The Crumbling Circle and Trapped by a Butt-Ugly Demon
Loghain's mood was sour enough, but when the knock on the door came and it was Howe's voice that he heard, it got decidedly worse. He was still chaffing at Teagan's scalding words during the meeting last week and the doubts the Bann had planted in some of the nobles' heads were getting out of hand. The general didn't turn as Howe entered the room. He stared into the embers of the fire on the hearth and he took a sip of the wine in his goblet as a means of avoiding talk with the newly appointed Teyrn. He had agreed to Howe's claim on the Highever Teyrnir, but that didn't stop the unease he felt in doing so. The whispers surrounding the deaths of the Couslands were dark and unpleasant and Howe's involvement was much deeper than he let on.
"My lord," Howe's voice was as slippery as usual and Loghain cocked his head at him as a means of granting permission to speak, "Yes, I'm afraid I have some unexpected... rather unfortunate news. There seems to be Grey Wardens that survived the Battle of Ostagar."
Loghain turned fully and arched his brows at the Teyrn. He felt his back stiffening at the idea that some of the traitors were still walking his country's soil and his grey-blue eyes narrowed.
"How?" He hissed in reply.
"I'm not sure, my lord," Howe seemed unperturbed by the general's anger and went on smoothly, "They were discovered in Lothering and the soldiers that found them were unsuccessful in destroying them. You needn't worry, my lord, those men have been executed like the traitors they are. But I am aware of the pressing need to do the same with these survivors."
Loghain put the goblet of wine on the table beside him before he hurled it at the wall and then folded his arms across his chest. He usually appreciated the Teyrn's calm attitude, but at the moment, he wanted nothing more than to strike fear into the heart of whoever stood in his way. The soldiers that had been dispatched to take care of any survivors of that massacre were supposed to be under Howe's thumb and the fact that they had failed spectacularly at this most crucial time was enough to send any commander over the edge.
"And what do you propose?" He asked and his tone was biting with venom, "Are you going to go after them yourself?"
"And pay the ultimate price, sire?" Howe answered and his self-preservation was on fine display. His concern for his own neck was the reason Loghain needed him and it also happened to be why he couldn't trust him, "I wouldn't be so foolish. No, to get rid of the finest order of warriors Ferelden has ever seen, we need the best."
He gave a small wave and, from the darkened corner behind him, stepped a slender, lithe figure. It was an olive skinned Elf, his straight, shoulder-length blond hair pulled up at the sides and secured in a braid. He gave both men a bow that was exaggerated in its formality and his amber colored eyes danced. Two wicked looking short blades were slung across his back and in the leather armor, he could move without making a sound. The only noise came from the rustling of pouches secured to the belt around his waist and as his head came back up, he gave them a feral smile. It made his eyes spark and the dark green tattoo across one cheekbone curl up slightly.
"The best, yes," He murmured with a thick Antivan accent, "And the most expensive. General, the Crows send their regards."
Loghain turned back to the fire without acknowledging the Elf's comment and instead muttered darkly under his breath,
"Sire, you have said yourself the Grey Wardens threaten the stability of our country and you shouldn't needlessly endanger your daughter," Howe was quick to exploit those aspects of the general's life that would get him results, "This is fool-proof and exactly what is needed."
Loghain still remained silent and the Elf spoke again.
"I assure you, gentlemen, your targets will trouble you no longer," In addition to the feral smile, he had the trick of making his voice almost purr and it was anything but endearing, "The Crows are not hired unless all other roads have been tried... and failed."
The general waved one hand impatiently and Howe relaxed. He sent a look at the Elf who bowed again and left the room. So neither man noticed how the Elf seemed to deflate when he wasn't under their scrutiny anymore. His self-confident smirk was gone and the amber eyes dead and haunted. He slipped out onto the busy streets of Denerim and glanced back only once to the castle. It wasn't a farewell that he muttered though. Instead it was a name and it was spoken with the same reverence as a prayer,
Ffion wished that she hadn't left the two most
intimidating members of her little band in Redcliffe. They had reached the Lake
Calenhad docks only to discover
that the regular ferryman had been replaced by a dim-witted Templar who had
become quite drunk on his own power. He refused to tell them why they couldn't
gain entrance to the Circle and instead kept repeating that the
Knight-Commander Greagoir had trusted him with the post and it was his job to
keep people like Ffion and her band out. She couldn't help but let her thoughts
travel a little as the Templar, Carroll, argued with Alistair. If Morrigan
was here, all it would take is one flick of her wrist. Maybe just light his
hair on fire, or Sten could have threatened to tear his arms off... She
snapped back to herself before she let those thoughts get the better of her and
stepped forward, laying one hand on Alistair's arm.
"Listen," She said sharply and was pleased that she adopted Fergus' best commander-tone, "We're Grey Wardens and we've been promised aid by the Circle. I know what your Knight-Commander told you, but don't you think he'd be angry if he missed out on available help because you're too stubborn to realize that we aren't posing any threat to anyone apart from whatever's amiss in the tower?"
Leliana was quick to catch on to what Ffion was doing and she added her two bits as well. She had a trick of softening her blue eyes and an uncanny ability to pick up the most vulnerable spot in anyone's armor and she put both of these to good use.
"And, Carroll, if you agree to this, we will be sure to let the Knight-Commander know that you have been very helpful. It could mean a reward for you. A commendation, perhaps."
"But... I... It shouldn't-" His stuttering was encouraging and he only had eyes for the now dimpling Orlesian.
"You are being very brave, dear," She cooed, "But my friend is right. Why should this decision be your responsibility? We will tell your commander that you brought us over thinking only of helping him with this problem."
"All right, fine," He caved and blinked at his own sudden capitulation. He made an attempt to stay superior, but Leliana's bright smile didn't help matters, "You're going to get me into trouble. I shouldn't be doing this."
"You're a dear," The Orlesian replied and chucked him under the chin as she passed by him to step into the little boat, "And this is so lovely of you that we wouldn't dream of causing you grief. Right?"
This was directed at Ffion and Alistair who stared at her in wide-eyed wonder as they followed. Tilly was suddenly antsy and her nervousness distracted Ffion so it was the ex-Templar that answered.
"No," He said with false cheeriness, "Now why would we want to cause you trouble?"
Leliana sent him a warning look that went ignored as Alistair turned to help Ffion lift Tilly down into the boat. The dog was on the verge of jumping out again until her lady stepped beside her. She settled herself next to Alistair, tugged Tilly's head into her lap, and held it on her knees, stroking the Mabari's soft ears. She murmured comfortingly to her and though Tilly stopped quivering, her eyes roved between each side of the boat, apprehensive of the water all around her.
"Don't Mabari usually like the water?" Alistair questioned as he rubbed the dog's back.
"Yeah, usually," Ffion answered and had to admire how gracefully the ex-Templar's hand moved. Her cheeks were suddenly hot and she berated herself swiftly and silently for such fancies, "But Tilly had a rather traumatic experience as a puppy. She jumped into water that was really deep and if I hadn't been there, she would have drowned. She hasn't been the same since."
"Nobody would," He agreed. Dropping his hand from the dog's back, he reached up and rubbed at his neck, trying to dispel some of the soreness that had been plaguing him. He wasn't used to all this sleeping on the ground and fighting with what seemed like every person they came across. Glancing side-long at Ffion and wondering at the color flooding her cheeks, he added, "You haven't talked much about where you lived before all of this. It was near the water then?"
The flood of fear that swept through her was unfounded and rather ridiculous. But tracking down Howe was going to be so much easier when fewer people knew who she was and Alistair's empathy and understanding would make that conversation much harder than it had to be. Something within her told her it wasn't fair to do this to him, especially after he trusted her with the secret of his royal blood, but that didn't change the fact that she wasn't ready for the conversation.
"Yes," She replied shortly and winced at the caustic tone, "But... Listen, Alistair, I'm sorry. I know you mean well, but I'm not ready to talk about that. I told you I've lost enough to know what you're going through with Duncan and... Can you accept that? It's too-"
She stopped abruptly as the ex-Templar put one hand on hers, covering Tilly's ear. His honey colored eyes were concerned, kind, and Ffion's heartbeat was so loud she wondered if he could hear it. He squeezed her fingers gently and gave her the lopsided smile.
"You don't have to tell me," He reassured her, "I'm just returning the favor. You told me I could talk to you whenever I felt like I needed it and I want you to know that it'll work both ways."
Ffion blinked, reprimanding herself sharply about letting any of them see her tears, and extricated her fingers from under his. She smiled a little and wondered again why she felt so goofy when he smiled at her like that. There had been one boy in the castle that made her blush so easily, but that had been when she was twelve years old and hadn't lasted for more than a week. Gilmore was the main reason for this. His incessant teasing turned her off the idea completely and then, later, with her mother's talk of marriage, she became even more determined to avoid this messy relationship business. These thoughts and memories were almost as painful as Alistair's empathy and she was nodding her head, staring down at Tilly so she wouldn't turn an even brighter red.
"Thanks," She said softly, "I know it's rude of me to... I'll tell you when I'm ready. And I mean it, Alistair, thank you. It's wonderful to know that someone will just listen if I need it."
"Right," He said promptly and was himself again, "Without threatening dismemberment or setting your clothes on fire or stabbing you in the back, yeah?"
"And where do I fit in on that list?" Leliana questioned.
She glanced back at them, her blue eyes dancing in amusement. They were just about to the dock at the base of the tower that spiraled away into the coming evening. The sun was setting and reflecting off the water in an explosion of red and orange. Its fading rays illuminated the tower's white stones and the windows winked down at them.
"All of the above," Alistair answered.
Ffion couldn't help but chuckle and she wanted to thank the ex-Templar again. He hadn't missed the emotion on her face and was quick to set things right once more. One sure-fire way to do so was to make her laugh and he succeeded without much trouble.
Carroll expertly landed the boat at the dock and Tilly was the first to jump out. She looked up at her lady accusingly and Ffion grinned at her. Reaching out and pulling on one ear, she muttered with affection,
The Mabari immediately licked her hand and hampered her legs as Ffion clambered out of the boat and followed the Templar to the doors of the Circle. The place was as intimidating as all the works she'd read on it had proclaimed. It soared away above their heads and though the windows promised spectacular views, the young Warden couldn't shake the feeling that this place was nothing more than a cage. Morrigan was the first mage she had met and though the witch wasn't the standard template for all magic users, she wasn't the terror that Chantry beliefs claimed mages were. She was dangerous, yes, but she hadn't yet lost her head and destroyed everything around her because of the abilities she had been born with. It made Ffion wonder if the base line for all those stories of mages snapping was rooted in the fact that they were locked away by those who refused to try and understand them.
"You never told us what the problem was here," Alistair commented as Carroll reached for the handle on one of the double doors, "I mean, you never said why the Circle was shut down, just that it wasn't possible for the First Enchanter to help us. What's the matter?"
Carroll glanced over his shoulder at them and suddenly appeared much older than what he was; much more likely to be taken seriously.
"I got you over here, right?" He said and his voice was sharp, "This is what you wanted. Well, now you'll see that some things are just not meant to be tampered with."
Ffion and Alistair exchanged worried frowns and then the doors opened and they were in the midst of what the Templar was talking about. In the front hall of the tower more Templars scurried about. Most of them wore their full helms and so the looks of utter shock and terror were only visible on those seated on the ground, looking like they had been to hell and back. The windows on this floor had been boarded up and barricaded which made Ffion wonder what they were more worried about: something getting in or something getting out. The carved stone partitions that broke up the hall were stacked with supplies and, ahead of them, the doors leading further into the tower were locked tight and guarded by four incredibly tense Templars.
Carroll walked by his comrades without a word and led them straight to a grey haired man that looked as though he was about to collapse. He turned to them and his brown eyes lit with fire. He studied each of them and, before Carroll could speak or one of them come to his rescue, the man snapped at the young Templar,
"What the hell is this, Carroll? The purpose of replacing the ferryman was so that we wouldn't have unwanted intruders. What were you thinking?"
Carroll sent a 'see-I-told-you-so' look over his shoulder at them and Ffion stepped in before more damage could be done.
"You are Knight-Commander Greagoir? I'm Ffion of the Grey Wardens and these are my comrades: Alistair and Leliana. We have urgent business with the First Enchanter."
"The First Enchanter is indisposed," The commander's voice was mocking and exhausted, "You've wasted your time."
"Indisposed?" Alistair repeated, "From what I've heard of the First Enchanter, he always tries to hear those that may need his help. What's changed? Other than your obvious paranoia?"
Greagoir's features became even longer, making him look much older. He dismissed Carroll with a wave of one hand and then ran his fingers through his hair in agitation. Watching the Templars bustling around him, he spoke grimly,
"I don't see the point in trying to keep this concealed any longer and I know the Grey Wardens have always given aid where it is needed. To put it bluntly, the Circle is no longer under Templar control. I'm not sure of the details or the truth of this, but the rumors are that a group of blood mages overthrew the guards within, intending to take Irving – er – the First Enchanter, hostage. The Templars fought back, but the mages have become abominations. What you see here is all that remains of our forces. I've called for the Right of Annulment and now we are merely waiting to hear word of either agreement or a rejection."
"Right of Annulment?" Ffion asked as Leliana balked, "What does that mean?"
"The Right of Annulment, if granted, gives the Templars permission to destroy the Circle," Alistair's voice was just as grim as the commander's and his honey colored eyes were sad, "It means that all those in the tower will be killed, whether or not they're abominations."
"It's murder," Leliana said, her cheeks pink with rage and making her freckles stand out more prominently.
"We don't have any other choice," The commander replied, "If we go in there and try to bring them back, the risk that even one of them won't be contaminated... No, it's too dangerous. It's the Right of Annulment or nothing."
Ffion watched the Templars and searched for the right words. She was starting to get pissed off and she wasn't sure she had the patience to deal with this anymore. For once in this whole damn mess, she wanted something that was straight forward and didn't consist of jumping through more hoops than anyone had the strength for. Carroll's immaturity and frustrating habit of talking in circles had led her to believe that the problem wasn't that serious and to find out that there was the risk of blood mages running loose in the tower, well... She was sure that Jowan wasn't the standard blood mage just as Morrigan wasn't the standard witch.
"Fine," She said and even she could hear how sharp her voice had become, "What proof would you need to stop the Annulment if I was to enter the tower and solve the problem myself?"
Greagoir studied her in shocked surprise at this outburst and though his gaze was unbelieving, he wasn't about to discount her merely because she was being bold.
"I would only accept the safety of the Circle if the First Enchanter himself stood before me and told me it was so," He answered and gave Ffion the feeling that he was testing her, "If you are seriously considering this, I must warn you that there will be no turning back once you go through those doors. I won't be able to trust anyone but the First Enchanter, not with those demons running rampant."
Ffion hesitated, her anger dissolving into apprehension. This was a death sentence and she couldn't in good conscious volunteer the others without some sort of discussion. She glanced back at Leliana and Alistair before looking at Greagoir again.
"Give us a minute to consider this and we'll give you our answer."
The commander nodded and his look of knowing smugness did little to improve Ffion's mood. He turned away and Alistair and Leliana immediately put their heads together with Ffion's. Leliana's anger hadn't eased any, but her eyes were concerned and reflected more than a little trepidation. Alistair's expression was grim and it was clear that he believed the right thing to do would be to help however he could.
"This is the only way to save both Conner and Isolde," He said, confirming the expression on his face, but he spoke cautiously as though he was worried Ffion would dive headfirst into this without hearing their opinions first, "Not to mention that it's the right thing to do. There's no way to know if the Circle really is lost and destroying it without that certainty... I vote for doing whatever we can."
"I agree," Leliana added, "There shouldn't even be an argument. We can find the First Enchanter and possibly save more lives this way."
Ffion hesitated still, looking over her shoulder at the Templars again and seeing the terrified expressions on the men's faces. She caught the smug glance that Greagoir sent her which poked at the competitive side of her nature and steeled her spine. The mere fact that the commander didn't believe her capable was shoving her towards attempting it and she gave the other two a single nod. Squaring her shoulders, she turned back to Greagoir and tried to keep her apprehension from showing.
"How much time can you give us?" She questioned.
"How ever long it takes you to find the First Enchanter," He answered and mimicked her authoritative tone.
She sent one more look back at Leliana and Alistair and was encouraged by their determined expressions.
"Then we should start as soon as we can."
The commander softened a little for the first time since they spoke to him and he waved one hand absently behind him. A Templar had set up a makeshift table that was spread with what little supplies that had been salvaged.
"We have some supplies available," He said, almost as a means of calling a truce, "Take what you need and then we'll open the doors for you."
They stocked up on health poultices, arrows for Leliana, and whetstones for Ffion and Alistair's blades. As soon as they had stowed these away in their packs and proclaimed themselves ready, Greagoir accompanied them to the beautifully crafted double doors.
"If the Right of Annulment is agreed on before-"
"It's what you have to do," Alistair interrupted and his voice was cold, "You do what you have to and we'll do the same."
The commander was almost sheepish, but he let it go, and instead motioned to his men to open the doors. He looked as though he wanted to give them a last word of warning or encouragement, but Ffion knew there wasn't anything left to say. She nodded to him and slipped through the doors first.
"Maker go with you," Greagoir murmured and then the doors clanged shut.
Alistair arched his brows as they heard the lock slide back into place. His honey colored eyes met Ffion's and when he smiled, it was grim.
"Well, that was a friendly send off, wasn't it?"
"These poor people," Leliana murmured.
She was crouched before a slumped form of a Templar. Letting his wrist fall from her hand as she realized there was no life left in him, she allowed her blue eyes to travel around their surroundings. The others followed her gaze. The sudden quiet pressing down on them was unsettling and oppressive. Not far from the Templar's body was another, this time a mage whose face was a mask of fear. They didn't study these long, instead they ventured further in the tower, trying not to trip over the debris strewed across the floor. There were books, papers, articles of clothing, staffs, weapons; over-turned shelves and broken pottery, and every now and then another body they couldn't help but look more closely at, just in case one of them still drew breath. The one thing that they didn't find was resistance and that was the most unnerving. Everything was just so quiet and almost peaceful. The tower was beautiful, though, in spite of the damage done to it. Beneath the scorched walls and broken, busted doors, the masterful architecture and finely carved stone was still visible. But Ffion's thought was still the same. It's a cage. A gilded cage.
Tilly stopped quite suddenly and brought them up short. Her head was cocked and she listened intently. Ffion held up one hand for silence though it wasn't needed. None of them had said a word since Leliana's comment and the sound of a child's quiet cry followed by a deep roar of something inhuman was distinctly heard. They bolted down the hallway and through another set of doors, only to skid to a stop again. In the room they found themselves there were about a dozen children that had been herded into one corner of the room by three young mages while a fourth, older one battled with a towering, flaming figure. Before any of them could help, the mage flipped her staff between her fingers, striking out at the demon before her as the wood flashed a brilliant blue. The flaming monster staggered back and the woman didn't hesitate as she lashed out again, this time calling ice and water and watching with satisfaction as the demon fizzled away. It disappeared into the floor at the entrance of the next doorway. There were no doors here and instead an erected wall shimmered pale blue in the dim hall, obviously a shield cast by the mages, and its transparency allowed them to see the steps leading to the second floor doorway.
The mage whirled to face them as she heard one of the children cry out again and her blue eyes were icy as she studied them. Her staff was still clasped in one hand as she approached slowly.
"Who are you?" She demanded, "Where did you come from? Speak, I won't hesitate in using force."
"Please, my lady," Ffion implored, the command in the mage's voice rubbing her the wrong way. She wasn't used to being the one ordered about, "My name is Ffion, this is Alistair and Leliana. We're here to help."
The mage waffled for a moment longer and was satisfied when they didn't show any signs of turning into abominations on her. She slipped the staff to her back again and gave them a wan smile.
"I'm sorry for my abruptness, but we have no choice. The children must be kept safe and you can understand why I'm unwilling to trust new developments in this... mess," She shook her head and her smile warmed, "I also have forgotten my manners. My name is Wynne. I am senior enchanter of the Circle. Well, what's left of it, that is."
Ffion studied Wynne. The mage was maybe ten or fifteen years older than her mother and she couldn't help but draw the comparisons. Her eyes were bright blue, paler than Leliana's, but just as quick and clever as Eleanor's. Her short hair was snowy white and pulled back into a ponytail that had become mussed with the exertion of fighting. It was clear that she had been beautiful in her time and the traces of it still lingered in her face, once one looked beyond the exhaustion and worry.
"Then there are survivors," Leliana said and the relief was evident in her voice, "With what the Knight-Commander told us, we weren't sure if there was anything to hope for."
"Knight-Commander?" Wynne repeated, "Then you've spoken with Greagoir. He's the one that sent you in?"
Alistair and Ffion exchanged glances.
"Not exactly," Alistair answered slowly.
Wynne frowned in confusion and her lips parted to ask what he meant when Ffion added,
"Alistair and I are Grey Wardens, senior enchanter. We came to speak with the First Enchanter about honoring the treaty the Circle signed with our Order and also to ask for assistance with a possessed child. We hadn't heard that the Circle was in disarray and Greagoir is giving us time to find the First Enchanter."
The mage looked between them, her blue eyes easily picking up what they had left out. Glancing at the group of children and their stalwart guardians, she lowered her voice a little and stepped closer.
"Time?" She repeated, "Time for what? What did Greagoir decide?"
"He's... I'm sorry, serah, he's called for the Right of Annulment," Ffion answered and didn't let her gaze fall from Wynne's. She knew that if this woman was anything like her mother, there was no way she would put up with concealment and half-truths, "He told us the only thing that will prevent such a catastrophe of taking place is if the First Enchanter himself stands before him and tells him the tower is safe."
"The Right of Annulment," Wynne murmured and closed her eyes as the full force of this news hit her, "Such a drastic... But if anyone else was in his position, they would do the same."
"But you're alive," Leliana cut in and her voice was eternally optimistic, "That means there could be other survivors. Ffion, we have to hunt for them. We can't let this happen."
Wynne glanced at them again, this time with hope blazing in her eyes. She straightened her shoulders and motioned to one of the other mages.
"If you mean to continue on in the tower, let me come with you," She said as a young, auburn haired woman came to stand at her elbow, "I know the tower like the back of my hand and you will need magic to ward off some of these monsters. Petra, stay with the children, keep them safe and calm. I'll erect the wall again after we're through."
The young woman nodded even as she frowned.
"Are you sure you'll be all right, Wynne?" She asked, "You were so badly hurt that last time and-"
"I will be fine, my dear," Wynne interrupted briskly, "There's no need to fret. Watch after the little ones and we will do all we can to end this."
It was Ffion's turn to frown as she trailed after Wynne who walked to the shimmering wall. She studied the way the mage moved and couldn't see any evidence of a life-threatening injury, but if Wynne wasn't up to the challenges they were going to face...
"Please, Warden, my name is Wynne," She smiled warmly at Ffion, "And since I will now be one of your companions, there's no need for such formality."
"Wynne, then. If you're hurt, we can-"
Wynne was clearly used to being in charge of situations and she interrupted Ffion again. She wasn't being rude; she was merely trying to hasten their progress.
"I am fine, truly. There's nothing more to be done that I haven't already and anything that comes up will be of little consequence," Her lips turned up again and she added, "I am a spirit healer. It's the field of magic I've been involved with since I was young and there's nothing a potion could do for me that my magic hasn't."
"Then we're more than happy to have you along," Alistair commented.
She beamed at him quickly and then turned back to the wall. Studying this with something close to amazement, she removed the staff from her back and held it before her in both hands.
"I am glad I acted so quickly to cast this spell," She spoke to herself, not to them, "If I had been just a moment too late... never mind, it doesn't matter. As soon as I open it, slip through, I'll be right behind you. I can't leave it open for too long."
Leliana motioned for Ffion to prepare herself and so it was Alistair who nodded at the mage. Wynne disrupted her protective wall and they ducked through, Tilly right on Ffion's heels. Her lady had one of her razor-sharp knives in each hand and Alistair's sword gleamed in the light caused by Wynne's magic. Leliana's knuckles were white with the force which she gripped her bow and, when the mage followed behind them and conjured the wall once more, there was a sobering feeling of finality.
Wynne seemed the only one ready to go on as she turned to them and her blue eyes were determined. She didn't sling her staff away and instead kept it grasped in one hand as she directed her words at Ffion,
"There are five floors in this tower, each spiraling up from the next. Irving's office is on the next one and I suggest heading there first. If he got away from the chaos when it started and went somewhere to gather himself, it would be there. At the very least we may find evidence of what might have happened to him."
Ffion gave a little wave and her knife winked up at her.
"I'll ask you to lead the way then, if you don't mind," She said, "This place is rather... intimidating."
Wynne nodded her head and started up the stairs to the second floor. Beneath the exhaustion and stubborn lines in her face, she was amused by Ffion and quite relieved that she would no longer be fighting on her own.
"That's entirely understandable," She replied, "You said you and Alistair?... are Wardens. Surely you must know what the General Loghain has been claiming about your Order? It can't be safe to go about confessing this to others."
The mage opened the door and her face flickered briefly at the sight of more dead in the hallway. She couldn't seem to help glancing through the doorways that they passed and Alistair's face was so grave that Ffion had to wonder how much becoming a Templar had really meant to him.
"We know of Loghain's lies," She answered and heard the sharpness return to her voice, "Just as we know that he's hired mercenaries to take care of any stragglers. Those aren't the actions of an innocent man and, so far, those that we've come across haven't been receptive to the claims."
"I have to say that I wasn't convinced either," Wynne answered, "I was at Ostagar briefly, just before the battle, and the Wardens were just as determined to finish the fight that day as everyone else. If not more so. Since I was called away to help here, I wasn't aware of the tragedy until later, but I can't believe that your Order would abandon everyone like Loghain says."
Ffion was about to thank her when the mage held up one hand and tightened her fist around the staff. There was a rustling from a darkened corner and Tilly began growling softly.
"Who's there?" Wynne called and her tone had turned to steel once more.
"Senior enchanter," A toneless voice answered as a tall, bald mage emerged from the corner, "I am relieved it is you."
Ffion frowned at the expressionless face and her lips parted to speak, but Leliana laid one hand on her arm and shook her head.
"Owain? What are you doing here?" Wynne questioned, dropping the staff a little.
"I was in the middle of cleaning out the storage room when the attacks came. After it grew quiet, I tried to leave but ran into the protective wall," Owain's voice was still expressionless, his eyes dim and dead. He merely answered Wynne's questions as though that was all that mattered, "I was returning to the storage when I heard your footsteps. I do not wish to die."
Wynne looked exasperated. She dropped her staff completely and leaned against it, suddenly looking her age.
"Oh, Owain, you should have said something. I would have let you through."
"Thank you, but I wish to return to the storage, I feel safe there," He blinked, owl-like, at the others and added, "I have no wish to involve myself with Niall's problems."
"Niall?" The senior enchanter was the one frowning now and she straightened herself, "What does Niall have to do with this?"
"After the attacks began, he came to the storage asking for the Litany of Adralla. I gave it to him and he departed. If you have nothing further to ask me, enchanter, may I return to my work?"
The mage gave a wave of her hand, a rather absentminded gesture. Her thoughts were clearly elsewhere, but she gave him one last warning,
"Be careful, Owain, there's no need to put yourself in more danger."
Owain gave them all a slight bow, disappearing down the hall where he took a left. It was quiet enough that they could hear the door close and the light click of the lock. Ffion couldn't help herself anymore. Her grey eyes went to Wynne and she blurted before anyone could check her,
"What's wrong with him?"
Wynne was startled by the question. She glanced at Alistair and then let her eyes follow Owain's trail. Frowning, she met Ffion's gaze.
"What do you mean?"
"He spoke so oddly," Ffion said with confusion, "It was like he didn't have any fear or worry about any of this."
"Well, in a way, he doesn't," The mage had become a teacher and her voice was endlessly patient. She was briefly surprised by Ffion's inexperience, but didn't let that get in the way of her lecture, "You haven't met any of the Tranquil, I guess? That's what Owain is. When he was younger, he was terrified of attempting the Harrowing, the last test needed to become a true mage. The only other option the Circle could give him was becoming Tranquil and working within the tower. That's what he chose. In the process of Tranquility, emotions and feelings are severed as a way to protect mages from demon possession. It is not the most glamorous lifestyle to be sure, but it takes a kind of courage that not many possess. That is a discussion for another time, however. This news of the Litany; that is the more important issue."
"What is the Litany?" It was Leliana asking this time.
"The Litany of Adralla is used against blood magic. If Niall was looking to use it, he meant to fight back. After we check for Irving, we must seek out Niall."
Again, there was that determination and drive that reminded Ffion of her mother and she felt her heart tighten even as she nodded at Wynne.
"Agreed," She said softly, "Let's get started."
They headed down the hall once more and Ffion glanced at the storage door, studying the wood for a moment. She could see now why Jowan had taken such drastic measures to ensure himself against this fate. It was hard to imagine having everything taken away from her; not being able to feel anything. Something within her demanded to know her reasoning since she had wanted the exact thing after Howe's massacre, but that didn't count. She wanted revenge now and there was nothing on the face of the earth that could convince her to surrender how sweet it would be to kill the bastard. Owain and Jowan and the issues they had were mere stepping stones.
A little further down the hall, closer to stairs leading up to the next floor, Wynne motioned to a busted door. Her face became long and though she opened her mouth to speak, nothing came. There was a pair of feet visible around the corner and the mage seemed unable to say anything, the fear that this might be her First Enchanter obvious in her face.
Alistair was the first to move into the darkened office and Wynne came to herself enough to tap her staff against the ground. Immediately, a pale blue light emerged from the tip and she followed the ex-Templar with the other women in tow. He was already bent over the body and Wynne let out a relieved sigh. It obviously wasn't Irving and though her face flickered briefly with sadness, she was almost elated that they still had something to cling to.
"Everything happened so quickly, I'm not sure if he would have had time to leave any sort of message," She said and headed for the handsome, rather intimidating desk that stood close to the cluttered bookshelves against the far wall, "But it doesn't hurt to look."
She looked among the papers on the surface of the desk and Leliana had moved amongst the bookshelves. Alistair was on the other side of the room, studying a long, low table that had been used for meals as well as a display for gifts and obviously confiscated belongings of the mages within the tower. Ffion's attention was drawn by a smaller bookcase on its own behind the desk, and a beautifully ornate chest that was to the right of it.
As she crouched to look through the ancient tomes on the shelves, Tilly close enough for her to feel her warm breath on her elbow, she noticed that the lid of the chest was slightly ajar. Frowning, she reached out and nudged it up, sparing a quick glance at the others, only to see that they were still preoccupied. The interior of the chest smelled slightly musty and there was the sharp sting of charred cloth. The burnt smell was originating from a set of robes gleaming in the pale light that came in through the windows and from Wynne's staff. She shifted these aside gently, not sure if the fabric would actually burn her or not, and then studied the contents below. There wasn't a ledger or journal detailing what had happened but resting at the bottom, there was a black leather-bound tome with a beautifully stitched tree gracing the cover. Ffion reached in and pulled this out. Crouching so her legs would support the weight of the book, she let it fall open. It was filled with spidery handwriting in a language she couldn't read, but the illustrations in the margins of each page led her to think that it was a book of spells. She flipped back to the front of the book gently, acutely aware of the wearing spine and torn pages. There, on the front cover, was a worn name that had been scrawled years ago, and she couldn't help but start. Flemeth?! Her mind exclaimed as she ran her fingertips over it. How in the hell...? What Morrigan wouldn't give for this! At that thought, she cast one furtive look back at the room, and then shifted the small bag about her waist in front of her, unfastening the straps. They had left their bigger packs in the foyer of the tower and had only brought along what they needed and the bag she had was just large enough to fit the tome. As she re-hooked the straps and got to her feet again, Wynne sighed in defeat and turned to face her.
"Nothing," The mage said, "He's left nothing, but that doesn't really surprise me. Let's head to the upper floors."
They fell in with her again and they weren't far down the hall when they could hear urgent whisperings from one of the rooms to the right. Tilly immediately went on the defensive and Leliana eased an arrow to her bow. Wynne's staff was readied and Ffion hefted one of her knives. Alistair came up on the room first and the voices abruptly stopped. Four mages stood off to the left, close to a cluster of bookshelves, and they cried out as they saw the armed party. Wynne stepped next to Alistair, hardly blinking as she threw up a shield similar to her wall and the mages' fired spells flared harmlessly against it. Leliana took one out a moment later and Ffion's knife found its mark in another. Wynne dropped her shield and fired spells in return. The third went down and the fourth fell to her knees as Alistair charged at her. She threw her hands up over her head and the ex-Templar skidded to a halt. The woman at his feet tentatively raised her head and shook her red hair back. She was striking, her grey eyes paler than Ffion's and all the more beguiling with her creamy white skin and the line of kohl around them. She arched her brows and her full lips twitched. One hand inched towards the staff that had fallen from her fingers and Ffion raised her knife almost casually as she came up behind Alistair. The mage spotted her and froze again.
"I wouldn't," Ffion told her calmly, her voice taking on the note of vicious sweetness that any of the Cousland guard would say was not a good sign, "I can hit a moving target at about fifty yards. At this distance... Well, I wouldn't miss."
The mage wisely left the staff alone, trusting the sparkling animosity in Ffion's grey eyes. She studied each of them in turn and when she let out a sigh, it was exhaustion itself. Seeming to deflate even more, she dropped her gaze and suddenly looked quite young.
"I- I'm sorry," She murmured softly and her voice was cultured, pleasant, in spite of the fear present, "If you knew how... I mean, if you could understand what has happened here, you might feel differently."
"I doubt it," Alistair told her dryly.
She glanced up again and started a little when she spotted Wynne. Her gaze was at once defiant and ashamed, as though she hated disappointing the older mage.
"We had little choice," She spoke softly and for all the world seemed to be convincing herself as well as them, "Uldred was so persuasive. He fed into our fears and desires and said that the only way to gain any ground for ourselves was to revolt completely."
"Killing these innocents? Pila, that doesn't make any sense," Wynne's voice was cold, but she loathed to really show the girl her full anger, "Life here is not hard and you had so much promise. This massacre is not excusable."
Pila's pale grey eyes hardened. She was on her knees and she eased back to her heels, palms pressed against her thighs as she looked up at Wynne.
"You know that's not the truth, Wynne," She argued softly, "Greagoir and the Templars have become more and more restrictive with everything and Irving has allowed it. Your absences over the past months have blinded you to this, but not completely. When was the last time any of the mages were allowed away from the tower without fear of being followed within a few days time? How long has it been since the apprentices were given permission to sit on the lake shore and enjoy the sunlight on their faces? Even the children are being taught that they are monsters, creatures that the world has a right to fear."
The enchanter's expression was stricken and the others wisely avoided this discussion. Ffion listened wide-eyed, wondering how anyone could live with the restraints that Pila spoke of and Leliana pitied all of them. Alistair's face had become as long as Wynne's and he looked torn between the desire to remain loyal to his past and the indignation at such harsh treatments.
"Uldred?" Wynne repeated, lighting on the easier, less painful option Pila gave her, "Uldred is responsible for these deaths?"
"He told us that some revolts are bloody and he would try to avoid this, but he lied," Pila's face grew paler and she dropped her gaze again as her expression became haunted. Her fingers suddenly twisted together and her voice was barely a murmur, "And he was ruthless. There were those that were willing to surrender, that didn't want violence, and he cut them down anyway. He destroyed the Templars that were retreating, helpless apprentices and sometimes... the children... were dragged from their beds and killed. I never wanted this... He promised..."
Her hands went up again and she covered her face, her shoulders shaking with silent sobs. Leliana instinctively moved forward, but was checked by Wynne.
"If you had just refu-"
"She felt she had no choice," Ffion's voice was sad with an undercurrent of passionate feeling. She didn't take her eyes from Pila and her thoughts repeated over and over: A gilded cage, nothing but a gilded cage. She could relate with the mage's helplessness in watching the innocents cut down and that was a punishment in and of itself, "What of the First Enchanter?"
Pila's head came up sharply and she looked at Ffion with hope glimmering in her eyes. She brushed the tears from her cheeks and attempted to strengthen her voice before answering.
"Uldred meant to keep him alive. He was taking a select few with him into the Harrowing chamber at the top of the tower and Irving was one," She glanced between them all briefly, "I don't mean to say that the First Enchanter sided with Uldred. He is a hostage."
"Then we shouldn't waste anymore time," Ffion stooped over the mage she had killed and pulled the knife from the lifeless body. Her expression softened for a brief moment and then she steeled herself and didn't blink as she wiped the blood from the blade, "If this Uldred is determined to take over the tower, he probably won't give the First Enchanter much of a chance to resist."
"What about her?" Alistair questioned, motioning to the still kneeling Pila.
Ffion glanced at the mage and then met Alistair's gaze. Her brows arched up a little and she shoved the knives back into her belt. One hand reached to knock loose strands of hair from her eyes and she shrugged her shoulders.
"What about her?" She repeated with assumed innocence.
Alistair noted how her face hardened some and knew that she was well aware of what he meant. But he was willing to play along. And never mind that he knew she was more than able to withstand his determination with her own.
"She's a blood mage, Ffion," He replied, as if she had forgotten.
"So is Jowan," She answered, mimicking his tone and then frowning as Wynne stiffened.
"Jowan?" The elder mage cut in, "Is this the same Jowan that escaped from the Circle? Or was he not blunt with that information?"
Ffion inspected one of Tilly's ears which was bleeding. It wasn't anything too serious and, ignoring Alistair's accusing stare with the same concentration that she ignored Leliana's growing amusement, she helped Pila to her feet.
"Jowan told us everything," She replied and waved Pila's thanks away, "He was the one that encouraged us to come here and ask for assistance with the possessed boy. He also happens to be watching over said boy and we have to press on to keep our promise to the mother and uncle."
"You can either assist us or return to the first floor and keep watch over the wall that Wynne constructed to stop the monsters from reaching the children," Ffion spoke over Alistair and didn't give Wynne the chance to ask any more questions about Jowan and Conner. She was barely able to keep her composure when thinking of Conner; Oren kept flashing through her mind with his crooked smile and absolute adoration. Adding Pila's pain and the memory of Isolde's tortured expressions... She wondered how the hell she had held on for so long, "You've paid your price and I believe you when you say that this was not your intention. It would take a heartless bastard to actually want this and we intend to stop him."
"Do you really think-"
"You mean it?" It was Pila interrupting Alistair this time and though Wynne made a noise in the back of her throat and the ex-Templar's face turned a brighter and brighter red, Leliana was soundly behind Ffion on this one. And with Tilly, that made it three against two, meaning Ffion had won this one, "You're going to let me go?"
Ffion felt her jaw tighten, knowing that it made her features harden and resemble her mother's, which deepened the pain.
"I know what's like to see innocents cut down," She said, forcing her voice to stay steady, "That's punishment in itself. After we save the First Enchanter and restore the Circle, I'll tell him and the Knight-Commander that you did what you could to help us. I don't know what that means to them, but it might hold something for you."
Pila's pale grey eyes flooded with tears of relief and sadness and, for a moment, it looked like she was going to reach out and wring Ffion's hand. Instead she inclined her head and picked up her staff, sliding it to her back when Alistair's hand went to his sword.
"Andraste will certainly bless you for your mercy," She said, "I will do what I can to guard the children. Maker go with you."
She disappeared back the way they had come and Ffion turned to leave as well, and nearly crashed into Alistair. He stood directly in her path and had his arms crossed tightly over his chest. His usually merry, happy-go-lucky brown eyes snapped with anger and his face was an even deeper red.
Arching her brows and feigning innocence, Ffion met him glare for glare.
"Yes?" She asked, making her voice light.
"I know you're a smart girl, Ffion, but what the hell are you thinking?" He snapped, "That woman was part of all this chaos and you just let her walk out the door. If it was up to me, I would've killed her or tied her up here to wait out her judgement. You-"
Ffion's frustrations boiled over and she felt her face growing hot with rage. The weight of every one of their decisions overcame her and she snapped before she could remind herself to keep a hold of her tongue.
"You had your chance to lead this whole damn mess, Alistair, and you left it to me. I took that to mean that I could recruit or let go anyone I chose. If you want this responsibility, prove to me that you can handle it."
She brushed by him, smacking into his shoulder in the fashion that she'd seen both Gilmore and Fergus use, and continued to the next floor. In hindsight, it wasn't her smartest move. His splintmail armor was much harder and heavier than her duster leather and her shoulder smarted with the impact, which soured her mood. It was drawn further down as she heard Wynne speak soothingly to the ex-Templar and listen to his soft-spoken rants. She wanted to punch something and the only thing she knew would suffice would be Alistair, which would go over about as well as the shoulder bump.
"Do not worry yourself," Leliana's accented voice spoke quietly in her ear, making her jump. The little Orlesian could move so silently, it was rather frightening, "You did a decent, good thing, Ffion. And you are right: seeing others cut down and helpless to stop it is a punishment I would not wish on anyone."
Ffion suddenly thought of Howe and how satisfying it would be to kill the bastard and her anger at Alistair was almost forgotten.
"I don't know if I'd go that far," She answered, "But thanks, Leliana, it was the right thing and it's nice to hear a confirmation."
They reached the third floor and were met with a few more creatures called abominations, according to Wynne. They were like nothing Ffion had ever seen and she would have examined them more closely, but she learned the hard way that the things exploded into a fiery mass not long after they were killed. She had cut one of them down and it staggered away from her, falling about five yards away. Wynne couldn't stop her in time and she had taken a few steps forward before the abomination erupted, knocking her to the floor and singeing her eyebrows and the loose strands of her braided hair. Stunned, she remained flat on her back, trying to regain her breath and wondering how badly her face was burned as it hurt to even blink her eyes. Wynne cast a healing spell whose warmth reminded her sharply of Highever's summer rains... and then Alistair dropped to his knees beside her, drawing her back to reality with a look of such intense concern that he was instantly forgiven.
He slid one arm around her shoulders and helped her to sit up. She allowed it, brushing at the singed hair with a hand that trembled in the aftershock. The ex-Templar's honey colored eyes were anxious as he looked her over.
"Are you okay?" He asked.
"I-I think so," She replied and inspected the backs of her hands before gently touching her face. Her gaze went up to the mage, "That happened too damn fast. Thanks, Wynne."
Alistair helped her to her feet and their gazes met.
"I'm sorry," They blurted at the same time and then grinned at each other.
The ex-Templar was shamefaced and Wynne and Leliana both seemed to know he wanted privacy with his fellow Warden. They moved further down the hall, speaking to one another quietly as Alistair met Ffion's gaze again.
"If any of this was up to me, Ffion, we would have been screwed a long time ago," He confessed quietly, "You kept me from breaking down completely and that's still true now."
Ffion's face was hot again and it had nothing to do with the fire she'd almost walked into. She realized that his hands still rested somewhat idly against her waist and she pulled away from him as she motioned to Wynne and Leliana.
"And I shouldn't have lit into you like that. It just... all came crashing down, I guess. Come on, they're waiting," She took a few steps and then glanced at him again, "Besides I did tell you you could tell me anything. That was just clearing the air, right?"
Prolonging the inevitable, girl, prolonging the inevitable. The voice in her head reminded. She pushed it violently away once more and Alistair's crooked grin helped disperse it more completely than she could manage.
"Right, and now that we've got that out of the way, we can get onto more important things. Like teaching that bastard a lesson."
They pressed on, fighting their way up to the fourth floor, running across more blood mages that preferred fighting to surrendering, and the ever present abominations to whom everyone gave a wide berth. Wynne knew where they headed and so she was the one that led the way into the middle room on this floor, hoping to make it to the fifth floor. But the tower and Uldred had other plans.
Upon entering the room, Wynne stopped abruptly, her hands tight around her staff. Tilly began growling as Ffion hefted her knife; Leliana stood shoulder to shoulder with her, bow drawn tight, as Alistair moved ahead of them with his sword at the ready.
Standing in front of them, the body of a fallen mage at its feet, was something along the lines of the other abominations. It was tall and hulking: its skin mottled reddish pink, while its murky white eyes peered intelligently at them. The shoulders were broad and thick and when it spoke, a delicious weariness swept over Ffion's entire band.
"Ah, here are my troublemakers," The voice murmured and it soothed even as it chided them, "You have been fighting all the way up here. Why do you resist?"
"We won't hear what you have to say, demon," Wynne replied and her voice wasn't nearly as sharp as she desired it to be, "We've come here to right what you've done wrong and see that judgement is served."
The demon turned to face them completely and the way it stood blocked the mage at its feet from their view. There was something absurdly comforting in its red splotched face and Ffion felt that if she were to lie down here and allow this weariness to overcome her, everything would be right in the world once more. The side of her brain that was fighting to stay alert and awake forced her body to move next to Alistair, but the demon's voice cast a spell with the same efficiency that Wynne and Morrigan achieved with a staff. Her limbs felt heavy and she faintly heard her knife clatter to the stone floor. She had wanted rest and sleep since they left Flemeth's swamp-side hut and here seemed to be her chance.
"But why do that?" The thing questioned, its voice softening even more as it realized they were falling victim, "You have been fighting for so long and you must be so tired. Is it not better to simply rest? Just fall asleep and let your troubles disappear?"
Tilly slumped to the ground with a heavy sounding whump and Ffion sank to her heels beside her. Something brushed her elbow and she relaxed into Alistair's comforting weight without thinking twice about it. The ex-Templar didn't mind. Indeed, he was the next to give in and flopped on the floor, letting Ffion lean into him even more. She blinked and came back to herself for a moment as Leliana spoke.
"But... we have to... resist," Even the Orlesian's usually lilting voice was grating, but it brought Ffion out of the spell long enough to struggle to her feet, trying to throw the weariness away permanently, "We've come... too far to... give in."
Ffion was almost free of the enchantment and then the demon poured it on twice as thick and she fell against Alistair's slumbering form as Wynne and Leliana gave in as well.
"No, no, no, you deserve rest," The thing argued and its voice was just above a whisper, "A nice, long rest; a sleep to restore... everything."
The last thing Ffion saw before giving into the spell was the demon bending over the fallen mage with a possessiveness that was terrifying.