Straining at the Leash: Part Four

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Corda had once read, in one of the treatises buried deep in the library’s restricted section, that crossing the Veil was like opening one’s eyes.

It certainly felt that way. She hadn’t expected it, but then she hadn’t expected any of it. She’d been frogmarched up before First Enchanter Irving, with Knight-Commander Greagoir standing by… and they were quite the double act, those two. All that lugubrious stuff about the role and responsibility of mages, the sacred duty, the purpose of the Harrowing and what she must learn to face—and there, at the core of it all, the fact that she would be murdered if she failed, or resisted.

Corda supposed that to fail wouldn’t be so bad. If she entered the Fade and succumbed to a demon, she probably wouldn’t know anything about it. She assumed one didn’t.

She stepped up to the swimming, singing orb of light that held the ritual’s focus, and she felt the call of the lyrium swell and throb in her blood… and all she could think, as the feel of the Fade enveloped her, was that Jowan would brown his robes before he got this far, no matter what she thought she’d prepared him for.

Silly sod….

The world ebbed, dissolving into coils of pale, sparkling light that wound around her, soothing and cocooning.

Slowly, the faces in the chamber faded away, and the light filled Corda’s vision: coruscating spider webs that crawled over her skin, crowding her eyes. A whimper escaped her as she felt her grip on what was real slide away.

She had fleetingly entered the Fade from a waking state before, but only under the strict guidance of the enchanters. As apprentices, they had been taught of the dangers the Fade contained, and drilled in the care they would have to take.

The lessons echoed in her ears—trust yourself and only yourself, for your will is all that is real, but never be convinced you are infallible, for pride is a demon’s weapon—and yet seemed so totally useless. Oh, it was one thing to say something, to instruct an apprentice to behave in this or that manner… but as to how it was actually done? Yes, the old men were really quite silent on that matter.

Typical, she supposed.

Corda glanced around her, trying to get her bearings, despite all she knew to the contrary. There was nothing real here, no true distances or honest shapes, and yet she scanned the horizon for the things that ought to be there: the dependable width of the sky, or the weight of cliffs and solid ground.

The landscape seemed to shift around her, forming itself to adhere to the things she expected to see—the comfortable, predictable lies of stones and moss and paths—but the ground itself seemed to be made of ropes of fibres; a heaving, living mass, like the roots of a tree.

She raised her hand, flexing her fingers in front of her face. A point of pulsing light—brilliant, sharp white—bloomed in her palm, and it seemed strange how effortless it was. Magic ran through her like breath, and it swelled in everything. She could feel it, all around her, all through everything.

She felt… alive, as if she had woken from a long sleep, and discovered all the cobwebs blown from her. Power flowed everywhere, in everything, and Corda recalled what she’d read in all those dusty Tevinter treatises: the Fade was the realm of dreams, but only for dreamers. For those who knew how to use it, its very unreality became a strength, the tool to bring form to their will.

Here, anything that could be imagined could be brought into existence, with the proper application.

Corda smiled and stretched her hands out before her. Almost at once—quicker and easier than it had ever felt before—light shimmered between her palms, and condensed into a blue orb that bobbed gently in the air. She felt its warmth on her face, and she laughed delightedly. Pushing forwards with a strength that came so naturally to her—as naturally as breathing—she flung the orb out ahead of her and, with a flick of her wrist, transformed it into a spiral, a dancing sheet of light that, with a little concentration, became the shape of a simple chair.

Corda grinned at the shivering spectre of the object. All right, it was rough, and probably not safe for sitting on, but it wasn’t bad for a first try.

Her smile faded as she regarded the chair, and it flickered suddenly into nothingness. She frowned. Not only was it harder than she’d thought to maintain the object’s form, but she was not alone here. She muttered a cuss, annoyed at herself for being so foolish, so distracted by stupid, simple trickery.

Above all, the Fade was the realm of demons.

~o~O~o~

He called himself Mouse, the one who came to her. At first, he was timid and ingratiating, and he told her how he’d been an apprentice like her, so many years ago… how the templars had thrown him to the wolves, so to speak, and left all that was him trapped in the Fade, long after they’d hacked his body down.

Oh, he was good. She was tempted to applaud. Poor little Mouse, with whom every apprentice could agree, could feel sympathy and fellowship. Because they were him, weren’t they? Cast adrift before they were ready, and yet who could ever be ready for the life they were made to lead? Not all magic was equal, not all mages born the same, and yet there they were, trapped and corralled like beasts, and shackled by what the templars told them they were—what the Chantry told them they had to fear—the weak and the strong together. What became of mages like Mouse? What became of the fear inside every apprentice?

No. They had to master it, or have it master them. They became hard, indifferent… beaten on that anvil of their power until they grew so far removed from normal people that maybe they were the monsters some folk believed them to be.

Corda recognised it all. She smiled, and she was hard pressed not to laugh.

They talked for a long while, she and Mouse. He wanted to scare her, to take the fear and build it up, turn it into something she could lose control of. He wanted her to believe in other demons, in spirits of justice and valour that would aid her, and in bigger, more terrible creatures that wanted to devour her entirely. He showed her an old, tame demon of Sloth, said it would tear her in two if she roused it… and Corda didn’t doubt him.

The thing had the form of a horned, half-rotted bear, slow and lumbering, and yet all made of teeth and claws. Its eyes burned like dull coals, and its snout wrinkled as it surveyed the one who stood behind her.

Demons, the enchanters had always taught them, were twisted and terrible creatures, bent on thwarting mortals to their wills. For Corda, every lesson had carried the echo of Chantry teachings, the ever-present crackle of Andraste’s all-cleansing pyre glowing on the edges of the words.

With every passing year—with every book she read, every scroll she snuck from the library’s hidden stacks—Corda had been growing less and less convinced of the truth in this.

They hunger for us, mages were warned. They seek life, to know it and possess it, yet they cannot understand it.

And that was supposed to be enough. It was enough to dismiss the denizens of the Fade as savage, sinister things, mindless and savage, and to determine that they were worth no understanding. Any attempts to do so—to research and evaluate spirits, to piece together texts like Mareno’s Dissertation on the Fade—was painted as blood magic… and hadn’t Mareno himself been branded apostate for his efforts?

Yet they all made sense.

These, Corda thought to herself, as she skirted the delicate games of the Fade, these were not monsters. She was not a trespasser among vile creatures, but rather a guest in a foreign land.

Oh, they wanted what she had. That was beyond doubt. They hungered for her power—she could feel it, feel the spittle practically dripping off the jaws they were so careful about not showing her—and any one of them would have taken her mortal flesh if she’d allowed it… but she knew. She knew, and she would not falter.

Mouse tried to frighten her with worse than words. He coaxed a rage demon out into the open—a small, angry, confused spirit that he tried to make her believe had been tracking her—and he goaded it into a fight.

It was the only time Corda came close to overreaching herself.

She fought the demon because she had to, and it surprised her to find just how easy it was to pour her power into every blast of magic. Mana flowed in the Fade like blood, like air, like the very foggy shroud that seemed to cling to everything. She ripped and twirled and danced, and the power burst from her in great, scalding waves.

She enjoyed it, she found. Enjoyed the metallic taste, and the prickling shivers on her skin and yes, even the heat… even the blistering fire of the rage demon when it burned close to her, wailing and roaring in fury. She welcomed the fire, and there was no fear. No blood, no pain. Just her power, her magic… her retribution. Her will.

She’d never been so close to the fire before. Never looked into the heart of the flames, not since then, when the whole world had turned red in a blaze of anger.

It was the only time Corda took her eyes from Mouse and, when the fight was done and she was riding high on the blood-pounding exhilaration of victory, she turned to find him in his true form.

He was hideous; a great sunken wraith of a thing, bristling with bones and arcane energy. Weakened, she dropped nonetheless into a fighting stance, drawing up the reserves she’d already tapped, and reaching deep inside herself for the last ounces of her power.

The light came again then… that enveloping cocoon that shifted and dragged her with it, and if entering the Fade had been like opening her eyes, crossing back was like being dragged blind through a hedge.

She fought it. She didn’t want to leave, didn’t want to relinquish everything she’d found there… and then the voices came. Corda was fairly sure she screamed. They were the voices of dreamers, of memories—perhaps of lost souls. She heard her brother howling as the flames took him, heard the shrieks of the little children and the raw, desolate wails of their mother… the horror at her freakish progeny: the monster who could do this terrible thing.

The metallic taste of power turned to the taste of fire and death in her mouth, and Corda barely saw the blurred outlines of the Harrowing Chamber swim in front of her before the world turned white again.

~o~O~o~

She woke in darkness, her skin clammy with cold sweat, her pulse beating in her throat and her eyes widening against the shadows. Her breath scraped against the blackness and, for a few sharp, terrible moments, Corda couldn’t feel the limits of her body… the places where she ended, and all the solidity and realness of life flooded back in. There was nothing; nothing but the swirling, seeping dark, and it felt every bit as shrouded and strange as the Fade, but without the comforting, soul-deep burn of power.

No song of lyrium shivered here, no arcane breath kindled in her blood.

The panic started to rise, and her breathing quickened again, gasps breaking from her throat as she stared into the steep-voided nothingness, blind and futile.

“Corda?”

Cool, damp fingers clasped hers—a hand, pinching and clutching roughly at her, at the contracted, thick ridges of white skin that scarred her knuckles—and that panicked her worse than anything.

She flinched away, flailing in the darkness, whimpers breaking from her as her eyes tried to adjust to the lack of light.

“Don’t… it’s all right. Please, it’s all right….”

A dim glow thrummed into life above the bunk, outlining a familiar face.

Jowan?

She couldn’t even say his name. Her tongue seemed stuck to the roof of her mouth, her throat dry and swollen.

She glanced down at her hand, at the thin, pale fingers grasping hers, and watched as they pulled away in unwieldy, awkward movements. The glow became a concentrated oval, the smell of tinder and dwarven matches suddenly sparking in the gloom… he was lighting a candle, and she closed her eyes against its sudden flare.

He moved it away quickly, setting the thing on the far edge of the table beside her bed, and part of her mourned it. She missed its light, its warmth… and yet the flame felt different now. Everything felt different.

After the Fade, it all seemed cold. Weak.

The candle flame guttered, and Corda groaned. She was probably in her dormitory. It felt like it—same lumpy bed, same shapes in the darkness—and yet if Jowan had been allowed to wait with her, it must be near morning. Late, or early, enough for it to be acceptable for him to be here… and for her arrival back to have caused plenty of excitement among the other students, she realised with an inward grimace.

Ugh.

“Corda?”

She blinked crustily, and peered through bleary eyes at the ungainly figure hunched on a chair beside her. Candlelight spilled over his narrow features and, now she was growing accustomed to her own eyes again, the dormitory didn’t seem that dark.

“Jowan?” she managed, raising a hand to scratch at her head.

He nodded. “How are you? Are you all right? They brought you in hours ago. You looked awful… I was worried. You barely moved all the time you were asleep. Did it hurt? What did they— well, I suppose you can’t tell me, can you? Still, just a little hint. I never thought it would happen like that. Just, bam, and they take you. I mean, obviously you passed, but—”

Corda groaned and covered her face with her hands. “Shut up, Jowan. Please.”

“I was worried,” he huffed petulantly, but the babbling did stop.

She peeped between her fingers, watching his crumpled, awkward way of sitting there, staring at her, and she couldn’t help but wonder how long he’d been waiting for her to wake.

Slowly, she sat up. Everything seemed to stay where it ought to be. Her head, though pounding, didn’t actually fall off, and she managed to focus on the faintly wavering outline of Jowan’s form.

“Irving wants to see you,” he said, a trifle resentfully. “Soon as you woke, they said.”

Corda frowned. “Who said?”

He shrugged, and rubbed at his left arm with his right hand, fingers tugging at the slippery fabric of his robes.

“The templars who brought you in.”

Jowan shook his head ruefully, and glanced off down the length of the dorm. She supposed there were probably other apprentices around. No one queuing up to see her, though. No one desperate to know she was all right.

No one except him.

Gingerly, Corda swung her legs off the bed, groping about on the floorboards with her toes until she found her slippers. She reached down and tugged them on, still frowning as she considered the meeting awaiting her. After the performance in the Harrowing Chamber—all long-faced solemnity and pompous posturing—the First Enchanter was one of the last people she wanted to see… but she’d be facing him on a rather more equal ground now, wouldn’t she? A mage. A member of the Circle, just as he was.

Oh, he still had the heavy robes and the bejewelled sash and the pins of half a dozen important memberships on his lapels, yes, but it was something, wasn’t it?

Corda smiled to herself as she reflected on that. Definitely something.

I am a mage.

The words had never been truer, never tasted rounder or sweeter as she rolled them around her mind.

In one respect, she knew the ritual itself hadn’t mattered. The Fade, the demons, all the old men and their puffed-up, sober words… they meant nothing. She was as much a mage now as she had been the day she was born, full of power and untapped potential. And yet, it was the Harrowing itself that had shown her just how much—just how easy it was to reach out and touch the fabric of dreams itself, to open her eyes and travel beyond everything. No teachers, no books, no lessons… no templars and no Tower.

She was a mage, at the gateway of her own potential, and no mere pile of mortar and stone could imprison her.

~o~O~o~

Corda had been called to the First Enchanter’s chambers a few times before, though not for some years. It had been when she was new to the Tower, not long after the dressings had come off and she was beginning to blindly grope her way around that odd new world.

Irving had been kind to her, as far as he’d been able, though he’d always seemed a distant figure, rather than a kind and avuncular protector. She remembered him coming into the chamber during those long weeks when she lay swaddled in wet sheets, her wounds being slowly healed and her mind bound with soothing spells.

She remembered the distrust of the bearded men who’d peered down at her, like she was so much mouldy meat. He alone had voiced the belief she could master her powers, that she was untainted by demons or the lack of control that all mages feared… even if he hadn’t sounded completely convinced.

Of course, in the years that followed, the gratitude Corda had felt towards the First Enchanter had tempered into a sullen kind of resentment. She was never sure why. His age, perhaps, or his consistent and unyieldingly stoic temperance in the face of every single templar restriction or outrage.

Apprentice gossip said that, however calm his outward demeanour, Irving was just as gruff as Knight-Commander Greagoir behind closed doors and—when the Tower’s two controlling influences were locked in debate in one of the upper council chambers—enough shouting came seeping under the doors that it echoed like the Maker clog-dancing in steel boots.

Corda had never doubted that was true. She suspected far more went on behind the scenes of the Circle than the apprentices ever knew about… or most of the mages, too, come to that. The senior enchanters never liked anyone to know anything if they could avoid it, and they held tight to the power the templars allowed them, guarding it as jealously as dogs.

She doubted Irving was any different, when it came down to it. After all, mages were generally a petty, self-obsessed bunch, absorbed in their own infinitesimal squabbles most of the time.

Still, she slowed her steps as she mounted the staircase to Irving’s chambers, frowning at the sounds of muffled voices from within. The Knight-Commander, she realised, as the echo of his brusque tones painted the corridor. The templar on guard duty, stationed about halfway down the hall, had his helmet on and appeared to be staring steadfastly straight ahead from inside his visor. He turned his head at Corda’s approach, and she nodded to the man, as confidently as she could manage… despite that small twinge of discomfort that always plunged, deep in her gut, when she saw them fully armoured. She hated to admit it, but the bastards did scare her.

“Here to see the First Enchanter, ser,” she said brightly.

The faceless mask of steel swivelled to examine her.

“Ah.”

Corda tried to stop herself shuddering at the way the man’s voice echoed inside his helm. They didn’t even sound human. He nodded shortly.

“Yes… the newly Harrowed one, isn’t it? He told me to send you in when you showed up, but you’ll have to wait outside, and mind your manners. He’s in conference.”

The templar jerked his head towards the chamber, armour clinking gently as he settled back against the wall, resuming his sentinel’s stance. Corda bowed minutely—just enough to be sufficient for politeness—and hurried off in the direction of Irving’s chamber… and the echoes of voices within.

“…have already gone to Ostagar,” protested a voice, as Corda drew near the chamber’s heavy oak doors. “What else can you possibly expect?”

That was Greagoir, and Corda bit the inside of her lip, holding her breath with the sudden excitement of listening in to something forbidden.

The corridor was lit by the dim bluish hue of magically charged glowstones—expensive trinkets, like the lanterns used in the library—but the gap beneath the wood flickered with the warmth of dancing candlelight. Shadows moved against it, and Corda glanced over her shoulder to check the on-duty templar wasn’t watching her.

Satisfied he wasn’t, she crept closer to the door, placing her fingers gently against the knotted boards and leaning in to listen. The heavy iron hinges and handle were cool to the touch, though heat evidently blazed in the argument within.

“Wynne, Uldred… in fact, most of the senior mages! Surely we’ve committed enough of our own to this war effort.”

Footsteps clunked against the chamber’s floorboards, and more shadows moved beneath the door. The Knight-Commander couldn’t be talking to Irving, Corda decided, and the shadows seemed to spell three people in the room, at least.

“Your own?” The First Enchanter’s voice echoed dryly. “Hah! Since when have you felt such kinship with the mages, Greagoir? Or are you simply afraid to let them out from under Chantry supervision, where they can actually use their Maker-given powers?”

Corda smiled, quietly amused. Perhaps there was truth to the rumours, after all. She would have liked to think so.

“That is not—” The Knight-Commander broke off and gave a frustrated growl. “You are perfectly well aware that the Grand Cleric has already authorised the departure of two detachments from Denerim, and in any case—”

“Gentlemen.” A third voice interrupted, this one deep and smooth, with the clipped, precise tones of a man used to authority. “Please. There is nothing to be gained from arguing. Besides, it appears there is someone here to see you, Irving.”

Stillness seemed to fill the room behind the door, and Corda frowned in the instant before realisation hit her.

Damn!

More footsteps, and one of the shadows under the door was moving… moving towards her.

She hopped back hurriedly, away from the door, and stood there brushing the front of her robes down nervously, attempting to look as innocent as she could.

The door creaked open, revealing the figure of the First Enchanter, swathed in his opulent robes, blue eyes twinkling in the centre of his lined, craggy face, framed between his long, iron-grey beard, and his close-shorn grey hair.

“Ah,” Irving grated, smiling genially, “if it isn’t our new sister in the Circle. Come in, child.”

He extended one long, knotted hand, gesturing into the candlelit chamber. The space was dominated by large, heavy pieces of furniture—a desk, many bookcases and shelves, ironbound trunks, a few chairs—and every surface seemed to spill over with papers, books, quills, and trinkets. The smell of beeswax and lavender polish lingered in the thick, heavy air, burnished with hints of the smouldering fire, and the suggestion of old pipe smoke.

Corda cleared her throat. “Um… thank you, First Enchanter.”

She followed him inside obediently, blinking a little in the sudden rich glare of candlelight. The Knight-Commander was indeed present; he stood near the fireplace, his large, broad, heavily armoured frame a striking sight against the smooth stone mantel, with the glimmer of low-burning flames glittering against his highly polished plate.

He looked up as she entered, his face hard as his armour, as if he was simply annoyed by the interruption—by the fact that Irving’s having summoned her was, in itself, an irritation that should not be allowed.

However, it was not Gregoir to whom Corda’s eyes were drawn.

A third man was present in the First Enchanter’s study, and he was as rare and intriguing as the ranks of valuable books, peculiar curios, and strange little mementoes that crowded Irving’s shelves.

She blinked again, and tried not to stare.

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