Rob tries to wrap his Earth-shaped brain around the idea of demons, as the party addresses the troubles at Kinloch Hold. His thoughts get further tangled by a child, a memory, and a templar.
Previous Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 9: The Eye of the Beholder)
“So let me think now…hmm…a scholar, an assassin, an apostate, and a Qunari walk into a bar…” Rob pondered, as he, Aedan, Alistair, and Leliana drew nearer to the Lake Calenhad Docks.
Aedan snorted. “If the ones in the joke were anything like ours? The assassin would flirt with the scholar, the apostate would bitch about it, the Qunari would say, ‘And you wonder why my people sew mages’ mouths shut,’ and the apostate would set the building on fire.”
“And the scholar, having stopped to blush,” Leliana giggled, “would be standing outside looking at the flames and wondering what in the Void happened.”
Rob burst out laughing. “Sounds about right.”
Alistair muttered something under his breath. “What did you say, Alistair? I didn’t quite catch that.” Leliana spoke in such an innocent voice that Rob immediately knew she’d heard every word.
The bronze-haired Warden gave a dramatic disgusted sigh like a preteen girl getting sent to her room. He clearly would’ve preferred to ignore the question, but everyone had already learned the futility of trying to conceal something Leliana wanted to know.
“I saaaaiiddd,” he replied grumpily, with a mighty eye roll, “everything would have been fine if the assassin had shut his Maker-forsaken mouth for once.”
The bard’s blue eyes danced with mischief. “I see…and are we talking about the hypothetical assassin in the joke, or the one back at camp with Raven?”
“I’m just saying, I’m still not terribly thrilled about him. ‘Yes, I was a murderer hired to kill you, but let’s not dwell on the past,’” he mimicked in a ridiculous Antivan accent. “If Morrigan turns him into a toad before we get back, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Aedan nodded seriously. “I can understand why that would upset you. It would mark the first time in history that you and Morrigan agreed on something.”
“Oh look, we’re here,” Alistair said, with dryly false enthusiasm. “You know, it says a lot about the company I keep when I’m actually looking forward to charging into a possible nest of abominations.”
“That cuts me deep, Alistair,” Rob said, clutching his chest mournfully and struggling to keep a straight face. “It really does. Do you guys feel hurt? I feel hurt.”
The other Warden glared at his companions as they burst out laughing. “I hate you all.”
Then they took the ferry to Kinloch, and it was a very long time before they had cause to laugh again.
Rob had met enough hardass military types to know that Knight-Commander Greagoir wouldn’t appreciate their apostate joke. The guy looked like he’d need a detailed diagram and an hour of rehearsal to crack a smile, even on a good day.
And this was not a good day.
The rumors they’d heard in Lothering were true; all was definitely not well with the Circle of Magi. The Knight-Commander had sealed the tower, waiting on permission to perform the Rite of Annulment…basically a fancy Chantry way to say “kill ‘em all and let the Maker sort ‘em out.” Rob already knew this, since Raven had given him the full run-down on the tower the night before. But it was still chilling to hear Greagoir say it. Even as creepy as demon-Connor had been, it was hard to imagine anyone would actually condone that kind of wholesale slaughter.
Aedan talked Greagoir into letting them try to clear the monsters out first, before resorting to the big “murder all mages” plan. Greagoir allowed it, but said the doors would be sealed behind them and not opened until they found the head wizard guy to give the all-clear.
The first thing he noticed after the templars locked them in was complete unnerving silence. No voices called out, no footsteps rang on the stone; even the fetid, stinking air seemed afraid to stir. As the Wardens moved and Rob could see something other than their backs, the reason for this became clear.
The long curved hallway was littered with bodies.
The robed corpses of mages lay in pools of congealed blood, their faces eternally locked in expressions of horror. Dead templars were strewn among them, swords scattered uselessly at their sides. Heads lay at unnatural angles, and one body ended abruptly at the shoulders. They searched the two large dormitories for survivors, but all they found among the rows of bunk beds was the stench of death.
“This is too cruel.” Leliana sounded troubled. “I would not subject even an animal to such a terrible fate.”
“Shutting the door and throwing away the key was definitely the templar ‘Plan B,’” Alistair replied grimly.
Candles still burned cheerfully, bringing out the rich crimson of the fine carpets adorning the stone floors. Trickles of sunlight still filtered in from windows near the vaulted ceilings several stories above their heads. In one room, an interrupted chess game sat waiting for players that would never return. It seemed almost obscene, as if no sign of life should dare to exist where so many lives were cut short.
Thankfully, in the next hallway, they found survivors. Just as they passed through the door, a gray-haired woman unleashed a huge blast of ice at a…at…
Rob’s brain stuttered to a halt, trying to process what he was seeing. The creature glared at the mage with eyes of glowing coal. It stood taller than a man, with a vague oozing body and long, claw-like arms. If a child sculpted a ghost from clay, it would look like this…except, you know, if the clay was lava.
Before he could wrap his brain around it, the mage’s ice spell hit the thing. With a hiss of steam and an unholy screech, it melted into a smoking puddle like the Wicked Witch of the West in a monsoon.
The mage, Wynne, was suspicious at first, but Aedan explained they weren’t the advance murder squad, so she chilled out and explained what went down. Some jackass colleague of hers decided a Blight was a great time for the mages to give the templars the big eff you. Then, in a stellar argument for their independence, a bunch of them immediately summoned demons and started killing everybody.
Rob leaned back against a stone pillar, only half listening. Raven had already given him the gist of it, and he was too busy trying to think through this whole mage-demon-templar thing.
Fighting the zombies in Redcliffe had been weird and gross, but at least they were still people-shaped. When it was over, he’d felt sorry for them; bad enough to die once without having to get up and do it again.
Demons were a different story. From all he’d heard and seen, they were monsters just waiting around for a mage to go bad – or even slightly screw up – so they could jump in and start a next-level shitstorm. In that sense, keeping mages in a central location where they could be watched and neutralized seemed logical.
He looked at the poor little kids the old lady, Wynne, had been guarding…knew Wynne had been busting her ass to save people…even thought about Bethany Hawke, who’d done nothing wrong. Raven was right in saying it wasn’t fair to lock them up.
But then he thought of Connor, no older than these kids. He wondered how even Bethany or Wynne could choose getting tortured or watching a loved one die, over accepting a demon’s help. If it was the only way to protect Raven, he honestly couldn’t say what he’d do. He’d like to think he’d have the brains to know a demon would only make things worse, but would he?
And when he pictured a whole group of mages, some gone bad, others frantic to protect themselves…? It made him sick to admit it, but Rob began to see why the Rite of Annulment might not be so unreasonable.
He was stirred from his dark thoughts by a light tugging on his gauntlet. A small girl with brown hair and delicately pointed ears stood nervously at his side.
“‘Scuse me, Ser Knight? Can I ask ye somefin’?”
“Uh, sure, kid. What do you need?”
She twisted her dark braid, huge hazel eyes darting around the room. Swallowing, she gathered up her courage. “Are the templars gonna kill us, Ser?”
Rob’s mouth went dry. The girl couldn’t be more than ten. How was he supposed to answer that?
When he didn’t reply right away, she chattered anxiously. “Wynne says she’ll save us, but savin’ people ain’t so easy, yeah? When the guard come to the alienage for me friend Sera (she din’t steal nuffin’, Ser, and anyway that stupid shem was askin’ for it), I tried to save ‘er. Sera said the git wouldn’t listen, that I should just clear off, but I…I just got so mad and then there was fire everywhere and Sera screamed and…and then I woke up ‘ere. I don’t even ‘ave any friends yet and…and I don’t…I don’t wanna die wivvout any friends, Ser…”
The little elf’s eyes were liquid with unshed tears and more world-weariness than someone so young should bear. Rob couldn’t take it. He knelt and laid a hand gently on her shoulder. “What’s your name, kid?”
“That’s a nice name. Listen, Shanna, you seem pretty smart, like you’ve seen too much shi-, er, stuff to just swallow the easy answers. So I’m gonna be honest with you, okay?” She nodded, chewing her bottom lip. “There’s a lot of bad stuff going on, and I can’t promise for sure what’ll happen. But your Wynne seems pretty tough. Those two guys in the blue and silver armor are Grey Wardens, and they’re tough too. The pretty red-haired lady with the bow will help, and so will I. We’re going to go kill the monsters. As long as we can do that, and I think we can, then you’ll be okay.”
Rob took a deep breath, ignoring the dampness threatening his eyes. “And hey…I got a favor to ask you, okay? I haven’t been around here long, and I don’t have many friends yet either. Do you think you could be my friend? I only like really brave people, but I can tell you’re brave. And knowing I had a friend like that here would help a lot. What do you think?”
Shanna paused, considering. Rob swore inwardly as he belatedly realized a little girl on her own might question what an adult male meant by friendship. “All I want is somebody cheering us on against those monsters,” he clarified. “My big sister had to stay back at camp with her friend Zevran and the Warden’s dog. Zevran is an elf just like you.” He hid a smirk. ‘Well, he’s not much like you, but we’ll ignore that for now,’ he thought. “Maybe when all this is done, they’ll all come here and you can meet them too.”
“The Warden has a dog?” The other kids had wandered over while they spoke, and one of the boys was wide-eyed with excitement. “I used to have a dog, but I had to leave him at home when the templars came.”
The other adults were observing the conversation as well. “I’ll have to bring my dog here to meet you when everything is settled,” Aedan said with a smile. “He’s a Mabari and his name is Hohaku. He’d like you; he loves having people to play fetch with.”
“You have a Mabari?!” The two boys drifted over to Aedan, excitedly chattering about the dog.
Shanna spoke softly. “Ser? I…um, we c’n be friends, yeah? An’ if…if somefin’ ‘appens…”
Rob nodded gravely. “If something happens to me, or if things don’t work out, then at least we’ll both have a friend.” She reached out her small fingers and solemnly shook his metal-clad hand. “Thank you, Shanna,” he said. “I promise I’ll do everything I can to make sure nobody hurts my friend.”
“I believe you, Ser.”
Hours later, Rob was drenched with sweat, blood, and ichor from abominations, demons, blood mages, possessed templars, skeletons, zombies, and even another one of those revenant bastards like the one Raven shot back at Redcliffe. As much as he wasn’t fond of being jerked off his feet by the revenant, the worst foes had been the desire demons.
In the privacy of his own mind, he admitted that part of the problem was that the creatures were mostly naked and, despite the purple skin and weird horns, really hot. They had a distracting habit of stroking their torsos and writhing in a way that stole the blood from his brain. Wynne, a veteran mage, was used to fending off demons, and Alistair seemed mostly unfazed due to his templar training, but Aedan, Rob, and Leliana struggled. The demons sounded so reasonable; it was annoyingly easy to start wondering what was so wrong with them wanting to make people happy…and, you know, dead, but why quibble over details, right?
Thankfully, Wynne kept them focused, along with healing all their wounds (regardless of his qualms about magic, Rob was still a big fan of healing spells). They cleared most of the tower, and even found more survivors – a few weird people Wynne called “tranquil” who talked in monotones, a reformed blood mage, and some idiot who’d locked himself in a closet. Despite the countless corpses and the nasty fleshy growths crawling up the walls as they ascended the tower, Rob started to think they might just get through this.
And then they rounded a corner, and he remembered what Raven had warned him about. Despite his best efforts, he succumbed to the sloth demon’s slow, hypnotizing words. Along with the rest of the party, he slid to the floor in helpless slumber.
“Wake up, love; you’re going to be late,” a woman’s soft voice chided gently.
She sounded familiar, and he opened his eyes to meet a startling aquamarine gaze. “…Marian?”
Hawke smirked. “Nothing gets by you first thing in the morning, does it? Now, get up! You don’t want to be late for your first day as Guard Captain.”
Rob struggled to clear his sleep-fogged mind. “Guard Captain? But…I thought Raven…we were helping the Grey Wardens, and…” he trailed off in confusion.
Marian’s eyes grew pitying. “Did you have that old nightmare again? It’s okay, love. The Blight is over; you’re safe now, remember?”
And of course he remembered. The Wardens had ended the Blight, and Marian had come back to him. For his help, the President of Ferelden made him Guard Captain of Redcliffe. He stretched, smiling to see his fiancée clad only in his old shirt. Life was good.
He gave Marian’s hand a sharp tug, tumbling her into their bed. She shrieked, giggling. “Nightmares don’t matter when I have you to wake up to,” he grinned.
Her lips were warm and welcoming, and as he kissed her, he almost forgot what he was supposed to be doing. But then he lifted her off with a sigh. “You are tempting, sexy wife-to-be, but I probably shouldn’t get myself fired before I even start.” She laughed. Rising, he grabbed the remote and flicked on the Weather Channel. And did a double-take.
The TV was…not right. Its familiar flat, square shape hung on the wall, but it almost seemed like a window into another room instead of a broadcast. He shook his head. The pretty elf in the…picture…told him it was going to be sunny, as if she was speaking to him personally. Something about the elf tickled the edge of his mind…he’d made a promise to someone…a…kid?
But before he could think about it further, Marian stepped in front of him. “Focus, love… get your armor on. Your mom is making breakfast and she’ll be upset if you don’t have time to eat.” So, he complied.
A short while later, he sat in their sunny kitchen with Marian perched on his armored thigh, about to eat his mom’s famous French toast. “What time will you be home, Robin?” She smiled, the fine lines around her blue eyes crinkling. “Raven and Alistair wanted to come for dinner to celebrate your new job.”
He was about to remind her not to call him Robin, when she stuck the syrup in the microwave. Like the TV, it seemed…off. Rob watched her close the glass door and press the runes on its front. ‘Wait…runes?!?’
“Well,” said Aedan, looking around at the strange furnishings. “This is…interesting. But I think that little elf girl might be disappointed if you gave up fighting in favor of a tasty breakfast. Oh, and when we get out of here, I think you and I will need to have a little chat…”
Rob came to in yet another place that didn’t exist; it was starting to become a habit, really. He now realized he was in the Fade, as Raven had warned him. The Fade was apparently somehow even less real than the fictional mage tower they’d been fighting in.
Aedan found the rest of the party, and they killed the asshole sloth demon to escape the Fade. Not a moment too soon; he felt. The way that thing pulled thoughts from his head shook him worse than anything else they’d seen in the tower. On the bright side, it was at least mildly amusing that the bastard had obviously been confused by Earth technology.
Nobody talked much as they continued through the rest of the tower; the enemies blurred together and they all fought mostly by muscle memory. He did get a little excited when they found some dragons…though it was disappointing that they were barely bigger than a Mabari. His surprise must’ve showed; Wynne smirked. “These are just babies; we keep them here for spell components. The grown-ups are…rather larger.”
The further they got, the more of the revolting flesh growths they passed, until finally they reached a room that was nearly covered with the putrid things. And then Rob’s attention sharpened, because the room also held a tall, shimmering cylinder of energy…and inside was a man. Rob knew immediately who he was.
“Save as many people as you can,” Raven had said, “But…as awful as this sounds, other than your team there are only two people in the tower who are essential. The mage who’ll join you is one. Since the mages are why we came here in the first place, I doubt Aedan will threaten them, so Wynne should be fine.”
“The other is the captured templar you’ll find at the top of the tower. He’s…going to seem kind of crazy, to be honest. But in the future he helps kill a tyrant and then commands the most vital army of the age. He should be physically safe, but if our being here changed that, protect him however you can. His name is Cullen Rutherford, he’s the single most important person in the tower, and he absolutely has to live.”
Well, his sister would be glad Templar Goldilocks was among the living, but as far as him seeming crazy…she wasn’t wrong. Still, after dealing with the sloth demon, he cringed when the templar mentioned visions. Leliana said it looked like he’d been tortured and starved besides. And when he said there’d been more templars with him in the beginning and he was the last one left…suddenly there was a whole new context to the horrific mangled corpses displayed carefully on spikes in this Cullen guy’s line of sight.
‘Jesus. Poor bastard. No wonder he’s mental.’
He couldn’t blame the man for saying all the mages should die (though, judging by Alistair’s whispered conversation with Leliana, he found it pretty horrifying; apparently he’d been friends with the guy back in training). But Raven’s prediction was accurate, and Aedan insisted on seeing the situation before deciding. The templar didn’t like that, but all he could really do was sit tight in his little cage and hope for the best.
Rob almost wondered if Cullen was right…but then he remembered “I don’t wanna die wivvout any friends, Ser” and thought, ‘No, there’s got to be a better way.’
He didn’t mind killing Uldred, though. The guy was an asshole even before he turned into a giant fucking monster and started trying to wreck everyone’s day. That douchebag definitely had it coming.
Afterward, as they all stood gasping for breath, the wild-eyed templar dragged himself up the stairs. When he saw Uldred’s corpse he lunged forward, but as soon as he let go of the railing, he clattered to his armored knees. He flinched away when Alistair rushed over. The Grey Warden looked like a kicked puppy, but caught on when Rob walked over more slowly, with his hands out where Cullen could see them. “Here, man…let us give you a hand.” At Rob’s direction, Cullen warily laid his arms over their shoulders and let them bear him up.
They helped him over to Uldred’s body, and stood there for a long, silent moment. Finally, in a barely audible voice, Cullen asked, “Can it really be over?”
Alistair’s face twisted in anguish for his friend, but Rob just gave the templar a measuring look. “It is, but I imagine you might want to make sure. I’ll lend you my dagger, if you don’t try to use it on anyone else.”
Cullen laughed bitterly. “I couldn’t even get across the room without help. Do you really believe I’m foolish enough to attack a room full of fighters and mages?”
Rob gave a nod, and they helped the man kneel at the hulking demon’s side. With the last of his strength, Cullen slowly forced the dagger across the thick, armored skin of its neck, shaking and sweating with effort. Alistair started to offer help, but Rob waved him off; he sensed the templar needed that moment for himself. Cullen cleaned Rob’s dagger and gave it back, a muscle ticking in his jaw. Silent tears rolled unheeded down his cheeks, mirrored unabashedly by his copper-haired friend. Without a word, the three of them slowly descended the tower.
It turned out Knight-Commander Greagoir was, in fact, capable of smiling. First Enchanter Irving clasped the man’s arm gladly when the doors were unsealed, and despite Cullen’s warnings, the threat of Annulment was rescinded. The survivors slowly began treating their wounded and trying to get back to normal.
Little Shanna found him later, as he sat against a wall dumping a skin of water over his head. “You did it; you saved us!” she said joyfully.
Rob smiled and ruffled her hair. “I had a lot of help, pumpkin. Especially this brave friend of mine who was cheering me on; that made a big difference.”
She rolled her eyes and giggled, but stilled when she caught his serious look. “…really?”
“Yep. This big jerk of a demon tried to trick me into forgetting what I was supposed to do, but I thought, ‘No way, I promised my new friend I’d do my best.’”
The little elf’s eyes were even wider than normal. Rob wasn’t sure what made him continue to speak. “Listen, Shanna-bug…people might tell you that having magic makes you strong. Or maybe they’ll say being a mage or an elf means you can’t be strong. That’s garbage. What makes you strong is choosing to be a good person, doing what’s right, and finding friends who do the same. Don’t ever let anybody tell you otherwise.”
She regarded him solemnly, and gave a decisive nod. Then, in a flurry of movement, she ducked forward and kissed his cheek before scampering off. Leliana was sitting nearby, and gave a weary chuckle. “Looks like someone has a new admirer.”
Rob shrugged, smiling. “Eh, she’ll forget me in five minutes. I just…it wasn’t right to leave her waiting in that room all hopeless, you know. A kid that little shouldn’t have to worry about being murdered, or any of the other shit that happened to her. It’s messed up.”
“I agree, and I think you were very sweet.”
“Shush; you’ll ruin my reputation as a jackass.”
Leliana just laughed.
Next Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 11: In a Strange Land)