It was like the red tower, but not. The colour was drained from it all, so that the world was as grey as a whisper. The winding stairs were among the few things of substance, stretching up inside walls that were no longer there. Points of light hovered where the braziers had hung in reality, shimmering with colour that could only be glimpsed from the corner of the eye. Cheated growls, snapping jaws, barks and yelps poured down from the very top of the stairs. Anders had used his magic to put up a barrier of sorts, like a piece of glass that glowed with a blue-green glyph. He had never cast the spell before, and doubted he would ever be able to outside of the surreal landscape of the Fade. It held the beasts at bay and gave them a chance to flee.
"This is why I'm a cat person!" He felt compelled to shout at Nathaniel, as they ran down the staircase that became thinner and thinner as they reached the bottom.
"Shut up and keep running!"
As they reached the floor of the main hall, a loud crack sounded from somewhere above them. There was a thud, and then another crack. The barrier was breaking, and soon the ghosts of the mabari would be upon them. Nathaniel pulled an arrow from his quiver and nocked it, aiming for the edge of the turn that led down the stairs. When the dogs came, that was where they would have to come from. He slowly backed towards the ghostly doors that were even taller and wider in the Fade.
"If we get outside, we can shut them in. There's no way they can follow us. You open the doors, I'll cover you." Nathaniel ordered, keeping his aim upon the stairs. There was another loud crack, and the hounds began to bark excitedly.
"But… your hand…" Anders shook his head, "Shouldn't you go first? I can hold them off with another spell."
"Spells fail. Arrows do not," The archer steeled his gaze, "Go."
Anders hesitated. He knew that Nathaniel didn't realize that they were in the Fade, where even the truest shot could miss its mark. Logic no longer applied, and skill was just as much an illusion as any other part of the dream. The magic had worked, and it would work again if they needed it. But there was no time to argue.
He pulled at the mighty doors. They were so heavy it felt as if they had been rooted into the ground. As if the wood of the trees had never been planed, and still stood alive at his hands. Anders blinked a few times to shake the image from his head. Tricks of the Fade to keep him lost and disoriented until the dogs claimed him. He pulled again, and the doors slowly creaked open, with a sound like falling timber. He feared that the trees would kill him when they landed, but still he pulled, and the doors opened for him.
"Come on!" He called.
Nathaniel backed towards the doors swiftly, keeping an eye on the stairs. The barrier cracked a final time, and there was a distant flash as the glyph dissolved. The dogs tore down the stairs like thunder, their long-clawed paws scratching as they ran. Their barks like a wave of sound that crashed against the two Grey Wardens. Anders pulled Nathaniel through the doors behind them, and together they strained and slammed them shut again.
They turned, and looked upon the village.
It was a beautiful little place wrapped in the peaceful arms of late spring. The houses sat in golden sunlight, with white gleaming paint on their walls, and pink flowers that grew in in green grass beneath shimmering windows. Trees with young, vibrant leaves shaded the little backstreets and lined the main road. The smell of bakery bread drifted on the air, warm and fresh. The sky was filled with a white light that seemed to glow so brightly, it washed everything else away.
"But…" Nathaniel said slowly, "It's winter. This can't be right…"
"That's because we're in the Fade, you giant know-it-all bastard. As I have been trying to tell you since we got here." Anders replied with an exasperated sigh. He looked over his shoulder at the red tower, and felt drawn to it somehow. It was a glittering ruby that he could own, posses, and be master of. The painted lips of an eager barmaid, just waiting for his touch. Then he remembered how much he hated towers, and shook the notion from his mind.
"Yes. The Fade. Of course." Nathaniel muttered, but he didn't seem to believe it. He looked down at his hand, where the wound was still fresh. One of the monstrous dogs inside the tower had bounded over to him during the first wave of the fight. He hadn't been expecting it. The creature had leapt upon him, scratching at him, barking with wet, snapping jaws. It got him twice before he had kicked it back and shot an arrow through its eye.
Somehow, his hand had stopped bleeding.
Anders started walking, without any particular goal except to distance himself from the tower and the creatures they'd trapped there. Nathaniel stayed where he was, and did not follow.
"Nate! Get a move on!" Anders called back to him.
"I'm so tired," Nathaniel shook his head, "The back of my neck…"
He put his uninjured hand up to the place where the old man had struck him with a small marble statue. He was dizzy, and could not remember where he was.
"Oh, did you want to just lie down and have a quick sleep?" Anders scoffed, "We. Need. To. Move."
"Yes. You're right." Nathaniel nodded groggily and began to walk down the street, his bow hanging limply at his side. Was this Amaranthine? Had they made it back? He wondered where all the people were, how they had gotten through the blizzard and escaped the mad old fool at the red tower.
Behind him, the chorus of barking could be heard again. The dogs burst through the doors like they were made of vapour, and came running for their prey, overgrown claws clattering over the ground. They were unearthly creatures, with powerful muscles and jaws like steel traps. Their fur was faded from brown to grey, and their eyes were lit from within like lanterns. They were scarred. Some had lost large patches of fur, others had open wounds. One had an arrow in its eye. Two were thinner than the others, but this made them look all the more violent. All the more starved.
"Shit!" Anders declared at the sight of them, and cast. Lightning tumbled from the obscured sky. The dogs dodged the bolts, snarling with bared white teeth, and where the electricity hit the ground it shattered.
The arrows sliced through the sky, and the dog they struck yelped and fell behind. Nathaniel's wounded hand shook as he held the bow. The scratches were deep, and his first shot had missed.
"Where the hell did these dogs come from?" He demanded, as he and Anders took off running towards the chantry spire.
"I hate the Fade." Anders grumbled as they fled.
When Mahariel awoke beyond the Veil, the old man was sitting on the floor by the window with his knees pulled up to his chest. He rocked back and forth, back and forth, with the wide eyes of one who could not accept his fate. He turned his head when Mahariel appeared, and put a thin finger up to his lips to silence her.
"Where are they?" She asked, pushing him away from the window and looking out onto the village below. The shadows of the hounds ran wildly towards two shapes that stood their ground. She watched the lightning spell, and she watched the arrows fly.
"Andraste…" The old man murmured, "Protect me, Andraste. Protect me."
"Praying will do you no good. All gods have forsaken you." Mahariel readied her blades, and began to run down the winding staircase. There was no more time for the old man and his madness.
"But I gave them to her!" His sobbing cry echoed behind her as she ran, "I gave her their bones! She is indebted to me! She must protect me!"
The streets were longer than Mahariel remembered. They wound a labyrinth around the cheerful little houses and tried to pull her away from her task. But the barking led her on, and she followed the sound with all the care and skill she had used as a hunter for her clan. Behind her, the outline of the tower dissolved away so that only a cowering shadow could be seen on the highest floor. The strange coloured lights swirled at the base of the steps, as if they realized what quarry they now held.
"Nate! Anders!" She cried, for she felt as though she were searching the tower rooms for them again.
"Here, Lyna! Here!" Anders shouted back, and a burst of magic filled the sky.
They were fighting in front of the chantry, and the dogs pushed towards them from all directions. Magic swirled around the Wardens, protecting them from attacks. In the chantry's garden there stood a hundred figures, all gossamer pale and still. They watched the fight and seemed to wait for something, held in the place where their bones hung like wind chimes. Trapped forever in the Fade.
The ghosts turned to look at her, all at once tilting their heads to one side. She brought with her something that they wanted, and they could sense it in her presence. She knew of the quarry most precious to them, and greater in value than the ghosts of Anders and Nathaniel could ever be to them. The hounds ceased their attack, and perked their ears, and sniffed the air.
Mahariel looked at the figures, but could not see the shapes of their faces.
"Hamin, setheneran'len," She said as softly as a whisper, "He waits in his beloved tower."
As though of one mind and one body, the ghosts pointed. And the dogs ran towards the tower, no longer barking or snapping - they ran silently, and with swift and determined purpose. Down the streets they weaved, and through the tower doors. Up the countless steps to find him, and have their long awaited revenge.
Anders let his magic fall away, and they watched the shapes moving where the tower was supposed to be. They saw the dark hounds, cutting through the sky like knives, the colourful flames swirling higher and higher like flags that marked the shadowy figure of the old man. Then they watched as that shadow crumpled, beset upon by the other shapes, and they turned away as the pleading and agonized shriek filled their ears.
One of the ghosts stepped forward, finally able to move from the chantry garden. He was the white and faded figure of a man, wearing high pauldrons and heavy gauntlets; and he stepped towards the three Wardens in a ceremonious manner. On his chest was a thin and bright outline of the heraldry of Val Royeaux, and he took to one knee before Mahariel.
"Freedom." He said, taking her hand in his ghostly gloves and pressing his lips against the back of it.
With his kiss came a pure whiteness, that filled up all of the Fade and stripped it back and away into reality. Back into the thicket of trees by the side of the road, where the snow fell and an orb of magic fire flickered towards the night sky.
"Did… that just happen?" Anders asked cautiously, but his question was met with silence.
Nathaniel looked down at his hand, wrapped in a blood-soaked piece of Mahariel's scarf. He squeezed his fingers against his palm and felt the pain of the scratches.
"Yes." He nodded.
Mahariel sat in the flickering firelight and looked towards the hills. No lights shone there, and no tower stood in the darkness. There was nothing but the fields of snow and a sky that seemed too near to dawn for her liking. She felt a rush of sickness and guilt for the old man's death, but she knew it would pass. He had sealed his own fate, and if it had not been her then it would have been someone else. Or no one else, and perhaps that would have been worse.
After awhile, she stood up and walked over to where Anders sat in his own contemplative silence. She smiled at him warmly, and slapped him hard across the face.
"Ouch! What was that for?" He cried.
"You don't just drink wine like that, Anders. Honestly."
The blizzard slowed their progress, and when they arrived at Vigil's Keep they were greeted by two letters. The first was from Captain Garavel, who wrote that he and Sigrun had made it to Highever in good time and that the local healers were all very enthusiastic about her recovery. The second was from Sigrun herself, who wrote to say that she and Ser Pounce-a-lot quite liked Highever but were eager to get home.
One night, after searching through several stacks of old books, Nathaniel found what he was looking for. An old fairy tale about a man who lived in a red tower, where every night a strange howling could be heard. He dutifully read every other story in the book, and committed many details to memory.