Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
My companions, I suspected, thought I was being sentimental, or that I’d been swayed by all those ruined dregs of Grey Warden history. Wynne, quite possibly, thought I was possessed.
I plucked at her sleeve as we straightened out the Warden-Commander’s quarters, picking through the worst of the mess for anything resembling useful information.
She looked up from what had been Sophia’s desk, still clutching a sheaf of old scraps of parchment… letters, by the looks of it, crusted with grubby traces of wax seals and written in old, archaic hands.
“Are you all right, my dear?”
I nodded, and edged around the desk so I could talk more quietly to her. Alistair and Sten were removing the old Warden-Commander’s body, still encased in that heavy, liveried armour, and my stomach revolted as I watched Zevran stroll nonchalantly after them, carrying Sophia’s rotten, desiccated head in his one good hand. The dry traces of bile rose on the back of my tongue, and I swallowed hard.
“Mm-hm. The… the demon, though. Why did it…? I mean, why was I…? I thought it was only mages who… you know.”
Wynne smiled thinly, those clear blue eyes ringed with tiredness. “It’s not weakness, if that’s what you’re thinking. Ordinarily, yes, demons only interact with us from within the Fade. To you, it would be little more than a bad dream; but, to a mage, it is a far more dangerous thing.”
“But….” I frowned, confused. “I wasn’t dreaming. We weren’t—”
She shook her head. “Indeed, it isn’t always so. The tearing of the Veil—and whatever else the Grey Wardens did here—has made more things possible than it should have. That creature sensed you,” she added, those long, tough fingers closing gently upon the bundle of papers as she looked solemnly at me, “and it saw your determination. It saw you are the one who leads us. That is what made you a target. Not weakness.”
I wasn’t sure what to say to that. Part of me was convinced it was a lie, a sop to stop me feeling too sorry for myself. The rest of me was just flat-out terrified.
I nodded slowly. “Right. Um… thank you?”
Wynne smiled again, more warmly this time, though the fatigue still hung heavily on her face.
“Believe it or not, it is a compliment. Although, after this, I confess… I am not eager to see what awaits us in that tower.”
I grimaced. “Me neither. She… it… wanted us to kill the mage. The one that tore the Veil in the first place, but he can’t still be alive, can he? Not after all this time?”
The reasonable assumption—that we had another shrivelled, demon-inhabited corpse to look forward to—fringed my words, and Wynne didn’t say anything to disabuse me. She shook her head, her lips pressed tightly together, and lowered her gaze to the papers she still held.
“I don’t know.”
It wasn’t much of a comfort.
Little by little, we began to piece things together. The papers from Sophia’s desk included letters—fragile, old, and difficult to read, but clues all the same—from several banns who had suffered under King Arland’s reign.
One, a Bann Mathuin Wulff, had written in desperation, begging for help after the king blotted out an entire noble line in retribution for what he called treason. If Wulff was to be believed, the arl in question had done nothing more than question the king’s spending on his household’s Wintersend festivities, but there were other papers too… and they suggested there had been rebellion brewing in the Bannorn long before Arland turned on the Wardens, and Sophia Dryden dragged them into the mess.
“If Duncan was here….” Alistair began wistfully, but he never finished the sentence, and just let it trail off to an empty, sore silence before he shrugged abruptly. “Well, he’s not, is he? I don’t know what’s for the best. Maybe, if we can make contact with the Wardens in Orlais, or the Free Marches or something, we could start making sense of all this.”
Morrigan snorted. She had picked through a few of the bodies with desultory interest, but not helped much with the clean-up or investigation. Now, she was leaning against the wall, next to one of the cobweb-strewn oil paintings, which apparently showed the Peak in its glory days. All I could see through the thick layers of grime was shadows and the suggestion of stonework.
“Surely you have more immediate concerns than this? Look around you. This place is dead, a ruin. Of what possible use is it now?”
I straightened up from the pile of greasy bones I was shifting. She had a point, but she was still talking about Grey Warden history, about our losses and failings and, no matter how distant they were, Alistair still felt that keenly.
He set his jaw and I flattered myself that I knew what he was thinking, that I could see the outrage and irritation in his eyes, behind the fatigue and weariness. Someone had to step in between them again, I thought. Despite their carping and sniping keeping him sane—keeping him focused on the present when it would have been so much easier to fold beneath the weight of grief and impossibility—we didn’t need the kind of ructions Morrigan could cause right now.
“What’s left intact is sturdy,” I said, glancing at the chamber’s thick stone walls. “Fair enough, it’s a mess but—if it can be purged—this could be a safe place when the horde comes.”
Sten grunted disapprovingly, his presence a dark bulk by the doorway. He smelled of the sour, gritty pyre smoke that was now billowing in the Peak’s foregate. We’d hauled the bodies up, like we did with darkspawn, and set them burning, thanks to Wynne’s magefire, and maybe it wasn’t a good idea to send up a signal that would be visible to whatever was loitering in the rest of the fortress… but, whatever was waiting for us, I supposed we’d already given away our presence.
At that moment, Sten’s virtually tangible disapproval was far more of a worry, and I shot him a questioning look.
“This will be no shelter,” he said darkly, “even if you intend to hide.”
“I didn’t say me,” I retorted, fatigue dimming my sense of diplomacy. “There are villages out there, past the foothills. Farmsteads, trading posts… people who won’t know about it all until it’s too late, if Loghain has his way, and people who won’t be able to get to Denerim. Anyway, I thought part of the Grey Wardens’ duty was to protect people against the Blight.”
“Your duty is to end it.” Sten didn’t snap. He didn’t need to. He just stood there, massive and implacable, and made me feel a complete idiot with his unnervingly bright, unblinking stare. “The peasants will rebuild.”
I opened my mouth, prepared to argue. After all, most of my life had been spent two rungs lower than peasantry… I didn’t like the thought of abandoning people to the ravages of the darkspawn horde if there was something we could offer to help them.
It was a stupid thought, though; a stupid idea. One glance around me was enough to confirm that, so I squared my shoulders and tried to pretend I just wasn’t dignifying the qunari with a response.
“Let’s just get a move on, shall we?”
Morrigan pushed lazily away from the wall and rolled her neck, as if she was stretching out the kinks after a doze.
“Indeed. ’Twould seem pointless to quarrel over niceties before the battle is won. Besides, you may all be dead long before the archdemon even bothers to emerge.”
Alistair snorted. “‘We’ might be? Huh. If I go, I’m taking you with me.”
The smile she shot him was mirthless yet cruel and, for the briefest of moments, I was reminded of the decorative string of limpet shells that had hung in Alarith’s shop and fascinated me when I was a child. Shiny, hard, white things, threaded onto rough string. Just a docker’s trinket, made from washed-up discards, but they seemed so exotic and alien then.
I shook my head. “Come on. Let’s go.”
We didn’t encounter any more walking dead, or demons, or any other inexplicable horrors as we left the keep and—leaving the central courtyard to the flames and gritty, swirling flakes of ash—pressed deeper into the fortress, and towards the mage tower that lay at its far side.
There were plenty of other buildings: kennels, stables, and what had probably once been a convivial little tavern, albeit unofficial. The amount of broken pottery and smashed furniture suggested as much, though it had all been dragged into barricades that had since been pulled apart, or perhaps burned into one of the many ashy smears that marked the boards.
I thought of what Alistair had said, about it seeming as if Asturian had wanted to make a city of this place, and it felt very wrong to see somewhere that had clearly been so full of life reduced to these befouled ruins. The second tower I’d seen from the keep, that stood to the right of the mage’s eyrie, proved to be nothing more than a crumbled stump, choked up with weeds and fallen masonry. It looked so terribly sad, like the hunched figure of a beggar or a broken statue.
Behind me, I heard Leliana muttering another prayer, the sounds of piety snatched between clenched teeth, and I glanced at Levi. The trader looked pale and clammy, stray wisps of hair clinging to his face as his gaze darted nervously to and from every stone.
“You all right, Levi?”
He looked at me with a mix of relief and sheer terror, and he stumbled, slack-mouthed, over the assurances he wanted to give.
“Oh, y-yes. Yes, Warden, thank you. I-I’m… fine.”
He clearly wasn’t, but I didn’t press the point.
It felt much less strange than it had to hear myself addressed that way. I didn’t contemplate it particularly—not just then—but perhaps my back did straighten a little as I walked ahead, picking my way over the broken masonry and swathes of corpseweed.
To me, the mage tower didn’t look much different from the rest of the Peak: just another broken tooth in a corroded jaw, a husk of a thing in stone and rotten timber, standing forgotten at the far end of the fortress. Yet, as we approached it, Morrigan’s steps slowed, and I heard the tip of her iron staff dragging on the ground. I turned, and saw the witch hanging back, looking positively recalcitrant. Those golden eyes were narrowed to slits, her head tipped up as she stared up at the tower.
Ahead of her, Wynne and Alistair both paused and glanced back.
“What’s the matter?” he sneered. “Scared? What happened to ‘this must be ended properly’, hmm?”
Wynne tutted, perhaps readying a reproach, but Morrigan was already glaring sourly at him.
“You are supposed to be a templar, are you not?” she asked sharply, the tautness in her voice only a thin cloak over what sounded horribly like nervousness. “I thought they taught you to sense magic. And you…! You, old woman, who profess to be a powerful mage… surely you are as blind as you are weak.”
Wynne’s face hardened, though she didn’t rise to the insult. It seemed clear that Morrigan’s viciousness was that of a cornered animal, and that made me uneasy. I hadn’t seen her so reluctant to face anything before. At my side, Maethor growled softly, wet nose nudging against my palm. My fingers curled reflexively around his muzzle, and his hot breath seemed like the only thing that was honest and real in this cobwebbed, forgotten place.
“What is it, Morrigan?” I asked, trying to keep my voice even. “More demons? After Soph— after the last one,” I corrected, out of feeling for Levi, who was loitering behind Leliana, looking pallid and terrified, “we know what to expect. We can be prepared. We can—”
She gave me a look of pure venom, the thin light making her skin look ashy and unhealthy. It must have already been heading towards late afternoon; we’d spent the best part of the day picking through the bones of this place, and there would still be much to do before we could take our rest.
Zevran prowled at the back of the group, scuffing at the undergrowth that scrambled over the broken masonry littering the ground. He’d shucked off his sling, and had that small vial of magebane in his fingers again, frowning as he dripped the liquid along the edge of his blade. He peered at me with one eyebrow raised, but said nothing.
“Huh.” Morrigan scoffed, taking a step backwards and sending a challenging glare around us all. “None of you, then? You are fools, every last one of you!”
She was starting to scare me. Wynne cleared her throat and, when she spoke, steel lingered beneath the conciliatory tone in her voice.
“This is certainly a place of great power. It… may be possible that this is the point at which the Veil was torn, in which case—”
“You can expect more than a dried-up corpse shambling around an empty chamber.” Morrigan grimaced. “I feel it. Great power… but it is unclear.”
She turned that piercing scowl back to Wynne, and the mage winced as she inclined her head.
“Yes,” she admitted, glancing at the rest of us. “There are strong enchantments on this place. Very strong. It is as if something—someone—has gone to great lengths to ensure that whatever is within this tower remains, I don’t know… obscured.”
I frowned. That didn’t sound good—and it didn’t sound like the sort of thing a demon trapped in a decomposing corpse was capable of, either.
“Bound,” Morrigan corrected darkly.
I couldn’t help thinking of the creatures of fire—the rage demons—or the sloth demon that had ensnared us all, back in the Circle Tower. I had no desire to run the risk of losing myself in the Fade again… no desire at all.
Alistair wrinkled his nose. “Blood magic,” he muttered bitterly. “It just never ends well. Had you noticed?”
The corner of Wynne’s mouth twitched. “Indeed. We shall have to be careful.”
Morrigan muttered under her breath, but didn’t argue. I surveyed the rank of tense, white faces. It would have been easier if there had been some tangible sense of foreboding… even scavenger birds circling the tops of the walls would have been something, but there wasn’t even a crow in sight. All there was between us and the tower—the den of the Grey Warden maleficarum, as if such a thing actually seemed possible, despite what we’d learned—was a deathly, terrible silence.
“All right. Let’s work out how we’re getting in.”
There were two entrances to the tower that we found. The first was at the foot of it, overgrown and blocked by fallen stones and a remarkably well-preserved, entirely intact door, all thick oak and wrought iron. To begin with, it wouldn’t budge, but as the second seemed to be a long-decayed bridge connecting one of the upper floors to the first of the fortress’ outer walls, we decided ground level was the distinctly safer option.
Forcing the warped wood to give way fell to Sten and—as he grunted and strained at the door, shifting the masonry and cracking the old timbers—I squinted up at the great, black shadow of the tower. Like the rest of the Peak, its glory days must have been wonderful. Beneath my feet, the corpseweed and moss shielded paving stones that would have sparkled in the sunlight… and it looked as if there might even have been a well, horse troughs, and some kind of pleasant little courtyard between this and the back end of the farthest barracks.
It made too many ill memories surface, however; too many dark associations. I struggled not to think of the Circle of Magi, with its grim hallways and blood-soaked floors, or of Ishal, where it had, perhaps, all begun.
Where we first failed Cailan, and Duncan….
Silly thoughts, I told myself. If Loghain had betrayed the king, then he’d chosen his course long before the battle started, not at the point that beacon was delayed, and he would have to answer for if— no, when this was all over.
Somehow, it was so much easier to cling to the image of Loghain the traitor, rather than admit the perilous tremble of the ground beneath my feet. The Grey Wardens who failed to light the beacon in time… who betrayed the king. The order who summoned demons, and rose up against monarchs. Rebels, outlaws, and necromancers….
“What are you thinking?”
I flinched and caught my breath as the words, and the soft clink of armour fitments, announced Alistair’s presence at my shoulder. The sunlight was growing watery and, when I glanced at him, it seemed that the smudges of shadow it threw over his reddened skin were ground in like ash. He hadn’t been badly burned by the demons—none of us had—but, for a moment, I thought I should have made sure Wynne had healed every last bruise, chap and scrape before we set foot out of the keep. Could she do that? I wondered. I wasn’t even sure magic could take away every hurt. Maybe we were all meant to be left with some scars, lasting or temporary.
I blinked, and flashed Alistair a small, tight smile.
“Oh, you know… just that there always seems to be something bad at the top of a tower. You’d think people would learn to stop building them.”
He grinned wearily. “Mm. Or at least put in some sort of ramp. I’m not looking forward to the stairs. There’s always so many stairs.”
I chuckled; he did, too, and the sound was warm and familiar. Odd, I supposed, how he could be so vindictive with Morrigan, and yet so kind to me. Of course, she had been tormenting him ever since the Wilds, but… all the same, it made me think.
When Shianni and I were young—little more than children poised on the cusp of girlhood—Mother had warned both of us about the danger in the kindness of humans, and how it was not to be trusted. Especially not the men.
I hadn’t really understood at the time.
Now, as I watched the sunlight lance at the gold in Alistair’s hair, and those hazel eyes crinkle through the grime, it was hard to deny how grateful I was for his presence, his kindness, and his friendship. And yet, sneaking back through the mists of memory, I remembered the hard-fought battle at Redcliffe Castle, and how I’d choked Bann Teagan unconscious after—in his wild possession—he’d attacked me. I remembered how, as I was gasping and spitting blood and teeth, Alistair had shoved me aside to get to the bann’s prone form, and the recollection of the hardness in his voice as he demanded to know what I’d done sent a small spear of discomfort down my spine.
Oh, we’d all changed since then, though. I knew that.
Everything had changed.
I glanced over to the foot of the tower as, with one last grunt and something that sounded like a qunari swearword, Sten managed to get the door open.
Morrigan rose from the piece of broken masonry she’d been sitting on, the feathers at her shoulders ruffling.
“Marvellous. Into the creature’s den, then, yes?”
Sarcasm dripped from her voice. Beside me, Alistair snorted.
“Got over your nerves, have you? And here I was, about to offer to be a gentleman and go first.”
“Do so,” she sneered, glaring at him. “If we are lucky, perhaps there will be traps, still in working order.”
As a group, we had started to filter uneasily towards the dark hole in the stonework, as if it held some kind of magnetic pull. Zevran was closest, already peering into the ruptured doorway. He sniffed, and pulled a face.
“Unlikely, I think. This whole place smells rotten.”
“Careful,” Morrigan warned. “That may just be Alistair.”
He scoffed witheringly. “Oh, yes! Stink jokes. Great. It’s like being back at the monastery….”
“Well, if the boot fits—”
I winced. It was like children… the high, nervous chatter of children trying to disguise their fears. Glancing to my right, I saw Levi wetting his lips, and he gave me a shaky smile, the look on his face one third curiosity and two thirds terror.
“Are they, uh, always…?” he asked, nodding towards Alistair and Morrigan.
“Always,” I said quietly. “You learn to block it out after a while.”
The trader’s smile widened, but he didn’t look much more comfortable. I arched a brow.
“Would you prefer to wait out here? I could leave the hound to guard you.”
Maethor whined quizzically and cocked his ears—mabaris evidently did understand almost every word—but Levi shook his head vigorously.
“Oh, no! No, Warden… I don’t know what might be in there, fair enough, but I don’t reckon much on chickening out now.” He puffed out his scrawny chest, then blinked and deflated a little. “Or on staying out here if you’re all in there, to be honest.”
I smiled. “Fair enough.”
Wynne conjured a small orb of light in her palm, and tossed it into the air like a ball. It stayed there, hovering and moving in a lazy circle around her head, and cast a pale, eerie light on the stones as we ventured inside. For all the tension that led up to our entering the tower, however, the first few rooms we found were a complete anticlimax.
All we found were old supply rooms, bare but for a few dusty crates and rotted sacks, and what had once been service quarters, housing kitchens, wood store, and a small scullery. There was a strong smell of stagnancy and decay, but no sign of anything demonic… or even faintly magical. Still, just one glance at Morrigan had me right on edge; her face was tight and mask-like, those golden eyes wide and alert, like a cat, and her lips drawn into a thin line as we poked through the dust and grime. I looked at Wynne, and saw the same wary trepidation. The orb circling her head cast dancing planes of light over her cheeks, and I nearly flinched at the creak of Sten testing his weight on the staircase that led to the next floor.
“Hmph.” He grunted as the half-rotted treads protested loudly. “Have care. The stone is sound, but the boards are not.”
Zevran smiled mirthlessly as he paced delicately past the qunari, his feet barely making the stairs groan. “Ah, it’s not so bad. You see? Light as feathers, my friend. You know, I once had a dancing teacher who said that most of life is learning how to be light on your feet.”
Alistair furrowed his brow as, in single file, we began to edge up the treacherous staircase. “The Crows give all their assassins dance lessons, do they?”
Even from my position at the back of the group, tailing Levi and with Maethor padding warily beside me, I could positively hear Zevran smirk.
“Did I say I took lessons? I merely said I—”
“What? Oh! Er… right.”
Alistair blushed so hard we almost didn’t need Wynne’s light. The Antivan chuckled to himself, and we processed ever upwards to an orchestra of creaks and groans from the stairway. As Sten had observed, the supports—in fact, most of the tower’s basic structure—was fine, but the wooden treads were another matter. It was the damp, I supposed. Left untended for more than a century, and at the mercy of the traditional cold, wet Fereldan winters, it was small wonder the timbers were so far gone. And at least it wasn’t darkspawn corruption… or the boiling, foul messes of flesh we’d seen in the Circle Tower.
Of course, the apparent quiet was false.
The first creature ripped out from a side-chamber, no sooner than we’d begun investigating the second floor. A shade: the things that were as close to the natural form of demons as it was possible to be in the mortal realm.
It caught at Leliana first. I heard her scream in the split-second I was turning at the sound of movement, and then everything became jumbled and confused. There was just the roar of the thing, and coldness scything through me, part terror and part a strange, physical sensation, like the world was closing in around me and bringing with it only blood and pain.
This was much bigger than the ones in the commander’s quarters; more like the things we’d encountered at Redcliffe. I remembered the words of the blood mage, Jowan, about not letting them see you… and the way they were supposed to feed on mortal souls.
We splintered, endeavouring to confuse the target, and Sten gave a deafening shout in his own tongue. The shade reared up, all swirling blackness and cruel talons, with not so much a face at its heart but a wizened shroud of shadows and vileness. It gave an unearthly, rattling wheeze, like the death-gasp of an old man, and I was readying to strike at it when a blast of ice and magic seared everything in front of me, and left blue spots dancing across my vision.
I swore, staggered back, and heard rather than saw Sten bringing his massive blade in an arc that connected with the demon forcefully enough to shatter its frozen form. A horrible shriek rent the air, and unexpectedly solid blocks of ice scudded across the floor—and, in one case, hit me in the shin.
It was over quickly. To an outsider, it might have looked like efficiency, like a well-honed team acting as one. In truth, we had been taken by surprise, and it could easily have gone badly.
Leliana was clutching her arm, blood welling from beneath the bands of her leather bracer and, as Wynne went to heal her, I was aware of Alistair cussing and wincing.
“…even look where you’re— ow! No, don’t touch it!”
Morrigan scowled. “You are a child. It will wear off in but a moment.”
He looked hopelessly at me. “She froze my hand. My actual hand. Look!”
He was right. The gloved fingers clenched around his sword were blue and frosted with ice—as was the blade itself. I’d never seen anything like it and, though I should probably have been making sympathetic noises, I couldn’t help my fascination. Morrigan tutted irritably.
“Honestly, such fuss. If you were not in the way when I cast the spell—”
“Well, if you ever actually looked where you were throwing your… your fireballs and whatnot—”
“Oh?” Her glower deepened even further. “Perhaps you would like me to throw one now? That should warm you up most effectively.”
Alistair drew breath, undoubtedly to keep arguing, but his hand was already beginning to defrost. I winced as I watched the arcane ice yield, like the fastest winter thaw speeded up, and remembered the pain of winter mornings as a child; playing in the snow, only to come back indoors to the agonising heat of a warm room.
Alistair’s sword clattered to the ground, and he yelped.
He clutched at the hand, eyes watering as he struggled to bend his fingers, flexing them through the pain. The ice had melted, but as I stooped to pick up his sword for him, I saw it wasn’t wet, the way it should have been. It was only slightly damp at the hilt, as if the ice didn’t turn to proper water, but seared away into nothingness, like mist.
“Here.” I held the blade out, pommel first. “All right?”
Alistair nodded, clenching and unclenching his fingers. “Thanks. Is Leliana…?”
He glanced over to where Wynne had now finished healing the bard’s arm, and I went over to investigate, while he pulled off his glove and made a show of inspecting the possible frostbite on his hand, much to Morrigan’s annoyance.
Leliana was fine, though a little sore. Wynne assured me it was nothing but a flesh wound and, privately, I was thankful that demons didn’t spread corruption the way darkspawn did. Everyone else seemed all right; Sten was waiting by the staircase, and I wasn’t sure whether I was getting better at judging qunari body language, or if his posture really did scream impatience.
“We should move,” I said, taking a quick visual inventory of the rest of the group. “Levi? Zevran?”
The trader was looking distinctly queasy again, but nodded and stumbled forwards, peering in alarm at the detritus of battle that still littered the floor. Maethor groaned softly and padded at Levi’s side, nudging his nose into the man’s hand. I smiled to myself, aware of how much the hound’s comfort helped at times like these.
Zevran was the last to file towards the stairs, and he seemed to be tucking something into a pouch at his belt. I raised my brows enquiringly, but he just gave me a small, suave smile.
“Find something interesting?”
“Merely trifles, my dear. Merely trifles.”
“Hm.” I narrowed my eyes as he slipped by me, that scent of leather and oil, tainted with sweat and blood, rising from his golden hair. “Portable ones with a good resale value, I trust.”
Zevran chuckled throatily. “Ah, meraviglioso… so, we are more alike than you think, eh?”
I snorted, and cast one last look around the shattered chamber. It had been some sort of common room once, I thought. Beneath the rot, cobwebs and broken furniture, there seemed to be the traces of old chairs, tables, and maybe even the sorts of curios mages collected around themselves. Zev had a point. It made sense to lift anything valuable that might be worth selling next time we needed to barter for supplies, but this place was so entrenched in filth that I wasn’t sure I wanted to dirty my hands with it… and that, I told myself, was where the Antivan and I were very firmly different.
Things did not improve as we ascended. Alistair observed wryly that this did indeed seem to the case with towers: the more stairs, the more problems, and it all got worse with every floor.
“…abominations, and bits of… yuck all over the place,” he was saying, in response to Zevran having enquired about the Circle Tower. “And there was a sloth demon. They try to trick you… get inside your head. We’ll have to watch out for that,” he added, the levity of sarcasm dropping from his voice and his face growing taut as, I assumed, he remembered the dreams of the Fade.
I remembered them, too: his, and Wynne’s, and Leliana’s, and my own. They had added weight now, with all the sore, bitter truths of Denerim behind us. I supposed the only time my father would live would be in my dreams, and as for Alistair’s hopes of an accepting, loving family… well, they were as good as ashes. I wondered, if something like the sloth demon assailed us again, whether it would be easier to resist. Maybe, or maybe this made us more vulnerable, and we would fall as easy prey to the seductions of dreams.
There wasn’t much opportunity to dwell on the thoughts. We found more shades roaming the damp, empty upper floors, more wraiths and terrible, bone-chilling creatures that swooped straight at the soul, staring with dead, eyeless faces and rending with claws of black steel.
I didn’t understand how—if they were truly demons—they could be so physical, so distinctly of the mortal plane. I clung, then, to the ideas the Chantry taught: that the Fade was a land of dreams, and that the reality we experienced in our waking hours was the one that mattered.
As Wynne had already tried to tell me, it wasn’t true. It isn’t. Not always. The lines that blur the two things are shifting, ever leaching like the mixing of ink into water. Demons, spirits, dreamers… they all gather reality around them like dust, and there is far more to fear than the simple possession of corpses by creatures from beyond the Veil.
By the time we had fought our way to the very top of the tower—that curious kind of eyrie where, in their natural habitats, mages seem to prefer to make their homes—all of us were bruised and bloody, but Wynne and Morrigan had, by far, given the most. They both looked exhausted, and yet neither complained or asked to rest; if anything, they appeared to be trying to outdo each other over who could press hardest or go longest. They certainly shared a grim kind of determination, all set mouths and flint-hard eyes, wordless and pale as energy flared around them in great, crackling arcs.
If I hadn’t been so busy trying to stay alive, I’d have noted with amusement how well they worked together, despite all their differences.
At the Circle Tower, the uppermost floor had been given over to the Harrowing Chamber, and I remembered all too well its high, vaulted ceilings, and the huge, empty spaces that echoed with the screams of abominations. Here, though, there was no such showpiece. The Grey Wardens had evidently had no need of one and, like the rest of the tower, this floor seemed broken up into storage chambers, sleeping quarters, and rooms that had once heaved with books and trinkets. Everything was wrecked now… and I could see that it was less to do with the unforgiving Fereldan winters, as I had first thought, and more the constant passes of a century of demons, their whole beings centred on rage and destruction. It was a wonder the damn place was still standing at all.
“Look at this,” Alistair said, nudging a partly charred book with his boot. “These are records of some kind, I think. Notes, or… something.”
We were standing in a dim, low-ceilinged chamber. The only light apart from Wynne’s orb came from a narrow window, little more than an arrow slit in the thick stone wall. Overhead, heavy wooden beams lousy with worm were hung with cobwebs, and the smell of decay seemed to be in everything. These chambers had been laboratories once, probably: the rat holes of men of learning. There was a long, low bench near where Alistair stood and, behind him, a rank of shelves. They all seemed less disturbed than the furniture in the lower chambers, still covered with long-discarded drifts of brittle paper and yellowed books, and we hadn’t encountered anything unpleasant since the floor below.
I glanced at Wynne, and found her looking tight-lipped and cautious.
“Let me see that,” she murmured, moving stiffly to Alistair’s side.
We had yet to encounter any trace of the old Warden mage—or his demon-possessed corpse, or any permutation of animated bones—and I supposed Wynne’s trepidation was something we all shared. Everything could still get worse, after all. Perhaps not the most optimistic view to cultivate, but definitely plausible.
I followed her, peering down curiously at the book Alistair had found. It was huge, like one of the massive, illuminated volumes of the Chant and collected sermons I’d seen priests read from on the lecterns in Denerim’s cathedral. It wasn’t filled with jewel-like colours and marvellous words, though, but page after fragile page of discoloured writing. Much of it was illegible—certainly to me—and the paper held several unpleasant-looking stains, but the letters I could make out looked terse and clinical, as if the writer had squeezed everything they wanted to say into some kind of condensed shorthand.
Wynne’s brow furrowed. “They are notes. Notes from someone’s experiments, or… I don’t know. It mentions tests, and here there is a complaint of ‘a deficiency of subjects; only three are left’.”
Her hand hovered over the book, but she seemed unwilling to touch it. I wasn’t surprised. Alistair curled his lip.
“Left after what? And what was whoever wrote this testing? And on who?”
“Blood,” Wynne murmured, her finger tracing a path above a word I could see repeated over and over again across the pages. “‘Blood… and energy’.”
Levi shuddered. “Andraste’s oath… I wish I’d never come here. On the Maker’s sigh, I wish I hadn’t. I’m sorry for dragging all of you into this, I truly am. If I’d ever known—”
“Ugh!” Morrigan sneered. “Will you cease your complaints, you wretched little man? We are here, and regretting it is both useless and foolish. I say finish this, take what may be of value, and leave this place to continue crumbling into the earth.”
The trader’s mouth snapped shut, and he stared at the witch in bug-eyed terror. I supposed I should have said something, but Morrigan had worked too hard and too long for me to reprimand her then… particularly, I suspected, if I wanted to continue living with all my fingers and toes.
“We could,” Zevran chipped in helpfully, “simply leave now, of course. I mean, we have been fortunate so far, yes? We are all still standing, no one has succumbed to horrific visions or demonic possession… this could, if you permit me, be perceived as a victory. So, you know, we could—”
“This must end.”
Sten’s words descended over the burgeoning discussion like a rockfall. He stood near the chamber’s far door, peering down what I had taken to be a corridor that, if this floor was like the others, probably led to two more rooms, most likely either libraries or some other kind of laboratory.
He turned, and his face was set into a scowl of implacable determination. Those white braids, smutted with soot and speckled by ash, hung over the shoulder of his makeshift armour, their colour a sharp contrast to the dark, oiled leather and metal rings of Owen’s handiwork.
“This whole place is an aberration,” he growled. “Let it be brought down.”
I recalled our last night in Redcliffe, and how we had all sat in the tavern, doused in celebration and pickled in cheap, watered beer. Sten had given me a curious insight into qunari views on magic then… he’d called it perversion, horror; a sword with no hilt.
As a fish stranded by the tide knows the air, or a drowning man knows the sea, so does a mage know magic.
The words had stayed with me, and not just because I had been so surprised that our taciturn companion could have such a poetic turn of phrase when he did speak.
I’d always been a little afraid of magic. We all were, where I came from, because we didn’t understand it, and it wasn’t a part of our lives the way things like expensive healers and gaudy enchanted trinkets were for humans. The only ways we encountered it were through the occasional mage-child born to elves, who was always ripped away from her family by templars—like the girl whose family lived upstairs from us when I was small had been—or through some scabbed, desperate runaway who might pass by the alienage, hoping for protection from family and old friends. The templars always came for them too, as I remembered.
Still, everything I’d seen, everything I’d learned… everything I owed my life to, a dozen times over and more… I couldn’t dismiss that. Besides, the demon that had possessed Sophia Dryden had tried to barter for the destruction of this tower, and whatever secrets it held. What guarantee did I have that, if we did what Sten wanted and just destroyed everything we found, we wouldn’t find ourselves knee-deep in more demons?
And yet, if the Wardens had done something that had torn the Veil….
I sighed, and moved away from Alistair and Wynne, into the bare-boarded space at the centre of the room.
“I’m not leaving,” I said, glancing around my rag-tag, battered little group. “Not until this is finished. But it’s Grey Warden business. Whatever’s left of the mage, whatever happened here—I want answers.”
We pushed on, down the eerie, echoing stretch of the corridor, and at every shadow I expected more demons, though nothing leapt out of the darkness.
“It ain’t ’alf gone quiet,” Levi murmured, his voice a breathless tremor.
I thought at the time that, for a man such as him to have come this far with us, he was either much braver than he gave himself credit for, or hiding a much more colourful past than he pretended.
“Not far now,” Wynne said quietly, her gaze fixed on the end of the hallway.
I wondered what she meant, but then we followed the curve in the corridor, hugging the outline of the tower itself, and I saw what looked like candlelight spilling onto the stones from an open doorway.
There was another chamber up ahead… and I had never known walking corpses to use candles.