“And so is the Golden City blackened
With each step you take in my Hall.
Marvel at perfection, for it is fleeting.
You have brought Sin into Heaven
And doom upon all the world.”
-Canticle of Threnodies 8:13
The Chantry teaches us that it is the hubris of men, which brought the darkspawn into our world. The mages sought to usurp Heaven, but instead they destroyed it. They were cast out, twisted, and cursed by their own corruption. They returned as monsters. The first of the darkspawn. They became a blight upon the lands, unstoppable and relentless. The Dwarven kingdoms were the first to fall, and, from the Deep Roads, the darkspawn drove at us again and again until finally we neared annihilation. Until, the Grey Wardens came. Men and women from every race, warriors and mages, barbarians and kings, Grey Wardens sacrificed everything to stem the tide of darkness and prevail. It has been four centuries since that victory, and we have kept our vigil. We have watched and waited for the darkspawn to return, but those who once called us heroes have forgotten. We are few now, and our warnings have been ignored for too long. It may even be too late. For I have seen with my own eyes what lies on the horizon. Maker, help us all.
I was still in my night wear. They didn’t let me get dressed when they came and pulled me from my bunk in the dead of night. One of them came in, and he clamped his hand over my mouth to stifle my startled cry.
“Apprentice Amell, you are summoned to the Harrowing Chamber.” He removed his hand from my mouth. Still clutching my sheets to my chest, I reached for my trunk, which contained my robes. An armored hand wrapped around my arm. “Now.” I glared at him, but he smiled while he looked me up and down. Unbridled disgust stirred inside my stomach and a shiver traced the column of my spine. There was painfully little a mage could do to a templar without consequence. Inversely, templars could do what they please- and they did. Discomfort and, relatively, minor objectification were of little concern to mages within the tower. It was simply the reality of life inside Kinloch Hold.
I crossed my arms protectively over my chest and gripped my own shoulders as I was led out of the apprentice quarters. Some of the other apprentices awoke. I could see them watching, though they dared not to make a sound. This was a normal occurrence, and it was also not uncommon for their fellows to disappear afterwards.
The templar presented me to his three other comrades who were to accompany me. “Maker,” Cullen averted his eyes towards the ground and his face flushed. “Why is she…where are her robes?”
“Knight-Commander Greagoir said not to waste time,” said Ambrose, obviously pleased with himself, “so I didn’t.”
Cullen and I made eye contact, unintentional and brief. I forced a smile, partially to reassure him, but mostly because I would not give the other templars the satisfaction of seeing me squirm.
The clink of armor colliding reverberated in the air. Cullen shoved past the templar who retrieved me, and stormed back into the room. He reemerged with a cotton blanket, which he draped over my shoulders. The other three templars scoffed in annoyance.
“Come on, lover boy, your chivalry is making us late,” one of them taunted. The resolve Cullen had found dissipated and was instead replaced by a reddening in his cheeks.
My bare feet slapped against the stone floor. Cool air played within the stone walls, brushing my skin and leaving goosebumps in its wake. Stray beams of moonlight crept inside the hallway through the window slits lining the hall. The templars’ armor briefly caught the moonlight as they passed each window. Two additional templars accompanied Cullen, and Ambrose. They formed a tight circle around me as they marched me to the top of the tower, and to my fate, my Harrowing.
It was taboo to openly discuss, but apprentices knew what it meant to be dragged from bed in the middle of the night.The Harrowing was a night that was feared and inevitable. I donned a mask of false bravery in spite of the templars, but I wasn’t exempt from that fear.
Ambrose, without a doubt, volunteered to attend my Harrowing. He would love to see me fail. Even if I survived this test, at least he could make the night even more miserable than it already was. I couldn’t discern whether Cullen wanted to be here or not. No one wants to watch someone they care about die. It doesn’t help that we’re not supposed to be friends, and that he would be one of the templars forced to kill me if I fail. Regardless, I know he wouldn’t leave me alone with Ambrose and whoever else was chosen to oversee my harrowing.
At the top of Kinloch Hold were large double oak doors with the Circle of Magi symbol seared into the grain of the wood. The templar in front of me gripped the iron ring handles and pulled the doors open. Large stained-glass windows, each a different color, circled the top of the dome-shaped room. They were the largest, most beautiful windows I’d ever seen within the tower. Light runes were embedded into the floor. Their soft blue glow illuminated a pattern that spiraled inwards towards a pedestal in the center of the room. The colored light from the stained-glass windows spilled into the room and mingled with the glimmer of the runes. I couldn’t remember the last time I could see the fullness of the sky. The moon was full and at her peak. The stars poked bright, luminous holes in the blanket of the night sky.
I’d almost forgotten the sorry state I was in until I noticed that First Enchanter Irving and Knight-Commander Greagoir eyed me with confusion. The First Enchanter looked from me to the templars that surrounded me, and his confusion quickly turned to anger.
“What is the meaning of this?” he marched up and put himself between me and my escorts. They shrank at Irving’s accusation, except Ambrose. He met Irving’s gaze and placed a hand on the hilt of his sword.
“I don’t report to you, First Enchanter.”
“That’s quite enough. All of you,” the Knight-Commander intervened.
“Greagoir, look at her! This is hardly acceptable behavior from your recruits.”
“Yes, but making a fuss over it now won’t do any good. Besides, we have business to attend to.” Greagoir looked past Irving at the templars. “We will discuss this later,” he said, as if he was scolding a gaggle of naughty children.
“Fine, but if your templars keep harassing my mages, the College and the Grand Enchanter will hear of it.”
The Knight-Commander rolled his eyes at Irving. “Very well.” Even I knew that Irving’s threat was empty. The Chantry governed and monitored the Circle, and they provided the templars who guarded it.
“Now,” Knight-Commander Greagoir continued, “magic exists to serve man, but never to rule over him. Thus spoke the prophet Andraste as she cast down the Tevinter Imperium, ruled by mages who had brought the world to the edge of ruin. Your magic is a gift, but it’s also a curse, for demons of the dream realm—the Fade—are drawn to you and seek to use you as a gateway into this world.”
“This is why the Harrowing exists. The ritual sends you into the Fade, and there you will face a demon.” Guilt tinged Irving’s face. “Armed with only your will.”
I nodded slowly, my expression blank. I could feel the color leave my face. I wish I could blame it on a draft seeping through the cracks of the stone walls, but the depth of the pit in my stomach and the nausea that arose told me otherwise. Fear had its bitter grasp on my heart. It tightened its grip and constricted the rest of my chest, making my breaths shallow.
“And what happens if I can’t defeat the demon?” I asked, already knowing the answer. I fought to conceal my fear, but Irving knew better. The deep-set lines on his face softened, and sorrow replaced the anger in his eyes.
“It will turn you into an abomination and the templars will be forced to slay you,” the Knight-Commander said casually. This was just business as usual for him.
“Alternatively,” Irving added, “if you are killed in the Fade, you will be tranquil when you awake.”
I’d seen the Tranquil roaming the halls of Kinloch Hold. I would rather be dead. I glanced at Cullen. He had already been staring at me when our eyes met.
Irving put his hand on the back of my shoulder and guided me to the pedestal at the center of the room.
“This is lyrium, the very essence of magic, as you’ve learned in your studies, and it is your gateway into the Fade.” About a quarter of a spoon of muted blue powder lay in the ribbed bowl of the pedestal, and it had a faint glow to it. I’d never seen lyrium in this form before. Under supervision, apprentices were only allowed to work with small amounts of diluted liquid lyrium to enchant basic lighting, heating, and cooling runes.
Irving’s voice softened to almost a whisper. “The Harrowing is a secret out of necessity, child. Every mage must go through this trial by fire. As we succeeded, so shall you. Keep your wits about you and remember the Fade is a realm of dreams. The spirits may rule it, but your own will is real.”
“She must go through this test alone, First Enchanter.” Greagoir was growing impatient. “Let us begin. Apprentice Amell, please approach the lyrium in the center of the room.”
I walked towards the pedestal and pulled my blanket tighter around me. Perspiration made my hands clammy. First Enchanter Irving snapped his fingers, and a lick of flame devoured the lyrium. I inhaled the fumes. A slow burn found its way through the back of my throat and into my lungs. I imagine that the sensation would be similar to that of drowning. Instinctively, I held my breath. When I couldn’t hold it any longer, my body involuntarily sucked in the gaseous air- over and over and over. As I choked on the lyrium particles, every inhale was a croak and a grinding wheeze. My head felt light, and the rims of my vision began to dim.
My legs buckled underneath me, and I hit the ground.
It wasn’t the marble flooring of the Harrowing Chamber but rather thick, plush moss. Remnants of buildings protruded from otherwise unsoiled earth. The structures were barely recognizable, echoes of my childhood: the front door of my old home in Kirkwall stood a few feet in front of me, the image of my mother burning like a dying ember in my mind. I scrambled to my feet and reached for the door knob, but it was already gone. My home was gone.
Instead, my hands lay on the locked doors from inside the Circle. Slowly I backed away, my eyes scanning the area. A pedestal identical to the one in the Harrowing Chamber sat in the middle of the moss clearing. Twisted trees were rooted in the ground, along with other fragmented pieces of buildings that may have once been familiar to me. A figure stuck out at an crude angle and it was an image that I had the misfortune of remembering, a statue from the Kirkwall Circle of Magi-The Gallows. The statue captured a man whose skin clung to his bones, his bony face buried in his hands. Chains hung from his neck and his wrists. When I first came to the Circle as a little girl, I had nightmares of the statues. In my dreams, they came to take me to the Circle but they always accidentally crushed me on the way there.
Bits of stone hung suspended in the air against a backdrop of a jade sky. Six separate paths lay in front of me, converging on the clearing from all sides. Each road plunged deeper into the thicket and brush, stretching across lands I couldn’t fathom. Moss cushioned each step my bare feet took, and a crisp, pleasant breeze brushed the edges of my nightgown. The open space was enticing. It was almost as if the Fade was baiting me. Leading me deeper into its clutches, far from my dismal reality. Patches of sunlight perfectly illuminated beds of soft brush. Briefly, I thought about what it would feel like to sleep among the sweet fragrance of flowers. I thought about what rain might feel like on my skin, and if I could even feel it in the Fade since I couldn’t remember its cool touch in the waking world. These thoughts entertained me for a time, but such temptations were dangerous in this place. I knew better.
The sweet beckons of the woods ceased as I pushed the thoughts from my mind. Everything grew still. Even the air around me. The silence became unnerving, deafening even. I heard footsteps following my own, or so I thought. I turned. Nothing was there. Children’s giggles echoed out from the dark cover of the forest off the path. Still, there was nothing. Nothing but me, and the whims of the Fade.
Abruptly, the path came to a dead end. There was a statue of myself sleeping. I was blanketed by flowers, just as I fantasized in my mind. Except, there was another statue, a templar. His sword was pointed at the nape of my neck. I stepped backwards instinctively. As I stepped backwards my back bumped into a solid mass.
I took off in a dead sprint. My chest constricted and burned for air. My malnourished muscles quivered with each stride I took. I only made it about halfway back up the path before I collapsed on my hands and knees. My hands gripped handfuls of moss and dirt, as I panted. I looked up and found a bookshelf carved into the bark of a tree. The books on its shelves were the Book of Forbidden Lore, The Chant of Light, Blood Magic: The Forbidden School, and Journal of the Tranquil. I peered over my shoulder. There was nothing but a barren path behind me, and a faint singular chuckle.
I ended up back where I started. It was difficult to gauge how much time had passed since my Harrowing began. Time passed differently in the Fade: minutes expanded into hours within the dream realm. Here, dusk would soon tinge the sky and a fog began to creep in. I glanced down at my scraped hands and grass-stained knees, then at the five other paths that stretched out before me.
“Someone else thrown to the wolves. As fresh and unprepared as ever,” a voice spoke in a rueful coo. “It isn’t right that they do this, the templars. Not to you, me, anyone.”
My muscles tensed, but it was just a rat. “Uh, hello... rat,” I said, still partially looking for a demon.
“Rat? Rat! You think you’re really here? In that body? You look like that because you think you do!” He released an exaggerated sigh before continuing. “It’s always the same... But it’s not your fault. You’re in the same boat I was, aren’t you?” His shape morphed into that of a man who wore the old apprentice robes of Kinloch Hold. “Allow me to welcome you to the Fade. You can call me…well, Mouse. May I have your name?”
“You may not have my name, but you may call me Sol. Pleased to meet you.” Mouse looked harmless enough. He had tousled, sandy brown hair and he stood only a few inches taller than my small stature. His robes hung loosely on him, as they did on most Circle mages. He slouched, shoulders concave towards his chest. If anything, he looked more pitiful than I did. Names, however, carry more weight than most know.
“Ah, you’re a clever one,” he said, the word clever rolling off his tongue. “Good, but you have nothing to fear from me.”
“Mouse...not your real name I take it.”
“No, I don’t remember anything from...before. The templars kill you if you take too long, you see. They figure you failed, and they don’t want something getting out. That’s what they did to me, I think. I have no body to reclaim”—his eyes flickered to mine—“and you don’t have much time before you end up the same.”
“What do you mean? How long do I have exactly?”
“I...I don’t remember. I got lost in the maze, the spider’s web if you will... I don’t know how long.”
I sat down on a nearby slab of stone, at a loss for words. The trails began to disappear into the low-hanging haze in the distance, and nightfall crept closer.
“There’s something here, contained, just for you. You have to face the creature, a demon, and resist it. That’s your way out. A test for you and a tease for the creatures of the Fade. If the templars don’t kill you first.”
If the templars don’t kill you first. The words stung. The image of the statue burned itself into my memory. I imagined Ambrose leaning over me, sword unsheathed and ready to pierce my still beating heart. The satisfaction he would feel made my stomach turn. My helpless state managed to occupy my mind even when I was far from my physical body.
“I’ll lead you, if you like. I know all the secrets and hushed whispers of this piece of the Fade now. My chance was long ago, but you…you may have a way out.”
Mouse reshaped himself into his mouse form and he scampered to the edge of the fog, waiting for me to follow. Whether I trusted him or not didn’t matter. I had little choice. I was running out of time, and we both knew it. I followed, and the fog enveloped us into its murky embrace.
Silhouettes of trees and stones passed us by in the dim light, along with other peculiarly shaped structures that I was relieved I couldn’t see. Oddly enough there was some comfort in my ignorance to what lay beyond the fog. We walked in silence with only the sound of Mouse’s chirping as he sniffed our way through the forest. The air was damp and heavy in my lungs, but pleasantly so. There was an abundance of oxygen here, that the stale unfiltered air of the Circle tower lacked. Still, the onset of the sunset made me feel uneasy. Time seemed to slip through my fingertips like the fine sand in an hourglass. For all I knew, my time was nearly spent. Would I even realize if my connection to my physical body was severed? It took me a moment to realize that I stopped walking. My chest tightened, and panic began to set in. I tried to distract myself by counting and breathing in rhythm. The image of my lifeless body occupied the space between each beat.
“I’m sorry I called you a rat.” It was a feeble attempt to start a conversation, but the silence was becoming too much of a burden. Besides, Mouse knew things that I couldn't dream to find within the confines of the tower.
“It’s… fine.” He mumbled something else incoherent. Silence stilled the air once again.
“So...what do you know about the Fade?”
“It’s the realm of dreams. You know that, don’t you? Everyone comes here to dream, but it’s fleeting and they remember little. But mages can enter awake, and that draws attention. There are many spirits of the Fade... These demons feed on the dark parts of the mind.”
“Knowledge is dangerous and a privilege in the Circle. You know that, don’t you ? Especially that of spirits and the Fade. I actually have little to go on." Another awkward silence began to transpire. "Anyway, Is it possible for me to change, like you do?”
“Maybe. If you’re able to forget you’re you. That takes a long time. You're not a spirit and therefore you can’t think like a spirit. They’re able to change the Fade according to their will. Solid things, real things, are just more complicated ideas.” A controlled sigh of relief released the tension in my body at the words: You're not a spirit. “However, I think you ought to focus on something simpler. Defeat your demon. Or be killed.”
Well, at least I wasn’t dead, yet. Mouse spoke in a free and casual manner with occasional annoyance coloring his tone. But he was stingy with his words. He was willing to give me bits and pieces of information, but only bits and pieces.
“Do you know why they make us face a demon at all?”
“Because they’re sadistic bastards, that’s why!” Mouse spun around. His words were sharp and hatred gleamed in his eyes. “And I’m not talking about demons. Everyone must face the Harrowing because there’s a small chance a mage might become possessed and become an abomination.Thrown to the mercy of a demon when you’re at your weakest. ‘For the safety of all.’” Mouse began to show the cracks in his facade. His words were raw and unrefined, his information was unrestricted.
I didn't entertain his outburst. Instead, I prodded the nerve I just uncovered. “Then they should prepare us better.”
Mouse's eyes narrowed. His voice dropped to an intense whisper that dripped with condescension. “Here’s a little secret, Sol Amell- they don’t want you prepared. If you can resist it when forced like this, you can do it anytime. It’s either that or they turn you into a freak, a tranquil who can’t feel anything ever. And, they can still be possessed, granted they’re less-,” his words came to a sudden halt.
“Less? Less what?”
Something brushed against my leg. I gasped. My gaze darted downwards, searching the haze. A ball of yellow energy curled up at my feet, cool to the touch. Colored orbs drifted like faint beacons in the clouded air. They moved only if prompted by a breeze. Otherwise they hung like iridescent raindrops, frozen in time and space. Mouse began to weave through the orbs, paying them little attention.
“Mouse, what are these?”
“These are wisps, remnants of once greater spirits. They’re relatively harmless. They nip, but they do not bite.”
“Care to elaborate?”
“Try not to bump into them. Disturbing them may awaken them enough to produce a wraith. Wraiths will attack you, but they are easily…dealt with. They’re still only shadows of what they once were.”
My eyes flickered to the yellow orb nestled against my leg. “And if I were to say that I already...bumped into one?”
“That’s only what’s left of a spirit of hope. They don’t turn into wraiths, they just die.” His tone was dry and blunt. “Enough questions, we’ve almost reached the end of the haze. The Harrowing grounds lie just on the other side.”
Mouse pressed onward, and I with him. My gaze lingered behind me on the yellow orb whose light flickered from sight. True to Mouse’s word, we emerged from the cover of the fog. Before us was a long straight road, lined with statues. Statues of mages. Mouse transformed back into a man, and motioned me to take the lead. I didn’t recognize the faces, but their expressions made my heart ache. Some had tears etched onto their stone bodies for the rest of eternity. Some cowered, faces buried in their palms. Others tilted their heads upwards in agony as the rest of their bodies mutated into the gnarled form of an abomination. And few, worst of all, had blank expressions. No fear, no pain, only empty eyes and the sunburst brand of the Chantry burned into their foreheads—the Tranquil.
As I passed each statue, a fire ignited in a basin at the statues’ feet. Then I began to recognize the faces. Statues of my fellows who had disappeared, one by one, over the years lined the path to the demon’s sanctuary. I saw Owain’s statue: he was the only Tranquil I recognized on the path.
We reached the clearing. Had I not known what I knew, and had I not seen what I saw, I might have thought the scene before me was beautiful. Tall trees lined the clearing, emerald green moss carpeted the ground, and, like the Harrowing Chamber in the tower, glowstones were embedded into the earth. At the far end of the clearing, was a clear pond with a separate island of moss that mingled with Andraste’s grace, white lilies with a pink and orange center. A slab of unchiseled stone stood at the center of the pond. The sound of erupting flames stole my attention.
Braziers lined the entire clearing and lit in succession. As the last brazier came to life, shriveled hands erupted from the ground. Mana traveled down my veins to my fingertips. By the time the demons had torn themselves from the Earth, my hand gripped the hilt of the blade I’d just conjured. They had no faces under the hoods of their tattered cloaks.
I spun around and plunged my spirit blade into Mouse’s abdomen. He stumbled backwards, gripping the hilt of the magic sword.
“Naughty little mage,” he said through grinding, gritted teeth. “You’ve been learning tricks you're not supposed to know.”
The illusions behind me dissipated like mirage pools in a desert. Mouse revealed his true form. His skin deepened to a deep plum color, and twisted horns sprouted from his head. The magi robes dissolved from his body, revealing bare, well muscled skin. My magic blade shattered under his grip. He straightened to his full height. Now he towered over me by at least a foot. His black, beady eyes met mine and my limbs stiffened. He sauntered towards me. I desperately tried to move, but his will had its grip on my limbs. He looked down at me with a coy smile tugging his lips. He ran a hand through my hair and along the side of my jaw before tilting my head up towards him. I felt a scream curdle up my throat but only a wheeze left my lips.
“Clever little mage, you’ve ruined my game.” He flirted with me, or rather he toyed with me. A cat toying with a trapped mouse. He circled around me. “You see, when my thralls clawed their way out of the ground, I was going to offer you aid, the power you crave, that you need. My illusions would have been safely, and easily, taken care of. There would be nothing but the free, open world before us. But no. You’re too smart for your own good,” he snarled at me, bearing pointed white teeth. “Tell me, how did you know?”
“Your act is sloppy.” I spat in his face.
Mouse didn’t speak another word to me. He only frowned. Then I felt a tug. A pull at my soul. He began to suck the life from me. The air rushed from my lungs, out of my body. Panic set in. Instinctively, I called for help. I couldn’t manage anything more than a croak. My limbs wouldn’t budge from the iron grip of his will. I closed my eyes as I felt myself slip from existence. I focused my remaining mana down my legs and into the ground. Expending my arcane energy made me slip from life faster, like a candle burning from both ends. I split my concentration into two halves. I might have had an easier time simultaneously counting to one hundred and reciting the alphabet backwards. Two separate strands of mana seeped into the earth below my feet, and began to intertwine with each other. I strained to equally divide my focus as the thread connecting me to my physical body rapidly grew thinner. A sharp hiss pierced the air, and my concentration broke. I collapsed to the ground, gulping air. Beneath my fingertips was the glow of the glyphs inscribed on the ground. My vision pulsated and blackness wavered along the rim of my eyesight. Mouse’s tail violently whipped back and forth, and he clutched his wrist.
“Can’t you feel the sword at your neck? They believe all magic is evil. Once you are here, you already become what they fear.”
Beads of sweat trickled down the side of my face as I looked up and met Mouse’s slitted amber eyes. Fire crawled from my fingertips and singed an imprint of my hand onto the ground. I spat towards his feet.
Disgust soured Mouse’s face. “You’re more trouble than you’re worth,” he snarled. “Enjoy your gilded cage for the rest of your miserable life…Or until the templars decide you’re too dangerous to keep alive.”
Mouse faded from sight, his last words echoing from the empty space he occupied. “Keep your wits about you mage. True tests never end.” I wasn’t sure if that was supposed to be a warning, threat, or both.
Exhaustion overcame me, and blackness enveloped both my vision and my mind.