Author's Note: If you're a writer and don't already know about this, please be aware that Bioware is running an official WRITING COMPETITION (finally, after all the art and cosplay comps!) to celebrate the release of the Dragon Age novel 'Asunder'. Not only will there be prizes for the five most outstanding entrants, as selected by the Community team, but David Gaider, lead writer of Dragon Age, will read these five stories and select an ultimate winner (who will receive additional prizes, including an interview with DG himself). You can find the rules in the Bioware Social Network forum in the "Dragon Age II News and Announcements" section, but the basics are a 2,500 word limit, one entry only, it must be from the perspective of a mage or templar, and it must conform to Dragon Age lore (so no AUs). It closes on Jan 10 so get writing! :D We've been waiting years for Bioware to acknowledge the talented writers in their fanbase!
With the help of Kamator and a handsome Fereldan soldier, Zevran's shoulder had been redressed in a fresh poultice and he'd been re-armed in the Tevinter mail by the time he saw Xai Merras returning to the estate—by himself.
"My thanks," the Crow murmured to the elven slave, gritting his teeth against a flinch as Kamator fastened his weapons harness and straightened the scabbards across his back. His shoulder needed stitches and more attention than a simple dressing, but he could hold out until they camped in the evening, of that he was grimly determined. He'd ingested a mild painkiller to make sure, but dressed or not his right arm would be useless for a time. Xai's sword had done quite a bit of damage.
Just when he was about to call out a question as to where Shianni and the other one were, and what was Xai thinking leaving the girl on her own with an unknown, the two elves appeared some distance behind him. Zevran closed his mouth and gave the former master a quizzical look as he went for the horses without a glance or word for anyone, forsaking his blood-spattered mage robes for the grey leathers beneath. While Zevran watched, Xai slung the robes over a saddle, paused a moment with one arm braced against the animal's side, then took a drink from a handy wineskin.
Zevran nodded to Kamator. He glanced at where Ciela Tabris stood a fair distance away, sword drawn and angled to catch her own reflection as she reconcealed her lyrium brand, shrugged to himself and headed towards Xai. The girl had rejected Shianni's proposal that Zevran assist with the application, and who was he to argue?
"I don't think she likes me," he remarked conversationally to Xai, more for want of an opener than as a serious complaint.
But the Warden said: "Good. I'm tired of people liking you."
Zevran hummed. "And here I was expecting a witty rejoinder, not something that sounded suspiciously like honesty, my friend."
"Where's the file you stole from the tower?"
Xai moved suddenly. It was only a fraction of motion, a subtle shift of position that was nonetheless visible to a trained Crow. Zevran's posture reacted automatically, but anyone who was watching the two of them from afar would have seen very little.
"Don't play games with me, Zevran. I like games, and you won't appreciate the stakes."
"Truly? Are these stakes of yours lower or higher than fleeing the inner city before the magisters trap us here?"
Xai's gaze flicked towards the dark silhouette of the mage tower jutting into the blue sky. Then, without saying anything further, he picked up his mage robe and strode across the courtyard towards Ciela, who had finished masking her face and was talking with Shianni and the new thrall. He got a mixed reception. The thrall backed away, Shianni straightened and gave him a defiant glare, and only Ciela seemed to welcome his presence. After a brief exchange Shianni nodded curtly and took the jar of make-up from Ciela, while the new thrall put Xai's robe on. Zevran immediately guessed what that meant: the elf was a mage. Xai had been intending to bluff his way through the gates with his knowledge of Arcanum and Minrathous customs, and if necessary use of a few carnivale tricks to imitate magic, which of course had been the major weak point of their plan. They'd been gambling on Xai's silver tongue to get them past that particular hurdle without having to actually jump it.
"I am not convinced it is a good idea," he said to Shianni when she came over, leaving the three thralls standing together. "Your cousin and this new elf—"
"Enansal," Shianni supplied.
"—they have only just been freed, and they are scared, I can see it. If the guards challenge him, that mage may well fall apart on us."
"How'd you know he's a mage?"
"Because I'm as intelligent as I am ridiculously handsome?"
Shianni rolled her eyes a bit and folded her arms. "I didn't even know mages could be slaves. I thought they were all powerful lords and ladies here."
Zevran had not thought about it much himself, although he had asked a few questions for curiosity's sake. "Shayle tells me only the strong rule, which makes the Imperium much the same as the rest of the world, yes? Not all mages are casters of mighty spells. Some are weak, or merely ordinary. So, my dear, what have you learned of this Enansal of yours?"
"I don't know what sort of mage he is or if he's any good, but he says his mistress sent him after you hoping he'd escape. You were already rescuing my cousin, see?"
"Did he say anything else?" Zevran asked, concealing his incredulity. No wonder Xai was in a foul mood. Shianni had brought a spy into their midst.
"I told him to tell me everything he told Xai. He said that magister Ezio—the one who attacked me and who Xai sold you to? He says Ezio is dead and Magistra Phaedra has made sure of it. And when Xai asked why she tried to stop you all from leaving—she wanted to talk to you or something? He said she knew you were there and wanted to hire you for an assassination job. Enansal doesn't know who she wanted you to kill, but she's in something called the Senate and he thinks it's political. How'd she know you were there? I thought you were disguised."
"Ezio used a phylactery to track my movements, and Phaedra was with him." Far too late to wonder if getting into the magistra's employ would have made escape an easier feat, and he wasn't sure what to think of Ezio being dead except to hope it was true. There was no way Enansal could know for certain, was there, if he had been at Phaedra's side while Ezio controlled his thrall from several storeys above? "Considering how we first met," he added, "she clenching her fist and I being crushed by her magic, I am rather surprised she would consider me for a job."
"That's what I said. Sort of. Enansal didn't know she'd attacked you, but he knew you'd killed Farian—that was the thrall's name. Farian had been Phaedra's lover."
Zevran chuckled humourlessly. "Ah. So this is what they call a sex slave in the Imperium, eh?"
"Andraste's ass, Zev," Shianni went to gather the reins of two of the horses, "you don't really believe that, do you? A woman forcing men into sex?"
"Why not? It is not only men who do unspeakable things to women, my dear. The strong do as they please while the rest of us must get by with our wits and, on occasion, a vial of deadly poison or strategically placed dagger."
Shianni looked uncertain. "Enansal would have said something if Phaedra was…cruel to him." she said at last. "Grab those two, will you? Thanks for the help," she added to the guards, who nodded (one wished them luck). "Anyway, he comes from somewhere called Cumberland in Nevarra. I promised we'd help get him home."
"Of course you did. And so we shall."
Shianni gave him a suspicious glare. "That's it? You're not going to say it's a bad idea, or to watch my back in case he tries something, or that we don't have enough horses?"
"Why go over ground I am sure our friend Xai has already covered?" Zevran asked with a wry smile. He actually hadn't considered the horses, and now that he was he found himself smirking. "You have not learned how to ride double yet, have you?"
That didn't happen—at least, not yet.
Enansal rode in the lead with Xai and Kamator flanking him on foot and jogging to keep up. Xai had retained his leather armour, but thrown a Grey Wardens tunic over the top. The other elves, Zevran, Shianni and Ciela, were all mounted and following closely in their guard attire.
The south gate, at least, did not seem to have been closed, but those on watch were more alert than gate guards tended to be. Someone had tipped them off.
"Not something that happens every day," one of the guards said, studying faces. "Slaves breaking out of the Circle Tower and golems running amok."
"First I've heard of it," Xai replied, handing his papers over. "The Grey Wardens are the last to hear about anything except darkspawn."
"Right, right…" a second guard said, while her companion circled the party. Zevran noted two more dealing with entrants to the inner city. "And your compound is nowhere near the square, is it?"
Xai flashed her a small smile that indicated he was aware of the question's purpose. "It's on Verity Street, almost opposite The High Dragon tavern. We are headed for Weisshaupt, ser, on business. Mage Ansal here has volunteered his retinue to assist in a slight detour I had in mind, and I was briefing them all at the compound of what could be expected. We are also in something of a hurry to cross the Valarian Fields and get into the foothills before it grows dark."
That was Zevran's cue. He plucked a small pouch from his belt and tossed it to the other guard, distracting him from scrutinising the party too closely. Shayle might be escaping the city separately from them, but she'd left more than enough lyrium for bribes. As the contents were inspected and the guards remarked on how brave they all were assisting the Grey Wardens against the darkspawn, Zevran wondered how she was faring. The dwarf might never let him touch her, but at least she was an entertaining companion. His present company had to learn how to relax or take a joke once in a while.
"Move it, woman! By the Dragon's Chains, have you never had to run a single day in your life?"
Shayle, gasping and wincing as she staggered gamely after Gerta, nevertheless found enough breath to unleash a wheezing retort of, "If I was still a golem, I would leave it choking dust!"
"'If I was still a golem.'" The surface dwarf mimicked sneeringly as she jogged along ahead of her. "You whine about that so often I wonder why you bothered."
"I-don't-whine!" Shayle protested between panting breaths.
"You whine worse than any man I've ever met, and I've been around humans my entire life so that's saying something."
Shayle saved her breath this time, distracted by trying to figure out the cause of a stabbing pain low in her left side that jabbed agony with her every step. She was sure it wasn't her armour and she knew for a fact there was no injury there, so why was it hurting? Oh, what did it matter? Everything was hurting, her legs ached and felt like they wanted to drop off, and no matter how much air she tried to gulp her stupid body never seemed satisfied. Between injuries, disgusting bodily functions and absurd biological urges, how did people manage?
Honestly, the only benefit she'd derived from her transformation was that birds no longer tried to land on her. As wonderful as that was, it was hardly a substitution for all she'd given up: superior strength, unparalleled endurance, a body that weapons bounced off rather than sank into, and the ability to silence imbeciles with a single swing of her fist.
"If I was still a golem-"
"Old Gods! Will you shut up about being a rutting golem!"
Shayle glowered at the back of the dwarf's head but continued on without further comment.
Gerta was leading her, by the light of a strange blue lantern, down an underground passage the dwarves had dug out beneath Minrathous during a long-dead age when the Tevinter Imperium and Dwarven Kingdom had been allies. The tunnels were wide and high, large enough for a juggernaut to stride down, and Shayle had little doubt it must have been an old trade route the ancient dwarves and humans had used to deal with one another. Officially the tunnel opened up within the inner walls of Minrathous; the main entrance, the ones the magelords knew about, could be sealed via a huge dweomer-encrusted slab of metal and dwarven engineering, and was always guarded. But Gerta's group had known of at least one alternate access point via a dwarf-owned estate's larder. Shayle had no idea if dwarves or darkspawn had mined that smaller tunnel, but didn't care. All that mattered was that she'd paid good lyrium for safe passage out of the city so she could regroup with the others beyond the walls, and Gerta never asked many questions if the pay was good. Shayle hadn't decided if she liked that about her or found it disturbing.
The main tunnel connected to a bustling thaig before long, fully lit and bustling with activity. Kolbrunar Thaig was built on the rubble of whatever had stood here before the First Blight had claimed it. Dwarves displaced from their homes after the Deep Roads had been claimed by the darkspawn, surfacers looking to move back below ground, casteless who thought they could do better, all had carved a living into the stone here. With lyrium deposits long ago mined to exhaustion or too perilous to reach, they survived by selling their talents as enchanters, runecrafters, stonemasons, gemcutters, guards, even as servants and slaves. The number of dwarves in the last two categories, Shayle had heard it whispered, was always growing. While the dwarven population in Orzammar declined, whether due to the constant proximity to that cursed lava, exposure to lyrium, or skirmishes with the darkspawn, here it steadily climbed. The more dwarves there were, the less room, the more hungry, the more crime, and the thaig had expanded as numbers swelled. Kolbrunar had its own Dust Town, its own caste system, and its own elite who thought the best way to get rid of gangue was to sell it to mages.
Or to golems looking for new bodies.
With a shiver, Shayle realised she didn't like it down here. It must be the height of the ceiling that was causing this. Yes. It seemed much further up now that she was walking so much closer to the ground. And if it fell on her! Oh, it didn't bear thinking about!
The source of her disquiet solved yet refusing to abate, she trundled after Gerta as she navigated the outer avenues of the thaig. Save the odd backward glance to check she was keeping up, and frequent eyerolls to show her disgust at Shayle's slowness, the dwarf ignored her and made no attempt to talk. Though after a while Shayle swore the other woman picked up speed just to spite her. She panted her way after in the heavy mail she'd insisted on wearing, wincing with every pang of that dratted stabbing sensation in her side, weighed down further by the massive hammer strapped to her back, and just as she was getting so exhausted and wrung out her pride was about to crack for the sake of begging a minute's rest, Gerta rounded the corner of a stone building into a shadowy recess and Shayle, with a heartfelt groan, staggered hastily after her lest she be left behind.
It was a very shadowy recess, she noted…but only after stepping within.
Four pairs of hands grappled her; she didn't even have time to put her arms up before she was knocked to the ground and pinned. Her outraged roar was efficiently thwarted by a thick bundle of rags shoved so far into her mouth her eyes bulged and she gagged, but she also stopped struggling.
"Good girl." Gerta stood over her, arms folded, a look of false solicitousness adorning her face. "Since you're tired, how about my boys carry you the rest of the way? You'd like that, wouldn't you?" Shayle let her expression of loathing do the talking but Gerta only laughed and snapped her fingers at the shady cretins holding her down.
Fortunately plate armour didn't give much opportunity for groping, so she wasn't forced to experience being pawed as she was frogmarched through the dank, be-puddled backstreets of Kolbrunar. It smelled disgustingin this part of the thaig, rancid with an odour that almost rivalled Minrathous' slave pens down by the docks, and there was a constant dripping noise. Had she not heard someone say that there were sewers beneath the city, where all that—that waste was sent below ground?
She'd have given this horrific idea a great deal more thought if the dwarves holding her weren't taking up most of her attention.
The ghastly aromas gave way after a couple more minutes of marching, as did the buildings and dim lights of Kolbrunar. They came to a huge metal door which was swung partially open to reveal a very long tunnel that stretched away into absolute blackness. The five dwarves loitering nearby with torches, tankards and a broached keg came to some semblance of attention when they saw they had company.
"This is the passage I told you about," Gerta said to Shayle, motioning for one of her lackeys to remove the gag. "Follow the directions I gave and don't get lost, and you'll get to that exit point in the High Reaches. Now to discuss payment."
"It was already paid!" Shayle spat as soon as she was able, enraged. "It has no right to demand more!"
"This is your safe conduct tax, Lady Cadash. Did you think you could sail that golem shell away without me hearing about it? Hand over the lyrium, or I'll have you cut out of your armour and we'll look for it ourselves."
"I don't have any!" Shayle struggled, strongly enough that the two dwarves holding her had to be helped by a third. "Why would it think I need lyrium down here?"
Gerta came closer to stand right in front of her. "I know you don't have all of it, Shayle. You stashed it with your friends. But you do have some. Odar shaped a nugget for you to wear as a necklace. I don't know what it's worth to you, but to me, that much lyrium could see me and my friends here through some pretty hard times. Oh, and I'll also be taking those golem control rods you boosted from the mages."
"No!" The rods were slipped from her belt by one of her captors and tossed one by one to Gerta. "It promised it would take me to a forge so they could be destroyed. This is outrageous! Those are the spirits of dwarves you're enslaving!"
"There's no profit in just letting people go free," Gerta said patiently, examining the etched blue cylinders with professional interest, "be they golems or dwarves. Honestly, Shayle, what right do you have to go judging me, or the magisters even?" She poked the former golem's forehead with the tip of a rod. It felt cold against her skin. "That's a slave's body you're walking around in. You killed her for it. You think Brenn wanted to die?"
Shayle's mouth went dry. No one had ever come out and said it to her, until now. No one except the elder mage, Wynne, who had warned her against this path, then left her to tread it alone.
"Surely you can appreciate that this is wrong, Shayle. It's blood magic for starters, and you're stealing another woman's body!"
"So I must be trapped in this golem shell forever? How else did you think I would be set free?"
"I don't know. But I didn't expect this. I urge you to consider more options before proceeding."
"This will hardly be the first person I ever killed. Besides, it's Tevinter. Slaves die here all the time. What is one more mortal death? Why do you fight so hard for a dwarf you do not know?"
Wynne looked up at her sadly and shook her head. "Perhaps I am fighting for the dwarf I thought I did know."
"Out with the lyrium, Shayle."
Moving woodenly as she was released, Shayle fished out the necklace. The chunk of processed lyrium had been taken from the heart of her golem and expertly polished into a flat disc. Etched into the surface was the ancestral design of House Cadash. Shayle had remembered seeing it when Asleena took her to her home thaig back in Ferelden, and wanted something solid to remind her both of the monument and the place she had come from so long ago.
Gerta took it, and handed her the blue lantern in return while gesturing to the tunnel. "Pleasure doing business with you."
Shayle was shoved ungently into the yawning passage, feeling even smaller than before. She regained her balance a few staggering steps inside to glance back, just in time to see the seal swing shut with a resounding boom.