Fear and Surprise, Chapter Thirty-Eight

by artrald

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*

The War of Apostasy had seen more than its share of strange and unusual battles, of course, but my candidate for the strangest is surely still the Battle of the Arbor Wilds in the spring of 9:41: for literally two days before, one of the armies simply had not existed. The Red Templars, dispersed among local villages and communicating solely by magic, had encountered the scouts of the Inquisition and thrown all of their plans into motion whether or not they were ready. In each of a dozen different villages, the templars provided their demon’s brew to a carefully briefed and prepared populace, and overnight their strength multiplied tenfold and then some.

Multiplied but diluted, one might say – after all, the legions of Orlais have proven time and again the ineffectiveness of peasant rabble, however, motivated, against professional soldiers – but having met both the Red Templars’ lyrium-addled warriors and the darkspawn firsthand, I would be hesitant to say which I’d rather meet. Certainly they were physically no weaker – and just as the darkspawn marched to the tune of an archdemon, these poor souls had no inner drive or motive left but the will of the fiend Corypheus: and indeeed I did verify this personally. One might suppose that this was no coincidence, but that is another tale entirely: regardless, the allies quickly learned that their foes were more like the undead than the living.

Early clashes, therefore, were mixed. The Second Legion deployed in good order but slowly, and many was the formation that met a seeming rabble with the trademark chevaliers’ charge and was rebuffed in disarray by the unexpectedly monstrous foe; the Dalish fought like shadow and wind, and like shadow and wind they fell back before anything the least bit solid. But Inquisition intelligence as to the enemy’s methods was put to good use: Dalish scouts crept smoke-silent into occupied villages and simply spilled the cauldrons or adulterated them, for even a day or two of delay would be sufficient. The outriders of the Second struck out like a speartip to disrupt rite after dark rite, and a right-thinking society would remember them in song, for their endeavours were to be the salvation of their felows. Yet such crucial work was seen as dishonourable by the stiff-necked Orlesians, for the entire point was to hit an enemy who could not fight back, and the general outright refused to commit the bulk of her heavy horse the same way, claiming that such an order would not be followed.

Meanwhile, the Inquisition raced to interpose themselves between Corypheus’ forces and their objective the ancient ruin. Both sides relied on magic to travel beyond mortal endurance: both sides were hampered by bringing templars with them, who could only benefit from this so much. On the one hand, the Inquisition had more and better mounts. The Red Templars could go further and harder without a mage’s aid, and could concentrate their forces more, as they did not seek to bring their foe to battle: and then, of course, there was the ‘dragon’.

The great fear-spirit accidentally summoned at Adamant had stuck to the great winged form that it had learned inspired such fear among the well-educated. It played a careful game, hiding in clouds, making the most of its wings, and likely rendered more aid to Corypheus via the superstitious dread that it inspired than by its odd, vanishingly rare physical interventions. It is to be remembered that a spirit of fear is itself defined by fear; in hindsight, it is entirely likely that it was seeking to protect itself from the archmages of the Inquisition, knowing neither their location nor capabilities, save that at Adamant it had seen off Solas only to be laid low by it knew not what.

And thus it was that the long-awaited confrontation was not the single, decisive battle beloved of historians and artists, but rather a strung-out and disorganised series of skirmishes over twenty miles of forest and broken ground. The fog of war rapidly descended, Dalish hunting packs tangling with Red Templar conscripts and trying their best to slow them down and lead them astray, Inquisition templars hunting Venatori mages, and general chaos and disorder being the order of the day as nobody was quite sure of the location and numbers of the foe. After a few early missteps, the Orlesian legion pulled in and advanced in a methodical wall of steel, assuring victory in the engagements they met but arriving far too late to prevent the Elder One’s forces from meeting the Inquisition at the very gates of the ruin.

The Morrigan
A History of Southern Thedas

*

So, Krem had done pretty well with me, all things considered. I could plant my feet and swing that sword like anyone else with six months’ experience; while I was an indifferent horseman at best, I no longer jounced like a sack of meal at least; and my tunics were starting to be tight across the shoulders and loose at the waist. The face in my mirror was looking more like a fighting man and less like a tub of lard every time I shaved. But, holy shit, I’d only been doing this less than half a year. There was absolutely less than no way at all that I was going to be fighting from the back of a horse.

We overtook a company of them as dawn broke. Not clear whether they thought they’d ambush us. Not clear whether they’d even seen us coming. I didn’t even get near the fighting. The Templars, Cullen and Blackwall and Cassandra at their head, fought like the centaurs I’d named them what felt like a lifetime ago. Morrigan dismounted from her horse so fast you’d have thought she was weightless, and gestured with her blackened oak staff and a crack of lightning felled a robed woman I hadn’t even seen. The whole thing took less than five minutes, and the proof we were even fighting the right enemy was the way they refused to turn and run, made us cut them down. And they bled red all the same, but there wasn’t time to stop and think: in simple haste we left them where they lay.

There was a chill in the air, but no rain fell that day. The slight spring overcast and the gentle mist collaborated to lend the forest a delicate, ancient beauty; Jenny said she felt almost like we were trespassing, and Solas said that, well, we were. He nodded to what I’d taken for an ancient and weathered outcropping of stone, visible over the treetops up the gentle slope a way – the gate, he said, and if we weren’t in such a tearing bloody hurry then he’d be asking us to take our shoes off. This was a holy place, he said, and Cullen scowled and garnered himself a level unimpressed stare for that.

But while we’d arrived before the bulk of the Red Templars, we weren’t there first, the worry written clear on Harding’s face as she spoke in short, clipped syllables. A glade a little way down the slope still smoked gently, the carcasses of humans, horses, elves and not a few unlucky trees strewn about the torn-up ground, arrows littering the place like grass. Looked like the Dalish had fallen on an advance party: looked like they’d had a mage with them, who’d turned the very forest into a weapon: looked like the humans had won, hard. Not a body breathed. And half a dozen tracks went on up towards the gate, human, all on foot.

We split up. The Templars and the Chargers, the bulk of our arms, they stayed right there. Only sensible approach to the gate, said Harding, and Solas nodded like he’d have told us the same. Of the mages, Vivienne and Fiona and the former apostates stuck with them. They’d all trained for this, even put it into practice against the demons of the rifts: this was just a bit of a bigger scale. Let the Red Templars come. Let the Venatori try their best. Terrain was on our side. Cassandra smiled grimly and said that the only things that gave her pause were the dragon and the Elder One, and we’d plans for both.

So Dorian and Varric came with Solas and Morrigan and Jenny and me, and we went after the ones who got away. After Corypheus, but nobody said that. I asked if we wanted to take a squad with us, and Varric nodded to the paltry few human footprints we were following and said grimly that strength of numbers hadn’t helped those elves. We left our horses. Standard Inquisition practice, despite wanting to be there quick as we could: it wasn’t that demons and animals didn’t mix, it was that they mixed too well. I raised softly the question that perhaps we were too late, and it was Solas who flicked a finger at the sky and said that if we couldn’t see the Black City up there then we weren’t late yet.

I’d expected something understated. Something like Varric’s description of the elvish graveyard in Hard in Hightown, a place that might have been haunted as all hells but fundamentally just a little lich-yard of tumbledown and ancient stones, perhaps with a magically hidden door, something built to the Little People’s scale. Something that fit with what Solas had said about a heap of haunted wreckage. Something without, just to take a random example, twenty-foot-tall moss-covered stone statues, or a gateway taller than the Sun Gate of Val Royeaux. And yes, the statues were ancient and weathered, and yes, there were full-grown oaks in the middle of what would once have been their road. But the great ironwood gates of this place had stood, if I’d been listening to Josephine’s patient attempts to get the world’s history down me, they’d stood two thousand years and change.

Until this morning. The left-hand gate stood drunkenly askew, blood splashed all up it and drawn into some kind of strange angular pattern. But even then the ancient thing hadn’t cracked: it was the hinges that had let it down, stone pins crumbled and scattered like dust, and Dorian frowned. Too much blood, he said, softly. The great ironwood gates would have yielded to a simple battering-ram evocation, something anyone who trained at a Tevinter circle would do with a word and a gesture: two pints of blood spilled by a Tevinter haematurge should have shattered the gates and the stones around them, should have left nothing here but a crater and the slight embarrassment of using a sledgehammer on a walnut. And Morrigan cocked an eyebrow and remarked that any well-founded wall has a ward, and could he see one? The blood had been for the magical barrier; the gate itself had been dropped off its hinges with just such a spell as he’d wanted.

So forward we went, and Solas was at our head, and Dorian’s eyes were trying to be everywhere at once, for as he said, it wasn’t every day you walked into an Arlathani ruin that wasn’t a vulture-picked carcass. The inscription above that first gate, he read aloud: ‘vast and long is her arm, and ever sure her eye’, he said, and Solas’ pained expression would not be further drawn.

The courtyard was great and wide, and surprisingly well preserved: in fairer days, we’d have had time to slow down, and anyone would have wanted to. This was a place of art, of beauty. The feeling of the place was very much the same as I’d had at the Cathedral of the Maker. Overcast it might be, but perfect sunshine struck the statues – tall, spindly things of symbolic dress and pose, they were, clearly they’d meant something once. Clearly they still did to Solas – he actually did slip his shoes off as we crossed into the courtyard – just as clearly Jenny’s reaction was the sort of embarrassment you get when an old uncle speaks his mind in front of the guests. They were lacquered, brightly glazed against the ages, their carven clothing the colours of a dozen gemstones, the shades of their hair so close to life it could almost have been real, their skin picked out in elvish amber, and their eyes –

They looked you in the eye, and as you moved they kept eye contact, though I swear I never saw one move. Every one of them, the unnatural unblinking gaze just the way I knew an elf couldn’t stand, and Solas kept his own eyes to the floor. It was left to Dorian to identify them: these were the idols of the elven gods, and he named them in turn, gods of the field and the hunt, of craft and of hearth, of birth and of death. And there were two that were missing. Fen’Harel, trickster, betrayer, neither friend nor foe, the Lying Wolf; and Mythal, defender, justicar, matriarch, the Mother of the Gods.

And Solas said, and it was the first thing he’d said since we passed the doors, that Dorian was wrong. He turned and nodded to the far corner of the courtyard, to a little shrine, roofed over and bound in perpetual shadow, and to a little idol within of a wolf: there was Fen’Harel. And then he spread his hands and turned back to the temple itself. This was the house of Mythal, he said, in which the others were not welcome. So of course they waited in the courtyard outside.

Our quarry had left a trail an idiot could follow blindfolded. They hadn’t bothered with doors, they hadn’t bothered with paths: they’d walked a deliberate beeline through the ancient place and when they’d met a boundary they crossed it, and where they met a wall they smashed it. Sheer raw profligate waste of power, it had been, and they’d even left a trail of blood. Solas had curled his lips back from his teeth and his very breath was cold controlled outrage. Morrigan had given up any pretence of calmness and a dot of hard cold fascinating green light stood at the end of her staff. Dorian had spun a cloak of defensive magic out from the borrowed mage-armour he wore. And I had my sword bare over my shoulder, for all that was worth.

These courts were open to the sky, but they’d the feeling they were meant to be, and in each one the air felt different, A perfect crisp spring morning, a lazy summer’s day, a cool autumn evening we walked through on the trail of the desecrators, and their trail of blood and wreckage was getting wider and fresher across the mosaic of the floors. More and more their actions were feeling deliberate, like they knew exactly what they were breaking. Desecration and blasphemy. It looked different from what they’d done at the Sanctuary of the Ashes, but I wondered aloud if they weren’t after the same thing here: and Solas just shook his head shortly. What they thought they could do here, he said, they couldn’t have done at Haven. And while I drew breath they couldn’t make another hole in the sky.

Happy thoughts, Max.

*

We found the first body halfway through the court of autumn. Bled white, her black robes sopping and heavy with blood though there wasn’t a mark on her I could see, and Dorian knew her name. She’d been a drinking crony of his in the Venatori. Another corpse just before the next ragged hole blown in a wall, his eyes upturned and staring, his hands stretched pleadingly towards a trail of footprints that had not stopped. I bent, and closed his eyes, and Dorian winced as I touched the corpse, but nothing happened.

Ahead, now, we could hear them. Singing voices, unlovely and discordant, three women singing at the top of their voices in what sounded like Tevene. Dorian muttered that it had to be a spell, and he did say what it was, but none of the rest of us understood his words. He picked up the pace, though, so we followed suit. Jenny had laid an arrow to her string.

And we came to a pair of doors shod in ageless gold, and worked into the keystone of the arch was a final idol, a lady great and ancient and pitiless, a pair of doors that stood ajar as if they’d simply been unlocked, and that halted Solas dead: only Dorian made to carry on, and Solas stuck an arm out into his path without looking around. No ward here, he said quietly, because it didn’t need one, now follow suit.

And then Solas did something I’d never seen him do before. He flicked his eyes up to look that graven image in the eye, then he bowed his head and he knelt with every appearance of reverence. Motioned for us to do the same.

There was a strained pause.

“You do realise,” said Dorian in a strained hiss, “that we are in a hurry.”

“Best pay our respects quickly, then.” Morrigan suited action to word. Varric, too. Dorian frowned, but followed.

Jenny looked from me to Solas. “Surely he don’t mean you.”

Solas’ head was bowed and silent. Dorian shot me a very pointed look.

The singing was getting more frenzied. Jenny bit her lip. “Or, or we could stick here?” she offered.

Everyone but the Herald and his little shadow had done as asked. My mouth had gone completely dry. I saw Jenny’s expression, imagined Cullen’s or Cassandra’s – what the hell kind of man bows down before a heathen idol on the say-so of someone like Solas? But what the hell kind of man lets protocol stop him saving the world?

Deep breath. “If, if there is someone whose house this is,” I said with all the dignity I could muster, “we bring her greetings in the name of Andraste, Bride of the Maker, her enemy’s enemy.” And I bowed, low, the proper servant’s bow I knew of old, and Jenny bowed her head elf-fashion.

And –

Nothing happened. Solas unfolded and stood with his native grace, and as the rest of us straightened, he said under his breath “Well, my lady, it’s not the worst you’ve had today.” And he pushed the door open.

*

I’d had nightmares about this moment.

I mean, usually in the nightmare I’d had no trousers on, or somehow I was late and everybody was expecting me, or it looked nothing like the fiend Corypheus but more like my aunt Darva, moustache and all, but somehow was also Corypheus – but that same feeling, that nameless incredible and very rational dread, was right there and it was coming right from that misshapen bastard.

It was night in this courtyard, and the sky was clear, and the full moon was huge, and it shone down on what was at first glance a neatly manicured formal garden. Clearly it couldn’t have been – I mean, the one we had in Ostwick took half a dozen full-time gardeners, and this was twice the size – no, the plants had been magicked to grow like this, to twine themselves into patterns pleasing to the heathen goddess and then to stick there and live until they pleased her no longer. This was a place of beauty, for sure, but Cassandra would probably call it ‘unholy’ and I wasn’t sure she’d be wrong. All the proportions and angles were wrong. Nature had never looked like this.

And of all the barriers, all the walls and wardings the Venatori had pushed their way through, they’d been stopped by the damnedest little thing. Seven of them there were, the unmistakable lopsided giant Corypheus, three women and one man in dark robes, two soldiers in black armour, and they were standing there before a little ornamental stream, and the women were singing that foul discordant song and making it one step forward each verse. The one at the front had one light-shod foot into the stream, for crying out loud, it looked to be about four inches deep. And there was even a little ornamental bridge literally ten feet to their right that they were entirely ignoring.

Our three mages looked at one another, nodded as one, then spread out, moving quiet as oil in water. Varric knelt into inhuman stillness and took aim. Jenny was suddenly not behind me, and it’s amazing how many places the garden had to hide a girl her size. And I tightened my grip on my sword and tried not to breathe too loud –

Dorian stepped where he shouldn’t have and twigs rustled.

Corypheus whirled so fast that you’d have sworn his face had grown on the back of his head.

And everything exploded at once.

*

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