Transmutation, Chapter 11

Rallying the Troops

In many places Cullen found no Templars at all, though the slaughter was just as bad. Most of the corridors remained empty but Fade creatures had sprung up all through the tower. In some rooms he found mages who had fought against them and died for their pains. Relief at seeing how many of them had resisted this plot which had spun so quickly out of control cut through the grief of seeing the loyal mages sprawled, lifeless and bloodied, in their own quarters.

Every few rooms presented yet another tableau that fueled Cullen’s anger and determination. The appalling waste of life and the proof that the Chantry had been right all along pushed him through his desolation. He used his every reserve to keep moving. Once he’d investigated each room on the periphery he headed to the open central area, one used on each level for a different purpose. The one he hesitated outside held the storerooms, manned by Tranquil who could not be possessed because they had no connection to the Fade.

Cullen stood with one hand on the door, awkwardly holding his sword in his shield hand rather than sheathe the weapon. He reminded himself that any tactician would want to secure the potions and tools contained within so he should expect the worst.

The heavy planks, worn silver by the hands of generations, gave no hint of what they hid. Whatever lay beyond, he warned himself not to count on finding the Tranquil blithely going about their business. He whispered a prayer to Andraste in the eerie silence and flung the door wide.

The clatter of his armor deafened him for a moment. It echoed away as he stood, staring into the room. The wreckage of shelves and their contents offered dozens of hiding places. Cullen stayed where he could duck back into the hall should any nasty surprises be launched his way.

A full minute passed while he eyed the scattered baskets of herbs, bottled potions glinting in the tumbled leaves. The magical items kept here, safe from the inexperienced and often unwise hands of novices and apprentices, had been tossed about, in the struggle or in a hasty search for weapons Cullen couldn’t say.

The room reeked of blood overlaid with the sweet odor of healing plants and the now-familiar tang of magic on metal. Tipped shelves, many charred by passing fireballs or in intricate lightning patterns, obscured the rest of the room. Utter silence reigned, broken only by his own harsh breathing and the occasional drip of Maker only knew what deeper into the mess.

Just as he decided it was safe to enter a form stepped from behind a jumble of rods and the racks on which they’d recently been arrayed. Cullen raised his shield before him and lifted his sword to a defensive stance even as he recognized heavy plate identical to his own and nearly as battered. Much as we wanted to sob in relief at finding a brother still alive he remained wary. Blood mages had taken the tower. There was no telling the condition of the man inside the armor.

The other Templar seemed to have no such reservations. “Thank the Maker!” He picked his way across the mess, looking more at his feet than at Cullen. “I’ve been waiting ages for whoever was scraping around in the hall to finally come in!”

The tall man tugged off his helmet to reveal tousled salt-and-pepper hair and a bushy moustache crookedly disarranged by sweat and the metal against which it had been rubbing for hours. “Who’s in there?” he asked with half a worried grin. “Sweet Andraste, be a Knight-Lieutenant.”

Cullen relaxed, recognizing one of the most-senior members of the Order. He found himself reluctant to sheathe his sword but he slung his shield onto his back and pulled off his own helmet. “Sorry, Ser Wilton. I’m a bit junior for that rank just yet.”

“Ah, it’s you, Cullen.” Wilton shrugged. “From what I’ve seen today you may find yourself in that position within a week regardless of your callow youth.” He looked around disgustedly. “These mages have certainly managed to thin our ranks in short order.”

The younger man shook his head. “What happened here? The Darkspawn couldn’t have made a bigger mess.”

Wilton glanced over his shoulder. “They might have been easier to fight, as well. Four of us came up as soon as we realized the sheep were turning to wolves but they must have planned to take the place from the beginning. We found half a dozen blood mages slaughtering the Tranquil.” His normal, bemused expression turned sour. “One of them said it was a mercy to put them down. The Tranqs knew what was happening but they just…” He shrugged helplessly. “They stood there and died, one at a time.”

After a moment’s silence he shook himself. “We came in smiting,” he continued with a valiant but doomed attempt at a smile, “and took them by surprise. A couple went down right away but the others started pulling demons and who knows what right out of the floor, the cheaters.”

He made a face that surprised a bark of laughter out of Cullen before he sobered again, recalling what had happened at the foot of the Harrowing Chamber stairs. “Did any of them…change?”

Wilton frowned. “Yeah,” he said simply. The two men looked at one another in sympathy. Every Templar’s nightmares had come true that day, and it had been worse than either could have imagined. “I heard you digging around out there,” the older man continued. “Who else have you found?”

For just a moment, Cullen was afraid he might break down altogether. He stared at the floor, holding his breath while he fought the images that threatened to leave him a sobbing wreck. In the end he mastered himself for what seemed the hundredth time.

“No Templars,” Cullen answered, surprised at how steady he sounded. “A group of kids and two apprentices are camped out with Wynne by the main doors. Otherwise, everyone below is dead.” His voice thickened on the last word and Winton clapped a hand on his shoulder.

“From what I heard before we headed in here, most of the others were headed to the upper levels. We’ll just have to go find them, right?”

Cullen nodded, not willing to trust his voice in the surge of relief at having another to share the burden of this Maker-damned day. He wanted desperately to believe that he and Wilton would find the strongest enchanters on the floors above, standing side by side with the ablest Templars to hold the demons and blood mages at bay. The day’s events had ably demonstrated how foolish that optimism was but that didn’t stop it from being terribly attractive.

Wilton hefted his helmet. “I suppose there’s nothing for it but to go looking.” His gauntlet clashed against Cullen’s paldron once more in a comradely cuff. “At least I found a few lyrium potions in this wreckage.” He tossed a vial to the younger man who nearly fumbled it in surprise. “I imagine you’ll be as drained as I was with the fighting. They’re not as strong as what we’re used to but they’ll do in a pinch.”

Cullen drained the little bottle. The familiar burn comforted him a little and the worst of his weariness fell away as it sank into his belly. Wilton grinned as Cullen straightened then thumped his helmet onto his head. “Let’s go.”

The pair climbed to the third level, their combined clanking and scraping echoing alarmingly. “Just about enough to wake the dead, hey Cullen?” Wilton joked. The caution of his movements belied his light tone, however. Cullen admired him all the more for his attempts at humor. He couldn’t have made a joke if some demon of poor taste had been controlling him. He was too tired, too frightened, and far too overwhelmed.

The pair found almost no one in the private quarters or in the corridor, alive or dead. “The fight must have happened somewhere else,” Wilton said. He shook his head. “Let’s check the chapel and then we’ll head upstairs.

The mystery of where those living on third level had gone was solved when then entered the large chapel. The dead filled the room. The fight had bloodied the altars and the splashed the statues of Andraste and her retinue that lined the far wall. Cullen gagged behind his helmet at the stench of burnt flesh while sweat poured down the collar of his chestpiece to coat his back. How could this have happened?

Templars, mages, and Fade creatures littered the floor but three of the Order yet lived. When Cullen and Wilton came through the door the trio raised their shields wearily.

They had ended the fighting backed against the outside wall and there they remained. The tallest of them stood between the others where he could strike over their heads. Ichor splashed them from helmets to boots and their shields bore great dents and scorch marks. All three kept their swords naked in their hands.

He could hardly blame them. The sheer number of bodies in the chapel stunned him afresh. Blood still dribbled from horrific wounds, spreading across what had, until that day, been a place of quiet contemplation and devotion. Sisters in their Chantry robes lay among the dead, blackened and broken. They had been defenseless in the face of the magic brought against them.

By then Cullen had trodden on enough appendages and his heel had slid on enough random gobbets of flesh he couldn’t even identify that he hardly gave a thought to placing his feet beyond ensuring he did not fall as he and Wilton crossed the room. For what seemed the hundredth time that day his gorge rose and he swallowed it back down past the lump in his throat. “Are you wounded?”

He’d expected them to relax at seeing two fellow Templars, particularly once he’d spoken but they only moved closer together, struggling to lift their swords. He turned to Wilton. “People that aren’t mages can’t be possessed, can they? What are they afraid of?”

“Blood magic makes mages more vulnerable to demons but it also gives them enough power to control minds,” the other Templar reminded him. He nodded to the little group. “They aren’t attacking. I hope that means they’re just being cautious in the event we’re being manipulated. Andraste knows we need all the help we can get.”

The exchange did more to reassure the survivors than the two men’s Templar armor. The shortest of the three lifted her helmet, revealing a snub nose, dark blonde hair cropped short, and wary grey eyes. “We’ve seen Templars seduced by demons attack one another, believing the lies of the fiends,” she said. “Our hardest fight was with our own men, convinced we’d come to assassinate the Knight-Commander. You’ll have to pardon us if we don’t take things on face value.”

Cullen nodded his understanding. She introduced herself as Helene. When the two men removed their helmets Cullen recognized the tallest, a hulking, swarthy man named Cortain. He would be a good man to have on their side, a strong fighter and ruthless as well, if the whispers were true. Cortain greeted the newcomers and gestured to his right. “This is Burton. He and I were patrolling when we heard Helene here making a ruckus in the chapel.”

The three recounted the horrors that had transpired. “One of the mages kept shouting about Chantry puppets. He blamed the sisters in here for ‘oppressing’ his kind and whipped up a dozen shades to kill them,” Burton said with a shudder. His dark eyes were haunted beneath the fringe of black hair that hung over his forehead. “Then he…expanded somehow. Cortain here cut him down but that didn’t stop the creatures he’d raised.”

Helene made an abrupt, chopping gesture with her shield. “The details don’t matter; it was a slaughterhouse in here. How did this happen?”
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