The Broken Circle
Violence: not yet
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!