I am the Ghost of the Spire.
It was an unpleasant thought, one Cole had turned over and over again in his mind. They said ghosts didn’t exist, that the dead didn’t really walk amongst the living, but some people believed in them even so. They believed a dead man could become lost on his way to the Maker’s side, forever adrift in a land of shadow.
Cole wasn’t dead. Yet at the same time, he didn’t exist, and he walked amongst the living.
He’d overheard a pair of mages talking about him once, even if they’d no idea they were doing so. He’d discovered them late at night, huddled in one of the White Spire’s dark hallways. There were many such hidden corners in the great tower, places where mages went to escape from the suspicious eyes of watching templars, and Cole knew them all.
Cole knew far less about the mages themselves. He knew, however, they’d taken a great risk sneaking out of their chambers. Few of the tower’s templars were kind, and most believed that mages constantly conspired to commit unspeakable horrors … when the truth was usually much more mundane. Most of their conversation consisted of gossip. The mages whispered secrets to each other, sometimes idle speculation about romantic entanglements and other times much more serious things they knew to be true but could never talk about in the open. Occasionally he came upon mages meeting for a romantic liaison instead. They secretly pressed flesh upon flesh, a desperate act of intimacy between people for whom such fleeting moments could only be stolen.
He’d found the pair who spoke of him only by chance, overhearing their muted whispers as he passed in the shadows. One was a homely woman with long hair the color of straw, the other a gangly elven boy. Both he recognized, but only by sight. They were older apprentices, the sort who had little talent for magic and who’d already spent too long preparing for the inevitable. Someday soon they would be called away by the templars for their final ordeal, and Cole would never see them again … or he’d see them roaming the halls as emotionless Tranquil, stripped of their abilities and doomed to spend their lives in passive service to their tormentors.
Cole remembered the dread in their eyes. The homely woman sported a bruise on her cheek, its mottled purple already beginning to fade. From their hiding place the pair watched furtively for any sign of wandering guards, starting at the slightest sound. Even the skittering of a passing rat caused them to jump, yet they did not budge from their hiding place.
For all their alertness, they’d been completely oblivious to Cole’s approach. Not that he expected anything different. He’d walked right up beside them, leaning in close to listen.
“I tell you I saw it,” the woman insisted, her voice tinged with awe. “I was walking through the lower passages to get a book for Enchanter Garlen, and there it was.”
“The ghost.” The elven boy didn’t bother to hide his incredulity.
“Oh, there can be dragons but not ghosts?” Her voice grew indignant. “The Chantry doesn’t know everything! There are things in the Fade they couldn’t possibly begin to—”
“It could have been a demon.”
She paused, her face blanching in sudden fear. “But … it didn’t try to speak with me. I don’t think it even saw me. I thought maybe it was a visitor, someone who’d gotten lost, but when I followed it around the corner it was just gone.”
The elven boy frowned, his voice lowering to a whisper difficult even for Cole to overhear. “You know what they teach us. When a demon comes, it won’t seem harmful at first. It’ll be something to make you curious, until later when it begins to corrupt you.…”
She stared off, her mouth pressing thin with worry. She looked right through Cole, but only a single thought ran through his mind: Did she really see me?
The elven boy sighed and hugged her close, murmuring comforting words about how he didn’t mean anything by his warning. Maybe she was right. The woman nodded numbly, fighting back tears. “What did it look like?” he eventually asked.
“You’re humoring me.”
“No, I want to know. Maybe it was a templar?”
“You think I don’t know every templar in the tower by now? Some of them far better than I’d like.” She touched the bruise on her cheek, and the elven boy scowled but said nothing. “No, he wasn’t in armor or robes. He was just a man, not much older than you. Shaggy hair, maybe blond? Leathers that looked like they badly needed washing. There have been others who’ve seen him, and their descriptions match what I saw.”
“Perhaps he was a laborer working in the tunnels.”
“When was the last time anyone did work down here?”
He was at a loss, and shrugged. “I know, it’s just…”
“I got close enough to see his eyes.” The woman frowned, thinking back. “He looked so sad, like he was lost down here. Can you imagine?” She shuddered, and the elven boy grinned reassuringly.
“So that’s the infamous Ghost of the Spire. The others will be so jealous.”
Her answering smile was faint. “We probably shouldn’t say anything.”
They stayed there for a while longer, and Cole lingered. He’d hoped they might talk some more about what the woman saw, but they didn’t. They held hands in the dark and listened to the muted sounds of the chant that floated down from the tower’s chapel far above. When the midnight service ended there was nothing left but silence, and the pair reluctantly returned to their chambers.
Cole hadn’t followed them. Instead he’d sat where they sat, letting the silence fill him. He knew he wasn’t a demon. He’d never seen one before or spoken to one, that he knew of, and unless someone could be a demon and have no inkling of it, that just wasn’t possible. A ghost, however? That he wasn’t so certain of.
He remembered when he first came to the tower. Like every other mage before him, he’d arrived in terror, dragged through the halls by a templar’s rough hands. He’d no idea where this strange place was, or even how long they’d traveled to get there. Much of the journey had been spent blindfolded and unconscious, and his unsympathetic captors refused to tell him anything. As far as he’d known, they were going to kill him.
He remembered being pushed down a dark corridor, empty save for a few apprentices who scurried to get out of the way. Most of them averted their eyes, and that only served to heighten Cole’s fear. He was being brought to a dungeon, a black pit from which he was never going to emerge, for his crime of being a mage. The templars called him that word in curt, ugly tones when they needed to call him anything. Mage. Before that day it wasn’t a word Cole had associated with himself. It was something he’d only heard on the tongues of priests, a watchword for those who had been cursed by the Maker.
And now that’s what he was. Cursed.
They’d tossed him into a cell. He’d lain there on the damp stone floor, whimpering. He expected a beating but none came. Instead, the cell door had slammed shut with a deafening crash; while Cole was initially relieved, once the men were gone that relief evaporated. They’d left him alone in the dark with only the rats for company. The creatures scurried invisibly around him, nipping at him with razor-sharp teeth. He’d tried to crawl away from them but there was nowhere to go, nothing to do except curl up into a ball and pray.
There in the cold and the nothingness, he’d prayed for death. Anything would be better than waiting for the templars to return, anticipating whatever new torment they had planned for him. The priests said demons were drawn to mages, to transform them into terrible abominations—but Cole couldn’t imagine anything more frightening than the templars themselves. He couldn’t shut his eyes enough to block out the memory of their uncaring eyes.
He didn’t want to be a mage. He didn’t want to discover how one became a mage, and found nothing wondrous in the idea of magic. Fervently he prayed to the Maker, over and over again, for deliverance. He prayed until his voice was hoarse, prayed for the templars to forget he even existed.
And then he’d gotten his wish. That’s exactly what they did.
Perhaps he’d died there in the darkness, and forgotten. Maybe that was how ghosts came to be: they were those who passed on and refused to accept it. Thus they remained, lingering in a life that didn’t want them anymore.
He shut his eyes tight. Maker above, he thought, if I’m dead then give me a sign. Don’t you want me at your side, just like the priests all said you would? Don’t leave me here.
But there was no answer. There never was.
If he was dead, why did he still sleep? Why did he still hunger, and breathe, and sweat? These were not things that a dead person did. No matter what they called him, he was no ghost and no demon.
But that didn’t mean he was real.
Up above, the White Spire swarmed with people. There were many levels in the great tower, filled with sunlight and wide spaces. Cole rarely went up there. He was much more comfortable down below, among the things the templars had forgotten as well as the things they wanted forgotten. The bowels of the tower reached deep into the earth, and they were his home.
The first few floors of the tower’s lower chambers were innocent enough. They contained the kitchen stores, as well as the armories, giant chambers filled with enough equipment and weapons to outfit an army of templars. Beneath that were the archives—rooms upon rooms filled with the books they didn’t keep in the upper libraries.
There were books about magic there, as well as books of music and philosophy, books in forgotten languages, and even the forbidden books they put under lock and key. Normally the archives stood empty, but sometimes Cole would find a mage spending long hours reading by candlelight. He would never understand what they found so interesting about words and pictures. Books were all just old paper to him.
Far more interesting were the levels that lay beneath the archives. The oldest part of the tower was called “the Pit,” and few but Cole ever explored its depths. There were flooded passages down there long ago sealed behind bricks, only to crumble from neglect. Rickety stairwells led to ancient storerooms, some filled with only dust, and others with strange-looking relics. A great mausoleum stood as silent testament to templars who had died centuries ago, faded statues of forgotten heroes towering over marble caskets. He’d found hiding places for treasures, the owners of which had long since perished. He’d followed dark tunnels that went in circles, or had collapsed, or even led into the city’s sewers. Did anyone up above even know about those?
He knew every part of the Pit, all save for the area that lay at its heart. The dungeons were there, hundreds and hundreds of cells on multiple levels. More than the templars could ever want, and far more than they used. The oldest were filled with little more than the silent echoes of the tormented, left like indelible imprints in the stone. It made his skin crawl. Cole avoided the dungeons, only going there when he absolutely had to. When he needed to.
Torches weren’t used in the dungeons. Instead they put glowstones inside glass lamps, things which flickered like flame but cast a cold and blue light. Magic, he knew, for he could feel the whisper of it caressing his skin as he passed. Even so, only a scant few were used. Just enough for the guards to see their feet.
There was one entrance, an intimidating stretch of hall with a vaulted ceiling and multiple iron gates, which could be closed in an instant. Anyone caught within when that happened would be skewered by spikes flying out of dark holes in the walls. Cole shuddered as he walked through. It wasn’t the only death trap in the dungeon. The templars would rather have their prisoners die than make it out, and the old scorch marks on the walls told of those who had made the attempt.
On the other side of that hallway was a single guard station, a simple room with a small table and a couple of chairs. He saw an open bottle of wine and two half-filled goblets, and plates covered with the cold remnants of the evening meal. A cloak hung on the wall peg, with two dirt-smeared helmets sitting on the floor beneath it. No guards were present, and the inner doors stood wide open. They must be within.
Cole hesitantly stepped into the prison. The stench of fear, old and new, immediately assaulted his nostrils. The cells here were used often. How many prisoners might be present now he had no idea, though he knew there was at least one. He heard fearful whimpering farther down the hall.
There was laughter, too, along with the idle chatter of two men. Their voices echoed. Cole crept inside until he saw the first hints of blue light ahead. Two armored templars stood in front of an open cell, one holding up a glowlamp. Neither wore a helmet, and thus he recognized them—not enough to know their names, for he knew few, but enough to know that these two were merciless hunters, templars who had served their order for so many years that whatever pity they’d once been capable of had been ground into dust.
“Careful,” Lamp Holder cautioned. “This one knows how to conjure fire.”
The other, whom Cole thought of as Big Nose, snorted contemptuously. “I’d like to see her try it.”
The whimpering came from within the cell. Lamp Holder rolled his eyes and turned away. “I wouldn’t worry. There wasn’t much fight left when we caught her. Even less now.”
“Huh. Think she’ll make it?”
“Probably better if she didn’t.” The pair exchanged knowing glances as the despairing cries became louder. Big Nose shrugged and slammed the cell door shut, fumbling with a large ring of iron keys until he found the one he wanted. The lock slid into place with an ominous sound.
The templars turned and walked toward Cole, whispering to each other. A joke, followed by cruel chuckling. He stayed where he was, nervously holding his breath as they drew close. When they reached him, however, they did what most everyone did: they walked around him, completely oblivious that they’d done so. It was never a sure thing, and Cole always half expected that someone might see him. Half hoped, even.
The key ring he lifted from Big Nose’s belt as he passed.
Then they were gone. The glowlamp was gone with them, the only source of light in the prison, and now it was plunged into darkness. Cole slowly let out his breath, waiting for the sound of their footsteps to fade. He could still hear faint weeping behind the cell door. Nearby, water dripped onto stone with a rhythmic tap-tap-tap. Rats squeaked as they emerged from the walls. But he heard nothing in the other cells. If there were prisoners, they were asleep or as good as.
He should move. He tried to will his feet into motion, but they were frozen. He felt immaterial, as if he were made of the same substance as the shadows and the first step would cause him to be forever lost in them. The panic rose, and his heart pounded. Sweat poured down his face.
Not now, he quailed. Not yet!
Cole reached out for the wall. Part of him was fearful his hand would merely pass through, that he would stumble and fall … and keep on falling. Down and down he would go, one final scream swallowed by a black oblivion. But his hand touched stone. Blessedly cool stone. He gasped gratefully and pressed his face against it, letting its chill hardness scrape his skin.
His breathing slowed. He was shaking, but he was still real.
It’s not too late.
Fumbling in a pocket, he produced a small bundle of cloth. Carefully he unfolded it and the azure radiance of a glowstone emerged. For what was coming next, he would need light.
It took several tries until he found the key the templar had used. It turned ever so quietly until the lock sprang with a jarring clank. Then he paused—the weeping inside had abruptly halted. Not waiting to see if the noise elicited a response from the guards, Cole pulled the door open and stepped into the cell.
The glowstone revealed a tiny cell, encrusted with filth. It was empty save for a single bucket and a girl cowering in the corner, dressed in filthy rags splattered dark with blood. Hers? Or someone else’s? The girl’s black hair hung in wet ropes down her shoulders, and she protectively shielded her face with her arms.
For a long moment Cole did nothing, shifting from foot to foot as he watched her. Then he hunched low, placing the stone on the floor beside him. Its flickering intensified, sending his shadow dancing madly across the walls. He could smell the girl even over the cell’s foulness: heavy sweat, laced with sick. She trembled, no doubt certain he was here to hurt her. So he waited.
After a time, a pair of reddened eyes peeked out from behind her arms. She was pretty, or had been once. Now she was haggard, exhausted by whatever ordeal she’d gone through to get here. The girl blinked at the glowstone’s light, incomprehension warring with terror. She stared at Cole and he stared back.
“You can see me,” he said. His relief was palpable.
The girl yelped as if struck, scrambling to get as far away from him as she could. She backed herself into a corner of the cell like a caged animal, panting rabidly. Her filthy hands clawed at the walls, as if doing so might allow her to get through. Cole waited until her desperate efforts slowed and she locked eyes on him once again.
“You can see me,” he repeated, more confidently this time.
“I didn’t mean to burn it down,” she whispered through ragged breaths. “The fire came out of my hands, but I don’t even know why. It all happened so fast, I tried to warn them.…” The girl clamped her eyes shut, tears spilling down filthy cheeks. She wiped her face with a shaking hand, smearing the dirt across her face.
Cole waited. Eventually, her sobs quieted and she looked over at him again, more guardedly this time. Still crouched across from her, he hadn’t moved, and he saw the first glimmer of curiosity.
“Are you a mage, then?” she asked. “They said one would come.”
He hesitated. “No.”
“Then … who are you?”
“My name is Cole.”
That was hardly the answer she was looking for. She stared expectantly at him, but he said nothing. “But … if you’re not a mage,” she finally asked, “then what are you doing here? What do you want from me?”
“I came because you can see me.” He reached under his leather vest and drew a dagger from its sheath. It was an ornate blade with an elaborate brass hilt carved in the shape of a dragon’s head. The length of it gleamed in the blue light, and the girl’s eyes fixed upon it in stark disbelief. “I felt it when they brought you here,” he continued. “I knew you would, even before I met you.”
The girl’s mouth opened, and then clicked shut again. When she spoke her voice was very small. “Are you … going to kill me?”
“I think so. Yes.”
A small gasp escaped her. “Because I’m a mage?”
“No, it’s not that.”
“Then … why? What have I done to you?”
“You haven’t done anything to me.” Emotion welled up, a desperation that he had pushed deep down inside him now fighting to escape. It left him breathless, and for a moment he cradled his head on his knees and rocked back and forth. Part of him wondered if the girl would use her magic on him while she had the chance. Would she conjure fire, like the templar warned? What would that be like? Could she kill him?
But she did nothing. Cole fought to regain his center and exhaled once, long and slow, before looking up again. The girl was frozen. She couldn’t look away from his dagger, and perhaps hadn’t even considered she could do something to stop him.
“I’m … fading away,” he muttered. “I can feel myself slipping through the cracks. I have to do this, I’m sorry.”
But she didn’t scream. He saw the idea crumble inside with the realization that doing so would only call the templars back, if it brought anyone at all. Even faced with an armed man directly in front of her, that possibility was still worse. It was something he understood all too well. Slowly she slumped to the ground, defeated.
Cole inched forward, his heart thumping madly in his chest. He reached out and touched the girl’s cheek, and she didn’t flinch away. “I can make it go away.” The words were gentle, and he held the dagger up to prove his promise. “The pain, the fear. I can make it quick. You don’t have to stay here and see what they have in store for you.”
She studied him, eerily calm. “Are you a demon?” she finally asked. “They say that’s what happens to mages. The demons come and turn them into monsters.” Then she smiled, a lifeless grimace that matched her dead eyes. “But you don’t need to do that. I’m already a monster.”
He didn’t respond.
“I said I didn’t mean to burn it down. That’s what I told them, too. But I lied.” The confession spilled out of her like cold venom. “I listened to my mother, my father, all of them screaming, and I did nothing. I wanted them to burn. I’m glad they’re dead.”
Her secret told, the girl took a deep breath and blinked back tears. She looked at Cole expectantly, but he only sighed. “I’m not a demon,” he said.
“But … what are you, then?”
“Lost.” He stood and offered his hand. She hesitated, but then numbly nodded. He brought her to her feet, where she stood only inches away. There in the glowstone’s blue light, a strange intimacy enveloped them. He could see every mark on her skin, every stain the tears had left on her cheeks, every strand of hair.
“Look at me,” he asked her.
She blinked in confusion, but complied.
“No, look at me.”
And she did. The girl looked at Cole, looked into him. He was going to kill her, and she knew it. He went through life, unnoticed and quickly forgotten by all, but to her, at that moment, he was the most important thing in the world. She knew what he was, now. Cole was her deliverance, a way out of a world filled with terror. He saw weary relief in her eyes, mixed with the fear. In those eyes he was anchored, and he felt real.
“Thank you,” he breathed, and plunged the dagger into her chest.
She gasped in shock, but did not look away. He thrust up, digging the blade deep into her heart. She convulsed, a spurt of bright blood erupting from her mouth. Then, with a final shudder, she collapsed into his arms.
Cole held her close, staring down into her eyes. He drank in every moment as the life ebbed out of her. It was an instant that seemed to stretch out into forever … and then she was gone.
Trembling, he allowed the body to slide off the dagger and slump lifelessly to the floor. He was only dimly aware of the warm blood covering the blade, his hands, the entire front of his leathers. He couldn’t stop looking at those eyes, staring off into nothing. He knelt down and closed them, leaving a streak of scarlet across her lids. Then he stumbled back, leaning against the cell wall. It was difficult to breathe.
You need to stop.
It took every bit of will he had left, but he tore his eyes away from her. Like a drunken man, he stumbled toward the glowstone and snatched it off the floor, wrapping it back up in the cloth until the cell was plunged into blessed darkness once again. He took slow and deliberate breaths as he brought himself under control.
He’d almost forgotten what it was like to be connected, to feel like he belonged in the world. Part of him was certain the templars were about to come running, that the entire White Spire would realize all at once who he was—the escaped mage who walked in their midst. The Ghost of the Spire.
They would come with their spells and their swords. They would wrestle him to the ground, and then he would be locked away in a cell again. He would be lost in that blackness until they came to deal with him once and for all. This time they wouldn’t forget him. This time the door would open and they would see him lying there, and by then he would be begging them to end it.
But no one came.
No one ever came.
Copyright © 2011 by Electronic Arts, Inc.