Read an Extended Excerpt of Dragon Age: Last Flight

Dragon Age: Last Flight by Liane MercielDragon Age: Inquisition is here! And, just in case that isn’t enough Dragon Age for you, we wanted to give you a chance to immerse yourself further in the world of Thedas. Read an extended excerpt of Dragon Age: Last Flight, by Liane Merciel.

Chapter 1

9:41 DRAGON

Weisshaupt.

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 the arid Anderfels, Valya guessed.

“You’ll begin with materials from the Fourth Blight,” Caronel said, leading them to a smaller chamber that opened off the side of the main library. “The older records are beyond most of us. If you’ve made a study of ancient languages, we’d be glad to have you look at those…but I’m guessing that you haven’t, in which case the chronicles from the Fourth Blight will be difficult enough.”

He stood beside the archway and waved them in. Leather-bound books in uniform rows covered the shelves that lined the chamber’s upper halves. They had the look of official histories, recorded after the fact by scribes in quiet rooms. Underneath those neat gray tomes, enormous ironbound trunks rested against the walls. Two of them were open, revealing a clutter of books, papers, scraps of parchment, and other miscellany that appeared to have been loosely sorted by size but was otherwise unorganized.

“The trunks contain primary materials. Original reports, notes from the field, letters from Wardens and soldiers. It’s most likely that you’ll find what we’re looking for in there,” Caronel said from the archway.

Valya barely heard him.

In the center of the room was a glass sarcophagus raised up on a dais of gilt white marble. At its head, a pair of enormous black horns spiraled up almost to the ceiling, their tips lost in shadow. The sarcophagus was obviously very old; although slightly tinted, the panes of glass set into its walls and lid had been painstakingly cut to avoid bull’s-eyes, ripples, or other flaws common in older glass. The panes in the coffin were no bigger than Valya’s palm, but each one was flawless.

Feeling as though she’d fallen into some kind of trance, the young elven mage stepped through the archway and approached the sarcophagus. Through the lattice of glass and lead, she could see a suit of silverite plate mail gleaming faintly in the wan gray sunlight. It didn’t look like ceremonial armor. The Wardens’ griffon was etched upon the breastplate, and there was some simple chase work on the helm and pauldrons, but it had the look of hard-used service mail. Old sweat stained the leather straps, and whoever had last polished the armor hadn’t quite been able to get all the dents out.

The armor’s empty gauntlets were folded over two weapons: a long knife in a plain leather scabbard, and a graceful, swooping longbow with a pair of gray-and-white feathers tied to its top end like a tassel. It was the sight of those mottled feathers, brittle with age, that made Valya suck in a sudden breath of recognition.

Those are Garahel’s.

Garahel was the greatest elven hero that Thedas had ever known. As a Grey Warden, he had been crucial in rallying allies to fight the Fourth Blight—and he himself had struck down the Archdemon Andoral, giving his own life to break the darkspawn horde.

Every elven child knew the story. Garahel occupied a special place of pride in their hearts. As an elf, he had suffered all the same indignities that they had. Outcast, spat upon, considered utterly beneath respect, he had nevertheless risen above that contempt and had not only forgiven his old enemies, but had spared them from sure doom.

Alone, he had ended the Fourth Blight and saved Thedas.

Valya passed her fingers reverently over the coffin’s glass facets. She didn’t dare touch them; leaving smudges on Garahel’s memorial would have been impious. But even that light brush sent a thrilling tingle through her skin. The hero of the Fourth Blight.

The other mages had filtered into the room behind her. They, too, looked at the coffin with its crown of ridged black horns. Their expressions shifted from confusion to awe as each of them came to the silent realization of whose arms and armor lay in that glass casket—and whose horns those were standing like a headstone above his memorial.

Behind them, Caronel smiled. “We keep relics from all the blights here. This isn’t just a library. It is a monument to honor the fallen.” He stepped away, taking his hand from the arch. “Call out if you need anything. There are always Wardens in the library, and the chamberlain’s office is nearby. There is a washroom near the back on the right, behind the case of ogre horns. I’ll be back to summon you for dinner.”

Then he was gone, and the four of them were alone with the books and the trunks and the Archdemon’s horns.

“Do you think those are really Garahel’s arms?” Padin whispered. She was the oldest of them, and the tallest, a gawky blond girl with pock-scarred cheeks and a habit of hunching her shoulders inward in a futile attempt to make herself small.

“Of course they are,” Valya said. “The Wardens wouldn’t have fakes.”

“Where do you want to begin?” Sekah asked. “With the official histories or the trunks?”

Valya hesitated. She knew very little about the real history of the Fourth Blight. Garahel’s heroism was a familiar tale, and she’d heard old songs like “The Rat-Eater’s Lament” and “The Orphan with Five Fathers,” which dated from the infamous siege of Hossberg, but the details of troop movements and battles were a mystery to her. The Fourth Blight had lasted more than a decade, hadn’t it? That was an enormous span of fighting. Where should they begin looking for traces of abnormal darkspawn, or Wardens who had absconded from their duties?

“We’ll start with the battle maps,” she decided. “We might be able to tell something from the Wardens’ troop movements. A picture’s supposed to be worth a thousand words, isn’t it?”

“If you know how to read it,” Berrith muttered. The pretty blonde still seemed to be sulking after Caronel had ignored her.

No one else protested, though. Padin lifted the oversized book containing the official versions of the Wardens’ battle maps and began leafing carefully through the pages. The book was very old, but it had been designed to withstand the march of ages and had been reinforced with spells for that purpose, and the colored lines denoting rivers and forests on the tough beige parchment were as bright as the day they’d been drawn.

Almost from the start, the darkspawn hordes overwhelmed the maps. Their forces were rendered as simple black sigils, menacing in their starkness. They marched on and on, swallowing kingdoms, erasing the names of villages and towns and cities under their onslaught. But the uniformity of the markings told Valya nothing about which darkspawn they’d been, or how they’d effected their conquests.

She turned her attention to the Wardens’ movements instead. Perhaps it would be easier to divine a pattern in their responses to the horde.

Unlike the darkspawn, the Wardens were not all marked with the same map symbol. The griffons were designated with a stylized eagle’s head, sometimes rendered in blue and sometimes in red; she supposed those were the forces headed by two different commanders. Cavalry were horse heads, again in varying colors, and infantry were marked by spearpoints. Little pennons sketched under the spears designated whether they were Wardens or allies from various nations.

But there wasn’t much of a pattern to those, either, at least none she could tell from looking at the maps without context. Gradually the other mages reached the same conclusion and drifted away, opening trunks and beginning to sift through the primary documents.

Valya stuck doggedly to the maps. She wanted to at least get to the end of the book before giving up and trying another tack.

A note in the margin of one map caught her eye. At first glance it looked like just another town or village somewhere outside Starkhaven, right on the edge of the darkspawn horde and doubtlessly soon destroyed by the same. Nothing noteworthy.

But the name was the Elvish word for “griffon,” which seemed an unlikely choice for a human village, and there was a subtle shimmer of dust rubbed into the parchment underneath it. Lyrium. It was only a tiny amount, and very dilute, but after years of apprenticeship in the Circle of Magi, Valya recognized lyrium dust immediately. That green-blue glow, constant through the world of the living and the Fade alike, was utterly unique in Thedas.

She glanced over her shoulder. No one was paying her any mind; they were all immersed in searching through their own letters and journals.

Cautiously, but curiously, Valya drew a thread of mana from the Fade and tried to view the map through the shifting lens of magic. The pale blue agate in her staff gleamed, just faintly; she could pass it off as reflected sunlight if anyone looked her way.

No one did, though, and when Valya glanced down at the map, she was very glad for that. A single line of Elvish script shimmered on the map, glowing pale blue as magic flowed through the lyrium-laced ink in which it had been written.

Lathbora viran.

Valya released her hold on the Fade as soon as she saw the words. They faded back invisibly into the parchment, but they stayed bright in her mind. Lathbora viran.

The spelling was archaic, as were the forms of the letters, but she understood the words all the same. There was no exact translation into any human tongue, so far as Valya knew, although the phrase could be clumsily reduced to “the path to a place of lost love.” It was a quote from one of the few great poems to be remembered through the oral traditions of the Dalish and the alienages, and it described a wistful wish for beauty that one had never actually experienced in life. It was a sweetly painful sensation, akin to nostalgia but laced with greater bitterness, for a nostalgic man remembers the pleasure he has lost, whereas one experiencing lathbora viran longs for a thing that he can never really know.

“Under the blackberry vines, I felt it,” Valya muttered under her breath. That was how the poem opened: with the musky fragrance of ripening blackberries, bitter and sweet, and a wish to remember the long-lost scents of Arlathan.

The poem itself was lathbora viran, because no elf she’d ever met remembered it in the original Elvish. The elves had a few fragmented words and the skeleton of the story, but the poem itself had been haltingly re-created in human tongues. No alienage elves knew enough of their own history or mother language to recall their civilization’s lost works of art. They didn’t even know the original title. “Under the Blackberry Vines,” it was called, because no one knew the true name anymore.

It was a strange thing to find on a war map from the Fourth Blight. There was no question in Valya’s mind that the lyrium-laced message was contemporaneous with the map’s original drawing. Indeed, the spell that hid it from casual view might have been woven into the same enchantment that preserved the map’s more obvious markings.

But why? Why would someone conceal a snippet of poetry so that it could be found only by a mage and understood only by an elf? Unless it wasn’t just a line of fanciful nostalgia….

Had there been blackberry vines among the carvings in the other room?

Valya went back to find out. The main library was mostly empty, with just one gray-haired Warden looking through the windows at birds singing in the inner courtyard. Valya moved quietly around him to examine the carvings of fruit upon the walls.

They were as she’d remembered: figs, pomegranates, citrus fruits…and one solitary blackberry vine with broad-petaled flowers blooming alongside tight buds and lush berries. The carved vine encircled a torch sconce tucked between two shelves, then trailed down to a gray stone bench built into the wall.

Valya peered under the sconce. Nothing stood out to her there. Under the bench, however, there was another faint shimmer of lyrium dust rubbed into one of the stones in the walls. This time it was so light that she would never have seen it if she hadn’t already been holding on to the Fade.

With another backward glance to ensure that no one was looking, she touched the Fade again and channeled a second wisp of magic into the stone. It vibrated as her magic touched the lyrium-rubbed rock, and the block shifted outward an inch.

Tense with nervous anticipation, Valya gripped the sides of the block with her fingertips and awkwardly wiggled it loose. When it was almost out, she eased it down to the floor carefully, and exhaled in quiet relief at how little sound it made.

Behind the loose block was a little hole in the wall, and in that hole was a single book, small but thick. Its cover was scuffed and bloodstained, and its pages were warped with old moisture, but it seemed to be in good condition. Biting her lip, Valya pulled it out, and then she carefully replaced the stone block and sat on the bench as though nothing at all were amiss.

She opened the book, unsure what to expect. It was filled with script in a fast, careless hand, feminine but not soft in the slightest.

In the year 5:12 Exalted, it began, my brother, Garahel, and I flew to Antiva City.

Chapter 2

5:12 EXALTED

The second time Isseya climbed into a griffon’s saddle, she was riding to join a war.

Neither she nor her brother, Garahel, was anywhere near ready for it. Greener than seasick frogs, their lieutenant had called them, and he’d been right.

The two of them had become Grey Wardens scarcely a year before, and had been assigned to the Red Wing of the griffon riders only four months earlier. They were still practicing on horses with big wooden boards on their saddles to mimic the obstruction of griffons’ wings. Only once, strapped into back saddles with more experienced Wardens at the reins, had either Garahel or Isseya ever flown—and that was merely a test to see whether either of the young elves suffered from crippling vertigo or fear that would make further training a waste. Under normal circumstances, they wouldn’t have seen aerial combat for another year.

But the Blight waited for no one.

Four months earlier, darkspawn had come pouring out of the north, answering the call of a newly awakened Old God. They’d boiled up from the depths of the earth, using the ancient dwarven Deep Roads to travel unseen by human eyes. Caught by surprise, the nations of Thedas had been wholly unable to mount an effective defense against the darkspawn hordes.

Antiva, which had come under attack first, had lost ground as fast as the monstrous army could claim it. The scattered militias of the towns and villages in its outlying lands were no obstacles to the darkspawn. Their walls were smashed and trodden underfoot, their citizens slaughtered or carried down to the Deep Roads to meet a worse fate.

The river city of Seleny, fabled for its graceful bridges and sculptures, had fallen after a siege that lasted only four days. For weeks afterward the river had been fouled with corpses. The people of Antiva City had watched them float by, spinning out to sea, day after day, and with each bloated body their fear had grown.

In such desperate straits, there was no time to finish the young Wardens’ training. And as Isseya flew into Antiva City, clinging to the back of the senior Warden ahead of her and squinting against the whipping wind, she understood just how dire the capital city’s situation was.

Antiva City sat on the edge of a shimmering blue bay. Rich green farmland and orchards surrounded it in a ten-mile belt inland, stretching farther along the shores of the river that ran to the ruins of Seleny.

Beyond that fringe of fertility, the Blight had swallowed Antiva. The corruption that flowed through the darkspawn had poisoned the land under their march.

Even from a thousand yards in the sky, Isseya could see that the earth was barren and twisted where the horde had passed. Above it, the sky roiled with clotted black clouds. Leafless trees stood like skeletal sentinels over shrunken creeks, which ran low in their banks as though the earth itself were drinking them dry. Fields of grain lay withered and rotted, with nary a green patch to be seen amid their curling gray stalks. The few animals she saw were mostly crows and vultures, their hunched bodies scabby and featherless from the Blight disease they’d contracted while feeding on darkspawn corpses.

The darkspawn army itself was a blur of black mail and tattered banners. Isseya barely saw anything of them. While the darkspawn themselves could not fly—other than the Archdemon, which as of yet few had seen—their arrows and spells could reach some distance into the air, and so the griffons climbed high to avoid them. Clouds sheared off the sight of the hurlocks and genlocks massed around their emissaries and ogres, and for that, Isseya was quietly grateful.

Past the army, they descended again, for the air above the clouds was too thin and cold to hold the griffons for long. Isseya saw no people in the blighted lands as they crossed over Antiva. They were dead, fled, or in hiding. There were hundreds camped outside the gates of Antiva City, though: refugees clad in rags and desperation, living in wagons and crude makeshift shelters, eating whatever they could find. Their stench was overwhelming. The city’s gates were closed to them, and had been since news of the Blight reached the capital, but they had nowhere else to go.

“They can’t go on like this,” the elf whispered into her companion’s back.

She hadn’t expected her words to carry over the rush of the wind and the griffon’s wings, but somehow the senior Warden heard her. His name was Huble, and Isseya didn’t know him well. He was a grizzled old veteran, survivor of countless skirmishes against hurlocks and genlocks, and he spent most of his time ranging far afield of Weisshaupt on the back of his griffon, Blacktalon. He was not one to frighten easily, but his face was grim when he turned in the saddle to answer her.

“No, they can’t,” he said, and returned to guiding the griffon.

A few minutes later they were circling over Antiva City. Holding the loose wind-whipped ends of her hair back with one hand, Isseya craned to look down between Blacktalon’s sweeping wings. She’d read about the glories of Antiva City many times, but had never seen them herself.

The port city was said to be a glittering gem, and from the air, that was true. The Blight had not yet touched the capital. The Boulevard of the Seas was still strikingly beautiful, its turquoise and sea-green tiles bright against the white marble of the main road. The Golden Plaza still threw sparks of fiery sunlight from the dozens of gilded statues that adorned its broad expanse. And the Royal Palace remained a sight of breathtaking grandeur, its slender towers and stained-glass windows set alight by the sinking sun.

But there weren’t as many ships in the harbor as Isseya had expected. There were some royal warships, and a scattering of smaller vessels painted with the Antivan golden drake, but few merchant craft of any kind. She guessed that most of them had fled to safer shores, bearing as many passengers as could pay whatever exorbitant fees their captains cared to charge. Even the little fishing boats seemed to be missing.

There weren’t many citizens abroad on those beautifully balustraded streets, either. The markets were sparsely populated, the stalls mostly bare. Although the danger had not yet reached their gates, Antiva’s people seemed to have hunkered down in their homes, bracing themselves against the storm they knew must come.

Then they were descending past the palace’s curtain walls, and Isseya’s view of the city was cut off by high sheets of stone.

The palace courtyard was a maelstrom of dust. Two dozen griffons had been assigned to the Royal Palace, along with an equal number of Grey Wardens, and the clamor and chaos of their arrival overwhelmed the castle’s servants. The griffons were particularly difficult; the great beasts were territorial and short-tempered at the best of times, and the long flight had made them especially irritable. Several of them had flown up to the curtain wall, where they beat their wings and shrieked at anyone who came near.

The Antivans gave the griffons a wide berth as they brought bread and wine to the Wardens, and Isseya couldn’t blame them. She’d been working closely with the animals for months, grooming them and feeding them and learning to read their ever-changing moods, and she was still routinely intimidated by the winged predators.

An adult griffon could grow to be more than twelve feet from beak to tail, with a wingspan even greater. The males weighed more than a thousand pounds, the females only slightly less. Their beaks were powerful enough to snap an elk’s thighbone effortlessly; their claws could shred plate mail like damp paper. Although the Grey Wardens tended to select their smaller and lighter members as griffon riders, enabling the beasts to serve as steeds longer and under harsher conditions, a healthy griffon was fully capable of fighting with two men in full armor on its back. They were fierce, fearless predators, full of wild beauty and quicksilver rage.

Isseya loved them. She loved their power and their grace and their musky leonine smell. She loved the way their bright gold eyes would close halfway when they were pleased with her grooming, and the earthshaking rumble that passed for their purrs. And she loved the sheer unfettered freedom they had in the air, and the extraordinary gift of flight that they could share with their riders when they chose.

Because a griffon always chose. One could not compel the great beasts to carry riders they did not want. A griffon would sooner hurl itself into a mountainside than it would accept servitude to a master it disliked. They were never servants, never slaves. A griffon was a partner and equal, or else it was a foe.

That was why training a new griffon rider took so long, and why Isseya didn’t fault the Antivans for being wary of their huge feathered guests. A griffon was nothing like a dog or a horse, or even one of the spotted hunting cats that some Orlesian nobles were said to keep on jeweled leashes. They were proud and jealous and wild, and a wise man never forgot that.

The Wardens certainly hadn’t. They helped the servants set out washtubs of water for the griffons, tasked one of the senior Wardens to watch over the beasts, and filed into the castle. The griffons would be fed later, separately. Offering them meat while they were crowded together was too likely to start fights.

Isseya hoped no well-meaning servant tempted them, but it wasn’t her duty to watch the griffons this evening. She followed the others into the palace’s shade, falling in alongside her brother.

Garahel shook dust out of his golden hair as he walked. He’d already washed his face, probably sneaking a few handfuls of the griffons’ drinking water to do it. Isseya hid a smile. Her brother could be unutterably vain…but, she had to admit, not without reason. Elves were widely accounted to be more beautiful than humans, but even by that measure, Garahel was exceptional. High cheekbones, brilliant green eyes, and a smile that made ladies—and not a few men—go weak in the knees. He was far better-looking than she was, and frankly Isseya was glad. Beauty was a poisoned blessing for an elven woman in Thedas.

Her brother wasn’t smiling today, though. No one was. If the mood in Antiva City had been grim, the mood in the Royal Palace was positively sepulchral.

Huble led them through the palace’s defensive outer walls and its ornamental inner ones. The servants pressed against the walls as the Grey Wardens went past, watching them go with flickering, fearful hope in their eyes. The palace guards, all dressed in ceremonial mail with Antiva’s golden drake standing proud on their surcoats, gave them brisk nods and stood aside respectfully at each door.

Although Huble set a quick pace, it seemed to take forever to reach their audience. Isseya had always thought that Weisshaupt Fortress must be the largest building in the world, but Antiva’s Royal Palace came close.

Finally, after crossing an interior garden filled with climbing roses in a dozen perfumed shades of red and yellow, they came to the small hall where the king and queen awaited. Warden-Commander Turab, the stout red-bearded dwarf who served as leader of the Grey Wardens in Antiva, was with them, as were twenty Antivan Wardens and a small knot of richly dressed men and women whom Isseya took to be high-ranking nobles.

“Huble,” the Warden-Commander said, inclining his head in gruff greeting. “No trouble getting here, I hope?”

“Not much,” Huble said. He bowed formally to the king and queen. The Antivan royals responded with measured nods. King Elaudio was in his mid-forties, Isseya guessed. He was a kind-looking but timid man who hesitated visibly before every movement. His queen, Giuvana, looked slightly older. Broad bands of gray streaked the rich chestnut of her hair, and smile lines softened the hard planes of her face.

Theirs was said to be the rare royal marriage that was founded on love, Isseya recalled. The queen had been born to a wealthy and honorable merchant house, but her blood was scandalously low by the standards of Antiva’s court. Nonetheless, King Elaudio had chosen her as his bride, and over the decades, their union had won the approval of their people. It helped, no doubt, that Queen Giuvana was a devoted patron of the arts, and had invested much of her considerable fortune into the beautification of the capital city. Her influence had made Antiva a center for art and culture in Thedas, rivaling the greatest cities of Orlais and the waning Tevinter Imperium.

“You have come to help us defend our city?” Queen Giuvana asked. She did not speak loudly, but so hushed was the hall that her words reverberated through the audience. “To save Antiva in her hour of need?”

It was hard to turn down that quiet, dignified plea. But clearly, the Grey Wardens meant to do just that. Huble and Turab exchanged looks, and then the human Warden shook his head. “No, Your Highness.”

A frown shadowed the queen’s brow. “No? So much will be lost if this city falls. Sculpture, music, art. Our libraries. Our mosaics. Not only the works themselves, but the knowledge that created them. You cannot mean for us to abandon the legacies of so many lifetimes.”

“Antiva City cannot be defended,” Huble said evenly, dividing his attention between the two royals. “Not for any real length of time. A few days, a few weeks, if we’re lucky. No more. You didn’t have enough warning to prepare. The darkspawn tore through Antiva too quickly. The city doesn’t have enough food stored, enough soldiers trained, or enough weapons and armor to equip them. The sea will help, some, but the darkspawn will come over the walls long before they try to starve us all out.”

“Our walls are very strong,” King Elaudio offered tentatively.

“Yes, Your Highness,” Turab agreed, with as much gentleness as the brusque dwarf could muster. Isseya could see that he’d grown fond of these people, and did not relish shattering their hopes. “That is what might give us those weeks.”

“Then there is nothing you can do?” the queen asked. Disbelief crept into her melodious voice, making it thin and brittle. “How can the Grey Wardens accept defeat so casually? The singers make you out to be such legends, but you want us to surrender our entire city—our entire country—before the first blow has been struck?”

“A city pinned against the sea with all its hinterlands seized by darkspawn,” Huble said. Impatience and anger had crept into his voice, although his face remained frozen in a respectful mask. “Have you looked at Antiva City on a map? You’ll get no reinforcements and no resupply. The rest of the country will already be overrun by the time the horde comes to your walls. The darkspawn don’t have siege engines, it’s true, but they don’t need them. The ogres will hurl genlocks over your walls to crash down on your people. Whether the genlocks survive their impact hardly matters. Once enough of them have come down, they’ll spread the Blight disease, and that’ll be the end of Antiva City. And that presumes the Archdemon doesn’t come. If it does, you won’t even have days.”

The royals had gone pale. Isseya sneaked a glance back at the knot of Antivan nobles. They, too, looked deathly frightened. She felt more than a little of that fear herself. It had been two hundred years since the last Blight had touched Thedas, long enough for tales of Toth and Hunter Fell to fade into children’s stories.

Now the monsters had come out from under their beds, and their claws were sharp indeed.

“I asked Huble to bring a force of Wardens so that we’d have a chance to evacuate the city,” Turab said with the same dogged patience. “You still have enough ships to take your people into Rialto Bay. They can find refuge on some of the larger islands. Darkspawn can’t swim and don’t have ships, so you and your people will be safe there.”

King Elaudio closed his eyes for a minute as he tried to run through the numbers. “We’ll be lucky to save a third of them.”

“You won’t save any if you stand and fight,” Turab said. “Your Highness, these Wardens came here willing to lay down their lives to save your people. But they need you to lead them to safety.”

“I’ll think on it,” the king said quietly. He raised his hands and put the palms together in a soundless clap, signifying that their audience was at an end.

Warden-Commander Turab and Huble bowed to the royals. Along with the rest of the Wardens, Isseya mimicked the gesture, then followed their leaders out of the hall.

“They really wanted us to defend their city?” Garahel murmured to her as they were passing through the rose garden again. “For the sake of some paintings and fountains?”

The flowers’ sweetness was lost to Isseya, and the sun on her skin left her cold. She couldn’t stop thinking about all those people huddled outside the city gates, hoping desperately for a salvation that would be closed to them, and the people inside the gates, equally desperate, who might lose theirs if the king and queen clung too long to their impossible hopes of beating back a siege.

“Of course they did,” she whispered back to her brother. “They’re people. They want hope.”

“We gave them hope,” Garahel replied. “We gave them all the hope the world is going to allow. And they won’t take it because they want more?”

Isseya shook her head unhappily, unable to articulate her sorrow. As they left the garden and passed back into the relative cool of the palace’s interior halls, she shivered. The sun hadn’t warmed her in the slightest, but the shadows seemed unbearable.

Turab took them down to one of the guard barracks. It had been cleared for the Wardens’ arrival. Even with the Blight on the city’s doorstep, the palace servants had taken the time to lay out clean blankets on the cots and hang bundles of dried lavender from the walls.

The peppery-sweet fragrance of those tiny purple flowers was painful to Isseya. The darkspawn had no concept of beauty, no use for the small, civilized gestures that made the world a more pleasant place. They just…killed and destroyed and poisoned, and where they passed, no lavender would ever grow again.

She sat heavily on the side of a cot, fingering the rough woolen blanket that some servant had washed and folded for her. Probably they’d chosen their best blankets, out of gratitude for the Wardens coming to rescue Antiva.

“We have to save them,” she mumbled.

But she said it very quietly, and to no one in particular, and if anyone heard, they did not answer.

Chapter 3

5:12 EXALTED

The next morning, Warden-Commander Turab split them into pairs and sent the Wardens ranging into the air to scout for any possible escape routes over land, points at which Antiva City might conceivably be defended, or information about the darkspawn horde. The Antivans had already provided the best maps they had, along with local goatherds and hunters who knew the hidden tracks around the city, but Turab wanted eyes in the air to match their information with current news of the darkspawn’s movements.

It was, Isseya understood, strictly a last resort. They’d be lucky to get a hundred Antivans out along the goat paths, and that only if the entire darkspawn horde could be diverted long enough to make good their escape. But if the king and queen did not act swiftly, it might be all they had.

That thought loomed large in her mind as she clasped her hands around Huble’s waist and braced herself for the lurch of the griffon beneath them. The ground heaved like a rough sea as Blacktalon coiled his muscles and leaped, his wings beating a blizzard of dust around them. Isseya held her breath, partly to keep from choking on the dust and partly out of instinctive reflex. It was impossible, utterly impossible, not to be wonderstruck by the magic of a griffon’s flight.

And then they were airborne, spiraling higher and higher over the Royal Palace, until the interior gardens were laid out like tiny tiles of gold-flecked green below and the guards on the walls seemed so many crawling bronze ants. The refugee tents were a blur of dun and gray outside the city walls, the docks a spiky white fringe along the cool green sea.

There seemed to be even fewer ships than there’d been the day before. “Are they evacuating?” Isseya asked.

Huble shook his head, waiting to answer until Blacktalon turned to coast on a current of wind. “The king has said nothing. But many of the captains aren’t waiting. Their warships started slipping out as soon as our audience was ended and they heard the Wardens weren’t going to be saving their city. Nearly a dozen of them escaped under cover of night. The royal guard caught one of the captains and hanged him this morning, but I doubt it’ll stem the tide. Hanging’s still better than dying to darkspawn.”

“Is there anything we can do?”

“Probably not,” Huble answered, “but we’ll try.” He tightened the reins against the right side of Blacktalon’s neck, signaling the griffon to dip to the right and swoop down. “Let’s take a closer look at these darkspawn. Maybe we’ll see something that can scare some sense into the royals.”

The griffon stayed above the clouds, using the gray sky for cover, as they crossed over the ring of verdant land around Antiva City and neared the darkspawn army. Then, cautiously, Blacktalon broke through the massed clouds and began a controlled descent.

The darkspawn horde stretched out beneath them, a knotted carpet of corrupted flesh gathered around ragged banners. They wore patchy armor and carried jagged weapons of impossibly crude make.

From this height, Isseya couldn’t begin to make out the faces of individual darkspawn, but she could identify the different breeds by their builds and the way they moved. Genlocks were short and squat, scuttling along low to the ground like four-legged spiders. Hurlocks stood taller and, although heavily muscled, appeared almost rangy next to the genlocks. They walked more upright, closer to the posture of men, but no one would ever have mistaken the white noseless face of a hurlock for that of a real human. Their dead eyes, corruption-blotched skin, and the blackish-red crusts that wept down their fish-belly cheeks ensured that.

Above all the others towered the ogres: horned brutes with leathery skin the color of old bruises. Their black claws were the size of ax blades, and just as deadly. According to Isseya’s lessons in Weisshaupt, ogres were one of the few darkspawn that could threaten a griffon in flight. Their ability to hurl boulders across great distances, with formidable accuracy and bone-cracking force, enabled them to strike griffons and riders out of the sky.

Mercifully, it didn’t look like there were many of them camped outside Antiva City. Then Isseya looked again, more carefully, and realized with a chill that the ogres only seemed few by comparison to the numbers of the other spawn in the horde. She counted at least fifty ogres amid untold thousands of darkspawn—which meant that, if it came to open battle, there would be twice as many ogres as griffons on the field. Even setting aside the hurlocks and genlocks, that was an impossible number.

And there was no setting aside the hurlocks and genlocks. She couldn’t begin to guess how many lesser darkspawn were there. The Blight presented none of the clues she might have used to guess the size of an ordinary army. There weren’t any smiths or servants or camp followers among the darkspawn. No supply wagons, no cook fires, not even latrine pits. Only the swarming, inhuman horde, who needed none of those things.

Shivering, the young elf looked away. “We can’t fight that.”

“No.” Huble flicked Blacktalon’s reins. He leaned down to utter a command to the griffon, and they rose toward the storm clouds again. “Neither can the Antivans. I hope we’ve seen enough to convince the royals of that.”

As the griffon began to climb through the clouds that followed the Blight, Isseya heard a faint, strange melody seep into her mind. She had no sense of it as actual sound; rather, it seemed to come from within, almost as if she were humming the tune to herself.

She could never have imagined such a song, though. It was the most beautiful thing she’d ever heard. Aching and ethereal, it seemed to pull her toward a memory of nostalgic bliss that she had somehow lost—but that she would do anything to recover. Anything at all.

Blacktalon’s screech snapped Isseya out of her trance. The griffon bucked its head violently against the reins, almost tearing them out of Huble’s entranced grip. The senior Warden had pulled them taut, evidently without realizing what he was doing. His posture was frozen stiff in the saddle, and although Isseya could not see his face, she guessed he was enraptured by the same music that had caught her.

Cringing at her own temerity, she slapped him across the back of the head.

Huble jolted upright in his saddle, cursing. He loosed the reins immediately, letting Blacktalon take the slack, and half turned apologetically back to Isseya as they dove upward through the storm clouds. “Thank you.”

“What was it?” the elf asked, shaken.

Huble didn’t answer until the wall of cloud separated them from the darkspawn horde. When he did, his voice was tight and strained. “The Archdemon.”

Isseya sat back in her saddle, glad that the restraining straps kept her buckled firmly into her seat. A little noise, something like a moan, escaped her lips and was swept away by the wind. Her legs and spine seemed to have gone to jelly.

Of course the Archdemon was with the Blight. The Archdemon was what caused the Blight. But it still unnerved her to think that one of the corrupted Old Gods was sitting somewhere in that mass of darkspawn, separated from them only by air and Blacktalon’s wings.

And what frightened her most, even more than the unfathomable destruction that the Archdemon would soon set loose upon that lovely, hapless city by the sea, was how beautiful the melody in her mind had been.

For the rest of their ride back to Antiva City, Isseya sat small and quiet on Blacktalon’s back, unable to reconcile the horrors of the darkspawn with the sweetness of their song.

“It’s the corruption,” Warden-Commander Turab told her later, when they were sitting in the barracks waiting for the royal servants to bring in their dinner. Isseya had finally mustered up the courage to approach the formidable-looking dwarf, and had found him unexpectedly easy to talk to. Under his bristly red mustache and scarred gray plate mail, the Warden-Commander had a good deal of caring for his charges.

He pitched his voice loudly enough to be heard by all of them, old hands and fresh-faced recruits alike, although it was clear that he meant his words mostly for the latter. “The corruption that allows us to sense the darkspawn, and protects us from their taint, also causes us to experience some things as they do. The Archdemon’s call is among them. It’s the same song you’ll hear when the Calling comes upon you, and it will grow stronger as the corruption sinks deeper into your bones. Someday, if you wait too long, you won’t be able to resist. Your duty is to answer the Calling while you still have the choice.”

“Does that happen faster because we hear the Archdemon’s song?” Isseya asked.

Turab shrugged in a clanking of steel and silverite. “It might. It comes a little differently to each of us.”

“Well, that’s something to look forward to,” Garahel said, slapping his palms on his thighs in mock-cheer. “And, oh, look, here comes dinner. I know I’ve worked up quite the appetite, hearing that story.”

Isseya didn’t even try to smile at her brother’s jest. She took a wooden bowl from a cart that one servant had wheeled in, and filled it with bread and stew from another. None of the food had any flavor. It could have been the sweetest honey cake or fermented pig shit; it would have tasted just the same to her.

She had been so proud when she was chosen to be a Grey Warden. Everyone knew that the Wardens took only the best: the keenest archers, the most skilled mages, the cleverest tactical minds. It had been her chance to leap out of the semislavery that was an elf’s lot in a human city and, together with her brother, prove her mettle on a more equal field.

Of course she’d known about the Calling. Everyone who had ever heard of the Grey Wardens knew that someday the darkspawn taint that the Wardens absorbed during the Joining would overwhelm them, driving them to madness and death. It might take thirty years or more, but eventually, if they lived long enough, every one of them succumbed. Their only choice then was to throw themselves into the Deep Roads on a suicidal quest to kill as many darkspawn as they could before they died. That was the Calling—the fate that awaited them all, if nothing else killed them first—and the foreknowledge of doom clung to the Wardens like a shadow.

But it had always seemed so far away. Romantic, tragic, a storybook ending that befell storybook heroes. Not something that Isseya had been able to imagine snuffing out the flame of her own life.

The sight of the horde and the echo of the Archdemon’s song had shaken that complacency from her.

She ate without tasting, and drank without thinking, and put her empty bowl back onto the servant’s cart without any memory of it leaving her hands.

After they ate, Warden-Commander Turab and a handful of the most senior Wardens, including Huble, left for a second audience with the king and queen. The others played cards or dice games to pass the time, exchanging ribald and frequently farfetched tales of their exploits before Antiva City.

Isseya didn’t join them, and barely listened, although she heard Garahel boisterously recounting some lie or another, earning raucous laughter from his audience. Her brother had a gift for taking his companions’ minds off unpleasant matters while diverting himself in the process. It was a strength she didn’t share. She simply sat, waiting, until the Warden-Commander and his delegation returned.

Their failure was written in the grimness of their faces.

“The queen still wants to fight,” Turab informed them in his gruff baritone, “and because she’s made her feelings so clearly known, Antiva City no longer has a choice. Virtually every able-bodied captain has set sail for safer shores, and every crippled one has been abandoned by his crew. If they’d acted yesterday, the king and queen might have been able to effect an orderly evacuation…but as matters now stand, there aren’t enough ships to save even the palace household.”

The Wardens absorbed this news silently. Then Garahel raked a hand through his blond curls and asked the obvious question: “What do we do?”

Turab shook his head unhappily. The little brass rings braided into his red beard jangled against one another. “We have three ships left with loyal captains. We’ll use them to evacuate as many war assets as we can. Mages, archers, templars—anyone with the strength and skill to aid us significantly against the Blight.”

“And the politically connected,” a scarred female Warden said contemptuously. The long black staff slung across her back marked her as a mage, but Isseya didn’t know her.

“Yes,” Turab conceded. He raised a mailed hand to quell some of the Wardens’ discontented murmurs. “They’re war assets too. Some of them have armies we can call upon. Some have landholdings that can provide us support. We’ll need food, horses, weapons, supplies. Money. Merchants and nobles can give us those things. That makes them valuable.”

“Meanwhile the poor, who can’t give us anything, will be left behind for the darkspawn.” The female Warden snorted. “How will that reflect on us?”

Turab rolled his shoulders in a shrug and trudged across the room to take a mug of ale sitting in the middle of an unfinished card game. “We’ll still look better than the darkspawn. Maker’s mercy, Dendi, it’s a Blight. You think I like this? The idiot royals dawdled a day too long, and now hundreds of people we could have saved are going to die. That’s not even the worst of it. We’re taking the royals ourselves. The rest of the evacuees are going by ship, but King Elaudio and his queen will be leaving Antiva City by griffon-wing, as will a select handful of their advisers.”

The scarred mage, Dendi, recoiled so far that her staff clanked against the wall behind her. “Who’s taking them?”

“You and Huble, actually. Blacktalon and Skriax are our strongest and fastest griffons; they have the best chance at outflying any dangers that might pursue from the air. Ostiver, Fenadahl, and the other mages will go with the ships. Their talents will be most helpful if it comes to fighting on the water. I will go with them to ensure that the captains and their guests honor the bargains they’ve struck. The rest of you will take the remaining griffons. Everyone gets a passenger—but only one.”

Turab surveyed each of them in turn, his gaze forbidding under his bushy red brows. “I won’t have you compromising the griffons’ maneuverability or endurance to carry out more people. Your first task is to make sure the royals get out alive. Do you understand?”

Isseya nodded along with the others. She wasn’t sure she did understand, really, but it seemed imprudent to say so.

“Good.” Turab drained his ale. “I’ll take you out to meet the griffons now. Try and make your matches quickly. We don’t have time to wait until morning. I want everyone out of the palace within the next two hours.”

Copyright © 2014 by Electronic Arts, Inc.

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