9:31 Dragon 17 Ferventis Early Morning
In the Dungeons of Vigil's Keep
"Wake up, mage." Anders felt the words before he heard them. A force of malice and metal hit him upside the head, and he opened his eyes to a sea of spots, and Biff's ugly mug.
"Is it morning already?" Anders asked. His left ear was ringing from the kick, and the cold stone floor of his cell had left his back a mess of knots. All in all, an average morning. With a bit of struggling, Anders managed to sit up without the use of his hands. The noble lodgings and Biff's stellar bedside manner aside, Anders could have done without the manacles. "I'll have two eggs, over easy, a spot of ham, and a biscuit with honey." Anders said.
Biff was already holding a wooden bowl Anders guessed contained a much less flavorful breakfast. The templar looked at him, and then at the bowl, and then very purposefully dropped it. Half the contents splattered across the floor, and the other half across Anders' robes. It was oats. Again. How refreshing. "Oops," came Biff's belated apology.
"Don't worry about it." Anders said lightly, cleaning off his robes as best he was able, "Accidents happen, or you wouldn't be here."
Biff scowled; he was one of the unlucky templars who looked better with his helmet on. Big nose, big ears, small eyes, no chin. Anders figured he would be cross too if he had to wake up to that face every morning. The templar knelt, and Anders put on his most charming smile. He refused to give Biff the satisfaction of seeing his fear.
"You think you're really funny, don't you?" Biff asked. Anders pushed aside the memory of the holy smite Biff had brought down on him just two days ago when he'd been captured. In his mind, he made it so Biff wasn't a templar, or his jailor. Biff was just a bully, and Anders could make fun of bullies.
"I think I'm hilarious." Anders said, "I think it's your face that's funny."
Biff ignored him, "You know, you're lucky you're so funny, Anders. It's the only reason you're still alive. Everyone knows you're nothing but a joke. The First Enchanter knows it, the Knight Commander knows it, all the templars know it. We all know you're not a threat. You run away, you get caught, you run away again. You're like a fucking yo-yo, Anders. We take turns playing with you. Sending out the green recruits whenever you make another run, but I think it's getting old, don't you? How was that year in solitary huh? You want another?"
Anders tried to think of a retort, but all he could think of were four cramped walls, not even enough space to lie flat. A small food hatch just big enough for a cat to fit through, praying today the cat came so he wouldn't go mad talking to himself. Anders swallowed and said nothing.
Biff grinned. "That's what I thought. Now shut the fuck up and eat. I'm sick of listening to your shit." Shoving off the floor, Biff kicked the bowl into his lap and left his cell, locking the door behind him.
It wasn't that bad, all things considered. His cell made up the corner of a room, with plenty of space to stretch out. A wall of bars separated his cell from a rather cosy observation area where Biff was eating his own breakfast. There were windows, and plenty of wall sconces for light. It could be worse.
Anders picked up his bowl. The oats must have been thick, because more than a few spoonfuls were still inside. Not enough for a proper meal, but it was something. His last proper meal had been two days ago. Part of Anders didn't want to eat at all, but he knew he should. They were setting out again today, to bring him back to the Circle, and he didn't know when he'd get another chance for food.
Eating with manacles on was difficult, but Anders had a method. If he pinched the side of the bowl with one hand, and scooped food into his mouth with the other, he could eat without making too much of a mess. Not that it mattered now. His robes were going to stain. That was a shame. He liked these robes. At least his mantle was clean. Missing a few feathers, but clean.
Anders set the bowl down when he finished, rubbing his dirty fingers together with a disdainful grimace. What a mess. Everything was such a mess. His robes, the cell, his life. Sighing, Anders struggled to his feet and shuffled to the waste bucket in the corner of his cell for a piss.
He'd been so close. All he had to do was find Namaya, find out where the templars were keeping his phylactery, and destroy it. Freedom had been right there. It was probably still there, waiting for him in a tavern in Amaranthine, but here he was, celled and shackled at Vigil's Keep, calling it an achievement when he managed not to piss on his robes. Two days in captivity had certainly lowered his standards.
Shaking himself dry and fixing his robes, Anders wandered back to the other side of his cell and sat against the wall, watching Biff eat. How to escape this time. A sleep spell would have been his first choice, but the manacles were more than just a fashion accessory. Runes on the inside of them weakened his connection to the Fade. Wearing them made Anders feel fatigued, unfocused. Helpless. It wasn't a fun way to feel.
Anders thought he heard thunder. He blinked, and looked to his cell's window, but the skies outside were clear. "Did you hear that?" Anders asked.
"Shut up," Biff said.
The sound came again, louder. Biff looked up, and third rumble knocked a torch from its sconce on the wall, and set the furniture to dancing. Biff leapt from his chair and drew his sword from its scabbard, leveling it at him through the bars. "I swear to the Maker, Anders," Biff threatened him.
"You think I'm doing this?" Anders laughed, too incredulous to think twice about provoking the templar.
"You put these on me!" Anders shook his manacles at him, "You really think I can channel a full earthquake through these?"
Biff lowered his sword and brought up a sneer in its place. "Habit. I'm used to mages being dangerous."
"Words hurt, Biff." Anders said.
Biff ignored him. The rumbling continued, rattling doors on their hinges and even knocking over Anders' waste bucket. Repulsed despite the fact that he was on the other side of the cell, Anders stood up. He had to grab the bars to stay upright throughout the tremors, "Biff, let me out."
"Kiss my hairy ass, Anders," Biff said, grabbing the bars along with him.
"We can work up to that. Maybe start with dinner. Just let me out." Anders said.
"Shut up," Biff's beady little eyes glared daggers at him. They weathered the rest of the quake together in silence. When at last the tremors stopped, Biff gave him a questioning look.
"What, you still think I did it?" Anders frowned. "I don't know what just happened any more than you do. All I know is there's piss and shit all over the floor. Let me out, Biff."
"It's your piss and shit," Biff said, turning his back on him to start picking up the toppled furniture. "Stew in it."
"My mother was right about you," Anders quipped. Biff ignored him. The man had no sense of humor. Or basic human decency. Sighing, Anders stood in the clean corner of his cell, fighting back his gag reflex at the smell of feces mixed with Biff's breakfast of bacon and eggs. At least he had a clean corner to stand in. It could be worse.
"I'm going to go see what happened." Biff announced after he'd finished righting the furniture and picking his breakfast up off the floor. "Stay here."
"No promises," Anders said. Biff didn't laugh.
With Biff gone, there was nothing left for Anders to do but wait. He was standing in his cell, watching the clouds roll by through the window to pass the time, when he heard the shouting. It started far away, and he took it for no more than a scuffle in the courtyard.
But the shouting grew until it became a thunder to rival the earthquake, and Anders started to worry. The sounds of fighting followed, steel on steel, explosions, doors slamming, gates dropping. Anders even heard a few bellowed orders at one point, and hoped futilely someone would pass by his cell and take pity on him.
He had no such luck. Eventually Biff came back, his fellow templar with him. The young initiate was wide-eyed, his sword drawn and bloodied. "Monsters!" The initiate squealed; he couldn't have been a day over a twenty. Biff must not have been lying when he said they sent green recruits after him. "There are monsters out there!"
"Darkspawn." Biff corrected the boy, "Pull yourself together, man. You're a templar. You've faced demons."
"N-no I haven't," The initiate squeaked, his face ashen. "I've only been to one Harrowing and it was c-clean. Those monsters-they're coming out of the ground. And eating people! What do we do? What are we going to do?"
Biff slapped him. "We fight them."
"We can't! You weren't in the courtyard. You didn't see!" The initiate looked at his bloodied sword, and started as if he'd never seen it before. In a fit, he threw it away and it clattered against the floor. "The Grey Wardens fight darkspawn! Not templars, but the darkspawn killed all of them! We're going to die in here."
Biff knelt and picked up the boy's sword and thrust it back into his hands. Anders had to give him points for balls, but then dicks usually came with those. "We're not going to die. They closed the gates behind us. They'll hold for at least-"
An ominous thud sounded through the Keep. Another torch fell from its sconce on the wall, and a second thud followed the first. Then a third. The initiate fell to his knees and started sobbing, "Oh Maker, hear my cry: guide me through the blackest nights."
"Well that's helpful." Anders snorted.
"Shut up." Biff snapped.
The initiate abruptly stopped praying, and looked up at him with wild eyes. "The mage! He could help us! The Knight Commander, he said he wasn't dangerous! We could take his shackles off. He could fight them."
"His words, not mine," Anders said when Biff glared at him. "But if you ask me-"
"No one is asking you, mage." Biff cut him off. "Do you think I'm an idiot?"
"This is a trick question isn't it?" Anders asked.
"The second we let you out, you'll run." Biff said, "And if you do stay and fight, you'd only be in the way. You're not a battle mage, you're a spirit healer."
"See, the funny thing about that is-" Anders started to say.
"Shut up. Stay in there where it's safe. We," Biff grabbed the initiate by his collar, and wrenched him to his feet. "Will protect you. Because that's our job. Now ready yourself."
Somehow, the little initiate found his courage. He picked up his sword and raised his shield. The thuds had stopped.
If Anders had to hazard a guess, he'd guess they had been from a battering ram. The fact that they'd stopped could only mean there was nothing left to batter. The sounds of fighting drew nearer, until Anders could hear clearly what was happening in the hall.
It didn't sound good. The sound of metal on metal had stopped long ago, replaced with panicked screams and the thud of running footsteps, of doors slamming, of the initiate pissing himself and Biff's angry curse when the door burst open, and darkspawn poured in.
The initiate hesitated. A creature that might have been a man with the flesh peeled from his face took the boy's head off with a single stroke from his broadsword. The head bounced off the bars of Anders' cell, and the look of terror frozen on the boy's face was sure to haunt his nightmares.
Maker damn Biff. He wouldn't have run. He could have helped. Instead Anders watched from his cell as Biff ran the darkspawn through, and turned to face another. The second creature looked like a rat the size of a man, and it let out a piercing wail. Anders tried to cover his ears, but his manacles made it impossible. The sound was deafening, like a dagger being dragged down his spine. Biff flinched, and it undid him. The creature lashed out with bladed hands, and pierced his throat.
Biff gurgled, and blood rushed forth in a fount from his throat. The darkspawn that had killed him drank it, lapping at Biff's face and gnawing off his large nose. Anders dry heaved.
The darkspawn turned on him with another unholy wail. It threw itself against the bars and wailed in fury when it realized it couldn't reach him. Or at least, Anders assumed it was still making some sort of noise. The last wail had deafened him completely, and all he could hear was a dull ringing.
Think, Anders. He could still hear his own thoughts, which was a small comfort. Brain over brawn. Sure, it had never worked for him before, but maybe today was his lucky day. He couldn't do anything shackled. Biff had the keys to his manacles, but there was no reaching him with the darkspawn clawing through the bars beside his corpse. If he could kill it..
The initiate's sword was on the ground, near the bars. If he could pull it through, he could probably kill the darkspawn with it. Anders crept towards the sword, but as soon as he was near enough to reach it the darkspawn lunged at him. He needed to distract it. Looking around for inspiration, Anders eyes settled on his food bowl.
He threw the wooden thing through the bars, out towards the hall. The darkspawn screamed at him. "Okay. So you're not that stupid. Good to know." Anders said to himself. Something else then. He needed a spell, but he didn't know what he could cast wearing these accursed shackles.
His access to the Fade was so weak it may as well not have existed. With the mana they'd left him he'd be lucky to summon a simple light. Anders paused; a light actually sounded doable. Taking a deep breath, he fought past the runes that crippled him and conjured a small orb of light no bigger than his palm.
To his surprise and utter delight, the darkspawn screamed and recoiled. "Hoho! We don't like light do we?" Anders laughed, kneeling and grabbing the hilt of the initiate's sword. Twisting it so it fit through the bars, Anders stood up and gripped the sword as best he was able with his manacles.
"Andraste's knickers, this is heavy," Anders muttered. How did templars carry swords and shields about in full armor? Focus. Anders shook himself. It wouldn't be hard. All he had to do was hold the sword steady, and the darkspawn would impale itself on it. Hopefully.
Anders did a test lunge on a spot between the bars, and decided he could do it. If he couldn't... well, he didn't really need his arms anyway. Taking a deep breath, Anders let his orb of light go out. The darkspawn dove at him, and he trust the sword forward. It took the creature square in the chest, and took the sword right out of his hands. Anders leapt back, and was glad he did when the creature took one last, vengeful swipe at the spot he'd been standing in before toppling over.
"Alright," Anders let out the breath he didn't know he'd been holding. "Easy. Now... keys." Anders knelt beside Biff and gagged. He'd never understand romanticizing death. Biff was a mess. His big nose had been chewed down to a more reasonable size, his head lulled back unnaturally with his slit throat, and the smell. Maker's breath, Anders thought his kicked over waste bucket was bad.
Biff kept his keys at his waist, and Anders had to squeeze his arms together to fit them through the bars, and work the key ring off his belt. The struggle was a contortionist's nightmare, and getting his manacles off was even worse, but Anders managed. He kicked them into a pile of shit when they were off, feeling vindictive, but within minutes of unlocking his cell and letting himself out, he could feel the Fade again, the whispers of wisps and spirits, and felt better.
Compassion was there, just beyond the Veil, ready if he or any survivors were in need of healing. Anders hated being cut off from her. She was his spirit; the reason anyone called him a spirit healer. For the better part of his life, she had quite literally been the woman of his dreams. While he might not have been able to summon her for anything more than healing, he felt better knowing he could at least do something.
Admittedly, a spirit of Valor or Fortitude might have been a more helpful companion when a stout little darkspawn, almost like an evil dwarf, wandered down the hall outside his cell and spotted him through the open door. It cried out, a low, garbled thrum that sounded almost like words, and two more darkspawn appeared. "Please don't be too much like dwarves," Anders said to himself, drawing on the first element that came to him.
A cone of flame erupted from his hands, burning the creatures as they charged him. He heard decidedly more human shouts from the hall, and desperately hoped someone was coming to help him. Two of the darkspawn fell to the flames, but the third kept charging. Anders backed up, forcing more energy into the spell, and contemplated locking himself back in his cell for safety when the creature finally seemed to realize it was on fire, and act accordingly. It snarled in agony as it's skin began to slough off, and collapsed at his feet just as two warriors came charging into the room.
"Er," Anders said eloquently.
"Mhairi, the door," The first warrior ordered, ignoring Anders to barricade the far door while Mhairi barricaded the other door behind them.
"Unbelievable!" Mhairi gasped when the room was secure, taking off her helmet. She was a vision of loveliness beneath it, even with her hair tousled from her helmet. Eyes like the ocean spray, skin as clear as the sky on Summerday. Anders couldn't have imagined a more fortunate rescue. "The Keep has been completely overwhelmed!"
"The Wardens should be mounting a better defense," The warrior with her agreed, unlatching his own helmet and setting it on the table. A mess of black hair spilled out, and when he pushed it out of the way of his eyes, he finally spared Anders a glance. There was something familiar in them, the thin almond shape and russet color.
"I agree," Mhairi muttered. She pulled up a chair and eased herself into it, and Anders wondered if she was injured. "Where are they all? For the darkspawn to have ambushed the keep so effectively," Mhairi unbuckled her left boot, and pulled it off with a pained hiss. She was injured then. "I didn't know they were capable of such a thing."
"... Anders." The warrior startled him out of his skin. Anders jumped back a pace, wondering how he could possibly know his name. "You're a healer, aren't you?"
"I-" Anders hesitated, and suddenly it clicked. "That's it. I remember you from the Circle. The armor threw me off. Did you decide being a mage wasn't all it's cracked up to be?"
"Not exactly." The mage-turned-warrior said vaguely. "Can you see to her?"
"Of course. Hey, I know what they've been saying about me back at the Circle, but this," Anders gestured to the dead templars, "Not my doing. You know how it is, templars catch apostate, darkspawn catch templars."
"An apostate?" Mhairi said warily, "At Vigil's Keep?"
"You weren't here when we arrived," Anders gave her a little bow, "I'm sure I would have remembered such a lovely woman as yourself. Proper introductions, then? I am Anders. Apostate, yes, but I also happen to be a very talented healer. May I?" He waved a hand at her leg.
Mhairi nodded reluctantly, and Anders knelt to inspect the injury. Something had hamstringed her, and left a gaping wound the back of her leg. Anders set about healing it, "This is awkward," Anders said, with a glance to the other mage, "But I don't remember your name."
"Amell," Amell said.
"Warden-Commander Amell," Mhairi corrected him, squaring her shoulders proudly, "The Hero of Ferelden, new Arl to Amaranthine and Lord of Vigil's Keep."
"Oh. Well, congratulations." Anders said, unable to help his sarcasm given the current state of the Keep. It probably wasn't the smartest response he could have given, but Amell snorted. Well... good. He could stand to be around someone with a sense of humor again. He looked back at Mhairi, "And you are?"
"Mhairi. I was a knight in the King's service, but when the call came for volunteers to rebuild the Order..." She flushed a little, and looked to Amell, "You're a hero, Commander. I feel so honored to be fighting at your side."
"Well," Anders stood, feeling a little awkward interrupting the hero worship, "All healed."
Mhairi gave her leg an experimental kick and nodded before putting her boot back on. "Thank you, Ser Anders."
"Just Anders, my dear lady." Anders assured her. He wondered if Amell needed healing, but the man had wiped the sweat off his brow and was already putting his helmet back on. "So... I suppose you're off to fight darkspawn, being the Warden Commander and all?"
"Indeed." Mhairi answered for him. "We don't have a lot of time, and there may still be other survivors."
"I also don't suppose you'd be willing to let me go?" Anders hazarded, wishing he wasn't covered in oatmeal and blood if he was going to be begging favors, "I know they'll just send more templars after me. They always do, but..."
"They won't if I tell them you died." Amell said simply.
Anders rubbed at his ear. The darkspawn must have done a serious number on his hearing after all. But Mhairi was staring at her Commander, aghast, so he must have heard right. "You'd do that for me?" Anders asked. Amell nodded. "Well that's... rather marvelous of you, to be honest. So I'll just... slip out the way you came in? All clear?"
"You would just leave?" Mhairi demanded. "There are men in the yard who need healing, survivors who might need help-"
"Recruit." Amell interrupted her. "I'm going to need your help here." He gestured to the barricaded door that led deeper into the Keep.
Mhairi looked at her Commander, and then back to him with a glare, but Anders had been getting glares all his life. He gave her a winning smile in return, and she looked away in disgust. "Of course, Commander. You can count on me." Mhairi said, pushing the table out of the way of the door.
"Well... Good luck to you then." Anders said to Amell. "Have fun slaughtering the darkspawn. Maker knows they could use it."
Neither the Warden-Commander nor the Warden-Recruit answered him. They threw open the door, and charged forward into the fray, leaving Anders alone again. He heard the sounds of fighting in their wake, which was a welcome reprieve from panicked screams, the fall of running feet, and the wicked laughter of darkspawn. It was good someone was making a stand. Not him, but someone.
Anders turned around fled out the way they'd come in. His cell let out into a hall, which led out into the inner courtyard. It was largely abandoned by the living, but littered with corpses both human and darkspawn. Toppled carts, tables and chairs had been made into makeshift barricades. The signs of a lost battle were all around. Including a woman's screams.
On the opposite end of the courtyard was a young woman Anders hadn't noticed, who look to have to just come out of hiding. And at the entrance to the courtyard, two human-shaped darkspawn, who heard her screams and charged. "Another twenty steps, another batch of deaths. Today is not a good day," Anders muttered to himself, reaching into the Fade. "Here!" He yelled to the woman, "Over here!"
Fortunately, she heard him, and ran in his direction, putting him between her and the darkspawn. When she was safely past him, Anders loosed his spell, and his fingers erupted in a cone of frost. It was sloppily, without his staff to channel the spell through, but there were only two of the creatures. The frost ate at them, starting at their stomachs and spreading over their chests, down their thighs, and into their legs, until they were still as statues with only their eyes still moving.
"Get yourself to safety, quickly!" Anders ordered the woman, looking around for something to shatter the darkspawn with. He found a beam of wood about the length of his arm, and picked it up. It was a poor excuse for a staff, but it made an admirable bat. Planting his feet firmly, he drew back his make-shift weapon and struck the first darkspawn in the head. It shattered. Congealed blood, chunks of brain, and all manner of bits sprayed across his face. The smell was unbearable. Rot and waste, in his nose, on his lips, stuck in his hair. Anders doubled over and retched.
His oatmeal tasted no better going out than it had coming in, and he'd ruined his boots on top of everything. Today was not a good day at all, Anders thought, taking up his stance again and shattering the second darkspawn's head. It exploded again, and Anders threw up again. He couldn't begrudge the poor templar initiate his fear of darkspawn. The creatures looked like story book nightmares: vile and twisted versions of man, elf, and dwarf. Anders couldn't wait to be free of this place, but no sooner had he taken another step than he heard another scream.
It wasn't in the courtyard. The sound had come from somewhere up on the battlements, too far away for him to help. Shielding his eyes against the sun, Anders scanned the ramparts, and a moment later wished he hadn't A body fell over the edge, toppling end over end until it hit the ground on the opposite end of the courtyard. He hoped it was a darkspawn, but he knew it hadn't been.
It was tragic, but it wasn't his fight. He was free. For some indiscernible reason, Amell had promised to tell the templars he'd died. He might have been a mage, but he was also the Hero of Ferelden. Anders didn't think the templars would doubt him. He should run now, fast and far away. Go to Amaranthine, find Namaya, destroy his phylactery to be extra certain, and then take ship. Head to Rivain, or anywhere but Ferelden.
"You run away, you get caught, you run away," Biff had said of him, but Biff was dead. Anders didn't care what Biff thought. Anders didn't care what anyone thought. Anders cared about Anders, and Anders needed to get out of here. He took a step towards the gates. Behind him, people were screaming, fighting, dying. Was he really that much of a bastard to just leave? Yes, Anders thought, but for some reason he turned around, and decided to help.