Ephemera: Chapter 2

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It was another grey day on Lake Calenhad, the dull sky low enough to skim the water, and clouds obscuring the thin, weak face of the sun.

“I could, you know,” Anders said sulkily.

The stone glimmered wetly in his palm. It was black and oval, flattish, and lightly crazed with white veins. He thumbed it thoughtfully as he stared out at the wide, calm expanse of the lake. Moisture thronged the dismal air, though the mist had not yet given way to proper rain.

“Yeah, right.” Karl narrowed his eyes. “Do you even know how to swim?”

Anders shrugged. “It can’t be that hard.”

The templar supervising them—and the other fifty or so apprentices perambulating around the Tower’s grounds in neat lines, two by two—cast a suspicious look in their direction. Karl wasn’t sure whether Anders noticed. He didn’t seem to be paying much attention to the templars recently. He treated them as if they were a minor inconvenience to whatever magnificent fantasy life he had going on inside his head… and that, in Karl’s opinion, was foolish.

Knight-Commander Greagoir wasn’t an unkind man. He was fair, all things considered. Tough, but fair. Most of the men under his command fell into the same bracket, although there were one or two who enjoyed the power they could wield over mages a little too much, and the power over apprentices even more so. They were the ones it was stupid to piss off and, naturally, the ones Anders seemed to take delight in tormenting.

The templar frowned, and seemed to be about to say something. ‘Pick those feet up’ or ‘come on, you lollygagger’ or something, Karl assumed. Before long, their freedom to wander comparatively untrammelled in the grounds would be over, and there would be star-jumps and jogging on the spot before they all got trooped back indoors. He shuddered at the prospect. Anders looked up, smiled dreamily, then scythed his arm through the air and flung the stone out towards the water.

It was a good throw. It flew over the small stone wall that bounded this part of the grounds, across the muddy bank that led down to the jetty, and even skipped once or twice before it sank beneath the dark water.

“Oi!”

They were like birds, Karl thought, the way they reacted. Only, instead of feathers, those wings of bright armour and, instead of songs of alarm, they threw out those walls of nullification… those spells that were not spells, and dispersed magic the way a sharp blade disperses flesh.

He, like several of the other students, winced as the templar’s dispelling aura washed over them, setting his teeth on edge and a pulsing pain beating in his sinuses. Anders just grinned and shrugged.

“What? I wasn’t doing any magic. Look, nothing up my sleeves!”

He waved his hands with a flourish, and one of the other templars stepped up behind them to give him a swift clip across the shoulders.

“All right, pack it in, you.”

“Yes, ser. Sorry, ser,” Anders parroted, affecting a look of innocence that didn’t fool anyone.

The templar glared, but the small disruption to the exercise period was soon forgotten, and they resumed their walk.

“You shouldn’t keep winding them up,” Karl murmured.

Anders grunted and gazed out at the lake.

“Got to do something,” he said darkly.

Karl frowned. “You wouldn’t really try to…? Would you?”

Anders glanced at him with one of those slick, wicked grins; the kind that went straight to Karl’s crotch without the slightest detour to his brain, no matter how serious he’d been trying to be.

“What?”

You know,” he muttered, keenly aware of the templars flocking around them, and the presence of so many other apprentices. It wasn’t safe to talk about escape out here, and he shook his head. “Oh, forget it.”

“Forget what?” Anders asked, all wide-eyed innocence.

He was evidently enjoying inhabiting the frustrating persona he used to annoy templars, and Karl didn’t much care to be on the receiving end of it. He pursed his lips.

“I’ve got doubles with Enchanter Belling all afternoon. Primal theory. You’ve got Entropy with Calthorpe, haven’t you?”

“Mm-hm.” Anders wrinkled his nose, clearly not that enthralled by the prospect. “Why?”

A light breeze blew across the lake, ruffling the water and stirring their robes. Karl shivered, though it wasn’t really cold. Just another grey, changeless day. He peered out at the ripples scything across that dark surface, and the occasional flick of something below the water that might have been a fin. Rumour had it that there were fish in there the size of a horse… probably to do with all the potions and effluvia that got dumped in the lake.

In all honesty, he rather enjoyed these little snatches of time outside. He didn’t even mind the mud or the odd spatter of rain. When Karl was a boy—a very little boy, before his magic showed itself and there were the tears and agony of parting—he used to run and play with his brothers, whatever the weather. There had been four of them, and he the youngest. He’d always wanted to grow up big and broad and strong, like Rufus, his eldest brother, and play football, and come home with skinned knees and a bloody chin, and mud in his hair.

There weren’t that many opportunities for athleticism here.

Past the low stone wall, one of the gardeners was pushing a wheelbarrow up from the small jetty. It seemed to be full of fish guts: cast-off from the docks, Karl assumed, and probably good for the roses or something in the formal gardens at the side of the tower. The jaunty tune the man whistled danced on the air, just another ripple in this wide, islanded place.

“Well… meet me in the senior common room, then? After dinner?”

Anders shrugged. “All right.”

He was staring out at the lake again, and Karl couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something very wrong, just waiting to happen.

~o~O~o~

Karl’s backside went to sleep halfway through Enchanter Belling’s interminable ramble about primal magic. The class had done term after term of theory on the subject, and they were all restless. They wanted something practical to sink their teeth into, something that actually felt like learning.

Unfortunately, Belling was one of those mages who appeared to believe in knowing everything there was to know about magic, so that one never had to use it.

Karl swallowed down an exasperated sigh and cast a glance down the length of the row he was seated in. One of the girls—an elven blonde with delicate features and small hands—was conjuring a mana flower in her palm. The petals glittered, the whole thing a translucent little gem of blue light that she was taking care to conceal from curious eyes… not that Belling would have noticed. He had his back turned, and was scribing a formula across the chalkboard, droning on in that peculiarly high, nasal voice, about the exact precision with which it was imperative one calculated the duration and strength of a spell.

“…being defined by the mass of the object, at which point, ladies and gentlemen, you will see that different aspects of matter require different approaches. The most common of these….”

The elven girl smiled as her flower took perfect form, shimmering in her cupped hand. She leaned forwards, and prodded a boy in the row ahead of her in the back. Karl recognised him as Theo, half-Rivaini and one-quarter curious, although the curiosity hadn’t lasted long; just a spurt of it in their junior year. He didn’t talk much to Karl anymore, though they still shared the same dormitory.

Theo turned in his seat and smiled at her. She lifted her hand to her mouth and blew on the mana flower, sending it fragmenting and spiralling like dust into his face. Judging by Theo’s grin, and a little bit of personal experience, Karl knew what it would feel like… a hundred tiny kisses, and the warmth of a lover’s sigh coasting against his skin.

It was a useful little charm to know, he supposed, if a bit theatrical. Still, theatrics had a place in romance sometimes. He wondered why he’d immediately thought of Anders, and whether that great big, filthy grin of his would cleave his face if Karl made him a mana flower… a kiss composed of light and whispers.

He cursed inwardly. It was quite possible that his thoughts strayed to Anders too often, but Karl wasn’t sure what he ought to do about it, or even if he wanted to do anything. Well, all right, that wasn’t entirely accurate. He did want to—very much so, in fact—but not at the cost of ruining the way things were between them. It was nice to be with someone who knew how to laugh, and how to be light and sharp and to remember that there was a world out there, a world so much bigger than this damn tower.

Karl frowned as he recalled Anders’ words at the lake during the exercise period. It was stupid, of course. Even if he did try another escape attempt, he’d have to be stark staring mad to think he could just swim across the bloody lake. Anyway, he couldn’t even swim in the first place, could he? No. Well, there it was settled then. He wouldn’t do it.

Even Anders wasn’t that crazy.

Those thoughts echoed in Karl’s mind for a while, nonetheless, as he stared numbly at Enchanter Belling’s equations, and wondered why in the name of Andraste’s frilly drawers they would ever need to calculate the approximate mass of an object by eye.

His pen scratched over the parchment in front of him, diligently taking down the notes. It would have been much more productive, surely, to be preparing them for their Harrowing. Some of the older apprentices were already talking about it. Karl didn’t know whether there was a set age at which they took you, or if it was the enchanters themselves who tipped the wink, once a student was deemed ready.

No one ever talked about it. He didn’t know why. Same reason not all the apprentices who went up to the Harrowing Chamber came down again, he supposed… or why it was said that some actually volunteered for the Rite of Tranquillity.

Whatever the Harrowing was, it must be horrific. Karl was sure of that, but also just as sure that, no matter what, he would never voluntarily submit to being made Tranquil. All your hopes, your dreams, your feelings and fears, burned away until there was nothing left, none of the fire and music in life that made it worthwhile.

Enchanter Belling reached behind the chalkboard and drew out something wrapped in a white sheet, which he placed with a heavy thud on the desk at the front of the classroom.

“Now,” he announced, whipping the sheet off what Karl now saw was a large wheel of cheese, “who can estimate the weight of this? Hmm? Anyone?”

Karl stifled a groan. Someone raised their hand and suggested a number, then someone else upped it by five pounds. He didn’t care. How in the Maker’s name was it even supposed to be remotely relevant?

Belling pointed the chalk directly at him, fixing him with those pale, faintly runny blue eyes.

“Mr. Thekla? Perhaps you would favour us with a guess?”

Karl winced. “Er… don’t know. Forty… three?”

The mage nodded briskly. “All right. Very good! Forty-four and a half, to be exact. And, knowing this, you would approximate how much primal energy as required to transmogrify the density of said object, at that mass?”

Karl blinked owlishly, feeling the gazes of the other apprentices rest heavily on him. Heat started to crawl up his neck.

“Um….”

“That is,” Enchanter Belling added brightly, his voice ringing with a clear, sharp tone of triumph, “how much mana would it take for you to petrify this cheese? Hmm? Come along, come along. Stand up. That’s it. Now, come down here, and let’s have a practical demonstration….”

Oh, bloody wonderful.

Rising awkwardly to his feet, Karl made his way to the front of the class, aware of the titters in the last couple of rows. Belling was off again, banging on about density and energy, and the cheese wheel sat on the desk, looking at Karl with as much malevolence as the average dairy product could muster.

He swallowed heavily and pushed back the sleeves of his robe.

~o~O~o~

Anders sat on one of the tables in the senior common room, swinging his feet idly. Like most of the rooms in the Tower, this was a large, grey stone affair, with a high, vaulted ceiling and impressive carvings. The rugs and wall hangings that kept out the worst of the winter chill—and it could get cold here, even by his standards—were strikingly vibrant next to all that masonry.

Sometimes, he wondered if mages liked their opulence as a kind of defiance. They might be cooped up here like chickens, but chickens with really, really good décor. Also, three meals a day, beds with barely any wildlife in… and brilliant medical care. He recited the good points to himself like a mantra, as if that might one day make him stop thinking of this place as a cage.

He doubted it. That was exactly what it was, after all.

A couple of the older apprentices stared daggers as they passed by, and he smiled cheerfully at them. Juniors weren’t meant to be up here, strictly speaking. Not that it really mattered; there wasn’t that much privacy. There wasn’t any bloody privacy anywhere.

His gaze wandered to the two templars standing at the door of the room. Big doors, like there were all over the building. Not quite as big as the ones that led to the Great Hall or the templar quarters, or as ornate as the ones that opened onto the public rooms at the front of the Tower, for receiving guests and other people it was deemed necessary to impress. No… these still had the same purpose—the same capability to be shut and barred and lock demons in, if required—but they were altogether more business-like.

Anders supposed he should admire that, really. Presence of mind, whoever built this place, or rebuilt it, or… whatever. He didn’t really care. It seemed pointless for a prisoner to care about the architectural niceties of his prison.

The templars both looked young. Anders recognised one of them by name: Ser Maurais. Orlesian by birth. He was fleetingly reminded of the time he’d tried to sneak away with the foreign Circle’s deputation, exposed by his woeful ignorance of the language. That, and the fact he’d had no idea where he was going. They’d got almost as far as the Bannorn—bound for one of the big highways, and eventually Denerim, he thought—before he’d been busted.

Next time, he had determined, he was going to be better prepared. The Tower’s library was good for that. Plenty of maps, plenty to read about Ferelden’s towns and cities, and the lands that lay beyond her borders.

For a while, Anders had entertained the notion of going to Orlais. It sounded nice; all that fancy food and cultural sophistication, and what he’d heard native-born Fereldans refer to disparagingly as ‘dirty foreign ways’. That definitely sounded promising. Too many templars, though. Too much Chantry.

So, no. Orlais was out. He’d read intriguing things about Antiva, though. Hot, sunny climes, with great seafood, tempestuous, raven-haired women, and bronzed, swash-buckling men… also definitely promising. Anders tapped his heels together thoughtfully, and stared down at the toes of his soft leather shoes.

He would run again. It was only a matter of time. There was a principle involved, damn it.

He sniffed, and looked up, aware of a familiar presence bearing down on him.

Karl’s halo of dark curls was somewhat rumpled, and he looked tired. His robes seemed a little awry, too, and Anders sniffed again.

“You smell like cheese,” he said, by way of greeting.

Karl pulled a face. “Do you know how hard it is to petrify a forty-four-and-a-half pound wheel of aged cheddar?”

“Oddly enough, no.”

“It’s difficult,” he retorted, drawing to a halt beside the table.

Anders could see the fatigue of a long day wearing creases into the corners of his eyes. He rather wanted to crane up and press his mouth to Karl’s, to pull him close and kiss away the tiredness, but that probably wouldn’t be too welcome right here, right now. Besides, Anders rather liked kissing Karl to be done quietly, when they were alone and safe, with just the delicate frisson of possibility that someone could walk in.

“Poor love,” he said, extending one foot and rubbing his toes against the side of Karl’s knee.

Karl smiled. “You been waiting long?”

Anders shook his head. It didn’t matter, anyway.

The common room was full of apprentices, but no one was really looking at them. Most of the students split off into their own little cliques at the first possible opportunity. Pallid, serious-looking types with their hair combed forwards huddled in corners and muttering about the dark, complex nature of entropic magic, and how it was the only true principle in a dark and complex world. Several studious sorts sat at desks or in the chairs by the large twin fireplaces, heads buried in books, while the more outgoing of the student population gathered to chatter about anything and everything that wasn’t related to magic.

There was never much natural light in any of the Tower’s rooms, the windows being too small and high to let in more than the odd glancing shaft, and one grew used to the warm blurriness of candles and firelight. Still, if Anders had been able to see the sky, he would have seen the dusk pressing in, and the darkness folding softly around the grey walls. It wouldn’t be long before night fell properly and he, like the other apprentices, would find himself chased back to his dormitory, and bed.

“I wanted to show you something,” Karl said, glancing over his shoulder, like he didn’t want to be overheard. “Come on.”

Anders hopped off the table and followed him through the common room, out through the far door and past the Orlesian-born templar with the thin, pencil-like moustache. He fought the urge to quicken his pace—they always thought you were up to something if you sped up, although in his case they were usually right—and sloped after Karl, just as if they were on their way to the chapel, or one of the enchanter’s open office hours.

They didn’t turn off at the corridor leading to the chapel, though. Instead, Karl slowed right down, as if he was checking the coast was clear, and then he reached back and grabbed the sleeve of Anders’ robe, dragging him across the shadowy stone hall, and towards another, lesser-used corridor, beyond which lay a narrow stone staircase.

Their leather slippers flapped and scuffled against the flags, and Anders nearly stumbled.

“Where are we going?” he whispered, not sure why he was whispering.

This corridor seemed utterly deserted, as did the staircase that Karl was now motioning him to climb.

“Shh. This way. Don’t worry… no one ever comes up here this time of night.”

Anders frowned, but followed the older boy. It was generally safe to assume Karl knew what he was doing and, if anything did go wrong… well, it’d be interesting, at least.

All the same, there was something faintly eerie about it. The stairs had no handrail, and not even a rope. The stones were bare, neatly faced but devoid of decoration, and they seemed old, much older than the dorms and common rooms, which were comparatively recent renovations to the tower’s structure. Anders was aware that, at its heart, Kinloch Hold dated back more than a thousand years, and he felt briefly alarmed at wandering over its more ancient places.

He glanced down at his feet, at the worn steps with their dented centres, and wondered how many other mages had trodden here before him… and why it all seemed so deserted now. There weren’t even any torches lit up here, or lanterns, or anything. Karl conjured a sphere of light in his palm, and held it out in front of them, its bluish glow hardly doing much to dispel the sense of mild creepiness.

If he strained his ears, Anders could just make out the murmurs of voices running along the stones, the odd acoustics of the curved walls allowing them to hear what might have been something drifting up from the laboratories, or the common rooms… maybe even the kitchens. The sounds were too quiet and too fuzzy to make out any distinct shapes of words and, as they climbed, it grew quieter anyway.

“This is killing my knees,” Anders complained.

Karl shook his head, striding on in front. “Just wait… it’ll be worth it. Promise.”

Anders grumbled under his breath, but didn’t argue.

Eventually, they got to the top of the staircase. It was dark, and chilly, and the little landing they found themselves on boasted nothing but another narrow corridor and a squat oak door. Anders noticed how unlike the great, wide doors on the lower floors it was, but that alone hardly seemed worth the climb.

“Well?” he demanded, looking expectantly at Karl.

The soft blue glow of light in his palm, held up between them, lit his face with strange, thin highlights, and clean, deep shadows. He grinned, the tiredness of earlier seeming to leach away, and Anders suddenly felt rather exposed. His pulse beat in the base of his throat, and he shrugged, hiding behind that comfortable veneer of flippancy that, over the years, he’d beaten into a tough, protective shell.

“I can’t say I’m dramatically impressed. There are spiders, aren’t there? I just know there’s going to be spiders. As long as they’re not giant ones, I’ll be all right. If they’re giant ones, I’m running screaming all the way back to the common room… I don’t care what you say. I’ll just—”

“Anders.”

Karl said his name gently, softly, and it stopped him mid-sentence, his lips failing around the words.

“Hm?”

“Shut up.”

He blinked, casting around for some sort of suitably rude response, and was rather surprised to find Karl taking his hand. His grasp was dry, warm… firm, and he led Anders to the small door, pausing only to shake the orb of light from his palm, plunging them into darkness.

Anders wasn’t all that crazy about the dark thing.

“Um. It’s a bit—”

“Hold on.”

Karl squeezed his fingers gently, and he heard the door handle clank, then the loud, grating creak of hinges in sore need of oiling, and then….

“Oh.”

It was beautiful. It shouldn’t have been, but it was.

The room was evidently an old supply store, long disused and possibly forgotten, or at least deemed unimportant by the Tranquil stockkeepers and their endless inventory lists. Crates lined the heavy stone walls, and the room smelled of musty sacking and old wood. It was tiny—little bigger than a cupboard, really—with a low ceiling, and there definitely were cobwebs, and probably spiders, but none of that mattered.

Set high into the centre of the far wall, there was a small, pointed window, about thirty inches high and eighteen or so wide. Because the room was so small, probably packed under an eave somewhere, an afterthought in the use of space, it sat lower than most of the Tower’s windows did, putting it at a little above head height.

Through that single, narrow gap, moonlight flooded in, and a swatch of dark velvet sky winked at Anders, pierced by stars.

He moved forwards, impelled by some irresistible pull, his hand peeling from Karl’s grasp as he went to the window. It had a thick, cool stone ledge and, if he pulled himself up on his toes, Anders could lean upon it, and feel the night air on his face.

He breathed it in, hauled it in with huge, gasping lungfuls, tasting the moisture and the chill, and the scent of tarred rope from the jetty, and the mud-and-silage odour of the lake itself. There might even have been the smell of roses, drifting up from the gardens. He wasn’t sure; everything melded together in a brilliant, beautiful mess, and it tasted of freedom and wonder.

It was bittersweet, of course, that taste. He wanted it… wanted it more than he’d ever wanted anything, though it wasn’t his to take. No touching, just looking, and yet he was so tired of chafing his heart against things he couldn’t have. Anders exhaled, long and low, and watched his breath curl, misting on the air.

He could see so far across the water. Oh, there was nothing out there but water—its black weight split into hundreds of softly glimmering planes, pebbled beneath the silver sickle of the moon—but it was wide, and free, and wonderful. If he held his breath, he could hear the lake lapping against the Tower’s little island, gnawing away at the rock as it had been doing for centuries.

Once, the Imperial Highway had come right out to the Tower. Kinloch Hold had marked the edge of the lake, and the bridge of earth had been so slowly eroded… like the passing of the years themselves, slipping by while the Circle stayed mired in their unchanging ways, their traditions and their hypocrisies.

Anders’ fingers tightened on the ledge, and he was aware of Karl moving behind him, the warmth and the security of his presence as he moved closer.

“Do you like it? I thought you might like it.”

Anders fought to tear his gaze from the window, and turned to his friend. Karl’s face was wreathed with uncertainty, which seemed very wrong. There shouldn’t be an ounce of doubt about this gift, he decided.

“It’s perfect,” he breathed. “How did you…?”

Karl shrugged. The moonlight smoothed out his skin, making his nose and cheekbones seem sharper and cleaner, his brows like dark lines of ink above eyes that looked as deep as the lake beyond the window.

“I found it by accident. Was looking for a shortcut to the third floor lecture hall when I was running late, last week. I saw the window… thought of you.”

“It’s certainly very quiet up here,” Anders said, allowing a suggestive smile to curl his lips. “Bet hardly anyone comes by.”

As expressions of gratitude went, it was a bit cheesy, but Karl didn’t seem to mind. He grinned.

“Don’t think so. I don’t think most of this stuff’s been touched in ages.”

“Hmm.”

Anders meant to say something ribald about what else had been going without, but he couldn’t quite stop his gaze sliding to the window again. His smile widened as he looked up at the moon and the water, and felt the light pull of the breeze reaching out to kiss his skin. He blinked, returning his attention to Karl.

“Thank you.”

Karl shrugged. “I figured just seeing it isn’t enough—I know that—but I thought maybe it might keep you here a little longer.”

Anders wasn’t sure what to say to that. No matter how well they’d come to know each other, he hadn’t expected Karl to sum him up quite so succinctly.

It was, to be honest, slightly unnerving.

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