For the first time Blair walked into the Harrowing chamber at the peak of the Circle Tower. His mouth was dry and his heart pounding, but when he walked into the room for a moment he forgot his anxiety and just stared out into the cavernous room. He wasn’t even tall for an elf, and the huge room with the domed ceiling arching overhead made him feel very small. The room was lit by lamps arranged around the periphery, and the evening sun shone through stained glass windows. In the center of the room stood a pedestal emitting a blue light.
The Templar who had led him this far followed a few steps behind as Blair walked towards the center of the room. To his amazement, both the First Enchanter and the Knight-Commander themselves were waiting for him. With them waited one of the younger Templars, Cullen, looking even more anxious than Blair felt, and he wondered with some irritation why he seemed so nervous when it was Blair’s Harrowing. Several other Templars were scattered around the room, and began to move to form a loose circle around them—which ratcheted Blair’s nervousness up to actual fear.
He’d been informed that he’d been scheduled for the Harrowing two weeks ago, and having no idea what was coming had driven him to nervous exhaustion, running through exercises and spells endlessly. He’d never had a test that he could not prepare for through study or practice, but the most he could get out of any of the mages at his lessons was, “Try not to worry, there is really no way to prepare for it.” To suggest he not worry was ridiculous when everyone knew a sizable number of apprentices simply disappeared after their Harrowing, with no notice taken of it besides striking their names from the class rosters. Sure, he could become Tranquil and avoid the Harrowing, but that was like saying he could fling himself down the stairs and bash his brains out to avoid the Harrowing. It came out to the same thing.
As Blair stepped in front of him, the Knight-Commander quoted the Chant of Light. “Magic exist to serve man, and never to rule over him.” Blair almost sneered. You mean mages exist to serve you, he thought. But of course he was silent as the Knight-Commander continued his chantry spiel about mages and demons.
The First Enchanter was the one who finally got to the point. “At any time a demon could attempt to possess a mage. Before your training can continue, we must determine you are strong enough to resist their attacks. This ritual sends you into the Fade. There you will face a demon, armed with only your will.”
“Know this, apprentice,” the Knight-Commander said grimly. “If you fail, we Templars will perform our duty. You will die.”
Even if he’d been given time, Blair couldn’t have responded, standing there staring at them in shock. He knew little about demons, the most they were told is that they were dangerous and should be avoided. Even the library was little help, with books on demonology locked away. How could they expect him to survive?
Stepping closer, the First Enchanter said quietly, “The Harrowing is a secret out of necessity. You must tell no one of this ritual. Anyone who speaks of it will be sent to the Aeonar for the rest of their days. Every mage must go through this trial by fire. As we succeeded so shall you.”
“And what of those who failed?” Blair blurted, anger getting the better of his fear.
Irving looked surprised, but before he could respond the Knight-Commander stepped forward and said, “Preparations are complete. Begin the ritual.”
“Go to the pedestal,” the First Enchanter said. “The lyrium is your gateway into the Fade. Touch it, and you will be transported and the trial will begin.”
Blair balked, but as he hesitated saw the Knight-Commander move his hand to the pommel of his sword. If he did not cooperate, they’d either drag him to the lyrium or kill him outright. He resolutely walked to the pedestal, and looked at the pool of lyrium it held. He’d seen the potions before, and they were similarly blue, but didn’t glow. Reaching out his hand, he touched the tips of his fingers to the glowing liquid. It was warm, and his fingers vibrated as if he were touching a purring cat. He lowered his hand to touch his palm to the surface, and suddenly the warmth increased, quickly becoming a burn. Blair pulled his hand back to see it was glowing, and then there was a flash of light.
When the dazzle faded he was standing in the raw Fade. Blair had been in the Fade in dreams, but those environments had been melded by spirits, while this was the Fade in its natural state, if it could be said to have one. The landscape was twisted and pitted, rising in spires and arches. The ground was some smooth, hard material, almost looking like the scaled skin of a giant dragon. Everything was lit by an eery sourceless glow. At the further distances Blair’s sight was obscured by some rippling effect, as if the material of the Fade itself was unstable. Blair looked up and saw the Dark City at a distance, suspended in the air—or was there air? Blair was breathing, but couldn’t feel any air pass his lips. When he held his breath he quickly found he had no need to breathe at all. He let out a giddy laugh, then looked around fearfully in case something had heard him. There was no sign of anyone else. He found he’d arrived at what appeared to be the beginning of a path, and set out along it, frightened but ready to face whatever lay before him.
In bear shape, the apprentice roared and swiped at the demon with its heavy paw. The demon looked like a human statue heated red-hot and melted almost to shapelessness, and the bear’s fur smoked when it hit it. Seeing the apprentice was not badly injured, Blair turned away from the fight to drop another wisp. They were weak spirits, but his left arm was still tingling from a lightning strike from one, and he was sure if not destroyed now they would wear him and the apprentice down. Another lightning bolt shot at him. He felt his muscles twitching as the current passed through his body, but countered with a couple of staff bolts. The final wisp blinked out.
The bear roared in pain. Turning, he quickly cast a healing spell on the apprentice before hitting the demon with a cold spell. It shrieked, like nothing he had ever heard, and shot a jet of flame at him.
Blair leaped back, but the flame lashed at him, enveloping the arm that held his staff. His entire hand felt like he’d dipped it in boiling water, and he screamed and dropped the staff. The sleeve of his robe was on fire, and he beat the flames out with his other hand. He glanced at his burned hand and felt his stomach roll when he saw the blackened, blistered skin, but forced himself to look up at the demon in spite of the pain. The bear reared up on its hind legs and slashed at it with both paws, driving it back hissing with anger. The demon was clearly badly wounded, the flames that had billowed from it fading down to flickering tongues. Gathering his shattered concentration, Blair hit it with a final cold spell.
When the spell struck it the demon’s molten surface darkened to black, the flames snuffed out. It gave one final wail and sank down, seeming to melt slowly into the ground. The bear fell heavily back on all fours and roared triumphantly. Blair gave a gasp of relief that was almost a sob, and gritted his teeth as he cast a healing spell, staring at the growling bear, still unable to look at his hand. He almost screamed as the pain increased when the healing spell took hold, then faded down and left his hand with an aching throb. He looked at it now, and saw angry weals of scar tissue running down the back of his hand. The skin elsewhere on his hand looked healed, though still reddened and tight. He flexed his fingers, relieved to find they all worked.
Would his body be scarred when he left the Fade? He thought not. His body still lay in the Harrowing chamber, after all, it was his spirit that traveled here and took shape.
Blair walked over to the bear, who shook himself and shapeshifted. A moment later the apprentice stood next to him. Blair looked down at the dead body of the demon, already dissipating like the mist over Lake Calenhad in the morning. “That was . . . easier than expected,” he said. He looked around. “Shouldn’t I be leaving the Fade?”
“You did it! You actually did it!” the apprentice said with glee. “When you came I hoped you might be able to—but I never thought any of you were worthy.”
“It wasn’t that hard,” Blair said. “Though it would have been much worse without your help.” He turned in a circle, scanning the surroundings for a second demon. He’d assumed killing the demon would end the ritual. Or was he supposed to go back to the place he’d started? He’d learned in lectures that geography in the Fade had no relevance to geography on the other side of the Veil, but perhaps there was some trigger he needed to trip to exit the Fade?
The apprentice interrupted his thoughts. “That is because you are a true mage, one of the few. The others, they never had a chance. The Templars set them up to fail, like they tried with you.”
Blair turned back to the apprentice, eying him suspiciously. He knew he was one of the more gifted apprentices in the Tower, but was unaccustomed to people flattering him. He was an elf. “It sounds like you might have had a hand in that too. What is this ‘arrangement’ it spoke of? And clearly not everyone fails, because I know many others who have passed their Harrowing.”
The apprentice looked down at the ground. “Perhaps there are other demons used for the Harrowing, for this one has defeated all as far back as I remember. Because of the ritual, after my body died I was stranded here. I cannot die, but I can suffer. I was under the demon’s power for what seemed years, subjected to whatever tortures its mind could conceive. Finally it lost interest and let me go, but satisfied its cruelty by requiring me to lead other apprentices to it. I regret my part in it, but now maybe I can be freed from that, thanks to you.
“You have defeated a demon! With time you will be a master enchanter with no equal—and maybe there’s hope in that for someone as small and as forgotten as me. If you want to help, there may be a way for me to leave here, to get a foothold outside . . . you just need to want to let me in.”
Blair stepped back and looked at the apprentice incredulously. “You served this demon, I know you are not trustworthy, and now you want me to share my mind with you? I begin to think that demon was not the true test.”
“What do you mean?” the apprentice asked indignantly. “What else could it be? Do you see any other demons here?”
“I don’t know, do I?”
The apprentice glared at him for a moment, then smiled and crossed his arms. “I spoke truly about the time limit. If my efforts seem heavy-handed, I am working against a deadline. I suppose you realize the number of apprentices who fall for it, though. If they do not offer me misplaced sympathy, they succumb to vanity.” Blair had already stepped back in alarm and lifted Valor’s staff when the apprentice’s voice suddenly changed, taking on an unearthly timbre. “Simple killing is a warrior’s job. The real dangers of the fade are preconceptions, careless trust. Pride.” Suddenly the apprentice’s body began to morph, stretching and changing as it took its true shape. A gigantic demon reared up over Blair, and he staggered backwards, almost dropping the staff from hands made clumsy by terror. “Keep your wits about you mage. True tests never end.”
Suddenly there was a flash of blue light and a moment later Blair wakened lying on cold flagstones, heart pounding, gasping for breath, covered in a cold sweat. The young Templar stood over him, naked sword pointed at his throat, the blade shaking in his hands.
“Stand down, Cullen,” the Knight-Commander said. “He has passed the Harrowing.”