Into the Tower


 
Into the Tower
 
CONTENT:
Rating: Teen
Flavor: Action/Adventure/Drama
Language: some
Violence: yes
Nudity: one scantily-clad demon (f)
Sex: no
Other: none
 
Author’s Notes:

Sorry about the cliffhanger. My brain refused to go further this week. It was either this, or delay another week in posting.


Into the Tower

 

 

The great doors shut with an ominous boom. This was it, then, they had to extract this Irving fellow or perish. The companions stood poised at the end of a grand hallway that curved gently to the left. The walls stretched heavenward, the ceiling lost in shadows. Tall statues lined the hall at regular intervals. Some bore globes of light in their hands, and this was the source of illumination.

Bannon had his right hand up, fingertips brushing the hilt of his sword. He strained his senses for any sign of the monstrosities inundating the Tower. It was eerily silent, and the still air carried a faint tang of blood. Bannon thought it must be from the wounded Templars who had evacuated through here. There weren’t any signs of a battle.

When nothing continued to happen for a few more minutes, he relaxed slightly. “Well,” he said slowly to his companions, “anybody feel the urge to attack each other?”

“Actually,” Alistair said, “I feel like smacking Morrigan. But that’s how I normally feel.”

Morrigan gave him a slit-eyed glare, jutting her lower teeth forward. “You, Alistair, are the safest one of us. I don’t think any mind-control spell could hit a target that small.”

“Ha ha,” Alistair growled.

Leliana and Zevran chuckled nervously, and Bannon had to join in. “It is as I said, no?” Zevran insisted. “They are too busy to notice our little intrusion.”

 

 

The first floor was filled with meeting and storage rooms. The next contained the Templar barracks, as Alistair had mentioned. The smell of blood was stronger here, and the smell of ash and smoke. There were bodies piled thick within the first room they checked, where the Templars hadn’t the resources to carry them out.

“They-they’re children,” Bannon said, looking over the carnage.

Alistair said, “It’s the apprentices. Greagoir said they weren’t strong enough to resist the demons.”

Leliana laid a hand on Bannon’s arm. “They are in the Maker’s light now.” Bannon felt a chill. This was worse than a Purge. “Come away.” Leliana tugged him back and closed the door.

“I thought you didn’t condone the murder of innocents,” Zevran said to Alistair.

“I don’t! I didn’t say…. Look, Greagoir was here; I wasn’t. He’s in command. He knew what he was doing. If even one Abomination got loose–”

“Ah, so the execution of so-called innocents is more palatable to you.”

“Knock it off!” Banon yelled at them, before Alistair tried to throttle the assassin. “Let’s go. What happened here doesn’t concern us. We have real threats to deal with.” He shot Zevran a warning look. The assassin closed his mouth, his expression unreadable.

 

 

“It’s coming through!”

“Stand back!”

Bannon heard women’s voices. He drew his weapons and trotted around the curve of the hallway with Zevran at his heels and the others not far behind. He skidded to a halt and his companions fanned out.

There were three mages in the hall; they were facing the other way, staves poised to strike. Before them was a glowing liquid barrier of energy. And indeed, something misshapen was trying to push its way through. Its maw opened in a moaning roar.

The barrier stretched, thinned… but would not break. The demon slumped back.

“It’s giving up,” the young woman on the left said in shaky relief.

“Not yet,” the older woman in the middle said, her voice strong. “Don’t drop your guard, Petra!”

The floor under the barrier blackened and began to sizzle. Something oozed out of the stone and began to take shape as a spindly arm, four long talons.

“Come on, then,” the grey-haired woman growled. Her companion mages aimed their staves, but she halted them. “Wait until it fully manifests.”

The thing that struggled up through the melted stone looked a lot like that Ash Wraith Bannon had ‘discovered’ in the Wilds, but it glowed molten as it gained strength. It finally pulled free and lunged for the mages. The young woman and the man on the right unleashed their magic. A dual blast of frost and snow hit the demon and started to melt. Yet in another few seconds, the cold overcame the lava’s heat, and the beast was momentarily frozen. It was clear it wouldn’t remain that way for long, but it didn’t have to. The elder mage cast a large rock from her staff and the impact shattered the demon. Little steaming puddles littered the doorway.

“Well done,” the woman said. The young man breathed and audible sigh of relief as the three of them relaxed and rested their staves upright. They began to turn, and that’s when they suddenly noticed the armed party behind them. Instantly, they prepared to defend themselves. The Wardens’ group responded in kind.

And Bannon was out in front, right at the centerpoint of the conflagration. “Whoa! Whoa,” he said, quickly sheathing his weapons. In his haste, he had a little trouble getting the blades aimed properly– needed more practice, that. He kept talking, to cover up any awkwardness. “Easy! Hang on… we’re friends.” He held out his empty hands and smiled his most innocent smile.

The mages narrowed their eyes. Bannon just smiled more. Then he turned to Alistair and waved at him to put his sword away. Hesitantly, the former Templar did so. Bannon looked to his other side. Leliana lowered her sword, but Zevran only watched the mages.

“Who are you? Who sent you?” the young man asked.

The older woman said, “Well, you’re not Templars.” She planted her staff upright. “Petra, Keenan.” Grudgingly, her companions followed suit. “How did you get in here?”

Bannon glanced at Zevran, who finally put up his blades. Smooth as silk, the showoff. Bannon yanked his attention back to the mages. “Commander Greagoir let us in. We’re Grey Wardens; we’re here to rescue the First Enchanter.”

“Grey Wardens?” The elder mage said, wrinkling her brow in thought. “Why did the Grey Wardens come here?”

“The Wardens have a treaty with the mages,” Bannon said. “We’re allies during the Blight, so we’ve come to help.”

“You mean you’re here to make sure there are sufficient mages to come to your aid,” she said, narrowing her blue eyes. She was shrewd, this one. Bannon just shrugged with a lopsided smile. There was no point in denying it. “Not that we’re not grateful,” the mage pointed out. “But we were wondering when the Templars were coming. We’ve been here for days, but the doors remain sealed.”

“The Templars have been decimated,” Alistair said. “They sent to Denerim for reinforcements. And….” He hesitated. “The Right of Annulment. I’m sorry.”

The old woman’s face paled and she wobbled slightly. The other woman, Petra, took her arm. “Wynne, are you all right?”

“Yes.” She rubbed her face and straightened her spine. “Yes, it was just a shock.” She took a breath. “So Greagoir has deemed the Circle a total loss. I….” She rubbed her forehead.

“They can’t!” the mage, Keenan, said. “Th-they can’t kill us! We haven’t done anything. The children– We can’t have saved the children just so… so the Templars can….” His voice broke off as he started shaking uncontrollably. Petra went to him, offering what mute comfort she could.

Bannon felt a sympathetic shudder. It was just like hearing a Purge was coming, but in the alienage, at least you had a chance to hide, to escape. These mages were trapped in their own Tower.

Before he could open his mouth, Morrigan had to have a say. “There is no use crying about it. You let yourselves be corralled here like sheep, you can expect to be slaughtered like them as well.”

“Morrigan!” Leliana gasped in shock.

“‘Let’?” The old woman’s voice hardened. “Did you say we let the Templars take us?” She stalked forward. Morrigan shifted nervously, then stood her ground. “I was taken to the Tower when I was seven years old. Some of the mages were as young as five! Exactly what do you expect a little child to do against four armed men?”

Morrigan for once seemed at a loss for words. She looked away from Wynne’s stony glare.

Bannon glanced at Alistair, whose mouth was forming a perfect little ‘o’ of surprise. Admiration filled his eyes, though. The elf stepped in to restore political balance. “Now look. If the Templars took the south road to Denerim, it’s likely they’ll never make it. Ostagar and Lothering are lost to the Blight.” The mages expressions shifted uncertainly. The stay of execution was doubtlessly good news. The slow death of Ferelden was not. Bannon pushed on. “Greagoir said the doors were somehow linked to this Irving fellow. Since they’re still locked, he has to still be alive. All we have to do is rescue him and get him down here. He can open the doors, and Greagoir will call off the Annulment.” Now hope rekindled in their faces. “You three can come with us. You can help us.”

The mages conferred quickly. Wynne said, “Petra and Keenan will stay here to guard the children. I’ll go with you.”

“Children?” asked Alistair.

In the barracks room closest to the magical barrier were a few dozen children. Most were small, which had probably allowed them to remain hidden. Several were huddled together in one of the beds, waiting for news with wide eyes. The older children, maybe twelve or so, held the littlest in their laps. Bannon was surprised to see a few elven children mixed in the group. As if they belonged there.

“Auntie Wynne! Auntie Wynne!” the little ones cried in relief to see her. They clamored to know what was going on, was it safe now, were the Templars coming to save them? Wynne dealt with them in a kindly fashion, admonishing them to be good for Keenan and Petra. She explained that she was going to help the Grey Wardens to rescue Grandfather Irving. Bannon, Alistair, and the others were regarded with wide, hero-worshipping stares. Bannon grinned a cocky, confident smile and was rewarded with adoring gazes from the girls.

Petra followed Wynne back out into the hall. “Are you sure you’re fully recovered? You took quite a knock the other day.”

“I’m fine, Petra. I’ll reset the barrier once the Wardens and I pass through.”

 

 

Now they were past two sealed barriers, and Bannon was feeling the pressure. Wynne had been quickly introduced to everyone and folded into the group. She gave them a short explanation of Uldred’s attempted coup, although she didn’t know what was going on in the Tower after the initial fighting. They walked the eerily quiet halls and ascended another staircase.

Zevran gave a short hiss, catching Bannon’s attention. He stepped towards the assassin. “May I suggest, in such a silent venue, that someone scout ahead. Someone stealthy,” Zevran added with a glance at Alistair and his clanking armor.

Bannon cocked his head, indicating to the assassin to go on. He held up a hand to stop the others.

“What are we–?” Alistair started, but Bannon shushed him.

A few minutes later, Zevran returned. “There are twelve Templars guarding the passage ahead,” he reported. “They must be under a spell, for they are unnaturally still.”

“How will we get past that many?” Leliana asked.

Morrigan said, “Magic, obviously. If we catch them unawares….”

“We can’t attack the Templars,” Wynne said, aghast.

“Templars are trained to fight mages,” Alistair said. “There’s no guarantee you can take them all out.”

“What do you suggest?” the witch asked. “We walk up and ask them nicely to let us pass?”

“I have a proposal,” Zevran said. They all looked at him. “Beyond this hall is a large room. I believe I espied the mage controlling the Templars in there. If we– ” here, he sidled up to Bannon– “sneak past these Templars and kill the mage, the spell might be broken, no?”

“If it isn’t,” Morrigan pointed out, “the two of you will be surrounded by Templars and cut off from the rest of us.”

“Indeed! As soon as we strike, you must come charging to our rescue.” The irrepressible assassin grinned.

So the two elves headed down the hall. “Are you sure this is going to work?” Bannon whispered when they were out of sight of the others.

“Of course.” Zevran went behind Bannon and tugged at his weapon harness. “Just move smoothly, slowly.” He bent close until his breath brushed over Bannon’s ear. “Your leather must become like a second skin.” He ran his fingertips lightly down Bannon’s arm. The Denerim elf tensed so as not to jerk away. The assassin just grinned. “Remember, their helmets have small slits; they won’t see you if you stay low.”

Zevarn crossed to the other side of the hall, leaving Bannon with a gentle pat to his backside. Bannon clenched his teeth, feeling his face go hot in anger. That sleazy little–! Thank the Maker no one else had seen. He’d get the bastard back, but not now.

Right now, he had to concentrate on sidling low behind a row of enthralled Templars, between them and the wall. They smelled. The poor bastards must be like the row of guards that Connor’s demon had forced to stand at attention for hours on end. The Templars might have been here for days.

Bannon got to the doorway at the end of the hall and slipped into the room beyond. It was a huge library, or at least a section of one. Wooden stacks stretched towards the ceiling, housing row upon row of books. They lined the walls and divided the space into narrow corridors. Lamps of magelight sat upon various tables, leaving much of the room in shadow.

Zevran was waiting for him, crouched by one of the freestanding shelves. Bannon heard voices, and as he moved into position, he saw three mages in a nook just beyond. He crouched down out of sight and, very slowly, began pulling his sword out of its sheath.

Zevran laid a finger on his lips. Bannon stuck his tongue out and rolled his eyes. What did the assassin think, he was an idiot? Zevran jutted out his jaw and gave him a hard, flat look. Then he gestured from Bannon to the mage closed to his position. The thief nodded, but quirked a brow and held up three fingers, asking about the third mage. Zevran clearly mouthed the word ‘points.’

Bannon gave him a narrow look and nodded again, tensing to charge. Zevran flapped a hand at him, gesturing to wait. Impatiently, Bannon settled back a bit. What were they waiting for? He peered through a gap between a row of books and the shelf above them, watching the mages. They were arguing about Uldred’s plan. Whatever it was, two of them didn’t like it. The third, a younger man, was sycophantic in his support. The discussion got heated. The two older mages had their backs to Bannon and Zevran, but the last one was beyond the table. He might have time to launch a spell before either elf could get to him.

Bannon saw the third mage shake his head, then move his hand as if to rub his face. At that moment, he heard a sharp exhalation from Zevran, almost a call, but too soft to be noticeable from more than a few feet away. Bannon launched himself at his target half a step behind Zevran.

The assassin flung a throwing knife across the table with his right hand as he drew a sword with his left. The blade came out and around, right into his target’s neck. Both mages dropped. Bannon felled his man at nearly the same time.

“That’s cheating,” he growled.

Zevran drew his other sword with a grin. “Ah, you could have made it up in Templars, if you hadn’t stopped to complain,” he taunted as he ran back into the hall. With a curse, Bannon followed.

The Templars were quickly dispatched. Some went into a fury, attacking anyone, even each other. A few collapsed unconscious, or mad and insensate. The left them all in the hall. The Templars could come and claim their own when they got here.

 

 

The Wardens’ group pressed on, always upwards. Bannon and Zevran scouted ahead, while the rest followed. There were a great many corpses strewn about. Then some of those corpses started getting up and attacking them.

“There’s definitely a demon at work here,” Alistair said, yanking his sword from a particularly leathery corpse.

“So glad you’re here to tell us these things,” Morrigan griped. “Just imagine what we might have missed if you weren’t along, enlightening us with your wisdom.”

“Don’t you ever get tired of hearing yourself complain? I know I do.”

“All right,” Bannon said. “Put a cork in it. Both of you!” Oops, did he just tell Morrigan off? “Wait here while we scout ahead.” He darted off quickly before the witch could set his head on fire.

There were demons, of course. Wynne had said the amount of magic unleashed by the battling mages weakened the Veil here in the Tower. Ash Wraiths and Fire Wraiths oozed through into reality. Fortunately, they were relatively slow, both physically and mentally. Bannon couldn’t tell if the poison on his and Zevran’s blades was affecting them one way or the other, but they died just as easily from steel and magic.

He and Zevran were learning to work well together. When they caught sight or sound of an opponent, they’d drop into a slow stalk. After a few of these ‘assassinations,’ they didn’t need to bother with elaborate hand signals. Once they were in position to attack, they’d lash out like a cat swatting a moth, and the target would drop in a spatter of blood.

Even with multiple opponents, they became so effective, the others almost might not have needed to bother hurrying to the fight.

Getting cocky would get him killed. They’d felled another trio of Ash Wraiths. He was up on the assassin in points, unless the slippery little cheater tried to claim points for the ones he’d helped Bannon kill. So Bannon went around the corner to get a head start on the next batch.

The two wraiths that clutched at him, he ducked easily. But the flaming Rage Demon screamed and barreled straight into him, heedless of the blades in his hands. It threw him back, and he crashed to the stone floor, cracking his head on the doorjamb. Zevran leapt over him and swung at the demon. Dizzily, Bannon noticed his left arm and the right side of his chest were on fire. “Urgh,” he complained.

Alistair leapt over him before he could collect himself, and joined the fray. Leliana followed after Bannon rolled out of the way. The flames turned patches of his leathers black, then finally choked out.

“Look out!” Alistair yelled. The Rage Demon collapsed and then, moments later, exploded flames over everyone in the vicinity. Leliana and Zevran were knocked over even as they tried to retreat. Alistair deflected flames with his shield, but fell halfway onto Zevran anyway. Bannon, at the edge of the blast, fell back on his ass as he was trying to get up.

Wynne hurried to see to the injured, while Morrigan blasted the remaining ash wraiths.

“I hate being set on fire,” Bannon decided. Leliana, Alistair, and Zevran groaned in a chorus of agreement.

Zevran said, “Alistair, as attractive as your ass is, please get it off me.” The former Templar scrambled up, his face redder than when the flames had washed over him.

“Hold still,” Wynne told them. She raised her staff and cast a spell. A blue ring of light expanded out around them and then shot heavenward. Bannon felt the healing energy erase the pain in his head and body. Too bad it left his leathers crisped. He’d better start looking for a new set. Not to mention that a helmet would come in handy.

He moved past the others to where Zevran was waiting for him. “I do believe I am ahead of you on points,” the assassin said cheerfully.

“You would believe that,” Bannon groused. “Let’s go.”

 

 

They passed through three levels of barracks, the apprentice quarters, Wynne called them. They were empty.

“Where is everyone?” Alistair wondered quietly.

“Uldred must have a headquarters somewhere,” Bannon said. “Does he have a room?” the elf asked Wynne. “What about Irving?”

“The Senior Enchanters have separate quarters a few floors up. Irving has an office suite above that.”

Bannon groaned. More stairs. Alistair was suddenly glad of his Templar training, endless drills in full plate, jogging uphill and down, and especially those ramps on the running course. They left one’s legs feeling like noodles. Alistair had always hated those with a passion. Never thought he’d be grateful.

At least they didn’t have to run. The elves would sneak ahead slowly. Leliana would follow their progress and wave Alistair and the mages on when necessary. Or sometimes there’d be sounds of fighting, and they’d have to rush in. Then it was more wait, walk, wait, walk….

Sounds of arguing came from up ahead. Alistair couldn’t make out the words due to his helmet, but when the voices escalated into yelling, accompanied by the cacophony of spell-fire, he rushed in.

There was a small pitched battle, mage against mage. The Maleficarum must have uncovered a pocket of resistance. The hall was filled with the flicker and flash of detonating spells. Alistair couldn’t tell who was who. He took a breath and hoped to unleash a burst of nullifying energy that would douse all the spells at once. He failed. He knew the moment he started hoping it would work that he hadn’t gathered the proper focus and inner strength. Willpower, not wishing, that’s what drove a Templar’s skills.

An ice bolt slammed into his shield and made his arm go numb with cold. He didn’t know where it had come from, and quite frankly it was probably one of the mages they were trying to rescue, here. Alistair moved towards Leliana. He had to trust that she knew which mages were enemies, and that they hadn’t taken control of her mind. He helped kill her targets.

The battle was short and messy. The aftermath left soot and slush, the acrid tang of smoke, and a pile of bodies. Alistair cursed underbreath. They hadn’t been able to save anyone. Again.

Then someone groaned. “Help me…,” came a woman’s voice.

“Over here,” Leliana said. She bent to help a young woman sit up. Her leg was twisted painfully under her; a swollen red-violet lump marred the side of her face.

Bannon knelt beside Leliana and pulled the mage’s hands forward. He pushed back her sleeves and tilted her arms so everyone could see the tracks of self-inflicted cuts.

“Blood Mage,” Alistair growled. How had the Tower become so riddled with corruption?

Wynne came to Alistair’s side as the companions gathered around. “Corrine,” she gasped in shock, clearly recognizing the young woman. “How could you?”

“I only wanted to be free,” Corrine pleaded. “I didn’t want to hurt anyone, I just wanted to live my own life. Uldred promised us freedom.”

“This is not the way,” Wynne said.

Bannon pulled Leliana away when the Chantry Sister tried to offer the mage a healing potion. “She’s hurt badly,” Leliana protested.

“She can answer some questions, first,” the elf replied pragmatically. “Where is this Uldred now? How many Blood Mages does he have with him?”

“Uldred is in the Harrowing Chamber. He’s using the lyrium pool there to summon demons.” Corrine winced pitifully, gazing alternately at Wynne and Leliana, looking for sympathy. “He had a close following of a dozen mages, and three times as many thralls. Most of those have been given over to the demons. Them, and the mages who oppose him.”

“Are there any mages left that are still fighting him?” Alistair asked. “Or Templars?”

“And where is the First Enchanter?” Bannon added.

“Uldred’s mages are rounding up those who resist him, and taking them to the Harrowing Chamber. First Enchanter Irving was being taken there, the last I saw of him.”

“Where is this Harrowing Chamber?” Bannon asked.

Wynne said, “It’s at the very top of the Tower.”

“Why am I not surprised?” the elf groaned.

“The Templars who are left,” said Corrine, her brown eyes looking to Alistair to answer his question; “Some are imprisoned on the floors above. Some have fallen under the spell of demons.”

“Or basically,” Bannon said, “no allies. Great. Does this Uldred have any weaknesses?” The elf looked between the mage and Wynne. “Is there a secret back way into this Harrowing Chamber? A servant’s entrance?”

Wynne shook her head. Corrine said, “Some of us turned against Uldred. Enchanter Niall was searching for the Litany of Adralla. He went to confront Uldred and try to free the captured mages.”

“Finally, something useful,” Bannon said. “We should try to catch up with this Niall.”

“Please,” Corrine said, her face creasing with pain. “May I have the healing draught now?”

“I don’t think so,” Bannon said, his voice hard.

Leliana turned to him. “You cannot be so cruel as to deny her succor.”

“You can’t expect us to help her,” Morrigan countered. “She could very well be waiting for a chance to strike at us.”

“I swear I am no danger to you!” The mage looked pleadingly at each of them in turn. “I never meant for things to go this far. All I wanted was to leave this Tower. I’ll never use Blood Magic again, I give you my word.”

Wynne said, “What about the people whose lives you’ve already destroyed with it?”

“I can make it up to them! I will devote my life to helping others. I’ll join the Chantry.”

Alistair frowned. “I don’t think they’ll have you. Prostitutes, thieves, murderers, that’s all fine. Maleficarum? Oh no.”

“I don’t know what Chantry you attended,” Leliana said to him, “but that is not the Chantry I know. They welcome all lost souls, any who seek redemption.”

“Blood Magic is against everything the Chantry stands for,” Alistair said.

Wynne said, “Once you learn Blood Magic, you can’t unlearn it.”

“But I swear,” the mage said desperately, “I’ll never use it again.”

“We’re not leaving a Blood Mage behind us,” Bannon said. “Alistair.”

“What?”

Bannon jerked his head at the mage. Oh. Alistair should do his Templar duty. Biting the inside of his lip, he drew his sword.

Fear flashed across the mage’s face. “Please don’t!” She pushed back with her arms, as if trying to flee from him. Tears spilled from her wide eyes. “Have mercy, I beg you!”

Alistair recalled the last time he’d been in this Tower. As a squire in his last year of training before taking his vows, he’d been sent to witness a Harrowing. The girl– she had been such a young slip of a girl, her curly black hair disheveled from sleep– fell under the Harrowing spell, and when she’d arisen a few minutes later, her eyes were no longer human. Ser Brockton had taken her head clean off, before she could finish getting to her feet.

The squires had gathered around, thrumming with restrained excitement at seeing their first demon. They were in awe of the Templar’s power to defeat the beast. Ser Brockton’s voice warmed with pride as he lectured them on demonic possession.

Alistair had been the only one staring down at the lifeless body, blood pooling on the cold stone floor, purplish in the blue light of the lyrium. And the curly-haired head a few feet away, like a discarded toy, staring blankly back at him.

“I have a sister,” the mage was saying. “I haven’t seen her in twelve years. Please, I didn’t mean any harm. I just wanted to see my family again!”

Alistair’s heart ached. What had he been saying on the road to the Tower? Mages were people, like any other. They had names! Her name was Corrine; he was trying to block it from his mind already, reducing her to ‘the mage.’ She looked up into his eyes and he just….

Something flashed in the corner of Alistair’s eye, and with a fleshy thunk she collapsed backwards in a spray of blood. Alistair stared in shock at the dagger protruding from her neck. He turned. They all turned and looked at the assassin.

Zevran shrugged. “It looked like she was about to cast a spell.” The heartless bastard casually walked over to retrieve his weapon.

Alistair just felt cold and numb. He re-sheathed his weapon.

 

 

They climbed the next staircase and came to the antechamber at the top. It was free of blood and soot, but great fleshy pustules clung to the walls and pillars. Ropy intestinal tubes snaked between them, glistening in the even light.

“It looks like the Taint,” Alistair said in surprise. He got no sense from it, however.

“‘Tis the effects of the Veil being torn,” Morrigan said. “We should be prepared to face more demons.”

“It’s fascinating how these demonic manifestations resemble the darkspawn Taint,” Wynne said. Alistair didn’t think so.

“Urgh,” said the assassin, eyeing the pulsating globules with a twist to his mouth. “Makes me wish I hadn’t had that extra pie at lunch.”

Bannon whipped around. “You ate my pie!?”

“It was not your pie. It was everybody’s pie,” said Zevran defensively. “Leliana said so.”

“I was saving that last piece for later!”

“It did not have your name on it.”

“We were supposed to share the pie,” Bannon growled.

“I did share!”

“No, sharing is when everybody gets a piece, not when someone steals someone else’s piece to get two!”

“Is not my fault you left it there too long.”

“Do all elves squabble like little brats?” Morrigan complained loudly. “Or have you two been possessed by Childish Tantrum Demons?” This earned her a dirty look from the elves, but Alistair secretly agreed with her.

“Come on,” Bannon said.

 

 

The first demon they saw was definitely female. Her narrow waist flared out into beautifully curved buttocks, but the thick, serpentine tail that descended over the cleft was completely inhuman. If the violet skin, twisted horns, and hair of purple flames didn’t give it away. Definitely a Desire Demon. Parts of her, Alistair found rather fascinating… but as a whole, she was repulsive.

Her taloned hand stroked the unshaven cheek of a Templar Knight. Clearly he was not in full control of his senses. His glassy eyes stared blindly as he smiled and leaned into the demon’s caress.

“Release this man at once!” Alistair said.

“What was that, my love?” the addled Templar asked.

“Nothing, my love,” the demon replied in honeyed tones. “Just someone at the door. You kiss the children goodnight while I see who it is.” The demon turned and came towards them, her– its– movement so graceful, she barely touched the floor. She raked them with her serpent’s eyes. “Please, you are intruding on a very intimate and loving scene.”

“What are you doing with this man?” Bannon asked in a no-nonsense tone.

“Only giving him what he wants most in this world: a loving family.”

Bannon looked past the demon, and Alistair followed his gaze to the enspelled Templar. He had his back turned to them, his arms held out as if cradling something. He swayed, crooning a lullaby.

“A loving family is the most important thing in the world,” the demon purred. “Don’t you agree?” Her reflective irises seemed to fix on Alistair.

And… yes, he had to sympathize. The life of a Templar was lonely. Few found love and were granted dispensation by the Chantry to marry. But at the same time, the sight of that man enraptured by his empty arms made the hairs on Alistair’s neck prickle. “It’s not real,” he said, pulling his gaze back to the demon.

“It is to him. He is much happier now than he could ever be in the real world, with his loving wife, his delightful children.” The demon shifted her gaze between Alistair and Bannon, unconsciously touching herself and making the thin chains between her breasts sway and jingle faintly. It was horribly distracting. “I won’t oppose you,” the demon said. “Let me just take him away from here. We’ll find a quiet home and never trouble anyone.” She licked her lips and tilted her head.

“Right,” Alistair drawled sarcastically. “Until he dies from eating nothing but imaginary food, and you entrap someone else.”

“But I can make so many people happy,” the demon pleaded. “How can that be evil?”

Bannon frowned and said, “What, so you’ll be some village’s Happiness Fairy?”

“We can’t just let a demon loose in the world!” Alistair said. “Who knows what chaos–”

The demon whirled. “Help me, husband! There are bandits at the door! They mean to murder the children,” she wailed.

The Templar turned, a snarl of pure righteous fury on his face. “Never!” He pulled out his sword as he launched himself at Alistair and Bannon.

“Shit!” The elf jumped aside.

Alistair caught the charge on his shield, which he braced with both hands. He turned with the force of the Templar’s impact and threw the man past him towards Leliana and the mages. “Don’t kill him!” Alistair drew his own sword. “Get the demon!” he yelled at the elves.

Bannon and Zevran split up and came at the demon from two sides. With a roar, Alistair charged in a frontal assault. The Desire Demon rose up, levitated, and cast out her arms with a shriek. Violet lightning spiraled outward, knocking all three of her attackers back.

Alistair planted his feet and raised his shield. He sent a prayer to the Maker and willed the infernal magic away. No, that didn’t work either. He was supposed to gather his will first, focus it. Why was he screwing up so badly today?

The demon hit his shield and began clawing at his face through the opening in his helmet. He staggered back, turning his head. He lashed out with his sword. He hit something, but the demon was tougher than it looked.

It drew back, and Alistair followed doggedly. Bannon sprang at the demon’s back, but it whirled swiftly and raked its claws across his face and neck. Simultaneously, its tail whipped around and clubbed Alistair in the side. Both Wardens went down.

Zevran flung his knife at the demon. It bounced off the rubbery flesh of the Desire Demon’s breast, drawing some blood, but failing to hit anything vital. The Antivan cursed, then dove for scant cover behind a chest of drawers as the demon shot a bolt of purple magic at him.

Alistair could see a lot of blood pooling under Bannon from his torn neck. He had to end this quickly to save his fallen comrade. He scrambled up and charged. If he could just knock the demon down for a few seconds…! He slammed his shield into its hip. Because it was floating in the air, it didn’t stagger or fall, it just bobbed away like a toy boat on a puddle.

Zevran threw another dagger at its back. This one stuck, just under its ribs, but it was going to take more than that to destroy the damned thing.

Alistair looked down at Bannon. He was close enough to drag the elf to safety, if Zevran could just distract the demon. A blue glow suffused Bannon’s skin. His body twitched as the healing magic restored his vitality.

The demon was preparing to unleash another surge of power. Alistair gathered his will, this time with focus. But he hesitated– if he snuffed out the magic around him now, it would also cancel the healing spell, and Bannon might die.

Infernal lightning crackled around the demon’s body, then lashed out. One arc whipped towards Zevran, another bored straight into Alistair’s chest. His heart stopped and he collapsed to the floor.

Maker, help them, was his last thought.

 

 

 


The Broken Circle


 
The Broken Circle
————————
Content:
Rating: Teen
Flavor: Drama/Humor
Language: some
Violence: not yet
Nudity: none
Sex: no
Other: none
 
Author’s Notes:

This section gave me no end of trouble. Blood Magic? Abominations? Demons? A suicide mission where the only way to escape is to rescue some guy who might not even be alive? Nobody wanted to do this! Hopefully, I managed to convince you that they’re convinced. If not… eh, suspend some disbelief?

Spellchecked at spellcheck.net.


The Broken Circle

 

 

Greagoir leaned his elbows on the scarred oak desk and ran his fingers back through his iron-grey hair. The numbers on the reports swam before his tired eyes. How many wounded, how many dead, how many rations were left, it would all add up to how many days they could hold the Tower. A handful, no more. The Circle was Broken.

Nine days ago, a rent in the Veil allowed a mass of demons to cross over from the Fade into reality. The Templars and Senior Enchanters moved quickly to repair the damage, and to battle the demons. They thought they had it contained, but that was not the last time it happened, and all too soon it became clear that it had not been an accident.

The next morning, over a dozen knights Templar turned on their brothers and sisters and began slaughtering them in the barracks. They were mostly older knights, men Greagoir had served with for years. The confusion and hesitation they’d sown nearly crippled the Templar forces. Greagoir realized his men must be enslaved by Blood Magic, and ordered them slain.

Once order had been restored, they set out to hunt down this Maleficar. By that time, the Tower was at war. Greagoir’s forces met up with a group of Enchanters and Senior Mages who were battling demons and abominations unleashed by the Maleficarum. And oh yes, it was becoming quite clear that there was more than one. Fire, ice, and lightning barreled through the hallways, reaping victims, shattering shields. More than one young Templar had succumbed to the mind control and had to be put down.

At last, they made it to the apprentice quarters and began evacuating them. Greagoir had sent the main body of his troops onward, under Ser Cullen and Senior Enchanter Warren.

He lost nearly half his remaining men when one of the apprentices immolated herself in the barracks. Greagoir had to order all the apprentices killed on sight. They were just too young, too weak to resist the demons and Maleficarum. They hadn’t even faced their Harrowing yet.

Fully-invested mages should have the fortitude to resist demonic possession, at least. But for Maker’s sake, Maleficarum– in Ferelden! Greagoir rubbed one sword-calloused palm over his face. Irving had once told him that he had acquired some special immunity to the mind control of Blood Magic. Something that had happened to him when he was just a boy. He would never give Greagoir any details, and vehemently insisted it could not be used as a technique to protect others. As far as every other mage in the Tower, they were likely working for Uldred– either willingly, or as mindless pawns. Greagoir had ordered the Tower sealed. It was beyond saving. If they couldn’t contain it here… Ferelden would become another Tevinter.

“Commander!” A young Templar burst into his office. “Someone is here–”

Greagoir’s head shot up. He saw an elf and a knight. Could it be the messenger from the Chantry? “Who are you?” His gaze flicked between them. “You’re not a Templar.” Behind them filed in a pair of young women, one in the wild garb of a barbarian tribe, a looming giant qunari, and another elf. “You’re not from Denerim, are you?” The human and elf looked at each other in confusion. “Did you bring the Right of Annulment?”

Clarity flashed in the young man’s eyes. “Right of Annulment?” he repeated. “What’s happened here?”

“What’s the Right of Annulment?” the elf asked.

“It’s…,” the man started, as if he knew, but then he simply ended with, “It’s bad.”

“Let’s start with who you are and why the guard let you in here,” Greagoir demanded, taking control of the situation. He stood and picked his gauntlets up off the desk.

The elf said, “We’re Grey Wardens. This is Alistair, and my name is Bannon. We’re gathering allies to combat the Blight, to prevent its spread across Ferelden. We have a treaty here, promising aid from the Circle of Mages.” He hesitated slightly. “Let me guess, that’s not going to happen.”

“I’m sorry.” Greagoir sighed, feeling the burden of responsibility pressing weightily upon him. “The Circle is no more.”

“No more?” the Chasind spoke up. “How is that possible?”

The young knight, Alistair, said, “There were hundreds of mages living here. They can’t… all….” He groped for words.

The red-headed woman came forward, her clear blue-grey eyes like pools of calm amidst the storm. “Please, Knight Commander, tell us what has happened here. It may be, by the Maker’s will, we can help.”

Greagoir took a breath. “One of the Senior Enchanters, a man named Uldred…. He’s a Blood Mage. He’s staged a coup. He’s subverted the enchanters, they’ve released demons in the Tower. It’s… it’s hell unleashed in there. We can’t contain it. We– I’ve sent to Denerim for the Right of Annulment.”

“Please, Knight Commander,” the redhead said, touching his arm imploringly. “Is there nothing we can do?”

“Surely some of the mages fought back,” Alistair said. “They couldn’t all be supporting this… this madness.”

“There is resistance,” Greagoir said. “Or was. But Uldred is capable of controlling a person’s mind, of turning his enemies into allies. There is no way we can be sure someone is not under his power. I’ve already lost too many men to thralls.”

“What if we defeat this man Uldred”? Greagoir stared at the young woman. So did her companions. She must have felt the weight of their eyes upon her, for she turned imploringly to them. “We must try. We cannot let innocent people be slaughtered like cattle. We must do something.”

“If we go in there, what’s to keep this Maleficar from taking over our minds?”

“The Maker will protect us.”

“From your lips to the Maker’s ear,” the elf replied skeptically.

“We can help you fight this evil,” the woman insisted, turning her unwavering gaze back upon the Knight Commander.

Greagoir could hardly believe what he was hearing. But if there were the slightest chance…. “I’m not willing to risk my remaining men. The doors must stay sealed. If you wish to go in there, I will not stop you, but I will not unseal the Tower until I have the word of the First Enchanter Irving that the threat has been neutralized.”

“How do you know he’s even still alive?” Bannon asked him.

“The wards that seal the door are keyed to Irving’s aura. The fact that they are intact tells me he still lives. Bring him safely to the doors, and he can open them. If not,” he added direly, “we can only assume you have fallen under the spell of the Maleficar.”

The elf looked at the young woman. Bannon,” she said to him, “these people are our allies. You must see that we have to help them.”

“All right, we can discuss it,” the elf said with a resigned sigh. “Commander, do you have somewhere we can talk amongst ourselves?”

“Use my office,” Greagoir said. “I need to check on my men.” He had to see to their morale. He had to judge whether they would follow him if he decided to give the command to wipe out the Circle without waiting for authorization from the Chantry.

 

 

Bannon took Greagoir’s chair behind the desk. And why not? Wasn’t he in command here? Unconsciously, he mimicked Greagoir’s pose, rubbing his temples. Another ally had been yanked out from under them. Sometimes it wasn’t so good to be the Wardens. He let out a pent-up breath. “All right, the question is, do we want to go into the Tower and try to face whatever is in there? The mages are valuable allies, but they won’t do us much good if we end up dead. Alistair, what do you think?”

He looked at Alistair. The ex-Templar looked stricken, a bit pale. “I… I don’t know.” He twisted his hands together.

Leliana said, “Bannon, please listen. We must help the mages.”

“‘Tis no concern of ours,” Morrigan insisted. “What happens here is the inevitable result of the actions of the Templars and mages who live like this.”

With a frown marring her porcelain brow, Leliana brushed past Morrigan to come to Bannon’s side and touched his arm. “The Maker wants us to do this. We must save the mages.”

“The Maker told you this?” he said, trying not to sound too dubious.

“I know the others doubt me, but you have faith,” she said, leaning on his arm in a most disturbing manner. “I had a dream. There was a robed figure bearing a light in the darkness. I thought… that it was a Chantry priestess, but now I know it to be a mage. This is what the Maker means for us to do.”

Bannon pursed his lips and nodded thoughtfully. More crazy dreams. If the Maker wanted the mages saved, he could have sent better help. “Alistair, how dangerous is it in there?”

“Well, you heard the Commander. Abominations… alright, fine, they’re not much worse than darkspawn. But Maleficarum? On top of everything?” He chewed his lip in worry. “I want to help the mages, but…. Even the regiment of Templars here can’t handle that.”

“Showing their usual competence,” Morrigan scoffed.

“Templars have been running the Circle for hundreds of years, thank you very much!”

Once more, Bannon had to cut off another round of bickering. He swore he’d lock them in a private room the first opportunity he got. “Look, name-calling and taunting is useless right now. Morrigan, in all honestly, how dangerous is this Blood Mage?”

“Believe it or not,” she said, “Mother and I do not practice Blood Magic.” She shot a look at Alistair, who mumbled something that even the elf couldn’t hear. The witch returned to Bannon’s question. “‘Tis true that the art of Blood Magic allows a mage to take over the mind of another person, to turn them into a helpless puppet, enslaved to the Maleficar’s command. However, ’tis not as easy as fear and your Chantry hysteria would have you believe. A mage can’t simply draw a few drops of his blood and completely subsume your will. A strong-minded person can resist the spell. It takes the victim’s blood and a great deal of time to turn one into a full thrall.”

“The Maker will protect us,” Leliana said forcefully.

To which Bannon replied, “The Maker protects those who don’t go and do stupidly dangerous stuff. Zevran, what do you think?”

As usual, the assassin seemed unperturbed. “I go where you go, mi patrone. You have given me freedom, and a chance to live when by all rights you should have snuffed my life out without a second thought. I would follow you into the Blackened City itself.” Again, he actually sounded sincere. Had he been practicing? Or…. Bannon didn’t have time for speculation.

“So you think this is suicide, too.”

“Not necessarily, no.” Zevran tilted his head. “A mage is a nearly unstoppable foe, when they are prepared. But,” he emphasized, “the converse is also true: when unprepared, they are weak and quite vulnerable. This coup started… what? A week ago? And the Templars haven’t been fighting them; they merely shut the doors.” He paced a turn or two, laying out his thoughts. “Locked doors are hardly a problem for powerful mages, yet they have not come forth to finish off these last few Templars. That means they are still fighting each other. They do not expect the Templars to attack without reinforcements. They certainly don’t expect a small group to infiltrate the tower.” He stopped and looked Bannon in the eye. “I have killed a few mages in my time. If you can get close to them without their detecting your presence, one stab is all it takes. And you do not get a fireball to the face.” He grinned. “As for Blood Magic and mind control, they have to know we are there, first, before they can even make an effort to attempt it.”

Bannon tapped a thumbnail against his teeth. If they went in there, they had to succeed or die. They couldn’t retreat, couldn’t change their minds, couldn’t escape. The thought of being confined like that, trapped, gave him a very bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. And what about the Blight? If the last two Grey Wardens of Ferelden perished here, what would happen to the nation?

“This discussion is pointless,” Sten said. “The beasts have cast off their semblance of men. They must all be destroyed.”

“There have to be some survivors,” Bannon said. “Greagoir said some of the mages didn’t join this faction staging the coup. The Templars can rescue them.”

“Well, but they won’t,” Alistair said. “That’s… that’s what the Right of Annulment is for.”

“Which,” the witch asked pointedly, “is what, exactly?”

“It is the order to nullify the Circle. To….” Alistair faltered, unable to meet her uncanny gaze. “To kill all the mages.”

She blinked. “All of them? Just like that?”

“Not ‘just like that,'” Alistair said. “It is only used in the most dire of situations.”

“It is inevitable,” the qunari said, his voice gravelly. “This failure of your methods to contain your saarebas should be noted to the Arishok.”

“That’s what they’re waiting for?” Bannon asked, looking at Alistair. “For more manpower and orders to go in there and start slaughtering people?” He looked towards Zevran. The Antivan’s eyes darkened.

“Yes,” Leliana said soberly. “If the Circle becomes corrupt, if there is no other solution, the Right of Annulment exists, granting the Templars the power to execute all the mages.”

“This is beyond belief!” Morrigan snarled. “This lofty, idealistic Chantry of yours condones mass murder?”

“Greagoir wouldn’t have requested it if he felt there was any hope of saving the Circle,” Alistair said.

Bannon tuned out their bickering and rubbed one hand over his face. This isn’t our fight, he thought to himself. We’re Grey Wardens. We need to stop the Blight. We fight darkspawn and archdemons.

They fought the twisted darkspawn mages. Really, how different could that be from an Abomination? Hell, Abominations weren’t that smart. From what he’d seen of Connor’s possession, and what Morrigan had said about demons being inexperienced with reality, they could be tricked, or fooled, or cajoled. Easily distracted.

He licked his lips. It wasn’t any more or less insane than fighting hordes of ghostly undead, he argued with himself. This time, we have a choice, his self argued back. But, dammit, he wanted to do this. Why? Against all rationale and logic, why?

Because troops of soldiers slaughtering everyone inside the walls, no matter how innocent, just because of what they might do… was just another Purge.

“We’re going in.”

“What?” Morrigan barked. “Are you out of your–? Oh, of course you are!” She threw up her hands and turned away.

“Just a second ago, you were complaining about letting the Chantry slaughter mages,” Bannon said heatedly. “There’s a chance we can stop that.”

“No,” said Sten.

Bannon stood up and came around in front of the desk to confront the giant. “You said you would join us, and follow my orders.”

“I agreed I would fight darkspawn and be slain by them. Not by mages.”

“So you are afraid, then.” Bannon felt the others shrink back as he tried to goad the qunari. Great vote of confidence, guys.

“You are a blind fool if you are not,” was Sten’s only reply. His voice didn’t even heat up.

“All right. Stay here with the Templars. If we don’t return, you can join them in their Purge.”

The witch folded her arms. “Don’t expect me to throw away my life for these fool sheep, either.”

“Morrigan, I’d like a word in private. The rest of you, prepare.” Bannon looked to each of them in turn. Leliana looked ecstatic, almost worshipful. Zevran had a faint hint of approval on his face, Alistair more so. Sten… well, Sten was Sten. He walked out silently. The others followed. Leliana latched onto Alistair and mentioned something about prayer in the chapel.

Once he was alone with Morrigan, Bannon leaned back against the desk. She eyed him warily. “Look,” he said, “I know you are as dedicated as anyone to stopping this Blight.” She nodded once, almost subconsciously. So far, so good. “Tell me, which is more powerful: an army of mages, or an army of Templars?”

She scowled. She didn’t deign to answer, recognizing the leading question. He spread his hands, palms up. “It doesn’t matter if the mages defeat these demons, or this Blood Mage. Even if they do, as soon as the Templars get here, they’re all going to die anyway.”

Morrigan tried to hide it, but he saw– or thought he saw– something behind those eyes. He went on. “Greagoir promised troops of Templars to honor the treaty. But do you seriously want to go up against the horde, with you as our only mage?”

Something definitely shifted this time. “You’d have absolutely no healers,” she murmured.

“Yeah, we’re going to get slaughtered,” Bannon agreed. “So, if we all die here, locked in the Tower, it just saves us all the trouble and heartache in between.” He shrugged nonchalantly.

Her brows lowered at him. “You’re very persuasive, elf.”

“Well, I try,” he said lightly.

She sighed. “All right. Let’s get on with this.”

 

 

Bannon found the quartermaster and arranged for the storage of their bulkier items. He also bargained for every drop of healing potion they could spare. He asked the fellow if they had any charms to ward off mind control. The Templar only told him, “Keep the light of Andraste in your head, and a prayer to the Maker in your mind.”

Bannon turned to Zevran, who’d turned up at his side like a bad copper as soon as he’d left the Templar Commander’s office. “Get your weapons.”

“All of them?”

“All the ones you’ll think you’ll need.”

Zevran didn’t waste time grabbing his swords, daggers, knives. “What about my pack? My poisons?”

Bannon hesitated, but why not? He shrugged and waved an open hand. Zevran pounced on his pack and began rearranging the contents, sorting out the extraneous items he could leave with the quartermaster. His poisons weren’t in there, but he made free with Leliana’s pack and began carefully lining up small bottles. “You trust me now, my cautious patrone? I am honored.”

“Yeah… seems kinda redundant though, trying to kill us while we’re on a suicide mission.”

Zevran shot him a glance. “The Crows never kill their teammates while on a mission. Is bad for the mission.”

“They kill them afterward?”

The assassin chuckled. “That depended on how useful they were. And if you could get away with it. The Masters encouraged competition between the Crows, but only to a point. One couldn’t go around killing his fellows. That required a great deal if finesse. Here.” He pulled a dark vial from the lineup. “Would you like me to show you how to coat your blades with poison?”

“Does that work on demons?”

“Who knows?” Zevran shrugged. “But any edge we can give ourselves will surely not be wasted, no? I do know for a fact that poison works very well on mages.”

“All right.” Bannon took out his swords.

“Alas that I do not have any more explosive jars,” Zevran lamented. “They are horrible for jobs requiring stealth, but in an all-out fight?” He grinned bloodthirstily. “Nothing is more fun!”

Bannon had to laugh and shake his head. They might be heading into dire peril, but the assassin made it seem nothing more than an exciting romp. That alone made it almost worth the trouble of sparing his life!