The young mage taking her Harrowing was no-one, yet.
Oh, she was powerful and clever. She had mastered every novice spell in half the time it took her peers, and could cast them with twice the power. But still, she was just one apprentice among many--dressed in the same ragged robes, shuffled into the same quarters day after day, night after night, as all the others.
She was no-one. The indignity of it burned underneath her skin.
(They could see it in her: the pride, the ambition, the force of her determination.)
She knew everything the Circle had to teach apprentices about demons, of course. But she still was not prepared for the moment one threw themselves before her, its glowing-lava form twisting itself into something human.
“Stay your hand! I don’t wish to fight!”
It was the truth. They didn’t wish to fight. They didn’t wish it at all to be trapped by this strange mortal magic, the pressure telling them kill kill kill--
The apprentice stepped back, the staff she’d thrashed another demon for glinting with magic. She was ready to attack--had prepared for years and years to be able to take down any demonic foe--but no one had ever prepared her to fire upon a being who spoke to her with pleading eyes and surrendered.
“You are the demon,” she said. “You are here to kill me.”
“No,” they told her. Their form solidified, features emerging from their mass like a human face arising from lava. “I am no demon.”
(They felt her mistrust like the sting of a lash. They could read it in her, see the times enchanters had drilled her, lectured, remember, you mustn’t trust, you mustn’t listen. For demons, with their cunning--)
“Demons lie,” the apprentice said haughtily. “The Senior Enchanter said a demon had been summoned, and so a demon you must be.”
Their form flickered a moment, the human face crackling with red light. But the light died out, and there was only that same human face with the wide human eyes. A facade, perhaps, a form taken that did not reflect who they were, but would hopefully communicate, that would get through to her.
(It was a face--many faces the apprentice had seen before. It was the crooked teeth of Polly, who had chosen tranquility, who the apprentice still saw every day cleaning the floors with new bruises on her skin. It was the hollow cheeks of Miles, who had jumped out a window. It was the bright, pitiful eyes of Roland, who had been there one day and the next--gone--)
“A mistake,” they pleaded. “I am no demon. Ripped out of the fade, bound, harsh magic--there shall be no escape until you or she is dead--but I never wanted that.”
(Luckily, the binding had not urged immediate attack, or enforced a time limit for the kill. If it had--)
“If they bound you to kill, then why aren’t you, hm?” she asked.
“Purpose,” they replied. “Will. I throw myself against it, I try to stay me. But please--.”
“I don’t believe you,” she snapped, her voice shriller than she intended. “Enough with this. Get on with the attacking now!”
“I won’t stray from my purpose.” Their voice crackled now. “I am Compassion. I will not kill.”
For a moment, it seemed like it wouldn’t matter. The apprentice drew back, magic crackling in her fingers. The spirit cowered. An arcane bolt (sharp, clear, the result of long hours of study) sang through the air, right for their essence.
...but dissipated the moment it would touch them.
The apprentice was trembling. “It--no, I did it right. I--”
She fired again. And again. But none of her attacks held more than the slightest sting.
(Because magic in the Fade was only as strong as one’s own will, only as sharp as their own intent. And she had not come here with the intent to kill a being who would only beg for its life)
“Why can’t I…?” Frustration radiated off her, and then looming panic.“You haven’t attacked. I’m trying to kill you, and you haven’t attacked.”
“I will not kill,” the spirit repeated.
(They could feel, as the apprentice went silent, misery coiling in her gut. The misery of doubt.)
“I have prepared for this,” she said. “I have--prepared, night after night, strengthening my will against temptation. I have studied, and trained. I have journeyed for hours through the this dismal Fade, completed every task to arm myself against you.”
“I know,” they said.
(For they did, they could read it in her, the rigorous fasting and lack of sleep at the behest of the Enchanters to strengthen your will and the distasteful, humiliating chores to humble you, to make sure you can resist temptation)
“I will not fail,” she declared.
But once again, her arcane bolt dissipated right as it was about to strike.
Then came the breakdown. The panic, the raging that sent her magic crackling everywhere in harsh icicles, out of control like a five year old mageling throwing a tantrum, and then the stuttering breaths and tears.
(Because she really wasn’t good enough. Because she couldn’t do it. Because she couldn’t outwit a demon that wasn’t trying to trick her in the first place, and she couldn’t summon the gumption to fire a single spell at it. Because she was weak, weak, and she would die here--)
“You’re not weak,” they said. “Please don’t think that. You try so hard--I can see you have always tried so hard. This is not weakness.”
“Stop it,” she managed. “Don’t do that… thing with my head.”
(But there was no use telling them that, and she realized it. The demon had been summoned into her head by the Senior Enchanter himself.)
“It’s not because you’re weak. It’s because you’re kind.” A flash of hope. “know you shouldn’t be listening to me but you are listening because what if it’s harmless? What if it’s like Polly or Miles and I hurt it?”
(The denial was useless. Her compassion radiated like a warm sun.)
“You don’t want to kill me. It’s not hurting me. It’s not attacking, they didn’t tell me it might not attack.”
“Stop,” she said faintly. And then, snapping. “What, are you going to tell me the only way to save you is to let you possess me? Is that your ploy?”
“No,” they flickered again.
“Then what?” she demanded. “If--If I were to take your word, and help you--then how? How would I do that?”
Joy. Radiance. Hope. For a moment, it made it easier to fight the horrible pressure. “You will help.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Yes, please help me!” they said, reaching out. They could feel the binding pulling at them again. “Take it away. You’re a mortal mage; you can take it away!”
“Take what away?”
“The hurt! The suffocation, the pressure. Get rid of it.”
“The binding? I-I don’t know how!”
They crackled, once again all air and light. “We’ll find a way! We will!”
(They could feel the pressure, time running out as kill kill kill drummed through their being, and they could feel her pressure, the moments she counted down, images of the Templars surrounding her body, ready to strike if she failed, or if she lingered--and would they strike if the enchanters sensed the demon fled without being destroyed?)
They flitted. “There must be a way! I can see it, the hurt.”
“I don’t know what you--”
They let out a strained hum, and illuminated was they saw for her: runes, lyrium floating over them both, wrapping into thick cords that surrounded them like a web.
“Take it away,” they said, trying not to get angry at the lack of immediate action. “Let me home.”
“I… don’t know how. Even if I wanted to, you can only disrupt a summoning circle from the outside, so...”
They flitted again, lashing about. Their form was becoming less benevolent looking, btu they tried to reign it in.
“Magic! Magic!” they said. “You can help. You can help. Please help me.”
(They couldn’t really parse what they felt from her, then. Too many things, some of which they had never experienced. Something like anger. Something like fear. Something like despair. And an image of her own face, eyes wide open, wheeled out in some cart to be dumped in the grave with all the other irrelevant--)
(But it was also getting harder to parse things, in general, outside of the drumming in their head.)
“I want home,” they said.
(They wanted to bargain, to offer deals to try and get her to make up her mind and help, but no, she was taught to mistrust deals. So they tried to read her again, tried to latch on.)
“You won’t be one of the faces you see there, in the grave,” they babbled. “You won’t--”
She was trembling again. They were having trouble parsing anything, outside of a deep hurt. And then, she raised her staff.
“I won’t,” she agreed.
This time, the bolt hit, and tore through them.
(In the ensuing pain, they weren’t able to read her. They could only scramble away, confused, hurt, why why why.)
They still didn’t fight back, despite the binding pressure that constricted more tightly with each attack thrown their way. They took flight instead. They darted and dodged and threw up barriers and hid. Because then, at least, they could die as them.
It was not a long flight.
They looked in her eyes once more before the final blow. Then, there was only darkness and the sound of their own pained, angry roar--and then nothing at all.
A flash of white as the world came back. A roar echoing in her ears.
She stood. Shaking, hollow, Harrowed, but smiling at the templars to show them she was her.
Survival means a lot of things. It means being clever, and strong, and beautiful. It means being able to fire a killing blow and mean it, even on something that doesn’t look evil.
Sometimes, It also means learning how not to think about things.
It means biting your tongue and never asking going to Senior Enchanter to ask if it was possible he had summoned a good spirit, because then you would be a dissident instead of the Circle’s brightest rising star.
It means never telling anyone “I wanted to free my Harrowing demon” because that would mean you were weak, you had let yourself be taken in by a demon, and thus not worthy of the positions you grasped at.
It means lying awake in bed with eyes shut tight for hours, heart pounding at the thought of drifting back into the Fade, forcibly smiling brightly as ever in the morning so no one knows how much sleep you have lost these past few weeks.
It means spending all your time reading and re-reading every approved tome on demons, repeating it all to yourself in those awful waking hours of the night.
Demons lie. Demons cannot be trusted. And they’re all demons waiting to happen.
(It means learning to believe it.)
You can continue being a good mage, knowing what you are supposed to know about demons, and knowing that you did the right thing, the only thing you could do.
And then, finally, you will get out. You will live in the palace of your dreams, no longer bound to obey when assigned chores or fasting. You will sleep on silk and dress in diamonds and velvet and no one will control you again.
You will be Vivienne de Fer.
(Because otherwise, you would have been no-one, only of the many that had been wheeled out of the tower for failure and dumped in a giant pit without even a name for the world to remember you by.)