Kate had no idea how she had become the leader of their little band of three. But as they passed empty classrooms and quiet halls, Lysette and Colleen steadfastly remained one step behind her. Kate wasn’t sure if this was because they trusted her to guide them safely to the great hall, or if they simply wanted Kate to be the first into danger.
Then, Kate stopped short. Speaking of danger.
Two bodies lay in a open doorway, blackened beyond recognition. Kate sucked in a breath. “Oh Maker,” she muttered.
“Falon’Din guide them,” Coll said, coming to stop right behind Kate. Lysette said nothing, but her brows drew together as if in pain and Kate saw tears gather in the corners of her eyes. Somehow, Lysette’s quiet sorrow made it all seem that much worse.
“Can’t do much for the dead,” Coll said. “But the living…”
“You’re right,” Kate nodded. “We need to…” But then she broke off, for something tugged at her senses.
“The Fade,” Kate said without thinking. “It’s rippling somehow.”
Lysette turned to stare at her. “You can feel it?”
Coll rolled her eyes. “Kate, remember how you’re just an ice mage?”
“Lead on, ice mage,” Coll said, smacking her on the back.
Kate took one last look at the bodies, then pressed on. Lysette and Coll fell in line behind her. Kate led them around a corner, and then down the long, wide corridor that led to the great hall. Lysette was remarkably quiet in her heavy armor, Kate noticed. As the approached the great, arched doorway, they slowed their steps. Kate pressed herself against the wall, staying out of sight as best she could. A sickly reddish light glowed from within the great hall and the air grew warm around them.
“Stop this madness!” Kate heard a familiar female voice cry. “Think on what you’re doing!”
“What I’m doing?” Kate heard another female voice shout back. “I’m trying to set this right.”
Set what right? Kate wondered. Though Coll and Lysette hung back, Kate carefully crept to the doorway and peeked in.
The great hall looked like every cautionary tale Kate had ever heard about blood rituals. Blood pooled on the stones, blood swirled through the air in whirlpools of red. The smell of iron and lyrium filled the hall and the Fade felt so stained and thin that Kate nearly gagged.
The hall was filled with people, too, some lying in pools of blood, some standing in dirty, gore-stained robes, some wearing blackened armor. It took a moment for Kate to make sense of it all, to realize that there was something of an order to the mob.
To the left were most of the mages: the fellows of Ostwick, and the majority the Ansburg refugees as well. To her horror, Kate realized that several children stood in that group, clutching the skirts of their older brethren and staring at the carnage with wide eyes. Thankfully, Senior Enchanter Lydia stood in the center of this group, holding up one of her famed barrier spells. The mages with her were protected under a great, shimmering dome of magic.
At the other end of the hall stood a crowd of templars. Most wore the Ostwick armor, but several of them were dressed like the man who had attacked Lysette back in the corridor. At first Kate thought the templars were allied against the mages, but a second glance revealed the standoff for what it really was: The armored figures all writhed in postures of pain, their arms bent at odd angles, their heads twisted too far. One of them whimpered. From another helmet came a choking sound. One of the bare-headed soldiers stared ahead with blank eyes, her tongue lolling from her mouth.
All of these soldiers were trapped, Kate realized, caught in some binding spell spun of agony or horror or both.
And in the center of the hall stood the blood mages. They were easy to recognize from knives in their hands the blood staining their robes. There were only seven of them, Kate thought, quickly counting - well, seven and three templars. It was hard to tell if those templars were free agents, or simply thralls. Kate was betting on the latter. Five of the blood mages seemed to be Ansburg refugees, but the last two were clearly from the Ostwick Circle.
Traitors, Kate thought furiously.
The blood mages appeared to be led by a skinny woman in torn Ansburg-style robes. Her face was pockmarked and her snow-white hair hung lank about her shoulders. Her hands were bloodied up to the elbow, and her eyes were wild. Before her lay a pile of dirty cloth. It took Kate a moment to realize that there was a body in there. It took her a moment more to recognize the dead, drained face as that of Ostwick’s First Enchanter.
Kate felt as if she was going to be sick.
As Kate watched, the white-haired blood mage took a step forward, pointing her finger at Lydia accusingly.
“I am trying to save us,” the woman said. “But you would condemn us to death.”
“Death?” Lydia cried. “We tried to help you! We took you in, fed you…”
“And your First Enchanter was ready to throw us out the moment these bastards came to collect us!” the blood mage screamed.
“He was not!” some Ostwick mage shouted, “He was trying to calm them down. And then you killed him.”
Well, Kate thought. That did explain this mess. It also explained why both a blood mage and a templar had been running amok in the halls. Clearly these blood mages had thought to defend themselves and the renegade templars had taken issue with that.
Kate glanced at the body of the First Enchanter, feeling sorrow settle within her. The First Enchanter had often annoyed her, but he didn’t deserve this. No one did.
The First Enchanter had no stomach for conflict of any kind, and when the other Circles had declared independence, he had condemned the rebellion. The mages of Ostwick were not traitors to the Chantry, he’d insisted. Then he had closed the doors and refused to listen to news from the outside world. It had taken a lot of arguing to convince him to allow the Ansburg refugees to stay.
Kate and some of the others had objected to his stance on the war. The mages of Ostwick ought to do something to stop the fighting, they had argued. At the very least, they should send word to Val Royeaux and ask the Chantry for guidance. Then a letter had arrived from the Grand Cathedral, announcing that Divine Justinia was holding peace talks in Ferelden. Ostwick was urged to come and help negotiate an end to mage-templar hostilities. Kate had volunteered at once. Surely this was their opportunity to stop this madness, she argued.
But the First Enchanter would not be moved. Why should Ostwick risk its mages on a long journey south, he had asked? Ostwick had caused no trouble. Ostwick had nothing to prove. Best to stay here, safe in the fortress walls, and let the world tear itself apart.
It had been wishful thinking, Kate thought sadly. The First Enchanter had paid the price for it. In fact, they might all pay for his mistake now.
“At least let the Ostwick templars go,” Kate heard Senior Enchanter Lydia shout. “Our guardians have nothing to do with these mercenaries. They seek only to protect the mages of this Circle.”
This seemed to both amuse and enrage the blood mage.
“They’re templars,” she hissed, spit flying from her lips and catching in her white hair. “They despise us all. They will never see us as anything but potential apostates.”
“Not like she’s givin’ a good argument to the contrary,” Kate heard Coll mutter.
True, Kate thought. Standing here listening to this woman’s ranting was getting them no where. Though this appeared to be a momentary ceasefire, she didn’t doubt that the blood mages would start up the battle again as soon as they saw an opening.
Kate’s eyes darted back and forth across the room as she tried to come up with a plan. Lydia had the mages protected - for now - but the Ostwick templars were in trouble. Kate needed to get them free of that spell without getting anyone killed in the process. A few plans formed in her mind, but most were risky and complicated. And those blood mages had a lot of power at their command, Kate thought. The blood clouds swirled through the high rafters like crimson banners, reminding her just how much force she was dealing with in there.
Kate drew back from the doorway. She turned to find Coll and Lysette staring a her expectantly.
“So, what do we do?” Coll said, so quietly that she was mostly mouthing the words.
“Give me a minute,” Kate replied.
“Don’t you have a plan?” Lysette whispered, frowning.
“Seems she doesn’t,” Coll whispered back.
“Give me a minute,” Kate hissed. She found her hands were shaking and she pressed them together to stop them. From inside the hall, the sounds of the argument between Lydia and the blood mage were growing louder.
“How can you bow to these murderers?!” the blood mage was shrieking. “You are gods on this earth, and yet you allow ants to rule you. You should be embracing your powers…!”
“Forget plans,” Coll whispered. “Let’s just attack.”
“If you rush in there,” Lysette whispered back, “a lot of people will die.”
“Sure a lot of people already died,” Coll hissed back. She turned her eyes to Kate. “And those templars are about to die. I can feel them fading. They haven’t got much longer, Kate. We have to move now.“
“Some of those templars might be enemies,” Lysette reminded them.
“But we have to free our templars,” Kate said. She never thought she would care to protect the Ostwick templars. But given the choice between the Ostwick guardians and a handful of unhinged blood mages, Kate found her loyalties were pretty clear. With that, she settled on a plan. She just prayed to the Maker that it would work.
“Coll,” Kate whispered, turning to the elf, “I think it’s time you stop pretending to be ‘just a healer,’ don’t you?”
The elf’s mouth quirked in a wry smile. “Sure,” she replied. “After all, you already let slip that you can do more than just freeze things.” Kate nodded her reply.
“What are you two on about?” Lysette hissed, looking from one of them to the other. “We need a plan.”
“I have an idea,” Kate said. And quickly as she could, she laid out her plan for the other two women.
In the hall beyond, the angry shouting rose in both volume and crazy: “We should be ruling Thedas!” the woman shouted. “As in the Tevinter Imperium, we must take our place as rulers, as magisters…”
And then, quite suddenly, Colleen was standing on the top stair of the great hall, her dark braids flying everywhere.
“Oh, so you’re a magister now, are yeh?” the elf shouted. “Well that’s just great. ‘Cause you know that we elves just love to kill Vints.”
As every eye in the room shot to Coll, the elf raised both hands. The blood mages gathered magic, ready to cast at her, but then there was a great crack. Roots came shooting out of the stone floor and a massive web of branches blocked Coll from view. As the blood mages frantically fired spells at the brambles, Kate and Lysette dashed down the steps, blocked from the hostile magic by the cover of Coll’s great thorny wall. From inside the roots, Kate heard Coll laugh.
“Oh, just you try, shems,” Coll cackled. “You’ve no idea what this Dalish can do.”
Suddenly, the roots were sucked back into the floor, and Coll was nowhere to be seen. The blood mages stared in surprise, too startled to fully register that Kate and Lysette were now rushing into the room where the thorns used to be. Then, right behind the blood mages, a tangle of roots shot up again. The brambles unfurled, revealing Coll in the center of them, like some sort of bizarre, tattooed bird borne of a great wooden egg.
“Fenhedis, yeh blood mage feckers!” she shouted.
Coll snapped her hands together, and one of the blood mages found herself trapped in a wooden egg of her own. Only this tangle of roots bore down on her, crushing her with a great crack. As two other blood mages gaped and two more gathered spells to their finger tips, Lysette came running in. She went straight for the nearest blood mage and gutted him from behind. She then shoved her boot against his back, ripping her sword free from his body. The blood mage collapsed to the floor.
And then the room seemed to explode.
Fire and lightning split the air, merging in a blast. It looked for a moment like the spark of flint to tinder, but on the scale of the entire castle hall. The sound was deafening. One of the templar thralls went flying overhead with a scream, slammed against a high wall, and fell heavily to the floor. Kate saw another of the thralls run up to a mage who stood outside of Lydia’s barrier spell. The poor woman raised her hands, but too late. Kate looked away as the sword fell, just in time to see another mage hanging in mid-air, choking as if trapped in an invisible vise.
All that happened in just a few moments, but Kate forced herself to block it out. She concentrated on where she needed to be - right there, across the room, in front of the trapped templars. She gathered power to herself.
And then Kate stepped into the Fade.
Well, of course she didn’t really step into the Fade. Physically passing through the Veil was impossible. But using the Fade as a bow and herself as an arrow, Kate shot forward. It was a new spell, one she had only tried a few times before, but thank the Maker, it worked. Kate blurred forward the length of the room and landed…
She landed face-first in the wall, actually. The spell was new, and she plowed right into the stones and knocked herself out for a second or two. When Kate’s vision stopped sparkling with stars, she realized she’d landed right behind the templars. The blood mages hadn’t noticed her in all the fighting, and the caught templars all gazed away from her like wretched statues.
Kate closed her eyes and reached out with her mind - or heart - or whatever it was inside of her that felt through to the world of the Fade. She sensed the binding spell and tried to grab hold of it. But instead of loosening it, Kate hissed out a curse and drew her hands back to her chest. That binding spell was vicious, like a line of blades hidden just under water. And Kate had just stuck her hand into the pool without realizing how sharp that spell was. The binding had not budged. And Kate had felt things roiling on the other side of the Veil, like sharks in the water.
What was more, Kate had now attracted the notice of the blood mages. A traitorous Ostwick mage whirled in her direction. Kate backed away, but right behind her, one of the mercenary templars began to move. She creaked and groaned as if emerging from a casing of stone. Then the bare-headed woman dropped forward a bit, caught herself on one knee. When she looked up at Kate, her eyes narrowed in rage.
“You,” she hissed, glaring at Kate. “You tried to kill us!”
“I didn’t!” Kate cried, holding her hands up in protest. “I’m trying to help!”
But she didn’t get much further than that. The templar charged. Kate shouted in alarm and shot herself through the fade once more, blindly rushing away. When she came to a stop, she stood beside another mage. The man turned to her in surprise, casting a barrier spell over himself. Kate did the same. And then they both paused.
“Kate?” the man gasped.
Kate gave a terse nod of recognition. She knew this mage, and he didn’t have blood on his hands. With that, she turned to deal with the battle that she had failed to stop.
It was chaos. Lydia’s barrier spell still held, but the rest of the room was a mess. More of the templars were slowly pulling free of the binding, and not all of them were fighting the blood mages. Two turned on one another and began fighting. A third tried to attack an Ostwick mage and got blasted for his efforts.
Oh Maker, Kate thought, swallowing. She had hoped to free the Ostwick templars and get their help against the blood mages. But that hadn’t worked. And if this dragged on much longer, there wouldn’t be anyone left standing.
Before Kate could think of another plan, a templar came running at her from the right. Kate screamed and tried to back away, but instead tripped over the hem of her own skirt. She fell to the ground, the templar’s blade whistling within an inch of her head. As she fell, Kate shot out an ice spell, but it missed the templar entirely. Kate scrambled back across the floor like a crab, legs caught in her skirts. Before she could gather enough magic to cast again, the templar rounded on her, sword in the air.
And then a mass of metal attacked him from the left. Lysette slammed into the man, knocking him back with her shield, her sword at the ready.
“That one’s a friend,” Lysette shouted at the man. “Stand down.”
But the templar just roared with rage and launched himself back at Lysette. Kate tossed a barrier spell over Lysette, but at the same time, a dark smudge came out of nowhere. The black cloud narrowly missing Lysette’s head and went straight up the nostrils of one of the attacking templars. For a moment, it looked like he’d inhaled a cloud of gnats. Then the man dropped his sword and started clawing at his eyes. His screams rent the air and he went running in the other direction. Kate glanced over her shoulder to see Coll give a satisfied grin. The elf hiked her chin in the air, then rode off in a rolling mass of roots.
Lysette held out a hand, and Kate took it. The templar hauled Kate to her slippered feet, and Kate untangled her legs from her skirts.
Robes were a foolish fashion choice in a fight, Kate thought. If she lived through this, she was never wearing a dress again.
“They’ll tear each other apart!” Lysette cried to Kate, just as another voice shouted from across the room.
“Templars, stop! Cease your fighting.”
Ser Ira, the remaining leader of the Ostwick templars, had somehow broken free of the binding spell. He now stood before Senior Enchanter Lydia, guarding her from the others, and likewise guarded by her spell. The sight of those two, standing together, so shocked the room that everyone turned to stare. The templars slowed their fighting. The white-haired blood mage also paused.
And for one moment - for one blessed moment - Kate thought they would listen. Lydia and Ira were Circle leaders. Now that they had the room’s attention, surely everyone would do as they said. But then…
Enchanter Lydia let out a bone-chilling scream. Kate felt as though the floor had dropped out from under her as she spun around, as the whole world seemed to spin around at that sound. Kate turned in time to see Lydia sink to her knees. Lydia clutched at her chest, as if trying to grab her heart. Ira tried to reach for her, but he was hurled backward, as if tossed by an invisible hand. Lydia wavered for a moment, and in that moment, she looked to Kate. Their eyes met. Then Lydia fell face-first to the stones.
And then Lydia was dead. The barrier spell disappeared as if it had never existed. The now-vulnerable mages all blinked at one another in shock.
Kate could not move. She could not think. Lydia was dead. She was dead. In the silence, only one person moved. Casually as one might pluck a flower, a young man - an apprentice whose name Kate could not remember - reached down and yanked a dagger out of Lydia’s ribs. Kate felt her stomach churn.
The apprentice stepped over Lydia’s corpse without looking down. As he did so, a red cloud of blood rose up and followed him. Everyone standing nearby scurried back in alarm, eyes wide. The apprentice walked on, gathering flame to his hands, mixing it with the gore that swirled before his face. As the young man strode across the room, Kate could feel the Fade ebb and thin.
And something slid through the whisper-thin Veil.
Lydia’s young apprentice began to transform before Kate’s very eyes. His skinny arms elongated, his small body swelled with what looked like large boils. His face shrank away in the mass of extra flesh, and Kate found herself looking at something no longer human.
Abomination, Kate thought.
This was what happened when some demon came forth from the Fade and merged with a mortal host. Together, they transformed into something new, something more, something powerful and hungry. The creature raised its hands, advancing on the templars.
Templars and mages and now an abomination, Kate thought, wildly. And there were more things waiting on the other side of the Veil. Kate could feel them, pressing at the barrier, looking for any opportunity to slide across. Just a little more blood on the stones, Kate thought, and the demons would start pouring in. If they didn’t stop this soon, they were all going to end up dead like Lydia.
“Blood magic is not the problem,” Lydia had once told Kate. “Magic of any kind is only a tool of the Will. Our choices are what cause evil, my dear - and good as well. Our hearts are more powerful than the furthest reaches of the Fade. Always remember that.”
The furthest reaches of the Fade, Kate thought.
And then, The power of the heart.
In that moment, Kate saw the connection: the blood, the Fade, the hearts, the flow. And just as clearly, she saw how all this might end.
Kate shot forward with a Fade-step, skidding to a halt right before the abomination.
“Kate!” she heard Colleen cry. The abomination whirled on her with a roar. It raised its long, improbably-proportioned arms over its head, but Kate stood her ground.
Kate reached for the Fade. She found one handful of it - or mindful, perhaps. She found a piece that was clean and unsullied, and she drew it into herself, like shoving a blade of ice into her chest.
And it hurt, damn it. Kate felt as if she had tried to swallow a glacial stream. But she forced herself to hold the Fade’s freezing power, forced herself to channel that harsh purity outward through her fingertips. She searched through the room, felt the hot, angry stain that blood had left behind…
There and there, Kate thought, marking the spots in her mind. There: blood on a mage’s hands. There: the scarred wrist of the woman with the white hair. There: the still heart of the First Enchanter. There: Lydia’s blood, still oozing onto the floor. And there, right before her, the roaring rage of the abomination.
Kate felt the heat rolling off of the abomination, smelled the stink of its breath - all rotting meat and sulfur. She saw it slide toward her through the pool of the First Enchanter’s blood. And with that, Kate flung her hands up into the air. The Fade flashed from her in fractals, sharp and cruel and cold.
The room froze.
Ice flickered out across the stones. The swirling blood in the air suddenly stopped, then fell to the ground as soft, crimson snow. A silver sheen covered every surface and the mages and templars all blinked at one another through frosted lashes.
In the center of the room, seven blood mages stood frozen. Their bodies had exploded from the inside out, their veins ruptured as their blood had turned suddenly to ice. Only the abomination, half living and half fade-creature, had withstood this onslaught. The thing was slowed, but it still advanced. It slammed Kate to the ground with one massive, clawed hand. She fell to the floor, gasping.
But before the creature could strike her again, the others leaped into action. Lysette and Coll ran toward the creature. Coll summoned roots to hold it and Lysette sliced into the mass of it with her sword. The abomination roared and then several more mages and templars joined the fight. A lightning spell shocked the thing, another sword sliced into it and then a blast of fire burned the corpse to ash. A scorch mark was all that was left on the floor. The mages and templars stood there, staring at one another in stunned silence.
Every eye in the room turned to stare at Kate. She blinked up at them, then slowly rose to her knees. She found she could rise no further. The spell had left her throat hoarse, as if she’d been screaming for hours. Her hands trembled; her legs cramped. A heavily armored hand fell on Kate’s shoulder, and she looked up in a daze to find the now-familiar face of Ser Lysette gazing down at her.
“You did it,” Ser Lysette said, gravely. “You saved them. All of them.” She nodded somewhere over Kate’s head, no doubt at her templar brethren. Kate found her vision was going blurry.
Coll dropped to her knees before Kate, making Kate’s head hurt with her loud whoop of triumph.
“Mythal bless your arse!” the elf cried. “Feckin battlemage, are you now, Kate? How in the Void did you do that?”
“Used the Fade to track the tainted blood…” Kate murmured. “Borrowed power from the Fade to freeze it…” But she couldn’t manage more of an explanation than that. She swayed and nearly fell over.
“Here now,” Coll said, placing one hand on Kate’s forehead. “How many times has your old friend Coll warned you? Don’t be an eejit and go playin’ around with the Fade?”
“You’ve said it… A time or two,” Kate admitted.
All around Kate, she could see people moving, but watching them made her head hurt. She closed her eyes, but then she heard a mercenary say:
“Secure the Ansburg refugees.”
“Too risky,” another said. “We should kill all of them.”
“What?” Kate gasped. Coll shouted, “No!” And all around the room, alarmed cries met this statement and hands filled with flame and lightning.
“No,” Kate slurred, stumbling to her feet. She ignored the way exhaustion tried to drag her down. “We are done with fighting.”
“The mages are under our protection,” Ser Ira said. “Your regiment has no authority here.”
“No killing,” Kate said, shaking her head as she stumbled forward a step. “No more fighting. The Fade…” But the room was starting to pitch now.
“Lady Trevelyan is right,” Lysette said. “We must stop fighting.”
That seemed to startled the renegade templars more than anything else.
“Lady Trevelyan?” one of the others repeated, nervously.
“She’s a Trevelyan?” someone else whispered.
“As in, related to Bann Trevelyan?” yet another voice asked.
“This is his youngest daughter,” Lysette said, placing a gauntleted hand on Kate’s shoulder. Kate staggered under the weight of it. “Her family has connections to every city in the Free Marches, and half the Chantries in Thedas.”
“I didn’t realize…” a templar voice muttered.
Kate was too tired to roll her eyes or snort in disgust. It seemed there was something to be gained from her family connections after all. Among mages, titles and birth meant nothing. A noblewoman like Kate could be best friends with an ex-Dalish like Coll and no one would think twice. But the templars came from noble families. For them, the whole world was nothing but rules and rank, duty and deference. Her family’s name held sway with them. And though Kate had always resented that, today she’d use it. She’d use her connections to protect the mages, just like she’d used her magic a moment ago.
Kate glanced over at one of the dead blood mages. For the first time, she took in the full effect of what her magic had wrought. What had been a face was now a grotesque mask of ice and ruptured flesh. She hadn’t just killed those mages. She had utterly destroyed them. Kate felt bile rise in her throat.
“Lady Trevelyan?” Lysette asked, peering at Kate. “Are you alright?”
Kate meant to say, yes, she was fine. Kate meant to say that she planned to write to her family at once, securing the Trevelyan family’s support for the Ostwick Circle. She meant to suggest sending a delegation to the Conclave, to reconsider Ostwick’s neutral stance in the war. And Kate meant to volunteer herself as one of the delegates.
But instead, Kate dropped to her knees and vomited. Then she fainted dead away.