Monday 25 September 2017

Chapter Eighteen: Pride and Shame, A Dragon Age Fanfic

Author's Note: This Chapter picks up from where the prologue left off. Technically, you could skip from the Prologue straight to this chapter. You'd only miss some really good battle scenes. And a bit of erotica.

Chapter Eighteen

Into the rabbit-hole

Time was relative. Everyone knew that. Alistair knew that the time would soon come when he would have to decide who he really was. Morrigan knew that it was only a matter of time before she and her mother would have to confront each other over the destiny charted out for her. For Sten, time stretched out mercilessly, with his prospects of a return to his homeland becoming narrower and narrower with each passing day. Leliana, in the few moments of consciousness she had, knew that she was running out of time in which to live, and wished she could meet Marjolaine one last time. Biscuit probably understood Time best of all, because he knew when it was time for his next meal with unerring precision, and ensured he never missed it.

In the Fade, Time had no meaning. As Neria lay, crouched on the floor (was it a floor?), she wondered how much time was passing in the real world. The Real World. So there was a real world. She seemed to remember it, though very vaguely.

Ostagar. Something had happened there. Something very bad. They had died. Everyone except Alistair and her. Cailan was dead, sweet, handsome Cailan, who had been so fascinated by her. Duncan too. He was dead. That's why she knew it was not Duncan she had struck down moments ago, but a demon who had tried to get her to…sleep? Why to sleep? Was that what sloth demons did? Just put their victims into a slumber of eternal comfort?

No sleeping! She was sure of that, very sure. No sleeping.

She rolled onto her back. There was gravel on the stones. Bits of it stuck to her skin. She brushed it off. Where was her staff? She raised herself onto her elbow. The staff lay a few feet away. On her hands and knees, she crawled towards it. It was gorgeous, that staff. Sleek, smooth, ivory finish with an elaborate peacock design at the head. That wasn't what she had walked into the Tower with.

Why was she here?

After Ostagar – Flemeth and Morrigan. Ugly old Flemeth and gorgeous young Morrigan, with those black hair and raven feathers and yellow eyes and barely-there rags. Well, Neria topped her now didn't she? The robe that she had got the dwarf boy to enchant was so deliciously skimpy that it looked like Morrigan was prudish. Where had she got it? Cutting up Leliana's robe. Leliana – a lay sister in Lothering's Chantry. They had left Lothering with Leliana and Sten added to their company. Who was Sten though? Qunari, damn it! Big, dark-skinned, silent and a bit creepy. They had made for Redcliffe.

Then Leliana got herself injured and they rushed to the Circle and then Lake Calenhad, and Caroll, and…

She got to her feet.

The Circle Tower was a massive structure. Restrictive as it had seemed when she had been an apprentice, forbidden to step out except under supervision, and then only as far as the outer court, there was no denying that it had plenty of space. The corridor they entered when the gates closed was high and broad, and their footsteps echoed on the stone floor. There was no light, beyond the sliver that peeped behind and past them.

“When did the Templars close the gates?” asked Alistair.

“The demons have been coming down, floor by floor,” said Ser Brodriger. “We lost the Harrowing Chamber two weeks ago, but it's been hardly more than a day since we shut those gates.”

Neria closed her eyes and tried to think of how the fighting would have gone. In the Tower of Ishal, she had fought her way upwards, room by room, staircase by staircase. This would have been the opposite, abominations raging, spells and counter-spells, until the Templars would have been worn down, driven downwards, pushed into the outermost chambers.

“The lamps will have burned out all through,” said Ser Deveron. “We will need to light our own torches – does anyone have a tinder…”

“Oh right. Sorry,” mumbled Neria, making a quick movement of her left hand, like catching a ball, and then pointing her staff right and then left. She knew exactly where the torches in the corridor were – had she not studied by their light often enough when bullied out of the apprentice dormitory? – and lit up the first two, the flame dancing from the staff to the torch-head. In seconds, she had shepherded the flames from torch to torch, lighting up the corridor all the way to the next bend. She felt almost embarrassed for not having done this sooner. Ser Brodriger and Ser Deveron were staring at her, open-mouthed. For a change, she did not attribute this to her looks. Alistair looked on, amused.

“Straightforward, really,” she clarified.

“No it's not! I've never – never ever seen such precision in dealing with a fire spell,” pointed out Ser Deveron.

“All about control,” said Neria patiently, striking a pose, “It's really a flame blast spell, just directed, and then sustained. Very little mana used, once you get the hang of it. I could keep it going while doing other stuff, comfortably. In fact, I think I have. There was that time when I was on top of Ser Cidritch and we just couldn't unfasten his breeches and I got a lamp lighted and then…”

“Fascinating as Neria's reminiscences undoubtedly are,” said Alistair drily, “we could be attacked by abominations any moment and, so, let’s get a move on, shall we?”

They continued to walk. Being noiseless was not an option, with three of them in plate armour, so Neria was content to let the men walk ahead while she stayed behind, lighting torches as they went. Biscuit remained at her side, occasionally worrying her feet, as was his wont.

The first room they reached was the Apprentice's Hall, its doors shut.

“Not a single abomination or demon yet,” said Alistair, stopping. “Do we go through that door?”

“I practically grew up here,” said Neria. “Was my home for a long time.”

“Pleasant memories, eh?” said Alistair.

“Hardly. Wasn't popular,” she replied.

“Can't imagine why,” said Ser Brodriger. “We all liked you, you know!”

“The male apprentices hated me because I preferred you Templar boys, the girls hated me because the boys wanted me and not them, and they all hated me because I was better than them at magic. And you Templars didn't particularly like me either. Didn't most of you have a horror of me because you thought I was possessed by a Desire Demon?”

Ser Brodiger chuckled.

“Listen, I became a Templar because it's food and board and there aren't a lot of choices an orphan boy has in Antiva if he doesn't want to join the Crows' Assassin's Guild. But yes, a lot of them were brought up steeped in Chantry dogma and made to feel guilty about liking anything, especially sex, and the more they liked you, or sex with you to be more specific, the more guilty they felt.”

“Well, kick the doors open then. Can't be anything inside more horrible than the bullies I grew up with.”

Alistair felt his tongue was uncomfortably dry. He had seen an abomination once before, at a Harrowing. That had been five Templars against the one though, and was over almost before it started. An abomination was a mage possessed by a Fade demon, and the possession served to multiply the powers of the said mage several times. In a Harrowing, of course, the Templars are fully prepared for the mage to be possessed, and thus the moment they realised something was coming back from the Fade, they were ready to act.

If there was anything waiting behind the door, it would be ready for them.

He pushed.

It was dark inside, except for the faint glow from the fireplace. It was like a dormitory, beds lined against the walls, writing desks for studying, scrolls lying about, closets and vanity mirrors.

“That was my bed,” Neria pointed. She walked over to it, the second from the wall, on the right. A little fiddling in the writing desk there and she had lit a candle. “They had just moved my stuff to the Mage Quarters the day I was recruited to the Wardens. Never got to sleep there,” she said with a sigh.

“We managed to get most of the children out,” said Ser Donell. “All but three were accounted for. The trouble began in the Harrowing Chamber, you know, at the top of the Tower. This is the lower-most level. We managed to get all the apprentices out, excepting those who were in the Library or with Uldred.”

“Children?” said Neria with a slight sneer. “Some of them were older than me, just never called for a Harrowing. And they were all old enough to know to look down on an Elf.”

“Nonetheless, we got them out three days ago,” said Ser Deveron. “Including three young Elves.”

“Now that we are here, and there clearly aren't any abominations in the room,” said Ser Brodriger, his eyes gleaming, “why don't you and I re-visit some old memories, Neria?”

“Don't tempt me,” she replied, with what was clearly great reluctance. “You know I want it more than anything, but our friend Leliana is dying, and we need to get to Wynne or Anders as fast as possible without any delays.”

She began to walk towards the other door at the far end of the Hall. The two Templars and Biscuit followed. Alistair paused to watch Neria's striking figure in profile in the dim light emitted by the fireplace. As the light danced, the play of shadows on her shoulders and breasts made for a very alluring sight. That was when it struck him.

“Three days, did you say?” he asked.

The others turned around.

“Yes,” said Ser Brodriger. “Why?”

“What sort of fireplace keeps burning for three days unattended?”

Alistair jerked around, shield up, just as the rage demon emerged before them, a thing of pure fire, its body seemingly made of amorphous lava and its eyes two pinpricks of baleful light radiating from its core. But it did not make for him. Instead it snaked along the floor, a black trail in its wake, towards the dog. Biscuit yelped wildly as spindly arms grew out of the fiery lava and swiped at him. A Templar – he didn't notice which – swung a sword at it, but the steel only passed through the creature. It turned its attention to him, swiping again.

Alistair took a deep breath and tried to remember all he knew about Rage Demons. They were considered the simplest of the Fade demons, embodying the emotion they were named for, and tended to have simplistic fighting skills, relying on fire and heat to wear down and defeat opponents. Swords were ineffective against them, but draining them of their magic should work. Templars were trained in severing the connection of mages to the Fade, and the same would apply here as well. The creature was darting between the two Templars – with their visors down, Alistair couldn't tell the difference between them at all – pressing them with blasts of flame that had left scorch marks on their armours.

Neria responded with a flame blast of her own, immensely more powerful than anything the demon had wrought so far. But fire did not affect a creature born of rage, and it only served to distract the demon momentarily. It began to slink towards Neria.

Alistair raised his sword.

Neria had learned her lesson well enough. Her next spell was Winter's Grasp, freezing the demon solid. With a chuckle, Alistair thrust at the frozen creature, focussing his energies into what the Templar Order called as a 'Righteous Strike'. He no longer subscribed to the moral implications of the words, but it was effective at dispelling mana from its target, and as Rage Demon's stores of magical energy faded, its resistance to the physical impact of his sword did too, and it shattered into chunks of ice, falling to the floor. It was almost…easy.

He laughed. It was going to be an interesting battle ahead. But between Neria's brilliance and his own command over his Templar abilities, they had a shot.


“Do books survive charring if they are full of anti-fire spells?” said Alistair conversationally.

Neria held on to a book-case for support. She had just cast a fireball of unprecedented proportions, decimating the three abominations that had cornered them in the library. It had left her drained and vulnerable, barely able to stand.

“Next room's clear,” said Ser Deveron, who had, along with Brodriger, entered into the last room on the floor, the library's annexe, which had a small classroom and a few study desks.

Neria sank to the floor. She leaned her head against the spine of Linea Astronomica, a tome of massive proportions and little useful information.

“We should press on,” said Alistair gently.

It had been tiring. Intensely tiring. Every foot of the way had been dogged by abominations and demons. So far they had faced mostly rage demons, and Neria had made short work of those, but the abominations were harder to deal with. The creatures possessed intense physical strength and the Templar's magic-suppressing abilities only helped so much and no more. In the library, three had attacked together, and they had been hard-pressed till the moment their leader – even here, it was very clear she was in charge – had shouted the command to them to get out of the way and unleashed the primal force of fire that Alistair had grown to fear and admire in equal measures. Ashes were all that was left of the abominations, and the five of them remained unscratched.

Biscuit sat down next to her, putting his head on her thighs. She scratched his ears, but her eyes were closed.

Alistair walked around the library, sword still drawn, looking for anything useful that might help them in their journey. He found some potions and poison recipes that he stuffed absent-mindedly into his belt.

“Nothing here. Staircase up. Shall we go on?” called Ser Deveron.

Alistair looked enquiringly at Neria. She did not seem to notice him at all, her eyes remained closed. He trudged over to her and was about to offer a hand when the Elf's eyes fluttered open. She had very fine eyes, eyes she took care to embellish with a dash of paint when she could, he knew. Unlike Morrigan, who made a show of scorning such things, Neria had quickly put herself under Leliana's tutelage in these matters, listening with rapt attention when the former Chantry sister spoke of the latest in Val Royeaux fashion.

She tottered to her feet, holding her staff for support.

“You all right there?” asked Alistair.

She looked towards the other room. Both Ser Deveron and Ser Brodriger were at the base of the stairs, looking up.

“I'm fine,” she said. “It's just that this was childhood, you know, for better or worse. The Tower, the Library, every room on this floor. And now it's this devastated battlefield we're fighting through, having to win back inch by inch, and I don't even know if the people I'm doing it FOR, are even alive.”

“You were close to Wynne?” Alistair asked gently.

“I don't think I could have made it through here without her,” said Neria. “There are times when a kind word is all that stands between you and wanting to end it all.”

“End it all?”

“Jump off the upper floors. Tie your neck to a ceiling hook in the library and kick away the ladder. Most slit their wrists with the knives we are given to cut herbs. It isn't always successful. Others opt to become blood mages. That doesn't work either.”

“You did think about it, then?”

Ser Brodriger's voice floated in from the adjoining room, calling out that the stairs were clear.

“Tell me a mage who says she hasn't, and I'll show you a liar,” Neria replied, holding herself erect at last, and walking determinedly past him.


“What do you think that is?” whispered Alistair.

Neria pondered the question. She was hiding behind a stone pillar; Alistair crouched next to her, his bristled cheek brushing her shoulder. Ser Deveron and Brodriger were behind a book-case a few feet ahead.

The cause of their caution was a shimmering blue veil in the stone archway that led to the next room. It was where the Circle stores were kept, or rather which led to the main storage vault of the Tower. They had not encountered anything like it so far, and when Neria had shouted, “STAND BACK! Take Cover!”, her men had listened unquestioningly. Whatever her voice lacked in volume, it made up in authority.

“It's a protective magical barrier. As spells go, it's very advanced work.”

“So it's a powerful demon behind that barrier,” averred Ser Deveron.

“Let's find out how powerful,” Neria casually stepped out from behind the pillar. She had been worried that the barrier had been cast by a demon in the room they were presently in, to prevent anyone attacking from above, but they were in an empty room, if the two minutes of silence were anything to go by.

She twirled her staff theatrically, firing off three spells in quick succession at the barrier, fire, ice and poison.

“Very powerful,” she added, as each spell dissipated harmlessly into the veil.

“That's disturbing,” said Alistair, who had emerged from the hiding place as well, shield up, sword drawn. The Templars followed, in similar stance. Only Biscuit seemed unwary, trotting over to Neria's side.

“It's quite reassuring actually,” Neria said, with the hint of a smile. “Demons and abominations do not put up barriers like this, they want to attract more victims, not keep them out. It could conceivably be a blood mage, but those we can handle.”

“But if we can't get through, how do we...” Ser Deveron began. He was cut off by Neria shouting “Wynneeeee!” at the top of her voice.

“What's she bawling about?” asked Alistair, covering his ears.

“Are you in there, Wynne?” Neria repeated, cupping her mouth with her hands.

“Who is it?” came a voice from the other side, an exhausted, wary voice, but unmistakably Wynne. Neria heaved a sigh of relief.

“Can you see us? The barrier is only opaque from this side? It's me, Neria!” she shouted.

“I'm old, not deaf,” came the response, and the sound of footsteps approaching was heard. “Yes, I suppose it is you. Nobody else I know would step out in public wearing so little. Who is that with you?”

“You remember Alistair of the Grey Wardens from Ostagar,” replied Neria, pointing her staff at him. “And those behind are Ser Deveron and Ser Brodriger from the Templars.”

Biscuit woofed a reprimand, which made Neria hastily add, “And this is Biscuit the mabari, the bravest of us all.”

“Why do you have Templars with you? Has Gregoir invoked the Rite of Annulment?”

“These Templars don't want to kill you, they only want to fuck me,” said Neria reassuringly.

“Show me one that doesn't,” was the grumbling retort, but the blue veil disappeared. Wynne stood on the other side, looking weary, and older than Neria remembered her to be, somehow. She still had a look of apprehension on her face, but in the first flush of joy, Neria didn't see any of that. She scampered through the archway and enveloped the taller mage in an embrace that evidently embarrassed its recipient. Neria would later recall that she had shed hot tears, dampening the front of Wynne's plain green robe. It had seemed a perfectly normal thing at the time.

There were several others in the room with Wynne. Alistair noticed a small Elf child, two other children and two young women and a man, all mages. At the other exit, a charring on the stone floor indicated that a rage demon had been defeated, and recently.

“Gregoir said he doubted anyone was alive in here. I'm so glad he was wrong, Wynne, so glad!” Neria breathed, still holding her hand, looking up at her.

“And you defied him and came in anyway?” said a red-headed girl who had been standing nearby. Neria recognised her as Petra, a couple of years younger than herself, and one of the less-unpleasant apprentices in the Circle.

“Of course,” replied Neria. “I couldn't believe him, I couldn't believe everyone had just…died, or become blood mages or something like that. How did it happen, though, Wynne?”

“It started with Uldred, but he wasn't alone,” said Wynne, gently disengaging herself from Neria. “He reached the Circle before us, began to poison the Council against the Chantry, spoke about breaking free of Templar shackles. He claimed to have Loghain MacTir on his side. Then we arrived – and when I realised he was parroting that traitor's lines, I spoke out against him. Irving was about to call in the Templars to confine Uldred when he summoned a demon and a host of blood mages broke into the Council. Things went from bad to worse pretty soon. I tried to save as many as I could but we were hemmed into this room. The barrier took half my strength, but at least it kept us safe from one side.”

“We took care of all the demons between here and the apprentice quarters,” said Alistair. “You can probably get to safety now. If you wait in the Apprentice quarters, you should be fine until the Templars open the door.”

“Uldred. I should have guessed he would be mixed up in this somehow. He was the unpleasant man at the War Council just before we went for the Tower of Ishal,” Neria mused. “Well, he's a powerful mage, and if he's turned maleficar  I can only imagine the destruction he would have caused.”

“So what do you plan to do? Knight Commander Gregoir said he would only rescind the Rite of Annulment if we brought Irving before him,” said Ser Brodriger.

“Is Irving alive?” Neria turned her eyes back on Wynne.

“He was when I saw him last, captured by Uldred’s cronies,” said Wynne. “But that was some days ago. He's a tough old soul though, I think he might still be holding out.”

“I'm going to go get him then. Wynne, you can wait here, we should be back soon, and I need your help with…”

“Wait here?” Wynne's voice was irritable. “What do you mean, ‘wait here;. I'm coming with you.”

Alistair raised an eyebrow.

“With all due respect, Miss – Mrs – Madame, it will be a tough fight ahead. You might be safer here.”

“Boy,” said Wynne, with an imperiousness that made Alistair shrink within himself, “I was never one to sit back and be safe when others were doing their duty. Let the Templars remain to keep the children safe. If a chit of a girl a quarter my age is going to cleanse the Circle Tower, I am going to help her do it.”

This time, Neria was embarrassed by the tears on her face.

“You've always protected me, Wynne,” she said. “How can I refuse you now?”


Three floors and who-knew-how-many-hours later, Neria felt she had every need for Wynne's protection. They had fought more demons, progressively more powerful, not just rage demons but abominations and even blood mages. In the chapel, an ancient horror - a Revenant - had revealed itself, and had it not been for Wynne's powerful healing spells, Neria knew they would all have died there. The Revenant fought like a possessed Templar, strongly armoured and able to draw its enemies close before attacking them. Alistair should have died, and Biscuit too, but Wynne's magic kept them alive. And then, when the creature had almost cut down Neria, Wynne had hit it with a spell that slowed it down just long enough for Biscuit to attach his mouth to its leg. The Revenant was distracted as it threw the hound off, sending poor Biscuit crashing into the wall, but the delay had been enough. Neria had hit it with a fireball of such power that the weakened, burning horror had seemed almost glad when Alistair lopped off its head.

There had been other tests – in the training hall they had been beset by nearly a dozen demons and undead, led by a powerful abomination, but they had dealt with that too, using Wynne's skills of paralysis and Biscuit's terrifying presence to good effect while Neria picked them out in clumps.

Perhaps the hardest test had been the desire demon in the Templar quarters. They had defeated several corrupted Templars, driven mad by the demons, but the one enthralled by a magnificent horned desire demon had shown no desire to attack them. When the Desire demon had looked Neria in the eye and simply asked to be left alone with her human lover – and victim – it had taken all Neria's self-control to attack and kill such a beautiful creature.

In the mage quarters they had had a relatively easier time of it, merely having to hunt out a few blood mages before finding a lone mage survivor hiding in the closet. He had been very polite, very pleased to meet Neria, he said, thank you very much, and he did remember fondly all the time he had spent peeping at Neria with other men while hiding in other closets in the Tower premises, thank you very much, but at the moment he felt perfectly safe where he was, thank you very much.

Then they reached Irving's quarters, and Neria's hopes rose, as she pushed the door open, hoping, praying he would be there. But the room was empty, no sign of Irving or a demon for that matter. A few stray notes on his desk showed that he had been keeping an eye on suspected blood mages, that he worried about increasing Templar supervision of the mages, that since Neria's departure, incidents of Templar abuse of mages had increased considerably, but nothing to indicate that he had been in the room after Uldred had shown his true colours.

“You should probably have this.”

Neria turned to see Wynne holding out a staff. It was an ivory-inlaid staff, made from smooth birchwood and with an elaborate latticework peacock design at the head. She seemed to have removed it from a large book-case.

“What's this?” she asked.

“This staff – it used to belong to an Elf mage from Orlais who had come here with the Grey Wardens many years ago. I was in charge of stores at the time, and only got to speak to Fiona a few times, but she carried several staves, and when she left Ferelden she left this one with Duncan. He kept it with Irving for safe-keeping.”

“That's interesting, but I can't just…we can't assume Irving is dead, Wynne, we just can't.”

“If he's alive, you can take his permission,” said Wynne. “Now let's get going.”

Neria took the staff in her hand, putting her own to the side. It seemed to respond to her touch, making her own magical energy seem to come alive for a moment. Neria tapped it on the ground. Flames emerged from the friction of wood and ivory on stone.

“Dragon blood?” she said aloud, in a hushed whisper.

“What?” asked Alistair, looking at the staff, seemingly fascinated.

“This staff – the wood – it's bathed in Dragon blood. This is a fire mage's staff.”

“Does it make you even MORE powerful?” asked Alistair.


“I wouldn't want to be Uldred,” he chuckled.

They stepped out of Irving's office and walked across the corridor to push the door to Gregoir's quarters, expecting a similar, abandoned room. Instead, they had walked into a horror show.

The massive circular room was drenched in blood and chunks of flesh, human and demonic. Long lines of entrails hung up from wall to wall. Dead bodies seemed to litter the floor, some looking wasted away, others brutally murdered. A chill went down Alistair's spine, and he had to close his eyes to drive away the overwhelming desire to retch. When he opened them, he saw Neria on her hands and knees, Wynne leaning against a pillar, hand to chest, and Biscuit whimpering. Before them was an abomination, or was it? The creature had one eye, on the right side of its head, the other side covered by its robe, the flesh rotting, six ribs exposed, flesh decayed away, with a metal ring passing through the bone, with hands like talons.

“Welcome,” it said. “You have fought so long and so hard. Wouldn't you like to rest now?”

He knew it was a sloth demon. It could not be anything else. And despite its appearance, its voice was beautiful, smooth, almost loving. Sloth demons were the second-most powerful in the hierarchy of the Fade, appealing to that most natural of human impulses, the desire to do nothing, to sleep, to rest. He drew his sword and began to walk towards it. The Hound had fallen asleep already. Wynne tottered where she stood, muttering, “No, not this, not this,” and he heard a woman's voice – not Neria's, not Wynne's – calling him by name, thanking him, telling him how glad she was he was there, and he walked on, shield up, raised his hand, began to chant the words for a Holy Smite, but the woman called him again, and then there was a child's voice, and Sloth was telling him how he had been a brave man and deserved some rest, some happiness, and did he really need to kill Sloth? Was it a demon, really, because the woman – he knew the woman, he had dreamed of her so many times, and then it was Neria, shouting, “No, Alistair, no, don't – you MUST stay awake, don't leave me, Alistair, don't…” but she seemed to be calling from a long way away, and Wynne had collapsed too, and really he HAD been fighting, he had been fighting since he was a boy, against the Arlessa of Redcliffe who wanted to send him away, against the Knight-Captain, who would have had him become a lyrium-addled Templar, against the Revered Mother who would have made him a faith-zombie, against the darkspawn who would blight the world, against Neria, who would have him become a lust-crazed slave to her charms, and he just wanted to spend some time away, to stop fighting and have a home and a family.

He fell asleep, crashing heavily on his own shield, sword twisting in his hands.

When he woke up, he was with his sister, drinking the most delicious soup in the world and bouncing his niece on his knee as his nephew pleaded with him to come out and play with him in the backyard.


No comments:

Post a Comment