Straining at the Leash: Part Nine

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She led them back the way they’d come, retracing their steps over the blank stones, and then down another twisting corridor that had Corda wondering just how initiates came to be so much more familiar with the basement stores than mages.

This will lead us into the repository,” Lily said, as they neared another ominous-looking door, this one much larger than the others, and carved from ancient, greyish wood, instead of cast in metal. “It’s where some of the Circle’s greatest treasures are stored.”

Corda wrinkled her nose. In her experience, the Circle usually liked to flaunt its riches… the ones that poured in from its curio shops and Tranquil cash cows, anyway. In any of the public chambers in the Tower, or the senior enchanters’ studies, it was hard to move for exotic novelties like enchanted skyballs, small Avvar statues, antique silver inkwells or paperweights from Orlais or Nevarra, or even artefacts with reputed historic significance. It was rumoured that, in Irving’s office, there was a dagger on the wall with a blade crafted from dragonfang. Such gifts, apparently, had been marks of honour during the occupation… or possibly just demonstrated the Orlesian appetite for the unusual, combined with the pleasing frisson of danger.

She glanced suspiciously at Lily. “The ones we’re not meant to know about, then?”

The girl said nothing, but she looked distinctly uncomfortable. Jowan shot Corda a reproachful glare, and she sneered at him.

Well? Don’t tell me: anything even vaguely related to Tevinter gets shut down here. You know, not every piece of information we have from the Imperium is—”

Some of it is evil,” Lily said hoarsely. “There are wicked things left down here. We should be careful.”

Corda scoffed. “Right. I’m sure it’s all positively dripping with blood magic.”

Jowan glared at her again, his brow pinched. “Corda! Please… can we just…?”

He gestured hopelessly to the door, the light above their heads pitching and fizzing against the shadows. Corda was preparing to say something cutting about his impatience, but then she turned her gaze to the door itself and, as she stepped closer, the full magnitude of its presence struck her.

It was a ghastly thing. Just looking at it made the back of her neck crawl. The timbers were silvered with age, making the door look almost ghostly against its dark stone surround. More carvings littered the stonework, but Corda saw none of the warding runes or glyphs that had been on the first door… none that she recognised, anyway. There were fewer geometric patterns, too: this didn’t look like dwarven work. Instead, tiny figures interlaced their way along the stone frame, contorted in apparent agony. She saw familiar motifs on the ancient planks… the sign of the Chantry’s sun, and the Sword of Mercy, and all manner of other religious self-flagellation.

Corda shuddered and, at her shoulder, Jowan pulled a face.

It’s… horrible,” he murmured. “Why would they put something like this down here?”

It’s called ‘the Victims’ Door’,” Lily said, with something a little like a trace of reverence in her voice. “It is built of two hundred and seventy-seven planks, one for each of the original templars. It serves as a reminder of all the dangers that those cursed with magic pose.”

Corda was already taking the rod of fire from its box. It woke quickly at her touch, and she cupped her hand around it, channelling her power into the thing until the tip crackled and blazed. She slipped a sidelong glance at the initiate as the flames began to coalesce, turning the rod’s grey surface first orange, and then white. The light danced over Lily’s face, highlighting the soft curve of her jaw, and the faint look of awe on her face.

Huh,” Corda said meaningfully, allowing the rod to flare just a little brighter.

How do you know all this, Lily?” Jowan asked admiringly.

Admiration…! Yes! Let us bow down to the people who lock us up, treat us like animals, and then call themselves ‘Victims’, because we are so terribly dangerous. Let us admire them, for they truly are something.

Andraste’s pimpled arse… I do not know how much more of this I can take….

Oh, I’m no expert,” Lily demurred. “Initiates have to learn the Circle’s history if they are to work with templars and mages. I… just pick things up.” She cleared her throat, and nodded at the twisted carvings and elaborate keyholes. Three large bronze plates, each emblazoned with a Chantry sun, marked the mechanisms. “They’re bigger locks,” she said doubtfully. “But the rod of fire will work on them, won’t it?”

I can try,” Corda said, squinting up at the door.

It took longer than before. She wasn’t sure whether it was truly harder, or whether she was just starting to get tired, but the rod seemed recalcitrant, and every gout of flame made her hands ache.

There,” she said, satisfied as the last lock gave a sad little thunk.

Jowan gave a stifled yelp of excitement. “We’re in!”

Almost,” Lily reminded him. “Now we just need to find our way into the phylactery chamber itself.”

~o~O~o~

The repository was the single most wonderful thing Corda had ever seen in her life. She could, she decided, have stayed there indefinitely and died happy. There were whole boxes of scrolls and tomes, and ancient Tevinter artefacts whose vague shapes seemed familiar from illustrations in manuscripts, but which Corda had never imagined she would actually see in person.

The single ball of magical energy that Jowan had conjured for them couldn’t even light a quarter of the chamber: shadows wreathed everything, falling in deep lines between the stacks and shelves, and turning the borders of stone and wood blurry. Corda couldn’t stop herself from moving towards one dark corner full of particularly interesting shapes—a series of jagged outlines and bulky forms swathed in dustsheets—and she pulled another small light from the air, letting energy swell into the pale ball. Once she could see what she was doing, she tugged the sheet free. It released surprisingly little dust, and she supposed the Tranquil probably swarmed down here on a regular basis, too, cleaning and keeping the artefacts inspected.

It didn’t really surprise her, though she felt a twinge of anger at the fact they knew this place so intimately. They were allowed down here, to handle and understand these antiquities… when real mages weren’t. Real mages, who hadn’t been neutered the way the Circle wanted to neuter Jowan, were judged not worthy of access to this wealth of material—and Corda found that unforgivable.

Jowan!” she called excitedly, as she crouched beside a weathered stone statue in the rough shape of a hound seated on its haunches, its mouth open in a snarl. “Jowan, have you seen this? Look!”

He peered over at her and frowned. “Oh yes, I’ve seen pictures like that. it’s one of those amplification devices, isn’t it? They were meant to triple the power of spells directed through them. I always wondered how they worked.”

Lily tugged at his elbow, her lips moulded into a dissatisfied pout. “Jowan, leave it alone please? We should be looking for another door. I’m almost certain the phylactery chamber is on the other side of that wall. If we

Really?” He looked at her with interest, a glimmer of imagination lighting in his face. “Lily, you’re so clever!”

The initiate looked confused, and Corda rolled her eyes.

Ugh.

Jowan,” Lily insisted. “Please, let’s just

No, you’re right! If the phylactery chamber is the other side of that wall, we could use this to amplify the rod of fire’s power, and blast right through the masonry! I don’t know why I didn’t think of that!”

He looked so pleased with himself: a greasy, sweaty kind of joy, like a small dog licking its nose as it whipped its thin tail. Corda massaged her forehead. She wasn’t sure if it was being down here that was doing itin amongst all these old objects so filled with poweror the prolonged fear of being caught in this ridiculous plan that couldn’t possibly work but her head was starting to hurt.

Because it’s a stupid idea,” she said flatly. “Honestly, Jowan you want to blow a hole through the wall? These walls are more than a foot thick! We’ve seen that. Anyway, even if it worked, we’d be knee-deep in templars in seconds. You think no one would hear? We still have to get out of here in one piece, remember.”

Oh.”

He looked crestfallen, and she sighed deeply. Lily pulled again at his arm, urging the three of them on through the repository’s packed aisles.

Come on I’m sure there’s another door. These chambers are like rabbit warrens. Let’s try over here.”

Corda grimaced as Lily dragged Jowan away, past the racks of artefacts, chests, and boxes. There was so much here! She would have given anything for the time to spend looking through it all properly, and that thought made the regret and fear rise up in her again, because after today there would be no more Circle; no more studies, no more learning.

What was I thinking?

Corda wished fervently she hadn’t agreed to do this, and that thought then filled her with an uncomfortable, dark kind of shame as she looked at Jowan’s narrow figure loping clumsily down the length of the storeroom. It was selfish, to think that somehow her expectations of a comfortable, secure life were more important than his. They were the same, weren’t they? They wanted the same things. And no one wanted to be made Tranquil, especially without even being offered a choice.

Anyway, she’d come too far to turn back now.

With that realisation firmly embedded in her mind, Corda turned to follow the others. As she did so, the light above her spun lazily, catching at the glimmer of something on one of the shelves. She frowned, and peered in between two boxes of scrolls, her fingers moving hesitantly over the dry, crackling parchment. It was so tempting to just start unfurling one—just one scroll, or maybe just one book—and seeing what so-called ‘forbidden’ knowledge lay within. It couldn’t be that bad, could it? The restricted stacks in the library had a few Tevene texts, and several of those were written by former enchanters who had been branded apostate simply because of political schisms within the College. Everyone knew that, however much the Circle couched the explanations in terms of the danger of philosophical thought without context. Mages, the apprentices were taught, were too often apt to live solely in the realms of academia. This was one reason the Chantry’s structure helped them: it was a framework, not just of right and wrong, but of context.

Approved spells, systems of legal study… all ways to keep the true extent of our power from us.

Corda blinked. It was hard to come to terms with this new state of affairs, these new thoughts that reared up where, in the past, she had only had mild concerns. If, before, she had been wary of the templars’ rules and the leashes that mages allowed themselves to be subdued by, now she was a wildly snapping dog, straining at that tether, desperate to sink her teeth into the one responsible for her chaining.

Amazing, she thought, how fast everything could change… and how fast fear faded to anger.

Her hand closed on the object that had first attracted her attention: a small golden amulet, tucked between the boxes. The chain was delicate, with tiny, finely wrought links. It slipped through her fingers like silk, and from it was suspended a square gold pendant, set with a disc of what looked like onyx, perhaps an inch and a half in diameter. As she picked it up, Corda felt the power in the thing. It hummed beneath her skin the way the rod of fire had, but there was no dark core of control. The pendant didn’t need her to wrestle with it; instead it merely accepted her touch, and seemed to lengthen itself out in her fingers, like a cat responding to being petted. The onyx disc shone in the light she’d conjured, its surface looking almost oily, and the faint etchings of runes danced under her fingers. Corda knew very few Tevinter runes. Unlike the dwarven runic script that was simple to read—almost pictographic, in fact, and frequently used as waymarkers or signs for the illiterate—Tevene runes were complex, and a jealously guarded branch of academic study.

She thought one of the symbols resembled the Tevene rune for ‘life’, but it was hard to tell. It made sense, though: the pendant seemed to throb with its own living energy.

Corda!” Jowan called, in that awkwardly hushed tone between trying to be quiet and trying to get her attention. “Corda, quickly! Lily’s found another door!”

Corda bit her lip, and slipped the pendant into her belt pouch.

After all, what harm could it do?

~o~O~o~

Lily stood triumphantly in front of a small door at the back of the repository, its surface etched with runes. Two heavy brass lockplates were set into the wood, and Corda frowned at them suspiciously.

What about those? Are those more wards?”

No I’ve heard about these locks,” Lily assured her. “They use them on the vaults the lyrium potions are storied in, up on the fourth floor. They’re not warding glyphs. They can’t be—the door is primed with magic. It needs a password, and then it must feel the touch of mana.”

Corda pulled a face. “A password. Right. And do we have this password?”

Lily nodded enthusiastically. “Yes! Yes, I’ve spoken about this many times with Ser Maurais. One of his duties is to help in the distribution of the knights’ lyrium, and I have often aided the Revered Mother with the consecration.”

Corda didn’t bother to disguise her contempt. That the Chantry fed its watchdogs lyrium at all was questionable, in her mind, and to sit upon the sanctimonious tussocks of hypocrisy by pretending that mumbling a few words over the stuff made it the consecrated waters of the Fade, or whatever other rubbish they called it, was plain distasteful to her.

Lily wasn’t looking at her, however.

Ser Maurais sounds very friendly,” Jowan complained snidely. “What were you doing talking to him about the vaults?”

Lily shrugged. “It came up in conversation. I… I believe he trusts me, that’s all. The password must be a portion of the Chant, and Maurais has often complimented me on my singing, so I suppose—”

Oh, has he? Has he really?”

Corda sighed tersely. “If you two want to start bickering like an old married couple, that’s fine, but maybe it should wait until after we’re out of here? You can practice all you want then.”

They both looked chastened, and a little embarrassed, and she crossed her arms impatiently, nodding at the door. “Go on, then. Impress us.”

She did. Grudgingly, Corda had to admit that the portion of the Canticle of Andraste that Lily wove from the air was beautiful. It was something about the sword of the Maker, the tears of the Fade, and flames raining down from heaven, but the words weren’t important. The chant itself—a pure silver thread, shimmering and faultless—seemed to vibrate in the air and, as Lily sang, she put her hand to the door, and it was the closest thing to magic Corda had ever seen a mundane do. She glanced at Jowan, and saw he had tears in his eyes, his face suffused with softness and tender longing.

Does anyone have a bucket? I may puke.

Lily’s eyes seemed to refocus as she finished, and Corda felt the shift in the door.

Quickly. It needs mana to undo the locks. Any spell will do.”

Corda frowned. “Fine.”

She drew a breath, and let electricity crackle from her fingers, the sparks caressing the locks and glimmering over the door’s runed surface. Slowly, the sound of pins clicking and tumblers rolling filtered through the stale air, and the locks thudded open.

The air that left the vault within was like the stale belch of hot air from an oven yet, rather than heat, the phylactery chamber seemed to exude a dark prickle of energy. It stirred the mana in Corda’s blood, whispered under her skin, and made her feel at once slightly nauseous, and vaguely light-headed. She turned to Jowan, ready to ask him if he felt it too, but he was practically hopping from foot to foot, his face clammy with excitement.

We’re in! I can’t believe we’re in! Come on… let’s get a move on!”

~o~O~o~

The phylactery chamber was not as large as she’d expected. Oh, it was big enough… a long storeroom with a high, vaulted ceiling, and rack upon rack of shelves stretching away into the shadows. Every shelf held rows of vials in wooden stands, each little glass tube less than five inches long, their corks sealed with wax.

If the repository and the corridors and storerooms beyond had seemed clean, like places that were regularly dusted and inspected, this chamber felt like somewhere forgotten: a dank, dark archive full of information no one wanted to read.

Corda shivered, unsettled by the ranks of vials, and the faint pulse of magic that perfumed the air. She didn’t know anything of exactly how the templars preserved the blood they took from apprentices, or how it could be used to track those who absconded, but the whole place felt unwholesome. If blood really was the concentrated form of one’s essence—a person’s very identity—then it was as if every single one of those little vials was a soul crying out for freedom in the dark.

She hated thinking about it.

Above her head, the light she’d made faltered. She didn’t even remember them taking her blood. It had probably happened while the bandages were still on, when she lay under a canopy of wet sheets, waiting for the healers to see if they could save her. Corda had few memories of that time, and she didn’t want the ones she did possess.

She looked up at the racks that stretched away into the repository’s vaulted stone ceiling, and wondered at how easy it would be to destroy them all. Every tiny vial, every ugly leash the templars kept them on…. Pointless, of course, unless she also led every single apprentice in the Tower to freedom. The templars would merely take more blood and the students—as inured as they were to the systems the Chantry ruled by—would meekly submit.

A small voice of practicality at the back of Corda’s mind reminded her that, if they didn’t, they would probably be run through, but that hardly seemed to be the point.

They’re alphabetised,” Jowan said with relief, already thumbing through the racks. “Look… the blasted Tranquil again, no doubt. Just the people you want for making lists of things. We should check for yours, too. You never know, it might still be here.”

Corda nodded absently, but Lily looked nervous.

I don’t think so,” she said, hovering close to Jowan. “It was probably in the dispatch that went to Denerim yesterday. I know there were packages, and the Revered Mother had letters to send, so—”

I’ll look anyway, if you don’t mind,” Corda said icily, passing the girl to get a small stepladder that rested against the far wall.

Lily looked glumly at her own feet.

Oh, yes. This is a fine time to regret your crimes, idiot. Just try to wait until we’re all out and safe before you succumb to remorse and fling yourself down in prayer, all right?

Corda shinned up the ladder, holding onto the racks for support. Row after row of vials shimmered ahead of her: dark blood with the glimmer of lyrium inside it, like the shining carapaces of so many black beetles. She loathed touching them. As her fingers skimmed the labels and the small sheaves of paper left at the end of each row—fastened to the racks, in true Tranquil fashion, by short lengths of string, so that nothing could be misplaced—she grew more aware of power these fragile things held.

It thrummed at her temples, and year after year of mages seemed to be at her shoulders: all of them, young apprentices bleeding out their essence, catalogued and numbered. No matter whether they were destined for greatness, or Tranquillity, or other terrible things… all who had passed before, and every child and young soon-to-be-Harrowed mage now in the Tower. She couldn’t stop thinking of that. People she saw every day—the snotty-nosed little kids, and the nervous young apprentices just starting their first lessons, and the older ones who gossiped incessantly—this was their blood. Their leashes. Their lives.

More than ever, Corda wanted to pull the entire rack down and smash everything, washing the chamber’s stone floor in a sea of blood. The thought simultaneously sickened and excited her, but the impulse faded as her fingers met the bare place on the wood where her phylactery should have been. An empty spot on the rack, a slight ring of dust… so, so close.

It struck home harder than she had expected, and she descended the ladder weakly, her brow furrowed.

They shouldn’t do this to us,” she said, half to herself. “I mean, it’s practically blood magic, isn’t it? Talk about sodding hypocrisy.”

What? No,” Jowan said quickly, still searching for his own vial. “That’s… well, it isn’t the same. I’m sure it can’t be. The Grand Cleric would never allow that.”

Corda shrugged, enjoying the look of offended hurt on Lily’s face. “Oh, I don’t know. They only say it isn’t because it’s them doing it, I bet.”

That’s not true,” the initiate protested. “It’s something that’s done for safety’s sake… it’s not…. I mean….” She blinked furiously, evidently trying to find some argument that wasn’t undermined by precisely what they were doing, here and now. “Jowan told me you’ve studied the Spirit School,” Lily said, with surprising defiance. “Well, that’s often thought to be similar to blood magic.”

It isn’t,” Corda said flatly.

No, but— well, it’s how rumours get started, isn’t it? I mean, I heard someone spreading a rumour that Jowan was a blood mage! You can see how ridiculous that is.”

Lily!” he exclaimed, almost falling over as he spun from the rack. “That’s—”

Jowan?” Corda demanded, her back suddenly straightening and her arms dropping to her sides. “Is that true? Why didn’t you tell me?”

He gave her an oddly venomous glare in the dimness, his lips pressed tightly together. “Well, you’ve hardly been that interested in anything I have to say recently. Anyway, it isn’t true! It’s… it’s all because I’ve been sneaking around, meeting with Lily. I… I guess people must have seen me, and assumed I was doing something forbidden. You know what it’s like in this place.”

Corda narrowed her eyes. She didn’t like the sweaty desperation in his voice, but it wasn’t as if it was that unusual… and he had a point. Besides, she knew him. He would never have been that stupid.

Would he?

Unthinkingly, her hand moved to her belt, her fingers touching the pendant that sat within.

I think you’re both fools,” she muttered, with very little grace.

You didn’t have to help us,” Jowan said sulkily, turning back to the racks. “You could just have got the rod of fire and left us alone.”

Corda snorted. “I could have. But I’d have got in trouble anyway. Besides… I wasn’t going to let you do this on your own. Idiot.”

And he was. Oh, he was such an idiot… but he was her friend. He had been, for the longest time. The only friend she’d ever had. And she wouldn’t have given that up for anything.

I’ve got it,” Jowan muttered breathlessly, turning to face them.

Lily put her hands over her mouth, and Corda wasn’t entirely sure she hadn’t started praying.

Jowan held his phylactery out at arm’s length, as if he was afraid it would bite, and he turned it slowly in the light, watching the dark-stained glass twinkle.

Such a small thing,” he murmured, as if entranced by the vial. “So fragile. It’s hard to believe it could be so important—or so easy to end its hold over me.”

Corda bit her lip. There was power everywhere in this room. Hers, and Jowan’s, and the amplified pulse of a thousand apprentices’ souls, suspended in these little tubes, all calling to her… all crying for freedom.

Well,” she said hoarsely, “better get a move on, then, hadn’t you?”

Jowan flinched, and then seemed strangely dispassionate as he dropped the phylactery to the stones and crushed it beneath his leather-shod foot. The sound of glass crushing seemed awfully loud in the stillness, and Corda had the sense of a moment caught in time, a fleeting instant that hung over them all with a kind of breathless intensity. She saw it on Jowan’s face, too: a waxen, focused stare as he looked down at the smear of wet blood and liquid lyrium beneath his foot. He seemed to be holding his breath, unblinking and shivering slightly.

It’s done,” she said quietly, wanting to break the spell of that strange quiet. “Let’s just get out of here.”

He glanced up and nodded quickly, immediately seeking Lily with an urgent gaze. “You’re right. Lily? We need to get to the boat.”

The initiate put her hand in his, and Corda turned away, leading them back to the door and the way they’d come.

She didn’t want to look back.

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