The circle glowed orange, then burst into flames with a loud crack. Any grass in the area was already seared off, but the fire burned for a few moments before scattering outward and dying. Kit scratched the back of her neck, squinting at the impact zone. “Well?”
“That was a fireball.” Donna grinned apologetically.
I hemmed and hawed. “Fireball.”
“Instant. So, fireball.” Sigmund said. “Though the inversion was a nice trick. I think we’ve got the trigger set up, it just fires off too early? Not sure.” He grabbed his stub of charcoal and started adjusting his diagrams on the page. The line was thick and uneven, more blob than line.
“Hold on, let me pull down yesterday’s build.” I curled my finger, then focused toward the empty space. A wisp slid across the Veil, flaring up over my hand. “Hello! Can you show us our fifth try from yesterday?” The wisp bounced in front of my face, looking for the echo. Its recall speed depended on the strength of the Veil. The spell was popular inside of circles, but less dependable for traveling enchanters. In a remote area, with no mage or demon activity, it could be painfully slow.
Out here, we had Circle speeds.
The wisp stopped bouncing and dashed into the center of our group. With jerky movements, it started tracing out lines and curves into the air. Once it had made a full loop, it accelerated, forming a blurry green image of the glyph. Kit poked at the trigger stroke.
“I want to curve it around here,” she said, tugging on the line, “but then it crosses the buffer zone over here. Kills the pressure buildup.”
“Can we do a flat burn?” Sigmund asked. “We’d have to refactor this whole section, but it could-”
I shook my head. “We tried that design earlier. Without the blast it gets warm, never ignites. Kit’s right, we need the buffer.”
Donna stared at the lower portion of the glyph. “If we rotate that part, can we jam more of the buffer over there?”
“That would push the trigger stroke left, wouldn’t that cancel the effect?” Kit considered, then started moving sections around. “Maybe not, worth a try at least. Need a rework here, pull that part into there…” She fiddled with some of the finer details, deep in thought. Sigmund scratched out a line on his notes.
“Can’t get this part to move over. Know it can fit. Won’t slide in right.” Kit sat back and looked over the glyph, tapping her lip.
“Are you sleeping any time soon?” We all turned to face Corin, who had been quietly gnawing on a ram haunch for the whole discussion. “This is fascinating, but you all complain about casting when you’re tired. One of these days, your maybe-a-fireballs will fry you. Or, Maker forbid, me.” At our chorus of grumbles and “I suppose”s, he chuckled. “No need to thank me, just doing my job. Protecting mages. And also innocent bystanders.” He fluttered his eyelashes.
“And it’s our job to complain, remember?” Donna said. “Or had you not gotten to that point in your training?”
Corin snorted. “Pretty sure that part of the training goes ‘if they complain too much, they’re blood mages!’ Must have missed that day.” Sigmund closed up his book and I called back the wisp. “Thank you,” I whispered, sending it into the Fade. “Isn’t that what they said about all mages?” Kit asked. “Why not have one day of training, ‘everyone’s a blood mage, here’s some lyrium’?” Sigmund shook out the blanket and folded it in half on the grass.
“Come now, we know not all of you are blood mages,” Corin said, looking wounded. “I have it on good authority that some mages are abominations in disguise!” He rubbed his chin. “Too bad we never learned how to spot them.”
“Yes, it really is too bad," said Donna, eyes crinkling. “Those abominations are nothing but trouble.”
As everyone else climbed into the blanket, Corin and I walked to the firepit. I leaned down to open up the scrap bag. I stacked the old clothes over my arm, handing the lyrium vial up to Corin as I dug through the pack. “Thanks.”
“From the Sky Pillars? Damn. I need to stop powering through these.”
“We can make a run tomorrow. There are some new soldiers coming through, saw templars with them. They probably have fresh stocks.”
“Wish I still had my armor. We'll have to be careful." I'd prefer not to kill them was implied.
I folded the bag shut and we continued toward the edge of camp. There was a hill with a tall rock formation in the middle that let us see most of camp. Our packs stood in the brightest ring of light around the fire. The lyrium was usually the biggest draw for thieves, but we also had old manuscripts that we couldn't replace. We liked to keep an eye on them. Past the fire, the others curled against each other in the blanket. We'd ditched our tent and some of our heavier supplies in a run-in with Qunari agents, but we'd had a string of clear nights. For now, the blanket was enough.
Corin stood against the rock, pushing one foot flat on the stone behind him. I sat down and started unwinding the grip on my staff. The sun had set completely now, and the last breaths of evening wind were dying down. Near the camp, a stream cut up slices of reflected moonlight. I moved the pile of disintegrating fabric to the side, and started tearing strips from an old robe. If I’d had any lacquer, now would be the time to apply a coat, but my pot of lacquer was on an unscheduled trip to Par Vollen. Instead, I knotted one end of the new strip to hold it in place, and started re-wrapping, holding the first loops tight with my thumb.
By the time I tied off the first layer of fabric, Corin was almost done. He tipped the vial vertical and tapped against the edge. Satisfied that he’d gotten the last dregs, he set it on the ground. He picked up his bow and a handful of arrows, splaying them between his knuckles. He looked over, expectantly. We’d pinched some good arrows from an Orlesian barracks, arrows we didn’t want to lose on practice. I choked my hand up my staff. Before the new grip could unravel, I flicked my other hand, creating a small ring of force around him. When he fired, the line of arrows slowed to a stop. He plucked them out of the air and repeated the shot, aiming at some distant rock.
I went back to wrapping my grip. Force magic looked flashy, but we joked that it came naturally. No one casts the same first spell, but their second spell is always deflection. Knight-Enchanters claimed "deflection" was a kind of barrier. For elemental mages, they called it "the element of disguise". I'd even heard a variation with blood magic. But for every subject, the next part went the same.
Are we learning how to cast it now?
Casting what? I'm just here to take you to the dining hall.
As much as the older teens would tease sheltered Circle babies, they relied on them for information about the Circle itself. Many a rumor was started by some grinning Circle tyke, mad with power.
Enchanter, I saw Andre drop his staff and pick it up real fast. Is there a blood mage in the tower?
Including a persistent superstition that mages dropped their staves when mind-controlled. Every few years, it came back in a different form. The mage does it as a last act of defiance, reducing their usefulness to their attacker. Or maybe maleficarum and demons don't like staves, it interferes with their casting. Or mind control isn't perfect, so the victim acts clumsy. Whatever the explanation, all it took was a single child pointing at a drawing of abominations with empty hands, and I'd spend the next few months reassuring young mages.
But what if he's trying to get my attention, and the blood mage tried to hide it!
If someone is controlled, they usually don't have time to call for help. They're not controlled, and then they are.
In retrospect, not the most comforting way of putting it. But the younger mages were terrifyingly practical. As long as they grasped the order of the world, they had no preference for whether it was grim or bright. Accounts of abominations and thralls erupting in violence? To them, that was life. They were far more troubled by Phoebe of Amaranthine, who credited her lush nature poetry to "Pique", believed to be a rage spirit. Or the Forbidden Hospice, where the dying bought rituals that removed their sense of pain. Shuttered in late Blessed as a peace offering to the southern Chantry.
For once, I wasn't throwing complexity at him. The young mage hopped in relief. Oh, that's good to hear! He borrowed one of my books yesterday. I thought I wouldn't get it back!
The Veil pulsed. Corin scooped up the suspended arrows and kept them arranged in his hand. I stood up, finishing the last few turns of fabric and tucking it through. I dispelled the ring. In the center of camp, Donna was sitting up, her eyes wide open.
“What is she seeing?”
Corin didn’t respond, but I could tell he was following her lines of sight. Donna stood, white-gold light spreading from her eyes and blooming along her skin.
“At a guess, I would say-”
“COWARDS!” Valor’s voice boomed into the night. An arrow sang out from behind a rock, landing in her stomach. In one smooth motion, she pulled it out, dropping it on the ground. A point of light appeared where the arrow had been, then went dark as it healed shut. We could see furtive movements where Kit and Sigmund slept, as they woke up, recognized the situation, and rolled out of the way.
“YOU COME TO US, HIDING BEHIND ARROWS”
On cue, more arrows flew out of the darkness. By now, the glare was so bright that most of them went wide. Corin returned their fire, picking them off as he saw movement. I quickly summoned a wisp, blowing it toward the main body of archers. As their hiding space lit up, Kit and Sigmund slammed them to the ground and sealed them in a firestorm.
“TOO AFRAID TO APPROACH WITH WORDS!”
Valor was pulling out arrows by the handful now. Corin quickly put down the stragglers still burning in the firestorm, then looked around for the second group. Sigmund dropped a paralysis glyph next to our bags, guessing that the intruders would be looking for valuables. A few seconds later, his guess proved correct, and Corin finished two more off with shots to the chest. Kit spun ice bolts behind the two corpses, hoping to land a freeze on some of their backup.
"BANISH YOUR FEAR, AND COME TO US AS FRIENDS!"
But the remaining attackers had seen enough already, and they ran off into the night. By degrees, Donna’s skin dimmed and went dark, until her eyes were the only thing still glowing. When those blinked human, she moved up to Corin and dropped a wad of arrows in his quiver. “As I was about to say, I believe it’s our turn to keep watch.”
It wasn't, but Donna had been having strange dreams for over a month now. She said that keeping watch helped clear her mind.
Kit moved to follow her to the edge of camp. “Sleep well.” Once we'd salvaged the rest of the arrows, Corin, Sigmund, and I climbed into the blanket and went to sleep.
The next morning, Corin was having a heated discussion with some stranger. A few paces away, Sigmund stood in front of a large pile of items, his arms crossed. Was it someone we’d stolen from? No, the stranger was trying to make nice. I blinked back sleep and got up, hearing Donna and Kit moving behind me.
“Dirthamen’s feathery nutsack, what happened to 'come as friends'? Blighted waste of time!” The elf was unarmed - no, she’d dropped her weapons on the ground. A sash of daggers, two larger daggers in sheaths, probably from her belt, weighted gloves, a suspiciously serrated hair pin, and a knapsack. I rounded on the knapsack. It was open, and absolutely filled to the brim with spike traps.
Kit came up behind me. “Who is this? A pirate?”
The stranger turned to scowl in our direction, but brightened when she saw Donna. “Ah, Coward Woman. You’ll speak to me!”
As if she had not woken up to a knife-plated elf calling her Coward Woman, Donna smiled. “I saw you come back for the bodies last night. Thought you’d be around.” She reached over to clap the elf on the back, jerking her head toward the campfire when we gave her nothing but blank stares.
“Come, eat with us. We still have plenty of ram roast. Cold, I’m afraid.”
“That sounds marvelous. I am Lisse, by the way,” she added, turning toward the rest of us. Inexplicably, she was much friendlier. I still didn't understand why Valor's calls to action worked. Like a chantry mother asking for rededications, someone always came to the front. Even if we'd tried our hardest to kill them the night before. Donna made introductions as we walked. When we reached the center of camp, she tore off a hunk of meat and offered it to our guest.
Lisse played with the clasp of her cloak and produced a dagger, using it to tuck into the roast. “As I explained to your quiet mage man, I’m joining your group.” Sigmund’s lips pursed. I couldn’t tell if he was affronted that she’d already forgotten his name, or wondering how many daggers she was still hiding on her person.
Corin rolled his eyes. “As I explained to the walking Crow supply closet, we can’t just take on anyone.” He turned to Donna. “We do remember the last time Valor brought in strays?"
“I remember having to sleep in the mud before those ‘strays’ gave us a quilt, Corin.”
“Yes, they were so polite before that ritual with the gurn.” Corin rubbed his temple, sticking his free hand into the scrap bag. “I will give them that.” He batted his hand around at the bottom of the bag, pointedly ignoring the fact that I was shaking my head at him. With both hands, he began lifting objects out and stacking them at his feet.
“Can’t find the lyrium?” Kit asked. “Is there some in the-”
"We're out,” he said, shoving the half-full bag away. “Another reason we shouldn't be wasting time on this woman."
Lisse tapped on Corin’s knee, like an overindulgent aunt. "You are needing lyrium. I know just the place. When I finish eating, we can go there."
"Oh, we've heard that tune." Kit grumbled. "Are the templars offering rewards now, or do you have a friend in the order?"
The newcomer blinked. "The templar order?"
She set down her knife.
“When was the last time you set foot in a tavern?”