Feasting on Dreams, Volume Two: Chapter Thirteen

 ———————————
Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
———————————-

Up close, the Circle Tower was an imposing sight. The weight of the stonework, the sheer scale of the place… but what struck me most of all was the feel of it. Something was wrong. Very wrong. It clung to every breath we took as Carroll rowed us across in Kester’s rickety little ferryboat.

With that massive spire rising into the grey sky, the late afternoon sun gilding the water all around us and painting shadows on the ancient stones, every instinct I possessed was screaming at me to turn around. Trouble always makes itself known before it starts, and I’d grown up learning to spot it. The greasy electricity that precedes a fight, the sour taste in the moment between apathy and violence… that’s what it was like, but there was nowhere to run, no upturned table or handy wall to dip behind. The Tower just kept looming larger and larger, until we were out of the boat and being led through the biggest, thickest doors I’d ever seen.

I could only imagine what it must be like to be welcomed to the tower as a guest. Dizzingly high ceilings, great pointed arches on every door and window, and so many carvings and bas-reliefs crawling over every surface that they made the place look alive. Decorative hangings and carpets in vibrant, bold colours spoke of an exoticism beyond anything I’d ever known, and I couldn’t help but stare at the statues and intricate ironwork on the screens and pillars that divided the hall in which we now stood.

It took a moment—and the great, hollow clanging of those mighty doors shutting behind us—before I blinked, and truly appreciated the chaos around us.

Something wasn’t just wrong. It had been going wrong for a while, and it was getting worse. There was a makeshift field hospital over in one corner of the vast room; injured men sprawled on blankets, some crying out in pain and others silently, deathly still. Templars in full armour, their faces hidden behind those square helms but their bearing grim and resolute, moved stiffly about the place and, at the centre of it all, stood a man in ornate templar armour, his grey head bare and his face etched with a haunted determination.

“…and I want two men stationed within sight of the doors at all times,” he was saying, addressing a templar who stood at his side. “Do not open the doors without my express consent. Is that clear?”

“Yes, ser.”

The templar saluted crisply and strode off, boots clanking against the flagstones.

“This is not good,” Alistair murmured, close behind me. “Look at how those doors are barred. Are they keeping people out? Or in?”

I glanced at him, aware that he understood much more from this scene than I did, and the look on his face frightened me. I didn’t get the chance to ask him what he meant, though, because he set his jaw and started forwards.

“Knight-Commander?”

He changed a bit in that instant, I thought, our weary, awkward Alistair. As if someone had pulled a string somewhere, tightened his joints and dragged his shoulders back and his spine straight. It was the soldier’s bearing I’d seen on him before, but laced through with something else, some set of physical memories… the flash of shiny plate and the brotherhood of arms, I supposed.

Leliana and I exchanged brief looks; I could tell she saw it too, but then it wasn’t as if I hadn’t noticed the way she watched him. A certain… keenness of interest, perhaps. Just something I’d observed, and filed away. I could have been wrong, and it didn’t matter, after all. Not at the time.

The man I took for Knight-Commander Greagoir turned and looked at us, wiry grey brows drawing together.

“Who are you?” he demanded, face darkening with the beginnings of fury. “I explicitly told Carroll not to bring anyone across the lake!”

My mouth was dry. I’d seen templars in Denerim, by ones and twos, and thought them no more than city guards in different armour. Here, they couldn’t have looked more different. Against the stonework, the high walls and arched ceilings, I could see what they were meant for… the cold steel backbone of an army.

“Ser, we are Grey Wardens,” Alistair said, with the slightest trace of a heel-click. “Survivors of Ostagar.”

Greagoir’s frown deepened. “Grey Wardens?”

“We came seeking the mages’ support against the darkspawn. It—”

The frown became a scowl. “I am weary of your order’s ceaseless need for men to fight the darkspawn, whether it be your right or not! In any case, you’ll find no allies here. The templars can spare no men, and the mages are… indisposed.”

His hard grey eyes raked quickly over Leliana and me, summarising us and probably finding us wanting, I supposed.

“I shall speak plainly,” Greagoir said, his voice rough and bitter. “The tower is no longer under our control. Abominations and demons stalk the halls. The Circle is lost. The tower has fallen.”

Across the room, a man prostrated on a bloodstained blanket clutched his heavily bandaged side and gave a long, rattling groan. Another templar rushed to help him, holding his comrade’s head as the other coughed and hawked up a mess of bloody phlegm.

“How did it happen?” Alistair asked.

I saw him glance towards the huge double doors at the opposite end of the hall. Barred, guarded…. A horrible sense of dread washed over me, and I couldn’t stop my mind from filling with thoughts of the shades we’d encountered at the castle.

“We don’t know.” Greagoir shook his head. “We saw only demons, hunting templars and mages alike. I realised we could not defeat them and told my men to flee.”

Panic began to rise in me. A swift glance around the room counted at least twenty men… twenty survivors. Perhaps there were others elsewhere. But, if they had been forced to fall back, we could surely do nothing. We’d as good as failed already. And what of Connor, of Redcliffe and everything we’d rushed to try and save? Why did everything have to be so damned complicated, anyway? I was exhausted enough for the weight of tired, angry tears to start prickling behind my eyes, and I almost didn’t hear Alistair’s next words.

“What can we do to help?”

My brows shot up, but no one was paying any attention to what I thought.

“There is nothing left to do,” Gregoir said grimly. “I have sent word to Denerim, calling for reinforcements and the Right of Annulment.”

“The Right of Annulment?”

I heard my own voice echo his words, confused, and I wasn’t even aware I’d spoken.

The Knight-Commander gave me a look of slightly condescending surprise, as if he was somewhat taken aback that I could speak.

“Uh, this is Merien,” Alistair said, apparently recalling my presence. “My fellow Grey Warden. And Leliana, our… companion.”

Gregoir inclined his head; the nearest thing to pleasantries we had time for.

“The Right of Annulment gives templars the authority to neutralise the Circle of Magi,” he explained. “Completely.”

Leliana drew in a small, startled breath. “Oh… you mean—?”

“The mages are probably already all dead,” Alistair said darkly. “If there are abominations in there, they must be dealt with… no matter what.”

Greagoir nodded. “Indeed. This situation is dire. There is no alternative—everything in the tower must be destroyed. It is the only way it can be made safe again.”

I stared, uncomfortably aware of my inexperience and ignorance, yet unable to quite believe what I was hearing. I thought of Morrigan… one woman, with a simple iron staff and ragged, barbarian robes, without whom our entire party would already have died a dozen times over. Fair enough, perhaps her magic was wild—dangerous, and not of the Circle’s approved kind—but if she alone could wield so much power, how could the templars so easily write off the entire Tower? And how could Alistair, of all people, stand there and so readily, dumbly agree? Had he had his eyes closed for the entirety of our journey so far?

“But… the mages are not defenceless,” I said. “Surely some could still be alive. If you’ve just shut them in there—”

“If any still live, the Maker Himself has shielded them.” Greagoir shook his head ruefully. “No one could have survived those monstrous creatures. It is too painful to hope for survivors and find… nothing.”

I glanced at Leliana, willing her to back me up. I could see from her face that the prospect of this wholesale destruction pained her deeply, but she wasn’t disagreeing. I frowned.

“Then why wait for this Right of Annulment? Why not, I don’t know, burn the place?”

The Knight-Commander gave me a look tinged with incredulous impatience.

“We must wait for reinforcements. I will not order my men to their deaths. Besides, only the grand cleric in Denerim can authorise the Annulment of the Circle.”

Greagoir’s lined brow furrowed deeper, eyes hardening beneath those heavy brows and giving me a faint understanding of the choice he faced. I regretted opening my mouth as I realised that here stood a man whose life was in this tower. Not only had he been forced to watch his own men die, but also the mages with whom he lived every day… and whom he now had to condemn.

“So,” he said brusquely, “while the door holds, Warden, we wait. Denerim must have received our message—it cannot be much longer.”

“And if they don’t come?”

My voice, my words… yet I seemed so tenuously connected to myself, I could barely believe I’d spoken at all. Greagoir glared at me, but it wasn’t the look of a human ready to backhand an impudent elf. The Circle, I recalled, treated elven mages as equals. Where I came from, that was the stuff of myths, though we didn’t regard it as enough of an advantage to balance out giving up a child.

His mouth framed the start of a word, but the sound was just a dry rattle, a defeated breath that told me he’d already pictured a future in which the grand cleric’s response never came. Hope appeared to hold little comfort for the Knight-Commander, yet he could not abandon his duty. They’d die here, I realised, him and whatever was left of his men. All for some stupid sense of pride.

I pushed while I had an advantage.

“I don’t believe every single mage can be dead, or… or possessed. When did this start?”

“A few days after the deputation returned from Ostagar,” Greagoir said dubiously. “It all happened so quickly…. We sent word to Denerim at once, but that was ten days ago now.”

Alistair made a small, sarcastic noise in the back of his throat. I could do exactly the same mental arithmetic. Allowing for how our time on the road—and those first few days in the Wilds—had distorted things, the progress of events seemed pretty clear. Loghain had deserted the field, and headed straight for Denerim, leaving any who’d survived the battle to limp away unheeded. But there were too many coincidences, weren’t they? Arl Eamon’s illness, this chaos at the Circle… it was hard to believe they were really unconnected, and yet we could trace no provable line between them. I glanced at Alistair, unsurprised to find his jaw set and his mouth tight.

“We don’t know precisely what happened,” Greagoir went on, “but I can see no way that—”

“Then let us in,” I said… or perhaps dreamed I said. It didn’t feel real. “Let us look for survivors. If there are none, or if we die looking, you’ve lost nothing. You can still rout the tower, once reinforcements arrive. Yes?”

The Knight-Commander did not appear to be a man easily robbed of words, but he stared at me, mouth open and brows raised. I could feel the surprise radiating off my companions, too, though it was Alistair who coughed diplomatically.

“Er… Merien? These abominations… they’re not—”

“And what other choice do we have?” I demanded, rounding to face him. “Hm? What other hope is there for Connor, or of standing against the Blight… or Loghain?”

Alistair floundered, mouth still working over some explanation or discouragement. I didn’t want to listen. I knew my weaknesses, my inexperience, and I was aware that he knew far more about what might lay behind those doors than I did… but it didn’t matter. Tired and hurting and irritable, I wasn’t prepared to turn tail and row back to Redcliffe empty-handed. There was too much at stake.

“Well?” I snapped. “Think of Morrigan. She’s one woman, but you saw how much damage she did against the undead! Do you really believe every single mage in there is dead, or corrupted? Isn’t it worth at least looking?”

For a moment, I thought I’d overstepped the bounds of our comradeship. Alistair chewed the inside of his cheek, face screwed up in uncomfortable indecision, but then the darkness lifted from his eyes, and some kind of resolve seemed to touch his expression. He nodded, and looked at me with what I could only think of as respect… which was a little disorientating.

“You’re right,” he said, at last. “It is. I… I’m with you.”

It was a pledge of fealty, not the acceptance of a suggestion, and I wanted to say I hadn’t meant to override him, that I didn’t want to jostle for leadership… but then Greagoir was looking at me, and he appeared very confused.

“Undead?” the Knight-Commander queried. “Wh— no. Never mind. I… I still think this is madness, but…. Very well, Warden. If you are set on this, I shall allow it. A word of caution, however: once you cross that threshold, there is no turning back. The great doors must remain barred. I will open them for no one until I have proof that it is safe. I will only believe it is over if the first enchanter stands before me and tells me it is so. If Irving has fallen… then the Circle is truly lost, and I will not hesitate to see it destroyed.”

I bowed my head. “Thank you, Knight-Commander.”

Greagoir still looked doubtful, but he nodded gruffly. Raising my head, I glanced at Leliana. She met my eye, coolly determined.

“I agree. If there is even one person in there who can be saved… that is reason enough to try. And that poor little boy…!” Compassion tugged her pale brows into a frown, but it soon gave way to a harder, more resolute expression. “We will do what we can, at least.”

The edge of my mouth curled in silent thanks. Greagoir let out a terse sigh.

“Well, may Andraste lend you her courage. Maker knows you’ll need it.” He turned towards the far end of the hall, where two armoured templars stood guard over the great doors; that high stone arch barred with enough solid oak to raise a barn. “Terrill! These three are going through. Unbar the doors.”

There was a general muttering and murmuring as we walked the length of the hall. It seemed a very long way, and the doors seemed to get taller with every step.

“That’s why they make them so big,” Alistair said quietly, shooting me a grim look. “Keeping things in. Every Circle Tower has doors like these. Just in case.”

I winced, not sure I wanted to know what horrors merited barricades quite so impressive. The steel-blank helmets of the templars manning the doors looked down at us, any compassion in their eyes indiscernible through the narrow slits in their visors. One shook his head as the doors creaked slowly open.

“Maker watch over you,” he intoned, voice echoey and muffled. “Someone’ll need to.”

~o~O~o~

It would be many months before I quite forgot the sound of those mighty doors closing behind us; the scrape of the bars and locks being dragged across, and the cold tolling of the knowledge that we would very likely not come out of this alive.

“Well, then,” Alistair said acidly, “best get a move on, hadn’t we?”

Like Redcliffe Castle, the Circle Tower was deeply unfamiliar territory to me. Everything was endless corridors, dim from cold, burned-out torches and small, high windows. The first rooms we came to seemed to be public spaces, opulent and reasonably undisturbed. I didn’t know how many visitors the mages normally entertained—in my head, their whole existence was hidden by some shimmering curtain of possibilities that I’d never contemplated peering behind—but it was easy to picture grand gestures and sophisticated small talk in chambers like these. Carved wooden benches littered with cushions, and broad, square tables stood either side of a huge, ornately carved fireplace. Nothing but cold ashes on the hearth.

“It seems very… quiet,” Leliana ventured.

“Mm.” Alistair wrinkled his nose. “Until demons start coming up out of the floor, anyhow.”

“The floor?” I blinked, confused. “What exactly—”

“Abominations can take many forms,” he said, scouting through a few papers that had been abandoned on one of the tables. “Possession is not always… tidy. I might never have become a fully-fledged templar, but I’ve seen enough to know— well, I’ve seen enough. Let’s put it that way.”

“That’s, um, not comforting,” I said, peering up at the high, arched ceiling far above us. “Really, really not.”

Alistair gave a hollow grin. “Well, if you will go having these bright ideas….”

“Huh.” I took a final glance around the room, satisfying myself that there was nothing there, fleshly or magical. “Father always said my smart mouth would get me in trouble one day. Come on. Let’s keep moving.”

Through another set of doors—though not quite as impressive as those the templars had barred—there lay storerooms, and more serviceable chambers. A selection of side doors seemed to lead down to undercrofts and basements, but they’d remained mercifully locked.

We were about to turn the corner when, up ahead, a noise echoed along the stones. I stiffened, hand going to my sword… though I didn’t know if it would be any use against what awaited us.

“Voices,” Leliana murmured, looking at Alistair. “That means people. D’you think…?”

He shrugged. “Hard to say. We need to be careful.”

I wanted to ask how you could tell whether a mage was possessed, but I didn’t get a chance. We’d barely gone a few more yards before—seemingly from nowhere—a ball of light fizzed from the shadows and struck the flagstones ahead of us, exploding in a shower of sparks. We splintered, all three of us diving for safety.

“Stop right there!” yelped a young, male voice, evidently trying hard to sound brave and authoritative. “Who are you?”

I rose up from the hard ground, blue spots dancing across my vision and my ears ringing. The figure before me was little more than a child and, as I squinted, I realised he was an elf. An elven mage… or an apprentice, at least.

Hands held up in front of him, he stared at us, but in a way I’d never seen another elf stare. He was afraid, yes, but there was nothing cowed about him, no trace of the bow-shouldered readiness to curl up or run that marked the denizens of the alienage. His pale blond hair hung loose, down to his shoulders, and his light green eyes were narrowed, watching every move we made. The roundness of his face, the soft jaw and dewy skin put him at no older than me—maybe even a few years younger—and told of a comfortable life… at least until whatever it was that had given him the large, mottled bruise running across his forehead.

“We… we’ve come from outside the tower,” I said, possibly shouting a little bit over the echoing in my ears. “Looking for survivors. What happened here?”

The boy began to lower his hands. He frowned.

“But… the templars barred the doors. I thought no one—”

“We’re very persuasive,” Alistair said dryly, brushing himself down.

The mage’s face cracked into an expression of exhausted, terrified relief. “Oh, thank the Maker…. We thought no help was coming. We…. Come with me. Come. There aren’t many of us left, but… well, you’ll see.”

He motioned us to follow him and, as he led us along the corridor, I saw we’d entered what must the apprentice quarters. Dormitory rooms led off the hallway, their bunks in disarray and furniture rearranged into what looked horribly like barricades. I heard children crying, and more voices… more survivors? It seemed so. Either that, or we were walking straight into a trap.

I didn’t even know whether abominations and demons bothered to play with their prey like that. Would they try to trick us? Or would they just kill us on sight? I was still grappling with the questions when the elven mage led us past the third dormitory and into a larger room off the main corridor. I’d seen a couple of pinched, white faces peer at us from behind huddles of blankets at we passed, but it didn’t prepare me for what greeted us.

Four huge stone columns bisected the chamber. Like everything else about the tower, they’d been designed to oppress by their impressiveness, and they arched massively into the vaulted ceiling. The wide, empty expanse of the floor was inlaid with coloured tiles, describing strange, angular patterns that, for a moment, reminded me of the Tevinter carvings in the old temple at Ostagar. I’d thought then of blood, running along the worn grooves, dripping warmly from some heathen altar… here, the scent of sacrifice seemed almost as strong.

Opposite, there was another set of those tremendous doors, though the wood was not the only barrier. A sheen of light glimmered over the portal, like some great coruscating curtain. The air prickled with energy, and the hair rose on the back of my neck. There was a thick, uncomfortable feel here, as if the weight of the whole tower was pressing down on us.

A small group of mages stood by the doors, and our escort called out to them.

“Kinnon! Wynne! These people have come from outside the Tower! They… they’ve come to help!”

The mages turned, and I saw a young man, a girl… and a familiar face. A tall woman with her grey hair pinned back in a clean, severe style, her angular features worn with years but not softened, and sharp blue eyes that widened a little as she looked at us.

Wynne?” Alistair started forwards with a cough of disbelieving laughter. “Wynne! It is you! I thought—”

“Alistair?” Wynne shook her head, and then that clear, bright gaze flickered over me. “And you…? I-I don’t believe it.”

Neither did I. Of all the people I hadn’t expected to meet again… and that was almost alarming. Was this really the same woman I’d met at Ostagar? The kindly mage who’d taken a moment to speak with a girl so overwhelmed by her first breath of army life that she couldn’t even find her way to the mess tent? Or was it a trick?

Wynne seemed real enough, but I didn’t know how you were meant to tell the difference. They seemed suspicious of us, too.

The young man at her side frowned. “Wynne, you know them? Derren,” he added, looking at the elven lad who’d brought us in, “who are these people?”

“We’re Grey Wardens,” Alistair said, beginning to cross the chamber. “We’ve come to—”

“Wait!” Wynne held up a hand. “Come no further. Grey Warden or no, I will strike you down where you stand.”

“But—”

“It’s all right,” I cut in, sensing the iron-cold fear that laced the air, and seeing the look in the mage’s eye. “We’ve travelled from Redcliffe. We came for the Circle’s help.”

“And you were told that the mages were in no shape to help you, I suppose,” Wynne said, nodding slowly. “So why did the templars let you in?”

“We… we asked the Knight-Commander to let us look for survivors,” I said, wavering a little as that blade of a gaze scraped over me. “I-I didn’t believe you could all be dead.”

A thin smile tugged at the edge of her lips. “Hm. Your faith is touching, dear. We’re not… not yet, at least. Does Greagoir plan to attack the tower?”

I swallowed heavily. “Soon. He sees no other choice. They’re waiting for reinforcements… and, er….”

“He means to invoke the Right of Annulment,” Alistair supplemented grimly. “There’s been no word from Denerim yet, but it could be any day.”

Wynne’s expression tightened. “Hm. Then he thinks the Circle is beyond hope. He probably assumes we are all dead.”

I frowned. “Couldn’t you have asked them to open the doors? We saw the survivors. There are children in those rooms. Can’t—”

“Don’t you think we’ve tried?” Wynne stared levelly at me.

She didn’t need to raise her voice, to snap or scowl. I looked blankly at her for a moment, and then understood what she meant in all its utter, awful horror.

Those great wooden doors, thick enough to bar against abominations, etched with runes and protective wards… firmly shut to even the clawing, desperate hands of children, begging for their lives. I realised then just what it was I’d seen in the Knight-Commander’s face; the look of a man who has had to listen to the death screams of those he does not dare to help.

It answered my question about the dangers of trusting what I could see with my own eyes, at any rate.

“The templars have abandoned us to our fate,” Wynne said coolly, as if it was nothing but a simple, reasonable, rational statement of fact. “But even trapped as we are, we have survived. If they invoke the Right, however, we will not be able to stand against them.”

Silence pooled around her words. The girl who stood beside her looked at her feet, the gentle trembling of her shoulders the only sign of tears.

“There must be something we can do to help,” I said, the hollow tug of nausea pulling at my gut.

Somewhere, underneath all the fatigue and the frantic pounding of panic, my alienage mind was in full flow. What, it demanded, do you think you can do? What have you already done? Locked yourself in here with the condemned! You’re all going to die here, and it’s all going to be your fault….

“Wh… what exactly happened?” I asked, doing my best to ignore the snide little voice in my head. “How did this start?”

Wynne snorted. “Let it suffice to say that we had something of a revolt on our hands, led by a mage named Uldred. When he returned from the battle at Ostagar, he tried to take over the Circle. As you can see, it didn’t work out as he planned.”

“He unleashed something?” Alistair asked. “Because there’s a lot of that going around lately.”

I let out an inadvertent snigger. Wynne frowned. I hoped we’d all be alive long enough to explain the joke, even if it wasn’t really that funny.

“I don’t know what became of Uldred, but I am certain all this is his doing… and I will not lose the Circle to one man’s pride and stupidity.”

There was enough determination in her voice to bend horseshoes around.

“All right,” I said, eyeing the oddly shimmering doorway. “So what do you intend?”

Wynne followed my gaze, and nodded. “I erected a barrier over the door leading to the rest of the tower, so nothing from inside could attack the children. You will not be able to enter the tower as long as the barrier holds, but I will dispel it if you join with me to save the Circle.”

I glanced at Alistair, and then at Leliana who, until now, had been standing in silence behind us. She inclined her head, just as resolute as Wynne.

“Of course. I cannot believe they would just… leave these people. We have to get them out.”

“Greagoir will only accept the first enchanter’s word that the Tower is safe,” Alistair said doubtfully. “I don’t suppose you know where…?”

“The Harrowing Chamber,” Wynne said, her voice tight and dry. “I think. At the very top of the tower. That seems to be where the… activity is centred. With luck, we shall find Irving there.”

“Then it’s settled,” I agreed. “You’re sure the others will be safe here?”

“Petra and Kinnon will watch them,” she said, casting a brief glance at the two who stood beside her. “And, if we slay all the fiends we encounter on our way, none will get by to threaten the children.”

The girl, Petra, wiped her face on her sleeve and set her shoulders, nodding her agreement. I could see Derren, the elven lad, hovering at the edge of the chamber like a nervous whippet, desperate for the chance to contribute.

“I suppose that could work,” I said carefully, wishing I had Sten, Morrigan and Maethor at my back.

Whatever awaited us beyond Wynne’s barrier, it seemed a fairly safe assumption that it wasn’t going to be an easy fight.

~o~O~o~

There was a small argument over who was going through the doors. Wynne’s apprentices practically clamoured to come with her, and I heard snatches of something about an injury, but the mage refused to back down. Eventually, Petra, Kinnon, and even young Derren conceded that they should stay with the other survivors, and arrangements were made to keep the ragged group as safe as possible, once the barrier was destroyed.

I didn’t know how many people the tower was usually home to, but I didn’t count more than thirty mages hunkered down in the dormitories. Some were apprentices, I guessed—I was beginning to understand the differences in the colours and cuts of their robes—and there were maybe twenty children there, too. They ranged from gawky twelves and thirteens, down to little ones no more than… well, than Connor’s age. I thought of him as we waited for Wynne to finish her preparations and begin dismantling the barrier. Would it have been so bad for the arlessa to send him here? So terrible for him to have a life like this?

“Are you ready?” Wynne asked, jerking me from my thoughts.

We stood before those great oaken doors, the film of light shivering over the knotted wood. To my right, Leliana was solemn-faced and still, with all the grace of a cat awaiting the hunt. At Wynne’s left, Alistair was favouring his injured shoulder and looking decidedly grim.

I nodded dumbly, not quite trusting myself to speak.

The mage bent her head, a frown of concentration pinching her lined brow. She extended one long-fingered hand, palm outwards, and drew in a deep, calm breath. I felt the surge of energy coursing through her, though I didn’t understand it, nor know the words to describe it.

Later, Wynne and I would share many discussions of magic and its role in the world. She would talk to me at length of mana and matter, of reality and dreams, and I would learn more from her than all the books I could ever have read.

At the time, I just felt a cold, prickling sensation skating over my skin, and everything seemed to taste of aniseed. It struck me how very different it felt to being caught in the radius of one of Morrigan’s spells, but I watched the shimmering barrier dissolve, and knew that Wynne was no less powerful.

Petra, Kinnon and a couple of the other apprentices helped open the doors, and could be heard barring them securely after us as we stepped into the adjoining chamber. More high ceilings, great arching columns, and acres of grey stone… it was almost anti-climactic. I’d been expecting a sudden outpouring of demons, or some scene of hideous atrocities. Instead, there was nothing. Just an empty chamber, with empty hallways leading off it.

“This way,” Wynne said, leading us to the left corridor. “It’s quicker to go up the back stairs, past the laboratories.”

We followed, and I was very aware that—despite her age and the ordeal that she’d suffered—Wynne’s brisk pace was a little quicker than was comfortable for me. The beautifully faced stone walls (the masterwork of some Tevinter mason, I thought, even where various more modern attempts to replaster and repoint the bricks had been made) soon became a repetitive labyrinth, and I had the strong sense of turning in circles.

“So,” I began, just shy of panting as we hiked after her, “this Uldred…. What can you tell us about him?”

“Uldred?” Wynne turned to look back at me. Her lips thinned, and a small frown creased the bridge of her nose. “It’s uncharitable of me to speak this way, but I never liked him.”

“Oh?”

“No. He was a squirrelly, twitchy sort of person. Never mentored the apprentices, never taught…. I don’t think he cared much for the Circle, only his own advancement.”

We were heading up a narrow staircase, and the stones seemed cold and clammy. A smell that reminded me of boiled cholor root—the kind of thing we used for poultices back home—seemed to seep down from somewhere.

“Well, that doesn’t mean he’s responsible for this,” Alistair said, casting a wary look towards the top of the stairs, into the dimness beyond.

“Hmm.” Wynne snorted, and let a small ball of light fizz from her palm, ascending a good four feet upwards and illuminating the path ahead before it faded and disappeared with a soft pop. “Call it women’s intuition. I’m sure Uldred has some redeeming qualities. He probably has a perfectly good reason for not displaying them.”

I smiled, despite my sore lip. I’d not thought the mage had such a dry tongue on her.

“But how did it all start?” I asked. “Greagoir said it was a little while after the mages returned from Ostagar.”

“Ah… yes, I was at that ill-fated battle, as you know,” Wynne said, giving me a rather curious look.

I wondered if she wanted to ask how Alistair and I had survived, but I doubted this was really the time to be swapping war stories. Besides, would she have believed us?

“Afterwards, I was in no state to travel, so I stayed at the fortress to recuperate and help the wounded. Uldred, on the other hand, left for the tower almost immediately. When I finally returned, I found that Uldred had all but convinced the Circle to join Loghain….” The name left her lips wreathed in distaste, though the crack in that calm, moderate composure was only brief. Wynne shrugged. “Of course, I cannot fault the Circle. Uldred’s argument was persuasive, and how could they have known what happened at Ostagar?”

That the beacon was late, my mind supplemented, and the plan torn to ruins….

“Huh.” Alistair frowned. “Seems convenient. You think Uldred could have been—”

“In cahoots with the teyrn?” Wynne finished. “That is my suspicion. Uldred always wanted power; perhaps Loghain promised him the post of first enchanter, once they had dealt with the Blight.”

We were almost at the top of the stairs, the narrow passageway opening out into another corridor, with a series of doors leading off it. I didn’t much care for Wynne’s theory, nor for her fanning the flames of Alistair’s burgeoning vendetta… though I had to admit that the hypothesis was reasonable. I didn’t like it, but what other explanation was there? Just like at Redcliffe, it seemed we were either facing dark intentions, or impossible coincidences.

“I don’t know if that’s the case,” Wynne said with a shrug. “However, I told First Enchanter Irving what Loghain did on the battlefield. I revealed him for the traitorous bastard he is… and Irving said he would take care of it. He called a meeting to confront Uldred, but something must have gone wrong. I emerged from my quarters when I heard the screams. They were coming from the meeting room and it wasn’t long before I saw the first abomination, running down a mage. It deteriorated quickly after that. Those of us who were left… well, we took the children, and fell back as far as we could.”

I nodded slowly, concentrating on not imagining the details. “So, this all started at the meeting?”

“It must have.” Wynne looked thoughtful for a moment. “As far as I could tell, anyway.”

“Hm. Somehow,” Alistair said dryly, “I imagine we’ll be piecing the details together as we go.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Oh. Good. That’ll be something to look forward to.”

He snorted and we paced on, along the clammy, dark corridor. I thought a heard scuffling in a couple of the rooms, and I was about to draw a blade when a fat, brown rat scurried across the flagstones. I exhaled, starting to relax again… and then we saw the body.

It lay in a pool of congealed blood, half-stretched across the open doorway to one of the laboratories, as Wynne called them; large chambers that held rows of benches and tables.

He’d been a templar, once. There was enough visible of the plate armour to judge that, though one arm was severed and the corpse’s midsection torn through. I was glad he still had his helmet on; I didn’t want to see the look he’d had on his face when he died. Past the body, there wasn’t much visible through the open door but broken furniture and smashed glass… and more blood. The smell of it met me, laced with musty decay and rancid flesh. It reminded me of the Wilds, and the stench of darkspawn, and I shivered.

“Maker,” Leliana murmured, peering over my shoulder. “There are more bodies… mages and templars alike. I don’t think I want to know what happened here.”

It was too easy to guess. The swiftest glance around the chamber yielded contorted, torn limbs, corpses swollen and blackening where they lay. In the far corner of the room, there were more rats. I heard the scuffling and the squeaking, and tried to avoid looking at the mess they were making of a young woman’s remains. Satisfied there was nothing here for us, I turned away, and caught sight of the look on Wynne’s face as she stared at the bodies. Pain scored deep lines across her brow, her mouth drawn tight and thin, but it was the clarity of her expression that stung me. Such a pure, gnawing agony.

She blinked, aware I was looking at her, and the pain seemed to peel back, exposing only determination… like naked, white bone beneath flesh.

“Let’s go,” she said hoarsely. “We should hurry.”

I nodded. “Agreed.”

We headed on to the end of the corridor, and the eerie quiet persisted. I had to admit that I’d expected to see some action by now; not that I was overly eager to see whatever could cause the kind of damage we’d seen in the laboratory.

Just as on the lower level, the hallway opened out into a larger chamber, and as we approached the point where there had, until recently, been another set of doors across the archway, we heard voices. It wasn’t much more than a low whisper—too faint to pick out words—but it was warning enough. Leliana drew her bow from her shoulder, already stringing an arrow with silent ease. She stole forwards on soft, soundless feet, and we followed, picking our way over the smashed remnants of the doors. I tried not to think about what might have broken them down.

There was a group of mages on the far side of the chamber. They were partially obscured by one of those great, arching pillars, and a wrought-iron screen that was set into the stonework, but we could hear their agitated muttering. It sounded like an argument, though I didn’t catch much of it.

I stumbled, my foot knocking against a broken piece of wood and sending it scudding on the flagstones. The noise echoed all through the chamber and—in less time than it took for me to wince and swear—the mages turned on us.

If there’d been any doubt that they weren’t survivors of the rebellion, like Wynne’s rag-tag group, it evaporated in the first burst of lightning. We divided, lurching for cover… bright lights burned before my eyes, and I wondered how mages managed to get by without blinding themselves. The hiss of an arrow whistled past my left shoulder, and I heard one of the mages cry out as she went down. Leliana got off another shot, and it gave me cover enough to sprint across the chamber and take the fight to our opponents. There was logic there, of a kind. I reasoned, in my inexperience, that it would be easier to take them down close to… that the worst they could do was fire at range. I heard Alistair yelling as I ran, wanting to know what the hell I thought I was doing, but it was a bit late by then.

Magical fire crackled over my head—real flames, roaring red and orange, which scared me, because I’d never seen it before, never associated something so very physical with mages’ abilities—and the smell of singed hair and leather enveloped me. I ducked further, shut my eyes, pitched into the gaggle of robed figures and struck out blindly. Chaos rocked around me, bodies jostling and tumbling, and my blade buried itself in soft, live flesh. Face to face with a young, blonde woman, I saw her eyes widen and her mouth grow loose as the warmth of her blood ran down my wrist. A wet, red shape bloomed in the middle of her robe, just below her breasts, and I struggled to pull my dagger free as she slumped to the floor. I was aware of the press and crash of the melee, and of Alistair charging in on the left, but everything seemed fractured and smeared together, and I didn’t anticipate the kind of weapons the mages had at their disposal.

Blood magic had never been anything more than an abstract idea to me; something that was muttered darkly of in corners, or whispered of as part of the curse that mages bore. I didn’t know what it could do.

One of the robed figures—a dark-haired young man, thin-faced and sallow—flung his palm out towards me, screaming a chant of ugly, angular words. The blood I’d spilled seemed to burn on my skin, and I could feel the power rising around me. It crackled, like the heat that comes before a summer storm, waiting to be broken… and it was as if the body of the girl at my feet was the source of it. I understood what Jowan had been talking about then, and it revolted me. The idea that a person—all their thoughts, their feelings, their dreams—could become mere fuel, condensed into something so faceless and violent, was horrific. It was no less so when the full force of the blow hit me and, mouth full of the taste of blood and static, I was knocked back a good four feet, landing on my behind yet again. The mage raised his other arm, and I had no doubt he intended some other, more deadly charm, but he was interrupted, felled by a well-aimed arrow to the eye.

I scrambled up, headed back into the fray, aware of how much we owed to Leliana and her bow. Wynne was a very different fighter to Morrigan: no bursts of frost riming the air, no violent flashes of light. She struck carefully, I saw, bolts of arcane energy applied with precision and surprising power. There were only two of the blood mages left standing. One of them unleashed a huge, swirling cone of flame that had Alistair pitching to the ground, ducking and rolling for cover, while the second raised his staff and aimed at Leliana. I kicked him in the groin, hard enough to drop him to his knees and—while the human was doubled up, mewling and retching in his fine satins—I drove my sword through his neck. It was quick, but bloody, and I didn’t realise until it was done how dispassionate the action had been.

They’d meant to kill us, I reminded myself. They were abominations, weren’t they? Only, as the last mage crawled on the stones, hand raised over her head, she didn’t look like a demon. She looked like a frightened, injured bird, fluttering hopelessly against the inside of a windowpane when it has no idea how it got there.

“Don’t kill me! Please!”

Alistair was standing over her, his sword already streaked with blood. I winced, expecting the killing blow. That was what they trained templars for, wasn’t it? He held the blade half-ready, and he seemed to start the motion, but it faltered somewhere between intent and action. He exhaled, his breathing fast and ragged, and looked away, as if surveying the mess we’d made. Blood pooled on the flagstones; bodies and scorch marks and the smell of burnt hair. Leliana’s soft footfalls echoed against the stones, and Wynne was not far behind her. Alistair raised his head and looked at me, his face all planes of shadow, pierced by tired, heavy eyes.

I swallowed heavily. Who was I to make this choice? Why me? The power over life and death was too unwieldy a thing to hold, and I had no wish to be its master. The blood mage followed his gaze and stared up at me, offering a wide-eyed plea.

“I beg you… please,” she whispered, clutching at her left arm.

Blood seeped through the fabric of her robe. I wished fervently that we’d killed her quicker. Forged in violence I might have been, in so many ways, but there was a vital difference for me between cutting down darkspawn or walking dead, and killing someone who could look me in the eye and say they wished to live.

The last time I’d spilled living, untainted human blood, back on that evil day in Denerim, even the men Soris and I had killed had been intent on killing us. Somehow, that made it taste different. If the act was quick, essential—a matter of kill or be killed—it didn’t feel like murder. A comforting little lie to tell myself, I supposed, and my hypocrisy stared up at me from those cold, bloody stones.

“Please,” she repeated, “I know I have no right to ask for mercy, but I didn’t mean for this death and destruction. None of us did!”

“You cannot expect mercy for what you have done,” Wynne said icily. “You and these others… you sought to help Uldred overthrow the Circle, did you not? And now this—blood magic?”

“Wynne….” Recognition flickered in the woman’s brown eyes. “You can understand, can’t you? He promised us freedom! Uldred told us that the Circle would support Loghain, and Loghain would help us be free of the Chantry.”

“Huh.” Alistair curled his lip. “Should have known. That treacherous—”

“But why turn to forbidden magic?” I demanded, cutting across his acerbic muttering.

The mage looked up at me, her mouth trembling.

“You don’t know what it was like. The templars were watching… always watching…. The magic was a means to an end. It gave us—it gave me the power to fight for what I believed in.”

There was a breathy, desperate quality to her voice, eerie in the echoing, stone-walled dimness. It was all the more unsettling for the naked idealism that shone through it… and the fact that I could all too easily understand what terrible acts were borne of desperation.

Wynne folded her arms across her chest and tilted her chin, looking for a moment like a stern schoolmarm.

“I have known you since you were an apprentice, Kalia. If I had thought for one moment….” She shook her head, her mouth snapping shut as if she was afraid of what she might say. “Fighting for what you believe is commendable,” she said, her voice cold, “but the ends do not always justify the means.”

The mage shifted uncomfortably on the floor, adjusting the hand she pressed to her arm. Blood smeared her palm, though the wound didn’t appear to be all that bad. Just a flesh nick. I wondered how much power she could draw from that, if she chose. How blindly devoted to her cause would she have to be to turn on us now? And how difficult would it be to put a knife to her neck and finish her?

She gave a small, incredulous cough of laughter.

“You don’t really believe that, do you, Wynne? Change rarely comes peacefully. Andraste waged war on the Imperium; she didn’t write them a strongly worded letter!”

I glanced at Wynne’s tight-lipped displeasure, aware from the way her jaw shifted that—just perhaps—there was a small part of her that agreed with the younger woman.

Still, she shook her head again, and I could see the pain in her eyes.

“Nothing is worth what you’ve done to this place. Nothing.”

The blood mage hung her head, and I barely heard the words that escaped her bitterly bowed lips.

“No. You’re right. And it was all for nothing, wasn’t it? Now Uldred’s gone mad, and we are scattered, doomed to die at the hands of those who seek to right our wrongs….”

I thought, for one awful minute, she might cry, and I looked at Alistair, hoping he—the nearest thing we had to a templar—might have some sort of contribution to offer. Maybe some sort of conviction. Instead, he met my gaze, his jaw clenched awkwardly.

“We… we can’t allow blood mages to live, though,” he said, and it sounded like catechism, like the echoes from far-off days of training.

“Please,” the mage said again, her voice thick with unshed tears and her dignity quietly compelling. “I don’t want to die.”

She was addressing me, I realised. Not him. Not Wynne… not any of them. Me.

“Just… just give me a chance to atone for what I’ve done. Please, if you spare me, I… I could escape and seek penance at the Chantry.”

I frowned. After all those years of templars breathing down her neck? It seemed an odd choice, although I supposed a mage turned maleficar and apostate didn’t have many alternatives. From what I understood, the Chantry was supposed to give sanctuary to all who asked for it, but—

“They’ll never take you,” Alistair said. “They’re very picky about who they let in, you know. Harlots, murderers, yes. Maleficarum? Oh, no.”

His tone was arch, and I could spot sarcasm being used to cloak the fact that this woman had got to him. To me, too, I supposed. My sword hung limply at my side. There was no way I was prepared to kill her… and maybe she scented my weakness.

It was weakness, I was sure, because despite the empathy I felt, I didn’t trust her. This could all be a ruse. I thought of the survivors we’d left behind, no longer protected by Wynne’s magical barrier. All those children, who knew no other home than this, no other family….

“Your comments betray your ignorance, Alistair,” Leliana said, rather sharply. “The Chantry accepts all, regardless of what they’ve done.”

“Really?” He snorted. “Well, it seems you’re familiar with a whole other Chantry, because the one I know wouldn’t hesitate to shove a sword of mercy right through her heart.”

Bitterness dripped from his words, and I winced at the vividness of the image. Leliana looked as if it actually, physically hurt her. She curled her mouth around a terse little gasp, and I couldn’t tell whether she was angry or just knocked hollow. A horrible silence pooled out around us, and the blood mage looked up at me, her dark eyes imploring.

“I just want my life,” she said quietly. “Please?”

I crumbled, and I was sure everyone knew it, no matter how gruff I tried to sound. The fat lip and the fatigue helped a bit, but probably not enough.

“How will you get out, then?” I raised an eyebrow. “With blood magic?”

“No, I….” She shook her head. “I’ll find a way. Please. Let me go, and I swear I’ll do something good with my life.”

I could feel the weight of four gazes on me. Wynne’s disapproval was like winter ice, cold enough to burn. I didn’t look at her. I didn’t look at any of them, not even the blood mage, and just stared at the filthy flagstones.

“Fine.” My voice held an authority that didn’t feel real. I wished I could believe in it. I shrugged. “Go. If you can escape the templars, you probably deserve your freedom.”

She gasped, and I supposed she’d thought I really would kill her. Her eyes shimmered.

“Thank you! Oh… thank you. The Maker will surely turn His eyes on you for your mercy!”

I didn’t want to hear it. At the rate things were going, if the Maker turned his gaze on me, all He was likely to see was a horrible, bloody failure. I shook my head, in part to brush away the woman’s gratitude and, in part, to try to force myself away from those thoughts. We weren’t dead yet.

Leliana was the one to step forward and help the blood mage to her feet. The rest of us didn’t move. I didn’t know whether Alistair or Wynne disapproved of my choice; if either of them did, they didn’t say so. I thought I heard Leliana exchange a few murmured words with the woman—a brief message of encouragement or support, perhaps—and then she was limping off down the hallway, back the way we’d come, bloodied but unbowed.

“Well,” Leliana said crisply, returning to us, “I suggest we find out what is going on at the top of this tower.”

I nodded. “The sooner the better.”

It wouldn’t be long before I had cause to rethink those words.

~o~O~o~

There were more rooms, more hallways… more bodies and scenes of bloody struggle. From what we were able to piece together by the state of things—and the unwelcome discovery of blood magic’s involvement in Uldred’s planned rebellion—the chaos that had enveloped the tower had been dramatic, but relatively brief.

We came across the corpses of mages and templars alike, some already beginning to swell and rot, some charred beyond all recognition. The encounter with the group of straggling blood mages had put us on the alert, and every shadow seemed to hold new threats though, fortunately, there was little to challenge us. I expected the corpses we found to rise up, and to find myself battling more undead, but they stayed refreshingly inanimate. I mumbled something to that effect, and ended up having to explain what had happened at Redcliffe to Wynne.

“How awful,” she said, looking grim. “The poor child.”

It struck me as testament to her character that she could say that, given everything she must have witnessed over the past few days. Still, those clear eyes clouded with sympathy, and that thin-lipped mouth bowed into a curve of deep thought. A small, crooked furrow bent between her narrow grey brows.

“You think something could be done for him, though?” I asked. “I mean, it is possible to free a mage from possession, where the demon has been allowed to enter willingly?”

“I believe it is,” she said slowly, each word tempered with the weight of consideration… and the shadow of uncertainty. “I have never seen it done, myself, nor known of such a case, but I see no reason it should not work.”

We were making our way up yet another winding staircase, all slanted treads and oppressive, clammy stonework. Behind me, Alistair grunted.

“Mm. That’s if there are any mages left.”

I winced. For all the differences between us, I was finding I liked Alistair a lot more than I’d ever expected to like a human… but he wasn’t given to high tact or sensitivity, especially after the week we’d had.

“Hm.” Wynne shot a sharp look over her shoulder. “We are not all as helpless as you imagine, sonny. There will be those who have resisted Uldred. And as for the rest of them… well, at the very least, I believe I’m still able to bend them across my knee and give them a sound spanking.”

She hiked off up the rest of the steps, spine ramrod straight and shoulders back, and Alistair gave me a glassy-eyed look as he caught up.

“Well, now,” he said. “There’s an image.”

I nodded, trying hard not to think about it. “Mm. Remind me not to annoy her, won’t you?”

The staircase led us onto the floor that housed the tower’s chapel, the great hall, and several other common rooms. As we picked our way through the debris, I questioned Wynne on the matters of blood magic and abominations, and she summarised with all the elegant brevity of a natural teacher. It didn’t make it any easier to hear—those horrific descriptions of domination, minds bent to demonic wills and bodies corrupted by unspeakable foulness—but at least it helped me understand what we were facing. Part of me suspected it would have been better not to know.

“I still don’t understand, though,” I said, as we crossed through the ravaged space of the great hall, where the floor was scorched with the marks of a horrible battle.

Blackened corpses, both mage and templar, spoke of a desperate effort to bring something to ground here, and we held back a little, unsure whether the dead had succeeded. I peered dubiously at the stinking, charred remains of a templar. His face had been burned away, nothing but the crusted mass of boiled red flesh and crisp scraps of skin behind it. There were gaping foul wells where his eyes and mouth should have been, the seared stumps of teeth poking out like crooked gravestones.

“I… I thought,” I said, swallowing heavily, “that places where the Veil is thin, where there’s so much death… that things were drawn to it. Yet we’re not seeing walking corpses.”

Wynne shook her head. “No. That is something of a worry, frankly.”

“Oh?”

“Things of that… nature,” she said carefully, evidently trying to choose her words for someone of a non-magical bent, “are drawn to the physical world as moths are to a flame. They come blindly, hungrily… but they are weak. Whatever Uldred has done—whatever he has raised—it is something altogether more powerful.”

“Powerful enough to scare lesser demons away?” Alistair asked, though it was clear from his face that he already knew the answer.

Wynne shrugged. “You could put it that way, yes.”

He grimaced. “Oh, good.”

Leliana was pacing the edge of the room, along a wall of statues that all seemed to depict famous enchanters of the ages. Their blank marble faces stared straight ahead, and I couldn’t help wondering what horrors they’d witnessed.

She stopped at the corner of the chamber, one hand going to her mouth and the other to the dagger at her hip.

“Oh! Oh, Maker… I think I’ve found what they were fighting….”

She sounded distinctly queasy, and turned from the sight. I was already heading over, and at first I thought it was just the smell that had got to her—the whole place did stink of burnt flesh and hair, though I didn’t think it was quite as bad as the night of walking corpses at Redcliffe—but that wasn’t it at all.

It didn’t look like much more than a bundle of rags. It stunk, but… as I got closer, I could see there was flesh there. Of a kind, anyway. A body, but warped and disfigured. It was slumped in the corner, partially beneath a broken table. Scorch patterns on the flagstones indicated fierce fighting, and there was a trail of blood seared into the floor. The… thing… wore the remnants of robes, but that was the last indication that it had ever been a mage.

Every inch of visible skin seemed to be swollen, bubbles and pustules of purpled flesh bursting across its surface. The marks of battle were one thing, but whatever else had happened to this poor creature… well, I didn’t know what to think. It was less deformed than completely obliterated, any recognisable shape—human or elven—obscured by grotesque protuberances. Even the hands, clenched in death fists at its chest, were gnarled and blemished beyond any conceivable type of wound. It was as if the body had been remade, cobbled back together from spare parts by something that knew the theory of how people were supposed to work, but had no idea of the practicalities.

I wasn’t far wrong.

“There you are,” Alistair said, sounding strained and putting the back of his hand over his mouth. “You wanted to know how to spot an abomination.”

Bile rose in my throat, and I struggled to think of anything clever to say. Anything at all, in fact, except redecorating the flagstones. Leliana had already turned her back on the corpse, and was waiting by the great wooden doors that stood at the far end of the hall. She glanced at us, and nodded towards the corridor that lay beyond.

“This way, I think.”

~o~O~o~

I was wondering how many damn floors the Tower could have when Wynne directed us up to a hallway from which several well-appointed chambers ran off; senior mages’ rooms, she explained. The Harrowing Chamber was not far.

“Ugh.” Alistair shuddered. “Is it me, or is it getting colder as we go up?”

He was right. That clammy chill was growing worse. It clung to everything, and the stones themselves seemed to whisper warnings. We could hear low sounds drift through the chambers, muffled by those thick walls, their echoes bent out of shape by the high ceilings and long corridors. No more eerie stillness, I realised. The Tower had been in chaos for nearly a week, and the lines of territory had been drawn. Whatever was up here, we were entering into its domain.

The first one came from a room at the end of the hallway. It loomed out at us like a shadow, and it seemed sickeningly impossible that anything that horrific should be able to move so silently… as if it floated above the ground. Scraps of silk and brocade clung to a malformed frame, flesh boiling out obscenely as the shell of a human being struggled to contain the demon within it. Fire bloomed along the stonework, a great shooting rush of it that left us all a little singed. Wynne cried out, a series of words in some unknown tongue, and a curve of bluish light seemed to envelop us. Energy pulsed all around me, the hair crackling on the back of my neck. It made my teeth ache. The abomination flung spells at us, and I saw how every effort ripped its host apart a little more. I understood, then, what separated this foulness from maleficarum; this was not the knowing application of evil, but the unhinged madness of a creature that had lost all form, all awareness.

Whatever the thing that faced us had been, it was that no longer. All it could do was lash out, seeking to wound and destroy as only things which are maddened through pain and confusion can do.

It would have been easier to feel sorry for it, had those crazed lashing outs not been so bloody dangerous.

We fought hard, the four of us struggling to bring it to an unpleasant, messy end against the far wall of the corridor. My mouth was full of the smell of blood and burned flesh, and my leathers were distinctly smoky. Alistair, panting hard and favouring his wounded shoulder even worse than before—it would be a miracle if those stitches hadn’t split, I thought—nodded towards the mage’s quarters that lay around the curve of the hallway.

“There’s more… they’re coming.”

He was right. The sounds of movement and the fleshy glide of inhuman bodies were growing louder. I looked over my shoulder at Wynne and Leliana, and then to the large, heavy doors that faced the opposite side of the corridor. Like the lower floors, the upper part of the tower seemed built around the same pattern of side chambers and wider central rooms… but this one offered the potential of a barricade.

“In there,” I called. “Maybe we can hold them off!”

Wynne nodded, and loosed a fireball that caught at the abomination’s corpse. It wouldn’t be much, but it might be enough to slow the encroaching horrors.

Alistair and I wrested the doors open, and we ran, piling into the central chamber without the thought that it could hold something worse than what we were fleeing.

It did, of course.

The chamber was a mess. Bodies, debris… filth everywhere. The stench was appalling and, even in the dimness, I could see that the dead had been allowed no dignity. Pulled apart, mauled to pieces and pegged open to rot. The air was rank with decomposition and sulphur… and the feeling that it was about to get so much worse drilled through every inch of my flesh.

I felt the voice, rather than hearing it. A low, laconic drawl that wrapped itself around us, as final and irrefutable as the way those great wooden doors had slammed shut, sealing us in here with… whatever the creature was.

“Oh, look. Visitors. I’d entertain you, but… hmm… too much effort involved.”

It drew out of the shadows, and my stomach knotted. An abomination, and yet something more than that, something… worse. Its appearance was just as grotesque—all foul, boiling flesh congealed into a twisted, ugly form—but it didn’t move with the same desperation, and it was clearly capable of rational thought, even communication.

“A demon,” Wynne whispered, “and powerful. Do nothing it says.”

The creature was still edging lazily towards us, its malformed head swaying slightly, side to side, as it gazed at us with milky, bulbous eyes. The lipless, skinless maw of a mouth worked over the shapes of words, yet didn’t match the rate at which I heard them in my head. Sick dizziness pulled at me, and my knees ached to bend, to drop me to the floor, sticky with blood and filth as it was.

Leliana pointed towards the far side of the chamber. “Th-that man… he is not dead… he’s alive…. What have you done to him?”

I stared muzzily at where she gestured. A mage—a dark-haired young man in Circle robes—lay crumpled on the flagstones, face up, his chest rising and falling in shallow breaths and his arms stretched out from his body, fingers curled and twitching slightly. His face was slack, his eyes unblinking as he stared, apparently unconsciously, towards the high, vaulted ceiling.

“Niall!” Wynne started forwards.

The demon raised one hand, a patchwork of twisted sinews and raw, glossy muscle, and she stopped as if caught on some invisible web.

“Come, now. He’s just resting. Poor lad, he was so very, very weary.”

There was something in the way it said those words, the texture of them as they scraped against my brain. The room seemed to draw closer, the shadows softening and welcoming me. My body was leaden, unresponsive… and I knew I had to fight it. I just didn’t remember why.

“You want to join us, don’t you?” the demon purred. “Wouldn’t you like to just lay down and… forget about all this? Leave it all behind?”

I did. Oh, Maker, I did. Wanted to more than anything. Yet my lips parted and words, both mine and not mine, stumbled unwillingly from a fuzzy tongue.

“I-I don’t think… s’not a good idea….”

To my left, Leliana shook her head sleepily. “No, you won’t… you won’t fool us that easily, you know.”

Alistair shook his head. “Can’t… keep eyes open. Someone… pinch… me….”

“Resist,” Wynne urged. “You must… resist, else we are all lost….”

There was a thump, and the soft jangle of buckles, as Alistair folded gracelessly to the floor.

That voice… that terrible, slow, drawling voice echoed through me once more, and it seemed to reverberate all the way down to my bones.

“Why do you fight? You deserve more…. You deserve a rest. The world will go on without you.”

My eyes began to close, and I supposed it was true.

After all, what did I matter?

 ———————————
Volume 2: Chapter Fourteen
———————————
Back to Feasting on Dreams: Contents
———————————
Home
———————————

Leave a Reply