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His blade hit the Chevalier’s shield at just the wrong angle and snapped. Cursing, Samson ducked as the enemy’s sword whistled over his head, then turned his shoulder just so and charged the chevalier full-tilt.
The blow staggered Samson’s foe, but that Orlesian-built armor—shiny as a fake smile, embossed with ornate steel roses—took most of the impact. The chevalier kept his footing, letting Samson spend his strength. Locked face-to-face with his enemy, Samson found himself staring into well-fed, aristocratic features. The moustache was waxed and the skin powdered, so the sweat and stink of battle didn’t offend that sensitive nose.
The chevalier, younger and stronger, started levering him back. As his boot slid in the mud, Samson brought up the broken hilt of his greatsword and rammed it into the man’s side, where the seams of that fancy breastplate didn’t quite meet. The chevalier choked wetly, dropping his sword to clutch at Samson’s arm like he was drowning. Samson ripped the hilt free and buried it in the chevalier’s throat. Blood spilled down, turning the armor’s steel roses crimson.
As the chevalier collapsed, Samson was already turning with the bloody hilt in his hand, searching the battlefield with his general’s eye. These open farmlands near Montfort didn’t offer much cover—the treeline was close, but they hadn’t made it in time. My templars. Are they all right?
From nowhere, a memory rose up from the weariness and confusion of battle; and he thought of a folded paper bird, wings spread, tossed into a muddy puddle and trampled underfoot.
Samson blinked to clear his head.
His templars were there, in one piece. Susanne was running the chevalier’s squire through with her shortsword, wearing the same expression she used while threading a needle; nearby, young Wystan, a sandy-haired lad, expertly held off a grey-bearded chevalier. Before Samson could step in to help, Wystan’s sword flashed down and took the chevalier’s hand—clad in a steel gauntlet—clean off at the wrist before cutting him down.
Elsewhere, someone’s cries ended with a gurgle and silence fell. It was over.
Catching his breath, Samson pulled off his helmet. He wasn’t primped and powdered; sweat plastered his dark brown hair to his scalp, and his face was coarse with stubble. His old armor, which he wore like a tomcat wears its fur, was scarred and nicked with nary a rose in sight. But he and his templars were alive, while the polished Orlesian chevaliers—leaders of a patrol who’d gotten suspicious on the road—lay dead at their feet.
Still, maybe Maddox could do something with it.
Picking up the sword’s broken blade—and stepping over the gaudy Orlesian greatsword in the grass—Samson whistled the signal. His soldiers gathered at once with perfect discipline, like the Chantry templars they’d once been. But now their obedience wasn’t chained to the bloody Chant and the lyrium forced down their throats. Young recruits and veterans, men and women, they were united by a greater purpose—a better cause than some unseen Maker’s.
Something else united them, too, and you could see it better when they were all gathered like this after a fight. They each had a strangely reddish cast to their eyes, revealing the source of their strength.
“Bloody chevaliers,” Samson said, walking up the ranks to check the wounded. “Can’t keep them alive long enough to teach ‘em a lesson.” As his templars grinned, he came to young Wystan, who was leaning on his sword and breathing heavily. There was no sign of blood. “Did he get you in the ribs, Wystan?”
“No, I’m just…“ Wystan straightened. “I’ll be fine, ser. Just a bit winded. I can march.”
Samson looked at him.
That’s what they all say when it starts, a treacherous voice whispered in his head. They don’t want to let you down.
“All right, try to keep up,” Samson told him. “Grab the baggage and let’s get back.” He was thirsty all of a sudden, and for more than water.
The camp was in a remote copse of trees in the hills far above Montfort, where the eastern wind carried the salty, peaty smell of the Nahashin Marshes. They would soon need to march to Therinfal Redoubt, but for now it was quiet here, and secure.
Samson spoke to the guards and led his squad inside, washed off the worst of the sweat, then began his rounds. The camp was set up in a large clearing with fresh stumps here and there. Tents ringed the central fires where rabbits and a saddle of pork dripped crisp fat into the flames. Each soldier Samson passed saluted him respectfully: some carrying armor or supplies, others working at a whetstone or cooking or training.
On a small rise above the camp, hammer strokes rang out from a single tent, patient as drops of water shaping stone. Maddox was tireless.
It seemed like any other military camp. But Samson passed a slender woman who was carrying several hundredweight of plate mail on her shoulders without breaking a sweat. And when the man at the whetstone cut his thumb on a newly-honed dagger, he didn’t flinch.
They are fearless, Samson thought with fierce pride as he nodded to each one, seeing that reddish gleam in their eyes. The Chantry never knew what it had.
He passed a tent guarded by two of his best and most trustworthy soldiers, armed to the teeth, eyes fixed forward. From within, Samson caught sight of a faint red glow; there was sound of liquid pouring into cups, while a reassuring voice spoke.
The red was the source of his templars’ power. Those chevaliers saw that power and called them monsters, acted like they weren’t even people. Same ignorant bullshit, different day. Samson had heard much the same said about burned-out templars. Or people like Maddox. Or mages. All because the Chantry kept hammering fear into people’s heads.
But all the Chantry’s mistakes are coming home to roost.
As he finished his rounds, Samson spotted a familiar figure huddled near one of the cooking fires. Wystan was seated on a log, wrapped in a blanket and shivering despite the steady heat. Samson frowned and caught the arm of a passing sentry, then pointed at Wystan. “That lad there? See if he’s had supper. If he won’t eat, make him.”
“At once, general.”
Deliberately, Samson made himself turn from the bright firelight and warmth of the camp, and walked away into the heavy darkness under the trees. There was a faint path there, one he could follow without a light by now. A bird piped once, twice.
Eventually Samson heard thick, strangled breathing, and turned to it without fear. He paused as he came amongst hulking shapes that towered over him, each as red as cinnabar with eyes that shone flatly in the early starlight. Samson spoke to them calmly but firmly, and was answered.
A general takes care of his troops, Samson told himself, even if some sleep in a different camp.
Even if he has to steel himself to look at their faces.
When he returned to camp, Samson went straight to his personal tent. Inside it was dark and musty. His bunk was barely slept in. Papers—maps, reports, requisitions—covered the top of a table nearby. An empty bottle chimed against his boot as he went to the chest in the corner.
He rummaged through his things, came up short, and kicked the blighted chest in frustration, then began digging through a pile of clothes, looked under the table, then under… “There.”
Shining dimly under his bunk where it had rolled was a small vial of glimmering red liquid. Just looking at it made that parched feeling in his throat and gut much worse.
Samson lay flat and stretched out his arm under the bunk, stretching out his fingers. It took several tries to hook the vial before he was able to snatch it out and drink the contents down.
It wasn’t like drinking water. The bitter liquid slid over his tongue like syrup and seemed to run right through to his bones.
Samson sat on the ground and leaned against his bunk as strength and warmth welled up inside him, strength that seemed now to have always been there. The faint sounds of the hammer from Maddox’s tent became tones ringing in crystalline air. His breathing and heartbeat were a complex harmony of their own.
A small dose of red lyrium always eased Samson’s nerves. A whole vial calmed his soul all at once. He could think of Wystan, or the faces out in the woods, without flinching.
The noise of the camp went on outside. Two guards spoke together near the opening of the tent, the oily red of their eyes faintly luminous, then moved on.
Samson sat up a little straighter and looked down at the vial he was weighing in his hand. A few ruby-like drops of precious lyrium clung to the inside. He held the vial high and shook the drops into his mouth.
Every day in Kirkwall, a revered mother gave the templar recruits their lyrium—blue lyrium—in a little chalice with Andraste’s face on it. Like the muttonheads they were, the recruits drank it unquestioningly, because they loved the Maker, or because they wanted to serve, or because they trusted the Chantry. At first, it seemed like a real blessing. The lyrium took away your fear and left power in its place.
But like any power, it was addictive. At least the red had… compensations. The Chantry lyrium? You never realized it was taking more than just the fear, slowly, painlessly, until one day you woke up and you couldn’t do without the stuff.
Samson let the empty vial roll out of his hand.
He had been thrown out of the Templar Order by the holier-than-thou Knight-Commander Meredith for one mistake after getting hooked on the lyrium they ordered him to drink. So what if he bent the rules? He had had his reasons. And that blighted city needed all the help it could get.
It didn’t matter. He’d been kicked out onto Kirkwall’s streets anyway, to suffer the horrors of lyrium withdrawal alone.
Maybe it had been for the best. Eventually the preaching, the lyrium, the lies all made you something less than human. The Chantry might as well have mages animate suits of armor to do their dirty work.
“My sword,” said Samson, lurching to his feet. He’d forgotten about the broken blade until now. It was a better thing to think about than the past.
Samson found the pack where he’d stowed the shattered blade, put it over his shoulder, and strode up toward the lone tent above the camp. The hammer blows were still ringing out. It was getting late, but Maddox rarely slept.
Inside, the tent was surprisingly cool, despite the shimmering glow from the lyrium forge in one corner. The soot stains on the interior canvas made eerie patterns, and there was a sweet smell of evaporated lyrium as well as smoke. Samson passed a rack of ornate, mysterious tools arranged by size. Bottles of potions and essences and rare dusts. A quenching trough. Three books with singe marks on their covers.
On one side, leather cuttings were laid out, beside a wooden mannequin covered in the beginnings of a suit of armor: breastplate, gauntlets, greaves, all made to Samson’s measurements. The armor was built of fine steel, but heavy red lyrium outcroppings, folded into the metal, showed what that steel had been alloyed with. It smelled of hot iron and old blood.
Samson paused and reached for the breastplate. His templar-trained senses could feel the power sleeping inside it. When the time came, he knew donning the armor would be like drowning in molten glass, red on red—an ocean of pain with strength unconquerable on the other side.
He grinned at the armor, challenging it. His templars endured their own trials; this was Samson’s. He would bear up as they did, and survive, and be remade. Nothing worthy came for free.
Maddox was working at the anvil, hammering steadily in a sweat-stained white shirt and a leather apron, his hands wrapped with cloth to protect against sparks. In the years Samson had known him, he’d gone from a gawky, young mage to a seasoned craftsman. Now under his hands, a new piece of that armor was taking shape from steel and crystal shards melding effortlessly together.
Samson set down his pack.
Maddox looked over his shoulder. He had a narrow, gentle face with eyes as calm as a deer’s. His dark hair was closely shorn, making the sunburst brand on his forehead stand out.
“Hello, Samson. I hope you are well.”
Maddox watched as Samson undid the pack, but kept working. He could forge with his eyes closed, and even if he smacked his hand with the hammer, Samson knew he wouldn’t make a peep—except to apologize for breaking his fingers because they’d take time to heal. It was just how Tranquil were.
“Got a sword needs re-forging,” said Samson, drawing out the pieces.
Using tongs, Maddox placed the finished armor piece aside and took up the broken greatsword in both hands. “I see bending here and here. This struck a shield with great force.”
“It did,” Samson said. “Still, that’s a decent Kirkwall blade. Too good for scrap. See what you can make of it.” Samson looked around the tent with its little wonders. “You’ll have it done in a minute or two, right?”
Maddox looked up. “Oh, no. I will have to chisel the broken ends so they interlock before heating the forge sufficiently for the weld. Then—“
“Just a joke, Maddox,” said Samson, gently.
“Oh.” Maddox considered, then laughed obediently and methodically, making Samson wince.
Thankfully the Tranquil soon bent to study the broken sword again while Samson settled on a barrel, enjoying the heavy scent of lyrium vapor that lingered in the air.
What the Chantry did to its templars was unforgivable, but what it had done to Maddox was obscene. He was a mage at Kirkwall’s Circle, the Gallows—an ugly name for an uglier prison—while Samson was still in the Order’s good books. Maddox was no great shakes as a mage, but his parents were swordsmiths, and Maddox was forever making things in the Gallows workshop: bits of metalwork, a fancy hilt for a dagger, and once a new joint for Samson’s broken gauntlet, grinning at the chance to put a crooked thing right.
“If you ever need a favor,” Samson had told him when no one was listening, “you let me know.”
One day, Maddox had approached Samson in the Gallows, red to the ears, holding out a rolled sheaf of letters and mumbling, “For my girl, out in Kirkwall. Would you take them?”
After, Samson would occasionally berate himself for having taken the bloody things. He did favors for the mages sometimes—little errands, sometimes with a vial of lyrium to sweeten the trade. This, though, risked crossing a line.
But along with every bundle of letters was a sheet that Maddox had folded into the shape of a bird. Its wings were spread like the seagulls drifting on the wind near the Gallows’ high windows. Under Meredith, freedom was a cruel dream for Kirkwall’s Circle mages. They were often locked in their cells, watched night and day by templars who were told any step out of line was suspicious. All those young magelings, told that magic was a curse, that they were dangerous, and that they had to be shut indoors all their lives looking out through those windows. Some went mad. Others, mad or not, tried jumping.
But in the face of all that was this little paper bird, folded by someone whose dreams of freedom and his girl’s arms hadn’t died completely. A proof of humanity, when the Circle and the Chantry just wanted mages to be obedient things. So Samson took Maddox’s letters.
Eventually word got to Knight-Commander Meredith. She used it as an excuse to throw Samson out of the Order, claiming it proved he’d become “erratic” and “severely addicted to lyrium.” Those last letters had fallen, trampled in a puddle, as they shoved him away to Meredith’s office.
Samson found a new life in Kirkwall’s gutter as a lyrium-starved beggar. From time to time, he’d lend a hand to young mages looking for an escape. But Maddox had been accused of corrupting a templar, a serious charge. Meredith was merciless; she turned Maddox into an emotionless Tranquil with a lyrium brand. Maddox would no longer dream of the horizon, or fix something for the joy of it, or make his little paper birds. They retained his skills without having to treat him as a person, which seemed like the natural end point of every bloody thing the Chantry did.
When Meredith finally snapped and Kirkwall went up in flames, Samson tracked Maddox down. No one could make things right for him, but there had to be more to a boy’s life than that.
The surviving templars tried to restore peace to the city. Anyone who had once worn the Sword of Mercy—even broken-down misfits—was needed to help quell the rebelling mages. Samson tried to help, but what was he meant to do? Just forget? He’d seen both sides of things now, from the Gallows and the gutter. Pressed by the Circle’s rules, mages like the children that Samson had once helped were willingly giving themselves over to demons. First Enchanter Orsino, who Samson remembered as a kindly sort, had gone as bad as a mage could go.
And his brother and sister templars? The Kirkwall chapter had been under Meredith’s thumbscrews for so long that they barely knew right from wrong. For all Meredith’s railing against blood magic controlling people, fear had twisted the templars’ minds just as well.
That fear only grew after the young Knight-Captain, Cullen, left the city to follow some Seeker on Chantry business. With no new orders, the Kirkwall templars floundered. There was no relief anywhere. Every day more reports of the mage rebellion came in and how templars were fighting it. Hearing them, Samson could smell the blood and smoke of the war, how the Chantry’s impossible demands on both mages and templars were tearing the world apart.
One night, with his lyrium stash dry and Maddox sleeping at the shelter, Samson went to the Hanged Man to drink it all away.
Halfway through the second mug, he noticed a dwarf with strange eyes lingering nearby. The dwarf mumbled that there was someone upstairs asking for Samson by name. Curious, Samson left the cheery noise of the bar, climbed the dark stairs to a near-empty room, and found a figure staring into the embers in the fireplace.
At first he thought the stranger was wearing Grey Warden armor. But the silhouette seemed to alter as he came inside: becoming taller, misshapen, with an aura of powerful magic. Samson drew his sword, filled with a templar’s instincts, but the stranger just stood there, patiently, until Samson lowered it. He felt like those cold eyes were staring right through him.
Then the stranger said: “This place is foreign to me. Explain clearly: what is a templar?”
And Samson realized he had no real answer any more. Someone who protected mages? These days, the Order was putting half of them to the sword, or worse. Maddox’s mind had been destroyed, and the grand cleric barely slapped Meredith on the wrist. A soldier for the Chantry? Templars endured the horrors of magic—abominations, demons, blood mages—on the Chantry’s behalf, and what thanks did they get? A pat on the head and lyrium for the nightmares.
A knight of the Maker, then?
But what just and loving Maker would let his templars suffer like this? Samson’s broken prayers, during those long agonizing nights of withdrawal, had been met with silence.
“The Order deserves better,” he said aloud, without thinking. “We trusted them: we deserve better than being used until our minds are washed away.” His anger boiled close to the surface. “They treat us like animals. Their own templars!”
The stranger held up a lyrium vial, glowing red instead of blue. Samson eyed it sidelong, remembering Meredith’s end and the power she wielded.
“If you could tear this upstart Chantry out by the roots,” the stranger asked, “bring about a new Order, what price would you be willing to pay?”
“If it gave one templar a better end than mine,” Samson said, “I’d pour out my own blood for it. But I burned out long ago. You’re asking the wrong man.”
“I think not,” the stranger answered, holding out the vial for Samson to take. As simple as handing him a paper bird.
Things began to change after that. Samson paid the stranger’s price, would pay it forever, but he knew what he was buying. So did many other like-minded templars. As for the rest of the Order… Samson looked into the face of his guilt and accepted that too. If it meant a world where the Chantry’s crimes could never happen again, so be it.
And when you got to the core of it, Samson was burned out. His day was over… or so he’d thought. But this stranger—full of real wisdom and power, not just waffling about some unseen Maker—had seen past it all into Samson’s heart. When he could have picked any perfect, pious recruit, it was Samson to whom the stranger had offered command again—of an army that could put an end to all this.
Samson came to realize a few things. For one, soldiers would still follow where he led. He never asked a templar to do anything he wasn’t willing to do himself, which was a start. With a steady supply of lyrium, his nerves settled, his wits sharpened, and he could strategize again. Samson braced himself for the changes he’d seen in Meredith and in his soldiers… but those changes never came, not for him. The stranger spoke of the protection his magic could offer, but when Samson drank the red, he felt the stranger watching him, curiously.
In time that brought the second realization. Now that Samson had all the lyrium he wanted, he could look at the dosages he actually needed with a clear head. A nasty suspicion grew as he held up those ruby vials to the light. What if there was more to his addiction than he had thought? What if it had begun in some sort of… resistance to the lyrium, rather than a weakness for it? Or was that just another salve for his pride?
What if, what if. He could never be sure, now. But even the idea, and the trust placed in him, got him standing straight again, marching at the vanguard of his templars with their banner fluttering overhead. He would lead them to a glorious end, wherever that might be.
Samson hadn’t failed, after all. And he wasn’t lost. He had been chosen.
Now Samson looked at the solemn, incurious man who had suffered in those dark places beside him. “D’you ever think about the old days, Maddox? About Kirkwall or Meredith, or the Gallows?”
Maddox was laying fuel in the lyrium forge like he was placing chess pieces. “No. I have no dreams, and no capacity for regret.”
Samson laughed a bit. “Tranquility’s good for something, then.”
“But I could think on those times if it is required. Do you need me to do so?”
Glancing at the red and glittering armor taking shape on the mannequin, Samson shook his head. “Maybe you’re better off. I doubt steel would want to remember the forge it came out of, either.”
“I prefer it here,” said Maddox. “It is calm. I can concentrate on my work.” He paused. “Samson, a request? I find it harder to work when there is a lot of noise in the camp.”
Samson was about to say that he could move the tent farther away, when he heard a shout and screams from outside. In a flash, he shoved the tent flap aside and raced down to the camp.
Wild-eyed, his blanket smoldering where it had been flung in the fire, the young templar Wystan was staggering in a loose circle of his fellows, lunging briefly at each one. A dripping sword was in his hand, and the hollow sound coming from his throat was inhuman. A cook crouched by the fire, nursing his torn and bloody side.
The hair on Samson’s nape pricked him like needles. He had seen this madness come upon his templars before. But never so quickly.
Wystan snarled and slashed his blade at the others. From either side, three of the templars piled on him, dragging at his arms to bring him down—Wystan threw off two, and the third, the camp quartermaster, stumbled away clutching a terrible gouge in her face.
“Leave him to me!”
Samson shoved carelessly through the crowd and faced Wystan. The red gleam in the lad’s eyes was incandescent. “Stand off, Wystan,” he ordered.
Wystan grinned unevenly. The reddish tinge had spread to his teeth, to the nails of the hand that gripped his sword. And then Samson realized he’d sprinted out of Maddox’s tent with no weapon and no helmet.
“Stronger already,” whispered Wystan. “I can… We tasted the red, and soon they’ll be dead!”
His free hand clutched at his head as if in pain, before he leapt. Samson sidestepped, but the young recruit was well-trained. Wystan swung about and would have hacked down into the back of Samson’s neck if he hadn’t rolled away right at once. Samson scrambled to his feet, remembering brawls in Kirkwall’s streets after dark… and stranger things than thieves that prowled the shadows of Lowtown, there and gone like nightmares.
But this was no dream. This boy was his templar, under his command, his to protect.
“We tasted the red,” Wystan said again, weaving like a snake. “You gave it to us. We’re becoming… more. To fight for a new world. This is what you wanted.”
“But you’re letting it control you,” Samson said. The two of them were circling each other, eyes locked. “A man uses his strength. It doesn’t use him. That was the Chantry’s way. That’s what we took the lyrium into our own hands for. Remember?”
Wystan shrieked; the sound sawed at Samson’s ears like a demon’s challenge. Through it, from the crowd of soldiers shifting around them, a calmer voice said: “Excuse me, Samson.” The broken blade of Samson’s sword, the shattered end wrapped with leather, landed at the general’s feet. He flicked it up with the toe of his foot and wrapped one end of the leather tightly around his knuckles. Samson glimpsed Maddox’s emotionless face in the firelight before Wystan rushed at him, crazed, his own sword flashing.
Samson parried the stroke. Wystan pressed him and they clashed. Without a hilt, Samson’s grip was awkward, but he was able to dart and weave like a bee trying to land a sting. As Wystan swung at his head, Samson drew upon the lyrium he’d drunk earlier, drew back his empty hand, and punched Wystan in the stomach with unnatural strength. A red shimmer rippled out from the blow. The lad choked but didn’t drop his sword; instead he lunged for the kill. Samson brought up the broken blade and knocked Wystan’s sword up and off. The cut that should have taken out Samson’s eye passed over his shoulder in a blur.
Seizing his chance, Samson slammed his forehead into Wystan’s face. He saw stars, and something crunched, but it was Wystan who reeled away. The boy tripped. Droplets of blood flew as he sprawled on the grass.
Samson planted a knee on his chest and put his blade against Wystan’s throat. “Feel this? Feel the steel around your neck? That’s what the Chantry did. Poisoned us for its own power, then collared us like a rabid Mabari.”
He pressed harder for a second, knowing that he could kill this boy. He could end what was to come before it even started.
Then he lowered the blade. “And this is what we do. Because we chose to take control. Because we’ll burn it all down before we let the Chantry claim one more templar.”
Wystan went limp. The red gleam to his eye was softer now. He let out a strangled sob. “Ser. Ser, I—“
Samson moved his knee, grasped Wystan’s forearm and pulled him up. “It takes you like that sometimes,” he said. “The trick is to not be ruled by it.”
Samson raised his voice to the crowd of templars about them. “Let this be a lesson to the lot of you. We’re going to break this blighted world and rebuild it. There’ll be blood and a lot of it will be ours.” He hardened his tone. “Some of you will change—maybe into something monstrous. But then you’ll be invincible.
“We have to be monstrous. You think the world’s going to change because you ask it nicely? We’re fighting a beast that’s had its righteous claws into Thedas for far too long—we need the same ruthlessness. It takes fire and an anvil to forge a sword. Isn’t it worth the sacrifice? What’s the price of your heart and soul? The right to be your own?”
Someone started to clap; others joined in. Samson raised his voice to a roar the whole camp could hear, loud enough for those listening in the dark beyond, and thrust his broken sword to the sky.
“A red storm will rise!”
Cheers from every side became a chant: “The new world! The new god! The red storm will rise!”
Maddox put his other work aside and labored late into the night re-forging Samson’s sword. It had to be done carefully: this edge would again defend Samson’s life. He was Maddox’s general and his friend. All must be well. It was convenient that the blade suffered no further damage in the duel with Knight-Templar Wystan. Like the templars, it would survive to be transmuted.
By dawn, the sword was re-forged, with a little scrap metal left over. Maddox looked at it and recalled his conversation with Samson the night before, about Kirkwall and the life he once lived.
Tranquil waste nothing. Taking the scrap in his tongs, he heated it carefully, worked the steel on the anvil with a few deft blows, and quenched it. He set his creation on the table near the armor to cool—a little bird, wings outstretched, forged in steel.