Read an Excerpt
Dragon Age: Last Flight
By Liane Merciel
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2014 Electronic Arts, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Backed by the great ivory butte of Broken Tooth, the faraway fortress rose before Valya's awed eyes. Silver-fringed banners flapped from its towers, their emblems indistinct at this distance, but Valya knew that they showed a steely gray griffon upon a field of blue. Beneath them stood a single gate of thick wood and steel. Brother Genitivi had written in his histories that it was wide enough for three horses to pass abreast, but from where Valya stood, it was so dwarfed by Weisshaupt's stony bulk that it seemed tiny as her thumbnail.
For weeks she'd dreamed of this place. Ancient stronghold of the Grey Wardens, final resting place for the heroes of ages, first and last bulwark against the horrors of the Blights ... and now her home, too. The thought made her shiver with fearful delight.
None of that excitement was reflected on her companions' faces. The fear was there, though, despite their best efforts to mask it.
There were four of them besides Valya — an extraordinary number of recruits to be taken at once, she'd been told. They ranged in age from sixteen to nineteen, except for Senior Enchanter Eilfas, whose scraggly beard was more white than brown. All of them were mages, which was another extraordinary thing. By tradition, the Wardens took only one recruit from each Circle of Magi in Thedas.
But that tradition had been broken. Violently.
Beginning in Kirkwall and spreading swiftly through Orlais, the mages of Thedas had found themselves hunted and hounded on all sides. The Templar Order, supposedly their protector and defender, had turned against them. How and why it had happened, Valya wasn't sure; she'd been only an apprentice until a few weeks ago, so no one had told her much of anything, and the rumors were impossibly confusing.
What she did know was that Weisshaupt, and the Grey Wardens, represented sanctuary.
Elsewhere in Thedas, the world might have gone mad. Elsewhere, she'd heard, entire Circles of Magi had been destroyed. Their towers had been pulled to the ground, and every mage and apprentice inside had been slaughtered — even the little children — for no crime beyond being born with the gift of magic. Other Circles were said to have risen up in rebellion and joined an army of mages massing somewhere around Andoral's Reach.
But that was elsewhere. Not here. Here in the Anderfels, men and women remembered the true dangers of the world, and they did not waste precious lives fighting one another. When the first rumors reached their Circle, the Senior Enchanter had sent a swift message to Weisshaupt, and within days the Wardens' reply had come back. Any mage who wished to join the Grey Wardens was welcome. No such mage was to be troubled by the templars. The Wardens' Right of Conscription was inviolate — and that meant its promise of sanctuary was too.
Even so, few had chosen to accept the Wardens' invitation. Becoming a Grey Warden meant a hard life and a sure death, one way or another. It was a noble and ancient order, its tales sung by bards across Thedas ... and no one, absolutely no one, save the truly heroic or the truly desperate, wanted to become a member.
Valya wasn't sure which she was. But she knew she didn't want to die fighting templars, and she knew the Grey Wardens, even more than the Circle of Magi, offered a place where an elf could stand equal to any human. Nowhere else in Thedas could give her that.
So she had packed her few belongings and announced that she would accompany Senior Enchanter Eilfas and a handful of other junior mages to Weisshaupt. To become a Grey Warden, or die trying.
Now, under Broken Tooth's shadow, she could see the others regretting their decisions. It was as plain as the fear they tried so hard to hide. Templars were fanatics, but they were still men. They could be reasoned with, cajoled, bullied, bribed. There would be none of that with darkspawn. Only a hard life, and a sure death.
Valya stepped forward, starting on the steep long road to Weisshaupt's gates.
* * *
It was late afternoon when they turned onto the path to Weisshaupt, but it was fully dark by the time they reached its gates. Twice Eilfas had called a halt for water and rest. Life in the Circle's tower, with all those endless spiraling stairs, had kept the Senior Enchanter reasonably fit for his age, but there was nothing in any Circle of Magi that approximated the road up Broken Tooth.
A thousand feet of vertical distance separated Weisshaupt's gate from the dusty earth. The path that climbed up all that stone was at least three miles of hard switchbacks punctuated by ancient carved steps where the slope was too steep to run smooth. Each step had been worn down by the boots of countless Grey Wardens through the centuries, leaving shallow bowls that sent up little puffs of bone-colored dust as the mages' robes whisked across them.
Narrow benches were carved into the stone at two wider points along the path, offering a spartan respite, but otherwise there was no comfort to be had on the journey up. Nor was there meant to be. The thin black slits of archers' windows stared down at them, pointedly foreboding, but they hardly needed to be there. Anyone who tried walking up the path under the sun's full glare would have been defeated by heat and wind long before coming into bowshot. Even in the coolness of twilight, the walk was punishing.
At last, just when Valya thought her legs were about to give out and send her plummeting mercifully down the mountainside, they reached the final stretch of stairs. Above them, the moon shone white in a cloudless sky; below, the blasted land of the Anderfels stretched endlessly on in shades of gray and red. A smaller door, barely visible as a shadowed indentation in the massive wall, faced them. The Senior Enchanter rapped against it with the end of his staff, and after a moment it swung inward.
A bluff-faced woman in a gray tunic and trousers stood inside. The sleeves of the tunic had been torn off, showing arms as muscular as a blacksmith's. An old injury had split her lip; it had healed with a flat white mark over her front teeth, and the teeth themselves were made of silver that glinted in the starlight. A spiked war hammer hung from a well-worn loop on her belt.
"You'll be the Hossberg mages?" she said. Valya couldn't place her accent. Fereldan, maybe. She hadn't met many Fereldans.
Senior Enchanter Eilfas bowed his head graciously, despite his weariness. "We are."
"Come in. I'll show you to your rooms. There'll be wash water if you want it, and food. Rest for tonight. In the morning we can talk over what you'll be doing."
"Of course," the Senior Enchanter said. "May I ask your name? I am Senior Enchanter Eilfas of the Hossberg Circle ... or I was. I suppose I don't know if I still am. My companions are Valya, Berrith, Padin, and Sekah. They are young, but all very good. We have come to offer our skills to your cause."
"Sulwe," the silver-toothed woman said. "We'll make good use of your talents." She stepped back into the fortress, receding into darkness. Eilfas lowered his staff, speaking a word, and the gem on its head began to glow softly.
In a gentle parade of light, led by the radiant gem atop Eilfas's staff and carried on by the lesser magic of the students, the mages of Hossberg passed into Weisshaupt.
* * *
At daybreak Sulwe returned and led Senior Enchanter Eilfas away for a private conference. She didn't tell the others where they were going, and no one asked.
A few minutes later a handsome young elf knocked on their door. He wore the Wardens' blue and gray with casual arrogance, but his manner was far less intimidating than Sulwe's military correctness had been, and he seemed scarcely five years older than any of them. His hair was the color of rich honey, and it tumbled to his shoulders in loose curls. An easy smile warmed his face. He carried a large covered basket, from which the tantalizing aroma of freshly baked bread wafted.
Berrith, shameless at sixteen, sat up straight on her cot and tugged her blouse lower. The elven Warden seemed not to notice, except for a slight smile that teased at the corner of his mouth. He looked carefully away from the young mage as he set the basket down on a table.
"Welcome to Weisshaupt," he said. Valya happened to be sitting on the opposite side of the room as Berrith, so the Warden directed his greeting at her. "My name is Caronel. I'll be handling your initial assessments and introductory lessons. Also, your breakfast." He gestured to the basket. "Help yourselves. Bread and goat cheese. Plain fare, but good. We're not much for luxury here."
"Thank you," Valya stammered, because someone had to say something. She felt a flush creeping up her cheeks. Caronel really was unfairly handsome. To cover the redness, she stood up hastily and retrieved a chunk of bread from the basket, then passed the basket over to Sekah. "What do you need to assess?"
If Caronel noticed her blush, he showed no sign of it. He sat companionably on the side of the Senior Enchanter's empty cot, turning so that he could see them all. "What you learned in Hossberg. What you know about the darkspawn and the Wardens and our duties in Thedas. How strong you are in your magic, whether you have any particular talents in the art, and whether you know anything that might be of use to us already."
"That's a lot of questions," Valya murmured around a mouthful of bread. She swallowed with difficulty, glad to have an excuse for her dry mouth.
"We have a lot of time," Caronel said with a wry smile. "Well, we have some time. Maybe not a lot. Let's start with the most crucial question: What do you know about darkspawn? Have you ever fought any?"
"I have," Sekah said. He was a small grave boy with straight dark hair and enormous eyes that made him look far younger than his sixteen years. "Before I came to the Circle, hurlocks attacked our farm. We couldn't hold them off with arrows or pitchforks, so I burned them. That's how my magic came to me."
Valya regarded her companion with surprise. She'd never heard that story before, and had no idea he'd survived such danger. Sekah wasn't even a real mage yet, strictly speaking; he hadn't undergone the Harrowing, which meant he was still an apprentice.
Or maybe it didn't. Maybe there wouldn't be any more Harrowings now that they were all apostates. Only Circle mages had to endure that awful ritual, and there were no Circles anymore.
In that case, maybe Sekah was the most accomplished mage among them.
Caronel certainly seemed to be impressed. The elven Warden nodded at Sekah with real respect. Then he glanced at the others. "And you?"
Mutely, Valya shook her head along with the rest of them. She'd read about darkspawn in the histories, of course, and heard countless stories from those who had fought the horrific creatures. No child of the Anderfels, elf or human, grew up without being terrorized by bedtime tales of hurlocks and genlocks and baby-eating ogres. But she had never personally laid eyes on one, much less faced a howling horde of them in combat.
"Then you'll have a lot to learn," Caronel said. "If you become Wardens, your primary duty will, of course, be protecting the people of Thedas from the depredations of darkspawn. Not only will you have to fight against them personally, but you will have to lead others in that fight. You will need to know everything about them: their types, their tactics, and all we know about their origins and abilities." The elf paused. "You're all mages, so I assume you can read?"
Valya nodded, as did her companions. Caronel gave them another approving glance. "Very good. Then, until it's time for you to undergo the Joining, you can earn your keep — and perhaps begin to learn something useful — in our libraries."
"Earn our keep how?" Sekah asked.
"The Chamberlain of the Grey has requested your assistance with his research," Caronel said. "You should be honored to assist. It's something to do with blood magic, I gather, although the chamberlain's being tight-lipped about the details. Old, whatever it is. But you mages love old books, don't you? You should have a grand time with it. All that ... parchment. And dust."
"Blood magic?" Sekah echoed in a whisper, casting a nervous look to Valya.
She shared the younger boy's unspoken sentiments. Blood mages were feared and reviled across Thedas, for their magic drew upon pain and sacrifice, and could often be used to control the minds or bodies of others. If whatever this was involved darkspawn, too ...
Valya had never heard of darkspawn possessing such magic. She had always thought they were mindless brutes, and blood magic required considerable sophistication.
"Something like that," Caronel said. "You'll be looking for accounts where Wardens acted ... strangely. Disregarding their orders, abandoning their posts, things of that nature. You'll also be looking for mentions of unusual darkspawn — ones who could talk and think like men. These things may occur together or separately. It doesn't matter. Make note of both.
"Not everyone who witnessed such things would have recognized them for what they were, of course. The accounts may be cryptic, and prone to exaggeration or distortion. But any reference you can find would be helpful. I understand that it may be difficult to distinguish incidents where Wardens inexplicably absconded from ordinary desertions, or from outposts that were massacred during the fighting. I also understand that the language may present some difficulty, as you'll be focusing on materials that may be several centuries old. Do your best."
"When would you like us to begin?" Valya asked.
"Today," Caronel replied. He stood, brushing invisible wrinkles from his deep blue tunic. "As soon as you're done eating, in fact."
The conversation died out after that. Valya, alight with nervous excitement, had to force herself to swallow her food. As hungry as she'd been before, the bread and cheese now seemed as flavorless as sawdust.
When they'd finished eating, Caronel led them from their room down a long dusty hallway. To their right, the stone walls were hung with tapestries of plate-clad Wardens mounted on griffons and raining death down on armies of shrieking darkspawn. To the left, archers' slits allowed just enough sunlight to bring out the tapestries' faded hues.
Weapons were mounted between some of the tapestries. They looked like darkspawn weapons: savagery crystallized in black, cruel and clumsy and terrifying. Old stains covered their blades. Blood, maybe. Or something worse. Valya couldn't tell. Shivering, she averted her eyes.
"You have to look," Sekah whispered by her elbow. The boy's eyes were fixed on a dented, bloodied shield. "You have to bear witness and understand why it is so important to stop them. The Joining, the Calling ... it's all worthwhile if it holds back the darkspawn. Once you understand what they are."
Valya shook her head, her lips pressed tightly. But she looked up, briefly, at the ancient weapons nailed to the walls, and the tapestries that commemorated the grisly battles in which those weapons had presumably been taken. And then she cast her eyes downward, shivering again, and kept her gaze fixed on her own toes as Caronel led them away through the hall and down a sweeping flight of stairs and into Weisshaupt's great library.
It was an awe-inspiring sight, more of a cathedral than a library. Huge vaulted windows overlooked an adjacent courtyard and flooded the interlocking chambers with cloudy sunlight. Rows upon rows of gray stone shelves, all heavily laden with yellowing books and bone-encased scrolls, stretched for a seeming infinity in front of the mages. Chandeliers of scented candles hung from creaking iron frames overhead, filling the library with the mingled fragrance of beeswax, cedarwood, and old smoke. The walls were richly carved with heraldic griffons and ancient coats of arms and ornamental plants — oranges, pomegranates, and plump juicy grapes. All the fruits that the sculptor missed in he arid Anderfels, Valya guessed.
Excerpted from Dragon Age: Last Flight by Liane Merciel. Copyright © 2014 Electronic Arts, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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