Feasting on Dreams, Volume Three: Chapter Eleven

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We spent the next morning scrambling, as predicted, through gravel-strewn pathways overgrown with brambles, buckthorns and straggly, thin gorse bushes that scratched and snared any unwary foot or leg.

There was a cut through the hills, a pathway after whose midpoint the wagon would no longer pass. We made a camp in the bare hollow of the hillsides, and left Bodahn and Sandal there. Morrigan had been keeping up a litany of complaint about the whole endeavour but—when I suggested that, if she didn’t like it, she and anyone else who wanted could stay back with them—she just shook her head grimly and muttered about us needing all the help we could get.

I should have known that she sensed something powerful hidden among the bones of the land.

Soldier’s Peak had been built, apparently, after the Second Blight, around the middle of the Glory Age. Between them, Leliana and Levi had two equally flowery versions of the story, and by mid-morning I’d heard enough of it to last me several months.

The Grey Wardens had been heroes in the minds of the people, the defeat of the Archdemon Zazikel still a clarion in Ferelden’s fresh history, a raw memory at whose wounds no one begrudged throwing gold or tithes. The Warden-Commander of the day, Gaspar Asturian, had used that wealth to build a fortress that would be more than a centre of command; a place for Wardens to live, train, recruit… and watch.

So it had been, until the tyrant, King Arland, turned on the Grey Wardens and laid siege to the Peak and, when he banished the order from Ferelden, Asturian’s legacy—and his beautiful dream—lay as ashes amongst all the things we had forgotten.

I still reckoned that, if we found the place at all, it would be crawling with bandits, or possibly Loghain’s soldiers.

It was heading onto midday when we stumbled onto the first block of masonry. Zevran found it. He still had his arm in the sling—not, he said, that it mattered. He’d assured me he was still perfectly capable of providing us with assistance… or picking up any pretty little trinkets that might have been left lying around after all these centuries. I’d scoffed, but admitted he had a point. We needed money if we were to keep clothes on our backs and food in our bellies, let alone contemplate the prospect of raising an army against Loghain, and we couldn’t afford to be too picky about where the gold came from.

“A-ha!” he exclaimed, kicking what looked to me like yet another bloody gorse bush.

Now he was back in his light, ornate, leg-baring armour, I could see the bloody bandage that wrapped his left thigh. The thin, autumnal sunlight that lanced down the hard, dank hillsides picked at the curlicues on his chestpiece, and made the gold braids in his hair dance. Not for the first time, I thought that it was less like having a Crow hopping after us than a peacock.

“What?” Alistair asked wearily, squinting up at the ridge before us.

It looked like there must once have been a path here, cut through the rock. A roadway of sorts, perhaps, though long since lost to the barren, hilly ground.

“Look. Under here.” Zevran crouched and, with his good hand, began to tug back the gorse. He cursed under his breath in Antivan but, after a few moments’ work, revealed part of a carved pedestal. He rose to his feet, stood back, and pointed. “There. You see? I think a statue guarded this way once. We are on the right track, no?”

Wynne peered over his shoulder.

“That does look like an inscription,” she admitted, bending for a closer look, her lips moving as she tried to decipher the worn lettering. “…villi—? No. ‘In vigilance’… something… I can’t see what—”

I shot Alistair a wary look, and watched the muscles clench in his jaw.

“Sounds about right,” he said.

“Then we go on.” I nodded to the ridge. “Levi?”

The trader scurried forwards, leather bags and map-rolls hanging off him like a pack mule. He had one of the parchments in his hands, and kept holding it up to the light, as if he could match the squiggles and symbols to the peaks around us.

“Oh, yes. Definitely this way,” he said, striding on ahead, full of self-assurance and a kind of puppyish enthusiasm.

From the back of the group, Morrigan gave a loud and weary sigh.

We headed on and, as Sten passed me, his heavy, chain-laced boots clinked slightly on the packed earth. He grumbled something in his own tongue that, though I didn’t have the first understanding of qunari language, I could guess was probably obscene.

~o~O~o~

Whatever else we might discover about Soldier’s Peak, I was starting to doubt it would be overrun by anyone. It was just too far out of the way, and too damned difficult to get to. It could only have been worse, I decided, if we’d had to slog through miles of underground tunnels to reach its supposed location… although Levi did say there had been rumours of such a maze. Mines, apparently, which the Wardens had laid claim to, and which had once provided a healthy income for the fortress.

“Oh, everything I’ve read says they collapsed years ago, mind,” the trader said, still horribly cheerful as we climbed up yet another ridge.

There was definitely something here. We’d seen more traces of old statuary, more hints of old paths worn away by the years. Once, the Grey Wardens’ presence must have been all over these hills.

“Just as well, I suppose,” Alistair said dryly, pausing to wipe the sweat from his brow with the back of one gloved hand. “We know what tends to come out of tunnels, don’t we?”

Levi looked confused. I grimaced.

“Darkspawn,” I explained, at which he visibly paled. “They break up from under the ground, swarm all over the place.”

The trader made a holy sign with the fingers of his left hand. “Maker’s breath!”

“Don’t worry,” I said, sounding a great deal more confident than I felt. “I don’t sense anything. Alistair?”

He shook his head. “Nothing. Not here, at least.”

As if to mark the words, a murky cloud passed over the weak sun, momentarily dimming the light. Alistair’s wry smile didn’t seem to do much to appease Levi’s concern, and the trader widened his eyes.

“G-Grey Wardens can… sense the ’spawn?”

“But apparently very little else,” Morrigan said darkly, her black iron staff striking the ground with small, dry pits as she stalked up to where we stood, glaring at the ridge beyond as if it might dare to defy her. “You do not feel it?”

“Oh, there she goes,” Alistair said, addressing the world at large as he rolled his eyes skywards. “Drama, gloom, and depression. And I was having such a nice day.”

“Hmph.” Morrigan hunched her shoulders, looking for all the world like an ill-tempered raven. “They do say ignorance is bliss, don’t they?”

I sighed. It was like trying to make two small children behave properly at a wedding.

“What did you mean, Morrigan? Feel what?”

The witch glared at me as if I was an idiot, but it was Wynne who spoke up.

“She’s right. Things feel… strange. I fear whatever happened in this place may have weakened the Veil. We should be careful.”

Levi blinked, evidently confused again. “The… the Veil? W-what…?”

“Demons,” Alistair said wearily, surveying the hillside spread out behind us. “Maybe walking dead if we’re really lucky. D’you think there’ll be walking dead? Or d’you think they’d be too, I don’t know, bony? It’s been a long time since the Peak was inhabited. Maybe walking skeletons. Or—”

“Alistair,” Wynne warned, as Levi looked fit to soil his smallclothes.

“I was just wondering,” he protested, as we set off again. “Would skeletons walk? Or would they shamble? Sort of like… urrrrggghhhh…. Only they wouldn’t have any fleshy bits left to make noises with, so probably—”

“Alistair!”

“Sorry.”

We hiked on in silence for a while, that sense of unease brewing. I remembered all too well the perils of the Circle Tower, and the horrors we’d seen at Redcliffe, and began to think I’d probably have preferred a confrontation with bandits or the Teyrn’s men.

Our first sight of the Peak came as we crested the next ridge. The hills cut away sharply, into what must once have been an impressive approach, though it was now choked with fallen stones, the detritus of landslips and the ravages of time. An incline led up towards the ruin of a gatehouse, and a great portcullis long decayed. Beyond that, the shapes of towers could be made out, like blunted nails scraping across the sky.

It was impressive, yes, and far more than I’d thought we’d find—the place looked huge, more like a walled town than just a simple keep—but there was something painfully sad about the state of it, those fallen stones and long-crumbled walls; a forgotten tomb, choked with thorns.

“Well! There she is, after all.” Levi let out a low whistle between his teeth. “Maker’s breath… what a fortress!”

Beside me, Sten shifted uneasily, a growl escaping his throat.

“We shall see. There are too many hills. It is not an ideally defensible position, and is gone to such ruin it may collapse at any moment.”

“True,” Alistair chipped in with cheerful sarcasm. “But, apart from that, doesn’t it look nice and homey?”

Leliana’s mouth tightened as she looked up at the ruins, and I could have sworn I saw tears well briefly in her eyes.

“It just seems so sad,” she said quietly. “And to think of all those people who died here….”

“Huh.” Morrigan snorted and pulled her cloak tightly around herself, the feathers rustling crisply at her shoulders. “I say again: you are all fools. Let the dead lie undisturbed.”

Alistair grinned. “Oooh… anyone would think you were scared!”

She glared at him and pulled back her lip, baring those small, white teeth, but the damage was already done. I’d never known Morrigan to seem this apprehensive before, and a glance at Wynne confirmed that the older mage felt it too; whatever was hiding there, it was going to be more than bandits.

Even Maethor was hanging back, sitting at my heels, ears cocked as he let out small puffs of breath, each one marked with an almost inaudible whine.

I sighed. Well, no turning back now and, anyway, it wasn’t as if anything was ever easy, was it?

~o~O~o~

It was quiet as we descended the ridge, scrambled up the incline, and entered the gates of Soldier’s Peak. Far too quiet. The whole place seemed dead, desiccated… there were no birds, no vermin, and not even any audible insects making their homes in the buckthorns and brambles that cloaked the stones. Even the vegetation itself seemed strangely dry and static, as brittle as kindling.

The air felt cold, too: more so than just the chill of the coming winter on the breeze. I half-expected ice to crunch beneath my boots, but my steps met only worn and mossy flagstones, their surfaces chased with the creeping tendrils of some tiny-leaved green plant that gave off a strong, musty smell when crushed underfoot.

“Corpseweed,” Morrigan observed, looking down at where I was standing.

I wrinkled my nose. “What?”

“It grows in the Wilds, too. Where dead things decay, and bones lay unburied.”

“Ugh.” I stepped aside hurriedly, and a shiver ran down my spine like cold rain.

With the gates and the broken teeth of the portcullis at our backs, flanked by twin gatehouses set into the main wall, we found ourselves in a wide space… the foregate that came before the keep, I supposed. It curved slightly, bending around the ruined stump of a tower and a clutch of smaller buildings that must once have been thriving, busy places; stables, quartermaster’s stores, perhaps even an armoury or something.

“Looks like a forge in there,” Levi said, straying away from our little knot, and peering into one of the wrecked husks. “Cor… the things my cousin Mikhael could do with a beast like that! He’s quite the craftsman, you know.”

I held out a warning hand. “Don’t go far. I think we should be careful to stay together.”

Levi blinked nervously and, nodding, began to skitter back towards us. As he did so, his foot caught in one of the thorn bushes, and he almost stumbled. A metallic noise sounded against the stones, and he stared down at the ground in front of him.

“Oh… oh, Maker….”

Scudding ahead of his foot, and coming to rest against a rope of twisted roots and corpseweed, was a tarnished helmet, with the Grey Wardens’ griffon emblazoned on it. From beneath the rusted-open visor, a skull—weathered and pitted to a dull, brownish-yellow, its lower jaw long since gone, along with most of its teeth—stared up at us. I thought Levi was going to be sick.

“Well,” Alistair said thoughtfully, gazing down at the remains, “at least it doesn’t seem to be moving of its accord.”

Levi whimpered, and hopped into line, tucked between Zevran and Sten.

I frowned at the skull, and delicately picked my way across the plantlife. Sure enough, the rest of a body could be made out under the shroud of buckthorn and decay; little more than hints of century-old armour, and the possibility of a blade resting at the warrior’s side, but they were there.

“Hmm. This is odd, no?”

I looked up, and found Zevran peering in consideration at the remains of the Grey Warden. I raised my brows.

“Well, clearly no one bothered to loot the dead,” he said coolly. “These weapons, the armour… think how much all of this would be worth, yes? And, though some of the buildings seem to have been burned, this is no deliberate, wholesale destruction.”

The thought of stripping the bodies, practical though it was—and despite everything I’d had to do already in my short time on the road—revolted me, and I grimaced. Perhaps it was seeing the Wardens’ crest on that helmet that did it, but it just seemed dirtier somehow, and I didn’t want to give the prospect a moment’s credence.

“You’d have done it differently, then?” I snapped.

That golden-brown gaze passed lightly over me, and I felt foolish. Zev just shrugged.

“I am simply saying I find it… peculiar.”

He had a point, loath as I was to admit it: there was something odd about how intact the remains were. Clearly, no predators had been in this place to pull the corpses apart and carry them off, and if both attackers and defenders had fallen so suddenly that the battlefield had never been cleared… well, it must have been a real massacre.

“I think we should keep moving,” Alistair said, peering across the foregate. “Looks like the keep is this way. Those two long bits, over there—just under where those crenellations are—that’s probably the barracks. There’ll be a chapel, a mess hall, latrines and bathhouse… training arena and range, and… what?”

He looked mildly embarrassed as he realised the others were staring, and lowered the hand with which he was gesticulating across the vista.

“It’s a lot like the templar compound, all right? And the base in Denerim, although this is on a much bigger scale…. It’s like Asturian wanted to build a whole city or something.”

There was a note of awe in his voice, I realised, and a touch of melancholy. Of course, I’d never known the other Grey Wardens, never had the experiences he had, or seen the places we were supposed to call home. I had no idea what our fortresses were meant to be like, or how it felt to belong in one.

Still, we had no time to waste lapsing into grief.

As I turned to head towards the great, jagged shape of the keep, Maethor hung back, his muzzle low to the ground and his hackles up. He growled—a short, sharp, fierce warning—and his gaze seemed to be fixed on the gap between the two long buildings Alistair had pointed out.

“Wh—?”

I saw nothing there, but the enquiry died on my lips as I noticed the look on Morrigan’s face. Her eyes were wide, unblinking… hard as sovereigns, and her skin seemed even paler than usual. She, too, stared at the barracks, and I saw her chest rise and fall with short, shallow breaths.

“Over there,” Wynne said softly. “Many. They hunger, but it is blind hunger… madness. We must—”

“Too late,” Morrigan murmured. “They feel us.”

Levi let out a whimper, and I saw the weeds and buckthorns move.

“Oh, look,” Alistair said dryly, drawing his sword. “Isn’t that interesting? They don’t shamble, after all.”

He was right. Walking dead… different to the things we’d seen at Redcliffe, but no less grotesque. They poured out of the ruins like rats, seeming to come from every possible cranny and gap, and they were horrific. Those ancient, discoloured bones moved in parodies of life, jerking and lurching, some with desiccated scraps of flesh clinging to them, others with the remnants of armour trailing from their ravaged bodies.

They had been Wardens, once. Wardens, and king’s men alike, prey for the demonkin, and now their prisons.

Morrigan raised her staff as we tightened our ranks, and I pulled a gibbering Levi to my side and shoved him behind me.

“If you were going to start being right about things, Alistair,” the witch grumbled, “you could have picked one of many more pleasant topics.”

He grinned mirthlessly as the creatures advanced, those ghastly, loping paces covering the ground far more quickly than they looked capable of doing.

“You did say I was right, though. Just then. We all heard you.”

“Huh.” Morrigan curled her lip. “Let us hope you live to enjoy it.”

The feathers twirled on the neck of her staff as she lifted it, and a burst of ice tore through the air. It struck the first of the things, riming it with frost, and billowed out before the next two. The spell seemed to slow them, and I wondered how dead flesh—or, in this case, bones—which could neither see nor feel, could be weakened.

Behind me, Zevran swore fluidly in Antivan.

“More,” he barked. “Coming from behind the keep. They’re everywhere.”

The breath sat high and fast in the top of my chest, pulse skittering and dread chasing a cold line down my back.

“We hold,” Alistair said firmly. “Better to let them get closer than break ranks too early. We’ll be swamped in no time.”

Morrigan shot another bolt of ice at the creatures that were now two-thirds of the way across the foregate. One jolted at the knees, like its foot was stuck behind it and, for a moment, I thought it would fall. It just kept jerking itself forwards, uneven yet unstoppable, and I heard Levi whimper.

It would have been easier if they’d been louder. If there could have been the snarling and the cries of battle, the viciousness and the growls of challenge… anything more than that thick, terrible quiet, broken only by the clinks of worn and tarnished metal. I hated the silence. The whole place seemed dead with it, and these… things… unnerved me to the point I could even begin to miss fighting darkspawn.

“Divide and conquer, then?” Alistair asked.

Sten nodded, the tip of his greatsword out before him, balanced on the stones. It seemed almost like peaceful repose, yet I knew his guard positions, and I could see the tension bunching in his arms and shoulders. In the blink of a fractured moment, he would lunge, and swing, and heads would roll.

We held the line until the last possible breath, and then carnage broke loose.

Sten took the first rush, hiking forwards with a great bellow and scything through the shrivelled, mail-draped bodies. Four of them swarmed him like flies, nothing to them but the desire to claw, rend, and kill. Only completely breaking the bones apart stopped them… hacking them to pieces so that, hostless and disorientated, the demons left their dry, rotten shells, and the last link between flesh and Fade could be cut.

It was dirty, long work. Morrigan held one side of the line, dealing out ice and that dark, sucking kind of magic that I would learn later was called entropy. I covered Sten, catching anything that either escaped his reach or splintered away from the fight. My sword gripped tight in sweating hands, I hacked and cut and smashed until every muscle screamed for mercy. Sightless faces and reeking, stale, filthy bones ripped at me—such hatred, their malice ground to a keen edge over the years, even the demons’ desire to taste the mortal realm shrivelled away in the madness of dead prisons.

Behind me, Wynne held back the advancing wave with a wall of fire—I felt the heat of it, a swelling, oppressive pressure across my shoulders—while Leliana and Zevran slipped and twirled between the bodies, striking with deft efficiency, and Maethor proved a formidable guard for Levi. Alistair’s sword always seemed to be where it was needed, and if those long-possessed bones flung themselves at us with blind hatred, knowing nothing but the jealous urge to blot out the life they so hungered for, then there was nothing to him but ruthless, efficient violence, and the determination to stand between us and the corrupted spirits.

It was only as they were struck down that they broke that eerie silence. As decrepit heads were severed from crumbling spines, there were roars and shrieks and unearthly howls that seemed to twist the very air.

At last, it came to an end. We were still standing, and there were no more bones walking.

I stood over a pile of rusted scraps of armour and dry, discoloured remains, little more than bare bones draped in the remnants of mail, or rattling in filthy, tarnished plate. There’d been, what, twenty or thirty? I felt as if I should be covered with blood but, save for a few scrapes and cuts where a dirty blade or shrivelled hand had caught, all that marked me was sweat, grime, and the smell of ancient death.

A glance at my companions confirmed everyone was all right. Tired, sore, maybe a little shaken… but all right, with the possible exception of Levi. Maethor, having dutifully protected the trader, was sniffing the now-lifeless bones with trepidation, and an expression that suggested he was debating whether giving them a damn good chew was sufficient retribution, or whether he had at last encountered something he didn’t want to eat.

Levi, meanwhile, scrambled across to the husk of the old forge, and started throwing up.

I looked at Zevran, his arm still bound in the sling, and raised my brows. He caught my eye and shrugged, tossing me a cavalier smile.

“I believe I told you, yes? This, it is nothing. As a matter of fact,” he added, his grin widening, “some of my most memorable moments have occurred when I had at least one arm tied behind my back.”

Leliana coughed, Morrigan rolled her eyes… and I thought he meant boasting about being able to win duels or something. My brow furrowed.

“Huh? You’d need one hand free to hold your sword, wouldn’t you?”

Zevran gave me a look of curious surprise, then let out a throaty, honey-smooth laugh, accompanied by a few smirks and snorts from the others. As a red-eyed, pale and rather tottery Levi sloped back apologetically to join us, only Sten, Alistair, and I were looking blank… and the qunari’s impassiveness was more to do with impatience.

“We shouldn’t linger,” Wynne said, as the chuckles died away. “There will likely be more.”

Levi was staring in horror at the dismantled bodies on the ground.

“W-what I don’t understand,” he began, his voice a shadow of its customary chipper tones, “is why some of ’em were… alive… an-and some of ’em are just… b-bones.”

“It’s not life,” Wynne said gently, laying her hand on the man’s arm. “What you saw were demons… weak, angry spirits who seek to possess mortals. If they are not able to do that, they may prey upon the dead, where the memory of life clings on. The things you saw had mostly likely been wandering this place since your great-great-grandmother’s time, driven mad by the corpses they inhabited decaying around them.”

Levi’s mouth bowed and he looked as if, had there been anything left in his stomach, it probably wouldn’t have stayed there.

“Urrr,” he said plaintively. “Poor buggers.”

It wasn’t my first thought after fighting off a pack of them, but I could see his point. It had settled on the others, too… Alistair especially.

“We should do something,” he said, his voice tinged with that slight huskiness I remembered from the Wilds: the raw edges of grief and outraged loss. “When we’re sure everything’s safe, we should… well, we have to give their memories some kind of respect. Whatever happened here, those things were still men once. Wardens. That deserves to be acknowledged.”

I knew, even without looking at him, the hard and bitter lines that would be marking his face. He wasn’t like me. His oath burned brightly in his heart, and he saw a brother in every one of these piles of bones.

Maker… for all I knew, he saw Duncan.

I nodded. “We will. Once we’ve cleared the keep and the foregate, and taken a look at those two towers to the rear. I don’t think we’re close to being done here yet.”

Those words were truer than I’d hoped.

~o~O~o~

The doors to the keep had once been massive, oak-timbered things, hard as stone and bound with great bands of iron. For having endured more than a century of neglect, they’d stood up well, although they had clearly been breached during Arland’s siege. They hung, broken, cracked like the lids of sarcophagi and, stepping through them into the musty darkness of that stone tomb, I had the most horrible sense of walking on unquiet graves.

The first chamber we entered was large, square, stone-built, and had a small dais to the far end, the remains of a broken barricade piled up around it… evidence of a retreat, I supposed. Beyond that, two doors led off, both hanging, cracked, from their hinges. The tattered, rotten shreds of tapestries clung to the walls, and I thought I made out the glimpses of Grey Warden heraldry on the muted scraps. Dilapidated stone benches, decorated with the remnants of bold, ornate carvings, fringed the walls, beneath the stylised sculptures of knights and Wardens that sat in the alcoves. It must have been an impressive room, once. Now, though, thick swathes of cobwebs hung from the vaulted ceiling and stretched from the high, heavy beams all the way into the corners, and the whole place stank of death and sickly, yet strangely static, decay.

I was aware of Morrigan pacing the boundaries of the room, as if she could sniff out dark magic in the very stones. Maethor had been sticking to my side like glue, and he butted his wet nose into my palm, whining softly. A sharp line of brindled fur stood raised from the back of his skull all the way to the base of that stubby tail, which was clamped firmly down. I scratched his ears absently, trying to give him what little assurance I could… although I suspected I was being a fool not to listen to the hound’s judgement.

Something was very, very wrong within these walls.

“Look at this,” Leliana said. She stood over by the doors, peering at a mouldy, ragged poster she’d found on the wall. “It says ‘Statement of Defiance’.”

“Defiance?” Alistair echoed. “What…?”

Her slender fingers traced the faded words, her brow creasing as she tried to read what little was left.

“I’m not sure. It says, ‘On these grounds, the… the virtuous stood against a tyrant. They stood defiant and they stood for—’ What’s that? Oh, I see. ‘They stood for freedom. And—’ Oh.” Her mouth bowed in dismay. “‘And they died.’” Leliana glanced sadly at me, clearly moved by what she’d read. “It looks as if the last Grey Wardens who were left defending the Peak signed it. There were many names here, but I can’t read them. Too much has been lost.”

She touched the paper reverently, evidently wishing she could pick out the names, but it seemed as if they—along with all those anonymous bones we’d scattered—were destined to remain unclaimed.

I wondered at that. It was part of being a Grey Warden, wasn’t it? Giving up our families when we joined, turning our backs on links with our old lives. It was what we were required to do. We lived in service, brethren united in a single common goal, and when we died, who remembered us? Who did we ever leave behind except other empty souls with no destiny but lonely death, either in some fleeting battle, or in the darkness of the Deep Roads?

“They were so brave,” Levi said wistfully, glancing around the ruined hall. “And my great-great-grandmother stood with them, led them… right to the end.”

His gaze clouded, but he didn’t put words to the thought I supposed he must be having. Would we find the bones of Sophia herself?

We moved briskly through the rest of the keep’s lower floor. There were smaller rooms off the main, public area; wardrooms, guards’ chambers and the like, I supposed. I didn’t really know much about the business of running a place like this.

Wynne and Morrigan both seemed wary… nervous, even, though neither of them would commit to saying what they felt. Most of the rooms we investigated contained little but bones and broken, rotten pieces of furniture, but in one of the small side-chambers, we found a wealth of documents. I was ready to pass on, thinking that reams of dusty, worm-eaten paper couldn’t tell us anything important, but Wynne wanted to look.

“These are treasurer’s records,” she said, skimming carefully through the rolls. “There are plans here… details of expenses…. This will all be very useful, if you are to press the Peak back into service.”

“Hm.”

I tried to sound positive, but just looking at the amount of work that needed to be done—not counting shovelling up the dead and trying to get the smell of a century’s decomposition out of the stones—had already convinced me the fortress held more problems than answers. If the worst came to the worst, perhaps a few hundred people could hole up here, but there were too many breaches in the outer wall for it to provide much protection, especially against darkspawn… or even a civil war, if it really came to that.

I shook the thoughts away. We didn’t know that would happen. If we could just have whoever ended up in charge of Redcliffe in our corner—whether it was Arl Eamon, Lady Isolde, or Bann Teagan—there was a chance we could force Loghain to accept the Orlesian Grey Wardens who must still be waiting across the border. I believed that wholeheartedly… clung to the belief, perhaps, in spite of logic and good sense.

“They say this whole place went up in record time,” Levi offered conversationally. He stood by the door, rubbing his arm in a slightly nervous manner, as if he might have expected monsters to burst out of the walls. “Ten years was all it took, first off. That Asturian… he knew what he wanted and how to get it, and no mistake!”

“It looks,” Wynne added, sifting through the papers, “as if some of the last Wardens here—in your great-great-grandmother’s time—were investigating the possibility of catacombs… secret passageways that Commander Asturian had built. There are mentions here to something written by his successor, Commander Halwic. If we had a little more time, I could perhaps see what—”

“Maybe later,” I said, glancing back into the shadowed halls of the keep. “I don’t know if I’m the only one, but I don’t feel safe here yet.”

She nodded, and gingerly lifted a few parchments from the table, sliding them between the leaves of a handy account book for preservation before she secreted them in one of her numerous leather bags.

We pressed on and found, deeper into the keep, that although there were fewer bones and signs of struggle, there was no less a sense of discomfort.

Much of the building remained untouched: mildewy and stagnant, but still with its carved doorways and great, looming statues. There were stone staircases, atrophied scraps of tapestries probably once decorated with griffons and thread of gold, and Alistair started getting the kind of look on his face that suggested he was holding his breath in the presence of heroes.

“There is something dark within this place,” Morrigan said, as we climbed the stairway. “Be on your guard.”

I said nothing. On my guard? I didn’t even like putting my palm on the handrail, afraid that the stone was going to turn to slimy, dead flesh beneath my touch.

“Oh, good,” Alistair said dryly, squinting into the shadows. “More walking dead, do we think? That’d be a little predictable.”

“I don’t know,” Wynne said, from the back of the group. “But I feel it more strongly than ever here. There are… things that should not be present. Things that have no place this side of the Veil.”

“More d-demons?” Levi quavered.

If he bunched up any closer behind Sten, I suspected the qunari would lose patience and lob him over the banister.

“Then we will outmatch them,” he said, though it sounded like a bitter challenge rather than optimism.

Alistair snorted. “Yes, if we get the chance. Unless we’re outnumbered by more walking corpses first. I mean, think about it. How many people d’you think were here when Arland’s men attacked? Two, three hundred? More? What if—”

Leliana tutted reproachfully and elbowed him in the ribs and, reluctantly, he shut up. It was a good point, though. For all we knew, there could be countless more demon-inhabited corpses awaiting us… not to mention whatever else had managed to crawl across the ruptured Veil.

I shuddered. As we reached the upper floor, the air felt colder than ever. Zevran butted up behind me, fiddling with something propped between his chest and the arm still bound in the sling. He glanced up at me and smiled absently.

“Ah, good. Be an angel and hold this for me, yes? Don’t get it on your skin,” he added, pushing a small stone bottle into my fingers.

It stank—an awful bitter, greasy smell—and I winced as I saw he’d been applying the liquid to the blade of one of his daggers. I frowned.

“Wh—?”

“Just a little edge,” Zevran said cryptically, balancing the dagger lightly between two fingers as he stoppered the bottle and, taking it from me, slipped it back into his scrip.

He didn’t sheathe the blade, I noticed, and it glimmered dully… and seemed somehow more threatening. I wasn’t sure if it was my imagination, or if a faint blue glow really chased along the steel.

I arched a brow. “Poison?”

He smiled again, and it was the sharp, empty smile of a weapon primed, or a predator preparing to strike. Morrigan, standing stiffly by one of the doors that led off this wide, windowless corridor, sniffed and then curled her lip.

“Magebane? Why do I fail to be surprised you carry such filth with you?”

Zevran simply shrugged, and gave her another of those paper-thin, glittering smiles. She scoffed, raised a hand, and let a gout of blue light flare in it, illuminating the hallway.

“Just so long as you are aware: come near me with that and you will regret it. This I promise you, elf.”

He affected a look of incredulous innocence. “As if I would even contemplate such a deed, o magical temptress.”

Morrigan sneered, and Sten grumbled something under his breath as he stepped forwards, heading on into the next room, evidently impatient and eager to finish clearing the keep.

I couldn’t say I blamed him.

The first room we came to was a library. Somehow, I hadn’t expected Soldier’s Peak to have one, but there it was, and it was… vast. Shelves lined the walls, stretching up to the ceiling and crammed with books, scrolls and thick, leather-bound archive volumes. They were immense, and the musty, dank smell of old paper hit me like the heat from a bread oven. I coughed, wincing as I looked at the piles of tomes.

The fighting had evidently not come this far up the keep… or, at least, not as chaotically as below. There was still order here; an eerie kind of order, as if, beneath the thick layers of dust and grime, the books had been neatly put into place by someone who might walk back in at any second. Most of them, anyway. One pile lay sprawled haphazardly on the floor, opposite the fireplace, which was framed by two marble griffons. There looked to be a few scorch marks on the ground, and one of the volumes was open.

Wynne crossed tentatively towards it, and prodded at the pile with her foot. A dry, desiccated quill pen slipped from the pages, and rolled twice when it hit the floor. She frowned and, slowly, lowered herself to a crouch to get a better look at the book.

I found myself tensing, as if some hideous demonic creature might suddenly burst from the pages. Stupid, I told myself… wasn’t it?

All the same, my left hand on the pommel of my dagger, my right itching for the comfort of a sword hilt, I crossed the library’s stone floor and stood behind her, watching as her fingers carefully, tenderly, brushed the dust from the vellum. Leliana wandered over too, her appetite for tales and history obviously whetted. The book had been badly burned at some point, and had since been subjected to the ravages of damp and rot, but it looked as if it would be possible for them to make out a few passages.

“The archivists,” Wynne said quietly. “They were recording everything… right until the end.”

It seemed to me that there were probably more important things to do when besieged, but I couldn’t deny this would be useful to us. Levi scurried at once to Wynne’s side, hopeful of finding some mention of Sophia’s heroism, and I peered up at the endless tiers of books, rising above me like some kind of paper cathedral.

The dusty floorboards creaked, and I flinched.

“What are you thinking?”

Alistair’s voice, and his apparent materialisation at my shoulder, were both a little unexpected. He shot me a small, encouraging smile, and I could see the muddy uncertainty in his eyes; he didn’t like any of this any more than I did.

I cleared my throat.

“Um. It’s, er, a lot of books. Records… Grey Warden history, maybe.” I rubbed awkwardly at the back of my neck, and shrugged. “There could be a lot here we don’t know. Things we’ll need to know if—”

“Yeah.” Alistair nodded, but didn’t look awfully happy about it. “Maybe there’ll be something here that explains the Joining, or how to actually fight an archdemon.”

“Mm-hm.” I smiled mirthlessly. “‘Ending a Blight in Six Easy Lessons’.”

He snorted. “Ooh, yes. D’you think there’s a card catalogue?”

I shook my head, the laughter forgotten. Whatever treasures were in this library, they were buried deep. We hadn’t the time to work through so much information, even if it was the sort of thing Grey Wardens kept on their shelves.

Wynne’s sudden inhalation of breath caught both our attention, and I looked up to see Levi leap back from the book as if he’d been as badly singed as some of its pages. And that did finally strike me as strange… why should those papers on the floor be damaged, when this room—with all its flammable paper and wood—had not been gutted by fire?

I didn’t pause to think it over fully, more worried by what had startled Wynne and the trader. Leliana still knelt in front of the book, but her head was bowed, her hand pressed to her mouth.

“Maker’s breath, no….” Levi moaned. “I-I can’t believe it!”

“What?” Alistair demanded. “What is it?”

Wynne shook her head, her mouth a tight line. “Even as King Arland’s men were beating on the doors, the Wardens’ archivists wrote the truth, crabbed into the margins of this book. It was a brave thing to do.”

“They were using blood magic!” Levi protested, his voice rising in pitch and colour beginning to burn in those pasty cheeks. “That’s what… wossname… tore the Veil! The Grey Wardens was using blood magic to overthrow the king!”

His words seemed to find a hollow chink of silence, and filled it completely.

The accusation seemed wild, impossible, unbelievable… and yet it explained a great deal. The things Morrigan and Wynne spoke of feeling, the walking corpses with the ravening souls of demons within them, and the way this whole place seemed caught outside of time, decayed and yet unchanging….

I didn’t believe it. I didn’t want to, but—

“‘It was never our place to oppose kings and princes,’” Wynne read, her fingers moving delicately under the words, trying to pare away the dust of years, and the unpalatable truth. “‘Commander Dryden took her rebellion too far. Now, those who refused to stand idly by while a tyrant bled his people die, not at his hands, but by the madness we have wrought ourselves.’”

Alistair’s face darkened. “Now just a minute—”

“It’s true.” Leliana rose from the book, her hand on Wynne’s shoulder. “This account speaks of the Grey Wardens conspiring with the nobles who opposed King Arland. He did not turn on them; they struck the first blow. And they resorted to… terrible things.”

He stared as if she’d just ripped the very breath of life out of him.

I stepped forward before we had an argument on our hands. “What does the book say? Exactly?”

Wynne glanced at Alistair before she looked at me, tight-lipped. I took another step, and my boots echoed on the worn boards. I wanted her to see me, not him, and know that my questions were the ones she had to answer. If Alistair chose this of all moments to decide he’d rather lead than follow then so be it, but unless he did, I remained in charge.

Wynne blinked, and the corners of her mouth turned down a little, as if she was reluctant to voice anything.

“It is… unclear. If it wasn’t so badly burned, then perhaps— There was a siege of many months. These people were starving, diseased… see, here, there is a name. A mage.” Her fingers traced between the words once more, the pages dark with charring and age. “‘The Commander demanded more than Avernus could control. The rituals went wrong; blood spilled and summonings splintered. He sundered the Veil, and doomed us all. We only pray the gate holds, and this evil remains shackled. Let our fate be a lesson: our vigilance was not enough.’”

Wynne’s low, precise tones whispered into silence against the walls, though echoes seemed to linger there… murmurs and voices of things I couldn’t possibly be hearing. I gritted my teeth, trying to drive them away, but it was like an itch beneath my skin.

“Blood magic,” Levi muttered mournfully. “This… this is not what I was hoping to find.”

Morrigan scoffed. She was prowling between the shelves, her staff ticking on the stones, and looked as ill at ease as I’d ever seen her. I wondered if she’d felt that whispering too, but I didn’t want to mention it, in case it was just me.

“It sounds as if they were desperate,” Zevran said, eyeing the doorway. “Very desperate.”

The trader wrinkled his nose miserably. “We-ell, still… I’d hoped my family was better than that.”

“Yes.” The fitments on Alistair’s armour clinked as, abruptly, he turned and stalked to the far door, pressing on into the rest of this floor. “I expect so.”

I stifled a sigh of frustration and, turning to the others, gestured after him.

“All right, let’s move. Maker only knows what we might still find. Wynne? What did it mean, ‘the gate’?”

The mage looked uncertainly at me as she rose to her feet, but it was Morrigan who cut across her with a reply.

“Those who believe they can summon and control demons may attempt to bind them. If that is what this fool did, it is possible he may have used the same rituals to chain the creatures to this place. If so, it has worked… at least to a degree.”

By which she meant we weren’t currently standing in a pit of boiling flesh and the sky hadn’t cracked in two, I assumed. I curled my lip.

“Lovely.”

I stood back and counted the whole group through the doorway, waiting to be the last out of the archive room. I cast one final look around it before I turned and left, and those still, silent walls of knowledge, arching up into the cobwebbed, dust-choked rafters, made me shudder.

The voice came then; just a whisper on the stones that I could almost believe I hadn’t heard.

…nelatep obresooth sythan net bekon….

It was a dark, silent breath, a sound that slithered right into the centre of my mind, and grated out words that weren’t like any tongue I thought could possibly exist. Misshapen, ugly, sinister… they were to speech what darkspawn were to men, and I was suddenly consumed by the thought that it would be that—not demons, not shades, not anything like the secret, Fade-wrought horrors of Redcliffe—but the rage of the Black City itself that would pour out on us.

I blinked, forcing myself to think clear, sensible thoughts, and I pushed on after the others.

Who knew what else might be hiding in this place.

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Volume 3: Chapter Twelve
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