With gratitude toward his parents and his devotion to Andraste strengthening his dedication, Cullen had applied himself to his training and absorbed the lessons of his elders. Eight years of assignments in increasingly larger villages had brought him full circle back to the Chantry in Denerim where he was evaluated by the same people that had begun his training.
Along the way he had had occasion to help Templar Hunters find escaped mages. He had guarded children turned in by their families until representatives of the Circle could retrieve them. He’d seen fear paralyze the hunted and felt it pierce his own heart. But mostly he had waited.
He had stood in needless plate to stare across fields and contemplate dun-colored hills. He had guarded wooden chests in which naught but a few coins rattled, all the local farmers could spare to help those with even less. He had listened to the muddled, rambling stories of Templars who could barely raise their swords.
He had waited to see whether his faith and his trust in the Chantry were enough.
The idea that evil spirits, ephemeral beings from the world of dreams, could come into this world and infect living bodies had frightened him more than the first draught of lyrium he took as a part of his final vows to the Order and to Andraste herself. He’d seen what that dependence could do over the course of decades but he dutifully swallowed that beginning dose with the assurance of the senior members that it would enhance the talents he’d been practicing for years.
It seemed paramount that, were he assigned to the lair of so many enchanters, his ability to dispel any magic that might be flung against him be as strong as possible. The Circle was the place he felt he could do the most good, the job he’d most feared and wanted, and the one to which he’d finally been transferred.
A year after he’d returned to Denerim, and a few weeks after his first burning taste of lyrium, he turned his steps to the hold rising out of Lake Calenhad. Over the days it took to reach the tower fear warred with excitement. The future promised conflict and important work, living cheek by jowl with dangerous and powerful mages. Yet all he saw when he arrived was a community, under guard and unusually studious but essentially just a group of people going about their lives.
The Chantry’s training had been dedicated to worst-case scenarios, to instilling wariness and a distrust of mages. That First Enchanter Irving, to whom the Knight Commander of Ferelden introduced him almost immediately, looked and sounded like nothing more than an old man whose cares lay heavily on his shoulders brought home that truth. He spoke gently and introduced the new arrival to some of the senior mages under his care.
Cullen sensed no resentment or fear in Irving, though a few of the other mages were less polite to the newest member of those who guarded them. The whole of the day was taken up in touring the quiet halls and dormitories of the Circle tower’s four levels and learning the hierarchy of Irving’s charges. Cullen’s last illusions about the desperate thrills and constant excitement of serving as a knight in the Order of Templars evaporated under the reality he saw.
He lay that night in the dormitory, surrounded by strangers, and wondered whether he’d made the right choice. The cold stone of the hold’s thick walls enclosed a world he’d been taught was fraught with danger and barely-suppressed fury. Mages couldn’t be trusted any farther than you could throw them, he’d long been told. They lurked in every corner, gave themselves to demons in exchange for power, or lost control entirely and slaughtered whole villages.
Every step of his training had shown him different. Most of the Templars he’d met on duty that day had seemed relaxed, even bored. The mages hadn’t scurried or hidden, none of them had looked furtive or particularly angry. Cullen had seen nothing more thrilling or frightening than a typical day in the Chantry, in fact. He drifted to sleep wondering if mage children were taught the same exaggerations about the Order as he had been about them.
As though to make up for the lack of initial tension, the morning of his second day he found himself assigned to a Harrowing. It was a rite of passage that divided the most stable talents from the weakest wills, at least in theory. The Chantry required all mages to undergo the test to winnow out those most prone to possession. Novices who refused to submit were made Tranquil, blocked from the Fade and its demons entirely—as well as their own emotions. Those who failed the test were slain.
Cullen climbed the last curl of the stone steps to the top of the Circle tower and stepped into a large, round chamber that contained no more than a long wooden table, stained dark with age and use. A young woman lay atop it, her pale fingers toying fitfully with a tie at the waist of her blue novice robes. Narrow windows, evenly spaced around the rounded walls, cast bars of sunlight across the floor and warmed the wood to a rich glow. Three other Templars stood nearby while First Enchanter Irving prepared to begin the ritual.
The slender girl looked to be several years younger than Cullen’s own twenty-seven. Her wide eyes swept the room, pausing at each of the four imposing figures, armored and armed, before settling on Irving. She seemed nearly as nervous about what would happen as he felt. Though she had been preparing for this ritual for years the high price of failure clearly weighed on her mind. As Irving and the Templars surrounded the table, the woman visibly composed herself in an impressive display of emotional control.
For a moment Cullen wondered how long she’d been away from her family. Had she missed them as much as he had his; had she lain awake wondering what would happen to her? He could have chosen to walk out, to quit training and leave the Chantry any time before he had taken his final vows. It must have been that much more difficult for her, knowing she had no choice but to come to this moment or be made Tranquil.
The young woman took one final deep breath and nodded her readiness to Irving, ignoring the others entirely. There was little pomp, merely a few words from the First Enchanter, a sip of some potion, and then silence as she appeared to fall asleep. Cullen knew that her mind had gone to the Fade, the dream realm of spirits and dreams, to face a demon’s temptation. Through the magic of the ceremony, should she succumb to that lure she would become an abomination, a creature possessed and changed into a single-minded agent of destruction. Then she would be struck down without hesitation, the very reason the Templars stood about her now.
It was no wonder some mages feared the Harrowing more than being made Tranquil. What a choice: face the possibility of death or lose all of your emotions and never dream again. Cullen couldn’t imagine being forced to make that kind of decision so young but he firmly believed in the need for this sifting to keep ordinary people safe from mages who would turn, through weakness or malice, to the powers of that lurked within the Fade.
Such bargains led to the use of blood magic and the ability to control the minds of others. The threat of that power frightened everyone, mages included. The Chantry considered using blood magic worse than outright possession. It could be nigh impossible to detect and it made the user more open to possession in the end. The Harrowing was designed to make such weaknesses into flesh, that the vulnerable might be removed before more-subtle deals could be struck or to reveal those already in league with darker forces.
The Templars stood with weapons in hand, watching the girl’s slender, still form. Their faces were hidden behind bulky helmets and the four shapes in full plate loomed threateningly over the sleeping woman wearing just a cloth robe and round-toed slippers. Cullen had drawn his own blade with the others but the longer they watched the more foolish he felt.
The silence spun out, broken only by the occasional creak or scrape as someone adjusted his position. Cullen found himself studying the woman’s face, the curve of her cheek and the arch of her brow, the wisp of hair that lay across her forehead. Her lips pursed a little as though dissatisfied with the dream she inhabited and he noticed how full they were. The robes she wore, worn but clean and neatly mended, skimmed chastely over her healthy curves.
Suddenly it came to him that this sort of distraction may be just what a demon used to gain control of the woman and kill them all. He mentally shook off his interest and concentrated on watching Irving for some kind of sign of how things were proceeding, but the First Enchanter gave away nothing. Cullen found his eyes returning to her expressive face again and again.
In less than twenty minutes—though the tense silence had made it feel like hours—the young lady began to stir. Irving appeared pleased and the other Templars relaxed their aggressive postures a bit, though none sheathed their swords. Until she’d fully woken and been examined it was still possible something awful could happen.
When her eyes opened they swept across the men standing over her. Cullen felt a jolt from the momentary eye contact as though she saw him, exposed, despite his heavy plate. He could read in her eyes and the set of her mouth her amusement at seeing them all so clearly intimidated by a young woman they had completely at their mercy.
The signs of her concern had been erased by what had happened in her dream. She sat up and quietly spoke to the First Enchanter. After only a short exchange Irving pronounced that she had successfully passed her Harrowing.
The four Templars replaced their weapons and, without a word, filed down the stairs, armored boots ringing on the stone as they went, throwing echoes across the nearly empty room. Cullen spared a last look when he reached the first curve of the stair, catching the quick intelligence in the girl’s face as she continued her animated talk with Irving.
Her long-fingered hands illustrated some point, fluttering in the barred light like trapped birds. She and Irving laughed and Cullen turned away, wondering whether he’d see her again. He had yet to learn just how small the Circle Tower really was.