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Out Of the Blue

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A passionless and uncaring “ding” on my phone confirmed the rejection of yet another job application. I rolled my eyes at the formal wording in the e-mail – such a fancy way of saying “nope” – and went from the e-mail app to my phone watch to set the timer. Not that it was bedtime yet, but I liked to prepare everything in advance. This was why my trolley bag was packed to the brim with clothes and other items, my harp safely tucked away in its carry-on bag along with the tuner, and my computer turned off. I'd even made breakfast for tomorrow, just to save time, and it wasn't even dark yet.

Then again, it wasn't every day I got to travel all the way to Canada for my very first concert. My mother was as excited as me and had promised to watch the recording when I came home. All participants received a copy, along with having travel and living expenses covered.

I still couldn't believe it. It hadn't been many months since I started playing, and while my contribution would be minor, it was still a pretty big deal to me. This was something to put on my résumé, after all, and it would bring me one step closer to my dream of being a professional musician. A baby step, but a step all the same. Not to mention I got to travel.

My stomach fluttered with excitement as I sat down in bed. Turning to my Youtube app, I got “Angel of the Morning” from the Deadpool soundtrack playing and then lay down to daydream about the next day. My fangirl level for Marvel's infamous anti-hero was high, almost as high as that of Dragon Age and Sailor Moon, evidenced in my oversized Deadpool sweater, Zevran panties and Bishojou Senshi pink slippers. I even wore my thigh-high, black and white, vertically striped socks, a little homage to the witches in The Wizard of Oz.

Not that I wore this outside. Most of my fellow Norwegians were terribly conformist in their mindset.

Berit, a recently made friend from an exercise group, texted me. “Hey, Alva, good luck tomorrow! Knock 'em dead!” She was a typical Northern-Norwegian who didn't mince words.

I texted her back. “Maybe in a boxing ring. I don't think I'll get many jobs if I kill people with my music.”

To this Berit merely sent me a smiley that stuck its tongue out. I sent her a kissing smiley in return.

Tell your mum I said hi,” she wrote half a minute later. “You'll get your ass out of there soon, right?” Stereotypical Northern-Norwegians also weren't afraid of swearwords.

That's the plan,” I wrote back. I lived with my mother, this was true. It was shameful in the eyes of many for a woman my age to still live at home. Ordinarily I'd agree if it hadn't been for that pesky little problem called “unemployed”. Not to mention I had worked in a job while living on my own, but it had nearly driven me face-first into a wall. Figuratively speaking. This was me taking a chance to chase my dreams, reach for the sky and soar. I'd even named my harp “raven's wing” for that specific purpose. A tribute to the new me.

I re-started my almost number one favourite Deadpool song and ended up singing along, my head lolling back and forth on my pillow as I did so. Just as I reached the chorus the second time, my voice loudly proclaiming that my invisible lover call me an angel of the morning, the most bizarre event in a life filled to the brim with odd and mundanely unexplainable phenomena took place. One second there was nothing but a white roof above me, and the next a blue, shiny ball popped out of nowhere and hovered right above my head.

Blue by AurianaValoria

It wasn't content to just hover, either. In fact, it started flying around in a strange, zig-zag-like pattern and actually made some noise. Completely indecipherable noise that sounded mostly like strange squeaking, but noise all the same. I blinked, wondering if this was about some umpteenth curse thrown at me by a certain cunt of a former coven “sister”. Not that it seemed likely that a blue ball would suddenly manifest in front of me when brooms falling by themselves and cats gathering outside to hiss and mewl menacingly at apparently nothing was enough of a warning. Not to mention her last attempt had failed epically. It was notoriously difficult to get any harmful spells past the goddess of witchcraft herself, after all, and Hecate was highly protective of me. At least that was what she'd told me in the vision she'd sent me last night, after the Deipnon. In fact, she'd seemed quite determined to let me know just how protected I was, almost as if she was trying very hard to reassure me.

A really bad feeling struck me in the gut. Sirens sounded outside, increasing in volume and numbers the longer I listened. That was unusual in a place as quiet as my home town, let alone a country as peaceful as mine. If I was to describe it, I'd say it was like being in some American crisis movie. I ran outside to see what was going on, my new, blue friend following closely behind. My older brother, who also suffered from the condition called “unemployed” while sending out numerous job applications, stood next to our mum in the little “glass cage” as I liked to call the communally enforced semi-building outside our flat.

I ran past them and reached the garden when I saw the eruption. Somewhere along the line I heard my mum admonish me for walking on grass and dirt with my slippers, and my brother wondered what the blue ball was. Houses shattered into a billion pieces from what appeared to be an attack that came from the earth's core. Neither of my two family members spoke after that started. My mouth dropped and the blue ball disappeared. The earth itself seemed to come apart, as if it was nothing but puzzle pieces poorly held together. Worse than that, it was headed straight in our direction. It was so stupid and absurd and sudden and so very Hollywood that my mind didn't have the time to accept what was going on until the destructive force was right in front of me. My mum called out, her voice ringing with despair, but I couldn't move. Not that we had anywhere to go, anyway. For a split second I thought of everything I would miss out on, all my opportunities wasted, and then the spray struck.

Somehow I registered flying at an ungodly pace, but my body, mind and emotions were all numb. Numb and fucking bitter. Then there was nothing.

 


 

There was no way this had been the work of Kim Jong-un, Trump or even Putin, though I was happy to suspect Hillary Clinton. Somehow these were my first, conscious thoughts as I became aware thanks to the alarm on my phone, though I had yet to open my eyes. I wasn't lying comfortably in a bed, I realised from the hard ground that pressed against my back, butt and the back of my legs and head. My body ached all over, as if I'd undergone rigid military training or been run over by a grotesquely large lawn mower. According to my friends in the army, that comparison wasn't far off.

Nothing could have prepared me for the sight that met me when I finally opened my eyes, though. Considering my past full of unsolicited, prophetic dreams of all things supernatural, my mind somehow surviving hentai – and that blue ball appearing out of nowhere – that was saying something. Above me was what I at first assumed was a cave roof, but it kind of stopped at one point, making it a rocky ledge instead.

My phone alarm annoyed me, so I made to reach over and turn it off. The problem was, I couldn't move. I was in too much pain. Just the slightest movement set off burning agony that went through my entire body, rendering me immobile. Fucking hell! Spots danced before my eyes and my mind swam with dizziness – knowing my luck, I'd probably gained a concussion. I groaned in self-pity, abandoned as I was to a weird place and a constant ringing in my ears because of my stupid iPhone.

Hecate's promised aid would really come in handy right about now!

Lying still as a captive audience to everything around me, I was able to take in the sickly green sky above me, what wasn't hidden from view by the rock, anyway. I swore I could see other rocks hovering in the air, too, large ones. Had I ended up in outer space somehow? No, I wouldn't be able to survive in such a place. Silly brain. Was I on another planet? Not that it was likely for an explosion to send me hurtling through space without instantly killing me.

Everything around me seemed to have a strange blur to it as well, almost as if it wasn't physically real. Well, fully physically real. It was like being in a dreamland, but a very realistic one. Was this another dream about the future? I sometimes had a hard time telling the difference between prophetic dreams and reality, although my mind always managed to put together the pieces after I woke up.

If I was dreaming, then that meant I was alive, for whatever that was worth. I probably wasn't on Earth any more, not after what had happened. When that thought struck, it was followed up, unbidden and unwelcome, by the memories of my last moments with my family. That tore open a wound that the physical pain couldn't even begin to match. Hot tears spilled forth, impossible to stop, and I lay for many long minutes bawling my eyes out, my nose getting clogged with snot. Was I all alone in this place? Would I ever see my brother and mother again? What about my dad? My friends? The wound was torn wider and I sobbed harder, the trembling that resulted causing my body even more pain. It was at a level that no prophetic dream could match, and that informed me that this was, in fact, real.

I couldn't stop crying even if I wanted to, though the realisation that I wasn't dreaming caused my fear to take over. It mixed with my pain, especially the one in my head, and I found it hard to breathe. The world around me spun, which made me nauseous on top of everything else, and I started to hyperventilate. A primal need to be held and comforted rose within me, but was coldly rejected by the indifference of the empty world around me. At this point, I was no longer afraid. I was terrified.

This wasn't a dream. It was a bloody nightmare.

Somehow, despite my panicked state, my brain managed to remind me how to calm down. Deep breaths, all the way down to my stomach, and release. It hurt, of course, but it beat becoming an emotional wreck. I was fortunate I didn't suffer from any kind of anxiety, or the effects would have been much worse. Breathe deeply and count your blessings.

First off, I was alive. Where there was life there was hope. My tears still travelled down my cheeks in a steady stream, but the world around me had stopped spinning.

Secondly, I was never truly alone. I felt Hecate was still with me – an intuitive sensation that was difficult to describe, but pervasive. Also, it was extremely doubtful that I was the only one in this strange world. There had to be someone out there that could help me. My breathing calmed considerably.

Thirdly, I could call upon Hecate for a healing spell – it might take a while for it to take full effect, but it would help. My tears stopped flowing and my stomach began to settle. I let out a sigh of relief, though I maintained the deep breathing technique until I felt confident enough to attempt my spell.

I closed my eyes and muttered a prayer to Hecate while I envisioned healing energy enveloping my entire body, penetrating the skin and fixing me inside out. Everything became very bright, even with my closed eyelids, so I opened them again to see a bright light surrounding me.

That was a first.

Not that my healing spells hadn't worked before, but they'd never physically manifested right before my eyes. I felt my pain disappear, especially in my head area, and as I lay there wrapped up in bright light, I found I could move both arms and legs again. Even my emotional pain was soothed a bit, though it was still raw and not something I was to touch upon any time soon. At least not until my need for basic survival had been met. Still, that had been the most powerful manifestation of healing magic that I'd ever experienced.

To my relief, I was able to sit up without another incident of dizziness or disorientation, and I finally grabbed my annoying phone. I turned off the alarm, which had gone into snooze mode during my crying and healing sessions, and noticed that I'd been out for little over twelve hours. Unlike me, my device hadn't taken any damage from the end of the world and subsequent relocation to a mysterious dreamland. While there was no wi-fi in a place like this, obviously, let alone any Internet, it had a compass that I could use so I wouldn't get completely lost.

Even more to my relief, it worked.

Travelling through a dreamworld was far from easy even on the best of days, but I had practised enough lucid dreaming to solve that problem. Where a large rock appeared in my path, I visualised a tunnel and it became so. If a bridge missed a part, my mind simply created it. There was something eerily familiar about this dreamscape, but I struggled to place it. On occasion I saw small balls of white light, but I knew not to follow them. Folklore and mythology told of terrible fates that awaited those who chased after the will-o'-the-wisps, also known as ignis fatuus or ghost lights.

While my compass worked, I still didn't really know which way to go and moved about on sheer intuition. It seemed north, north-west should be my general direction, but it was only with my phone's watch that I was able to measure the time it took. While it felt like hours, it turned out to be only five minutes. I imagined I could move much faster, and the dreamscape complied, speeding my steps considerably. Hopefully I'd be able to find a way out of this place, and soon.

It was in that moment that I heard a familiar sound – that of squeaky gibberish, to be exact – and my little blue friend re-appeared before me. Its chitter-chatter seemed endless, though it bounced around in the air, almost as if it was happy to see me.

“Hello to you, too,” I said and smiled. “Fancy seeing you here. Are you a servant of Hecate, by any chance?”

The blue ball bounced around more eagerly and made a chittery sound that was strangely reminiscent of “uh-huh”. It then trembled a bit before flying up to under my chin. Then it settled there and almost purred like a cat.

“I guess you got your world destroyed, too,” I remarked, to which it trembled some more. “I trust Hecate's alright?” It made another one of those affirmative sounds. “Is there a way out of here or is this our new home world?” It rolled around a bit before leaving its new spot to hover in front of me again. A short silence followed and as it persisted, I got the feeling that it was waiting for me to do something. “What do you need?” There was some more indistinguishable noise and then it flew back to me and settled on top of my head. Next came a cooing sound followed up by more gibberish. For a moment I felt like a mount about to be ridden into battle. “Right, off to glory we go,” I said dryly. Happy squeaks followed and I continued in the direction that my intuition suggested I go.

Leave it to me to attract an adventurous ball of blue.

We continued for yet another eternity – on my phone it was a total of two minutes – until we came to a downward spiral. Having no pockets, I stored my phone in my bra before I chanced a peek to see how far down it went. To my surprise and horror, my blue friend insisted we skate down the spiral.

I couldn't skate to save my life. In fact, I couldn't do any winter sports to save my life. I was a most pathetic excuse for a viking. The ball would have none of that, however, and willed into being a pair of skates on my feet. They became a most girly combination of pink fluff from the slippers and tight-fitting, white skate boots. The boot leather was adorned with the pentagram from Usagi's transformation pendant. I nearly twisted my ankle in my struggle to stand straight.

“Could we try rollerblades instead?” I asked. Not that I was any better with those, but at least they had better stability. The ball squeaked and I got my wish – except I started rolling before I could stop myself. Down we went, me with a high-pitched scream and the ball with an excited “weeeeeeeee”.

I had fortunately been clever and fast enough to get the right posture in before we hit full speed, but I was fully convinced that at the bottom of the spiral awaited a gruesome death. How I managed to stay on my feet was a sheer mystery.

To my continued horror as I continued my descent, there seemed to be nothing but a sickly green whirlpool awaiting me at the bottom. Did Blue really intend for me to jump through it into utter uncertainty? Gods knew what was on the other side! This was completely insane!

I tried willing into being a ramp or something else that would catch me, but Blue protested and it winked out of existence. “Fucking hell, Blue, are you trying to get me killed?” I screamed at the top of my lungs.

A very loud, chittering negative was the reply. So Blue was basically demanding an insane level of trust from me. Even if it was a servant of Hecate, that was a high demand at this point. Still, what other choice did I have? I clearly couldn't match it in terms of willpower.

The end of the spiral came much too soon. I gritted my teeth, closed my eyes shut and cursed every spirit in existence as I plummeted. Despite my fear, the sense of being in the air, free falling, had always felt wonderful and strangely liberating. An insane self-contradiction, I knew, and it felt wholly inappropriate as I fell towards what was most likely certain death. In my defence, however, I was in a dreamscape with a blue spirit after my home planet had been destroyed. The way I saw it, I was permitted a few eccentricities.

My heart was in my throat the entire way, part of me choosing to trust Blue while another part of me screamed at me that I was going to die. Then I felt a slight turbulence all around me, which I assumed was the two of us falling through the vomit-looking portal, and then I hovered.

Hovered. Among the many things I'd seen witchcraft capable of, defying gravity wasn't one of them. I opened my eyes, hesitantly, and immediately wished I hadn't. The first thing I saw was that I was suspended in the air, surrounded by a blue, shimmering, transparent ball. The ground was right below me, so why the spirit was holding me aloft, I couldn't say. All around me was a dark forest, and fires licking away at it. Fucking fires! Smoke rose to the sky in dark, rolling clouds the height of the Empire State Building. While I was in the midst of it all, I could somehow breathe normally.

That part had to be the spirit's doing. There was no other explanation. However, this was far from a safe place to be.

“Right,” I said, trying to sound calm despite how my heart hammered away in my chest with the speed of a galloping horse. “Where to the nearest bit of civilisation?”

That was when I realised my mistake in making sound. As if on cue, materialising out of the darkness, came creatures that I'd only seen in nightmares – or video games. My jaw dropped and my eyes grew wide.

What in the ever-fucking layers of the Abyss?

Demons!” It was Blue's first decipherable word, and for some reason I heard it in my mind rather than my ears. I'd celebrate our newly formed method of communication if it hadn't been for the fact that it had just said “demons”.

Not that I didn't believe in demons – the tales and myths surrounding them well predated monotheism. In Hindu mythology, it was the duty of the goddess Kali to fight and slay them, while also protecting humanity from their corrupting blood. While my own experiences with the supernatural were more tied with fey creatures than with fiends, I found the tales to be too consistent and too numerous to be mere fabrication. Especially the tales told to me directly by my own friends.

In short, I was royally fucked.

Fight them,” came Blue's next words. It had to be joking. How was I supposed to do that? “Exorcise them. Use your witchcraft!”

“If I had white sage and rowan, I would,” I argued back, and loudly so Blue could hear me over the roaring noise of the burning trees.

Use your light!” A demon that looked like the Shade in Dragon Age, for lack of a better comparison, lunged forward with a downward strike. I flinched and covered myself pitifully with my arms, but the blue shield held true, deflecting the creature's claws with impunity.

“You're pretty powerful,” I remarked as I found myself completely unscathed and the shield still as strong.

Exorcise them!”

Easier said than done. This wasn't something I could manage with my willpower alone. Even defeating the evil light elf that had corrupted my former coven sisters had taken the combined power of thousands of witches and the goddess Hecate to accomplish.

They're much weaker than he was,” Blue informed me helpfully. “You can do it!”

Well, here went nothing. I closed my eyes, envisioned my goddess, and raised one hand to the sky, open palm upwards while I kept the other pointed to the ground, open palm down. As above, so below. “Hecate Phosphorus, you who lit the sky during the Siege of Philip the second! Light-bringer! Come to me now and give me power! Banish these vile defilers!” I thought to envision bright, white light coming down from the heavens to my hand, but the sudden brightness around me and the intense heat in my palm suggested it had come on its own, physically manifested like the healing magic from before. When I opened my eyes, I saw that was indeed the case. Blue let out an excited squeal. I called on yet another epithet, my voice having gained considerable strength and confidence. “Hecate Soteira, saviour and fiery one! Join in on the light and burn away this wickedness with your cleansing fires!” A fiery red ray joined the light and made my hand impossibly hot. It coalesced with the bright light and surrounded my entire body like dancing snakes.

This looked, for the lack of a better term, pretty fucking epic.

“Hecate Psychopomp, guide of souls and spirits,” I went on, not wasting a single moment. “Send me your power to banish the demons! Hurl them back to the place they came from!” And safeguard the spirits of my loved ones, I added as a silent prayer. Bright green light came down next. At this point my entire body was enveloped in a searing hot force of light, fire and ghostly energy. “For I am your devotee and to you I hold allegiance!” The next words seemed to come all on their own, though I would never forget them. “Help me save this new world that is now my home!”

Everything seemed to go in slow motion at that point. I moved my hands until they were in front of me – not that I could even feel them at this point – and held them up against the demons. Everything became a flash of bright light and roaring fire, fiendish screams and the smell of burnt flesh following closely. I briefly wondered if that flesh was mine, and then everything turned dark.

 


 

There was a ringing in my ears the next time I felt harsh consciousness reclaim me from the joys of oblivion. Blue was calling out to me in its pipsqueak voice, once again in my mind, though I still felt as if I was swimming in a seemingly never-ending, black sea.

Come back, Alva,” Blue called. “Come back and wake up! Stand and fight your way to safety!”

Fight? I wasn't a warrior. I'd never had any military training and what I knew of martial arts was miniscule and irrelevant. How was I going to fight anything? No, it was better to drift along this black sea towards Hecate's embrace. Which reminded me, where was the ferryman, Charon? Did I have the coins needed to pay him? Would he accept my phone as down payment?

Then I remembered. The Earth exploding before my eyes and the call of my mother. Healing myself in a new and unique way and my subsequent journey through a dreamland. Meeting Blue again. Escaping the dreamworld and meeting demons. Exorcising the demons with witchcraft.

Exorcising demons with some seriously kick-ass witchcraft.

That was right. I had survived the destruction of Earth. I couldn't lie down and die now! I'd disgrace my family, my ancestors... hell, every human being on planet Earth that had died! But more than that, I'd disgrace myself!

Stand up and fight, indeed. Perhaps I wasn't as pathetic of a viking as I thought.

Dragging myself out of the dark sea, I forced my eyes open to see the blue orb around me from before. The flames burned all around me, now, but Blue's magic still kept me protected. Not to mention there were no more demons in sight. Was it some form of water spirit? It seemed the most likely conclusion. An elemental, perhaps?

I was on the ground, now, but the ball still surrounded me. I managed to get up with a groan, pleased to see that the burnt flesh from before hadn't been mine, and found my legs surrounded by flames that didn't harm me. Blue couldn't be just an elemental – it had to be royalty of some kind.

First order of business was to do something about the fires. This would take a lot out of me, but if the right entities were willing to assist, then it should work as planned. I closed my eyes again and focused all my willpower into my gut. My arms rested by my sides and I envisioned my feet digging deep into the earth, growing roots of their own. Unlike previous times back on Earth, I felt my feet do just this. I then uttered a prayer to Hecate Chthonia to keep me sturdy and grounded. There was a slight adjustment of my entire form and then I stood completely still.

My arms rose to the skies next, palms facing upwards, and I uttered a prayer to Hecate Ourania and Einalia, epithets tied to the sky and sea, the elements of water and air, and finally, Odin the All-Father. I didn't have as close of a relationship to him as I did Hecate, but he was the mythological forefather of my ancestors and god of the sky. Thus he was needed for this particular spell.

A spell that summoned rain.

Blue seemed to have noticed, because it lit up with its own string of cacophony. This one I heard in my ears, thus I couldn't understand it, but soon enough the wind picked up until it was a strong gale. The trees around us creaked and groaned under the force of the breeze, no doubt fanning the flames further. It was only a temporary state, however, for soon came the rumbling of dark skies overhead.

The wind stilled, and for a moment it seemed everything was caught in that moment between breaths. That in-between state, a liminal space, before everything burst back into action. It made me smile, for Hecate was the goddess of that as well.

A few drops hit me and then the skies seemed to empty themselves on the entire area. It was heavy, thick and beat away mercilessly at all it could hit. Blue sounded positively elated, both in my ears and mind, and as I opened my eyes I saw many small fires had been put out already.

I panted heavily, already feeling the exertion from my spell taking effect. It was as if I'd finished a marathon, my heart in my throat and my cheeks burning hot. My arms hung limply at my sides and the only thing keeping me up were the roots I'd summoned before.

Healing energy came down from Blue, soothing my aching joints and calming my heart. Slowly but surely I regained my strength until I could stand on my own. The roots disappeared and I found my feet were mine once more.

Come,” Blue bid, “there's more demons to banish.”

I turned around first and found myself staring at what could only be described as a rift. It glared at me, almost as if it expected me to know what it was and offended that I didn't. “Where are we, Blue?”

There was no answer. I looked around some more, and as the rain slowly cleared away the dark smoke from the fire, I saw not one, but two moons on the sky.

Two moons. Like on Thedas. My brain froze.

Like on Thedas?

My mind reeled back to the dreamworld. Had that been the fucking Fade? Was that why my magic was suddenly on steroids? Was Blue some kind of Fade spirit that had saved me by bringing me here? No, she'd appeared on Earth, before I ended up in this place. She'd probably come with me somehow, or followed me. Still, this couldn't be Thedas. It was one thing to somehow end up in another part of the universe, but in the fandom world of Dragon Age? That was the stuff of tropes and clichés only.

Then again, there was always string theory.

I shook the notion aside, but there was another thought nagging at me. The demons.

They'd looked an awful lot like Dragon Age demons. I fell into a state of doubt again. But Hecate had heard my prayers and sent me the power I needed to banish those fiends. Surely that wasn't possible in a world like this?

Let's exorcise more demons,” Blue suggested, “then we can find out along the way.”

“So you don't know where we are,” I stated more than asked.

No,” it replied.

“How did you know they're demons, then?”

More silence. I stared into the uncaring rift in front of me. Rift. Like in Inquisition. I'd never played that game, but I'd seen enough trailers, let's play videos and spoilers to know that a special mark was needed to close them. Not that the tear was as large as the one over Haven, but they had a nasty tendency to grow larger if left unattended.

Was there a Herald of Andraste around to seal it or did the locals have to go for the standard solution of bashing away at it from within the Fade, like the Warden had in Awakening?

“Hold still, shem!” An unfamiliar, male voice called out to me. “Raise your hands above your head and turn around slowly!”

Considering I'd just summoned down rain by holding my hands above my head, I wasn't sure if whomever addressed me was all that safer, but I chose to obey. The word “shem” stuck with me, though. That was an undeniably Thedosian word. As I turned around, I found my suspicions to be confirmed. Several armed and armoured Dalish elves – I guessed as much from the pointed ears and tattoos – stood in a semi-circle, their arrows trained on me. Blue was eerily silent, I noticed, though her shield was still in place.

“Lower that shield, shem, or we open fire!” said a dark-haired, male elf who stood in the middle of the congregation. I wondered if Blue's shield protected me from arrows the same way they did demons.

It doesn't,” it informed me. Shit! Still, I might be able to talk my way out of this.

“If I do, the demons will grow bold and come through that rift to attack again,” I informed him. It was a guess, but I based it off of the continued lack of demons around me. I knew Thedosian magic, after all, and none of it involved the kind of exorcism I'd just performed. Demons weren't stupid – they'd want to make sure they had an opening for an attack before coming through the rift again.

Looking at the only Dalish who had spoken to me so far, it was as if he was the spitting image of the male Mahariel in the concept art from Bioware. Well, almost. His muscles weren't as big and bulging. More like what an actual male elf looked like.

“You've been fighting these demons, I suppose?” I continued when he didn't answer. “They've hurt this forest badly.”

“Not just the forest,” he informed me, and I noticed he'd stopped referring to me by their often-derogatory word for humans. That was something, at least. “We seek to stop their outpouring from the Beyond and end their threat to us.”

“The only way to do that is to close the rift behind me,” I informed him, though it wouldn't surprise me if he already knew that. The Dalish had capable mages quite knowledgeable about these things, after all.

“We know,” he confirmed. A short silence followed. “Was that bright, searing light something you summoned?”

“Yes.” No point in lying. Though my goddess had sent it, but I wasn't sure if these people were ready to hear about Hecate just yet. Nor was I a missionary.

“And this keeps the demons at bay?” he pressed.

“It does seem to have frightened them, at least,” I suggested. “But the spell itself either banishes or destroys them. It's designed specifically for exorcism.”

And it was totally cool,” Blue supplied. My ego soared, but I fought back my smirk as it didn't seem an appropriate thing to do in front of the elves.

I was soaking wet at this point, though, and starting to feel more than a little cold. Time was running out if there was to be a solution to the demons, and I doubted the Dalish would offer their hospitality to a human.

“How did you end up here?” the elf pressed.

“I'm lost,” I shot back honestly. Lost and with no home to return to, but how I was going to explain that part still eluded me.

“Where are you from?”

Fuck. He just wouldn't stop asking questions, would he?

“Enough questions, Aenor,” one of the other hunters cut in. “You can perform the interrogation later. For now we need to close that rift and send the demons back.”

I can close the rift,” Blue offered, though there was some hesitation behind its words, “but only after you exorcise the demons.”

“I may know of a way,” I proffered, though unsurprisingly the Dalish didn't look happy about it. “Or, rather, there's someone that can help us.” I wasn't sure if I should point out that I had a spirit with me. Not that they were the same as demons, but Thedosians were terribly suspicious about anything that came out of the Fade.

“The spirit that maintains the shield around you?” Aenor asked and nodded in my general direction. He was observant! Unless Blue had made itself considerably more noticeable.

I did not!” it huffed, offended. Well, then.

“Yes,” I admitted. “After I exorcise the demons, Blue will seal the rift.”

“Nothing comes without a price,” he countered, almost bitterly. “What do you want in return?”

This time it was my turn to frown. “You would ask me that when lives are on the line?”

His eyes grew wide and his eyebrows shot up to the middle of his forehead. They came down just as quickly, however. “I'm quite accustomed to dealing with sh- humans. They always ask for something in return.”

“Perhaps we can discuss it later,” I suggested, “but to talk business at a moment so dire as now is, at least in my opinion, in really poor taste.”

“We wouldn't be obligated to do anything for you after you've performed your service,” he countered. “How do you know you can trust us?”

“I don't,” I shot back honestly, not missing a beat. “In fact, you could go back on your bargain anyway, if you so wished. I, however, have no wish to let paranoia prevent me from doing the right thing, or the demons will win the day.”

There was a slight pause and then he slowly lowered his bow. His fellow hunters followed suit, acting as one unit. “It's going to be a long night.”

At that, I merely grinned. “My favourite time.” Not to mention Hecate's. Despite knowing that, however, and having the support of a spirit, I sounded far more confident than I felt.

Chapter Text

Bioware Concept Art Guy – I'd already forgotten his name – exchanged a few words with his fellow elves that I wasn't privy to, though it seemed that was intentional on his part. We'd sought shelter under the trees, and while I was still soaking wet, I'd managed to wring some of the moisture out of my beloved sweater. My hair clung to my head like Gollum did The One Ring and my slippers and most of my stockings were muddy and soaked through. It was unlikely they would survive the night, a thought that made me sad. I also trembled like a leaf in the wind from the cold temperature the longer I stood still, and hugged myself tightly in a vain attempt to stay warm. Blue, in addition to all of its other powers, served as a blue lamp that helped me see in the dark. That was something, at least, though I still felt quite miserable.

Blue had gone strangely quiet, although the shield was still up. I had a concern that I had to address in regard to tonight's plans, more specifically in regards to magic. Seeing as we now had a telepathic connection, I asked the question in my thoughts.

Any advice on how to exorcise the demons without going into a black-out afterwards?” I still remembered the dark sea. Would I be dead had Blue not pulled me out of it?

Don't call on Hecate next time,” it informed me. “Use your own light.”

Right. I'd have to visualise my own. Well, did I really need to visualise when it physically manifested? Or was it enough to will it into being? Earthling witchcraft relied on both visualisation and willpower, but where Thedas was concerned I was suddenly uncertain.

Use both,” Blue supplied helpfully. “There's no difference, really, only now you see what we see.”

That made sense, strangely enough, but what if my light wasn't enough? I'd combined light, fire and the ghostly claw of Hecate to defeat the demons last time, but there was no telling if I had the strength needed without her.

Have faith in yourself,” Blue reminded me and I followed up on that advice by remembering the importance of determination. The only thing that could make white magic fail was a witch's lack of faith in her- or himself.

I could do this. I'd done so before and I could do it again. I slapped my cheeks as an additional reminder, which made me temporarily feel like a manga character.

Blue made a cheerful sound that drew more than one odd look our way.

Even the Dalish, with their powerful magic, were wary of spirits. A spirit attached to a shemlen on top of it, now that was bound to bring them concern.

These are kinder than most,” Blue informed me. “Treat them well and they will do the same to you.”

How can you tell?” I pressed.

Instead of replying, Blue nearly knocked me off my feet by letting me share in its telepathic powers. Mahariel look-alike was weighed down heavily by his duty to his people. Not only did he have to lead his fellow elves against these demons, but he carried the weight of their deaths on his shoulders, too. As if he took them as a direct sign of his failure.

Meanwhile, the one who had interrupted Bioware Guy before kept thinking about his bride and how their wedding was most likely postponed now. He'd crafted a really beautiful wooden figurine of a halla as a wedding gift, but the demons had reduced it to ashes.

Okay, the one who'd done that would get a personal serving of Hecate and me both. Blue made a happy squeak in agreement.

Then there was the Tamlen look-alike. He had the hots for the only elf chick in the group, but apparently she was already married. Ah, the complications of love triangles!

As for the elven woman, she was worried about her children. I got a sense that she was a very devoted mother. She was also the one who was the most afraid of me and worried greatly that I would hurt her loved ones.

That one I had to reassure somehow.

Blue's telepathic link to our new companions ended before I could read the minds of the rest. This was just as well as I was about to develop a headache. Mahariel stepped up in front of me, however, interrupting any more inner dialogue.

“As you probably heard, my name is Aenor,” he informed me. Right, Aenor. I betted against myself that I'd forget it again within the next five minutes. I was terrible with names. “We can wait with complete introductions until after the demons are dealt with, provided you're still alive.”

Blue huffed in indignation. “He should be more concerned about himself.” I briefly wondered if it could predict the future, too.

I decided to humour the spirit and said dryly: “Thanks for the vote of confidence.” Then I shot the elf a sardonic smile. I felt Blue greatly approve.

“Don't get over-confident just because you defeated a group of demons,” Tamlen very nearly snarled at me. He snarled well, I'd give him that, but his attitude pissed me off.

“More or less single-handedly,” I quipped. There was no reason to leave Blue and Hecate out of the credits, after all.

Blue approved some more.

Before Tamlen could throw a retort back, Mahariel held up his hand to stay him. “We will refer to you simply as shem until we're done here, then.” Sniggers could be heard from the other elves and something about his tone suggested the insult had been intentional.

Two could play that game, however. “Right. Then you,” I pointed to Tamlen, “are Snarly, you,” I pointed to the elf woman, “are Elf Chick, you,” I pointed to the Interruption Guy, “are Interruption Guy, you,” I pointed to Bioware Concept Art Guy, “are Grumpy Face, and you three,” I pointed to the last three elves, “are Elf One, Two and Three, respectively.”

Blue's pearly laughter was like music to my ears. The growing grumpiness on Grumpy Face made it even more worth it. I hid my smirk, an act that I knew would only annoy him more.

“Is there a problem?” I asked with my most innocent-sounding voice and batted my eyelashes at him.

“I believe you've been told my name twice now,” he reminded me. The tension in the air was palpable.

I shrugged. “I'm terrible with names. In my previous job it took me a year just to memorise the names of the children that came to visit me regularly, and even then I kept forgetting.”

“What was this job, exactly?” His scepticism was simply delicious.

For that, he earned a smile. “Librarian.” I'd ended up despising my job, except for the part where I got to interact with the kids, but he didn't need to know that.

“So you don't have any skills with surviving in the wilderness,” he concluded. The other elves let out “ooooohs” in support for their leader.

I, however, was unfazed. It was the truth, after all, with modifications. However, I was happy to remind him of the lack of relevance. “Some basics only. Is that what you need against the demons?” I tilted my head to the side and flashed him another smile. An awkward silence settled. Then a thought struck me. “Would poison affect them?” I looked at each elf in turn.

“It does.” Elf Chick was the one to break the silence. “I brought some for that purpose.”

I could like her. “I stand slightly corrected.” I shot Grumpy Face a grin and was rewarded with a frown. He really lived up to his nickname.

“We head out once the rain has let up,” he informed me, even though I had figured as much already. He then turned to Elf Chick. “Fenla, you will take Himsulem, Misuin and Tamlen with you to secure the perimeter.” I saw him point at Interruption Guy and Elf Two, but when the last one he pointed at was Snarly, then that was one snort I had to fight back.

Don't touch the mirror, Tamlen! came the unbidden thought and I had to cough hard to cover up my laugh. I felt concern from Blue, like a light prickling in my mind, and I had to fight long and hard to get the mental image of Warden Mahariel and his childhood friend out of my mind.

Then it struck me. Grumpy Face was the spitting image of the male Dalish Warden in the concept art and here he was with Tamlen. No, it couldn't be them. Not at the same time as the Fade Rift. Unless they had been reincarnated? How long did it take between each time? Eighty years? Well, it had been only ten since the end of the fifth Blight, I knew that much. Maybe the rules were different for elves? Did Thedas even operate with reincarnation as a concept? Then again, no-one seemed to know what happened to you after you died here, though the Chantry might claim otherwise.

That made me feel more than a little ill at ease. What would happen to me if I died in this world?

Hecate is still with you,” Blue reminded me and it had probably sent some healing magic into my mind because I felt better almost immediately. “She will always be with you.”

Mahariel turned back to me just as my emotions stabilised themselves. “You will come with me, Mihren and Sileal. We will take point.”

I blinked, but before I could ask what “take point” meant, my stomach reminded me that it had been well over twelve hours since the last time I ate, and loud enough for everyone to hear. An awkward silence settled. Mahariel looked quite unimpressed, and my innocent smile did nothing to warm him up to me.

“Here.” Elf Chick was by my side about half a minute later, crouched, and handed over what seemed to be some kind of dried meat wrapped up in leaves. Jerky? I looked at her, feeling more than a bit surprised.

“Are you sure?” I asked, even though my hand was already reaching for it. “Don't you need-”

“Just take it before I change my mind,” she snapped and I obeyed, picking out a piece that seemed neither too small nor too large. I was pleased to see that there was more than enough left in the leaf. “That won't fill you.” She then picked out another piece and placed it in my hand before I could object. Then she stood up and returned to her previous spot, seemingly content to ignore me.

“Make sure you're ready when it stops raining,” Grumpy Face barked at me before he gave my slippers a sidelong glance. Following his gaze, I saw a sad pile of muddy fluff on my feet. There was probably no salvaging those. Would they even help me keep up with the elves?

Don't worry, I will help you once the rain is over,” Blue informed me and I felt personally blessed. For a spirit to go so far for a mortal as Blue had was unusual in the least. Not that I was ungrateful, quite the contrary, but wasn't there other things it should do, places to be, offerings to pick up?

No,” Blue informed me almost immediately. “You're the hero that saved my world from a tyrant. There's nowhere else I'd rather be.” I took it she meant the evil elf. That had been self-defence, though, but if nothing else it was a good confirmation that my efforts actually had their effect. Invisibly back on Earth, but still.

Come to think about it, I hadn't really had the best experiences with elves, spiritual beings or fleshy ones – not that Earth had a great deal to offer of the latter. Yet here I was with a group of Dalish. Fate, it seemed, had a twisted sense of humour.

My stomach growled again and I bit down on the jerky, if nothing else than to distract myself. It was tough, but well seasoned, almost a bit too salty. Protein was protein, however, and there was no guarantee that these human-hating racists would be willing to help me out beyond our immediate need to defeat the demons, so I didn't stop until I'd eaten all of it.

I probably should have saved some for later, I realised as I swallowed the last bit, but I'd been too hungry to care. Despite the overwhelming sensation of post-apocalyptic danger from my surroundings, coupled with blatant distrust towards my current allies, I felt strangely hopeful about the future. Seeing as my intuition had yet to steer me wrong, I decided to trust it and worry about food later. So long as my other basic body functions didn't kick in until after the demons had been exorcised, I should be fine.

Naturally, at that moment, my bladder was happy to inform me how futile that hope was. Wonderful. It was a good thing I was accustomed to peeing outdoors from camping trips in my childhood.

Having temporarily forgotten about the paranoia of my “allies” in my haste to relieve myself, I got up in one, swift motion, determined to find a secluded spot and hopefully not use the wrong leaves to wipe myself with. Needless to say, seven elves sprung into action before I could even straighten my knees, their arrows trained on me in less than a second, though a whole second for Interruption Guy. He was the newbie, then.

“Where do you think you're going?” Grumpy Face demanded more than asked.

Knowing me, I probably had the wide-eyed look of a frightened deer, and I didn't bother to correct my expression as I went straight for the blunt, honest approach. “I have to pee.” Even my voice sounded borderline child-like.

The awkward silence that followed was so tangible it could be cut with a chef's knife. Interruption Guy cleared his throat and Snarly seemed to have found the ground to be terribly interesting. Grumpy Face looked even grumpier than usual and elves one, two and three exchanged glances.

Elf Chick was the only one that didn't seem bothered by my admission. “You won't be able to pick the right leaves under these conditions. It's too dark.” She was a mum, alright.

I moved my hand slowly so as to not encourage any arrows flying, until my index finger pointed at Blue. Then I shot Elf Chick a grin. “I've got help.”

As if to further accentuate this point, Blue shone even brighter. This highlighted everyone's expressions better and Grumpy Face turned out to look more embarrassed than grumpy. Well, he had asked, hadn't he? With a weapon pointed at me, even! Served him right! He had the decency to finally lower his bow, though, and the others followed suit.

“Do you even know which leaves to use?” Snarly's condescension was obvious.

I shot him a wink. “I'll see if I can find a maple tree somewhere.” I was still a witch, after all, even if I wasn't as devoted to nature as some.

Plus, wiping away that smug look on Snarly's face had been totally worth it.

As the silence continued, I decided to break it with a friendly smile. “I take it I'm free to relieve myself without the added concern of becoming a pin cushion?”

Grumpy Face didn't meet my gaze as he replied. “Do what you must.” The other elves settled back down.

It was tempting to poke further fun at him, but that would be to push my luck. I slipped off among the trees until I found the leaves I needed on a tree that wasn't too badly burnt. Then I paused as I realised I had an observer with me.

Blue, of course, had read my mind. “I need to protect you and light your way. I can't leave. Don't worry, though, I don't know what it's like so I won't embarrass you.”

What if Snarly or one of the other elves decides to keep a 'close watch'?” I countered.

Would that embarrass you?” Blue asked. I sent her an affirmative answer. “I'll make sure they don't see anything.” Before I could ask, there was a sudden sense of distortion all around me. Things looked the same afterwards, though, and I thought no more of it as I found a place and sat down.

Once I'd finished my business and cleaned my hands in the rainwater, I noticed the skies were finally letting up. I had to hurry back to the others so we could get started on kicking demon ass, but I doubted my slippers would be of much use there. The ground was simply too damn slippery for me to run on.

Slippers... slippery. Oh, English, what a silly language you were at times!

Before I could figure out how to move quickly through the woodsy undergrowth, however, I was hoisted up in the air by a very helpful Blue. It then flew me right back to where the seven elves awaited me.

I sensed the beginning of a fairy tale in my mind, titled “The Shem and the Seven Elves”. It made me giggle.

You should write it,” Blue encouraged, but with what neither of us knew. I doubted paper was easily accessible, and I didn't know enough about Thedas to know whether or not they had invented book printing. Even if they had, would they permit a woman to use the technique, let alone publish a book? It seemed unlikely.

I was in a dark corner as I descended into the middle of the clearing. To my surprise, no arrows were pointed at me, nor was I chastised for being late. In fact, it didn't seem like the elves had noticed me at all. That was odd. Had Blue made me invisible?

Oh, I forgot to undo that,” it informed me, but before any new distortion in the shield could take place, and while I was pondering on just how cool Blue was, a large shadow covered the moons that shone down on us. Out of seemingly nowhere came a large, hulking demon, crashing through the treetops with impunity. The elves managed to jump out of the way in time and Blue flew me to safety even faster, but not before I got a good look at the thing.

It was easily the size of a monster truck, with scales on its legs that resembled the pieces of full plate armour. The twisted claws of the creature moved up into sinewy skin that branched out and away from the arm, with sharp pointers embedded with thorns. Its horns pointed up to the sky and its shoulders, back and upper arms were covered in sharp edges. Even Blue shivered in fear, and I knew from way too many computer gaming hours exactly what sin this demon represented.

Pride.

While the sight of the other demons had been unnerving, this had my stomach do violent back flips. I hoped and prayed that I was still invisible, because one strike of this fiend's mana wave and I was out of commission. Not to mention pride demons were the most difficult to defeat on a personal level, too. I had no idea if the thing wouldn't try to possess me, and the very thought of that terrified me to the core. Hell, the demon could even corrupt Blue if it tried, and then we would really be screwed!

In that moment, all I wanted was to run away.

And why not? I was lost and alone, I didn't owe these hateful elves anything and fighting the demons had been Blue's idea, not mine. Besides, I took a huge risk with that exorcism spell, and I no doubt needed Hecate's help to deal with a pride demon. No way was I putting my life on the line like that again, especially not for a bunch of strangers and racists.

Blue objected hotly, though even its voice, as I heard it in my head, trembled with fear. I began to turn my back on the elves as they were tossed around by the demon, ready to leave and never come back. Then I saw Elf Chick fly through the air and hit a tree, hard. She crashed into a branch, rolled off of it and fell down hard until she finally hit the forest floor. She didn't get back up again.

It wasn't that she'd been particularly kind to me or that we'd become best female friends of the year. In fact, I knew she feared me the most out of the seven down there. No, there was something else nagging at the back of my mind, a reminder that pierced through the haze of fear and slapped me in the face. Hard.

She was a mother.

I had quite a soft spot for kids, despite how I didn't want any. Their commentaries were comedy gold and their honesty such a refreshing change from pretentious adults. Even babies and toddlers had it in them to pull the most hilarious stunts. They were a special kind of entertainment for eccentrics such as myself. Elf Chick, I remembered, had little smart mouths at home, waiting for her. Waiting for their kick-ass mum to come home with confirmation of demonic defeat.

They might as well be orphans now, all because I'd been a coward. That hit me hard, especially with my own recent loss of family.

Moral relativists be damned, there was no excuse for that kind of cowardice! Blue agreed wholeheartedly.

An unholy shriek sounded in my mind that didn't come from Blue, however, and the spirit let out a high-pitched cussing sound before the shield around me grew considerably stronger. Just in time, as a demon I'd never seen the type of before materialised out of nothing and came lashing out at us. As before, the shield protected us both, but there was something about this creature's arrival, and Blue's behaviour, that set off alarm bells in my mind.

Had we fallen prey to this thing?

Before I could cast my exorcism spell, however, the thing winked back out of existence. I was momentarily caught off guard until it reappeared, tried to strike me, and then disappeared again. Looking down, I saw the pride demon, but Elf Chick was still up and about, planting poisonous arrows into her foe. In fact, almost all seven elves were still fighting, except Interruption Guy who was off to the side, a piece of cloth pressed against his leg. The cloth, I noticed, had already taken on a dark red colour. So the sight of Elf Chick going down had been an illusion, then, a trick of the mind.

The pride demon wasn't working alone. No doubt this had been its plan all along, to separate us and startle me and Blue with its presence so the other demon could affect and weaken us. Well, two could play the game of improvisation!

No doubt the other demon had something to do with fear. I closed my eyes and envisioned the creature I'd seen – having a photographic memory really came in handy at times like these – and called upon Hecate Kleidouchos and Arkyia. These epithets were that of the key-bearer, the one who had control over door- and entryways, and the entrapper. I asked them to seal the fear demon's movements and trap it in one world, namely the one where I was. Next I envisioned its limbs tied behind its back with magical spider web before it was tossed back into the world of mortals. As I opened my eyes, I saw that this had literally been the case.

This was why I loved Hecate so much. No-one delighted in the dark justice she meted out to the evil and corrupt the way she did. I watched the demon fall to the ground, a loud crash against the forest floor that announced its arrival. It whined pitifully as Elf One started peppering it with arrows.

I would have to go all in with my exorcism spell if I was to defeat both demons, however. That meant calling upon the three epithets of Hecate the way I had the first time. My heart was already in my throat from the first spell, and there was an elf down there that needed healing. I asked Blue to bring me to him first, and it did, taking me the long way around the fiend.

Snarly went crashing into a group of bushes, but managed to get back out again not long after. He didn't look too worse for the wear. Mahariel took a hit to the shoulder that had him stagger, but he didn't fall down. Blood trickled forth from underneath his armour, however, and he appeared to have some trouble moving his arm. He used his good hand to draw a double-edged sword from the scabbard on his hip, all the while glaring at the demon.

Grumpy Face was quite the badass, I'd give him that.

Blue undid the invisibility just as the pride demon turned away from us, and I immediately placed my hand over Interruption Guy's. His eyes were wide as saucers with surprise, but he saw the finger I had pressed against my lips and stayed quiet about my presence. I set about casting my healing spell on him, my hand lighting up with bright, white energy. It mixed in with blue energy, suggesting that a certain spirit had decided to help out. I even felt my own exhaustion wear away.

This time it was my turn to approve of Blue.

I jumped back and Blue immediately re-activated the invisibility as the fiend turned its attention towards Interruption Guy. To his credit, he faked a pained groan and the demon turned its attention back towards the other elves, deeming them the greater threat. Interruption Guy was up on his feet in no time and fired arrows at the fiend.

It had bought me just the time I needed to get into the casting of my spell. My palms grew searing hot with white light, roaring fire and ghostly green. I felt the distortion in the shield again, a telltale sign that the invisibility was gone. The fear demon screeched, twisting to look up at its master, no doubt to warn it, but it was already too late. I moved my numbed hands and held them up towards the fiends, palms facing them. Then there was the bright flash like before and everything went dark.

 


 

I didn't find myself in a black sea this time. Instead my bare feet pressed against gravel and all around me were black skies. Even the ground surrounding the gravel was black. I noticed the path I was on was actually a crossroad, upon which stood a sign that pointed in three different directions. Was this a way of telling me I had the choice to die or live again?

The tiny rocks didn't hurt the soles of my feet. If anything, it felt really soft, almost fluffy. Like my ruined slippers, or soon-to-be.

I'd probably defeated the demons. Ordinarily I would have felt awfully cocky about that sort of thing, but here, in this place, my emotions were in a peculiar state of equilibrium. The elves probably needed my help to defeat the remaining demons. There was no way they could handle that stuff on their own. That was my thought, yet I felt no urgency to return. Then I thought of all that I could learn in such a place, of spreading the practice of witchcraft to Thedas. I could teach my exorcist spells to mages and then we could really take the battle to the demons.

Yet I felt no compulsion to go back to life.

Suddenly, before me, stood the pride demon. It let out a frustrated gnarl that sounded an awful lot like the start of a loud machine engine, but it neither approached nor used any of its powers to attack. All manner of horrific events flashed before my mind's eye, including memories from near-death experiences that I'd had as a child. Yet, I felt nothing. The demon stared me down, yet I felt neither fear nor compassion.

“So a power like this exists now,” it remarked with its deep, unearthly voice, “as do places like these.” It cocked its head slightly to the side. “It appears I've been defeated. You and your friends need not fear me any longer. What you've brought with you into this world, however, that's another story, and there's no telling what untold suffering will come from it.”

It was good at pretending to sound wise. More often than not, I found, the line between fear and wisdom were easily blurred. Perhaps there was even some truth to its words. Hecate had many epithets that were less than flattering and I, too, often felt the tempting pull towards dark justice. I saw the fiend take one step closer.

However, the manipulations that lay behind its apparent wisdom were all too obvious. I'd seen it before, in many a political activist, commentator or even outright politicians. It was all about power over others. What tiny bit of emotional reaction the creature had sparked in me died down and my emotional neutrality returned. The demon took an involuntary step back. It then tried to flatter me on my wisdom, but I remained unaffected.

Finally it began to disintegrate into tiny flecks of black, slowly but surely uncovering its armoured hide like a jigsaw puzzle. At one point I spotted the tiniest flicker of white light, growing stronger and brighter as the demon itself withered away. As if it was just a shell. Then, in the core of it, slowly losing its corruption, was the spirit it had once been.

Exorcism didn't actually destroy demons, I then realised. The spell purified and restored them to their true form. It was perhaps the most precious thing I'd ever seen. So quiet and simple, not like the roaring destruction it had looked like back on Thedas, yet so powerful. My eyes grew wet and a tear travelled down my cheek as I marvelled at how beautiful white magic was. For a moment I felt a selfish desire to stay in this place forever, watching demons transform back into spirits, one after the other, until all was right with the cosmos again.

That selfishness, however, flung me right back into the world of the living.

 


 

Shem!” It was, of course, the voice of Bioware Concept Art Guy. Blue chittered in a really angry tone, though it didn't sound like it was directed at me. “I can't understand you, spirit. If you have another method for communication, then feel free to use it.”

That really set Blue off. The tirade was so long you'd think it was the soul of an angry, old geezer from Hammerfest.

I chanced a peek and saw the blue ball bounce up and down in the air and shake quite vigorously as it chastised Mahariel. The poor elf – for I did sympathise with him a little, much to my own surprise – wore a highly exasperated look on his face.

“I hope I'm not interrupting you two lovebirds,” I cut in and shot them a smirk as I sat up. Blue's tirade immediately stopped and a strange look of... relief... came to Grumpy Face's, well, face. The elemental then flew straight towards me, chittering in a much happier tone as it settled itself in its familiar spot under my chin. Its chattiness then took a break as it simply rested against me. I looked around and saw the other elves were in different stages of injury, but alive. “Do you need healing? I'm sure Blue and me can help you.” It seemed my time in the crossroad had left me feeling at peace in a way that I ordinarily achieved only after a purification ritual.

They all looked rather taken aback by my sudden offer of kindness, though as I looked around, I saw I was sitting on a cloak. Elf Chick's, to be specific, a conclusion I drew as I saw she was the only one who didn't wear one. That act of kindness caught me off guard.

“We can manage,” Mahariel replied after sweeping his gaze over his fellow elves. Despite his blood loss, Interruption Guy didn't look unnaturally pale. Healing magic on Thedas sure was something else. Concept Art Guy still looked to be bleeding, though. “I understand you healed Himsulem's wound and stopped his bleeding.” There was a slight hesitation. “Thank you.”

“We did, yes,” I replied and indicated Blue. It was strangely quiet, almost as if it was resting. I stood as carefully as I could so as to not disturb it and picked up Elf Chick's cloak. Then I held it up for her to take.

"I understand you lent me your cloak,” I said, mimicking Grumpy Face's words. “Thank you.” I flashed her a smile.

She took it, all the while giving me a surprised look. “We decided it would be for the best. Your spirit friend insisted we not leave you.”

“To be honest, we didn't expect you to get back up again,” Concept Art Guy went on. “Is this something that happens every time you cast this spell?”

I shrugged. “This is only the second time I've cast it. According to Blue, there's a lesser version of the spell that I can use on weaker demons. It won't send me knocking on death's door like this one does.” I grew quiet for a bit before I added. “I only cast the powerful version because of the pride demon.”

Mahariel put on his signature frown. “You put your life at risk for no reward.”

I shrugged. “It was the right thing to do.” It had bothered me greatly that I'd very nearly given in to fear and abandoned them. For all their racism, they didn't deserve to be left to the mercy of a pride demon and its fear demon puppet.

This time, Grumpy Face's eyebrows took a lot longer to come back down again. “I saw the fire as it mixed with the light and ghostly energy, yet it didn't harm any of us. Why is that?”

To be honest, I didn't have a clue, so I took a wild guess. “Exorcism is designed to harm demons. That's probably why.”

One eyebrow shot up to the middle of his forehead this time. “'Probably'? You mean you don't know?” There was only concern in his eyes and voice, however, no mockery.

“The physical manifestation of my spell is as new to me as my magic is to you,” I explained. “Back where I come from, it doesn't...” I trailed off. “Back where I... came from...” Despite the beautiful tranquillity left behind by my visit to the crossroad, I couldn't bring myself to finish that sentence. Images of the beautiful Earth and my loved ones swam before my mind's eye and stabbed me in my abdomen, a pain that flared up and spread like wildfire to my heart. Damn it! I did my best to fight back the tears, but it was a losing battle. In foolish pride I turned away from the elves and made to find some secluded spot where I could bawl like an idiot, temporarily forgetting about the danger this posed.

Blue reminded me, however, and flew up to the top of my head where it could pour its healing energy into me. It soothed the pain and calmed my nerves, effectively stopping the flow of tears before I was reduced to a sobbing mess. I still hid my face in my hand, taking deep breaths to steady myself. At some point I'd probably have to cry all my tears out and slowly work my way through a mourning period, but this wasn't the time for that. Survival was my number one priority. The demons threatened that, no matter where I went. The rift had to be sealed.

“I'm sure we can discuss your unusual magic some other time,” Mahariel concluded. “I trust you're up for fighting more demons?”

I felt nothing but gratitude to this grumpy elf. So much so that I telepathically asked Blue to rain healing magic on them all, which it happily did. It flew up above us and trembled a bit before blue snow fell on all of us. I closed my eyes and smiled, relishing in the feeling of its healing properties. Surprised murmurs and whispers could be heard from the surrounding elves, but no complaints. When Blue finally returned to my head, I opened my eyes and shot Grumpy Face nothing but sincere determination. “I'm ready when you are...” I hesitated and scoured my brain for the information I needed, “...Aenor?”

Shocked silence followed. “That's correct,” Aenor confirmed, his expression neutral, not giving anything away. “What's your name?”

“Alva.” Then I grinned. “Alright, one name-” I cut myself short and looked past Aenor to Snarly, “correction, two, Tamlen!” His eyebrows did a funny wobble and for a moment it looked as if he was caught somewhere between surprised and unhappy. “Two names down, five more to go.” I turned my attention back to Aenor.

To my surprise, he flashed me his first real smile. “It seems the night is full of surprises yet.”

“Indeed,” I agreed. “Now, if it's not too much trouble, let's go defeat some demons, yes?” I cocked my head to the side and looked at each of them in turn.

While only Aenor smiled, and a half-smile at that, there was plenty of determination to go around. Atop my head, Blue chittered eagerly.

Chapter Text

“Take point” turned out to be the same as going straight into the fray. Blue had made some excited noises, but I was more than a little apprehensive. While I knew useful spells, I still had no military training or experience. I could improvise, and Blue was a very powerful elemental, but even that had its limits. When and where to cast my spells was just as important as being able to cast them, if not more so. The victory earlier had been more luck, Blue and Hecate than anything else.

It was encouraging that my spell didn't harm my allies, though.

I couldn't help but wonder where their Keeper and other mages were. Surely they should be with the hunters to fight the demons? Unless this was the reconnaissance team and the mages were tailing behind us. That made sense, although they could have helped us fight the pride demon.

Aenor, Elf One and Three avoided taking to the trees, probably because the branches were wet and slippery. Not that the ground was much better, but we'd taken to a slow pace, most likely so nobody fell and I could keep up. They could move a bit faster, though. Blue had dimmed its light to the point where I nearly didn't see anything. If it hadn't been for the light of the moons I would have been walking blind.

The elves moved, crouched, with their legs wide apart, each step made with their toes first, heel last. I decided to copy that and found I moved as quietly as a mouse.

Achievement unlocked: Stealth. With pink slippers.

Even as I grinned at this newly learned skill, I was acutely aware of how real everything was. Elves and demons I'd already believed in the existence of, but to actually see them up close, to interact with one and combat the other, was an experience both thrilling and terrifying. It made my stomach all aflutter with excitement and filled my head with trepidation. An undeniable sense of wonder overcame even that, however. The universe was incredibly vast and diverse, and the part of my brain that loved to figure out secrets was all abuzz with curiosity. I simply had to know how all of this had been possible.

Most notably, however, as far as my continued survival was concerned, was that unlike in the game setting, I couldn't simply save and reload if things didn't go as planned. One misspoken word, one misplaced spell, one slip-up of my thoughts and I might as well face exile, death or possession.

The last part, especially, gave me a whole new level of appreciation for Thedas' mages.

I bumped into Elf One's back just as he and the other two drew up short, and hit my face against his leather. While I resisted the urge to make a sound, I still shot the elf's back a glare as I rubbed my nose. They could have given me some kind of warning!

Aenor gave some kind of hand signal that I couldn't interpret to save my life, and then Elves One and Three moved to crouch on either side of him. Before I could move, he looked back and beckoned me forward with his hand. I couldn't see his face under these conditions, but I got a sense of grave urgency from them, which suggested pink-slipper-stealth daydreams would have to go on a break.

Moving as quietly as I could, which made my pace extremely slow, I eventually managed to peek out between Aenor's shoulder and Elf Three's bow. Not that I could see much in the underbrush, and it got worse when a large, dark cloud covered the moons.

That was most inconvenient.

I had glimpsed something akin to a clearing, however, but it had looked empty. While I couldn't see anything, I felt expectations placed on me. That left me puzzled. Did they want me to chase away clouds now?

The clearing is concealed by an illusion,” Blue informed me, finally communicating with me after a lengthy period of silence. “The elves wish for you to dispel it.”

A thousand thoughts raced through my mind at once, predominantly the list of items I was going to need for a dispelling spell. Agrimony – no, that was for reversing spells - angelica. But that had to be added to a bath in order to remove curses, hexes or spells. Burnet was good for general counter-magic. Carnation would strengthen it and cayenne would speed up the process. Centaury would also help. There was one problem, however.

Where on earth was I supposed to get a hold of them, let alone find the time to make the mixture? They'd have to be dried first, and then ground together into fine powder. Unless the elves just happened to have these herbs on them, finely pounded, then we were out of luck.

Blue huffed and I felt as if it was rolling its eyes at me – if it had had eyes, that was. “It doesn't have to be that complicated. Just envision black energy and send it into the clearing ahead of you, then speak your incantation.” That made sense. Correspondence-wise, black neutralised magic. Why hadn't I thought of that?

I closed my eyes and held my hands up towards the clearing. Envisioning the energy came easily to me, as always, and I filled it with the will to dispel the magic before me.

“Spell that deceives,” I began, whispering the incantation as I was afraid to draw unwanted attention our way, “spell that lies. Leave this place, return to the skies.” I envisioned the black energy turning into a powerful wind that blew away the illusion. “Begone now, disperse. I put this work in full reverse.”

There were no sounds around me, so I opened my eyes. How had it gone? The large, black cloud finally moved away so the light of two moons could shine down upon whatever stood before us.

My question as to where the Dalish mages were was answered, at least. Well, one of them, anyway. It did nothing to raise my spirits, however. In the clearing was said mage, on his knees and his gaze locked to the heavens. His mouth was wide open, though he didn't speak nor was he in the process of casting spells. While his arms seemed to function just fine, they hung limply on his sides. The craning of his neck looked like it was going to cause a strain for him, but he looked completely unable to move.

Behind him, perfectly manicured, long-nailed hands on either side of the elf's face, swishing tail behind her, ram horns on her head, purple skin and pink fire for hair, was a desire demon. Her black-sclera, purple-iris eyes weren't on her prey, however. Rather, they were fixated directly on me, with no small amount of irritation on her physically beautiful face.

Shit!

Blue lit up like a lantern and pulled me back as the demon abandoned the mage to advance on me. The elves fired their arrows immediately, hitting her in the shoulder and legs despite how fast she moved, and she did so hovering. She let out a scream, however, an unnatural howl that pierced through even Blue's shield. Unspeakable agony shook my brain and left my body numb. There was a moment's darkness and the next thing I knew the demon chased me, with Blue keeping me just out of reach of both claws and spells. From the sound of it, it seemed the elemental was... taunting it? No doubt Blue was very alien to it.

I looked down and saw that Elf Three lay very still, a pool of blood beneath his head. Damn! Aenor chased after the desire demon from below, firing arrows at her whenever he could, while Elf One was busy trying to shake some sense into their mage. I could dispel the magic that held him, but I had to get rid of the demon first.

As if she'd picked up on that, the demon raised a hand at me and uttered an incantation of her own. My entire form grew numb with a piercing cold that put even a Siberian wind in winter to shame. Pain shot through my body, mind and even heart and for a moment I genuinely feared for my life. I tried to move, but found I'd been frozen solid.

Black fire came down at me from Blue and melted the frost with the efficacy of a roaring fire. I felt a moment's relief before I plummeted to the ground.

I screamed, for we were nearly at the treetops. Blue squeaked and flew at me as fast as it could while the demon let out a wicked laugh before doing the same. Whoever reached me first would basically decide my fate. Not that I couldn't help Blue out, of course, and I set to work casting my exorcism spell in the air.

A painful and all too sudden impact with a large tree branch tore the energy from my hands, cut my chant short and sent shocks of pain through my already damaged body. Blue squeaked even louder, but its speed was the same as the fiend. My body rolled off the branch to mercilessly fall towards another. I had yet to accomplish flying through earthling witchcraft – shame on me for not living up to the stereotype – although I raised my arms in a pitiful attempt to shield myself from the next impact. They managed to get all the way to my hips before the pain made them impossible to move. Not that it mattered as I managed to roll around on my back again right before impact. If this didn't kill me, I would surely be in a great deal of pain.

As if taken straight out of a fairy tale, I was suddenly caught by strong, male arms only seconds before I hit the next branch. I looked up to see Aenor, carrying me bridal style as he moved as elegantly as Legolas from one branch to the next until we were finally on the forest floor. The pain combined with all that jumping around made me nauseous, however, despite how numerous Mahariel Concept Art Guy fangirls and -boys would probably have killed to be in a similar situation. He placed me gently on the ground, I'd give him that, and I looked up to see Blue engage the demon while chittering what sounded like a lengthy string of foul expletives.

It caused a laugh to escape my lips, which in turn brought about pained spasms all over my body. Ouch, okay, no laughing until I'd healed myself. A cough came before I could stop myself, however, and liquid that had the consistency of spit came pooling out of my mouth. Judging from the deep-seated concern on Aenor's face, however, it was probably something else.

“Are you able to heal yourself?” he asked and I moved my arms as far as they allowed me until they rested against my body. In this case, my thighs was the limit. Then I set to work casting the same spell that I had in the Fade.

The bright light surrounded me in the exact same way as before, eased my pain and healed the damage. It also warmed me where the demon's frost spell had nearly given me hypothermia, all the way down to my toes and fingertips. Another one of the fiend's screams sounded at that, but I was too far away to be affected, as were the remaining elves. Once the healing session was over, I got back up. While my legs trembled a bit, I felt I still had the strength left for one more spell.

This time I didn't even have to call on Hecate.

Blue seemed to have heard my plan and came flying at top speed, the demon right behind it. I cast my spell for the third time that night, bright light flashing and then the fiend was no more. My legs gave out beneath me, however, and I collapsed. Aenor caught me before I could plant my face in the grass, however. Blue squealed in approval.

Again I felt my heart in my throat, but this time nausea followed. As grateful as I was to the elf for catching me, having his arm press against my abdomen didn't do me any favours. Blue settled back in on top of my head, but it would take a while for me to regain my strength.

“I... need to... lie down,” I managed to say and to my continued surprise, Aenor not only complied, but even helped lower me to the ground. Our eyes met for the briefest of moments, but I managed to see, thanks to Blue's light, a warmth in them that hadn't been there before. It softened his otherwise stern face, but without removing the seriousness of the situation we were in.

It also made him dangerously handsome. Suddenly I wondered if my rapid heartbeat was due to exertion after all.

If it wasn't, however, then I was in trouble. I had a long history of falling for guys that didn't return my feelings. Knowing my luck, this would probably follow down that path as well.

Stupid, sexy Mahariel.

You're also fey-loved,” Blue reminded me, a condition that had struck me some years ago. I'd found myself utterly incapable of feeling physical attraction towards the men around me, no matter how handsome. Not even my stud-muffin of a personal trainer could stir my ovaries. For a time I'd worried I'd dried up down there. “You will never feel romantic love or attraction to human males because you know the love of an elf.”

...know?” My mind froze as I considered the implications of that word being in present tense. “You mean he's still alive? He didn't die when Earth was destroyed?”

Silence followed. “It's complicated.”

Of course it was. When had life ever been simple? Still, there seemed to be more to the story. Since I had the patience of any self-respecting Sagittarius – none at all – I immediately demanded an explanation.

We need to help the mage we saved,” Blue averted, but I merely made a mental note to ask again afterwards. It wouldn't be free of my prodding mind, not while it was directly connected to it. “I can always sever it.”

And wander off into the Fade to live there?” I countered. “With the demons and without me to exorcise them?”

There was a moment's silence. “He died when Earth was destroyed,” Blue confirmed, “but your coming to the Fade, and Thedas, allowed the gods and his spirit to... intervene.” While it didn't elaborate further, I'd read enough of the meddling ways of gods and spirits to put two and two together. Hecate, in particular, had been adamant for millennia that I reunite with my elf, and she held dominion over death.

For the first time since I'd woken up in the Fade to the infernal sound of my iPhone, I felt a tiny smidgen of hope. I had something to live for, not just basic survival. “Thank you, Blue.”

Don't thank me yet,” it shot back. “Your reunion won't happen easily. You removed your obstacles back on Earth, but there's a lot more of them in this world.”

Duly noted,” I replied, knowing better than to question the wisdom of a spirit of that power. “Now, then, about this mage...

The pain was completely gone and I could move freely again. No new wave of nausea hit me as I sat up. Aenor and Elf One looked at me expectantly. Blue informed me that we would do the dispelling together. Still, there was one component to this spell that no chant or herb could provide. Motivation. I stepped up to Aenor and met his gaze directly, trying my best to ignore the butterflies in my stomach as I did so. This would spell trouble for sure.

“Are either of you close to him?” I indicated the mage with my hand. Despite how the demon had been exorcised, he was in the position that she'd left him. “Friends? Lovers? Family?”

Aenor and Elf One exchanged looks before the latter one spoke up. “I'm his brother.”

I nodded. “We will need you to hold his hand and speak to him as we cast the spell. Demons control people through their weaknesses. Since he's given into his, it will take a reminder from someone close to him to find the strength to pull back out of it. Love is usually the key.”

Elf One looked hesitant. “That will require a lot of... personal talk.” Things he didn't want some outsider, let alone a shemlen, to know.

“Do as she says,” Aenor cut in sternly. “We don't have the time to get comfortable with her presence. Mihren is dead and if we wait any longer, then Belraj will surely perish. Remember what we promised the Keeper.”

Now that caught me by surprise. Aenor trusted me enough to discuss their clan leader around me? Not that I had any evil plans for that person, but I worried for Aenor and his clan if they came across someone who gave the same impression as me, but was considerably more sinister. Perhaps it was best I move on after we were done here.

You won't survive on your own,” Blue reminded me. “You need these people to help you.”

I've got you,” I argued.

Silence followed. I didn't like that lack of a response. There seemed to be a lot that the elemental wasn't telling me, despite being so supportive and loyal otherwise. No doubt its true loyalties lay with Hecate, and I didn't fault it for that. Hecate shared what information she believed I could handle, after all. What bothered me was the uncertainty around Blue's continued presence. It seemed to want to be around me, after all, and that Hecate had sent it to me for that particular purpose. Yet it might not last?

What strength I'd managed to find so far fled with the speed of a galloping horse and I felt myself plunge back into a dark world of doubt and growing despair. I hated the feeling of being alone and abandoned.

Alva!” Aenor's voice cut through my emotional haze and while I didn't feel any better, I was at the very least able to regain my focus. I tried not to think about how my name sounded when he spoke it.

“Sorry about that,” I said and looked to Elf One expectantly. He informed me, albeit with great reluctance, that he was ready.

Right, then. I stepped up to the mage, making sure he could see me, and then I urged his brother to stand next to me. He took the mage's hand and, upon my nod of encouragement, started speaking to him. Already there was a slight movement of the spellcaster's pinky finger. I set to work on my spell, focusing black energy into his mind, and spoke the words that would undo the demon's magic.

Blue poured its black energy into my spell and soon enough the mage was completely surrounded. Elf One kept talking to him, kept trying to reach him. For a while it looked as if it was all for naught, but Blue kept pouring its energy into him. Seeing as the spirit had yet to be wrong, I maintained my spell, banishing every last bit of the fiend's spell. Then it was all a matter of his brother getting through to him.

Aenor stepped forth and placed a hand on his hunter's shoulder. Then he leaned down and whispered something in his ear that I couldn't hear. Determination replaced Elf One's despair and he leaned in close to whisper something in his brother's ear. There was a sudden spasm all over the mage's body, almost violent, but he didn't lose his grip on his brother's hand. He bent forward next, retching as purple energy came out of his mouth. I immediately poured black energy into it with a dispelling chant on my lips, Blue backing me up, and it disintegrated into the air until there was nothing left. Then I shook my hands vigorously, deciding to get a hold of some white sage to purify myself with first chance I got. A sigh sounded next to me and I turned to see the mage cradled in Elf One's arms. He was breathing, though, and his brother made sure his head didn't loll back and cause his throat to constrict. The look of relief on Elf One's face brightened up an otherwise dreadful transported-to-another-world-to-fight-demons experience. I smiled, feeling only slightly warm after the casting as opposed to my previous workout-like experiences.

Did this mean I'd levelled up?

It still took a while for my fellow spellcaster to come through. Aenor stepped up to Elf Three's body while I stepped away from the brothers to give them some space. Elf Three's death bothered me more than I realised. I'd promised to help them, yet here one of the “seven elves” was dead already. That didn't bode well for the rest, especially with the depressing story-telling style Thedas had at times.

You did your best,” Blue reminded me with a gentle voice. “Considering what most humans are like, you've done even better than that. You have the heart of a hero.”

I scoffed at that. So-called “heroes” were either hot-headed fools that got themselves killed, virtue-signalling keyboard warriors or flagrant hypocrites who believed their ideology made them better than everyone else. So much better, in fact, that they believed they had a gods-given right to silence or even violently oppress opinions they didn't like.

I'd gouge out my own eyes before I ever became that kind of “hero”.

Images flooded my mind of social workers, nurses, doctors, soldiers and other people who devoted their whole lives to maintain the social structure upon which humanity benefited. The people in thankless jobs who often put their lives on the line for others. People who were universally vilified because of poor leadership decisions, failing systems and the occasional bad egg. Despite how obstacles were thrown in their paths, they kept going, constantly trying to do what was right. To save a life, a mind, a country.

One last image flashed before me, of the planet before its untimely end. “Or to save the world.”

The pain that struck me from the reminder aside, there seemed to be something in Blue's words that nagged away at the back of my mind. Did it mean to suggest the Earth was still around? No, it had definitely been destroyed, what I'd seen prior to waking up in the Fade had left no doubt of that. Gods and spirits may have survived, but humans – apart from me – had probably been wiped out. Not to mention the rest of the animal kingdom.

No, there was no going back. Blue had probably referred to climate scientists.

That made me wonder how the Earth's destruction must have looked from space. That, in turn, was an important reminder that not all of humanity had been wiped out. Not that I envied the astronauts the slow death that awaited them, though.

It was a gloomy corner I was in when Aenor interrupted my train of thoughts to remind me that we had to move on. Apparently Elf Mage was up and about now and ready to fight the demons with us. He gave me a worried look, however, before Aenor reassured him that I was there to help them.

“That's not my concern,” he clarified brusquely before fixing me with a frown. “It's your magic. It didn't come from the Beyond, yet I felt its effect as Sileal spoke to me. The demon, too, found it foreign.”

I shrugged. “I am foreign.” I didn't feel like going into a lengthy explanation of where I was from. Something about his voice and bearing bothered me, though I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Not to mention we didn't exactly have the time for lengthy tales. “Let that be to the demons' detriment as we drive them back into the Fade.”

“How many of you were taken?” Aenor asked Elf Mage directly, which told me why the Dalish mages weren't fighting alongside the hunters and brought us back to more pressing matters. He was quickly becoming my favourite elf.

“All three of us,” Elf Mage replied, although he sent me suspicious looks for every word he spoke. That was a bit overkill, wasn't it? I had just saved him from becoming a desire demon's dinner, after all. “The Keeper, her First and me.”

Only three mages in one clan? In Origins it was expressively stated that elves were more sensitive to magic than humans. I'd expected the Dalish to have more to show for. Did they keep the number low because of the templars? Chantry indoctrination about how dangerous all kinds of magic was? Trying to keep people safe?

Lot of good that did us now.

“So what's the plan to free them?” My gaze travelled from one elf to the next before finally settling on Aenor. He seemed like the In Charge kind of guy.

To my surprise, he looked to Elf Mage expectantly. The guy who'd fallen prey to a demon and had been in Desire fantasy land while Aenor had done his best with what was available to him. A difficult smart-ass of an earthling and a feisty spirit included in those calculations, even, and I alone was a challenge even on the best of days! His deference to this guy, for whatever reason, bothered me more than a little. He wasn't even the Keeper's First.

It didn't help that the guy's aura felt awfully icky. One of the joys of being a psychic – people could lie through their teeth and their energy would always give them away.

Be careful around him,” Blue informed me and I heard a slight tremor in its voice. “He's no longer controlled by a demon, but there's still something wrong with him.”

Paedophile?” I suggested half-jokingly. Now that I thought about it, he did look a bit like Agent Smith in the first Deadpool movie.

It's possible,” Blue replied and then there was a slight pause. I assumed my spirit friend was using its telepathic powers. It made me quite relieved that it didn't share its findings with me visually. “Yes, you're right.” Well, shit. Where were Deadpool and Cable when you needed them?

Any chance he can have an 'accident' while we fight the demons?” The fewer pedos in the world, the better. Was that why he kept glaring at me? Because I'd interrupted his favourite child molestation orgy dream?

#SorryNotSorry, you evil son of a bitch.

“We take the battle straight to the demons,” Pedo Mage decided as if someone had just died and put him in charge.

“You and what army?” I shot back snappily before I could re-consider the wisdom of my bluntness. Still, this guy was crazy if he thought a group as small as ours – smaller now that Elf Three had kicked the bucket – could defeat a horde of fiends.

Predictably, he shot me an ugly glare. Not that he was much of a looker to begin with. Suffice it to say the Deadpool Agent Smith vibe grew considerably stronger.

“Belraj, this is Alva,” Aenor spoke and literally stepped in between us. “Alva, this is Belraj.” Aka Pedo Mage. “Alva has helped us fight the demons with her unusual magic and Belraj is the Keeper's Second.”

My gaze turned to Aenor. “And you are a capable captain who strikes me as the one with the most military experience out of all of us here. What do you think we should do?”

What confidence I'd seen in this hunter before fled like darkness before the sun. He did avoid looking at Pedo Mage, to his credit, but he still remained silent for far too long. My earlier attraction fell off a cliff and died horribly in the darkness below. He had some serious growing up to do.

I fixed him squarely with my gaze, however, a no-nonsense one that demanded answers. If nothing else, such a direct challenge from a human should give a good kick into his elven pride and knock some sense back into him.

It worked. “I think we should free the Keeper and her First.” Aenor met my gaze, which he no doubt found the least intimidating. I resisted the urge to smile. “Once we have, we can re-group with the other hunters in the area and fight the demons back.”

“Can your mages help seal the rift?” I looked from Aenor to Pedo Mage, who seemed to have taken over the mantle of Grumpy Face. “With only three of you?” Not that the tear was that big. I hadn't played Inquisition, but I remembered seeing a picture of the Rift over Haven, and it had been a lot bigger than what Blue and me had escaped through.

“It's not that large,” Pedo Mage informed us. “We should manage.”

We needed the child molester alive, then. Sometimes I really hated Fate.

“What kind of spirit is that on your head?” he asked, his lips turning upwards into that creepy Agent Smith smile.

“The 'none of your business' kind,” I shot back dryly before turning to face Aenor, but not before seeing Pedo Mage's smile disappear. Blue approved greatly. “I'm ready when you are.”

His eyes were wide, no doubt due to my snappy response, but he recovered quickly. It seemed to be a talent of his, which was something I could appreciate. Aenor looked to Pedo Mage. “I will need you to scry for the location of the other two.”

It seemed he'd regained some backbone. Maybe he wasn't a hopeless case after all.

Pedo Mage offered us all a strained smile. “Of course.”

 


 

Freeing the Keeper's First took only a few minutes, yet it felt like an eternity. In his case it was also a desire demon, but with the combined efforts of the hunters, Pedo Mage and myself, we were able to exorcise it. The mage introduced himself as Halin, and Blue reported he was blessedly free of any sexual compulsions towards the under-aged. If anything, he preferred adult male elves, which caused me a small bit of heartbreak as he was quite the hottie. Good for male elves, though.

Halin also knew where the demons had taken the Keeper. He gave me one look-over before he asked where he could get slippers like mine, and then he followed Aenor's lead without complaint.

I took an immediate liking to him. A refreshing change from the Keeper's Number Two.

The reconnaissance team joined up with us as we neared the area where the Keeper was held – back-tracking, as it were, to the rift we'd left in our hunt for the other mages. A few more hunters came as well, but were sent off by Aenor before any of them could point their arrows at me. They'd spoken in their unique language – Elvhen, as I recalled – and the captain didn't seem eager to translate afterwards.

If I was to hazard a guess, then those new hunters were probably the new reconnaissance team. This meant we had more people to free the Keeper, probably because there were more demons around her.

It also explained the lack of fiendish ambushes. While the teams set out to secure the perimeter had no doubt done a great job, it was also likely that the guard around the Keeper had been doubled after her First and Second had been freed.

No doubt my exorcism spell and Blue's presence had rattled some fiendish nerves as well. I just hoped our efforts would be enough to win the day. To say I had butterflies fluttering in my stomach would be an understatement. It was more like a bunch of fat pigeons had an epic battle over breadcrumbs.

Yet I couldn't deny that I found this situation oddly exciting.

Dispelling the invisibility was easy enough, but fighting off the horde of demons was not. Elf One went down, which stung after the efforts Blue and I had put into saving his brother. A paedophile, but his brother nevertheless. Pedo Mage did send the demon screaming back to the Fade with a well-placed lightning bolt, but it was a bitter-tasting victory for more than one reason.

Blue's shield left me impervious to the demons' physical attacks and my spell caused them to disappear from the mortal world entirely before their spells could harm me. I had to cast it several times, however, and it left me feeling drained to the point where I collapsed on my knees.

Halin – I surprised myself by remembering his name – pressed a small vial into my hand. Looking at it, I saw it had a blue, shimmering liquid inside that seemed to contain small, bright spots of lights. Was that... lyrium?

He probably meant well, but that stuff was highly addictive. Not to mention, seeing as my magic came from me and not the Fade, drinking it was unlikely to have me regain any “mana”. I slipped it back inside his pocket while he was busy fighting a shade.

Blue helped me regain my strength and as I continued to cast my spell, the rows of demons started thinning out. The ones that had been sent back by the mages managed to crawl their way back out through the rift, but my spell did indeed look to be a more permanent solution. When only a few stragglers remained, Halin dispelled yet another illusion and the Keeper came into full view.

She wasn't held in place like Halin and Pedo Mage. No demon stood behind her to feed off of her energy and will. Demons surrounded her, but she didn't look to be in danger. If anything, her movements were slow and calm, almost comfortable in the way she regarded the creatures around her. As if she was surrounded by her oldest friends.

Halin and Pedo Mage both had voices filled with despair as they chorused. “She's possessed.” Then all eyes went to me.

“Please tell me your spell can de-possess the living,” Aenor practically begged.

There were way too many factors to take into account for me to give a definite answer. Demons were one thing – possessed people another. I'd have two wills to contend with rather than just one, for starters. Not only would I have to keep the demon at bay, but I'd have to be able to reach through to the Keeper as well. That wasn't something a stranger and a human like me was capable of. Pedo Mage hadn't been directly possessed – yet – hence why saving him had worked.

Not to mention possessions of this strength usually required a whole coven to successfully defeat. I was just one witch, and my magic was too unique to give a crash course to the other two mages. Pedo Mage, in particular, probably couldn't even do white magic with his twisted mindset towards children. Hecate would probably smite him down if he tried to call upon her. Not that he didn't deserve it, but at the moment we had an abomination of a Keeper to deal with and we needed all the help we could get.

Wicked laughter sounded from the Keeper and she focused her gaze on us. “It seems there's limits to even your strange magic, witch. Pray tell, what will you do now?” It wasn't attacking, probably some kind of pride demon enjoying this new stalemate. I had no doubt it would attack again, however.

Could Halin, Blue, Hecate and I pull it off together? I impatiently waited for the water elemental's response.

If you can get someone close enough to the Keeper to reach through to her,” it informed me. “But we must seal her movements and close the rift first.”

Can I help close it?” Seeing as the Keeper was unlikely to assist.

Yes, if you call upon Hecate Kleidouchos.” Of course, the keybearer and guardian of gateways. Why hadn't I thought of that?

I felt so helpless without Blue. Then again, I wasn't a disciplined practitioner, and much was forgotten without repetition.

Here in Thedas, however, I couldn't afford to be lazy.

“We can do this the easy way or the hard way,” I informed Aenor, Halin and Pedo Mage. He nodded, devoting me his full attention. “The easy way is to kill the Keeper.” All three of them frowned. “As for the hard way, we start by defeating the remaining demons. I can do that with my spell, while the rest of you find a way to restrain the Keeper. Then we seal the rift with Blue's help and set to work on the exorcism.”

“Exorcism?” Pedo Mage looked confused. “That silly Chantry stuff that never works?”

“I'm not with the Chantry,” I clarified. Nor would I ever be.

“We'll try it the hard way first,” Aenor cut in before we were distracted further. “What do you need?”

With a heavy load in my stomach did I list everything.

Chapter Text

It was my first up-close and personal meeting with a fireball, and I survived only thanks to Halin and Pedo Mage. Demon Keeper had apparently lost what patience she'd displayed earlier and had launched her first attack. A blue, shimmering shield had appeared before us, stretched wider than anything I'd seen in the game, between the two mages and effectively deflecting the flaming missile. It still exploded upon impact, but the flames dispersed to the sides, the skies or the ground where they attempted to set the grass on fire. At least until Blue dropped a bucket load of water on them and put them out.

One of the hunters was hit by a stray flame, however – Elf Chick, to be specific – and it roared to life as she screamed in pain and fell away. Blue dropped more of its magical water on her and the fire died down.

I would have to heal her later. At the moment, I had to get into the strategic position that would allow me to banish all the regular demons. Arrows rained at said fiends from hunters that darted back and forth between the trees. No doubt they did this to keep the demons in disarray and sabotage their attacks.

When Aenor left our trio behind to harass the demons on his side, however, I felt my heart leap into my throat. That guy was basically my ticket into Continued Survival Land, so if anything bad happened to him, I was as good as dead.

The best I could do to prevent that was to stick to the plan, however. Blue had been quite busy communicating it to me telepathically, but I still hadn't heard a word of how I would do my part.

In fact, with the demons centred around the Keeper and out of reach while she peppered their shield with one dangerous spell after another, it seemed like a task that was nigh on impossible. That spell wasn't going to last, either, even with two mages maintaining it. Was this really the extent of Aenor's plan?

Blue, we need to get closer to the demons.”

No can do, that's what they want. They have a trap set up for you.”

What am I supposed to do, then?”

Use the power you've dreamt so many times of using,” Blue suggested.

It took me a split second to remember. Telekinesis? Did Blue suggest I use it on my exorcism spell to move it closer to the demons?

While that sounded totally cool, it also required me to actually possess said power, which I didn't. So what was Blue's plan to fix that problem and turn me into Prue Halliwell?

It was within you the whole time,” the spirit informed me, undeterred, “but going through the Fade awakened it prematurely.”

As my mother and the scientific method had taught me, all claims had to be tested in order to be verified or dismissed, especially where the supernatural was concerned. Looking around, I spotted a small pebble and focused my mind on it, willing it to move. Naturally I expected it to lie still. Instead it jumped into the air and hit Pedo Mage in the ankle. The sight of it startled me out of my wits and I let out a loud breath before I could stop myself. To their credit, the pair in front of me didn't cease their spellcasting, although I had to bite my lower lip to prevent a snort from escaping. Excitement bubbled up inside like a witch's cauldron and mixed with a wave of unbridled curiosity.

I so had to try this out.

Blue had said to move my exorcism spell with my mind. That was going to be my test run. I wasn't sure what weighed the most – pebbles or ghostly, purifying witch fire – but I was about to find out. My hands lit up as I cast the spell and as I moved them together, the light blinding me completely, I then envisioned the demons and willed the fire to move towards them.

There was only the slightest bit of wait as the energy culminated into what I could only describe as a ghostly fireball and then it launched straight for the Keeper. A strong ricochet came from it, however, as if I'd fired a rifle. I fell backwards and landed hard on my butt, but not before my ball of exorcism exploded into pure, white light. The fiendish screams were fewer than I had expected, however, and when the light cleared I saw why. Around the Keeper and the demons closest to her was a shimmering, blue shield as well.

That was good news, however. It meant I'd forced her on the defensive. My arms were filled with a burning sensation reminiscent of an inflammation that not even Voltarol could fix, my ass was sore and I felt a headache growing. I got back up all the same. After all, my legs still worked. No excuses for remaining sitting, although the idea of casting another fireball from that position did tickle my funny bone.

As soon as I was up on my feet I took a deep breath and visualised healing energy all over my body. Blue added a bit as well, although it was considerably less than before. My arms and behind stopped aching and my head cleared nicely. To my surprise, I didn't feel as drained any more. Was I finally adjusting to Thedas' laws of magic or had I levelled up again?

I briefly wondered how many experience points I got per demon.

This time I set my feet firmly on the ground and called upon Hecate Chthonia to root them the way she had during the rain summoning spell. I briefly wondered if my body would get torn in half, but shook the notion aside and cast my ghostfire spell.

I managed to stay in one piece, but my back suffered severe trauma. For a brief moment I couldn't move a single muscle in my body, which was held aloft by the roots alone. Healing energy poured down from Blue. Over by the Keeper, the shield and demons were still intact, but I saw our own was down. Both Halin and Pedo Mage were in the throes of what looked, sounded and felt like the same spell – coven magic – and pointed their fingers at the Keeper.

Blue energy seeped out through her skin and her shield flickered twice. Finally able to move, I cast a healing spell on myself and dismissed the roots that held me. I then poured forth black, dispelling energy towards the Keeper, with Blue's helpful assistance. The lightning that flew from her fingertips, upon impact with my spell, dispersed into white-hot energy before disappearing entirely.

I was starting to get the hang of this.

Halin and Pedo Mage finished the same spell as before and once again blue energy oozed out of the Demon Keeper. Her shield flickered again and while an outline of it remained, it was cheese cloth thin.

“Cast it now!” the mages on either side of me shouted, though I was already in the middle of casting my exorcism fireball spell. Blue's shield grew wider until it encompassed all three of us and it remained in place even as I flew back and crashed into a tree.

“Ow,” I whined and felt very sorry for myself. In my defence, I had stabbing pain all over my back and I lay in a most uncomfortable position; I was propped up on the roots with my legs apart and my right arm squeezed underneath me at an awkward angle. The pain coming from my arm superseded the pain in my back by a stretch total that was not too dissimilar from the Siberian railway, however, suggesting that I'd been unfortunate enough to break it.

Very ow.

I tried to turn my neck to see what had become of the demons, but just trying to lift it caused an untold amount of pain to course through my body. Okay, I told myself, I would just lie still and wait for Blue to heal me.

No healing came, however. It was then I realised that Blue's shield was gone. No wonder it was dark.

Blue had temporarily abandoned me to protect Halin and Pedo Mage. The former I could forgive, the latter one not at all.

I could speak, at least, but I didn't dare cast a healing spell on myself. After all, what if I healed my arm in the wrong angle? Would I be stuck that way for the rest of my life?

At first I didn't hear the voice of the one who called out to me. A couple of re-tries later, however, and I not only registered the sound, but even recognised its source. “Alva!” It was Aenor's. He was still alive. My heart soared a bit higher than it should have, and that hurt my chest.

He was by my side before I could shout “over here!”, so I decided not to. I did decide to inform him where it hurt, however. “Everywhere hurts. My arm is probably broken.”

Aenor moved me so carefully it was as if I wasn't moved at all. Somehow I ended up on my back, however, and with only minimal pain. He worked quickly and had a wooden stick out in a surprising amount of time. “I'll set the arm,” he informed me. Blue still lit up a good part of the area, more specifically where the two mages were, but with Aenor's back facing them, I couldn't see his face.

“Did it work?” I asked and inwardly cried at the pain that was to come. Being turned over had afforded me a temporary glimpse in the direction of the demons, and only the Keeper looked to be left. That was something, at least.

“You exorcised all the demons except the one inside the Keeper,” Aenor informed me and then, after a slight hesitation, added, “well done.”

Had I just gained the Aenor stamp of approval? My chest hurt tremendously, as if it was stabbed repeatedly on the Orient Express and not even Poirot could save me, but my heart shone with a thousand suns.

I was in trouble.

He gave me a piece of cloth to bite down on before he began. I'd gone through painful procedures before, and it wasn't the first time I'd broken my right arm, but the actual resetting, last time, had happened with anaesthesia. If I didn't faint from the pain, it would be nothing short of a miracle. I was extremely afraid, but reminded myself that tensing up would only make it worse. Deep breaths, all the way down to my stomach – although that caused me some pain, too. Aenor lit up a pair of torches and put them on either side of him.

TWATWAFFLE, that hurt! It was just the first resetting, but I'd groaned into Aenor's handkerchief all the same. Groaned, though, not screamed. There was bragging rights in that, no?

The next resetting hurt more than my menstrual pains, at least back before I took Cerazette and basically stopped having them altogether. Good times. FIERY CUNTS AND SLOW BUS DRIVERS! Especially the bus drivers that drove slowly downhill for no reason and caused me to miss the train. They had a special place in Hell that awaited them. The third resetting made me cry. I hoped that wouldn't stress Aenor out and cause him to make a mistake. Deep breaths, I reminded myself. It would just have to hurt – that pain was inferior to the one in my arm anyway.

It seemed the third resetting was the last one as he set to work on wrapping my arm up in the makeshift bandage. I sobbed through it all, but once he was done and took his hankie out of my mouth, I took deep breaths – interrupted only a few times by pitiful sniffles – until I could utter the chant of my healing spell. Aenor even placed my hand on top of my stomach, and as gently as he could.

Yeah, he was definitely married with kids, knowing my luck.

As before, my entire body lit up with healing energy. Slowly but surely I got better, needing only one other casting of the spell before I could get up. My arm still hurt, though it was a lot better, and I flinched as it dropped into my lap. Aenor was by my side almost immediately and used some strips of cloth to make an improvised sling. His close proximity to my own didn't go unnoticed and his hands left tingling sensations wherever they touched.

This was going to end badly, I just knew it.

With my arm in a sling and the support of my good arm, I managed to get back up on my feet. As Aenor stepped aside and granted me full view, I saw Halin and Pedo Mage still standing, Blue hovering above them. The Keeper lay on the ground, Elf Chick behind her. There was no blood on the ground, so I assumed the latter had simply knocked out the former.

First part successful. Now it was time for the almost difficult part.

Blue returned to the top of my head and set to pouring its healing energy into my arm. I still hadn't forgiven it for protecting Pedo Mage, but other than that we were fine.

Change of plans,” Blue informed me before we could approach the unconscious Keeper. “We need to exorcise the demon first. It's too strong and dangerous and will disrupt our attempt to seal the rift, probably even kill us all, if we leave the exorcism for last.”

Shitbuckets. I told Aenor as quickly as I could, and he urged Halin and Pedo Mage to stay back and listen to what I had to say. Halin accepted the change in plans readily enough, but Pedo Mage decided to give me yet another reason to dislike him.

“That seems awfully convenient.” His voice may have sounded sceptical to the inattentive, but both my ears and Blue's telepathic powers picked up on the venom that dripped from it.

Any chance we can toss him into the Fade before we seal the rift?” I asked Blue. While I received a negative, my mind caught on to a great deal of dark merriment first.

Blue was so my kind of spirit.

“You wish to argue now and give the demon a chance to wake back up?” I countered, though I kept my anger out of my voice, cocked my head to the side and shot him my perfected look of mild condescension. It was a look that I reserved for the worst kinds of idiots and fools.

The knitting of his eyebrows and the stronger downturn of his lips told me I'd successfully provoked him. “We will keep her knocked out for as long as it takes.”

I raised one eyebrow at him while maintaining my expression. “With which method? Repeated blows to the head? How many of those can your Keeper take before she dies or suffers permanent brain damage?”

The anger didn't disappear from his face, but I noticed the other elves began to look at him oddly. “You humans must always rush into things-”

“Your racism is not an argument,” I shot in, quick and clean and without hesitation. His words effectively died on his lips and while he still glared at me he didn't argue further. Good. He could be the collateral damage for the exorcism, seeing as he liked to waste everyone's time.

As it turned out, Pedo Mage was the Keeper's son, so the role of collateral damage did indeed fall to him. Well, I referred to it as such, but in actuality it meant that the job to reach through to the possessed fell to him whereas Halin and I got to perform the spell.

Back on Earth, any person apart from a select group of people could, in theory, perform witchcraft. Some lacked the will, and others had few inhibitions or filters, and were better off staying away from it entirely. Then there were those whose ability to visualise didn't exist in the first place. Narcissists would start to choke if they had to picture anyone other than themselves and the mentally ill were advised not to practice as they often struggled to tell the difference between the Craft and delusions.

Ironically, I'd been under a case of depression when I'd started practising witchcraft, and even more ironically I'd been cured by witchcraft. I was the exception rather than the general rule, though.

Regardless, while elves were often considered magical by default in folklore as well as fandom, Thedosian magic dictated a connection to the Fade and a strong willpower in order for this world's magic to work. I had no idea if they could even perform earthling witchcraft or if that was something unique to humans of my heritage. So many questions, and yet my intuition had told me to include the non-mage elves. Seeing as it had yet to steer me wrong – I simply went wrong when I didn't listen to it – I decided to trust it.

Without broomsticks to form a circle around the Keeper, the Dalish put down their swords instead. They served the same function. I asked Odin to bless the swords and cast a protective enchantment on them. There was only the slightest glow on them that disappeared a split second later. When the Keeper woke up, however, it was to much angry grunting and no spellcasting. The evil was detained.

That didn't stop the demon from glaring at us, though, and her pale skin – now red from the exertion of fighting the Keeper's soul – was covered in sweat. Pedo Mage looked considerably more pale than usual.

“That's the demon,” I reminded him and he looked up from his mother to meet my gaze, though without the glare this time. “That's not the Keeper that wants to hurt us. She's fighting the demon with every ounce of her being. You need to help her now. We all do.”

As one the mages, hunters and me formed a circle and joined hands. I took a deep breath and began my instructions. “The behaviour you see before you is that of the demon. Remember that whatever behaviour you see until the completion of the exorcism is, in fact, the demon. It can and will use many tactics to attempt to deceive you and cause you to lose concentration. Clear your minds and focus your hearts upon the Keeper. Imagine your hearts as fiery suns, pray to your gods if you wish, and fill yourselves with the light that comes from your inner fires. I will say a prayer to my goddess, Hecate Soteira, the saviour, Hecate Phosphorus, the light-bringer, and Hecate Psychopomp, the guide of souls and spirits, and then I will say the chant.” The fiend snarled at me upon hearing Hecate's name. It feared her. No wonder. Had it known all of Hecate's epithets and powers, however, it would have feared her far more.

“I've never heard of Hecate before,” Aenor commented. “Mind telling us who she is?”

“She comes from the same place as me,” I explained and tried to keep the information as brief as possible. “She has many epithets. The three I mentioned are but a few.” I thought long and hard on how I could explain her in a way that the Dalish would understand. “She punishes evil, sometimes in quite horrific ways, and protects women and children.”

There was a brief silence. “Sounds like Mythal,” Elf Chick remarked.

I shrugged. “I suppose.” I wasn't exactly an expert on Dalish religion.

“Let's get started,” Pedo Mage cut in. “We've wasted enough time.”

We took a minute to summon our inner light. Some of the elves had more of it than the others, but all of them managed the basics of white magic. Well, save Pedo Mage, but that didn't come as a surprise. I wondered how he was going to get through to the Keeper, but his brother had kicked the bucket and we didn't exactly have a line-up of better candidates. I called upon the epithets of Hecate needed for the exorcism and then I started up the chant. Blue poured its power into me and every elf around me, the blue energy mixing with the white. Pedo Mage focused his gaze on his mother and started calling to her. He basically did a repetition of what Elf One had done for him.

What followed was basically a copy/paste off of the exorcism scene in Practical Magic. The coven members – aka Dalish hunters and Halin – started chanting with me. Gillian, or in this case the Keeper that I named Gillian in my head for no reason, grunted, yelled, got tossed around and even started to scream. Around us the wind picked up with an unnatural howl and caused the trees to crack and creak with its sudden, violent tosses. Pedo Mage was shouting their precious memories to her at this point and I closed my eyes to imagine the Keeper's inner light.

It was there, albeit faint. I doubted Pedo Mage could pull a Sally Owens level of badassery against the demon, so instead I directly channelled the energy we'd built up into the Keeper. It hit her light – her soul – with the force of a sledgehammer and for a moment I felt a profound connection between every elf around me.

“Speak to her!” I shouted. “Speak to the Keeper! Help her remember all your good times together! Make her want to come back! Make her want to drive the demon out! Lend her all your strength!”

A guttural scream tore from Gillian's lips, the sound feminine apart from the vicious, almost beastly, tinge that came with it. The demon glared up at me with the Keeper's eyes, but I merely continued the chant while one elf after another called to the soul of their leader. A thunderous roar sounded above our heads and lightning flashed not long after. The wind picked up some more and dark clouds came over us, carrying more rain that they released upon our heads without warning. I stubbornly maintained the chant and, to my surprise, the elves continued shouting.

For a moment it felt like a never-ending battle of wills, with the light stream pouring through us like a violent river. The Keeper let out another beastly scream and then, as if something had finally cracked, the elf lay very still. A moment of silence, that rare and short period between breaths, and then a loud scream that was not demonic came. “You won't lay another hand on my people!”

A powerful light sprung forth from the Keeper, stronger than anything I'd ever seen – save perhaps for Hecate's – and spread out the same way it had in the movie. As had also happened in the movie, that same force knocked us all back. We lost our grips on each other and went crashing into the ground, the light spreading far and wide and driving away all evil before it. For a moment it was as if the light of the moon, reflected from the sun, had come down to earth to encase us. Then it was gone and inside a circle of swords sat the Keeper, panting hard.

We weren't out of the woods yet. “Get out of the circle, now!” I yelled. Gillian gave me an odd look, but Pedo Mage came to the rescue. She got up with his help and jumped out of the circle just as dark purple energy poured back into it. I got up on my feet, or tried to. The ritual had left me completely drained, something I'd forgotten in my haste to save the Keeper. Blue poured restorative energy into me, but it wouldn't be fast enough. Already the energy was coalescing into physical form and it appeared, for all intents and purposes, to be yet another Pride demon.

The enchantments on the swords kept it in place, however, much to its chagrin. “It can still use one of its powers on us.” Blue informed me helpfully. Lovely.

As if on cue, the beast unleashed a wave of purple energy, knocking back the Keeper, Pedo Mage, Halin and... not me. I'd raised my arms in a defensive position, awaiting the onslaught of a power that I knew could nullify mana and knock me out. Yet I remained standing and I felt Blue's invigorating powers pour through me still. The demon was trapped and I could cast my spell. We could win this day yet.

That was, until Elf Chick dove in for her sword. Aenor shouted at her not to and I immediately berated myself for not instructing the elves in the ways of witchcraft better. None of the others would be able to stop her in time, and even as I raised one arm and lowered the other, the woman's hand closed in around the hilt of her weapon.

We were all going to die, but I summoned the light to my palms all the same.

The light of the enchantment on the swords fizzled out and Elf Chick realised her mistake too late. Her eyes grew wide and the demon turned around. She jumped back up on her feet even as the fiend's large fist bore down on her, but she was too slow. Fire joined the light in my palms as I watched with dread what was about to unfold before my eyes.

Jumping between her and the demon, however, was Elf Two. A rough shove from him and Elf Chick went flying, the claws meant to tear her apart digging through his leather armour and into his body instead. She yelled in pain and disbelief and his face opened wide with shock. Blood gushed forth from every puncture wound – if something of that size could even be called such – and then he dangled there, limp and lifeless.

I felt a lump in my throat and temporarily paused in my chant, but a generous mental kick from Blue got me to continue the spell. Ghostly light encased my dancing flames of light just as the demon turned back around towards me. It raised its free hand with a sneer and a barrel-sized bolt of fire shot forth from its finger, heading straight for me.

I wouldn't make it in time.

Strong arms wrapped around me and I was yanked off my feet. I registered falling, my spell sizzled out and the demonfire flew a centimetre over my hand. Then came the impact with the ground, which wasn't as painful seeing as I landed partially on top of someone. I looked down to see Interruption Guy, of all people.

“Favour returned,” he said with a slight grin, which I saw even as I rolled off of him. I would have returned his smile, except I was already back up on my feet. Just in time to see the Pride demon knock out both Gillian and Pedo Mage. Aenor and the other hunters fired their arrows at the fiend and I set to work casting my spell again. Elf Two had been discarded and lay on the ground, blood pooling out beneath him.

None of us were quick enough to prevent what happened next, however. The fiend reached down, grabbed the unconscious form of Pedo Mage, and ripped him in half. My jaw dropped and my eyes grew wide, no amount of gore movies able to prepare me for something like that. My spell died away and my stomach churned at the sight of the blood and innards that gushed forth from the two halves of the elf that I didn't particularly care for, though he still had his uses.

Were there enough of us to even close the rift now? In all honesty, I was too busy feeling an oncoming panic attack to truly register this question. Compared to what I'd just witnessed, it seemed so very irrelevant. My heart pounded like a Duracell rabbit, my breath came out in short rags and I felt dizzy, as if I'd just come off the Spinrock at Liseberg. Well, back when they still had the Spinrock.

Yep, definitely panicking.

Somehow I registered the demon picking up the Keeper. More arrows flew towards it and struck their mark, but they either didn't bury themselves deeply enough or were repelled altogether.

My brain informed me that I had to cast my spell and defeat this fiend, once and for all, but no other part of me wished to even give it a try. I watched the Pride demon run away from the hunters and towards the rift and then, to my growing horror, it jumped through.

That fiendish fucker had dragged Gillian with it back into the Fade.

That snapped me out of the worst of my current state and while my heart was still in my throat, I somehow managed to force myself back on my feet. I felt absolutely terrified and my fear screamed at me to not do something so utterly reckless. Blue was strangely silent, though its shield still surrounded me. My feet moved without me registering the command from my brain and what started as a slow walk turned into a quick run.

Alva, no!” Aenor's voice registered somewhere in my mind, but I couldn't stop my legs even if I tried.

In blind, stupid desperation I ran as fast as I could, not having a clue if Blue was with me in this or not. To my surprise, it lifted me from the air the short distance I needed. I heard another shout from Aenor somewhere behind me, now joined by Halin and Elf Chick, but it was too late.

I jumped through the rift.

 


 

Cerridwen curse my foolishness, what had I done? Not only had I jumped back into the Fade, but for the sake of some elf that I didn't even know. I was about to have another panic attack when I heard a familiar voice.

“Alva!” It was Aenor. He had followed me? Halin and Elf Chick called my name next.

Well, it was good to know I wasn't the only wack job around.

The Fade was pretty much the same way I'd left it and, after a slight disorientation, Blue flew me straight for the hunters that had come after us.

We need to find the demon,” I argued. The sooner the better, before it could build up its defences in the Fade, the place where it was superior to us all.

It hasn't gone far,” Blue informed me, “and I can locate it quickly and easily. Plus, it's weaker than all of us combined.”

“...fine.”

We arrived in front of the others. Aenor opened up his mouth, whether to yell at me for my stupidity or ask about the demon, I couldn't guess. Blue expanded beyond the ball that held me, however, and soon enough all four of us were inside the bubble. Then the spirit flew at a speed so high I was surprised we didn't fall out. Everything around us became an indecipherable blur of the Fade's vomit colours, kind of what I'd expect after taking out my contact lenses.

That was another problem. I couldn't very well keep them in my eyes forever, and I doubted even the dwarves or qunari had invented glasses.

Before I could even begin to ponder the alternatives, however, we hit something large, and hard. Whatever it was grunted and flew forward, but so did we, becoming a tangled mess of arms, legs, hair and bows inside the Blue balloon.

“The Keeper!” Elf Chick called out and we looked down to see Gillian on the ground, a good distance away from what looked to be the Pride demon. Blue flew down to her, expanded even more, and then absorbed her into the ball with the rest of us.

None of us were comfortable despite how we were held aloft. Then the world became a blur again – in the direction of where we came, no less – and I managed to get Gillian's foot in my face.

Lovely.

We were all unceremoniously dumped near the rift and then Blue left again. To where I couldn't even begin to guess, but it moved slower this time. I'd even lost one of my contacts on the way back, so my depth vision was all screwed up. It was a wonder I hadn't lost either of them earlier.

“Let's get the Keeper out of the Fade,” Aenor said before anyone could ask the “what now?” question. “We'll need her help to seal the rift.” My gaze remained in the direction that Blue had gone. I heard the sound of the hunters shuffling about. “Alva?” I turned towards him and saw him motion for me to follow.

“I have to wait for Blue,” I said. “We can't close the tear without it, especially now after,” I caught myself before I said “Pedo Mage”, “one of the mages of your clan is dead.”

I didn't have to wait long. Blue returned, now with something inside itself, but due to the slower pace, it had the Pride demon hot on its trail. Loki's ball sacks, what a persistent jerk!

“Let's go!” Aenor ordered and I saw the other hunters jump through the rift with the Keeper in their arms. “Come on, Alva! We'll go through and seal the rift.”

I shot him a sideways glance. “With Blue's help, I trust?”

When he didn't answer, my glance turned into a glare. While it surprised him at first, he met my anger with a determined look. “We can't risk it bringing the demon back.”

“I won't leave Blue behind,” I shot back, remembering all too well its words about how it wanted to remain with me. That I was its hero and saviour. Not that I felt like one, but that didn't mean I was about to abandon the only earthling other than myself. Plus, I'd be dead without it. I turned my gaze towards Blue and moved my hands into position. Hopefully I'd be able to do this in the Fade. I probably had to call upon Hecate, though.

“We'll all be in danger if we wait for your friend,” he argued.

I snapped in a most unladylike fashion and turned to face him. “Then seal the rift on us both since we're such a bloody inconvenience!” My voice was louder than I had intended, but I was too angry to care.

His eyebrows knitted together in confusion and hurt before they smoothed out in realisation. “You're not. Neither of you are. That's why I'm trying to save you, at least.”

“I can defeat that demon,” I informed him. “I will be unconscious afterwards, so I don't blame you if you leave me here.”

He shook his head. “Defeat that demon and I will carry you through the rift myself.”

That sounded so much more romantic than he'd probably intended. My mind conjured up the image of him holding me, bridal style, though it was more likely he'd just sling me over the shoulder. Somehow I heard wedding bells in my mind, even though I wasn't a Christian. Damn it, Fade, at least get a clue about what a bloody handfasting is!

Why was I even thinking about handfastings? I shook my silly head and turned my gaze back towards Blue. It and the demon were both close enough now, so I set to casting my spell. I would have to go for the Prue Halliwell solution, so this would probably kill me.

Dying from casting epic white magic seemed like a cool way to go, though. Here goes.

The fireball launched and I flew back. Aenor ran after me and I saw the ghostly fire-light explode upon impact with the demon. I saw Blue flying at a steady pace towards me, and the ugly green colour of the Fade. It felt a bit Halloween-like mixed in with the black, I thought, it just needed some orange and purple to complete it. Aenor kept running and Blue kept flying. I flew, too. Then the world went considerably less Samhain-coloured.

Chapter Text

I found myself in the crossroad again, except this time there were bushes and grass surrounding it. Almost as if Hecate was gardening. The sky was still black, though, but I noticed a few stars up ahead. They shone in a way that made it seem like they were humming. A melody that should have been foreign, yet felt strangely familiar, played in my heart of all places. Tears ran down my cheeks despite myself and I felt cold all of a sudden, even though I should be dead.

Then again, seeing as I was in this place, death was probably more of a choice.

“Quite so,” said a female voice right behind me and while it sounded familiar, I half feared it was a desire demon. I turned in the direction of the voice, but wasn't met with the sight of a fiend. Rather, it was a beautiful, youthful, Mediterranean white woman with dark hair, dark eyes, a golden crown on her head and-

Basically, it was Hecate.

My face broke into a grin before I could stop myself and to our mutual surprise I jumped forth, arms leading, and grabbed the goddess around her hips before I could stop myself. I buried my face in her abdomen – Greek gods were much taller than humans, and I was only slightly below average height for Norwegian women, so that was saying something.

“Now this is an inconvenience,” Hecate remarked, a hint of amusement in her voice. “How on earth am I to return your embrace with you clinging to my legs like that?”

I pouted. “Not my fault you're so much taller than me.” I still let her go and flashed her my friendliest smile, though. My heart soared with joy and my ego started telling itself how very special I was. That was, until I gave it a healthy kick in the rear and told it to shut its delusional trap. It was blissfully quiet after that.

“What an odd human you are, jumping into the arms of a god on a mere whim,” my goddess remarked even as she shrunk in size before my very eyes until she was only half a head taller than me.

I wasn't disturbed, she was a deity after all. “Not any god, my goddess. You, and because I love you.”

She paused in her move to put her torches down and shot me a surprised look. Then she turned away and placed them in the gravel where they stood by themselves. When she turned back around, I saw only the slightest upturn of the corner of her mouth before I was hugged thoroughly.

At first it just felt nice, warm and loving. My mind re-played the lyrics of “In the arms of an angel”, but swapped out the last word with goddess, and I couldn't help but giggle. Hecate held me for a long time, stroking my hair with one hand and making affectionate noises. It almost felt like being held by my mother.

Tears ran down my cheeks for several seconds before I realised what was happening. Hecate's noises had become comforting, but I still trembled like a leaf. My tears seemed a never-ending stream and in the place where my heart should be I felt nothing but a gaping hole. Not a hole that was empty, quite the contrary. It was filled to the brim with agony and trauma; dark, desolate and sinister. I looked down and saw a literal hole. Out of it leaked dark energy, pouring into the ground and tainting Hecate's beautiful garden. I would have felt guilt on top of everything else if I hadn't been so caught up in my own suffering at the time, and I fully expected the greens to wither away.

To my surprise, they remained green.

“Let this place cleanse you,” Hecate whispered into my ear. “Let it free you from your bitterness. You're loved and you're never alone.” I tried to speak, but only a choked sob came out. Gods what a pitiful sight I was. I would have laughed at my own expense if I hadn't been stuck sobbing. Tears and snot tainted Hecate's beautiful dress and I felt bad, but she assured me that she had an extensive wardrobe, like any self-respecting woman. That brought out a short laugh from me, and out of the hole in my chest fell a lump of blackened flesh. It landed on the gravel and dispersed into more dark energy that got absorbed by the pebbles.

I looked at my chest again, and this time I saw a beating heart, raw and full of pain, but at the very least alive.

Tightening my embrace, I buried my face in Hecate's neck and wept some more.

Soothingly cold, liquid energy poured into my chest and drove away a burning sensation that I hadn't felt earlier. My heartbeat didn't grow any stronger, but I felt a little bit better, and my earlier merriment had helped lift an emotional burden off of my shoulders that I hadn't allowed myself to feel yet.

Guilt.

I was apparently the sole earthling survivor of a catastrophe of apocalyptic dimensions. While my entire family and all my friends lay dead, I was still alive. That wasn't fair to them. It wasn't fair to the numerous people on Earth who had been hard-working, honest people. Good people. Yes, I did believe in them, flawed though all humans were. They should have got a better ending to their lives than that.

Most of that guilt washed away with the healing energy of the crossroad – or Hecate, or both, even as those thoughts circulated through my brain. My heart was still in my throat and my breathing hitched, but the tears had stopped falling. I sniffled pitifully, and while I felt myself calm down, Hecate still held on to me, permitting me to hold her for as long as I needed.

This was one of the reasons why I loved her so much.

The hitched breathing and sniffles continued until, as if as one, they were released with a deep, long sigh. What strength I'd had disappeared and my entire body went limp. Darkness encased me but I heard Hecate's gentle words even as I felt myself disappear from her crossroad. “Sleep, Alva. Sleep and dream of gentle things. I will keep you safe.”

 


 

I'd dreamt of sleeping in the crossroad, though I couldn't remember what had happened there. When I awoke it was to the sound of birds chirping and the smell of fresh, woods-y air. Pine, to be specific. I felt considerably better than I had after waking up in the Fade, though I had a mild headache and sore muscles. The world around me was bright, but blurry, which meant I must have lost my second contact lens. Gods fucking damn it!

I was warm, though, and I saw a fur-lined blanket cover me from well under my feet to all the way up to my chin. Judging from how it felt against my skin, I guessed it was wool. Not that this told me exactly where I was, but judging from the outlines all around me, I easily concluded that I was in a tent.

It was probably best to look for a way to fix my faulty vision first. I'd never believed it possible to do so with magic before, but here on Thedas it might just be doable. Hecate could certainly be called upon, and maybe Blue could help as well-

I paused my train of thought. Where was that chittering ping-pong ball of adventure?

Perhaps it was just outside, with whomever had brought me here and kept me warm and dry. There was no reason for such an energetic chatterbox to stick around an unconscious human, not with its immense need for socialisation. Damn humans and their inconvenient sleep patterns, after all. My mind returned to the task of healing my eyes.

In truth, I was terrified that I would get my hopes up and it wouldn't work. I'd tried healing spells for my eyes before, and none of them had worked. That had been back on Earth, though. Blue had informed me that the magic here wasn't all that different except I could see the effects of it physically manifest.

Well, there were three marked differences. I possessed telekinesis now, I'd healed myself of severe, physical injuries and I'd been able to summon rain. According to those pieces of evidence I should, in theory, be able to do it.

What was it my mother always said? Nothing ventured, nothing gained?

While it stung to think about her, and I kept my mind from wandering too close to those memories, I used that favourite saying of hers as my motivation. I placed my hands over my closed eyes and envisioned and willed the healing energy to manifest into my palms. It obeyed just as before, and then I called upon Hecate Abronoe, the Gracious One, and Paionios, the Healer. My eyes began to water from fear that it wouldn't work, but I kept my voice steady and my will strong as I asked my goddess to heal my eyesight so I could see with perfect vision. A bright light penetrated the darkness of my eyelids and I felt a tremendous warmth in my hands. My eyes tingled the whole time, increasing a bit in intensity but never to the point where it became painful. Then soothing, liquid energy poured in next, drove away the prickles and left my eyes feeling... restored, for lack of a better word. I removed my hands once I felt it was appropriate, though I didn't dare open my eyes yet.

What if it had worked, but only partially? My eyesight had deteriorated as a result of the curses thrown at me, so what if Hecate had healed only that part? While I was certain it had worked, my fears weren't so easy to calm.

I reminded myself that I wanted this. Hecate's extensive wardrobe, I needed this. Thedas didn't have contact lenses, and there was a very real chance they didn't have glasses, either. My eyesight was so poor I could only see clearly what was just a few centimetres in front of me.

My train of thought was interrupted by the sound of a tent door flapping open and I opened my eyes without thinking.

Wonder upon wonder, I could see as if I was wearing contacts. My mouth dropped open and slowly crept up into a wide smile. Joy on a much deeper level than I had anticipated smacked me in the face and caused me to flail my arms and legs around while making happy noises.

Hecate was going to get the best feast I could possibly arrange!

It took me a while to remember that I was no longer alone, but when I did I paused mid-flailing to look at who had come to check on me. Lo and behold, it was Aenor, looking alive and well. Outright peachy, in fact, and with one eyebrow raised as he'd just been made to witness my silly behaviour. Somehow I got the feeling that would be his default expression around me.

“Good... morning?” I tried and shot him my most innocent grin. As before, it was completely ineffective.

“Midday,” he corrected.

“Good midday,” I supplied. He continued to stare at me with the look from before. “So, how did it go? Did we win?”

His expression changed to sombre with a bit of sadness. “We did. I suppose I don't need to inform you of the cost.”

My smile died down. “No, I got to witness that first hand. How is everyone?” Not that I mourned the loss of Pedo Mage, and some of the kids were probably happy to see him go. Others had died that night, however, and the trauma of possession had no doubt set its firm roots into the Keeper. Then there was the fear and mistrust towards her to deal with as well.

Yeah no, “victories” were never fun fairy tales with fanfares blasting and brightly coloured banners flowing in the wind. Well, not only fanfares and banners anyway.

“We mourn our fallen and have made funeral arrangements,” he replied non-committally, but seeing as I was a stranger, I didn't blame him for responding in such a general way.

Speaking of which, there were some practical concerns to take care of. I sat up and the blanket fell away to reveal my naked breasts. Aenor's eyes grew wide and a blush crept up his cheeks before he quickly turned away.

Sweet goddess, he was a virgin.

More important than that, however, was the location of my clothes. I looked around and found a pile neatly folded near my bed. Even my bra and Zevran panties had survived. I took a moment to wonder how the Dalish had reacted to seeing that last part. Hopefully nobody would mention it. I found my phone underneath my sweater, and I was mildly surprised to do so, seeing as it was no doubt a very curious device in the eyes of the elves. As I put my clothes on I noticed my skin was blessedly free of bandages, no doubt thanks to Blue. Thinking of which, it was strange how my little fan-spirit hadn't popped in to check on me by now. I got up on my feet.

“I hope Blue's energetic chatting hasn't worn out our welcome,” I said jokingly and Aenor turned back around. While I expected him to look relieved that I was fully dressed, the sight I met with instead was... pained.

I got a terrible feeling in my gut.

His mouth opened and closed repeatedly until he finally spoke. “The Keeper was unconscious and so were you,” he began, and that terrible feeling got worse. No, no, no, no, no. “Halin did what he could, but-”

I held up a hand to silence him as I began to realise what he was saying. “Did Blue die sealing the rift?”

A split second worth of silence followed. “Yes.”

My legs gave out beneath me and I fell back down. It felt like I had been punched, hard, in the gut. I sat very still, staring ahead of me in shock and disbelief.

No. He was lying. Just moments before I cast my spell in the Fade, he'd treated Blue as an inconvenience to be left behind. How did I know he was telling the truth? Maybe he was lying to cover things up. After all, my magic was useful and that was probably why I was still with the Dalish. No doubt the Keeper wanted to know more. But Blue, while unique and interesting, was still a spirit. Even the Dalish were suspicious of anything that wasn't of the mortal world.

But then again, could the Keeper's First have sealed the rift all by himself? Well, the Keeper could have woken up in the meantime, but it was doubtful that she'd done so before Aenor – or Blue – managed to carry me through. No, Blue had been too close to us to get left behind, unless the mage had driven it back. But that suggested he'd sealed the rift himself, and that was far more unlikely than Aenor telling the truth. Unless the Keeper had woken up in the meantime and helped with the sealing magic.

Lying was only successful when the story was simple, however. While I could only point to elementary school for my acting experience, I looked up and shot Aenor a perfectly pleading look and put all of my pain of loss into my voice. That part, at least, wasn't an act. “Please, tell me what happened.”

He looked hesitant at first, but I maintained my expression and repeated a few more “please”s until the look on his face changed and he caved in. His eyes travelled the inside of the tent and he found a stool that he sat down on. Then he looked up and met my gaze. “I managed to catch up to you in the Beyond only to see your spirit friend leave through the rift. I carried you through to the other side, as promised for defeating the demon.” He paused and his eyebrows knitted together in what looked like momentary confusion. “Well, it turned back into a spirit, rather.” He shot me an odd look.

I shrugged. “White magic does that.”

He nodded slowly, though I got the feeling that he hadn't fully accepted my magic yet. “Regardless, Blue set to healing Halin and he woke up. It then tried to do the same to the Keeper, but more demons were closing in on the other side. We didn't have enough time to revive either of you, so Halin made the decision to seal the rift instead. Your friend... latched itself onto your forehead for a brief second. I don't know what it did, but it then did the same to me, and...” he paused before continuing. At this point I was on fire with unbridled curiosity. “It showed me some things I've been meaning to ask you about, but that's best done in the presence of the Keeper.” His hands came forward and entwined themselves in a motion more commonly associated with religious prayer. “I was also instructed to take good care of you and your instrument.” He paused and got up on his feet. “One moment.” He slipped back out of the tent and came back inside with a black bag slung over his shoulder. A very familiar black bag that he placed on the ground in front of me.

I undid the zipper and earned sounds of gasps from the other side of the tent. Aenor shot a glare that way and soon enough I heard the footsteps of curious elves scampering off. Apparently I was quite the topic for Dalish gossip. Considering how isolated they were from humans, as well as the peculiarities that had taken place the night before, I guess it shouldn't be surprising. Still, I appreciated Aenor's concern for my privacy, as temporary as it would have to be.

I pulled back the bag to see that, indeed, inside was my harp, still fully intact. My arms fell to their sides and I fell back on my bum. There was no way my harp had survived the destruction of Earth on its own. Did this mean Blue had protected it for me, brought it with it to the Fade and then stored it away somewhere to pick it up? It had attracted the Pride demon just for the sake of bringing my instrument to me?

That was so completely unnecessary! Had Blue not done so, I would have been awake and helped seal the rift. Blue might have survived, even, and we could have healed the Keeper, maybe even woken her up. To save a music instrument that probably already existed in Thedas seemed so very... quaint. The fact that it had led to the spirit's death made the whole thing so meaningless as well.

I hated meaningless deaths.

While most musicians would probably be thrilled to have their instrument back, I felt nothing but hopelessness and dread. Blue was the only other survivor from Earth that I knew of, and a friendly one at that. It had found me in the Fade, saved my life numerous times and killed off my abandonment anxiety before it could take full root.

Now I was all alone again.

Unless Aenor was lying. He still hadn't told me everything. “What happened after Blue left you these... instructions?”

“It sealed the rift,” he explained. His gaze stayed with mine as he spoke. “Halin jumped in to help, but,” he looked down, took a deep breath and then slowly turned his head back up to look at me, “it wasn't enough. Blue... dispersed.”

“Dispersed?” I pressed.

Aenor nodded. “There was a bright, blue light and then the rift was closed, but your friend was also gone.” He paused. “Halin would know more. He and the Keeper wish to speak with you.”

I managed to nod, but I felt numb on the inside. Aenor's words rang with truth, much as I hated to admit it. This was probably why Hecate had banished the bitterness from my heart, so news of Blue's death wouldn't hit me as hard, or worse, change me into something like my former coven sisters. Still it stung, and I felt emotionally wobbly, as if the ground underneath me had disappeared and I stared into a black, uncaring void. I might have survived without the Dalish with Blue around, but now I was completely at their mercy. A human in need of help from racist elves, yay. Not.

No matter how I tried to spin it, I was at a clear disadvantage. I stared at my harp until I could no longer look at it. Blue had probably wanted me to continue playing it so I didn't get rusty. Spirits loved music, after all. Now, however, the sight of it left me nauseous. I pulled the bag together over the instrument and zipped it back up. It felt meaningless to play music for the sake of a spirit that no longer existed. Not that I felt the need to get rid of or destroy it, but I had no energy to even try to play.

I felt emptier on the inside than I had back when I was thirteen and had contemplated suicide. Back then I'd had family, a few friends and witchcraft yank me out of the worst of it, but now... now I had no-one.

Well, no, that wasn't entirely untrue. I still had Hecate, and that gave me some measure of comfort. It was going to be a stressful experience trying to get along with the Dalish, though, if they didn't just kill me or hand me over to the Chantry. Without having a clue as to who I could trust, things were bound to go downhill quickly.

Not to mention stress gave me the nastiest muscle knots. I doubted the Dalish were well-versed in aromatherapy and acupressure, and even if they were they probably weren't keen on helping a human.

What had started off as a great day had quickly turned into a sour time period that just happened to have some sunshine sprinkled on top. Blue had insisted that I could trust these people, but I had my doubts.

“Are you well enough to speak with the Keeper and her First?” Aenor's voice cut through my messy haze of pessimism and over-thinking and I met his gaze once more. He looked... concerned? when he saw my expression. “The clan owes you much, Alva. While we still need to learn more about you, you're unlikely to be thrown out.”

The conviction was strong in his eyes and voice, but he wasn't at the top of the tribe's food chain. “That would help my continued survival.” I managed to smile despite my sense of gloom and doom, and his expression softened.

He opened his mouth to say something else, but the tent door flapped open before he could and inside stepped Gillian the Keeper followed up by Halin the First. My brain did funny things with names and titles. “I see our timely assistant is up and about,” Gillian commented. Her eyes were filled with barely contained curiosity, like a child on Christmas Eve. It was a stark contrast to the physical evidence of her advanced years – wrinkles around her eyes, mouth and on her hands, and grey hair that was remarkably long and well-kept. Her eyes took a sharp up-turn to the sides, but her mouth was a friendly cupid's bow, relaxed and smiling. Observant, but not cruel. That made me feel a bit more hopeful. “I am told your name is Alva, and the spirit that sacrificed itself to save us all was called Blue by you.” She indicated Halin with her hand. “Halin here is my First. I understand you two have already met, as well as Aenor.” Her hand moved to her chest. “My name is Lailani. Aenor told me that names is a weakness of yours, so I don't expect you to remember.”

She motioned for Halin to sit and he obeyed, grabbing a chair and placing it a bit of a distance away from Aenor. Gillian – alas how my brain worked – placed a chair between them for herself to sit on and then motioned for me to pick a chair as well.

My legs still ached from all the action the night before, but I got up with a bit of effort and grabbed the only chair left. I figured I should sit opposite them, as I would then be able to look them in the eye when they spoke. Despite how my situation of helplessness was perfectly reasonable, especially after I'd fought alongside them, my stomach was a mess of tangled nerves. There was so much tension between elves and humans, and while I wasn't a native Thedosian, the Dalish had that unfortunate tendency to colour their tales with collective racial blame. The oversimplification of “we” and “they” that only served one purpose, which was to spread hate, was all too commonplace in their stories.

Needless to say, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that wouldn't go away easily.

“I trust you understand we're very curious about you,” Gillian went on, “and we have many questions. We have much to do as well in the aftermath of what happened yesterday, so I shall jump straight to the first question. Where are you from? Looking at you, I'd say you resemble most closely an Avvar or perhaps even some tribes among the Chasind, yet you don't dress like any of them.”

I supposed that was the closest equivalent to ethnic Scandinavians. Taking a deep breath to steady my rapid heartbeat, I did my best to formulate an answer. “That's because I'm not from either of those peoples. In fact, I'm not from Thedas at all.” It sounded so absurd when I said it, but I maintained a serious expression so as to make sure they didn't get the wrong idea. “Blue and me are – were – from another part of the cosmos. I don't know how we ended up here, but we found each other in the Fade and came out of the rift where your hunters found us.”

Gillian looked to Aenor. “It's true, we found them near the rift.”

There was a heavy silence. “You say you're from another world, yet you seem to know perfectly well what the Beyond, demons and elves are, let alone the name of this place. Aenor and Halin both informed me earlier that you expressed quite a bit of local knowledge last night. How is that possible, unless demons and elves exist in your world too and you have a Beyond of your own?” There was an understandable level of scepticism in her voice.

Understandable or no, it was difficult to explain without sounding crazy. “There's no Fade or Beyond like here, no, but there are many worlds and a veil that separates them. As such, elves and demons don't exist physically. Some humans believe- believed they didn't exist at all, except in myths and stories. Magic works differently, too. As for how I know about this place...” computer games would be impossible to explain, “I've read about it in books. Where I came from, Thedas was a place of fiction.”

Three pairs of elven eyes widened and stared at me unblinkingly. Aenor frowned, Gillian looked curious and Halin was caught somewhere between shock and confusion. I wasn't done, however, as I could argue well for my story, and held up my iPhone. “This is a device with which I could communicate with others across vast distances. A good equivalent would be from Ostagar to Denerim, but also to Orlais or even Par Vollen.” Thus I proved more of my knowledge in the process of arguing. “I bet my harp you wouldn't be able to find its like anywhere on Thedas, except through another hapless and misplaced earthling like myself, if they're lucky enough to survive and have an intact phone with them.

“As for my clothes, I'm sure you've noticed how even the stitching is,” I went on, earning a hesitant nod from the Keeper. “We used sewing machines. No person in the world can match it in speed or precision.”

There was a pregnant pause. “That makes sense,” Halin said, though slowly and with great hesitation. His confusion hadn't lessened, though his initial shock was gone. “I've certainly never heard of machines able to create clothing before, not among the qun, the durgenlen or even the more inventive shemlen.

Aenor shook his head vigorously. “No, no, this is too outlandish.”

“A tear in the Veil the size of what we saw was also quite outlandish,” the Keeper countered, her eyes on the hunter before they settled on me. “While I don't know what to make of your story, Alva, I would like for you to continue to present your evidence.”

“Blue isn't – wasn't a spirit native to the Fade, as I'm sure you can testify,” I went on and fixed Halin with an expectant look. He nodded. I was relieved that they were willing to listen, at least. “It was no wisp, rather a water elemental, a kind that we used to summon to our circles for protection.”

“When you say we, you mean...” Gillian quirked an eyebrow.

“Witches,” I clarified. “That's the magic I used last night. Witchcraft. White magic, to be specific. Exorcism, dispelling and weather magic.”

“And spirits are usually this attached to witches?” she pressed. I shook my head. “I believe you said that where you come from, a lot of people don't even believe in demons.”

“Because they don't physically manifest the way we do,” I continued explaining, “and so in the eyes of a lot of earthlings, they don't exist. In fact, they don't believe in magic either. Those who experienced otherwise were often ostracised, bullied or worse.”

“I notice you swap between the tenses,” Halin cut in, and while he didn't ask why, his eyes were filled with expectation.

A lump formed in my throat. This part was very difficult to talk about. “My home planet was... destroyed.” The unbidden memory of my last few moments with my family came back and I found my breathing had become more laboured. My eyes began to water, so I closed them and took deep breaths in an attempt to calm back down. There were still tons of questions that I had to answer, and I really couldn't afford a breakdown right now. I opened my eyes again once I felt confident enough to speak. “There's probably nothing left of it. I thought I was a goner, too, but then I woke up in the Fade.”

Aenor's frown had turned into concern. “All by yourself?” So he believed me now? Was that what Blue had shown him? Our time in the Fade?

“Is that what Blue showed you?” I pressed. He nodded quietly.

“I saw destruction and then your friend in the Beyond, looking for you,” he explained and then paused. Realisation seemed to dawn on him and then I was afforded with a view of Aenor's full sympathy.

I nodded, my eyes getting wet again and the lump returning. “Blue did indeed find me.” And now Blue was dead, too. My shoulders tensed and I had to swallow hard to clear my throat.

The ensuing silence did nothing to help me feel better. Their scepticism was easy to feel in their auras even as I closed my eyes in my struggle to hold back my tears. I'd take a distraction – any kind of distraction – right about now.

“Leave us,” I heard Gillian say and I heard the other two elves shuffle about before leaving the tent altogether. Another moment of silence followed. “Alva, who is the elf on your undergarments?”

It was a distraction alright, one that caused my cheeks to flare up with embarrassment. I coughed. “Zevran Arainai, of the Antivan Crows. One of my favourite characters in the books about the fifth Blight.” Except he wasn't a fictional character. In fact, he was very real. Sweet Hecate, that did nothing to calm my ovaries. What a tangled mess of emotions I was currently in.

The Keeper wore a perfectly neutral look, suggesting she wasn't teasing me or taking joy in my predicament. “So you know about that, too.” She paused. “This is a lot to take in at the moment, for all of us, but one thing is very clear to me. You are lost and alone, correct?” I nodded numbly. “Then we shall repay our debt to you by offering you a place amongst us. Aenor told me you know only very basic things about wilderness survival, so no doubt we need to teach you-”

Her words trailed off into Neverland as my brain occupied itself with processing only the first thing she'd said. The lump in my throat disappeared, as did the pile of lead in the bottom of my stomach. My ovaries were still in high gear over Zevran, but even that was dwarfed by the leap of hope that my heart did. A grin broke out on my face – a genuinely happy one at that – and I felt my eyes grow wet again. This time the tears were of joy, however, and I let them run down my cheeks and make me look like an overly emotional idiot. I didn't care, I was going to survive.

“Thank you,” I managed to say and a few sniffles escaped. The tears poured on like rain and I found it impossible to speak, but my grin was as wide as Russia. Understanding came to Gillian's eyes and she nodded.

“Halin and me would also like to know more about your magic,” she went on. “We'll expect you to pull your weight, too, though judging from your dedication last night I don't think that will be a problem.”

I shook my head vigorously. Oh no, I was not afraid of hard work, quite the contrary. In that respect I was a viking through and through. I needed to know one thing, though, so I entered an epic battle with my tears and somehow came out victorious. “Where in Thedas am I, exactly?”

“The human lands here are called Orlais,” the Keeper replied. “We shall do our best to find you some clothes to help you fit in, though we will probably have to re-size them, especially around the chest and hips.” It was an all too true reminder of the size of my breasts and my pear-shaped body. The reason why I never slept on my stomach and preferred shoulder-less tops. Both body parts were probably larger than any elven sizes, indeed. “Until then you will have to wear what's on your body right now.”

I shrugged. “Fair enough.” I hoped they had regular laundry traditions, though. The idea of wearing the same panties for days without cleaning them didn't appeal to me.

“Food will be served soon,” Gillian informed me and got up on her feet. “Be warned the clan knows of you.”

“Mob of curious children will be incoming?” I suggested with a smile, though I knew what she meant.

Her eyes sparkled with merriment for a brief moment, but then she grew serious. “They will no doubt have many questions for you, but there's a good amount of members who will be wary of you. Most are friendly, but some may need some... time... to get used to you.”

That was a lot better than it could have been. I nodded to show I understood. “Patience it is, then. From me, at least.” Not that my sun sign was of any help in that regard, but I did have Virgo rising, plus some Capricorn and Taurus somewhere. I'd make do.

A small smile was the only response I got before the Keeper disappeared.

Chapter Text

Bright sunlight hit me in the face the second I stepped outside the tent. It was a chilled sun that reminded me of early autumn and as I looked around, the colourful leaves on trees – in different stages of transformation – confirmed that this was so. September, perhaps?

I'd missed out on Lughnasadh. It was doubtful I'd get the items needed in time to celebrate Mabon. That left Samhain.

A celebration of the thinning of the veil between worlds, when demons, spirits of the dead and the dark creatures of Faerie would cross over for a night of hauntings.

Something told me native Thedosians might not be keen on such a concept.

The air was even crispier outside and I inhaled two lungfuls, relishing in the restorative powers of oxygen. This could definitely have been a lot worse. I looked around and saw the elves were busy with all manner of chores. Four deep, elf-sized holes had been dug into the ground and next to them lay the cloth-covered bodies of what I assumed were Pedo Mage and Elves One, Two and Three. I noticed the cloth used was simple, white linen.

Linen was cheap and easy to make, so it was probably the most common type of fabric in Thedas. It seemed I'd have to get used to wearing chronically wrinkled clothes. Anything else was probably too expensive.

That took my mind to another topic – how on earth was I going to make money? I loved cooking and could write and tell stories... then there was my music. No, I felt in no mood to play anything and even if I had, I was nowhere near good enough to charge people for my performances.

Come to think of it, I didn't really have any special skills to offer to the Dalish, apart from magic that was useful mainly during demonic attacks. They had the Keeper for political leadership and religious guidance. Together with her First they offered healing and protection from magical attacks. Well, I could help in that regard, too. That was something, at least. Though I didn't do curses and I would probably never be able to shoot lightning or fire from my fingertips. That magic was strictly tied to the Fade, and I didn't draw my power from that.

So I guess I was the back-up mage? Not that it would be easy without Blue. That thought brought another bout of pain and loneliness to my heart. I wasn't yet ready to think about that.

I was no battle mage, so I'd probably be set to heal people. Not that I knew anything about herbal medicine, and I certainly wouldn't trust me to reset a bone or concoct an antidote. Most likely I'd just Fixardium Healiosa people better. I was okay with that.

The camp looked more or less the way it had in the game. Benches had been placed around a campfire, though nothing burned at the moment. Probably because all the elves were busy elsewhere and the sky held many potential rain clouds. Not to mention the infamous Breach.

I hadn't expected to see it so soon, let alone for it to be so big and, well... real. Yet there it was, a harbinger of doom and a reminder of the frailty of what Thedosians believed was reality.

That made me wonder if similar things could be done to the veil back home. Well, could have been done. It was going to take a while to get used to thinking of Earth in past tense. I also wondered how it was possible for my magic to manifest so differently here. Was the veil weaker on Thedas or had I been affected by my time in the Fade? Not that either should have an effect on me since I didn't draw my power from the local dreamworld. Was it Hecate and the crossroad she'd created? Or was it simply Thedas itself?

No doubt the Keeper would want to find out more, too. I kept staring at the Breach as my mind rolled around in one wonder after another. There were so many questions that had popped up despite all the answers I'd received. Or, rather, because of them. How an earthling could even travel to Thedas, for example. Had Hecate reached out and saved me or had I just fallen through some hole on sheer, dumb luck and my phone followed suit?

Thinking of Hecate, I wasn't at all surprised she had survived. What bothered me was what Blue had said about my elf-mate. An intervention – reincarnation? If so, where was he and how was I supposed to find him? Despite my numerous hobbies and overly active imagination, my number one goal in life was to reunite with him.

Of course, that same reunion had intended to be put into combination with saving the elves of Alfheim, bringing them back to Earth and saving humanity. With the earth destroyed and humanity wiped out, that part of the plan had basically gone down the drain.

Some elements would have been pleased had they been alive.

It wasn't a depressive thought I could just shake off, either. Usually I was quite fond of irony, but post-apocalyptic genocide was something not even I could laugh at. I missed Earth something fierce.

I angrily blinked back the tears that threatened to form and decided to distract myself by examining the Dalish camp once more. The aravels were a lot bigger than what they looked like in-game, and the tents offered several trees a decent competition in terms of height. Barrels and crates stood near each landship and the statues of the elven gods had been placed in various locations. No weapon racks stood out in the open, however, like they had in the game. Not even by what seemed to be the local weapon smith. Rather she had a tent flap attached to her aravel that stretched out as a makeshift roof and walls behind her that another elf kept slipping inside of upon her instructions. Her apprentice, perhaps? They seemed to be busy cleaning and sharpening blades, arrow- and spearheads rather than make anything new.

Just as well, really. Considering how vital weapons were for the Dalish way of life, they probably had a lot of work ahead of them, regardless.

The colours were what I had expected of a Dalish camp – muted greens and browns in different shades, and some black and red for the aravels. Lots of leather, probably from hunted animals or the halla.

Sweet mother of Scylla, the halla! Those wonderful animals were real! I couldn't help my heart leap – I was such a halla fangirl.

They probably wouldn't let me anywhere near them, but I was content to daydream. I grinned to myself and drew a few, odd looks from some bypassing elves. It felt odd to be so close to them – fictional when it came to Thedas and spiritual, semi-divine beings when it came to Earth. I did my best not to stare, and I reminded myself that grinning for no apparent reason was probably a very inappropriate thing to do considering these people had just lost four of their clan.

Thus the quest for “don't be an insensitive idiot” began.

“What are you smiling about?” asked the snarly voice of Snarly. I turned to see him with a large leather bag in hand and a frown on his face.

I decided to go with the truth. “The fact that the halla is real.”

His frown turned into confusion. “Why would that excite you?”

It seemed he hadn't been informed. Perhaps the Keeper meant to do a speech about it later? “They're not exactly commonplace where I come from.”

He didn't look convinced, as if he thought I had some ulterior motive behind grinning. “Lots of humans have never seen halla before. They don't grin about it like you do.”

I was about to throw a witty retort back in his face, but then I remembered my promise to the Keeper about patience. “Well, I happen to think they're beautiful and amazing creatures, and I understand you Dalish have a unique bond with them. That sort of thing simply appeals to me.” I met his gaze squarely and sent him my most sincere look.

“Grin about it all you want, then,” he grumbled and moved to walk past me. “You'll never be permitted anywhere near them.” Then he was off. While I'd already known that, his words still stung simply because of the toxic intent that hung over them like a dark shroud.

I'd bounce back, though, I always did. He was just one of many. Even if he tried to turn the others against me, I found that being on my best behaviour always won out in the end.

“Not that you can't see them, though,” said a male voice that sounded vaguely familiar, yet it wasn't Aenor. I turned around and saw it was Interruption Guy that had successfully sneaked up on me. As expected from a Dalish hunter, especially while I was lost in my own thoughts.

I remembered all too well how his team had fared last night and while he wore a smile on his face, it didn't reach his eyes. “Maybe one day,” I said and decided to return his smile. Not that I was a smiling type of person. In fact, the corners of my lips had the unfortunate tendency of being constantly downturned. As such, I didn't smile very often and people often believed that I was cranky by default. I struggled to think of something to say that wasn't tied to the deaths of three of his clan mates, though.

“I take it from your presence here that the Keeper has decided to let you stay?” he asked and solved the problem for me. A resourceful fellow. I could appreciate that.

“For as long as it's convenient, I imagine,” I shot back. “I suppose I'll be an assistant healer, for now. Possibly a tale teller as well, with the clan's permission.”

His eyebrows went up to the middle of his forehead. “You know stories about elves?”

Oh did I! “A few, albeit from a human perspective. If that's not a problem-”

My words were broken off by the sound of my stomach growling with hunger. An awkward silence followed and then Interruption Guy won good karma points by chuckling. “Ah yes, you must have missed breakfast. Although we usually make our own midday food, today is a bit of an exception after last night's activities. Nehnis will make the rounds soon, and I'm sure there will be food for you as well.”

“Praise the gods,” I said half-jokingly and earned a wide smile.

His smile quickly turned to surprise, though. “Several? I heard you weren't with the Chantry, but many humans still believe in their Maker.”

I opened my mouth to explain only to be cut short by a new elf.

“You must be Alva.” I turned away from Interruption Guy to see an elf maiden so utterly adorable I didn't know quite what to do with myself. She had to be the local heartbreaker for sure.

I shot her a silly grin. “Did my ears give me away?”

Her face did a funny twist where she alternated between smiling and looking serious, as if she wasn't sure how to react. Interruption Guy came to her rescue. “Alva here made jokes last night, too.”

“Most of them are at my own expense,” I was happy to add.

Relief came to the pretty elf's face and she smiled. “I understand. My name is Anise. The Keeper tasked me to help you with practical matters.” She shot Interruption Guy a meaningful look.

“Right, I... I have some arrows to sharpen,” he said, probably making that excuse up on the spot, and left. I was briefly tempted to re-name him Improvisation Guy. He'd certainly earned it during the demon fight.

Improvisation Guy was quick to make himself scarce, too. I turned back to Anise and caught myself by surprise that I'd remembered her name. Then again, she had the same name as a spice that gave licorice its signature flavour. Not that I liked licorice, but I used anise, especially star anise, in cooking sometimes, preferably with fish.

My stomach growled again. An awkward silence followed.

Anise cleared her throat. Wow, I really did remember her name, and with no effort. Four names now, Anise, Aenor, Tamlen and... my brain froze. Had I forgotten the friendly mage's name? The Keeper's First? Just to make room for Anise? I stood still and stared blankly ahead as I scoured my brain for the name I'd been so proud of remembering. Anise's lips moved, but I didn't register a word she'd said.

To her credit, she merely waved her hand in front of my eyes until she got my attention. I shot her an apologetic smile and gave her an apology on top of it. She looked surprised, at first, but merely nodded in response. “As I said before, we need to get you some proper boots. The breeches will have to wait.” Her eyes were trained on my hips for a while. “Is that some form of... dress?”

I shook my head. “Just a very long... shirt, if you will.”

Her eyes went wide as saucers. “Oh.” Then her eyebrows shot up to the middle of her forehead. “Oh.” She paused for a bit, though her mouth opened and closed many times. “You might need a skirt,” she said in the end.

The thought of testing the intentions behind those words tickled my funny bone and I decided to play oblivious. “True. It's too cold for me to wander around the way I do now.”

She hesitated slightly before answering. “Yes... cold.”

That response caught me by surprise, though I maintained my smile and followed obediently as she bid me to come with her into another tent. Did she really imply that I had to dress modestly around male elves? With elf maidens as gorgeous as her around? Were they really that base in behaviour, no different from incels and the ones who made excuses for them? I was pretty sure that kind of behaviour around me was the exception rather than the general rule where elves were concerned. Racial preferences and cultural norms and all that. Not that I was wearing anything blatantly revealing anyway. Unless her concerns weren't with modesty in clothing? It had always seemed more like a human concept to me, created by the delusion that a piece of fabric could somehow be protective.

Thedosian elves might be the exception to that, though I sincerely hoped they weren't.

It made me wonder if the clan sported a rapist. They'd housed a paedophile, after all, so it was possible. Someone who knew how to hide it, too, and only go for the lowest of the low out of the members. A person that was easily intimidated into silence.

Which, at the moment, was me.

As if I didn't have enough concerns weighing me down already, now I couldn't even sleep at night. Nor did I have a telepathic spirit to help me single out the culprit. It all depended on where I ended up in camp and if I ended up alone. I was hardly in a position to make demands for where I slept, either, so this would be interesting.

In a fear of impending doom sort of way.

Stepping into the tent allowed my eyes to rest from the sunlight and I found myself looking at what was basically the spitting image of the tent I'd left. The only difference was the smell and sight of boxes containing leather. There was a lot of it, too, most likely used for all the armour and most of the clothes they wore, as well as the tents and aravels. Linen was probably something they got from humans through trade. Hopefully not theft. It would suck if these guys were the bandit-type of Dalish.

I reminded myself that they came with Blue's stamp of approval, the paedophile notwithstanding. Hopefully there were no rapists around with a preference for curvy women. I looked for ways to arm myself, regardless.

They probably wouldn't let me hold a weapon, but there were other things I could use for defence. I shot Anise my most innocent smile. “Do you have any nutcrackers, by any chance?”

She was currently rummaging through a box and pulled out a pair of leather boots. Very simple in design, but with a size that looked promising. She shot me an odd look before approaching me, however. “No, we beat the nuts against rocks to break their shells.”

Of course they did. Still, it gave me another idea. “Right, rock it is. Any smaller ones nearby?” Anise looked at me oddly and I struggled for a split second to come up with an excuse. “I like to collect them. It's a hobby of mine.” Total lie. Smile, smile, smile. “My grandmother used to do it, too.” That part was true.

“Oh.” Understanding seemed to come to Anise's face and while she still looked mildly puzzled, she didn't question me further. “We're close enough to the Frostback Mountains to find some, I suppose. I'm sure we can take a short trip, so long as we don't go too far.”

Two women off to find a rock to literally knock some sense into a would-be rapist. It couldn't get girlier, unless there was blood somewhere and Shale joined our team for advanced squishiness.

The reminder of the sassy, pigeon-hating golem made me feel strangely giddy. Shale – she – was real, too. Not that my mind stopped there. Rather, it followed down the path of dwarves, more golems, dragons, giants, giant spiders, undead, qunari, darkspawn, nugs, deepstalkers, brontos, werewolves, “swooping is bad” Alistair, Morrigan, Leliana, mabari, Wynne, Arl Eamon, Arl Teagan... I wondered how the fifth Blight had gone, choice-wise. Who and what had the Hero of Ferelden been and who was the Inquisitor? How had Hawke turned out? Just how universally hated were mages after Anders blew up the Kirkwall Chantry?

Also, how much trouble would I be in if the templars discovered me?

As soon as I began to think about how the realities of Thedas could – and probably would – affect me personally, the excitement from before vanished like a politician's morals after being elected. I vaguely registered Anise telling me to sit down so I could try the boots on and me obeying even as my emotions did a full plummet into fear and despair. It made me realise just how lucky I was that these elves were willing to take me in and how much I needed to learn for something as basic as survival. Some of it I already knew thanks to Norwegian cabin culture – pre-EU regulations – and camping trips in the wilderness of Norway, but that was still a far cry from the level that Thedas required. Especially with the lack of modern conveniences and bugs the size of motorcycles.

On the plus side, they did have cats.

The boots fit, and comfortably so. My slippers earned a look of disapproval from Anise before she shot me a questioning look. “Would you like to keep these?”

I couldn't think of a single instance where I would need them, yet I didn't want to throw them away. Not that velvet was a threat to the environment, but the soles were made from rubber, probably the synthetic kind, and that couldn't just be dumped into the bushes.

Not that I expected to stay with the Dalish for the rest of my life – unless I got eaten along the way, in which case said life would be shortened considerably – but the slippers would probably not be used for a long time. Environmental concerns aside, my current surroundings weren't cut out for wearing slippers.

I briefly wondered if enough heat would break down the enzymes in the rubber. If so, I could dump them into molten lava. That might lead me into dwarven territory. Now that would be a girly road trip worth taking. The Quest for the Slippers. They had to be taken deep into the Deep Roads and cast back into the fiery chasm from whence they came.

I giggled before I could think twice about it and earned a confused and slightly offended look from the elf. “I'm sorry,” I managed to say, but my brain was already on the path of “One Pair To Rule Them All” and “You bring great evil here, Slipper-bearer”. “I was thinking of something funny, don't mind me.” I cleared my throat a couple of times until the laughter finally died down.

I wasn't about to explain my thoughts beyond that, though. Tolkien's works was one thing, but the movie adaptations? That was a can of endless questions not worth opening. “I would like to keep them.”

“Then they're your responsibility,” she said and stepped over to the tent flap. I got up, slippers in hand, just as she turned back and motioned for me to follow. We stepped back outside together, Anise wordlessly leading me to yet another tent. This one, I saw as I stepped inside, contained some wooden crates. One was opened while the others still had their lids on. A male elf I didn't recognise greeted us both and while he didn't smile when he looked at me, he didn't look unfriendly either.

“These crates contain extra resources,” Anise explained and picked out various items. Unscented soap, glass bottles that looked to contain some sort of oil, shaving equipment, tooth brush, wash cloths, towels, a comb and another glass bottle, albeit with tree sap with a minty scent. I took a wild guess and decided it was toothpaste. Next came some thick cloth strips that I couldn't discern the purpose of. When I gave Anise a questioning look, she merely eyed my midsection and left it at that.

Even then it took me a while to realise she'd just given me primitive mini pads.

Everything was put inside a small, wooden wash basin and then I was shooed back outside. “You use that basin for both basic laundry and washing yourself, especially now in winter,” Anise instructed me. However cute her appearance, she wasn't unaccostumed to being in charge. “Baths are rare in the cold, so be thorough.”

“Where do I get fresh water?” I asked as we walked towards a third tent. “Do I go to the nearest stream?” Would I be permitted my own campfire so I could heat the water up? How would I go about cooking? Did I get my own tent or would I be tossed into the home of some unfortunate elf? I had so many questions in need of answers.

“We gather water during our travels,” she explained and stepped inside the third tent. I followed suit. This one contained a few leather backpacks, large, wooden kegs and a small pile of blankets. “We also set up camp near streams and rivers, and we can always melt snow from the Frostbacks if need be. For the time being, you may help yourself to the water supply outside. Rasanor is in charge of it. I will show you in a bit.”

A leather backpack, a blanket and a bedroll were added to my burdens and back outside we went. We didn't go to any more tents after this, rather Anise took me into an aravel. I blinked, surprised a mere human would be invited inside, but I figured it was only temporary. I was pleased to see that they weren't uncivilised barbarians and took off their footwear at the door.

Once inside I was reunited with Elf Chick and what looked to be her kids. Her arms instinctively went around her youngest who looked up at me with wide, frightened eyes. The second eldest hid behind her mother, but peeked out at me with shy curiosity. As for the eldest, the only son from what I could tell, stood between me and his family. His hands trembled, but he stared at me all the same.

I briefly wondered where their father was, but figured he was probably outside, caught up in his own business. Instead I shot the elves a friendly smile and waited for Anise to instruct me in what happened next.

“Fenla is my... what you humans call 'sister-in-law',” she informed me and I gave her a nod that she reluctantly returned. Anise indicated the children next. “These are my nieces and nephew.”

“Nice to meet you all,” I said and maintained my smile, though I couldn't fight back my curiosity as to why I was there. The aravel was sturdy, warm and dry, far more so than the tents.

“You will be staying here,” Anise went on, to the stunned silence of her family members. “Orders from the Keeper. With Misuin... gone, we have room for our guest here.”

Elf Chick's eyebrows narrowed. Clearly she didn't agree. “There was barely enough space for us when your brother was alive.” So her husband had been one of the hunters who died last night. Elf Two, the one who'd jumped in to save her? His actions made more sense, then, as did her cry of pain when he died. Ouch. She was no doubt in a lot of pain at the moment, and to get a shem thrown into her personal life on top of that... “Belraj and Sileal both died last night, too, and their aravel stands empty. Why don't you two just live there?”

I shrugged. “Seems reasonable to me. Better than to fill up this one.” Elf Chick looked momentarily taken aback, and while she recovered quickly, much of her frown had disappeared. “Especially seeing as children live here.” It was also easier to move adults than kids, and less traumatising.

“I will have to ask the Keeper,” Anise concluded. At least she wasn't opposed to the idea. “Stay here.” Those words were directed at me and then she left. I stood for a while until I found a stool. After getting permission from Elf Chick, I put the basin down.

She then indicated a chair on the opposite end of her. “You may sit if you like.”

“Don't mind if I do,” I said and sat down. Elf Chick's son still stood between us and he still stared, but he didn't tremble anymore.

I shot him a friendly smile. “You're a strong, young man, I see. Ready to protect your family?”

He nodded. “I'm going to make everyone proud one day.”

My smile turned warm. “You've certainly impressed me.”

He blinked, his mouth open and uncertainty in his eyes. Behind him, Elf Chick's eyes glittered with amusement.

“What do we say when someone says something nice to us?” she asked him.

There was a moment's silence. The boy regarded me carefully and then openly glared. “I won't be your slave, shem!”

Elf Chick looked completely mortified. She opened her mouth with a glare directed at her son, so I assumed she was going to lecture him. My insides bubbled with barely contained laughter, however, and it sprung forth the second I saw the look on her face. It was relentless, too, and the expressions on Elf Chick and her son alternated between shocked, confused, offended and amused and then back to confused. The boy looked to his mother for clarification, but she had none to offer. As for me, I couldn't stop laughing even if I wanted to.

Kids, man.

I ended up on the floor of the aravel at one point, clutching my sides, just as Anise returned with the Keeper in tow. To put an end to my laughing fit, I'd put my face down against the floorboards and breathed through my nose. It probably made for the most peculiar display.

It worked. I was slowly calming down. Thinking about having a normal, full-time job from eight to four also helped, and considerably so. Nothing bored me more than the prospect of steady work and repetitive chores.

At least the kind of chores that weren't involved with magic, travelling, adventure or art.

“What happened?” I heard Anise ask. “Alva, are you alright?”

“Laughing fit,” Elf Chick explained and a tremble went through me. I managed to stop it with another deep breath before it was unleashed and rendered my previous efforts null and void. “Something Athras said set her off. I don't think it's wise to repeat it.”

She was right. In fact, her words caused a temporary distraction in my thoughts about cataloguing new books and right back to her son's comment. I almost fell into another laughing fit when the Keeper killed it off most effectively.

“Asha'bellanar is here. She wants to see Alva, and immediately.”

I knew that name, though it took me a while to make the full connection. It was the name the elves had for Flemeth. Flemeth. The powerful witch abomination who could shapeshift into a dragon and had plans that would “shake the very heavens”. Morrigan's mother. Ancient being held alive by possessing her daughters. Or maybe not. She was secretive about that part, for sure.

Regardless, one of the most powerful creatures on Thedas had arrived and wanted to see me. A chill went down my spine and left me shivering. That woman was unpredictable, manipulative and prone to vicious acts. What I'd seen in the games was only a fraction of what she was capable of, and there was no telling what she wanted with me.

A thousand thoughts raced through my mind all at once. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that she'd noticed, what with me summoning ghost light and fire down from the heavens. Basically it was like painting a big archery target on my ass and broadcasting it on international television. Not that I'd expected to remain anonymous for the rest of my life, but I hadn't thought the first visitor would arrive so soon.

Considering how sudden it was, however, it probably meant that Flemeth had been startled by the sight of my spell. This meant that she hadn't had much time to plan ahead. A spontaneous visit more than anything. My magic was strange and I was a stranger. Most likely she hadn't decided what to do with me yet.

That could prove to be my salvation or reduce me to dust, depending on how our conversation went.

“Do you know of whom I speak, Alva?” Keeper Gillian asked.

I lifted my head from the floor. “Flemeth.” My stomach twisted itself into square knots, as if tied together by an experienced sailor. This couldn't possibly go well.

“A foreigner to Thedas that knows my name?” asked the wizened and rusted voice that I knew all too well. I looked up and saw Flemeth, as designed in Dragon Age 2, looming over both elves, her golden eyes fixed on me. “Do get up from the floor, dear. I certainly don't plan to join you down there, and my time is short.” She smiled wryly. “If anything, I've strayed from my path for much longer than I would have liked already.”

As impromptu as her visit was, she was as composed as ever. My feelings couldn't decide on whether to be nervous or excited that this powerful witch was real and stood right in front of me, so it mixed the two feelings together.

It was almost as troublesome as when I'd realised that Zevran was real.

My stomach made a loud, hungry roar as I got back up on my feet. A sigh sounded from Flemeth. “You haven't even fed your guest? What are the People coming to?” She tsk'ed disapprovingly and shook her head.

“Nehnis is in charge of the food,” Gillian replied. “She will make the rounds soon.”

“Not soon enough,” the Witch of the Wilds remarked dryly. “We shall gather in your aravel to dine, then, Lailani. After that you can all tell me about the magic I saw and sensed and this woman's peculiar origin.” She shot me a sharp look. “That kind of fashion doesn't exist anywhere on Thedas, but even if you were to wear more appropriate clothes, I can still sense the strangeness on you.” She stepped past Gillian and Anise until she was only a few inches away from me. All the while, my heart was in my throat, though I did my best to meet her gaze and stand my ground. Her sharp gaze lingered as she spoke. “There's much I would want to know about you, and you're not going anywhere until you've told me all that I wish to know.” A silent staring competition started between us and just as I thought she'd just grab me and fly off, her expression softened and she looked at me with unbridled curiosity. “Well, that's curious. And interesting.” Then she turned around and stepped back outside, all the while wearing a knowing smile on her face.

Chapter Text

Whatever it was that Flemeth had seen in me, I sincerely hoped it wasn't my brain's hentai section. Barring the facts that one of the most powerful mages in Thedas found me interesting, had levelled a veiled threat against me should I try to leave and had Keeper Gillian trail after her like a loyal puppy. But no, for some reason I was more concerned with the possibility that Flemeth had uncovered memories of my most unwanted run-in with the more bizarre versions of Japanese porn.

Priorities.

I told my silly brain that such a thing would hardly cause interest in a being like Flemeth. Not with Antivans in existence, anyway. I made a mental note to ask the Witch of the Wilds about the “interesting” bit, just in case she didn't elaborate during the questioning round.

Once I'd put aside my silly thoughts, however, I found myself facing a lengthy series of un-answered “what's going on?” questions. My magic aside, what was it Flemeth saw in me that could in any way, shape or form be considered “interesting” by her standards? Most importantly, would that kind of “interesting” get me reduced to a pile of dust? I briefly wondered if my clothes were flammable.

Or was her idea of “interesting” a world-shaking fate that lay ahead of me regardless of my personal wishes? Knowing how the Dragon Age universe worked, that probably meant the loss of someone close, or a body part.

Well, I'd already lost someone close to me. A lot of people close to me, in fact. My entire home planet, to be completely specific. I'd also had my appendix removed a lot of years before that, so there went the body part.

Maybe I was already on the road to some grand adventure full of tragedy and mistakes? Or maybe I would be “lucky”, like the Hero of Ferelden, and die for the sake of Thedas? Provided that was canon. Either way I made a mental note to find Morrigan and become her bestie. Wherever she was.

Though, come to think of it, that might put me at odds with the dangerous, shape-shifting dragon-witch in front of me.

Decisions.

As we walked towards the Keeper's aravel, I noticed how the elves around us all offered bows of deference to Flemeth. At least I assumed it was to her. They saw their Keeper every day, after all, and I was the newbie. The occasional muttering of “Asha'bellanar” helped narrow it down.

Some of those eyes went to me, too, though, and I could feel the weight of their stares as we stepped inside the landship. What did the great Flemeth want with someone like me, after all? No doubt there would be questions. And gossip. Especially gossip. That was a whole other level of headache that I didn't need.

It was also one that was sadly unavoidable, especially since they probably didn't have Paracetanol in this world.

They'd better have coffee.

Before I could ponder more on the medical technology of Thedas, I was assaulted by the sweet smell of red apples. The scent hit me like a lecherous old geezer, but without the unpleasant sensations or smell of old people breath. My stomach growled with a thunderous roar and as my eyes adjusted to the darkness of the indoors I found myself looking at the cook that everyone had talked about.

My gaze was quickly drawn to what stood between me and the aforementioned elf, however. A whole table full of greens, berries, fruits, nuts and seeds – even a large bowl of cooked, wild rice – and what looked like a lot of vinaigrette, glared up at me with their beautiful colours. Their smell hit me like a skilled seducer and I had to close my mouth to keep the drool from escaping. Judging from the sheer sizes of the bowls, it seemed a type of buffet where everyone would just put together their favourite ingredients. I spotted sunflower seeds, poppy seeds, pumpkin seeds and even sesame seeds.

There was more than just flavour going into their usage, however. With the Dalish living off the land as they did, animal-based protein was hard to come by. Seeds and nuts helped in that respect.

It was most fortunate that I was fond of most vegetables, fruits and berries and had no food allergies. I'd have to keep the sugar intake to a minimum, however, as my father was... had been diabetic and that predisposition was often hereditary. Not to mention overweight and obesity increased the risk of getting certain types of cancer. My mother had been a survivor of that particular disease and I didn't feel like repeating history.

Fortunately I was neither overweight nor obese. In fact, I was overall slim and in good shape, though probably still a decent mile or two away from what the likes of Aenor could accomplish. Despite my attempts to distract myself from the beautiful sights before me, I found myself thinking of the many wonderful salad mixes I could make. They even had dried cranberries.

“Well, let's not simply stand about and stare,” Flemeth cut in, somehow drawing my gaze away from the nourishment. No small feat, that. I noticed she had an empty bowl in one hand and salad utensils in the other. “Food is served.” Then she helped herself to what was on the table.

I followed suit, noticing that the greens were the hardier type – cabbages of different kinds, kale and brussel sprouts. Even red cabbage. There were also onion slices, but I wasn't in the mood for that. I picked up some kale, cranberries, chopped walnuts and hazelnuts, sliced red apples, pumpkin seeds, wild rice and sesame seeds. The last two went so well together it promised to be a veritable party for my mouth. As I reached for the vinaigrette, however, I saw Gillian and the Cook – that would be her nickname until I could remember her real name – stare at me wide-eyed and with their mouths hanging open. I froze in my slightly-bent-over-the-dressing position and sent them questioning looks.

Flemeth had said it was time to eat and, considering the deference with which the Keeper treated her, I'd simply assumed that the Witch of the Wilds was the real boss around these parts. Unless Gillian was about to contest that?

“You won't be joining us, then?” Said witch asked Gillian and stepped in between us, effectively blocking my view, and the Keeper's. I quickly helped myself to some vinaigrette.

“A certain level of decorum should be practised,” Gillian objected. It wasn't hard to understand what she meant. How dare the mere shemlen help herself to food inside the Keeper's aravel and not wait faithfully like the elves outside did?

“Decorum?” Flemeth sounded genuinely surprised. Then she let out a short laugh that sounded more frustrated than amused. “The girl is hungry, and so am I. We will eat and then we'll talk. Brains and tongues work better on fuel.”

Without even waiting for a response, she then turned on her heel and sauntered over to a chair, oozing with confidence every step of the way. This time it was my turn to follow like a loyal puppy.

Despite her earlier objections, the Keeper joined us with a bowl of her own food eventually. The Cook then finished up and took the bowls outside while we ate, but not before shooting me a glare.

Someone had a corn kernel shoved far up their-

“I never would have thought to put kale and apple in the same bowl,” Flemeth said, interrupting my thoughts and drawing my gaze to her golden eyes. With the close proximity we now had, she seemed even more of an ancient being than before. Something lurked behind those eyes, a greatness of soul unlike any I'd felt before.

Except maybe Hecate.

No, Hecate felt even greater and more timeless. Still, Flemeth wasn't far off.

My gaze went to her bowl, which contained some pieces of regular cabbage, red onion, rice and seeds. Poppy seeds, to be specific.

“I wasn't in the mood for onion,” I quipped and earned a quirked eyebrow in return. Her face was unreadable otherwise, and I was left feeling more puzzled than before.

New Quest: How to Gain Approval From Flemeth. With almost everything capitalised, because that was how it was done in English.

I briefly wondered if I'd lose my language altogether. It was highly doubtful that there were anyone in Thedas who spoke Norwegian. That made me wonder how English had somehow sprung forth in another part of the universe, independently of Earth. Unless Blue had magicked me so I could speak to these people. Odd that it sounded like English, then, and not my native language. No, it was probably English. Still, it was strange.

Then again, humans had apparently evolved in another part of the universe, independently of Earth, yet they would still count as aliens from outer space back home.

In this situation, though, I was the alien from outer space. With in-depth knowledge about people that I'd never met. It was one of the worst space alien stereotypes possible, and I fully embodied it. The irony was great.

At least I didn't have any in-depth knowledge about the events in Inquisition. Though, thinking about it as I ate, that wasn't necessarily a good thing.

I knew Solas was bad news, but I couldn't remember why. I'd never been one of his fans, fortunately, so I hadn't suffered any from the Great Reveal that I'd somehow missed back home. Baldness on elves just wasn't my thing. It reminded me too much of Dobby from Harry Potter. Cullen was alright, having changed a lot since his time in the Circle, though he still struggled with his trauma. Josephine was a diplomat and Leliana was one of my favourite characters from Origins. I knew that Sister Nightingale had become quite bitter over the years and that there was a way to un-harden her in the game. No doubt there was a real life equivalence to that. Hopefully, whoever became Inquisitor would take that path. I liked the sweet, friendly, warm Leliana best.

Then there was something about Empress Celene, mages and templars, wardens and darkspawn and the Chantry. All of it orchestrated by some Cori-face person. Corianne? Corinna? Corin? I couldn't recall.

Lots of stuff would be happening. My magic probably wouldn't be a happy sight on top of that. Self-defence against demons aside, if word spread past this Dalish clan, I would most likely be in trouble.

A whole heaped tablespoon of trouble.

I finished my meal in silence even as Flemeth and Gillian chatted about something that I'd failed to pay attention to. As always, the combination of nuts and seeds was enough to leave me full, and for many hours to come.

The meal had made me thirsty, though.

There was no English equivalent to the Norwegian tradition of thanking for the food, but I gave my thanks all the same. Gillian looked surprised and Flemeth pleased.

“Good manners cost nothing,” the witch remarked before giving her thanks to Gillian as well.

“It's customary where I come from to thank for the food after eating it,” I informed her. Flemeth's gaze moved back to mine and this time both her eyebrows were raised.

“Well, that's pleasing to hear,” she said and there was a slight smile on her face. “Now be a good girl and clean this up for me, would you?” She waved her empty bowl and fork in my face.

I was tempted to ask if her legs were broken, but considering my current place at the bottom of the clan's food chain, I figured that wouldn't be prudent. “Yes, ma'am.”

Though I busied myself with the clean-up, I did notice the corner of Flemeth's mouth turn up even more. I even felt her eyes on my back as I walked over to Gillian's washing bowl. My next task of finding water wasn't as easy. Anise had mentioned someone with some name that I couldn't remember who was in charge of the water supply. Water Guy. Water Gal. Water Person until the gender was determined.

The last one worked best.

“You needn't bother with water and soap,” Flemeth's voice cut in. “We still have quite a bit to talk about.”

My gaze went from her to Gillian, something the Keeper seemed to appreciate as she offered a nod in response. “Anise will show you later. Come sit with us for now.”

I obeyed and re-claimed my seat. Seeing as Flemeth was the one who wanted to ask me questions, I fixed my gaze on her.

“Let's take this from the start, shall we?” she asked and met my gaze squarely.

I repeated the truth that I'd spoken to Keeper Gillian about fifteen minutes earlier that day. Flemeth's expression remained unreadable during the whole talk. When I spoke of Blue, however, she seemed mildly surprised and she sent one look the Keeper's way for confirmation after I was done.

“I can confirm that what she says is true,” Gillian said. “Her story makes the most sense, all the evidence considered. I won't lie, though, it sounds completely outlandish.”

“That it does,” Flemeth agreed before returning her gaze to me. “However extraordinary your circumstances seem to be, your magic is what interests me. A bright light descended from the heavens, lit up with a roaring fire and a ghostly aura, yet the forest fires didn't burn brighter. Then I felt a powerful and indomitable will sweep this world and slap some sense into the clouds so they would rain down on the flames and put them out.” She looked at me meaningfully the whole time she spoke. “No mage I know of has that power, and I don't sense its full extent in you. Tell me, what's the nature of your magic and how were you able to do what you did?”

Oh boy. “To answer your first question, my magic is that of white magic. Exorcism, healing, protection, purification and transformation. In short, I de-possess people and turn demons back into spirits.”

There was a pregnant pause as I pondered how to best explain the concept of Hecate. Within that moment, however, the air became thick with shock and disbelief. The look on Flemeth's face even bordered on... impressed? Her surprise still clung to her face the longest, as if she wore it like a shroud.

“As for how I was-” I began, but she cut me short.

“Let's talk more about your magic.” Her golden eyes were now completely fixated on me. “In all the centuries of my existence, I have never encountered such a thing. How did you learn to do it?”

Might as well go with the truth. “I was attacked by an evil elf who had infected my former coven sisters and turned them against me.” I tried not to look at Gillian as I said this. “I got help from some other witches, but I figured out most of the steps on my own.”

Flemeth blinked. “Just a natural gift for magic, then.” Her voice was light-hearted, but there was no mockery in her words. Her voice dropped low next, however, almost as if she was giving me a warning. “I know many who would envy that.” We regarded each other in silence for a split second. “Still, this is the first time I've heard of exorcism that actually works.”

“Then perhaps my story of being from another world isn't so outlandish after all,” I quipped. The ensuing silence made me fear that I'd overstepped my social bounds, but then Flemeth's face broke into a smile, her eyes sparkling with merriment.

“Perhaps,” she echoed, though it felt nothing like an acquiescence. If anything, she just seemed amused.

Whatever. What mattered to me was my continued survival, not what the Witch of the Wilds thought about me.

Said woman turned her attention over to Gillian. “What are your plans for her, apart from what I assume is to offer her your basic hospitality?” That question I didn't mind, as I was curious about that, too.

“I thought to put her healing magic to use,” the Keeper began, “and study her unusual magic while she remains with us.”

I decided to pipe in at that moment before I could be shoved further down the clan's hierarchy. “Feel free to speak to me while I'm here.”

It wouldn't have surprised me in the least if that was me overstepping my boundaries. A part of me fully expected the Keeper to take offense. Instead she gave me a short, but sincere apology while Flemeth's eyes sparkled with amusement.

That was something.

“We will also teach you what you don't already know about survival in the wilderness,” Gillian went on. She looked as if she meant to say more, but a hesitant look came to her eyes and she withdrew.

“That's it?” Flemeth's voice was tinged with disappointment. “There's a much wider world out there to explore, with challenges of its own. A world currently thrown into chaos and made even more dangerous than before. Magic and knowledge of herbs alone isn't enough to survive.” There was a slight pause before her eyes went back to me. “I sense a strong personality in you, and that will attract attention, both for good and for ill. Not to mention that pretty face won't always work to your advantage.”

In other news, water was wet. My personality always got me in trouble, and my opinions even more so, despite how non-controversial they were. Mostly because they drew all the extremists out of the woodworks. I hadn't faced that many problems of unwanted male attention, though. Mostly because I wasn't in the habit of wearing make-up or skirts. Not that I disliked skirts, if anything I preferred them over pants, but I'd been overweight for most of my life. Until the last year, in fact, when I'd finally reached my ideal weight and size. To my luck, fat girls tended to be ignored by most sleazebags.

That could very well change, though. Self-defence became ever more a priority. If nothing else, it was an excellent way to stay in shape.

Still, there was no way the Dalish would teach me how to fight, even unarmed. I was already quite the exception.

Flemeth's gaze had returned to Gillian, however, and there was ever the slightest bit of doubt in the Keeper's eyes.

One didn't simply stand up to the Witch of the Wilds' judgemental gaze.

“We can't let a stranger, let alone a shemlen, touch a weapon, no matter how much she helped us last night,” Gillian tried all the same.

“What do you intend to do should enemies attack your clan?” Flemeth argued back, and there was a snappiness in her voice that hadn't been there before. “Have some hapless fool of a hunter babysit her? She survived the battle with the demons because she had the protection of a very powerful spirit, one that's now gone.” Her gaze returned to me. “How much combat skill do you have?”

“Basically none,” I confessed. “At best I can throw rocks, or anything else not too heavy.” Possibly use my telekinesis in some way. That wasn't something even the Dalish could deny me.

At least my options weren't completely limited.

The unimpressed look on Flemeth's face reflected well my own feelings on the matter. She turned back to Gillian. “Let me make one thing very clear to you both. Unlike the rare person that I encounter from time to time that stands out among the rest, I can't read Alva one bit. However,” she turned back to face me, “you do stand out, this much is obvious.”

“Do you mean my aura?” I couldn't help but wonder just how Flemeth “read” people, beyond the basics of body language.

“Your aura, your mind, your heart, your soul,” she listed. “None of these things are accessible to me.” There was a slight pause and then she smirked. “Your face is an open book, however.” Her smirk faded somewhat. “Still, body language is awfully limited.”

My brain froze. Was that the part of me that she found interesting?

“Regardless, we will not teach her how to fight,” Gillian cut in.

“And what do you say to this?” Flemeth's gaze hadn't left me even when the Keeper had spoken. “Do you think you'll need fighting skills in order to survive?”

Despite my concern about wearing out my welcome, my need for survival was greater. “Absolutely,” I then turned my gaze to the Keeper, “and I would be a fool to turn a weapon against my only benefactors.” Though I hoped there was some room for self-defence, just in case.

A long silence followed, during which Gillian's face showed an inner struggle. I maintained my own expression of sincerity and our gazes remained locked for what seemed a small eternity. Her eyes didn't hold hostility in them, only indecision. Then she looked away.

“Don't make me regret this,” she muttered in the end. Despite how reluctant she sounded, she was quick to continue. “In exchange I insist you teach me your magic.”

My eyes widened. Flemeth beat me to it, however. “Is that kind of magic something we can learn?”

I noticed how she'd said “we”. “The hunters were able to,” I explained, “and Halin. However, white magic is very demanding and difficult to pull off, let alone maintain throughout your life. It can work for a while, but the rules are very clear – you may never use this magic to attack others.” I also wasn't sure if it would replace local Thedosian magic and disconnect the mage from the Fade or just naturally merge the two together. It may even cause an internal schism, especially if they started calling on earthling gods. I made sure to voice these concerns, although I kept the part about the deities out of it.

That made me wonder if I could connect to the Fade, too, and learn Thedosian spells. If I did, would I then lose my earthling magic or suffer any of the aforementioned effects? Worse yet, would I then be in danger of possession?

“Seeing as the hunters can't access the magic of the Fade, perhaps it would be wiser, and safer, to teach one of them,” Flemeth reasoned.

It could very well be, but I had a bad feeling about the whole thing. There was a certain degree of purity to white magic, and while it solved many problems in the long term, it often worked too slowly for some. If I taught earthling witchcraft to a Dalish and they grew bored with my spells, there was nothing stopping them from exploring “quicker” and considerably more destructive solutions.

And unless Hecate had restricted access to Thedas for other earthling entities, that kind of magic would probably draw dark and vicious entities here. Thus the chance of possession would come to me regardless.

“My magic requires a great deal of willpower, too,” I informed her, hoping to discourage any more talk of learning spells from me. “It's likely the hunters have the ability, but if they lack the will, then there's nothing I can do.”

“Were they not able to lend you their strength during the de-possession of the Keeper?” Flemeth countered.

“Because they were desperate,” I countered, “and I offered them what hope I could. Will is something people must find on their own, train and nurture, to be used when needed.”

In fact, one of my former coven sisters had lacked the will when it came to spellcasting. She'd given up on witchcraft altogether.

A look of defeat came to Flemeth's face. “True. I've seen enough mages with faltering wills already, and they are the first to become a danger to everyone around them.” She paused before she regarded me with newfound motivation. “You're in no danger of possession from Fade spirits, are you?”

“Not from Fade spirits, no,” I echoed, an emphasis that didn't go unnoticed.

“Are we to assume you've brought your own special brand of demons, then?” Flemeth raised one eyebrow and the corners of her mouth went down.

“Not I,” I replied. Certainly not Hecate, either. If anything, she'd roast them before they even had a chance to get here. “I can't say for certain that I'm the only survivor, though.” In fact, if some other earthling witch had come as well, and brought Kali along, then that didn't bode well for any Tellusian fiends with plans for relocation.

“Would you look for them if they should turn up?” Flemeth pressed.

“Not alone,” I replied. Especially if they were armed or enemies. Even friendly ones were best not to approach on my own. “And certainly not as I am now.”

Flemeth eyed me from top to toe before offering me a nod. “Fair point. Let's say, then, that this scenario is in the future, after you've received the best training this clan has to offer. With company, of course.” There was a moment's silence. Curiosity danced in the ancient witch's eyes, though her face remained neutral. I got the distinct feeling that she was up to something. “Would you do it?”

A telltale sensation in my gut and the sudden weightlessness in my head – as if I was dreaming – informed me that my answer would be one of those “make it or break it” situations. My brain couldn't fathom how that would be, but I'd learned long ago that revelations came to me at their own pace. “To save them or stop them?”

A small smile played on her lips. “Now that depends on the circumstances, wouldn't you say?” Another silence followed, heavy with expectation, like a child before Christmas.

“Yes,” I said in the end, “in both cases.” If any of my fellow earthlings got themselves mixed up with Thedosian villain company, then I'd happily assist in knocking some sense into them.

That made me sincerely hope that no Solas fangirls were in Thedas. Or fanboys, for that matter. Well, the apologist sorts, anyway. Or worse, the ones who thought that if they kissed his ass enough, he'd spare them. Not that I knew what his exact plans were, though, but it wouldn't surprise me if they involved wholesale destruction.

There might even be earthlings who were delusional enough to think they could control him.

Magic or no, we earthlings were able to cause a whole lot of trouble if permitted. We really weren't meant to be here. I certainly shouldn't be. Yet I was, as if someone, somewhere, had stuck their middle finger into space and said “not this woman”.

Someone like Hecate, perhaps? It certainly seemed like something she would do.

Still, why me? I had no problem being dead, if anything I wouldn't have to deal with all the crap going on right now. A good chunk of my life I'd suffered from a severe depression. Death was an old friend, though fortunately not the type that wanted to hang out all night and eat all my popcorn.

“Well, then,” Flemeth said and drew me back out of my self-imposed train of thought, “I find my curiosity about you sated, curious though you remain. That shall have to be the rest of Thedas' problem, however.” She rose from her seat, as did the Keeper, and faced Gillian directly. Well, as directly as she could seeing as she was a head taller than the elf. “As per our arrangement, I shall give you my reading for your clan's future, seeing as I came to visit. When the time comes for the clan to move camp, you had best be as thorough as you can in the aid you leave behind. Exclude nothing. Also, get a horse for your new guest.”

Gillian's eyes widened. “A horse? That's expensive!”

“It's either that or her own halla,” Flemeth parried. “Get her no mount at all, however, and a chain of events will form that will lead to the destruction of this entire clan.” The Keeper's jaw dropped and my own eyes widened.

The horrific warning aside, Flemeth sure knew how to make a convincing sales pitch.

Gillian didn't seem intent on letting the Witch of the Wilds have the final say, however. Her features set, she turned directly to face me. “We have no halla to spare, but if you pay attention to our lessons, we shall give you the chance to befriend one. If you succeed and the halla will carry you, then we will introduce it into our flock.”

It sounded more like a challenge than an offer, though more to show up Flemeth and regain command than to discourage me. Gillian put in good effort to stand tall, but she was dwarfed next to the Witch of the Wilds. Flemeth simply oozed a level of power and confidence that the Keeper didn't match. One had what I called the “queen's aura” and the other one didn't.

Still, Gillian deserved credit for trying.

“Sounds like fun,” I cut in and shot the Keeper a smirk. This time it was my turn to show confidence. Gillian grew silent and regarded me with an unreadable face, as if she wasn't sure what to make of me. I briefly wondered if I should stand, but I didn't feel a need to. Flemeth turned slightly, but not even her gaze could kill my smile. If anything, she shot me a smirk in return.

Then, without a word, she stepped towards the door. Gillian rushed to follow, but I felt no need to join her. In fact, me staying seated seemed to please the Witch of the Wilds even more, as if she was the cat that ate the canary. Even so, I couldn't bring myself to tear my eyes away from her.

Then again, what sensible Dragon Age fan could?

“It's been... enchanting,” Flemeth said, her eyes trained on me even as the Keeper came to stand between us. When her gaze finally settled on Gillian, her smile faded. “This is the last reading I will ever do for you. If you're as clever as you like to think, you will heed it.”

“No more advice than that?” the Keeper pressed. A combination of pity and weariness came to the witch's face, so tangible I could feel it from across the room.

“Choose your successor wisely.” Then she stepped outside, sent the door flap flying to the side, and put her boots on. Gillian followed, more questions spilling from her lips even as she put her own footwear back on. Flemeth remained quiet the entire way, even as they walked away from the Keeper's aravel with no mind to the fact that I was still inside.

Meanwhile, I had a lot to think about.

Chapter Text

No doubt someone would suspect me of mischief if I stayed inside too long, so I got back up on my feet and went to the aravel's exit. My boots were right where I left them, not that I'd expected them to wander off on their own. I heard more of Gillian's arguing as I put them back on, but she was finally driven to silence with a very distinct threat from Flemeth.

“Enough! Unless you wish me to take flight in the middle of this clearing, I suggest you pipe down and mind your people instead!”

Yeah no, no dragon stomping in my near vicinity, please.

Several elves had gathered to witness the spectacle, including Anise, Halin and Aenor, but also Improvisation Guy, Elf Chick and Snarly. Uncertain looks were exchanged, but not even the most seasoned, well-armed hunter reached for a weapon. Instead a silence hung over the area, like a beast on edge, waiting for what would come next while ready to pounce.

The Keeper seemed to gain a measure of wisdom at that, for she backed away with a muttered apology, her head hanging low. Flemeth's frustration faded, from her face at least, and she walked away quietly. Fortunately for us all, she remained in human form as she did. Looking in the direction she went, it seemed she'd decided to climb up the mountain itself. For a while she disappeared into the darkness of the woods, and I saw many elves gather around me to watch as well.

This was probably the closest thing to entertainment in a world without Netflix.

Eventually the lone form of Flemeth reappeared upon the mountain path, her small form moving up until she disappeared yet again. The ensuing silence lasted for more breaths than I bothered to count. Eventually some of the elves lost patience and resumed their duties, slowly but surely followed by the rest until it was only me and Anise left. We exchanged curious gazes and half-smiles before looking back at the mountain. Something in common between us, despite how our differences spanned across the cosmos, wordlessly communicated. In that moment I felt a little less lonely than before.

The elves got busy placing out tables, chairs and stools. Food from the Keeper's aravel followed next, along with mugs and decanters of water. I remained in place, but my eyes wandered enough for me to register these things. The children were ushered out into the open, though they didn't need much encouragement now that food was served. Some of them even ran to the tables, though a few of them paused to send me odd looks.

Elf Chick took it upon herself to explain to the children who I was. “Alva is a friend to the clan, and she will stay with us for a while.”

Good summary, nice and short. Left more time for eating.

A few more breaths followed and then came what I'd been waiting for – the dragon roar. It echoed off the mountains like a monstrous cacophony, its roots so firm I felt it run up through my toes and fill my tiny, irrelevant form. My heart trembled like a leaf and my mind was numbed with an all-pervasive silence. I could only stare in slack-jawed awe as the full form of Flemeth's majestic dragon form came into view.

She stood high up on the mountainside, but not so high that we wouldn't see her, let alone be unaffected by the strong winds her wingbeats would summon. All around me I heard shuffling and elves shouting and soon enough they all huddled around me and Anise like eager children. The actual children all rushed to stand in front of the adults, led by an eager Athras. There was some leadership potential in that one.

Flemeth remained still for a while, and I took that opportunity to take in her full dragon form. She was a good distance away, but no less real. So very real. My heart was in my throat and a wave of realisation that hadn't fully settled in yet now came crashing down on me. I drowned in the harsh reality of Thedas, swept away by grief, despair, excitement and terror. Somehow I registered my cheeks getting wet, but I couldn't react even if I wanted to. My tears came on relentlessly, causing my nose to run as well. I managed to sniffle, and the act made me feel vulnerable and exposed.

Then, just like that, the great dragon took flight. One beat of her wings sent the trees below creaking and groaning from the intense wind. Leaves, twigs, bugs and even small animals came flying at us. All around me, elves huddled together. Anise called to me, but I couldn't move. I tried to will my body into action, but all I got for my effort was the slight movement of my right pinky.

A large hand came to rest on the back of my head and forcefully shoved it down with a strength I hadn't expected. I bent over and my knees buckled under me next as someone pressed their knee against the back of mine. In that moment it felt as if what strength I had fled from me like a frightened bird and I collapsed helplessly to the ground. Someone caught me before my face hit the dirt, however, and I ended up leaning against that person instead. Something about those muscular arms holding me seemed awfully familiar...

I closed my eyes and tried not to think of my snot soiling someone's armour, a long moment passing as I did so, and then the air was calm once more. When I opened my eyes, I found I was on the ground, my new boots now caked with dirt and a disoriented squirrel in my lap. The furry thing was bleeding, too, so I moved my hand as quickly as I dared on top of the wound. I earned a frightened squeak for my effort, but I made soothing noises as my hand lit up with healing energy. It took a bit, but the animal permitted me to touch it in the end. The spell took hold and when I removed my hand, the bleeding had stopped and the small animal could move again.

Despite its newfound mobility, the squirrel quickly fell over after just a couple of steps. The elf next to me picked it up, and I looked up and saw Aenor. Gods damn it, why was he always the one to save me? I also noticed his hand was still on the small of my back. When did it relocate there?

I distracted myself by looking at the squirrel again. Its breathing was heavy, suggesting fatigue. No wonder, after its blood loss. Aenor, ever the resourceful one, had a nut in his free hand that he fed the animal with. Well, tried to feed. It refused, strangely enough, and sent me a pleading look.

Taking a wild guess as to what the animal wanted, I held out a hand to Aenor. “May I?” Our eyes met and of course he was even more handsome up close. My brain went mush as he placed the squirrel food in my hand, my only salvation the brief break in joined gazes when he looked back at the animal.

Hecate bless squirrels.

It ate when I fed it, and then it lay back down in my lap where it promptly fell asleep. An awkward silence settled, though Aenor's hand remained in place. I was very okay with that.

I looked to Aenor for guidance, as being a squirrel's bed was something I had no experience with. The warmth from the squirrel seeped through my sweater and I could even feel its tiny heartbeat where it lay. It was enough to melt my already soft heart – where small, cute animals were concerned anyway – and I couldn't bring myself to wake the poor thing.

Aenor turned away, which resulted in his hand leaving my back, and set to work scooping up some moss to create a bed. The warmth from his hand lingered, however, tingling and sending small shocks through my back. A very pleasant sensation that warmed my cheeks and curled my toes.

It was such a shame he didn't give me any elf prince vibes. Then again, finding him now would be like looking for the infamous needle in the haystack – again. I had other priorites. For now.

Still, it felt like I was two-timing, even though I technically hadn't done anything. It bothered me more than a little.

With Aenor's help, I managed to move the squirrel ever-so-gently onto the moss bed. He then cradled it carefully in his hands and carried it off in search of what was probably the animal's home. Hopefully the nuts were still there.

There was no sense in sitting in the dirt, so I got back up again and turned to see how the rest of the elves were doing. They'd all managed to get back up on their feet, although quite a few animals lay scattered about. More squirrels, a couple of dead birds – and several more that were alive – dormice and even some badgers. All of them were frightened when they came to, and disoriented, but the Keeper, Halin and several hunters were able to calm them and help them on their way. The rest of the clan kept their distance, though, especially the children. I decided to do the same.

It didn't escape my notice how filthy my boots had become, nor did I miss the bloodstain on my beloved sweater. Hopefully Anise would teach me how to clean them.

Most importantly, I was wearing boots. That it had taken the destruction of Earth to make me appreciate something so simple, however, gave the sense of appreciation a bitter aftertaste.

I'd gladly give up a pair of boots to have my friends and family back.

My earlier good mood went crashing and burning in the fiery pits of Mordor and I surrendered myself to pointless sulking and self-pity. I wasn't strong like some people, nor an uncaring psychopath. A part of me wanted desperately to mourn what I'd lost and another wanted me to stay in mourning indefinitely.

I tried listening to the voice that told me to keep my chin up, but it was annoyingly quiet. Not that I'd obey it anyway, I was too fond of collapsing helplessly during the most inappropriate moments. Still, it would be nice to know it was there.

Despite how far I'd come, some things could still drag me back down into a depression if I let it, it seemed. Though there was no denying what had happened had been a huge blow.

The sight of the cloth-covered bodies of the dead did nothing to help, either. How much longer until they were buried, again? It was a wonder they didn't stink up the place or attract hungry predators.

There was probably magic involved.

All I knew of Thedosian magic was that of the Circle of Magi in Origins, Flemeth and Morrigan. I had no idea what the Dalish were capable of, by contrast, except the tiny insight that had been offered through Merrill in the Dalish Warden's origin playthrough. Then the magic systems had changed in Dragon Age 2 and even more so in Inquisition. That was probably more of a gaming “flair” than any reflection on the actual nature of Thedas' magic, but it made me curious as to which version was the real one.

I was glad the elves didn't have the Dragon Age 2 design for their appearance, though. That would have been outright dreadful, especially after what they did to poor Zevran.

That, in turn, made me wonder if Bioware had decided to revert back to his Origins appearance for future games. What if they'd decided to continue to push him down the spiral of illogical unattractiveness that they'd thrown him into?

Hello, I'm Zevran Arainai and I can totally sex up anyone who fancies handsome, male elves. While looking like the unwanted child of a train wreck and a disaster. Yeah no.

It made me relieved to know I didn't have to worry about that anymore. As it were, male elf fangirls and -boys were starved enough for love interests that catered to their fancy. Besides, if Aenor, Improvisation Guy and multiple other male elves in this clan alone were anything to go by, I was unlikely to run out of eye candy any time soon.

I almost felt bad for not sharing.

Speaking of elves, as soon as their immediate concerns of calming frightened animals and correcting toppled furniture were tended to, several children started asking why Asha'bellanar had almost completely decimated the forest. I looked around the area and saw that it wasn't a wholly inaccurate description, though perhaps a bit exaggerated. Some trees had bent over, but none of them had been ripped out of the ground or broken in half. A little Dalish muscle and magic and they'd be back up again in no time.

The elves had even managed to save most of the food. They'd manage. Some of the tents had been knocked over, though.

“It's best not to dwell on why she does the things she does,” the Keeper told the children. “She's a mystery even to the wisest of Keepers.”

Or it could be because Gillian had become excessively whiny and demanded more than she was owed. Take your pick.

One thing was certain. The full impact of my surroundings had hit me in the face with the force of a female giant's bitch slap.

Even though that should have been a big, fat “duh” from the beginning, there was a huge difference between knowing about something and witnessing it first hand. I had just seen my very first high dragon, and boy was I lucky it had been Flemeth and not some hungry beast that liked to snack on humans. It was even luckier that my panties were still dry. Not that I was in the habit of wetting myself when I was afraid, or overwhelmed by any other emotion for that matter.

I did a lot of other crazy things, though.

My heart still pounded madly in my chest even as everything else around me calmed down. I hadn't even noticed how active it had become until then. On top of that my head felt fuzzy and light, as if I'd lost all contact with the ground.

Hopefully this was a one-time incident with dragons and I got some form of adjustment period before facing the next. Not that I had plans to seek any of them out. Life was unpredictable, however, especially seeing as I'd joined a group of wanderers.

Come to think of it, I'd gone from living with my mother to living in a mobile home. Not really an upgrade, that.

Still, it could be worse. I knew that intellectually, but my childish, petty self still wanted a moment to sulk.

It seemed I had more than dragons to adjust to.

The elves recovered quickly from what had happened and took turns getting food. Aenor walked past me, and while there was no physical contact I still felt the warmth from his body brush against my poorly clothed skin. My mind immediately took me down the route of how nice it would be to have him as a snuggle buddy.

Far from the worst that my mind could conjure, but my cheeks flared up all the same.

Unfortunately, Anise noticed. Fortunately, she misunderstood. “Oh, Alva, you must be catching your cold in this weather. Your cheeks are turning red.” Aenor turned and shot me a concerned look. That made me think of him as a naked snuggle buddy and my cheeks grew even hotter. Anise was in front of me and pressed her wrist pulse up against my forehead. “You're burning up. Come, let's go to my new aravel. The Keeper has agreed to Fenla's idea, though it will take some time to move all our things.”

Yes, indoors. Preferably without naked Aenor. Fenla's idea was great. I wondered if she'd seen Aenor naked.

I really had to stop thinking about Aenor naked.

It didn't help that he was walking beside me and asked me if I was alright. When did Anise invite him to join us? Not that she'd specified just me and her, but-

My brain – and any of the objections still left in my head – died a horrible, gruesome death when Aenor placed his hand on my forehead. It was warm to the touch, a touch that tingled all over my face, much more strongly than it had on my back. For a moment we were caught in a breath between breaths and I could honestly swear that I was about to have a heart attack.

Gods damn it, Mahariel, this was not helping!

The worst part was that he probably intended to do just that. He was a good person, and that broke my heart while it also made me appreciate the gesture.

This was a bloody nightmare.

I was used to getting attracted, even infatuated, hard and fast. It was how it always went. Impatient Sagittarius and all that.

I'd had the worst luck with men, though, back before I'd contracted the condition known in folklore as fey-loved. Now I was crushing – and lusting – over some guy I'd just met the night before, someone I barely knew. An elf, in the middle of the woods in some fantasy world!

Crazy didn't even begin to describe it.

Anise came to my rescue, calling my name and helping me snap out of my daze. I managed to extract myself from Aenor, which wasn't as hard as I'd thought seeing as my hands weren't all over him. “I'll be fine,” I managed to mumble before turning on my heel and walking away. Regret immediately struck at my rudeness, and I managed to stop myself after the third step and turn back around. “Thanks for caring.”

His smile very nearly killed me. It also dragged a smile out of me in return, as if he'd grabbed my cheeks and forcibly pulled them apart. I turned away before it could become a full-fledged grin and fought long and hard to kill it.

Fortunately, by the time I entered my new home, the merriment on my face was so dead the Dalish could bury it and plant a tree.

I was immediately sat down by Anise who closed the aravel door behind us. She then rummaged around while I got to take a closer look at the place.

It was smaller than the Keeper's, but I'd expected as much. Pillows and blankets had already been rolled up and placed to the side. They'd probably belonged to Pedo Mage and his brother. It seemed Anise had been busy while I'd talked to Flemeth. I should help her.

Anise was in front of me before I could get back up again, however, and put a cup of water in my hand. “My brother is always so ignorant of his effect on women, elves and even some humans.” She shook her head and sighed.

My cheeks flared up with the heat of lava and I fully prepared myself for the scolding of “how dare you think you're good enough for him”. An often rehashed line brought to me throughout my life whenever I'd liked a guy, and from my mother the most.

To my surprise, Anise merely smiled. “I'm glad you like him rather than fear him, like most humans do. That sour expression of his does little to endear him to them.”

Considering how cute Anise was and how sweet her disposition, I found it odd that the two of them could be related. It also felt a bit awkward to be around her with her full knowledge that I had the hots for her brother. I guessed “dignified” would never be an adjective used to describe me.

“He's got a strong protective instinct behind that rough exterior, though,” I cut in, “and he's kinder than most men I've met.” I stared down into my cup, suddenly feeling very self-conscious about speaking so openly about someone I hardly knew. “At least, that's my impression in the short time I've known him.”

“You must be quite the people person, then,” Anise replied and I looked back up to see her still smiling at me. “You basically have him pegged.”

A small moment of silence followed as I thought of something clever to say. “I have to make up for being human somehow.” Then I shrugged and smiled.

Pearly laughter sounded from the clan's most beautiful elf maiden. The sound made me smile. Self-deprecating humour, I found, always worked best no matter where in the world I went.

No matter where in the universe, too, for that matter.

“It doesn't bother you that I'm attracted to him?” I asked once her laughter had died down.

“No, of course not,” she said and shook her head. “Our Keeper teaches us that this is a natural thing. It's rare for humans and elves to be attracted to each other, even more so where my brother is concerned. He told me you were quite fearless in battle, however.” She shot me a knowing grin.

“I had help from a very powerful spirit,” I shot back dryly.

“Still, if Aenor's signature frown hasn't frightened you, few things will,” she argued back. “I can't say if he feels the same about you. It usually doesn't happen that fast for elves, and he's a very private person. He's also better at hiding it than you.”

My heart sank. “I made a scene in front of the whole clan, didn't I?”

All Anise did was shoot me an apologetic smile. I put the cup down and hid my face in my hands. What a way to start my first day in Thedas.

“Ah, poor Alva,” she said with a small laugh. “Don't worry, most of the clan won't bother you about it.”

No, they seemed like alright people. I had a nagging suspicion that Tamlen was going to give me trouble over it, though. He seemed to enjoy tormenting me, the jerk. Or worse, he'd tell Aenor and then I couldn't even face him.

Considering how Anise didn't seem to mind me liking him, I took it as a sign that he wasn't married with kids. That was a slight improvement to my situation. Not that I was in the habit of getting attracted to husbands and dads. If anything, their life situation showed in their face too much. While I didn't mind the idea of marriage, I wasn't fond of the concept of having kids. It seemed my own body was in agreement with that and only ever drew me to good quality men with the same level of selfishness as me.

That was something.

“So the talk about me catching a cold...” I trailed off and shot Anise a questioning look. We clearly hadn't fooled anyone, after all.

“For the children,” she said with a knowing smile. “They don't have the same reservations about teasing you like the adults do. Well, and for Aenor's sake. We don't need both of you all flustered.”

I raised an eyebrow at that. “It's that easy to get his cheeks all red?” He had to be a virgin. No other explanation was possible.

She smiled. “He's not used to such attention from women, not even within the clan.” Her smile turned sad. “He was fond of a girl many years ago, when he was still a child, but she was sent away to another clan because of her magic.” She shrugged. “He's seemed completely disinterested in romance since.”

At least he took a fancy to the magic girl. Or was simply not afraid of magic.

No, there was no point in getting my hopes up. Even if most of the clan wouldn't get in my face about my attraction, it was unlikely that Aenor returned it. Ethnic and racial groups had a preference for their own and exceptions were far and few in between. There was no reason to believe that this didn't apply to Thedosian natives.

Not that I was in any way, shape or form qualified to decide what Aenor's preferences were, of course.

All this overthinking hurt my head. I needed a distraction. “Moving things, yes?” Anise looked at me oddly. “We have things to move in here. Probably after moving things out. Or? I'm not familiar with the customs.” I shot her a sheepish smile.

“Oh!” Realisation came to the elf's face. “Yes, we need to move out the old things, and then the Keeper will purify everything. After that we will move our things in here.”

That was essentially witchcraft. Did that mean Gillian had access to white sage? A promising start if that was the case.

“Right,” I said and emptied my cup. “Shall we get started?”

 


 

Clearing out the aravel took several hours, although the Keeper's purification ritual took only ten mintes. I checked my phone while we worked. The watch had to be adjusted to the local time, a feat accomplished by examining the sky, taking into consideration the time of the year and asking Anise at what time lunch had been served. After that, I'd sought to discern what “luncheon time” meant to elves while hoping I wasn't completely off.

I kept my phone activity to a minimum so as to prevent the thing's batteries from dying down too fast. Not that I was going to get a charger and an electrical outlet in Thedas, but I wanted it to last as long as possible.

In a way the diminishing battery was representative of the time I had left before I had to say my final farewell to my old world. That wasn't something I wanted to do just yet.

Halin had joined the Keeper in the purification, and once they'd finished, he even stayed behind to help us carry our things inside. Even with his help it took a while to get everything in place. I hesitated when all that was left was my harp, wrapped back up inside its carry-bag. While I'd brought it with me from the tent where I woke up, I didn't care much for keeping it around. A wave of mixed feelings washed over me and I stood still as I stared at the instrument that had caused Blue's death.

“Will you play for us?” Halin asked with a hopeful bounce in his voice. “We Dalish don't have any instruments like that, but we love music.”

I loved music, too, which was why I'd taken to playing in the first place. “Perhaps one day,” I managed to say. “I'm only a beginner, so I'll have to practice first. Learn more songs, too.” Convenient excuses.

“We have songs,” Anise supplied unhelpfully. “Once you feel confident you can play your instrument, I'm sure we can share some of them.”

They would wait a long time, then. I wasn't even sure if I'd play again.

“You should probably bring it inside so it doesn't get cold,” Anise suggested gently, and I snapped out of my daze. Right. Couldn't very well leave it out in the open, how silly. I somehow managed to pick it up, though I almost caused it to topple over as I did, and brought it with me inside. There was just enough room for it at the end of my bed.

Not that Dalish beds were anything like the superbly soft mattresses back home. It was more of a wooden cradle, and not made for curvy human women. The length was quite agreeable, though, and there was plenty of feathers and wool stuffed under the tight-fitted animal skin. Beneath that again was a thick and soft carpet. Linen had been placed over the skin, along with the bedroll that Anise had provided me with earlier. I didn't think I'd sleep uncomfortably, though I couldn't quite shake off the mental image of my arms hanging over the sides of the bed.

Still, it was better than sleeping on the floor. Much better, in fact.

Aravels didn't have windows, so I probably wouldn't spend much time in here. That meant I had little to no point in rehearsing on the harp. Exactly how I preferred it. Besides, I'd be busy training with whomever Gillian appointed to me anyway. Then there would be everyday chores to do.

In short, I'd be blissfully busy. Too busy for music.

While a part of me rejoiced at that thought, another part gently reminded me that I wouldn't be happy this way.

Well, I wasn't happy about Blue being dead for the sake of a piece of wood and strings, either.

Anise interrupted my gloom and doom by shooing me out of the araval. I noticed Halin had made himself scarce in the meantime. Anise brought me along in the direction of the elf guy who'd met us in the tent where she'd given me my hygiene products. “Rasanor, meet Alva. Alva, meet Rasanor.” I noticed he stood near several unopened, wooden barrels.

I extended a hand. “Charmed.”

He took it after a moment's hesitation. His grip was firm and strong. “It's nice to meet you too. The hunters told us quite the tales about last night. We owe you much.” Then he gave me a nod, a sincere look in his eyes.

That level of forthrightness and friendliness caught me so off guard I could only open my mouth and gape stupidly. I probably should have said something along the lines of how they didn't owe me anything and that it had been the right thing to do, but my mouth wouldn't comply. He was so not-stereotypical-Dalish that it took me many long seconds to recover.

“Rasanor is in charge of the water,” Anise's voice informed me from somewhere behind me as we let go of each other's hands. “It's his job to collect it and store it in these barrels.”

“Fresh every morning and evening,” he added, “which is when we usually do our washing. Anise informed me that you needed to clean both yourself and your clothes, so I collected this for you.”

He had actually gone and fetched water for me? Water Guy was so totally bestie material.

Still, that was a lot of water. “All of this is for me to use?” I looked at him incredulously. Surely they weren't expecting me to take a full bath?

In reply, he merely shot me a lopsided grin. “You're going to need it, believe me.”

“The river is too cold for laundry,” Anise clarified. Well, that explained a lot. “If you help Rasanor carry the water barrels to the aravel, I'll get the fire going.” Then she disappeared before I could even give her my response.

She sure was busy.

Carrying the water barrels was fortunately easier when we were two, but we still went back and forth a total of four times. My breath quickened on the third round and I felt my arms and legs ache a bit after the last one. Not bad all things considered, but more exercising wouldn't hurt. I got to watch as Water Guy put a three-legged cauldron over the fire that Anise had built and then they set to filling it with water.

Whoever thought elves were weak simply because they were thin-boned had a lot to learn.

I fetched my small basin in the meantime, but kept my sweater on. Even though it needed a thorough wash, I didn't have anything else to wear. As I saw it, there was no point in undressing until I had the soap and hot water and could wash myself at the same time. Thus, while Water Guy said his farewells after his initial help, Anise and I ended up sitting near the fire together and waited for the water to boil.

A low rumble sounded overhead, however, and Anise had us pull out a tarp and attach it to the landship. We made it just in time as the rain struck almost immediately after. It came with a mild wind, too, but the tarp was big enough to provide proper walls. So long as the wind didn't change direction and blew the rain straight in our faces, we'd be fine.

The rain came down hard, though, creating a rhythm of steady beats. There was even some more rumbling, a promise that thunder wasn't far behind. I loved thunder, in fact my entire family did. We'd gathered outside the flat at times like these, with coffee, cocoa or tea and chocolate chip cookies and we'd watch the miraculous display of the natural forces of the sky.

It was also all too reminiscient of every camping trip I'd ever had with family or classmates. I didn't miss the latter, but the former sent a pang of pain into my heart that was impossible to ignore. There was no point in denying the pain, let alone put it off any more than I already had. Besides, this seemed a good a place as any to let it all out. I just hoped Anise wasn't the type to be bothered by the sight of another person's grief.

Hugging my knees, I rested my chin against them and let the tears come. A violent tremble went through my body as I allowed the memories of all those I loved to surface in my mind. All those I'd lost. My breathing quickened, but I still felt reservations against weeping. I forced myself to look in the direction of the four elves covered in linen, and those reservations disappeared like a poorly constructed dam against a flood. My throat and chest constricted, I shuddered and the tears came forth.

Next to me, Anise put another log on the fire, keeping me quiet company the whole time.

Chapter Text

Dinner was a simple soup made of root vegetables, onion, garlic, herbs, spices and beans that warmed my body and soothed my soul. The latter two ingredients I assumed they'd got a hold of through trade. A firm and earthy smell of fennel and cumin, two of my favourite spices.

I was quiet as I ate, though my mood had been lifted considerably by the presence of butternut squash in my food. My tears had dried, my sniffles stopped and Anise was kind enough to keep me company.

We were inside the aravel as we ate, seated on simple, wooden stools near a small, wooden table. The furniture was tall enough, however, and sturdy. Anise had lit a few block candles and put them inside hooded lanterns that she'd put in strategic places, both indoors and on either side at the bottom of the aravel's stairs. A single candle stood firm in its holder on the table and offered us some additional light. Cups of water were served alongside the soup.

Seeing as my sweater was drying on a clothesline, I'd wrapped myself up in my blanket. Dinner, stockings and a closed landship door covered the rest. It still rained outside, so the tarp remained in place. What thunder we'd heard earlier had disappeared before it could reach us, much to my disappointment.

On the other hand, it was nice to feel clean. In addition to a thorough body scrub, I'd washed my hair and brushed my teeth. I hadn't dared go near the shaving knife yet. The sight of the sharp edge terrified me.

While I'd communicated with Anise, we hadn't discussed the day's events. There had been a lot for me to take in all at once, and I assumed she'd sensed it. If anything, knowing that all these events had taken place in less than a day made me feel as if I'd been in Thedas much longer than I really had. It was also creating a bond of dependency in a one-way direction towards the elf maiden sitting across from me. That would make future freedom difficult to achieve, especially if we had a falling out at some point.

I could be on my best behaviour, but if Anise turned out to be toxic or immature, I'd be back to square one. Another bite of the lovely squash drove those pessimistic thoughts away. This situation was the kind I'd have to tackle one step at a time. There was nothing else for it. If there was one thing I knew I was good at, however, it was to make friends wherever I went. China, Russia, Japan, Germany, France, England, Italy and Greece, I'd always managed to find someone.

That was something I could do here, too. Indeed, I was quite capable, socially, I just had to put in the effort. Feeling a spark of determination awaken within, I ate the rest of the soup with considerably better mood.

Anise must have picked up on the improvement in the atmosphere as she visibly relaxed on her side of the table. There was even the slightest smile on her face, though it disappeared as she helped herself to some more soup.

It struck me, then – Anise and Aenor had lost their brother last night. Origins had depicted the grief that struck Mahariel's clan when they believed Tamlen to be dead, and no doubt they all felt the pain of the loss of four of their members. Anise, however, had felt the pain more personally than most of the other clan members. The very person who had been given the burden of looking after the misplaced shem with magical powers and not-yet-established loyalties.

I wasn't racked with guilt over my previous weeping. My pain was just as legitimate as hers, after all. I came to the realisation, however, that I'd have to work hard and do my best to learn everything I could. The less I dragged my feet, the better it would be for both of us.

First order of business should be to for us get to know each other. Once I was done eating, I put the bowl down. Anise was up on her feet, however, having finished her soup as well, and reached for my bowl. I beat her to it, chock full of good intentions, and got up on my feet, bowl in hand. The blanket fell from my shoulders and left me bare save for my underwear and stockings.

Right.

Anise merely gave me a knowing look and held out her hand for me to put the bowl into. While it pained me to admit defeat – I was competitive on top of all my other charming traits – I handed her the container. “I get to wash my own dishes once I wear clothes, right?” I pouted in a silly way.

She was quiet for a while, staring at me with wide, slowly blinking eyes, as if she was unsure what to make of me. Perhaps it was too much to hope for that she was my kind of crazy. I'd burnt myself on more than one “normal” person in the past. My hope was right on the edge of its rough and awful fall towards despair and loneliness when her face broke into a wide smirk.

“You bet,” she said, her gaze on me and her smirk strong even as she turned away and stepped outside. The rain still beat with its steady rhythm and for a moment I merely stood there, staring into space with my mouth hanging open. Then came the rush of renewed hope and utter giddiness.

While it was only the beginning and real trust and friendship took time to establish, my joy couldn't be contained. Maybe it was the fact that I'd felt really down earlier – these emotional states were quite close to each other in human beings, after all, which was why the shifts were so sudden. Whatever the reason, I ended up doing a happy dance inside the landship, half naked and without a care in the world.

At least, until Improvisation Guy and Aenor, hoods up, stepped inside, calling for Anise. Their hoods came down in much shorter time than what I needed to reach my blanket.

I froze in an odd position, fully exposed. Elvhen eyes grew wide, jaws dropped and an awkward silence settled. Only Aenor blushed and neither of them looked away. I wasn't sure if that meant they didn't practice the idea of bodily shame like humans did, that Aenor had grown used to seeing me without most of my clothes on in the short time that I'd been there or that they were perverts. Perhaps the presence of Improvisation Guy made Aenor braver than he'd been back when I woke up this morning. Well, midday.

Minor detail.

Regardless, I felt my stomach do a violent flip-flop and I came to remember that rock that I was supposed to go find. Leave it to me to forget such a thing.

Improvisation Guy's face broke out into a full grin and his eyes literally drank me in as they roamed across my form. I felt a moment's trepidation – wasn't he the one who'd made a gift that had been destroyed by the demons? A gift for his bride? I wondered how she'd feel about her fiancé ogling some half-naked woman, and a human at that.

The cold glare came to me easily.

It was enough to kill his lecherous grin and he even took a step back. Aenor, by contrast, bent down and picked up my blanket before carrying it to me. His face was as red as a tomato, and it helped lessen my annoyance with his friend. I decided to devote all my attention to him and flashed him a smile. “Thank you,” I said with the utmost sincerity before I wrapped myself back up.

The blushing elf attempted to speak, stuttered a bit and then coughed to clear his throat. “I'm sorry for not acting sooner. This isn't proper behaviour from a Dalish hunter towards a guest.” I noticed Improvisation Guy looked to the side, a grumpy pout on his face.

He got credit for not disrespecting his leader, but that was all he'd get from me. I turned to face Aenor again. “Try knocking next time, or call out and wait for an answer before you step inside.”

“Right,” he said with a smile and looked back up. I was momentarily struck by their bright green colour, lights from the candles flickering in them. His smile was much too handsome under such conditions and I noticed he had some lines on his forehead and glabella. He wasn't as young as the others, then.

I tried to think of something clever to say, but my brain had somehow disappeared under mysterious circumstances. In lack of a better way to describe it, I was simply mesmerised by the elf in front of me. His warm, kind eyes, combined with the harshness of his features, created a contrast of character that I could relate to all too well. That he had dark, long, soft locks of hair helped as well. Ruggedly handsome elven men with long hair was one of my bigger weaknesses.

“Should I leave you two alone?” came the teasing question from Improvisation Guy. Aenor's head turned around, breaking our eye contact, much to my disappointment. The satisfied smirk on Interruption Guy's face said it all. He'd had his revenge.

Well, two could be that petty.

“There's no need,” Aenor informed his friend before turning back to me. “We were meant to pick up Anise, for the burial. Have you seen her?”

That was a long time to wait to bury the dead. Was it a rule to do it only at night? They'd probably been too busy to bury Pedo Mage and the rest the previous night, then. Especially while dragging me and my harp along.

I had caused no end of trouble for these elves, hadn't I? Sure, I'd exorcised a lot of demons, saved one of their mages, helped them de-possess their Keeper, jumped into the Fade to save her...

Okay, maybe I wasn't that much trouble.

“She went outside to wash some dishes,” I informed him. There was still water left from Water Guy, but it was cold. Chances were, if they hadn't met her outside the aravel, then she'd probably headed somewhere else. Maybe one of the other elves had hot water readily available. I doubted it was easy to see anything with those hoods pulled down over their faces and the heavy rain pouring down all around them.

That made me realise they were actually going to host their ceremony while outside in this weather. “Is the whole clan going to attend?” That would be a lot of thoroughly soaked elves.

“We will all be outside and join in on the song,” Aenor explained, “but some will keep fires going and serve hot drinks to the rest of us.”

“Oh, good,” I said before I could stop myself. Aenor and Improvisation Guy both shot me curious looks. “That you won't be cold, I mean, and that you have somewhere to dry yourselves.” Their curiosity turned to slight bafflement, though neither looked displeased. In fact, their expressions perfectly mirrored each other, despite how neither could see the look on the other's face.

Hunting together really created a bond of its own.

“We'll probably see you in the morning,” Aenor said in the end and offered me a friendly nod.

I nodded numbly in response. What stood before them now was a lot of grieving and pain, and there was only one thing I thought was appropriate to say. “Good night.”

Aenor's face slowly changed into a friendly smile and his eyes regained their earlier warmth. “Sleep well, Alva.” Something about the way he spoke my name, with that lovely, deep voice of his that reverberated within me, caused my heart to beat faster. The sensation that the sound left inside me was somewhere between a tickle and a tingle, almost like a cat's purr. It made me feel all warm and fuzzy and a part of me wished he could stay.

That was a selfish thing of me to want, though, so I kept quiet as he turned away and walked towards the exit. Improvisation Guy remained tied to the spot, at least until Aenor was right next to him.

“Himsulem?” While it was phrased as a question, the strength in the commanding officer's voice left no doubt as to what would happen to the hunter if he lingered.

“Right, burial,” he said almost absent-mindedly, flashed me a smile that did nothing to warm me up to him and then turned and paused. A short staring contest took place between him and Aenor until he finally relented – with a pout – and became the first to leave. Aenor shot me a glance, one filled with... concern? I shot him a reassuring smile and nodded to show he had nothing to worry about. While his friend's behaviour was inappropriate, he didn't strike me as the rapist type of guy.

Then again, I wasn't in the habit of hanging out with rapists, so I didn't really know what they were like. Maybe I should sneak out in my blanket and look for that rock? Hopefully it wasn't too dark...

Pitch black with fires scattered around the camp was the sight that met me when I peeked outside. Right, plan B, then. I went back inside and looked around, but the landship was too sparsely furnished. Surely Anise had needles somewhere. I took a step in the direction of her bed, but paused as I reconsidered. She probably wouldn't appreciate me going through her things. That left my cell phone, harp and slippers.

I wasn't going to damage my precious phone on some jerk's face, and I still hadn't settled on my “keep or destroy” dilemma when it came ot the harp. That left my slippers, which I shot a long and silent stare. The Slippers of Doom indeed. Maybe I could use one to shove into the would-be assailant's mouth. It was better than nothing. I stored both in strategic places near my bed.

If all else failed, I could throw the person off with a slipper-slap. It might even sting a little. Hopefully that would give me enough freedom of movement to shove the person off.

Then came a heavy pause and my mind asking me “now what?”. My sweater wouldn't be dry until tomorrow, and it would be inappropriate for me to go funeral crashing. Not to mention what being surrounded by the grief of a number of elves that I had yet to fully count would do to my emotional level. Especially if I picked up somebody else's grief and felt it personally, which sometimes happened.

I'd had enough grief for one day.

The problem was, I wasn't tired enough to go to bed yet, but I also had nothing else to do. My phone didn't offer much in ways of entertainment – at least without wi-fi – and I wasn't going near the harp.

Then, as if to make everything worse, my bowels reminded me that it had been way too long since my last trip into the woods. Just what I needed now, an emergency pee break. I rolled my eyes and sighed in frustration.

Anise had already explained to me how pee breaks worked. I'd even been shown to their tent-latrine shortly after my tears dried up. The problem was that if I went outside now, I'd get my blanket soaked. I would then have to hang it to dry while wandering around aimlessly in my underwear until I was tired enough to go to bed.

Screw it, I might just slip in under the covers anyway. Even with all the candles burning and the thickness of whatever the landships were made of, it wasn't terribly warm in there.

Still better than the tents, though.

Actually, come to think about it, the tents probably had fireplaces. That, technically, made them warmer. Though they probably didn't have beds.

I would have pondered just how Anise and I were going to stay warm come winter, but my basic body functions demanded a solution and thus became my top priority.

Deciding that it was easier to get forgiveness than permission in this case, I went to the exit and pulled my boots on. After making sure the fabric covered as much of me as possible, my head included, I slipped outside.

Fortunately for me, the ceremony had already begun and all elven eyes were on the Keeper. That meant there was probably no line at the loo. I brought a lantern with me just to be on the safe side and then tip-toed in a pathetic attempt at stealth towards what I'd lovingly nicknamed the “pee tent”.

Surprisingly, I made it there without incident. The tent itself was simply some leather and silk strapped over a wooden box that served as the toilet. There were plenty of leaves to use, which probably meant that the clan had its own leaf picker. They also had a bowl of water that every visitor had to empty and re-fill after using. Next to that was a bar of soap. Then there was the obligatory bucket of dirt, twigs and moss used to cover up one's “business” and bury the smell.

I finished easily enough and after a thorough scrub I took the tub with me outside. There was a barrel still half full of water outside, so after emptying the tub in the spot I had earlier, I re-filled it and placed it back inside. All around me, the elves were either gathered around fires or moving back inside their tents and aravels. It seemed the ceremony was over, and I noticed a group of elves was busy covering up the graves. The energy in the air felt lighter, though no doubt it would still be a quiet night.

Once suitably covered in the blanket, and with the lantern in hand, I closed the tent flap behind me and tip-toed back under the steady beat of the rain. I was on a good roll, for once, and I almost made it back on that same wave of good luck.

Almost.

I was right outside the aravel when I went into a full frontal collision with an elf significantly shorter than me. Whoever it was had materialised out of nothing, and we both stumbled around before we regained our footing. The blanket fell away from my head and I was afforded a cold shower that would do nothing to keep me well and healthy. I yanked it back up as quickly as I could, shaking my head and wondering what could have possessed this crazy elf to nearly jump-tackle me without warning me first.

I raised my lantern and beheld the hooded face of an unfamiliar, pretty elf maiden. Her skin was as pale as Anise's and I spotted some pale blonde hair sticking out from under her hood. She looked up at me with blue eyes full of indifference. I opened my mouth to offer a polite apology, even though she was technically the one at fault.

She beat me to it. “Watch where you're going.” Her voice was as lacklustre as her facial expression and she moved on immediately afterwards, not even waiting for a reply.

I stared after her, gobsmacked, and too stunned to even form a response. Now that was just rude. Annoyance began bubbling up inside me, and I knew this sort of thing would eat away at me for hours, if not days. I would seriously lose sleep over this if I didn't set the record straight. Even more annoyed now, because her rudeness caused me to stay out in the rain longer than I wanted to, I caught up with her easily enough and called after her. It took a few tries, but she finally stopped and turned back around.

“I was watching my step,” I informed her, holding up the lantern between us so she could see the stern look on my face. “You jumped at me out of nowhere. Next time, you give me a warning.” Then I gave her a taste of her own medicine and walked away without waiting for a reply.

“Rude,” she shot back anyway.

I turned back around. “Yes, you were. Don't worry, I forgive you.” Then I walked off again, this time with no more retorts thrown back at me.

It was a small victory, but I savoured it all the same.

Once I was inside the landship again, however, I met not only Anise, but also Aenor and Improvisation Guy. I blinked and did my best to remain covered, even though the blanket was soaking wet. What were the boys doing here?

More importantly, why were they taking their cloaks off and hanging them to dry?

Anise came to my rescue when her keen eyes spotted the confusion that was apparently written on my face – again. “They're going to sleep here tonight.”

What tiny smidgen of safety I'd felt earlier disappeared into the freshly dug graves. I felt abandoned, misunderstood and helpless all in one. Not that I feared anything from Aenor, but Interruption Guy had already made his unwanted interest in me clear. While engaged to someone else. Who knew what that guy was capable of?

It was also quite bizarre to invite Aenor to join, even though he was Anise's brother. She knew I was attracted to him, after all. Surely this would only complicate things!

As if he'd read my mind, Aenor was by my side with a hand on my back and a small smile on his face. Gods I loved it when he smiled at me. “Don't worry, Himsulem will share his space with me while you and Anise-”

A high-pitched whine, as if that of an unhappy dog, sounded from Improvisation Guy. The smile on Aenor's face disappeared and he turned to face his friend with a frown. “You have a bride!” he and Anise chorused. I noticed she glared at Interruption Guy, too. Looking back, I saw him turn from a whiny look to blatant sulking.

He had to be the most unreliable fiancé in the world, polyamorous or in a very unhappy relationship. Regardless, none of that was my problem.

My faith in Anise was restored, even though a small part of me lamented that I wouldn't get to snuggle up to Aenor. I mentally bitch-slapped it into silence. While I fell hard and fast, I didn't like forcing such things. I was still a romantic at heart, after all, and a sucker for slowburns.

“What are these doing here?” said elf maiden asked and I saw her stand by my bed, my slippers in hand.

“Extra pillowyness,” I lied and shrugged. She looked at me oddly, but merely shook her head and put them on the floor. Just as well, there had to be room for her in there, too.

Then, without warning, everyone began to strip.

I blinked, having fully expected there to be some conversation first. Some kind of socialisation before sharing body heat, perhaps? Introducing the newly adopted shemlen to her new aravel-mates? Yes? No? A half-naked Aenor extinguished some candles just as Improvisation Guy slipped under the covers and then he followed. Over in what I'd mistakenly believed was my bed lay a naked Anise, and she looked at me expectantly.

First I snuffed out some more candles. Then I made certain the boys were in bed – a peek confirmed that they were, though Interruption Guy stared at me with a wide grin on his face. Aenor covered his eyes with his hand and earned loud protests for his efforts. I slipped out of my underwear and stockings during their distraction and threw the wet blanket over the laundry string. After that I slipped under the covers to a waiting Anise.

No homo.

It was the first time in a long time that I'd been held in my sleep. The last time it happened I'd been a small child. Anise's grip was firm, even as I picked up the last candle and blew it out. Aenor and Improvisation Guy sounded like they settled down after everything went dark, and then Aenor wished us all good night. Anise and I responded candidly, whereas Interruption Guy grumbled something incomprehensible. My eyes closed shut shortly after, relaxing both mind and body in the tiny space where I lay. I felt the fatigue of the day hit me, despite how I'd woken up in the middle of it and hadn't done anything all that physically challenging. The soft body of Anise and her even breathing in my ear quickly soothed me into a deeper rest. Sleep claimed me sooner rather than later.

 


 

I could have sworn I'd just fallen asleep, but the next thing I knew, Anise was calling for me to wake up. My eyes shot open and I blinked, confused.

“But we just went to bed,” I argued, but she was no longer behind me. Rather, I was on my back, fully covered by the collection of coverlets and she towered above me, fully dressed and even wearing her leather armour. Was she going on a hunt? Were chevaliers or regular human bandits on their way and planning to be dicks? Or worse, were we facing more demons? I chanced a peek and saw it was only the two of us in the aravel. Soft morning light shone in through the open door.

It was Anise's turn to blink. “You must not have dreamed last night. It's morning and the halla have gathered. We need to exit the aravel soon.”

“Right, time to get up,” I muttered, feeling more than a little miffed that I hadn't dreamt anything, but sitting up in bed all the same. Anise handed me a bowl of cooked oatmeal with an assortment of nuts, fruits and berries. Not my favourite, but I wasn't about to complain about breakfast made for me, especially since oats was probably something they'd got from humans rather than grow and harvest themselves. Then I froze as her words sank in. “What are the halla gathered for?” I picked up the wooden spoon she gave me and started eating.

“Our move,” Anise explained as she gave me my sweater and stockings, but none of my underwear. “The Keeper wants us to go somewhere far away from fade rifts. We only stayed behind yesterday to heal our wounds and bury our fallen.” She paused before adding. “I suppose none of us had the time to inform you.”

“Busy will do that,” I muttered indifferently as I munched on. It wasn't that big of a deal. The oatmeal tasted like boiled cardboard, but I forced myself to swallow it all the same. Once I was finished I looked through my tiny clothes pile to find my bra and panties.

“Your undergarments are hanging to dry,” the elf maiden informed me. She'd had the time to do laundry in the morning? How long had I slept, exactly? “I've asked for bindings for your breasts and Bangaela has made a simple skirt for you to wear.”

Fortunately I had time to comb my hair first. Anise even helped me braid it afterwards and we used hairpins and ribbons to keep it in place.

Bangladesh the elf woman stepped inside not long after. At least I assumed it was her. I hadn't been introduced to this elf maiden yet, after all, and she carried some neatly folded fabric in her hands. Plus, she was the first elf of the clan that I'd seen who had an afro.

An elf with an afro had to be the coolest thing ever. Then again, I'd always been an afro fan. Bangladesh also had skin the colour of a Sub-Saharan African and a similar nose shape, although her lips were thin for someone who otherwise looked Sub-Saharan. It made for an unusual contrast, but not an unattractive one.

“Good morning,” she said with a pleasant smile to both of us. Then her eyes went to me. “You must be Alva. I'm Bangaela, nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too,” I said in reply and then added as she gave me the things Anise had asked for, “and good morning.”

I put my stockings on as the pair of elf women chatted. Then they set to work with the bindings.

“You've caused quite the stir among our boys,” Bangladesh said at one point, but her tone was amused, not accusing. “Poor Aenor had to drag Himsulem out of the aravel this morning. Usually he's the first who's out and about to work. Even Tamlen had to get involved. It really doesn't do for Himsulem to neglect his duties like that, entertaining though his antics are.”

My face fell. The rest of the clan might find it amusing, but I didn't. I also noticed Bangladesh' emphasis on “duties” and I wondered if Himsulem's bride was included in those. “Not to mention he's betrothed, or so I heard last night.”

There was a short silence and an unpleasant sensation in the air, but then the seamstress nodded and smiled a strained smile. “Yes, of course.”

It seemed there was more to the story than I'd first thought. Especially this almost non-judgemental attitude towards Himsulem's behaviour. Was it socially acceptable for soon-to-be-married elven men to chase the skirts of human women? A last “tryst” with a shemlen plaything before a serious elvhen marriage?

The very idea made me sick to my stomach. Not that I thought this would be my “role” in the clan. If anything, Aenor and Anise had expressed their obvious disapproval of Himsulem's actions. It was probably likely that I read too much into things, and I certainly didn't know enough about Afro Elf to understand the motivation behind her words. In fact, it was probably my grief making me less trusting than normal. She hadn't done anything to deserve that.

The bindings were finished in silence, although it took a lot of fabric to keep my breasts in place. I got a comment about them from Bangladesh in the end, but judging from her frame, we were more kindred spirits than strangers in that area. It was a shame the games hadn't yet begun to cover different body types. Now they never would.

An all too familiar sting returned, so I decided to distract myself by thanking Afro Elf for her help.

Her smile was bright when she replied. “You're welcome.” Then she leaned in as I pulled on my sweater, her voice dropping low. “Naturally, when we've settled down in our new home, the two of you are invited to join me in my sewing club.”

Anise frowned. “I'm no good with stitches, you know that.”

I figured Bangladesh meant something else. “Hot drinks and gossip is nice, though.”

The seamstress' grin was so wide she was near to, well, splitting a seam. Anise caught on, and while she smiled, she still shook her head. “We're too busy with everyday chores to find the time for that.”

“Nonsense,” Bangladesh argued. “We have a guest who should be made to feel welcome here.” She gestured to me as I picked up my new skirt. It was made of leather, lined with what felt like silk and long enough to reach my knees. Thanks to the nature of the “fabric”, it was heavy enough to prevent anything from flying in unwanted directions.

Still, it was going to be a “breezy” walk, especially up my-

“Are you familiar with sewing, Alva?” Anise cut through my thoughts and brought me back into the conversation. Just as well.

I put the skirt on as I answered. “A little bit, but it probably wouldn't hurt to know more.” Especially now that I didn't have access to sewing machines or stores full of clothing made from underpaid workers in third world countries. That last part I didn't lament, though. Good riddance to such treatment of people. Well, it could have been less Ragnarok in solution.

The skirt fit quite snugly over my hips, almost a bit too tightly, but it was manageable. “How did you manage to get such accurate measurements without meeting me first?”

“Aenor told me,” she explained. “He has a good eye for measurements and plenty of time to study yours.”

The knowledge that Aenor had spent a good amount of yesterday staring at my butt stayed with me even as the clan seamstress took her leave. Not even brushing my teeth or washing my face made it go away.

Anise managed to get me to assist her in preparing the landship for travel, yet the mental image didn't leave my mind. The harp got to stay inside, the beds were folded together in a neat and clever style and then we were outside, boots on.

Aenor returned just as I'd managed to forget about his butt-staring. He wished me good morning with a smile and my innards melted as I returned the gesture. The weather was crisp and chilled, and neither sweater nor skirt would be enough to keep me warm, even with the help of the knitted stockings and silk bindings underneath. It was a good thing I was set to walk. That should help me warm up. Still, I'd give a lot for a scarf and a pair of gloves. Even a cap of some sort. I wondered if elves knitted. Probably not. Knitting required wool, after all. Dalish, from what I knew, didn't keep sheep. I hugged myself and shuddered when a cold gust of wind struck.

Fenla arrived next with a backpack, informing me that those who had to walk also had carry duty. The backpack itself was made of leather similar to my skirt, with a simple design. I put it on my back and while it was stuffed full, it wasn't as heavy as I'd expected. Still, it would probably begin to wear me down as we marched. I just hoped it wouldn't slow me down too much. That wouldn't make for the best first impression.

I forgot all about the temperature and the walking I had to do the second the halla arrived. Anise and an elf man, the one I assumed was the halla herder, coaxed a total of four halla to settle into their places near the harness. Beautiful didn't even begin to describe them, and the artistic depictions in-game did not do them justice. It was as if they brought a bit of the Fade with them, an ethereal glow emanating from their majestic forms and their steps lighter and more elegant than that of deer. Their eyes regarded me passively and without objection, for what harm could one human do surrounded by elves? I hoped I got the chance to let them get used to me. The last thing I wanted was for such amazing creatures to fear me.

Aenor came to stand beside me and my feelings for the halla must have shown judging by his next words. “You like what you see?” His voice was a deep rumble that still resonated inside me, but not even he could fully distract me.

I nodded. “They're amazing. I never thought I'd ever see one in person.” I felt my eyes grow wet and even a single tear managed to escape. Its journey down my cheek ended abruptly at the cheekbone as I wiped it away, though I still sniffled.

He shot me a puzzled look, but I had no explanation for why the halla affected me so. They just did. A long, companionable silence followed, and we stood close enough for me to feel his body warmth radiating off of him. I wondered what it would be like to be embraced by him rather than Anise, and I felt a moment's jealousy towards Interruption Guy, as silly and irrational as that was. Yeah, this was going hard and fast.

“We have a long march ahead,” he said once the last halla was attached to the harness.

“I should manage,” I said, and while he accepted that readily enough, I didn't feel the least bit confident. All I could think of was how nice it was to stand next to an elven radiator. A handsome and sexy elven radiator, at that.

“I'll be scouting with the other hunters, to ensure our safety,” he explained. “Anise will join us, so if you need anything-”

Our eyes met as he reached that part of the line and his gaze reflected the warmth radiating from him. For some reason, he'd trailed off mid-sentence, though I'd barely noticed. “Yes?” I asked and shot him an expectant look.

It took a while before he continued. “Halin and Keeper Lailani wish for you to keep them company. If you need anything, they're the ones to ask.”

Right, put the magic people together. It made sense. Aenor looked as if he wanted to say more, especially after his eyes had travelled around my face a bit. Tamlen called him over, however, and after some hesitation he bid me farewell. I stood back, watching everyone gather. Gillian and her First, I found, stood at the head of the congregation. Even as I went to join them, there was a mixed sense of dread and anticipation in the air that I couldn't quite shake. While moving on was undoubtedly wise, there was an undeniably emotional aspect to all of this.

Walking away from this place meant walking away from the world I'd left behind. Forever. My steps felt awkward and wobbly, a physical manifestation of my inner turmoil. As if I was a baby about to take my first step. A reassuring smile from Halin helped my fears settle somewhat, though not entirely.

Then the Keeper gave the order and, before I was emotionally prepared, the long march began.

Chapter Text

The name of the clan was Elandrin. Gillian told me that about an hour after the march started, and only because I remembered to ask. Her husband, who looked no older than her, promised to tell the story of Elandrin when we'd settled down in our new surroundings. He'd introduced himself by name, and told me he was the resident storyteller. My mind named him Storyteller for easy reference.

Marching hadn't been as straightforward of a walk as I'd thought. At first the elves had argued over which way to go. North was warmer, which would be handy as winter was approaching. South was where the Dales were, however, and many clan members wished to visit and pay their respects to their dead on “The Dirth”, whatever that was. If I was to hazard a guess, it probably had something to do with Orlais' “Exalted March” on the Dales. Honouring their dead was a practice I could relate to, although it brought up very recent memories that were of no help to me now.

However, the Dales had been torn apart by Orlais' civil war and dark rumours came out of a place that had something to do with lions. Thus we went north, the hunters scouting ahead and securing the perimeter for the rest of us.

Within an hour of travelling, my legs began to tire. My feet, unaccustomed to my new footwear, ached around my pinky toes and heels. The backpack started to feel heavy on my back and shoulders and my hips didn't fare much better. While the children got to sit inside the aravels – with the elders present to prevent chaos – and the halla pulled them along most valiantly, our movement was slow. Moving at such a pace across flat land did nothing to warm me up, and I shuddered on many occasions, even started to tremble uncontrollably at one point. It was as if the temperature had bitten into my skin and was slowly seeping into my bones.

Then there was the fact that the combination of grey, depressing weather overhead, the subdued mood in the clan and the beat of the march brought to mind the song “Helvegen” by Wardruna in my mind. A song for death and letting go. It was fitting, considering how we were literally moving on from a place of death, but it wasn't something I had the strength to handle right now. At the point when the first hour had passed – I checked my phone, with its dwindling battery – I was barely keeping myself together.

“Here,” Halin said just as I was about to snap in half. I looked up at him, surprised, and saw him holding out a scarf for me. Knitted scarf, even. “Bangaela just finished making this and thought you should have it.”

I was gobsmacked. Grateful, but gobsmacked. Where had the Dalish got a hold of wool from? “Thank you,” I said and looked around for Bangladesh so I could thank her, too.

“She's in the aravel,” he informed me. “Apparently she's working on more clothes for you even as we travel.” He smiled in response to my continued astonishment. “What, you didn't think we'd let you freeze, did you? You're part of the clan now, Alva.” Then he continued on in silence.

“Where did you get the wool?” I asked as I put the scarf on, still trying to process those last words of his. Immediately I felt warmth seep back into my neck and throat. Anise had kept the back of my hair down when she'd braided it, bless her, but nothing beat a good scarf. “Did you trade for it?”

“Oh no,” the platinum blond mage said and shook his head. “We went near the Frostbacks specifically to hunt rams. They give us good meat and wool, among other things. In fact, we'll probably have some ram stew once we've re-settled.”

I'd never had ram before. How did it taste and which herbs were best to use? Would it go best with root vegetables or could lighter ones, like spinach, be added? Was it best to use ram broth or would chicken broth work? My mind became abuzz with possibilities for how to cook it to the point where I forgot all about Einar Selvik and death. Bless Halin and Afro Elf.

Despite my earlier weariness, I managed to keep going for another hour. My feet still ached, and they would no doubt get worse as I went along, but I wasn't completely overcome with exhaustion. The cold returned, however, at least until a leather hood lined with silk was given to me. This one had lacing in the front, and it covered my shoulders and even the top of my arms. It had a tail at the back, like those cute pixie hoods back on Earth. Halin informed me that Afro Elf wanted it back later so she could add fur lining and some embroidery to make it both warm and look nice.

It was almost too much and the sheer generosity made me dizzy. Bangladesh was a most industrious seamstress. I had a lot to thank her for.

The hood did wonders for keeping my body heat intact. My thighs were still cold and it was far too breezy around my lady parts, but I wasn't constantly trembling anymore.

Still, I sincerely hoped there would be a “sewing club” meeting soon so I could pour some hot liquid down my throat.

Just as my mood was about to improve, however, the weather began to work against us. The clouds grew darker, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped. This time, when I hugged myself and trembled pitifully, Halin came up to me and placed an arm around my shoulders.

This clan sported some real darlings. It was also telling how easily they all snuggled up together and had few reservations about physical contact. That was more practical in cold weather, of course, but it made me think of how ordinary Pedo Mage's behaviour must have seemed. No doubt he'd used it to his advantage when grooming. If he'd bothered to groom.

I let up a silent prayer to Hecate – herself a mother and protectress of children – that this kind of practice had died with him. There would probably still be after-effects, and I didn't have the competence needed to help any of his victims. I doubted the Dalish had, if they'd even known about it.

If they'd known about it, then they'd not only permitted it, but even covered it up. Rewarded the guy by making him the Keeper's Second. Not that I could say whether or not he'd worked hard on his magic, but the guy had still been a child molester, or at the very least had a sexual preference for children. At best he'd never indulged, but how likely was that in a clan where touching each other was so normal?

What good mood I'd built up earlier crashed and burned as I pondered just what kind of clan I'd ended up with. Halin's arm around my shoulders suddenly felt heavy and burdensome, and where his close proximity had previously kept me warm, now it felt sticky. He had been Pedo Mage's fellow student. Had he known?

Halin pulled his hood up, as did the other elves who walked beside or behind us, as the dark clouds grew darker. I saw the hunters return to us at full speed, their hoods up as well. Keeper Gillian came up beside us.

“A hailstorm approaches,” she informed us. That explained the drop in temperature. I hoped it wasn't American-sized hail. That stuff was big enough to wreck cars. “I recalled the hunters so they can walk together with the rest of us. There's a series of mountain caves up ahead that will offer us shelter.”

“Fen'harel's Folly?” Halin asked and I stared at them both without a clue as to what he meant. I knew Fen'harel was their god of tricks and lies, however. Like an elven Loki.

“The same,” Gillian confirmed with a nod. “Your fellow humans here in Orlais call it Andraste's Maze, or sometimes Maferath's Prison.” Either way it was tied to religion. “The caves belong to a complex system and it's easy to get lost.” So a complex riddle from Andraste or an entrapment by Maferath – or of Maferath – of those who strayed from the path and got lost because of their jealousy? It was easy to see why humans named such a place the way they did, but what about the elves? Was it Fen'harel who was foolish? It certainly sounded that way.

Maybe Storyteller would share the tale behind the name later? The coming weather seemed the perfect opportunity for such an activity. Provided there would be something hot to drink.

I had nothing to wear, though.

“Fen'harel's Folly holds some lovely hot springs,” Halin informed me, cutting through my haze of thoughts. His smile was broad. “We can all get some proper baths while we're there.”

That thought cheered me up a little bit. While it had felt good to thoroughly scrub myself, soaking in hot water was awfully tempting. Especially with my joints all cold and aching.

It seemed the foul weather was a blessing in disguise.

“How much farther is it?” I asked as I looked up at the dark clouds coming at us from the west. Would we make it in time? Were the people inside the aravels protected? Considering we were settling down in a network of caves for safety, I guessed at “no”.

The halla were among the most vulnerable. I hoped there was a cave specifically for them and that they wouldn't have to stand outside. After all, thunder and lightning sometimes came with the hail.

As if that thought summoned it, a low rumble sounded overhead. Flashes of light appeared among the clouds, little cracks of destruction amidst a dark, merciless wall. The clouds, I saw, now moved faster than before. The hunters had finally caught up with us, but we had only a few minutes, at best, before the weather hit.

I loved thunder, but this was a tad excessive, even for me.

“Are you ready?” Gillian asked while staring at the clouds. The question may have been asked of either of us, but since I had no idea what she meant, I assumed she'd spoken to Halin.

It turned out I was correct. “This would have been more effective had Belraj been with us.” While I understood the closeness he'd no doubt felt for his fellow student and the practical concerns for whatever it was they planned to do, the sadness in his voice still bothered me. The man had been a gods-damned paedophile, for crying out loud.

“Is something the matter, Alva?” the Keeper asked me. Apparently my frustration had shown on my face. It was tempting to speak my mind, because this was also the sort of thing that would eat away at me and steal my sleep. Halin looked at me as well.

My need for survival fought against my wish to speak up. If my words offended them, then there was a chance I would be thrown out. There was no way I could survive without them. On the other hand, though, how could I possibly live with these people if they condoned that sort of thing?

The sound of a child crying snapped me out of my misery. I looked back and I saw several elven children embraced by adults as they wept, their eyes on the weather approaching. Eyes filled with fear.

A wave of shame washed over me. This wasn't the time to start questioning everything. Damn fatigue was getting to me on more than just a physical level. I didn't know enough about the situation to make judgements, least of all now. “It's not worth bringing up this moment. What do you two intend to do?”

Gillian and Halin exchanged one look before the Keeper explained. “A weather shield. Halin is correct when he says that it would be more effective with Belraj around.”

“How so?” I was a fellow magic person. If there was a chance I could fill Pedo Mage's shoes, I'd do it.

“It takes only two mages to create it, let alone maintain it,” Halin explained quickly, “but it takes three mages to cover the entire clan with it.”

“So you need magical fuel,” I concluded. They nodded. I held out my hands for them to take. “Use mine.”

They exchanged looks. Halin shrugged. “Might as well.”

Gillian turned her eyes back to me. “Middle of the train.” She took the lead without another word, Halin and me in tow. We earned many curious, and even hopeful, looks on our way. Others looked frightened and even sceptical. I recognised the blonde elf I'd bumped into the night before, as well as the Cook. They seemed to be quite close. Of course they were. Birds of a feather flocked together.

At least until the cat came.

Our magical trio settled into the aforementioned middle spot. The train had stopped at this point, no doubt so as to make sure they'd all be protected. Gillian had me take the middle position and instructed me in what to do. Basically I was simply to pour power into the other two after they'd cast the spell, at a level that I could maintain while walking.

This should be interesting.

I closed my eyes as Gillian and Halin began their unified chant. Their voices immediately resonated with me and I felt the spell call to my magic, drawing out the power within me. I felt my soul light up with magic and it began to pulsate, with a steady beat reminiscient to that of a heart. It then spread out to my hands, warming them up almost to the same level as when I cast my exorcism spell. I opened my eyes and saw the white energy pouring into my palms. Gillian and Halin held aloft their staves, from which emanated a powerful, large, blue shield. It covered three of the aravels and a decent amount of walkers and halla. Their hands then reached for me and I took them, allowing them to channel what they needed.

The shield expanded until it was three times the size.

Shocked gasps sounded all around me and a heavy silence settled. Even I was baffled by what I saw. This wasn't me backed up by Blue, or Hecate for that matter. This was simply me.

More astonisghingly, it wasn't even the entirety of it. Rather, it was about half.

Either I'd levelled up ten levels these past couple of days or I'd never truly realised what I was capable of.

“Get moving!” The command was barked across the train, from Aenor, Storyteller and basically every other hunter now reunited with the rest. It began at the front. “We make for Fen'harel's Folly!”

I fully expected the shield to diminish the second I began to walk. Perhaps I'd overdone it with the amount of power. It could be I might even collapse and then considerably weaken it. I felt like a fool for pouring in so much, and I thought to reduce the power outlet. It was our turn to move, however, and my feet started walking before I could do anything else.

To my great relief, the shield held true and I didn't collapse. The thunderclouds rolled above us menacingly, creating a blackened sky that made it difficult to see ahead. Lightning struck, but dissipated upon contact with the shield. Hail poured down, but bounced off harmlessly. No raindrops got through.

It was the most effective umbrella ever carried.

The shield didn't protect the ground ahead from getting wet, however, and the constant downpour made it difficult to see past the magical sphere. We weren't even at the head of the train, so I had no idea if we were even headed in the right direction.

Trust, I reminded myself. This clan knew Thedas better than me and they knew of the place we were headed to. There were ways to navigate, even in this weather. My focus should be on empowering the two mages on either side of me. Empower and walk. We would make it yet.

Our shield protected everyone, and that was the important part. My power poured into it continuously and my legs moved on auto pilot. The crystals on the mages' staves were lit with a strong, blue glow that was reflected in the energy above us. Like a blue halo that reminded me all too well of a certain sassy spirit. The reminder brought pain to my heart, it did nothing to diminish my efforts. I was pretty certain nothing could at this point.

Torches were lit and carried by every non-mage elf walking. The darkness around us receded somewhat, the beacons serving as a re-kindling of hope. We trudged ever onward, finally beginning to turn towards the Frostbacks about five minutes later. My fingers would have been frozen at this point if not for the magical power that kept them warm. An added side benefit?

I didn't mind.

My legs were freezing, though, and moving them felt like dragging them through syrup. The wind howled mercilessly and even managed to extinguish a few torches. Our shield couldn't protect from that, it seemed. More children began to cry, trees creaked and groaned under the weight of the mighty zephyr and the expression of every elf I saw went from unhappy to outright miserable. Some hung their heads low and others whispered prayers to their gods. We trudged on for what felt like an eternity, but my intellectual guess suggested it had been only about twenty minutes. More lightning strikes and hail were averted, though the loud, rumbling cacophony above left us few breaks for silence. My mind was practically ringing when we finally saw the cave opening. If I didn't go deaf from this, it would be nothing short of a miracle.

Once the caves had been cleared of threats – which, unlike in Inquisition, wouldn't re-spawn – the trek into the cave began. Aravels were brought as close to the cave mouth as possible, and out came weary children, elders and some younger elves, including Bangladesh. All around them, the hunters stood, ushering everyone inside. We moved up towards the opening as well. I was so close to a place to rest, clean up and get warm.

That was when I slipped. Being wedged between two other people had forced me to either step on top of a slippery rock or try to overstep it. My legs were too tired to do the latter, so after some testing which resulted in my foot standing still, I'd incorrectly assumed that I was safe. Instead, my foot slipped and I fell forward, caught in that terrible moment between deciding whether to drag the other two down with me or let go.

A strong hand gripped my backpack before I could hit the ground, and for a moment I was held aloft by that one person alone. Others came running to, however, and several hands grabbed me and pulled me back up, among them Anise and Fenla. I straightened but couldn't find the words to speak. To my relief, the shield was still in place, though a bit diminished in size. Nothing that would endanger anyone, fortunately. Still, it had been close. I looked behind me to see who had caught me.

To my surprise, I looked into the downturned eyes and mouth of Snarly. His disapproving stare was the easiest thing to recognise, even under the darkness of his hood. Even more to my surprise, his eyes weren't on me.

“Don't make her walk over a slippery rock,” he said to both Keeper and Halin. “The shield would have shrunk too much if she'd lost her concentration completely.”

It was good to know it wasn't just me he was so confrontational with. Gillian apologised profusely, as did Halin. Snarly then gave me a simple nod before he placed his hand on my back, supporting me as I walked the rest of the way.

Halin's words about me being a part of the clan started to feel true.

As soon as all the children and civilians were inside the caves, the halla herder and Anise set to work getting the beautiful beasts inside. The hunters, mages and me remained outside. My legs were numb, exhaustion rode me like a nightmare and my head ached with caffeine withdrawal. I should have figured that would hit me at some point. Back home I'd drunk coffee on a daily basis. Here I'd be lucky if I managed to get something akin to herbal tea.

That tea would warm me up, though. I hoped they'd make some.

My stomach growled loudly with hunger. While the aravels remained stationed outside, bedrolls, food and other possessions were carried inside. Children and elders went to the hot springs to bathe while the Cook and a bunch of other elves set to work building fires. The hunters moved inside and so did we magical three. When Halin and Gillian let go of my hands, it was with a relief that I felt in all three of us. What strength I'd had fled and this time there was no-one to catch me as I fell. I hit the ground, hard, and I lay there in a moment of self-pity.

Halin basically collapsed beside me, although with considerably more control as he managed to sit. “You're more powerful than I thought, Alva.” He chuckled when Anise arrived with my bedroll and all I managed was to roll over when she demanded I make room for it.

“I'm more powerful than I thought,” I mimicked once I was settled with my head on my pillow. The ground was hard against my back, even with the tufts of grass and moss beneath me. I was used to soft, modern beds, not this kind of life.

“Didn't you receive training where you could test yourself and watch your own progress as you studied?” he asked, genuine curiosity in his tone despite the obvious fatigue on his face.

“There was no such thing,” I explained. “People like me were either dismissed as mentally ill, high on drugs or intellectually inferior. It didn't matter that our dreams and visions came true, or that our hands could heat up within a split second during the casting of a healing spell. We could be completely sober, highly intelligent, mentally healthy and gather all the physical evidence in the world and we still wouldn't be believed. The popular consensus was that the supernatural wasn't real. That there was no such thing as magic.”

There was a moment's pause. “What was it that destroyed your world, then?”

Who knew? A nuclear bomb planted in the very core of the Earth? Could such a thing be accomplished, even with our modern technology? It nagged away at me. How had Earth been destroyed? Unwanted memories flashed before my mind's eye and I groaned as a lump formed in my throat and tears threatened to spill forth. Gods damn it.

“I'm sorry,” Halin said, his voice thick with regret. “I'm so very sorry, Alva.”

I knew he was sincere, and I nodded to show I understood, because I was completely unable to speak at this point. The tears rushed forward and once again I was reduced to a sobbing mess. Hiding my face in my hands didn't help, either, and I didn't have the strength to sit up. Instead I lay there, weeping like a heartbroken teenager in front of the entire clan.

Lovely.

A pair of leather boots stepped up next to me. “What are you all looking at? Don't you have things to do?” I looked up and saw Snarly, this time snarling at all the curious elves staring at me. Then he sat down on a rock next to me and picked out a piece of wood from his pocket. Shortly after he had a knife in his other hand and then he set to whittling.

I wept my eyes dry, with Tamlen and Halin's quiet company. No elf said a word to me the entire time.

 


 

Lunch was served about an hour later. During this time, Tamlen had procured some tree bark for me to chew on after I asked for a cure for my headache. To my surprise, it worked. I thanked him and received a grunt in reply.

Food was a combination of dried fruits and pickled vegetables, as well as some cured meat that had been mixed with fat, dried berries and wild grains. When I asked the Cook about it as she made the rounds, she merely gave me a stuck up “humph” in response. A snicker came from Toilet Ninja, but the Cook was put straight by Tamlen. She grudgingly apologised and I forgave her without any underlying snark. This was the cook, after all. No smart person got on the cook's bad side. Halin informed me that the meat I was eating was a form of fish that they called ghial'bradh. He then informed me, after my continued prodding, that this was a general term for meat that had been cured or dried and mixed with the flavours on which I was currently munching.

Most importantly, it was really tasty, and I took the opportunity to inform the Cook of this. Much of her resentment washed away from her face and aura. She even thanked me.

Your move, Toilet Ninja. I smiled as I bit into more of the what's-it's-face fish. The fish. Damn, that stuff was good.

I briefly wondered how much better it would taste if put inside a tortilla wrap. Whole wheat tortilla, of course. Slow-working, complex carbs were the best. Probably had that in the grains already, but man, the thought of tortillas made my mouth water. It also made me homesick.

This time I didn't weep and the pain wasn't as raw. Probably because I'd run out of tears, and the food did a great job of cheering me up. Not to mention I had a new home. Halin's words about me being a part of the clan had settled many fears.

The Cook made the rounds with hot drinks afterwards. Herbal tea, to be exact. Dried lavender and jasmine in mine, and I even got a drizzle of honey. I thanked her profusely and savoured the flavour on my tongue and the heat that seeped into my bones.

My body then had the obligatory reaction of trembling as the warmth settled. I simply drank some more, keeping it up until I could feel my thighs again. It would have been bliss, if not for the fact that the warmth also reminded me of some very achy toes.

I couldn't just sit around like this. My feet needed treatment and someone somewhere likely needed help with something. The dishes, probably. Also, I had to pee.

The latrine tent had been re-erected and placed right near the entrance to the cave. A bit to the side, but still protected by the rock that loomed above and beside it. Out of sight, out of scent. I excused myself, delivered my dishes to the resident dishwasher with a promise to return and help him, and then I rushed off to the loo.

There was no ninja attack this time, and I returned to the dishwasher station at top speed. Dishwasher Guy shot me an amused smile before I grabbed some dishes and plunged them into the hot water. I pulled my hands back out even faster, however, and shook them fiercely from the intense heat that they'd just been subjected to. Sweet Hecate, it burned!

Dishwasher Guy chuckled at my antics as he gave me a dish cloth to use. I liked him already.

There were quite a few cups, plates and cutlery to go through, and the pile didn't look like it was going to diminish any time soon. Rather, more came as people finished eating. I looked at Dishwasher Guy and wondered if he usually did this alone. He seemed unperturbed by the amount, sliding plate after plate into the hot water and rubbing them clean, pausing from time to time only to wipe his brow.

I would happily serve as assistant dishwasher if it meant this guy's burden was lessened.

It was a lengthy process, and by the end my arms trembled when I moved them. My skin had gone dry from all the soap and my toes now screamed for treatment. I excused myself again and, after relocating my wash basin from the only aravel that had a harp in it, asked Halin for directions to the hot springs.

After all, a foot bath would be much quicker if I used water that was already hot.

Anise beat him to it. “We're heading there now, Alva.” She nodded at a group of women that consisted of Afro Elf, the Cook, an elf woman who looked like a Native American, the Keeper and Elf Chick. “Come join us for a full bath instead.” I noticed she was out of her armour and back inside her regular clothes.

“I imagine your feet are in need of healing,” the Native American elf said. “I have some herbs that will help you.”

“And I some spells,” the Keeper finished. “Get the rest of your things from the aravel and join us.”

“Yes, ma'am,” I replied and limped back. My soap, shampoo, conditioner, wash cloth and what I assumed was the Thedosian equivalent of a towel all went into the basin. I hesitated a bit before I added the shaving equipment. The Keeper had the healing magics. We both had the healing magics. It would be fine.

I hoped.

Still, if ever there was a way to make a bad impression on the others, excessive bleeding due to poor shaving skills was definitely the thing.

Not that having feet that bled from a few hours of walking was any better.

It was a friendly group of women that I was with, I found. Afro Elf introduced me to the apothecary and herbalist, the Native American elf. Native American Elf was a long nickname for someone, but NA Elf wasn't any better. “Manrea,” she said at one point and I helped my brain remember it by putting “man” together with the titan goddess Rhea.

Mythology always helped me remember. Or food.

The hot springs were a collection of bodies of steaming water in multiple layers. A soft, phosphorous light that I didn't recognise offered a bit of glow to help us see. The hooded lanters the elves had brought took care of the rest. Despite the warmth of the springs, the air itself wasn't as humid and hot as I'd expected. There was another, smaller cave opening nearby, I saw as I drew closer. We had a steady supply of fresh air, it seemed.

Everyone brought wash basins with them and we filled them with water. Manrea put some dried, crushed mugwort in mine and then it was time to strip.

It felt wonderful to get out of my sweaty clothes, though when I took off my boots, it was with a sense of dread. As I'd suspected, my toes had bled, leaving stains on both my stockings and inside my new boots. Fortunately it wasn't as much as I'd feared, but they needed a good scrub and some proper healing before I could move on. I should also bandage them before I put them back inside any footwear.

Not to mention I'd have to get the bloodstains out of my socks and find some way to do the same to my boots.

As if she'd read my mind, Gillian spoke up. “Rasanor will take care of your boots. He's the clan's cobbler and knows how to do such things.” I tried to remember who that was.

“He's the one in charge of collecting water,” Anise reminded me. “You've met him before.”

Water Guy was also the resident cobbler? Versatile! “I remember,” I said with a nod. Fondly, too. He seemed like a pretty cool guy. “Quite the multi-tasker, isn't he?”

A proud smile graced Gillian's face. “That he is.” She virtually beamed like a mother hen while I stared at her, completely mystified. The other elf women either nodded in agreement or smiled at her.

“He's your son?” It became a statement more than a question, though I was still surprised. He didn't take much after her, unlike Pedo Mage and Elf One. Did he have a different dad? Gillian nodded to my voiced question.

Poor guy had lost two of his brothers, yet he'd greeted me with a warm smile and a helpful hand. Who knew what kind of pain he was in right now? Yet he went about his day performing his duty.

He was so on my Christmas presents list.

“Sit here for a while,” Manrea instructed and patted a large boulder behind me. “Dip your feet in the water and let it soak up the herb's healing energies.” Gillian pointed her index finger at the basin and pale blue energy poured forth in a straight line and combined with the water. It took only a few seconds for her to finish and then she set to scrubbing herself. I put my feet inside the basin and wrapped myself in my towel.

The pain was gone almost immediately. “Soak them for a good ten minutes to ensure full healing effect.” It was the Keeper's turn to hand out orders. “Then discard and get new water with which to clean yourself.”

Right. I could do that. The others were thorough about it, I saw, cleaning every inch of themselves that they could access and helping each other with their backs. They all had their hair up in tight buns. After discarding the water they'd used for scrubbing, they gathered more and poured over themselves, avoiding splashing their hair and faces. I made sure to memorise the steps of the cleaning ritual, though I felt a wave of envy as they stepped into the hot spring. Anise did provide me with more hairpins, so I could pull the rest of my hair up, before she joined the others.

For now, I took to the task of shaving.

Boy was the blade sharp. It even glittered from the combined cavern glow and lantern light. I didn't need a rock to protect against would-be rapists, I had a murder weapon in my hand this very moment.

On the plus side, if I cut myself while shaving now, the healing properties of the foot bath would fix me right up. I hoped. My armpits were first.

I managed to shave them without cutting myself, much to my amazement, but I wasn't so lucky with my legs. The healing water prevented any excessive bleeding, however, just as I'd assumed. After cleaning the blade and shaving some more, I was as free of body hair as I cared to be.

Shaving my private parts wasn't my thing, especially in this case.

I set to work scrubbing myself after that. It took a while until I truly felt clean, but once I did and I'd washed off any excess soap, I slipped into the hot water with a content sigh.

All my tired muscles sighed with me.

Anise, who had just finished a tale about Aenor and how he terrified most women, shot me a teasing smile. “He's gained a most fearless admirer, though.”

All eyes turned to me, some surprised, others intrigued and yet others amused. The mood immediately changed in every elf woman around me and I had effectively become the centre of attention.

My cheeks flared up and I epically failed to deny the accusations. Gods damn it, Anise!

“So it wasn't just an immediate infatuation,” Afro Elf remarked. Of course she knew. I'd made a huge scene in front of the entire clan yesterday, and if these women's behaviour was anything to go by, gossip spread like wildfire among the Dalish.

“Of course not,” the Cook cut in, apparently taking an interest in this as well. “Didn't you see the way they looked at each other this morning?”

“You're saying it's mutual?” The Keeper was way more interested in gossip than a leader should be. Shame on her.

“It started earlier than you guys think,” Fenla supplied. Gods damn it, Fenla, not you too! “The second Alva jumped into the Fade after Keeper Lailani, he was hopelessly smitten.”

I sunk lower and lower into the water. Fenla saw, however, and shot me a smirk. “He even carried you to our camp, single-handedly.” My blush intensified and I felt my brain go numb. Surely she exaggerated! I was no skinny, lithe thing!

Their eyes hungered for gossip, and I got the distinct feeling that I wasn't permitted to leave. Not until I'd parted with all the information they wanted. Smirks abounded and more stories of Aenor's supposed infatuation with me continued.

There was no way out, though. They knew the way back, not me. I would only get lost if I tried to go anywhere on my own. No, I was caught, and they weren't about to let me go.

Gods damn it!

Chapter Text

My ears burned and my mind spun from all the gossip as we made our way back to our temporary camp. If these women were to be believed, Aenor was only a deer's corpse away from asking me to marry him. That was apparently common in Dalish wooing culture – the male would hunt some large animal for the female and she would make something out of it. When I'd asked what they did in the case of gays – using a different term as I wasn't sure if they used “gays” to refer to homosexuals in Thedas – they answered that it was simply whomever was the best hunter.

Good to know. Still, they were at the point of talking about wooing! I barely knew the guy!

Judging from their teasing smiles, however, I figured that last part was mostly to get a rise out of me. I guessed I should consider myself lucky no-one was talking about children yet.

My trip back was barefooted, but considering the grass, soft dirt, moss and smooth rock that made up the path I walked on, that wasn't a problem. I had callouses on my feet from walking on rocks and boulders as a child, so I could handle it.

Upon returning to the other elves, we were met with the sound of a hefty storm still raging outside. It seemed it would be a while before we could move on. I certainly didn't relish the idea of trying the weather shield again for the unforeseeable future, handy thought it was. Some of my energy from before had returned, however, and once I'd bandaged my feet, put on my slippers and set to work cleaning the stockings, I began to feel quite efficient.

First I had to make a spotting solution made of soap, distilled white vinegar and water. Manrea's instructions were very clear. A small amount of the solution on the stains, tap with a brush and wait. While waiting, help with laundry. Blot the stains with a dry towel, then a wet one and then a dry one. Repeat if necessary.

I repeated about three times until the stains were finally dissipating. At that point, Anise informed me, it was time to do the laundry.

Laundry, Dalish style, meant dipping my hands in more hot, soapy water, rubbing the fabric together and then against a washboard. At last, that was what Anise did. I'd done all the parts except the washboard bit before. Norwegian cabin culture, pre-EU interference, struck again.

The hot water did nothing to get rid of the smell of vinegar, though. Laughter travelled around the group of men and women washing their clothes upon seeing the look on my face. It made me smile. The feeling of being included grew, especially when Afro Elf joined us with a whole new collection of gossip. Where she managed to get it from, I had no idea. I remained quiet during most of the talking, simply enjoying the company of the chatty elves around me. It was how I usually socialised in the beginning, taking note of everyone around me to establish how I best fit in. I enjoyed myself so much, in fact, that I took to laundrying clothes that were't mine, but were part of a larger pile that everyone worked on.

When Improvisation Guy dropped his sweaty shirt into my wash basin, however, every elf around me jumped up at him and told him to do his own damn laundry. He grudgingly took the shirt back and set to washing it himself, though he sat annoyingly close to me while he did.

There was no more staring or attempts to flirt with me, however. It seemed someone had given him an earful about that. Good.

I had no sense of time, and my arms were basically non-functional at the end of the laundry session. They wouldn't even let me lift the stockings to the clothesline, much to the silent stares of the elves. That could turn awkward quickly, so I let out a disarming laugh at my own expense. “This is what I get for sleeping on soft mattresses and studying languages most of my life,” I said and flashed them a sheepish grin. My efforts were rewarded with smiles and looks of understanding. Some shook their heads, but no-one berated me or went off on a racist rant about humans. Improvisation Guy even surprised me by hanging up the stockings for me. I made sure to thank him before I turned to head back to my bedroll for some much-needed rest.

“...Alva?” I knew he'd called out to me, and I stopped and turned around to face him, but the tentativeness in his voice was an immense difference from his behaviour the night before. “I understand I may have been a bit... overly enthusiastic around you...” His eyes dropped to the ground and he rubbed his neck. “You made it very clear you didn't appreciate it and, um...” There was another pause. I was unsure if I should say something or wait for him to find the right words. It might make things easier for him if I forgave him without him actually having to take the step to apologise.

On the other hand, that might just hamper his growth and inspire in him some unfortunate habits. So many people refused to admit when they were wrong, let alone had the courage to take responsibility for their actions. It wouldn't help if I raised another. He looked back up. “It won't happen again. Don't get me wrong, I think you're interesting and pretty, but I have problems elsewhere and taking them out on you was wrong.” There was another moment of silence before he continued. “I'm sorry.” He gave me a curt bow. “Hopefully we can be friends.”

“Hopefully we can,” I echoed, “and your apology is accepted.” Now I just needed to remember his name. It really wouldn't do to have a friend whose name I kept forgetting. Especially someone who gave such a vibe of earnest regret and repentance.

His face was washed over with relief and he smiled. He bid me a temporary farewell after that and I stepped back to my bedroll. That was the Cook warming up to me, clan members in general getting used to me, Snarly possibly accepting me and now I'd settled things with Improvisation Guy. I was on a good roll.

That meant, of course, that some stupid drama would likely come crashing into my life soon. Either tonight or some time tomorrow. I settled down on my bedroll regardless, and enjoyed a few seconds of rest before a young, curious voice spoke up.

“Who's that?” Athras, joined by a small army of children, pointed at my chest. More specifically Deadpool. I looked around, surprised the adults would let the kids so close to me. A few hunters stood close enough to interfere, however, while trying to look nonchalant at the same time. The cave wasn't so large that I'd be able to pull off anything stupid anyway, and the Keeper kept a close watch.

I got the feeling it was a test of trust.

“His name is Wade Wilson,” I explained, “but in this costume that you see him wear, he's better known as Deadpool.”

“What does he do?” asked a smaller and younger boy.

“He's a superhero,” I replied. Anti-hero, but quite super nevertheless.

“What's a superhero?” asked one of the girls. She couldn't be older than five.

“It's like a hero, but more powerful,” I explained. “Say, for example, the elven hero Garahel, who ended the Fourth Blight, but with special powers.” I figured an elven hero would be the most approriate example in this setting.

“Or Mahariel who ended the fifth one?” Storyteller cut in. So the Warden had been Dalish? Good to know.

“Or Mahariel,” I supplied without missing a beat.

“What kind of powers?” A very eager-looking girl asked.

“Well, Wade here,” I pointed to my sweater, “has very strong healing abilities. He basically can't die.”

“Not even if you cut off his head?” Athras asked, his mouth wide with shock.

“Or blow him up?” another child added.

“Or poison him?” came the third question.

I shook my head. “Poison doesn't affect him and he just grows out a new body.”

Some of the kids looked disgusted. The rest alternated between shocked and impressed. “Are there any other superheroes where you come from?” a girl who looked to be about the age of nine, asked.

“Lots,” I replied. “They could fly, be super strong, see through walls, throw lightning, read minds and set things on fire just by looking at it.”

Their small faces turned bright with curiosity, shock and confusion. “Are there any elven superheroes?” It was Athras who asked.

I didn't have the heart to disappoint them. Marvel and DC had yet to come up with any, as far as I could tell, so I dug through my knowledge of norse mythology and made something up on the spot. “Absolutely. My ancestors called them ljosalfar, or light elves. They lived in forests much like you and were immortal.”

That turned every elven head in the nearby vicinity. I wasn't finished, however. “They were also very powerful, almost like gods. The light elves lived in their own world called Alfheim, which was a place of beautiful nature and art.”

A heavy silence settled over the cave. The children looked completely transfixed and I noticed a few adults kept staring at me as well. Might as well continue. “They had unique power over the arts, especially music, singing and dancing. Their strength and speed were superb, they possessed great wisdom and could cast powerful illusions that tricked even the strongest of oracles. They were also able to move between worlds with great ease, which was how they came to meet humans, yet could speak directly to the gods.”

The stunned silence was as thick as English fog. Storyteller, I noticed, had come to stand behind the children, his arms crossed. “Have you ever met one?”

“Once,” I replied honestly. Several times in my dreams, which had made me think that they were just dreams for a large part of my life. When I'd met him in person, however, in the woods right outside my home town, that belief had died horribly. Though it was a relief to know I wasn't crazy. “He was a prince, even. Heir to the throne.” Wide eyes stared at me.

“What did you do?” asked Athras. “What did he do?”

“We talked about things,” I replied. “I asked him a lot of questions that he gave only vague answers to.” A wry smile grew on my lips. It had felt like stepping into a dream, but I'd felt everything around me physically, even as he'd woven an illusion around us to keep us hidden from prying eyes.

“What did you ask him?” another boy pressed.

“If elves truly were immortal or if they simply existed in a place beyond time,” I began. “Why they all live separately from us. Why they speak with us through our dreams, making us wonder if we're moon-addled simpletons. Why magic isn't flashy like in stories.” I shrugged. That last part, especially, would have given many people some much-needed vindication.

“Magic is flashy,” Athras argued.

“Here, yes,” I agreed, “but not where I come from.”

“What did he say?” asked one child.

“What's a simpleton?” asked another.

“What's moon-addled?” asked a third.

“Simpleton means you have a simple brain,” I explained and pointed to my head to show what a brain was. Or tried to, as my arms wouldn't move very far. “A simpleton can't understand difficult things and thinking about them makes his or her head hurt. Moon-addled also has to do with the brain,” I pointed to my head again, “but it means that a person is crazy.”

“But what did he say?” the first child repeated.

“Not much on the first question,” I replied with an apologetic look. “And not much on why they live separately from us humans, or speak with us through our dreams.”

“What about the magic?” Athras pressed, an impatient look on his face.

“The elves took most of it with them when they left the mortal realm behind,” I explained. At least, that was what he'd said, which also fit with my own past life meditation. As bizarre as it had all seemed at the time. “At that time, humans weren't around yet.” A simplified version of explaining the concept of primates. I wasn't qualified to explain human evolution at length, and much less in the mood to put up with monkey “jokes”.

I was rewarded with stunned silence. For a brief moment I held my breath, wondering how my tales would be received. Back home I'd have been called crazy, had some armchair psychiatrist slap a diagnosis on me and then been ignored. At best.

Not that I was the only human to have had encounters with the fey. Western folklore was full of such tales, and modern people had stories of their own to share. One of those inconvenient little truths that the normal people were happy to file under “crazy”. Ironically for the sake of their own sanity.

On Thedas, however, I could very well see the physical reality of my magic. This made me wonder how a mundane normie earthling would have handled the things I'd gone through.

Most likely they would have gone crazy and got themselves devoured by demons. Though a Dragon Age fan may, hypothetically, have fared better.

Come to think of it, witches who were unfamiliar with Thedas and the Dragon Age universe wouldn't necessarily have been better off. My curiosity, coupled with a burning wish to know if I was truly the only earthling on Thedas, peaked. A useless notion considering my current circumstances. I pushed it to the back of my mind.

“What happened to the elves back where you come from?” one of the girls asked.

According to Blue, the elf prince had died. He'd been on Earth, though, or Midgard. “The elf I met died as my home world was destroyed. I don't know about the rest.” I wondered if these other worlds were tied to the existence of Earth and simply vanished along with the planet's destruction. Or was it rather the opposite, that the Earth and all life on Earth depended on their existence?

Perhaps it was both? When we cut down a tree, did we kill a dryad? When a dryad left a tree, did it wither and die? Not that sunlight, the weather and access to water and fertile soil didn't play a part, obviously. However, I remembered a round patch in the middle of a farmer's field where nothing had grown. Where once there had been a circle of standing stones, a place of judgement, but then those stones had been removed. The fields all around it were perfectly fertile, but within there was nothing but dirt. Not even the tree the farmer had planted would take root.

Then the coven – the one I'd been a member of – had acknowledged the spirits of that area, sent the place purification magic and said prayers for the judged and those who did the judging. The next year the tree had bloomed and it was surrounded by green grass. That Samhain we'd been subjected to a few ghostly pranks and protections as well. I remembered how the house had remained warm, even with several doors and windows open wide for well over half an hour. The doors had at times been sealed shut until we asked for permission to enter. Then there had been the sound of footsteps upstairs when every human was downstairs and there were no animals in the house.

Gods how I missed that.

That nostalgia would probably go away soon, though, considering my current circumstances. Still, there were many cultural habits and customs of mine that the locals wouldn't understand. Not to mention my magic and mindset about it were probably very foreign.

“Your tale brings me sorrow, Alva,” Halin cut in, having stepped up behind the children. “You've lost almost everything and now you're in a strange place, far away from all you know.” I nodded and blinked away the tears that threatened to spill forth. “It sounds like it was a wonderful world, but difficult for you to live in at times. I hope you will find the clan easy to live with.”

“You don't seriously believe what she says?” And there it was, the downturn of my good roll. Toilet Ninja stepped up and looked from one elf to another. Of course it was her. What a show to put in front of the kids, too. Just as I'd propped them full of hope for their own heroes.

Keeper Gillian stepped in. “It's about time for you children to hear some tales from Galifalon, isn't it?”

“I like Alva's stories about the elves where she's from,” one girl said.

“Yeah,” a boy said. “I'm going to be a superhero when I grow up.” He looked my way, albeit shyly, and I shot him a wink and a nod to show him I approved. A small, albeit shy, smile played on his lips.

“I also like them,” Gillian agreed, “but we musn't forget our own stories. Come now, all of you.” She shooed them in the direction of Storyteller who brought them with him back to the large campfire. Once they were all settled in and he started up a story of what sounded to be about Mythal, the Keeper turned her attention to Toilet Ninja.

“Alva's story is true, Ashioin,” she said calmly and with a lowered voice. Well, that was quite the change from our time with Flemeth. “We've seen plenty of evidence to suggest she's not from Thedas.”

That did nothing to calm Toilet Ninja. If anything, she looked utterly terrified. “How do you know she's not a demon?”

I rolled my eyes. “Do demons use iPhones to navigate the Fade?” I brought out the device, which I'd stored in the hem of my skirt, and showed it to her. “Earthling technology, one of a kind. Guaranteed.”

Halin looked surprised. “You can navigate with that thing?”

“It has a built-in compass,” I explained as I logged on to show him. Batteries weren't doing very well, but I managed to bring up the compass in question. All the elves drew closer to see, even Toilet Ninja.

She hissed shortly after, however, as if she'd been stung by a bee. “It's demonic, it has to be.”

A frown came to Halin's face. “Spirits and demons can't create something like this on their own. They can only reflect reality. A device like this doesn't exist on Thedas, thus it can't be demons who made it.”

“Humans from my world invented it,” I supplied helpfully. Toilet Ninja sure was superstitious. How ironic that she was one of the mundanes in the clan.

Not all too different from some of the more “rational” mundanes I'd known back on Earth, in fact.

“Alva is magical, but she's not a demon,” Gillian added. “If she was, she wouldn't have helped save me from one, let alone have the kind of magic she does.”

Yeah, a demon that turned other demons back into spirits wasn't a thing as far as I knew. I'd also never heard of demons that had the protection of water elementals or could call upon the power of Hecate.

Toilet Ninja looked back and forth between me and the Keeper. “She could still be lying about elves.”

“They're all tales collected in myths and folklore, and the rest are my own personal experiences,” I shot back. Then I raised one hand as best I could – it trembled fiercely, but I managed – and pointed my index finger to my face. “And I can tell you now, it's impossible for me to lie to anyone with my face. It always gives me away.” I smiled self-deprecatingly at that, even earned a few smiles from the people who knew me a bit. Considering that fact about myself, though, I should probably get out of Orlais.

“Which we only have your word to go on,” the generic-looking elf woman snapped back. She wasn't stupid, I'd give her that, but her suspicions were misplaced.

“So?” I shot back. “My world is destroyed. Whether or not you think my stories are true doesn't matter.” I nodded in the direction of the children. “I gave them heroes. Are you going to plunge into the cosmos in some desperate search for books on folklore and myths, books that no longer exist, in order to prove me wrong?” She grew quiet. “For the record, should you somehow succeed at such an impossible task, you'd only find that I told the truth all along.”

“You're awfully cocky,” she snarled, though she had a lot of work to do until she was on par with Snarly, “and I'm still not convinced you're not a demon.”

Something struck me in the back of my head, hard, before I could reply. A grunt escaped my lips before I could stop myself, my head lolled forward and I groaned in self-pity. My hands trembled violently, and I was unable to touch the damaged area due to the fatigue in them. I turned my head to see Snarly, his bow in his hand. Apparently, he'd used it to hit me. His eyes – and his frown – were centred on Toilet Ninja.

“Are you convinced now?” he asked and I re-named him Tamlen in my head. His tactic was heavy-handed – quite literally – but he'd done something that was in my favour, again. “If she was a demon, she would have attacked me for that, and killed me with ease.”

“She wouldn't even sit right now, let alone be exhausted,” Aenor added. My heart did a leap when I heard his voice. Right behind me, even.

Gillian spoke next. “You're creating fantoms where there are none, Ashioin. Take a moment to calm down. If you need more time to accept Alva, then that's fine, but she's not a demon.”

Judging from the look on Toilet Ninja's face, it didn't seem like accepting me was on her to-do list. So she'd spoken up in the hopes of... what, exactly? What had she tried to accomplish?

“Do you truly believe that she's from another world?” Toilet Ninja asked in the end, her gaze fixed on the Keeper. I found I was staring at Gillian, too.

“I don't disbelieve it,” the Keeper said after several seconds of silence, and her gaze didn't falter as she spoke. Toilet Ninja rolled her eyes, but if Gillian was bothered by this, she didn't show it. “I need time to absorb everything, and I don't think I'm the only one in the clan who does so.” There were nods and murmurs of agreement all around. I felt more reassured than when Halin told me I was part of the clan. It was one thing to have a place to stay, but it was another to not be labelled as crazy by the people I relied upon. “But to answer your question directly, I believe Alva speaks the truth.”

I thought of a way to offer further reassurance. Even if Toilet Ninja didn't care, the others would. “If you have friends or contacts outside of the clan, people with a spy network or something like it, then you can ask them to check if anyone matches my name and description. If no-one turns up, then that's more evidence that my story is true.”

“I can do that,” the Keeper agreed. Toilet Ninja's face turned sour. It seemed things weren't going in the direction that she wanted, but which direction that was she had yet to reveal. Was she trying to raise enough suspicion about me to the point where I'd be thrown out and left to die?

If so, she was a real threat. My Scorpio in Mars didn't respond well to threats. Quite the contrary, Scorpio wasn't satisfied until the danger was completely null and void. Either through capitulation – in which case it graciously forgave – or annihilation. There was no middle ground.

Did Toilet Ninja even realise what she was getting herself into? I did not appreciate being made into a target for her vitriol. If it proved to be deliberate on her part, not out of fear or due to some mental illness as I could forgive those, but from malice, then I wouldn't rest until I'd put an end to her machinations. One way or another, that bullshit would stop, even if she got to know the ways in which a viking could be vicious and cunning. The way a certain elf back on Earth had known it, right before I blew him up. Or the demons that I'd exorcised here on Thedas.

The ways in which Hecate and me were starkly similar.

Come to think of it, perhaps Orlais was the right place for me after all.

“I shall have someone run the check you suggested the first chance I get, Alva,” Gillian cut in, an interruption I was glad for. Her gaze went to Toilet Ninja. “Will this suffice for you, Ashioin?” There was a moment's silence where it seemed as if Toilet Ninja was unable to tear her eyes away from me. I met her gaze squarely, unafraid. “Ashioin?”

She finally turned away from me and faced Gillian. “It will suffice,” she said through gritted teeth, her aura screaming the exact opposite. The Keeper looked as unconvinced as I felt. Did this mean Toilet Ninja had a history of stirring up trouble? If so, she needed to watch her step around more people than just me.

The Keeper proved me right about that. “Then I trust Alva will remain alive and well while she lives with us.” She said my name, but her eyes remained glued to Toilet Ninja. “Any concerns you have about her, you will bring to me, and not profess before the entire clan.” She paused before adding. “Least of all the children.” Her voice was low, almost like a warning, when she spoke those last words.

Toilet Ninja's face turned sour and the malcontent look in her eyes made it seem as if she was about to get snappy with Gillian. I noticed everyone's eyes were on her, however, and I doubted she would be so stupid as to openly disrespect the Keeper. A part of me wished she was, though, that made her so much easier to deal with...

“Is that understood, Ashioin?” Gillian pressed, her voice and gaze harder than before.

“It's understood, Keeper.” Her body trembled and I felt the negativity come off of her in waves. It was as if she was a radiator, too, but unlike Aenor she spread ickiness and miasma. I didn't feel safe around her for even a split second. Quite the contrary, a knot of fear formed in my stomach so hard it may as well have been tied by Gregor Clegane. No amount of white sage and rowan could fix this problem. The elves eased up after she spoke, and she walked away readily enough, but I was going to sleep with my shaving knife near me from this point on.

Toilet Ninja wasn't as stupid as I'd hoped. That made her a threat.

Fortunately, nothing about her behaviour gave me a sense of unpredictability. I formulated my strategy for dealing with her even as she settled down to work on some leather. She seemed the type to go nuts without something to pin on me, so if I simply remained on my best behaviour, she'd be pushed to desperation. That desperation would drive her to do something stupid.

Though stupidity carried its own set of dangers. I'd have to pay very close attention to the lessons given to me, especially in wilderness survival. Toilet Ninja had the advantage over me there.

Although we would be travelling for quite a while longer. If she meant to strike, then this would be the time to do so. I had no idea how much longer it would be until we reached our destination. How would we sleep? Were we going to spend the night in Fen'harel's Folly, which would delay our journey even more and give the wench an opening?

It would be immensely stupid of her to kill me, though, after making her dislike of me so obvious and public. No, she would probably be careful at first, or what she believed to be careful anyway. If she faced any real consequences for her actions.

People like Toilet Ninja weren't born, they were made. Gillian didn't seem the type to raise such elves, but who knew what the Keeper before her had been like? I was too new to the clan to ask those kinds of questions. Bangladesh' “sewing clubs” might be my only source of information, and only on topics that they chose to discuss. If I survived long enough to garner anything useful.

I felt the sweet temptation of exhaustion pull at me as well. Fortunately Gillian came to my rescue. “The weather is moving on. Get the clan up and moving again. Alva, you will sit in one of the aravels until you're strong enough to walk again.”

That was a nice distance away from Toilet Ninja, whom I'd seen walking earlier. “My legs still work,” I argued so as to not raise suspicion, and I moved them around to illustrate this.

Gillian shook her head, her expression that as if chastising a child. Some of the other elves looked amused. “I appreciate your willingness to carry your own weight, Alva, but you need your arms for balance. Aenor, escort her to the aravel and make sure she's warm.”

Not only did I get dibs on my spot in the landship, but I would be accompanied by Mahariel? My heart skipped a beat and I saw an ever-so-slight smirk on the Keeper's lips before Aenor stepped up in front of me and blocked my view.

She'd done that on purpose!

Dalish matchmaking business was in full swing. My entire form happily followed that notion as Aenor helped me stand. So much touching, so many places tingling and such a rapid heartbeat. What was cold again? My body had forgotten and my brain was too tired to figure it out. Aenor walked beside me, ready to support me in case I needed it. So close, my own elven radiator, if only for a short while. I took what I could get.

A part of me firmly believed Gillian had done this just to cheer me up. Well, it worked! I felt giddy and excited, and far too happy when I lost my balance to the point where Aenor had to grab me to keep me from falling. More tingling on my arms and more warmth overall.

The Keeper was so getting presents for Christmas.

I made sure to thank him properly once I was inside the landship, even as he wrapped me up in blankets and propped me up against some pillows. He smiled at me in response, that beautiful, warm smile that melted my innards into goo. Every giant chef's dream.

Did giants eat humans? That was what my brain thought of when it was tired.

“Get some rest,” he advised with his voice that made me tremble in all the right ways.

“I hope I won't bore anyone with my quiet company,” I shot back with a sheepish smile.

“You're not quiet when you sleep,” he shot back, a stark reminder that we shared an aravel. So close, but so far... “You mumble, and then you snore a bit.”

My jaw dropped open and I felt my cheeks flare up with shame. I hadn't meant to do that! Stupid nose! Aenor paused when he saw the look on my face and then he merely chuckled. “It's far from the worst I've heard, Alva. If anything, it's kind of cute.”

This time my cheeks grew hot for an entirely different reason. He thought my nightly noises were cute? A split second followed and then realisation came to his face. A blush crept up on his cheeks and he stammered out a few words with no apparent connection to each other.

I tried to help him by shooting him a lopsided grin. “So long as my cuteness doesn't keep you up at night.”

That had sounded so less naughty in my head. Aenor was as red as a tomato and, judging from how hot my entire head felt, I probably didn't fare any better. The world was perfectly welcome to open up a hole and swallow me any time.

Oh wait, it had done that already.

Aenor recovered faster than I did, and while part of me fully expected him to be disgusted, another part of me hoped against all hope that he wouldn't mind. He surprised both parts by flashing me a smirk.

“If I stay up all night on your behalf, Alva, it will be for more than just the sounds you make,” he purred.

My brain went numb. My jaw dropped and my eyes grew wide. Aenor's smirk grew and he bid me farewell. He'd said “for more”, not “because of”. As he stepped out of the landship, I wondered what “for more” meant, exactly. And he'd... purred? My heart was basically doing a marathon at this point.

Sweet Freya and Aphrodite, was he flirting with me? Were we flirting? Was this flirting? I couldn't brain, I had the dumb. My emotions were in high gear. Had he said that as a way to cheer me up? No, Anise had pointed out that he didn't know about my feelings for him. Unless someone had gossiped along the way? That seemed likely. It gave my happiness a bitter tinge to it, but one it needed for me to calm down. I needed that calmness. With it came an aching body, an exhausted mind and very drowsy eyes. Then I was finally claimed by sweet, blessed darkness, though still with the sound of Aenor purring.

Chapter Text

Alva.” My mum called to me. I saw her shape before me, a feminine form of light, but with an outstretched hand that was distinctly human. Physical and concrete.

Alva.”

Relief was the first feeling to come and slap me in the face, followed closely by joy. Her presence felt warm and soothing. For a moment I wanted to reach up and grab that hand. That was why she held it out to me, right? Of course it was, what other reason could there be?

Yet I couldn't move my hand. “Mum,” I said, hoping my words would reach her where my hand couldn't. Even so, a part of me knew a cold, hard truth.

I wasn't going to reach her.

My joy began to fade and relief slowly turned into fear. I would never reach her. My mother was dead.

It stung to realise this. I looked down to see the gaping hole in my chest that I'd seen in my previous dream. Blood shaped like teardrops dripped forth from my heart as it beat steadily. A painful rhythm that tore through me with loneliness and misery. The sting turned into a stab, then two and then three, continuing until I'd lost count.

Gods how I missed her.

All I could do at that point was to lie still and feel the pain tear through me. Daggers manifested everywhere I was stabbed. Each one turned into a sword and none came back out again. Above me, far away now, floated the figure of light. Unreachable. The pain kept tearing through me, raw and unrelenting, to the point where my entire body came undone.

Yet my heart kept beating.

My heart kept beating, and it slowly pulled every piece of me back together. Stitching, gluing or just merging, I slowly became whole again. I didn't feel an ounce of strength beyond that basic healing, however, and my mum was further away than ever before. Yet she kept calling my name, and my heart kept beating.

That was something.

It was more than just something. Tenacity was a family trait. I would reach that light one day. My strength was low at the moment, but it would build up. Little by little, with support from the people around me, I would find my driving force. I could do this, I told myself. One day I might even believe those words.

A light shot down at me from above. Strong, piercing, bright, white light that felt terribly familiar. It went through me like a thrown spear and dispersed the dark hands clawing at me. I hadn't even seen them until the light illuminated their dark shapes. I didn't feel any different, and the swords were still there, but I also wasn't pulled further down.

Find your strength,” my mother whispered to me, yet her voice echoed in my mind, as if it had installed a surround sound effect, “you will need it soon.”

“Soon” could mean anything in cryptic dreams with a prophetic flair, from the next five minutes to five months from now. Well, I wasn't about to let anything hamper me too much, especially in a world as dangerous as Thedas. This was what all my practice with lucid dreaming was all about, after all. Not that I expected any epic results, especially when my arms didn't move. In fact, it seemed that I didn't have arms beyond my elbows. Rather, they disappeared into pitch blackness that not even the spear of light could banish.

That light was my guide, however, and I focused on its place in my heart. I envisioned the light spreading through the veins and arteries, slowly surrounding every stab wound made by the dark swords. Find my strength. Well, it was right there, I just had to put it to use. Did I even need hands?

As if on cue, my chest heaved and my back arched in what would have been a very painful position had I been awake. Slowly but surely my heart pushed out one sword after the other. As if it rejected them, and with a sneer of defiance at that. Even more amazingly, the swords surrendered with ridiculous ease, sliding back out as if they hadn't really stabbed me in the first place. Like teenage boys who talked tough but ran away the second I barked back.

One sword remained, but it diminished back into the size of a dagger. Just as well. Some pain was necessary to remind me of what I'd lost. Pain meant life, and this one stuck so deep it simply needed more light before I could push it out. That was fine, I could deal with that. At least it wasn't so big anymore. It made it less intimidating, easier to overcome. I could do this.

Darkness re-claimed me after that, but this time with the sense of being embraced by an old friend.

 


 

Nothing like a message of impending doom in a funky dream to wake me up, although the smell of hot stew hitting my nostrils played a key part as well. I groaned and stirred, and found myself on the floor of the same aravel where I'd fallen asleep. In front of me was Anise, a smile on her face and a bowl of stew in her hand. “Rise and shine.”

“Is it morning already?” I asked groggily, though I doubted they served stew for breakfast. A yawn escaped my lips before I could stop myself. I stirred and found my arms to be slightly less non-functional.

Remembering how drained they'd been, my dream suddenly made more sense. It was also a cool reminder that my limbs might wear down, but my heart could still kick ass.

Take that, stabbing mental and emotional pain that was on par with an iron maiden! Not that I knew what it was like to be inside an iron maiden, and I wasn't about to give it a try.

“It's evening,” Anise informed me helpfully. After I tested my arms to see if they were strong enough to hold the bowl, and found they weren't, she settled for feeding me.

To say I felt like she was my babysitter was an understatement. Not that I didn't understand the necessity in what she did, but to think that an accomplished Dalish huntress had to sit and feed their recently adopted human made me feel bad for her.

“Open up,” she ordered and even demonstrated by opening her own mouth. There was a gleam of amusement in her eyes as I obeyed. At least she didn't make airplane sounds.

It tasted like a mix of the fish from before, some vegetables, stock and cooked rice. Caramellised onion, even a bit of garlic, but also some herbs. It helped quell some of the guilt that gnawed away at my heart like a dog did a bone. The pleased look on Anise's face also helped me feel a little better.

I wanted to make sure there were no hard feelings between us on this subject, however. It wasn't my intention to overwork myself. Sometimes I simply let my good intentions overrule my need to rest. Not to mention my sense of duty could go overboard at times.

Damn Virgo rising.

Once I was done eating, I made sure to thank Anise. “Are you alright with doing this?” She blinked, seemingly unsure what I meant. “Feeding some helpless human, I mean?”

She stood completely still for a moment, studying me with those sharp, wide open, green eyes. Her head tilted a bit to the side and then a teasing smile crept up her face. “Of course,” she said, her tone easily mirroring her expression. Then she poked me on the forehead in a manner that almost seemed affectionate. I flinched, which drew a small laugh from her. “I've always wanted a pet shem.” Then she grinned widely, a smile that turned wicked as my eyes grew wide and my jaw dropped. I was momentarily dumbstruck, but also impressed by her witty reply. Eventually a smile crept up my face and a few, low chuckles escaped my lips.

I could really like her.

“Thank you, Anise,” I said once my merriment had died down, my face and voice full of sincerity.

Her eyes were still wide and the corners of her mouth still upturned, as if she was about to tease me some more, but then her expression softened. “You're welcome, Alva. Make sure to rest up and recover your strength, because I won't feed you every night.”

I tried to salute her and my arm managed to make its way up to my chest. Progress. “Resting as commanded, ma'am.”

The immensely pleased look on Anise's face spoke volumes. She virtually beamed with self-satisfaction. It made me grin in return. Her delight was highly contagious. “At ease, soldier.” She smiled teasingly before she exited the landship.

I was a bit too energetic immediately after waking up and eating. A quick trip to the latrine tent, and the subsequent hand wash and toothbrush duty after, however, and I found myself yawning and my body aching for rest. Upon returning to the landship, I fully expected some elves to be there as well, but I found it to be empty save for the pile of pillows and blanket. They'd still been busy outside, though, so it would probably be a while before anyone joined me.

I used one of the lanterns to locate more pillows, as surely it would be selfish of me to hog them all to myself. It seemed to be all there was to them, though. The elves had probably assumed that I was accustomed to soft beds and had made a small one for me while we were travelling. It had certainly helped my body recover.

They weren't wrong on either account, but I was of the mindset that pillows were for sharing. Besides, we'd probably have to share body heat again tonight, and bodies were nice and soft, too. Thus I rearranged the pillows so as many people as possible could have something to rest their heads on. Then, in a small moment of selfishness, I lay down in the middle. That would help me stay warm on both sides. Immensely pleased with myself and feeling only slightly guilty about claiming the middle spot, I then picked up the blanket. As it turned out, it was much larger than I had originally thought, so I unfolded it and spread it out so more people could sleep under it. I briefly looked to see if there was another blanket like this anywhere, but I only found small ones.

That gave me an idea. I collected as many blankets as there were pillows, spread out the large one and put the smaller ones on top. Now we all had something to sleep on, should people choose to join me. I slipped under my own blanket, exhausted from my excessive scheming, and fell asleep the second my head hit the pillow.

 


 

There was no dream this time, and it felt as if I'd just fallen asleep by the time I woke up. I was warm, but not particularly comfortable. On the contrary, I found myself lying on my right side, much to the discomfort of my arm. I rolled over on my back, something my entire body was very grateful for.

“Good, you're awake,” said a voice that sounded familiar, though I struggled to place it. I blinked and sat up, finding that my body did considerably better despite the numbness. In front of me was Manrea, crouched, and with what looked like a box of various medicines. “Anise forgot to give you something for your, err...” she looked hesitant, but I could easily guess what she meant.

“My stink?” There was only so much shaving and soap could accomplish, after all, especially where my armpits were concerned.

Manrea looked guilty as charged. “Yes. Don't get me wrong, we elves have the same problem, but we found a solution that we should extend to you.” Now that piqued my curiosity. Was it some form of Dalish deodorant? I doubted it was perfume. They would only attract predators.

She picked out a small bottle of what appeared to be oil. “This has white sage in it.” She placed it in my lap. “One drop per armpit will be enough, just make sure you smear it well.” Another bottle followed that one. “This has no scent of its own, but it covers up the smell of the sage and leaves you scentless. It's quite useful out in the wilds, and our hunters are quite fond of it.” She placed it next to the other one. “Wait a few minutes before you use it, though, and don't lower your arms in between applying the oils. If you do, the smell of sage will be too strong.”

I nodded loyally. “Did I miss breakfast?”

“Oh no. Nehnis and the others are cooking some warm oats for us.”

I did my best not to make a face. Sweet, warm oats just weren't my thing. “Right. I'll wash up and get dressed, then.”

“One more thing before you do.” Manrea held up a hand to pause me. “In regards to your reproductive health. As much as you like Aenor, I'm still not wrong when I ask that you haven't thought of having his babies?”

Shock slapped me in the face Cercei Lannister style. My jaw dropped and I somehow managed to bring forth a “no?” from my otherwise uncooperative mouth. In fact, I was among those statistically rare women who didn't want to have babies at all. Ever. Cute though Aenor was.

Besides, this clan didn't exactly have that large a number that they could “spare” one of their own to a shem, I reckoned. Though they didn't seem eager to discourage any budding feelings between us.

I wasn't sure what to make of that.

“What are your menses like?” Manrea went on. “The pain level? How much blood do you lose?”

“Too much,” I confessed. “It coagulates. The pain level would be as if my innards got twisted around like a sailor's rope while someone punched away at them repeatedly. I can barely sit, let alone stand.” I didn't miss my menstruation one bit, and I didn't look forward to its return.

“Did it make you aenemic?”

“And depressed.” Or, rather, worsened it. Manrea didn't need to know that part, though. Not with the stigma attached to mental illness.

Also, with elven gossip going around, that information would find its way to Toilet Ninja. The others may mean no harm, but she would definitely use it against me.

Manrea nodded. “I'll make a special medicine just for you. It doesn't sound like normal elfroot tonic would work for the pain, either, so I'll get you something stronger. Let me know if it's too strong, yes?”

“Raspberry leaf tea works well for me.” Since they lived off of the land, then they probably had some of that. “It's not the most effective, but it's the best I've found.”

“Then I have a general idea of what to make for you.” She got back up on her feet, box in hand. “Anise brought your wash basin here.” She nodded to a spot to my right. “Don't tarry, we leave once everyone has eaten.” Then she left.

Washing was quick enough thanks to a barrel outside that Water Guy had helpfully supplied. It was a bit cold, though, thanks to me not having any time to boil it. The smell of sage was powerful the second I uncorked the bottle, and it was easy to see why only one drop per armpit was needed. Following the instructions was easy enough, and the strong smell of the oil helped clear my head and nostrils.

There was more than just a psychological reason as to why white sage was associated with purification.

As Manrea had told me, the second oil was indeed without a scent. For a moment I doubted it would work, but I applied it nevertheless. The sage disappeared immediately and I was left gobsmacked.

Essential oils sure were something else.

Having been as involved in New Age as I had through a large part of my life, I knew to store the oils in a dark place. I put it in my basin as a temporary location, at least until I could get a hold of a small box to hold them, and wrapped them up in a dry, unused wash cloth. I got dressed and stepped outside, now with a right side that was much happier with me than before and arms that were almost back to their normal function.

The bright light of pre-sunrise showed me more of the place than what I'd glimpsed during my night-time toilet trip. We were still near the mountains to the east, though back in the lowlands with trees and rolling hills on either side of us. A good place for shelter, both from the wind and prying eyes.

It didn't take long to relocate the aravel with the harp and I placed my things inside. Then I went to get breakfast, though I was in no way eager for it.

To my surprise, it was a savory version this time, and with various vegetables. Kale, from the looks of it, celery and more caramellised onion. Seeds, red lentils and nuts had been added for protein. While I was still sceptical, I gratefully took the bowl offered to me from Nehnis and then went in search of somewhere to sit. As was to be expected, the elves had already settled into their own cliques.

“Over here, Alva!” called Afro Elf and I turned to see her seated on a bench with Manrea, Anise, Gillian and Storyteller. They'd placed their benches so that they faced each other, and there were a couple more free spots left. I joined them quickly and set to eating the strange mix that was breakfast.

It was, to my surprise, delicious.

Breakfast went by fast for all parties involved, although I noticed some tender looks between Manrea and Afro Elf that reminded me of a lesbian couple that I'd been close friends with back on Earth. That memory brought about a sting and the unwanted but unavoidable thought that they were probably dead, too. As happy as I was for the couple next to me, they made me think too much about two people who had meant a great deal to me.

It was just as well I was finished eating, because I had no appetite left.

We were going to leave soon and people were already getting up, dirty dishes in hand. They lined up near Dishwasher Guy who had gained a small group of dedicated dishwashers to help him out. Around me, the elves were getting ready to move as well. In other words, this was neither the time nor place for me to start bawling.

I took a few, deep breaths when everyone had their backs turned and after a while I managed to regain control over my emotions. It was a fragile base that they rested upon, so I reminded myself of the dream I'd had and how I'd rejected the swords. There was strength in my heart, as wounded as it still was, I just had to let it guide me for now. I would find the time to grieve and work my way through the pain once we were settled in a new place. Hopefully.

My offer to help with the dishes was turned down, though Dishwasher Guy shot me a grateful smile while he did. I found my way back to my things so I could brush my teeth. My throat was parched, so once my teeth were sparkly clean – though fortunately not at the level of Edward Cullen – I took my waterskin and filled it up for the journey. Hopefully I wouldn't get too cold or thirsty this time around.

It still took a while before we were ready to move, mainly due to the dishes still being washed, but there was also a lot of tidying up to do. Benches were put back inside the aravels, fires put out and covered with dirt and some supplies stashed away. That last part was probably for the sake of another clan that might travel through the area. They put down some dried food, blankets and firewood. Basic essentials, it seemed, especially in this weather. No weapons, though.

I asked Halin why and he explained that it was to not further exacerbate the violent conflicts going on in Orlais. My mind went back to Bangladesh' gossip gatherings and I remembered her saying that templars and mages were at war with each other after the Circles disbanded. Not to mention there was a civil war going on in Orlais.

Considering how areas affected by violent conflicts would tear open the Veil, that meant there were probably more demons still around. Especially with power-drunk mages using their magic to attack innocent people.

Lovely.

They probably wouldn't be so foolish as to attack a Dalish clan, however, and that helped me feel somewhat better. Still, we were pretty low on the food chain when it came to other racial and ethnic groups.

We. The irony of my brain thinking of myself as part of the clan, even though I was human – in a world dominated mostly by humans – wasn't lost on me. Not to mention I was a minority, regardless, seeing as I was from another planet.

I was placed in the middle of the train with the Keeper and Halin once again, though this time I had clean panties under my skirt and bandages on my feet. At least they would remain bandaged until my new boots adapted to them. I was given another backpack to carry, this one a bit heavier than the first, but otherwise it was the same as yesterday.

The weather change, however, was a mixed bag. It was actually sunny, and what clouds were on the sky were a thin, white layer, suggesting no rain in sight. That would have been wonderful if not for the fact that the temperature had dropped and an icy wind had come down from the south.

Up from the south. I still wasn't used to the concept of a southern hemisphere fantasy world.

Regardless, having my panties back did little to help with the cold now, despite the long stockings, high boots, skirt, sweater, scarf and hood. This kind of temperature required multiple layers of clothing, preferably with some wool as the innermost layer. I hid my hands inside my sleeves and stuck them inside my armpits in a cross-armed position. Then I walked as physically close to the two elven mages as I could.

“There is a spell that can help you better withstand the cold,” Halin offered early on in the march, “though I know only how to do so by drawing it from the Fade.”

“I'll give it a try,” I said through gritted teeth, earning a smile in response. “How does it go?” I hoped it didn't involve some “imagine yourself in the Bahamas”, feel-good, New Agey bullshit.

“Imagine your heart as a ball of fire that warms you,” he instructed and I did as he said. Immediately my chest felt warm. “Imagine it spreading out to the rest of your body and say 'corpus calor'.”

I did as he bid, and it worked, but I was puzzled by the language in question, which sounded just like Latin. I'd expected them to use Elvhen, rather. “Why those words in particular?”

“It's Tevinter in origin, but it works regardless of race.” He paused before adding. “Or ethnicity.”

“Why not translate it into your own language?”

He shrugged. “Some spells work better in Tevene. This is one of them.”

Fair enough. We continued marching in silence.

There was only a short break for water, food and peeing before we marched on. The Cook made sure to distribute hot drinks to all those who walked, which was welcome despite the warming spell. I made sure to ask Halin for more information on how it worked.

“It depends on how cold it is,” he said as we walked across an open plain. “The colder, the more it warms you. How long it lasts depends on how powerful the mage is. Keep in mind these factors may differ for you since you don't draw your spells from the Fade.”

“Duly noted,” I said. “Can I use it to prevent frostbite?”

“Absolutely,” he replied. “Keep in mind that it's ill-advised to cast if the temperature drops below fourty degrees minus. A Tevinter Magister did that once and he suffered a heat stroke and died.”

“So within the range of which temperatures, exactly?” I pressed, and hoped they used the metric system or something close to it.

“Five degrees plus to the minus degrees that I just mentioned,” he quickly summarised. “It's within that range that it's stable and doesn't pose a threat to the mage.” There was a slight pause before he seemed to remember something. “It can also be cast only once every twenty-four hours.”

Oh boy. “What's the longest this spell can last?”

He shot me a sheepish smile. “Twelve hours.”

My left eyebrow went up to the middle of my forehead.

“A sensible mage travels in cold temperatures properly dressed for the occasion,” the Keeper cut in. “Not to mention we use all the mundane tools available. The rest of the time we rub ourselves in ice salves or consume potions that help us resist the frost.”

That seemed reasonable. “What if you get trapped in an avalanche and can't move? Apart from the warming spell and proper clothing, I mean. How do you consume potions, then?”

“Stuff them in your coat,” Tamlen cut in, having just arrived and hovered near the Keeper while he looked at me. There was an urgency in his body language, and while he didn't openly glare at me, I got the overall sense that he wanted me to get lost. “Use straws to drink, that way you don't need to waste energy trying to free your arms.”

“We'll teach you how to make potions, too,” Halin added and we moved away from the Keeper for a while so Tamlen could speak to her in relative privacy. I did hear some things along the lines of “no human farmers for miles”, “livestock running loose” and “scorched and frozen patches of land closer to farmsteads” as I went, though.

Was there danger ahead? My gaze remained on the conversing pair for a few more seconds before I allowed Gillian's First to pull me into the world of alchemical concoctions.

 


 

Nothing untoward happened that day, but a cloud of concern hung over me even as the clan stopped to rest for the night. Halin took a break from explaining the differences between health poultices and healing potions to go around the outer perimetre of the camp, casting spells. I noticed Gillian did the same. Any elf who could wield a weapon was sent to keep watch and the overall mood of the camp was subdued despite the attempts at positivity.

There was definitey danger afoot.

I felt my nerves getting to me. If we suffered an attack now, I was, at best, a meat shield. Without Blue I was very vulnerable and nowhere near as powerful, and I doubted I could use my telekinesis on anything much heavier than a pebble. In terms of weapons, I had a shaving knife. Sharp, but no training in how to use it. I could use spells to protect and dispel and, in the case of demons, exorcise, but none of us had the power required to seal rifts in the Veil.

Worse, if the ones posing a danger to us were people, I had even fewer tools at hand. Not to mention the idea of killing another person worried me. I knew how that could change people, sometimes into homocidal maniacs. While I might not turn into that, the chance was just as high that I would, for all I knew. I would certainly not turn to dark magic to protect myself.

That really limited my options, though. What could I possibly do against bandits, highwaymen, deserters, rogue templars or even maleficarum? I knew the magic system had changed from Origins to Inquisition, so if the mana clash spell was gone, then that boded well for the elven mages. Well, if the threat turned out to be other mages. Then again, that spell was also immensely useful to have on our side.

I wondered who would be so bold as to attack a whole clan of Dalish elves, though. Bandits and highwaymen would probably go for easier prey, unless their numbers had grown extremely fast. Same with deserters. That did nothing to settle my fears, because it left templars and mages. The templars might be more careful, despite the presence of magic-users among the elves – which included me, hooray – but if the mages were drunk on power and overconfident, then they could prove a serious threat.

What little time I got to myself that evening, I spent practising my telekinesis. What I got to show for was an advancement from pebble to slightly bigger stone and a much bigger headache. I went to sleep too mentally exhausted to think, and that, ironically, helped me get a full night's rest.

 


 

I'd almost completely forgotten about the very real chance of an attack the next day. Almost. Gillian told me we were making good time and would reach the small fishing village of Salmont either some time tonight or tomorrow. She told me Salmont was home to a Marquis, whom I would do well to remember to bow to and refer to as “Your Grace”. I desperately wished I had something to write all of this down with. The Keeper confided that this was all she knew of Orlesian shemlen society, too.

That didn't really help.

The Waking Sea was the name of the body of water that the people of Salmont got one of their major livelihoods from. They also prided themselves on their diplomats, Halin told me, and minstrels, who were among the finest in all of Orlais. Not to mention serving as a trading post with areas further east, even Ferelden and dwarves. It was about the only place that welcomed Dalish craft as well.

“Who knows?” he said with a friendly smile. “You might find someone who can teach you to play the harp.”

I was about to say something about how I'd rather dunk my head in water while outdoors in twenty degrees minus. That, in turn, reminded me to ask him about what system of measurement they used for temperatures. Before I could change the topic to that, however, a loud explosion sounded from up ahead of the train. More specifically, the area ahead that the hunters were currently exploring. It was loud enough to hurt my ears and forceful enough to shake the ground. Fear stabbed me in the gut, accompanied by a strong tremble, almost as if I was experiencing a minor, very local, earthquake. The train came immediately to a halt and on either side of me, Gillian and Halin grabbed their staves.

“Alva, stay here!” the Keeper barked. “Halin, with me!” They rushed forward as one, weaving through the crowd like a wind. I looked up and saw Anise running towards our train to meet with the Keeper. She had her bow in hand and an arrow notched. They spoke for only a short time, and then ran in the direction that Anise had come from. A streak of lightning soared horizontally a few feet above the ground and struck a tree. A large branch snapped off of it only to be consumed by flames appearing out of seemingly nowhere. All around me the elves that were armed created a protective formation around the train, their bows taught. The children in the aravel behind me asked what was going on, and some even tried to take a peek. They were quickly dragged back inside by the elders.

I rushed up to the left side of the train until I was free from the number of people who had clustered together and could see what was happening. Even as I did, however, I was dreadfully aware of what took place.

The hunters were under attack.

Chapter Text

Maleficarum. We were under attack by magic. Or, rather, the hunters were.

A part of me was relieved to be among the train of non-hunter elves, but another part was terrified of what took place up ahead. What if Halin and the Keeper weren't enough to defeat them? Would they come after us next?

My heart was in my throat as I watched the fighting unfold. From what I could see from such a distance, more streaks of lightning and roaring fire appeared, even a pillar of ice. A part of me hoped that was the magic of Gillian and her First rather than the more violent apostates.

I couldn't just stand there and do nothing, though. If push came to shove, the mages might attack us next. We had to get out of there and evacuate further north.

Yet the fighting took place right behind the small, rolling hill in front of us. On our right side was plenty of open field once we got over the hill, while on the left was a large, dense forest. Since we were moving north, that meant my right was east and my left west. East, then, seemed the safest option.

Unless that would lead us right into the arms of somebody else.

None of the elves seemed eager to scout in that direction, yet neither did they move west. The Frostbacks were still behind us, so if nothing else we could retreat. I saw a group of elves conversing – Manrea, Storyteller, Water Guy and Dishwasher Guy, to be exact – and decided to approach.

“...can't leave without the Keeper,” I heard Water Guy argue, his arms crossed and his gaze trained on Dishwasher guy.

“We can't stay here, either,” Dishwasher Guy shot back and pointed to the east. “There's nothing stopping us from going around the shems and flat ears.”

“Except more shems and flat ears,” argued Water Guy just as I stepped up next to Manrea.

“Alva,” she called out, a startled look on her face. Then came confusion. “I didn't hear you approach.” Damn, and I wasn't even wearing my slippers!

“Alva, you've walked with the Keeper for three days now,” Water Guy cut in, his crossed arms un-crossing and coming to rest at his sides. “Did she tell you where she intends to take us?”

“Yes,” I replied and opened my mouth to tell him the exact destination.

“Then you must lead us there,” he cut in, his eyes still on me, causing the words in my mouth to die down, though my lips were still parted, albeit in shock.

Lead a Dalish clan, me? I was so baffled by the mere suggestion I didn't even know how to react.

“But I'm-” I began. A loud explosion sounded from up ahead, followed by roaring fire and the smell of burnt flesh. We all hung our heads low and put our hands over our ears.

It was Dishwasher Guy's turn to speak up once we recovered. “You're the Keeper's Second.” A sheepish smile grew on his face. “Usually that's another elf from our clan, and usually you would have to be trained by the Keeper and prove your worth.”

“The circumstances are rather unique,” Manrea supplied. “We're being attacked by magic and we need magic to lead and defend us. You're the only one apart from Halin and Lailani who can do so.”

My jaw dropped. This was so bizarre on so many levels.

I was ill-equipped to help the hunters and mages fight the maleficarum and the train counted children, civilians and the elderly. Not to mention the halla. They had to be brought to safety. It was of utmost priority.

“East to go around and north-west after that,” I instructed them, feeling more than a little queasy. “She told me the destination, but I don't know the way beyond that.”

“I'm familiar with the place,” Storyteller confessed. “We've been there before.” He turned to the others. “Have someone scout ahead to make sure we won't come across any more shem and flat ear mages.” The other elves dispersed and set to work getting the train to move. He then turned to me, placed a hand on my shoulder and squeezed it reassuringly. “I'll be with you every step of the way, Alva, but the clan needs to see you take charge.” He paused before adding. “Lailani needs to see you take charge.”

I nodded, though my gut was a veritable spawning point for butterflies. “Is there a routine for what she does? Any words of inspiration?”

“She casts a spell of protection on the train,” he explained, “and then she lights up our path... oh, you'll need her staff, come!” He rushed back to the other elves, me hot on his heels. I wasn't sure if lighting up the path was necessary in broad daylight, but judging from how Storyteller was in such a rush, it could perhaps hold some symbolic meaning. Unified purpose, perhaps?

Whatever would help us get out of there.

Enodia was the epithet for the aspect of Hecate that protected travellers. I set to work weaving a huge bubble of protection around the entire train, calling upon her as I did. Dammasandra was the subduer of evil men, so she came next. Soteira was the saviour, but that prayer was spoken in favour of the hunters, Gillian and Halin. Erodia was the Gatekeeper, so I let up a prayer to her that the gates of Salmont be open to us when we arrived. Kurotrophos was the protector of children, Propylaia the guardian, and Krataia the unconquerable one. The last one's energy I weaved into the bubble itself and then I centered said sphere on the middle aravel. It was large enough to encompass the entire train and then some. My heart pounded like crazy and my body heat had increased, as if I'd started running.

“Here,” Storyteller's voice breathed into my ear and he held up a short, gnarled staff that was a dull brown in colour. Its tip was shaped like that of a dragon's head, inside which rested a roundly shaped quartz crystal. “Lailani casts a spell on the gem to light it up. It's when the clan knows to put aside their differences and march forward.”

Right, so more of a symbolic meaning than a practical one. Unless it was night time, of course. Then again, carrying a magical lantern at night might not be prudent if stealth was on the agenda.

Storyteller looked at me expectantly. “You need to step up to the head of the train and cast your spell. Then you lead us forward. I'll go with you, as promised.”

“Right,” I said and followed him, my heart in my throat. I hoped this would work...

An eerie silence came from the area up ahead, however, and we all paused. A split second passed and then a number of elven hunters came limping or running towards us. At the top of the hill stood Gillian and Halin, looking only slightly worse for the wear, as they motioned for the hunters to get moving.

Sweet Goddess of the Holy Fire, if they were fleeing, what did that mean for the rest of us?

I called on the Graces – Thalia, Euphrosyne and Aglaia – to heal the damage done to the hunters. Some of those who were limping got help moving from their less injured friends, but even so they looked a little better with each step. As they grew close enough that I could recognise them, my heart soared when I saw that Aenor was very much alive, and in good health even. The same, I noticed, was true for Anise, Tamlen and Elf Chick. More hunters lagged behind, but they were getting there.

Improvisation Guy was badly injured, however, even with the healing provided. His left side was scorched and he bled profusely from a head wound. Aenor and Tamlen were on either side of him, carrying him as fast as they could. The nearest aravel was opened and Manrea jumped inside, ready with medicine and bandages. Improvisation Guy was gently lifted inside, even as Gillian and Tamlen continued to engage the enemy mages. I made sure to ask the Graces to infuse their healing energy into the protective bubble. That should help Manrea considerably.

“Time to go,” Storyteller urged me. Seeing as the Keeper didn't seem intent on returning any time soon, nor did Halin, the task of leading the clan did indeed fall to me.

I tried my best not to think too hard on the peculiar nature of the whole situation and instead focused my will on the crystal. In my mind's eye I envisioned a light manifesting inside it and muttered a simple incantation. The crystal lit up and made me feel like Gandalf the Grey. All I needed was a pointed hat.

As one we moved, with Anise, Aenor, Elf Chick and Tamlen helping the remaining hunters get inside Manrea's emergency health aravel. I held the staff in my right hand, much as I did the Norwegian flag on May 17th. The look of approval that I got from Storyteller suggested I was doing it right. We went east immediately, Gillian and Halin perfectly capable of dealing with what maleficarum remained. Or so I hoped. From the looks of it, only two mages were left to oppose our own. Judging from their form-fitting, furlined attire that covered them from top to toe, they were definitely former circle mages. Their clothes were torn in different places, probably from trying to survive in the wilds. There were bodies in the area that weren't dead mages, however, and the stench of burnt corpses was strong.

We were halfway past the warzone when fire erupted beneath Halin's feet. His shield protected him from the flames, but it fizzled out, just in time for another mage to cast a lightning bolt his way. It struck him in the shoulder and sent him flying. Gillian was by his side immediately, shield in place, but she now faced off against two mages on her own.

Worse than that, behind those two mages approached a small group of templars, their heavily armoured forms well covered by the shadows of the forest's canopy.

Not that I minded the templars taking out the maleficar, but judging from the stories Afro Elf had told, there was nothing that suggested they'd stop at that. If anything, the Keeper and Halin were probably even more in danger now. As was I.

I was in no way, shape or form qualified to fight mages or templars. With Blue gone, I was severely weakened when it came to demons. Common sense dictated I should simply continue on my way.

Fuck common sense.

A ball of white-blue energy manifested in my free hand upon my command and I breathed healing energy into it. I then called upon Hecate Paionos and Abronoe, as I had when I healed my eyes, to bless the energy ball. Storyteller gave me a worried look, but I shot him a reassuring smile. Then I held up the ball and moved it telekinetically until it connected with Halin's form. It spread out and healed every inch of his body.

The templars had made short work of the enemy mages and, as I feared, advanced on Gillian and her First. Aenor, Tamlen, Elf Chick, Anise and even Afro Elf rushed forward as one, weapons in hand. Arrows came flying at them from templar archers, but were deflected away by my shield. The templars weren't so lucky with the answering volley from our side.

That took much out of their bluster, and they turned tail and ran. Gillian ordered the hunters not to pursue. Considering they disappeared into the woods, where all manner of traps and ambushes could be laid, that was probably a good idea.

Halin was brought into the healing landship and Gillian took control of the staff. Relieved that I could now head further back in line, maybe even check up on the hunters to see if they needed any help, I took a long way around the train. I wanted to make sure that Aenor, especially, was alright.

He greeted me from on top of the aravel, a haggard but relieved smile on his face. I returned that smile as I steadily approached, noticing how my strength was already returning after my previous spellcasting. He moved closer as well, but then his smile turned into a look of alarm.

Alva!” Tamlen shouted in warning and fired an arrow that flew right behind my head. The 'twang' of his bow was followed up by the dull sound of impact and a man's grunt right behind my ear. I spun around, still without any weapons, and saw the strangest-dressed man I'd ever seen go down right next to me. Tamlen's arrow was stuck in his throat, his left hand grasping for me and the right one holding a leather-bound book.

On his head was a white hood, and his face was covered in a fearsome silver mask that was adorned with large, black horns. The white cloth continued down his upper chest, back and arms, with some interruptions of chain that went down to his elbows. His lower arms gave way to brown cloth, which was again covered by black, spiked metal bracers that also served as a gauntlet on his left hand. Covering his abdomen was a yellow-orange vest with a small split at the top and the motif of a fierce, black dragon cutting across his stomach. His legs were covered in black, poofy breeches and a brown leather belt with a whole array of daggers hung on his hips. The pants seemed to end around his knees, where they gave away to black leather boots.

Even as he fell, his left hand had sparks coming out of it. I immediately withdrew in both shock and horror, having no idea who this bizarre mage was or why he was attacking me. Behind me, frightened noises came from the halla and many elves cried out in fear.

When two more of them appeared out of thin air, however, I let out a yelp of my own. Elves and halla both moved away from me as quickly as they could.

“Get her!” shouted one of the mages and behind them came running a pair of warriors just as oddly dressed, their weapons drawn. “Don't worry about the elves, they're irrelevant! We must study-” An arrow from an “irrelevant” elf put an effective stop to his speech.

I noticed the third mage stayed just out of reach of the protective bubble, casting a spell that I had no chance of knowing the nature of. Arrows rained at him, but he was protected by his own shield. The spell was cast quickly, but what really made my stomach churn was when I saw him cut into his own arm and fuel his spell with blood.

Not that I was queasy about blood – it would make my life as a woman difficult, then – and there were rituals in earthling witchcraft that used blood to empower spells, especially where puppet magic was concerned. Blood magic in Thedas, on the other hand, was of a much more volatile nature.

It also effectively diminished my bubble of protection.

“Remarkable,” the mage commented, as if he'd expected it to disappear entirely. Not that I was about to thank him for the compliment, in fact I already had a spell spilling forth from my lips that would reinforce said bubble.

Just in time for two more mages to appear out of nowhere. Who in the world had thought it a good idea to give these accursed blood mages a godsdamned spawning point?

Arrows bounced harmlessly off the mages' combined shield and the warriors were about to catch up to them. Gillian was by my side, then, casting a dispelling spell of her own, and the shield began to diminish. I'd changed my tactic to a dispelling spell as well, though it intercepted a lightning bolt aimed at the Keeper rather than take down the shield.

Not that I was complaining.

“Get into the train!” Gillian barked, but she would be alone against three blood mages if I did that. Aenor and Tamlen rushed forth on either side of us and headed straight for the warriors.

As much as I appreciated their skill, those warriors looked much better equipped than the elves did. Elf Chick and Anise jumped in next, along with Afro Elf. Gillian managed to dispel a flaming projectile that had been sent her way, but then the same circle of fire that had distracted Halin appeared under her feet. Unlike her First, the Keeper didn't have her shield in place.

She had me, however.

I'd moved an exorcist fireball with my mind, as well as a healing orb. Spells were light as a feather. The fire was no exception. Looking at it, I willed it to move and then I looked straight at the enemy mages. The spell followed suit and blew up in their faces. It wasn't enough to harm them, but it did finally take down their shield. The force of the explosion caused the Keeper and me to stagger, however, annulling any advantage we would have otherwise had.

In the confusion and the smoke, Tamlen and Aenor changed direction, their blades leading. Two mages had their throats slit, but the third mage sent them flying with a powerful force field around his person before they could get to him. Behind them, Bangladesh and Elf Chick took down one warrior while Anise just barely dodged the downward slash of the other. Tamlen rolled around, having recovered quickly, and came to her aid. The Keeper pointed her staff at the last blood mage and began uttering an incantation. Blood magic gushed forth at her, however, and knocked her to the ground, where she hit her head and fell unconcious. My attempt to dispel it had been feeble, at best.

That left me alone with a blood mage far better trained in combat than me.

As if on cue, Aenor jumped back in. The mage sent his sword flying with a sneer, but that did nothing to stop the elf. Instead he grabbed the mage around his throat and drew a dagger with his other hand. I cast a spell to help him, but the mage released another shockwave, with a wider diameter this time, and knocked both me and Aenor to the ground.

I didn't hit my head, fortunately, but I got up just in time to see the mage standing above Aenor, a ball of fire hovering over his hand.

No!

Aenor kicked up and caused the mage to stagger back, but he maintained his concentration. The flame was dropped on the elf as one would drop a piece of cinnamon into syrup. I moved it back up, but the mage was on to my trick now and used his own power to move it back down. Aenor began to roll away and the fire exploded between him and the maleficar, but it still lit him up along with the magic-user.

I jumped up, tore off my hood, scarf and sweater, kicked the burning mage away and immediately covered Aenor with my one-of-a-kind top. He rolled around in the grass in an attempt to put the fire out and I slapped away at every burning bit of him I'd covered, inventing a water summoning spell as I did. Both worked, though the latter brought very local rain – right above us, in fact – and soaked us both. An odd scent of burnt flesh and wet hair hit my nose.

At some point the last warrior went down, my sweater got destroyed and Tamlen cut down the last mage. I didn't really register much else at that point, though some part of my brain helpfully informed me that I was now topless.

The rush of adrenaline would run out soon, so I sent another healing orb to Gillian before I set to work healing Aenor. I panted hard even as I did, the smell of sweat and burnt flesh mixing with the metallic smell of blood and the undeniable stench of faeces.

What was it Bronn had said to Lord Dickon Tarly in the Game of Thrones series again? “Men shit themselves when they die”?

Could confirm.

I removed the sweater before it could get stuck in Aenor's burn-wounds. He lay on his side, panting hard. Tamlen, Water Guy, Anise and Dishwasher Guy rushed to our side even as I looked for ways to peel off the leather bracers, and I was quickly shooed away. They put Aenor on a stretcher made from leather that had been tightly stretched over wood, moving him very gently as they did so. I saw Afro Elf and Elf Chick rush to the Keeper's side, though she was already getting back up again.

There was only one place I could make myself useful now, and that was by Manrea's side. Fortunately, the train had stopped when the Keeper had moved in to fight the blood mages, so it wasn't a long walk to catch up. I climbed in without asking permission first, though I did declare I was going to help heal the injured. Manrea replied that she was quite happy about that, especially since the earlier healing magic I'd infused into the bubble was now gone.

It was tempting to go back outside and kick a certain blood mage's corpse, but that would only serve my vanity and not actually help anyone. Instead I helped lower Aenor into the aravel before I set to work following Manrea's instructions.

Halin looked a lot better, but I was told not to approach him due to “static” issues. He assured me they would fade away eventually. Improvisation Guy had his head bandaged, but no blood stained the multiple layers of white cloth. His right arm, side and hip had been stripped down and wrapped in patches of cloth that I assumed had some solution or cream underneath them to help heal the burns. Manrea instructed me to focus my healing on him, and I did. I noticed the bandage on his head covered his right eye, so I informed him of who I was and what purpose I had for approaching him before I set to work.

“I got the prettiest healer,” he remarked with a smile before quickly adding, “magic healer.” Manrea didn't seem at all offended, though he was forgetting one.

“Would you prefer I refrain from repeating those words to the Keeper?” I asked him teasingly, even as I put one hand on his head and the other on his upper arm, and as gently as I could. Some of the cloth patches covered his shoulder, neck, chest and back, suggesting the damage had been quite extensive.

“Yes, please,” he replied with a boyish grin, though it seemed to strain him to do even that. “The gossip will find its way to her anyway.”

It probably would. My hands lit up with healing energy and that was the last we spoke on that matter. In fact, it was the last we spoke for about fifteen minutes.

The aravel took on most of the smells from the previous fighting, even as the train began to move again. Anise and Elf Chick joined us in tending the wounded, and I created another healing orb that I attached to the ceiling so it could “snow” down its restorative powers on the hunters that Manrea had already tended to. There were more of them injured than I'd like there to be, but I was sick with worry when I saw the state that Aenor was in. Even worse was knowing that he'd been hurt because of me.

In the first attack, the maleficar and the templars were entirely to blame for dragging the clan into their petty fight. Those blood mages, on the other hand... they had come for me.

It chilled me to the bone and made me nervous on more than one level, especially when I considered one of the mages' response to the resilience of the bubble. My magic was probably exotic and new to them and, in their own twisted way, they'd wanted to study it. While I'd made that bubble and carried the staff to help the clan, it was a stark reminder of how careful I had to be with my spells. Not to mention how I could easily be torn in half by many different factions, magical and otherwise, should my powers become known to the wider world.

Manrea had me put cloth with her healing cream on Aenor's now exposed side once my hands were properly cleaned. And it was side, the burn going from the top of his head and all the way down to his feet. It was considerably worse than Improvisation Guy's case, though fortunately he had no puncture wounds anywhere.

Still, I didn't waste any time applying the bandages and once that was done, I set to work on my healing spell.

Aenor's breathing was normal, which suggested there was no internal damage, at least. Even so the healing took around the same time that it had for Improvisation Guy. We removed the cloth pieces afterwards, and I was pleased to see that only half of them needed to be replaced. It probably wouldn't hurt to give him a second round of healing later, but at the very least he'd live, with all body parts intact. Even his eye seemed to be doing fine.

Manrea covered him with a blanket and gave me a one-over. I became acutely aware of how bare my skin was. To say I was cold was an understatement. Tamlen appeared in the landship's opening, however, and hit me on the head with both my scarf and hood.

“Tamlen!” Manrea called out to him. He peered inside just as I put my scarf on. Sweet, wonderful scarf. “Check with Bangaela if she has a spare shirt.” He nodded and disappeared. Manrea then offered me a blanket and I ended up sitting next to Aenor.

The journey continued for many more hours, during which I drank what water I could and chewed some dried, cured meat to keep from going hungry. Tamlen managed to procure a simple, white linen shirt that was too tight around the chest and hips, but otherwise fit. The wounded hunters slept most of the way while Halin was given some metal screws to touch. He informed me he'd ground himself fully once we were in Salmont.

Just as well I wasn't leading the clan into an Orlesian village, let alone while wearing a Deadpool sweater. What a sight that would have been! Still, the aftermath of such an up-close fight had me shaken. The only reason I was even alive was because of the elves and because those mages had meant to capture rather than kill me.

I also had no idea where they were from. They hadn't looked like renegade ex-Circle mages from any Fereldan, Free Marcher or Orlesian circle. Not that I'd taken the time to remove their masks so I could study their faces, but I had a nagging suspicion they were from Tevinter.

That was a whole other level of trouble that I wasn't prepared for.

“Alva,” I heard Aenor's voice mutter beside me. I turned to look at him and I saw he was awake and looking up at me with his sharp, green eyes. Burned though he was, he was still so very handsome.

I shot him a smile. He'd earned that much. “Take it easy there, hero.” I kept my voice soft so as to avoid aggravating anyone. They were all in a state of healing and needed calm surroundings.

Not that my healing magic hadn't had its effect, of course, but proper rest was vital nevertheless.

“You saved my life,” he muttered. Manrea steadily approached us.

“Well, you saved mine first,” I said teasingly. He actually smiled at that, a happy one that made my heart skip a beat.

“Are you able to sit?” Manrea asked him. Some scuffling about and with a bit of help from both of us, he was able to do so. “I'll get you some jerky to chew on. We should stop for some food soon, unless the Keeper means to get us to the village today.”

“I'm hungry too,” whined Improvisation Guy and Manrea promised to get him some food after Aenor. In response, he pouted. “It's always 'after Aenor'.” I smiled at him as well, though he didn't see it from his position.

Manrea returned with the promised food and I sat in silence as Aenor ate. I watched as the medic checked Improvisation Guy for any lingering injuries and found he was fit and ready to scout again in a few days. They ended up arguing, however, as Improvisation Guy was convinced he needed at least a week more.

“Not in this aravel,” she shot back. “This is a makeshift place for healing only. If you insist on more time, you will have to sleep outside.”

Improvisation Guy's face fell. “What?”

I couldn't help but laugh.

It was exactly what I needed, as it released the knot that had formed in my stomach and helped me relax. Relief mixed in with the merriment and I ended up giggling into my knees. After five minutes of such silly frivolity, however, I managed to calm down.

Just in time for the guilt to come crashing down on me.

A part of me knew it wasn't my fault – it wasn't as if I'd worn a giant sign on my chest that read “KIDNAP ME FOR SCIENCE, PLEASE” – but a fight had broken out as a result of the blood mages' less-than-diplomatic approach. I took a deep breath – my days of apologising for things that weren't my fault were over – but I wanted to make sure Aenor knew that I cared. “How do you feel?”

“Better.” He shot me a sheepish grin, but there were still burns on his face, neck, shoulder, arm, back and chest.

I nodded at them. “I'll get the rest of that healed up when you're ready.” If he even wanted anything to do with magic anymore.

His grin turned into a warm smile, his eyes twinkling in ways that did funny things to my insides. “I look forward to it.”

He was a brave man. His smile was infectious, however, and removed the burden of guilt from my heart. I needed to have a chat with the Keeper before my concerns were fully at ease, however. Excusing myself, I climbed out of the landship and made my way to the front of the train. The sun hung low on the sky at this point, and the winter chill was still in the air.

As I'd expected, the Keeper was there, holding the staff in one hand. She looked fully healed, which was further proven by her healthy and quick gait, and Storyteller walked beside her as he had me.

“Keeper,” I called out and she turned to look at me. “I'm glad you're alright.”

“For which I have you to thank, Alva,” she replied.

I paused, hesitant, wondering if she'd blame me for the attack. There was always that one person who was eager to pull such a dick move. Toilet Ninja, for instance. “And I have you to thank for not getting kidnapped,” I shot back and stepped up so I could walk beside her. “Though perhaps it would have been wiser to hide in the train, like you ordered.”

There was a moment's silence. “Was that what you believed at the time?”

“No,” I replied, and the hours I'd spent sitting next to Aenor had given me the time to ponder this as well. “If I had, I'd have left you alone with three Tevinter blood mages and there was nothing that suggested they wouldn't kill anyone who stood between me and them.”

“You think they were from Tevinter?”

I shrugged. “They didn't look like they were from any of the circles in Orlais, Ferelden or the Free Marches, and I didn't think Nevarran mages would travel to the country that is the very heart of the Chantry to get away from templars.” I paused before adding. “Same with Antivans and Rivaini, for that matter.”

“You're smart, and in a way that's dangerous to your enemies,” Gillian observed. “You need training, however, as Asha'bellanar pointed out. For the clan's sake and your own.”

I pondered those words and the exact meaning behind them. “Would you say I'm smart in a way that's also beneficial to my friends?”

A smirk crept up the Keeper's face. “I have yet to see evidence to the contrary.” Her smirk died down in favour of a more stern look, however. “Provided your friends treat you well.”

I could list many instances where that hadn't been the case. There was another, far more important matter, however, that I wanted to clarify. “Do you think the Tevinters will retaliate?”

A few more steps followed and we could finally see smoke on the horizon. “Tamlen assured me that they got rid of the bodies, and the signs in the sky suggest it will rain tonight. It's possible they might find out regardless. I'm unsure if they were affiliated with any of the magisters or acting on their own, however. They weren't dressed as your typical Tevinters, mages or mundanes.”

“Nor did they look like slavers,” Storyteller supplied. “It could be they were off-shoots of some sort.”

Their choice of clothing didn't quite match that. “Or cultists? They had the symbol of a dragon on their clothes, and large, black horns on their masks.”

“Dragon worship was common in ancient Tevinter,” Gillian mused. “I think you may be right, Alva, but it doesn't tell us which cult or if they have ties to the rulers in their homeland.”

I shrugged. “They probably still had families.” An uncomfortable silence followed, but I made no apologies for it. Killing other people wasn't something to take lightly on any day. Not because I cared a great deal about would-be kidnapping, Tevinter blood mage cultists, but because of the pain it caused the people who were left behind.

We continued the walk even as the sun began to set. The village of Salmont had come into full view now. It didn't look particularly large, but it had a stone wall that surrounded it. Storyteller broke off with us and took the entire clan west, probably to establish themselves somewhere outside of town. There was a rolling hill in that direction, enough to keep them out of view and not scare or upset the locals. Gillian kept heading straight for the gate, however, having dimmed the light in the crystal, and she made no suggestion that I break off with her. “This way, Alva.” She stopped and looked back at me. “Usually Himsulem can sweet-talk the humans for me, but seeing as he got injured, I will need your help instead.” Then she turned around and continued straight for the gate.

Me, the sweaty, hobo-looking Scandinavian, sweet-talk a bunch of pompous fantasy Frenchies? This couldn't possibly go wrong.

Chapter Text

As it turned out, the walls were made of tabby concrete and not regular stone. Fitting for a fishing village. On either side were tall watchtowers made of wood, the same material having been used for the gate. Some buildings peeked up from behind the walls, tall ones made of wood. They even had an iron portcullis, which had been raised to allow entry.

Not open entry, though, judging from how the wooden gates were closed. I looked up and saw two guards in each watchtower. Above us, the sky grew darker as the sun would soon reach the horizon and begin its slow descent that left us all in darkness. Its diminishing light still managed to bathe it all in a golden aura. Strangely fitting, considering the “lion” that was Orlais.

If we were to persuade the Orlesians to put up with us, it would have to happen soon.

“Ooo goes 'zere?” asked one of the guards in a heavy, Orlesian accent.

“Keeper Lailani of Clan Elandrin,” Gillian replied. “My clan has come to trade with you and ask that you put up with us for the winter season.”

I guessed it wasn't necessary to introduce me, then. Not that I was sure how that introduction would go, exactly. My mind went to the herald at the Halamshiral ball as he announced people in the game as I'd seen in a Youtube video. I heard his voice loud and clear as the words formed in my head.

Now presenting... Miss Alva Charlotte Berg. Member of Dalish clan Elandrin. Exorcist of demons. The Keeper's Second. Temporary holder of the Gandalf-staff. Scourge of Tevinter blood mages. Fade-walker. Still unemployed for some reason.

That last bit almost forced a giggle past my lips, as unrealistic as it was to envision any respectable, Orlesian herald saying something like that. Unless it was part of some court-approved punishment for the one who was announced. Though “Fade-walker” and “Exorcist of demons” sounded pretty cool. “Scourge of Tevinter blood mages” would probably just bring more trouble than it was worth.

Gillian gave me a sidelong glance. “Whatever thoughts amuse you, I advise you to wipe that smile off your face. Give nothing away when you address Orlesians.”

My smile died down immediately. Right. The Game. Not to be confused with the game. Did even Orlesian commoners play that, though? That seemed unlikely. Unless some of the guardsmen were of noble rank? Not that the common folk didn't have their own social rules, of course, of which both the Keeper and I were completely oblivious.

The wooden gates opened, behind which stood an Orlesian warrior whose bearing and excessive covering of heavy armour suggested he was of a rank above his fellow men. Even his face was hidden behind a metal mask that was part of his helmet, out of which protruded many red feathers. The armour was neatly decorated, with some embellishments on the chest that I couldn't immediately figure out the purpose of. Even though the entire get-up made the man look fearsome, he looked a bit short for a warrior.

Then again, Scandinavians were among the tallest people back on Earth, so “short” was a relative term.

I felt Gillian stiffen beside me, her gaze still glued to the armoured figure in front of us. This probably meant that he was of some rank, but it didn't strike me as obvious that stiffening and staring was the proper way to address him.

Not that the Norwegian tradition of openly and publically giving nicknames to the prime minster was the way to go, either.

I'd read something in a Japanese manga about using the term “Monsieur” or “Madame” for anyone of rank beyond commoner. Not that this necessarily translated itself into Orlesian culture, but it was better than nothing.

Oh well, here went my highly probable butchering of local social rules as a first impression for the sake of finding a place to stay for my new family.

“Monsieur,” I said in what little French I still knew and bowed, my initiative sparking some reaction in Gillian at last. She bowed, too, though her movement was stiff and she didn't speak.

I could see why Improvisation Guy was the diplomat.

“Madame,” the armoured figure corrected me, though she didn't sound at all offended. I straightened and immediately apologised, but she replied with a mere wave of her hand. “It's not easy to tell when it's dark and I'm in full armour. Consider yourself forgiven.”

I bowed again. “Most gracious of you, Madame.” The clan would laugh hard at my blunder later on, in fact I was greatly amused by it myself.

“I didn't realise we'd encounter a chevalier here,” the Keeper remarked. “It's an honour to meet you, Madame.”

A chevalier? The Orlesian warriors who raped women and killed elves for sport?

I needed something bigger than a shaving knife.

“The conflict between mages and templars and the civil war have increased tensions across Orlais,” the warrior-woman replied. “I'm here per the request of Marquis de Lasouche.” I noticed she didn't say who she was working for. Was it the empress or what's-his-face who had started the war?

“My clan has come to trade, as has become our custom over this past decade,” the Keeper explained. “Her Grace, Marquise Natalie de Lasouche, has often interacted with us on friendly terms.” I noticed there was a slight tremble in her voice. Was the chevalier a particular problem for the clan or did Gillian have bad memories attached to their order?

“I heard you the first time,” Lady Chevalier responded in a rather brusque and impatient manner. My eyebrow twitched and the Keeper grew unnaturally quiet. “I will speak to the Marquise, and you may spend the night behind the hill. Know that the people of Salmont are nervous, however, especially where strangers are concerned.”

“May we expect an answer tonight, Madame?” I asked. “Or is it more likely to arrive in the morning?”

Her masked face turned to look at me directly. There was a moment's silence, as if she hadn't quite noticed me before. I maintained a neutral expression and let her stare all she wanted. “As I said, you may spend the night.” There was a level of tension in her aura that could easily turn into hostility if I didn't diffuse the bomb.

“May we also have your name and title, Madame?” I pressed. “I'd like to address you properly... should we meet again.”

Said tension turned into mild curiosity. “I wouldn't expect an Avvar to learn our titles.”

I fought back a smile. She'd probably referred to my interest, but I decided to twist that one around to something else. “I'm a quick study, Madame.” There we go, now it looked like she'd insulted my intelligence instead.

My reward was a stilted pose and a sense of awkwardness in her aura. That one had been for the Keeper. The chevalier recovered quickly, however. “Lady Constance DesRosiers, for which the term of address is also 'Madame'.”

I bowed in deference. “It's an honour, Madame DesRosiers.”

More silence followed. Lady DesRosiers studied me intently, as if trying to figure me out.

That might take a while.

“You will have your answer tonight, Keeper,” Lady Constance said in the end. Then she ordered the gate to close, even as Gillian and I bowed. I bit back my sigh of relief and noticed the Keeper looked considerably more relaxed. It wasn't until the gates were closed that she finally smiled, however, and released a long breath.

 


 

We were permitted to trade our wares and stay for the winter. Well, “our” wares were whatever the clan had made to sell. Unless someone wanted to buy my iPhone.

After healing Aenor a second time, I scrubbed myself from top to toe before I went to bed. Manrea returned the next morning, happily reporting that all the injured hunters were healed and that she would get to work on my “special” medicine soon. We ended up discussing my hair, which had begun to shed quite a bit. I'd had a problem with weak roots back home, but I'd used a solution that I bought at the drug store that had fixed that problem. Manrea promised to make something similar for me, and that she would teach me how to make it myself should I need to. She'd also make a hair cream that would better protect my hair from getting sunburnt and overall wear and tear.

She was immensely resourceful, that one. It also explained all the fabulous, elven hair around camp.

I briefly wondered how Bangladesh maintained her gorgeous afro, then, which brought me down the train of the different ethnicities among elves and whether they developed in different clans further south or east... or would that be north and west?

Of all the things I had trouble adapting to, being in the southern hemisphere was, strangely enough, the toughest. Not elves, dragons, demons, Tevinters, Orlesians, templars, magic, maleficar or the Fade, but the world I knew literally being upside down.

Whether that would bode well for the future or not remained to be seen.

Anise braided my hair into a tight bun on the back of my head and pinned it in place. Exactly the kind of hairstyle I hated most – I preferred having most of my hair down, just out of my face. Only notable exception to that rule was the simple ponytail. Still, Anise made a very strong case for its practical application where training was concerned – and my training started today.

The skirt was of no help there, but Afro Elf had some breeches that she'd let out around the hips and thighs during our trip, both before and after the maleficar attack. They went well with my stockings, although my favourite elven seamstress said she'd make some leggings for me all the same. Anise had bound up my breasts pretty tighly, though – the closest I'd probably come to a Thedosian sports bra.

Outside I went, Anise by my side, neither of us having had breakfast yet. In fact, she'd woken me up so early it was barely sunrise when we stepped up to the archery range.

She shot me an appraising look. “Shortbow.”

I nodded. “Preferable.” My upper body strength wasn't much to brag about and the shortbow was eaiser to pull the string of than the longbow by far. I wondered if it was better to start with push-ups. Not only would it get my body all warmed up, but I'd build that chest muscle strength that was required for archery.

As if she'd read my mind, or at the very least was on the same wavelength, Anise pointed at the painted goals. “You warm up first. Ten rounds of running around the range, in between each round you do five push-ups. Repeat this until you can no longer do the push-ups. That will give us an idea of your level.”

I obeyed and managed the first two rounds with little trouble. When I was done with the third, however, my body was quite done. I came up to her, panting hard, after I'd collapsed on the ground from the fifteenth push-up. My chest was going to ache like crazy tomorrow.

On the plus side, push-ups meant perky boobs.

Anise shot me a surprised smile. “You did better than I expected. We'll do this warm-up exercise every morning. The more rounds you manage, the harder I'll push you.” Her smile turned into a teasing grin.

I nodded. Such was the price of increased strength and fitness. “Good, I look forward to it.” Her grin disappeared and she blinked, but I merely stepped up to her and looked at her expectantly.

Next up I got to hold a shortbow in my hands for the third time in my life. Anise explained the weapon's anatomy and how to care for a bow, from storing it to weather effects. From the sound of things, rain seemed to be the only real enemy among outside forces, and the rest was a matter of mortal failings. We went through how to string and un-string it, for which the elves had a neat item that they called a “stringer”. Basically, it was a bit of thin rope that had been knotted tightly at the ends and burnt to keep from fraying. On those ends were leather straps that they'd punched holes through and stitched together, creating loops through which they put each end of the bow. Then I got to step on the stringer and pull at the bow – in the right direction, of course – until it bent and I could tighten the bowstring.

Neat.

Next came the position that worked best for aiming and firing. Legs apart, one foot in front of the other, holding the bow in whichever hand felt most comfortable to do so. She had me try out both and, seeing as I'd been right-handed all my life, holding the bow in my left hand fit best, predictably enough. Next she had me notch an arrow and then she instructed me on how to aim.

Then we got to the part that looked really cool in both games and movies – firing. Unsurprisingly, it hit the outermost ring on the first try – I'd probably have to practice a lot before I could hit the bull's eye. Anise had me repeat until, as she put it “you're out of arrows or your arms can't take anymore”. Looking at the quiver next to me, however, I figured I'd run out of arrows first, even with my earlier workout.

Of course, at that point Tamlen arrived with two more quivers, filled to the brim. Anise shot me a wicked smile.

I got tired first.

 


 

An hour later I devoured my breakfast. At that point I was so hungry I'd even eat sweet, warm oats. I'd scrubbed myself clean of the sweat and grime, first, just in time to receive a clean shirt from Afro Elf that she'd let out in the chest and hip regions just for me. This one was more peachy in colour, which would go well with my rosy complexion. There was a lot of recycling of clothes going on in the clan, and I complimented the seamstress for her resourcefulness. She beamed in response.

I healed Aenor a second time and then went back to “my” aravel where I ended up washing my panties again. Bangladesh asked to study them, along with my bra, when I wasn't using it.

“They're basically just undergarments, no?” Manrea mused as we sat together in their aravel after breakfast, the married couple showing an interest in my panties that was bordering on strange. On my end, I'd been given Manrea's notes on hair products and birth control to study in preparation for my first lesson.

The problem was, I couldn't read it.

She'd assured me it was in the common tongue invented by dwarves for trade – or, as I knew it, English – but the writing system was that of runes that looked nothing like the elder futhark. Or the newer one, for that matter.

She had me write the alphabet I knew and, after confirming it was the writing system of Orlais, came to the conclusion that I'd have to learn my runes. It came as a bit of a surprise – and a relief – that the Latin letters were known and in use, at least, though I hoped more than Orlesians wrote with them. I'd studied French for six years, but I hadn't used it since graduating upper secondary school. As such, I was ill-equipped to communicate in written form and definitely counted as illiterate.

As Afro Elf continued to study my underwear – for science, obivously – Manrea left the tent entirely. When she returned, she did so with Anise and Elf Chick accompanying her, all of whom carried wooden, rectangular plates with them. I was then handed a carving knife.

“You will carve each rune into these,” Manrea instructed me after she'd shooed Anise and Elf Chick back out with much gratitude on her lips, “and on the back you'll do the same with the corresponding Orlesian letter.”

Basically, I was making my own flash cards. Just as well, learning was more fun that way. I set to work, Manrea pronouncing each letter for me as Bangaela looked through her collection of cloth. “I'll need silk,” I heard her mutter.

“Wool works well, too,” I informed her absent-mindedly as I was working on the fifth rune. “Especially when it's cold.”

“That itches,” she argued.

“Use the softest wool you can find,” I argued back. “I'm sure the Orlesians have something. Alternatively line it with silk.” It took long to carve each rune and the corresponding letter, and my arms weren't exactly cooperative after having suffered the combination of push-ups and archery.

About an hour later, however, I was done. Exhausted, but done. I received a compliment from Manrea on my atrocious woodcarving skills and an invitation from Bangladesh to join her on the trip to Salmont.

I couldn't promise I could carry anything in my arms, but I offered to carry a backpack. She looked pleased enough.

As it turned out, we weren't going alone. Improvisation Guy, now fully recovered, carried a small basket of wooden figurines that he'd carved. The craftsmanship was quite impressive, especially the miniature hallas. I told him as much, which caused him to grin, and he even gave me one as a gift.

I was too flabbergasted to speak at first, but somehow I found my voice and thanked him. “I'll treasure it,” I promised and earned another smile.

He looked quite handsome when he smiled. I could see why the Keeper had him talk to humans on her behalf.

Tamlen joined us as well, carrying a leather backpack with what looked like shedded halla antlers. He gave me a gruff nod in greeting, to which I replied in kind. I earned an odd look back.

Keeper Gillian came next, carrying a bag as well. Hers was closed, though, but looked thorougly stuffed. Last came Manrea, probably carrying some medicine for the local women, or maybe some of her hair products. I wondered if they were popular among Orlesian noblewomen.

Considering the luscious locks on Dalish women, they probably were.

“First rule of interacting with your fellow shemlen here in Thedas, Alva,” Gillian began, but I could easily figure it out.

“No magic,” I said and nodded.

All the elves nodded. “Second rule. If any of the men give you trouble...?” She looked at me expectantly.

“I put a knife between his legs and threaten to turn him into Stacy,” I concluded. An awkward silence followed. “Oh, right, I need a knife.”

“If one of the shemlen males gives you trouble, you either ignore him until he walks away,” Tamlen corrected me, “or you find me or Himsulem and we'll help you. They take better to that than a knife near their privates.”

“Although the world wouldn't be worse off if some of them lost it,” Interruption Guy supplied helpfully.

“Worst case scenario,” Gillian added, “if your life is in danger or they try to rape you, you're allowed to use your magic.”

I paused slightly. “I don't know how to shoot lightning from my fingertips, though, or set someone on fire.” Though it was tempting in the case of would-be murderers and rapists.

“Maybe we should give her a knife,” Improvisation Guy suggested. Not that it would help with my arms as they were. I decided not to mention that part.

The Keeper let out a small sigh. “Go get her one, then, but I beg of you not to stir up trouble with them, Alva. They're about the only people in Orlais willing to put up with us.” Interruption Guy went to the weapon tent, leaving the basket with me.

I shot Gillian a teasing grin. “Do I really come off as that much of a troublemaker to you?”

Tamlen looked very eager to answer, but the Keeper shook her head. “No, you don't start fights even though you have a smart mouth. However, Orlesians are unpredictable even on the best of days, and they will be curious about you.”

Good thing I'd eschewed the Deadpool sweater, then. Well, let it burn, to be exact. I shot the Keeper a smile. “Don't worry, I won't bring my phone with me. If they want to think I'm some lone Avvar, then I won't bother to correct them.”

“Not a bad idea,” Improvisation Guy replied and handed me a sheathed knife. I figured the Orlesians wouldn't like me wearing it openly, so I slipped it into my boot. “Not a bad place, either.”

Tamlen didn't look convinced. “What if they ask how you came to travel with us?”

I didn't miss a beat. “Demons destroyed my clan.”

“How did you survive?” Tamlen pressed. I got the feeling he was testing me.

“I'd left the clan hold to fetch some things,” I shot back. “I'm the outdoorsy, adventurous type.”

“They will ask about family,” he pressed and eyed me from top to toe. “Especially children.”

“I'm barren,” I continued. Then I thought of something else. “Hey, if any of those guys bother me, I'll just tell them I have fungus.”

Tamlen and Interruption Guy looked horrified, though Gillian smiled and Manrea and Bangladesh laughed.

“That's better than the knife idea,” Afro Elf agreed.

“I'll have to remember that,” Manrea added with a thoughtful look. “I'm not even interested in men, yet that doesn't seem to deter them.”

Ah yes, the delusional, self-entitled type of men who thought they could “convert” lesbians with their magical penises. They always popped up, as if they nested under a bridge somewhere.

I rolled my eyes on behalf of humanity as much as I did Manrea.

“We're all infested with parasites, really,” Improvisation Guy offered with a mischievous smile. Bangladesh and Manrea laughed, but Gillian didn't look amused. Nor was I.

Tamlen frowned. “Don't be stupid. They'll know we're lying if we take it that far.” As if he'd taken the words right out of my mouth. Well, except for the stupid bit.

“Parasites or fungus, the Orlesians will still find that preferable to magic,” the Keeper concluded, to which every elf around me nodded.

Orlesians were weird.

“Are we ready to go then?” It was a question, but I expected the answer to be “yes” all the same.

Gillian proved me right. “Indeed, the sooner we arrive the better our chances at getting a merchant stall from which to sell our wares. Not that trade season is high right now, but that usually also means fewer stalls.” Then she ushered us forward.

 


 

Salmont village was every bit the picturesque, pastoral French village I expected it to be. Houses were built from a mix of tabby concrete and white-painted wood with frames that had been kept brown. Their roofs were made from a timber base with straw on top. Flower pots and flags in festive colours added a nice, decorative touch that made it look inviting. I noticed the streets were covered in a layer of gravel, with deep side ditches, no doubt for drainage when it rained.

The resident Chantry had been graced with stone as its base, and a slate roof, though it looked closed. Not that I had any concept of which day of the week it was, if Thedosians even counted days with the same names as what we used back on Earth. I doubted they had days named after Norse gods, the sun, the moon and the planet Saturn. Unless Thedas was somehow in the same solar system, but on another dimension?

That would explain why my magic worked so differently.

I doubted that, though. After all, I'd seen my home planet get physically destroyed before my eyes. Blue's presence in the Fade and Hecate's newly constructed crossroad dreamworld both suggested it had affected the inner worlds as well. If there was anything left of Yggdrasil, it was probably in shambles or rotting away.

A lump formed in my throat, so I decided to distract myself with the sights and sounds of Salmont.

The air was filled with the salty scent of the sea. The gate had been opened for us, with quite a few people out and about, though none of them wore masks. Commoners, probably. The temperature was low, but a cloudless sky stretched out over us, the sun already above the horizon and bringing its bright, warm rays our way. We managed to find a stall in the centre of town where we put forth all the wares. The marketplace sported several stalls that stood in a semi-circle near the buildings. In the middle stood a large fountain made of cast stone. The bottom layer was shaped like a rose, out of which rose two female figures standing back to back, one human and the other an elf. Both held bows and had quivers of arrows on their back. On the human side was a proud lion companion, out of whose mouth came the water. The elf was accompanied by a halla, whose mouth served the same function. Both women were dressed in huning garb, but curiously enough neither of them wore masks.

I was starting to see why Salmont was more welcoming of Dalish elves than other Orlesian towns.

My own backpack, as it turned out, contained some beautifully painted ceramic wares. Gillian had healing potions for sale and Manrea a good number of bottles that contained oils of different kinds. Hair products, I reckoned. Tamlen stored the halla antlers right behind the stall, with one pair of antlers in the middle of all the other products. Advertisement, I could respect that. Lastly came some of Improvisation Guy's wooden figurines.

It wasn't a bad collection, but something told me the antlers would probably sell the most. I knew enough about humans in Thedas to expect that.

Then again, the elves had visited this place before. It seemed unlikely that they'd put forth wares that wouldn't bring them any profit.

Those thoughts brought me down another path towards a question far more relevant to myself – how would I make money in a world like this? The clan helped me as best they could, but I had to find a way to become financially independent or I was no better than a slave. Not to mention it would help the elves if I had my own income and didn't have to rely on them all the time.

How I was going to accomplish that in a country like Orlais, however, remained to be seen. Considering how extensively the nobles went out of their way to enrich themselves at the expense of the common folk, it was unlikely I'd get anywhere. In fact, it wasn't at all that different from the oligarchies of the United States and the European Union – and this was how they treated Orlesian citizens. I didn't even count as that.

Judging from what I'd read about the commoners and, counting the current civil war, the mage-templar conflict and the Breach, it wouldn't surprise me if an Orlesian revolution á la May 5th 1789 would come sooner rather than later. All they needed were the right – or wrong, in the eyes of the aristocracy – ideas to form at the University of Orlais, some nobles who foolishly thought they could control the angry masses, and all Hell would break loose. The Game would literally devour the entire aristocracy – at least, those unable to flee in time.

That wasn't something I'd stick around for if I could help it, especially considering the revolution had been no kinder to women than the nobles before them. Quite the contrary, in many ways they'd been worse.

The sound of seagulls and Gillian's voice both drew me back to the present. “Don't let your mind wander, Alva. Everyone plays the Game here, even the flat ears.”

Right.

More people started milling about the marketplace now. I noticed some Orlesian merchants – easy enough to spot with their masks – had claimed a couple of stalls. Some city elves held a third. When I turned to look at the stall next to us, however, I saw it had become occupied by dwarves.

It was my first time seeing them. I was accustomed to seeing small humans, but an actual race of beings who were fully grown at that size was another matter altogether. They looked every bit like the dwarves in Origins, Dragon Age 2 and Inquisition, but with one notable exception.

Their women had the most fabulous, luscious beards.

Well, one of them did. The redhead with the badass, purple tattoo over her sharp eyes, to be exact. The blonde had more of a stubble, almost as if she shaved regularly. Her hair had even been curled and put into an updo so fancy it looked like something taken straight out of Versailles in the 1600s. Her dress seemed like a mock version of some of the Orlesian dresses I saw all around me and I could even smell her perfume from where I stood.

Someone was trying very hard to fit in. I wasn't sure whether to be worried or pity her.

She bore many of the same facial traits as the redhead, suggesting that they were possibly related, though distantly. Cousins, perhaps? I noticed said cousin was dressed more practicallly, although still in a dress. Its design suggested it was more akin to dwarven traditions. Much simpler than that of an Orlesian attire, but sporting some soft colours that looked quite flattering on her.

I must have been staring, because she looked my way, then, and spoke to me directly. “Anything about me that interests you, or did your neck get locked in that position and your eyeballs stuck?”

“Carla!” the other dwarf said with a shocked gasp that sounded out of place for a dwarf and I half expected her to whip out an outrageously decorated fan and start fanning herself. She didn't, which I found to be a relief on more than one level.

The redhead shrugged. “What? She's the one looking at me.”

I decided to go with the truth, hoping the Avvar didn't have much contact with dwarves. “It's my first time seeing a dwarf. Sorry about the staring, I didn't mean to be rude.” I even offered her a reassuring smile. Mother would have been proud.

Carla shrugged and gave me an easy-going half-smile. “No problem, human. I don't see many Avvar women myself, least of all travelling with Dalish elves.”

“She stared at us, too, the first time we met,” Improvisation Guy supplied helpfully. He then placed a hand on his chest as if to indicate himself. “Especially-”

“His friend Aenor,” I interrupted. “He's the most handsome in the clan by far.” All the air seemed to go out of Improvisation Guy and he let out a whiny noise. Carla looked less than impressed with him. She shot me an amused smile, though, her eyes twinkling with merriment.

“What's your name, human?” she asked and I felt more than a little happy with myself for having fixed my dreadful first impression enough to be granted the privilege of an introduction.

“Alva Berg,” I replied and offered her a curt nod. “A pleasure to meet you.”

“Carla Kader,” the dwarf replied and indicated the blonde dwarf next to her. “This here is my sister, Jeanette.”

By Hecate Chthonia, the underground goddess of the earth, even her name was Orlesian.

Half-sister,” Jeanette added dryly. I found myself momentarily taken aback by such a blunt admission and briefly wondered the necessity in even pointing it out. What difference did it make for me who their parents were? By their reckoning, I was just some Avvar barbarian.

I was probably quite a faux-pas in my choice of outfit, too, as was made evident when a pair of Orlesian women stepped up to the booth and gasped upon seeing me. They fled even quicker.

Afro Elf had disappeared to the fabric stall and Tamlen was nowhere to be seen. Improvisation Guy was busy hawking the wares, with Gillian on a chair, leaning up against the stone wall behind us. Manrea put down a box with more of her oils behind the stall before she bid farewell and went after Bangladesh.

A couple of more dwarves showed up, men this time. I noticed Jeanette's stall was overstuffed with wares, and the male dwarves brought even more to put behind it.

Not that having more than one option was bad per se, but in my experience, less was more. Especially since it was easier to see what was what when the number of items on the table didn't overwhelm my view. Judging from our own stall, it seemed the elves agreed with me.

Jeanette appeared to sell a multitude of glass bottles that contained oils similar to what Manrea made. There was also an impressive collection of gems, though not as tightly packed and numerous as the flasks.

Carla caught me staring at them. “You like gems, Alva?”

I shrugged. “They have their uses.” In witchcraft especially. Obsidian for protection and amethyst for clearing negative energy and spiritual hangovers. There were many others, too, but I couldn't remember them. Gems had never been my speciality.

“You're welcome to buy one,” Carla offered and gestured at them.

“Oh no, I don't have any money,” I confessed. It wasn't something I enjoyed admitting.

Carla cocked her head curiously. “No funds from your family to support you?”

Fuck! How was I supposed to explain that one? “No family left.” It was true, though I left out a lot of information. My heart stung, a lump formed in my throat and I had to fight hard to keep the tears from spilling forth.

The dwarf's eyes widened. “Oh. Shit.”

I nodded in full agreement.

“I guess you Avvar have better relations with elves than Orlesians do, then, if the clan chose to take you in,” she reasoned. I had no idea, but fortunately Improvisation Guy came to my rescue.

“They're our favourite shems to trade with,” he shot in, before quickly adding. “Don't tell the Orlesians I said that, though.”

A laugh escaped my lips and released all the tension in my body in one, fell swoop. Bless that elf. Bless him a hundred times over.

Once I felt confident that I wouldn't cry, I quenched my laughter and resumed talking to Carla. She informed me that she was part of the surface Carta, although she'd been born in Dust Town in Orzammar. “Hence the brand.” She pointed at the tattoo on her face. It stretched over her eyes as two bluish-purple rectangles. They connected in a pair of simplified, inverted towers, one considerably smaller than the other, that ran down the length of her nose. “You know what the brand means, Avvar?”

She made nicknames too! “Casteless,” I replied. “It means your name isn't recorded in the Memories.”

Her eyebrows shot up and a small smile climbed up her lips. “Not bad.” Her eyebrows scrunched together in confusion, however. “No, very good. It's one thing for an Avvar who travels with a clan of Dalish, and never met a dwarf before, to know about the casteless, it's another for you to know what the Memories are.” She regarded me sharply.

Shitsticks. Deep breath, force the heart to calm down. Meet her gaze and smile sheepishly by imagining something that makes you sheepish. “I heard it mentioned in passing,” I lied.

My stomach churned from speaking words that weren't true, even if it was necessary. Maybe later I could come out of my closet. At least about the whole earthling thing.

Carla didn't look convinced, yet she didn't press the matter. “Living in the Frostbacks, I guess you had quite a few things in common with the dwarves of Orzammar.”

“Nugs included,” I quipped, which drew a laugh from the dwarf and effectively changed the subject. The knot in my stomach released itself a little. It seemed I was safe, for now. I wasn't sure how long I could maintain my lie, though.

“Ever tried nug and pumpkin stew?” Carla asked, not only continuing down the topic of subterranean bunny-pigs, but informing me that they had pumpkins in Thedas.

Perhaps this world wasn't completely hopeless after all. “Can't say I have, though I like pumpkins.”

Carla pursed her lips together. “You're missing out, Avvar. Too bad pumpkins are hard to come by in Orlais. You need to go to Ferelden to get the really good ones.”

A pair of Orlesians in fancy clothes openly glared at us as they passed by. Carla grinned and waved right back, and I smiled as well. That was the frightened Orlesians covered earlier, and now the glaring ones. That left the type I dreaded the most – the curious.

“Tell you what, Avvar,” the dwarf cut in and interrupted my thoughts before they could become a whole train. “I make monthly trips back to the Carta, which is situated in Ferelden. If you help me with a little something tonight, I'll get some pumpkins to bring with me when I return to Salmont. Nugs are basically everywhere, and I'll get my sister to cook us the stew. What do you say?”

“What 'little something', exactly?” I asked. The Carta was an organisation of criminals, after all. “As I'm sure you can see, I have a rather diminished physique.”

Carla guffawed. “Don't worry, princess, I'm not asking you to try to knock anyone's teeth out with those tiny fists. No, it's your cute and innocent-looking face that I need.”

My eyebrows shot up to the middle of my forehead. Oh, really now? “That can cause just as much trouble as a big, heavy fist, if not more so.”

The dwarf shot me a wink. “Don't worry, Avvar, I've got you covered.”

I still wasn't convinced. “Why the offer, exactly, let alone so soon?”

She shot me her attempt at an innocent look, which fell flat on its face under that dark face tattoo. “Do I need a reason?”

I do,” I pressed, my amusement gone. Few people in any world did anything for no reason, criminals least of all.

While Carla's eyes reflected my gaze straight at me, a smile slowly crept up her face. “Good, you're smart. As I thought when I first saw you.” She leaned in closer, motioning for me to do the same. I reluctantly did so until our faces were but a few inches apart. Then she spoke in a much softer voice. “Basically, you join me tonight, at the tavern, for a round of Wicked Grace. You show up with that cute face of yours, maybe with a pretty hairdo, and put on a show of innocent naïvete and boundless curiosity about the world of the 'lowlanders'. I introduce you as my new friend. The Orlesians won't be able to resist. Then you distract them with your charm as I win all their money.”

“There's one problem,” I whispered back.

“What?”

“How will I play Wicked Grace if I don't have any money?”

She waved one index finger at me before using it to point at herself. “No, I play.” The finger then came to point at me. “You're the honey that lures in the suckers. More precisely the fishermen selling their fish today.”

“You think they're going to play with you simply because I sit next to you?” There had to be more to this story than what she was currently telling me.

Her eyes roamed my form with an appraising look. “We get you in the right clothes, you'll be the best thing they've seen in weeks.”

My stomach churned. Drunk men who wouldn't accept their losses were dangerous, even on the best of days. Especially in a culture that most likely put the worth of women to below that of cattle. Carla might get away with some bruises, but there was no telling what would happen to me.

She could probably see that I wasn't convinced, because she continued. “Fine, princess, I'll sweeten the deal for you. Thirty percent of the earnings.” There was a slight pause, but even with the promise of money, I felt too strongly against it. “They're fishermen, not fighters, and they're scared shitless of the Carta. They know perfectly well what happens if they try to hurt you. It's a fine deal, it won't turn you into a servant and we won't ask you to join or do any other favours for us. This is just to make some money.”

“All so you can share your nug and pumpkin stew with me?”

“Friendships are made over food, aren't they?” She shot me a smile that looked strangely honest. Then she paused before adding. “Or knocking out the teeth of idiots. I figure you're better at the former.”

My stomach still twisted itself in knots. This was a bad idea, I just knew it.

“Fourty percent,” she pressed. “Look, it's a good income. It's great that the clan's taken you in and all, but their money goes to the things they need in order to survive. I'm sure some of it will benefit you, but this way you'll have the start of your financial independence.”

“What do you stand to benefit from being my friend, exactly?”

She leaned back in her seat a bit, but her eyes never left me. When she finally spoke, her earlier mirth was completely gone. “Friends among humans are hard to come by, especially in a country like this...” she leaned back in again, “and especially with my full facial.” She gave her beard a soft tug. “You're about the first human to not care and actually talk to me.” Her head cocked to the side. “I reckon you'll be quite lonely outside of your new clan. You're going to need a friend, someone to help you out in a pinch. In fact, the less isolated you are, the better off you'll be.”

Strangely enough, my queasiness went away. Not only that, but my intuition even suggested this was the right course of action. Though it also urged me to be careful. “Make it fifty percent, and we never play against chevalier-backed nobles.” They weren't as easily intimidated by dwarven thugs.

“You run a hard bargain, princess.” Carla's face broke into a smile despite her words. “As for the nobles, that's a rule I go by regardless, but you've got a deal.” She extended a hand with surprisingly long, slender fingers. I took it in mine and shook on it, wondering what in Thedas I'd got myself into.

 


 

From unemployed to mobile home to running with criminals. Yet there I was, many hours after watching the elves sell and buy wares, in my first Orlesian commoner get-up. Carla and Jeanette had provided me with the clothes, even whipped out a rune-driven curl iron and given me the hairstyle of Daenerys Targaryen in season three, when she freed the Unsullied. Or, as they called it, “a proper bastard child between Orlesian and Avvar hairstyling customs”. Not that I was certain of how a bastard child would be considered “proper” in Orlais, but that was another story altogether.

Apparently, Orlesian commoner women didn't wear panties, much to the delight of Afro Elf, who had snatched mine away for study. Even my bra was taken as I was stuffed inside a corset instead. To my surprise, it was quite comfortable, even offered my breasts some proper support. Contrary to what I'd learned in school, it didn't hinder my movements, either, nor did it make me suffocate.

Jeanette practically beamed after they put it on. “I knew it would fit you!” Her smile looked suitably self-satisfied.

Before the corset, however, they had me put on one of those frilly pyjamas that went off the shoulders – Carla informed me it was called a “chemise” – and a pair of clean, white stockings that went over the knee and were held in place by ribbon garters. They were warm, though, made from a soft type of wool it seemed. More suitable for cold autumn nights and winter, no doubt. Jeanette found my own stockings endlessly interesting, especially in how they held themselves up without the use of garters. I found I wasn't qualified to explain the concept of rubber bands and told her as much.

Good thing I'd left my phone back at camp.

The Keeper had been wary of my evening activity plan until she learned that it was Carla who had suggested it. That chanced her attitude into something considerably more positive. In fact, she and Carla went way back, she told me, when the Carta helped her clan get through the Frostbacks – for a hefty sum, of course. The two had hit things off over mead and nug and pumpkin stew. It was, in fact, how Carla made all her friends. From what Gillian told me, it wasn't something she did often outside of her own race.

I'd immediately felt a lot better about all this shady Wicked Grass business. Or was it Wicked Gram? Winged Goose? No, it definitely didn't have anything to do with birds.

I was stuffed into a pair of buckled leather shoes with comfortable heels for my feet, a “petticoat” and a corset cover. On the plus side, I was given some very fine pockets to wear over my petticoat, and much bigger than any I'd seen on the jeans back home.

The irony was great.

After the pockets came another petticoat, this one in wool, and a silkerchief to keep my bosom warm, apparently. Next was the skirt, which was a soft pink, and then a coat that matched. For my hands I was given some crocheted gloves. When I looked in the full-body mirror inside Jeanette's room at the inn, my jaw dropped. It was as if I'd stepped right into the 18th century.

On the plus side, at least I wasn't wearing any ruffles. In fact, I didn't look half bad. I certainly hadn't expected pink to look so good on me, least of all that version of pink.

“Make-up,” Jeanette said next and disappeared. I looked to Carla for help.

“You're good enough the way you are in my opinion,” the redhead offered, only to receive a glare from her sister as she returned.

“Does it contain lead?” I asked as politely as I could.

Jeanette looked at me as if I'd grown a second head. “Lead? Goodness, no, what kind of maniac would put that on their skin?” I turned to Carla who confirmed that Thedosian make-up was blessedly lead-free. “I suppose it would help the make-up stay on longer, but the toxic side-effects wouldn't be worth it.”

“Well, there's other things you can add instead,” I suggested before I inadvertently gave Jeanette some bad business ideas. “Like titanium dioxide, iron oxide – though they'd both have to be non-nanoised – and silica and mica.”

A sheepish look came to Jeanette's face. “I have no idea what that is.”

“Silica can be found in plants,” Carla cut in, “and mica can be found in rocks. I know how to get titanium dioxide and iron oxide as well. I'm not sure how non-nanoised ones work compared to regular ones, though.”

“They're reduced to tiny particles,” I explained, which drew the gem lover's attention while her sister crossed her arms and tapped her foot impatiently. “Basically, one nanometer equals one-billionth of a meter.”

Carla's eyes grew wide, but Jeanette cut in before I could continue. “As interesting as all of that is, we have some perishable make-up to apply to your pretty face, miss.”

“Don't add too much,” Carla warned. “She still needs to pass off as a commoner.”

Jeanette quirked one eyebrow in return. “What do you take me for, Carla, a novice?”

I bit back my words about how her excessive display of oils and perfumes had resulted in almost no sales today. She bid me come sit on a wooden stool under the chandelier and used several standing, rune-fuelled lamps to shine directly onto my face. I made sure not to look into any.

“What's your skin type, dear?” she began as she rummaged through another chest. Taking a peek behind her work desk, I spotted several more.

Well, she certainly came prepared.

“Normal skin,” I replied, “and it's quite sensitive. I burn easily under the sun. I tan, as well, but not a lot. And my forehead gets dry in winter.”

“I've got just the thing,” Jeanette remarked with a trimphant tone. “All natural ingredients, something to cleanse and something to moisturise.” She brought out two small, round boxes that were tightly wrapped with fabric strips.

I hoped none of them contained urine as one of those natural ingredients.

After buttering me up with face cream, rinsing and applying the next one, she took the time to thoroughly study my face. “Pale, with a rosy undertone.” She paused for a bit. “Hardly any blemishes. Picture perfect, aren't you?” I wasn't sure if she said those words with admiration or jealousy. “Only light foundation, concealer and powder, and the tiniest bit of blush.” She began applying even as she spoke. “We'll have to accentuate those lovely eyes of yours, though they droop a bit. Perhaps we can pull them back up again with some dark wings? Nothing below the eye, of course, and the wing would have to start...” she cocked her head to the side, “yes, right there, in that direction. That would be best.” I had no idea what she meant.

The procedure was basically the same as back on Earth – foundation, concealer, powder and blush. No primers, and Jeanette made sure to show me my reflection in an elaborately crafted hand mirror, encrusted with gems even, for my approval of her work. The Carta was quite well-to-do, it seemed.

Most importantly, looking into that mirror I actually felt pretty. Jeanette's retort to Carla had been spot on – she was no novice. I was worried when she pulled out a liquid eyeliner, however – winged eyes didn't really do my droopy eyes any favours. Not that I was terribly skilled at doing them anyway. Quite the contrary, they always ended up looking like the work of a make-up artist on one side and Moon Moon on the other.

Jeanette was considerably better than me. First she lightly applied some soft pink eyeshadow on my eyelids that she insisted would look great on me. She used three different shades before finally getting to the dreaded eyeliner. Black as night, of course, and applied with a thin brush. First in the outer corners of my eyes, going up, and then she applied from the middle of my eyelid and out to said corners. She then had me close my eyes and continued painting for a while on both sides. Many long seconds went by until she was finally done. I re-opened my eyes only to get some pale eyeshadow dabbed lightly underneath the “wings” and then my eyelashes were assaulted with mascara.

I hoped she was done after that, but she took it so far as to brush on on some really pale, rosy lipstick as well. When that was finally over with, she held up the mirror for me to see... and be shocked.

She had effectively made my downturned eyes look like they were almond-shaped. Or, rather, given the impression of it. My lashes were dark and long and my lips and cheeks rosy without making me look like some prostitute who had put her make-up on in the dark. In short, I looked really, really pretty.

Jeanette, practically beaming with self-satisfaction, motioned for Carla to take a look. The redhead complied and stepped up to look at me. Her eyes grew wide and her jaw dropped. “Damn, Avvar, you're going to make me filthy rich.” Then she grinned widely. “You're going to make us filthy rich.”

“Time to go, then,” Jeanette shooed me out of the chair and then chased both me and her sister out. “Don't come back without enough cash to buy a Comte.” Then she opened the door, shooed us out and closed it shut.

I blinked and shot Carla a worried look. “That's a lot of money.”

A snort of laughter sounded from the Carta thug. “Comtes come cheap. They're all over Orlais, as if they spawn from the ground itself.”

“Or maybe they nest behind the pantry?” I quipped. Not that Orlesian Comtes should have a spawning point the same way Tevinter blood mages did. I briefly pondered which one of those two would be worse. The danger level was probably about the same.

Carla laughed out loud. “Considering how they love their frilly, little cakes, it wouldn't surprise me.” Then she laughed some more. “Alright, come on, princess. Time to get our money's worth.” This time it was her turn to shoo me.

I descended the stairs to the ground floor of the inn and stepped out into the chilled autumn air, the dwarf right behind me. Salmont at night sported tall, standing night lanterns and more either standing on pedestals or hanging by the entry doors. Some people were still outside, chatting under the wall lanterns or standing by the fountain, which had now been adorned by smaller lights. Carla took the lead and made a beeline for the tavern. I followed as fast as I could, surprised by how quickly she moved despite her short frame.

Then again, according to Gimli, dwarves were natural sprinters. Very dangerous over short distances.

The tavern was quite close to the inn, just on the opposite side of the marketplace. It was also filled to the brim, only a single table in a far-off corner left available. Seeing as every other table around it was occupied by dwarves, it wasn't hard to figure out how that had been possible. Carla greeted each and every fisherman we passed in ways that suggested she was on friendly terms with all of them. “How's the missus? I heard you guys brought in quite the catch. What are you drinking that cheap swill for? Saving your money for Wicked Grace?” and so on and so forth until we were finally at the table. Despite the close proximity of all of these tall (by Orlesian standards) and large (also by Orlesian standards) men, not a single one of them made an attempt to touch me.

Either they weren't drunk enough or the Carta was a force to be reckoned with. Worked for me either way.

Carla and I found our seats as soon as we were clear of the main crowd. She ordered us two pints of mead and two handpies with mutton and mushrooms, once she'd clarified with me about my tastes. Not that I was particularly finicky, and if Orlesian cuisine was anything like the French, then I'd probably eat most of what they had. Still, there was one problem with this pie-and-mead business.

“I don't exactly have any extra lip colour with me,” I reminded my new dwarven friend.

“Jeanette always makes me bring some,” she reassured me. “Just talk to me when you're ready and I'll help you find the spot, light and privacy you need.”

I briefly wondered how she was going to do that when a large man – by Norwegian standards – sat down at the table opposite us. He was dressed not at all like an Orlesian, but in leather and fur and a hood that partially covered the top of his face. A large tankard was in his hand, a hand that could easily crush a man's skull, from the look of it. There were no weapons on his person, but he didn't look the least bit concerned about all the armed dwarves around him. He put the tankard down beside him and greeted Carla with a nod and friendly smile. His sharp, blue eyes didn't stay on her, however, instead they soon came to look at me.

“Friða the Fair has blessed you in many ways, kinswoman,” he said and helped himself to a drink. His eyes stayed on me the whole time.

An actual Avvar, and he referred to me as “kinswoman” without me having introduced myself. “You've spoken to Carla.”

A small smile grew on his bearded and moustached lips as he put his drink back down, all blond with some streaks of grey. “And you're more than just a pretty face, Alva of Dragon-Song Hold.” He threw me a wink as he sat his tankard down. “But I forget, what were the names of your parents again?”

I decided to go with the truth, although a lump began to form in my throat as I thought about my parents. “Jarle and Sylvia.”

“Of course,” he said and clapped himself on the thigh. “Alva Sylviadottir. I'm so forgetful with names. What about your grandparents?” He picked his tankard back up and downed some more.

I continued despite the lump growing. “Hilda and Astrid for my grandmothers and Bjørn and Ragnvald for my grandfathers.”

He put his tankard down and shot me a friendly smile. It turned sombre quickly enough and I fully expected him to call me out on my lie. “I'm sorry about your clan, Alva.” He leaned back in his seat just as the doors to the tavern swung open. Inside stepped a masked man, slim and short, dressed in clothing that I'd seen in one of the Inquisition game videos. A nobleman's attire. A single chevalier accompanied him, one that had the same stature and gait as... oh. Madame Des... I forgot. Even worse, they were heading our way.

Crap.

“So this is the Avvari woman you told me about, Constance?” His voice was strangely familiar, though I couldn't even begin to place him. It didn't help, of course, that the Inquisition game had spawned so many “generic Orlesian noble 1 and 2s” that they all ended up looking the same. Hopefully actual Orlesian nobles were more creative with their outfits. Even though he was talking to the chevalier behind him, however, his eyes were on me.

I couldn't say his behaviour surprised me.

My “kinsman”, however, didn't look the least bit amused. In fact, he immediately rose to his feet, towering over the Orlesians like a giant. It not only drew the nobleman's eyes away from me, but it even caused him to back away a bit. “You speak to Princess Alva Sylviadottir, daughter of Thane Jarle Bjørnsson and Shaman Sylvia Dragon-Rider of Dragon-Song Hold. State your business.” The Avvar man's voice was deep and rumbled with unspoken threats of pain and death should the Orlesian misstep. Behind the newcomer, the chevalier kept her hand near the hilt of her sword. If the Avvar was bothered by that, however, he didn't show it.

I had to fight to keep my jaw from dropping. Princess? My mother, a shaman, let alone a dragon-rider? Wasn't that last part a tad much?

Not that I minded that this guy was bullshitting for me, but his reason for doing so was still unknown. He'd insinuated that he knew Carla, which would suggest that she'd seen right through my lie, yet decided to help me out by recruiting this guy. A favour that she no doubt planned to cash in on one day. So much for not getting me more involved with the Carta.

Of course, my immensely large “kinsman” had spoken loudly enough to draw the attention of every fisherman in the tavern, as well as the tavernkeeper and the wenches serving drinks and food. All eyes were on me, at least until the tavernkeeper turned back to the kitchen and yelled. “Hurry up with that food! You keep Her Majesty waiting!”

Sweet goddess Hecate, did Carla know everyone in this place? More importantly, how huge would my debt be at the end of the day?

To his credit, the nobleman managed to regain his composure, although he had to crane his neck to meet the Avvar's gaze. His pose was that of fists on his narrow hips and one foot in front of the other. “I am Lord Esmeral Abernache and I find it peculiar that an Avvari princess would travel with a group of painted elven savages, let alone all the way to Salmont.” His gaze went back to me. “Most of all, I would like to know what you are doing in my town, Your Majesty.” Those last two words were spoken with a heavy dose of scepticism.

It seemed the Marquis owned more than just Salmont, then, and had Lord Abbey-nash run things on a more local level. I rose from my seat. “Monsieur is an acceptable form of address for Lord Abernache,” Madame Constance informed me.

“Thank you, Madame,” I replied, which caused said Lord's stance to change to one slightly less defensive. “I apologise on behalf of my kinsman's... direct behaviour, Monsieur. He's become very protective of me ever since my clan was destroyed by demons.” I forced myself to remember my last moments on Earth and then fought back the pain and tears as best I could.

While I was a terrible liar, I wasn't a bad actress. Mostly because my family and relatives were dead. They just weren't Avvar. The closest Thedosian equivalent to Scandinavians, but not the same. Lord Hack'n'slash relaxed his stance considerably and I saw my Avvar “ally” do the same. “I see. I'm very sorry for your loss, Your Majesty. No doubt you came here to forget your sorrows.”

I nodded numbly. “Carla Kader was kind enough to invite me, Monsieur.”

“Wicked Grace, I assume?” Apparently the nobleman didn't take this as his cue to leave, rather he remained put. “A classic, that one. I shall join you.” Then he reached for a chair only to be stopped by the Avvar, who put his large hand on it to stop him. “What is the meaning of this?” His voice rang with well-trained outrage.

“We never play Wicked Grace with chevalier-backed nobles, Monsieur,” Carla explained and shot Madame Des-Something a meaningful look. “Or chevaliers, for that matter.”

“What an absurd rule,” Lord Potato-mash protested. “Why would you decide such a thing?”

“Because I have yet to meet an Orlesian noble who will accept defeat, Monsieur,” the dwarf went on calmly, “and not use their chevaliers as thugs to take all the money from the rightful winner.” Her gaze was sharp when it met his.

I fully expected him to take offense. Possibly order an attack on us, or at the very least, Carla. He looked to me, however. “Are you playing tonight, Your Majesty?”

“No, Monsieur.”

“Then I would like to stay and get to know you better.” His gaze went to Carla. “I must insist that Madame DesRosiers stay for my own protection, though none of you need worry about the money prize. I am well-to-do and have plenty of connections among the Orlesian Court. This is simply a request of mine, in exchange for me putting up with our new guest.” He shot me a meaningful look.

So, in short, he got to stay and ask me tons of questions, forcing me to be on guard all evening to ensure that my story was consistent, or he'd run me out of town.

Lovely. To think I'd hoped to relax and have fun for a change. #NotEvenAtTheTavern.

“The Marquise has already approved of her presence here, Monsieur,” Carla shot back, her face and tone unamused.

He didn't look the least bit deterred. “For a clan of Dalish elves, yes. Not an Avvari princess.” His gaze went my way. “Unless the clan has adopted you as one of its own, though I have yet to receive any papers that confirm this.”

“They're not exactly citizens of Orlais,” the Avvar cut in, “nor are Her Majesty and me.”

“The clan has adopted me, Monsieur.” That probably wouldn't be enough, however, and a little honey would probably go much further than a barbed sting. I forced myself to think of pumpkins and kittens and a friendly smile came to my face, no vaseline needed. “However, I would be honoured to speak with you. As a courtesy to you, Monsieur, for taking the trouble to come all this way to greet me.”

He straightened at that, his gaze still on me, and released his grip on the chair. “Your Majesty, I must say my opinion of your people fastly improves the more I witness your gracious behaviour. I hadn't expected such, but hopefully the rest of this evening will be equally enjoyable.” Right, he was sticking around for that long. He turned to the Lady Chevalier. “Madame, if you would stand back against the wall and not look so... visible, it would certainly put many minds at ease.” The warrior-woman bowed and moved to do as he said. Monsieur then turned to the bar. “Tavernkeeper, a round of your best, fruity red wine for everyone here! My treat!” A shocked silence followed for a split second, as if the patrons couldn't believe what he'd just said. Then the entire place burst into roaring cheers, even as Lord Pulver-ash motioned for me to sit. I did, at which point he even stepped up behind me to help push the chair back into place. He then sat down beside me and I noticed my “kinsman” sat back down in his own seat. Soon enough the food and drinks arrived, at which point I had both a tankard of mead and a glass of red wine to contend with. Good thing I wasn't a lightweight. Monsieur made sure we all had napkins and plates.

The Orlesian nobleman's eyes rarely strayed from me even as he politely waited for me to finish eating. The Avvar man, on his end, never stopped staring at Lord Hanger-bash. Despite how everyone was drinking, the mood overall was subdued. Carla ate, but quietly. Behind us, the silent presence of Madame warrior served as a reminder of what would happen if anyone sought to harm the Lord of Salmont.

This should be interesting.

Chapter Text

A group of minstrels struck up a tune as per Lord Carry-stash' request just as I finished eating. The pie was good, but judging from the way Carla ate it, I was apparently meant to throw away the crust afterwards. I let it be and sure enough a serving girl came and picked it up for me. It had been a delicious treat, the meat suitably tender, with some hints of onion, garlic, leek, mushroom, a bit of seasoning and herbs. I asked her to pass along my thanks to the cook, which brought a surprised look to her face.

“Don't look so surprised, Miss,” the nobleman next to me cut in. “Her Majesty was most gracious with her compliment, it should please you that she chose to behave in such a way.”

Oh boy. “Are you unaccustomed to such treatment from your patrons, perhaps?” I asked the girl directly. She quickly nodded, but she didn't speak. Her flustered face and diminished body language suggested that she might be terribly nervous.

Lord Gabby-nash released an unimpressed sound and let his gaze travel across the crowd. “Not at all strange, I suppose.”

I shot the girl a friendly smile. “I appreciate the hard work you do, Miss, thank you, but I'm sure you're needed elsewhere now.”

A relieved look came to her face and she nodded eagerly.

“Yes, shoo, off you go,” Monsieur dismissed her with a wave of his hand, his voice equally indifferent. She disappeared amidst the throng of fishermen and other villagers at top speed. I bit back my tongue and hoped she wouldn't let this reduce her to tears. “A toast, to bid you welcome.” He'd picked up his glass so fast I hadn't even registered him doing so.

I picked up my own as well, but held it up for Carla and Kinsman, as I'd decided to call him until he actually told me his name. They picked up their respective tankards and that was when I turned to Lord Nagging-crash. He looked slightly miffed at not being included first, but once I held up my glass to him, he smiled and met it with his. Then I took a sip, though he seemed content to swallow two mouthfuls in one.

He was either a heavy drinker or quite confident in his chevalier's ability to protect him.

The wine was warm and spicy, which caused my cheeks to heat up. It was delicious, but I figured I should take it easy and not invite any immediate re-fills. Not with my tankard of mead right in front of me.

I briefly wondered if Irish Coffee was a thing in Thedas. Probably only in Ferelden, considering the name. The thought of Irish Coffee made me think of chocolate. Gods how I missed chocolate.

“So tell me, how do you find Salmont?” Lord Grab-a-rash asked, his eyes once more on me. His voice was lower now, and milder, with trained charm.

Here we go...

“Wicked Grace starts now!” Carla declared loudly, shuffling a deck of cards between her hands. As if on cue, a dozen patrons rose from their seats, bringing chairs with them. “Time to scoot closer to make room, everyone!” I obeyed immediately, though there were so many men who sat down to play that I got sandwiched tightly between both the dwarf and the Orlesian.

I sincerely hoped he was gay.

Fortunately, he seemed more occupied with staring down his nose at our new company to bother with me. He almost fell out of his chair and on top of me when a large and burly man with thick arms (compared to Monsieur anyway) sat down right next to him.

“Be careful, you oaf!” he yelled and earned a murderous glare in response. The sound of a sword slowly being un-sheathed caused the ruffian's gaze to soften considerably, however, and he immediately apologised.

Chevaliers were an effective deterrent, I'd give them that.

Once he'd straightened and the cards began to spread around the table, I could finally respond to his question. “Quite charming, from what I've seen so far.”

“The tavern included?” he quipped and strangely enough, that actually drew a laugh from me. Silence followed, even though the card players were chatty enough. I briefly wondered if he'd taken offense, but instead he smiled wryly. “I see you have an appreciation for the finer art of wit, Your Majesty.”

“I find it preferable to brute force, Monsieur,” I replied honestly. His eyes sparkled and his smile became almost friendly.

“You shall certainly enjoy yourself in Salmont, then,” he remarked before taking another two-gulp of his wine. “Here we specialise in training diplomats.”

“So the Keeper told me,” I replied and took another sip of my glass. Both it and the tankard were in my lap, mostly to avoid anyone making the mistake of them being theirs, but also to keep any unwanted substances from “accidentally” slipping into them.

“It's good quality wine,” he remarked, which was a far better compliment than I'd expected him to say about a tavern drink. “I'm surprised they serve something like this at a tavern. I must make sure to ask the barkeep what type of wine this is.”

“It's warm, and quite spicy,” I remarked as I stared at the dark red liquid. Had they put chilis in it? Did Thedas have chilis?

“Indeed,” he remarked and took a smaller sip. “Black pepper, I assume, or some Rivaini chili. Delicious. You have an appreciation for good wine as well, Your Majesty. Truly I didn't expect such from an Avvar.”

“My people are full of surprises, Monsieur.” I felt a need to defend my “kin” a bit, however distant they were. “Though the stereotypical brute still exists.”

He smiled at that. “Of that I have no doubt. All the same, you do help... nuance the popular image a bit.”

I forced a small smile. “I'm glad you think so, Monsieur.”

Loud groans came from every man around the table except Lord Hang-the-trash and Kinsman. My eyes went to Carla who happily cashed in on a large pot of money. There was plenty of silver and bronze, but I spotted a few gold coins as well.

That wasn't bad. In fact, if Carla kept her end of the bargain and half of that went to me, I could actually look into buying some of my first Thedosian things. Or investing. Thedas had to have some kind of banking system. Then again, I'd probably have to be a registered citizen in a country somewhere for that to work.

How I was going to do that?

Only one man left the table, but his large form wasn't too far away from that of Kinsman. I noticed he had a deep-seated frown on his face and his lips looked as if they were curled up in a permanent snarl. He shot Carla a glare before walking out, his gait and body language both suggesting that this was far from over. I took another sip of my glass and looked away before I could be accused of staring. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Lord Gather-cash stared after the man who had left.

His posturing aside, the ruler of Salmont was no fool.

“Speaking of brutes, I find they tend to avoid main roads,” he remarked off-handedly before emptying his glass. “Not that it doesn't hurt to have an armed escort with me that I can trust.”

Considering how he had a chevalier with him, I doubted it was his own well-being he referred to. Did that mean he was giving me advice on how to avoid the man who just left, albeit in a roundabout way? The part about the main road made sense, but where was I supposed to find an armed escort? Carla was dressed for playing a game, and while she probably had some sharpies on her person, she was far from a warrior like Constance. That left Kinsman, but I had no idea what his motives were for helping me, let alone what price he would demand in exchange for his protection.

Then again, was there anyone in this town that I could truly trust yet? Especially not Lord Nagging-gash, who probably had at least one or two self-serving reasons for giving me that warning. How some lone “Avvar” like me could fit into his ambitions still escaped me, unless having me around was enough of a “status” symbol?

I could easily envision how that conversation would go. “Look what I fetched at the tavern!” “Ugh, did you have to bring it home with you?” “I trust it's clean?” “I'm sure I can train it.”

“You are most fortunate in that respect, Monsieur,” I remarked before taking another sip, deciding to play oblivious to his “advice”.

“Fortunate indeed,” he remarked wryly. “To find a princess in a tavern and a fine wine to enjoy this evening. While watching your friend make a fortune on a card game. Truly, the Breach has turned this world upside down.”

“I can think of worse fates, Monsieur,” I replied with a smile, but when he didn't return it, I briefly wondered if I'd finally offended him.

He put his glass down on the table in front of me rather than himself, seeing as the large man from before occupied the space before him with his arm alone. “Indeed, Your Majesty, like yours.”

I shot him a curious look. He wasn't going to ask questions about that, was he? Because it would certainly make things go sour between us. Not that they were all that great to begin with, though obviously better than if he'd thought me some Avvar peasant.

He seemed to study me intently. “Do you, by chance, seek sympathy?”

That was an easy thing to answer. “No, Monsieur.” Sympathy didn't get me anywhere. If I wanted to accomplish anything, I'd have to earn it.

“Then what do you seek in Salmont, exactly?” he pressed, his voice serious and his gaze the same as the one that had studied the Brute.

What, indeed? Apparently, judging from the sound of more groans and the shovelling of coins, I had my income covered. I had family in the clan, and a business partner in Carla. Who knew, she might even become my friend one day – as much as anyone could be friends with a criminal, of course. This felt like yet another one of those “make it or break it” situations. “Friends, Monsieur.”

He straightened a bit, his eyes blinked and then he smiled. “That makes sense, considering what happened to you.” Then he ordered another round of the same wine.

The rest of the evening Lord Curry-gnash spent talking about himself and his hopeless children and watching Carla cash in and drive away more and more players. Apparently his eldest son had grown to be immensely tall and broad-shouldered and had wanted only to be a chevalier, so he'd grudgingly sent him off to the Academie. His three daughters were summarily interested in three things all equally non-beneficial to the family; women, Avvar men and wilderness hiking. None of them cared to continue the proud family tradition of diplomacy. His wife was especially anxious about their eldest and youngest daughters, the ones who liked Avvar men and hiking, respectively. They had a second son, one who loved reading books, and they did have their hopes for him. However, he was still very young and there was no telling how he would turn out.

“Children are a gamble, Your Majesty,” he remarked as he drank from his fifth glass of wine, “make no mistake.”

I'd settled for drinking mead, even though my wine glass had been re-filled. “Truer words were never spoken, Monsieur.” It was a quip, one that he picked up on, judging from the ensuing silence.

He guffawed, however, much to my surprise. Did this mean the alcohol was starting to influence him? It would explain the slur that had come to his voice. I glanced back to Lady Chevalier, but she remained unmoving. Surely she wouldn't want the lord she served to drink himself into a stupor, especially in a place like this?

“You're blessed to have so many children, Monsieur,” I remarked. Five was indeed not bad, for a married couple that could afford such, of course.

“We would have had one more,” he began, but then paused. His eyes went to his half-full wine glass. “I've had far too much of this. Please forget what I just said.”

“Forget what, Monsieur?” I asked, deciding to play along.

He smiled. “Good, good.” Then he sat up and turned to face his warrior escort. “Lady DesRosiers, I believe it's time for me to return home. Fair warning, you may have to carry me.” The chevalier steadily approached us and he turned back to me. “Your Majesty, it has been a genuine pleasure.”

“May you have a safe journey home, Monsieur,” I replied with a smile, “and rest well.”

He stood and almost fell over, halted only by Lady Chevalier and myself. Yep, he'd definitely had enough to drink. Just as he rose, something fell out of his pocket and into my lap. I looked down and saw a golden pocket watch turned on its face. On the back was a glowing, rustic red runestone, the first one of its kind that I'd ever seen. It hadn't struck me that they could be used in place of batteries, yet in a way it made sense.

I picked up the watch and handed it back to Lord Bang-and-dash, making sure it was safely secure in his pocket once more. He regarded me the whole time until he finally spoke, and in a soft voice that held none of its previous inebriation. “I would present the argument, Your Majesty, that a criminal carta is not the right place for you.” Then he tossed me a wink and let out a groan as Lady DesRosiers supported him. Next he stumbled over to the bar, where he paid for the red wine tab. Once that was done, he continued to put on a convincing show of drunkenness until he was out the door.

Except he wasn't drunk. He probably wasn't even tipsy. Not to mention his parting words left me wondering about the intent behind his words. Of course the Carta wasn't my kind of place, but where else did he see someone like me make money? I wasn't going to whore myself out or beg in the streets, not while I had other options. While Carla probably cheated, that was commonplace in this sort of game, she just happened to be better at it than the other players. At least from the sound of her third cashing in tonight. So unless Monsieur had something else in mind for me, my place was none of his business.

I turned my attention back to the game. At this point, there was only one man still playing with her, and Kinsman watching me with knowing eyes. I took another sip of my mead, the sweet flavour temporarily driving away my concerns. Even though there was only one man left, the pile of coin on the table was stacked surprisingly high. Was that Carla's wager or the two combined?

The man's hands trembled slightly, but otherwise he was able to compose his body. His eyes were like that of a skittish doe, however, and the way his lips were pressed together into a thin line suggested things were not all right on his end. He had lots of wrinkles on his face and hands, but none of the spots common to an old man, and his hair was a thick mane of dark brown. Probably in his thirties, like me, but with aged skin. No doubt he'd spent too much time in the sun.

He kept rubbing his medial cleft with his free hand, and his eyes never strayed far from his cards. Looking at his clothing, which consisted of wrinkly fabric that sported dirt spots here and there, and some very simple shoes and a hat, it was easy to deduce that he wasn't the wealthiest person in Salmont. His entire aura radiated fear, and yet he didn't throw down his hand and call it quits. Was he some addict, clinging to a last, feeble hope of winning, or was he a terrible liar but a brilliant actor once he got into his role? Even to the point where it seeped into his energy field?

I dug deeper, going to my gut where my intuition always spoke to me. The man's energy twisted and changed, but there was no evil cunning I felt next. Rather, it was an undeniable mix of panic and despair. Yet, he was unable to stop. An addiction coursed through him like a dark, winding river, one that threatened to overflow and drag everything around it into its destructive path.

This man didn't need money. He needed help.

A part of me told me that it wasn't my problem, that he was just one man out of many who had willingly chosen to gamble his money away. Yet, when Carla most likely cleared the table of what money was left, he'd have to go home... and what if that home had a wife and a child? Or even worse, children?

Addictions were difficult to cure, because once removed they left a gaping hole that had to be filled with something better. Often they had a deeper, underlaying problem that needed its own repairing before everything was returned to a healthy balance. I remembered the warnings about using my magic, too, and in Thedas it wasn't nice and subtle anymore. Carla probably wouldn't hesitate to cash in on what tiny bit of money he had left, either, so solving this diplomatically would be difficult, at best. If only I'd had spirits from Earth or tarot cards to advice me.

Wait, spirits. That was it. The people of Thedas were immensely superstitious, dwarves included. If there was a sudden influx of hauntings and supernatural tricks, then the game would surely be called off. Carla and I would still cash in, and the last man still playing could return home with some money to show for, at least. Not that I was about to tear open the Veil as that would only result in demons, and with no Fade connection I couldn't call benevolent spirits to my side, either.

There was Hecate, however.

“Carla, I need to go freshen up,” I informed her. She paused the game and gave me a sidelong look.

“You've got the worst timing,” she remarked, but pushed some of the coins back to her opponent before putting the rest in a box that she carried. “Come on, then.” Then she pointed to Mr. Nerves. “I'll be right back.” We went out the back door. I brought my drinks just to be on the safe side.

It was a short trip to a surprisingly well-maintained latrine. Carla handed me the things I needed, including a small hand mirror, a runestone lamp and some cloth that she told me was “not for wiping the face”. She also went over to a water pump with an empty tankard, filled it up and then returned for me to take it. I went inside and, indeed, nature called just as I did.

Activating the lamp was easy enough, and it lit up the outdoor toilet like a doctor's office. Fortunately it was securely built, with no holes to peek through, so I was safe, for now.

Once I was done with my earthly business and I'd touched up on my make-up so as to not raise suspicion, I sat down on the toilet lid and went into a deep, meditative state. I focused my mind on Hecate and the crossroad, whispering a prayer to her, to let me in. There was nothing for a while, but then an incantation came to my mind and I uttered it before I could think twice. Uttered it in ancient Greek, in fact, a language I'd never studied. Then I felt my throat constrict for a split second and my connection to the physical world was gone.

 


 

The crossroad had expanded in every direction, surrounded by beautiful nature on all sides. On the night sky above us shone stars, twinkling with secrets of their own. None of the gravel roads showed where they went, but my place was in the middle, in the liminal space between them. Where Hecate was.

“Good, I was wondering when you'd finally show up without putting yourself in mortal danger first,” spoke a familiar, female voice. I spun around and beheld the Lady of the Crossroads, a friendly smile on her face as she was dressed in an outfit that looked like something from Bulgaria. Her eyes were on me, but then they travelled around her new home. “As you've probably seen, I'm done decorating. The life here will grow itself.” Her gaze returned to me. “However, there is much more left to do in order to complete the move to Thedas, and many residents that indeed need guidance in crossing over.”

My jaw dropped. Many residents? “I only need a few-”

“To help the gambling addict,” Hecate finished for me. As usual there was no hiding anything from her. “We need to make the transfer tonight, Alva, on the autumn equinox.” She moved closer before crouching in front of me. “This goes beyond spooking a few mortals in a fishing village. We must guide the spirits over to Thedas, where they will shape their own worlds and become a part of this one.”

Then Earth really was gone. “You're the guide of spirits and souls, what do you need me for?”

She cocked her head to the side and looked at me with mild amusement. “Alva, you're my only earthly representative on Thedas.” Her amusement disappeared. “The only one I can trust with such a task. Unless you suggest I step foot in the mortal world in this form and lead a horde of spirits through it?”

That sounded perfectly Halloween, and I could easily imagine many a Chantry priest's heads explode upon seeing such a thing. However, it was also the equivalent of Hecate revealing her biggest trump card and drawing far too much attention to herself – and me. “I can't be seen doing magic in Salmont. What I've done already was risky enough.”

“Your involvement will make the transfer perfectly subtle,” she replied and then a ghostly green flame appeared in her hand. “My phosphorus can only be seen by spirits and souls of the dead from Earth. As long as you hold it, you will be invisible to Thedosian eyes.” She looked at me expectantly. “In exchange, I will take care of the addict for you.”

“What if demons try to come through?”

She shook her head. “We let them perish with Earth. If anyone still managed to survive, they'll have to go through Kali to get here.”

There was still one last bit that bugged me. “Why would a whole world of spirits follow me?”

Her face remained serious as she spoke. “Because you're their promised queen.”

I blinked, followed by a short pause as I tried to process that. Alright, I knew I was destined to marry the prince of Alfheim, which would effectively make me a queen when he became king. Well, back when Earth had been in existence. Yet, it sounded as if Hecate was of the mindset that it would happen all the same. What left me stunned was the fact that she suggested it would be more than one world?

Well, then. “What must I do?”

The Goddess of Witchcraft explained everything.

 


 

My throat constricted yet managed to inhale air at the same time, and I found myself at the loo once more. The lamp glared at me and I had to blink several times just to re-orient myself. I picked up all the things Carla had given me and used the unscented soap inside the latrine and the crane on the water tap to wash my hands. It was a very old-fashioned form of a sink, but it worked for me. Considering how the small basin below the tap had been empty when I filled it, it was probably customary to throw out the used water afterwards.

I did so once I stepped outside and earned an approving look from Carla. She gave me a questioning look when I stayed rooted to the spot, though. “You're not coming, Princess?”

“It's late,” I replied. “I should probably get back to the clan.”

She nodded. “That last guy was pretty finished. I'll take you to the inn, where you can change back to your own clothes, once we're done at the tavern.”

The man in question was gone when we arrived, however, leaving only Kinsman, the workers and a few, stubborn drunkards. Kinsman shrugged. “He said he'd had enough. Was quiet for a long while, I almost thought he was asleep. Then he screamed like a stuck pig and left in a hurry.”

“Hm,” was Carla's only reply. Then she tossed a gold coin at Kinsman, who caught it deftly. “For your help.”

“Many thanks,” he replied and pocketed the coin. Then he threw me a wink as he rose to his feet. “Good luck and many blessings to you, kinswoman.” He then paid the barkeep before he, too, exited the tavern. Carla then followed, with me in tow. I noticed she never approached the bar, though she still carried her tankard with her, as I did along with my wine glass. Hecate's instructions.

“You're not going to pay for the meal?” I asked, surprised.

Carla shook her head. “The Carta pays in advance. I've got a limited tab, so I guess we should count ourselves lucky Lord Abernache was in a generous mood.” We stepped out into the town square before she continued. “We'll have to give back the tankards and glass once we're done with them, though.”

Yeah, they were probably not in mass production.

Salmont had considerably fewer people outside now, probably because the temperature had dropped, and quite suddenly at that. Had I not been wearing my dress, I'd probably be very cold right now.

“Shit,” Carla said and shuddered, before she paused and turned to look at me. “Tell you what, you keep that outfit for tomorrow. It's probably warmer than what you've got back at the tavern. Just return it tomorrow.”

I shot her a surprised look. “You would trust me to return with it?”

She shook her lockbox at me meaningfully. “I've got your money, Avvar.” Then she smiled teasingly.

I smiled right back. “Good point.” I looked at my miniscule amount of items and then back to her. “I guess this is good night, then?”

The dwarf shook her head. “Not quite. I'll hold your money hostage, but not what few clothes you have. Wait here as I get them.” Then she rushed off to the inn and returned only a few minutes later with a leather bag. I checked it, found all my clothes inside, and strapped it across my form so that it rested against my hip. Then I thanked her.

Carla gave me a short nod. “Good night, Avvar. It's been interesting.”

My smile widened. “Same to you.”

The dwarf's wide grin was the last I saw of her face as she turned around and headed straight for the inn.

Right, time for my sacred duty, then – drastically altering the world of Thedas. By proxy. I stepped up to the fountain where I placed my drinks. The ritual had to start inside a hexagon that stood upon a ley line which, conveniently, happened to be the town square. Where everyone could see me. Well, the statue helped shield me somewhat and I didn't need to be loud when I invited the entire nether- and otherworld and the Heavens themselves to join me for a walk.

Sweet Goddess, what a sight that was going to be.

The mead was the first sacrifice, to Hecate Apotropaios, for protection, and then Kleidouchos, Keeper of the Keys and Doorways, to open the doors wide for the world of Earth spirits and souls to come through. The wind picked up, the temperature dropped further and all lights went out. Nothing seemed to have changed otherwise. I picked up the glass of wine as best I could, drank a toast to the new visitors and said the incantation that lit up a glowing, ghostly fireball in my hand.

That was when I saw with my naked eyes the effect of the ritual. Above me, in the sky, was a gaping hole ten times larger than the Breach, dark and twisting in purple, black and ghostly green, with a host so numerous it put the Wild Hunt to shame. My jaw dropped as fairies, goblins, ghosts, angels, gremlins, elves, dwarves, minor gods and goddesses, nymphs, dryads, satyrs and almost every creature in the Faeries' Oracle Cards deck and from every mythology I knew and didn't know poured into the world of Thedas, marching down a set of stairs so radiant with divine energy it was almost impossible to look at.

I couldn't even feel the cold anymore, nor the wind blowing all around me. Gone was my need for a light to see where I went – the stairwell lit up everything beautifully, a soft glow reminiscient of the moon but bright enough to match the sun. The horde pouring into Thedas landed right on top of the fountain, yet it remained in place, unmolested. My ghost-fire-holding hand rose by itself as they did and the flame shaped itself into a staff, a perfect replica of Gandalf the Grey's in the first Lord of the Rings movie. At its tip the phosphorus shone like a beacon.

It was all as Hecate had instructed, and at this point, I was to lead the way. I rose the staff high with one hand and called, loudly, to all the entities before me. “Spirits, souls, angels and fey! Lords and ladies, kings and queens! Leaders and followers alike! I am a servant of the gods and I stand before you as your guide into this new world! I beseech thee, take a walk with me, to the ones who will aid you and help you adjust!” Then I turned on my heel and walked.

A hum began among the souls of the dead as the congregation behind me followed. One that had a very familiar tune. I'd join in if not for Hecate's warning to not sing until after I had passed through the town gates. As I moved, I noticed my feet never touched the ground and I moved through the air as I ordinarily would underwater. My limbs were slow and heavy, forced to adapt to an ocean's rhythm, in a current that brought me straight to the town's closed gates.

Yet we marched on. It felt as if I was in a dream, but I knew I was wide awake. The gate loomed close, approaching fast, despite how it felt as if I moved through syrup. Just as I thought I was going to bump into the hard wood and make a big fool of myself – not to mention out myself as a witch and get hanged or burned at the stake after hours of torture in some highly un-sanitary prison cell (secondary concern, obviously) – my own form shifted and changed. As if a distortion of my physical body took place, I was in front of the gates one second and then facing the road to Salmont, which was conveniently enough a crossroad. Exactly the spot where our little trip ended.

I still wasn't sure how I'd managed to get sucked through the gates as if pulled along by a vaccuum cleaner, but if I was to hazard a guess, then it probably had something to do with this second Gandalf-staff. This was also the time for me to call on the gods already in Thedas to guide all the non-mortal Earth residents to their new homes, so I did, putting the glass of wine down as an offering. Three forms appeared, dark and blurry at first, but then manifested as three women, all of whom carried their own Gandalf-staves. It was almost as if we were a club.

Or a coven. I pushed that unwanted thought aside and waited instead for the women to introduce themselves.

The first one was tanned, with black curls and a Greek dress. “I'm Medea, and I come on Hecate's behalf to assist you, sister.” She'd probably said that in ancient Greek, but apparently spirit-world travelling also granted automatic translations. Neat.

Next to her stood a small, Korean woman, dressed in an outfit that I had no way of identifying. “I'm Hwi-bin Kim, and I come on Myeongwol's behalf to assist you, sister.”

Lastly was a woman with features that looked like a mix of African, Native American and white, dressed as if she came straight out of New Orleans in the 1800s. Most notable was her tall headscarf. “I'm Marie Laveau, and I come on Agassou's behalf to assist you, sister.”

I curtsied in greeting. “Blessed be and welcome, sisters.” Sisters. There was a word I hadn't used about fellow witches in a long time. Yet it felt perfectly natural, despite my reservations.

It helped that these three had never worked curses against me, of course.

All three joined hands and then they raised their arms to the sky. “Join us, Aradia, daughter of Diana! Teacher of magic to the women of Italy! Join us, Freya, great goddess of the North! Gods and goddesses of death, welcome these souls of the dead!”

I started singing before I even realised what I was doing, and in a language I'd never studied. Musical polyglot by ghostly Gandalf-staff, I could dig that. The song sounded strangely reminiscent of “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. As I sang, a throng of souls passed through and around us towards a cave that also appeared out of nowhere. Some of them sang with me, including Ryan Reynolds and Vladimir Putin. Behind the three witches appeared Freddy Mercury in all his ghostly glory, though he had a golden, divine aura that surrounded him. A mark of the gods' favour, regardless of how mortals may have felt about him. He sang as well, with his divine voice, and soon enough I was drowned out by the veritable cacophony that rang all around me.

That was when I saw my parents.

They didn't even pause to look at me. Hecate's instructions were clear; I was to keep singing no matter who I saw among the dead. Still, the pain that stabbed in my heart was profound and tears ran down my cheeks even as I maintained the tune. There was, however, also a great sense of relief – my parents' souls were okay. Gods didn't save the souls of those who allowed demons to feed off of them until they became soulless – basically because there was nothing left to save. Furthermore, any torment in the afterlife of those who retained their souls was the result of that soul's own choices. My parents had looked content, even peaceful.

This time my tears were of joy.

Angels and light elves drifted upwards into the heavens and dark elves and dwarves went down into the earth. Fey of all kinds went to live in natural places, as did the East-Asian dragons and some of the gods. Many more creatures whose identities and species I didn't know followed, and among the dead I saw friends and acquaintances drift by. Souls of animals came next, dutifully following Artemis, Pan and other gods of nature into some other world. I briefly wondered if these worlds overlapped or interacted with the Fade, or would eventually blend into it. Maybe they'd exist side by side?

Or maybe Yggdrasil had been reborn and would naturally merge through all of them?

Once Bohemian Rhapsody was done – Freddie now joined by his old bandmates – it was apparently Ozzy Osbourne's turn. The group started up “Mama I'm Coming Home”, though without Putin and Reynolds, who had moved on. I noticed there were no more supernatural creatures around, in fact the rest were human souls. Some went up into the heavens and others into the ground. None stayed behind to linger about and haunt. Good. Exorcisms were tough enough, I didn't want to go ghost-busting as well.

“Helvegen” followed, sung by none other than Wardruna and Eivør Pálsdóttir, as the last souls poured through into Thedas. It was only three songs in total, but apparently it was enough for roughly eight billion souls. Minus those who had let demons eat them, of course. The artists disappeared last, save Eivør, at which point I was left with the three witches from before. I thought it done, then, but the trio rose their hands in a beckoning gesture, as if reaching out to embrace someone behind me.

“Blessed be, brothers and sisters,” they intoned, bright smiles on their previously sombre, all-business faces. I sensed the familiar feeling of magic behind me, concentrated and more powerful than anything an individual witch could accomplish. “Welcome to death's loving embrace. We greet you with perfect love and trust.”

The remaining souls were all witches. Hecate hadn't told me about this part, yet I instinctively knew what to do. I raised the staff high and intoned: “As above,” then I lowered it to the ground, “so below. Go now in peace, brothers and sisters, and blessed be.” Then Eivør began drumming and singing.

Lampades – Underworld nymph servants of Hecate – appeared, holding torches that burned with their own ghost-fires. Past me wandered many witches both unfamiliar and known to me, and I parted with many whom I genuinely loved. Others were more diminished, barely identifiable as proper souls at all. Like dark wisps of shadow. Witches misled by demons or other dark forces, or who had over-indulged in dark magic, but still not fully turned away from the gods. Eivør sang for them all the same and the lampades bid them step forward – only for them to burst into sacred fire that burned, purified and transformed them. Some took longer than others, but in the end they stood true as the souls they'd once been, ready to try again in their next lives.

It seemed strangely reminiscent of my own exorcism. While they'd probably deserved their fate, it was a strong reminder to me that mercy often produced a better result in the long run. Otherwise, what was the difference between gods and demons?

That thought melted away much of my own resentment towards my ex-coven.

My concept of time was basically non-existent at this point, and I just stared up at Eivør and basked in her beautiful music and the rhythm of her drum. All around me the dead witches poured through like a never-ending stream, some burning and others disappearing with delight into the Underworld. One day I would join them. Singing, dancing, drumming and weaving beautiful magic. That thought comforted me and brought me a great sense of delight, especially when I imagined all the wicked cackling.

Gods how I missed that.

It was almost with a sense of nostalgia and longing for my own end that I parted with the last remnants of Earth's supernaturals, along with whom went the lampades and the trio of witches. In the end it was just me and Eivør. Strange that my first meeting with her would also be the last.

Our eyes met and she smiled her beautiful smile at me. “I'm going to miss your music,” I told her.

Her smile turned warm. “All music is eternal.” Then she, too, disappeared.

 


 

After bidding Hecate Kleidochous close the gate between Earth and Thedas, which effectively sealed the giant hole in the sky, I made my way back to the clan. I maintained the ghost fire for as long as it took me to get out of sight of the Salmont guards. “Always keep your back to the crossroad after you leave your offering,” as the lore dictated. Once I was at a sufficient distance away from the Orlesian town, I snuffed out the light and found myself left with an actual, wooden staff. Peculiar.

The temperature did a dramatic drop and I shivered involuntarily. My feet also finally touched the ground. I sighed with relief, already feeling the fatigue roll over me. More feelings, realisations and insights followed, including my own behaviour regarding my Dalish saviours, one in particular. It wasn't a pleasant discovery, but that was truth for you.

“Halt!” hollered the familiar voice of Elf Chick. In the light from the campfires I saw several elves with their arrows trained on me. “You approach a camp of Dalish, state your business!”

I raised my hands slowly. “It's me, Alva! Don't shoot!”

“I don't recall Alva having a staff,” I heard Improvisation Guy remark.

“I also didn't have a wooden figurine of a halla this morning,” I reminded him, “until you gave me one.”

A moment's silence followed and I saw all the elves withdraw their weapons. “You're late,” Tamlen remarked grumpily.

I grinned right back. “Good to see you too.”

“You must be exhausted,” Elf Chick remarked. “Go to bed.”

“Yes, ma'am,” I shot back obediently and made to move past her. “I'm borrowing the clothes, in case anyone's wondering.”

“I was,” Improvisation Guy remarked. Nobody else joined him.

“Good night, Alva,” Elf Chick called after me.

I gave a simple wave back. “'Night.”

Aenor was the only one inside the aravel, fully recovered from his burns, it seemed, and preparing himself for a good night's sleep, seeing as he was in the process of undressing. Or a nap until it was his turn to keep watch. He stopped when he saw me, however.

I'd imbibed enough alcohol to not care, and tonight's extracurricular activities had put some emotions in perspective for me. What infatuation I'd felt for him was now gone. “Good evening.” I put down the bag that contained my mish-mash of earthling and Dalish clothes near the bed. “Where's Anise? Is she a part of the first watch?” I removed my gloves and started to unbutton my coat.

“Yes,” he confirmed. “It's... just the two of us tonight.”

Right. His hesitation made me think about the comments by other clan members on his continuous observations of my – as Wynne would have put it – “swaying hips”. “Is that a problem for you?”

There was a short silence. “I suppose the clan has commented already, but I am... quite attracted to you.”

Back at the tavern, that admission would have made my heart pound like a race horse in full gallop. Now, however, I felt nothing, and I needed to make sure nothing tried to grow from that. “Where does that attraction come from, do you think?”

“You're quite pretty, Alva,” he shot back, but then there was another pause. So he was the type to think carefully about his feelings. “But if I'm to be completely honest, I think your care and kindness and... bravery were so unexpected in, well, a... human, and then I lost my brother...” He trailed off. “I was told by the other clan members that you felt the same way, but...”

Ah yes. Good old elven gossip. I turned to face him. “They weren't wrong, but I had similar reasons.” A look of realisation came to his face. “Don't get me wrong, you're quite handsome.” My lips curled up into a smile, which he returned. “It's for the wrong reasons, though. I'd just lost my entire world and, apart from Blue, you were the only one to really care about what happened to me.”

There was a short silence following that and then he let out a short breath. “Yes, I understand now why the former Keeper urged us to take things slowly where romance was concerned. I think we're better off getting to know each other properly first.”

I nodded. This felt right, even though the part of me that needed emotional support whined. “I'd like that.” He nodded and an awkward silence followed as practical concerns were next on our list. “Separate beds?” Gods how weird it would be to share beds right now.

The frown he'd worn when we'd first met at the foot of the Frostback Mountains returned. “That will be cold.”

“But less awkward,” I countered.

He opened his mouth, but quickly clamped it shut. “It's already a cold night. We might not survive if we sleep apart, however personally comfortable we'd be.”

Then it struck me. “Halin taught me his warming spell. I can cast it on both of us, if you want.”

A spark of interest came to his eyes. “Sure, that works. Anise might ask some questions come morning, but I can handle that.”

He was so comfortable being subjected to spells, it left me temporarily speechless. I set about casting it on him first, however, and then on myself. Immediately the cold temperature dissipated and I felt a lot warmer. Then there was a slight pause. “Would you be so kind as to help me get out of this corset? I'm not used to them.” I smiled sheepishly.

“Sure.”

I turned back around and removed my jacket, silkerchief and corset cover, and then got help taking off the skirt and petticoats. Aenor undid the lacing while I undid my braids. Once the corset was off – and I'd thanked him for the help – I set to work washing my face and brushing my teeth. He disappeared off to his side of the aravel and, once we'd undressed and were both under the covers, we bid each other good night. Then we blew out our respective lanterns, darkness claiming me shortly after.

 


 

The next morning I was given a Canavaris cream to rub on all my sore spots from yesterday's exertions, of which I had plenty. Anise had decided that I was to have a break today. While nobody commented on my and Aenor's not-relationship, there were also no questions or suggestions presented in Manrea and Afro Elf's tent. Not even when I received my birth control and had my underwear returned to me. Instead I spent my time before breakfast rehearsing my Fereldan runes and after breakfast I was spirited away by Halin who wanted me to bring my new staff.

I'd forgotten all about that. Before we could get very far, however, we received a visit by Kinsman, carrying a leather pack that contained something.

“One last order from our friend,” he remarked before handing the pack over to me. “The boots and gloves will take some time to finish, but they'll be here within a few weeks.” Then he bid me farewell and left. I took a peek inside and noticed he'd got me some clothes made of leather and fur.

Halin pulled out some fur-lined leather mittens. “This is what the Avvar wear in winter. Carla got you a precious gift, Alva, one that will be very useful should we need to go south during the colder months.” It had all probably come out of my paycheck, too. There went my fifty percent.

I managed a smile all the same. “It's great. A disguise to cover up for the fact that I'm not an Avvar.” My smile turned bitter. I would be in so much trouble if the Lord of Salmont found out I'd lied to him. Even though, technically, it had been Kinsman who'd done the lying.

“If trouble arises we will simply move on,” Halin said in what he probably thought was a reassuring tone, but it only made me feel worse. I didn't like leaving behind resentments and unresolved issues – the last time that happened, almost everyone in my former coven turned on me. I shuddered to think of what resources an Orlesian Lord had at his disposal, by contrast.

The only way I could possibly get away with it would be to become useful enough for him to overlook it or put him in my debt somehow. Neither scenario seemed likely, especially not in the immediate future. I could act, but maintain a lie? That would nag away at me in the back of my mind like a festering sore, pressing against me with the weight of a halla until I finally snapped.

Eir have mercy on my doomed self.

I changed into my new outfit simply because the low temperature was combined with a cold wind and they were the warmest clothes I owned. The bottom layer was wool stockings, tights and shirt, predictably enough, a cotton shirt and pants between that and then a long leather coat. It felt good to wear something warm, and the added fur was a welcome reprieve. I was surprised they fit so well, especially since they weren't custom made. My scarf went well with the rest, however, and that was good enough for me.

As I returned to Halin, I found our conversation returned to my staff. I didn't wish to elaborate on Earth's supernatural residents, and I was unsure how receptive he'd be to the idea that they'd moved into Thedas. Especially if they started asking for tribute from mortals. Not to mention how eager that might make Thedosian elves to meet the immortal elves of Alfheim.

I'd really screwed up the natural laws of the cosmos, hadn't I? Then again, so had whatever force that annihilated Earth. Would we all have to stay here permanently or were the gods cooking up some other plan? Also, what became of the solar system with one less planet? Had it any effect on the rest or had the moon simply taken its place? Unless the Earth's orbit had also been destroyed...

“Did you find it on your way back from Salmont?” the mage pressed, interrupting my downward spiral of distracting thoughts.

It was technically true. “Yep.”

A short pause followed. “I would suggests ways to enchant it, but they would all be related to the Fade.”

“I have my own ways,” I reassured him. He looked as if he was about to say something, but then merely motioned for me to follow him.

We were to sit away from the rest of the clan, on a pair of boulders by the sea, in fact. I noticed there were wooden pillars in the water, probably from a pier now long since removed. The water was calm, as it usually was in the morning, the sky covered with a layer of white that effectively blocked out the sun. Halin sat down opposite me.

“The Keeper filled me in about your magic and I've made some observations myself,” he began. “My first is that you seem able to move Thedosian spells – and those of your own – with your mind.”

I nodded. “Being exposed to the Fade awakened my telekinesis prematurely.”

“I see,” he remarked. “Any other psychic powers that you possess?”

“I'm an empath,” I explained. “It means that I can connect with people's emotions and feel them as if they were my own. And, on occasion, I get prophetic dreams.” One of which had been about my own coven magically attacking me, backed up by a powerful spirit. Without that dream, I would have been clueless about the identity of their supernatural support.

He nodded. “I've spoken to Anise. Every morning after breakfast I'd like you to join me in my meditations. This will sharpen your abilities over time.”

“I know,” I replied and earned a mildly surprised look. “I wasn't completely without tutorship back home.”

He smiled a crooked smile at that. “Good. But before we begin, show me what you can move with your mind of the physical world.”

Right. Time to throw pebbles around. I looked down at one and meant to raise it in a fashion that would have kids on Earth go “ooh” and “aah”. Instead it launched itself directly at Halin, and at a speed that put a Japanese bullet train to shame. To his credit, he managed to stop it right before it hit his forehead, his telekinetic power radiating off of him in one impressive wave. Then the tiny stone fell from its brief flight and returned to its kin on the beach.

“I didn't mean to do that,” I told him quickly. “It was supposed to levitate-”

He held up a hand to pause me, so I did. “You have power, but your mind needs sharpening. We will add some good mind games to the meditations as well. For now, let's meditate.”

Mind games? As in, Mensa style? Now that sounded fun, even though I'd never tried them before. My delight at that prospect wasn't going to be fruitful for meditation, however, so I pushed that thought aside, took a deep breath and closed my eyes.

Chapter Text

Returning the clothes to Jeanette was easy enough, once they'd been washed and dried. Water Guy even gave me some equipment to help clean the shoes. When I returned to Salmont two days later to clean up the glass and tankard, however, I learned they'd found their own way back to the tavern. Nobody asked any questions, either, and even though Carla looked miffed, it wasn't because she'd ended up an unwilling dishwasher. In fact, she'd had nothing to do with the tidying up either.

“I thought I had that fool drunkard,” she explained to me as we sat side-by-side. Around us the dwarves and elves hawked their wares as before. Unlike the other day, it was only Tamlen, Manrea and Improvisation Guy in Salmont today. “Turns out he's going sober. He's even gone so far as to spend almost all his time in the Chantry.” She let out a disgusted noise. “Still, there will be another round of Wicked Grace tonight if you want to come. Hopefully without any noble interruptions.”

“What about the money we made two nights ago?” I asked and then added. “If there's anything left of my part after all the 'help' you acquired.”

Carla looked surprised. “What, you mean your kinsman? He owed us some favours already, I just cashed in on them. Jeanette keeps your money safe, for now.” She paused. “Still, you should think about what to do with it. I doubt the Dalish have a bank.”

Yeah, there was that. I probably couldn't open up an account in an Orlesian bank without being Orlesian – hell, I wasn't even a native citizen of Thedas. I didn't like the idea of trying to hide away a stash of coins or bury it and hope that nobody found it, either. Financial stability meant a great deal to me. “What are my options, exactly?”

“I can sign you up as an employee of the Carta,” the dwarf offered. “That means regular jobs,” her voice dropped lower until I could barely hear her, “and it means you need to tell me the truth about where you're from. Though we should save that until after we've eaten the nug stew together.”

“After establishing a friendship, you mean?” I re-phrased.

She shrugged. “If you wish to see it that way. But back to the previous topic. Jeanette can keep your money safe for you while we wait for the Fereldan pumpkins to arrive. If you choose to work for the Carta, you'll get a monthly pay to cover your basic expenses and then more per job done.”

“What kind of work would I be qualified for, exactly?” I pressed. It couldn't be anything violent, and I had no experience with smuggling. I sincerely hoped she wouldn't say prostitution. Not to mention the Carta wasn't exactly the kind of place where I could make long-term plans.

A short pause followed as Carla studied me from top to toe. “You know, Avvar, I'm not sure. Maybe we should get to know each other better so I can get a clear idea of where you fit.”

I shrugged. “I could use some days to think things over.”

“We should have the pumpkins here in a few days' time,” Jeanette informed us helpfully after selling her umpteenth perfume bottle. Apparently she'd learned from the Dalish “less is more” trick, judging from how few products were actually on the table compared to yesterday and how it had boosted her sales. “We'll see about sorting things out then.”

That was good enough for me. While it was true that the Carta wasn't my kind of place, my only other option was the clan. According to Flemeth, I wasn't going to stick around there for the rest of my life. That meant I needed money to secure my own future – if I could even find a way to secure said valuables.

“Some days you'll have then, Princess,” Carla concluded, just in time as a small group of Orlesian nobles – judging from how well-dressed they were – led by none other than Lord Moustache arrived. The dwarf's voice dropped to a mutter. “Shit, he really took a liking to you, didn't he?”

“Unless he's here for the cologne,” I shot back in a voice soft enough to not be overheard. Fortunately the crowd behind Monsieur was all a-buzz with talk, though there was no denying that they kept looking at me.

Yep, here came the curious Orlesians.

“Your Majesty, what a delightful coincidence,” Lord Pamper-Flash said in a way that almost sounded convincing. I rose from my seat to greet him. “I just told my friends and acquaintances about you earlier today.” He indicated a pair of chittering ladies behind him. I noticed one of them wore a half-mask that was designed to look like the face of a house cat. The other wore a full face mask that closely resembled a goose. “Comtesse Nicole d'Angles and Lady Sabine Laventure in particular expressed their curiosity about you.” Considering how the rest were busy perusing Jeanette's wares, I believed that part, at least.

I pulled back my hood and offered the two noblewomen a polite bow. “Enchantée, Mesdames.”

The Cat let out a soft “ooh” while the Goose took it one step further. “You were right, Esmeral, she has picked up an impressive amount of knowledge considering the brief time she's been in Orlais and,” her eyes trailed across both booths, “the resources available to her.”

I bit back my snarky retort. A far more important matter than their comments about Dalish elves and Carta dwarves, and the fact that the Goose spoke of me as if I wasn't there, was why Monsieur had seen fit to show up with a small group of nobles before these humble stalls. Orlesians never did anything for just one reason, and I doubted Lord Pansy-Branch was an exception.

Come to think of it, I should probably settle for just one nickname for him. It would be hard to pick the right one, though. Unless I somehow miraculously managed to learn his actual name in the time it took me to decide.

The Goose's eyes returned to me and she studied me from top to toe. “Are those clothes commonplace among the Avvar, Your Majesty?”

“They are, Madame,” I replied, having no clue how to address a Comtesse.

Jeanette cleared her throat and bowed to the Goose. “Your Ladyship.”

The Goose offered her a quick, deferential nod before looking back to me. “I will organise a little gathering in a few days' time. I would like you to attend, so I can see what can be done with you.”

I feigned an innocent smile. “Done with me, Your Ladyship? Whatever do you mean?”

Her eyes went to Lord Potato-Mash. Potato-Mash it was. He turned to face me. “I did say that the Carta wasn't your place, did I not? It would be an outright shame for a princess, even one from a heathen culture such as yours, to languish in seedy taverns or live in the wilderness like a barbarian.” I noticed all the elves and dwarves around me grew quiet.

“Ordinarily we would expect you to return to your fellow Avvar,” the Goose went on, “but seeing as your entire clan was wiped out and you have nowhere else to go, I thought it better to meet you and see what can be done.”

“You're very pretty,” Cat supplied with a smile, “and a quick study.”

“A result of superior breeding, no doubt,” Goose went on, “within the confines of your people, of course.”

I bit back my retort about how badly they underestimated the Avvar – they were the closest to kin for me, after all, and the Scandinavian IQ average was nothing to scoff at. Had the Orlesians known anything about these things, let alone the vikings, they wouldn't be so quick to dismiss it. Said people had some ulterior motive behind this, though, I just had to figure out how they would benefit from whatever it was they had in mind. “What, exactly, do you mean to do to me, Your Ladyship?”

“Why, polish the diamond in the rough,” she replied enigmatically, “provided this first impression lasts and we do find a precious gem underneath all this...” her eyes roamed my form once more, “leather and fur.”

Directly asking for the purpose of such activities would probably prove fruitless. No doubt they expected me to ask how this worked to their benefit and had prepared their response accordingly. I noticed Kinsman was in the middle of the market square, slowly approaching us. “That would no doubt be an expensive undertaking for you, Your Ladyship, if you should choose to take it. What would you ask for in return?”

Her head tilted slightly to the side, and I couldn't decide whether she was annoyed or amused. “Direct, but shrewd. I ask for return favours, of course, which I shall be happy to discuss with you at length at a later date. Perhaps at my home in a few days from now, as originally suggested?” Her eyes roamed my form again. “I must say you're quite tall for a woman, Your Majesty. Is this normal for an Avvar?”

“I'm slightly below average height, actually,” I replied, which caused all three of them to balk. Meanwhile my brain tried to cook up the perfect excuse to escape this situation. The quickest and most effective way would be to step out of the broom closet and admit that I was a witch. Unfortunately, that was also the quickest and most effective way to get a noose tied around my neck. I couldn't exactly come clean about being an alien from outer space, and I knew of no Avvar clan that was willing to take me in. Kinsman didn't even know me. According to Hecate, I was the “promised queen”, but that was of a whole other world of magical beings whose existence alone would probably terrify the living daylights out of most Orlesians.

There was no denying that these nobles' interest in me came only from the fact that they believed me to be someone important among the Avvar. While I failed to see how the Goose would benefit from that, beyond the miniscule trade activities that were already in existence, I stored it in the back of my mind all the same.

“What is your height, exactly?” the Goose asked as she eyed me from top to toe. “One-hundred-and-sixty... seven?”

“Eight, Your Ladyship,” I corrected her, assuming she meant the metric system.

“Dear Maker,” she muttered only to jump out of her skin the second she turned and saw Kinsman looming above her.

If he was bothered by her behaviour, he didn't show it. “Your Ladyship, I couldn't help but overhear the invitation that you extended to my kinswoman. I trust you are aware no Avvar princess can enter a foreign home of someone of power without a military escort?”

She stared at the tall man. In stunned silence, if her aura was anything to go by. “Well, I must say, I...” then her eyes turned to me. “Why didn't you mention this at the start, Your Majesty?”

“You didn't really wait for her to decide whether or not she would come to your little gathering, Your Ladyship,” Potato-Mash reminded her, “or if she would accept your generous offer.”

All eyes turned to me, Kinsman the first to speak. “Your Majesty, I can have a squadron of warriors ready for you by the end of the week.”

He definitely had an agenda. No way was this just his debt to the Carta. Unlike the others, he was Avvar and if that meant he was anything like my fellow Norwegians – barring the weaselly, cowardly ones – then he was someone I could ask direct questions to. “I'd rather discuss this with you in private, kinsman, before I make any decisions.”

His blue eyes studied me sharply. I held his gaze the entire time. “As you wish, Your Majesty.” Then he indicated the tavern with a questioning look. I nodded at the inn in response, which caused him to turn in that direction. Next I turned to Carla who nodded and took her place beside me. On the other side came Tamlen, glaring at Kinsman all the while.

The Goose let out an upset noise as we walked past her, probably at having to wait. Lord Potato-Mash watched us the entire time as we walked past him. I felt the stares of everyone around us weighing me down.

It wasn't until we were inside the inn that this weight let up a little. Some people were still inside, eating a late breakfast or early lunch. While they were dressed in Orlesian finery, some of the women had callouses on their hands and their eyes were sharply upturned – a stark contrast to the droopy eyes that I'd seen all around Salmont. The men varied in sizes, but none of them were small – at least not by the standards I was used to.

What caused me to stop at the entrance into the dining area, however, was the way they ate. While some of the women took dainty, little sips of their soup, they did so with the wrong spoon. A smaller spoon lay outside the empty spot where the larger spoon had been. Standard rule of dining with the nobility or wealthy lay in the philosophy of “start at the outside and work your way in”. One of those tidbits of knowledge I'd picked up back home, deemed “useless” by my fellow pupils and most of my teachers.

While the innkeeper was the same as yesterday, his face was a grim countenance, unlike the bright smile he'd greeted me with two nights before. Once he realised he had my attention, his eyes went to the pantry before going to the entry door. I turned to see two “guardsmen” much too tall to be Orlesians standing on either side of the door. It hadn't even occurred to me to study them closer upon entering. A lapse in judgement on my part, one that might cost me dearly.

Kinsman had expected me to choose the inn and stationed his fellow Avvar accordingly. They held every advantage. No wonder they were so sloppy with their disguises.

We had walked right into the bear's den.

I looked to Carla, but all she could offer me was a shrug. So not even the Carta could help. The frown on Tamlen's face suggested the elves couldn't do anything, either. It seemed we were completely at Avvari mercy.

A chill crept up my spine. Hopefully I'd find some way to turn the tables, however minor. It depended on what Kinsman wanted, exactly. My gut wrenched as I took the first step, slowly walking towards the fireplace where Kinsman had settled, surrounded by this Frostback mockery of the Orlesian Court.

Still, if they were anything like my viking ancestors, I'd do well not to underestimate them.

The door to the dining area closed shut, leaving the innkeeper outside, to be glared at by Kinsman's warriors. No doubt so we could speak freely. Carla and Tamlen remained by my side every step of the way, but I found no comfort in it. If anything, I worried for their safety as well as mine. Kinsman, naturally, looked immensely pleased with himself and bid us sit. I claimed my spot in a single chair opposite him and Carla and Tamlen sat down in the loveseat. My own chair was leaned up against the wall, unlike the Avvar's. Either he was very well protected or very arrogant.

I hoped for the latter.

“So then,” he began, a big, fat smile on his face, “let's get down to business. I assume you'd like to know why I'm so helpful. It's quite simple and unlike Orlesians, I won't beat around the bush.” He leaned forward in his seat. “You have a unique position that was brought about by the wishes of the Carta, one that I mean to take a step further. To be honest, I didn't think Abernache would actually go as far as he did, but here we are. I'd be remiss not to take advantage.” He grinned again.

I shot him an unamused look. “I thought you said you wouldn't beat around the bush.”

His smile died down. “You seem to have an ability to awaken sympathy – or, at the very least, interest – in the people around you, even among otherwise uncaring, Orlesian nobles. I'd like you to take advantage of that as far as you can.”

“You want me to ingratiate myself with Orlais' nobility,” I concluded, to which I earned a nod and another smile. “Why? What's in it for you?”

“Avvari influence on Orlesian politics, of course,” he admitted openly and brazenly. There really couldn't be any non-Avvar listening in on us if he felt that comfortable admitting to such a goal in an Orlesian village. “We get you married to some high-ranking nobleman and you give him a son or two, we'll be in business.”

Prostitution. The guy was basically suggesting I whore myself out to some pampered, perfumed Orlesian Lord.

“How highly ranked do you mean to go, exactly?” I pressed. The queasiness in my stomach doubled in intensity. My hands were beginning to tremble with barely contained rage.

“That depends on how good you turn out to be at the Game,” he replied and shrugged. “It's true you could do with some polishing, but you're not off to a bad start. Judging from what I've seen of the Game so far, and I've seen more than your dwarven friend here and her wannabe-Orlesian sister.” A greedy smile grew on his face. “In fact, if you could land yourself someone like this man who seeks to make himself Emperor, ensuring, of course, that he becomes Emperor, I'd say we Avvar will prosper greatly.” His mirth disappeared. “Especially if you manage to erode away more of the damnable Chantry's influence.” He spat in disgust.

So that was why he was so bold. The Breach, the Divine's death, the mage-templar war, the Orlesian civil war... he was thinking of using the chaos as a ladder. It was no secret that the Avvar loathed the Chantry, especially the templars, and saw it as a threat to their culture and way of life. In fact, I saw many parallels to Charlemagne and his murderous campaigns against the Germanic tribes and his plans to do the same to pagan Scandinavians. The very thing that had sparked the viking raids to begin with, in fact. At least according to some historians.

I held no love for the Catholic church, or for the one-sided, biased story of the “poor, victimised Franks” of those “evil barbarians from the north”, and I was as fond of the Chantry as I was a bad rash. In fact, I'd sought to learn the ancient art of seidr, a magical tradition that combined Sámi shamanism, ancient Hellenic oracle mysteries and the runes, before Earth was destroyed. Chances were high that the only equivalent I'd get to that on Thedas would be among the Avvar.

Unless my own gods were willing to share.

That brought me to the problem of Kinsman's “proposal” – which would undoubtedly come with some blackmail attached to it – he wanted to dictate who I slept with and married and use me as a puppet in the Game. Ordinarily I could accept the existence of people with “good intentions and questionable methods”, but I drew the line where whoring someone out by blackmail was concerned. In fact, I was surprised so many of his fellow Avvar were even here. Then there was this mentioning of the guy behind the civil war. He wasn't just looking for the lowest among the nobility, he wanted to try for the very top, basically dictating who would sit on the throne.

He was insane if he thought he had a chance at that, even with his blackmail material against me. Especially if he tried to implicate the Carta.

“Bad news,” Carla cut in before I could say anything. “Grand Duke Gaspard de Chalons re-married only a few months ago.”

He dismissed it with a wave of his hand. “Some other nobleman, then, with enough influence over him.”

“I assume you will tell the Lord of Salmont that I'm not an Avvar princess if I refuse?” I asked, earning a simple nod in response. “What if I was to beat you to it and turn down Her Ladyship's offer?”

A smirk grew on his lips. “What makes you think you'll make it in time?”

“The remaining Dalish elves outside, of course,” I lied. When dealing with guys like these, I felt no qualms about bluffing. If he wanted to play the Game with me, then so be it. Fortunately Tamlen maintained his glare against Kinsman and showed no signs of having no idea what I was talking about. “You all know I'm not Avvar, isn't that right, Tamlen?”

“It's true,” he confirmed, and as befitted his usually silent, grumpy manner, he didn't elaborate. Hecate bless him.

“You still lied to Abernache,” he shot back. “You'll be lucky if you escape with a flogging.”

“Technically, you lied to him,” I parried. “When the truth comes from me rather than you, with a full explanation for why I went along with it, it will count as an extenuating circumstance.”

He shot Carla a meaningful look. “It was a lie ordered by the Carta.”

The dwarf turned to face him. “You threaten us?” She sounded most unamused. “You'd best tread carefully now. I have eyes and ears all over Salmont, as you're well aware of.”

A mirthless chuckle sounded from the tall man. “Except this inn. This is Avvar territory, and you won't uproot us so easily.”

“I have humans like you for breakfast,” Carla shot back with an equal lack of mirth.

He leaned in with an ugly glare. “You don't scare me, dwarf.”

“You've bitten over more than you can chew, heathen!”

“Enough!” I yelled just as every “Orlesian” in the room rose from their seats, weapons in hand. Carla and Kinsman both turned to face me. All around us the Avvar looked to their leader expectantly. “You still haven't given me a good reason to go along with your plan. You have no leverage, and thus no persuasion.” I rose from my seat, followed closely by Tamlen and Carla. “As such, we have nothing more to discuss.”

“I can tell them you're a mage,” he tried, but I merely rolled my eyes at him and turned to leave. “You don't believe me? The augur read the portents of your coming. You have the whole Fade twisted up in a bunch, our gods included. They spoke of how you turn demons back into spirits.”

“No-one in Orlais will listen to an Avvar influenced by demons,” I shot back, still with my back turned, “and you have no proof to support your claims.”

“I don't need any,” he finalised and rose from his seat. “The local Chantry is understaffed and can't keep everyone calm. As for the templars that used to serve there, they went on a hunt for rebel mages. Ills befall the people here as much as they do anywhere and they'll be happy to blame someone. Especially some unknown outsider who travels with elves.”

I paused and turned to Carla for confirmation. A look of discomfort came to her face. “Shit, he's right. Sorry, Alva, I didn't think about that.”

“They won't act unless something unusually bad happens,” I fired back. I'd read my fair share about the Renaissance witch trials. It was basically mandatory study for any self-respecting witch. There were no women in power who felt any jealousy towards me, nor did I own a farm that some petty neighbour hoped to get their hands on. He'd have to do better than that.

“That can be arranged,” he threatened. There was a pause, however, and his face changed to that of a charming smile. “It need not be that way, however. If you wish, our augur can train you as one of her own.”

It was tempting to dismiss him by pointing to Halin's tutelage, but that would only confirm that I was a witch. That was a victory I wouldn't grant him. “I've no idea what you're talking about.”

His smile disappeared. “You can't fool me, witch.”

“I've no idea what you're talking about,” I repeated stubbornly. No confession, no proof.

He paused and then a pensive look came to his face. “I suppose you don't need to confirm it either way, so long as you agree to work for me. What say you? Do we have a deal?” He extended a large hand my way.

“If you oust me as a witch or tell Monsieur about our lie, what opportunities do you have left to influence Orlesian politics, I wonder?” I looked at each Avvari woman in the room. “Anyone else here that can fill my shoes?”

Judging from how he balked and his smile died down, it was obvious he hadn't thought of that. He was like Loki, then. Loki always overestimated himself.

“You have nothing with which to stop me, either,” he barked, but his words had no bite.

I shook my head. “You need me, but I don't really need you. If anything, go through with this idea of yours and you will become a liability, not just to me.”

“How will you convince the Orlesians after what I told them?” he snarled.

This time it was my turn to smirk. “I have my ways. Now, then, here are my terms. I will not whore myself out for you, on this day or any other. My destiny lies elsewhere, and I will not cross the will of my gods for the sake of your petty ambitions.”

To my surprise, a look of sympathy came to his face, mixed with curiosity. “What kind of destiny?”

“The kind where the Chantry won't even matter,” I replied flatly. Carla and Tamlen looked at me with wide, curious eyes.

“My runes confirm what she says, Ragnar,” a woman with a set of rune-carved stones said. She held one in her hand that she kept stroking with her thumb. “We would be ill-advised to attempt to control her, but far better off if we choose to serve her. Just as my visions foretold.”

Wait a minute, serve me? What was she going on about?

“Your visions also foretold that she would have a major impact on the fate of Orlais,” he argued. “An impact that we would greatly benefit from.”

“Both are true,” came the enigmatic reply.

“Wait a minute,” I objected, equally confused and disturbed, “I didn't come here to be served by anyone, let alone have anything to do with Orlesian politics. I just want you conniving cunts to leave me alone!”

One of the men, both thinner and shorter than Kinsman, shrugged. “She certainly talks like an Avvar.” Mutters of agreement came from the rest.

“We can't, not with the future that Astriðr saw for the Chantry and our people,” Kinsman argued, and finally some of his fears began to shine through. “You're right that we need you, and it's true that you hold no allegiance to us. In fact, you don't even know us, and one of the first things we did was put you in a difficult position and then try to blackmail you.” Then he did something utterly unthinkable and went down on one knee. “Let us make it up to you by serving you, instead. Then you're free to do as you wish where the Orlesians are concerned.” Behind him, the remaining Avvar went down on their knees as well.

“I don't want servants,” I argued, growing tired with this strange insistence on their part and fighting off a growing headache at the same time. “And I won't live a lie, even if it means I get flogged.”

“If the lie bothers you, then we will make it true,” Kinsman shot back and looked up. “Already you show yourself skilled in the Game. While we have yet to see more of your qualities and therefore need more time to get to know you, I offer to name you a princess of the Avvar and adopt you into our people.”

My head spun. What in the ever-loving, godsdamned-

“She already has a family.” Tamlen cut my thoughts short with a snarl. “My clan has adopted her.”

Kinsman met his gaze, even from his lowered position. “But she doesn't have her own people. We need not be enemies, elf, especially if your clan should find itself travelling the treacherous Frostbacks and need help.” Then he looked at me. “The Orlesians will want to use you for their own ends. Without a clan to back you, they will hold every advantage, but with us by your side you have a bargaining chip. They will have no other choice but to treat you like a delegate, however much it will bother them.”

“And if I turn Her Ladyship's offer down?” I pressed and crossed my arms.

“Knowing Orlesians as I do,” he began, “I doubt they'll take 'no' for an answer. Not after they've taken an interest in you. Chances are, in fact, that you will grow more and more interesting as time passes.” He paused and indicated himself and the other Avvar. “At that point you'll probably wish you had your own warriors to call upon.”

“My clan isn't lacking in warriors, Avvar,” Tamlen argued.

“You're rather reduced in number of hunters, from the look of things,” Kinsman countered. “And your warriors dress lightly, which makes you poorly equipped to fight chevaliers. Our warriors wield blunt weapons, the most effective kind against Orlesian plate that you'll ever find.”

“Who says we'll fight chevaliers?” Tamlen parried.

Kinsman shrugged. “Considering how they behave towards women who aren't nobles, especially elven women, I imagine you'll have to at some point.”

Tamlen didn't argue that point.

I bit back a sigh. It seemed Hecate was determined to push me in the direction of “promised queen”, though I still had no idea where my prince was. Then again, it probably couldn't hurt to learn whatever the Orlesians had to teach me, even if they were things like etiquette and weird dancing. Not to mention it was true that a group of warriors would force them to take me seriously. There were a lot of practical concerns that weighed me down, however.

“First off, get off the floor,” I urged them and they obeyed with a frightening lack of hesitation. “If we're going to negotiate a truce, then let's at least sit down around the same table. I'd like to know all of your thoughts about this, and we need to discuss practical concerns as well.”

They all looked genuinely surprised, some even pleased. Kinsman spoke before anyone could take a seat anywhere, however. “We would, but then we'd keep Her Ladyship waiting longer than we should. Speaking of which, we need you to make a decision about her offer, and you need to tell us first.”

Right. Another “make it or break it” situation. I still wasn't over how, in such a short time, I not only had a new family and a potential income, but apparently a small group of warriors at my disposal as well. If I accepted their offer, that was. Not to mention a title and all the work that came with it. I hoped the Avvar were the kinds to share the workload. One of the reasons I'd quit my job as head librarian was because it had been too much work piled on one person.

Dear gods, I was actually considering it.

“You may not have an interest in Orlesian politics, Alva,” the augur informed me, “but Orlesian politics will take an interest in you.”

Not that I was about to take her word for it, but the gathering of nobles outside made her words sound quite convincing. I turned to Tamlen and Carla. “Thoughts?”

Carla stared at me as if I'd grown a second head. “I'm even more curious about you now, Princess.”

“I think you need to have a talk with the Keeper about this destiny of yours,” Tamlen supplied unhelpfully. “In fact, I'd like to know more about it as well.”

Lovely.

“As for this idea, it's better than a street fight starting between Avvar and the Carta,” Carla added. “It doesn't even have to be a lie. We just don't need to tell the Orlesians everything.”

“There's only so much the clan can protect you from, I suppose,” Tamlen muttered, and he looked none too pleased as he spoke. “I don't recommend getting yourself involved with the Game, but it's true that it's unavoidable at times.”

All eyes were on me yet again. Obviously the Avvar had their own reasons for making this offer, but the way they approached it left a great deal of faith in me, as opposed to an attempt to control me, not to mention use me as a whore. I had so much to learn about ruling, though, and it would probably show. Not to mention all the things I needed to learn about the Avvar, so as to accurately represent them.

Had I known this complicated train of events would come from a simple game of Wicked Grace, I would have stayed behind with the clan.

I made my decision, however, and announced it to them. Then I returned to the Goose who had settled for impatiently moving back and forth while the Cat discussed hair products with Manrea. Even Lord Potato-Mash remained, though he busied himself with examining Jeanette's collection of colognes. Carla and Tamlen were on either side of me and behind me trailed Kinsman. My stomach was all a-flutter and I couldn't decide whether that was a good thing or a bad thing. Elven, dwarven and Orlesian eyes all went to me as I approached the Comtesse (Carla had reminded me of her actual title).

“Your Majesty,” she said upon noticing my return. “I trust you've reached a decision?”

“I have, Your Ladyship,” I replied. She turned to face me directly, her hands folded and her elbows out to the sides in well-trained curiosity. “I accept your generous offer, with the condition that my kinsman explained earlier.” There was a short silence, as if I'd successfully stolen her next words out of her mouth. “I hope that's not a problem for you, Your Ladyship?”

While her body language revealed nothing, her aura took on an energy of mild discomfort and slight annoyance. Just as Kinsman had predicted. “Not at all, though I understood it such that your entire clan had been wiped out...?”

I smiled at that. “I've gained two more, Your Ladyship.”

Her head did a funny tilt and the next energy that seeped into her aura was surprise, though not the kind that banished the other two emotions. “Why, you must be held in high regard, Your Majesty.”

More like the Avvar were really desperate and Tamlen refused to let me pay Her Ladyship a visit without Dalish protection. Judging from how he'd glared at Kinsman before we left the inn, it wasn't just because of the Orlesians. “Do we have a date then, Your Ladyship?”

There was only the shortest silence. “We do, Your Majesty. I most eagerly await your visit. You need not walk the entire way to my home, however, as it's quite a distance from Salmont. Rather, a coach shall come and pick you up.” She paused before adding. “It's quite large. A good eight people will fit inside easily. Ten if you should bring elves.” Another pause followed. “Well, eight, considering the general size of Avvar people. I shall send you a formal invitation with immediate effect. Pray tell, who among you handles the post?”

I turned to look at Tamlen. “Fenla, usually,” he replied to my unvoiced question.

“One of the huntresses, Your Ladyship,” I explained to the Comtesse. “She has yellow hair and tanned skin.”

“Very well, Fenla it is,” she concluded. “Now I must bid you adieu, Your Majesty. I have much to do in a short amount of time.” She offered me a curt bow.

“Until we meet again, Your Ladyship.” I gave her a polite dip of my head. She and the other noblewomen grouped together like twittering birds, all except the Cat. Once she had an impressive collection of Dalish hair products in a cloth bag, however, she left as well. The noblemen followed suit, apart from Lord Potato-Mash who instead chose to hover near the Dalish stall.

Once the other aristocrats were out of earshot, he stepped up to me. “Comtesse d'Angles is good at what she does, but if you want my recommendation, Marquise de Lasouche is the true gem of teaching etiquette, protocol and everything else a woman of high standing needs to know.” Then he shot me a piercing look, one that felt as if it reached into my very soul. “She may need some... convincing that you're worth the trouble, however.”

“She sounds like a woman worth meeting,” I remarked noncommittally.

“You may yet, if fate is kind,” was his equally uninvolved response. He began to turn away, but then paused. “Welcome to Orlais, Your Majesty. I hope your stay here will prove... beneficial.” Then he offered me a deep bow, to which I gave him one similar to what the Countess had shown me. The corners of his lips turned slightly upwards and his aura suggested he was pleased. Then he departed as well.

 


 

“This is an extremely bad idea,” Keeper Gillian interjected hotly once I was back inside her aravel. This time we were accompanied by Kinsman, Carla, Bangladesh, Anise, Aenor, Tamlen, Jeanette, Halin, the augur and a couple of female Avvar warriors. Outside stood the remaining Avvar and some Carta dwarves, chatting with the elves and, hopefully, making some friends. “It's only your third day in Salmont and you've got yourself entangled with Orlesian nobility who think you're an Avvar princess.”

Her objection surprised me. If anything, she had been the one to advise me not to take any risks and to play things safe. Well, as safe as anything could be where Orlesians were concerned.

“She will be a princess, once we've persuaded our thane to accept her,” Kinsman supplied helpfully. “It won't be a lie, simply a slight delay in technicalities.”

If your thane shares your vision of influencing Orlesian politics,” I countered. “It's one thing for a merchant and those who travel with you to want to avoid being subjected to an Orlesian Exalted March, because you see how things work down here. Has your thane ever been to the Court so he can understand what he's up against?”

One of the Avvari women replied. “No, he hasn't. Nor has Ragnar seen everything, even though he's spent the most time down here.”

Kinsman shook his head. “The thane has no children or siblings. If he wishes for an heir he must adopt one regardless.”

“You have plenty of people that can take his place,” Gillian said dismissively. “Alva is a part of our clan, our family, and I won't permit you to put her in danger.”

“We have none that have successfully left such an impact on that many nobles before,” Kinsman argued. “Alva is in a unique position to help us, and she has already agreed.”

“It's true, Keeper,” I confirmed. “The nobles came to me, I didn't actively seek them out. I've already drawn their attention.”

She didn't look convinced. “Orlesian nobles are fickle. Their interest will move on once they have someone new to stare down their masked noses at.”

“How long must I wait for that to happen, then?” I countered. “Before or after I go back on my agreement with Her Ladyship because you don't want me to go, which will present me as an infantile child with no ability or interest in deciding my own fate?”

“It's hardly a binding deal,” Gillian continued, rolling her eyes.

I was far from finished. While I found no motivation to go for the sake of any personal ambitions, I had made an agreement. My father's side of the family ran strong in that respect – deals were meant to be upheld. “No, but I made it nevertheless, presenting myself as a princess who will be accompanied by armed guards in the process. I will gain only disrespect if I suddenly change my mind for no good reason.”

“So your wish is now to simply abandon the ones who took you in?” she asked bitterly. “A better deal came along, with your fellow shems, so here you are, tossing us out with the bathwater?”

“My wish, if you must know, is to fulfil my destiny,” I replied as calmly as I could despite the storm of anger that started to build inside. “As dictated by my own choices back home and urged on by my gods. It didn't stop applying to my life just because I came here.”

Carla, Jeanette, Kinsman and the augur all looked at me curiously.

“Need I remind you that you would have been dead without us?” Gillian growled.

“Need I remind you of the exact words that Flemeth relayed to you before she left?” I growled right back. Her emotional clinginess bothered me and reminded me all too well of my own “infatuation” with Aenor. It was based on all the wrong things. If I was to hazard a guess, it probably came from the idea of me being Pedo Mage's replacement, the same guy who had been Gillian's son. Her own grief most likely caused her to turn that practial need into impractical neediness and project it onto me. “That you would turn a desperate situation where we were in need of each other's aid to survive – in which case I should remind you that you wouldn't even be alive if it wasn't for me – to try to dictate my life shames your entire clan.” Two people could play emotional blackmail. It was nothing special.

No wonder Flemeth had felt so majestic by comparison.

“So you will go through with this regardless?” she asked, her face still unhappy.

“I'm not asking permission,” I replied. “I'm informing you of what's to come, as a courtesy, so you don't wonder where I've gone off to.”

She rolled her eyes. “Because knowing you're going straight to a Comtesse's home makes it so much better!”

I quirked an eyebrow at that. “You'd rather I lie to you?”

“I'd rather you not go at all,” she continued stubbornly to the point of unreasonable.

“That will offend Her Ladyship,” I argued back. She rolled her eyes again, but I wasn't finished. “You think she won't wield that offense like a weapon? Yet another nail in the coffin for the Dalish?”

That stole much of her gusto.

“Either I go, representing both clans,” I went on, “or I go representing only one, leaving the Orlesians to draw their negative conclusions about you. Unless you wish to kick me out of the clan altogether?”

Halin, Anise, Afro Elf, Tamlen and Aenor all called out in unison. “No!” Their voices were a chorus of pure conviction, a combined strength that struck a chord inside me. That was something, at least.

Depending on what Gillian eventually decided, of course.

Said woman wore a conflicted look on her face. The silence that followed was thick enough to cut with a knife. Gillian looked tired and ten years older, her gaze going from one elf to the next, skipping past the dwarves and humans. Finally she let out a long, deep-seated sigh and looked at me. “No, Alva, I won't kick you out, but I won't ask any of the hunters to go with you. It must be their decision to make.”

“I've already decided to go,” Tamlen cut in without hesitation.

There was a moment's pause. “I'll go, too.” Aenor took a step forward.

A muffled sound came from outside and the door flew open. The Avvar who stood guard at the door spun around, axes in hand. “Hold!” Kinsman's voice caused them to freeze in those positions. Between them stood Improvisation Guy, a look of determination on his face.

“I'm coming too,” he said, looking suspiciously much like Samwise Gamgee did in The Fellowship of the Ring, after he'd revealed his eavesdropping on the Council of Elrond.

“Carla and me are coming as well,” Jeanette supplied.

“We are?” Carla sounded genuinely surprised.

Someone needs to chaperone Alva around these Orlesians,” the non-dwarven dwarf woman argued, “and you make for added muscle.”

“More space for us,” Kinsman concluded. “Now, then, let's work out the details.” He motioned for Jeanette to do something. The dwarf woman brought out writing tools. “I'll re-write these into our runes later, but for now, let's stick to the trade tongue.”

The Keeper sighed and left the aravel altogether, Halin hot on her trail.

“May I see your actual face now, underneath that hood?” I asked him directly, ignoring Gillian's temper tantrum. Kinsman sent me an amused smile and obliged, pulling back said piece of clothing to reveal Ragnar Loðbrokk. Or, at least, he looked a lot like the actor who played him. Exact same face, even hairstyle, but wider. That was, until he removed pieces of hairy fat around his jawline and neck and proved himself much smaller in build than the initial appearance of him would suggest.

“It was about time to change this anyway,” he said and slapped the fat into a wooden bucket held up by one of the Avvar women. His eyes didn't stray from me or long, but he looked immensely pleased with himself the entire way.

“Why the disguise?” I asked, too proud to admit that he got me.

“It's what the Orlesians accept,” he said with a shrug of his over-sized shoulders, even his voice changing to one not as thick or deep, “and it's the only thing their chevaliers fear. The big Avvar brute with a large, blunt weapon to do serious damage to their plate armour.” He had a point. “So, then, I've shown you my secret. Care to tell us about yours?”

“I'm still caught up in the fact that you met Flemeth,” Carla remarked, to much eager nodding from Jeanette.

“Asha'bellanar is what we call her,” Afro Elf supplied helpfully. “She helps the Dalish from time to time, but for the most part keeps to herself.”

“Then what did you do to draw the powerful witch's attention, Alva?” Ragnar shot me a curious look.

I shrugged. “I turned demons into spirits. After that, I summoned rain to put out the forest fires they'd started. Then I de-possessed the Keeper, turned more demons into spirits, jumped back into the Fade to save the Keeper and then my spirit ally...” I paused as I felt a lump form in my throat, “sealed the Fade rift.”

Ragnar's eyes went to his augur, who offered a simple nod in response, and then he looked back at me. “Jumped back into the Land of the Dreams?”

“Oh yeah.” I quipped. “I've been in there a couple of times now.”

“You petition spirits?” the augur added.

“Of course,” I replied. “That's one of my ancestors' most sacred traditions.”

Something in the auras of every Avvar around me changed into something bordering on kinship. “So you are a witch,” Ragnar concluded.

“My secret shared,” I supplied helpfully. The part about me being an earthling would remain with me and the elves, for now. Hopefully the Keeper's ambitions wouldn't drive her to do something stupid. It was outrageous enough, appointing a human to her Second without truly knowing me or testing me first. Holding me back for the sake of her own designs, however, I wouldn't tolerate. I had a life to live and a destiny that I believed in, however crazy it had sounded back home.

Thus the ambitions of Avvar, Carta dwarves and Orlesians were meaningless to me as well. Unless they coincided with my own, of course.

In fact, it seemed everyone was out to use me in some way. What remained to be seen was who would stick around when they no longer needed me. They were the ones I'd count as friends.

“Let's start by writing down your full name,” Jeanette began. “Except for your family name, you will have to change that to fit in with the Avvar, obviously.” She looked at me expectantly.

“Alva Charlotte,” I replied.

“Which one would you like to keep?” she continued.

“Both.”

Ragnar and Jeanette looked at me sharply. “Charlotte sounds very Orlesian,” he remarked, and not in a happy way.

“It was my great-grandmother's name,” I explained, “on my father's side of the family. She was said to be a witch, like me. I wish to show my respect to her legacy by keeping my middle name. Let the Orlesians think that part of my heritage is from them if they want. It doesn't matter to me.”

Jeanette and Ragnar exchanged one look before she picked up her pen and dipped it in the inkwell. “Alva Charlotte Sylviadottir.” The pen flew furiously across the paper. “Title would be Princess of...” she paused in her writing and looked up at Ragnar.

“Wyrmhold Clan,” he finished for her. “We will still need to speak to the thane and make the adoption formal, but this should do for now.”

“What deeds of yours shall I write down, to get the conversation started?” Jeanette looked at me. “Shall I have it known from the start that you're a mage?”

I looked to Ragnar, who only shrugged. There was a glint of amusement in his eyes, however, and a smirk climbed slowly up his face.

“Let them know,” I decided. At least some truths could be shared now, and I didn't want that to come and bite me in the ass later. “As for deeds, they're all magical ones that will probably make them more nervous than chatty.”

“Member of Dalish clan Elandrin wouldn't hurt to add,” Bangladesh supplied. Jeanette looked to me and I gave her a nod. She quickly added another line. I noticed she used Latin letters – or Orlesian script – despite writing it in English, or the trade tongue. “That alone should raise some questions.”

Ragnar shrugged. “We can make up some deeds if you like.”

“No,” was my unamused response. I'd had enough of lies for one day.

“You did put up a decent fight against those Tevinter blood mages,” Improvisation Guy supplied, drawing our attention his way. He looked pensive for a minute. “Defeater of... no, too many syllables.”

He then went through a short list of synonyms. Crusher, bane, subduer and terror before finally settling for scourge.

I felt my insides twist. “Mind leaving out the Tevinter bit? I don't want to encourage retaliations. Or testing.”

“Too late, you're Avvar now,” Ragnar shot back unhelpfully with a grin. I glared at him, which seemed to amuse him endlessly. “Hey, I'm impressed! Tevinter blood mages are no joke.”

“I had a lot of help,” I argued, “and I'm still a far cry from a battle mage.”

Ragnar turned to Jeanette. “Don't add that part.”

“Scourge of blood mages,” Jeanette added, much to my relief. It might still bring trouble my way, but this lessened the chance of it being backed by Tevinter rulers. Or worse, slavers. Not that there was much of a difference.

It did make me sound quite intimidating, however. I wasn't sure how to feel about that.

“Don't worry, Alva,” Carla said reassuringly. “The fact that you've fought against blood mages will help the image of you somewhat.”

“Yeah, an Avvar mage princess who's friends with Dalish elves,” Ragnar listed, “hasn't subjected herself to the Chantry's enslavement, shows up with armed guards... fighting blood mages will help. A little.”

“Our clan is on good standing with the Marquise,” Afro Elf reminded him. “Mentioning her tie to us will help where the local nobles are concerned.”

“They also know me,” Jeanette added. “It will help smooth things over.” Then she paused. “Of course, the most effective weapon you have is your attractiveness. We need to bring out all your best features in a suitably Orlesian fashion without sacrificing your Avvari culture, and we have only a few days to do so.”

“What would that be, exactly?” I asked, feeling scepticism wash over me. “Ruffles with fur?”

Ragnar burst out laughing.

“We womenfolk will figure something out,” Afro Elf said reassuringly once the worst of his laughter died down. Then she shot Ragnar a pointed look. “In the meantime, you Avvar can look into getting a hold of some real armour. That naked fighting won't help you against fully armoured chevaliers.”

“Neither do your patches of leather,” one of the female warriors argued back, Ragnar's laughter having died down.

“We're in the lowlands now,” he said and gave the woman a knowing look. “We'll put on our chain and helmets. If not, all that training we did while wearing them went to waste.” He then turned to Bangladesh. “So should you elves, if you have any.”

“We do,” Tamlen replied with his signature frown.

“And you need to shave your beard, Carla,” Jeanette continued.

“Nonsense,” Ragnar interjected. “That beard is glorious. I wish I could grow mine as long.”

Carla studied him for a whole second. “You're alright for a human, Ragnar.”

He merely grinned and gave her an almost affectionate pat on the head. Then he got up on his feet and turned to me. His smile died down and he resumed his business-like face. “We'll be back later today to teach you about our ways, though your own seem to overlap a bit already.” Then he grabbed a pack from his bag and un-wrapped it to reveal more of the fat that he'd used on his face. Next he re-applied these greasy bits, some fake hairs and then pulled his hood back up. The cunning glint in his eyes remained as he said his farewells in a much deeper and thicker voice, his fellow Avvar following him out the door.

Jeanette and Afro Elf immediately set to work talking about The Dress and Carla asked if anyone was up for a round of Wicked Grace. Improvisation Guy sat down opposite her, as did Anise and Aenor. Jeanette and Bangladesh got up and demanded I come with them back to Salmont, to find me a dress to use as a base. Jeanette assured me she had something of my size that was well-suited for mingling with Orlesian nobles.

That wasn't what I needed reassurance for. This influx of allies was new, abrupt and balanced itself on a dagger's edge. Add the nobles who, for reasons of their own, wished to “tutor” me in their ways and the destiny that I was attempting to forge from what little I had, and it was already a bubbling witch's cauldron. Then there was the fact that I had no-one I could truly confide in, no-one close enough to lean on for support.

These were going to be some very stressful days.

Chapter Text

Princess Alva Charlotte Sylviadottir of clans Wyrmhold and Elandrin:

You are cordially invited to Comtesse Nicole d'Angles' soirée in three days from now, on Kingsway 26th, at five of the bells. Dinner will be provided, as well as the agreed-upon coach ride. Make sure to present this invitation to the butler upon your arrival.

Comtesse Nicole d'Angles.

The letter arrived as Bangladesh, Jeanette and I brainstormed over an Orlesian dress that was fancy but out of fashion. At most it had taken Her Ladyship half an hour, and only because I'd stopped by the clan earlier. The augur, Astriðr, a name I actually managed to learn, was with us, though mostly to quietly observe and occasionally consult her runes. She was a beautiful woman with pale skin, blue eyes and blonde hair braided into two long rope braids. I couldn't even begin to guess as to how her hair was that long, and it didn't look like she used extensions. Two smaller braids ran on the insides of each rope braid. Her eyes were sharply upturned and almond-shaped, her lips full and her nose thin and straight. Judging from her skin, especially around her eyes, she was probably somewhere in her mid-twenties. Like a viking poster girl.

While she wore the same leather as everyone else, she'd discarded her coat upon entering Jeanette's inn room. Beneath it was a shirt not all that different from what I was wearing, along with the breeches and leggings. Our boots had been placed near the door. Fortunately native Thedosians didn't drag their dirty footwear everywhere they went, unlike Americans.

“I think it should be off the shoulders, to compliment the fact that her hips are wider,” Afro Elf remarked, drawing my attention back to the dress.

The piece of clothing in question was a full-body dress, not in two parts like the commoner one Jeanette had put on me during my first meeting with the tavern. It was peach-coloured with a bright peach lining along the bottom of the bodice, bell sleeves with a pinkish-brown lining and a neckline that looked like it would choke me. It even had ruffles. An intricate, almost dramatic, pattern in the same colour as that on the sleeves adorned the bodice, but only in the stomach area. The lining below it was softer, both in colour and shapes, matching well the bright peach underneath.

“This looks like a bastard child between Orlais and Ferelden,” Afro Elf had remarked. “Bell sleeves and ruffles? Did the previous owner insist on offending everyone at the same time?”

She and Jeanette had argued for a bit, until they remembered that I was still there. “Get rid of the ruffles, give the dress a square neckline and, if you can, add a lining to said neckline that matches the lining on the bodice.”

“That could work,” Bangladesh mused. “We still need to find a way to include some fur, though.”

“The skirt is too narrow,” Jeanette mused. “It won't go over the crinoline cage.”

“We can split the skirt into four, with one large piece in the back and a smaller one in the front,” Afro Elf suggested and ran her hand down the skirt to show what she had in mind. “If we trim the ends to give them sharp, downward-pointing arrow shapes, we can attach some more of that lining that's on the bodice.”

“That means an underdress,” Jeanette continued and went back to her wardrobe. “Alva, help me out here, will you? I should have just the thing we need.”

I went to help her, which effectively landed me the job of dress holder as she went in search of what she needed. Most of them were dwarf-sized, but quite a few were clearly made for humans. It made me wonder why she held on to them. Perhaps as inspiration for her own designs? Could it be Orlesian noblewomen would give her their cast-offs, which she then used as a base for her own clothes?

It made sense the more I thought about it.

“Here it is, at last,” she declared and pulled out a shiny, yellow petticoat with a beautiful pattern in golden thread, followed by the matching bodice. The sleeves on that one were form-fitting, by contrast, and lined with a small, golden colour. I noticed the pattern on the sleeves differed from the petticoat, but they still went together quite nicely. “We'll have to lay it out in some places, but I should have enough fabric for it to work.”

I never thought that in all my life I'd wear anything of that colour. Quite the contrary, I found it often clashed with my skin and made me look orange. With the peach on top, however, it would probably diminish that effect considerably, though I should probably still wear some gloves.

Jeanette looked mighty pleased with herself. “Some crocheted gloves in bright ivory, the right jewellery and some fine shoes and you're ready to mingle with Orlesian nobility.”

“There's still the matter of the fur,” Astriðr cut in.

Both dwarf and elf looked at a loss. “Perhaps a cloak?” I suggested. “Just a small one, down to the small of my back.” Some background information about the volva – the title used to describe an ancient norse shamaness and seer – came to mind. “Navy blue, perhaps?”

“We've got some fur you can line it with,” the augur offered.

Afro Elf nodded. “The navy blue will go well with the peach and gold. A bit of coolness to offset all the warmth.”

Astriðr grinned. “I know just the type to use.” She got up on her feet. “I'll talk to Ragnar and we'll have it ready for you in two days, provided you've got the fabric.”

As if on cue, Jeanette stepped forward with a navy blue dress. Its colour was deep and mysterious, almost as if I could drown in it. “This is Fereldan in origin, but I never found it inspiring. You get working on that fur, we'll make the cloak out of this.”

“Done.” The augur gathered up her runes and put them in a leather bag. “Bangaela, you should speak to your wife and that pale-haired elf mage about making some universal antidotes.” She shot me a pointed look. “Never go to an Orlesian party without.” Then she put her boots on, offered us a wave as goodbye and left.

Afro Elf looked more than a little puzzled. “I don't think I actually told her my name, let alone that I'm married... or who my spouse is.”

I shrugged. “That's a mage for you.”

Bangladesh shook her head. “Not a single Dalish mage I've met can do that.”

That made me pause. “That's an Avvari mage for you, then.”

“So it seems,” the elf remarked before getting back to the topic of The Dress. “Let's start with that yellow one, then. Laying it out shouldn't take too long. Alva, if you would put it on?”

I accepted the dress and went behind the screen to change.

 


 

After a few hours of being shanghained into stitching by hand, measuring and cutting up fabric, stitching more by hand and getting in and out of multiple outfits, I basically devoured the dinner served at the inn. Bangaela and I had to pay for our share, which effectively meant that I had to pay for our share. Thus my recently acquired income was reduced a little bit.

On the plus side, we were served a bowl each full of Beef Bourguignon. Some white bread accompanied it, but I let it be. I tried to avoid empty carbs whenever I could. The innkeeper even offered us some red wine. “On the house,” he insisted and gave me a knowing smile.

Was this because of that whole Avvar business? Then nothing bad had befallen the ones locked inside the pantry? I'd been so caught up in the events bubbling all around me that I'd completely forgotten. “Thank you,” I still managed to say.

The man shook his head. “No, no. Thank you.” Then he left the bottle on the table.

Had his family members been locked up in there? I hoped no children had been involved. The thought made my stomach churn, especially considering that these would-be kidnappers were now my allies.

So caught up in the Game, such disregard for the little people. I wondered if I would end up the same. The thought did nothing to help my appetite.

My stomach managed to growl with hunger despite how I also felt slightly nauseous. That made for an interesting combination. Bangaela – inner celebration took place for finally learning another name – had no trouble eating. Her excitement over the food eventually won me over.

We counted our victories as we rolled back into the inn room later like a pair of overstuffed turkeys – the golden dress was finished and while the peach one still required a lot of stitching, it had at least been cut according to plan. The lining was ready to be applied and it fit me. I was then put into a simpler getup, yet fancier than what I wore three nights ago, and off to the tavern I went with Carla. This time, she told me, she was playing against Tal-Vashoth mercenaries, all of whom were large enough to occupy two tables. I tried to remember what Tal-Vashoth were, but drew up blank.

When I saw three large, horned qunari men drag a second table towards ours, however, I understood. Even Ragnar, in his burly Avvar disguise, looked small by comparison. When one of them caught me staring, I ended up on the receiving end of a frown.

“First time meeting a qunari?” the middle one asked, and I noticed he had a friendly smile on his face.

Realising that my mouth had been hanging open, I closed it shut and did my best to answer. “Yeah.” I was so lucky to not have Lord Potato-Mash be there and hear my not-eloquent response.

A couple more qunari men arrived and they greeted each other with smiles and the usual remarks of “you're late”, “we went to get better ale”, the kind of things human men would say in a similar situation.

Their size and horns added an undeniable touch of bizarreness to it, however. It wasn't until they introduced themselves and lost in their first round to Carla that I felt I could relax a bit.

As the alcohol flowed and I got in conversation with them, they began to talk about themselves. I learned that Tal-Vashoth were qunari who didn't follow the qun, which was the philosophy that dictated their culture back on Seheron. In fact, these guys, from the sound of things, were mercenaries.

Their last job had been to attempt to uproot rogue templars and maleficar from some lands south-east of Salmont. Apparently these groups had caused a great deal of damage to farms and the farmers themselves. I noticed Ragnar paid close attention.

“You look capable,” I remarked. “What happened that you weren't able to rout them?”

They shot me surprised looks, as if they hadn't expected me to take an interest. Ragnar looked at me as well, though with a slight smirk.

“The templars have dug themselves into a cave and made it impenetrable,” the frowning one from before replied. “As for the mages, locating their hideout has proven even more difficult. We figure they're in the Frostbacks somewhere, but every time we think we've found the cave, there's no trace of them.”

“They move around in ways we haven't figured out,” the smiling one continued, “but it's easy enough to deduce that they use a network of some kind.”

“Second round, gentlemen,” Carla called and started handing out cards. The qunari picked them up one at a time, no longer paying me any heed. Meanwhile I had a lot to think about.

 


 

The next day it was back to archery training with Anise, followed up by breakfast, meditation and rune flash cards. Bangaela brought a good number of elven seamstresses with her to Salmont, but insisted I stay behind. The reason why came to me when Ragnar arrived.

We spent until lunch with him tutoring me in the Avvari gods. They were more numerous than in Bioware canon, including Unnr, goddess of love and marriage, and Friða the Fair, goddess of beauty. Haakon Wintersbreath was another, and of course the Lady of the Skies. Then came Korth the Mountain Father, Imhar the Clever and Sigfrost the Great Bear. Wyrmhold Clan also held in great reverence Heid, a powerful mage from their clan who had entered into the service of the Lady of the Skies after she died. She was a goddess of magic in charge of the spirits of wisdom who taught the clan's mages. Apparently, Wyrmhold Clan counted the highest number of magic-users among the Avvar. Ragnar assured me that the Lady of the Skies, Haakon Wintersbreath, Korth the Mountain Father and Heid were the most important to remember.

He looked pleased when I shared what I knew about the Avvar people as a whole, especially their magical tradition of possession and petitioning spirits. We compared notes with seidr and found them to be quite similar. He was curious about the runes of the Elder Futhark, but before I could delve into them, Anise interrupted us with a warm lunch. After that I was shooed off to Salmont to meet with Jeanette, no delays accepted.

I was off to the cobbler to try on some shoes. One pair was in royal blue and covered in lace. They were buttoned up on the side and tied in the front with lovely lace ribbon still in the same, dark colour. The heels were short and sturdy, probably designed for travel and outdoor use, though still made to look fancy. Very Orlesian.

The other pair was in a peach colour that matched the overdress, still covered in lace, and with a higher and more delicate heel. They were adorned with white pearls at the tip. One looked a bit worse for the wear than the other, but the rest were in top shape and even fit. The cobbler informed me that the dark pair was a cast-off from a noblewoman who had changed her mind last minute and the other one a pair thrown aside because of some slight damage. He'd repaired one and assured me he'd have the other one ready by tomorrow.

These shoes had to be costly, though, especially the ones with pearls. Jeanette told me the Carta would cover most of the cost, but it would have to come out of my pocket, too. I'd have to spend a lot of nights at the tavern from here on out, it seemed.

Still, they were nice shoes, and I appreciated the opportunity to wear them.

The rest of that day I was drilled in etiquette, fine dining, L'Allemande and La Courante. Dancing was always a favourite pastime of mine, but these were strange and awfully pretentious. “You can't play the Game without dancing these two dances, and I assure you, the Orlesians will very much want to see if you can.”

Fortunately I had both a knack for dancing and an excellent teacher. Not to mention the dances weren't as complicated as I had at first feared.

Dinner was had at the inn yet again, and I tried on the overdress to find that it fit. The linings were done and so was the cloak. A day earlier than promised, now that was impressive. It was a lovely dark blue that matched my new outdoor shoes, but the fur was what caught my eye the most. Instead of grey, which was the most common colour, or white, it was a stark silver. I asked the augur how that had been possible, but she replied that I had to prove myself worthy of the clan's trust before she told me.

Astriðr had also provided Bangaela with golden cloak clasps into which had been carved coiling serpents. A string of gold tied the two clasps together, but they couldn't come to an agreement on how to put it all together.

I had an idea. It probably wouldn't look canonically Avvar, but I didn't care. I grabbed the clasps and attached them to the cloak as it hung over the dummy's shoulders. Then I attached them to each corner of the square neckline on the dress below it. I stepped back and beheld an Orlesian viking dress. Well, apart from the bell sleeves, but I liked bell sleeves so they were staying.

A stunned silence followed. “Alva, you're a genius!” Jeanette exclaimed.

“You need jewellery,” Astriðr cut in and emptied a leather bag onto the bed. A dragon hair clasp, serpent hair beads, serpentine ear clasps, a necklace with a pair of serpents that looked out and away from each other and a knotted bracelet with twin dragon heads that could be adjusted – all in gold – lay out before me.

Wyrmhold Clan indeed.

“Before you ask, no, we didn't raid these or trade for them,” she said and gave me a sharp look. “Our jewellery maker makes these. They're yours to wear.”

It was as if I'd been given a small part of my cultural heritage. The motifs looked so perfectly norse it was almost as if I was home.

Yet I wasn't, and I never would be. I fell down on the bed, the weight of this painful reminder threatening to send me over the edge into a fit of tears.

“You don't like them?” the augur asked.

I quietly picked up one of the hair beads. How could I possibly dislike such beautiful craftsmanship? “I love them. They're like small pieces of home.”

A long silence followed, with looks of sympathy or understanding coming from everyone around me. Astriðr sat down next to me and gently placed her hand over mine. “Thedas can be your home if you let it.” Her voice was warm, but firm. “We've put a lot of weight on your shoulders, but you're not alone.”

For as long as I was useful to them, a part of me thought bitterly. Yet there was another part of me that admonished me for it, reminding me that I needed these people. Considering the circumstances, I could have ended up with far worse.

I had yet to meet their thane, though, let alone the rest of the clan.

Then again, I had to remind myself that trust was a two-way street. There were duties put on me, but faith as well, fragile though it was. I had a real opportunity to gain the friends I'd come to Salmont for. While the path towards my destiny remained obscure, that was simply because I still had many more steps to take. A home to find, for one.

I did so desperately need a home.

“Let's just see how dinner with the Comtesse works out first,” I concluded, not wanting to emotionally commit to anyone until I felt a sense of solid ground beneath me. Figuratively speaking, of course.

Astriðr nodded. “True. We have yet to see the full extent of your capabilities, after all.” Then she turned to the jewellery beside her. “That's no excuse not to try these on, though.” She gave me a wry smile.

I grinned. That was one offer I simply couldn't refuse.

 


 

Kingsway 25th came much too fast. My muscles ached from yesterday's training, even after applying the lotion whose name I couldn't remember. Manrea arrived with a hefty amount of universal antidotes – five per person, in fact. Apparently she had a few to spare. When I asked her why she was so generous, the response was “more people than your group might need them”.

Dalish elves going out of their way to help Orlesians. Now I'd seen everything.

Jeanette went over the dance steps with me until they were drilled into my psyche. Hopefully I wouldn't have to dance both, though personally I didn't expect the Orlesians to expect me to do any dancing only three days after receiving my invitation. In Jeanette's mind, however, she considered it an excellent way to impress them in an unexpected way.

While I had a soft spot for pleasantly surprising people, I still considered it a tall order.

The dark shoes arrived around lunchtime, but the peach pair suffered a slight delay. Jeanette drilled me in more etiquette, giving me a hefty workout for my brain that day as well. Despite her compliments about how well I did, I felt my intuition warn me shortly after I finished listing noble titles and forms of address for the third time.

Something was going to go horribly wrong tomorrow.

The letter came only five minutes later, with a knock on the inn door and an Orlesian courier dressed in a goose mask. Jeanette paid him for his trouble and sent him on his way. I opened the letter and read the content.

Princess Alva Charlotte Sylviadottir of clans Wyrmhold and Elandrin:

It is with my humblest apologies that I must request that you and your companions come to my estate tomorrow at one of the bells instead. Please accept my regrets at this swift and impromptu change in schedule and rest assured that you shall be compensated for any hunger and thirst suffered on your end. Please show both letters to the butler upon your arrival.

Comtesse Nicole d'Angles.

Something was up, and not of the good kind. I could feel it. Jeanette started fussing over all the changes this meant to her plans, but I could barely hear her.

I needed the augur's help for this. An intuition would only go so far.

As it turned out, however, Astriðr was gone. Ragnar, as he arrived at the inn room, told me she'd journeyed back to the clanhold, to tell them about me and prepare them for my arrival. Apparently they'd discussed the best time to leave, and had decided on the day after the Comtesse's party.

“You didn't think to discuss that with me as well?” I snapped, the fear brought about from my gut feeling and the last two days' worth of stress finally getting to me.

He frowned slightly. “You were terribly busy.”

“I'm never too busy to discuss plans that involve me,” I retorted, though more harshly than I intended to. His frown deepened and I instantly regretted my tone. Taking a deep breath to calm down, I continued. “I'm sorry, the stress and change in schedule is getting to me, and now I have a bad feeling about tomorrow.” I opened my eyes and earned a small smile for my efforts. “I'll make time for discussions, however, if need be. Just let me know in advance, alright?”

He nodded. “Understood. What's this bad feeling that you mentioned?”

“That was what I needed Astriðr for,” I explained. “This change in schedule showed up right after the bad feeling struck and now it's getting worse.”

This time his frown wasn't directed at me. “You have no divination tools of your own?”

I shook my head. “Nor do the Keeper or Halin. Is there any way we can petition spirits or Avvari gods for more information?”

“Not without an extensive ritual that includes possession,” he explained, “and you haven't been trained in that, and even if you had, it's not something you should ever attempt without other mages around.”

Yeah no, without a connection to the Fade, I couldn't be possessed anyway, and I told him as much.

His eyebrows rose to the middle of his brow. “We have much to discuss on our way up the mountainside.”

I didn't return his smile. “If we're even alive to do so.”

He sobered up quickly. “Perhaps we can't petition our gods, but you can try with yours?”

“Not unless there's a dark moon tonight,” I countered. The Deipnon, also known as Hekate's Feast, was an effective time to gain visions. It could be of the past, the present or the future, and the coded language was easy to understand.

Much to my surprise, Ragnar smiled. “It is.”

I blinked and let out an unintelligent “oh”.

His smile widened. “Tell me what you need.”

 


 

A ritual bath, a full plate of pomegranate seeds, garlic bread, brie cheese, fried white fish, honey cake and a glass of the wine I got from the innkeeper later and I left the crossroad outside of Salmont. My new staff kept me hidden until I was back with the elves, and I'd made sure to put the plate behind a collection of rocks, so as to not raise attention. The rule was that the plate should never be used by the living so I'd used a wooden one that had been given to me by Improvisation Guy. The glass I borrowed from the tavern, where Carla had made us a fortune playing against a group of Fereldan merchants.

I looked quite the part with my hair up and covered with a headband. Jeanette had rolled my hair up into little balls to make heatless curls for tomorrow. I brushed my teeth, feeling much calmer now than I had earlier today. Still, I sincerely hoped some clarity would come to me at some point in the night.

Hecate didn't disappoint. Almost as soon as my head hit the pillow, I was claimed by blissful sleep. It was dreamless, for a while, until I found myself facing down a large, golden lion. He roared at me, his teeth bared, yet he didn't attack. I made myself small and kept my hands up, no sudden movements. As with wild animals in real life, the lion stopped roaring. He toppled over rather than approach me, however, and as it did I saw an arrow protruding from his hind leg.

I rushed over, but the animal made no move to stop me. As I studied the missile, a dark ichor concentrated around the wound, spreading through the lion's veins. I grabbed the arrow and pulled it out, the black ichor tainting my hands as well. Yet, unlike the animal, I remained unaffected. I washed my hands in running water that suddenly materialised beside me, and then I set to work pulling the poison out of the lion's body.

It came out like strands, but they resisted and tried to pull back. A song began to sound from my lips and that made them obey, leaving the lion's body behind. My arms were covered in black all the way up to above my elbows, but it all dissolved once I came in contact with the water. Once I was certain the blackness was gone, I poured healing magic into the puncture wound, which had the lion back up with a healthy roar.

There was a moment's silence as the large cat regarded me. I met his gaze, feeling it was disrespectful not to. He took a few, tentative steps towards me until he was right in front of me. Then he lay down on his side, with his back facing me me, and began to purr. I reached down and ran my fingers through his mane, which only increased the sound. It made me feel safe and happy, two emotions I hadn't sensed for any lengthy period of time since coming to Thedas.

The sound of a heartbroken whine then caught my attention.

Approaching us was a lone, black dog, similar to a pug. He was small and in a pitiful state, an arrow protruding from his hind quarters as well. I got up, pausing only when the lion snorted from the lack of petting, and then approached the little dog. He let me pet him, and lay down dutifully so I could remove the arrow. Then I gave him the same treatment as I had the lion.

The dog lay down next to the lion once it was healed, both of whom plopping down to rest. I turned to move on but found myself staring at a colossal, scaled beast. As I stepped back, I saw its body stretch out endlessly before me. It didn't take a genius to know I was looking at a dragon.

A dead dragon, to be exact. On top of which stood the statue of some brute with a sword. He raised that sword and pointed it at me, however. Then he pulled his hand back and the sword became a spear. He threw it, but I dodged, albeit barely. Poison dripped from its tip. More spears came at me and I ran as fast as I could to avoid them. The poison turned into a river, one that snaked its way down towards the lion and the dog. I cried out, but they were fast asleep, so I turned back.

My limbs were slow, however, and they were so far away. The heavy sensation in my body was the same as when I'd guided the souls and spirits of Earth into Thedas, my staff in hand.

Of course, my staff! I called out and it manifested in my hand. It then lit up with the phosphorus, which allowed me to speed up considerably. By the time I landed near the pair of animals, however, the dog had awoken and was barking and growling menacingly at the approaching poison. Somehow he looked much larger than a pug now.

The ensuing noise woke the lion who, in turn, growled at the dog for waking him up. In response the dog tilted his head to the side and whined some more. It looked as if the lion was about to argue further, but then my phosphorus went out and he could see me again. He rose to his feet and saw the stream of poison that approached.

Out of nowhere a crow came flying and landed on my shoulder. It cawed at me and then flew away. The lion and dog immediately followed, and so did I. I remembered all three of these animals were sacred to Hecate.

Then again, so was the dragon.

The animals disappeared from my sight and I found myself staring at the dead dragon once more. All around it the spears stuck in the ground seemed to form some sort of brutal, toxic prison.

I decided to pull them all out.

With each spear removed, the poison river lost a source. A roaring fire appeared next to me and I threw each and every spear into it. They transformed into seeds that grew into a beautiful flower garden wherever they landed. Little by little the poison river ran thin and there was something fresh and crisp in the air around me. As if I was purifying the area. One spear remained, however.

This was one I couldn't pull out for some reason. I tried numerous times, but I just couldn't find the strength.

“Burn the witch,” I heard a man say and I spun around. The statue brute returned, but this time accompanied by a mass of people with burning torches and pitchforks. I turned on my heel and ran.

“Pull the dagger out of your heart,” a woman's voice said just as I ran past an actual woman. I turned to see Hecate in a charcoal dress, holding burning torches of her own. “You can't pull out the last spear until you heal your own pain.”

I looked down and saw the dagger from only a few nights ago. It didn't hurt so much this time, and pushing it out was easy enough. My heart bled for a bit, but I poured golden and silver healing energy into it and it patched itself back up. A smile came to Hecate's face and then she was gone. Gone was also my fear of the mob. I turned back around to face them.

Despite their numbers, I took a fearless step towards the spear. They moved towards me, but then the lion was beside me again, causing them to freeze in their tracks with a tremendous roar. It shook the very world we were in and caused my recently healed heart to tremble. Yet I didn't feel threatened by his presence, only encouraged. I took another step and the crowd moved forward. This time, however, the dog returned, much larger than before, growling menacingly and encouraging me to continue. Another step and this time the crow flew around harassing members of the crowd. The last step the statue turned into a man who approached me on swift steps. I pulled out the last spear before he could reach me, however, and that caused him to turn back into a statue and fly in a most undignified fashion into the crowd behind him.

A second's breath followed as a roaring fire appeared beside me. I tossed the spear into it and watched the beautiful garden become finalised. Then the dagger I'd pushed out reappeared in my hand.

“Burn the witch,” members of the crowd still yelled. The statue got back up and resumed its advance.

“I need a sheath for my dagger,” I said. One heartbeat, two. An otherworldly groan sounded behind me. The entire crowd paused. Beside me, the lion, dog and crow sat down to watch.

First came the rise of a wing so large it covered the sun. Next a swish of a serpentine tail that had the witch hunters scurrying for safety. Then, with a roar that shattered the statue, reverberated throughout my very being and caused my heart to bubble with excitement, the dragon behind me had not only come back to life, but rose up on its four legs. The crowd scattered like tiny ants, torches and pitchforks dropping as they fled before the mighty beast.

Then I was engulfed in its fiery breath.

My clothes melted away and all the hair on my body disintegrated into nothing. The rest of me remained unburnt, however, and my dagger maintained its shape. Out of my heart came a small leather sheath, wreathed in flame. It wrapped itself around the dagger, a dragon's head forming from the melted metal that settled itself nicely against the leather. Then it set in record time and I found myself falling asleep.

“Use all your gifts,” Hecate said to me as I departed. I watched the dog annoy the lion by pushing a ball at him. The crow watched eagerly as the canine invited the feline to play. Then I woke up.

 


 

Use all my gifts. I pondered the exact meaning of these words as I undid my curls that morning. Anise helped me ensure I was scrubbed clean, shaved and had used my oils. Manrea had provided me with something for my hair that she promised me would help my curls stick around all day.

Technically the vision hadn't given me any direct answers about today, yet I sensed some profound advice lay at the core of it all. A cryptic clue that was just beyond my grasp. What gifts did she mean? The staff? That was sure to make people nervous, unless it could change shape into something less conspicuous. Or did she mean my non-physical gifts?

Well, I had magic, for one, and wit. The things Jeanette had taught me would no doubt come in handy. I was also intelligent and highly logical, all the wacky things in my life notwithstanding. Creativity was another trait, and resourcefulness.

I paused as I remembered the game of Wicked Grace two nights ago, with the qunari. It hadn't occurred to me then, but they'd discussed rogue templars and maleficar. The were holed up in caves, but the latter moved around as if traversing an underground network of sorts.

It couldn't be the Deep Roads, so that meant... Fen'harel's Folly. The mages had taken up residence in that maze, probably found the resources left behind by the clan and used that to stock up.

My mind didn't grasp how this information was useful to me, but my intuition was on full board now. Where had the qunari been? South-east. I put Manrea's product into my curls and then cleaned my face with the creams that Jeanette had given me.

If we were heading south-east, then that gave me a pretty good idea of what Her Ladyship had meant with “return favours”.

I put on only simple clothes for breakfast, but approached my staff. Use all my gifts, she'd said. The staff would cause more unease, even if it helped me feel safe. It had transformed from ghostfire, however, so if there was a way to transform it into something subtle and seemingly harmless, then I could bring it with me.

It seemed worth a try.

I picked it up in my hand and spoke the command word that brought me into the world where I'd summoned souls and spirits. It was empty inside the aravel, except for a small gnome who looked up at me curiously. “Go on,” he said, “give it a new shape. You can do it.” Then he fished out the dagger from my dream and set to sharpening it on a grindstone. He noticed me watching. “You're not ready for this one yet. Work on your staff instead.”

Right. Ill fates befell those who asked too much of the fey. Still, that confirmed that there would be a magical dagger for me, at least. That was pretty cool.

Holding out my staff in front of me, I thought what to make of it. A hundred ideas leaped at me at once and I was nearly overwhelmed. First a flower, and then a knife, a kitten, a loaf of bread...

The gnome snorted. “You're a princess, aren't you? Make it a crown or a signet ring.”

Ring. That was the most subtle. I envisioned a golden loop that formed into a pair of dragons biting around a gem that held the phosphorus – an emerald, to match my eyes. The staff obeyed and changed and when I put it on my left ring finger, it fit snugly. A pale, ghostly green flame burned inside the crystal, at least until I snuffed it out and found myself back in the physical world of Thedas. Already my intuition had moved from bad to considerably better.

Right. Time for breakfast.

Jeanette arrived with clothes, shoes and perfume just as I was done with my meditation. I'd accidentally hit Halin on the nose with two small rocks that day, much to his annoyance. He looked quite relieved to let me go.

Once we were inside the aravel we set to work putting on my many layers of clothing. I saw the delay for the pretty shoes hadn't been too great, though Jeanette stored them in a small, wooden box for later use. Anise joined us soon enough and braided my hair once my dress was on. She spent quite a lot of time throwing “oohs” and “aahs” my way once I was fully dressed, though.

She was so adorable.

When it came time for us to go to Salmont for the make-up, however, and Anise was busy tidying up, Jeanette bid me wait. “What did the augur mean when she said that Thedas could be your home, Alva?”

Anise grew silent and I felt a lump form in my throat. “It means I'm not from Thedas.” It was a simple reply, and I knew it would raise another hundred questions, but I hated lying.

A predictably confused look came to Jeanette's face. “Where are you from, then?”

Oh boy. Here we go. “I'm from another world.”

She blinked and looked at me as if I'd spontaneously sprouted a foot from my nose.

“She has proof,” Anise cut in and rummaged around before she arrived by my side. In her hand was my iPhone. Jeanette gave it an odd look.

I picked it out of Anise's hand and turned it on. Fortunately some of the battery was still intact, but it was only the tiniest bit. I went straight to photos and showed her some pictures from my hometown. It stung to remember, but it seemed the only way. “Here.” I showed her. “That's where I'm from.”

She pulled back as if burned, her eyes and mouth wide open. “How...?”

“It was the technology available to us,” I did my best to explain. “It will run out of batteries soon, though, and I'll never be able to use it again.”

A long silence followed as I turned the phone back off. “And you all knew this?” Jeanette looked at Anise.

“It's been difficult for us to accept, too,” the elf explained, “but the more time we spend around Alva, the more her alien nature becomes apparent to us.”

“Wait, would this be something the Orlesians can see as well?” I pressed. That wasn't a thought I found appealing.

Anise shook her head. “I mean your magic and the way you talk about your gods. You don't plan on doing that around the Orlesians, surely?” I shook my head vigorously. She smiled. “Good.”

Jeanette shook her head in disbelief. “How is this possible? And why are you here? Wouldn't you rather be home?”

The lump in my throat grew bigger and I looked away. This was hard enough to talk about around the elves, I certainly didn't feel confident enough in my relationship with the dwarves to do a full-on confession. “She has no home anymore.” Anise said bluntly.

Ragnar, now dressed in chain and a metal helmet, without his large, burly disguise, chose that time to step inside. I immediately hid the phone behind my back. “We're ready when you are and the elves are getting ready as we speak.” He paused as he was afforded a full view of me. A smile grew on his lips, though it died down when he saw the look in my eyes. “What's wrong?” He frowned and looked from dwarf to elf for an explanation.

Jeanette rolled her eyes. “Apparently Alva is from 'another world'.” She held up the index and middle fingers on both her hands to make the quotation sign.

“Of course she is,” Ragnar said without a moment's hesitation. “Astriðr had visions about her and the fact that she came down from the Frostbacks without being Avvar or Fereldan confirmed the rest. I ran a check with all my contacts in the lowlands and no-one recognised her.” He paused as he looked to me. “We even nicknamed you 'Skyborn' because you came out of the sky, cradled by a spirit like a newborn babe.”

The dwarf blinked, as did I. I also made a mental note not to underestimate the resourcefulness of Avvari gods. When I looked at Jeanette, she looked completely bewildered. “This is insane,” she muttered. “How can anything like this be even remotely possible?”

Ragnar shrugged. “A giant hole in the sky seemed quite impossible until only a couple of weeks ago.”

“I need time to absorb this,” Jeanette remarked after a moment's silence. “For now, let's get your make-up done.” She shooed Ragnar back out before following. I slipped into my new, dark shoes, buttoned and tied them up and followed as well. I couldn't shake the fact that my nerves were in high gear, however. What if Jeanette decided that I was crazy and exposed me to the nobles? The stress factor was high enough without that concern added to it. Anise grabbed my wrist and pulled me back before I could exit the aravel.

“Don't forget this,” she urged me and held out the dagger that Improvisation Guy had given me. I noticed it was attached to a leather strap designed to go around the leg. Anise didn't even ask before she lifted up my skirts and put it in place. To her credit, she helped me smooth all the layers back down afterwards. “Do you have Manrea's antidotes with you?”

I patted my skirt pockets. They were small bottles, wrapped up safely. “All five of them.”

“Good,” she said with a smile that didn't reach her eyes. “You're ready.” I shot her a sceptical look and she shrugged. “Well, as ready as you can be.”

I grabbed her hands in mine and squeezed them gently. “If I don't come back, I want you to know that I appreciate everything that you and the clan have done for me. Thank you.” I felt a lot of emotions well up inside me. This was equal parts new, exciting and absolutely terrifying all at once.

Her expression softened and she even smiled. “You better come back.”

I attempted a teasing smile, but it was half-hearted. “Or what?”

Her face turned sombre. “Or I will be sad.”

That took away what tiny bit of gusto I had left and added a stabbing pain to my heart. I gave her hands one final squeeze before I said my farewells. Then I turned around, nervous as Hell and fighting back my tears every step of the way.

Chapter Text

“Are you insane?” Jeanette exclaimed. If my jaw could break through the earth and reach its core, it would have. Just as Jeanette and I had exited through the gates, finally ready for the arrival of the Comtesse's carriage, a large number of armed and armoured elves, dwarves and Avvar had shown up. With armoured halla, brontos and giant nugs in tow.

The Dalish heavy armour looked nothing like the “skin with some plate here and there”, like in the Inquisition game. It also wasn't the studded leather that I'd seen them wear when I first met them. Rather it was a respectful amount of chain that went over their shoulders and down their arms. Bracers and breastplates in studded leather went over said chain, with elegant metal helmets that had cross-like openings in the front. There was also real clothes in what openings the chain had, and there was no odd “double split skirt” solution.

By contrast, the dwarven armour looked exactly like the legionnaire armour in Origins, even down to the helmets.

Above us was a blue sky with sunshine and some white clouds. A warm day for autumn, which was fortunate seeing as my neckline was exposed. The nugs were adorable and I couldn't resist petting one that proved curious about me, but that was besides the point.

A male dwarf, clearly dressed as a warrior, removed his helmet and offered me a polite bow. He looked exactly like Thorin Oakenshield in the Hobbit movies, except his hair was bound back, no doubt to keep it from getting stuck in his chain. “Thorin Cadash, leader of the surface Carta, here at your service, Your Majesty.” He even sounded like Thorin Oakenshield in the Hobbit movies.

Sweet goddess, that was the second one who was named after his look-alike earthling twin. Or maybe it was the opposite? I decided not to give it any more thought. “It's a pleasure to meet you, Mister Cadash, but what do you mean that you're at my service, exactly?” I tried not to stare too much at the brontos, which was hard considering how totally badass they looked. Even next to the fully armoured dwarves it was hard to say which was the coolest.

“They started showing up after our war nugs arrived,” Ragnar cut in.

“Speaking of which, why the war nugs?” I asked and looked at the increase in warriors. “And why more warriors?”

Ragnar's face became grim. “No mage's 'bad feeling' should ever be ignored. I tripled the amount of warriors and had them bring the nugs so we could ride them.”

“They must have been close by for that to have worked,” I remarked, my ungloved hand scratching the space between the nug's eyes. It let out a happy but loud squeak in response.

“No sense in leaving them behind in the mountains,” Ragnar said with a shrug and a smile.

“As for us,” Thorin cut in, drawing my gaze back to him, “we usually travel like this, and we were on the way here to speak with Carla about some recent events. She explained the situation and we decided to join in.”

“Would those recent events have anything to do with why you've decided to join?” I pressed, but like any sensible Carta dwarf, he didn't give me much of an answer.

“Perhaps,” he said and crossed his arms. “What's your best guess, Avvar?”

“Rogue templars and maleficar in the Frostback mountains?” I shot back without a moment's hesitation. “Plaguing your trade routes, perhaps?”

His gaze went to Carla and then back to me. “Carla was right, you are smart. There's also news about this organisation called the 'Inquisition', if you've heard of it. Apparently they mean to put an end to this war, but I don't have the luxury to wait.” There was a slight pause. “If we have an opportunity to fix this without some Herald of Andraste, then I'll take that chance.” His eyes swept my form and that of everyone around me. “Even if it means teaming up with unconventional allies.” A smirk grew on his lips.

“I must say, Your Majesty, this was most unexpected,” sounded the familiar voice of Lord Potato-Mash somewhere behind me. I turned around and saw him peek out from a gilded coach pulled by four healthy, large, white horses. His family crest of the mallard duck had been carved into the sides for a nice, subtle touch. The door opened and he stepped outside. I saw he'd changed up his attire from the low-hanging, poofy shoulders to the kilt and suit that I'd seen in some of the official Bioware artwork. He even sported the hat, and his mask came with some gorgeous, intricate carvings. “Not that I mind the opportunity to travel south with you, but you seem to have acquired a rather large entourage since the last time we spoke.” He stopped just a few feet shy of Thorin and let his gaze sweep across everyone who had gathered. “Must I contend to wait until you're ready to leave, or would your gathered allies and servants be willing to let us through?”

It seemed he'd received the earlier summons, too. “If you're in a hurry, Monsieur, I'm sure I can get the Carta to move.” Thorin offered directly.

Lord Potato-Mash seemed momentarily perturbed to be addressing the Carta leader directly, but to his credit he recovered quickly. “Ordinarily I would decline, as I don't mind the opportunity to converse with Her Majesty, but we have pressing matters to attend to at the Comtesse's mansion-”

“Arielle, look!” A distinctly young, feminine voice sounded from the carriage. I noticed Monsieur's face got stuck in his expression and a sense of dread filled his aura. Chancing a look, I saw a young, masked woman dressed in Orlesian finery sticking her face out of the window. “Avvar! With those large nugs!”

“Sweet Maker,” I heard Potato-Mash mutter to himself. “Not now.”

“Move over, Nicoline, let me see!” Some scuffling took place and then another young woman poked her head out. “Oh, sweet Andraste, they're so big!”

Attention from said Avvar went in their direction. Not at all surprising, considering how loud they were.

“Mister Avvar?” The one named Arielle leaned out further, waving her handkerchief to get the warriors' attention. “Yoohoo, Mister Avvar warriors? You are warriors, I trust? Would you be so kind as to remove your helmets, please?”

“Arielle, get back in here this instant,” hissed a deeper, female voice, probably that of her mother.

“I just want to see what they look like, mother,” she returned and then looked back. I followed her gaze and saw that, indeed, the male warriors had all removed their helmets. The largest one among them even turned out to be the spitting image of Jason Momoa.

Reincarnated earthling celebrities everywhere.

The sight of him caused Arielle to gasp and let out a loud squeal. “Oh, Maker, they're so handsome!” She even pressed a delicate, lace-gloved hand to her chest and sighed dreamily, the one that didn't hold the handkerchief that was. I noticed the Avvar shared grins, though Jason's gaze didn't leave the noblewoman until she was dragged back inside the carriage.

Oh boy.

Potato-Mash made a simple hand gesture towards the carriage. “My daughter, Arielle, whom I told you about when we first met.”

“She's charming,” I said with a heartfelt smile. All potential trouble aside, there was something undeniably endearing about her. By Orlesian standards, of course.

“She's a menace,” he warned. Then he paused as he studied me from top to toe. “You have excellent taste in clothing, Your Majesty. I must say you look quite smart.”

My smile turned friendly. “Thank you, Monsieur, and same to you.”

“Naturally,” he replied. “One does not simply attend a party without looking one's best.” His gaze travelled across the unusual combination of warriors. “Speaking of which, it's pleasing to see the impressive armour and weaponry on all the soldiers here.” Then he turned to Jeanette. “Lady Jeanette, you are a delight to encounter, as always.”

She smiled and offered a curt bow. “Lord Abernache, I beg that you accept my apologies for this crowd outside the gates and any delays you've had to endure.”

“For which I believe my daughter was partially responsible,” he shot back diplomatically. “You need not worry, I expected as much security for a princess. In fact, Your Majesty,” his gaze went to me, “had you been Orlesian it would have been ten times the size.”

“Only ten, Monsieur?” I asked, feeling a sudden urge to tease.

“Yes, well,” he began, dead serious, “we're not visiting the Empress, are we?”

“Fair point,” I conceded, unsure if he was serious or joking. A tiny smile grew on his lips.

“I take it, then, that you'd like me to tell the Carta to move out of the way, Monsieur?” Thorin asked and reminded the Orlesian that he was still there.

“If it's no trouble,” Potato-Mash replied politely. The dwarf merely offered him a curt nod and a smile before he turned towards his fellows.

“Clear the road!” His voice was loud and authoritative and the other dwarves obeyed with immediate effect. They joined the Avvar and their war nugs off the road, the elves doing the same with their halla. Jeanette and I moved out of the way next. A sound came from down the road, however, of trotting hooves, a leather rap against skin and wheels rolling in gravel.

Potato-Mash returned to my side just as another gilded coach pulled by six horses came into view. It was quite a bit larger than his, but the brown horses that pulled it looked no less healthy. They slowed to a walk as they drew nearer. The image of a goose in flight was inscribed on each side of the wagon in a fashion similar to Potato-Mash'.

“It seems we will travel south-east together after all, Your Majesty,” said Lord remarked, confirming that, indeed, the Comtesse had a maleficar and rogue templar problem.

That still didn't explain my bad feeling yesterday, though I sensed it had something to do with it. “I need a word with my people, Monsieur.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” he replied. “I should return to my carriage. Safe journey.”

“You as well.” I smiled at him until he turned away, but it died down as I walked over to Ragnar. He shot me a curious look, but I cut him short before he could speak. I saw he had a sword strapped to his waist. “Are you bringing blunt weapons?”

He looked a bit puzzled by my question. “Why, do you think we'll have to fight chevaliers after all?” The other Avvar looked our way.

I shook my head. “Not chevaliers. Templars.”

His eyes widened and a wicked grin came to his lips. “We didn't plan on it, but we will now.” He then turned to the other warriors, his smile disappearing. “Pack the hammers and morningstars, but keep them out of sight so we don't provoke the chevaliers.”

“My maul, too?” Jason Momoa asked.

“Yes, you'll have to find a way to hide it,” Ragnar confirmed. Jason let out a sigh, but didn't object.

I spoke to Aenor next, but they had nothing with them so he sent a few runners back to the clan for morningstars and extra daggers. When I asked him how extra daggers would help, he merely gave me a wry grin. “We know how to get underneath heavy armour, Alva, don't worry.” Then he shot me a reassuring smile from underneath his helmet. It was almost strange to see them dressed for war.

Yet, in a world like Thedas, how could they not be?

Since I didn't know Thorin very well, I took a chance with Carla instead. This time I used the arguments about the qunari tales at the tavern and how the clan was attacked as we headed north. Mostly because I figured the “bad feeling” argument wouldn't work so well with her.

She merely smiled. “We're way ahead of you, princess. Thorin knows that area better than even the Comtesse does. Those warriors over there?” She pointed at a group of dwarves further down the side of the road. “We call them knee-breakers because they're specialised in blunt weapons.” She paused before adding. “You've a keen eye and a quick mind. You just need to be a little faster and you'll play the Game like a pro.”

I wasn't sure how to feel about that. Luckily – or not so much – I didn't have any more time to think about it at that moment. “Princess Alva Charlotte Sylviadottir?” I turned around to see the Comtesse's guest carriage – I assumed it wasn't her personal one – had stopped just a few feet away. Next to it stood a masked servant, looking at me directly.

“That's me,” I replied, my voice loud and clear.

He bowed and indicated the open door and the short staircase that led up to the carriage's opening. “Your ride awaits, Your Majesty. Please enter it along with your chosen companions.”

Right. Jeanette was an obvious choice, and she had insisted I bring along Thorin as well as Carla, as a courtesy to the Carta. Ragnar and a female warrior named Þóra represented the Avvar and Aenor and Tamlen stepped in on behalf of the Dalish. I took my seat first and saw that, indeed, this transport could easily hold eight Orlesians.

The seats were covered with off-white silk that ran over soft cushions that covered the seat edge and the entire back. Small curtains with dark red lining, decorated further with fringes and tassels, hung over the backs and continued in single lines above the large windows. The cushions were held in place by small, red buttons that were shaped like flowers. A cream-coloured roof ran over my head, painted with beautiful, elaborate and colourful patterns. Similar patterns could be found lining the bottom of the windows, the divide between back cushions and the coach's doorframes.

It was like something taken straight out of France in the 1600s, and while beautiful, it mentally weighed me down. I didn't feel at all ready to deal with the kind of people who owned such a magnificent transport. Not even with Jeanette by my side. Even though the Orlesians would probably treat me more like a curiosity – and their expectations would naturally follow such a disposition – I still felt as if I was in over my head.

This couldn't possibly go well.

I claimed my spot near the window, but I was shooed over to the middle by Ragnar who insisted I'd be safer that way. He then claimed that seat only for Jeanette and Aenor to end up on the other side of me. Opposite us sat Thorin by the window, Þóra opposite me and then came Tamlen and Carla. The door closed shut and I looked outside to see members of the remaining entourage get on their respective mounts. There was some hollering outside and then the coach began to move.

The motion was rocky and momentarily reminded me of being at sea. That did nothing to help settle my nerves, especially as we reached the middle of the crossroad and began to turn. A moment's panic welled up inside. Despite all my promises and agreements, I wanted nothing more than to jump out of the coach and run for the hills. I'd probably get stabbed to death or eaten, but at the moment that was preferable to interacting with Orlesians.

Jeanette grabbed my hands and pulled my gaze away from the window just as we passed by Lord Potato-Mash' carriage. “Alva, look at me.” Her blue eyes bore into mine, her expression that of determination and her voice soft. “They know you're a foreigner. Their expectations are low. Yes, they will look for weaknesses, and no, you must never reveal any.” She gave my hands a firm squeeze. “But you are clever and resourceful. There's no way this motley group of ours could have come together like this, let alone ended up where we are now without you. And we are with you. Do you understand what I'm saying?”

I understood, but she was asking too much of me. It took me a long time to trust anyone, let alone open up to them. This had been thrust upon me so quickly and mercilessly, it felt as if I was going to crack down the middle. There was no-one in this carriage that I felt fully supported by. I was more alone now than ever.

Except for Hecate.

She had an epithet known as Despoina, which meant mistress, lady of the house and queen. Hegemoni for she who has authority. Krataiis for the strong one. Megiste for the greatest.

All in all the Unconquerable Queen. If anyone could help me, it was her.

I went back to the vision she'd sent me, in particular the lion. That was Orlais' national symbol, so I went out on a limb and assumed that was what he'd represented. He had been angry and hostile, no doubt exacerbated by his injury. I still wasn't sure what that black ichor meant, but presenting myself as friendly and willing to help had calmed the beast down.

Was that it, then? Were the Orlesians as nervous about me as I was about them? Perhaps even more so? Responding with hostility and baring their teeth, figuratively speaking? Although suffering from a wound, which I had healed once they'd calmed down? Friendly, calm and helpful. Was that Hecate's advice to me?

It seemed a good idea as any. I certainly didn't see the point in using the Avvar as meat shields.

After taking some deep breaths and re-discovering my motivation, I managed to calm the worst of my nerves. Jeanette offered me a small smile. “Yeah, I think I can do this.”

“Good,” Thorin cut in before the others could say anything. “I'd hate to have to throw you out of the coach.” His face looked stern, but there was an unmistakable twinkle in his eye.

“The fresh air and sunshine would be good for me, though,” I shot back teasingly, feeling a bit of confidence returning.

Thorin rewarded me with a short laugh. “Now that's the kind of wit you need to show the Orlesians.”

“Duly noted,” I remarked. Then I remembered his earlier words. “Speaking of throwing things out of a carriage, albeit in a metaphorical term, I thought templars and mages were the Carta's best customers. What happened that they've become such a problem for you?” I paused before adding. “If you don't mind sharing a more detailed version of the story?”

“Most of them aren't, truth be told,” he explained and shared looks with Jeanette and Carla. Both offered him encouraging nods. “However, most of them are holed up in Redcliffe castle and Therinfal Redoubt and the lyrium trade to those places is slow. Much slower than I'd like it to be.” He turned to Carla.

“The others, those running around in the wilds and causing problems, decided on a different tactic,” Carla continued. “Especially here in Orlais. Templars and mages both decided that they should just take what they needed. Why pay for it at all?”

“I can't image that went well for the caravan guards,” I remarked, feeling concern and sympathy well up inside me. That wasn't an unreasonable position from the Carta's perspective.

“Dusters left none of them alive,” Thorin shot back with an angry snarl, “and it's not the only caravan they've attacked. Jeanette convinced us to make her ambassador to the Orlesians and she's worked tirelessly to fit in since.”

“We can't uproot those factions on our own,” Jeanette finished, “but convincing Orlesians to stop stabbing each other long enough to help us is difficult.”

“And the Fereldans are still recovering from the Blight,” Carla added sourly. “They can't even do anything about the mages in Redcliffe.”

The Inqusition would, I knew that much, but it would be a long time before that became a reality. It also didn't promise much for the Comtesse's lands. “You think I can help in that respect?”

Thorin shrugged. “You're our best bet.”

Jeanette and Carla added to this with heartfelt nods.

“Thorin and I will deal with the negotiations, of course,” Jeanette was quick to add, “though coming with you and showing our support for you will surely aid us as well. Depending on how things turn out, of course.”

“I'll do my best,” I promised, having finally found some motivation to add to my strategy. “It all depends on what the Comtesse wants, of course, but hopefully it won't be a problem.”

Carla and Jeanette smiled at me while Thorin gave me a sidelong glance. He looked undecided about me, which I didn't mind. Quite the contrary, I felt the same way about everyone in the carriage. Well, except Aenor and Tamlen.

The dream I'd had returned to me in the brief silence that followed, more specifically the part with the statue. “Are there any nations in Thedas known for slaying dragons?”

“Nevarra,” everyone around me replied in unison. Of course, the Pentaghast family. Cassandra's relatives. I remembered.

I turned to Jeanette. “Any visiting dignitaries from Nevarra in this part of Orlais?”

A slightly puzzled look came to her face as she rummaged through her handbag. “I don't think so. Some Fereldans and Antivans, but I don't recall anything about Nevarrans.” She fished out a piece of parchment. “Apparently quite a few distinguished guests are coming, so Her Ladyship sent out a full list.” She went through the names one after another. “Teyrn Fergus Cousland and his wife, Teyrna Crescentia Cousland from Ferelden, though she's originally from the Free Marches...” she continued further down. That first name stabbed me in the gut with both excitement and dread as I remembered all too well how the Couslands had fared during the fifth Blight. Yet I hoped I'd get the chance to meet and maybe even interact with him. I wondered if he was the same smartass that he'd been back in Origins. “Lord Adorno Ciel Otranto of Antiva...” Right, the one Josephine was supposed to marry. I remembered that Disney princess romance from let's play videos. “Oh, here we go. Lord Ambassador Dimitris Pentaghast of Nevarra.”

“Sounds like it will be quite the gathering,” I remarked with a wry smile. Then I turned to Ragnar and sent him a pointed look, though still smiling, so as to not raise questions. He gave me a short nod in response, a clear glint in his eyes that showed he'd paid more than shallow attention.

The Lord Ambassador was most likely the source of my unease.

“Nevarrans regard mages highly,” Thorin cut in. Ragnar and Þóra sent him incredulous looks. “As far as Chantry folk go, I mean. Their magic-users often hold important advisory positions to the royal family and oversee important burial rituals.”

Jeanette shuddered. “Nasty business.” When she saw the questioning look I sent her, she sought to clarify. “They employ necromancy, death magic. Foul stuff. I can't believe the Chantry permits it.”

“How do the Orlesians feel about Nevarran necromancers?” I asked. It was one thing for them to employ their own mages, but death magic would certainly make the more devout Orlesians queasy. In fact, I was already quite an exotic addition.

“They're Chantry-approved, so they won't object,” Thorin replied before quickly adding, “much. In fact, they'll probably have more problems with you.”

Lovely.

As much as my gut feeling had confirmed that Dimitris was part of the problem, it grew even stronger when I thought of these necromancers. I knew a spell that called upon Hecate and various other entities to protect me from magical attacks, and I had a feeling I should cast it. Not inside the coach, of course. Perhaps Her Ladyship had a spare room where I could “freshen up”? I waited for a good, long while as the others started chatting about the weather and Orlesians. That way my request wouldn't seem directly related to the Nevarrans. Then I feigned realisation. “Jeanette, do you have any parchment to spare? I need to write some things down once we've arrived.”

“Of course,” she replied. “We probably need to freshen up our make-up, too.” She picked out a fan and started fanning herself. “It will be much too hot with the sun outside and all of us cramped together in this coach.” A slight frown came to her face. “I should have thought about that.”

Thorin grabbed a hold of some latches that I hadn't seen earlier, flipped them over and opened one of the windows. “There, that should do it.”

Jeanette shrugged. “We'll still check ourselves in the mirror once we're there, to be on the safe side.”

I shot her a smile in return. “Sounds good to me.”

 


 

Most of the coach ride was spent on banter and small talk. Ragnar, Þóra, Aenor and Tamlen looked bored, but for me it was an excellent rehearsal for what was to come. Not that I had any clue about the kind of gossip the Orlesians would be interested in, though it probably wouldn't hurt to show some curiosity about the Inquisition. Thorin knew about them, after all, so no doubt others would bring them up as well.

Considering the powerhouse it would eventually become, I should probably gather some information for my own sake as well. Beyond what I already knew, of course. Who the Inquisitor was, for one, and what kind of person they were. It definitely didn't hurt to pay attention to the kinds of decisions they made as time passed, either.

Thorin made a joke that had everyone laugh. Slowly but surely the tense mood between us dissipated, though none of us were about to share our life stories just yet. This was fine with me, actually, as mine was pretty messed up. Even back home.

It made me wonder just how much more messed up it would get, especially if things continued at the current pace. I sincerely hoped I'd get a day or two to recover. A week if I was lucky.

“Shit,” Thorin muttered and drew my attention. I'd been so lost in thought I hadn't noticed the drastic change in our surroundings. The coach's window was large enough to afford me full view of the road to the east, however. Jutting out of the ground were shards of ice, looking like stalactites with serious gravity issues. Huge scorch marks dotted the ground, along with the dead carcasses of livestock.

The smoke hit us first, followed closely by the stench of burnt flesh. Jeanette and I covered our noses and grimaced, but it got worse only a few feet further down the road.

On wooden crosses, their arms, necks and legs wrapped tightly with rope and their hands impaled by iron spikes, dead farmers and a couple of mages alike hung. Men, women, even children both human and elven. A single, elven babe wailed in grief, seated on its diapered behind in the grass as local guardsmen and chevaliers busied themselves with taking down the bodies. One chevalier stayed near the baby, but offered nothing in the way of care. I felt my mouth go dry and my stomach clenched with shock, horror and no small amount of rage.

“Her Ladyship will pay us to kill those who did this, right?” Ragnar snarled with disgust. I noticed he was looking out the window to the east as well. “That's why she invited us?”

“I'm surprised she would permit us to see this,” Jeanette remarked, a look of dread on her face.

“Maybe she hopes it'll get her a discount,” Carla shot back dryly.

“Ordinarily I wouldn't put that past Orlesians,” I replied, “but this attack looks to be quite recent, no?”

Thorin leaned over to get a better look. “Yeah, I think you're right. There's still a lot of smoke on the horizon,” he pointed as we passed one of the giant icicles. “Probably still on fire.”

“The bodies haven't even begun to smell yet,” Tamlen remarked. “It's probably been about an hour or so, at most.”

“I'd say less,” I argued. “Otherwise this place wouldn't have been safe to travel for the coach as it came to pick us up.”

“Chevaliers came fast, then,” Aenor remarked and a short pause followed. “How far are we from the Comtesse's estate, exactly?”

A thoroughly unhappy look came to Thorin's face. “Less than fifteen minutes.”

No wonder the Comtesse was in such a hurry.

“Is no-one going to help that baby?” Þóra wondered, speaking up for the first time since she entered the carriage.

“I think all the potential caretakers are dead,” I observed, “unless the guardsmen are up to the task.”

“Yeah, I doubt any of the nobles will bother with the baby of a commoner, and an elf to boot.” Thorin almost sounded like he condemned them. Aenor and Tamlen's eyes were dark.

Well, fuck it. I opened the window far enough so I could lean out and be heard. “Stop! Stop the wagon now!” It continued for a while until the coachman realised what I'd said. Then he pulled on the reins and let out a “woah” for the horses. The coach stopped shortly after.

I opened the door before the shooter could get down fast enough with the block of stairs. Only thanks to Ragnar's quick actions did I stop from falling face first into the dirt. He even accompanied me down the stairs, followed by Þóra, the elves, Carla and Thorin. Jeanette chose to stay behind and closed both the door and the windows after us.

The smoke was still thick and the air hot from burnt grass and crops. I coughed several times as I made my way over to the chevalier who guarded the baby. Behind our coach sat the warriors, still in their saddles, and shot us questioning looks. Yeah no, this wasn't our designated break spot, if that was what they thought.

“Stay mounted,” Ragnar, Thorin and Aenor barked in unison. The warriors obeyed without question.

Further back along the train I saw Lord Potato-Mash step out of his carriage as well. His gaze swept over the area as he went, and he coughed a few times as well. Behind him, Mrs. Potato-Mash – I assumed it was her by the outrageously large dress and the size of her bust – stepped out and followed in her husband's tracks.

At least, until she saw the crying baby and the lone chevalier who looked as if he guarded the Grand Duke rather than protected an infant. She turned and made a beeline straight for the warrior, picking up pace with every step. There was an undeniable brusqueness in her steps, suggesting she was greatly angered. No doubt she found this display – if not delay – a pesky annoyance. Though the latter was technically my fault.

The warrior saw her approach and raised a metal-gloved hand to indicate she stop, but she merely brushed him aside with a wave of her hand. “Where's the mother of this poor creature?” She indicated the baby. “And who on earth decided to just leave it here?”

Well, slap my ass and call me Sally, to quote Oghren. The world remained full of surprises.

“The mother is being taken down as we speak, Madame,” the chevalier replied shortly. My own entourage drew near to the conversing pair just as the warrior pointed to the crucified farmers.

“I require your name, house and title, Monsieur,” she went on without a moment's hesitation, “and the names of these farmers.” Behind her, Lord Potato-Mash was now right behind her.

“Cédric Amand of the Barony of House Doucy,” he replied curtly. “I don't know the names of the farmers.”

“You're far from home, Your Lordship,” Lord Potato-Mash observed.

“I came here as a favour to Her Ladyship, Monsieur.” His Lordship chevalier sure was one for the short replies. None of them seemed overly bothered with the weeping baby.

Þóra took a step forward, but I urged her to pause. She shot me a surprised and slightly offended look. “You're wearing chain and a helmet,” I reminded her. “It's not the most practical for comforting a baby.” Her face melted into acceptance and she stepped back.

“Your Majesty,” Lord Potato-Mash cut in, having decided to include me in the conversation. “A travesty, is it not? An attack on simple folk and butchering of people and animals alike. Why, even the fields have been put to the torch. Not the scene I expected to see on my way here.”

Lady Potato-Mash brought out her fan and started to fan herself. “So close to Her Ladyship's home, too. Outright dreadful! Why, I'm of the mind to turn around and head back.”

Such was the full extent of Madame's concern for an elven babe, it seemed.

I decided to turn my attention to the chevalier. “Your Lordship.” He turned his head to face me. “I understood that the babe here has lost its mother?”

He nodded. “Mother and father,” he clarified, and there was only the slightest hesitation before he added, “Your Majesty. I must admit I don't know which country you're from.”

“A clan, not a country,” I corrected him.

His gaze travelled to the people behind me before returning to me. “Avvar, I presume?”

“Correct,” I confirmed.

“This doesn't concern you, Your Majesty,” he grumbled. “I suggest you be on your way.”

“Soldiers,” Lord Potato-Mash spat, drawing the warrior's attention back to him. “Brutish and blunt. To think you would speak to a foreign delegate in such a way. I shall have to write to your parents about this.”

“For the record, Your Lordship, it does concern me,” I added, my rage over this situation turning into an unnatural chill that sent my body heat into my gut and left me trembling. “Or did you miss the d'Angles' family crest on the coach that I stepped out of?” At least I remembered names better when I was angry. There was a short silence as the chevalier looked over at the coach and then back to me, shifting slightly from one foot to the next. “This attack is but a fifteen minute drive away from Her Ladyship's home, the same woman who has invited me over to discuss an exchange of favours.” My eyes roamed the attacked area and then returned to him to give him a meaningful look. He stiffened slightly.

“Her Ladyship has hired mercenaries before,” he argued, sounding unconvinced.

I cocked my head to the side, sending him a look that said “challenge accepted”. “Do qunari know the Frostback mountains as well as dwarves and Avvar do?”

Nothing but stunned silence came from the chevalier.

“Resourceful, Your Majesty,” Monsieur complimented me before turning back to the chevalier. “An apology from you would be the most appropriate in this case, Your Lordship. Not to mention there's bound to be someone who can help this baby, even if it's an aunt or an older cousin. It shouldn't be hard to dig one up.”

The warrior stared at Lord Potato-Mash a bit longer than I would have expected. Then again, Baron still out-ranked Lord, so perhaps there was some pride involved, especially at Monsieur's insinuations about how to do his job. “No, Monsieur, it shouldn't be.” He spoke to me without hesitation, by contrast. “I offer you my most sincere apologies, Your Majesty.”

“Consider them accepted,” I shot back graciously and offered him a friendly smile. He then offered me a bow and walked towards the local guardsmen.

I felt as if I'd accomplished something.

More importantly, I stepped closer to the baby and crouched before it. Then I spoke to it with a soft, comforting voice. It didn't feel appropriate to pick it up, but some of the sobbing stopped in favour of mild curiosity towards me. “Hey there, it's okay.” I offered up a warm smile. “You're safe and I'm here to help you.” The baby didn't cry any more, but still gave me a wary look. Understandable. No doubt the templars had all been humans.

“First you get a chevalier to bow to you and now you've calmed a weeping baby,” Lord Potato-Mash commented on the sideline. “Is there truly no end to your surprises, Your Majesty?”

He didn't even know the half of it. “I suspect I have a racial limitation where the baby is concerned, though.” Then I shot the pair of nobles a meaningful look. To their credit, they were gracious enough to step back.

“I can help, if you like,” Aenor offered. I gave him a nod and backed away until I was back at my previous spot.

The elf removed his helmet first. I noticed his hair had been pulled back in a tight bun, too. He then took slow steps towards the baby, speaking to it with a soft, mild voice all the while. Like me, he made himself small and the baby grew quiet. Unlike with me, however, there was much more trust in the infant's eyes. It took a while, but eventually Aenor managed to pick the baby up and rest it against his leather-clad chest. I let out a breath that I didn't realise I'd been holding. Meanwhile Aenor looked perfectly at ease, even gave the little baby an affectionate kiss while stroking its back. The baby leaned against him almost instinctively, letting out only the occasional gurgling sound.

He was picture perfect father material. Yet another reason we were a poor match.

I also couldn't help but wonder how he was still unmarried.

The precious moment was interrupted when the chevalier returned, accompanied by a guardsman and a dark-haired elf woman. She wasn't the least bit appreciative of Aenor's actions, however. Rather, she let out a frightened squeak and yanked the baby out of his arms with a glare. That movement must have sent a shock through the infant, because it immediately began to cry. Judging from the auras on Lord and Lady Potato-Mash, they seemed most unimpressed with her actions.

“Keep your heathen hands off my niece,” she snarled and spat on the ground right in front of him even as she cradled the little one in her arms.

If I'd been enraged before, I was the embodiment of utter fury now.

Aenor, however, turned to face her directly and stood firm against her scornful gaze. Hesitation grew on her face even before he spoke. “It was with joy that I helped your niece calm down. She seems a good girl and I hope you'll raise her well.” He paused before adding. “You're welcome, of course.”

Now that caused quite a change in the noble auras where Aenor was concerned, albeit grudgingly. The elf woman just looked on bitterly before leaving, not even a word of polite parting on her lips.

If I could slap her without legal repercussions, or frightening the baby, I would. I hoped she'd treat the child far better than she did Aenor, but chances were she'd raise her to be just as much of a tunnel-visioned bigot like herself.

That was something no world had any need of.

“The smoke seems to be clearing,” Lord Potato-Mash observed and I turned to see that, indeed, the dark cloud that steadily rose from the fields was slowly diminishing.

“We have the fire under control, Monsieur,” the chevalier reported.

“All the same, I'd like to go back,” Lady Potato-Mash remarked. “I don't feel at all safe in this area. I'm surprised Her Ladyship invited us out here when it's clearly dangerous.”

“The area was probably perfectly safe this morning, Madame,” I shot back. “Otherwise the coach that went to pick us up would have been unable to move past here.”

“You speak the truth, Your Majesty,” the warrior supplied. “This was the best guarded area, apart from Her Ladyship's mansion, which has even better protection.” His gaze went to the train of people and war mounts still waiting before it returned to me. “You made a wise decision to bring this many warriors with you.”

“That still does nothing to ensure my safety,” Madame argued. “Monsieur, I insist we turn back at once.” She turned to leave.

“Did the templars and mages move further in or out following this attack, Your Lordship?” I cut in, causing the woman to freeze in her tracks.

“The tracks lead away from here,” he confirmed, “not closer to the mansion. They would have to fight a good amount of chevaliers if they chose the latter.” Stretched thin though their forces probably were because of the civil war.

“Her Ladyship's mansion is rumoured to have quite the impressive defences as well,” Thorin added. “It would be foolish for a group of rogues, whether templars or mages, to try to attack it.”

“Emphasis on try, then,” I concluded. The chevalier's aura changed to swell with pride. “However, seeing as this attack was so recent, that could also mean they're busy re-grouping.” It bothered me that they'd moved so close to Salmont, too. The last I'd seen of either groups had been a good, few days away, in fact. “Encampments nearby, perhaps?”

“Maker, they could attack us on the way back north,” Madame Potato-Mash concluded, her voice full of horror. She turned to face the chevalier. “Are we truly trapped here, Your Lordship?”

“Until we can uproot them,” the Baron replied and turned towards me once more. “I do hope your people are willing to help us, Your Majesty.” Then he paused. “And that, if you do, you fare better than the qunari.”

“We shall see, Your Lordship,” I returned. “May you all fare well during your investigations.” I earned a quiet bow in return.

“Well, it seems we have no choice but to travel south, then,” Lord Potato-Mash stated, both his aura and voice suggesting he was quite unhappy about it. “Shall we return to our journey, Your Majesty? I believe we shall be late if we stay here much longer. Or dead.”

I nodded. “Right away, Monsieur.” Then I turned to the chevalier and offered a respectful nod. “Your Lordship.” This time he merely nodded, but I didn't really care either way. In the world I was used to, we didn't bow or scrape because of someone's name. Well, not in Norway, at least. Though it probably didn't hurt to remain diplomatic.

I offered nods to Lord and Lady Potato-Mash. They reciprocated before they returned to their coach. My group did as well, though our earlier good mood was gone. Aenor returned his helmet to his head and we stepped inside and reclaimed our seats from before. The coach door closed shut and Jeanette complained about the smell of smoke. A short while later we moved once more, though the gravity of the situation lingered with us the whole way.

Chapter Text

The Comtesse's estate was a stark contrast to the scene of horror and carnage that we'd left behind. After passing by more farms that, unlike their neighbour, were still intact, we came upon tall stone walls and an imposing iron gate. The path that led up to it was framed on both sides by lush willow trees, in among which a mild breeze lazily drifted from time to time. Above us the sun shone even brighter, promising a warm day ahead. Jeanette handed me an off-white, laced parasol that she assured me would help against the heat. I noticed she kept a smaller one for herself.

“I didn't think we'd need these, but the sun grew stronger,” she explained off-handedly. The coach rolled past the walls, on top of which stood guardsmen, patrolling.

“Looks like it's going to be an interesting party,” Carla remarked after looking up at the guards.

“When are Orlesian parties ever boring?” Thorin shot back.

“Depends on the gossip,” Jeanette and I chorused, though in my case it was a quip while she was dead serious. She looked at me sceptically while I merely grinned.

We all had our coping mechanisms.

“Right, so here's how it works,” Thorin began and leaned forward. “The Comtesse hired qunari mercenaries little over a week ago. Before that she lost a great number of chevaliers and regular soldiers trying to root out both templars and mages. Chances are she'll want to jump straight into the negotiations.” There was an underlying objection behind his words, as if he expected trouble. Or, at the very least, some obstacles.

“But...?” I pressed.

“Chevalier pride is at stake,” Jeanette supplied. “They're quite reduced, yes, but the hiring of qunari forces was a big blow, especially since the horned fighters refused to team up with the Orlesians.”

Yeah, men with swords tended to be more sensitive about that sort of thing than those without.

“And now she's invited dwarves, elves and heathen foreigners,” I concluded and could easily see where he was going with this. “They'll want to regain their pride in some way, perhaps?”

Ragnar shot me a knowing look.

“I doubt it would be a bloody duel,” Thorin explained, “unless you insult them in public.”

“A friendly sparring match, perhaps?” I asked. One that would be anything other than “friendly”, considering the chevaliers' reputation. I turned to Ragnar. “If they suggest that, who among you would be the best warrior in terms of skill?”

“Ragnar,” Þóra replied without hesitation. Said man looked at her sharply. “If they ask for it, you must be the one to accept it.”

“And you must defeat the chevalier,” Jeanette pressed, “otherwise we're back at square one, or worse, they'll throw us out.”

“Not to mention their crops will burn down,” Tamlen argued, “and more farmers die.”

“And we won't get any safer trade routes,” Thorin concluded. “Unless the Inquisition finds the time to come and clean up the mess.”

“Have you fought chevaliers before?” I asked Ragnar directly. His piercing blue eyes, so disturbingly similar to his earthling twin in the Vikings TV series, met mine. There was no mirth in them, but there was a quiet strength as well. A reminder not to underestimate him.

Well, if he was anything like the Ragnar Loðbrokk from legends, then I almost felt sorry for the chevalier.

Still, if we lost...

I pushed all those thoughts aside. There was no point in getting ahead of myself. My main focus should be on the ensuing conversation with Her Ladyship. Should it turn out that we were right about the sparring match, then that would be Ragnar's responsibility, not mine.

The coach stopped. It was much too soon, even more so when the door opened. I was brutally pulled out of my meandering thoughts and forced to focus on the present. There was nothing else for it now.

“Princess last,” Jeanette informed us with a soft voice and a sharp look my way before she looked at Ragnar, “and her champion second to last.” She leaned in closer. “Make sure you stay by her side and remain alert for any danger, including potential spies and assassins.”

Oh jolly, I had my own bodyguard. This wasn't at all weird.

The dwarves stepped out first, closely followed by the elves. Jeanette remained with us until they'd taken up positions on either side of the coach's steps, the dwarves up front. The latter was probably for height reasons. Then she got out of her seat and motioned for Þóra to follow. They left, at which point Ragnar rose and followed suit.

My turn.

A beautiful – and large – garden stood before me, with neatly trimmed bushes, trees and less neat flower bushes on either side of the gravel road. Said path continued straight ahead before it took a sharp turn to the left, where it showed off a round marble fountain the size of a small truck.

Towering above it all in majestic glory was the Comtesse's white stone and wood mansion. While it was only three stories high – barring perhaps some cellars and dungeons – it stretched almost as wide as the outer wall and continued down both sides of the garden. Unlike the middle aspect, the sides seemed to be one story only, with the bottom two replaced with tall columns. Judging from the lack of glass doors or windows in between them, they were probably intended for outdoor gatherings when the weather was nice but no-one wished to get a tan.

It was as if Versailles had met Ancient Greece and shrunk in size.

I opened my parasol and raised it above my head. Without sunblock I wasn't going to take any chances.

Ragnar took up his place slightly behind me as I walked in the footsteps of the dwarves. My stomach had jumped a little when he did, but I reminded it to calm down. Our goals aligned. He'd keep me safe, for now.

Standing underneath the not-Greek Greek columns were various clusters of Orlesians. The Antivans – I figured they were Antivans judging from their clothes and darker skin colour – stood out in the sun. The one I'd remembered from the duel in Val Royeaux – Ohtrampo? No, no way would he have tramp in his name. Regardless, he looked exactly the same as in the game and gave me a sidelong glance as I walked by. While I made sure not to make eye contact, I felt his stare on me the whole way.

Just as we stepped out of the Antivan's view and past the fountain, however, I was afforded my first sight of Nevarrans up close. Jeanette had told me about the way they dressed themselves – in brown or blackened drakeskin leather, high boots and red cloaks with gold trimmings. What she'd failed to mention were the outlandish and expensive-looking jewellery and their death mage openly displaying the Circle of Magi symbol in glaring red on his robed chest. While his cloth remained black to give it an easy transfer to the dark brown drakeskin, it was trimmed with even more gold. Upon that had been embroidered human skulls, through which snaked some kind of wispy energy.

Charming.

I briefly wondered how they weren't burning up in the heat, but when they shot hateful glares my way I found I no longer cared. They could cook in their own foolishness if it made them happy. Or, judging from their faces, miserable. A return glare from Ragnar caused them to turn away from us and gossip among themselves.

They were indeed going to be trouble.

No Orlesians stood out in the sun, apart from a man around Potato-Mash' size and a couple of chevaliers that flanked him on either side. He wore a mask with the goose on, signifying him as a member of the Comtesse's household. Jeanette approached them steadily, holding her invitation and the letter that had informed us about the change in time while I held mine. She'd explained that the dwarves would go with her, but both elves and Avvar were to stay by my side. Those who hadn't joined us in the coach would have their mounts escorted elsewhere and taken care of and the warriors themselves given refreshments and shade.

At least I hoped they'd get some shade.

“Names?” the man that I assumed was the butler said as we ascended the short stairs up to the main entrance. He looked from Jeanette and then to me.

“Jeanette Kader of the Carta,” the dwarf began and held out her letters. Wordlessly the butler took them and examined the content. Then he looked to me.

“Princess Alva Charlotte Sylviadottir,” I said with my head held high and handed him my letters. He accepted them without hesitation – and with a bow – and read their content as well.

“You are requested to join Her Ladyship in the back gardens, Your Majesty,” he said once finished, “you and your champion, to be exact.” He shot Ragnar a meaningful look.

Not Jeanette? Shit. Probably Her Ladyship wanted me away from the one best trained in the Game in our group so she could gauge my diplomatic abilities when unaided. While Jeanette held herself well in check, there was a bit of concern in her eyes.

Reminding myself to stay calm, I addressed what I'd discussed with Jeanette in the coach. My intuition had warned me against the Nevarrans, especially their necromancers. Seeing one of them stand out in the open, with the rest of them glaring at me, had very much confirmed the potential magical threat. “We need to freshen up first.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” the butler replied and indicated the open door behind him. “This way, if you would follow me.” I obeyed, Ragnar by my side, and Jeanette, Carla and Thorin following close. The elves and Þóra were told to wait in the foyer, however, as the butler guided us up another flight of stairs and into what looked like a guest room. Jeanette and I both offered gracious thanks and stepped inside, quickly followed by Carla. Ragnar and Thorin kept watch outside.

So large and so many big curtains, closets and cupboards. In other words, so many places to hide. Carla bid us wait and went about checking the windows, the second room and even the small fireplace. Once she looked satisfied, she motioned for us to get to work.

I childishly spent what time I had to admire the lavish decorations. The colours of the curtains were dark, but muted, while the roof and walls had been painted with bright colours, the latter decorated with flowers. A lush, not-Persian Persian carpet lay in front of the not-baroque baroque bed, upon which hung dark drapings.

I remembered the simplicity of the Salmont tavern and Jeanette and Carla's room at the inn. The class differences among Orlesians were strong, indeed.

Jeanette graciously let me have the bathroom to myself while she sat down in front of the vanity to touch up on her make-up. She gave me the writing materials I needed and I slipped inside. I made sure to close the door shut once Carla had confirmed that this place was safe as well.

Even in the relative privacy of this room, I didn't feel confident in casting my protection spell. Not that I expected a bard or one of those murder clowns to appear out of nowhere, but some ventilation systems or other leaks could allow someone to accidentally overhear me. There was one place I could go where I'd always be in private, though, even from Thedosian spirits.

I activated the power of my ring.

A bright, white figure that was more shape than form stood before me. “Greetings, Your Majesty.” The voice sounded distinctly female, though gender wasn't set with spirits like it was with mortals.

“Do you call me that now, too?” I asked jokingly, but there was no amusement in return.

“You have always been Your Majesty to me,” the shining shape replied.

“Who are you?” I asked, temporarily putting aside the spellcasting and deciding to ask what she meant later.

“To the gods, I am a servant,” came the answer, “and to you, I am a guardian. I've come to protect and advise you.”

“A guardian angel?” I pressed.

“That is what you mortals call my kind,” she replied gently but firmly.

I shrugged. “I guess there aren't many earthlings left for you to protect now.”

“No,” she confirmed, “but my duty remains, even in this world.”

“How is it that none of these mighty gods or you guardian angels for that matter, managed to prevent the destruction of Earth?” I pressed. It bothered me more than a little, even though I knew from myths across the globe that the forces of chaos – like jotunns and titans, for example – were often greater than even the gods, capable of weaving powerful illusions to cloak their magic.

“It was not the doing of jotunns or titans,” she explained, “although some of them did hide it to keep the gods from discovering it until it was too late.” Then there was a pause. “That is all I'm permitted to say.”

“Well, it's good of you to show up,” I said after a while. “I could certainly use both protection and advice right about now.”

“You must accept me as your guardian first,” came the unhelpful response. I shot her an odd look. Weren't guardian angels assigned regardless? “The destruction of Earth led to chaos and we were torn apart from the ones we guard. You must accept me, as the soul you are, before I can guard and advise you. As you accepted me when your soul was born.”

I cocked my head to the side. “In the name of Hecate Phosphorus, Hecate Psychopomp and Hecate Soteira, are you an angel?” I didn't feel any different as I asked this question, but I noticed a temporary distortion all around us. Hecate was listening.

“Yes,” came the first reply.

I asked again. This time the world around us grew a little bit brighter.

The figure replied with an affirmative, so I asked a third time. Faint flickers of ghost-lights appeared in the distance. Again she confirmed.

It was a simple test to see if a spirit was what it said it was. Three times was enough, as Hecate would have sent the thing scurrying if it had turned out to be something else.

Not that it had felt intuitively wrong to accept my guardian angel back, but it never hurt to take precautions. This was my soul we were talking about. “I accept.” The figure remained beside me, hovering, but didn't approach. Good, that was how I preferred it. “Now, then, I have a spell to cast.”

“Add me to it and I will offer a warning to anyone who would harm you with magic,” she advised. “Otherwise you tread too closely to something dark and corrupt.”

Fair point. I drew the sigil on the parchment. Despite how slowly my limbs moved, however, the ink settled quickly enough. Once in place I held it up and uttered the incantation of my spell.

First came three aspects of Hecate – Nether, Nocturnal and Infernal. That was mainly to keep everyone else in check. I noticed the world around me shifted into fiery darkness, as if I stood in Erebus itself. Molten lava and black rock surrounded me on all sides, though none of it harmed me. I felt the heat, though, and coughed after inhaling the smoke.

Next I called on the fates to turn any magical attacks against me in my favour. Then came the furies and Gorgons for protection and the graces for healing any harm brought about by Thedosian spells. Last I added my guardian angel for a merciful warning to any would-be attackers. Then came three other aspects of Hecate – Protectress, Illuminator and Guide – and I found myself in the Otherworld version of the Orlesian bathroom once more. I finished my incantation to the sound of hissing snakes and wicked cackling. Then I jumped back into Thedas.

Once I was confident that the ink was dry, I slipped it into a smaller skirt pocket that Bangaela had given me. It was tied together with string and buttons and I made sure to seal it tightly.

That was the hostile magic taken care of. Now for the make-up.

The only thing I had to touch up on, I found, was my lipstick. I put a bit on my finger and tapped my lips so as to not overdo it. Outside of Scandinavia, excessive make-up seemed to be the norm, and this was certainly true for Orlais, too. I was Scandinavian through and through, however, and compared to the Avvar I probably wore a lot anyway.

My thoughts soon went back to Thorin's words even as I stowed away my lipstick. The chevaliers had suffered one defeat and one case where they'd been discarded as potential allies. Warrior pride of any culture would hurt from that, except perhaps where darkspawn were concerned. Nobody minded the Grey Wardens doing their thing, that was just common sense.

What if I presented the idea of a friendly sparring match? Would they accept that or try to goad Ragnar into a bloody duel?

The trick, then, was to ignore the jabs and get to the heart of the matter. Considering how much Orlesians loved to waste time on idle banter, an almost immediate dive into the negotiations might throw them off long enough to ensure no fights to the death could be suggested. It couldn't be too immediate, however, or it might sour the already shaky relations.

This would be interesting. Nerve-wracking, but interesting.

Jeanette and Carla nearly jumped when I re-joined them, commenting on how quick I'd been. The former, judging from how her lipstick was still in her hand, wasn't done yet. Seeing as Her Ladyship wished to speak with me without the dwarves present, I bid them a short farewell. They promised to meet me in the foyer afterwards.

Depending on how the negotiations went, of course.

Ragnar greeted me with a nod and it took us only a few steps before another masked servant of the Comtesse appeared. “Follow me to the back garden, please.” Then he took the lead.

Considering what a maze a household like this undoubtedly was, even on the best of days, a guide seemed wise. Not to mention he got to eavesdrop on our conversation.

I wanted to convey to Ragnar the need to ignore any deliberate jabs or insults against Avvari warriors. We had no coded language established, however, and I wasn't sure how well he did with a more roundabout way of talking.

As it turned out, the back garden was as large as the one up front. We were initially greeted with a rounded clearing surrounded by rose bushes and two small willow trees. It was quite close to the entrance, too. We were only a few steps away once we'd descended the stairs. Inside that clearing sat Her Ladyship and another noblewoman. Slightly behind the Comtesse stood a handsome, young man with short-cropped, golden locks, dressed in finery that marked him as a noble as well. His half-mask was adorned with the goose, yet he remained standing. I saw there was only one chair, which I assumed was for me.

So the men had to stand while the women got to sit? Though only Ragnar, I saw, would have to stand out in the heat, considering how my chair was placed. Unless he chose to stand on my left side. I stepped up to the chair, a friendly smile on my face, and stopped right behind it. Then I offered Her Ladyship a curt nod, which she returned.

“Your Majesty, how good of you to come,” the Goose remarked before she turned to the man behind her. “This is my son, Etienne. Also my finest chevalier.” He extended his hand. I placed my hand in his and he brought it to his lips for a chaste kiss. He was shorter than Ragnar, but his build was strong.

“Enchanté, Your Majesty,” he said with trained charm and a plastered smile as his blue eyes looked up at me.

“Likewise, Monsieur,” I replied with a smile that held only superficial warmth.

Still smiling, the Goose turned to her friend. “This is Marquise Natalie de Lasouche, a long-time friend of mine and Salmont's finest diplomat.”

“You're too kind, Nicole,” the Marquise objected with a bashful smile. I noticed her half-mask had the symbol of a bull on it. I remembered Potato-Mash mentioning her. Was she here to ensure the conversation would go in the Orlesians' favour? Not that I saw how the Comtesse could doubt herself in the presence of an Avvar. “It's a pleasure to meet you, Your Majesty. While you've been in Salmont for only a short time, you've still managed to make yourself noticed.” Her smile was kind while her gaze was appraising.

“All due to the sharp senses of Orlesians, of course,” I replied humbly, earning delighted noises from the women and a short chuckle from Prince Charming. Once the merriment died down, however, I added. “It's a pleasure to meet you as well, Your Grace. Will you be joining us?” I nodded at the table, upon which stood empty tea cups and plates for all three of us and platter-towers with small cakes. Beside that stood a teapot, from which steam rose steadily. A small bowl contained cubed, white sugar. The dainty porcelain china was decorated with pink roses and gold trimmings.

It reminded me of my grandmother's collection, a thought that caused my heart to twist painfully. I kept my eyes on Her Grace, however, as I awaited her response.

“I must,” she replied, which revealed nothing about whether or not she actually wanted to be here, “for bureaucratic reasons, of course.”

“No negotiations with foreigners without your supervision, Your Grace?” I asked, though it seemed obvious enough.

Observation, Your Majesty,” she corrected me, and this time her smile was slightly wry. “Still, you are correct. I must make sure to stand witness to these conversations and ensure they're done properly.”

“Let's not get so business-like so quickly,” the Goose interjected and motioned to the chair in front of me. “Please take a seat, Your Majesty.”

I obeyed and closed my parasol, seeing as the other women had theirs in their laps. Then I went around the chair on the right side, which Ragnar took as his cue to stand on my left. Conveniently, that put him right under the shade of the willow tree, allowing him some reprieve from the heat. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed the chevalier shifted ever-so-slightly where he stood.

They wouldn't get to cook my champion's brain that easily.

“Tell me first, how do you like your tea?” Then she hesitated. “Do you drink tea?”

Did I even know what tea was, was the unvoiced question. I merely offered her a smile. “Of course. I prefer mine unsweetened.” At least until these people discovered Stevia.

The Goose's jaw dropped ever so slightly, but to her credit she recovered quickly. “Good. I picked out a rather neutral blend that works with most palates.” She gingerly picked up the teapot and poured tea to me, then the Marquise and at last herself. Then she indicated the tray of baked goods while Her Grace added some sugar cubes. “Please help yourself.”

I picked up a round double biscuit with cream in the middle. The Marquise went next – again – and then came our hostess.

Back home I would have taken a big bite, but here I was expected to do dainty nibbles, like an anorexic. Not that I was going to throw it back up again. Unless they'd poisoned it, of course.

Strangely enough I found that thought more entertaining than disturbing.

One dainty nibble it was. Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be a well-established tradition with the pair of women in front of me as well. Then a dainty sip of tea.

Yellow Earl Grey. The tea I detested most. Fortunately I managed to keep my face in check and pretend it was delicious. My lips still stained the cup's rim pink as I put it back down.

At least the cookie was delicious.

“Pray tell, Your Majesty, how do you find my home?” Her Ladyship asked after her first Nibble & Sip.

“Nothing I've heard of Orlesian extravagance could truly prepare me, Your Ladyship,” I responded, a perfectly honest answers. Not even in-game screenshots could compare. “It's truly a marvel to behold.”

The Goose chuckled. “You're too kind. If it's marvels you're after, you should see the Winter Palace.”

“Indeed, Halamshiral's beauty is unmatched,” the Marquise agreed. “So you have heard of us, then?”

“In bits and pieces only, I'm afraid.” Which was also true. “Someone like me doesn't get to travel freely to places like these under ordinary circumstances.” Yet another truth. Having my home planet destroyed in a cataclysmic event that threw me into Thedas was definitely not something that was filed under “ordinary”. “It's... ill-advised.”

There was a slight pause, but then the Marquise caught on. “Oh yes, you're a... mage.” A heavy, awkward silence followed. I helped myself to another nibble, maintaining an air of indifference. “How did you come to be in Orlais, exactly?”

This answer I'd already rehearsed. I let my indifference disappear in favour of an act of gloom. “My home was destroyed by demons.”

This time the air was filled with shock and sympathy, even from the chevalier. It took several long seconds before anyone spoke. “Dear Maker,” the Goose muttered. “How did you survive?”

I smiled mirthlessly. This one I'd also prepared. “I'd sneaked away from the clan to observe some dwarves.”

It was the Marquise's turn to speak. “You have an adventurous side, Your Majesty?” There was almost a teasing tone in her voice. Not too much to be improper, of course. I could almost like her.

I responded with the tiniest smile. “Just because it's ill-advised for me to do something doesn't mean I don't want to do it, Your Grace.”

The twinkle of merriment in her eyes was unmistakable. Still, even though it was a lie, the story of a destroyed home wasn't, and I couldn't maintain my smile for long.

“That was most fortunate for you, Your Majesty,” the Goose supplied, “although you have my heartfelt condolences for what happened to your home and people. Truly I wouldn't wish such a fate upon anyone.”

I offered up a half-smile and my eyes grew wet. My acting teachers back home would have been proud. “Nor would I, Your Ladyship.”

There was a moment's silence until Prince Charming chose to speak. “How did you come to travel with the Dalish?”

This one was easy. “They were also beset by demons. I figured my chances were better with them than without them, so I helped them. Together we were able to send them back to the Land of Dreams. In exchange, they took me in.”

His aura suggested he was impressed, though there was still some scepticism involved. “How were you able to defeat demons where your own clan was slaughtered? Is there anything about Dalish magic that's more effective against them than what was available to your clan?”

The Goose looked most unamused. “We don't ask about magic, Etienne.”

“I think in terms of strategy, mother,” he replied, not about to budge. What he didn't say, but what I could guess at, was that he probably wondered if I could be of any help should the maleficar who attacked these lands summon demons. To measure the usefulness of any potential aid on my part. Or he was simply trying to poke holes in my story. Or a bit of all three.

It was also a doorway through which I could potentially offer up a sparring match. Unless they twisted it around to suggest that we wouldn't think we'd need the chevaliers' help. Which, at this point, would be insulting enough to demand satisfaction.

Still, he'd asked and, seeing as his mother no longer protested, I thought myself free to answer. “I found a way to turn demons back into benevolent spirits and send them back to the Land of Dreams.” I paused before adding. “What you call the Fade here in the lowlands.”

Pindrop silence.

I wrung my hands in feigned agony. “I wasn't there for my clan, though...” I'd spoken those words softly, but loud enough for them to hear me. Then I swallowed visibly and looked away. Memories of Earth's destruction re-surfaced and added some real pain to the fake story.

Some of the scepticism washed away from his aura. “I understand, but spells take time to cast. Did you have any... other aid?”

“What do you mean by 'other aid'?” I pressed and met his gaze, though slowly, with wet eyes for all to see.

“Enough, Etienne,” the Goose cut in. “This is not a topic to take so lightly.”

He objected again. “It's no secret that the Avvar petition and worship spirits as if they're gods. I'd like to know if you had that kind of help and, if so, why your clan didn't.” Yep, he was definitely trying to punch holes.

That one was easy enough to answer, especially since Ragnar had prepared me for it. “Because the demons that attacked...” I conjured up the sound of my mother crying out to me just as the destructive path headed straight for me. A lump formed in my throat and my gut wrenched with pain. “They were the spirits that protected my clan.” I paused as I remembered something from a Let's Play video about Fade rifts. “The rifts drag spirits through against their wishes, and the physical world is abhorrent to them. That makes them change into demons.” I clenched my fists and a single tear travelled down my cheek as I remembered my brother's last words to me. “My clan had no defences against that.” My voice was sharper now, more harsh.

“And you had no spirits... aiding you when you and the Dalish fought the demons?” he pressed. A heavy silence followed.

“Not in any way that directly controlled me, no.” I didn't know how much I should mention about Blue. “In fact, it... sacrificed itself to seal a rift.”

There was the slightest bit of relief coming from the Orlesian women. Were they worried if I was possessed right now? With no templars to aid them?

The Marquise was ever-so-slightly more puzzled than scared, judging from her aura. “That's odd behaviour from a spirit. Usually they demand something in return.”

“I don't know why it did that,” I replied and left it at that, “but if you're worried that I'm possessed, then I can offer you reassurances that I'm not.” All three Orlesians straightened slightly. “It's true that we have rituals and traditions of petitioning spirits, even undergoing possession, but it's never permanent. We don't want abominations around us anymore than you do. It does harm to us as well as the spirits.”

“What happens if one of your mages becomes an abomination?” the Marquise pressed.

“They're led away from the clan, where we ask our gods to receive them,” I replied from what information I'd gathered online. “Then they die in their sleep.”

No more questions came from Prince Charming.

The Goose was the first to speak after a long silence. “Well, I must say, Your Majesty, you show remarkable strength considering your circumstances. Spirit or no, it sounds like you hold some remarkable abilities, if not courage. As Esmeral rightly pointed out, you are ill-suited for taverns or wandering the wilderness for the rest of your life.” There was a slight pause. “As much as I would like to move on from such a grisly topic, I fear I have only more to discuss.” She took another sip of her tea before she continued. “From the recent report I just received, it seems you witnessed some of our more... local challenges.”

“Mages and templars,” I concluded, which earned me a nod. “I saw how they treated your people. The Dalish and I suffered an attack from them as well on our way north.”

“Not that all templars act that way,” the Marquise cut in quickly.

“Not in most lowlands, no,” I shot back. If she'd hoped for me to do a spirited defence of mages in some kind of misplaced sense of group loyalty due to the lack in hers, she'd be sorely disappointed. “Rumours from our more distant kin in the south of Ferelden say otherwise.” I paused before adding. “Then there's Kirkwall, of course.” An uncomfortable silence settled. “To be honest, Your Grace, I wasn't at all surprised by what I saw. Only now the rest of the world sees it too, I suppose.”

Prince Charming's face turned hard. “You would gloat over something like this?”

I shot him a sharp look in return. “Hardly, Monsieur.” His anger melted away almost immediately, but his jaw was still set as he returned to silent observation. I turned back to his mother. “I understand they have been notoriously difficult to locate, let alone root out.”

The Comtesse paused slightly. “This is true, Your Majesty, though we now have their location at least.”

“Andraste's Maze,” I completed for her. “I know the place, the clan stopped there on our way north.”

Both women watched me in silence. “Well, I think we can add resourceful to your list of qualities, Your Majesty,” the Marquise flattered pointlessly.

Prince Charming, however, seemed unwilling to hold back any more. “Mother, we don't need a group of strangers to fight for us.”

There it was. The chance to prevent a duel. “For you, Monsieur?” That got his attention. “My people are not babysitters.” He rolled back on his heels and some of the resentment in his aura was deflated. I took down the harshness in my tone and eyes as I continued. “I understand that qunari mercenaries are more... traditional in their methods, but we Avvar would never fight on behalf of another group of warriors.”

A strong sense of relief washed over me from the auras of the women on the other side of the table. Prince Charming blinked and his jaw settled down.

I also felt a great deal of satisfaction coming from Ragnar.

“Then you don't wish to aid us against these enemies?” The Comtesse stated more than asked, but the ensuing silence suggested she wished for an answer.

“I didn't say that,” I replied with a small smile. Then I shot Monsieur Chevalier a meaningful look. “However, it would be dishonourable to ask my warriors to fight without Orlais' finest by their side.” Then I turned back to Her Ladyship. “Especially considering the location of these attacks.”

Both Prince Charming's chest and aura swelled with pride, surprise and appreciation. True warriors tended to speak the same language, I found. The Comtesse had concern in her aura, however, even as her face revealed nothing.

“I have too few chevaliers left, even if I could spare them,” she explained. “Our scouts have gone missing and what remains are local militia and common soldiers.”

“I may be able to persuade the Dalish to lend us scouts,” I offered, though it was risky. Especially since things with the Keeper had recently gone sour and I wasn't sure how flexible she could be. “They know the wilderness here as well as native Orlesian scouts and they're skilled archers.”

Eyes went to Etienne. Wow, I actually remembered his name. “That would be helpful, Your Majesty.”

“Yet you say 'may',” Her Grace cut in. “That's no guarantee, which is what we are in sore need of right now. How would you go about ensuring us of this alliance?”

“The elves would probably need something from you, Your Ladyship,” I said to the Comtesse directly, and I felt my stomach churn as I spoke the next words, “but I can also join the fighting, especially where the mages are concerned. The clan wouldn't want any harm to fall upon me if they could be there to prevent it.”

The Marquise's mouth opened wide, but it was the Goose who spoke. “You believe them to be so protective of you?”

“The strongest bonds are often formed on the battlefield, Your Grace,” I shot back, which actually earned me a tiny smile from Prince Charming. Then I turned to his mother. “However, I have yet to hear what it is you offer in return, Your Ladyship.”

“If you join the fighting directly, Your Majesty,” she began, “then I can do no less with what forces I have available. Not that I'm a warrior, but the ones I have at my disposal will stand with you.”

“I'm not sure we can persuade the other chevaliers so easily, mother,” Etienne cut in. And there it was. Time to see if my efforts had born fruit. “As much as I appreciate your willingness to aid us with your resources, Your Majesty, we may require a bit... more reassurance.”

“In what respect, Monsieur?” I pressed.

“First we would have to establish the skills of your warriors,” he began and shot Ragnar a meaningful look, “their fighting style and the subsequent ranks of command.”

“Etienne, you can't seriously think-” his mother began.

“Ragnar, would you agree to a friendly sparring match with Her Ladyship's best chevalier?” I cut in, effectively silencing the Goose and drawing a look of interest from her son.

I could see the Avvar man's smile in my mind's eye. “I'd be honoured.”

“A sparring match sounds like a fine idea,” Her Ladyship cut in, practically beaming, but I wasn't quite done. All this talk of templars and mages had reminded me of a most unpleasant encounter on the road to Salmont.

“I must ask one thing in exchange for my direct aid in the matter, Your Ladyship,” I said. Her smile faltered. “One that only diplomacy may solve.”

She straightened. “Name it.”

“It wasn't just templars and former circle mages who attacked clan Elandrin,” I explained. “A group of Tevinter blood mages attempted to kidnap me.” Shocked looks came my way. “I need to know that there will be no... retaliations, or more attempts on my freedom, for that matter.”

A long silence followed. “That's a tall order, Your Majesty,” the Goose finally responded.

“As is asking my warriors to risk their lives for the safety of lands that aren't theirs,” I shot back, “but such is the way of mercenaries, no? Not that I'm above asking for treasure, weapons or even silk for the women, but I think not suffering attacks sponsored by the magisters would benefit both clans much more in the long run.” Not that I thought they'd spend too many forces down south in the mountains during their ongoing war with the qunari to the north. However, it was still unwise to underestimate the power of blood magic. Orlesian diplomats should at least have the skills to help me, though whether or not they had the means was another matter.

The Marquise kept her gaze on me the whole time.

“Very well,” the Goose said in the end. “I shall establish contact with the magisterium and see about arranging peace talks.” There was a slight pause. “If you root out the heretical templars and maleficar for me.”

“We have a deal,” I shot back before I turned to look at Etienne. “Provided my champion is able to convince you.” He offered a nod of appreciation in response. “When will the match begin?”

“I'm sure we can arrange something within the hour,” the Goose concluded.

Etienne's eyes sparkled with excitement, but he otherwise held himself in check. “No magic permitted.” He looked to Ragnar.

“Including enchanted items,” I supplied before Ragnar could make the mistake to accept.

Etienne followed up quickly. “Wooden swords. The first to yield loses. Shields, armour and helmets permitted.”

“The terms for the fight can be discussed in full and signed later,” the Goose bid before returning her attention to me. “We've made a deal with you, Your Majesty, but you said the Dalish would want something from me as well.”

“Indeed, Your Ladyship,” I replied. “It's a shame the Keeper isn't here, but I can bring the matter to them if you like and see if they're willing to negotiate a deal with you.”

She accepted this with a small nod. “That would be most appreciated.” Then she added. “What of the dwarves? Would they agree to help?”

The memory of Jeanette being shunted out of the conversation re-surfaced in my mind. My petty side relished the opportunity to regain some dignity for her. “I'm sure their ambassador would be happy to discuss it with you in person, Your Ladyship.”

“A-, yes of course,” she replied and smiled a smile that didn't reach her eyes. “I am always delighted to speak with Lady Jeanette.” There was a short pause. “I thank you for your time, then, Your Majesty, and bid you farewell for now. Please enjoy my hospitality while you're here.”

“Much obliged, Your Ladyship,” I responded politely. “Pray tell, I asked when, but where will the match take place?” I asked before anyone could rise from their seats.

“We will send someone for you,” the Goose replied reassuringly.

“Then I shall take a stroll in your beautiful garden in the meantime,” I remarked with a smile and rose from my seat. “Until we meet again, Your Grace, Your Ladyship, Monsieur.” I offered one polite bow to all three and earned the same in return. Then I turned around and, with Ragnar following, went straight back to the mansion.

 


 

The stroll was nowhere near as enjoyable as I'd made it sound. Quite the contrary, my stomach churned as I forced polite smiles to any passers-by. I made sure we walked in the middle of the gravel road and I pretended to admire the flowers as I walked. That wasn't hard when I reached the jasmine bush. I loved jasmine, so much so that I actually stopped to smell them. This type seemed to be the deciduous kind, although a few flowers still stubbornly clung to life, as if not quite ready to surrender themselves to autumn's peaceful embrace.

“Remembering an old love?” Ragnar asked softly before offering polite smiles to a pair of passing, Orlesian noblewomen brave enough to challenge the hot weather.

“What do you know about my past?” I shot back with a sceptical look, my voice equally soft. That earned me a chuckle.

“We can always share our backgrounds later,” he mused, but I didn't share his smile. When he saw the icy glare I sent him, his merriment died down.

“What makes you think you're entitled to any of my stories?” He was Avvar, and I knew they appreciated it when I cut through the roundabout bullshit that Orlesians were so fond of.

“You need to put your faith in someone, Alva,” he pressed.

I shot him a bitter smile. “Because you've given me so many reasons to trust you, Ragnar. What was that first thing you wanted to do? Sell me off like a whore?” My smile turned into a wide, cold grin. He frowned, but I didn't even care. “Tell me, why should I trust you beyond our immediate agreement, hm?” I turned away and smelled another jasmine.

“I'm sorry, Alva,” he said without even hesitating. I paused and looked at him from the corner of my eye, though I remained sceptical. “I speak of trust, yet I put so little in you myself. Even before I approached you with the deal.” I straightened at that, not once taking my eyes off of him. “I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that you're used to a world where you have to do everything yourself. You don't rely on others that much...” he paused before adding, “especially not men, correct?”

“I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that your idea of a woman relying on a man means blind obedience to the point of slavery, then,” I shot back bitterly, though I kept my voice soft. “We're surrounded by people who make empty words and pointless flattery into an artform. You'll have to do better than that.”

A long silence followed as he stared at me from the corner of his eyes, neither of us smiling. I gingerly touched the jasmine and, as jasmine did, I was indeed reminded of an old love. The love. Nostalgic, romantic, tender, vulnerable... and tenacious enough to last through hundreds of thousands of years of reincarnations.

At least on my end.

“I know how chevaliers fight,” he remarked off-handedly and motioned for me to follow him. When I didn't immediately do so and instead shot him a questioning look, he paused and elaborated. “You asked me when we were in the coach, but I never answered. I know how they fight. I've witnessed them...” It seemed as if he was going to say more, but then thought better of it. I took the lead and he fell in step behind me as we continued our stroll. Hopefully he wouldn't try to change the conversation back to me.

“You think you can beat him?” I asked as we came upon a large rose bush on our left. “They're the finest warriors in all of Thedas, and you're not permitted magical or spirit aid.” It wasn't an attempt to discourage him, but I didn't want him to get overconfident.

He shrugged. “I don't rely on that for mere sparring matches.” There was a slight pause before he continued. “So, when can I expect Monsieur Chevalier to pull a poisoned dagger on me or have someone shoot me on his behalf?”

“If he's true to the chevalier code, he won't,” I argued. “Even though it's not an actual duel.”

He looked genuinely surprised. “But he will employ tactics, no?”

“Definitely.”

A wry smile grew on his lips. “Good.” We continued for a while in silence that was almost companionable. “Well, what do you make of him? Do you think he's the type to be true to his code?”

I paused in my line of thought and considered the miniscule amount of interaction that I'd had with Prince Charming. He'd certainly been subjected to flattery, no doubt due to the blows he'd suffered to his warrior pride. Not that my words were empty, however – we stood a much better chance against the templars and maleficar with the chevaliers by our side.

Princess for only a few days and already I was thinking like a strategist.

Getting back on track, I had the impression that I'd successfully appealed to a code, at least. Whether or not he'd stay true to it when the temptation of an easy victory reared its ugly head, however, remained to be seen. Still, I had a feeling he wouldn't take it. “I think he's the type to honour his code.”

Ragnar smiled and nodded. “Then it sounds like I may have a worthy adversary.”

Gods he was cocky.

I was about to come up with a witty retort when a male voice with a mildly Orlesian accent called out my name. “Princess Alva! Your Majesty Princess Alva!” I turned to see another small man with a goose mask, albeit dressed in much simpler clothes, jogging to catch up. He bowed low once he finally reached us. “Her Ladyship sent me to fetch you and your champion. The match will start soon. I am to escort the two of you to the arena.”

Oh boy. “Very well, lead the way,” I urged him.

He nodded, turned slightly and motioned for us to follow. “This way, please.” Then he took the lead.

We were ushered into the coach from before, but this time we were joined by new people. Jeanette was already seated inside, along with Thorin, but what caught my eye was the company that sat across from us.

The woman by the window I didn't recognise, but the man next to him hadn't changed much from the Origins game. Teyrn Fergus Cousland of Ferelden had some more age lines around his eyes, but was otherwise unchanged. Our eyes met briefly and I offered him a friendly smile and a nod. Relations between Fereldans and Avvar were strained, at best, but fortunately he was courteous enough to return my gesture.

He opened his mouth to speak, but was promptly interrupted when Lord Ohtrampo stepped inside, accompanied by an Antivan woman who bore a stark resemblance to him. “Ah, Teyrn Cousland, a pleasure.” He extended his hand once seated, which His Lordship grasped and shook. “Teyrna?” He offered a hand to Fergus' wife. She extended a delicate, lace-covered hand which he took in his and kissed. Then he turned to me.

His charming smile faltered ever-so-slightly and a sense of discomfort wafted off of him. To his credit, he recovered quickly and offered me a polite nod. “Your Majesty.” He extended his hand to me, his keen eyes not leaving me for a second. Beside me, the Orlesian runner closed the coach door, though we had yet to move. No doubt this “sparring match” had been publically declared and every guest at the mansion was eager to see it play out. Why else were we going to an “arena”?

Flattery meant nothing, but I would honour his efforts by putting my best foot forward. Clearly, I made him nervous, and from his perspective that wasn't without reason. I offered him a smile in return and placed my hand in his. The kiss was gentle enough and lasted just as long as the one he'd given to Lady Cousland. Some of his discomfort disappeared as we retracted our respective hands and then he greeted Ragnar, Jeanette and Thorin.

“Allow me to introduce myself,” he went on as his attention returned to me, not missing a beat. “I am Lord Adorno Ciel Otranto of Antiva, and it's a pleasure to meet you.” I opened my mouth to respond, but he beat me to it. “No, no, Your Majesty, you need not introduce yourself, we've heard quite a bit about you already.”

Alva Berg, drawing international attention since 9:41 Dragon.

“Yes, my wife and I wish to offer you our condolences for the loss of your home and family,” Fergus was quick to cut in, and his words, at least, sounded and felt genuine. Knowing how his own family had fared during the Fifth Blight, I figured it wasn't hard for him to sympathise. How quickly that would turn to hate if he learned the truth...

Well, I had lost both home and family, so it wasn't completely false.

“As do my sister and I,” Lord Otranto supplied. Wow, I actually remembered his name. What was this, Christmas?

My smile was warm as I replied and thanked them all in turn. “Thank you. It's a pleasure to meet you all.”

Otranto's aura remained as it was, but Fergus' and his wife's grew warmer. “Is this your first time in Orlais?” Lady Cousland asked.

“It's my first time in the lowlands, Your Ladyship,” I replied honestly.

“I don't suppose the road is a desirable place for a thane's daughter, let alone any woman,” Lady Otranto remarked, finally speaking up.

“On the contrary, My Lady,” I parried, “I've wished to travel and see the wider world ever since I was little.”

Stunned silence. It seemed I'd made things awkward, despite my attempt at a friendly approach. Probably none of them thought it decent to point out that I got my wish, and I didn't want them to think I was fishing for sympathy by pointing it out either.

I offered up a brave smile. “I must say, life is full of surprises.” For that I earned some smiles and the tension disappeared from eyes and auras alike.

“You are not... displeased?” Lord Otranto asked nevertheless.

My smile remained. “I won't claim that this hasn't been a mixed blessing, and I never thought I would be received as warmly as I have.” My eyes travelled across the quartet. “Let alone find myself in such fine company.” Then I paused as I considered my next world carefully. “The price to pay for it was quite steep, however.”

Nods and murmurs of understanding followed and this time I found Lord Otranto's aura to hold less fear in it. His sister remained sceptical, however.

Oh well. Couldn't win them over all at once, I guessed.

“I think it's good you can find a silver lining, Your Majesty,” Lady Cousland was gracious enough to say. “It speaks well of you.”

I offered her polite thanks. Just in time, as our coach began to move. That, in turn, changed the topic of conversation to the ongoing sparring match, which I was glad to leave to Ragnar. Both Fergus and Otranto – I had yet to remember his first name – sized him up from top to toe while Lady Otranto kept stealing glances his way from behind her fan. She wasn't even trying to be discreet about it.

Ragnar's first fangirl. I paused as I considered that word in light of the contraption that did nothing to hide her borderline voracious gaze. Fangirl, indeed.

Badum tsh.

Soon enough the conversation was dominated by three men and a male dwarf talking about their battles – all of which were probably exaggerated. I was fortunate enough to have the window seat this time, however, and took the time to watch the outside world. We left the mansion's perimetre behind, I noticed, and my danger sense kicked in. Something was going to happen, probably tied to the Nevarrans, during the sparring match.

Our journey lasted for only ten minutes, which made me wonder why we'd even bothered with the coaches. The arena came into view, with its brightly coloured banners and large, white tents. Servants stood at the ready, their heads bowed. I noticed the nuggalopes, halla and brontos stood in their respective tents, out of the sun. Around them were their respective riders. So that was where they'd ended up.

The Orlesians had expected a fight, despite the Goose's earlier display of objection to her son's protests. Though it wouldn't be to the death, I still felt the corner of my mouth twitch into what would turn into a wry smile if I didn't stop it. I could appreciate such cunning.

Still, I couldn't shake the feeling of an impending threat – beyond the match anyway – and what this would mean for me and my allies. Let alone the Comtesse. Whatever happened, I was probably the main reason for it. That wouldn't bode well for the negotiations.

Just what had I got myself into?

The coach door opened before I could ponder my situation further. Wooden steps were put in place and we exited in the opposite order of how we'd entered. The bright sun hit me in the face and caused me to go temporarily blind. I blinked and my eyes threatened to water over. Fortunately I managed to save myself from the worst of the light once the nobles had moved on and I had enough space to open my parasol.

Ragnar hovered near me, even though it was more for show than anything else. Servants ushered nobles towards their seats, but Jeanette and Thorin, I noticed, remained by our side. At least until the latter excused himself saying he had to check up on the other dwarves. I noticed each foreign delegate had their own retinue of soldiers with them. Except the Antivans. Unless they'd brought some of their infamous Crows? If so, they were probably in disguise or hiding somewhere.

“Are you two ready?” Jeanette asked and looked from me to Ragnar and then back to me.

I turned to look at Ragnar. This relied as much on him as it did me.

He shot me a crooked smile. “Ready when you are, Your Majesty.” There was an ever-so-slightly hint of sarcasm in his voice.

“Go and prepare, then, my champion,” I shot back with the exact same tone and expression.

To my surprise, his smile grew. A servant arrived and pointed to an open tent. Under it I saw Etienne, now maskless and in full armour. His chevalier helmet was tucked under his arm. Next to him was a scribe with a writing table not all that different from what Josephine carried in the Inquisition game. Probably to discuss the rules for the match and get signatures.

“Your Majesty,” the voice of the Goose called. I turned to see her with Lord and Lady Potato-Mash and the Marquise. Other nobles had flocked around them but dispersed as servants politely shooed them to their seats. Her Ladyship had her arm raised and waved us over. “Lady Jeanette! Over here!”

Jeanette and I bid Ragnar a polite farewell, which he returned with a simple half-bow, and then we went to join the nobles. “We're so pleased for this opportunity, Your Majesty,” Potato-Mash remarked. “Her Ladyship informed me this match was your idea, in fact.”

Of course she had. “I hear chevaliers are the finest warriors in Thedas,” I shot back and smiled. “I look forward to witnessing it first hand.”

“I had no idea you were interested in martial pursuits, Your Majesty,” he commented, though his body language remained unchanged.

“I have many interests, Monsieur,” I replied honestly, but left it at that. Back home I'd been a major geek about this sort of thing, at least until real life had reclaimed me and left me stranded at Roman war tactics. It was a shame I hadn't picked that hobby back up again.

Oh well, there was no such thing as too late to return to old reading habits. Unless I died, of course.

As if on cue, the Nevarrans walked past us with only one of them stopping to politely greet Her Ladyship. He did the same with the Marquise, Potato-Mashes and Jeanette.

Then he turned to me.

His face betrayed nothing, nor did his posture or voice. He even took my hand in his and kissed it. To any onlookers he was the perfect gentleman.

The kiss had left a creepy chill down my spine, however, as if someone had poured a bucket of ice down my back. Then there was his aura. It was dark, twisted and menacing in a way that put Gillian's pride demon to shame. The negative impression was so strong I even managed to remember his full name and title.

Lord Ambassador Dimitris Vassilis Evangelos Achilleas Sokratis Nikolas Adrianus Pentaghast of Nevarra. Come to Orlais on behalf of the king to improve relations between the two nations. He assured me I didn't need to remember his full name. I didn't even remember my response, but his creepy smile had frozen in place and the Orlesians had tweeted with amusement. To his credit, he recovered quickly with a trained laugh, wished both competitors good luck and bid us polite farewells.

His aura took on a distinct sharpness as his gaze went to me and then he left.

“Come and sit beside me, Your Majesty,” the Goose offered once most of the crowd had been seated. “Lady Jeanette too, of course.” We obeyed and were escorted to the topmost seats. No-one to sit behind us and chevaliers flanking us on either side. In the row in front of us sat Fergus and his wife, as well as the Antivans and some more Orlesians.

I briefly wondered if there was some special meaning to placing me all the way at the top next to the hostess only to mentally smack myself for it. Of course there was some special meaning, this was Orlais. Was it because Ragnar was one of the competitors or because I was considered royalty – although among barbarians? The Goose probably had many people to talk to throughout the day, so I doubted I was any different from the rest when it came to deals and negotiations.

I noticed the Nevarrans sat at the bottom layer seats, cooking in their black suits under the sun. What a bizarre group!

Jeanette leaned into me just as we took our seats and whispered softly. “Is it just me, or are the Nevarrans one short?” Then she put up a face of polite patience as she sat down and flipped out her fan. Following her gaze as I sat down next to her, I counted the Nevarrans I'd witnessed upon my arrival. They'd been six, including the mage. Now they were five.

My stomach churned.

“Remember to smile,” Jeanette whispered and I managed to force one out. Just in time as the Goose sat down beside me, followed closely by the rest.

I took stock of my surroundings. The canopy behind and above us offered plenty of shade, and I was seated near the outer corner, where stood a chevalier. Wooden floorboards kept us shielded from any attacks from below. The exposed areas were to the side and front, though any would-be attacks from the former would probably be intercepted by a shield quickly enough. If anyone wanted to take out the chevalier first, backstabbing wasn't an option – cutting open the fabric would alert the warriors and give them time to react. It seemed the only way to attack was from the front. That would have to be over a distance of the seats in front of us, the square arena below us and a good acre of green grass that eventually translated into a small forest.

Unless the chevalier behind me was a Nevarran assassin in disguise – or the Orlesians planned to off me for reasons I had yet to deduce – it was going to be quite difficult to kill me.

Then again, the Nevarrans were within range and there was one of them off somewhere, lurking. After making sure the Orlesians' attention was elsewhere, I put my hands in my lap so my right one came to rest on top of my ring.

White tents stood on either side of the arena, with more chevaliers on one end and Avvar warriors near the other. Thorin, I noticed, didn't sit with the nobles. Instead he and his fellow dwarves hovered near their brontos. Closer to the arena were the elves, though a few remained with the halla. The Fereldan soldiers stood further back than even the dwarves. Next to them stood the Nevarrans. I briefly wondered if there was a way to warn the Fereldans, but I unwillingly pushed the thought aside. They wouldn't believe some heathen apostate.

It didn't take long for the rest to get seated and then a herald stepped up to inform us of the match that was about to begin. Ragnar, as he declared, was a “fierce, Avvar warrior” who would fight for the “honour to battle alongside the mighty chevaliers against Orlais' enemies”. This drummed up the crowd something fierce, not only with a round of applause, but the excited mutters that followed as well.

Orlesians spun their tales in such interesting ways. Still, it did much to soothe hurt pride, and for that I was glad.

Etienne was introduced first. Well known to the Orlesians, judging from the applause he received, he stepped out, shield in one hand and a wooden sword in the other. He wore his plumed helmet, thought it was open in the front.

The excitement – and subsequent tension – in the air was high. My own stomach was all a-flutter. The Avvar weren't my ancestors, but they were the closest thing I could find in Thedas. Projecting my deep-seated cultural roots on them was ill-advised, but even I felt a sense of belonging as Ragnar stepped out on the arena. He'd put on his helmet, as viking as it could get, and carried a shield and wooden sword of his own.

Both warriors took their places before the crowd and bowed to us. Nothing more was said – a chevalier form of address didn't apply to an Avvar, I guessed. They did bow to each other, however, and for a split second I held my breath.

Then the herald declared the match begin.

Chapter Text

They began by circling each other, like cats moving around their prey. Measuring each other, looking for potential openings that would grant them victory. Both had their shields up, wooden swords held above them. Examining, anticipating, their poses and movements perfect replicas of each other. Murmurs could be heard among the crowd, some surprised and others disappointed that Ragnar didn't just attack like an unthinking brute. The sun reflected off of Etienne's breastplate, which caused me to look away from him when the glint hit my eyes.

The swell of pride I felt was undeniable, but I did my best to keep myself in check. Ragnar wasn't one of my people, even though he wanted me to be.

It seemed to take forever for either of the two to find an opening. As it lagged on, the audience members began to lose their patience. Murmurs turned into muttering and muttering turned into a buzz as more and more nobles got involved. Like a cacophany of complaints, drowning out the silent dance that went on before us.

I kept my eyes on the two warriors. Despite my reservations and the full context of this matter, I could do no less. For Ragnar's sake as much as my own. Although he had his own ambitions invested in this, he had opted to include me in a way that privileged me as much as it bound me. Not to mention he was the one fighting a chevalier, not me.

The viking culture may have died out one thousand years before I was born, but I wouldn't dishonour two warriors by ignoring them in favour of whining.

Etienne began, and his first step alone silenced many onlookers. He moved in with precision and grace, his shield and sword still high. His strikes seemed a bit too light, however, even to my novice eyes. Ragnar defended against them easily, quickly though they both moved. I couldn't see his face, but Ragnar's aura suggested he was irritated. Etienne, on the other hand, radiated satisfaction.

Was the chevalier deliberately going easy on him in order to insult him?

How proud was Ragnar? If his aura was anything to go by, quite so. Etienne's strikes continued to be mockingly light. His attacks were not at all what I expected from the Goose's finest chevalier. Apparently several of the audience members noticed as well, especially Fergus who began calling for a “real match”. He and his men even started booing.

Ragnar's aura shifted so quickly I could barely register it. Even quicker, he had Etienne on the defensive, driving him backwards towards his tent. His strikes were equally light, both fast and precise, with feints that kept Etienne busy parrying with both sword and shield. The crowd gasped, though some of them laughed.

Poetic justice in action. There wasn't much difference between Avvar and vikings in that respect.

One misstep from Ragnar, however, and Prince Charming was on the offensive again. Serious about it this time. His strikes were still fast and calculated, but much harder than before. The Orlesians cheered even as the two warriors grunted and their wooden weapons cracked and clacked against each other.

Ragnar's aura held excitement now. Etienne's earlier satisfaction had vanished like water droplets under a scorching sun. Still, the chevalier remained true to his training and discipline and showed no sign of losing his cool. He moved in to deflect Ragnar's shield with his own and his wooden sword went in at the same time. I saw the Avvar's shield turn inward and leave his chest exposed. His sword arm would become useless, I realised, as the edge of Etienne's shield would connect with his armpit.

My heart was in my throat as I expected the final blow. Ragnar, however, turned sideways at a startling pace. He flipped his shield downward as he did so, leaving Etienne's shield to face empty air. This put Ragnar in the convenient position to come bearing down on the chevalier's shield arm.

I wasn't even sure how I'd registered all of that, but then Ragnar was on the offensive again. Etienne only barely managed to retract his shield arm in time. The Avvar didn't seem concerned with finesse anymore, however. The chevalier was momentarily off balance as he readjusted his footing. In that moment Ragnar rushed him, shield leading, and knocked him off his feet.

Etienne let out a yelp at the impact and went crashing into the ground with a grunt. Gravel sprayed everywhere and his arms landed at his sides, leaving him fully exposed.

As expected from an Avvar, Ragnar didn't give his opponent an inch. He dove in with shield and sword, Etienne's defence feeble at best. Ragnar used the same move that the chevalier had attempted on him. Etienne's sword arm was rendered useless and Ragnar raised his wooden sword for the strike, a battle cry on his lips.

Etienne released his shield, however, and let it fall down on his chest. Thus the Avvar's victory had been effectively denied. He then grabbed the wrist on Ragnar's sword arm before he could raise it again. In response, Ragnar released his own shield and let it smack down on the chevalier's sword arm. He then jumped on top of Etienne, with one leg to add further pressure to the man's trapped arm. Etienne cried out in pain, and I feared for a moment that he'd broken something. The Avvar's other leg landed on the chevalier's discarded shield and applied further pressure to his chest. What cry had come from the Orlesian now turned into a grunt.

Using his free hand, Ragnar opened the visor on Etienne's helmet and punched him in the face. Then he punched him again and a third time. The Orlesian's grip on his wrist remained strong, however. There even seemed to be some movement of his trapped arm. Ragnar's punches ceased and his weight shifted to apply more pressure to that arm. A pained cry from Etienne sounded. Despite how he kept up the fight, it was hard to see how he could free himself from this deadlock. Etienne punched the Avvar in the side, but if Ragnar noticed, he didn't show it. Instead Ragnar punched him a fourth time while twisting his sword arm free. The chevalier groaned and his head lolled to the side. A stunned silence came from the audience.

The Avvar's wooden sword came down towards the Orlesian's exposed face... and then an arrow came flying from the woods and struck Ragnar in his thigh.

At first I didn't register how that had happened, but the Avvar froze. Before anyone could ask what had happened, the chevalier snarled with anger, his free hand went up and he grabbed Ragnar by his chain. Bucking his hips, he then yanked his opponent off by pulling him to the side. Another arrow followed the first only to strike the ground instead.

Someone had just intervened in the match. With arrows.

“Now!” the Nevarran ambassador called out and all five rose from their seats and discarded their cloaks. Heavy armour gleamed under the sun and everyone except the mage drew their swords. They then marched on Ragnar and Etienne, even as they both lay on the ground. “Kill the heathens!”

Shit, fuck, shitsticks! I'd been so concerned with protecting myself it hadn't occurred to me that they'd go straight for Ragnar!

Pained screams sounded behind us and I turned to see Fereldan soldiers cut down by Nevarrans. Full panic broke out among the audience, the screams almost deafening out the sound of the tear in the canopy.

I jumped straight into the Otherworld.

To my surprise, all the people around me seemed to move at an incredibly slow pace, if they moved at all. I saw my guardian angel in front of me, along with the gorgons and furies. It was tempting to shout “sic 'em”, but they were a defensive front, not an offensive one, and only where hostile magic was concerned, not mundane attacks. Not that I considered myself to have the time I needed to bark out orders anyway. My main focus was, in fact, two-fold.

First one was to find the source of the tear and prevent any would-be assassins from taking out the chevalier behind me. I moved as if through syrup, but even as I did so the Thedosian warrior didn't even move. Not even the feathers on his helmet. It was, in fact, as if the world of Thedas had been frozen in time.

Did that mean I could move at supersonic speed?

I'd have stopped to ponder this if not for my more immediate concerns. Looking around, I found the tip of a blade piercing through the fabric behind me. Moving around and finding I could levitate in this world as well, I went to on top of the canopy and looked over it. Below me was the sixth Nevarran.

An assassin. Looking past him, he didn't come alone.

Moving in to flank the Fereldans was a group of templars. They weren't even focused on just the Avvar, these assholes attacked everyone.

I pulled out my dagger from underneath the petticoat, the one that Improvisation Guy had given me, and descended behind the Nevarran. My stomach churned even as a part of me told me this was necessary. I tried to raise the knife to the man's throat, but my hand wouldn't move.

However I tried to justify it, I couldn't get myself to kill another human being. There had to be another way. I lowered the blade and put it back inside its sheath. Then I studied the man in front of me and our current surroundings.

A mischievous idea struck almost immediately. The man stood close enough to the edge on his left flank for one particular move to be effective. Grabbing the petticoat, crinoline cage, kirtle and gown, I raised them high enough and then kicked out. My foot connected with the killer's side and although his movements were painfully slow, even compared to mine, he did tilt to the side.

In the distance I saw þora with her mouth wide open, as if yelling out an order to the other Avvar. Arrows hung in the air, heading straight towards Ragnar and Etienne.

I didn't think I could take on a group of templars on my own. There was no telling how their powers would work on me. I was quite certain about the effects of their swords, though.

That didn't mean I couldn't sabotage their efforts.

This time I went to the elves. I didn't think Aenor could hear me from this place, so I materialised beside him, much to his surprise. He had a dagger out in no time, but stopped himself just shy of my throat when he saw it was me. “Alva!” He blinked and looked to the audience before looking to me.

“Please help the Fereldans against the templars,” I said and then slipped back into the Otherworld. Aenor's shocked look remained frozen in place even as I moved towards the dwarves. I figured they'd be more startled than the elves, so I made sure to step back into Thedas behind the tent, where no-one could see me. Then I walked up to Thorin.

“Alva,” he called out, surprised to see me and shooting the same confused glance to the panicked crowd of nobles as Aenor had. Unlike with the elf, I didn't expect him to jump to the opportunity if I requested anything of him, so I decided on a different tactic to get the dwarves to help out.

“There's archers in the forest,” I said before he could ask me how I got here so quickly. “Probably working with the Nevarrans. Probably heavily armoured templars. More templars are sneaking up on the Fereldans as we speak. They're attacking everyone, not just Avvar. Chances are they'll attack you too.” Then I disappeared back into the Otherworld.

I tried very hard not to think of the bodies of Fereldan soldiers behind me. Ragnar and Etienne were the next on my list. More arrows flew towards them, though still suspended in air for me. Etienne had blocked some, even stepped in between them and Ragnar. The shoulder on his sword arm had an arrow sticking out of it, however. The Avvar warrior was still down, clutching his leg with a pained look on his face. I wasn't sure if I could slash through the missiles, even if I stood next to them and held Improvisation's Guy's knife in my hand. Perhaps I could surprise the Nevarrans, but that would bring me closer to their mage than I was comfortable with.

Could I simply grab the arrows?

Once that thought crossed my mind, it tickled my funny bone something fierce. I couldn't resist anything that tickled my funny bone.

The first arrow was the one closest to the previously fighting pair. I moved up next to it and moved my hand in a downwards chop. It went right through the missile.

Well, shit. Plan B. This was also an excellent way to test how quickly my mind, body and magic worked.

I raised my hand once more, placed it as close to the arrow as I could, and slipped back into Thedas. Immediately I struck down, felt my hand connect, and saw the missile fall to the ground. A successful interception. Then I slipped back into the Otherworld and went to the next.

Naturally, they moved faster once I was in Thedas, but in the Otherworld it was as if they stood still. With this power from Hecate at my disposal I managed to intercept each and every one. I briefly wondered if I could do some damage in the forest, but reminded myself that the attackers were templars. Chances were they could sense my presence, even in the Otherworld. I'd have to learn some very powerful cloaking magic before I could take on their ilk. Same with mages, most likely.

Not to mention I seemed unable to interact with objects that were in the physical world.

The Nevarrans were closing in on Ragnar and Etienne. Faster than þora and her shield-bearing warriors could intercept them. On their left the chevaliers came at the Nevarrans, swords and shields in hand.

While I'd no doubt helped them with the arrows, that was only a temporary solution. The Nevarrans had to be distracted, even for a short time. Their focus was on Ragnar, but what if a much more precious prize was to land in their laps?

My champion had better not say I never did my best for him. I moved to stand between him and his attackers and then I slipped back into the world of Thedas.

Everything sped back up, but the Nevarrans paused in their steps when they saw me. I shot them a cocky smirk. “Hey there.”

Their hesitation cost them. The chevaliers caught up and I slipped back into the Otherworld. Then I set to work deflecting more arrows. Þora, I noticed, was only a few steps away from intercepting them once I'd finished the first round. I kept sabotaging the archers until the shield wall was in place. Meanwhile, the chevaliers made short work of the shield-less Nevarrans. They kept the ambassador alive, probably to interrogate him. I didn't see the necromancer among them, though, and that worried me.

I moved back to Ragnar and our new chevalier ally and crouched down next to them. Once I was back in the physical world, the Avvar greeted me with a grimace. “It's poisoned,” he said and nodded at the arrow. “Just touching it is enough.”

Oh fuck. I immediately dipped my hand into my antidote pocket. I fumbled with the flasks for a while, but finally grabbed one and drank it. “Did you drink one?” I asked. Ragnar nodded. “What about Etienne?” As if in response, the Orlesian fell back from the shield wall, sweating profusely. His skin was unnaturally pale and he looked as if he was about to vomit. I fished out another antidote and handed it to him. “It's a universal antidote.”

He looked at me and the bottle hesitantly. “What kind of magic did you just employ?”

I quickly scoured my brain for an Inquisition spell that could fit. Then I gave it an Avvari flair. “A variation of Dream Step. I suppose here in the lowlands you know it as Fade Step.” It was a lie, but at that point, I didn't care. If it was familiar to a spell they knew, then it would help ease concerns. Somewhat. Not to mention it was better than accusations of posession. I held out the antidote to him and, after another split second of hesitation, he took it. Then he downed the content. I turned my attention back to Ragnar, or more specifically, the arrow in his leg.

From what I'd seen of the arrowheads, they were indeed sharp, but also the lanceolate kind. That meant they had no edges with which to resist being pulled back out. I'd have to move quickly to close the wound, however. One of the downsides of pulling out arrows was that the blood had a nasty tendency to follow.

Not that I had any personal experience pulling arrows out of people's bodies. Yet.

I placed one hand near the puncture wound and another around the projectile. Then I gathered all my strength and pulled. The arrow came free with some effort and so did the blood. I immediately placed my free hand over the wound. Once I'd dropped the arrow, I placed my other hand over the wound as well and poured healing magic into his leg. I noticed the Antivans, elves and what remained of the Fereldans were busy protecting the nobles from the templars.

They were easily outnumbered, however, and the dwarves nowhere to be seen. Not to mention the arena was hardly the best place for civilians to be, with attacks coming in on two fronts.

Etienne barked orders to his chevaliers to help protect the nobles while two remain to make sure the ambassador didn't come up with any mischief. The templars were given pause when the chevaliers moved against them as well.

I couldn't help but wonder where the Comtesse's regular soldiers and militia were. Had the Nevarran assassin killed them all in order to help smuggle in the templars? Or had they simply been replaced by templars in disguise? Either way it didn't look good for this area's security.

The sooner these fanatical meatheads were put down, the better.

First on my list of concerns was to heal Etienne's wound. He already looked several shades better and pulled the arrow out on his own.

“Healing?” I asked and held up my bloodied hands. Etienne sent me a sceptical look. “I don't need to touch the actual wound in order to heal it, Monsieur.”

“Fair enough,” he shot back before adding, “if you would, please, Your Majesty.”

He hadn't forgotten his manners, even in the thick of battle. I placed one hand on his upper arm and another on the back of his shoulder joint. Then I healed him as well. Ragnar had moved up into a standing position at this point and added to the shield wall. Without me out there to intercept the arrows, the missiles were fired at us relentlessly. Unless someone managed to deal with the archers, we'd be stuck here for some time.

It would be even worse if the templars had some surprises in store.

Once Etienne was fully healed, he put his helmet back on, grabbed his shield and re-joined the wall. That left me to my own devices again.

My favourite state of being.

The problem was that I was unsure where to go. I could return to intercepting arrows, but the Avvar and Etienne seemed to have that handled. Deciding to buy myself some time, I slipped back into the Otherworld and pondered my options. I saw the assassin from before, lying in a pool of his own blood on the ground. The templars looked to be retreating from the combined forces of Fereldans, elves and chevaliers. Lord Otranto and his men were busy herding the non-combatant nobles to safety.

There was still a death mage at large, however.

Try as I might, I couldn't find him anywhere. Was there a way for Thedosian mages to become invisible? I'd never heard of such a thing.

I closed my eyes and focused my will on my brief interaction with the necromancer, but all I got was psychic noise. Of course I couldn't track someone without holding an item that was important to them. Since I didn't know this guy, I had no idea what that would be.

Unless the ambassador was important to him? They would certainly have some kind of bond. Professional at the very least.

Said diplomat probably wouldn't willingly cooperate with me, and I didn't have the time or inclination to argue with someone who wanted to kill me. The chevaliers had knocked him unconscious anyway and were dragging him away. Well, they were frozen in that position, from my perspective. I couldn't interact with items while I was in this place, but I could do so with people.

I placed my hand on the unconscious man's head and re-focused on my memory of the mage. The path to him lit up like a long line of Christmas lights. He hid behind the coaches, flames leaping from his fingertips and his gaze not on the soldiers.

They were fixated on the nobles. Mister Jerkface planned to murder civilians.

My blood boiled. Not on my watch, Pompous McGraverobber.

Removing my hand from his employer, I moved as close as I dared. Then I cast my dispelling spell and watched as black energy poured out from my fingertips. It flew so fast my eyes could barely keep up, and surrounded the mage even faster. His flames were effectively doused and I looked around for something to use.

All I could find were wooden sticks, a shield and a metal helmet. Nothing that let me attack from a distance. Unless I threw the shield? Nobody else seemed to be using it. In fact it just stood there by its lonesome.

The necromancer's head could keep it company.

I had to return to the physical world to pick it up, so I did. As it turned out, the shield was a lot heavier than I had at first thought. I managed to lift it, and I'd be able to carry it for a while, but there was no denying that I had some serious weightlifting to do once I was back with the elves.

I turned just in time for the mage to spot me. The confused gaze he'd shot at his non-burning hands quickly turned to an angry snarl. Then he pointed his finger at me, words spilling forth from his lips from some language I didn't know. The effect was obvious, though, as electricity began to crackle around his fingers.

Common sense dictated that I should slip back into the Otherworld before the spell could launch, but I was frozen in place with shock, fear and an inappropriate sense of wonder.

Leave it to me to admire the handiwork of the enemy mage as he was about to kill me.

“Alva!” Aenor's voice rang loud and clear over the noise of the battlefield and snapped me out of my haze. I slipped back into the Otherworld just as arrows rained down on the templars and the Nevarran's lightning bolt shot forth. All of them froze, a bizarre display to watch as I moved to safety. The shield was heavy in my hands, even in this world. I raised it high and chucked it at the mage. It flew slowly, as slowly as I moved, and I fully expected it to connect.

Instead it went through the necromancer, like knife through butter, and landed on the ground with an uncaring 'thud'.

Of course! I'd brought the shield into the Otherworld, that meant it was as much of this place as I was. If I wanted to affect the death mage with a physical item, I had to get in close and dirty in the world of Thedas.

Alternatively I could kick him too. The way he leaned forward, his position had him off-balance. It would be an easy enough thing to send him sprawling. Still, there was the chance that he'd sense me and use his magic against me.

In fact, the whole point of throwing that shield was so I didn't get close.

I dispelled the lightning bolt before thinking out my next move. Turning around, I saw Aenor running towards the spot where I'd stood. A distance away from that was a templar about to break free from a chevalier's deadlock. His sword was falling to the ground, but a dagger had slipped free underneath his wrist.

That dagger was slowly ascending into the chevalier's unguarded side.

The limitations to this new power of mine were immensely frustrating!

I wasn't brave. Most of my life I'd avoided fights and confrontations. Ironically a part of me kept telling me to get involved, to risk myself because reasons. That voice nagged at me right now, despite how common sense dictated a civilian like me should just find a hiding spot and sit this one out. I didn't have Blue with me, my repertoire of spells was limited and I had no military training. If anything, I was a wild card who got lucky more times than I deserved.

It wasn't fair that these people were under attack. Most of them were probably regular Chantry-goers, fully expecting the templars to protect them. While I cared about monotheism and its institutions about as much as I did the Kardashians, which was not at all, I could relate all too well to the pain that followed a breach of trust. These templars were traitors through and through, not unlike my own former coven.

Fuck personal safety.

First I went and picked up the shield. I winked back into Thedas before any more time could pass and hit the mage over the head with the shield. He grunted and crumpled to the ground. Then I slipped back into the Otherworld and approached the fanatical fuckface.

Unfortunately, it wasn't quick enough to prevent the chevalier from getting stabbed. The Orlesian warrior stiffened and there was a triumphant grin on the templar's face.

I wasn't about to let him keep it.

It seemed he'd expected me, however, and I felt the world around me disappear a moment too soon. His shield came straight for my face and it was all I could do to block with my borrowed-without-permission shield. The force of it was greater than I expected and sent me stumbling backwards, but to my credit I managed to stay on my feet.

That probably wouldn't last long considering my zero experience with combat.

I tried slipping back into the Otherworld, but nothing happened. Apparently whatever he'd done had not only countered my magic, but also nullified my power. Behind the templar, the chevalier dropped to his knees.

Sweet Hecate I hoped this current state was temporary.

A sizzling arrow was blocked by the templar's shield. Aenor picked out another arrow and nocked it at a pace that Legolas would envy. Then, to the holy warrior's pained shock, the chevalier reached up with his sword and plunged it into his side.

I shared the templar's surprise.

The remaining Chantry traitors were promptly defeated. My timely rescuer didn't get back up, however. Rather, he fell forward and was about to crash into the ground. I ran towards him and threw my shield at a templar who thought it a great idea to try to stab the vulnerable warrior. It smacked him right in the face and he stumbled into Fergus who made short work of him.

Even though the teyrn had defeated him, I felt somewhat accomplished. Or at the very least, that I had contributed. Regardless, this fight would probably be the talk of the tavern later.

I almost managed to break the chevalier's fall, but it was a clumsy and awkward thing where, at best, I managed to get him to lie on his back. It was probably not a good idea to try to get him to sit back up again. Then I placed my hands near his wound and willed healing magic to pour into it.

Nothing happened.

Mocking laughter sounded from a nearby templar, the one I'd thrown a shield at. “What's wrong, witch? Lost your magic?” He grinned at me wickedly.

I felt the effect of the templar's nullifying ability, even now. It was as if a part of me had died and I was dragging my feet through mud trying to revive it. My heartbeat quickened and I took a deep, steadying breath even as my stomach twisted into knots. I had to save this man who had saved me, it was only right. Even though he was Orlesian, and probably some pampered rapist in his spare time. I owed him.

Reaching deep within myself, I felt one thing, something no neutralising spell could take away from me.

Hecate.

It was probably highly blasphemous to call upon the goddess of the crossroads around so many Andrastians, but I'd take whatever consequences of it if it meant saving this chevalier's life. Unless it was flogging. I hoped I wouldn't get flogged.

I called upon Soteira the saviour, Megiste the greatest and Aidônaia, Lady of the Underworld. First I begged Soteira to save the wounded chevalier and heal his wounds. Next I asked Megiste and Aidônaia to restore my magic and deny the templars their victory. My prayers were not even a whisper, however. Rather, they were in my mind, holding on to that precious connection that gave my life meaning.

It took three tries before my hands lit up with golden healing magic. Gasps and whispers sounded from the surviving nobles and I could feel the anger and disappointment coming from the cocky templar. I had no control over where the energy went, but it was warm, much warmer than when I performed healing on my own. It spread through me as much as it did the warrior and I saw a silvery glitter mix in with the light. Flames came next, bursting forth from my form and making it look like I was on fire. This caused the gasps to turn into hollers and even screams, yet neither I nor my clothes burned. Rather, I felt a re-kindling within me, a transforming fire that brought my magical self back to life. Then it sizzled out and I looked to see the chevalier's injury all healed.

A deep-seated sigh escaped his lips and he lay still. He was breathing and he was warm, but he remained where he was. Also, his gaze was fixed on me.

If I wasn't the talk of the town before, I definitely was now.

“How do you feel?” I asked the chevalier as I placed my hands on the grass and let the remaining energy pour into it, grounding me.

There was a slight pause before he reached up and raised his visor enough so I could see his face. He was older than Etienne and had an Asterix-esque moustache. His face was set in a frown even as he answered. “Alive. No more wounds if that's what you're wondering.”

“Bloody witch,” the templar spat.

“I don't recall claiming otherwise,” I quipped, but my joke was lost on the crowd that even now stared at me with an equal mix of awe and concern.

Alva gained: mythical reputation. Add to inventory? [YES] [NO]

I had just restored my powers after a templar had annulled them. While it probably wasn't permanent, it was no doubt meant to have some kind of cooldown period. One that I had effectively cheated. Not to mention I'd been on fire without actually burning. All the courtesy of Hecate.

There were going to be so many questions. Or, rather, interrogations. If I wasn't executed first. My stomach churned. I hoped against reason they wouldn't execute me.

Unless I could bullshit my way out of this. None of these people knew anything about the magical traditions of the Avvar, apart from fledgling rumours. Yes, I could still survive this if I was simply convincing enough.

To my relief, the templar even helped me. “You heathens and your blasphemous practices. We should have known you'd developed a technique to counter our powers.”

That's right buddy, keep telling yourself and everyone else here that.

Deciding to play it up a bit further, I shot him a sardonic smile. “What can I say? Templar thugs are nothing new to my people. It would be foolish to not find ways to protect ourselves.”

“Alva!” It was Jeanette's voice. Definitely my preferred conversation partner right now. I turned to her and got back up at the same time. To my surprise, Ragnar, Etienne and everyone else in the shield wall were mounted on horses and war nugs, riding hard and fast for the woods. The nugs, in particular, were quite eager. Even the ones who lacked riders charged forth with loud squeaks.

It was almost adorable in its ferocity. Or would that be ferocious in its cuteness? I briefly wondered who had managed to buy them the time they needed. Thorin's knee-breakers, perhaps?

Jeanette caught up to me, and she didn't look happy. “Look what you did to your dress! And those gloves! Maker's breath, what were you thinking?”

Looking down, I saw the skirt had become covered in dirt and dust, even some spots of grass. My gloves had blood on them as well. While I understood the dwarf's perspective and ordinarily I'd have a smartass response to throw her way, I wasn't in the mood for empathy or snark. “I was thinking that my forces and allies could use a little help. Though you're right, armour would have been better suited for this, but that wasn't available to me at the time.”

My defensive tone caught her off guard and she paused. The look on her face was that of surprise – perhaps due to the fact that I'd just stood up for myself – and she even took a step back. All around us, Fereldans, Orlesians and elves rounded up the surviving templars and Nevarrans, including the ambassador and death mage. The former had his hands bound behind his back, but the latter was both gagged and blindfolded. Just as well, considering what he was capable of.

Jeanette nodded. “You're right, of course. Ah, but Alva, you really should come with me so I can at least fix your hair.”

As if on cue, a long, rebellious lock flew in front of my eyes and smacked me on the lips. I blew it away only for it to resume its previous position. Light laughter sounded from the crowd, suggesting some of the initial tension was gone.

The dwarf wasn't finished fussing and fretting, however. “We put so much work into this, now look at it.” She stared at me from top to toe, her eyes filled with despair, and let out a frustrated sigh.

“Come now,” Fergus cut in, “it's not a proper Avvar dress until she's fought in it.” Then he offered me a friendly smile. “I think more of us would be dead without your help, Your Majesty. Thank you.”

I blinked and was temporarily gobsmacked by this act of kindness. Sarcasm, vitriol and hate I could handle. Compliments, gratitude and compassion, not so much. I shrugged, despite the bubbling excitement in my gut and the ensuing dread that came with it. It was all too obvious what would happen if I ended up on some kind of pedestal. “I strive to be good to my friends, Your Lordship.”

“More than merely good, I would argue,” he shot back and offered me a curt bow. “Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a family to see to.”

“Of course,” I replied without fully realising what had happened. Two more seconds passed before it finally sunk in.

The teyrn of Ferelden had asked for my leave. Mine. Someone he thought was just an Avvar apostate. In Orlais, where we were both guests. Far outside of any jurisdiction he believed I had.

That was bound to get picked up by the Orlesians. Not to mention the Antivans.

However, a part of me was too giddy to care. I knew what hardships and prejudices mages from the Circles faced. For apostates it was much worse. Morrigan and Flemeth had been hunted from time to time, and mage children among the Chasind faced similar harassments. To meet with acceptance of any kind wasn't something I'd expected, which made Fergus' words all the more surprising.

They also made me very happy, especially considering how Fereldans were more clear-cut and dry when it came to the kinds of behaviour they approved of. Things weren't so easy with the others.

Especially considering the silent stare the Goose sent me. She and the Marquise both. Gods knew what went on inside their twisted minds.

Lord Otranto and his sister was another pair of nobles I caught looking at me. Maskless though they were, their faces were as unreadable as that of their Orlesian counterparts. That was, until Lady Otranto broke away from her brother and strode towards me with steady, determined steps.

She'd been the most openly sceptical towards me out of all the nobles I'd met, the Nevarrans not included. It wouldn't surprise me if she was about to stab me. Her face certainly didn't look friendly. I met her gaze squarely, however, refusing to be intimidated. At the first sign of an attack, I would slip into the Otherworld.

Her footsteps stopped about half a meter away from me and she immediately straightened. “I count both templars and mages among my family members, Your Majesty. While I'm neither myself, I've always had a keen interest in magic and spent many years studying the theory of it. I would like to know how you managed to counter the heretical templar's neutralising ability.”

Well, this could go downhill quickly. I saw the Goose and the Marquise moving closer out of the corner of my eye. “Technically, I didn't do anything.” It was as close to the truth as I could get.

“I didn't think so either,” she conceded, her gaze piercing through me and her lips downturned. “You tried, but you received outside help. Did you not?”

“Probably,” I agreed. More nobles gathered around me, probably ready to string me up for what they believed to be demonic possession.

“Yet of all the spirits the Circles have studied, none of them display that kind of power,” she went on. Burning at the stake starting in three... two... “Only the Holy Andraste could have accomplished such a thing.”

My jaw dropped and my eyes widened. Say what now?

Judging from the mutters that spread throughout the crowd, it sounded as if I wasn't the only one who didn't believe it.

I had to stop this madness while I could. There was already the Herald of Andraste, and that was more than enough. I certainly didn't need any Chantry connections or some kind of cult-like following. Especially since I had no way to impact Fade rifts, let alone the Breach. That was the future Inquisitor's job, and I doubted said person would appreciate any competition.

“You're wrong,” I argued and searched my mind for names of the Avvar gods that Ragnar had given me a crash course in. “My clan revers Heid, our goddess of magic. I didn't think it popular to call upon her with my voice, so I prayed to her in my mind. It was she who saved me, not your Andraste.”

Rather the noose now than the anger of thousands of faithful later.

Lady Otranto didn't look convinced. “Andraste was purified by flame before ascending to the Maker's side.”

“Gullveig was Heid's name before she was burned by the gods three times,” I parried, though this part was norse mythology rather than Avvar tales. Hopefully Ragnar and the other Avvar would back me up. “Each time she rose from the ashes until she became Heid, the most powerful mage my people has ever seen. Then she ascended and became a goddess in her own right.”

Stunned silence followed.

“Makes sense,” a Fereldan soldier muttered and shrugged.

“Your Andraste wouldn't save someone who doesn't even believe in her,” I went on. “As for your circles, I doubt the Chantry would approve of them studying the magical traditions of my people, let alone our gods. So they probably never knew to begin with.”

“Your so-called 'gods' are nothing more than spirits,” the Antivan countered with a frown.

“But they are real nevertheless,” I shot back, “and one of them saved me.”

Hesitation came to Lady Otranto's face, yet a stubborn determination shone in her eyes. “Not through possession, I trust?”

“In this place, under these circumstances?” I felt disgusted by the mere thought. “No. That would be extremely irresponsible. What I did was a simple petition for aid, nothing more.”

Not that I could actually prove that I wasn't possessed, and I doubted any of these templars were about to help me. Still, I was a far cry from those insane abominations in Origins.

“Please allow me to apologise in advance, Your Majesty,” the chevalier I'd saved the life of said, now back on his feet. He drew his sword quickly and held the blade to my throat. Lady Otranto immediately backed away. “I do this purely for your benefit.” I heard the sounds of war nugs and horses in the distance. Ragnar was returning, but all too slowly.

“Are you out of your mind?” Teyrn Cousland stepped back in, accompanied by his soldiers and the Dalish elves. They were met by chevaliers and Antivans, in turn. The ones who weren't busy putting the surviving templars and Nevarrans in chains. “She's clearly not an abomination! If she was, she would have gone on a rampage right now.”

“Some demons are more cunning than others,” the Orlesian warrior argued, his eyes still glued to me. My heart was in my throat and my eyes wide. “Please look at me, Your Majesty.”

“Please, ser,” Jeanette pleaded, “she's not possessed. Look at her, she's terrified.”

“She could slip away from you easily even without a demon,” Aenor added. “We all saw how quickly she moved in order to help us fight our enemies. Yet she hasn't fled now or attacked you.”

“Indeed,” the chevalier agreed. “Pray tell, Your Majesty, why is that?” His brown eyes were glued to me.

I swallowed hard and took a deep breath to settle the knot in my stomach. “Because you're wrong about me. I'm not an abomination.” My voice was shaky despite my best efforts. Then again, it wasn't every day I had a sword under my chin.

“What's your full name?” he pressed.

“Alva Charlotte Sylviadottir,” I replied, surprised at myself for remembering the wrong family name. Well, it wouldn't have been wrong on Iceland. My mind felt as if I was in a haze, like my spirit was already eager to leave.

“In the name of the Maker and his bride, Andraste,” he continued, “are you Alva Charlotte Sylviadottir?”

Oh, he knew that trick too! That was a lot better than getting my throat slit. Still, the sword was unnecessary.

“Yes,” I managed to say.

He repeated the question twice. Both times I replied with an affirmative. My eyes were glued to his the whole time. A short silence followed after the third “yes”, but the blade didn't leave my throat. I heard Ragnar shout in the distance and he drew his sword. Etienne called for his fellow chevalier to lower his.

I slowly raised my hand to Ragnar, palm facing him. He halted in his tracks. Even the riderless war nugs stopped. Tension was high all around. My pulse raced with the speed of a galloping horse.

Then the chevalier's expression softened. “I believe you.” He lowered his sword, sheathed it and bowed low. “I'm very sorry, Your Majesty, but I didn't trust these templars to be fair in their assessment of you.” Then he raised his head. “I also didn't want this crowd of noble men and women to turn into an angry mob.” He straighened and turned to face the mixed group I'd helped save. “My brother was a templar who was murdered by these,” he waved his hand at the couple of templars still alive, “filthy heretics. He taught me several tricks on how to identify an abomination. Her Majesty isn't one, I believe that with all my heart.”

The crowd finally settled down, though Fergus still glared at the chevalier. Ragnar had his mount move him closer and, judging from the look on his face and overall body language, he was, for lack of a better word, angry. He quickly dismounted, even as Etienne trotted up behind him. Mr. Moustache turned just in time to receive a punch to the face that sent him sprawling.

Mocking laughter and hooting broke out among the templars.

“Ragnar!” I yelled, but he was too angry to pay attention to me. Instead he leaned down, picked the middle-aged warrior up by his breastplate and punched him again. Behind him, Etienne drew his sword. Several Avvar warriors rushed past him, however, hands reaching for their leader.

“Is this how you repay those who help you?” He both looked and sounded like an angry Ragnar Loðbrokk from the Vikings TV show. “You turn your blades on your own allies?”

The other Avvar finally reached him and managed to extract him from the prone chevalier before he could be beaten to death. Still, Ragnar struggled against their grasp, resorting to words in place of his fists.

“What a great warrior you must be!” Ragnar wore a smile now, which in Vikings had been bad. “Afraid of one mage!” He tore himself free just as the Orlesian was back up on his feet. “I bet you feel very manly now! A pride of the chevaliers, to be sure.”

This time some of the templars let out impressed “ooooh”s.

Great. My champion had just signed his death warrant. Not to mention his macho act was getting on my nerves. “Ragnar!” I yelled louder this time, but again he ignored me. He was headed straight for the older man.

Now that just straight up pissed me off.

I stepped in between them. That caught Ragnar's attention, even caused him to stop. “What?” the Avvar asked, barely able to keep the anger out of his voice. My eyes narrowed dangerously, a silent warning on how I felt about his disrespect. He rewarded me with a look of hesitation.

“Enough!” My voice was loud and clear. He was easily a head taller than me and could probably shove me aside with ease if he so wanted to. Still I stood my ground. “I'm as insulted as you are, so challenge him to a duel if you must.” Shocked gasps sounded all around us. I knew I couldn't dissuade either of the two from fighting each other to the death after what had just happened. Ragnar's insults were obvious, and the chevalier had pointed his sword at me. Both their cultures held honour in too high regard to simply let this go. And, if I was completely honest, I wasn't sure I could let this go either. “But do so after we've defeated the mages and templars. This,” I motioned to both warriors, “is exactly the sort of infighting we don't need right now.”

“Doesn't look like a very stable alliance to me,” remarked the templar who had mocked me earlier. He earned a kick in the face from a chevalier.

I turned to face him directly. “I beg to differ. His questionable tactic aside, this man intended only to help me. I trust him in our fight against you and nothing you say will change that.”

“Even though you just told your own warrior to kill him?” The templar spat on the ground in response.

“It's called honour,” Asterix countered. “It's something a faithless coward like you couldn't even begin to understand.”

The ex-Chantry warrior scowled.

“I will duel you later if you so wish,” the chevalier continued, this time addressing Ragnar directly. “I already apologised to Her Majesty, but it seems I underestimated your culture. I didn't realise you held honour in such high regard.”

“We do,” Ragnar confirmed, his eyes full of hate, “and it's true we settle differences like these with duels. Something we never take lightly.”

“Good,” the Orlesian replied, equally serious, “neither do we.”

So much for avoiding bloodshed.

“Then duel each other once this is all over,” the Goose cut in. “Her Majesty is right, this infighting is not what we need right now. Rather, we who have agreed to take this battle to our enemies must do so united.” Then she turned to me. “I hope you will accept my hospitality, Your Majesty, as we plan our attack. I don't believe my son has any more objections to your aid?” She turned to look at Etienne.

“None whatsoever,” he replied. “Quite the contrary, it would be an honour.”

Well, that was something. Good thing there weren't any Chantry priests around to hear him.

“Good,” Her Ladyship replied. “Then I thank you for choosing to stand with us, in spite of my chevalier's earlier behaviour towards you, Your Majesty.”

“We made a deal, Your Ladyship,” I returned. “I fully intend to keep my end of the bargain.” Then I shot the chevalier a pointed look. “Provided any future tests will be weapon-free.”

His gaze went to me and his face softened. “They will be, Your Majesty. You have my word, on my honour as a chevalier.”

“If not, the duel will come sooner rather than later,” I shot back and fixed him with a hard look. “Is that understood?”

It was a new me that had emerged, but I recognised it from when the coven had turned against me. The unrelenting, tenacious, calculating me who stood her ground. That was new territory for me, but considering the circumstances, it was exactly what I needed.

“Understood, Your Majesty,” he said after a moment's hesitation. Then he withdrew with a deep bow, first to me and then to the Goose.

Truth be told, a part of me felt betrayed, even though I knew this was what Orlesians were like. The softer side of me had to take the backseat, it seemed. At least while I was in Orlais.

I hoped I'd find somewhere to call home one day, where I didn't have to hardball things just to stay alive. Provided I survived that long. I'd need a whole lot of therapy, though.

“As to answer your question, Your Ladyship,” I went on and turned my attention back to the Goose, “I accept your hospitality.” Not that I had many other options. Though sleeping in the stables was currently more tempting, Jeanette wouldn't let me hear the end of it.

“Very good, Your Majesty,” the Goose replied, and while her aura showed she was indeed pleased, there was something about the Marquise that felt... off. It wasn't directed at me, yet I couldn't accurately pinpoint its target. No wonder, considering how much magic I'd just used. I was surprised I hadn't experienced some form of backlash.

Two steps in the direction of the Comtesse, however, and it hit me in full force. I remembered falling, and Jeanette calling out to me. Then the world turned dark before I even hit the ground.