"Witches?" Cullen Rutherford asked skeptically, one brow quirked as he eyed the boy who had spoken, Alistair something-or-other. He and a few other recruits stood to the side of the training grounds, cooling down after the day's lessons and sparring. Cullen's curls stuck to his forehead and poofed up in a wilted, golden halo around his head as he appraised Alistair, wondering just what had gotten into him.
Alistair wasn't bad at his sword practice or his lessons, but he was constantly causing trouble and making it clear to most anyone that he had no real interest in joining the Order when he grew up. His fate had been decided for him, and he was horribly bitter.
Cullen had joined willingly, and threw himself into every task set before him, determined to be the best templar he could be. Because of that, Cullen rarely dealt with Alistair in his leisure. Normally, as soon as practice was over, Alistair was off doing…whatever it was he did, while Cullen went to study and prepare for the next day.
Occasionally, he'd heard Alistair scream in the Chantry, just to see how fast their teachers and mentors could get to him. When they got there, he always grinned foolishly and told them that he was, 'Just checking.'
Today, he'd decided to stick around with the others and talk about legends.
His eyes sparkled with mischief as he nodded toward Cullen, crossing his arms. "We've all heard the stories. Flemeth and her many daughters, prowling the Wilds, ensnaring men and turning the poor fools who stumble across them into toads."
"Flemeth isn't real," Cullen objected, without thinking. A trill of terror still clenched in his stomach at the thought of witches and the things they did in the stories, but he did his best to keep his face calm, unconcerned.
The others abruptly looked from Alistair to Cullen.
Alistair seemed somewhat flustered to have had his stories challenged so soon and stood his ground, brow dipping as he glared at Cullen. "You sure about that? You wouldn't be scared if they told you to go find an apostate who'd fled to the protection of the Wilds? I bet you'd believe in her as you trudged through the muck, bogged down in your armor. Only the phylactery's light to guide you in the dark."
The image painted certainly wasn't a pleasant one.
Cullen crossed his arms. "Even if witches are real, they're just mages. A good templar could take one on."
"You think you'll be good enough to take on a hundreds-years-old witch?" Alistair scoffed, mirroring Cullen's stance and crossing his own arms. "They'd turn you into a toad and cook you alive."
"That's what spell interrupts are for," Cullen argued. "So long as you don't panic, and remember your training, mages won't be able to get a jump on you. And most mages aren't that bad anyway. They deserve protection just as much as regular people do."
"Unless you walk into their trap," Alistair shot back, ignoring Cullen's defense of mages. He took a step forward, puffing his chest out a little. Determination glimmered in his eyes. He wasn't going to let Cullen ruin this for him. "All the training in the world won't save you if they see you first. And it's their Wilds. They know when something's out of place."
"Flemeth—and her daughters—aren't real," Cullen insisted, taking a step forward himself.
"You already said they could be real." Smirking, Alistair stood a bit taller. "You can't go back and say you don't believe when some little part of you obviously does."
"I didn't say they were real," Cullen snapped, his voice raising slightly. "I said if they were, they'd still be easy to deal with."
"Not when they start summoning demons with a snap of their fingers, turning the trees against you, and immobilizing you with a word."
"That's. What. Spell. Interrupts. Are. For."
The two of them had slowly been stepping closer and closer to one another, one pace at a time, neither willing to back down, and now they were practically toe to toe, nose to nose.
Even as Alistair started to sneer something, a man's voice rang out, interrupting the fight before it could begin in earnest. "What's going on here?"
Cullen jumped back a step, standing at attention as he watched one of the full-fledged templars trot over to them. Ser Bryant wasn't too much older than they were—he was about five years ahead of them, and had taken his vows a year or so ago—but he was still a templar, and thus Cullen reserved the utmost respect for him.
"Alistair says witches are real."
"They are," Alistair snapped, stomping a foot at the dismissive way Cullen spoke of him. "Cullen thinks witches aren't anything worth worrying about."
Ser Bryant looked from one boy to the other and then the other recruits, his brow arching up. "You're arguing about witches? Witches of the Wilds?"
"It's stupid," Cullen agreed.
Even as Alistair scowled, Ser Bryant reached out and patted his shoulder. The recruit did not seem to take comfort from the action. "Well, not to scare anyone, but you're both right and wrong."
Alistair took that as a victory and let out a triumphant 'hmph' as Cullen's shoulders slumped. "What?"
"We're really not supposed to encourage this sort of talk," Ser Bryant began, leaning forward and motioning for the group to huddle in, "but here's the thing. Flemeth and her daughters? Pure myth." Even as Cullen let out a bark of a laugh, smirking at Alistair, Ser Bryant held his hands up. "However, they're myths everyone's heard, yes? Including…."
He motioned for any of them to finish what he was going to say. The recruits glanced at one another a moment before Ser Bryant rolled his eyes. "Including mages."
"So?" Cullen frowned.
"So, if you had magic, and wanted to live away from the Circles, how better to get people to leave you alone than to assume the mantle of witch? To replicate things from the stories of old? To make people think you are so powerful that they should just leave you be?"
That sounded like a plan destined to backfire to Cullen.
"So…the legends aren't real," Alistair said slowly, "but there are mages who are basically witches, because they copy the legends?"
"Exactly," Ser Bryant nodded. He pointed from Alistair to Cullen. "Technically, the Order doesn't officially recognize them as anything other than apostates, but you try telling a frightened villager that the apostate out in the woods isn't a witch and see how far you get."
"But then they aren't anywhere near as powerful as a witch from a legend," Cullen reasoned.
"And that's where you're right," Ser Bryant replied. "There are 'witches', but they're little more than glorified mages. So long as you keep a level head, there's no reason to fear them." He paused before adding, "Though…there are rumored to be some apostates who have lived in the Wilds for years, so catching them would be incredibly difficult."
"Because they know the territory," Alistair said, puffing his chest out again.
"Yes," Ser Bryant said. Someone called his name, and he paused to glance over his shoulder and wave. Before he left, he let his gaze wander over the small group again, "Most of them just avoid templars, rather than fight them. After all, if a templar goes missing, we're likely to send reinforcements to find out what happened, yes? They don't want that." Someone called his name again. He glanced over his shoulder again and sighed as he nodded back to the recruits. "Does this fix things? You both had good points and errors in your reasoning. Truce?"
"Truce," Cullen mumbled, giving Alistair a sideways glare.
Alistair merely grunted.
As Ser Bryant flashed them another smile and headed off, Alistair muttered under his breath, "I was more right than you were."
Cullen set his jaw, turning slowly to glare. "No. You weren't."
"If you can't admit it, that's okay," Alistair shrugged. "Try as you want, no one's perfect."
In seconds, Ser Bryant and a few other templars were racing back over to split up the fight as the two recruits tumbled across the training grounds, kicking and throwing punches.
Cullen somehow managed to squelch the groan that started in the back of his throat when he heard one of his soliders crying out that damnable accusation. Instead, he focused on cutting down the demon charging him with a swift shield slam and then a jab of his blade into the creature's chest.
He called out a few orders to the soldiers around him, surveying the field quickly to see where the cry had come from. There were relatively few mages who had dared to assist with the onslaught of demons that had come with the fall of the Temple of Sacred Ashes, and he didn't want any of his people to be accusing what little magical help they had of debauchery.
His gaze met Cassandra's, where she stood across the field. Bloodied and battered, but still standing, she gave him a short nod before pointing with her sword a little ways ahead, toward a mostly intact wall. Was she suggesting they advance, or had she heard the cry, too?
As he started toward the wall, ordering a few soldiers to come with him, he absently considered that things could always be worse.
At least Alistair wasn't here. He'd probably have been adamant that a hole in the sky could only be caused by a legendary witch, terrible in power gained from ancient pacts with demons. He'd probably spend more time terrifying the other soldiers than actually fighting back the monsters.
How that man had managed to deal the finishing blow to an archdemon was still beyond Cullen.
Even as Alistair's comments about witches summoning demons with a snap of their fingers echoed unbidden through his mind, a bloodied soldier stumbled out from around the wall, eyes wild. She stared around in bewilderment before seeing Cullen and tripping her way over the broken and charred earth to him.
"Commander! There's a woman!"
He couldn't help himself as he recognized the voice from earlier. "The witch?"
The soldier didn't even seem to register the jibe. Instead, she pointed over her shoulder, pale and shaking. "She came out of nowhere! Out of the rift!"
Cullen's brow pinched together, his weary body finding the strength to straighten up. "A survivor?"
"I thought she was a…" the soldier trailed off and shook her head, "But I was wrong! There was another woman behind her, in the rift. A figure of glowing light. It made sure she was safe and then disappeared."
"Where is she?" Cassandra barked, making the soldier—and nearly Cullen—jump. When had she made it over to them?
Even as the soldier pointed over her shoulder, a man came around the edge of the wall, an unconscious human woman draped over his shoulder. When he reached the commander, he set her down on the ground and pointed toward her hand. As the Breach overhead crackled with energy, magic erupted from her palm in a green light that mimicked the sky. The stranger let out a shriek, writhing until the magic and Breach quieted down together.
The magic didn't fully go away, casting an eerie green light around her, wicked shadows twisting away. Aside from her hand, though, she didn't look like much at all. Her clothes were ridiculously plain and her hair was wild and snarled, hints of bright orange peeking out through a thick layer of dust, debris, and some sort of wet ooze. Blood? Demon ichor? Sweat?
Probably all three.
As another soldier emerged from scouting the temple to announce the woman had been delivered from the Fade by Andraste herself—the story was getting wilder by the minute, and Cullen considered that he'd preferred the simpler, witch accusation.
The Breach crackled overhead, expanding inch by agonizing inch, and the magic on the woman's hand flared again, the pain enough to draw out a tortured scream as she convulsed. Just as Cullen considered that perhaps he could use his templar abilities to subdue the magic—would they even still work without lyrium in his system?—it quieted down again and the stranger stilled.
Her breathing was still labored, though. It was hard to say if she'd lived.
"Whoever she is, she's connected to that," Cullen murmured to Cassandra, pointing up without taking his gaze off of the stranger—a mage? Or was that the magic in her hand? If she was a mage, she wasn't particularly strong.
With a quiet swear, Cassandra pointed sharply down at the woman. "Take her back to Haven."