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Storm Age: Armada - Chapter One

7:56 Storm


Free Marches City-State

Lance Harimann walked alone through the Gallows. By now, over half of his life was spent exclusively within these walls, though it never felt like home to him. How could a place with a name like ‘the Gallows’ ever feel like a home? It wasn’t just some joking nickname that the locals gave either. Lance had been a terrible student, but he knew the history of the complex he lived in.

Back when the Tevinter Imperium controlled Kirkwall, they had carried out routine executions here. The Tevinters would leave the corpses hanging to shatter the spirits of newly arrived slaves who passed through on the way into the city. Though executions were no longer conducted in the Gallows, statues of tortured slaves remained in the courtyard. Lance didn’t go there much, but whenever he did, the contorted bronze forms would never fail to unease him, as no doubt intended by their sculptors.

Today, the Gallows was home to Kirkwall’s Circle of Magi, and that was what Lance was- a mage. Once, mages ruled the world as Tevinter Magisters with both great arcane and political power. The Tevinter Imperium still existed, of course, but ever since the Prophet Andraste’s revolution, it has become a shadow of its former self. Now, the Andrastian Chantry, the religious organization formed in the wake of Andraste’s death, strictly regulated all mages within the establishments known as Circles.

Circle mages were told that it was all for their benefit in order to protect them from the world. Lance, and every apprentice old enough, knew that this was only half the picture. Mages were feared and prejudiced, but that was precisely the reason the Circles were formed. The Chantry was afraid of the history of the Imperium repeating itself and the common people were afraid of the supernatural powers mages could wield, as they were with anything they did not understand. The fact that mages were particularly susceptible to being possessed by demons and losing control of their own bodies only added flame to the pyre.

Lance never felt like he belonged in the Gallows. As a child, he was identified as having ‘magical talent’ and brought to the Circle. He had some magic, sure, but talent was going a little far. Mages drew their power from the Fade, a realm where people went when they dreamed, and where spirits and demons resided. All those who dreamed, which included every human and elf, possessed some connection to the Fade, though only a select few could actually tap into it while awake. ‘Mana’ was the measurement of this connection; the more mana a mage had, the stronger their connection to the Fade was. This meant they had the potential to cast more powerful spells, but were also more vulnerable to possession by the more malevolent denizens of the Fade.

Lance was in a bit of an awkward position. He had enough of a connection to the Fade to tap into it, which was why he was in the Gallows. His mana, though, was abysmally low for a mage. The Enchanters had performed multiple examinations, and they always came to the same conclusion. His distaste for tedious studying only made matters worse. Unfortunately, membership in the Circles wasn’t optional, just another sign that its purpose wasn’t as simple as protecting mages. And so Lance had spent many of his twenty years here.

He passed by an open door in the Apprentice Quarters just as two girls stepped out from the room. Lance recognized them instantly- Grace and Rosa. In a closed community like the Circle’s, every mage knew each other. Grace and Rosa were about a year apart, and both of them were in their teens, quite a few years younger than Lance. He greeted them with a small smile and a quiet ‘Hello’ and they dipped their heads in return before heading the opposite direction down the hall.

When the girls were far enough, or thought they were far enough, they began to converse in hushed voices. Lance picked up something about “having looks but not brains,” more than enough to gather what the dialogue was about. He often overheard people talking behind his back like that. His lack of proficiency with magic was not exactly a secret in the Circle. Most of the other apprentices doubted he would ever pass the Harrowing, a mysterious test that all members of the Circle had to succeed at to become a full mage.

Not that Lance even wanted to become a mage. ‘Lance,’ everyone remarked, was not a mage-like name. It sounded like something fit for a knight, an Orlesian chevalier perhaps, as they were renowned for their skill in fighting from horseback and often made use of lances. Since he was born in Kirkwall, it was more likely his parents wanted him to become a templar, one of the holy knights of the Chantry that guarded the Circles and were specially trained to defend against magic. That wouldn’t have been much better, as the templars also lived in the Gallows to oversee the mages.

Having spent his whole life in Kirkwall made him want one thing above all else- to travel the world. The few texts Lance did have the patience to sit down and read from cover to cover were books that described the different regions of Thedas and their rich histories. He often found himself fantasizing of leaving the Gallows in various ways. He would join the Exalted March like some of the trusted Senior Enchanters were allowed to, fighting the Qunari invasion in some distant land. Or maybe he would be recruited into the fabled Grey Wardens who saved the world many times from the darkspawn; it was said that they occasionally recruited mages into their ranks.

Lance knew though that in reality, neither of these would ever happen unless he proved particularly skilled with magic. He had to become a full mage, at the very least. Even if he never went off to fight Qunari or darkspawn, mages were occasionally allowed to travel on assignments given to them by the Circle. So he would have to do his best. Gathering his will with a deep breath as he reached his destination, Lance pushed the door open.

Beyond lay a small courtyard, flanked by the tall oppressive walls of Gallows structures on all sides. It was a very functional space, with the only decor being four golden avian statues in each corner. A middle-aged woman stood waiting in the centre, leaning impatiently on a staff wrought from red steel. She had short blonde hair and donned robes which signified her position in the Circle as an Enchanter. This was Lance’s mentor, Helen.

“You’re late,” she said sharply.

“Sorry,” he muttered an apology under his breath.

Helen opened her mouth to complain but clearly changed her mind midway as she pursed her lips before speaking, “Have you been practicing what you learned last week?”

Lance nodded, “As much as I can before passing out.”

“Okay. Let’s try it again.”

“Here? But the ground’s all stone tiles!” he complained. “I’ll hit my head and...die!”

“We’re mages. We can heal much worse than a bump on the head.”

“You, maybe.”

Helen frowned, “You need to stop selling yourself short, Lance. Concentrate hard but don’t use too much of your energy at once, and then you won’t faint.”

“You know what my mana-”

“I don’t want another excuse from you, apprentice,” Helen snapped. “Now get ready.”

Lance did as his mentor suggested. He closed his eyes and concentrated as hard as he could to draw upon power from the Fade into the world of the living. The air around him began to distort slightly as the arcane energy formed into a shield, almost like looking through a thin layer of clear water. When his eyes opened, Lance saw that Helen had pointed her staff at him and instinctively threw his hands out in front of him while willing the shield to strengthen.

A stream of fire erupted from the red staff, slamming into the shield. Despite his best efforts, the shield collapsed in seconds. Lance fell back more out of exhaustion than the force of his mentor’s spell, dropping into an awkward seated position. Helen stood there, her staff upright once more as she allowed him time to rest before prompting him to try again.

When Lance got back to his feet, the result the same. It took him longer to recover this time, and his whole body ached. His legs were weak, threatening to give way at any second, which was exactly what happened. On the third attempt, he collapsed instantly as Helen’s spell struck his shield. She sighed and waited patiently as she leaned on this staff, but when she urged him to get up again, Lance remained where he was.

“Apprentice…” she started.

“Are you sure I should be doing this?” Lance asked. “I can’t even control a fire. I’m not ready to maintain a shield of energy around myself.”

“Well you have to be,” Helen replied very matter-of-factly.

“You can’t just force someone to be better, that’s not how it works!”

“Why don’t you go and tell that to the Templars, then?”

There was a moment of silence in the conversation as they both stared at one another, before Helen frowned and spoke again, “I’m sorry. I’m trying my best to get you ready, it’s just that-”

“No, I’m sorry,” Lance interrupted. “I’m a terrible student and a terrible mage. I don’t want to make my life or yours any harder, but I just don’t have any talent with these spells. I’ve always been a failure.”

Her mentor knelt down, lowering herself to meet his gaze as he sat on the courtyard tiles, “You know why they chose me to train you?”

“Yeah. You were pretty troublesome as an apprentice, weren’t you? Even tried to escape a few times.”

“But I never told you how I ended up becoming a mage, did I?”

Lance shook his head, and she continued.

“When I was a little younger than you, I fell in love with another apprentice. We scouted out every part of the Gallows we were allowed to go, found many different ways to hide from the templars. We even planned to run away together. Del and I had every detail worked out.”

“Del?” Lance looked at her with a curious glance. “Isn’t that one of the-”

“Tranquil, yes,” she finished his sentence for him. “He was a good man, but he wasn’t a particularly skilled mage. When the time for his Harrowing came, the templars decided to cut off his connection to the Fade, and with it his dreams, his emotions. His humanity. They made him a Tranquil.”

Lance stared blankly, not certain how to respond. For a mage who had little contact with the world outside the Circle, he usually considered himself quite socially adept, at least compared to the other mages. He wasn’t prepared for such a personal story from his mentor, though. As she paused in solemn reflection, all he could manage was, “That must’ve been difficult for you.”

“It broke me,” Helen nodded, “and it remade me. Seeing what he’s become showed me what’s at stake here. I wasn’t going to let them do to me what they did to Del. I was going to undergo the Harrowing, or die trying. So I gave up my fantasies of escape. I spent long nights in the library. I kept practicing until I completely drained my mana. And I became a mage.”

“But you had the potential to be a good mage, just not the focus. I don’t have what it takes. I can never do what you do, I just wasn’t born that way.”

“You don’t get it. Failure isn’t an option. Not in the Circle, and not out in the world either from what I’ve heard of it. Yes, life isn’t fair. We’re born as mages and we have to spend our lives here. We have to make do with what we’re given by the Maker.”

“And if the Maker didn’t give us enough to work with?”

“Then make up for it. With hard work or determination or sometimes even other paths. You have to find your way in this world, Lance. The Circle decided I was the best person to guide you, but there’s only so much I can do. You have to want to move forward.”

“I do,” Lance insisted. “But what other paths are there for my lack of magic? The only alternative to drawing power from the Fade is forbidden magic like drawing from blood, and that’s just going to get me made Tranquil even faster. I-”

He didn’t finish his response. Both he and his mentor had their attention instantly drawn to the corridor that connected to the courtyard. The loud clanking of heavy armour and the sound of heavy footsteps that echoed from it meant only one thing- templars on the move. Lance had a mortified expression on his face as he stood up, terrified that his mention of the highly taboo ‘blood magic’ had roused the Gallows’ vigilant watchers.

When he looked down the hall and realized that the templars were actually moving away from them, his fear washed away in a wave of relief before being replaced by curiosity. The two templars Lance could see halted at the end of the corridor and seemed to be observing something. They didn’t draw their weapons or unsling their shield from their backs, which was good. Then, one of them turned around and took a few steps in their direction.

“Enchanter!” the templar called. “We need healing!”

Helen made her way into the hall with a glance towards Lance, “Stay here, apprentice.”

Unsurprisingly, Lance didn’t follow instructions. He genuinely considered it for a moment, but figured that since the templars didn’t go for their swords, there probably wasn’t any danger. He stepped out behind his mentor, who gave him a disapproving glare but didn’t try to dissuade him further as the templar who asked for her seemed rather impatient. If the templar didn’t want Lance to come, he would stop him, but the armoured man did no such thing.

At the end of the hall and down a flight of stairs was a larger courtyard where a number of templars had gathered. In the centre were two templars on the ground, one who was injured and the other kneeling beside him, supporting his fellow. Part of an arrow shaft still stuck out of the wounded knight’s left shoulder and his helmet was nowhere to be seen. The crowd parted as one templar made his way to the front, and Lance instantly recognized him as Knight-Commander Ross, head of the Kirkwall Templars.

“Knight-Corporal Manuel,” Ross addressed the injured knight. “Aren’t you supposed to be with the Enchanters we sent on the Exalted March?”

“We...we were ambushed near the border,” Manuel responded through ragged breaths. “Our Enchanters…”

Lance listened from behind the templars who surrounded Manuel and the Knight-Commander, but Helen made his way through the gathering. As soon as she reached the wounded templar, she pointed her staff at him and a blue glow began to encircle him. Many of the other templars turned suspicious gazes on her, having been trained to be uneasy when they witnessed magic, even when they knew it was healing. The spell visibly invigorated Manuel as more red flushed into his skin and his breathing settled to a more steady rate. When Helen knelt down and reached over to try and remove the arrow however, the man waved her off.

“We failed, Knight-Commander,” he continued. “Our Enchanters are dead. It’s like the last Exalted March all over again.”

“Why aren’t you regrouping with the rest of the forces?” Ross asked. “Surely we didn’t suffer a total loss, and they can still use a warrior like you.”

“There’s some left and fighting,” Manuel nodded. “I hope they made it to the main force, but I had to come back to warn you.”

The Knight-Commander narrowed his eyes, “Warn us?”

“They’re moving beyond Antiva now. I saw them land near Ostwisk. One group headed north, the other west along the Vimmarks. I beat them here, but they're not far behind me. The Qunari are in the Free Marches, Knight-Commander. And they’re coming for Kirkwall...”

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