. If you’re thinking that this sort of thing is a regular occurrence?” Turned his troubled gaze back on the hole in the sky. “Don’t be. Solas reckons this is the first time that something like this has happened in recorded history. I’ve faced demons in bodies before, yes. And up until yesterday, ser, my first, last and only advice to anybody ever thinking of meeting one, was run.” Shook his head. “But apparently that doesn’t work any more. In fact, you know what?” He handed me a heavy bundle and a moment’s recognition resolved it as an empty quiver. “You could make yourself useful. Can you tell an arrow from a bolt?”

“Uh, best of three?”

A swift motion deposited one wicked eighteen-inch iron-tipped bolt in the quiver. “You’re after the short ones, but no shorter than that. Bianca will take arrows if she must, but it isn’t good for her. Ground will be littered with the bastards. Careful – the Templars tend toward barbed ones. Run it through your hands to check the shaft hasn’t splintered and that it’s still got its flights. Keeping your hands busy is a good enough way of keeping the cosmic screaming dib-dabs out of mind.”

“Way ahead of you, ser.” I held up my left hand and he actually flinched away.

“Don’t point that thing at me.” Helpless look for a moment. “All right – just – do your best, all right?”

“They tell me that’s how we all live through this.”

And I’m not sure he realised that I caught his mutter of “Right. Live through the end of the world. Happy thoughts, Varric.”

*

The Sanctuary of the Ashes was at the top of what the locals probably called a bit of a rise, and I cursed as a bloody great hill. Ostwick’s a flat place, and the furthest I ever had to climb on a daily basis was the steps to and from the wine-cellar. And to top it all off, as Varric might’ve intimated, I’ve never been what you’d call lightly-built – I mean, his nibs wasn’t exactly a waif of a feller either – okay, fine. I was red in the wheezing face and practically seeing stars by the time we hit the top of that long stair: all I could see was the ground as I bent over trying to remember a time when I could breathe.

But Cassandra faltered only a bare instant at whatever it was that she was looking at, and not because she was out of breath; her sword leapt to her hand and her voice rang out like a silver clarion. “Forward!” she shouted, or something like, and the soldiers didn’t wait an instant, and I made the mistake of looking up.

And I remembered how she’d said that it was funny I should’ve mentioned hell.

Broken corpses and the injured and dying littering the splashing mud, smashed shields and broken blades and giant splinters and arrows stuck in the ground, hideous mud-caked armoured shadows raising their blades against equally filthy and loathsome foes, and the rain sheeting down and hissing where the cracked broken stones and splinters were still crackling with flame in defiance of all nature. Couldn’t hardly tell what was human and what wasn’t in all the chaos – not till Solas stretched out his hand and spoke to the air, and everything metal seemed to take on a crackling blue edge of corposant flame, and the crossbows started singing and putting bolts in anything that wasn’t wearing armour or carrying a sword.

Crossbows – yes. Yes. I was there to do a thing. I bent down, started looking for bolts stuck in the ground. There, like that one. Kept my head down, took Varric’s advice. He seemed fine over there, calling directions to the crossbowmen like he was born to this. There was another bolt, a little longer, still good. Clash of arms, they call it – yelling, screaming, heavy impacts, shields shivered and blades notched and choruses of hisses and shrieks from the foe. Another  glance up and I saw complete and utter bloody chaos, but it’s clear enough that somebody didn’t. I saw Varric turn to me and yell something and I ran to him with the paltry bloody few undamaged bolts I’d gathered – and he snatched them off me, all but cuffed me around the head and shouted to stick behind the bloody line, was I trying to get feathered?

What line? That line – and from where Varric was standing I could tell what he meant. Lady Cassandra front and centre of a line of mud monsters edged in ghostly blue light, making slow but steady progress against – I looked away quickly. The templars’ blades were moving in grim, steady rhythm, and from what I can gather they were shouting something from the Chant, but quite literally, Maker knows what. And there it was, another blind-spot, another twisted knot in the sky that drew my eye the same way you’d probe at the empty socket of a tooth with your tongue. And Cassandra shouted again, and the templars raised their shields and from somewhere found strength to push harder, and the line bowed out into a U-shape and there was a path to the rift. Varric yelled at me to make myself useful and I ran –

something came up out of the mud at me, got to have been the size of a horse, dozen legs, all chitinous spikes and eyes at funny angles  like a spider’s nightmare –

Solas came out of nowhere and poked it in the gut with the butt of his staff and it broke like a swatted fly and didn’t seem nearly so gigantic on its back in the mud. I walked up to the, what was it called, the rift, tried to remember what he’d made me do last time, stuck my hand out at it –

fuck me, that hurt. I swear, whatever my hand caught on, I felt it grind against bone.

I jerked it back and closed my fingers and it was like pulling a bow untied, and then I was bent over trying to get my breath back and the demons were literally melting away from the templars’ blades and a muddy apparition was looking me over for injuries and trying to get me to stand up straight.

It was whatshername, Nightingale. The sheeting rain was now winning out over the mud, but the deadly flame-haired beauty currently looked more like a drowned rat. “Not far now,” she said with a smile’s week-old corpse. “The demons are thickest inside the crater, but it will only get worse if we hang around. Are you good to fight on?”

“Couldn’t fight to start with,” I said, and she shook her head as if I’d made some kind of inappropriate joke rather than a desperate plea for some sanity. “Please tell me that’s it?”

Maker, my enemies are abundant.” She turned away from me, raised her voice. “Many are those who rise up against me.” And the templars, every single templar, no matter how bloodstained and mud-spattered, took up the chant. “But my faith sustains me-” hell, even Varric was shouting it – “I shall not fear the legion should they set themselves against me.” They were like, I don’t know. Inexhaustible. Terrifying. They’d just been fighting the literal demons of the Pit and here they were singing the Canticle of Trials like this charnel house in the streaming rain was a village chantry.

Pah. Suppose I really shouldn’t have been surprised, to find that these were the wild-eyed frothing fanatic sort of templar, not the kind with the beer and the silks. I was still too out of breath to do more than mouth the words, and I was only doing that out of hard-taught habit, literal lip-service. The only other one not chanting at the top of his voice was Solas, and where I’d expected perhaps disdain or something from the little man there wasn’t. He’d bowed his head to wait for them to finish.

Then he called to Cassandra, gestured ahead at the ruins though the wind snatched his voice. And she nodded, and the templars fell in beside her like they did this shit every day of their lives.

*

Mud and ruins gave way to steaming smouldering rubble. No wood left here, even, no remains of the banners and the tapestries. The Sanctuary had had two stories above ground and a decent set of basements, and they’d fallen in on themselves, and – Maker’s breath, if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. This didn’t look like anything had ever been built here at all. This didn’t look like anything that had any business being in this world. Bodies, whole and parts, most of ’em left where they’d fallen. Looked like they’d burned to death, in my inexpert opinion, though more than a few of ’em had stab wounds or arrows in them – wounds that hadn’t bled at all, I noted, and my stomach turned. And the rain was splashing and pooling on the ground and running in little rivulets rather than sinking in – the rubble wasn’t rough and jagged, it was weirdly smooth and shiny and even, like glazed clay. I could see actual building stones that had melted and run like butter.

And some places had been hotter, when the magic had come, and some of them colder. Some places there were still partial walls, rocks sticking up at angles, holes in the floor; some were open lanes, like someone had just drawn a wiggly line on the plan and knocked down everything on it and had the floor faced in black glass. I made the mistake of looking into a hole in the floor – there was something moving in there, lots of legs, lots of eyes – my startled blasphemy echoed and re-echoed and I couldn’t get away from it fast enough. But nothing dared attack us, not with the templars. Away from a rift, it seemed that the only thing that wasn’t shying away was the endless rain. Did I mention the rain? Because it was raining, and so in addition to being out of breath and covered in mud up to my knees, I was soaked from the remains of my livery coat to my smallclothes and in serious danger of freezing my balls off. And the cut on my hand was filthy and it stung like anything and I still hadn’t got a bandage even.

And now the hole in the sky was nearly straight overhead. We were following a lane – it hadn’t gone in a straight line, more like a spiral, but it was going inward, and Cassandra was confidently pointing the way – when Varric stopped straight dead with a blistering blasphemy. “Solas!” he yelled, while Cassandra called a scowling halt. He was looking at a rock, sticking up out of the floor at a funny angle like a claw might. And I could see what had clearly spooked him that much, pretty immediately – it had this kind of sheen to it, like somewhere between mother-of-pearl and a starling’s wing and a sheen of oil on water – and the colour had gone completely out of his face and his eyes were wide, and what he said was”…. Red. Solas, this is lyrium, or my mother was lying about my height. And it’s growing in the ground. This didn’t fall here, it grew. And it’s red.”

The elf padded over, leaned on his staff. “Well, that answers indeed whether dwarves have colour vision. Tell me, can you also look up?”

Solas-”

“No, I mean it.” And Solas showed his teeth much as an animal might, and pointed straight up. “Tell me, Tethras. See that, can you?” Didn’t wait for an answer. “So as much as a few funny-looking mineral deposits might seem like a good thing to be discussing, if you wouldn’t mind waiting until after we’ve found out whether the world is going to split in half today, I think I speak for all of us when I say we’d be obliged.” The two of them stared at one another for a moment. “Was there another matter you wanted me for? Or can I perhaps get back to saving all our lives?”

And Varric bowed with exaggerated care. “Be my guest, my lord.”

The elf hissed and turned away; I sidled closer. Lyrium. It’s worth three times its weight in gold. Never seen it in its physical –

“What the hell d’you think you’re doing?” Varric slapped my hand away. “You know what that stuff is?”

I looked at him, a little affronted. “Worth more than I make in a year?”

Wrong answer. You wouldn’t have thought that a man five foot tall can get in your face, but he absolutely can. “Yeah? Well, put this in your purse and spend it. Red lyrium is bad news. It killed my brother. And I could never prove it – but I’m pretty damned sure it drove a whole circle full of templars insane. The only ever place I ever heard of it being mined? They were familiar enough with embodied demons to put up twenty-foot statues of them. They worshipped an ancient evil I shudder to remember. They -”

“All right.” I put my hands up. “Bad. Don’t touch-”

“When they ran their seam out, Harry? Their dark god ate them. Lesson in there somewhere, I reckon.” He turned away from the excrescence. “C’mon. Maybe if we ignore it it’ll go away.”

“Really?”

“Hell, no. Where’d you grow up, under a rock?”

I cast him a sour look. “Close. Not much schooling in a bawdy-house kitchen. Worked my way up-”

He chuckled and there wasn’t a shadow of humour in it. “Always with the knocking-shops. You know the last nobody from a knocking-shop I knew, Osten?”

“Let me guess. He grew up to be the Lord Viscount of wherever it is you’re from.”

“Almost. He ended up turning that honor down.” A cry from the front and the dwarf’s crossbow was off his shoulder in a second; he ran his hand almost caressingly across the top of it and the arms bent and the string snapped back into the clip, as if the thing were alive. “Well, it’s on. This time, make sure you stick behind our lines when gleaning bolts, yeah?”

*

And again the templars were actually singing as they came on. Same words we hear every week, but to hear them like this raw and tuneless, hoarse and horrible and human – and it came to me that their words were echoing back to them from the hardness of the solid glass-baked ground like it was nothing but a wet afternoon on a practice-yard, as if none of this was really real. As if this was nothing but a parade, a training exercise, a practice and nothing more. Like the things they faced were nothing but the product of our own overactive imaginations, nothing but a bad dream, like the shield-wall they slammed together was nothing but a training exercise.

Except with more blood and screaming.

The hole in the sky was almost straight overhead as the lane we were following spread out into a broad dish-shaped open area broken up only by those reaching clawlike lyrium spurs, and the closer we got the bolder the demons were, and for all their dreamlike unreality their impact on the shield-wall was heavy and solid enough.

And you know, there was a numbing effect to these horrors I was seeing. Like getting wet – someone ducks you under and your first reaction is abject shock, but the second time’s nothing like as bad as the first. Seeing demons for the first time I’d damn near shat myself. Seeing the templars fighting the second time, now, standing beside Varric like a parody of a squire – yes, I was still so very keenly aware of what those unlovely many-jointed nightmarish things could do to me, but it wasn’t like I was in so much personal danger –

I saw it happen. A man buried his blade to the hilt in the belly of a nameless shapeless screaming thing and as he tried to recover it, half a dozen of its kin leaped on him and bore him physically down to the ground. Instantly his brothers reacted, throwing their weight behind their shields, pushing forward to try and plug the line, hewing down at the foe that a little bit of my mind was stubbornly insisting weren’t really there – but it wasn’t enough. The demons felt the shift in the fight and those two brave men weren’t enough weight and they were being pushed back and the man on the ground just wouldn’t stop screaming. I cried out incoherently and pointed, Maker knows who I thought was listening, but certainly not Varric. The line was breaking and he couldn’t see it – he was sighting carefully on something that was somewhere else. I took a step or two backward, quite aware that by now there were demons behind us –

She was like a slim dark shadow and it was like she’d appeared from nowhere, and in the next moment she held a black blade in either hand. Short little things a forearm’s length, they were, and every movement that Nightingale made ended with a blade in a demon up to the hilt. No, she wasn’t trying to hold them back. She was trying to kill them. All of them, all to herself, or that was the impression, and she moved with the powerful grace of a dancer, and her blades bit deep. Things came for her clawed and terrifying and she spun inside their reach, opened them from one side to the other, tore them to shreds, for she was more terrible than they, and for an instant she’d slain more than could come and she stood amid their dissolving corpses and spat defiance.

And in the moments she’d bought, Cassandra’s voice was audible high over the din and they tried again to do what they’d done with the last one, pushing the line into a rough wedge shape – but there were too many and too much weight, and all they did was start to buckle at the flanks. But then Cassandra called out something else that I didn’t catch; the templars took a step back all together as if choreographed and she and Nightingale danced back further, and I saw Solas step forward and I’m not ashamed to say I hid myself behind Varric when I saw the flames that trailed out of nowhere over his hands and arms, near-transparent blue flames like a festal pudding soaked in brandy and lit aflame. The mage spat a cadence of words that burned in the air and I fancy that even the demons quailed for a moment, then he just flicked his fingers and the air between the templars and the demons literally exploded into white heat with a flash and a roar. The fire was broad and bright and gone almost in the instant that it came, but the templars charged literally straight into into it and through it like it was nothing more than pretend – a pretend that battered my eardrums and sent up a vast scalding cloud of steam, and it burned the demons just fine.

And as the momentum of that insane fanatic charge ceased, Cassandra and Nightingale threw themselves right against the point of the wedge – Varric putting a bolt through a particularly big one as it reared its ugly head – and there in the air above them I could see the knot that I was after, and undoing that would fix this whole thing, would stop all of this madness – so even before Solas yelled I was barrelling after them raising my hand. Good for one thing, I was, right?

I got a half-dozen paces before I slipped in my eagerness, nearly went down on the slick hard wet baked floor, and there was Nightingale under my arm out of nowhere, bearing me up, Solas on my other side. And very conscious that templars were shedding their actual blood to buy me this time I slammed my bleeding hand clawlike against thin air and felt it tear like thin cloth, felt the freezing grip of the magic crawling down my arm, and I reached up –

to –

Nothing. I reached up towards where it was supposed to be and there was nothing there. Kind of waved my arm around a little self-consciously, expecting it to snag and catch on something like it had twice before, with that chill washing itself slowly up as far as my shoulder –

Nothing. Both times before I’d just reached out and it’d been there. I turned to look at Solas and he must have seen the look of panic on my face, because he put a supposedly encouraging hand on my arm. “Pull!”

“Pull what? There’s nothing there!”

“Just pull!” And he yanked on my arm and I pulled it back empty-handed, and the chill receded, but I opened my fingers and nothing happened, and he looked at me and then at the knot in the air, and he scowled. “You must have missed it – don’t know how – should be easy.” He gave my elbow a peremptory shove. “Again!”

So, well, what’s a man to do? I repeated my gesture, gritted my teeth, shoved my left hand into the air again, and again that immediate bone-chilling cold. Nothing. Reached as far as I could and the cold rolled down my shoulder and started reaching icy fingers out across my chest, a clawing kneading freezing ache starting in my hand, hardly noticed a drop of blood falling from the gash in it and freezing solid to smash on the ground. Turned to look the elf in the eye. “I tell you, I can’t feel a thing!”

Solas showed his teeth. “Bah. Right. New plan.”

Nightingale shouted across me. The redhead’s voice sounded worried. “How much time?”

He scowled. “Some. Less yelling.” Looked back to me. “Can you write?”

I blinked. “Yes?”

“Good. With your palm, make these words: O sule’vi harel, aï halam vhena ië da –

“Uh.” I swallowed. “You’re going to have to spell that -”

His eyes narrowed. “Quick, now. Ora, schau ‘uvi laï eth-

“What kind of letters d’you call those?”

“Fine!” And he actually hissed as he grabbed my wrist.

Shooting pain down my arm, pins and needles and everything. “Ow! That bloody hurts-”

“Me too,” he grated, as he started to literally drag my hand through the air like he was painting on it with my blood. “Live with it.”

My vision greyed nearly immediately and my knees went weak. Felt Nightingale’s arm immediately under my good shoulder holding me up; felt her sag as I leaned my weight on her and didn’t hear her yelling for Varric to come help. All I knew was that it hurt. Tears were running down my face and they were cold, so bloody cold I wouldn’t have been surprised if they were freezing there. I was feeling faint, I was feeling sick. Bride of the Maker, I was praying to myself. Sweet Andraste, hear me, I’m not the greatest of men, I admit it, I’ll do whatever the hell it is you’re asking of me, just for the sake of all that’s holy don’t let me throw up all over the crazy nun with the knives. Afterimages fading in and out of my sight. I heard Cassandra yelling that whatever we were going to do we’d better do it quickly. I could see Solas’ face drawn and pale, his teeth gritted, his breathing coming fast and shallow as he painted on the air as fast as was practical, and I could see that his arm was coated with white frost up to the elbow just like mine was up to the shoulder.

And I was barely seeing or hearing anything at all bar the roaring of my own blood in my ears when he stopped painting and pulled my hand sharply, viciously back and something caught and I’d thought I was too hoarse to scream – and then it felt like it came loose, like it snapped back together, and to my shame I believe that I did manage to succeed in vomiting on the dwarf before I actually passed out properly.

*

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