He didn’t understand how he wasn’t supposed to get distracted when the Circle had so many oddities about it.
It was a massive tower that left even his trained warrior legs tired from traversing daily. Portraits hung from the walls of past Knight-Commanders and First-Enchanters that he was convinced the eyes of which followed his every move when he passed. He’d had his wrist swatted several times for gawking back at them now.
He’d paid attention to the Knight-Commander’s incessant rambling as best he could. The Apprentice Quarters were on the first floor. The Enchanters, mages who had passed their Harrowing, were on the second floor. The First-Enchanter, Senior Enchanters and templar quarters were on the third (much to Alistair’s annoyance, as the cafeteria happened to, of course , be on the first floor, and all those stairs just to get to bed).
Between the endless staircases, the drab, tasteless food, and the creepy portraits, Alistair had had enough of the Circle of Magi. This was his life now, though, wasn’t it? Eating bland food, attending boring Chantry sermons, climbing stairs, and more stairs, and more stairs.
“Why such a forlorn look?” came a voice from one of his brothers-in-arms beside him.
Their unit was shuffling through the corridor like a flock of nervous pigeons. Five templars-in-training that had yet to even take their vows, featherless birds compared to the Knight-Commander leading them through the halls.
Alistair peered over at the young, curly-haired man that had prompted him. His name was… his name was… Colin?
“Oh, nothing,” he responded, deciding names weren’t that important. “I just thought there’d be a bit more color in the Circle, you know? It’s all so… blue. Dark. I’d expect them to make it a bit more interesting, since some people will have to look at these walls for the rest of their lives.”
“Well, this isn’t a holiday retreat for mages,” Cullery responded. “They have to make it look… I don’t know, professional. Everything about the Circle’s design is deliberate.”
“Really? Why do the creepy, beady little eyes of those portraits keep following me? Is it to remind all the fleshy templars and mages that hey , there’s something weird going on here, so stay in line?”
Coley rolled his eyes. “They’re not following you, don’t be dramatic.”
Alistair shrugged it off. In his distraction of talking to Cultry, he stepped on the heels of the templar in front of him, prompting the man to whirl his head to glare at him. “Sorry,” Alistair mumbled.
“I hope the lot of you are prepared,” came the Knight-Commander’s voice from the head of the unit. “You’ll be attending your first Harrowing today. It is one of the most important duties you will ever perform as a templar, as similarly, this is the most important task of a mage’s tenure.”
“Harrowing? Nobody mentioned we’d be going to a Harrowing today,” Alistair hissed quietly to Cullett.
“Well, we are, so try to be less you and pay attention,” he said sternly.
Alistair made a disgruntled face at him. This was one of the many things that made being a templar unbearable - all of his comrades were so serious all the time. They took everything the Chantry said literally, right down to dotting the ‘I’. Alistair wondered why any of them even bothered speaking anything but canticles from the Chant of Light.
“Today, we’ll be overseeing the Harrowing of Emeley Loras. It’s important to know your charge before taking them on. She is an accomplished mage, for the most part, despite her young age. We believe she’s well-endowed to pass her Harrowing. This should be a seamless and orderly quest, though it is critical that you remember not all will be so. Even the strongest and most promising of mages can fall prey to demons and their ilk.”
Another staircase was upon them. The sound of a marching unit’s armored footsteps falling upon the stairs echoed from the walls like exclamation points, uniformly and loud. The boots reminded Alistair a bit like how some folk would put bells around their cat’s neck so that they’d know when the cat was approaching. In this case, templars were the cats, and mages were the folk.
“Do any of you have questions before we proceed?” Knight-Commander Greagoir asked. “There will be little time to do so once we’re in the Harrowing Chamber.”
“Is it more common for mages to fail or pass their Harrowing?” asked Cutlery eagerly.
Alistair scowled. Is it more common for mages to fail or pass their Harrowing, he thought in his most childish mocking voice. The boy was the sort to turn a one-hour meeting into a six-hour meeting with all of his incessant questions. It drove Alistair mad.
“Most mages will pass,” the Knight-Commander answered, rounding a corner. “Though it should be noted that not all mages will even be allowed a Harrowing. Those selected for the ritual are already mages that myself and First-Enchanter Irving deem strong enough to pass. If we allowed every mage a chance to go through with it, we would have many more failures than successes.”
And the alternative to the Harrowing was the Rite of Tranquility, Alistair knew. Not even he would forget that part. The thought of being stripped of all emotions and humanity solely on the basis that you might do something crazy… It left a shiver trailing up his spine.
He was grateful that the invitation to ask more questions was squandered by the unit approaching the vast doors of the Harrowing Chamber. These doors were like the ones in the entrance hall, intricate designs serving as a veil for what was actually barring devices utilized to keep abominations inside, should they manifest into existence. Only the combination of a mage and a templar could open the doors, using individualized passwords.
The First-Enchanter and his pupil, Emeley Loras, stood waiting for them. Irving was a man so ancient that Alistair couldn’t possibly imagine him ever being young once upon a time. His dark grey hair was held in an unkempt bun at the nape of his neck, and his scraggly beard hung to his chest, giving the impression that the man didn’t have time for trivial matters like shaving his facial hair. As First-Enchanter, he was entitled to prettier robes than the rest of the mage ilk; they were made from heavy velvet and silk, blue and silver in color, and the Circle’s heraldry was embroidered on the metal chest piece.
Emeley Loras, however, wore the robes of an apprentice: Simple cotton and wool fabric dyed in darker shades of violet and blue, with armor pieces on the chest and groin. She was smaller than Alistair expected. Younger, too. She still retained some of the fat that children oft had until they went through puberty, and the way she’d braided her dark hair into pigtails certainly gave the impression of a child. She was wide-eyed and nervous, as evidenced by the ways her pudgy fingers fidgeted.
Something really didn’t feel right about this.
“We trust you won’t mind, Lady Emeley,” the Knight-Commander said, bowing his head by way of introduction. “Our future templars will be attending your Harrowing today as a point of education for them.”
“I-I don’t mind, sir,” the girl responded, eyes flickering back and forth between the templars-in-training. “I’m… I should be very grateful that my Harrowing can serve to educate the templars.”
It… wasn’t what Alistair expected. He didn’t imagine any mage would be grateful for the eyes constantly watching them uninvited.
“Very good, thank you,” the Knight-Commander said. His gaze passed back to Irving. “Shall we begin?”
“Please.” The First-Enchanter gestured to the great doors.
United, they turned, speaking their secret phases. The door gave a click and its metal interlocking designs began to shift and unravel, until they finally opened with a stone-against-stone sound that echoed noisily. Alistair watched the girl’s throat bob up and down as she swallowed hard, and he subconsciously mimicked the nervous gesture.
Like many things about the Circle, the Harrowing Chamber wasn’t what he expected. Though he wasn’t sure what it was that he expected to begin with. More… Chantry stuff, he guessed? Maybe golden sunburst decorations and some Revered Mother to sanction and bless the ritual. There was nothing of the sort here, though. It was just a giant, circular room with naught but marble pillars and a podium in the center of the room that held a familiar bubbling, glowing blue liquid.
“Wow…” Culson said from beside Alistair, mouth agape in awe.
Alistair wasn’t sure what there was to be in awe of. There were some pretty-looking paneled windows that filtered in sunlight on the ground in cool patterns, but that was it.
“Templars, take your places at the edge of the altar,” Greagoir instructed.
Alistair didn’t know where that was supposed to be, so he let the other templars go ahead of him for him to follow the lead of. He shifted uncomfortably in his spot as the mage girl was led up to the altar between the First-Enchanter and the Knight-Commander.
“Magic exists to serve man, and never to rule over him,” the Knight-Commander began. If Alistair had a copper for every time he heard those words… “Thus spoke the prophet Andraste-” and every templar, Chantry member, and person in existence, several hundred times, and several hundred more times in case you didn’t hear them the first several hundred times, “- as she cast down the Tevinter Imperium, ruled by mages who had brought the world to the edge of ruin.”
Greagoir turned away from the lyrium-housing podium to face the frightened mage. “Your magic is a gift, but it is 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,” input the First-Enchanter. “The ritual will send you into the Fade, and there, you will face a demon armed with only your will.”
Emeley swallowed hard again, that delicate throat bobbing with pressure, as she looked nervously between the simmering blue lyrium and the Knight-Commander. “Is there… is there any alternative to the Harrowing? To facing a demon in the Fade? I…”
Greagoir frowned. “There is Tranquility-”
“Is losing all your magic an option? No. I have faith that you will succeed.” Irving gave the small girl a reassuring smile.
“Know this, apprentice. If you fail, we templars will perform our duty. You will die.”
Emeley bowed her head in a way that might have implied she was resigned to her fate, be it dying, succumbing to a demon, or succeeding. If the Knight-Commander noticed her weariness, he paid it no mind as he gestured to the pool of lyrium sitting in the podium.
“This is lyrium, as you know. The very essence of magic, and your gateway into the Fade.”
“I-I don’t know why it must be such a secret,” Emeley said. Her tone suggested she didn’t actually care why it was a secret, but she was trying to prolong entering the Fade.
Alistair’s heart ached for her.
“It is a secret out of necessity, girl,” Irving explained. “Every mage must proceed 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.”
“The apprentice must go through this test alone , First-Enchanter,” Greagoir intercepted testily. “You are ready.”
He pointed insistently at the lyrium, and Emeley went forward.
Alistair’s soft lips fell open as she dipped her fingers into the thick, blue substance. All color in her skin drained immediately, her eyes rolling into whites, just before she started collapsing. Alistair instinctively went to try and catch her as he saw her wavering, but stupid Colson snatched his arm and jerked him back in line. Alistair winced as the young girl’s head gave an audible thud from hitting the stone.
It grew… really quiet after that. As if everyone was holding their breath. Maybe they were. Alistair knew he was. He expected… something to happen. Perhaps for the mage to start seizing. Or for them to at least prop a pillow under her head. Instead, they all merely waited with bated breath.
“We allot exactly one hour for a mage to complete their Harrowing,” Greagoir told them, passing a look over his shoulder. “If they take even a second longer, we will have no choice but to cut them down.”
Alistair’s eyes popped. One hour? Only one hour to track down a demon and defeat it?
Minutes passed. Each one felt like an hour in and of itself. Alistair could never stand still like the other templars and templars-in-training; the chamber was silent save for the occasional shuffling of his armor as he adjusted his position. He took to counting the shadows on the ground cast by the paneled windows. When he ran out of those to count (there were twenty-five), he counted the marble pillars (there were ten). He tried to just… not look at the small girl collapsed on the ground, still in the same uncomfortable-looking position she’d fallen in. Her dark curls fell over her face like a funeral shroud, the pale skin beneath hardly visible.
Alistair wished he would have counted minutes instead of pillars and shadows. It was, maybe, forty minutes in before anyone said anything.
“We’re approaching risky times, Irving…” said Greagoir, exchanging a worried look.
“I have faith in her,” responded the First-Enchanter staunchly.
“Come on …” Alistair found himself muttering sternly the longer time went on. He was urging the girl to wake up, to perhaps be a bit dazed, but alright, and not possessed or concussed. It would be just his luck if something went wrong on the first Harrowing he ever attended.
Maybe another ten minutes passed before any dust stirred again.
The girl began twitching.
Alistair’s eyes widened, hopeful, encouraging her to wake, but the other templars-in-training were moving timid hands to the hilts of the swords hanging at their leather belts.
Greagoir stilled, eyes narrowing suspiciously. The girl’s twitching became more violent. It began pulsating throughout her entire body, wracking it as if a quake had disturbed the stone.
“Oh, Maker , no,” Callen gasped.
Her flesh began tearing.
No, really. It ripped through her cotton robes and her skin like it was all just wet pieces of parchment.
“ Abomination !” Greagoir shouted, drawing his sword with an ear-rattling screech of steel against sheath.
Alistair froze. While the other templars hurried to unsheath their swords and crowd what was once a girl, but now like a larvae emerging from a molt, Alistair stood rigid, his knuckles white against the hilt of his sword, still so unable to draw it.
“Strike it down ,” Greagoir commanded.
Alistair couldn’t see what was happening between the bodies of the templars circling the mage. Something unnatural and bone-chilling erupted from the mouth of whatever the girl had become. A gurgle in the back of the throat, vicious and feral, a mindless scream that was nothing like what her soft, petite voice could have managed earlier.
One of the templars’ swords rose into the air to strike when… something plummeted right through his armor, his flesh, his spine. A mangled, mottled hand had plowed through it, fingers tipped with impossibly long black talons, and inside its grip was the templar’s spine.
Alistair started backing away. He still had not drawn his sword.
He was afraid.
“Damn it , men, I said STRIKE IT DOWN!”
Greagoir hollered, his greatsword thrusting into the monster in one fluid arc. The creature hissed and gurgled, struggling against what had punctured its freshly-molten flesh. Just as simple as that, it was over. Alistair was far from an incapable warrior. It was not lack of skill that kept his feet glued to the ground now. It was fear in its rawest form.
“It… it killed him! It killed Leith!” Cattle screamed.
“Calm down, now, all of you,” Greagoir growled, shoving the templars-in-training out of his way to get to the templar that had fallen. While he knelt to check pulse or whatever it was that he was doing, one of the other templars rounded on Alistair.
“Coward! Leith would still be alive if you’d gotten over here when you were supposed to!”
It was the same templar he’d stepped onto the back of the boots of. Alistair’s mouth opened to form words, an explanation, but nothing came out save for empty splutters.
“You should be sent to Aeonar for that!”
“A-Aeonar? Why would I…”
“Traitor!” another templar growled.
“He may as well have shoved the sword through Leith himself!”
“Enough!” Greagoir screamed, slamming his fist into the lyrium podium. Some of the liquid oozed over the edges, falling like spilled blood onto the stone floor, trailing through the cracks like a river. “None of you are templars yet, do you understand? None of you have any right to chastise each other. The reality of the matter is that mages die and templars die during these rituals. It is a necessary risk that we take. Shape up. And get out .”
The next thing Alistair knew, he was being dragged out of the Harrowing Chamber by several sets of arms eager to bruise him. As the great doors to the chamber slammed shut behind them, Alistair was thrown into the ground, and he curled into a ball by instinct to protect as much of his body as he could. This was not the first time this had happened, by any means.
Cutlerous stood off to the side, watching on in horror. A new figure had appeared beside him, mage, red-headed and wide-eyed. Alistair saw her leaning towards Caulson to ask him something as what felt like a thousand boots were plummeted into Alistair’s gut, trying to get to the insides much like a predator would peck at a shelled turtle.
The templars shouted things at him as they beat and kicked. Coward, traitor, defiler, no better than a blood mage for letting one of his brothers die. Alistair fought them at first. Tried to scream and defend himself, tried to shove legs away from him, tried to crawl out from under them for just enough space to take off running. “Greagoir said-” he tried, but his words fell on deaf ears.
“Why are they doing that to him?” the red-headed mage asked innocently. Her voice was something like a beacon for him to latch onto. A piece of driftwood to hold onto during a fast lake current. He tried to focus on that instead of the pain lacing through every fiber of his body.
“He… I should get the Knight-Commander,” came Culson’s voice, as sweet and delicate as the mage’s. “I should get the Knight-Commander. I’m going to get… going to... oh, Maker.”
The doors had locked.
“I don’t know the password!”
“That’s no good.”
“No good? Duh! Help me!”
Cillen came through the crowd of templars beating Alistair like an angered bull. “Stop! Stop it, all of you! Are you savages ?” He shoved, kicked, limbs flying every which way as he desperately fought to shield Alistair from the persistent blows.
They backed off. One by one, and slowly, painfully slowly, but they backed off. Carlton held his arms out at the ready to start fighting again if any dared to dive in for seconds. Alistair laid motionless on the ground, having gone numb some time ago. He whimpered in pain, clutching his stomach. The armor had dented in so greatly that it was digging into his skin.
“You should all be ashamed of yourselves!” the boy protecting Alistair screamed, feral-eyed. “This is not what the templars stand for. This is not what the Maker stands for! We’re supposed to help each other. We’re supposed to be brothers !”
Two of the biggest templars exchanged angry looks with one another. “Let’s go. Leave the two dimwits to their filth.” One of them spit on Alistair as he passed. Their armored footfalls echoed loudly until they were nothing, disappearing into a staircase.
The red-headed mage was standing with her arms crossed and a rather passive expression. “I only wanted to check on Emeley,” she said, raising her chin indignantly. “Is she okay?”
“I…” Crelson’s whole face had gone red. Alistair could see it even in his haze of post-beating. It was like he was only just realizing the mage was pretty. “No… No, I’m sorry. She… she didn’t succeed.”
Something sad, yet brief, breached the mage’s stony exterior. Her eyes began to well. “I… very well. Yes. Best of luck to your friend.”
She didn’t spare them a second glance as she sped past them, heels clicking against the floor. In time, they, too, disappeared into the staircase.
It took Alistair a long moment to feel safe enough to unravel from the ball he’d curled himself into. His body throbbed and pulsated in protest, screaming at him to stop moving, to just lay down and slip into blackness. He groaned, fighting to stretch out his arms just enough to crawl over to the wall to lift himself up.
“Are you alright?” the boy asked from behind him.
Alistair’s wince was evidence enough to the fact that he was not, in fact, alright. He unclipped the buckle to his breastplate and breathed a heavy sigh of relief as the pressure was released from his torso. “I… I’m. I’ll be fine.”
His honey-brown gaze slowly rose to meet Courson’s. He paused a moment, studying him. He was younger even than Alistair, and he had saved him. Despite Alistair being rude to him more often than not, and always making fun of him for being so studious and dutiful, despite it all… he had defended him even knowing that it would put him in danger, too.
“You know… what’s your name?” Alistair inquired.
The boy smiled. “Cullen.”