Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Ten

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“Ugh, it’s all in my hair!”

Leliana stopped for the third time in almost as many steps, frantically trying to claw bits of spider web from herself. The stuff seemed to hang from every unseen corner down here; thick, brittle, ancient stalactites that wafted in the dank currents of air, and stuck themselves to every unsuspecting head that passed by. I was glad I was the shortest one there, save for Maethor.

Morrigan sighed irritably. She appeared to have no trouble whatsoever negotiating the narrow passageway we were traipsing through… not that I was surprised by that. It was more than could be said for Sten. He’d been nearly doubled over for the first thirty feet or so after the dirt-packed walls closed in. Once we’d got out of the roomier end, leading on from the mill’s storage cellars and undercrofts, the passage was barely more than a dark, dusty, clammy shaft, pitch dark and stale-smelling. We groped our way with nothing but the glimmer of a single rag torch, and Alistair’s childhood memories of the castle’s layout to lead us.

The trick, I found, was to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and not think about the tons of earth above my head. We were lucky, inasmuch as the passage remained usable, though it had long been abandoned. Still, things skittered in the darkness, and I held my breath, tempted to close my eyes in case the weak flame Alistair held lit up anything I didn’t want to see. Redcliffe might yet be free of darkspawn, but Maker only knew what might have been down here, undisturbed until now….

Maethor whined, and I glanced down at the hound, the torchlight catching on his brindled coat and making the darker streaks seem blacker. His pupils were enormous, his expressive eyes swallowed up into saucer-like voids of apprehension.

“I know,” I whispered, reaching out to pat his hard, flat head. “I don’t like it any more than you.”

He wagged his stubby little tail weakly, and padded on beside me. Amazing, I thought, how much warmth could be drawn from the loyalty of a dog.

Leliana let out another squeak and brushed more swags of old, decayed web from her hair.

“You know,” Morrigan said conversationally, “in places such as this, where the Veil is thin, or has perhaps been sundered, the pooling of magical energy can wreak peculiar changes in things such as spiders.”

“I do not want to hear it,” Leliana said grimly, hefting her bow higher on her shoulder.

The witch smiled in the dim, flickering light.

“Oh, but it is quite fascinating. They can grow to ridiculous sizes, and develop the most virulent poisons. I remember once, when I was young, Flemeth sending me out to a ruin in the Wilds frequented by such beasts. Fangs quite as long as my hand, as I recall… and the most uncanny ability to spit—”

Leliana yelped, and Morrigan giggled herself into silence, at least for a while.

Gradually, the passage started to change. The air was getting damper, less like the stale dankness of packed earth, and more like something decaying, something… wet, and probably mouldy. The dirt and timber that framed the walls, replete with spider webs, began to give way to a pattern of stones, visible beneath the years’ accumulation of thick dust and grime.

“We’re probably just about underneath the moat,” Alistair said, peering ahead dubiously. “It’ll lead into the old dungeons, I bet. There’s a maze of chambers, undercrofts, tunnels… all kinds of things built under the castle, right into the cliff.”

“Dungeons?” Leliana enquired, tossing her head back as she completed retying her sleek ponytail—now completely free of spider webs.

Old dungeons,” he repeated. “I don’t think the arl ever had much use for them. Not when I was here, anyway.”

“Hm.” Sten gave a disapproving rumble, and the sound echoed against the walls. “That does not sound like a practical system of governance. Punishment should follow crime.”

“Oh?” Morrigan intoned. “Crimes such as yours, you mean?”

A few seconds of searingly awkward silence blistered the passageway. Sometimes, it was almost impossible to believe the things she came out with, although the qunari appeared unruffled.

“I am here, am I not?” he said dryly.

Morrigan chuckled.

Our footsteps were definitely hitting stone now and, as we went on, the passage wound its way from disused tunnel to something that was identifiably part of a larger structure.

“It’s romantic, really, I suppose,” Leliana ventured, shooting me a small smile. “Don’t you think? You can just picture forbidden lovers making their way to secret trysts through these dark, winding miles…. Of course, it was probably a lot cleaner back then.”

She reached up and ran a nervous hand over her hair. I shrugged.

“Perhaps. ’Course, it’d be a good way to get stuff out of the castle, too. Wine, brandy, meat from the kitchens… maybe more, depending on how well-guarded the armoury and the cellars were.”

She gave me a rather odd look, and I shut up, suspecting I’d just been pegged for a thief. That wasn’t true at all—Father would have leathered me to within an inch of my life, for a start—but, in my experience, the black market’s existence was a simple fact. The less people had, the more they were willing to risk for luxuries… and sometimes necessities. Back home, few elves who worked in service had never ‘borrowed’ a loaf of bread from a tavern kitchen, or made light measure when changing the beer casks. If that meant the shems called us thieving scum, well, we were used to prejudice. It just made us careful not to get caught with any definite proof.

For all his strict values and even stricter rules, I knew Father had been just as guilty. Not often, and not much: just the occasional few odds and ends. Kitchen scraps from the bann’s table, I thought bitterly… and it struck me as odd that it was something I’d never been bitter about. Not until now.

Ahead of us, the passageway sloped up and, it seemed, came to a dead end. Alistair put the torch to the slimy, mould-streaked stonework, revealing the grooves and disused hinges of a hidden door, presumably designed to be used from the other side.

“We could try to lever it open,” he said doubtfully. “It might give.”

“Well, we don’t have many options,” I agreed, looking along the length of the wall.

We seemed to have hit the entry point into the castle proper, though whether we’d got here after Bann Teagan and the arlessa had arrived—and whether they had done so safely—was impossible to tell. Time had a way of falling in on itself down here.

“I will do this.”

Sten stepped forwards, not waiting for assent or thanks, the greatsword that had dispatched so many walking corpses weighed purposely in his hands.

“Move aside,” he said, glancing disparagingly at Alistair. “You are… small for this work.”

Alistair looked affronted, and I smothered a laugh.

“Right,” he muttered. “I’ll just, uh, hold the torch, then.”

Sten jammed the blade into the crack, and it bit with the tooth-scratching ferocity of steel on stone. I was only too pleased to get out of the way and leave him room to move… and he was impressive. Even beneath the hotchpotch of armour Owen had strung together for him, the starkly obvious landscape of muscles and sinews churned with all the unstoppable power of a waterwheel. That, and the expression of intense, oddly placid focus on his face, was enough to make me uneasy. I watched the startlingly white braids pinned at the back of his neck swing rhythmically as he drove the sword into the narrow groove over and over, gouging out years’ worth of grime and mortar and, slowly, beginning to shift the stones.

Not so much a hidden door, then, as a door that had been bricked over—and from the village side, I noted. I was half-heartedly wondering whether that was important when Sten growled, and a chunk of masonry thudded to the ground by his feet. Little by little, he wrenched the stones away, revealing the wood behind them, and then set to demolishing the door. It didn’t take much; it was damp down here, the wood already softened with rot. Still, it must have taken a stonemason at least half a day to seal the passage off, and Sten had undone all that work in less than half an hour.

He stepped back from the pile of stones and ruptured timber, barely panting, and still stooped over a little, though the passageway had widened out.

“It is done.”

“Er, yes.” Alistair blinked at the mess, and the ragged hole that now led into the castle’s dungeons. “It certainly is.”

“Thank you, Sten,” I added, because politeness seemed sensible; especially after that display.

However, remarkable though the qunari was, I had to concede that all that crashing and banging had probably lost us any element of surprise we might have had. As we headed through the remains of the doorway, I wondered what might await us in the bowels of the castle.

I didn’t have to wonder for long.

~o~O~o~

At first, we found nothing but decayed corridors and empty alcoves, probably once storage spaces. Leliana was wondering aloud about when the passage had been sealed off, and spinning some elaborate hypothetical tale about possible resistance cells using it to attack the Orlesian incumbent of the castle during the occupation. That surprised me. I suppose I’d assumed her sympathies lay across the border somehow but, of course, none of us were so simply, easily defined.

I should have learned that by then.

As we approached another corner, another crumbled archway, Alistair held up a hand. I recognised the gesture; my fingers were already closing on the hilt of my dagger. We stilled, and listened. Sure enough, I caught the same sounds of movement he’d heard, and there was somehow unpleasantly familiar about them.

“Walking corpses,” he muttered, passing the torch to Morrigan. “Twenty, maybe thirty yards?”

I nodded. “We should try to draw them out. See what we’re dealing with. There’s no telling how many there might be.”

The dull light of our rapidly dimming torch picked out the discoloured trails and rivulets coursing down the walls. Damp, dark, and tomblike… and now with yet more undead. It wasn’t a heartening prospect. At least on the surface we’d had the chilly night air to blow the stink away, and there had been much more room. I didn’t relish the prospect of fighting with my back to the clammy stonework.

Alistair looked as if he was about to reply but, before he could, a thin and reedy scream echoed from the passage ahead. It was a real howl of anguish, an agonised cry of pain, and there wasn’t time to analyse anything else, because then we were running… running towards it, which went against everything I’d ever learned in the alienage.

Not all of the cells were completely disused, it seemed.

Five corpses—guards, once, judging by the liveried uniforms that still clung to their bodies—were trying to wrench the bars from one of the doors. Immediately, I noticed something different about them: their anger. One by one, shambolic and ungainly, they turned ravaged faces towards us, and each had his lips pulled back into a grimace that was as much fury as it was a mask of death. When the first left its prey and came lumbering at us, it let out a snarl that I could scarcely believe a human throat was capable of loosing. It was an ugly, twisted thing, but it chilled me right to the core.

One of Leliana’s arrows whistled past my shoulder and buried itself in the creature’s left eye, just as Morrigan’s first blast of ice—coming as it did with a burst of bright, burning magical energy that ripped the dimness to pieces—nearly blinded us all.

I thought I’d known pain before then. The buffeting my body had taken, in terms of fighting and fatigue; the blisters, the route marches, the apparently endless coshes on the head… I seemed to float on a cushion of them all, pain wound upon pain until I could feel practically nothing. I’d been awake for more than a day, wielding a weapon for most of the past twelve hours or so, and now I was high above myself, connected to my body by only the most tenuous of silver threads. It was beautiful, in a strange and unholy way. I was aware of ducking, lunging, cutting, thrusting… and of having my dagger knocked from my clumsy hand by a furious corpse that screamed into my face, all dead breath and bloody, brown teeth as its hard, cold hands wrapped around my neck, fingers digging into the flesh. Nails ripped, blood welled, and I wriggled frantically. There were dark echoes that called to me from the recesses of memory. Twisted ones, as if Fate was enjoying a joke at my expense, but they were there all the same… armoured guards, the unmapped portions of an arl’s estate, with all these faceless corridors and empty rooms. It seemed I was destined to keep finding myself here, fighting for my life over and over again.

This time, however, I’d had more practice.

I kicked, twisted, dropped from the corpse’s grasp… drew the light, narrow sword I carried and—with a terrible, efficient calmness that I witnessed as if it was happening to someone else—struck off the creature’s head.

It crumpled to the ground, and it was only then that I realised I’d been screaming profanities.

For once, we’d outnumbered the undead, and we made short work of them. I straightened up, sheathed my blade and coughed, aware that my throat was rough and sore from the corpse’s attentions.

“You’ll have bruises,” Leliana remarked, and touched my elbow gently, as if she was testing whether or not I’d lash out when she did.

I looked down at my hands. They were, as usual, dirty. Dried blood crazed my knuckles, and I clenched my fingers into my palms… which, for a while, stopped the shaking.

“I always have bruises,” I muttered, giving her a sickly smile.

A whimper from the cell drew my attention, and pushed back the clouds from my head. I lurched forwards, eager to see what the monsters had been so intent on hunting.

“Hello?” I croaked. “Anyone alive in there?”

I turned, reached for the torch from Morrigan, and held it up, peering into the shallow cell. A figure was huddled into the corner—a mage, judging by what was left of his dirty, torn robes. One sleeve was badly ripped, blood oozing from a nasty gash to his forearm and, as he cautiously raised his head and peered at me, I saw his face bore the mottled, swollen marks of a really thorough beating.

“Wh-who are you?” he asked, flinching from the torchlight and raising one thin hand to shield his eyes. “You… you don’t look like the arlessa’s guards. Are you from outside the castle?”

The mage climbed unsteadily to his feet, those knot-jointed hands clinging to the bars for support as he pressed close to the cell door, trying to see all of us, yet squinting against the torchlight. He must have been down here a while, I guessed. Alone, in the dark. The thumbnail was missing from his right hand; nothing left but a caked mess of blood and torn skin.

Staring in revulsion at the wound, I found myself evenly divided between pity and fear.

He is… an infiltrator.

The arlessa had warned of a mage, hadn’t she? And Alistair and Morrigan—for once—agreed that blood magic was the most likely cause of the evil besieging Redcliffe. Yet the skinny, pale-faced young man before me, with floppy dark hair and nervous, uneven breathing, couldn’t possibly be the one Lady Isolde had meant. Could he?

I took a step backwards. “I think you’re the one who should be answering questions, mage.”

He nodded, head lowered and eyes downcast… like a dog that’s been whipped too often to think of biting. Leliana tutted.

“This poor boy is in need of healing, not an interrogation!”

“He’s also the only person we’ve seen so far who’s alive,” I retorted. “I’d like to know why before I break out the ointments.”

She looked unimpressed, but I was too damn tired to argue. The mage curled his hands tighter around the bars of his cell door.

“It’s all right, I understand,” he said in that curiously light, wheedling voice of his. “I… I know this looks bad, but it wasn’t my doing, I swear to you. My name’s Jowan. Lady Isolde hired me to tutor her son. But—”

“You!” Alistair scowled. “You’re the one who poisoned the arl!”

“I’m not proud of it!” Jowan yelped, flinching away again. “It wasn’t—”

“Just tell me why we shouldn’t kill you right now!”

The thunder rolling across Alistair’s face exploded into vituperative rage. It startled me to see he already had his sword half unsheathed, and I put out my hand, resting my palm on the bars, my arm a barrier between the two men.

“We should at least hear what he has to say, shouldn’t we?”

Alistair exhaled tightly. He relented, but kept the mage pinned with a sulphurous glare, and the way Jowan cringed made me doubt he could have the nerve to do anything under his own volition.

“All right,” Alistair grumbled, and I wondered whether he would really have run the boy through.

“I-It wasn’t the arlessa’s fault,” Jowan said anxiously, pressing his face close to the bars. “Honestly. She had no idea. When she took me in, she just wanted a… a mage from outside the Circle. She wasn’t to know what I’d been hired to do.”

“Outside the Circle?” Alistair’s scowl deepened even further. “Why did Lady Isolde need—”

I cut across him. “What do you mean? Who hired you?”

Jowan swallowed heavily. “T-Teyrn Loghain. It’s true, I swear. I—”

“That traitorous bastard!”

I winced. I’d wanted to derail Alistair’s anger, not fuel it. Still, it shocked me… it shouldn’t have, but it did. I thought of the elven spy in the pay of Rendon Howe, sitting up in the tavern and watching the castle, waiting for— well, waiting for the first signs of the arl’s sickness. It made sense now, didn’t it? They’d been watching. Waiting for the arl to weaken. Waiting for the moment when all the cards were in place, and there would be no resistance….

Ever since Ostagar, and the debacle at the Tower of Ishal, I’d been prepared to believe this whole business was a mistake. I hadn’t perceived the treachery and intrigue that Alistair had, and I’d thought it was some failing on my part; that his anger came from the depths of his grief and loss, that he needed Loghain to be the villain, because the deaths of all those men—of the king, and of Duncan—were too terrible a price to be laid on chaotic error. Too terrible a price, perhaps, to know that we were responsible for. Plenty of nights since the battle, I’d told myself the beacon wouldn’t have mattered, even if we’d lit it on time. The darkspawn had outmanoeuvred the king’s army, and Loghain might have pulled his men anyway. They might all have died too… and there was nothing we could have done differently.

Of course, this changed everything. If it was true.

I tightened my grip on the cell door, centring myself on the feel of cool metal beneath my palm, when the world felt ever less real around me.

“Loghain? You mean, someone who was working for him?”

Jowan shook his head vehemently. “No! No, it was Teyrn Loghain himself. I-I knew it was him. I’d seen paintings. The Hero of River Dane. He came to see me in Denerim, while I was, er, a-awaiting execution.”

He hung his head, but the show of remorse didn’t win him much sympathy.

“I knew it!” Alistair snorted. “You’re a blood mage, aren’t you?”

Jowan nodded miserably.

“Truly?” Morrigan quirked her lips. “Well, I would never have guessed.”

I glanced at the witch, trying to decide whether the interest in her expression—and the slight hint of respect in her voice—were there just to annoy Alistair, or because she really was impressed.

“I dabbled in the forbidden arts,” Jowan protested. “A bit. But that’s all. It was for— oh, it doesn’t matter now. The teyrn told me I could atone for my crimes, if I did what he asked. He… he told me Arl Eamon was a threat to Ferelden, dangerous to the nation, and that if I dealt with him, then not only would I be helping my country, but that he’d personally see to it that matters with the Circle would be, um, settled.” He raised his head and looked imploringly at me, his swollen eyes beginning to glaze with tears. “I thought I was being given a chance to redeem myself, but Loghian’s abandoned me here, hasn’t he? Everything’s fallen apart, and I’m responsible!”

His voice cracked, and the tears started to fall. If it was an act, it was a good one.

“You’re the reason we’re knee-deep in corpses, then?” I asked sharply, because remorse alone is not atonement.

“What? No!” His eyes widened, as far as they could, and he shook his head fervently. “No, that wasn’t me. I was already imprisoned when the killings began.”

Alistair frowned. “But Lady Isolde said—”

“Lady Isolde is a pious woman. She hates magic. That’s why, when Connor started to show signs—”

“Wait, what?” Alistair’s frown deepened incredulously. “Connor’s a mage?”

“That’s why I was hired,” Jowan explained patiently. “Not just for scholarship. I told you, the arlessa wanted someone outside of the Circle. She was so afraid of anyone finding out… even her husband. She said that the arl would ‘do the right thing,’ even if it meant losing their son, and that infuriated her. She just wanted me to teach Connor enough to hide his talents. That way he wouldn’t be taken away.”

Alistair’s frown stiffened, then faded, and he sighed wearily. “Oh, no.

He glanced at me, waiting to see if I’d made the connection he obviously had, and I must have looked nonplussed.

“The Circle of Magi takes apprentices away from their families, yes. But, more than that, a mage can’t inherit a title.”

“Ah.” I nodded slowly. “And Connor is the arl’s only heir?”

“Exactly.”

It made sense, and a small part of me was perversely pleased to be justified in my initial distrust of the arlessa. A dark and inescapable conclusion hovered over us, though, and I looked grimly at Jowan.

“Then, the walking corpses, the… whatever’s going on here. It’s the boy?”

He nodded. “I think so. He’s still very young, and he doesn’t know much, but… it is possible he could have done something inadvertently. I don’t know. They locked me up here after the arl fell ill. I was new to the castle, so they suspected me at once. The first I knew of the killings was when Lady Isolde came down here with her men, demanding that I reverse what I’d done. I thought she meant my poisoning of the arl, but she was convinced I’d summoned a demon to torment her family and destroy Redcliffe. She… had me tortured. There was nothing I could do or say that would appease her.”

His fingers flexed convulsively against the bars, and I trained my gaze on the bloodied mess of his thumb. It was far too easy to imagine what they’d done—and what they would have done next. I doubted a mage valued many things in life more highly than his hands.

“Why didn’t they just kill you?”

“I’m not sure. I think they intended to come back for me. But the screams, they just got worse and… nobody came. I’d started trying to get out, but then those things came after me, and I figured I was safer just hiding, until they found me. They’d have killed me if you hadn’t come. I owe you my life. Please… let me out, and I’ll help. Somehow. I have to at least try to make things right!”

There was a clear, desperate note in his voice that sounded genuine to me, but I looked to Alistair for a decision. He narrowed his eyes.

“You don’t think you’ve done enough already?”

“Please!” Jowan’s knuckles whitened on the bars. “I made a stupid mistake at the Circle, and now I’ve made an even greater one. I’m… not a bad person. There’s no reason for you to believe me, but I’m not. I have to make up what I’ve done. I have to try.”

I looked carefully at Jowan, my hand still lingering on the cool metal of the cell bars. Only those few inches of iron separated us, flaked with rust and pitted with years of dents and dings. I knew nothing of how blood magic worked, but I’d seen Morrigan cast enough spells to realise that, had he wanted, the mage should have been able to set us all aflame, imprisoned or not. The arlessa hadn’t taken all of his hands. Not yet, anyway.

“You’re very… eager,” I said doubtfully.

He curled his lip, and I could see where they’d knocked a tooth from his jaw. Upper right, almost the same place as one of mine was still loose from last night’s fighting.

“What? I’m not allowed regrets?”

His tone was harder, sharper… for a moment, with the dim light picking out the bloody shadows on his face, it was nearly possible to believe a boy like Jowan really was a maleficar. That comforted me, in an odd way.

The gentle clink of jewellery told me Morrigan was folding her arms across her chest, and I knew that penetrating amber gaze would be burning into the back of my neck.

“I say this boy could still be of use to us,” she announced. “But, if not, then let him go. Why keep him prisoner here?”

I didn’t want to look at her. I agreed, much to own horror. Whatever Jowan had done, he seemed repentant… had I not freed Sten under the same morals?

Alistair didn’t sound convinced. “Hey, let’s not forget he’s a blood mage. You can’t just… set a blood mage free!”

“Better to slay him?” Morrigan snapped. “Better to punish him for his choices? Is this Alistair who speaks or the templar?”

Ouch. She’d hit a nerve there. I felt it in the way his stance shifted, though I didn’t turn my head, didn’t bother to see whether his face was as stony as his voice. I was watching Jowan, expecting there to be some whiff of desperation about him, some impatience to see his fate decided. He just stood there, gaze downcast, swaying slightly… as if he didn’t care what happened to him anymore.

“I’d say it’s common sense,” Alistair said brusquely. “We don’t even know the whole story yet.”

He had a point. For my own part, I was more inclined to believe Jowan’s version of events over the arlessa’s, but he had just as much reason to lie, if not more. What if we let him out, and then discovered he was the one who’d summoned the demon? No, that was silly. If he was, he’d be better protected, wouldn’t he? Not alone in a cell, harried by walking corpses. I hadn’t quite forgotten those screams of his, either… unless it was a bluff, some kind of trick. Maybe he was a demon. I blinked, trying to focus through the tiredness and confusion, and more aware than ever that I was out of my depth.

Behind me, Leliana was wading into the debate.

“He wishes to redeem himself! Doesn’t everyone deserve that chance?”

“Hmph.” Morrigan scoffed. “Like yourself, you mean?”

“Everyone deserves a chance to redeem themselves in the Maker’s eyes,” Leliana said evenly. “This man no less than any.”

Jowan glanced up then, looking at her with unexpected softness, his mouth slightly open… almost as if she reminded him of someone. A pang of sympathy stuck me; we all trailed our pasts behind us, like kites on silver strings, their tails knotted with memories—and regrets.

“What d’you think, Merien?” Alistair prompted, obviously unwilling to make a decision. Again.

I sighed, and hoped he wasn’t banking on me to stand up to Morrigan for him.

“You’re right,” I said. “We don’t know the whole story. But I’m not about to leave him caged and defenceless.”

Jowan brightened. “You mean you’ll give me a chance? You won’t regret it, I promise. I’ll… I’ll find some way to help.”

“And after that?”

I didn’t know why I asked. I suppose part of me wanted to hear that he’d run, escape somehow… that he could.

“Afterwards?” A hollow, dark emptiness settled in at the edges of Jowan’s expression, almost eclipsing the hope that had flashed so vibrantly there. “I… don’t know. I assume I’ll be arrested. Or executed. Or whatever people like me get. But I’m tired of running from the Circle. I need to account for what I’ve done.”

I looked at Alistair: a moment’s silent enquiry. He nodded slightly, though those hazel eyes did not hold mine, and I knew he wasn’t sure whether to believe the mage, or whether to trust my judgement. Given that, his loyalty was touching.

“All right,” I said, stepping back from the cell. “Sten? Would you mind?”

The qunari had not contributed an opinion, but now he detached himself silently from the shadows and moved forwards, monolithic and implacable. Jowan whimpered.

“I’d cover your eyes,” I suggested. “And get back as much as you can.”

Sten sniffed philosophically as he squared up to the door.

“This would never have happened among my people,” he observed. “We keep our mages under much more effective control.”

He took hold of the door and, with a grunt of effort, wrenched the bars a good inch out of their settings. The mortar crackled and crumbled, and the metal squealed. Another few tugs, and the cell door ruptured off its hinges, allowing Jowan to squeeze through.

~o~O~o~

For all his assurances about wanting to help, it was abundantly clear in the first few minutes that the young mage was too badly hurt to keep up—and I doubted he’d be much of use if we ran into more trouble.

I suggested he use the passageway and head back to the village, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

“I have to make it right,” he kept saying, clutching one hand to ribs I suspected were broken, as he limped between Alistair and me. “I have to… to at least try.”

There wasn’t time to waste arguing. The rest of the dungeons were reasonably empty—though we did discover that the cells nearest the back staircase had not been half as disused as Alistair recalled. Slop buckets, unrusted shackles, and a pack of cards on a small table—a guards’ game of Blind Boy Beggar left eerily unfinished—told of a part of the castle’s life he had either never seen, or perhaps conveniently forgotten.

Maybe, I thought, one eye on Jowan’s injuries, it wasn’t naivety. Maybe things really had changed since he’d left… or since the arl’s illness had allowed Lady Isolde a firmer hand on the place.

In any case, it made no difference. We crept up the back stairs and, oh Maker, I was reminded of the last time I’d done this, skulking through faceless corridors and chambers, heart fit to beat through my chest.

The castle was very different to Arl Urien’s estate, in scale, layout and style, though I recognised many similar touches. As we reached the main floor—where noble folk would wander, and not like to be offended by the sight of plain woodwork or the feel of chilly draughts around their shoulders—the basement’s bare, ugly walls gave way to clean, fine stonework festooned with tapestries. The doors were universally heavy, oak, and carved with bas-relief scenes that mainly seemed to involve hunting hounds. Properly lit up with torches, and with the sounds of life and bustle ringing through the halls instead of this ghastly silence, I imagined it would be very pleasant. Nevertheless, a small part of me refused to move beyond the thought that, if these rooms were full of life, it would be the life of servants. Scores of them, scrubbing and dusting, fetching and carrying, and catering to the needs of the arl’s household. Certainly, someone like me would never see the inside of this place, unless it was on my knees, with a pail of water at my side.

Maethor growled, and I pushed the sneaking, insidious thoughts to the back of my mind. They were small, jealous things, and not for now. The mabari had trotted a few paces ahead of us, hackles up as he pointed his wrinkled snout towards the large double doors that lay before us.

Alistair drew his sword. “I think that’s the library. Past it, there’s a way down to the courtyard, via the old chapel. That’ll be the quickest way to get to the main hall. If Bann Teagan and Lady Isolde are still alive, I’d bet that’s where they’ll be… along with whatever’s been causing this.”

I grimaced. “You’re going to tell me there’s no side entrance now, aren’t you?”

He shot me a dry, acerbic smirk. “Oh, if it was easy, you’d just get bored.”

I snorted. At that point, boredom really looked good.

We were about to enter the chamber when, behind me, I heard Morrigan’s sudden intake of breath. I glanced over my shoulder, and saw her eyes widen, gleaming with an intense alertness. Jowan felt it too: he tensed, and almost fell, clutching at his ribs.

“C-Careful!” he called, as Alistair’s fingers closed on the handle. “It’s waiting for—”

He didn’t get a chance to finish the sentence. The second the door opened, something rushed out. I never saw it clearly. It was like a black, gritty wind; first one shape, then two, then three, whirling around us, impossible to strike at or escape. I didn’t know what they were, just that my bones seemed to be made of lead, and my flesh hung from them like wet sand. I could barely move, rooted to the spot by a horrible, undeniable weakness.

“Shades!” Jowan yelled, which meant nothing to me. “They’re demons! Don’t let them deceive you!”

I didn’t understand. My ears were full of that rushing, grinding wind, and then a face—or a near parody of one—reared up before me, screaming out of the ripped cloud. It resembled a twisted skull, but it was as if it was carved from the grain of the air itself… so immeasurably different to the revolting physicality of the walking corpses. These were creatures of the Fade, I realised; they spurned the rules and the realities of this plane.

I am greater than this, the skull seemed to say. I am greater than you all.

It was a dark, metallic sound… not a voice, but the impression of a voice, as if I remembered the creature speaking, whether or not I’d truly heard it. The gaping, sucking mouth, and the holes where eyes should have been, pulled at me, and I felt my whole centre shift, as if it could draw me into it, suck me dry and leave nothing behind but a desiccated rind. All my thoughts, memories, dreams—everything I was, had been and might yet be—that was what it wanted, what it hungered for. I had to resist. I knew that, and yet….

“You’ll have to do better than that!” Morrigan shouted, a bolt of white light leaping from her staff and striking one of the creatures.

It hissed—or screamed. I wasn’t sure which; hard to tell when the sound seemed to lodge itself right in my brain without ever having passed my ears. The shape of a clawed hand scythed through the air and caught her on the side of the head, and it snapped a thought into focus. Demons in their own forms, not trapped inside the body of another… how were we supposed to kill them?

Alistair cannoned into the third shade, shield up and all his bodyweight behind the blow. It hit something, at least—the thing howled, and it seemed to stretch out, its shape changing and thinning, as if all it had to do to deflect this world was simply bend, simply reach away. He stumbled, thrown off balance by its easy avoidance, and the thing came back hard. It slammed into him, and it had physical form enough to send him sprawling.

To my right, Jowan sent a weak pulse of magical energy against the creatures. It caught one’s attention, and it sprung around, clawing through the air towards him. Everything stank of mould and staleness, and I flung myself forwards, knowing he was too weak to resist it alone.

“What do we do?” I yelled, swiping madly at the shadows and feeling nothing but cold and weakness enfold me.

“Draw them,” he shouted, lurching back and trying to hold himself up. “Draw them out! Don’t… don’t let them see you!”

I didn’t know what he meant at first, but it soon became clear. These things fed on the spirit, drawing all the life—the messy, chaotic jumble of things it meant to be mortal—from their prey, and draining them. Keeping them on edge, never letting them train their attention on any one of us for too long, was the only way we had of not sinking into that shrouded oblivion. I felt it, though: snaking around me, pushing at the edges of everything, tugging me and beckoning me towards it. Rest. Sleep. That was how they did it; like spiders numbing their meals with a bite, then emptying them completely.

We fought hard, fast and nimble. Distractions and flurried attacks that fell on bodies made of little more than cloth and whispers. It was like wrestling nightmares… and hadn’t I done enough of that in the past few weeks?

Still, we kept them busy while, together, Jowan and Morrigan focused their magic on the demons. The creatures weren’t as strong as they’d first appeared. The struggles weakened them, and it certainly seemed as if they could be hurt, maybe even killed. I wasn’t sure if that’s what happened, or if they just retreated, slunk back to the Fade, or to some other hidden corner of existence. Either way, first one went down, and then the others followed. Each was the same: a roar, and a whirl of that gritty, dark wind, then it was just… gone. We were all left standing there like idiots, panting and clutching naked blades, armed against an empty room.

I glanced around me, seeing the space for the first time, and found myself awestruck. There were shelves as high as the ceiling, all full of books. Endless rows; more than anyone could read in a lifetime, surely. Lecterns, some with tomes open upon them, and well-worn chairs beside the cold, unbanked fire, suggested that someone had used this room regularly, though maybe not for a while. Small, high windows allowed shafts of light to fall on the smooth flagstones, and the centre of the floor was thickly carpeted with an enormous red rug. Doors led off to the left and right and, not knowing which way we should go, I looked to Alistair for directions. He was staring at the fireplace, mouth tight and gaze fixed on some distant pinpoint of memory. Easy to forget how much this must hurt him, I supposed, but my sympathy was stained with misgivings. I still wondered: how often had he been back here? How many letters had passed between him and the arl, or Teagan? And how close to all of this—the politics, the power, the privilege—had he really been?

A thud behind me signalled Jowan falling over, and Leliana rushed to help him up. I blinked, ashamed of myself. We had no time for petty jealousy.

“Is he all right?”

“He needs a healer,” she said firmly, hauling the mage to his feet, his arm around her shoulders.

Jowan groaned and mumbled something about being fine, which his pale, sweaty face rather belied.

“We go this way,” Alistair said, pointing to the left-hand door. “It should lead out towards the courtyard. From there, we can open the gates. You could… get him back to the village faster than trying to get through the passageway.”

He sounded reluctant, but it seemed unlikely that Jowan would be able either to escape, or perpetrate any kind of unclean magic, given the shape he was in. For one so weakened, he’d put a lot into fighting the shade demons, and I supposed we had to trust in that.

I nodded. “All right.”

~o~O~o~

Things did not go as easily as we’d hoped. Despite the number of bodies we’d cut our way through in the village, it seemed the castle held more surprises. Most of the wing between the library and the courtyard was running with undead; they came out of nowhere, teeming like silverfish on damp wood. There were more elves among them. Servants, I supposed. It shouldn’t have made it harder, but it did. Hollow eyes, snarling mouths… bodies and faces too like my own. My blade faltered on the first one: a girl, probably about my age when she died, or maybe a little younger. She was blonde, and pretty, with pale blue eyes that had turned milky and opaque in death. Her white skin had a mottled, blue undertone, and her grey dress was stained and dirty. I stared at it, thinking how ashamed she’d be of that, how it just wasn’t right, and my sword hung, limp and useless.

Sten pushed me aside, a hand almost as large as my head easily brushing me out of his path. I stumbled, though I didn’t fall. He took her down in a single stroke, clean and efficient, and all I could do was watch the neatly detached head roll on the stone floor.

Something of the previous night’s grim rhythm returned for a while; nothing but the dull thuds of flesh and the bite of steel, broken by the occasional groan or growl of a corpse, or a grunt of effort. Only once it was over did we hear the sniffling coming from one of the small side-chambers.

It turned out to be Valena, the smith’s daughter, and that provided a moment of such unadulterated joy. I might have promised Owen we’d find her, but I hadn’t necessarily believed it—especially once the state of things in the castle became clear. At best I’d assumed that, if we even got back to the village alive, we’d have to tell him she was probably among the walking dead… but here she was, very much alive. Corpses definitely didn’t scream so much.

I tried to calm her, but the sight of an armour-clad elf wielding a blade and splattered with blood and bits of brain matter didn’t seem to help, so I stood back and let Leliana take over. She was, I had to admit, much better at it than me. She did the hair-smoothing, back-rubbing thing, cradling the girl like a child and hushing her with that sweet, musical voice. Eventually, she stammered out enough scraps of information to confirm what we thought—that Master Connor had, as she put it, ‘been took’ by something, but fear had won out over curiosity and, as soon as the trouble started, she’d hidden instead of trying to flee. It had probably saved her life.

“I just want to go home,” she wailed, and Leliana looked imploringly at me.

“There could be more survivors, no? We should look for them. Not everyone in the castle can have perished.”

“Foolishness!” Morrigan snorted. “The more time we waste turning out every storeroom and cupboard, the more likely we are to attract the demon’s attention. It almost certainly knows we’re here anyway… it is just a matter of whether or not it chooses to attack.”

I rubbed a hand across my brow. My head hurt, not that I really noticed it. Everything hurt, and my tongue felt thick and dry.

“All right…. Leliana, take Jowan and Maethor. Make sure Valena gets back to the passageway safely. It might not be the quickest route, but at least we know we’ve cleared most of the creatures out down there. If you find anyone else alive, that’s great, but we have to push on. You can catch up with us in the main hall, which is across the courtyard, right?” I glanced at Alistair, waiting for him to confirm my grasp on the castle’s layout.

He nodded hesitantly. “Yes, but are you sure splitting up is a good idea?”

I shrugged. “The mage is injured. Leliana’s right: he needs healing. And this girl needs to get home. Would you rather she goes alone?”

“Well….”

He didn’t sound entirely convinced, but then I knew I was no tactician… not that any other bastard was coming up with a plan.

I looked at Morrigan, half-expecting her to argue, but she said nothing. Sten was doing his statutory impression of a rock-face, and Maethor was licking Valena’s salty cheek. Leliana nodded.

“All right. I shall do it. But we must move fast, yes?”

“Yes.”

We rose, divided, and the sense of unease was almost tangible. That small, weak voice at the back of my mind—my alienage brain, I told myself—kept beating the same chant over and over: who did I think I was? What right had I to think I could take charge, to think I could do anything but get us all killed? I was nothing but a foolish child, a chit of a girl who should have been strung up for her bloody-minded insolence the day she dared take up arms against her betters.

You’ll die here. You’ll all die… and none of it will matter.

I blinked and shook my head, trying to concentrate on following Alistair down yet another stone-walled corridor. Was it my own imagination, conjuring threats from my fear, or something else? I knew nothing about demons, except that they came from the Fade. Just the same as dreams, then, I supposed. Yet anyone who says dreams can’t hurt you has never had a bad one. Half-real memories swam behind my eyes; blood-red rock and swarming, teeming bodies, black and jagged against a thick, putrid fog. As I’d been learning since my Joining, dreams could be many things, and their boundaries were both flexible, and dangerous.

Nearer to the heart of the castle, we found more traces of the carnage the past few days had seen. Tapestries ripped from the walls, floors and rugs soiled with blood and filth… doors, furniture and statues broken into pieces. There were a few bits of corpses, too, though they remained fortunately inanimate. I’d lost all track of where we were, which was north or east, left or right. There were too many twists and turns, too many staircases and side chambers. Alistair seemed to know where he was going, at least. He stomped through, tight-lipped and intensely focused, checking every door and corner we passed for the possibilities of traps or ambushes. No one wanted to get taken by surprise, especially now our presence must have been noticed.

“I don’t like this,” he announced in hushed tones, as we came off the foot of a winding stone staircase, beside a small, squat wooden door that led out into the courtyard.

From the staircase’s narrowness and rough finish, I guessed it was for servants’ access… and it occurred to me that so were most of the routes Alistair had led us down. I’d thought it was meant for stealth, but just for a moment it struck me as odd. The thought floated away like mist, and I frowned.

“No,” I agreed. “S’quiet.”

“It is too quiet,” Sten put in. He already had a firm grip on his sword.

Morrigan’s black iron staff scraped the flagstones as she shifted restlessly behind me.

“Then I say we go out there and make some noise,” she said, and her voice held an unsettling hunger.

She could feel something, I guessed. Something powerful… which meant we must have been getting close.

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Volume 2: Chapter Eleven
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