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Storm Age: Armada - Chapter Three

Apprentice Quarters

Kirkwall Gallows

It had been over a day since the warning about the approaching Qunari invaders. Knight-Commander Ross wasted no time making preparations. He had immediately ordered one of his subordinates to gather every mage and templar to defend Kirkwall. Of course, he meant all full mages, and so one of the templars ushered Lance away to the Apprentice Quarters. Soon, the other apprentices who were not already there filed in, and now they were all cooped up in the prison-like living spaces of the Gallows.

Only a handful of templars remained, both to watch the apprentices and to serve as a last line of defense. From what Lance saw, almost all of those were the younger, less experienced members of the order. As a city-state, Kirkwall possessed no standing army, and the Templar Order was the sole military force present. With an attack imminent, most of them had gone to defend the city. Lance recognized only one senior templar, Knight-Lieutenant Javer, who was likely left behind out of a need for someone to command the more junior knights.

The Gallows was deathly quiet, much more so than normal. Though not the most experienced, these templars were still well-trained, standing guard outside the doors of their rooms like suits of armour on display with only minor shifts of the body betraying the fact that someone was underneath the metal. The apprentices all spoke in hushed whispers, a natural reaction to the tense atmosphere around them.

As Lance sat fidgeting with the pages of a book he was in no mood to read, he thought he heard something out of place. He looked up, glancing around the room to see if anything here was causing it. Several of the other apprentices apparently heard it as well and their eyes were scanning the room, just as puzzled. It was a faint series of tapping noises, and Lance quickly dismissed it as a mouse within the walls.

Except the noises got louder. It went from taps to thumps that echoed through the Gallows’ halls and into the quarters. Lance could hear the sliding of steel as the templars outside drew their swords. By now, it was obvious that the sounds were rapidly approaching footsteps. A clanging became distinct from the other noises, suggesting that at least some of the incoming figures were armoured. Could the Qunari have made it all the way to the Gallows already?

He got his answer when one of the templars outside spoke, “Ser Derris? Weren’t you and those enchanters assigned to defend the city?”

“We’re all that’s left of those assigned to defend the city,” Lance heard Derris, whom he knew as a Knight-Lieutenant in the order, reply. “They’ve broken through the walls. We couldn’t stop-”

There were sounds of footsteps from a different direction which put a halt to the conversation. Soon, a voice that Lance recognized as belonging to Knight-Lieutenant Javer boomed just outside the room.

“Our defense, broken already?” Javer inquired. “How did this happen?”

“The Qunari had mages of their own. They targeted the sections of the walls that were held by the militia and not the templars. By the time we reached their mages, it was already too late.”

“Why didn’t you hold the gaps in the wall?” Javer continued to question his fellow knight. “They couldn’t have been that large. A few templars would’ve been able to stand their ground for some time.”

“They redirected their mages at other parts of the wall,” Ser Derris explained. “It was either go after them or risk them bringing the whole wall down. The Knight-Commander chose to go after them.”

“And where is Knight-Commander Ross now?”

“Dead. He felled three of the Qunari mages, but one of their mage-keepers struck a fatal blow.”

Lance couldn’t believe his ears. They had been expecting a Qunari attack for a day now, but for the walls to have fallen so quickly? Maybe they weren’t prepared for enemy mages; Lance hadn’t even heard of the Qunari having mages before today, but there were many things he was not aware of due to his isolated life in the Circle. He knew the dwarves did not possess a connection to the Fade due to living underground and thus closer to sources of lyrium, a mineral with ties to the Fade that no one quite understood. There was no reason to believe the Qunari were like that as well. Regardless, Kirkwall was being defended by templars, who were trained to fight mages. To have lost so totally and swiftly came as a shock.

“Maker...” muttered the junior templar who initially addressed Derris, clearly just as taken aback as Lance was. “So they’re in the city already?”

“I saw the Qunari rush through the breaches,” Ser Derris affirmed. “Lowtown’s probably overrun by now. I gave the order to retreat. We were separated by waves of those giants, there was no chance of regrouping.”

“So there were others still alive who were separated from you?” Javer asked.

“Were, yes. I doubt any of them can hold out until now, we were the largest group in sight and we lost a quarter of our people making our way here. Even if there’s templars and mages still fighting in the city, there’s no way we’ll break through to them. We have to try and get everyone we can out of Kirkwall.”

“Run?” exclaimed Ser Javer. “We are templars, Derris! We do not run from the Chantry’s enemies!”

“There’s no point in making a last stand, Javer,” Derris argued. “Even if we fell several Qunari each, we’ll make more of a difference if we can return with reinforcements in an organized counterattack.”

“And is there any guarantee that we’ll make it out? Is it not better to fight and take out as many of them as we can than to run and be struck down from behind?”

“What of the apprentices?” a new voice joined in, which Lance immediately recognized as that of his mentor Helen. “They are mages, but not ready to fight. If they survive, they can help in the battles to come, but if they all perish here…”

Lance was relieved to learn that she was among the survivors. He knew she had gone with the other enchanters to assist the templar defenders, and had feared the worst when Derris revealed the outcome of the battle. Until their last training session, Lance had regarded his mentor as someone who expected too much of him and pushed him too hard. Only now did he realize how she was actually looking out for him and had his best interests in mind. He regretted taking so long to understand her, and with their deaths at the hands of the Qunari quite possibly imminent, they might not have much time left. But it was better late than never, right?

He turned his attention back to the conversation outside and heard Javer insisting that the apprentices would “make do with what spells they knew.” This was a bad sign, seeing how little magic Lance was capable of.

“What spells do they know? Maker’s breath, most of them are still children!” Ser Derris continued to press his point. “It’s our job to protect them!”

“It’s our job to keep an eye on them,” corrected Javer.

“We can still do that outside the Gallows!”

“And what if they slip away in the chaos? Any damage they cause, any innocent people they hurt will be on us. Our primary duty is to protect the world from the dangers of magic. Even if I ignore the implications of fleeing our post when it is being assaulted by the Chantry’s greatest enemy, I can’t risk any mages running free without supervision.”

“I can take a few of the junior templars,” Derris suggested. “We’ll escort the younger apprentices out while you-”

Javer rejected the idea immediately, “No. I am the senior Knight-Lieutenant and Ross put me in charge of the Gallows. I command you to stand and fight!”

That ended the argument. There was nothing Derris could say to a direct order. Lance continued to listen and overheard the occasional conversation outside as templars and mages alike prepared for the coming onslaught. For the next few minutes, sounds of armoured footsteps became the norm, and Lance was surprised when a templar didn’t just walk past but pushed open the door, gesturing for him to exit.

The apprentices gathered outside their quarters. Ser Derris quickly explained the situation- nothing that Lance didn’t know from listening in earlier. Several of the other apprentices, who were in dorms further from where the templars were arguing, had visible expressions of surprise and fear on their faces. He could tell that many of them wanted to speak up or even object, but none dared to do so in the presence of the templars. When Derris asked if anyone had questions, no one else said a word.

Lance raised his hand, “What if we can’t cast spells well enough to fight?”

“Then Maker help you,” he replied despondently. “Maker help us all.”

And with that the templars led all the apprentices through the Gallows. They passed through the familiar halls and stairways until they reached the courtyard in the centre of the complex where Ser Manuel had first told them of the inbound Qunari. Here, it had all begun, and it seems here was where it would all end.

The gate to the large outer courtyard was shut, a dozen templars assembled in the entryway in organized lines, shields ready and swords drawn. Behind them were four templars with bows, and further back stood the nine remaining full mages of the Kirkwall Circle. Knight-Lieutenant Javer stood in the very centre of this formation and waved the new arrivals over. Derris and the two other templar escorts joined the front lines, while Ser Javer directed the apprentices to join the mages. Lance took a spot slightly behind his mentor.

“This is crazy,” he whispered. “They don’t actually expect me to fight, do they?”

“Just follow my lead,” responded Helen in an even softer voice.

“I can’t cast the spells you do!”

Helen shook her head, “Don’t cast. Save what mana you have. Watch me carefully.”

Lance nodded, but still wasn’t quite sure what his mentor wanted. Perhaps she expected him to watch her back and let her know if any enemies were sneaking up on them? Or maybe she wanted him to learn something from her, but what could be the point now, when they’re all about to die anyways?

He didn’t have the chance to continue pressing her. A loud groan emanated from the gate, its bars bending outwards, pulled by some unseen force. The Qunari mages he heard about had arrived. The whole ground began to shake, tiles splitting apart beneath them and dust breaking free from their prison, covering the whole courtyard with a haze. Lance coughed, as did many others around him, but the noises were drowned out as the gate finally gave way, collapsing with a heavy thud and bringing chunks of weakened wall down with it.

The Qunari poured in like water through a crack. A group of muscular warriors wielding greatswords charged the templars, and the Chantry’s knights met them with their own swords. Blows were parried, blades met blades, greatswords smashed onto plate mail and shields onto flesh. The din of battle was almost what Lance imagined the atmosphere of a smithy being, if it weren’t for the yells and screams, of course. From this distance and in the night, he couldn’t make out the blood and gore closely, and for that he was grateful. He could clearly see why the Qunari were referred to as giants however- even their smallest soldier stood a head above the tallest templar.

The first wave was quickly repelled by the templars, though not without cost. Two of the templars were on their knees, and the defensive line visibly wavered. One of the mages, a man with a greying beard whom Lance knew as one of their Circle’s Spirit Healers stepped forward, casting a spell that enveloped all the templars at the front of the formation in a blue glow. The two injured templars quickly rose again, invigorated by the magic.

As the second wave of Qunari closed in, a senior enchanter began waving his staff. Bolts of lightning crackled through the air around the entryway, striking anyone that passed through. The enemies caught in its radius sizzled and collapsed, with only one particularly stubborn Qunari making his way past the fallen gate. He staggered towards the templar line, badly hurt, and was finally dropped by an arrow from one of the templar archers.

The Senior Enchanter drained most of his energy from keeping up the spell, visibly pale as the lightning fizzled out. Seeing the magic fading, more of the horned giants charged forward. They clashed with the templars once again, with mages and archers assisting and sending bolts of arcane energy flying the air alongside arrows. An enchanter flipped through a sizable tome as she appeared to follow its instructions on a spell, and when she finally completed her gestures, the swords of the templars at the forefront of the fighting lit up with flames along their blades. Qunari upon Qunari fell, cut down by searing swords and set ablaze by the fire.

In all this, Lance kept an eye on his mentor. He noticed that her contribution was minimal, only firing off the occasional bolt from her staff. He knew Helen was capable of far more magic than that. Was she reserving her energy for later? This was probably not a bad idea at the moment, since the others appeared to be holding the line just fine.

Then a massive Qunari, large for even his people, stepped into the fray wielding a huge maul. With a single strike he battered away the shields of two templars like they weren’t even there, knocking both knights off their feet. He quickly followed through, bringing the maul down on one templar, crushing his helmet and killing him instantly. The blood that splattered over the giant’s bare torso seemed to strengthen him as his next attack was even more devastating. He swung his weapon in a wide arc around him, toppling multiple templars and forcing those who didn’t fall to step back.

An elven mage pointed her staff towards the Qunari and ice crept up around him, freezing him in place. The templars still standing seized the opportunity to strike and the horned giant was taken down by slashes and jabs from multiple directions. A blue glow enveloped them again as the Spirit Healer worked his magic and a few of the templars who had been hit by the maul began to recover. It was too late, however. The line was broken.

“Fall back!” Ser Javer cried. “Fall back to the inner courtyard!”

Qunari started to push past the templars. Those at the very front of the now shattered formation were overrun, their armour’s protection unable to hold out against the repeated blunt force of the giants’ attacks. Several Qunari targeted the mages, who hurled spells as they backed away. Two of them could not retreat fast enough and were struck down by enemy blades. The elven mage who had frozen the massive Qunari earlier allowed her pursuers to come close before unleashing a cone of frost in front of her that froze three warriors solid. The proud look on her face was cut short as she looked down to find a javelin through her chest and crumpled to the stone floor.

Lance sprinted with the other apprentices and reached the inner courtyard unscathed. Helen was right behind him, casting a fireball that blasted back one of the Qunari on their tail. Only a handful of templars managed to make it this far, forming a single defensive line instead of the multiple rows they had previously. The elderly Spirit Healer was the last one in as he inscribed a defensive glyph on the ground in front of the templar line before he ducked behind the shields. The two Qunari that followed him were paralyzed as they stepped on the glyph, becoming easy targets for the templars.

The Spirit Healer reached inside his robe and retrieved a small vial of blue liquid- a potion of lyrium. This liquid was made from the same material that rendered dwarves unable to use magic, but while dwarves developed an immunity due to living close to its source, the processed product was often used to produce or enhance magic. Templars received their ability to counter magic from lyrium, Tranquil employed it in enchanting, and when mages drank potions of lyrium, their connection to the Fade was temporarily strengthened, increasing their mana.

As more Qunari came through and the templars did their best to hold their ground, the healer drank the potion and worked on another spell which surrounded each templar with a magical barrier. The other mages assisted, some casting supporting or healing magic and some directly attacking the enemy. Even most of the apprentices joined in, using what spells they knew to try and help the outnumbered defenders of the Gallows.

Helen was not fighting though. His mentor had slowly edged away from the courtyard and beckoned to Lance, who suddenly realized what her plan was. He followed suit, and when the battle was at its height, Helen grabbed his wrist and pulled him around the corner. The two began to sprint through the halls, her hand gripping his arm tightly as she led him along, leaving the sound of swords and screams behind them.

When they finally slowed to catch their breath, Lance addressed his mentor, “You were planning to run all along?”

Helen nodded, “They won’t let us evacuate. After all they put us through, the templars expect us to stand and die with them? The Circles aren’t even officially Chantry organizations. They just watch over us. We have no obligation to fight in their wars.”

“Kirkwall is our city too. You’re a local as well, aren’t you?”

“You didn’t see what it was like out there, Lance. Kirkwall is lost. A few mages won’t change anything.”

“And the other mages?” asked Lance.

“I told them of the route I was going to use with Del all these years ago. I’ve been there recently, it still leads into Darktown. It’ll be up to them whether to take it. I hope they do.”

“Darktown? That’s still in Kirkwall.”

“There’s tunnels that lead out of the city, sewer entrances and such. I know the way. All those escape attempts weren’t for nothing.”

He had to trust Helen. His mentor wanted the best for him, that he understood now. Lance would gladly stay and fight the Qunari if he could, not for the templars, but for the chance of being a hero like those of legend. He knew full well that he couldn’t, though. If he died here today, his death would be anything but heroic. So he followed her.

They were moving through the Gallows at a brisk walk when the noise of fighting drew closer yet again. Helen paused and Lance halted behind her as they listened. The sound of clashing blades was still some distance away, though there were footsteps approaching them. Lance looked around and seeing an open door, darted into one of the side rooms. Helen did the same and they shut the door, waiting quietly inside.

Lance and Helen remained in the room for several minutes, letting the steps pass by before they slowly and cautiously exited the room. The corridor looked clear and they proceeded on, but they didn’t get far before a shout interrupted them. Spinning around, they realized that they had been spotted by three Qunari who had just entered the hall from the other end. One of them tossed a javelin at the pair and would have struck Lance if not for the telekinetic shockwave that Helen released. The force staggered Lance, but the much lighter spear was knocked aside and clattered against the wall before landing harmlessly on the floor next to them.

The two Qunari who held greatswords ran at the mages. Helen raised her staff and the warriors stopped and were slowly dragged back despite their efforts to advance. The spear-thrower was pulled forward, all three of them sucked into the epicentre of a dark mass of energy that had formed in the middle of the hallway. The Enchanter pointed her staff in their direction and a large fireball shot out at the three helpless giants, engulfing them in flames. Two more Qunari rounded the corner and Helen waved her staff to cast another spell but was suddenly frozen in place, her mouth agape in silent agony as if her breath was being squeezed out of her.

That was when Lance got his first look at a Qunari mage. The first thing he noticed was the chains held by another giant behind him as if the mage was some kind of leashed war hound. The Qunari holding the leash looked taller, but then Lance realized it was simply because the mage was hunched over. He then saw that the mage’s horns were mere stumps, as if they had been severed. His face was completely covered by an elongated mask with only small slots to see through. This was a tormented being. It was almost like how Lance had visualized the demons of the Fade.

Any sense of pity turned to pure terror as the mage made his way towards Lance and his mentor, lightning charging up on his fingertips. When he stretched out his hand to unleash the arcane power however, it discharged only a few sparks into the air before it fizzled and died out. The Qunari examined his hands in confusion and his handler shook his chains, yelling something in a foreign, incomprehensible language. The reason for the failed spell soon became apparent as a helmetless Ser Derris entered the hall behind the Qunari, running his blade through the one holding the leash.

With Derris’ templar powers nullifying the Qunari mage’s spells, Helen was freed as well and she dropped to her knees, gasping for breath. The handler roared in pain but refused to die, using the last of his strength to swing his greatsword, which slammed the Knight-Lieutenant across his chest and sent him flying back into the wall. The blow disrupted the templar’s focus and Lance saw the sparks once again emerging from the mage’s fingertips. Thinking fast, he grabbed the javelin that had been thrown at him earlier, aiming the pointed end forward as he ran straight at the Qunari mage.

The throwing spear pierced skin and flesh and stabbed into the giant’s chest. He stumbled back, his spell failing once more as he was struck. Lance tried to dislodge the javelin, but it was too deep within its target. The Qunari mage grasped him by the neck and hoisted him up, his fingers clamping tightly around his throat. He grasped back, yanking off the Qunari’s mask to reveal a terrifying face contorted in pain and lips sewn shut with stitches. Channeling all the power he could manage into his right hand, Lance shot a single bolt of arcane energy into the giant’s head at point-blank range. This sapped all the strength from him, and he felt himself slipping out of consciousness, whether from exertion or the grip of the Qunari mage he was not sure.

A warmth enveloped him and he found himself reinvigorated, his breathing slowing to normal. Lance opened his eyes to realize he was on the ground and Helen stood over him, offering him a hand. He took it and she pulled him back to his feet before her gaze turned briefly to the Qunari mage, now motionless on the floor. His handler was dead as well, with Ser Derris retrieving his sword from the body. They didn’t get any time to rest as more footsteps became audible from the other end of the hall- the Qunari that had passed them by when they hid in the room must have heard the commotion and were returning.

Helen readied her staff, but Knight-Lieutenant Derris moved between her and the direction of the incoming enemies, shield raised, “Go! I will hold them here for as long as I can.”

They didn’t waste a second of time. Helen nodded her acknowledgement before turning to leave the other way. Lance said a quick “Thank you” and went after her. The sound of steel on steel echoed through the hall as they ran. Helen led her through less and less familiar corridors into a part of the Gallows which Lance had never seen despite all his years here. This area must normally be forbidden, at least to apprentices. Some places here appeared to have completely fallen into disuse and were now dark and filled with cobwebs.

Before long, they were squeezing through drainage pipes. The stench of sewage filled the air around them, but Lance ignored it, pressing on. There was no turning back. As the stone around him became rougher and rougher, he knew that they were leaving the Gallows behind them.