Transmutation - Chapter 10

Searching for Hope

Cullen took the time to investigate the novice barracks though he was sure he’d left all of the children in the atrium with Wynne and the apprentices.  There wasn’t much he could have done had he found a young mage cowering in the baths but he couldn’t chance some creature leaping up at his back.  

The bunk beds, lined up in ranks with trunks at their feet, gave him a clear view across the long room.   He found nothing more threatening than balls of dust and the occasional lost slipper or glove and a makeshift ragdoll that had fallen from some poor little girl’s pillow.  Cullen picked it up and tucked it into the bunk beside which he’d found it in the hope that its owner was one of the little ones safe behind Wynne’s barrier.  He prayed fervently to Andraste that they could be reunited soon.

When he felt satisfied nothing lurked in the shadows he left, closing the door behind him.  It went much the same on the rest of the lowest level.  Those who’d lived so close to the main doors had either fled before the doors had been shut or ascended to join the fighting.

At last he decided that no shades would leap out to attack him and no blood mages lurked in a wardrobe, waiting until he turned his back to seize control of his mind.  He looked longingly toward where the silent corridor curved back to the entrance and started up to the next floor.

He got no farther than the top of the stairs before his hope for a quick end was dashed.  He looked into room after room and saw nothing but blood and death.  Where had the abominations and summoned creatures gone?  Did no other Templars survive?

None stirred among the rapidly-cooling gore.  Cullen cautiously probed the rooms that housed four or eight apprentices each.  The bathing and changing areas offered ample hiding places for an ambush or a terrified—but innocent—mage.  He found only two Templars lying still in their dented plate, their shields as often as not still on their backs.  It looked like the maleficari had sprung their trap as suddenly here as in the Harrowing Chamber above.

The Chantry insisted the Circle shuffle rooming assignments regularly to keep the mages from forming too-tight attachments to one another.  The chambers followed a progression of seniority along the curve of the tower’s outer wall.  None of the identical stone rooms showed a hint of the personality of those housed within them beyond the occasional healing potion or book that indicated the school of magic studied by its occupants.

Each level communicated with the one above by a single set of steps at the far end of a long corridor from the way to the floor below.  It had never occurred to Cullen that the design of the original hold had been to make each level easy to defend and difficult to take.  The long trek across the second level and up to the next gave him plenty of time to imagine an army trying to storm the narrow, winding way up to the Harrowing Chamber.

The thought of dozens of Templars fighting in the confines of these stark halls while mages poured down withering attacks filled him with dread.  He firmly set the thought aside.  If he could only find some of the brothers and sisters perhaps they could finish this before such a battle became necessary.

So long as he investigated every room along his way he could be reasonably sure no one would spring up at his back—at least nothing human.  The memory of the demons summoned from the stone floors atop the tower kept him from complacency, however, and the stench of opened bowels and blood acted as constant reminders.

In a few places he encountered a pitched battle and threw himself into the fight on the side of those who still appeared human.  He saw no blood mages that had not turned into abominations or surrounded themselves with summoned creatures.  That made it easier to chose a side in each skirmish but he despaired at finding so many who had been practicing the forbidden art under the noses of all of the Templars.  Even the flurry of investigation after Jowan’s escape attempt had turned up no hint of such widespread corruption.

He’d lost count of how many rooms he’d checked before he finally came across one that showed no sign of conflict.  He sat a moment on one of the beds, weary to his bones and only halfway to the top.  None of the stories he’d ever been told had prepared him for the slaughter and violation he’d seen that day and he knew there had to be worse on the highest levels where the most senior and advanced mages had lived.

The element of surprise had granted the Harrowing Chamber to Uldred and his cronies regardless of what had happened in the rest of the tower.  Even if, as seemed increasingly unlikely, Cullen could find survivors able to join an assault against the highest level the stairway down which he’d come made the room easily defensible.  Hopelessness pulled at him, whispered to him that he could simply lie down here and wait for the inevitable.

He pulled off his helmet, one eye on the still-open door, and took a few deep breaths to fight back his tears.  The taste of death was heavy on the air even in this untouched room and he knew his own must soon add to it.  He set the spattered metal on the bunk beside him.  Its shine had dulled and one of the wings intended to represent Andrate’s ascension been wrenched almost free somewhere along the way.  After a longing glance at the pillow he buried his face in his hands.

A scrape sounded from behind a drape in the far corner of the room and Cullen leapt to his feet, hauling his filthy sword once again from its scabbard.  “Come out!” he ordered, unwilling to move nearer lest a slavering demon leap from concealment.

Instead a young elf drew the fabric aside with a shaking hand.  “Are you…is it over, ser?” he asked.  The mage’s eyes widened in horror as he took in the state of Cullen’s armor.  His apprentice robes looked dusty but were free of blood or the nastier things that covered the Templar.  “I was in here studying when I heard the screaming.  I…”  He looked at the floor, blushing with shame.  “I shut the door and hid.”

Cullen recognized the lithe and hesitant young man most often seen scurrying into or out of the library with an armful of books.  “Corzan,” he said, relieved but still wary.  It didn’t surprise him that the elf, tiny even for the smaller race, had run from the fighting but he couldn’t help but be suspicious that no one had entered the room.  Tears streamed down the mage’s face when Cullen asked him how he’d stayed safe.

“I spelled the door,” he wailed.  “The howls and thuds…I held it with everything I had until it got quiet.  When I heard you and Wynne pass…”  He sniffled and flushed with shame.  “I couldn’t make myself come out,” he finished, so quietly that Cullen had to strain to make out the words.  The mage slid to his knees and wrapped his arms around himself.  “I’m so afraid!  If I were stronger I would have helped you but I couldn’t move.”

A look of horror dawned on the young man’s face as he noticed that the Templar stood alone.  “Wynne’s gone, isn’t she?  Oh, Maker, they’re all dead.”  He sobbed while Cullen tried to convince him otherwise but the mage refused to be mollified.  He stared, horrified, at the bloody sword.  “You’ve come to kill me, too.  I know you have!”

Corzan stumbled to his feet, hands out in what could have been a warding gesture.  The lyrium he took let Cullen sense the gathering power so near him, however.  He drew on his training to damp whatever spell the elf was trying to cast but that only further convinced the younger man that his life was in danger.  “Leave me alone,” he cried.  The realization that he was essentially powerless ate at the last of his frail control.  “I don’t want to die!”

All of Cullen’s reassurances did nothing.  He lowered his arm and stepped back but the elf barely noticed.  Corzan had lost himself to his panic.  There in his exhaustion and his wild desire for the power to defend himself something found him.  He writhed under the force of a fear demon’s possession, growing to nearly double his height before Cullen could convince himself that this weak and terrified elf, this inoffensive mage who had had no part in Uldred’s rebellion, was about to kill him.

Corzan’s wail of fear turned piercing as demonic flesh pulsed up from the collar of his distorted robes.  “No,” he screamed.  “No, I don’t want this.”  But it was too late.  The elf could not summon enough will to stem the tide of possession.

Cullen shook himself free of his shock and cut down the creature while it was still changing.  The expanding flesh parted beneath his blade and a sob escaped him, born of shock and grief at what these mages he thought he had known were becoming.  Tensions had been high in the tower, of course, but he never would have imagined the sheer number of enchanters that would succumb.

Were things really so bad, living here?  These people were fed and clothed by the charity of the Chantry, given a safe place to sleep and a library filled with books.   By the Maker, the most senior enchanters even had rooms to themselves, more than could be said for any of the Templars except the Knight-Commander and his Knight-Captain.  They were obscenely wealthy compared to the vast majority of Ferelden’s “free” citizens whose hovels slumped beside the fields most of them worked their whole lives.

There had been incidents in the Circle, yes.  He couldn’t deny the things he’d heard and seen.  But the utter slaughter, the contempt in Uldred’s face and the terror in Corzan’s, seemed all out of proportion with the day-to-day reality he’d experienced.  Would the mages rather live in a hut, breaking their backs for enough coin to scratch together meager meals and perhaps a new cloak every few years?  Would they prefer being shunned or hunted by frightened farmers?

Cullen leaned his burning forehead against the stone wall by the door, unable for a moment to think beyond thanking the Maker for its blessed chill.  Anguish filled his mind once more, sweeping away the questions.  Death stalked him in Kinloch Hold and it could only be a matter of time before it found him.  Why fight?

A decade and a half of training and dedication warred with bleak despair.  He owed Andraste his life, if that was what the Maker required of him.  All his vows would be ashes in his mouth if he deserted his duty the first time he found himself face to face with the truth of mages’ weakness and scheming.

Eventually he stuffed his fears beneath renewed determination and swallowed the bile they’d brought to his throat.  In turning he saw his sword, still stuck in Corzan’s now-grotesque shape, and realized how vulnerable he’d truly been.  Surely the demon had been seeking to lure him, as well.  Only the grace of the Maker had let him win the struggle.

He tugged the blade free and, with shaking fingers, cleaned it with the bedclothes on which he’d so recently been sitting.  With his free hand he retrieved his helmet and set his shield firmly on his arm.  If he had to give his life today, he’d make it cost the mages dearly.  With a last plea to Andraste that some of his fellow knights still lived, he resumed his search of the tower.

He worked his way cautiously through the senior apprentice quarters, checking the lavatories and wardrobes in the chambers where they slept, two or three to a room.  Despite how foolish he felt, he stooped to check under each bed and behind every shelf, determined to avoid another surprise like Corzan.  The boots he’d shone so enthusiastically that morning squelched with blood by the time he reached end of the corridor.  He’d long since given up avoiding the pools of gore that decorated the flagstones and stern, grey walls of the tower.

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