Feasting on Dreams, Volume Three: Chapter Twelve

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The keep had evidently once been busy. We found officers’ quarters, storerooms and larger spaces, their original use unclear, but their final use all too obvious. The siege had seen people camped together, pressed cheek-by-jowl as they awaited the end. In what had probably been a great hall—a meeting place, or maybe somewhere for guests—we found more bones… including those of a child, perhaps less than ten years of age. Old canvas and leather packs and cots had rotted to the floor, and the great carved faces of statues—Grey Wardens of legend, I assumed, from their heraldry and fearsome dignity—looked down impassively at the scene.

“Maker, look at that!” Levi exclaimed, approaching a dim, battered painting that hung between two of the statues. “That’s her, that is! Sophia Dryden herself.”

I glanced over. There wasn’t much of a family resemblance. I saw, picked out in oils dulled with years and dust, a stern-looking woman with black hair and a face like a cobbler’s lathe, all flat planes and uncompromising hardness. She wore armour like that of the statues—huge and ornate, and probably mostly ceremonial—and seemed to be glaring out of the canvas as if she disapproved of the world that had come about around her.

Yes… I supposed it could be the face of a Grey Warden who’d turned to forbidden magic, seduced by the idea of being able to control something so dark.

“Strange,” Morrigan said archly, tilting her head as she peered at the portrait. “She does not look a fool.”

Levi turned to face her, mouth open, presumably about to defend his family’s honour, but shut it again without saying a word. Of course, those golden, cat-like eyes could do that to a person.

Still, I couldn’t help it: I wanted to be angry. I wanted to be angry with the order, with the old tyrant, Arland, with the bloodshed and the evil, and everything else… and yet it didn’t quite happen. It felt too much like walking on ground that, if not hallowed, was marked as something other, something set aside. There were too many graves beneath my feet for my judgement alone to change them.

One of the statues caught my eye, too. I supposed, back in Warden-Commander Asturian’s time, this chamber would have been one of those impressive public spaces, meant to dazzle and awe guests—which probably meant we were nearing the Commander’s chambers. I could just imagine those granted an audience with the leader of the Wardens being made to wait here, under the gaze of these disdainful marble gods. It didn’t seem like something Duncan would ever have done in his role as Commander, and I supposed that marked out how much things had changed in the time the Grey Wardens had been banished… and how different things had been since we returned.

“It’s Garahel,” Alistair said, noticing me staring at the statue. “The Warden who slew the last archdemon. He was—”

“Elven.” I nodded absently. “I know.”

The thing had to be at least six feet high: taller than Garahel himself would have been, and definitely much taller than me. It was beautifully carved, with attention to detail on all the buckles and plates of his wide, expansive suit of armour. A griffon, rampant, was picked out on his chest, while his hands leaned on the pommel of a vast longsword. The visor of his helmet was pushed back, displaying a face too perfectly carved to possibly resemble anyone real—the eyes didn’t even have pupils, and no elf I’d ever seen had such wide cheekbones, or such a square, human jaw. The helmet itself, though… that would have been a piece of work. The statue showed it cut high, specially made to allow room for proper ears, and Garahel’s jutted proudly from the sculpted metal, proclaiming his blood, his identity, in a way I’d never seen, or ever thought to see.

A statue of an elf. An actual memorial, a mark of honour… a tribute to an elven Warden, who had possessed power and influence, and before whom the leaders of men had bowed. The legions of darkspawn had broken beneath him, and an archdemon fallen at his blade.

kaelee ai benfotus victus….

I caught my breath, the blood rushing in my ears, and the room seemed to pitch a little around me.

The others were moving on, heading towards—

The Commander’s quarters.

—the second door on the right. I frowned at their backs as they walked ahead of me. How did I know that? And the… the voice. The whispering….

There was a narrow corridor between the room we’d just left and the one we meant to enter… the only room on this floor whose ancient, virtually petrified door remained intact, and closed.

Morrigan’s fingers tightened on the neck of her staff as she raised it defensively, held in two hands before her.

“There,” she said. “In there.”

An atmosphere of intense anticipation settled over us all, and I wished there was more space. Being within close range of Morrigan when she got the scent of blood in her nostrils was frequently painful, not to mention the possibilities of all those elbows and pommels I was just at the right height to catch.

The intense anticipation wasn’t the only thing, however. Whispers filled my head: that voice that did not have the form of a voice returned to hiss into my ears, and murmurs seeped from the stones like grease.

sythan net bekon….

They changed, shifted in the air, and became words that buzzed behind my eyes.

so much ssssuffering… and yessss, blood. Ssso much… blood….

The smell of was in my nose, in the back of my throat—old meat and green copper, the bitter tang of flesh and fury—and I all but gagged.

“C-can’t anyone else hear that?” I blurted, as Sten gave the solid door a shove.

As the wood gave way, the whispers grew in pitch, squealing and vibrating inside my skull. I locked gazes with Wynne, and saw the alarm on her face, those clear blue eyes so much harder than I’d seen them… at least since the Circle Tower.

The whispers were a roar now, and I was amazed none of my companions could hear, or smell, or… they were somewhere else, somewhere through thick, heavy water, somewhere through the rushing in my pounding head. I could see them receding—Sten, Alistair, Leliana, Levi, Morrigan and Zevran, all filing through that door—and Wynne, in front of me, her hand gripping my shoulder.

I felt it, I realised. Felt her pulling me back, the strength of her power…. I felt that—and I felt the ringing, open-palmed slap she landed across my cheek.

“Ow!”

“Never let them in,” she hissed. “Never!”

I put my hand to my face, the world reeling about me in a mess of smeared stone and streaked light. What in the Maker’s name had—

“Move,” Wynne urged, shoving me between the shoulder blades with surprising force. “If it is you that creature seeks to parley with, let us have this over.”

My jaw was still throbbing. “Wh…? I don’t understand what—”

She just shoved me again and, Maethor growling in a low rumble at my heels, I found myself pushed into what had once been the Warden-Commander’s privy chambers.

It must have been beautiful, once.

It must have been luxurious, grand, impressive… a room of dark wooden furniture and an enormous desk with a gigantic silver inkwell on it, and paintings hanging on the walls. There was a fireplace like the one in the library, either side of it held up by two carved griffons… but there was nothing but ash in the grate, and nothing but rot and decay in place of the ornate luxury. In the corner, a greatsword almost as tall as me stood on an ancient iron frame. Cobwebs thronged it, but I could make out the intricate detailing on the hilt, and the glint of jewels set into the tang and crossguards.

The smell of death, that sickly bouquet of flesh and dusky, must-rimed stagnation, choked me. The room’s shadows ran long and deep, the only light cast by two small windows at the top of the far wall, little more than arrow slits punched into the stone. It was like a tomb: an oppressive, dusty, stinking tomb… and, like most tombs, it was not empty.

The figure that stood between the great carved fireplace and the heavy desk was human, or at least ostensibly so.

It appeared to be a woman, tall and broad, with dark hair hanging to her shoulders in stringy hanks. She was heavily armoured in plate liveried with silver and dark blue, and the light caught at the ornate edging on the immense, collared pauldrons.

She did not turn at once, but tilted her head to the side as if she had heard our arrival, and was considering how worthy we were of her attention. At my side, Maethor put his ears back, flat to his skull, and bared his teeth. A low growl brewed in his throat.

We all knew what this creature was… but it didn’t make the knowing any easier.

I expected to hear the demon-whispers in my head again—this thing, this creature, tasting my mind and reaching out to me. Why me? I wondered. Was I weaker, easier to break than the others?

I felt the murmurs stir, the faint hiss of a word outlined against my mind, and I closed the thoughts off, determined to meet this threat head-on, and in a world of flesh, not dreams.

The… whatever-she-was… the corpse, the puppet, the thing that, so many years ago, had been Sophia Dryden—and yes, she was recognisable from her portrait in the hall, up there among those other heroes—turned slowly and jerkily towards us. Its head hung low, as if it was an effort for the creature to sustain lifting it, and the wet-looking hair (not damp, I could see now, but thick with grease and rot, like frayed rope coated with fat) hung around a face certainly ravaged by death, but better preserved than anything ought to be after a century of decay.

The eyes had turned to milky, sightless orbs, sunken and grotesque, while the flesh and muscle that held the lower jaw in place was rotted, slack… even the skin itself seemed to be barely stringing the creature together, a bloody mess of withered, white puckers and dark, decayed lesions. A demon’s powers might do much to keep a corpse together enough to walk, I supposed, but it could not completely halt the natural order of things. At least, not forever.

There was a whimper somewhere to my left, and I was aware of Levi clutching a hand to his mouth, clamping down on the obvious urge to gag. I couldn’t blame him.

The creature’s slack jaw dropped a little further open, and a creaking rush of air sounded, as if the thing was wheezing a death rattle. I’d heard the noises the corpses at Redcliffe made: snarls, groans and wordless, angry cries of anguish. The dead didn’t talk… but the cleverer kind of demon did.

The voice that left Warden-Commander Dryden’s body echoed and buzzed behind my eyes. It felt like the throb of swarming hornets, or the vicious hum of darkspawn, and I wanted to claw my own skull open, just to make it stop.

“Step no further, ssstrangerss. You enter my place now.”

The words came out thin and metallic, cloyed with a hushed kind of wheeziness… a slight echo that lingered beyond them, like two voices in one, two planes of existence colliding.

That was exactly what it was, I supposed: a demon, unleashed and hungry for a mortal life, trapped in a decaying prison of flesh that could neither feel nor grow. Not that it was easy to find sympathy for the creature.

“We talk.”

Its lips—or what was left of them—didn’t move quite in time with the words. Gums and skin had peeled back, shrinking from what teeth remained in its head and giving them an elongated, fang-like appearance. A dark, clotted, bloody wound, not unlike the withered lesions I’d seen on darkspawn flesh, took up part of the thing’s left cheek, and its head swayed slowly from side to side as it formed the right mouth-shapes for speaking.

Maethor lunged forwards, claws scraping on the stones, his teeth bared as he barked and growled ferociously.

The demon wearing Sophia’s body hissed, and raised one heavy gauntlet, twisting that dead, rotten face away. Was that fear, I wondered, or anxiety over possible damage to its host? How in the Maker’s name did we kill this thing anyway? There was no recourse to the Circle Tower here, no lyrium and no rituals… would destroying the body be enough? It worked with the skeletons, at least enough to dissipate their power, but this… this was a stronger, darker creature completely.

My mind ran on apace, thoughts splintering like a school of fish while my gut clenched and my pulse hummed.

The demon turned those milky, crusted eyes on me, the lolling head stooped and nodding as it retreated further behind the desk, its body as hunched as anything wearing that massive armour could have been.

“Get the annoyance away from me! This one would sssspeak with you.”

I held out two fingers, and Maethor backed down, though he still stood by my side, foursquare and hackles raised, teeth bared and every muscle bunched in preparation for a killing leap.

The thick, tainted air hung heavy with tension, and I could hear Levi’s ragged breathing.

“Wh-who— what is that?” he stammered.

The rotten, withered head tilted slightly, and that blackened jaw opened, the remnants of lips parted like fetid slugs around the words.

“This one is the Dryden. Commander. Sophia. All thesssse things.”

I didn’t want to look away—didn’t want to risk taking my attention from the creature for a moment—but I could feel Levi’s terror and confusion. I doubted he’d ever seen anything like this before. Technically, neither had I, but it was hardly the time to debate specifics… although it might have been worth a small wager on whether or not the creature actually smelled worse than the darkspawn.

“M-my great-great-grandmother’s dead,” Levi managed. “I don’t know what you are—”

There was something awful about that unblinking stare, like the deathly opalescence of a mirror caught at midnight, or the opaque eyes of a roasted fish, burst and bubbling. The way it tilted that sagging, broken head, birdlike and almost delicate, contrasted horribly with the ugly, crooked movements of its face.

“This one hasss tasted her memoriesss,” it said, with something unpleasantly like a hungry leer, leaning forward and placing Sophia’s gauntlet-covered hands on the desk. “Ssseen her thoughts and hidden placesss. But she is food for this one. No more, no less.”

The thin threads of light that pierced the room picked out every lesion, every ragged, rotten scar. The stink of death and sulphur assailed me, and bile rose in the back of my throat.

I had to turn my head away, gulping at the hope of air I knew wouldn’t be any fresher, and I could see the faces of my companions, ashen and staring. The fingers of Leliana’s left hand were at her throat, touching the symbol of Andraste she wore, as a silent prayer moved on her lips. Zevran was beside her, his face blank but his eyes two burning coals, seeking weaknesses and weighing chances. Wynne and Morrigan, both tight-lipped, stood near the door like twin watchmen, the tension evident in every muscle, while Alistair already had his sword drawn, the blade held low but ready. Revulsion etched every line of his face, and it was the same outrage I saw flash in Sten’s vivid, angry eyes as he looked at me, not even acknowledging the presence of the creature before us.

“The Qun is clear in the matter of demons,” he said stiffly. “They must be destroyed, quickly and efficiently. Enough talk.”

He had a point… not that I was in any kind of rush to fight the thing. We might have outnumbered it, but I had no idea what it could do. I opened my mouth, but my head felt full and fuzzy, and the words lay thick on my tongue.

At my side, Maethor growled. The demon leaned further forwards, the greasy remnants of hair hanging from its peeling scalp, its whole manner that of some ingratiating, horrific reptile. Its head swayed from side to side as it spoke, and that keening buzz, that incipient murmur, grated in my ears.

“Sssstrike this one down now, more will come. Ssso many here in thisss place. Make deal, you thwart many of my kind. This one can help you do that. This one will explain, yessss?”

Alistair curled his lip. “Do we really want to hear this? I didn’t think we were in the business of making deals with demons.”

I shook my head. We weren’t. I wasn’t… and yet my head was laden with pictures and thoughts that didn’t feel right. Elven Wardens, in sleek, silver armour, and whispers of power and gold.

The creature fixed me once more with those dead eyes, and its crabbed, wheezing, two-toned voice scraped against the inside of my skull.

“The Soldier’s Peak trapsss me. All of ussss. We came at the mage’s summon, and he bindsss us here. Already you end many of my kind to get thisss far. There are others. Othersss from which this one keeps you safe. This one commands you are not to be touched… because thisss one would propose a deal. Choose this one, or many of my kind.”

The blackened lips peeled back into a hideous parody of a grin, and my gut lurched. Alistair let out a cough of incredulous disgust.

“Huh. Really? We’re meant to trust a demon’s word, are we?”

I couldn’t tear my gaze from the demon as it straightened up, preening in the rotted, stinking body it wore, befouling that venerable armour with its filthy, tainted flesh. If that was true—if it alone could keep back more of its kind, like starving dogs snarling at each over a bone—how powerful must it be?

It spread Sophia’s hands humbly, and looked up with those dead eyes, the curled grin of its ragged mouth deepening.

“Could this one ssstand against such mighty foe? Sssee how easssily you cut down my brethren, yesss? This one would be a fool to cross you. Lisssten… then ssstrike this one down, if the termsss are unacceptable.”

That awful, ingratiating whine in its voice made me feel dirty, and the stench of death and empty years seemed to cling to my skin, clogging my throat.

“What do you want?” I heard myself ask, the voice a rough, hoarse whisper, barely mine.

I knew the others wouldn’t approve. I was sure I heard Wynne’s reproachful intake of breath. Any of them would have been brave and noble and simply batted away the idea of striking bargains with demons. But I wasn’t them… I was tired, and sore, and afraid of choosing an evil we couldn’t fight over one we might just be able to handle.

The demon leered at me.

“This one sees ssso many tantalising places in the Dryden’s memoriesss,” it said, with an air almost of triumph, its dead stare sickeningly compelling. “This one would see the world for herself. Sssee, roam… feed. If you kill the mage, break the tower, this one will ssseal the Veil. No more demons, no more enemies. Your Peak, all sssafe. Then you let this one go into the world. Yes?”

The silence in the chamber was deafening. I could barely breathe. Thoughts roared in my mind—memories that weren’t even my own, and the suffocating drawl of these long-dead Wardens and their tainted sanctity. I could hear the clang of metal on pitted metal, the steel-song of blades and the thuds of bodies falling… the cries and shouts of men as the battle fell away around them, and left only the demons.

…we would have sssstood until the last, never sssurrendered, never danced the jig on Arland’sss gallowsss….

The Dryden—the thing that was no longer Sophia, that brave and brilliant commander, that warrior who had held her men to the same tough standards she set for herself, and whose bullish, single-minded determination had been her downfall—purred behind my eyes.

Soft, insidious things caressed my mind.

The Warden… it knowsss, yes? It understands. Feelss the weight of command. Knowsss the blood, the sssacrifice of war. Needsss thisss power, yes?

Silver armour glimmered like a fish, slipping quickly through the thoughts that were mine, and yet not mine. A sword, streaked with black, filthy ichor, scythed through the dark, and above everything came that insistent, grinding hum.

So bright, so brave, so sssstrong….

Maethor growled, spittle flying from the white bars of his teeth, and lunged forwards again, loosing another deep, fierce bark.

The hound’s voice cut through the lies. I shook my head, shook the thoughts away… and the shade, the imagining of Garahel flittered into nothingness, lost and broken into pieces against the shadows that flooded back in. There was nothing then but fear, doubt and uncertainty… and anger. Violent, bloody anger, channelled into searing fury. How dare this thing try to blind me? How dare it reach into my mind? And how could I allow it?

I scowled at the creature before us as I reached for my dagger. “That mabari is smarter than you are, demon. We don’t deal with your kind. You die. Now.”

The creature’s wasted, putrid face contorted; blackened, tooth-filled mouth and bloody, grey skin stretched around a snarl of rage.

“Fool!”

It flung itself to the side, exhibiting far more speed and agility than Sophia’s long-dead flesh should have had, and seized the greatsword from its stand. Somehow, I supposed I should have expected that.

The huge blade arced through the air before me, tearing through the dimness and cloaked with the demon’s scream of rage. I jumped back, caught off-guard by its swiftness and the sheer weight of that weapon, and I felt it then… not the things the demon had tried to blind me with, but the things it had been keeping back.

A light—a burst of fire or something, I didn’t see what—erupted at my left, in the fireplace, and there was a noise like the tumble of burning bricks. Heat rolled over me, and there was the roar of flames. The demon propelled Sophia’s body towards me and I ducked and twisted, throwing myself out of the way as Sten met the blow with an almighty clash of his two-handed blade.

The heavy wood of the Warden-Commander’s desk pressed into the small of my back and, in one jumbled, insane moment, I saw what looked like a creature made of fire bloom forth from the fireplace. It burned—real fire, real flames—yet it was contained, as if it was not just in the form of fire, but truly made from it. The thing had no head, no mouth or face, yet it seemed to cry out, its roar that of blind rage and the howl of vicious flames.

I didn’t even see Morrigan, but then a blast of ice cut down the centre of the room, steam billowing where it met the fire-creature. It seemed to slow it, though it didn’t stop the thing entirely. I had no time to stare, however: Sophia came staggering back under the weight of Sten’s next blow, and one heavily plated elbow almost smashed me in the face. I tried to grab on, holding the demon from getting two hands back on that massive blade, and—in my usual, not-so-classic manner of battle—landed a good, hard kick in the back of the creature’s knees.

Of course, when the opponent is already dead, targeting tender areas is not much use.

In any case, she flung me aside, the stench of decomposed flesh choking me even as one gauntleted fist met the bridge of my nose. Pain seared through my skull and stars flashed before my eyes. I staggered sideways, aware of Alistair’s bellow of alarm as I hit the wall. I could just make him out by the door… trying to hold it shut.

Oh, crap.

Tasting blood, I drew my second dagger—the room was already quite full enough with swords—and tried to take stock.

At Redcliffe, we’d dispatched the undead by removing their heads. That worked. It was permanent. It had seemed to work just as well with the corpses we’d encountered in the foregate, though the whole fortress was so riddled with demons and spirits that Maker alone knew whether the bastards actually stayed dead.

That aside, Sophia was too heavily armoured to make decapitation a simple option, and I didn’t know what one did with demons made entirely of fire. I saw Wynne and Morrigan tackling that creature, I thought, but the steam and flames and magical energy—rending the room with its bright crashes and that hot, searing smelled that itched right at the back of my throat, even through this accursed stink of death—blurred my vision.

I heard Maethor yelp, and my heart leapt in panic, but I couldn’t see him. There was nothing to do but lunge back at the Sophia-creature, dancing and twisting and trying to stay out of the way of that sword of hers while I looked for a weakness in the armour.

She was a match for Sten. That terrified me.

Up until that moment, every time I’d seen him fight he’d seemed to scythe through enemies like corn… but now that dark, graven face was set into a grimace of effort, bright eyes narrowed and white braids swinging wildly. The two of them were pressed close, blade to blade, his physical strength against the demon’s unnatural prowess. I saw that blotched, blackened face open in a vile and hateful scream, and plunged the first of my daggers into the join at the back of its breastplate, just beneath the arm.

It was enough to distract the demon, but not much more. It broke from Sten and, as I ducked away, trying to lead it, he was able to land a blow across its back. That greasy, rope-like hair caught against the ravaged, pitted flesh of its sunken face, and yet it swung again with such dexterity, such quickness… I barely had time to take a breath before I had to dart out of range again.

I should have looked more closely at where I stepped. The mages’ spells burned a path across the floor, and I stumbled as the edge of what felt like a wall of water hit me. It was something arcane, some kind of magic that, later, I would learn was tied to the school of spirit.

At the time, all I knew was that it sucked the air from my lungs and left me light-headed and then I was staring into the very core of the thing made of flames, and I felt its rage burning right to the centre of my soul.

It swung at me with some kind of appendage that might loosely have been termed an arm, and I leapt back, the heat bursting over me, fit to roast me through my leathers. There was another flash, a smell like warm bread and copper, and the thing roared. It seemed weakened, though… much like our defences.

The door to the Commander’s quarters did not hold, and I saw with horror that more walking dead had swarmed their way up to us. Maker knew where they’d sprung from… whether the demon had been holding them back, like it said, or commanding them the way we’d seen the creature that had possessed Connor do in Redcliffe. Maybe they’d been following us like hounds on a blood-scent since the moment we stepped through the gates.

It didn’t matter. What was undeniable was the numbers: long-dead Wardens and king’s men alike, bones discoloured and bedraggled with moss and corpseweed, their rag-tag armour hanging from them as—weapons clenched in fleshless fingers—they tore their way through the door. There was no way we could cut through that volume of the creatures… but there was no escape, either.

I gripped my blades, and launched myself back into the fray, prepared to go down fighting.

It was more a brawl than a battle; though the chamber was large, it was a mess of scuffling bodies, no space for form or elegance. Between the flares of magic and the flames of demons, I saw snatches and impressions of what was happening, burned against my eyes like the still frames of a sky riven by lightning.

Alistair was trying to hold the corpses at the door, but the choke point couldn’t keep them off forever. More of the things poured through, and his sword glanced and sang off bone and armour. The mages’ bolts and blasts still ripped the air, but there was more magic at play than that. Not all the walking dead were warriors.

I saw ragged, decayed swatches of fabric clinging to one of the things and, at first, thought it must have been a woman… until venomous, violent magic burst from its withered hands, fingers like dead twigs scribing foul glyphs in the air. The mage-corpse looked better preserved than the others. I found myself wondering if some of the Grey Wardens’ mages hadn’t offered themselves over to the demons, trying to deal their way out of certain death. Had Sophia herself done that? Or had the thing that drove her now only taken her flesh once she was dead?

If it had seen her memories, absorbed her mind that way… she must have been alive, mustn’t she? Alive, and either willing to trade her soul, or too weak to stop the possession.

The thoughts tore at me, maddening impressions of half-answered trailing questions and horrible, horrible possibilities, and they muddied themselves in the fighting. I caught sight of Zevran—his sling pushed back to free both arms, though the injured one was distinctly weaker—sinuously dancing his way past the corpse’s spell, even as Alistair flung his shield up to block the rain of dark fire, and plunging that poisoned blade into the core of its body. The thing squealed, hunched, lashed out… but could not stop the next blow that separated its head from its body.

It fell, though its place was taken by more of the things, and I saw Leliana and Zevran pirouette and dive between the creatures, aiming endless solid and efficient strikes. They had a mutual grace, a shared gift with steel and unnerving accuracy that saw them tear down three corpses apiece in quick succession before something rotten and stinking thudded into me and I lost sight of them again, preoccupied with my own dead flesh to rend.

The Sophia-creature had almost forced Sten to his knees as I fought my way back to the edge of the room. I couldn’t see Maethor, and I feared the worst until, with a snarl and an unholy stench of singed fur, the mabari leapt and thudded into that blue-and-silver breastplate, jarring the demon back. It screamed—an ethereal, awful, wheezing cry like the hissing scurry of roaches—and as the hound was flung aside, I saw not only the blood that streaked his coat, but the portion of the corpse’s slack, withered jaw he’d taken with him.

I pushed forwards, aiming my dagger for the unprotected panel of its neck, thinking perhaps I could get myself onto its back and gain better access from there. It turned, dead eyes staring wildly from a torn, ravaged face, the few yellowed stumps of teeth that were left protruded like barbs around a sickening, black maw… no mouth, no lower part of the face left. Nothing but malice and madness.

I leapt—well, flung myself—too close to the thing for its greatsword to do me any harm, and my momentum was just enough to unsteady it. Sten stuck out a leg, tripped the creature, and I fell with it to the ground, choked and swallowed whole in a fetid fug of putrescent death and smoke. It screamed, flailed, fought me every inch of the way. One hard, gauntleted hand connected with my face, but even as blood filled my mouth and stars burst in front of my eyes, I held fast to its greasy, brittle hair, my blade chewing at the desiccated gristle of its throat.

Those whispers, those words that had no form and yet spoke of everything—wealth, power, peace, victory… the smiling faces of family, and even the imagined arms of a lover—clawed at my mind. The true extent of the demon’s power, even tainted with that insane desperation, was frightening. If it had tried to trick us, the way the sloth demon in the Circle Tower had, I knew we’d all have been lost. Instead, it had assumed I would choose to make a deal… and I didn’t know whether that meant it had underestimated me, or simply been too arrogant.

It made one last effort, clinging violently to the body it had inhabited for so long and trying to shake me off. One gauntleted hand connected with my temple, jarring me just enough to dislodge my grip. The creature managed to get one metal-laced hand around my throat and then we were struggling, somewhere beneath the forest of fire and legs, and the chaos of the fighting blossoming all around us. I punched, kicked, gouged and stabbed, one dagger long since scudded across the floor and the other clutched for dear life in fingers I could no longer feel. It threw me off, and I skidded along the slick, filthy floor, cracking the back of my head on the great dark wooden desk.

The creature began to rear up, intent on ending me, and never saw Sten’s sword coming. The massive pauldrons of the Warden-Commander’s armour protected it from swipes and cuts, but not thrusts. In the brief moment before self-preservation encouraged me to roll out of the way, I saw the hideous grimace of surprise on the withered, ragged face as the qunari’s immense blade punctured the back of its neck and exited cleanly through the front.

The scrape of metal on metal echoed in my ears, then Sten put his foot on the body’s back, bracing it as he freed his sword, yanking the last bloody scraps of gristle and tissue free. The head was finally off, and he growled a single word as he tossed it aside, allowing Warden-Commander Dryden’s body to slump to rest at last.

“Parshaara.”

With that, Sten spun, his form perfect, and broke the skeletal corpse of a Grey Warden into two neat pieces. I spat a mouthful of bloody saliva onto the floor, forced myself upright on watery legs, and reached for my sword.

A column of flame seared the chamber, the whole place reeking of magic and death, and Morrigan’s ice blasts belched out steam as yet more demons met their match. Did they die eternally, or were they just sent back to the Fade? I wondered, but such questions were best left for another time. I just hacked at the first corpse that lurched towards me, a shapeless yell of desperate fury wrenched from my throat.

I can’t say how long we fought, or how many. The demon that had so long ago taken Warden-Commander Dryden had indeed been powerful, and in its wake awful things surged… not just the endless waves of walking dead—the small, weak demons, by comparison, blindly butting at the mortal world like sightless pups to a teat—but shades, and creatures of fire.

We fought, and held, and the bones mounted up at our feet. After far too long, it was finished, and the roaring in my ears seemed disorientating against the sudden hush.

Cautiously, we began to still, to take stock and gauge the chamber and the hallways beyond. Could it really be over, or was this just a brief respite?

Yet, nothing else came. No more strangled wheezing of rotted bones, no more wraiths and horrors. Panting and sore, we began to breathe again. Hands on my knees, I doubled over, bursts of light dancing in front of my eyes, and fought the urge to retch.

“Everyone alive?” I managed.

There was a chorus of assent, and a weak whimper from Maethor. That got me straightened up, and limping across to check on the hound. He was wounded, a deep gash running the length of his shoulder, along with several smaller scrapes to his nose and flank.

“Here.” Wynne winced as she made her way over. “I can help.”

She reached out a hand and, as she touched his brindled coat, the hound growled softly. I cupped his heavy head in my hands, catching the liquid brown eyes with mine.

“It’s all right,” I promised. “If I can take magical healing, so can you.”

Maethor whined quizzically, then yelped as the mage’s power began to flow, coursing over his wounds. It hurt—I knew from experience that this rough and ready kind of healing did—but he didn’t try to bite or scramble away. I ruffled his ears when Wynne finished, and smiled my thanks.

“Good boy. Thank you, Wynne.”

“My pleasure,” she said graciously, though she looked thoroughly exhausted.

Levi—quite sensibly, I thought, though he seemed to feel embarrassed by it—had been hiding under one of the largest, sturdiest tables he could find. He ventured out, looking pale and terrified, and kept making the sign of the Holy Flame over his chest, again and again, like he’d forgotten what his hand was doing.

“M-Maker’s balls,” he murmured, staring at the mess. “I-I never… what…?”

“Rage demons,” Alistair said, from the doorway. “The… things, with the fire. I’d never seen one close up before. Hall’s clear,” he added, scrubbing the back of his wrist across his forehead. “The other things—the things that weren’t corpses—were what we call shades. Demons in their natural form, if you like.”

“Sweet Andraste….” The trader’s mouth wobbled, that wide-eyed gaze scouring every inch of the room, as if more unspeakable horrors might burst from some corner we’d missed. “Are they all—?”

“No idea,” Alistair said, in a tone that would have been acidly cheerful if he hadn’t sounded so tired. “But, right now, things have stopped hitting me. I’m happy.”

He didn’t look it, or sound it, and as he limped over to where I stood, gazing down at the decayed remains of the very late Warden-Commander Dryden, I could see his face was reddened, and his eyebrows slightly singed.

“Are you all right?” I asked softly.

The others were taking a breather. Wynne and Morrigan sat side-by-side on the table Levi had lately been hiding under, and even Sten was leaning against the far wall.

Alistair nodded, but he didn’t look it. He looked bloody, filthy and weary… and shaken, which I wasn’t quite so used to seeing.

“I’m fine,” he said, uncertainty clouding his eyes. “Just… they were all Wardens once, or most of them. And as for her….”

He glanced at Sophia’s headless, crumpled corpse, and then looked at me with an expression of terrible sadness.

“I know,” I said. “It’s not… I mean….”

“Yeah.”

I wished I could think of something slightly more inspiring to say, some way of encouraging us to push forwards, but I was empty and wrung dry. Alistair pulled off his splinted glove, raised his bare hand and, before I realised what he was doing, swiped his thumb across my upper lip. I started at the touch—unexpected, and oddly intimate—and he smiled awkwardly.

“Bloody nose,” he explained. “It doesn’t look broken, though. So, y’know, that’s one good thing.”

I blinked. My blood was indeed smeared over his skin and, now I had time to think about it, my entire face hurt like stink. I sniffed experimentally, tasted blood and soot, and grimaced.

“Yuck,” I said, pressing a tentative finger and thumb to the bridge of my nose, and wincing as I gave it a small pinch. “And ow. You’re right… it’s fine.”

“Good.”

Alistair wiped his hand absently on his leg, while I dabbed at my lip and nose with the back of my knuckle, and sniffed again as I peered down at Sophia.

“How old d’you think that armour is?”

Alistair blew a long breath out between his teeth. “Centuries. It’s symbolic, isn’t it? The Warden-Commander’s armour, with the griffons and… well, it’s in most of those portraits, in the great hall.”

“Mm-hm,” I said thoughtfully. “This… or armour very like it.”

I squinted at the back of my hand, streaked with the blood now crusting on my nose, and scrubbed it against my hip. My leathers were filthy enough for it not to matter.

Alistair narrowed his eyes. “Why?”

“Jus’ thinking.” I shrugged. “I mean, technically, you’re—”

“Wait, what? No! No-ooo… no.” He backed up a couple of paces hurriedly, raising his hands. “Uh-uh. I’m not the one in charge here. And, anyway, you can’t possibly be thinking what it sounded like you were thinking.”

I had to smile at the tone of sheer panic in his voice. From a purely technical perspective, it was true… if we were indeed the only Grey Wardens left in Ferelden, he ought to be Warden-Commander now. He had been Duncan’s protégé, not me, he was the senior recruit… and he was looking at me with a curious mix of abject horror, terror, suspicion, and stubbornness.

Alistair squinted accusingly at me. “You’re not, are you?”

I raised my brows, affecting as much innocence as I could with a patchily bleeding nose and an eye that felt as if it would be puffed up like a mushroom by the morning.

“What?”

“We’re not taking the armour. We’re just not. Even if we could get the stuff off her, I don’t want to think about what’s in there. I mean… yuck! Secondly, it feels disrespectful, and—”

“It wouldn’t fit,” I pointed out, allowing myself a brief grin. “Not unless we had a blacksmith on hand to, er, buff out the bumps.”

It was gratifying to watch Alistair’s cheeks start to turn pink, even under the slight scalding he’d had from the rage demon. He cleared his throat.

“Yes, well, it wouldn’t exactly….”

“And it’s disrespectful,” I added in agreement, at which he looked relieved. “And icky.”

“And icky,” he echoed with a slight smirk. “Yes, all right. Good. I’m glad we concur.”

I smiled, and after a few moments we both sniggered. It seemed odd, in a way, to be choking down fits of the giggles while we stood ankle-deep in corpses, but the elation and hysteria of finding yourself alive after a fight that should really have killed you will do that to a person.

Had we decided to go with Levi alone to investigate the Peak, or had I elected to split the group again and leave Zevran to rest his wounded arm, or Morrigan to stew in her usual grumpy fugue, I felt sure things would have ended differently.

And yet… they weren’t over. Far from it.

I sobered as my thoughts turned to what lay beyond the foregate. As I turned to survey my companions, Morrigan caught my eye. She looked thin and fatigued, her pallid skin waxy and dull, but that golden gaze was still keen.

“The mage tower,” she said, her voice a blade of black slate, filled with an oddly angry tone. “This must be ended properly.”

I nodded. “Let’s catch our breath, then… yes. Whatever happened here—whether it can be repaired or not—we should find the answers there.”

Zevran, kneeling on the floor to allow Leliana to rebind his arm, gave a small and eloquent sniff.

“Ah, yes. Answers. Have we decided, then, whether it is sensible to ask the questions?”

I shook my head. “We can’t walk away. I mean, if the Veil was torn by the Wardens, then… well, there’s a way to mend it, isn’t there?”

My gaze turned to Morrigan and Wynne. The witch just gave me a withering look, as if she couldn’t care less whether I thought this our responsibility or not, and Wynne had a strange, inward sort of expression.

“It may be,” she said, eventually. “And, at the very least, we should try.”

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Volume 3: Chapter Thirteen
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