Straining at the Leash: Part Eight

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They were kissing when she found them by the basement doors. This entrance was set back from the warren of service passages and storerooms that comprised the northern side of the ground floor level: a low stone chamber with a door at either side, then a small staircase, with two large pillars and a set of double doors at the bottom. 

There might not have been any templar patrols in evidence, but Jowan and Lily weren’t as cleverly disguised behind the left-hand pillar as they clearly thought they were.

Of course not. That fat cow’s arse sticks out so far you could see it from Seheron.

She had one arm around his neck, the other looped across his back, her fingers clutching at his narrow shoulders. In turn, Jowan held her waist, and cupped her face in his palm as their lips met in a repeated rhythm of comfort and affection. It wasn’t just lust, Corda noted with mild disdain. Not the kind of feminine power that Gwynlian had so enjoyed exerting over her templar pup, but a mutual reaching out… a shared sweetness.

She cleared her throat loudly as she descended the last couple of steps and crossed the chamber, expecting them to break apart guiltily, but there wasn’t a shred of shame in it. Jowan, who normally breathed like the air wasn’t his to take, still had his hand to Lily’s cheek as they parted, and he was still looking at her with such warmth and affection… and with a kind of courage in his face that Corda had never seen. Never seen on him, and never seen on anyone else. Not that anyone would look like that at her, anyway.

Sappy rubbish.

You’ve got it?” Jowan asked, finally relinquishing his hold on Lily, except for her hand. “That was quick!”

Corda eyed him coolly as she moved down the steps to the basement doors. “You know me. I don’t mess around.”

Did anyone see you?” Lily asked nervously, looking paler than ever. “Templars, I mean, or—”

No. But the longer we hang around out here, the likelier it is someone’ll come by. Have you got the keys?”

The initiate let go of Jowan’s hand and fumbled in her belt pouch, pulling out a heavy ring of keys, each swaddled in a strip of cloth to keep it from jangling. Corda wondered idly where Lily had stolen them from—and how long they had before their rightful guardian noticed they were missing—and she was half-tempted to ask Jowan whether it was the girl’s thieving little magpie fingers that had attracted him to her in the first place, but she held her tongue.

She couldn’t help feeling, as Lily attacked the padlock, that just maybe the girl’s desire to get out of the Tower was just as equal to her affection for Jowan. Maybe he was just the lucky stooge she’d picked to be her ticket. After all, just because she blindly parroted back all the crap the Chantry taught its children didn’t mean she really wanted to spend the rest of her life shut up here… forbidden love or no forbidden love.

The lock gave on the third key, and Jowan helped her unfasten the chain, wincing as they dragged the heavy doors back on their hinges, the sharp creaks and clanks echoing throughout the chamber, and probably up into the stairwells beyond.

They’ll be on the fish course by now,” Corda said airily, pushing past them into the darkness of the corridor beyond, and snatching a small wisp of light from the air with a wave of her fingers. “Don’t worry: plenty more dinner to go before anyone notices something’s amiss.”

I wish I felt as confident as you sound,” Jowan muttered as he traipsed after her.

Corda smiled bitterly into the shadows.

You and me both, my friend.

~o~O~o~

Corda had never been this far down the Tower before. She’d expected the basements to be dank, airless chambers, but what met them was a series of neatly vaulted corridors, with doors leading off from either side. There were no lights—no expensive, showy glowstones or enchanted lanterns—though torch sconces lined the walls and seemed well-used, indicating the passages were regularly patrolled.

By someone, at least….

Great,” she muttered, tucking the box that held the rod of fire under her arm as, with a flex of her fingers, she channelled a little more energy into the ball of light above her head. It flared brighter, casting pale shafts against the stones and making the shadows shrink back along the heavy walls. “It’s a labyrinth. Do we actually know where we’re going?”

It’s this way,” Lily said, moving off ahead. “Come on… quickly.”

Beside her, Corda heard Jowan stifle a whimper. She glanced at him, noting the clammy sheen of sweat on his forehead.

All right?”

He winced. “I’m just so nervous it’ll all go wrong. If—”

Shh.” Corda smiled gently; an expression she knew wasn’t familiar to either of them, at least on her. “It’s going to be fine. We’re going to get you out of here, Jowan. I promise.”

His face softened a little, that familiar quire of dark hair flopping forward over his brow as he nodded. “I’m sorry I had to bring you into this. I know you never… I mean, all you wanted was to go to Cumberland, and if anyone finds out that you—”

I’m coming with you.”

Jowan gulped, his eyes wide. “Really? Corda….”

She shrugged. “Well? What else am I supposed to do? You think they won’t find out who took the rod of fire? I’m not exactly inconspicuous, and I’d rather not get in that much trouble. Anyway,” she added, watching Lily recede down the corridor, “I’m sure there will be other libraries… other opportunities. As long as the templars don’t catch me.”

He said nothing, and she wasn’t sure whether it was regret or apprehension that made his mouth crumple and his chin wobble slightly. Lily turned to peer back at them over her shoulder.

I don’t think they’ll be able to catch you,” she said, smiling shyly at Corda. “You’re clever… you’ll be able to stay ahead.”

Corda balked. She hadn’t realised Lily had overheard them—silly, really, because these stones echoed just as badly as anywhere in the Tower—and that rather put her off talking anymore. She gave a non-committal grunt. Stay ahead… yes, that would be it, wouldn’t it? That would be what her life was likely to be from now on: a constant cycle of hiding and running, with no safety and no respite.

Let’s just get on with this,” Jowan muttered.

Lily’s fragile smile faltered, and the ball of light that danced above their heads continued to spin in lazy circles.

~o~O~o~

They walked for what felt like ages, until Corda was beginning to wonder if Lily really had any idea where she was going. The various storerooms and side chambers that filled the basement seemed horribly like cells—all small, square rooms, some of them with bars filling part of the walls, instead of solid stones—and Corda realised with distinct unease that they probably dated from several hundred years back. Successive remodellings couldn’t disguise the bones of this place… or of what these dark, low places had most likely been used for, especially under the Tevinter Imperium.

Prison cells, torture chambers… I bet there are still some more around somewhere. Stands to reason, doesn’t it? The Chantry doesn’t trust us that much.

There had to be holding cells somewhere, she reasoned, even if the templars prided themselves so highly on their rules and containments that no mage ever farted without the Chantry knowing. And yet, here, the siderooms mostly seemed packed with crates and barrels, and shelves full of old books, mouldering away behind locked doors.

Is knowledge really as dangerous as all that? To be locked up like prisoners?

Lily glanced at her, apparently noticing her curiosity.

This is where the Tranquil store some of the most sensitive scrolls and tomes. The rest are in the inventories one level down from here, practically cut into the rock. There’s a huge catalogue system in the stockroom, so the clerks know where everything is at any given time, and, twice a month, they move all the books around. Helps preserve them, stops them getting too damp… and stops anyone trying to sneak a volume or two out,” she added, wrinkling her nose. “I dread to think what would happen if the mages got their hands on some of this information.”

The light above them guttered slightly, then blazed, developing a slightly greenish cast as Corda tried to restrain her anger.

Oh, yes,” she snapped. “Because we’re all just one hair’s breadth away from shedding our poor disguises of humanity and ripping the nearest innocent mundane baby to pieces, just to slake our terrible thirst for evil. Why, I never start the day on less than two spit-roasted infants. How about you, Jowan?”

He pulled a reproachful face at her, his eyes hollow and his cheeks sunken in, but Corda had hit her stride. She kept her voice lower than she would have done if they hadn’t been trying to stay hidden, but her words still lashed against the stones like belt-whips.

How can you talk like that? How can you count the man you say you’re going to marry in with people you believe are so awful?”

Lily frowned, all the softness and gentleness in her face turning to bruised confusion. “I… no! That isn’t what I meant at all…! I love Jowan in spite of his magic. I know he’s a good man… but there are terrible things down here. Manuscripts from the ancient Imperium, and texts the Chantry has forbidden, because they contain too much—”

Corda wasn’t even listening anymore. If she had, she might have argued that not everything that had come out of Tevinter was blood magic, or censored, or even all that different to the four legal disciplines. Unfortunately, blinding rage smashed across her mind at the words ‘in spite of’.

You sanctimonious bitch! Mages have nothing to apologise for! How dare you pity him? You should be proud of Jowan for who he is… not try to smother every piece of his nature out of him!”

In the light’s eerie, unnatural glow, Lily looked pale and ductile, like uncooked dough. Her lips moved soundlessly, chewing at uncertain shapes, as if she was trying to decide between returning Corda’s anger tenfold, and falling to her knees in prayer.

That is enough! Don’t snap at her! Corda, apologise to Lily,” Jowan demanded. “If anyone here is being unfair, it’s you. You always are—you’re so quick to belittle other people. And it’s… it’s ugly.”

A combination of surprise, disappointment, and raw shame welded Corda’s lips shut. She had never seen him angry like this, or, moreover, standing up to her this way. His face was full of hard lines and sharp angles, a picture of determined ire. She glowered at him and, for a few taut moments, they stood facing each other in the passageway, neither budging an inch.

It doesn’t matter,” Lily said earnestly. “Come on. We need to get to the phylactery chamber.”

Corda narrowed her eyes and, with one last glare at Jowan, stalked off after the initiate. She could hear him grumbling under his breath as he followed.

~o~O~o~

The door was an immense construction. Corda was surprised it wasn’t guarded but, according to the sainted Lily, there were two templars keeping watch, just past the locked iron doors at the end of the corridor.

That entrance is at the east side of the Tower,” she said, keeping her voice low, though it was deeply improbable anything short of an explosion would echo that far along the passage. “There’s a staircase that leads almost right up to the Knight-Commander’s office. That’s why we had to walk the long way around.”

Jowan winced. “So, we’ve just been halfway around the Tower, practically? No wonder I feel like I have blisters….”

Corda ignored him, too busy focusing on the door. It looked out of place next to all the ancient stonework, and yet its heavy, intricate construction spoke of dwarven craftsmanship, and histories of Kinloch Hold did say that the dwarves had aided the Avvar in first building their impregnable edifice. Still, she doubted this was a relic of that time. Probably a much more recent installation, designed with a very specific purpose in mind.

She tried not to shudder as she pictured the Knight-Commander and the First Enchanter standing together before this dark iron monolith, their keys in their hands as they prepared to survey the ranks of phylacteries, and decide the fate of the apprentices whose blood they’d harvested. Patterns of scrollwork and geometric bands crawled across the dimly glimmering metal, and hinges as thick as Corda’s arm stood supported by wide bands of iron, knotted with rivets.

The two locks were huge, yawning maws, their scratchplates worked in complex geometric designs, with metal ropes twisted along their edges. Corda didn’t doubt there was probably some unpleasant symbolism to the whole business.

Hurry up,” Jowan whined at her elbow. “Get the rod out. Melt the locks!”

All right,” Corda snapped. “I know what I’m doing!”

She didn’t. She had no idea and, as she fumbled with the box, the rod of fire stirred into life… and brought itself into flame. She caught her breath as she opened the box, and the slim cylinder within glowed orange, warming the air below her hand.

So many flames….

It didn’t hurt when she picked it up. Such was the instrument’s nature: to channel power and lend to it its own enchantment, but to control it with a degree of precision that made the average mage’s level of concentration look like a ditzy schoolgirl’s.

She felt its power, though. It coursed and throbbed under her skin, and that ached like a week-old wound. The rod seemed to have a will of its own, almost, and Corda fought to impose her control on it. Fire leapt from the tip, first deep red, then hot white, then arcs of spurting blue until, with a grunt of frustration, she willed the thing into submission.

The other two had leapt back out of the way, and she glanced up to see Lily peering nervously over Jowan’s shoulder, the fingers of both hands knotted in the shoulder of his robes as he held his arms out, shielding her from the sparks.

Oh, for the Maker’s sake… it’s not like I would’ve set her alight. Not purposely. Not very much.

The rod sizzled and belched out a short burst of fire before settling to a steady burn. Corda looked down at her hand in faint wonderment, seeing her scarred knuckles standing proud, her blemished fingers wrapped around the rod and enveloped in flame… yet she felt only the merest suggestion of heat swelling from its tip. She hadn’t realised how intently she was staring at her own hand until Jowan cleared his throat.

Um, Corda…? Do you want me to do that? It’s all right if you—”

Shut up!” she barked, glaring at him afresh. “I’m concentrating.”

His mouth tightened, and he slunk into silence as she brought the rod to the first of the locks. It would be impossible to detach them from the door, but she could melt the mechanism itself and, if they were lucky, it would be enough to get them in.

She held her breath, and tried to ignore the way sparks leapt off the whitening metal. The rod fought her as she fed it into the lock, but she summoned her power, pushed it on… pushed it through… and let out a sigh of relief as she heard the pins click.

The second one was easier. It gave way, and, with a bit of a shove, the door swung open. Lily gave a soft ‘praise the Maker!’ and threw her arms around Jowan’s neck. Corda considered icily pointing out that the Maker had had very little to do with it, but instead slipped the rod back into its box and headed through the doorway.

Damn it!” she spat, as the other two edged after her. “There’s another door. Did you know there was another door?”

Lily frowned. It stood higher than the first one and, if anything, the metalwork was even more complicated. Jowan drew level with her, reaching out to squeeze her hand as they stood in the narrow space between the two portals.

Well… it’s all right, isn’t it? You’ll just have to do that one too.”

Just have to do that one too’… hark at you. Hmph.

Corda resisted the urge to grump, and stepped forwards, her hand already slipping the lid of the rod of fire’s box open… except the rod was cold. In that instant, the light she’d conjured overhead winked out too, pitching the three of them into total darkness. Lily whimpered.

What happened? What—”

Jowan pulled an orb from the air, and it wobbled uncertainly, glancing slabs of light skittering across the stones. Corda bit her lip as she looked up at the door, and the runes carved into its surface. In her hand, the rod of fire stayed obstinately cold.

Lily came forwards, fussing and peering at the locks. “What’s the matter? Why isn’t it working?”

Corda gritted her teeth and brought the rod to the mechanism. She waved her hand, muttering an incantation, but no flames swelled. Nothing happened. With a growl of frustration, she pulled back the rod and glared at its dull, dim surface. “Magic is useless on this. Any bright ideas, initiate?”

Lily either didn’t hear her, or chose to ignore the taunt. Either way, she was running her hands over the door, tracing the symbols etched into the metal.

Oh… this isn’t good. I think these are warding runes. Of course—this’ll be the templars’ work, to negate any magic cast within this area. I should have guessed!”

Corda grunted. “So much for ‘can only be opened by a mage and a templar together’. Why does this not surprise me?”

It’s clever, really,” Lily was saying, still peering up at the runes. “Isn’t it? I mean, how do you keep mages away from something? Make their powers completely worthless!” She turned to look at Corda and Jowan, and then the expression of triumphant realisation crumbled from her face, and she sagged, her mouth bowing. “Well, that’s it, I suppose. We’re finished. We can’t get in. Jowan, we’ll have to go without it….”

No!” A shrill thread of panic underscored his voice. He still stood by the first door, pressed against the doorframe from apparent terror at the prospect of something that could take his magic—and his only chance at true freedom—away. “I can’t. I… I need the phylactery, Lily! We can’t risk them finding me. It… it would ruin everything. There has to be another way in.”

Corda frowned. “What’s so bad about running without the phylactery, Jowan? Plenty of people do.”

And they’re caught,” he protested, glaring wild-eyed at her. “I can’t do that, Corda. I need this chance.”

He was letting his fear run away with him. She could smell it on him, like the poxy lavender water he’d started to wear, and she bared her teeth in silent anger.

All right, all right….” Lily held up her hands. “We’re not giving up. I have an idea—but we’ll have to be quick.”

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On to Part Nine
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