Fear and Surprise, Chapter Twenty-Nine

by artrald

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*

Look ye upon the abode of Dumat
Master of Silence, who speaks to the faithful in dreams
No words of desire may sway His will
No cry of valor may stand against Him
For His Silence conquers all
And His Secrets are shared only with the worthy
Look ye upon the abode of Dumat
And fear Him

inscription of dedication stone
Temple of the Master of Silence
Dragons’ Reach, modern-day Orlais
translated from the Tevene

*

“My brother, for the final time of asking.” The voice echoing up the spiral wooden stairs was that of a middle-aged woman, cold and resolute. “This day you lay down the duty that cannot be laid down.” Kallian held up a hand and we slowed, moving as quietly as we could. “This day shall your duty be ended, should only you ask, and for as long as our name is remembered, so shall yours be.” I traded worried glances with Dorian: this did not sound like the good sort of rite. “For the final time I ask you: is this your will?”

And a man’s clear voice in answer, resolved and loud and scoured of all trace of fear: “It is.”

And Kallian hissed to herself what sounded like “Fuck subtle” in Fereldan, and stealth went to the winds.

The door at the bottom slammed open and we burst out into a great hall. Carved stone floor, seven hideous fiends out of nightmare painted in bright colour on the walls, five of them in the act of being slain by heroes in grey. Place was laid out like a court, with a dais at the far end and a quire of seats either side, and the seats bore armed and armoured ranks in grey. And on the dais we had a tableau straight out of some kind of tale of dark sorcery, a man kneeling stripped to the waist before a pair of robed and hooded mages, one in black, one Warden grey.

And the thing that the eye skidded right over was that in mid-air in the middle of the room was a place that looked like it had been taken in hand and twisted in a knot. A tangle in the fabric of everything, a rift in the Veil, a little baby hole in the world, and I didn’t need Dorian’s disbelieving voice behind me to know that what this had to mean was that they were deliberately feeding it.

“Hold!” Kallian’s voice was a battlefield clarion, almost loud enough to be a physical force, and we ranged ourselves to either side of her to be the match of any of those paintings of a party of heroes. “Wardens, this is madness!”

The Wardens in the quires, they began to get to their feet, reaching for weapons, looking for direction, ready to leap to their leaders’ defence. And the grey-robed mage, the Warden-Commander Clarel of Orlais, flicked a gesture at us, a simple, dismissive spell. All sound went soft, as if she’d dropped a heavy blanket about our ears, and I found I just couldn’t bring myself to open my mouth and complain – by instinct I struggled – and at the same moment Dorian spoke a counterspell, his words harsh and sharp as a tarnished silver knife.

And so when the pressure released I found words coming out of my mouth. Loud. “You-” I decided to run with it rather than look an idiot – “you’ve been played, Lady Commander. I have no idea what this looks like to you. But to me it looks like someone talked you into turning coat.”

It wasn’t her that replied to me, it was the mage in the black robe, pushing back his hood to reveal an entirely shaved head, down to his eyebrows. “Their mage, my lady, I recognise him. An ex-member of my order expelled for maleficence. Last seen at the heart of the trouble in Ferelden. Like as not they’re all under his spell.”

Light was winding itself in from the walls around Dorian and up from the floor as we spoke: he couldn’t spare the words to retort, although he did give a sarcastic little wave. Kallian glanced between the two of them. “What’s the rush, Clarel? You’ll say our time is short, but I know as well as you do we’ve got more than three more days. There some overpowering bloody reason you can’t stop just long enough to hear the Inquisition’s case?”

Again the black-robe replied. “You surprise me, Lady Kallian. Four lives already given to this, and you’d have us halt in midstream with the rite unsealed? Their deaths for nothing?”

What sealed my lips this time wasn’t magic, it was flat shock. The Wardens. The guardians of the world, the ones that stand in the way of the Blight, the ones that fight evil wherever it is and whatever face it uses and they’re talking human sacrifice? Kallian curled her lip and she raised her voice. “Better they die for nothing than for Magister Corypheus, first in the service of the archdemon Dumat.”

The Wardens standing to either side, they wavered. Every one of them knew that last name. Most of them probably heard the other one and all. The kneeling man flinched, his eyes strayed to us: the grey-robed Clarel reached out gently and turned his chin to face her again. And as black-robe laughed in our faces, all I heard was Solas’ quiet voice hiss, “Stalling.”

So Kallian started walking implacably forwards and she kept talking. “Where else did our little friend learn this blood rite? Where else did his ideas come from? Why is he so eager to help us?” She was standing between the ranks of Wardens now and they were letting her pass: Iron Bull’s move to follow was met with a dozen half-bared blades. “Brothers and sisters, if the ancient order he claims to represent knew how to make red lyrium, don’t you think we’d have heard of it ever before? If he comes from Tevinter, why isn’t he working with the Wardens of Tevinter?”

“Oh,” said the black-robed mage, “but I can play this game alike. If the Commander of Ferelden truly held such misgivings, why is she here without her own people? Why has she come with outsiders to the centre of your power? Why has she brought the Chantry into this, save that she has already exhausted her own authority and wishes to abuse someone else’s?” He motioned curtly to the Wardens. “We’ll deal with this lapse tomorrow. Take them.”

“Bar that.” Kallian was standing almost underneath the rift now, and in her voice was the same absolute authority I’d heard in Cassandra’s. “Or am I wrong about who rules here?”

But the Wardens stood, those nearest her, and put their hands to their weapons. “Commander, please,” said one man, even as he stepped forward. “This is our will.”

“Hell it is,” muttered Dorian, as worried as I’d ever seen him. “Herald, when it kicks off, get that rift shut, I have your back.” I nodded.

“Clarel, for fuck’s sake!” Kallian’s gaze snapped up to the Warden mage. “I’ve already broken one man’s face today. Stand your people down.”

And the black-robe spoke for her again. “You come before us duped and deluded and invite us to join your little dance? Without support or evidence -”

And disbelieving I pointed at the rift, and I cried out, “What the hell d’you call-”

Me and my big fucking mouth. Or in this case, actually, my hand.

My left hand.

I realised around about the very instant I had my finger pointed that I’d done something very wrong, or maybe it was when my hand felt like it’d frozen solid and the rift reacted to my gesture that the bottom dropped out of my stomach. It was the way I looked right at it and saw an eye looking back, saw the thing somehow, impossibly, bulge and ripple –

The kneeling Warden threw back his head and screamed, and blood came out of his mouth: Clarel scrabbled for purchase on her spell and called harshly for help but the black-robed man’s eyes just rolled up in his head and he slid to the floor –

Kallian made the mistake of glancing upward, then she flinched back at a speed that would’ve made a scalded cat look slothful, her hands seeming to sprout blades, putting herself between the rift and the nearest Warden –

Noise. Chaos. A sound like the slow tearing of canvas. Josephine was close by my side and she’d drawn her rapier. Jenny had appeared out of nowhere on the other, a blade in either hand. That man was screaming and half a dozen people were shouting and swearing and one of them was Dorian, but I have no idea who he was yelling at or what he was saying. Through the rift in the air was coming something large, something dark brown and pointed. A giant spider’s leg? A claw the size of a spear?

I glanced around to see Solas and he was backing up, shadows wrapping themselves around him like cobwebs. I’d seen him look up at the Breach with nothing more than a tightly contained and controlled feeling of stress, and here he was with white all the way around his eyes. Beside Solas Iron Bull had taken up his arming sword, glanced at him and swore the same way I did.

Varric’s little crossbow sang and he lost a bolt into the rift and the eye wasn’t there any more. More pointy things were coming through the rift now, and I could see that they were one: not a spider, it wasn’t a spider, it was a claw. A claw with talons the length of a man’s arm, and attached to it a limb, and on the back of the ‘hand’ was one single obscenely staring eye, and there was another claw pushing its way through and my hand had gone from cold to hot, looked and felt like it was on fire.

When it kicks off, close the rift. When it kicks off, close the rift. Clearly Dorian had known about this thing, he’d said he’d have my back, all this would be over if I just did my bit. I gritted my teeth and stepped forward –

And the dragon tore itself into the world, an unlovely scabrous misshapen creature too big, too hideous, too terrible to exist. It couldn’t be in here. It was too big. I remember thinking that it couldn’t have fit through the doors, and how would it fly in here, so how was it even here? Josephine had screamed and I think that I had too, and there was no way, no physical way that I could make myself move towards that thing.

Confusion. Terror. We were backing up with quick jerky almost involuntary movements, towards where I thought the stairs had been. The Wardens had mostly formed a shield-wall sans shields, a ring of steel that rattled with their shaking hands. And Kallian had put herself in front of the dragon, right where it could see her, and she spat hatred in its face like she knew it by name.

But Commander Clarel was the first to hit it. Her spell was instant and wordless, a simple blinding stinging flash of flame aimed for its eyes, and it ducked its head and the Wardens went for it and nothing alive should’ve had the Maker’s permission to move so bloody fast as that dragon, darting its head back and flicking a claw in a blurringly fast strike and people went tumbling and I heard Kallian cry out loud and harsh.

Something hit Josephine in the back and she squealed and fell over. We’d, we’d found the wall, the wall was like the way out, I followed her down until we weren’t in the dragon’s line of sight, it was like a solution, and I looked up terrified at Jenny and she met my eyes and nodded and pointed and we moved.

Corner. We were in the corner. We’d gone the wrong way. But this was as far away from the creature as we could get and we kept our heads down and the dragonslayers could get on with the dragon.

*

Any decent set of magical defences must include a way of letting your allies know what’s going on – supposing, of course, that you’re lucky enough to have them. Every Circle in the north teaches the same. Madness not to. Even Wardens would have to know that. Right? More in hope than expectation, Dorian threw his voice to Commander Clarel without taking his eyes off the developing clusterfuck in the middle of the hall. “You have a plan here?”

The answer came back to him disarranged and chaotic, and Dorian realised with a little spiraling sinking feeling that for all her experience with monsters, the Warden mage was short on training, probably not that inherently powerful, and missing two nights’ sleep. “This wasn’t what we-” the words came apart into whispers and shadows as she threw another pointless firebolt from her staff, did she not know that re-using a failed tactic was a sign of madness?

Dorian focused. Charitably, she was just coming apart at the edges from shock: he could hold their communication together well enough on his own. “The hell is that thing?” Observing it, he didn’t move straight to offence: first rule of battle magic is never to strike blind. The dragon was fast, yes, and strong – literally eyes in the back of its head, and it blazed to Dorian’s senses in a manner that said that he’d been absolutely right to veil and protect them. “Other than uglier than sin.” It had ducked the Warden mage’s initial offering, but as she threw another he noticed with mounting horror that it was using magic itself, raising wards of its own while fighting off the better part of thirty nutters with swords and – to be brutally honest – doing bloody well for itself.

“Portrait of it. On the wall,” the Warden sent, and the sense of her breathless fatigue came with the words. “Help me kill it.”

Because clearly, Dorian was here to take it out to a candlelit dinner. The only things on the wall were pictures of Wardens and –

His mouth went dry.

“I’ll – uh -” his mind spun on, always worked best under pressure – “Just try to hit it when I do, all right?”

Because the dragon hadn’t accounted for him, or that was his best hope. His kind wasn’t exactly common here. The south just didn’t have enough mage-duels – the Templars were all an army needed against opposing mages – and that Warden, for all her power, didn’t seem to know the first thing about fighting something that used magic as more than just a better class of weapon.

But Dorian really, really did.

Keep it simple, if ever you can. Second rule. His first foray was a simple disjunction, basic duelling spell, to create a symbolic opening in another spell. Useless in most real fights, because who’s got the reflexes to exploit it before the opponent recovers?

Well, a Warden does, for one. The hole that Dorian had torn in the dragon’s defences against flash and flame was open for a single heartbeat. And in that time Clarel reached in and dropped a fireball right between its eyes, and the thing trumpeted its wrath as its flesh melted and flowed.

And then the dragon wasn’t in the middle of the circle of Wardens any more. Its wings cracked, once, and if Clarel had been one instant slower on the defence it would’ve smashed her like an egg: its strike rebounded with a flash and a thunderclap and at the same time it knocked a Warden who was trying to take advantage down with a lash of its tail. Dorian swallowed hard as he realised he’d hardly even registered it starting to move – and it hadn’t even given that its full attention.

And around the ruin of its eyes it had sprouted seven more.

“Solas!” He didn’t look round. The elf might not have shown signs of proper training, but at least he’d that staff. “Little help?”

“Keep it distracted,” came the reply. “I’ll have to seal it away. Been done before.” Could have sworn Solas’ voice was shaking. “Can’t be destroyed. This castle is a loss.”

And the elf disappeared up the stairs.

Fine. He didn’t try and time his second strike, relying on Clarel’s reflexes as faster than his. If the dragon had a brain it would be wise to his previous tactic. A bait and switch this time, then – a two-pronged probe at the thing’s defences, weakening them towards fire and force, and a spell just outside them, metamagic to take the predictable firebolt and turn it into a sledgehammer of force.

And Clarel clearly didn’t understand, but fire had worked last time. She saw him strike and reacted – and the dragon flat-out ignored the combined attack. It took the hit like it was nothing, batted her down with its tail almost as an afterthought, and then it had snapped a good fifty yards across the hall to drive its beaked nose hard at Dorian’s chest.

Third rule was to react not to the threat but to the sum of the threat and your defences. If they can make you flinch with a non-magical shot you’re screwed. The killing strike was conveniently halted three feet from him.

So when it hooked its beak almost gently through his ward against force and simply pulled the spell away hard enough to send him sprawling full length, it was only then that he let out a violent cry of pain and – face facts here – terror.

And the dragon, still fighting off Wardens with powerful sweeps of claws and sinuous tail, coiled to strike, and all Dorian had was a fast-cast defence an apprentice would be ashamed of –

And then it stopped. Looked up. A Warden sank a sword in at the base of its tail and it didn’t even twitch.

And its wings cracked like thunder, and it struck. Straight upwards.

To break a ten-foot gap in the circle Solas hadn’t quite finished on the floor of the hall above.

At least it didn’t come back down clutching an elf, so that was a good start. “Anything you’ve got,” sent Dorian to Clarel, and he met the dragon’s eye. One of them, anyway.

And as he realised its abjuration against fire was still scarred, and threw a penetrating lance of a spell designed to confuse and distract and sting, and as Clarel spat blood and hauled herself to her feet and contributed nothing useful, the dragon spat a sticky mouthful of orange flame into the stairwell upwards and he could have sworn it smiled.

Then its wings flashed once more and it leapt upwards with the sound of thunder, and it smashed bodily through the wooden ceiling and impossibly through the stone above that, and erupted out of the top of Adamant into the evening sky.

*

With that the dragon was gone and somehow we were still alive. The room was more than just wrecked. The quires were smashed, the floor covered in wreckage and groaning bodies and splashes of blood, the air stank of the dirty smoke that was pouring from the staircase out of here. Varric, bleeding, coughing, was hauling Dorian to his feet; Iron Bull was doing the same for Krem.

One job. The scary thing had gone away. The rift was right there. I got to my knees at least. Another effort and I was standing. Josephine was with me, and I was aware that she was talking probably even to me, but I’m not sure I could hear her over the ringing in my ears. Started forward, picking my way over the wreckage of the fallen ceiling. Single-minded, straight line. I’d had a sword once. I didn’t even recall if I’d been holding it at one stage.

Out above, in the twilight, great wings beat. The beast was going for height, making for the shelter of the clouds. I could hear Solas chanting in an inhuman hissing stuttering accent unlike any elvish I’d ever heard, one of the few sounds that cut through the chaos. Down here, Dorian spoke a word like a hammer’s blow and one of the bigger piles of wreckage came apart to find Kallian’s limp form under most of it, and by the time I heard the echo she was standing up and doing something between giving orders and swearing like a sailor. Kept walking.

Couple of Wardens went to bar my path. My people in the way. All of them showing hurt they’d taken in the fight. All of them looking at the warriors in grey, like, are you really going to do this?

The Wardens stood aside. I walked on. Looked up. Rift was the most familiar thing in here. Reached out, and the green flames in my hand quenched and the frost spread out crisp and white on the floor around my feet. Every time I did this it hurt me. Muscles cramped. But I wasn’t scared, not any more. This was what I was for. Reach out, catch hold – the knot in the world was in my hand, there was something tied inside this one, something solid – push, turn and twist and feel it grind against my very bones, pull back with the feeling of untying a bow.

And then I was standing there holding a bone in my hand, a knuckle-bone, and somehow I could tell it was human, and I couldn’t get it out of my hand fast enough. And words bubbled out of my mouth and I’m not sure I could’ve stopped them. “Now,” I said, and I do believe I’ve already spoken on the subject of my big mouth. “Don’t do it again.”

There was a strained silent pause.

Then Josephine’s hand went to her mouth, and a strangled squeak of a giggle escaped her, and her shoulders shook with the effort of restraining a second, because if she started laughing properly she’d not stop for a week. And Jenny kicked me in the ankle, but not hard, and the Bull rumbled with what was probably laughter, and the Wardens, half of them at least, joined in.

And out in the sky above, the dragon halted its slow ascent and flight north, and bent its body back on itself to turn around in its own length – and Solas saw that, at least, put a metaphorical finger on his place and called down to us from the ruin of the upper hall with more than his usual measure of acid. “When you idiots are quite finished.” He gestured up to the hole in the roof. “It heard that. It’s coming for the Herald.”

The laughter died strangled.

“Plan?” I asked, mostly to make it clear I had no divine inspiration to provide.

“Kill it,” rasped Clarel. “We forced it to run. If it wants to come to us, kill it.”

I could see Solas’ disdainful scowl right across the hall. “Dorian, talk.” He turned away and went back to his chanting.

The Vint nodded crisply. Something about the spells that still swathed him was keeping his appearance immaculate, his demeanour calm and unruffled. “Solas was trying something that got its full attention, but his spell could be evaded by distance, so it flew. Lady Clarel and I weren’t even keeping its full attention.”

“What is it?” asked Kallian. Her voice was thick, blood all down the side of her face, but she was standing. “It’s got no tendons, no muscle to cut, no blood to spill. Dragons are flesh and blood, and that thing ain’t.”

“Embodied spirit,” said Dorian, “but, you-know, without the body. Like an abomination without the irritating human bit. It shouldn’t be even possible.”

Clarel swallowed hard. “And the binding we had laid ready didn’t even-”

Dorian rounded on her in a flash and his anger was almost a real physical force and Iron Bull physically got in the way. “Save it,” said the big guy. “Any use keeping the Herald here?”

Dorian glared for a moment, then shook his head. “It might be after him, but it’s got no way of tracking him.”

“Right.” He cast an eye over those still standing. “Lady Clarel, take Dorian and Varric. Gotta be a back door to the battlements, right?” Clarel nodded. “Get your arses out there, keep the dragon off Solas however the hell you can think of. Go.” And somehow, the mere seeming of a plan was enough. They did what he said, the grey-haired Warden calling for the other two to follow. “Lady Kallian, you get Josephine, Krem, Jenny, Max. Same way out. Get to the outer ward, grab the Chargers and anyone else going, get gone and scatter. I take everyone else, guard Solas, pick him up when we’re done, meet you at last night’s camp.”

“Like hell,” Kallian snarled. “Your people there. Mine here.”

He shook his head. “Not a conversation, lady. You’re hurt worse than you look, I’m not. You know your way around this bloody place, I don’t. Go.

She turned violently from him. “Wardens,” she said in that clear high fishwife’s voice, “I’ll be back. And I’ll be late. ‘Cause you’ll already have that scaly bastard dead. I can do one, anyone can. Hear?”

And they sang out loud and resolute, and we split.

*

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