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Once We Were

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Swords and Shields hit an unfortunate setback in the form of a certain Coterie-boss-slash-editor. My account of the Inquisition hasn't met paper at the pace she'd prefer. I've been "encouraged" to set aside other projects.

Of course, I don't remember agreeing to write more of that particular rubbish. I suppose that doesn't matter, does it, Seeker? You know, I should kill the Knight-Captain and free both of us from this serial's clutches. It would be kinder.

I'm thinking your scowl is spectacular right now, Seeker. Don't worry—the Knight-Captain will live to see another chapter… assuming I ever finish writing this book.

Let me make it up to you. I dug this up last week and thought you'd enjoy reading it. Hawke lacks my finesse with the written word, but the story she tells here doesn't need much frill.

Hawke and Isabela had this adventure while you were stabbing Tale of the Champion and dragging me to Haven. I'll admit I wondered if Isabela helped her cook up this story, but the "Admiral" swears it's true.

The story opens with a storm on the sea—a cliché beginning, I know. This was the kind of storm only a pirate who stole from the Qunari would steer into…

The storm arrived between breaths. It erupted overhead, as though someone cleaved a hole in the sky and thrust the storm through the Void. The blue and unbroken horizon filled with cloud and gray as the storm became preternatural. It set upon the Amaranthine Ocean like a half-starved predator. It circled—vulturine, waiting. Wind pitched the ship below. Rain spilled in sheets so relentless the crew lost their bearings.

Rather than flee, the Eloise and her captain turned into the strange storm.

Aboard the ship, the crew watched the squall with trepidation; at its eye, the storm stretched the sky thin. Beneath the thunderclaps, the crew heard the echo of cannon fire. The lightning took on a sickly yellow hue.

Clinging from the crow's nest, a lookout swore she saw billowing smoke.

Then from the depths of the clouds, falling with a surreal slowness, the storm released a heap of wreckage. The crew blinked, certain now the storm was playing tricks, but the debris remained. Lightning lit the clouds and flashed against the debris. Metallic debris.

It continued its steady descent, as if the storm was reluctant to release its hold. Five meters from the surface, the invisible line snapped, and the wreckage crashed into the water. The captain nodded, and the crew steered the ship toward it.

Even as the Eloise approached the debris, the storm raged on. Already, the ravenous waves had swallowed some of the fragments. The crew casted their nets, wrestling wind and wave to gather the wreckage and haul it onto the ship.

The struggle went on for a time. The net snagged and slipped while the crew fought for footing. When at last they dragged the net onto the Eloise, they collapsed with relief.

Their haul spilled onto the deck. A woman spilled with it. She rolled twice before landing on her back. Her armor was black from helmet to boots—save for a red stripe down the right arm—and riddle with holes. The visor of her helmet was a transparent yellow.

The crew parted as their captain and her companion strode forward. They knelt, studying her. The woman didn't move, her breaths shallow and weak. One of the crew gingerly lifted the helmet from her head. Her red hair was matted. Her face was bruised and cut.

That the sea hadn't taken her was miraculous.

The captain's companion set her stave aside. Drawing a thread of mana from the Fade, she directed a healing spell at the woman. She drew and drew from the Fade and poured her magic out; at last, the woman drew a gasping breath and then was still again.

The captain nodded to her crew. "Take her below."

The storm withdrew.

Shepard knelt on her hands and knees. Her fingers curled, searched for purchase on the lift. Her left hand was slick with her blood.

A boy stood before her, a cruel reminder of the invasion of Earth. Catalyst, he called himself. "Like a cleansing fire, we restore balance." Shepard choked on smoke—Mindoir burning—a trick of the blood loss. Gritting her teeth, Shepard forced herself to her feet. Her legs threatened buckle beneath her.

The Catalyst was talking. What was he—? "It also proves my solution won't work anymore." He had hollow eyes.

Consciousness tugged, tried to draw Shepard from her nightmare. Hands tended to her wounds, but her body bit back, and Shepard fell again into the black.

"There has to be another way." There has to be another way.

Shepard was dying. Such a superficial thought, considering. It was agony knowing what she would leave behind—but oh, she craved that release.

But she couldn't rest yet. "The paths are open," the Catalyst said. "But you have to choose." Shepard turned. Took one step and then another.

"There has to be another way."

But there wasn't. Shepard chose, and the black swallowed her whole.

She woke tucked into a woolly blanket. Cocooned in its warmth, Shepard didn't mind that it scratched at her chin. Her bed was a threadbare mattress on a wooden pallet. To her left was a square, squat table with a pair of candles. Their dull light left the corners of the room in shadow, but there wasn't much room to see.

The floor beneath her tilted gently. Shepard thought she heard the slap of waves against the wall. A boat then. The craftsmanship—what little she could see—resembled Earth craftsmanship, but no one built ships like this anymore. It definitely wasn't an Alliance vessel.

Earth had been the closest habitable planet to the Crucible. Shepard couldn't guess how she would've reached Earth, but this wasn't the first time she'd woken from the dead.

Sitting required some effort. Shepard's injuries hurt less than she anticipated, but a dull ache remained in her left side, and her whole body was stiff. She was weak, and by the time she got upright, she was out of breath. Well, thought Shepard, inspecting her bandaged side, still not dead.

The state of her wounds worried her: Exactly how long had she been unconscious? The memory of waking on that Cerberus ship—of learning the world believed her to be two years dead—still haunted her.

She sat utterly still and listened. Far away, somewhere above her, there was shouting. Based on the… accommodations, Shepard guessed she was in the cargo hold. The door was crooked, one hinge loose. If she had strength enough to stand, that door wouldn't stop her.

Shepard drew a steadying breath and eased her right leg over the edge of the makeshift bed. Sharp pricks of pain radiated from her side up and down the length of her spine. She hissed, but she shifted her weight and swung her other leg over the side of the bed. Gripping the corner of the table, she pushed herself up. Her legs buckled beneath her weight. She tightened her hold on the table, she forced herself to remain upright.

A peal of laughter shattered Shepard's concentration. Two sets of footsteps approached.

Panic struck her; isolated and injured, she was at the mercy of the people on the other side of the door. They rescued you, she reminded herself. They took care of your wounds. Her hand drifted toward the candles anyway—the only weapon Shepard possessed except her biotics.

The door opened, and in the light that poured in, she caught her first glimpse of her rescuers. The two women pause, startled to see her on her feet. Both women were dark-haired and possessed a commanding air, but their similarities ended there.

The first woman wore the look of pirate well. Heavy gold earrings and a necklace complemented her golden brown complexion and honeyed eyes. A pair of daggers were strapped to her back. Her hair was tied back with a bandana.

The other woman was taller and paler. Her bright blue eyes were striking beneath her black hair. She had a smear of what Shepard hoped was paint across her nose. Shepard might have mistaken this woman's staff for a walking stick if not for the otherness she felt when she glanced at it.

"No—wait!" The bright-eyed woman stepped toward her. Shepard drew a barrier around herself. It was weak and quickly flickered out. Both women frowned, but the bright-eyed woman took a second—and more tentative—step. "Can you just… sit? Keeping you alive wasn't easy. It'd be great if you didn't get yourself killed now."

Shepard lowered herself to the bed and hoped neither woman noticed the tremble in her legs. The pirate lingered at the door, but the other woman knelt beside Shepard. She eased Shepard back and helped her settled into her pillows. The woman removed the bandage from Shepard's side. She frowned but didn't replace it. She shifted her attention to the Shepard's other injuries.

"Who are you?" asked Shepard. At least her voiced worked.

"Isabela," answered the woman lingering by the door. "Or 'captain,' if you prefer. The Eloise is my ship."

"Please, don't call her 'captain,'" the other woman said. "I'm Hawke. Shepard, right?" She nodded toward the dog tags still hanging around Shepard's neck.

Shepard's gaze caught Hawke's, and she was struck with a startling sense of familiarity. Blue eyes met green, black hair versus red, and yet Shepard felt like she'd looked into a mirror.

She pushed the feeling out of her head. "Where are we?" She skimmed through her mental catalogue of known worlds. This wasn't Earth—it couldn't be Earth, she knew that. Once she had where, Shepard would deal with how and who.

"The Amaranthine Ocean," said Isabela, "a week's journey from Antiva City."

Nothing. Those names meant nothing. Shepard couldn't name a planet still using ships like the Eloise, or one with people who dressed like Hawke and Isabela, and those names meant nothing. "What's this planet called?"

"The planet?" Hawke returned her focus to Shepard's wounds. "I need to work on these. Ready?"

Shepard nodded her assent. "Your world. I'm N7. I learned the names of all known worlds in the galaxy. Memorized details of the occupied ones. You're human, but I don't… We're still in the Milky Way, right?"

Where Hawke's fingers brushed the scrapes and bruises on Shepard's face, a cooling sensation followed. Her brow furrowed. "I don't know. We didn't know—" She glanced at Isabela. The pirate shrugged, and Shepard couldn't read her expression. "There are people on other worlds?"

Shepard's head swam. How could someone not know? How could this place exist? She couldn't make sense of this. The First Contact War happened three decades ago.

Hawke's laid her hands on the wound in Shepard's side. The hiss of pain was involuntary. "I'm sorry," said Hawke, "Anders was always the better healer."

Warmth crept into Shepard's side. The pain ebbed, and she would've sworn she felt her body knitting itself together. Finally, like breaking the surface of a bottomless pool, the realization hit her: Magic. Earth had its stories—legends and novels and fairytales—but biotics were as close as anyone came to possessing it.

Her biotics.

As if spurred by her recognition, the magic swept through Shepard, and her body answered. Her biotics sparked. A war was born within her, biotics revolting against and melding into the magic. The room glowed blue. Shepard's veins filled with fire.


Consciousness slipped away.

She tried to stand and slipped in the blood pooled at her feet. Her knees banged against the floor. "You have to choose," the Catalyst said with Saren Arterius' voice. "Use the energy of the Crucible to control the Reapers."


The Catalyst knelt. His hollow eyes found Shepard's. With EDI's voice, he said, "We restore balance. You have to choose." Shepard trembled, transformed by rage and grief and terror.


The lights flickered, then failed. A hand kneaded her shoulder. Not the Catalyst. "Shepard." Garrus. Shepard sought his eyes in the dark but found only darkness. "The paths are open, Shepard."

She recoiled. The lights returned, blinding. The Catalyst stood above her. Its voice was fury and death. "You have to choose."

The dream shifted, tilted, and Shepard fell. She hit the ground hard, the breathed knocked out of her. Dirt sprayed up around her. She lay there a long moment before forcing herself to sit.

An eerie landscape looked back at her. Dark rocks jutted out at unnatural angles or drifted above her head. Black and brown dirt mingled, paths leading to nothing or winding on beyond what Shepard could see. And everything was cast in a pallid green.

Someone whispered her name.

She turned her head… and woke.

Shepard slept. The Catalyst haunted her. Sometimes, her nightmare would crumble, and she would glimpse that unnatural dreamscape again. But she felt the eyes of unseen monsters on her, and so it was a poor refuge.

Waking was a relief. She could only guess how long she'd slept, a day or two perhaps. But she was stronger—physically, at least. She found that most of her wounds were healed. Her side was still tender, and the muscles in her left leg protested use, but she could move.

Inside, she felt crudely stitched together. That pulse of magic had touched her biotics, somehow, and left a disconnect between Shepard and that energy.

She risked a step toward the door. Her left leg dragged somewhat, a stiffness which would ease with time. Her second step hurt less, but it also revealed how far Shepard's recovered strength would carry her. It wasn't much. The next step brought her to the door, and she half-collapsed against it.

Above her, the ceiling creaked. Crew milling around. Voices drifted down, quieter than when she first woke. Someone was snoring. Shepard snorted—pitied whichever crew slept near the snorer—amused by the universality of it.

She rested another moment before cracking open the door. The passageway outside her room was narrow, dark, and deserted. She slipped out of her room. A low, gravelly laugh reverberated through the floorboards above. The single snore became a cacophony of snores. At least she didn't need to pity the first snorer's bunkmates.

Shepard guessed the crew slept in shifts, but the possibility that it might be night—that there could be stars took hold of her. She needed to see that sky.

Her room was positioned at the far enough of the passageway. At its middle, a ladder led to the next deck.

Shepard's steps grew fast, even as her legs protested. Spurred by the familiarity of an objective, she ignored the tremors of her muscles. Between Batarians and Reapers, she'd fought through worse than this. A willful flicker of hope burned through her. The stars would have answers.

Her bare feet were silent on the wooden floorboards, but her heartbeat was thunder in her ears. At the ladder, Shepard's body at last remembered its training, falling in line with her mind. The roar of her heartbeat faded.

She scaled the ladder and found herself in an open room. Other than a few men playing cards in a corner, the room was unoccupied. The men glanced her way but otherwise didn't acknowledge her. Of course, without a weapon, no one would think she posed much of a threat. With the way her biotics felt at the moment, they were right.

At one end of the deck, there were doors to what Shepard guessed was the crew's sleeping quarters. At the other, a galley with scraps of whatever dinner had been. On each side of her, a pair of ladders led to the main deck. They were taller than the ladder from the cargo hold, and their openings were wider.

Shepard drew a slow breath, steeling herself. She chose the ladder to left and climbed.

The effect of standing on the main deck astounded her. Down in the hold, there were salt-stained floors. The scent of seawater permeated Shepard's room. Sometimes, she could hear the rolling waves. But those things were only a taste of the ocean—a glimpse.

She stood on the deck of the Eloise and found ocean stretching far beyond the horizon, tapering off into the night. The Alliance had a few ocean vessels, although their uses were ceremonial, and they never strayed far from land. Shepard had been on a few, but they couldn't compare to standing on a ship in the middle of the ocean. Without sunlight, it wasn't entirely unlike being adrift in space.

It was quieter than she expected. Scant wind caught the ship's sails. Only a handful of crew occupied the deck.

She didn't let herself look up until she reached the side—until she could cling to the railing like a lifeboat. Then she lifted her eyes to the stars. Her stomach turned. Her knuckles went white with her effort to stay upright.

She had known. She hadn't acknowledged it, but she had known: what she would see, what she wouldn't see. She spun in a slow, tight circle—one hand always close to the rail—but it changed nothing. The stars were strangers to her. Even the moon looked wrong, brighter and less pockmarked than Earth's. The sky could have been starless, for all the good they were. She was lost, and because she was Commander Shepard, she was the most lost anyone had ever been.

Shepard's adrenaline dissipated. She leaned on her elbows on the railing, watching waves lap against the ship. Anxiety coiled in her ribcage. This felt too much like those months she spent awaiting her trial—knowing that the Reapers would come before that. Stripped of the Normandy and her crew, she had been as useless as a discarded weapon—except that unlike the weapon, Shepard knew that she should be pointed at an enemy.

"Lose something?" Shepard could hear Hawke's grin. Somehow, she and Hawke were echoes of each other, and it came as no surprise that Hawke wielded blunt humor.

Shepard turned to her, keeping her weight on the railing. She regarded Hawke's mirthful eyes, her crooked, roguish smile, and wondered whether her features were always so open. Her eyes betrayed the curiosity behind that mirth. Shepard was a puzzle Hawke wanted to solve; as much as she disliked scrutiny, Shepard understood—Hawke and her magic sparked Shepard's own curiosity.

Concern flitted across Hawke's features. Shepard realized she hadn't said anything yet. But what could she say? If the Eloise and its crew represented this world, how could she explain the things she'd seen? "More like everything," said Shepard. Hawke didn't reply. "My people—" It occurred to Shepard that in saying this, she spoke for all of them: human and Turian; Krogan and Salarian; Quarian and Drell. "We have ships that went to the stars. We have wars out there." She gestured to the stars. "I trained with the human military, and we studied how the stars looked from different worlds. I thought… I thought I could find answers." Another pause. "It isn't even fathomable how far I am from home."

A shadow drained some light from Hawke's eyes. Shepard recognized the shadow as understanding. Hawke's jaw clenched. She didn't speak for some time. "I doubt it'll be much of a comfort, but you should know: You were alone. Whoever… whatever did all of that to you, they didn't come here with you. It isn't home, but you're safe."

For the first time, it occurred to Shepard that she didn't actually know how she came to be there. "Please—tell me how it happened."

Her muscles burned by the time she returned to the cargo hold. She fell asleep before she could register the itch of the blanket or the coolness of her pillows. The Catalyst and his nightmare didn't come that night, but Shepard dreamed of a hole in Earth's sky.

Shepard lingered in bed the following morning. As long as she could remember, she rose early; in the Alliance, she had a reason. After Cerberus saved her—or rebuilt, depending on perspective—she slept even less. At first, some part of her feared she'd wake and find another two years gone; later, it was habit. Once or twice—when she and Garrus stole a night for themselves—Shepard rested a little more solidly.

She'd given fourteen years to the Alliance, forgot how to do little more than solve the next problem, and her body wanted to go. But Shepard had nothing now, she'd lost her entire world. She didn't even have a single standing order left.

Maybe it was petulant staying in bed, but she'd earned a little petulance. She wished Joker was there to be petulant with her.

Hawke apparently expected her to be up. She arrived an hour or so after Shepard woke, a bundle of clothes tucked under one arm and a rucksack in her hand. Hawke raised an expectant eyebrow but didn't question her. "Thought you'd like a change of clothes," she said, "and apparently, Isabela thought I needed a whole wardrobe, so… "

She dropped the clothes on Shepard's bed. Shepard hadn't thought much about the fact that she wasn't wearing her armor when she woke. Any reservations she might've had went out the window the first time she was knocked out in a fight and woke in a hospital. "Not much variety in these," she noted, perusing the tunics and pants.

"Isabela likes to cultivate a look." Hawke grinned. "This one's… understated."

"Here I was hoping for a pair of those earrings."

"Speaking of Isabela. She said I should invite you to breakfast in her cabin," said Hawke. "I told her it could wait."

"Does your captain hope to interrogate me?"

Hawke laughed. "My friend might be considering it… but only if you're using 'interrogate' as a euphemism for something else. I can't decide if she's more interested in your story or interested in you. Either way, I thought you should have the benefit of a full stomach before dealing with that."

Shepard thought of Vega. She would miss calling him on his bluffs. "I think I'll survive it," said Shepard, "but I appreciate the concern."

"Anytime," Hawke replied, swinging the rucksack toward her. Shepard caught it, and Hawke released her grip on the strap. "Fruit. Bread. Some of Isabela's favorite rum."

Shepard lifted an eyebrow in what she hoped conveyed incredulity. "As long as I'm on a pirate ship, right?"

"Exactly," agreed Hawke with a wink. "Oh, and Isabela also said to feel free to explore."

Determined to stretch her stubbornness to its limit, Shepard took her time with breakfast. She had only a taste of the rum—she imagined Hawke had stolen it from Isabela more to irritate the captain than to initiate Shepard into the pirate's life.

Of course, once she finished her meal, her restlessness became intolerable. She chose a burgundy tunic and a pair of tan slacks. The boots Hawke left her were a half-size too big, but they were worn and comfortable, and with a pair of thick socks, they fit well.

The climb to the lower deck burned less than before. Some of the crew paused when she appeared—the deck grew still, its din muted. Shepard felt their scrutiny even before she lifted her gaze to them. When she did, someone cleared their throat, and the crew seemed to remember themselves.

Crowded though the deck was, no one was slacking off: crew were cleaning or prepping food for their next meal or sharpening weapons. Everyone moved with purpose.

Shepard's eye was drawn to a woman in a back corner—a girl, really. She had a sword in a sheath at her side and wore a grim expression, but a second glance at her face revealed the softness of youth. Several lengths of rope were laid out on the table in front of her, each one fashioned into a number of knots.

She angled her body away from the crew and wore her disinterest as comfortably as her armor, and perhaps because Shepard remembered being young and adrift, she took a seat with her. The girl didn't pause, so Shepard examined her work.

Shepard recognized the knots. She hadn't had much use for them, but like all other Alliance recruits, she learned. The girl's latest knot was great in form but too loose. She pulled, and it came loose. She growled.

"Let me?" said Shepard. The girl's hands stilled. She gave the barest nod, setting the rope on the table. Shepard reset the rope and worked her way through the knot step-by-step. "I'm Shepard." She offered the rope to the girl, who immediately unknotted it and started again.

"Noemi," she replied. She sounded like Isabela, but her accent was thicker. She was studying Shepard now—not with curiosity like the rest of the crew but like studying an enemy. Her eyes held no malice, only a need to spot weaknesses. She tapped a different rope. "This one?"

This knot was closer, but it would give under too much weight. Shepard picked up the length of rope. "I'll show you."

They worked for half an hour or so, crew coming and going. Fewer eyes lingered on Shepard as the time went on.

Noemi wasn't an easy read—she offered little in the way of conversation and didn't much react to any of Shepard's own comments. Shepard was able to gather that their destination of Antiva City had once been her home, although not her birthplace, and she hadn't been there since joining up with Isabela.

Shepard didn't question her about her family. She'd fielded enough of those questions herself. The way Noemi spoke of Isabela—"Captain said I'll have my own rig one day, but I've got to learn the sea first"—Shepard saw how much she admired her. But when she asked how long Hawke had been aboard, Noemi's expression soured. "Too long," she'd grumbled. "We won't make port a day too soon."

Shepard couldn't help her surprise: Hawke was cheerful enough, and from what Shepard could see, she had neither the skill nor the desire to disguise herself as something she wasn't. "You have a problem with her magic?"

Noemi scoffed. "It isn't her magic; and it's what she started. She's trouble."

"… you're pirates."

"With as much right to choose our troubles as anyone else."

"And you chose the captain's when you signed on," someone behind Shepard barked. She turned to face its source—a man she recognized from the previous night's card game. With a helmet, he might pass for a Krogan: He was big, burly, and brute. "You questioning the captain's judgment?"

"Shut it, Hector," Noemi snapped, but she withered under his glare. Hector turned his attention to Shepard, and Noemi took the opportunity to slip away.

Hector shrugged. "You hear rumors about Circles all over Thedas these days. Kid's got a friend locked up in one. Better for her to resent me than stew in her hate for the captain's friend." He lumbered off before Shepard could ask about the Circles.

More crew came down, shuffling through for ale and a bite to eat. Shepard climbed to the main deck, as ready as she could make herself to face Thedas in the daylight. The Eloise was still several days' journey from their port, but Shepard thought if she watched Thedas approach little by little, it might feel more like discovery and less like being lost.

Sunlight hit the ocean and reflected back. Last night's gentle winds were gone; the sails snapped and fluttered. The ocean was a living thing, throwing itself against the ship, knocking it to and fro.

Isabela stood on the quarterdeck, as regal as she was roguish. Even from below, Shepard saw that her gaze was sharp. The captain caught Shepard's eye and nodded. Shepard returned the gesture and then went back to her exploration.

She watched the crew work for a time. It wasn't unlike watching her own crew work. It was a strange paradox of familiar and unfamiliar. It might've made her homesick if not for the sun's warmth on her back. Alliance ships were always cool and often not well-lit.

A shout drew Shepard's attention to the crow's nest—she dug that particular piece of vocabulary from a book she'd borrowed from an Alliance recruit after she'd been rescued at sixteen. A woman with sun-bleached hair and a pale complexion called back to the man already in the crow's nest and climbed up. The pair spoke briefly before the man climbed down.

Shepard couldn't say what it was about the crow's nest that captivated her, but she found herself drawn to it. Perhaps because it was a sharpshooter's dream, and she missed her sniper.

The woman—whose job Shepard supposed it was to notice things—caught her watching. "Shepard, isn't it?" she called down. "Come up, if you like." The woman had a lilting accent emphasized by shouting.

Shepard accepted her invitation, surprised to find that there was room for two to sit comfortably. "Welcome," the woman said, "I'm Iselan."

"Shepard," she confirmed, settling down beside Iselan. She kept the sun at her back, indulging in its warmth.

Up close, Iselan's features were sharp, from the industrial gray of her eyes to the sudden point of her chin. Like Isabela, she carried a pair of daggers. A knife was sheathed in each boot. It occurred to Shepard that she was woefully unarmed.

Iselan followed the line of Shepard's sight and laughed. "Don't worry—I'm perfectly harmless," said Iselan.

Shepard snorted. "I'm sure."

Iselan returned her attention to the horizon. Her focus was sharp and serious, but her body was relaxed. "Scuttlebut has it that you're from another world," she said in a way that sounded envious. Another world undersold it, in truth, but Shepard nodded. "What was it like?"

"Nothing like this," Shepard said. "You wouldn't believe half of it." But then, Thedas and Earth weren't utterly without similarities—the fruit, for one, was so far identical. So she said, "There were a lot of worlds, actually, but the one I came from… It had oceans like this. People used to sail ships like this one."

"Used to?"

"We developed different materials. Designs changed. Still had pirates though."

Iselan laughed, "Well, you need pirates." She drew a black ribbon from her vest pocket and tied her hair back, revealing her ears—pointed ears. At Shepard's surprised expression, frowned. "What?"

"Um…" Shepard gestured to her own ears.

"I guess you don't have elves?"

Only in stories, Shepard thought. That was becoming a theme here. "No," she admitted, "but there other races. None from my homeworld, though, so we've only known about them for thirty years."

Iselan considered this. "Thousands of years ago, we were alone. Dwarves didn't come to the Surface, and no one knew of the humans or the Qunari."

"What changed?" asked Shepard.

Iselan's eyes hadn't left the horizon, but she wasn't seeing it. She shook her head, cleared her senses. "That depends on who's answering."

She stayed with Iselan until her shift ended. When the next lookout—a man named Rocco—called up to take Iselan's place, Shepard climbed down to let him up. After exchanging a few words with him, Iselan followed.

Shepard and Iselan hadn't spoken much more after that. The elf seemed relieve at her indifference to her race; and as they stood together on the deck and Shepard noticed the crew watching them, she saw why. More than a few cut spiteful looks at them. Shepard knew their type: Once upon a time, they were rich; now, they were penniless, and they were forced to play pirate to survive. Poverty should've been the great equalizer, but most of them never let go of their prejudices.

Iselan slipped away for lunch, unbothered by her crewmates' hate, and left Shepard to explore the rest of the main deck.

Shepard found Hawke still lounging on the bow. Despite the brutal chop of the waves, she looked at ease. Someone had trained Hawke how to use her body, and Shepard wondered if she would be as deadly without her magic.

When she caught Shepard approaching, she sprang down onto the deck. "Have you spent time on the ocean? Or just in the stars?" asked Hawke.

Hawke believed her—and she ought to, since she'd seen the sky spit Shepard out—but she thought the mage was struggling to let the truth take root as much as Shepard was struggling with magic.

"Hardly any, and I could always see the shore. I'm… not sure I believe there's really anything but ocean here."

Hawke's mouth quirked. "My family fled the Blight when it hit Lothering. We took a ship to Kirkwall, and there were days… I thought we'd never see land again."

Lothering. The Blight. Words that meant something to Hawke. Words that meant something to a lot of people, probably. Shepard archived them. If she could catalogue stars and planets, she could learn Thedas' landscape.

"Lothering—is that why Noemi hates you?"

Hawke rolled her shoulders, glancing past Shepard's shoulder toward the lower deck. "No… No, what happened in Lothering wasn't me."

Shepard believed her. Hawke had that look again, of someone whose home was gone. But there was a story; Shepard knew that, too. "Okay." She waited, eyes locked on Hawke until the mage sighed.

"Aveline would like you." She turned so that she once again faced the bow of the ship, her eyes fixed somewhere on the ocean's horizon. The wind whipped at her short wisps of hair. "It isn't a short story, it isn't even the whole story, but I—"

"—aren't responsible," chimed Isabela, coming to stand on Shepard's right. "There's a book, if you like. I've been using it as a doorstop, but you're welcome to it."

Books. Before Iselan sprinted off, she'd offered up her collection for Shepard to borrow. The best collected history of Thedas an elf has owned, she'd sworn. She'd never know Thedas like a native, but books might close some of the gap. "Well, if your door can spare it."

"Excellent. Come around for it whenever you like."

"Isabela," groaned Hawke.

"What? I'm only testing the waters."

Hawke made a soft noise of fond annoyance. "You are always testing something."

"You love me," said Isabela. She caught Shepard's eye and winked. Shepard noticed she held a pair of sheathed daggers in her right hand. "Hawke seems to think you don't know how to handle a blade."

Hawke had mentioned finding Shepard's gun among the wreckage, worthless now—water-logged and out of ammo. Shepard explained it as something like a small cannon and tried not to mourn the loss of it. She hadn't been without a weapon since joining up with the Alliance, at least not until she'd been locked up after she'd sacrificed those Batarians.

But swords…

Shepard supposed an omniblade didn't quite count, and she'd never fought with anything like Kai Leng's blade. "Hawke isn't wrong."

Isabela's grin was as wolfish as it was theatrical. "Normally, I'd test you with a game of Wicked Grace first, but I suppose I could offer some basics. Couldn't send you out into Antiva like… a lamb for slaughter."

Hawke snorted indelicately.

Shepard was much a lamb as Isabela, but her biotics were shaky, and she'd need more than the fisticuffs she used to rely on when her ammo ran out. "Don't you have a ship to captain?"

"Actually, I have a first mate who should earn his keep. If your crew can't manage without your constant supervision, you've got problems. But you weren't a commander, right, Shepard? You know this." She tossed the daggers to Shepard. "Don't worry. I'll take it slow."

Hawke sighed, but the wickedness in Isabela's eyes wasn't flirtatious—at least not exclusively. It was a challenge.

Shepard's pulse quickened. She wasn't back to her full strength yet, but the prospect of a fight rendered the Eloise in a sharp focus. "Please," said Shepard, her own grin growing feral, "don't."

They began with stances and strikes. Foreign as wielding two blades was, Shepard's body responded well to Isabela's instructions. The last rule of combat the Alliance taught its recruits was to adapt, breaking all the other rules if necessary.

This was a new way of moving, demanding agility where Shepard had mostly been blunt; but after an hour or so, her training began to fall into place.

Hawke lingered to heal Shepard as needed… and to shout suggestions at her: exploits in Isabela's defenses that only someone who'd spent years watching her fight would know.

In the end, Shepard came away with more than a few nicks—reminders of places needing protection, according to Isabela—and managed to strike the captain once.

Shepard used her last morsel of energy to throw up a weak barrier, blocking Isabela's final strike. It crumbled after only a moment.

Sweaty and exhausted, Shepard returned to her room and fell into a dreamless sleep until evening.

Dinner was a solitary affair. Once again, Shepard chose the seclusion of her room over the bustle of the lower deck. Iselan delivered the meal, along with the promised stack of books—including one called Tale of the Champion, deposited atop the pile "by the Champion herself," according to Iselan.

The elf didn't linger. She simply took a last envious glance at Shepard's little room and left.

Shepard hadn't reach much in her life. Mindoir's library was paltry… and then destroyed. The Alliance left little time for it, beyond their own required reading. In fact, the first time Shepard picked up a novel since the attack on Mindoir, she was awaiting trial on Earth.

Most of Iselan's books were histories, with a few biographies sprinkled in. Flipping through Tale, Shepard supposed it a history, too, but with some embellishments.

Tale of the Champion in her hands, Shepard surveyed the pile at her bedside with unease. She couldn't guess where to begin. A few titles had years, but whatever Thedas' dating system was, it was nothing like Earth's.

So she decided to start with Hawke's story, penned by someone called Varric Tethras—himself a character.

Shepard read into the night, eyes strained in the dimming candlelight. As she did, Thedas took shape: the darkspawn took the Batarians' shape in her mind; she saw the mages and the order sworn both to protect and police them; humans and elves and dwarves vied for Kirkwall's resources; the Qunari looming.

Tethras didn't got into all the details Shepard might've liked—she was his only reader who needed them—but she began to stitch Thedas together, bit by bit.

She stopped at Hawke's mother's murder. From the author's style, Shepard felt certain he'd taken some liberties in the telling, but this—this she knew happened exactly as he'd written it. The dwarf liked to paint himself as invincible, but his devotion to Hawke was plain. He wouldn't rewrite this.

Shepard did turn the page, intending to go on, but her mind got stuck there in Hawke's grief. It clawed at her from the pages.

She closed the book, blew out the candles, and fell into a nightmare.

Hannah Shepard shivered. She drew a ragged breath and choked on her own blood. Shepard kneeled next to her, cradling her mother. She was going into shock—an adult now, Shepard recognized the signs—and she desperately wanted to say something to her daughter. Shepard leaned in to let her whisper in her ear. But it was the Catalyst who spoke, "You have to choose."

Shepard leapt back and found herself in a field of broken, pale grass. Debris littered the ground.

Remains of Geth, she realized.

A choking sound drew her attention: Joker on his knees, his back to her. He was cradling EDI to his chest. "You killed her."

No. She had to—

"Shepard," said Garrus. She spun around and found them. All of them: Garrus, Liara, and Tali; Wrex, Ashley, and Kasumi; Grunt, Jack, and Miranda.

Mordin. Kaidan. Thane.

No. This… this wasn't—

Blood bloomed across Garrus' chest… then Ashley's… then Miranda's. One by one, her friends bled and fell.

The ground beneath Shepard's feet shook. Shepard stumbled then fell flat on her back. Above her, the sky cracked open, and a sickly green poured spilled across it.

It grew quiet, a stillness that reminded Shepard of animal with prey in its sights, and then… music. Nothing she particularly recognized but familiar still. Bar music, she realized. She rose to her feet and found herself in a barren terrain—the landscape that had interrupted her nightmares.

The Fade, she realized. She recognized it from Tale: the home of spirits and the hunting ground of demons. According to Tethras, many believed that the souls of the dead came here.

She hoped they were wrong.

Some distance away, Shepard spied the source of the music: a bar, sprung up between two pillars of jagged rock; and seated at the counter, Garrus. Shepard approached warily, unhurried to catch his eye.

He looked like Garrus, in a way he hadn't qutie in her other nightmares, and when Shepard reached the bar, he said, "When I pictured a bar in the afterlife, I saw something a little different. Something with doors, maybe."


He gestured to the stool beside him, a drink waiting on the counter. "Finally found me. I was starting to worry."

"What happened?" asked Shepard. She sat down, pushing the drink aside.

His expression was grim. "You don't want that answer, Shepard."

She swallowed hard; so far, she'd stayed by not speculating about his fate. But they were here together now. "How—how did you get here, to Thedas? This world? Did the storm bring you, too?"

"Storm? Shepard, we found you on the Citadel. After we buried you, there was fighting. Resources were… thin. I shouldn't have gone in, I guess." At her frown, he said, "There was no storm."

That… That couldn't be right. Shepard hadn't dreamed up Thedas, or Hawke, or the pain of waking up alone. Again. She hadn't dreamed dueling with Isabela and reading Varric Tethras' book. She shook her head.

"We died," said Garrus, "but we found each other. Let's enjoy it!"

The wrongness of this settled into Shepard's bones at once. This was not a cheerful place, and Garrus was not particularly cheerful, even in places that were.

Varric's words were coming back—his account of what transpired in that place called the Fade, where he and his friends betrayed Hawke. Perhaps souls did come there upon death, but not Garrus'.

"No. We haven't found each other," Shepard ground out. "Show yourself."

She hadn't known what to expect next, but the thing that crawled out of the mockery of Garrus wasn't it. She was both grotesque and beautiful. Shepard scurried away from her.

"I can give him to you," the demon drawled. "He's strange, but if you open your mind to me—if you give yourself to me—I can give him to you. Him. The stars. I can—"

"No, you can't," Shepard spat, "and if demons have any sense, you'll go."

The demon's smile was serpentine. "You are nothing, and I will make you less."

The demon lunged. Shepard stumbled back, reaching inside for her biotics. She found a pool of power, familiar yet not; with a cry, she threw up her barrier.

The barrier blossomed around her, a pocket of energy, massive and blue and greater than even she could hold. The Fade shook with it—no, the Eloise shook with it—and Shepard woke.

She drew a deep, shuddering breath, and her barrier—present here, too—collapsed into her. Darkness enveloped the room, her candles burnt out.

Shepard shook. Convulsions threatened to rack her body. She was ripping apart at the seams; she was erupting. She couldn't let go of the Fade. She couldn't—

(distantly, she heard footsteps pounding down the passageway toward her, but)

—she couldn't let go, and so she pulled. Something raw and cool came loose, following her into the waking world; and as Hawke and Shepard ran into the room, fire burst from Shepard's palms.

For the briefest moment, the fire was hers to command. But then it snaked up her arms and leaped onto her bed. "Hawke," cried Isabela, a heartbeat before ice coated Shepard's bed and arms. The fire died.

Everything went out of Shepard, as if consumed by the fire. She had never felt like this, not even when she first woke in Thedas. In the Milky Way, she had given and given of herself—not out of selflessness, but first out of a sense of duty, and later because no one else in the galaxy could. She hadn't been better than everyone else or somehow more qualified, but destiny or circumstance or dumb luck had put the Reapers in front of her, and their fates had been tied. So she had pressed on, even when exhaustion threatened to floor her, and had finally found herself face to face with the Catalyst.

But this. She hadn't felt so emptied before this.

"See to the crew," Hawke told Isabela, her eyes set on Shepard. "Tell them what you must."

If Isabela had any qualms about receiving orders on her own ship, she didn't show them. She left the door ajar, but slipped away without a word.

Hawke's hands were still raised from her spell, outstretched toward Shepard. The spell itself had faded, but Shepard realized she taste the lingering magic, like the night air after fireworks. "What…?" But she couldn't push the rest of the question out.

"Your—" Hawke mimed Shepard's barrier.

"Barrier," Shepard supplied.

Hawke nodded, and her gesturing grew frantic, until she threw her arms up above her head. She didn't disguise her amusement when she said, "You, uh, rocked the boat."

Shepard sighed, rubbing the heels of her palms against her eyes. She hadn't lost control in… decades. Not since her biotics first emerged. She hadn't forgotten how it felt though; she loathed it. "Is everyone…?"

"We're fine, Shepard. Everyone on this ship has experienced magic at some point, and that's all anyone will think this was. But…" She crossed now to sit at the foot of the bed. She unfolded Shepard's arms and passed her palms over them. Healing magic whispered across her skin. The burns faded and then disappeared. "We should talk about what happened after you woke up, because that was magic."

"How?" asked Shepard. She drew her knees up and wrapped her arms around them, concealing the flesh that only moments ago was burned. The room held a strange ambiance. Its diminutive size hadn't bothered her before—she'd shared smaller—but her wrists were warm where they'd burned; and the room felt humid, like a storm might break above them at any moment. "The world I'm from didn't have magic—none of the worlds where I'm from did."

Hawke chewed her bottom lip. She studied Shepard, like she had the night Shepard first saw Thedas' stars, considering. "Are you sure?"

Shepard's first thought was the Council: If there'd been magic in the Milky Way, the Council would've found a way to exploit it. But then, the Reapers were an unknown, right until Saren betrayed everyone to them. "I'm sure I didn't have magic," she replied.

"Well, you have something," said Hawke. "Maybe whatever that is, it's… adapting to Thedas."

Shepard shuddered. "Then it needs to adapt faster. What happened tonight…"

"We'll figure it out, okay?" Hawke took her hands. "Believe it or not, what happened tonight? Actually pretty normal… except for the blue shockwave, that is."

Shepard couldn't imagine describing any of this as normal, but Hawke said it with such sincerity that the thought comforted her. "Define normal."

Hawke withdrew her hands and leaned back against the wall. "I was six or seven. I had a nightmare… our house was on fire. I froze everything. My sister, Bethany, found a wounded cat a few years later. She was so upset that it'd been hurt, she didn't realized she'd healed it until one of our neighbors dragged her back to our father. My friend Merrill, she says it's different with the Dalish… They look for signs of magic in their children and help them cultivate it. It isn't like that with humans or city elves."

"So what happens next?"

"If you were a child, the Templars would come for you. You might hide, for a while. But eventually, they find us all."

"Except you."

Hawke smiled, but it lacked the mirth Shepard expected of her. "How much of that have you read?" She nodded toward Tale. "I was an exception… and if you asked some people, that I meant I should've been leading other mages."

"What about Carver?"

"He went with the Wardens. If he hadn't gone to the Deep Roads, I guess he would've become a Templar. I'm… I'm glad he never had to choose between duty and me."

"He might have surprised you. People do that, I hear."

"Maybe," Hawke agreed. In the quiet that followed, Hawke closed her eyes, and Shepard wondered where she went. To Kirkwall, where her friends remained but none of her family? To Fenris? To the Hanging Man? "You should get some rest, if you can. We'll figure this out later."

Hawke left without another word between them.

Figuring it out, Shepard discovered the following morning, meant making it up as they went along. Beyond departing the Eloise when they reached Antiva City, Hawke didn't have much of a plan.

Shepard got the feeling this was how she approached most things… Not that Shepard could fault her. Glass houses and stones, the saying went.

But land was still a few days away, so for now they focused on the Fade—how to navigate it and how to protect herself from the demons the prowled it. They decided not to risk casting spells, since Shepard's first hadn't been ideal for a boat, and Hawke assured her that protecting herself in the Fade would keep the magic from slipping beyond her control.

That afternoon, they climbed up to the crow's nest, relieving a bleary-eyed lookout. Hawke and Shepard eased into companionable silence, past all the awkwardness that usually came with not knowing someone well.

Shepard felt a growing sense of gratitude toward Hawke. For Shepard, all of this training meant she had something to focus on beyond her grief; but for Hawke, today meant reliving lesson her father had given her, back when she still had him.

Shepard searched her limited knowledge of Hawke for anything that might lift her spirits, and could only think of one: Fenris.

She hadn't slept after Hawke left that night. She didn't trust herself. Instead, she lit the candles read Tale. The crew was shuffling around on the deck above her by the time she finished the book. Like Hawke's family, Fenris was a story that Tethras took pains to tell right.

So she ventured, "Tell me about Fenris?"

Hawke took a moment to reply, "The book tells it all." She spoke casually, but Shepard saw how the question affected her.

The book didn't tell all that much, Shepard suspected. She could only guess how long it'd be since Kirkwall, and Hawke hadn't so much has uttered his name in Shepard's presence since she arrived. He wasn't dead—Shepard felt certain she would at least see that in Hawke's eyes—but he wasn't something Hawke wanted to acknowledge either.

"I fell in love with my best friend," said Shepard. She hadn't said that before. Everyone who knew them had known what happened, so Shepard hadn't needed to tell anyone their story. "He joined my crew. We… butted heads a little, at first. I don't think I knew he was my best friend until I realized I wanted him to be more."

"What happened to him?" Hawke asked. Her focus remained on the ocean, but the tension her shoulders had eased up.

"He lived, I think—I hope. I guess I'll never know, but… I have to believe he did." Shepard laughed. "He would've followed me here, if he could. He'd give me hell about it, getting us stranded who-knows-where with no way home, but he would've stuck with me."

"Fenris and I stuck together. For a while. Everywhere we went, people were looking for me. Some of them were Templars or similar. At best, those wanted to make me Tranquil. Most wanted my head. Sometimes, mages found me. That wasn't better."

"You're protecting him."

Hawke's smile was wry. "Fenris wouldn't like anyone suggesting he needs protecting. No… Some of the mages who came looking were Magisters. I couldn't expose him to that. We'll find each other again, but for now…"

Shepard nodded. "For now."

Hawke left a little while later to talk with Isabela. Iselan climbed up to join Shepard in the crow's nest. Her spirits were higher than when they last spoke, and she quizzed Shepard about which books she'd read. She frowned at Shepard's choice to start with Tale of the Champion, assuring her there were far more fascinating subjects in her collection.

Shepard lingered there an hour or so. Iselan spoke for a time about the history of humans, and Shepard learned that Thedas was only one continent on this world and that humans hadn't always lived there.

Shepard left the crow's nest a little before sunset. Hawke and Isabela still hadn't reemerged from the captain's cabin, so she climbed the steps to the quarterdeck. Isabela's door was ajar, and Shepard could just make out the captain and Hawke leaned over a table, studying something—a map, if she had to guess. Hawke's stave was leaning against the table. She didn't stray far from it.

It wasn't just elves who experienced hate in Thedas. Magic frightened people here as much as biotics first frightened humans—as much as biotics still frightened some humans. Fear bred hate.

Then there were these others races: Dwarves—yet another name out of fiction—and Qunari. That one was new. Shepard wished she'd asked Iselan about them. All these people, sharing a planet, and Shepard had a feeling she was only scratching the surface of its complexities.

Shepard turned from Isabela's cabin and toward the expanse of the Eloise. For a moment, she was standing on the Normandy. She could almost hear the chatter of her crew and the beeps from their long-range sensor. She'd been Commander Shepard so long that "commander" had begun to feel less like a title and more like a name.

Now, she was just Shepard—Jane. Hannah Shepard named her after Shepard's aunt. If she'd been a boy, she would've had her uncle's name. She became Shepard the day the Alliance found her. Even Garrus had only called her Shepard.

The breeze stilled. Shepard closed her eyes, and when she imagined away the way the waves rocked the ship, she was gliding through space.

She knew without question that when her heart stopped beating again—permanently, she hoped—that it would happen here. Nights like the one before, sailing across the ocean beneath the night sky, were the closest she'd ever come to the stars.

Shepard couldn't guess what that meant for her, but she would carve out that future. She survived the slaughter of everyone she knew. She defended Elysium against an overwhelming force. She allied the Quarians and the Geth. She defeated the Reapers.

She wished she could've seen that—what it looked like when the Reapers were torn apart.

She'd died twice. Twice.

It would take years for Shepard to understand Thedas. Maybe she wouldn't live that long. Maybe nowhere here would feel like home.

"Don't get any ideas, Shepard," Isabela said, shattering Shepard's reverie. Shepard opened her eyes and turned to face the pirate. "The Eloise is mine, and I don't like to share... at least not ships."

Behind her, still standing in the cabin door, Hawke rolled her eyes.

"Don't worry. I like my ships fast."

Isabela grinned. "I bet you do."

"We were talking about what happens when we make port," Hawke interjected. "Isabela knows a forger or two, but you should help us create your history." She nodded toward the cabin, and she and Isabela disappeared back into it.

Shepard followed.

As she'd guessed, Isabela had a map spread out over the table. Thedas was the only continent mapped there. No one had spoken of what lay beyond.

Hawke was talking. "You have the look of a Marcher, and your accent could pass for one, but there are few other options."

Shepard's fingers traced boundaries and mountains. A familiar thrill rolled through her; she'd stuck with the Alliance because she loved adventure, and this... this was something no one from the Milky Way had ever seen. "Tell me," she said.