4. A Tale of Two Harrowings
When the Templars came for him, William was in the midst of a rather pleasant dream involving comely young elven maidens wearing nothing but a smile. A mailed hand gripped his shoulder and roughly shook him awake.
That apprentices were summoned for their Harrowing in the dead of night was common knowledge. The why and how of it were closely guarded secrets, however. Down through the years, though, occasional pieces of gossip and rumour had filtered their way through the Circle hierarchy and William felt that he had gleaned more details of the Harrowing than either the senior mages or Chantry would be comfortable with.
The Chantry likely believed that pushing a mage into the Fade while they were still only half-awake and thus less mentally prepared would make the apprentice an easier target for the demons that existed within the Fade. An ill-prepared apprentice, a demonic possession, the sword of mercy through the heart - the result? One less cursed mage for the Chantry to keep an eye on.
"All right, all right, I'm awake!" William spoke in a harsh whisper to the pair of unsmiling Templars he found standing over him.
"Get up and get dressed, apprentice. It is time for your Harrowing." An unpleasant smile creased the Templar's face."You'll understand if I don't wish you luck."
"Give me a minute," William snapped back, half defiant at the Templars and half anxious about what was to come. He was a skilled apprentice, even if he said so himself but he wasn't without doubt and everybody had heard tales of even experienced mages losing themselves to a demon. The Templars watched impassively as William pulled on his robes and his boots.
As he smoothed down his robes, an idea struck William with all the force of a warhammer to the forehead - he needed to write a letter to Talitha just in case, Maker forbid, the unthinkable happened. Well, he considered, eyeing the impatient Templars, maybe not a letter, but at least a note. Blithely ignoring the armoured warriors, William opened the footlocker at the base of his bed and removed his writing implements.
"What are you doing now?" the Templar who'd shaken him awake demanded.
Smiling pleasantly, the apprentice replied, "Writing a brief note. Just in case I never see a certain person again."
"How sweet," the Templar grunted. He glanced at his brother warrior who nodded. "Make it quick," the first Templar muttered.
"Your eloquence is most impressive. The Maker will be so proud!" William said brightly as he put quill to parchment, using the lid of the footlocker as a makeshift desk.
Dearest Talitha he began. He hesitated before striking out the Dearest. She would not react well to that.
Continuing on, he wrote The time of my Harrowing has come. In the event that something should go wrong, I want to thank you for your friendship and forbearance over the years. I hope to see you again soon.
Not the best way to go out, if it came to that but better than nothing. William carefully placed the parchment atop his pillow where it could easily be found and allowed the Templars to escort him out the door.
After arriving in the Harrowing chamber, Irving said something to him, though William paid him scant attention - his gaze was held fast to the glowing font of lyrium in the centre of the room. Armed and armoured Templars stood ready, one's hand already gripping the sword of mercy that would be used to end William's life if he failed to defeat whatever lay in wait for him.
"Are you ready?" Irving asked, old eyes alight with compassion for the young man before him. William shifted his gaze from Irving to the Knight Commander present to oversee the Templars. Greagoir's eyes seemed flat and hard by comparison. William nodded once before stepping to the lyrium and plunging his hand into it. As his spirit entered the Fade, his eyes rolled back in his head, showing only the whites and his body fell limply into the waiting arms of the Templar assigned to run him through if it came to that.
"Well, what do we have here?" the desire demon stepped lightly across the washed-out ground of the Fade, one hand sliding provocatively across her own body. The demon's silken voice seemed to almost caress William's ears. The demon halted just beyond arm's length of the apprentice and, with a languid motion of one index finger, bade him step closer.
William swallowed hard and stood his ground. The demon pouted, purple flames flickering about her horned head. "What is the matter, William?" the demon dragged out the sound of his name - Willlliaam and ran her tongue - forked and too pink over her lips, "Do you not desire me?"
"The only thing I desire is you...dead," William spoke firmly but part of him...oh what sinful pleasures the she-devil could offer!
The demon smiled and stepped closer, holding out a clawed hand, "I can sense what is in your heart, young one. I can give you all you desire." William forced himself to look over the creature's shoulder, at a point in the distance. Still he felt that voice tempting him, "Everything you have ever wanted can be yours - wealth, power beyond your wildest imaginings...." the demon smiled wickedly and despite himself, William found himself unable to look away, "Talitha," the demon whispered, "Yes, I can give you the one thing you desire above all else."
"NO!" William shouted as his face hardened with rage, "Don't ever talk about her like that!"
The demon laughed and the sound was like shattering glass. The laughter subsided and the demon sighed, "One last chance, mortal."
William raised his right hand and closed it into a fist. When he opened it, the hand was filled with magical flame. "Let us just skip to the part where I kill you," he said evenly.
Inside the Harrowing chamber, Greagoir looked from William's limp form held in a Templar's iron grip to the First Enchanter. "He is taking too long, Irving. Every moment we delay brings him closer to possession."
Irving canted his head towards the hour glass on a nearby stone bench. Less than half of the white sand contained within had spilled from top to bottom. "It has been less than half an hour, Greagoir. Give the boy time," Irving spoke calmly despite the threat the Templars presented.
The Knight Commander and First Enchanter locked gazes for several moments, neither man willing to be the first to look away. Both men started as the apprentice's eyes snapped open and he attempted to sit upright. The attempt was stymied by the Templar who held him firm, ready to finish things if necessary. William gasped hugely before a tired laugh issued from his lips.
"So nice of you to wait up for me!" he quipped. The Templar who held him looked questioningly at Greagoir - the apprentice seemed normal but could he really be sure? Greagoir looked from William to Irving who was smiling with evident relief. With a single motion, Greagoir ordered the Templar to release the apprentice...mage. He was a mage now, and would be watched more closely than ever.
Such was the way of things in the Tower.
They came for Talitha during a storm-wracked evening in the summer of her nineteenth year. Like William three years before, Talitha was roughly shaken by a large mailed hand. The young woman proved to be a heavier sleeper however and attempted to pull the covers further over her head. The hand shook her again, gauntleted fingers squeaking slightly.
"Five more minutes..." Talitha slurred. "Don't wanna go to prayers today!" the dreaming woman told the parents she'd not seen since they'd given her to the Circle fourteen years earlier.
"Maker's blood!" the Templar muttered to his brother warrior. "Don't make me drag you out of bed!" he half-shouted at the sleeping girl. Other apprentices began stirring at this, the most recent intrusion into their Chantry-dominated world.
"Hey, leave her alone, you sodding tin man!" a voice quiet and angry snapped from two bunks away. The Templars turned as one and glared hard at the upstart - an elven apprentice perhaps a year or two younger than the girl they'd been sent for. The elf sat up in her bed, sheet held to her chest and glared back at them.
By now, other apprentices had begun to awaken, though Talitha still slumbered, unaware of the fury about to erupt around her. Losing patience, the lead Templar grasped the covers and hauled them back, revealing the simple nightgown Talitha slept in. The hem of the nightgown had ridden up quite high as she'd moved around in her sleep and now displayed a good deal of leg.
The elven apprentice and the others awake to witness this affront shouted at the Templars to get back. Talitha's eyes slid open and closed as the shouted voices roused her from sleep. She took in the the plate-armoured Templars and the other apprentices yelling at them to leave her alone, what were they, animals? Finally, she observed the disarray of her sleeping apparel and quickly pulled the nightgown down over her legs.
"Out of bed!" the lead Templar roared, "NOW!"
Talitha flinched at the fury in the man's voice and the rage etched in his face...rage almost but not quite concealing something else. She shuddered. These men had taken vows and oaths to the Chantry and the Maker but they were still men.
And service to the Maker hadn't prevented that brazen hussy Lily from steering Jowan awry. Of course, Jowan hadn't been entirely blameless in that debacle, revealing himself as a blood mage. A blood mage of all things. In the days since he'd fled the Tower, every apprentice who'd been known to associate with Jowan had been interrogated - there was no other word for it - by the Knight Commander to ascertain whether or not Jowan's influence had spread to other impressionable young minds.
Jowan's shock departure and Lily's betrayal of her sisterly duty hadn't been the only event in recent times to have provided fodder for the Circle's scandal-mongers. Six months ago, a man purporting to be a Grey Warden had arrived, seeking skilled people to aid in combating a Blight said to be brewing in the south. When the Warden had left, Alistair had left with him. Talitha had not been privy to the...discussion said to have taken place between the Warden and Grand Cleric though rumour was that the Warden had been forced to conscript the Templar. Alistair was said to have been smiling hugely as he took his leave of the Chantry.
"By Andraste's grace," Talitha snapped at the Templar, fury kindling within her, "What makes you think you can come barging in here-"
"It is time for your Harrowing!" the Templar ranted back at her, and Talitha saw he was struggling to rein in his anger.
"I...what?" Talitha felt the spark of hostility die an abrupt death. Harrowing, now? Surely she was too young? But if the First Enchanter felt she was ready...
Rising swiftly from her bed, Talitha spoke in low tones to the other apprentices, "Please, leave them be. I want no trouble on my account."
"But Talitha, that man simply ripped the covers from you!" the elf argued. "That is not conduct befitting a member of the Chantry!" A chorus of affirming voices sounded from the others who were awake.
Talitha turned her eyes to the Templar who still stood by her bed, face flushed, "Please, wait for me outside. Let me calm them down first."
The Templars eyed the apprentices. None of them had dared to summon any spells yet but it would not take much more for them to try something. "Very well," the second, calmer Templar said and urged his fellow out of the room. Talitha quickly stepped to the elf who'd sparked the near-riot.
"Thank you for standing up for me before but please, don't cause any more trouble for us," Talitha spoke quietly, gaze travelling from one set of eyes to another before returning to the elf's. "After what Jowan did-"
"That idiot," the elf spat.
Talitha smiled, a little sadly. "Just keep things calm for me...in case I don't come back."
The elf embraced Talitha firmly. "May the Maker smile on you."
Talitha nodded, "And on you." Quickly she pulled on her robes and hurried out to meet her destiny.
She rejoined the Templars in the hallway outside the dormitory. "Finally ready?" it was the one who'd pulled the covers from her. He had managed to calm himself somewhat, though his face was still flushed. Talitha nodded once, not trusting herself to speak. The Templars fell into step alongside her and marched her towards the Harrowing chamber. "Left up to me," the Templar remarked, "All you thrice-cursed mages would be made Tranquil!"
With uncharacteristic venom, Talitha snapped, "Then I'm lucky it isn't up to you!" The rest of the walk to the Harrowing chamber was made in a sullen silence.
As her physical body lay unmoving in the Harrowing chamber, Talitha's spirit roamed the Fade, searching for the demon that was hunting her. As always, the colours of the Fade seemed washed out and the aura of the place felt oppressive. In the distance lay the bulk of the Black City and she turned from it resolutely.
The cracked ground beneath her feet shuddered and the apprentice stumbled back, summoning a protective magical barrier. As Talitha watched, wide-eyed, the burning red form of a rage demon clawed its way from the tortured ground. Talitha felt herself smile in relief. A flaming demon?
In recent times, as her skill with elemental magic grew, Talitha had come to be known among the other apprentices as the Maiden of Ice and Fire.
The demon reared over her and snarled, "Now, feel my rage in full, mortal!"
Even as tongues of flame erupted from the demon, Talitha rapidly weaved her magic, extinguishing the flames as they licked at her and freezing the demon in place. Hard, unyielding stone manifested between mage and demon and, driven by Talitha's will, the stone slammed into the demon, shattering it. It was a combination of spells as old as the Circle itself and not one to be underestimated.
With the demon vanquished, Talitha's perception of the Fade shimmered and a white glow seemed to emanate from everywhere at once. Talitha winced at the growing brightness, shielding her eyes with her hand. The light flared, her eyelids slammed shut in reflex and, when they opened again, she found herself in the Harrowing chamber once more.
The young woman swallowed past the dryness in her mouth, dark-eyed gaze flitting first to Greagoir, then to Irving. The First Enchanter's lined face bore a pleasantly surprised look; Greagoir appeared discomfited by something. The Templars stood over her, tall and imposing. Irving extended his right hand, helping Talitha to her feet.
"Is something wrong, First Enchanter?" Talitha asked.
Irving shook his head, and a smile of real joy lit his features, making him look years younger, "I am just surprised - and pleased by how smoothly your Harrowing went. I will have to check the archives to be sure, but you may well have set the record for the quickest Harrowing in some time."
Talitha blinked at this piece of news. Greagoir frowned at her, then said to Irving, "The girl was in the Fade fewer than twenty minutes, Irving. How can we be sure she truly faced a demon?"
For Talitha, this slight against her abilities and the Circle itself, coming so soon after the behaviour of Greagoir's men was enough pique her normally slow-burning temper. "Are you suggesting I didn't face a demon, Knight Commander?" Greagoir seemed about to reply but Talitha cut him off - let them punish her for speaking out of turn but she was not about to let this slide. "It was a rage demon, Knight Commander," she said, struggling to keep her voice level, "All flames and burning anger."
The young mage paused as Irving spoke up, "I am sure the Knight Commander did not intend to cause offense, Talitha." The First Enchanter's voice was low and soothing to her ears and she appreciated his effort to defuse the situation. But Greagoir, Maker take him had very much intended to cause offense, merely by suggesting that Talitha had somehow cheated in her Harrowing.
Greagoir was silent a moment longer before turning to face Irving, "We will discuss this at length later, Irving." Wordlessly, the Knight Commander waved his men to fall in behind him and led them from the Harrowing Chamber. Irving sighed as he and the young woman watched them leave. "I apologise for Greagoir's behaviour, Talitha," Irving said as they began walking from the room. "This should be a joyous time for you. You have completed your Harrowing and are now a mage of the Circle with all the rights and responsibilities inherent in that."
Talitha merely nodded. She didn't feel joyous. She felt...the same as she normally did. Part of her had always believed that, when this moment finally arrived, she would have felt different somehow. Still, there was something playing on her mind and this was as good a time as any to give it voice. She paused at the top of the staircase just outside the Harrowing chamber door and Irving halted beside her.
"Talitha?" Irving asked.
"I do not wish to sound ungrateful," she replied carefully, "But I have not yet seen my twentieth year and it was not so long ago that I was falling down flights of steps and setting my own hair on fire." Talitha smiled to herself, remembering her clumsier younger self.
"You feel that you were not yet ready to be tested," Irving replied and it was a statement, not a question. Talitha nodded. Irving smiled, deepening the creases in his face, "Dear girl, the fact that you not only completed your Harrowing but did it so swiftly is proof enough that you were ready. Truthfully, I would have selected you for a Harrowing even before now but the good Knight Commander was adamant that it would have been too soon."
Talitha felt her face heat up as she got angry at Greagoir all over again. "Forgive me, but is not the First Enchanter the head of the Circle Tower, not the Knight Commander?"
Irving smiled, a little sadly, "The Chantry is too well entrenched within the workings of the Circle for we mages to simply do as we wish."
Talitha smiled back, despite herself, "Magic is to serve mankind, not rule over him," she quoted the Chantry's oft-repeated justification for its treatment of mages. Irving nodded.
"Then you understand why sometimes, compromises with the Chantry must be reached," Irving stated and resumed his walk. Talitha nodded as she followed. She understood, that didn't mean she had to like it.
Author's Note: During the Magi origin, the player begins already in the Harrowing Chamber but doesn't elaborate on how he/she gets there so I improvised. Also, Mouse refers to the Templars coming for mages in the middle of the night, so that was my basis. As always, reviews are welcome.