Fear & Surprise, Chapter Sixteen

by artrald

Previous

Up

Next

*

Those who oppose thee
Shall know the wrath of heaven.
Field and forest shall burn,
The seas shall rise and devour them.
The wind shall tear their nations
From the face of the earth.
Lightning shall rain down from the sky,
They shall cry out to their false gods,
And find silence.

7 Andraste 19-22, Chant of Light
attributed to Andraste, Bride of the Maker

*

So, yes. Life choices, Harry. Excellent ones.

Like the ones where you stand there in the square before the chantry, full armour, torch in one hand, borrowed cloak flapping about your shoulders, Tevene turncoat at your side, and watch the bad guys stalk warily into the place that was kind-of-sort-of beginning to feel like home?

Warily, because they could tell something was up. Warily, because the first few dozen onto the road learned that it was thick with caltrops. Warily, because the odd arrow winged its way silently out of the night whenever anyone looked too important. Just because the illusion wasn’t, in fact, concealing an ambush was no reason not to have it conceal a few surprises, and Jenny would’ve been the last out of Haven if it wasn’t for the fact that she could run faster than Varric, and both of them could see just fine with the snow reflecting the moonlight.

Felix glanced behind him as if he was nearly as scared of our people as he was of the enemy. “All right,” he hissed to me. “Dying out of hand won’t save anyone. We need to make this last as long as we can: our time is denominated in lives. You need to know one thing: keep him talking. No matter what happens. No matter what you see and what you hear, we have to keep talking. No matter if he doesn’t look like he wants to listen. No matter if it’s complete and utter bullshit. I hear you’re good at that. Just keep your mouth going. The magic will do the rest. While someone is talking, even if I am dead and burned, they will not see our people, they will not start the fight. And when that fails? Not when he stops listening, but when he stops talking? Run. And hope. Got me?”

I nodded.

“So, then.” And he took a deep breath, and I nearly didn’t see him run his left thumbnail from his right wrist down to the tip of his right index finger, nearly didn’t see him flick one black drop into the snow and then put his foot firmly on top of the smoking scar it left. My eyebrows went right up, and he put his left index finger to his lips. “Last refuge of the incompetent,” he whispered, and then he clasped his hands behind his back and we waited.

As I’ve said, it wasn’t perhaps the best mood that the Templars were in by the time they’d got to us. But (not, I guess, that I’d had ‎such a truly vast degree of experience) these men and women weren’t behaving like any Templars I’d ever met. The ones I was familiar with, they were disciplined, of course they were, but they gave you the impression of a brain in their heads, they weren’t just soldiers, they were smart ones – or that was the impression they were out to give. But these –

There was nothing behind those eyes. That was what it looked like, that was my first thought. They reminded me most of the Tranquil. Same sort-of wrong feeling to them, like something inside me looked at them and hated them, like – I shivered involuntarily to see them, nothing to do with the cold, or with what I was here to do. Just a visceral reaction. Ugh. And they spread out, weapons at the ready, shields raised (still human enough, then, for our sharpshooters’ little threat to have them jumping at shadows) and this was where I held my breath, because this was the point that it might have all been a ruse, the spell might not have taken, they might have just slain us both out of hand and gone on looking for our army –

But they halted. They stopped. Drew up a wall of steel, shoulder to shoulder, each shield blazoned with the Sword of Hessarian. And the man who stepped out from between their ranks had made no effort to disguise himself at all. No kind of Templar, no kind of southerner – hell, no kind of human that was, and Felix spoke a quiet word and his defensive spells rippled into redoubled life, and Corypheus smiled.

The creature had about a foot of height on me, came across as a little broader at the shoulder – his head wasn’t quite in the middle of those shoulders. His right leg had an – excrescence, a black twisted coil of foulness that extended it for a couple of inches and made his walking uneven. His scalp was half-bare, half covered by another such hideous mass, black hair falling straggly down to his uneven shoulders – no man could have been born like this. He was wearing a parody of the mage-armour that I’d seen the Circle mages wear, black leather and patches of mail, and he bore no staff in his nearly skeletal hands, and about his neck on a slightly incongruous hempen string was the orb of blood-drinking thorns.

And I realised where I’d seen foulness like that before. It was on the gates and the walls and the broken gilded towers in the vision I’d had of the Black City of the Fade. And I realised that if I could tell, then Felix could certainly tell, and he was trembling like an aspen leaf.

So naturally, I stepped forward.

“Not today, thank you,” I said, and I do believe I may have grinned. “Honestly, I don’t know who keeps ordering these armies – were the caltrops perhaps not a hint?‎ I really don’t think the Inquisition could use another four thousand likely lads and ladies in Templar plate, I really don’t think we – Corypheus, I take it? -”

“As a matter of fact, you’re not wrong.” The creature had that same cold cultured voice that we’d heard before. “And you would be Maxwell Trevelyan and Felix Alexius. This is supposed to be a surrender, I take it.”

“What else does it look like?” Felix was scared. I mean, I was scared, but Felix – something about the creature terrified him beyond bearing, and he was casting his words in the face of that fear like they were some sort of shield. “C-come in? Have some tea?”

“Oh, do let the grown-ups talk, you stupid boy.” Corypheus didn’t slow down, kept walking, kept staring. “I’m not sure we were properly introduced, last time we met, were we, Max?” He gave the very tiniest of bows. “My name is, as you’ve guessed, Corypheus of the Magisterium of Holy Tevinter. Guardian of the gates, keeper of the keys, mah’el in the Divinity of Dumat, very much at nobody’s service but mine own; and you are?”

“Maxwell Trevelyan. But you knew that. My lineage is irrelevant. My people, as you might have gathered, there’s only the one who’ll show himself. But there’s only one person on my side who matters at all.”

‎Corypheus’ expression curdled into infinite contempt. “Let me just let you in on a little secret, my boy. From one fellow in the business to another, so to speak.” I’d got him. I’d judged him right. The bastard had an ego bigger than his army. Guess I’d see how far that went – “The name you’re about to claim. That flag you’re about to run up your pole. Take it from one who’s seen, hmm? Andraste is dead. Not divine, not exalted, not ever-living, and certainly not at the Maker’s side. I’ve seen the seat of the Maker, boy.” He smiled a smile not even a mother could love. “It’s empty. He’s gone. I mean to say-” he looked like he was actually playing to an audience that wasn’t here, and just for an instant I noticed Felix beside me, sweating, breathing shallow and fast, not even blinking, blood dripping from the hands he’d clasped behind him and misting before it touched the ground- “I even went back. After the First Exalted March, after they’d put the little idiot to death. I went back, just to see if there was any truth in it.” He smiled like a wolf. “There wasn’t, you know.”

I played along. “You do know,” I said, “that there’s approximately no way you are going to get away with this. Your five thousand are all very well against a few hundred – a chantry here, a village there. But the day you stop playing bandits is the day you -”

He hadn’t stopped walking. Got right up to me, reached out his hand, and Felix stepped between us; the scrawny Vint cleared his throat. “King, I believe you said. Something about living like one?”

Corypheus sneered. “Did I? Are you sure?”

“You think you’re so tough.” The shadows around the two of them began to deepen, Felix’s eyes literally beginning to shed light. “And I’m very sure you are bigger than me, to boot. You want me dead? I’m a stain on the landscape. But renege upon a deal with House Alexius and I will see you walk away empty-han‎ded.‎ Do I need to draw you a little picture?”

“Well, aren’t you a thing. Proud as anything. Here’s my prey sent right to my hand, like I threw you a stick.” Corypheus eyed me with the smile of a creature that knows exactly where its next meal is coming from. “Do remember the first rule of turning your coat, boy: take the deal. Even when the deal changes, take your life and take your deal and run. Because – and trust me, everyone knows it – traitors are scum.‎ So, congratulations, scum. Good boy. You get to live. Now get out of my way.”

“You don’t get it. Even now, you bastard, you don’t get it.” The aura of power around Felix deepened, his face very pale, beads of sweat rolling down his face. “You’re the Elder One, aren’t you? You’re the one the Venatori are supposedly working for? The ‘holy, most ancient and eldest secret one’ the inner mysteries speak of?” He spread his hands. “I was one of them, Elder One. I was the one chosen to be your conduit. Your vessel. Back when they didn’t know you’d been imprisoned, back when you were just a glimmer in a ritualist’s eye. My father has already tried to sell me to you.” He moistened his lips. “And all that achieved was -”

And the illusion, the spell of perfect health, cracked and fell from him like scales. Felix was bald on the top of his head, the remaining snowy wisps every bit as ratty as those of the monster before him; his skin was wrinkled and scabrous and spotted, his mouth lipless and wide, his teeth unnatural and pointed, his legs of uneven length, his back hunched, his fingers elongated, and his fine soft black robe hung loose upon him as every ounce of fat on him was gone. “So,” he said, and monstrously his voice was still that same cultured tenor. “If you could see your way clear to giving me my life? Perhaps we would indeed have a deal.”

Corypheus cocked his head, curiously. “H’m. Well, of course that would have happened. If I could’ve been freed by something as simple as a thanatoic invocation, d’you think I’d have taken so long to -‎ Oh, I see. You think this is personal. You’ve talked the southerners into letting you and this creditable illusion of Maxwell here have the first go at me, while concealed by your Art they prepare their own sordid little trap?”

“Pretty much, yes.” Felix shrugged. “How am I ‎doing so far?”

‎”Not overly poorly. A genuinely gifted illusionist, is what I see before me. Not over-much power, but talent, and a rare-enough specialty to be worth a little digging. Original, pristine, in the flower of youth? I might have been able to use you. I might well.” The monster shook his head. “But thus foxed, distorted, broken, wreathed about with layers and layers of crutches and healings and cosmetics? I’m sorry, dear boy. You’re just not worth the time and effort to repair.” And he stretched out one misshapen hand to where I stood rooted, and he flicked his fingers and light swirled as my heart thudded in my chest-

And nothing whatever happened.

And the ruined face of Felix Alexius smiled a hideous, monstrous smile. “Surprise,” he said, and underarm he threw a lance of boiling, screaming blue-white fire that ‎caught Corypheus in the gut and knocked him physically from his feet. He followed through immediately, red light flaring in his right palm and striking downward like a lash –

The monstrous man caught the lash one-handed and simply pulled, and suddenly he was standing and Felix had fallen to one knee. And yes, I was still just stood there like a lump, just watching – what exactly could I have added? – as he continued to gloat and Felix continued to wane.

“Again, dear boy, I must say: not bad.” He looked down at the young man at his feet. “An illusion to conceal only the fact that there’s no illusion? A blood-magic spell solely to feed my ego, to make me talk my head off rather than slay you out of hand?” The voice that had shown nothing at all as it called for my surrender and dismemberment bore for an instant something not unlike an uncle’s good humour. “Full marks, boy. And that sucker-punch? Truly an excellent attempt. Your father himself would’ve fallen here.” The smile withered entire. “But suffice to say you should have turned your coat an even number of times. You’ve hardly damaged a thing, unless you count my patience. And the Elder One is no merciful god.”

And he looked Felix in the eye and he lifted his hand, and my protector simply was no more. Green light; an after-image; a shadow; dust; and the merest sense that just maybe, that was exactly as the young man had wanted, that he hadn’t wanted to walk out of this alive.

‎And Corypheus turned that unlovely visage on me, and he raised one threadbare eyebrow, and he said quite simply, “Next?”

“Alistair Theirin,” I said, with a defiant grin I didn’t feel. “Kissing a beautiful maid, slaying a dragon, saving the world.” I didn’t let his ‎foul gaze beat the idiot grin off my face. “Name a king to live like, right? Or were you perhaps entombed in that mortal prison you were talking about, for his reign?”

Yes, all right. Mostly I had no idea what the hell I was supposed to say. Corypheus narrowed his eyes. “I was about to say,” he said as he stalked toward me, “that this was nothing personal. That it was simply that you were in my way, a matter of sheer chance, that I’d do the same to anyone who’d so clearly just been in the wrong place at the wrong time – bad luck, old boy – but this is disrespect. Lese-majeste. Faced with an audience, one on one, with your infinite superior – and all you can find it in you to do is to run at the mouth like a slobbering idiot.”

“Sorry,” I said. Well through fear, I was, by this point, and out the other side. It’s the only way to explain my behaviour. The spell. Felix’s spell. It was holding. Corypheus was standing there, just standing right there, and he was listening to me, and nobody was killing anyone or running anywhere – “It just sort-of happens sometimes, I’m afraid. Terrible affliction, really. Nothing anybody can do, and believe me, they’ve tried -”

He snorted. “You really don’t understand any of what this is about, do you.”

“You could always tell me. Then you wouldn’t have this problem, and we could communicate like civilised adults – find a solution to this problem that doesn’t involve my body being carved up like a-”

He shook his head. “As I said. I was going to say that. But then you had to go and render me disrespect. And I am afraid that the whole world shall shortly require to know what happens to those who give me disrespect.”

And he reached out, and he took my left wrist almost gently in his hand, and he just turned it until he could see my fingers closed around the green glow in my hand. He didn’t ask. He simply nodded, and an agonising shock ran down my arm and my hand opened of its own accord. “There,” he said. “That – should -”

He paused. Tilted his head.

“Oh, dear,” I said. “Something you weren’t expecting? I mean, you are the expert.”

He narrowed his eyes, his voice a sudden venomous hiss. “What have you done?”

“Who, me?” I gave him the most innocent of looks. “Nothing of note, really.”

“You call this nothing?” He put his right palm to my left. Green light flared; I expected it to hurt, but it didn’t, it just felt like his palm had stuck to mine. He lifted his hand and mine came with it. “I’ve read your biography, boy, I know your life story-” and wasn’t that a cheery thought – “You’re no mage. Not a sniff of talent to you, not even a latency. You’re an idiot and a glutton and a borderline barbarian from a country that was scrubland and scree the last time I walked this earth, and right there on your hand is a working of magic that nobody alive should be capable even of comprehending?”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Did you just happen to find out that you didn’t know everything?”

He lifted our hands again, and twisted slightly in what was for me the wrong direction and my elbow and my wrist protested, and his voice became again very, very cold. “I will not be taken for a fool, boy. I will suffer no rival.”

And I just kind-of flapped my mouth in shock and didn’t say anything at that. And he snarled and moved his hand quickly, just as if I were a fly he was flicking off him, and his strength was illogical, impossible, and our hands came apart. My feet left the ground and I went tumbling through the air – I hit snowy cobblestones and rolled three or four times. Blearily I saw a Templar officer walking quickly up to him, shaking his head as if trying to clear it, kneeling. “My lord,” the Templar said to his toes. “We’ve searched. There was an illusion, for sure. It is shredding apart as I speak, but there’s no sign of them at all. They’ve gone.”

The monstrous man bared his teeth like an elf. “Of course they have.” He nodded towards me as I was lying there groaning, trying to think of more words to keep the magic going. “It’s a ruse. The whole place is nothing but a trap.” Raised his voice slightly. “Were they ever even here, Maxwell, your supposed holy warriors?”

“What do you think, you overgrown, overrated old – nnh -” I ‎managed to struggle to one knee. Had to keep talking. Had to keep the magic going. Had to stall him. “Great battles, noble lords, godlings and grand sacrifices – that sound more like a tavern tale or a true thing, to you?” Sound like someone’s spinning you a line?” I wasn’t really looking at him, leaning on my hands. “Sound like you’re being led for a walk?”

And he shook his head. “Fool me twice, shame on me.” He turned on his heel. “Spread out,” he snapped to his people. “Their trap is not yet sprung-”

Thunder rolled.

And I kicked off from the cobbles and my hands and I ran and I don’t know where I thought I was going. And even as Corypheus turned, even as he raised his hand, the thunder rolled again. And it kept rolling, and it didn’t stop, and neither did I.

It’s disjointed, what happened next.

Corypheus turning to me, raising his hand, a killing light gathering suddenly‎ around him as quick as you’d draw a bow, and just looking around at him in sudden terror and my feet going out from under me and the high splintering smashing sound of stones breaking as the wall behind where I would have been disappeared as if struck by a blow from some giant hand.

Rolling desperately behind the ruin that was left and hearing the thunder grow and build and knowing that there was no way, no way I was getting out of this with my hide intact.

The face of one of the Templars looking around, his eyes widening in the only‎ human emotion I’d seen from this lot, stammering something that was suddenly inaudible beside the thunder.

Getting up and running again, my breath coming quick and hot, expecting any instant the burning lash of magic between my shoulder-blades, and it not coming.‎ Just running empty and mindless away from the thunder.

Putting a foot wrong. Trying to keep my balance and flailing my arms and slipping and falling once again.

Headlong, full-length onto what looked like a wooden cellar door.

Feeling the soggy, rotten wood give way under my weight, as a wall of shadowed white thunder came in down the street like the Maker’s fury –

Falling.

Whiteness.

*

Next