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What we found at the top of the tower was not the simple eyrie I’d expected, not the cocoon of a long-desiccated creature, drawing dead glories around itself as a magpie hoards tin treasures.
The old Warden mage, Avernus, was alive. He was alive, and still working.
His laboratory, if that was what it was, had definitely seen better days. It was a large, long, stone-walled chamber with dusty floorboards and a low, wood-beamed ceiling. Everything stank of decay and damp and, everywhere I looked, the entire length of the room, there were piles of books, scrolls, and the detritus of experimentation. Broken glass, pieces of piping, twisted and shorn off bits of metal, flasks, retorts and Maker alone knew what else littered the floor and numerous tables alike. The whole place had a thick, stilted feel to the air, as if it was greasy with time too stagnant to pass, and prickling with coarse, tense energy.
Candlelight pooled on the rough floorboards, spilling from a few large iron sconces at the chamber’s far end, and it threw into ghoulish, fragmented relief the robed figure hunched busily over a long, low workbench.
I heard a tremulous gasp, and glanced at Levi in time to see him cross his heart, working the sign of the Maker repeatedly on the fingers of his left hand.
Wynne shot me a guarded look past the trader, her face hard and her eyes narrowed. I knew what she meant. This was the epicentre of everything, the eye of the swelling power she and Morrigan had felt… and the ‘gate’ that the Warden archives seemed to have spoken of, perhaps. The tear in the Veil, and the portal through which all the demons we had encountered had poured.
The figure at the far end of the chamber—swathed in a threadbare robe that shimmered in the candlelight, his bald head bent over his books—seemed to pause briefly, but he didn’t look up, and didn’t even seem to acknowledge our presence. It came as a shock to me, when he spoke, to find he sounded so natural, so unlike a demon.
“Yes, yes, I hear you,” the mage muttered, his voice echoing against the stone walls. It sounded thin and aged, but without the reediness of an old man, and a scholar’s impatience for the inconveniences of mortal flesh dripped from the words. “Well, you can all wait there for a minute. Don’t disrupt my concentration.”
His shadow stretched up against the wall as he moved, vast and attenuated, and I found my gaze roving the room, trying to understand the complex shapes of discarded equipment. Pushed behind one set of broken shelves, I was sure there was something that resembled a cage. Beside me, Maethor shifted his weight and whined quietly.
To my right, Alistair let out a soft, two-toned whistle between his teeth that said ‘Uh-oh: crazy’, and I was inclined to agree with him.
The mage looked up then, pale and bulbous eyes staring out from a face that—even from that distance—I could see was haggard and thin, stretched like paper over old bones.
“So,” he said, with a trace of smug triumph, “someone has come. Good. There are more of you than I expected.”
I didn’t like the sound of that at all but, as I struggled to find some kind of rejoinder other than vague disbelief, he reached for a gnarled, twisted wooden staff that leant on the workbench, and began to make his way towards us.
The taps of the stave echoed on the boards, and the whole room seemed to adjust itself around him somehow, as if this act of movement was an unusual thing. I found myself wondering how he lived up here—if he truly lived, in the sense of the word I was used to. What about water, or food? We’d seen nothing, surely, that could sustain life in this place. Not healthy life, anyway.
My back itched, and the closer the mage hobbled, the more I wanted to turn and run.
“Hm,” he murmured, grunting with effort at every swing of his staff, every step of those withered limbs. “Yes… even now the demons seek to replenish their numbers. I feel it. But, you are to be thanked for this welcome, yet temporary imbalance, aren’t you?”
I opened my mouth—to say what, I wasn’t entirely sure—but Levi got there before me.
“You’re him, aren’t you?” he breathed, his eyes wide. “The Warden mage, Avernus. But… you’re still alive? How—”
The candles guttered as Avernus drew nearer, the thump-tick of his staff and his aged body an odd, uneven rhythm that was strangely hypnotic. A few white, grizzled whiskers clung to his thin face, his robes a stained and dishevelled mess, threadbare and clearly hanging from a frame that was little more than bones. He gave a short, dry husk of a chuckle, bitterly resigned.
“Only just. Oh, yes, I have learned plenty of tricks to extend my life. Magic has taken, and yet given much back to me; such is the way of things. It is not indefinite, however. I do not have long… but long enough for this, perhaps.”
Those bright, pale blue eyes, almost like swollen things framed by rough, rheumy lids, swivelled as his gaze took all of us in, one by one. There were still several feet between us and the mage, and I tried not to quaver beneath his scrutiny, though it left me desperate to take my skin off and wash it from the inside. He seemed to stare right through me, to… what had the demon that possessed Sophia Dryden said?
See memories, taste thoughts and hidden places.
It was as if there was nothing sacred to me left, and it frightened me.
Avernus stared at Alistair, head slightly tilted, and he seemed to be considering something.
“Wardens,” he said at last. “You… and the elf.”
Alistair glanced at me. We both knew, I think, how the old mage could tell. The taint sang out, I supposed, and I had never felt so corrupted before, so allied to the filth that ran through this place.
“Why are you here?” Avernus snapped suddenly, leaning heavily on his staff, as if the effort of speech was a terrible one. “What is your intent?”
“To recover the Peak for the Grey Wardens,” Alistair said smartly, the trace of a heel-click almost echoing off the words.
Duncan would have been proud of him, I thought.
Avernus smiled, and it was a strangely hypnotic thing to watch, like brittle, crumpled paper being rolled back, or paint flaking from a door. He had few teeth left, and the ones that did remain were little more than yellow-brown stumps.
“An admirable goal,” he said, moving towards us again with those pinched, hobbling steps. He seemed to be strung together by sheer determination. “But in order to achieve that, the demons must be cut off forever. What you must do is—”
Something about that figure bearing down on us that way made my stomach curdle, and I tensed reflexively. Maybe it was the surfeit of demons and walking corpses; maybe it was the smell of stagnation and decay that clung to everything here. Either way, my hand clenched on the hilt of the dagger at my belt, and my stance tensed.
“Wait. You stay where you are until we have some answers.”
He looked affronted at that, and I supposed offending an ancient and powerful mage was probably a very stupid thing to do.
In any case, the demon that tried to deal with us had wanted this man dead. The archives claimed he was responsible for establishing the gate that was keeping the creatures back. Those were distinct points in his favour… but if those same archives were to be believed—if I could believe anything in this treacherous place, where memory and fiction were so wound into history that they made one great skein of impossibilities—then this was the man who had sundered the Veil in the first place.
I felt the gazes of my companions upon me, most of them probably thinking the very same thing. I could positively taste Sten’s discomfort; he wanted to tear down the entire tower and every living thing this side of the foothills, just to safeguard it from the corruption of magic. Leliana—despite her tendencies towards compassion and tolerance—would quite probably have concurred, given the way she was looking so utterly appalled. Even Morrigan seemed reticent, skulking at the back of the group like she didn’t want to be noticed.
Avernus tipped his head again, looking positively skeletal, like some parody of a bird.
“Answers? To what questions, I wonder? You play for time we do not have, girl.”
I squared my shoulders. “Then I’ll ask quickly. What happened here?”
He gave a dismissive shrug, like the rustle of wind through dead trees. “Hah… you know enough, and what use would storytelling serve? We fought against a tyrant, but Arland is long dead, as are all our noble co-conspirators, and even the grand rebellion itself. Sophia’s corpse may walk and talk, but she too is no more.”
So, he’d known about the creature that had possessed Commander Dryden. My revulsion seemed a little more justified, and my fingers rested on the leather of my belt, just beside my dagger’s hilt.
Behind me, Zevran stifled a quiet cough and a muttered contribution.
“Certe, she doesn’t walk any longer….”
I heard Wynne hush him, but the only reaction from Avernus seemed to be a slight curl of those dry, withered lips.
“The Grey Wardens are meant to stand apart from politics,” I said doubtfully, aware of the warning glance Alistair flashed me. “It’s not—”
The mage shook his head. “You wouldn’t understand. Huh, you should. You’re young… you’re so young, both of you,” he added, looking at my comrade. “We were young, too. Impassioned, angry…. So full of vigour, then. So blind to consequences. We thought we were saving the world. That bastard, Arland, ruled with fear and poison, pitting noble against noble in his treachery. He would have destroyed Ferelden. We thought him a monster, gathered allies to rebel… and we’d have taken him, if that lickspittle Cousland hadn’t betrayed us.”
Levi frowned, and I heard the breath catch in his throat as he almost spoke, almost darting after those lost threads of his family’s past. The mage saw it, I thought, that pale gaze darting to the trader, and there was something of a satisfied hunter in him… the smile that comes when a trap has been sprung.
“He claimed he could not condone what we did for the greater good,” Avernus said, watching Levi’s reactions. “But what are a few little nudges, a few mouths quieted, against toppling a monster? If Sophia had let me do more, perhaps things would have been different. She understood the need to delve into the darkness, of course.”
And there was the bait, disappearing even before I could blink, straight into Levi’s eager maw.
“My great-great grandmother would never have stood for blood magic!”
Avernus inclined his head. “Ah. So, you are a Dryden? I wondered. The cosmos indeed has a curious sense of humour. She was the best of us, you know. Brave, charismatic, fiery… utterly devoted to the fight. But still we lost. Still, no matter. The toll of years has erased our failure, hasn’t it?” He leaned again on the staff, and sighed, and it seemed to me he was trying a little too hard to cut the figure of a gaunt old man. He shook his head ruefully. “It seemed so pressing then, but the kingdom lives on.”
“Not through everything,” I said darkly.
Did he even know about the Blight? Did he feel it? He must do; he was a Grey Warden, like us, and his connection to the darkspawn had been allowed more than a century to mature… which brought home the single question I had been too afraid to voice, even in my own head.
Why was this man, not just still alive, but not yet overpowered by the taint?
I suspected Alistair had been asking himself the same question, but neither of us dared speak it. There was too obvious an answer: Avernus was steeped in blood magic, and if blood magic could halt, or at least slow the progress of the corruption….
I forced myself not to think of it, not to even entertain the temptations of thoughts. It was the same as the keep: the whispers of possibilities brushed across my mind with the tremulous glimmer of silver-gilt armour and pristine legends, and I couldn’t bear it.
Avernus squinted at me. “Oh? So, there is some peril, some terrible crisis. Of course. There always is. But what I have been part of—the things I have seen and learned—they are so much more.”
He was so dismissive that I wanted to argue, to protest about the threat of the Blight, and everything that loomed ahead of us, and yet I doubted he’d even have listened. Maybe he wasn’t capable of it anymore.
“But you are a blood mage,” Alistair said bluntly, finding his voice at last. “Aren’t you? We saw the archives, the records of what you did. The demons—”
Avernus sneered. “Oh, for pity’s sake…. You would waste time on indignation and horror? Yes, I summoned the demons. The first of them, anyway… dozens of them, and all called by my hand. It took months to prepare the summoning circles.”
He sounded almost wistful, and I heard the distaste rolling off the grunt that Sten gave.
“The bas saarebas takes pride in its own folly,” he grumbled. “Kill it and be done.”
I winced. If the mage was as powerful as Morrigan’s warnings suggested—and if he really was all that was standing between us and yet more bloody demons—risking confrontation seemed like a bad idea.
Luckily, perhaps, Avernus simply smiled mirthlessly.
“Folly? Your mercenary may be correct, Warden.”
Ouch. It might the first thing it was natural to assume upon seeing a qunari travelling with humans, but Sten’s disapproval felt almost solid, like ice weighing down the air.
Avernus seemed oblivious, however, and continued addressing Alistair, the way people normally did when they said ‘Warden’.
“Still, it was a triumph of demonic lore. My triumph. Of course, with so many variables, I suppose calculation errors were inevitable. I was so close… so very close. From the moment our battle was lost, I dedicated myself to trying to correct my miscalculations.”
“‘Miscalculations’?” Alistair echoed, appalled. “That’s what you call all this?”
The old mage shrugged. “The Grey Wardens have always acted by one tent: any means necessary. What I did, I did for our cause, and my only regret is that it failed.”
Things were souring, and getting us nowhere. I looked nervously around the room, trying to see some hint of whatever might be holding the demons back. I had no idea what a tear in the Veil looked like, if it was visible to the eye… or if could even be mended, come to that. Maybe the mage himself was the key: a twisted vessel holding a gateway instead of a soul.
“Please….” Leliana stepped forwards, her voice scored with a heartfelt entreaty. “You must see that this is wrong. All the evil that has been done to this place—there has to be a way to repair the damage.”
She had the right notion, though I could have wished she’d worded it differently. Avernus sneered bitterly.
“Oh? Evil, is it? And who draws this line of what is safe, proper, or moral? The Chantry? Bah! Nothing but corrupt, mundane, pathetic fools.” He curled back those dry, thin lips in a snarling grimace. “Sophia understood. There is so much power… so much potential! Such knowledge, just waiting to be harvested. The Grey Wardens could have led the way… rediscovered the secrets of ancient Tevinter.”
My stomach clenched on a knot of dread. A century with nothing but demons for company was more than enough to drive anyone insane, but the way Avernus talked felt like it harboured a darker, deeper-bred madness. I didn’t want to think of the words I’d heard Duncan use… whatever it takes. But did defeating the darkspawn mean having to become them?
Leliana blanched, but it was Alistair who spoke, his customary sarcasm not doing much to disguise the sour anger running beneath the words.
“You remember how that ended, right? The Black City? Darkspawn?”
The old man shook his head impatiently. “Lies! Chantry lies told to subjugate the mages… to keep them docile.”
Maker’s breath, he sounded like Morrigan. I resisted the urge to glance over my shoulder at the witch, almost curious at how quiet she was in Avernus’ presence. At the chamber’s far end, his few fat candles—and I didn’t want to know what they were made from, I decided—guttered, and the shadows jumped on the walls.
“You cannot know the Chantry is wrong,” Leliana protested.
“And how do you know they are right?” Avernus retorted. “Their faith would have you swallow a great deal for small comfort. No, child… I have stared into the Void. I have held a dozen demons at my hand, and—”
The knots of fear and greasy discomfort that plagued me swelled into anger and irritation. If this kept on, we would be here another hundred years arguing, and the demons would regroup… swarm the whole fortress around us.
“What’s done is done,” I said sharply, sliding my words between them like a blade. “Now, we’ve been cutting down corpses and demons all day… is there a way to seal what the Wardens did, or not?”
Tension creaked in the air. Avernus turned those pale, staring eyes on me, and there seemed to be a glimmer of triumph in his face. Revulsion inched down my spine.
“There is,” he said, his voice quiet, almost wheedling. “I believe there is. I could not do it alone, but you… the both of you… yes.” He glanced at Alistair, then back at me, and I did not like the hunger in those pale eyes. “Blood magic comes from demons. You know this, yes? Naturally, my binding circle can only contain them up to a point. All this time, I have done what I can, yet they were always able to counter every scrap of lore I knew. But the darkspawn taint… that is alien to them. And it has power. Oh… such power as you cannot imagine!”
His gaze seared into me, as if he could weigh and test every part of my soul with just that look, and I felt as if the taint within me was responding, rising up like a black tide and withering my flesh like rot creeping across an apple.
I told myself I was being stupid, that it was just tiredness—and the admittedly creepy figure of a crazy old man at the top of a demon-plagued tower—that had me spooked, but Avernus had struck right at my heart.
Though I hadn’t then begun to think of it so, the way I’d felt at Ostagar had started to creep back into my mind. Cast adrift from home and family, and sent into the Wilds with Alistair, Jory, and Daveth, I’d thought then that was to be my new life, my new comrades… my new family. They would never have replaced the people I’d loved, but it was belonging, of a kind, and I would have clutched at it if it had lasted longer.
With Denerim behind us, the alienage purged, and me convinced that everyone I’d ever known was dead, all I had left was the Wardens, my companions… my one, single comrade in the order, and my purpose.
Everything in me rebelled at this shrunken, faded maleficar, his demons and his whispers of dark power. I’d wanted to believe in heroes—maybe even believe that, somehow, we could stop the Blight—and it sickened me to face such a tarnished reality.
“What power?” Alistair demanded. “What are you talking about?”
I blinked. His voice was hushed and hoarse, and I felt a fool for getting tangled in my own revulsion, when I knew the Wardens had meant everything to him. They had been his family, his vocation… and every word from Avernus’ mouth must be like a direct desecration of Duncan’s memory.
The old mage grimaced. “I… discovered it in the months after the siege. There were few of us left, and hope soon dwindled. My research had already hinted at great possibilities… the blood, you know. There is so much power in blood, and what we do—the Joining, the taint—ah!”
Those pale eyes shone with a look of nostalgic pride, and I felt sick.
“The taint can do so much more than allow us to sense darkspawn—that is a mere triviality. Here, in this room, I have uncovered so much…! There must be sacrifices, of course, but then they are always required, are they not? The subjects would have perished sooner or later anyway, and—”
Alistair winced. “You experimented on the people trapped here?”
“It was necessary.” The mage shrugged. “It was vital… and the few meagre years of life they would have spent trapped in this tower were nothing compared to the greater goal. We have always embraced that tenet, yes? Whatever it takesss. I gave their deaths meaning.”
That soft, menacing sibilant clawed at my ears. I didn’t know if anyone else had heard it, if I was going mad… and yet who could have remained here as long as Avernus, in the ravaged wasteland between demons and the taint, and been left untouched by either?
“I have made mistakes. I admit that,” he said, his voice dropping to a coarse, strained whisper. “But you can help me undo the greatest damage I did to this place. I know how to unbind it, how to unravel the sssummoning circles and seal the Veil… cast these things back to the Fade, and leave the Peak safe again. With that done, I shall give you the knowledge you seek… show you the secrets I have learned, yes? The Wardens shall be more powerful than ever. You shall have your prize, win your battles… and I shall atone for my sin. What do you say?”
His head was tilted to the side, withered hands clinging to his staff, and he was at once grotesque and terrifying, every inch of him crackling with the suggestion of power. I looked at Wynne—aware of how quiet she, like Morrigan, had remained—and found her pale and tight-lipped, those clear, bright eyes fixed on Avernus like two chips of sapphire, hard and glittering.
The witch herself spoke then, the sound of her footsteps and her black iron staff echoing on the boards as she moved forwards. Her gaze never left Avernus’ face, her body held taut and upright as she skirted the group, and she reminded me of nothing so much as a cat spoiling for a fight.
He watched her intently and, though I had no magical bone in my body, and precious little experience around the stuff, I could have sworn I felt sparks dancing on the air.
“This is your one chance to banish the demons from the Peak,” she said, her voice a sharp curve, ringing with flint-like hardness. “He speaks the truth there, but—”
“Kill the creature and have done,” Sten repeated, though without any trace of impatience; just as if he was explaining a simple concept to a small child. “It cannot be trusted.”
Avernus gave no indication of having even heard him. He just kept staring at Morrigan, and the air kept feeling thicker.
Alistair shifted uncomfortably, his boots scuffing against the dusty boards.
“What you’re proposing sounds like more blood magic,” he said, his words traced with scorn. “I don’t know if we want any involvement in that. I certainly don’t.”
He glanced at me then, and I supposed he expected me to back him up. I wanted to. Part of me wanted to run the old mage through where he stood, then turn tail and get out of that place while there was still light to see by.
My fingers twitched on my belt, seeking the comfort of my knife’s worn hilt.
“What would you have us do? What is it you needed to wait for?”
Avernus’ lips spread into a dry, thin smile. “Ah… warriors,” he murmured. “You have shown your prowess to come this far. Some have tried… none survived. As I unbind the circles, there will be wave upon wave of demons. I cannot perform the rituals without someone to protect me. Cut down the creatures, give me time, and it shall all be done.”
Alistair made a small, discomfited noise in the back of his throat. “Huh. Well, we are good at killings things, aren’t we?”
I wrinkled my nose and shot him a semi-disapproving look.
“The rituals need no blood,” Avernus added, and there seemed to be a touch of wheedling in his voice. “Or, if you prefer, leave now, and allow this place to crumble to dust. But, when I am gone, I cannot guarantee my spells will hold. Of course, that may well not be your concern….”
Lovely. So, we were to choose between aiding the blood mage and throwing ourselves at pack after pack of demons, or fleeing and waiting to see if they overwhelmed the valley before the darkspawn arrived, or whether the horde would get here first.
The weariness of being confronted with an impossible choice coursed through me, and I sighed.
“All right. You’ve made your point.”
We followed him right up to the highest point of the tower. I suppose I’d expected some great, melodramatic scene in a vast chamber, like at the Circle Tower, with occult runes and glowing glyphs of warding, and all kinds of magical paraphernalia.
What we got, however, was a long, low room right in the attics, obviously once used as a supply store. Dusty crates, sacks, and boxes were pushed back against the walls, and the atmosphere was heavy, greasy and thick. Energy crackled on the air, and I heard Wynne gasp softly as she mounted the stairs behind me.
“Here,” Avernus wheezed, hobbling to the mid-point of the room, the single torch he’d brought with him flaring brightly in one crabbed hand.
He set in an iron sconce on the wall, and began fumbling about in a bag that lay near one of the crates, eventually drawing out candles that he proceeded to light from the guttering flame.
At first, I didn’t see anything special about the chamber; just the bare stone of the tower’s outer wall, and swathes of cobwebs hanging down from the rafters like silken ropes. The mage was scrubbing one slipper-shod foot at the floor, though, as he began setting out the candles, and as my gaze followed the action, I could make out countless tightly scrawled sigils, drawn in chalk on the rough boards. There definitely were warding glyphs, then, and runes and symbols and Maker alone knew what else… but so many that they were indecipherable, and apparently virtually ingrained into the wood.
The rustle of cloth and feathers at my shoulder announced Morrigan slinking forwards, and she seemed fascinated.
“Most impressive,” she murmured, taking care neither to step on nor smudge any of the hundreds of intricate, bisecting lines and curves. “Some of these I have never even seen in books.”
I took Alistair’s muttered ‘huh’ to be an observation of the fact that suggested she was familiar with more than just the basic principles of demons, necromancy, and all those other things the Chantry frowned so very heavily upon, but didn’t comment. Personally, I doubted very much that anyone growing up under Flemeth’s aegis would have escaped such knowledge, but that didn’t help me feel any more comfortable with it.
“You will assist me,” Avernus said, reaching out and gripping her wrist. “Stand here. You know the principles of Lividius’ Vetito Arcana?”
Morrigan stiffened at his touch, and I was faintly surprised to see her obey, after a very brief moment’s hesitation.
“Well enough,” she said, slipping into the position Avernus indicated.
He waved at the centre of the floor, where I could see what looked like a break in the chalk markings. The more I stared, they seemed to take on a fluid, sinuous set of shapes, like circles interconnected with one another, but tied together by great snakes of runes and symbols. The lines wound over and around each other, but it was possible to begin seeing distinct areas within them, worn into the wood and shrouded with years of dust. It looked like some parts had been retouched over time, and I was put in mind of a painter, never happy with his work and always altering tiny details.
Was that what Avernus had been doing here? It gave me indescribable shivers to think of the old man scrabbling around this musty floor, his wizened body contorted as he strained to reach the most intricate glyphs.
“There.” He pointed to the gap I’d identified in the markings. “Quickly, now… they will feel it, and they will attempt to resist. Be ready.”
Fear congealed in the pit of my stomach, leaden and wet. It seemed so ridiculous to be walking into this, and though I told myself we had no choice, my feet were still unwilling to move.
It was Sten who took up position first, striding across the floor with a muttered string of resentful words half-hidden under his breath, and his massive greatsword drawn. Alistair fell to giving out truncated shorthands of command, and I was grateful for how easy it was to follow his voice.
We’d fought together often enough, all of us, to know how this needed to work, but never had we stood united, preparing to face an enemy without knowing from where it would come. My pulse hammered, my eyes stinging with the effort of staring into every dark corner and firelit shadow.
We were back to back, all of us, a rough circle within the mage’s ritual space. To my left, Wynne was breathing heavily, her eyes fixed on Morrigan and Avernus.
“I do not like this,” she murmured, perhaps more to herself than me, though I grunted in assent.
Behind me, I could hear the whispered tail of a prayer from Leliana and, to my right, Zevran was deathly still and silent, yet poised like a snake. Levi stood in the far corner of the chamber, by the stairway, pressed up against the stones and whimpering, his face pale and waxy. I remember thinking it was brave of him not to run and—as Avernus began to chant in that low, rasping tone—for some reason I thought of my cousin Soris, who I’d considered braver than me ever since he showed up in the middle of Arl Urien’s estate with a sword in his hand that he didn’t know how to use.
The first demon came then, and I didn’t even see where it sprang from.
A mage once told me that the Veil is not a static, unchanging thing, not a barrier or a boundary, but merely a way of thinking. To cross it is, some say, no more than a matter of opening one’s eyes. The Chantry would disagree, but that is not surprising, because it would mean accepting the idea that demons and spirits—and even the souls of dreamers—are around us always, and that, just maybe, our mortal state was never the pinnacle of the Maker’s creation, or even His intent.
I wouldn’t profess an opinion, but at that moment I would have believed it.
The creature seemed to come tearing out of the air itself, and I wondered what I’d expected: some kind of obvious portal, something that actually looked like a gateway, perhaps. It would have been easier… but then anything would have been easier than this monster of cold shadows and draining, hideous darkness.
It was a whirlwind of screaming, sucking violence, and trying to strike at it was like hitting loose sand. Wynne cast a bolt of magic directed squarely at the centre of its shifting, billowing form, and it seemed to weaken the demon. Lightning arced above my head—Morrigan, I assumed—and the sound of Avernus’ rough chanting tore at the swirl of weakness that seemed to envelop me.
The things didn’t even have the decency to come one at a time. No sooner had we started to get the measure of the first demon than there were shades everywhere, and then the roaring, terrible heat of a rage demon, fire raining down through the darkness.
I fought as best as I could, taking up a stance slightly in front of Wynne, and deafened to most of the terror of the battle’s noise by the rushes and ripping sounds of her spells shooting past me. I had my two daggers in hand, twin blades too often scything through bodies that hadn’t enough form to be hurt by them.
Oh, some of the things we could kill. They came through, seeking and probing for a way to clothe themselves in flesh, and as they began to pull energy around themselves—our energy, and that of the hundreds of years’ worth of dead banked up in this place—we cut them down, and heard them shriek and howl.
Stories I’d read as a child, those tales from the books Father never approved of and Mother said weren’t real anyway, drifted back through my mind. Naïve princesses courted by demons in disguise, then dragged away to prisons in the Fade, or travellers beguiled by wraiths and spirits, only to die beside their fires, wasting away into the mist… those things seemed more real now than I’d ever believed they could.
We fought, shoulder to shoulder, back to back, blades and bodies in constant motion. Maethor was a ceaseless force, darting between the spiralling forms and, I thought, possibly the least touched by them. Wave after wave of the creatures broke through, but gradually I felt things begin to change. The summoning circles Avernus had spoken of were to be unwound, one by one, and as the first and then the second were unravelled by his rituals—dark light and ancient, terrible words that cut through the air above my head—the demons redoubled their efforts. They were fighting for their very survival, for everything they craved and pursued, but so were we.
They struck at us with all the weapons they had. They took forms that were calculated to terrify—towering pillars of boiling flesh, enormous maws gaping with teeth, giant spiders and scorpions and Maker alone knew what else—or took no forms at all, and simply seeped into the air around us until only magic could tackle them.
By turns, we were fighting tooth and nail for our lives against vicious, terrible foes, and then relegated to almost standing around doing nothing, while Wynne or Morrigan was forced to unleash a violent burst of energy.
It seemed to go on forever. We were all tiring—more so than normal with the demons’ unnatural weakening of both flesh and spirit—and I was terrified that we would either fail before Avernus’ ritual was done, or that we would grow so weak that we could not fend them off. I had no desire to be forced to fight the possessed body of someone I called a companion, nor to lose myself to that fate… or the possibility of finding myself trapped in the Fade again.
It was probably that which gave me the impetus to keep going, and the same might have been true for Alistair and Leliana. Zevran, I worried for; I could see him weakening, his injured arm evidently causing him great pain, and more than twice he overextended himself, almost making foolish errors that could easily have cost him dearly.
Still, we were making progress, however slow it seemed. With three of the five circles unbound, Sten now held one side of the chamber, benefiting from the opportunity to swing his sword as it was meant. He was unstoppable, shifting in seamless arcs between stances, his blade only outmanoeuvred by his anger at the very nature of these creatures.
Light echoed off the stonework, and the crackle of magical energy dispersing against the walls made it through my fuzzy head like a sound heard underwater. My vision was blurred, and bright spots danced in front of my eyes, the heat of yet another rage demon searing my skin. Wynne flung an ice spell at it, though her aim was weak, and the spell itself seemed incomplete. I moved to strike at the part of the thing that was fire turned to solid ice, but it wasn’t entirely frozen, and a fist that might as well have been made of molten rock smashed into my arm, sending one of my daggers spinning.
I cussed, brought the second blade around, and managed to catch a fissure in the boiling, hissing ice that was already turning back to flame. The thing stank like a swamp in high summer, that smell of burning gas and stagnant death, and it howled as it flew at us again. I yelled, its proximity scalding my skin, and struck blindly, only dimly aware of the shades that were diving and swirling around us like vultures. I thought I heard Alistair cry out, and then there was another tremendous flash, and it seemed that the fourth circle was undone.
We were nearly there… so very nearly there. Pain burst in every muscle I possessed, and yet I was hardly aware of it. As the rage demon finally fell to Wynne’s attack, my attention was focused on the next wave of the creatures, and the taste of victory that was so close, bursting like the promise of ripe fruit on my tongue.
It was as the last shade fell, in a howl of dark claws and fury, that I heard Morrigan scream. It was a sound I hadn’t thought she was capable of making—a raw, tearing peal of pain, and true fear.
I spun, in time to see her doubling over, Avernus’ palm splayed on her bare shoulder. Light pooled around them—a vivid, burning corona of ice-blue and purple—and yet darkness seemed to be spreading beneath her pale skin. It was like the sickness that comes in those taken by the darkspawn taint, but it was moving faster… he was making it move faster. He must have been; I could see the wetness of a bloodstain seeping across the front of her robes, and the coiling, liquid tendrils of the blood itself rising from the wound, feeding his power.
The mage was draining her, and from the look on his face—contorted so far past anything resembling human it was as if he’d never been a man at all—he was relishing every second of it.
I ducked beneath Sten’s outstretched arm as the qunari surged forwards, throwing his weight at the demon. The hiss of contact and the ragged, dark smell of burning flesh assailed me, and something like black, feathered wings seemed to be above us. Another wraith of some kind, I supposed, but bigger than the other shades. I felt cold, and the room pitched and lurched around me, a grainy kind of bitterness filling my mouth and nose, like flakes of ash in the air.
Maethor broke from the melee and bounded ahead of me, and I heard Zevran’s rough, gasping breaths at my side. We reached Avernus as the mabari jumped, his trap-like jaws open in a great, fierce snarl, and I registered only that Zev was bleeding as he lunged in front of me, a whirl of steel, golden skin, and scarlet-streaked hair.
Morrigan dropped to the ground, a discarded and broken doll slipping from the mage’s grasp, the black wetness of a bloody wound spreading across her stomach. I grabbed the shoulders of her robes, my fingers locked on coarse, greasy cloth and the cool, ruffled edges of feathers as I dragged her to the side of the chamber. She was heavy, an unmoving, unresponsive weight, and those webbed dark lines spread beneath her skin, mottling the pale flesh. The scream of rage Avernus gave tore through the air above me and, as Levi darted from his place of relative safety behind the boxes and helped me pull Morrigan back, he stared at me with wide, terrified eyes.
“He’s gone mad!”
“No,” I managed, the taste of blood welling behind my lips, “not ‘gone’.”
That left the trader bug-eyed and confused, but there wasn’t time to explain. I left Morrigan’s body in his care, making sure he applied pressure to the wound across her front, and darted back to the fight.
Avernus had already begun to change.
He’d straightened up, staff discarded, but it didn’t end there. He was growing, shifting, his flesh rearranging itself as I stared. Boiling masses of it spilled forth, as if his skin was going to burst, yet his body did not rupture. He just… changed, and I cursed myself for being so blind, so stupid, and so eager to embrace the word of a man who I’d believed was a Grey Warden, as if that meant there was no way he could have been an abomination.
I saw Sten turn, and the moment of shock that lit those bright, violet eyes gave way to sudden, terrible anger, as if the creature Avernus had become offended him right to the very core. He roared, and charged as Zevran went skidding along the boards, the ritual chalk marks and scrawled runes now irreparably smudged. I saw Zev getting up, spitting and swearing in Antivan, and ran for the back of the abomination, already drawing my sword.
Wynne was virtually invisible inside a swirling storm of light and energy. Magic cracked and broke in waves against the walls, and I realised she was trying to complete the unbinding of the last circle herself. We had to give her that time.
I swung my blade at the nearest bit of the abomination I could reach. What had been identifiable as a man was now a raging tower of flesh, the dark flights of the demons’ power surging around him, and every inch of him subsumed in masses of raw, weltering meat. The tattered rags of Avernus’ robes hung from the creature, and I saw Maethor brushed away by one huge, clawed arm. The hound yelped, colliding with one of the shades still roiling in the centre of the chamber, where Alistair and Leliana were trying to provide Wynne with enough cover to seal the fifth circle.
My sword met the resistance of flesh and muscle, and the stench of decay and stale blood washed over me, mixed with the stink of sweat and terror. I could hear Alistair yelling at the demon he was fighting to just shut up and die, his voice broken through with exhausted desperation, and I knew we couldn’t hold out much longer. Whether this had been a trap or a disaster didn’t matter… just that it ended.
Zevran seemed to echo my sentiments as he launched himself at the abomination again, ducking and twisting to avoid the vile, crackling ball of dark lightning that swelled between its talons, then arced out, scorching the floor.
“Muori, figlio di puttana bastardo!” he swore, his poisoned blades raking twin paths down the creature’s chest.
Its back bowed, and it roared, only for Sten to bring his sword down in a great sweep that should have cleaved it in two, and yet barely seemed to stun the thing. I drove my blade into what would have been its spine, and those great, shiny pustules of amorphous flesh, bursting from within the ruined rags of robes, oozed with dark, stinking liquid, like blood that had long been tainted and congealed.
Bile rose in my throat as the smell lodged itself deep in my lungs. I knew that wasn’t how my own blood looked—Maker knew I was shedding enough of it at that point to be intimately familiar with its colour and consistency—but the sight of that foul stuff still seemed to burn into me, to whisper things of my future… and of the Grey Wardens’ secrets, long past.
I swung again, stabbed again, landing blow after blow alongside Zevran and Sten. Whether the magebane was beginning to work, or whether we had simply sustained a long enough assault to finally be having an effect, I wasn’t sure, but the abomination seemed to be weakening.
Where Avernus’ face had been, there was now a mottled, disfigured and distended growth of flesh, like a twisted rope of skin encircling the creature’s head. It should have rendered it blind, yet the rheumy, red-hawed orb of one eye was still visible, rolling madly in a withered socket as a mouth with little left in the way of lips opened in an endless scream, showing yellowed stumps of teeth. One claw-tipped hand reached out, catching at Zevran and—from the way the breath choked in his throat, his body suddenly turning taut—I knew the creature was trying to take control of him, using the same vile magic it had drawn on Morrigan’s power, and that of all these demons, to summon.
Its raw, visceral growls seemed to whet the air’s edges, and as Maethor and I were both summarily blown back by a blast of magical energy that knocked the wind from me, even Sten was momentarily unfooted. All the while, Zevran struggled in its grasp, and I was sure we would lose him, perhaps as we had already lost Morrigan.
I heard Wynne’s voice cutting through the rancid, crowded air then, intoning words whose shapes were ancient and alien to me… and yet familiar.
The Litany of Adralla.
I’d forgotten about it, but she’d learned the spell back in the Circle Tower, and it was just as effective against the blood magic of this abomination as it had been against Uldred.
The creature howled and thrashed, but let Zevran go, relinquishing the control it had been trying to force into his mind. Sten took advantage of its confusion, cannoning into the corrupted, mutated body and sending it sprawling into the ranks of old crates and boxes at the edge of the chamber. We piled after it, as eye-bruising flashes of light and the sound of magic breaking in arcs lit the rafters. On its back, all flesh and black blood, and the soiled tatters of ancient silk, the abomination hissed and tried to summon one last, vicious spell. A crusted, swollen eye stared at me from above that lipless, snarling maw, and I drove my sword down into its head, all my weight behind the movement. I felt the crack of bone, the pressure of resistance, and the struggles of the creature scything its way through the last of its tricks for survival. Blood seeped around my blade, thick and viscous and dark, and a high-pitching keening filled my ears, the air like wet sand on my skin, the smells of death, heat, and corruption choking me.
Finally, it was still. My head echoed with light and noise, the sound of my breathing ragged and harsh. My sword hung heavily in my fingers as I pulled it from the abomination’s corpse, and that thick, dark blood eased greasily down the blade’s gully.
I swallowed the bitter taste of copper and death, and looked blearily up at Sten. He was grimy with ash and streaked with gore, his white braids thickly fringed with dirt, although he already seemed to be regaining his composure. I envied him that ability to move so swiftly between the vivid whirl of violence and that calm, almost philosophical demeanour of his.
“It would have been well if it had been done quicker,” he observed, looking down at the remains of the abomination.
I nodded uncertainly. “Maybe.”
Perhaps he was right, but perhaps not. It hardly seemed to matter whether Avernus had meant to use us as pawns—to bring the demons to the gate, feed off them as we cut them down, and then erupt into this monster and feed off us just as easily—or whether it had been accidental and he had simply, finally, lost control after a century of solitude and the slow poisoning of the taint, together with all that forbidden knowledge.
All the same, I couldn’t help thinking of Uldred, and what he’d said about mages shedding their larval forms… becoming something greater, something glorious. There seemed to be no glory in this. None at all.
Zevran appeared to share my sentiments. He stood close by, panting and muttering to himself, his lips curled into a sneer of distaste. Blood marked one side of his face, a strange mirror to the tattoos that hugged his other cheek, and a wound on his forehead had allowed a tide of red to seep into his pale hair.
“Pezzo di cazzo brutto stronzo… cazzo di merda…,” he grumbled as he eyed the mutated corpse, spitting on the floorboards and then pressing the back of his hand to his mouth. “Ahi, la mia faccia! Merda, che fanno male….”
I hadn’t the faintest idea what it meant, but it sounded like an education.
Zevran caught my eye, and gave me a look that would probably have been a weak smile if he hadn’t been so busy being sore and covered in blood.
“I am all right,” he assured me, lowering his hand. “And you?”
I nodded again, surprised by how well I’d actually survived the fight. We had faced scores of demons, shades, wraiths and assorted horrors I wasn’t even sure there were names for, not to mention the blood mage abomination, and all I had to show for it was a mixed set of contusions, flesh wounds and scrapes.
The small pulse of triumph I felt at that dissipated immediately as my fuzzy, worn-out mind returned to Morrigan.
Behind the makeshift barricade of crates and boxes, Levi was still crouched over her pale form. He’d stripped to his shirtsleeves and covered her with his jerkin, his hand still pressing down on the wound to her stomach. He looked up as I approached, his eyes pools of terrified awe and his face clammy.
“Warden! I never…. Maker, that was… well, I thought we was all done for!”
I looked down at Morrigan’s unmoving form. She seemed smaller somehow, her robes spilling out in darkness around her; eyes closed and mouth slack. The swoops and scars of shadow she painted herself with were unevenly worn off, with smudges at her lips and creases ingrained along her eyelids. That delicate, elaborate knot of hair had begun to unravel, and a few coarse, dark strands clung to her cheeks. Her skin had a greasy, waxy sheen, but the threads of corruption I had seen so vividly beneath her flesh had subsided, and now seemed nothing more than shadows running the length of her arms and throat.
I frowned. “Is she…?”
“Still breathing,” Levi said quietly. “I think.”
“Right.” I turned, and forced unwilling, wobbly legs to push me to the centre of the chamber, the tip of my still-bloody sword scraping against the floor as I stumbled. “Wynne?”
She was half-kneeling amid the mess of blurred, scuffed chalk markings.
Alistair was by her side, supporting her arm, and his white-faced look of concern had me worried. Wynne waved her free hand dismissively, as if to say she was all right, but even from where I stood I could see her fingers tremble. Her eyes were half-closed, and her skin was pale to the point of greyness, her whole body bent and stooped.
“I… I just fell,” she protested. “That’s all. Clumsy old fool. Not as young as I was, I admit.”
They were empty platitudes, and I saw Leliana shoot me a steel-eyed look from behind the mage’s head. She was bloodied too, as was Alistair, and I noticed the way he was limping, though I knew it would have been pointless to mention it while he was so clearly worried about Wynne.
“Can you…?” I hated to ask it of her, but I pointed hopelessly at where Morrigan lay. “I-I don’t know what he did, but—”
Wynne nodded grimly and, with a reassuring pat of Alistair’s hand, she relieved herself of his support and went to kneel beside Levi, peeling back the jerkin to examine the witch’s wounds.
From the look on her face, it wasn’t good news.
“Blood magic,” Alistair muttered bitterly, shaking his head. “You know, if I’d taken my vows… they teach templars to counter spells, t-to… cleanse….” He gesticulated vaguely, swaying a little, and frowned. “I could have… couldn’t I? I should’ve… thing….”
I closed my eyes for a moment. Sodding man couldn’t hear an ant sneeze without blaming himself for giving it a cold.
“You fought bravely, Alistair,” Leliana said, taking his arm and guiding him towards the edge of the chamber. “Don’t allow yourself to think anything different. Now, you should take the weight off that leg, don’t you agree?”
“Huh?” He peered down at himself, as if apparently only just remembering that the limb was attached to him, and winced. “Oh. Ow. Yes, I do feel a bit… light-headed, actually. Think I’ll just… um.”
Leliana propped him on a crate and started rummaging through the meagre pouches and supply bags she had hung about herself, doubtless searching for any bandages and wound balms left over after the day’s exertions. He gazed gratefully at her, and a sudden leaden feeling grasped my stomach, twisting and pinching.
I bit the inside of my cheek, swallowed the stupid impulses, and went to see if I could help Wynne.
Volume 3: Chapter Fifteen
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