Transmutation - Chapter 8

Nightmares Come True

Cullen’s mind wandered a bit with his aches and boredom. The mages had begun discussing the various fraternities and how best to keep the peace among those factions within the Circle. As the conflicts had amounted to little more than verbal tussles and the occasional thrown punch, they themselves held little interest for the Templars.

The views of the fraternities, however, did, at least the ones obvious about how they chafed at the Chantry’s control of the Circles. As the mages technically governed themselves the Templars could do little overtly but many of the Order found methods, subtle to varying degrees, to encourage those who supported the status quo. The little privileges the knights encouraged the First Enchanter to grant and the more aggressive treatment the others received made the Aequitarians a strong faction, even if they weren’t the strong Chantry supporters the Loyalists were.

The differences fed the restlessness of the Libertarians. They pointed to every perceived inequity, no matter the true source, as further proof of their oppression. Cullen wondered from time to time whether they realized how these shrill denunciations brought out the worst in the Templars already unsympathetic to their arguments. Those more interested in detailing slights drowned out the calmer voices of reason.

They circled the same arguments interminably. Cullen wondered what the Tranquil were cooking that afternoon, far below in the kitchen, and whether he’d have enough feeling in his toes to navigate that narrow stair just beside him with any sort of dignity. At this rate I’ll be sleeping on my feet before they shut up, he thought idly.

Uldred rose from his position beside Irving to address the gathering. Cullen turned toward him in a show of attentiveness but his thoughts were more on dinner than the conversation. As the older man spoke even a distracted, hungry Templar couldn’t help but notice signs of agitation, however.

Cullen pulled his attention back to the meeting, wondering if the man had always been vehement over such minor divisions within the tower or if he’d grown crankier since his return from Ostagar. Several of the other enchanters appeared to be getting restless as well. A strange light came into Uldred’s eyes as his voice rose. He took a moment to look around the room, catching the gazes of several others and receiving a discreet nod or two as he did so.

Curse these sodding helmets, Cullen thought. He couldn’t see the faces of the other Templars around the room, could not read whether they shared the sudden tension he felt. Were they standing straighter, were their hands nearer the hilts of their swords?

Uldred stepped around his chair to pace behind the First Enchanter, who sat as placidly as ever. “Today will be marked on the calendars of all Thedas,” the Second declaimed, “for today we declare the freedom of the Fereldan Circle from Chantry oppression.” He’d raised a puny fist to his shoulder.

Now there was no need for Cullen to see the faces of his fellow Templars. All of them were reaching for their swords, the new Knight-Lieutenants beginning to use the magic damping at which they’d been training for years. They were too late.

Cullen’s boredom evaporated into terror as, one after another, nearly a dozen senior mages cast spells ensnaring both Templars and fellow enchanters. He saw Irving paralyzed mid-turn. The man’s eyes rolled wildly but nothing else moved. That as much as anything brought home the seriousness of the situation.

Uldred shouted exhortations through the ensuing chaos as a number of people tried to flee down the narrow stairs. The floor-length robes and skirts they all wore got underfoot in the panic. Some went sprawling, pushing the rest of them along even faster. Those who fell cried out as the others trod on fingers or worse. On the far side of the room Harold went down, flickers of lightning chasing over the metal of his breastplate.

Cullen found himself shoved along before the crush of mages rushing for the stairs next to which he’d been standing. He snatched up the skirts of his armor where they trailed on the steps behind him with one hand while maneuvering for room to finish drawing his sword with the other. His shield, trapped irretrievably on his back, he ignored.

Cries echoed from both ends of the narrow staircase. Cullen tried to pause the headlong downward flight so he could decide whether to continue or work his way back to the Harrowing Chamber. Surely whatever lay behind the door at the bottom could not be as awful as the maniacal glee he’d seen on Uldred’s face in those few moments. The pressure of the panicked mages behind him made the decision for him: he simply could not hold back the mass of their fear and confusion.

His sword finally cleared the scabbard as he reached the door. He found he could pull the age-smoothed wood inward only by pressing his body against those shoving behind him, though at least those closest to him saw his struggle and helped drive the others backwards. The heavy door swung open to reveal a chaos worse than the one they’d just escaped. Enchanters battled one other while seven Templars, unsure which way to turn, were caught in the deadly crossfire. The air reeked of burnt flesh and crackled with electricity. Maleficari sought not to capture others, as was happening in the highest chamber, but to kill those who opposed them.

Cullen knew he could not keep the mages from forcing their way out of the killing chute in which they’d found themselves but he paused as best he could to take in the scene before leaping into the fray. A group of mages had spread out on the far end of the room, throwing protective spells around the few Templars still standing and desperately trying to fight around them. The blood mages mostly had their backs to the door in faith that Uldred and the others could control the room above them. They focused on keeping anyone from reaching the stairs rather than on preventing people from coming down them.

A few realized the door had opened and began to turn. Cullen grabbed the elbow of the woman at his left, yelling to be heard above the turmoil. “Help me stop them!” She nodded and turned, speaking urgently to the man behind her. A quick glance up the stairs showed not one other Templar. Cullen was torn between shame at having fled and the desire to protect these few whose presence behind him hopefully demonstrated their innocence in this plot.

The shoulders of one of the mages turning to face him began to writhe beneath his robes. His body swelled, lumps of flesh bulking through the cloth and plumping obscenely over his head. Though Cullen had seen drawings of abominations before he’d never considered what becoming one would look like. The man stared in shock, his mouth open in a scream as rancid, furrowed skin grew over his face. Clearly, he had not intended this to happen.

The woman beside him leapt away as though he were catching and muttered something, waving her staff. Creatures slid up through the stone floor as if emerging from water, shades that glided toward the mages and Templars on the far side of the room. The abomination reared, drawing back a newly-clawed arm, still growing, to slash at Cullen. He could no longer waste time assessing the situation.

Just as his sword bit into the thing he felt energy scream past his body. The mages behind him began casting spells to protect him, fire balls, frosty prisons, whatever they knew best. It was terrifying, knowing that he had at his back a knot of people who could just as easily turn as the man in front of him had. Everyone in the Harrowing Chamber had been a senior enchanter, the strongest and most talented mages in the tower. If they turned on him he would be dead in seconds.

The rank of maleficari, red with their craft, found themselves surrounded. They abandoned all attempts at discipline and began summoning shades for reinforcement. One after another was taken by something from the Fade and contorted into an abomination.

Blood lay thick on the floor and coated flesh unworldly and human alike. Bright yellows and blues dulled and muddied into a uniform maroon. The air, thick with the scent of death and corruption, was so charged with magic that Cullen’s hair stood on end beneath his helmet. Everything moved slowly. It seemed to take minutes for his sword to complete its swing though he threw everything he had behind it.

The pitched battle continued endlessly. He drew on every moment of his training to quash what magic he could in his foes and then kill them before they could regroup. Theory and practice fights, however, could never have prepared him for the chaos of this rebellion or the sheer terror at being so unexpectedly confronted by outright evil.

The longer the fight continued the harder it became to tell which of the enchanters had been in the original group of blood mages. Gore had splattered everyone and healers would easily have erased traces of self-inflicted wounds. Cullen increasingly thought of simply slaying any robed figure in his path, just to be safe, but every time he remembered his duty to protect his charges.

So long as he kept that firmly in his mind he took the extra moment to look where his sword fell, to judge whether the mage at which he struck might be trying to shield him rather than kill him. Perhaps he was imaging that some of those who had been fighting the maleficars had turned their allegiance. It could be that those using blood magic had so much power on their side that they stood longer than the energy of those they fought could last or that they were controlling the minds of their fellow mages.

He began to worry that he could not lift his sword for another strike. The fighting had wrung dry every drop of fear and determination fueling him and still it continued. At some point he’d managed to retrieve his shield but it hung as often by his side as he managed to hold it before him. It weighed as much as a druffalo and smelled worse. He hewed and swung and dispelled mechanically, overwhelmed by the horrors and bone weary.

Just as he accepted that he would die in that room, having failed utterly, the madness ended. The last shade moaned its way to the floor, and the few survivors began to identify one another. Of the dozen or so mages that had made it down the stairs with him, three still stood. Not one of the other Templars lived.

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