Direct continuation of the previous chapter.
The Circle Tower
“Young man, can you hear me? Alistair?”
Alistair opened his eyes and scrambled to sit up. The old woman, the mage, was kneeling next to him. Something was shrieking. Alistair looked over; the demon was down. Bannon planted a boot on its hips to yank his sword free.
Alistair heard a buzzing; he thought it was in his head, but it gained strength. It sounded like a distant scream. He turned his head the other way. It was coming from the Templar, held fast in a casing of ice.
The ice shattered, and the Templar surged free, his scream filling the air. “Meaghan!” His beloved’s name tore out of his throat straight from a sundered heart. “No!”
“Look out!” Leliana screamed.
The Templar charged. He swung at Wynne; she instinctively raised her staff to deflect the blow. She fell back against Alistair, and he caught her and twisted to put his armored body between her and the knight. Fortunately for them, the Templar had no interest in anyone but the murderer of his ‘wife.’
With a snarl of pure rage, the Templar leapt at Bannon, his sword cutting down from high overhead. The elf managed to get his blades up to catch the sword in their crux. It saved his life, but didn’t stop the blow. Instead of splitting his skull, the sword cracked down on his forehead over his left eye. Bannon went down, bleeding.
The Templar stood over the elf and raised his sword for another blow. Zevran jumped between him and Bannon, one sword raised to block, the other snaking into the soft spot in the Templar’s armor, under the arm.
Zevran was too small and lightweight to stand in the face of the human’s wild assault. He didn’t try; he twisted under the Templar’s arm, trying to overbalance him and push him away from Bannon. He stuck close, inside the Templar’s guard where the long sword was nearly useless against him. But this made his own swords equally difficult to bring to bear. Zevran spit in the man’s face, causing him to flinch back.
“Down!” yelled Bannon, now back on his feet behind the assassin. He swung his sword over the Antivan elf’s head, aiming for the Templar’s neck. He missed and caught the man across the cheek instead.
The Templar turned and staggered with the blow. Bannon followed doggedly, closing to ram his long dagger into the armpit recently vacated by Zevran’s sword. Zevran kicked the Templar from behind, sending the man crashing to his hands and knees. Bannon cut down with his sword. It bit with a crunch into the Templar’s neck. The body dropped. The two elves stood panting.
Blood poured over Bannon’s left eye and half his face. He staggered closer. “Dammit, Alistair, what the hell were you thinking?”
Alistair carefully helped Wynne steady herself, then he got to his feet. “Me?”
“We didn’t have to fight this thing– or him! It would have left us alone.” Bannon pressed a hand to his head and grunted in pain.
“Hold still a minute,” Wynne told them all. “Gather ’round; I will cast a healing spell.”
Alistair bit back a retort until Wynne had finished summoning the healing circle. “We can’t just let a demon run loose.”
“Did you forget why we are here?” Bannon retorted angrily. “We can’t fight every damned demon between us and Uldred.”
“No, I didn’t forget why we are here. We’re here trying to save Ferelden.”
“We’re not going to save anyone if we get killed.” Bannon rubbed the side of his face and grimaced at the sticky blood that came away on his half-glove. Leliana handed him a rag. “Thank you,” the elf said quietly. He took a breath and turned back to Alistair. “Look. We have to get to the top of this tower and rescue the First Enchanter, before he’s killed or something worse. That’s the only way we are getting out of here. The demons aren’t going anywhere, the Tower is sealed, remember?” Bannon wiped blood from his face with the rag.
Alistair took a breath to calm himself. He did feel guilty about the death of this man. He had to stop taking it out on the elf.
“Once we free the mages,” Bannon continued, “they’ll be able to help us clear out the demons. Isn’t that right, Wynne?”
Alistair looked around, having momentarily forgotten about the others. Wynne nodded. Leliana was kneeling by the Templar’s corpse, trying to arrange him in a more peaceful repose. Zevran and Morrigan simply stood ready, but Alistair could tell by the way they looked to Bannon that they agreed with the elf.
Bannon came up to him, folding the rag and running the clean edge along his jaw. “There. Do I still have a smutch?” He widened his dark eyes up at Alistair, looking forcefully naive.
A dry chuckle escaped Alistair’s throat. “I think you’ll pass.”
“Don’t worry,” the elf told him seriously. “We just have to take one problem at a time. Yeah?”
“Yeah.” He nodded. Of course, saving Ferelden was a tall order for two guys. Take it in manageable chunks. “Lead the way.”
Bannon nodded and looked over his troops. “Everybody take a couple minutes.” He went to the door to check that the hallway was clear.
Alistair went to help Leliana. The Chantry Sister prayed over the nameless Templar’s body. Alistair prayed for them all.
Bannon paced a short way down the hall, collecting his nerves. If it hadn’t been for Wynne… he gingerly rubbed his neck. Healing potions were no substitute for a mage with healing magic. Morrigan was useless in that area. Perhaps they could recruit a healer from the Circle once this mission was complete. If there were any left.
The hallway was clear, down to the next turn. He turned around to retrace his steps and almost ran into Zevran, who’d come up silently behind him.
“What are you doing sneaking up on me?”
“I wasn’t sneaking,” Zevran insisted, his eyes wide protestations of innocence. “I was merely moving about in potentially dangerous environment with the natural grace and stealth of the elven kind.”
Bannon brushed past him. “Too bad your mouth isn’t as quiet as your feet.”
Zevran fell into step beside him, without any retort. Or maybe his silence was the retort. Bannon slowed to a stop before they reached the room where the others waited. “Listen… thanks for keeping that Templar from finishing me off.” He could still hardly believe the assassin had jumped between him and the mad shem.
“Ah, well,” Zevran replied with a shrug; “I wanted to score another point with him before you did.”
“Yeah, well, too bad that backfired. I scored both.” He’d just thought of that. Bannon the mighty demon and Templar slayer. “Still, thanks all the same.” He turned to look directly at Zevran.
The Antivan met his eyes. For a moment, his face was clear, the tiny lines at the corners of his eyes faded as he relaxed his guard, just a bit.
Then Bannon said, “That means I’m three up on you.”
“Three? How do you figure that?”
“The same way you do– take whatever number your opponent has and add a couple to it so you win.”
“That is cheating!”
“Yep,” Bannon said blithely.
“I never cheat!”
“Sure you don’t.”
The assassin scowled at him. “Admit it! You just lost count!”
“Of course I didn’t.”
“Are you two arguing again?” Alistair came out of the room, looking weary. The others filed out after him.
The elves looked at him, then to each other. Then back to Alistair.
“Of course not,” Zevran said.
“No, not at all,” Bannon agreed.
The First Enchanter had a whole floor to himself. It was well-appointed. The outer hall expanded into an oval waiting room that was thickly carpeted and furnished with cushioned chairs. Bookshelves stood against the wall, alternating with potted plants. The leader of the mages sure had it good. Of course, if he were an older gentleman, he probably didn’t get out much. Way too many stairs.
Even the doors were richly carved in an antique style, with polished brass handles. Bannon tried one; it was locked.
“That’s the First Enchanter’s office,” Wynne said.
“Imagine what fabulous, fascinating treasures might lie within,” Zevran said.
To which Wynne pointedly replied, “We are not here to break in and loot the First Enchanter’s things, young man.”
Zevran looked at Bannon. Bannon said, “That’s absolutely right. What were you thinking, you miscreant?”
The assassin shot him an evil glare, and Bannon fought hard not to smirk. He continued past the door.
They came to a branch in the corridor. Wynne led them to the right. Apparently, Irving’s private chambers were the other way.
The long hall took a few turns and then once more became the gentle curve of the Tower’s outer wall. It was blessedly quiet on this level. Bannon could almost imagine what the Circle Tower must be like on normal days. Quiet… and boring.
They approached another set of steps. Bannon had been wondering why the stairs didn’t all connect into one continuous spiral. It would be faster to get from one floor to another. Then he realized that if anyone tried to make the climb all in one go, especially in heavy armor, they’d probably collapse. The level walking in between was a welcome respite.
“The next floor has storage and preparation areas,” Wynne said. “Then above it is the Harrowing Chamber. We should expect guards.” The others limbered up in preparation.
“Say, Wynne,” Bannon asked. “Um… where do mages go when they have to… you know. Go?”
The shems all rolled their eye and groaned. Zevran gave him a cutting look.
“You can’t possibly be thinking about that at a time like this,” Morrigan griped.
“Again?” Alistair asked him incredulously.
“Why didn’t you think of that before we got all the way up here?” Wynne scolded.
“Hey, elves have smaller bladders,” Bannon told them with a hapless shrug. “Irving must have a garderobe. I’ll just pop back and use his. Don’t worry,” he said at Wynne’s pointed look; “I’ll wash up after I’m done.” Before they could argue or come up with any logic to thwart him, he turned back down the hall.
“You shouldn’t go alone,” Alistair said. He started after him.
“Well, this level is safe,” Bannon said to forestall him. “You should stand guard here, in case something comes down the stairs. Zevran will go with me.” He beckoned to the assassin.
“Well… if you’re sure,” Alistair said. He shot a bitter look at Zevran.
“It’ll be fine. Zevran has a small bladder, too.”
“I think not,” the Antivan protested. Bannon grabbed his arm and dragged him off.
Once they were out of sight of the others, Bannon broke into a quick trot.
“You must really have to go,” Zevran griped as he kept pace.
“Of course not. I had to get rid of them somehow.”
“Oh! We are on a clandestine mission? Once more, I have underestimated you,” Zevran said in admiration. “Lead the way, mi patrone.”
Bannon had Zevran go check to see if the door to Irving’s quarters was locked, while he went back and started working on the office door. The lock was very strong, and as old as the door itself, but it was kept well-oiled.
The latch clicked, and the door swung open. The First Enchanter’s office did not disappoint. It was as big as all of Alarith’s store back home. Bannon ‘shopped’ along the wall shelves. He didn’t know much about magic, but anything that looked fancy and was small enough went into his pack.
Zevran joined him a few minutes later. He reported that the door to the living quarters was unlocked, and that he scouted them out quickly and found the garderobe.
“Good job. By the time we get back, Alistair will be dancing around, wanting his turn.”
Zevran snickered. “I do feel more refreshed and ready for a fight, however. You sure you are going to take a pass?”
Damned assassin. But just then, Bannon completed his survey of the back wall and discovered a little recessed necessity closet in the back corner. Hah! Irving didn’t stint on anything. “Check around for anything else that looks good,” Bannon said, waving at the area he hadn’t covered.
When he emerged (yes, that was much better!), Zevran was perusing the large desk. “Are you sure the First Enchanter won’t mind his things going missing?”
“Hey, we were never here. Those Greed Demons must have taken stuff.”
Zevran laughed. “Look at this,” he said, gingerly prodding a black-bound tome on the desk. “Do you think this is a book of evil magic? Your witch friend might like it.”
“You planning on courting her?” Bannon asked, examining an ornate brass inkpot.
“Why not? You keep telling me my chanced with your lunatic nun are vanishingly small.”
“Didn’t Morrigan threaten you with severe bodily damage and death the last three times you spoke to her?”
Zevran let out a sigh. “She is only encouraging me to make a greater effort to seduce her.”
“Oh, is that what you call it?” Bannon set the inkpot down– too heavy– and frowned at the book. He could use something to soften up the witch after making her come in here and sort of yelling at her…. He reached out and flipped the black cover open.
“Ack!” Zevran jumped back. “Are you mad? Evil mages put spells on those things to keep unwary meddlers from reading their secrets! You could have blown us up!”
“Pfft, right. They only say that to keep nosy, unintelligent meddlers away.” There was a slip of paper inside the cover. Bannon picked it up to get a closer look. “I bet Morrigan would tell you her underwear would explode if you so much as touch it.”
The paper said something about Flemeth. The witch, or the legend? Perhaps Morrigan would find this interesting, or at least amusing. He stuffed the book into his pack. “Let’s get going.”
Bannon re-locked the door on their way out. No one but us Greed Demons in here. By the time they hurried back to the stairs, Alistair had organized everyone into two more shifts.
Well, at least they’d go into battle fully prepared.
The hallway of the next level looked clear, though there were signs of battle on the floors and walls. Zevran was supposed to be scouting ahead, but he stood in an open doorway, gaping. The others moved up slowly. Alistair had an idea what they would find, judging by the sounds coming from the room. Still, he was unprepared for what he saw.
Bodies. Men, women; some of them not human. They were naked and writhing together like a pile of maggots on rotting meat. Alistair heard Leliana gasp beside him as his stomach clenched. He turned his head away. Maker!
Bannon slipped past them, tiptoed into the room to pull the door shut. “They’re pretty busy,” he said quietly. “They won’t bother us.” He moved past the door, slugging the assassin on the arm to get him moving as well. The others followed without a word.
Alistair bit his lip, hard. These were Templars– they’d taken vows! The demons were debasing them in the most horrible fashion. His stomach turned. It was rape, mass rape, but the others didn’t seem to care.
Alistair swallowed his protest. He knew the rest wouldn’t want to hear it. And… he knew there was no way to rescue those people, not from that many demons.
Maker guard me from temptation. Shield my mind from evil influence. He turned away to follow the others. Maker have mercy on their souls.
They walked the long hall to the final stairway. There was an oval antechamber at the bottom of the broad marble steps. Half of the room was encased in a barrier of light that hummed with quiet power as they approached.
Three Templars were imprisoned within. Two lay dead. The third knelt with head bowed, praying. His short hair was matted and dulled with soot, his face unshaven and bristling with a wild thicket of new growth. His body swayed with the force of his prayer, a monotone litany that fell hoarsely from his lips, never stopping, never pausing.
The closer Bannon got to the barrier, the more his hair prickled. He didn’t dare touch it. “Hello?” he called to the Templar. “Wynne, Morrigan, can you do something to open this?”
“Begone, foul demon!” was the only reply he got from the Templar.
The mages studied the barrier. Wynne tried a dissipation spell, which had no effect.
“‘Tis the work of demons,” Morrigan opined.
“I said begone! Torment me no further. I will never give in.” The Templar looked up, his eyes bloodshot and haggard. “What…? You’re still here?” His eyes flicked rapidly over them. “That always worked before….”
Leliana came to stand closer to the barrier. “We are not demons, ser Templar. We are here to help you.”
A high-pitched laugh issued from the man’s throat. “A clever ploy, demon. Tempt me no more with visions of desire!” He ducked his head again, squeezing his eyes shut and returning to his litany of prayer.
“They’ve driven him near to madness,” Leliana said sadly.
Alistair said, “No, ser Templar; it’s true. We’re not demons; we’re real. We’re Grey Wardens.”
“Ser Templar…?” the man said hesitantly. He raised his head again. “Do you not know my name?”
“I’m sorry, young man,” Wynne said. “I’ve seen you standing guard near the library, but I’m afraid I don’t recall your name.”
“S-senior Enchanter Wynne?” Blearily, he tried to focus on her. “Is… is it really you?”
“Well, I hope I’m not what the demons believe you’d find to be a tempting vision of desire,” the old woman said with gentle mirth.
Hope warred with paranoia and distrust on his face. “I… I can’t believe it,” he rasped. “No, I won’t believe it!” He clenched his eyes shut and threw an arm across his face. “Begone and torment me no more! Just kill me!”
“The poor bastard,” Alistair said quietly to Bannon. “He’s lost his mind.”
The elf stepped up to the barrier. “Look, we can’t break this barrier, so even if we wanted to, we couldn’t offer you your freedom. Can you answer some questions that would be of use to us if we were real? Things demons don’t care about?”
The Templar unfolded slightly. “Like… like what?”
“Do you know where the First Enchanter is?”
“He’s gone. With the rest of them. Up there.” He lowered his arm a bit more and cast a fearful gaze towards the stairs.
“Have you seen a mage named Niall? Do you know who he is?”
“He’s gone up there, too. It’s no use.” The Templar slumped, sitting on his knees on the floor. “No one is coming back from there.”
“We’re going up there to stop Uldred,” Bannon told him firmly. “We’re going to rescue the First Enchanter and bring him back–”
“No!” Fear widened the Templar’s eyes. He crawled closer and struggled to his feet. “You must kill the mages!”
Morrigan started growling, but Bannon cut her off. “We need First Enchanter Irving to open the Tower doors.”
“All those mages– they’re possessed!”
“They can’t all be–” Alistair started.
“That’s what Uldred is doing! It’s the Harrowing!”
Alistair drew back. “He’s… putting demons into mages?” he asked incredulously.
Bannon felt a chill. This was going to go badly. “He can’t have gotten them all. Niall had that Litany thing to protect from mind control.” His heart raced. Niall could be up there now, battling Uldred. And Maker knew how many Abominations. He started for the stairs, beckoning his team.
“You can’t tell if a mage is possessed just by looking at them!” the Templar yelled at their backs. “Any of them could be an Abomination, just waiting for the right time to strike. You must kill them all!”
Bannon shook his head. He had his own priorities. “All right, listen. Zevran, stay out of sight. Find Uldred and sneak around behind him. He’s your mark.”
“Understood, mi patrone.”
“Leliana, I want you to find Niall, his allies; help them with the Litany.” She nodded. “Wynne, stick with her, help the mages.” He reached the top of the stairs and put his hand on the door handle, then looked back. “Alistair, you and me, we’re going to confront Uldred, keep his attention on us. Morrigan, stick behind us. If you see an opportunity, blast the hell out of him. If Uldred takes over me or Alistair… well, freeze us and hopefully you all won’t have to kill us.” He swallowed and took a breath. “Uldred is the priority. Anyone or anything that attacks us– kill it.”
Wynne and Morrigan prepared the group with defensive spells. Then Bannon opened the door and they slipped inside.
There was another stairwell, and Bannon motioned everyone to stay back as he crept to the top. The Harrowing Chamber was a wide oval, tiled with a mosaic pattern that radiated from its center. Blue light rose from the floor, fading out to midnight at the arched ceiling overhead. There were flickers of brighter light. Chains of lightning encircled several groups of people throughout the room; mages held by enchantment. Tall, shadowed figures stood guard among them.
A shimmering pool of blue liquid stood in a basin at the center of the room. It pulsed with energy. Three figures stood before it, a fourth before them on the floor, on his hands and knees, heaving painful breaths.
This was too good to be true. Uldred had his back to them, across and open expanse of floor littered only with a couple of bodies. If he or Zevran had brought their bows, they could have killed him from here. Bannon cautiously motioned the others forward, but he didn’t take his eyes from the spectacle before him.
Uldred’s lieutenants raised their arms in command. The mage before them was drawn upward into the air as if held by shackles. The bruises on his face and arms looked sickly in the blue light. The whites of his eyes gleamed in fear.
Uldred stepped forward and cupped the mage’s chin in his left hand. “Do you accept this gift I offer?” he asked, his voice carrying across the chamber.
“Maker, help me!” the imprisoned mage squealed.
“Fool,” Uldred growled. “I am the supreme power on this plane.” He raised a knife and drew the blade across the mage’s forehead. Blood cascaded down, covering his face in a red-violet shroud.
The mage collapsed back to the floor, the invisible shackles released. Uldred chanted in an arcane tongue, gathering power about himself. The air grew heavy as if a storm were approaching. An unheard thrum filled the chamber.
Uldred and his lieutenants reached out, seized the power, and channeled it into the helpless mage. He screamed and writhed on the floor. Bannon thought they were killing him, but it went on and on. The mage’s limbs thrashed impossibly; his robes split open, his skin split open, as something grew from within.
The energy flow ceased with a sudden clap of thunder, and the room went dark. Bannon blinked until his eyes adjusted to the dim blue light again.
Something stood where the mage had been. Something misshapen, barely recognizable as once having been human. The Templar had said one couldn’t tell an Abomination by looking at it? It made Bannon’s skin crawl. Yet Connor had looked ordinary. As Bannon stared, the thing receded within itself. The skin on its arms and chest began to regain a normal shape. It’s head remained a monstrous skull, stretched within its host. It cricked its neck, stretched its arms, getting used to its new physical form.
Bannon glanced back to see if his troops were ready to move. They tensed. He nodded and turned to charge–
And came face-to-face with… something. It was a big lump on the floor, like a fat pig lying in the mud. Its face was lumpy, its limbs short and atrophied. Its ivory yellow eyes fixed him and he just froze. “So… much… trouble,” the thing drawled in a deep, soporific voice. Its maw opened in a huge yawn.
Bannon found himself reflexively following suit. He tried to fight it. “Wha–?”
“Sloth Demon,” he heard Wynne say. She sounded as if she were drifting away. “Try… try to fight….” Her words were cut off with a yawn.
Dammit, stop yawning. Bannon’s eyes swam out of focus as his eyelids came down. So heavy…. He could barely lift his arms. Get up, he thought dimly, as his head slowly lowered down. No… up….
“Too… much… trouble,” the demon purred, its speech punctuated by contagious yawns. “Too much… to fight. Just… sleep. Drift…. Sleep….”
Bannon pillowed his head on one arm. The mage tower seemed to float away as his eyes closed of their own volition. His brain filled with cottony warmth, and then he knew nothing more.