Transmutation - Chapter 9

Tenuous Survival

A lone woman moved among the slaughter near the far door. She looked about her dazedly, dark hair matted and hanging in her face. To all appearances she was having as much trouble believing she’d survived as Cullen was. The mages who had been fighting around her sprawled in untidy, unmoving heaps.

Cullen recognized the enchanter lying just at her feet. His heart sank at the sight of the healer’s body but he picked his way to her through the filth and blood. She lay unmoving, so pale he thought she must have fallen to one of the demons. As he reached her side, however, Wynne sat up, her shaking hand going to her head while she swayed. The other woman gasped, “I thought she’d been killed.”

“As did I.” Wynne’s calm voice sounded wry as ever, weak though it was. She took but a moment to gather herself. “We have to get the children somewhere safe.” She spoke serenely, as though she weren’t sitting among dead abominations and the bloody remains of her friends.

Cullen helped her stand. She had long been a gentle and motherly influence, smoothing arguments between mages and Templars, always seeking middle ground. She, at least, cannot have been a part of this conspiracy, Cullen thought. He clung to that hope as they made their way down the narrow set of steps from the preparation room.

The corridor below rang with cries and groans. Wounded and dead littered the halls, the gore of their fights splashed on the cold, grey walls. The sound and feel of magic exploding against stone and wood and bodies came from all around the small group as they cautiously moved toward the next flight of stairs. There were still two levels between them and the rooms where the novices slept.

The little group did what they could for those who still lived. The rest would have to wait for their souls to be commended to the Maker until after the tower had been retaken. They encountered maleficari in small groups, all of whom quickly turned to the Fade for reinforcements. The little skirmishes made what should have been a few minutes’ walk into an interminable journey.

Though Wynne trembled with exhaustion she continued to fight and heal with a skill that won Cullen’s respect even as it fed his fear. Such power, even without blood magic! Should a mage so respected fall to possession surely none could stand against her, and Wynne wasn’t even the strongest enchanter in the Circle. That “honor” fell to Uldred, he thought miserably. If this conspiracy reached even to the Second Enchanter he had to get to Knight-Commander Greagoir as quickly as possible.

With an ever-changing group, mages and Templars falling, rising, and changing all around them, Cullen and Wynne stayed the only two constants. Only the pair of them continued to the ground level where they found an island of quiet. The excesses of the blood mages and the furious resistance of those fighting them continued above but here they found only the hushed cries of frightened children and hurried defenses erected by the three apprentices who had remained with their charges.

Wynne quickly organized the group to head for the soaring doors that led to the entry of the tower, hoping to get the children to safety outside the Hold. The little ones and their protectors reached the doors only to find them closed and barred. Cullen and Wynne banged on the metal-bound wood, planks the size of trees thudding under their fists. They received only silence in response.

“We’ve been sealed in with the abominations and maleficari,” one of the apprentices whispered hoarsely. “They’ve given us all up for lost.” She looked at Cullen, eyes wide in horror.

Many of the children began to cry anew. Cullen shot a furious look at the woman as he knelt to comfort one of them but half his attention was on Wynne, whispering with the other two apprentices. Paranoia flared but he fought it back as he patted the sobbing boy. “They probably can’t hear us,” he told the child absently. “Look at the size of that door. It’s half a meter thick!” The boy nodded, sniffling, but Cullen caught the disbelieving look the apprentice shot him over the tousled little head.

Finally, the senior enchanter strode across the flags and explained that the three of them intended to head back into the keep proper. “If we’re to be here for some time we’ll need supplies,” she explained as they started toward the smaller door through which they’d just come. “At the very least it will make the children feel better.”

She hurried the girls around the bend in the corridor with one last, reassuring smile for the novices. Cullen thought she sounded far more optimistic than she had any right to be. As they disappeared from view he moved closer to the door. He doubted he could do much alone but it remained his duty to protect these mages, even from themselves.

The interminable wait for their return stretched beyond all measure. A silence, broken only by the occasional sniff or scuff, lay over the anteroom like a heavy wool blanket pulled over their heads. Cullen paced slowly. He became more certain by the moment that the ladies had been captured or killed, that he and the remaining apprentice would die here as the only meager protection the little novices had from the horrors within the tower.

He filled the quiet inside his mind by arguing whether it would be better to go looking for the three who’d left or to stay here and protect the ones who remained. Before he could end his indecision the three women came into view. They fairly staggered down the hall with their arms filled and Wynne looked ready to collapse.

Cullen urged the children to help her with the food that weighed her down. “You’ve brought enough for weeks,” he chided her as one of the apprentices directed the placement of the ewers of water and thick loaves in an alcove where they would be out of the way.

“We don’t know how long we’ll be here,” she replied somewhat breathlessly. Her exertion could not force her voice to sound any less calm and practical as ever, however. “It would be best to have more than we need.” The full import of their entrapment washed over Cullen. Wynne was right; with the main doors sealed it could be weeks before anyone was allowed to pass. The foyer could be held by her an a few inexperienced mages against anyone passing through the small door to the tower itself.

The only other opening was the locked entrance to the underground levels where the cells and storage rooms for various enigmatic and archaic objects were found. The door had been reinforced and magically-sealed after Jowan’s and Kyla’s expedition below. To Cullen’s knowledge the lower level could not be accessed from anywhere else. Wynne directed the other women to settle the children as best they could on the hard stone floor and gestured him over to the door through which they had come.

“I’m going to erect a barrier here, one that will keep the children safe,” she said, her drawn face belying the confidence of her words. The bun habitually tight on her head had loosened and grey tendrils straggled onto her cheeks making her look haggard and so very old.

“Once it’s in place I cannot drop it. I fear I wouldn’t be able to restore it.” He put a hand on her shoulder, wishing he could give the old woman some of his strength. She smiled wearily at him before continuing. “You must decide whether you will remain here with us or continue the fight inside.”

Cullen’s heart fell at the idea of returning to the hellish scenes inside the tower but his duty was clear. Every moment of the training he had undertaken required that he continue the fight until it was won or he fell in battle. There was no shirking his responsibility, no matter the fear that caused him to quail. How he wished Knight-Commander Gregoir had kept him from that meeting, that he had had some trifling illness that would have sent him to the infirmary instead, on the other side of the barred doors. He bowed his head for a moment but could find no words to send to the Maker, no plea for Andraste.

The Chantry has been right all along, he thought. Mages could not be trusted to police themselves or resist the temptations of demons and blood magic’s power. He’d let the quiet of the tower and its faded tensions lull him into believing better of them. Yet here was the proof: a few holdouts strong or lucky enough not to have succumbed and a bunch of half-trained children were all of the mages that had lived in this Circle left pure.

Finally he looked at Wynne. “I must see to my duties,” he said as firmly as he could. The pity he saw in her eyes only strengthened his resolve. He straightened his shoulders and nodded his readiness. No sooner had he stepped through the doorway than a blue glow from behind him lit the corridor. Cullen willed himself not to turn, fearing his courage would break and Gregoir would find him sobbing beside the barrier when the Templars entered the confines of the tower to enforce the Right of Annulment.

It seemed impossible that any response less than the Right could be enough. It required the consent of the region's Grand Cleric, however, as the end result would be the death of every mage in the Fereldan Circle. The Chantry at Redcliff, only a day’s journey to the south, was too small for someone of that high an office so the request must travel the full distance to Denerim and back before Greagoir could act. Maker only knew how long it would take him to decide on that course in the first place, let alone secure approval.

Until then those within the tower must fend for themselves. Cullen hoped fervently that he would find more Templars on the higher levels, that they could band together and take back control. The idea of being locked alone in this windowless stone dungeon with blood mages and abominations run amok terrified him.

With the road to Denerim threatened by Darkspawn it could be a month or more before runners could return with approval for the Right. If Cullen found others and they enjoyed a great deal of luck, perhaps they could put down this rebellion and have things under control well before permission and reinforcements arrived. Without the Right he could not simply strike down any mage he encountered. He feared misjudging an innocent person or a guilty one. He simply didn’t have the experience to make such calls.

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