“Max!” Belle’s voice was being drowned out by the long-winded worry of her paralegal. He was such a smart guy but she’d be good goddamned if he wasn’t just a scared little puppy sometimes. On and on he went, barely taking a breath as he went over the plans for her two-week absence from their firm—as if they hadn’t been discussing them for weeks already. She represented a number of video game companies in various actions, but Max was more concerned about her general counsel work for a larger company. She’d already notified her clients of her impending absence and told each of them which associates would be handling her caseload, so she had no earthly idea why he was so stressed.
Of course, stress management had come naturally to her for a very long time. Working as a 9-1-1 operator through law school would do that to a person. It had also made her very impatient with nervous people who screamed or spewed out copious volumes of information at a pace no one could keep up with, much like Max was doing at that very moment. Her hands balled up into fists on instinct, jaw clenching in an attempt to manage her irritation before she shouted at her friend and colleague while standing in the street in front of her apartment complex. It didn’t work.
“Max!!!” she shouted again, so loud she attracted the attention of a passerby. Belle ducked her head, staring at a particularly dark gum stain in the sidewalk below. This was Orange County, and everyone yelled at people on their cellphones in the street, but it didn’t make it any less embarrassing.
Max’s voice abruptly ceased it’s prattling, giving Belle a moment’s peace to collect her thoughts before speaking again. After a slow exhale, she said, “Max, we’ve been over this. Several times in fact. Everything will be fine. I’m just going to my parents’ house for a couple of weeks. They don’t even live that far away. I can catch a flight back if there’s some life-threatening emergency. You. Need. To. Chill. Dude. I’m gonna hang up now because my Uber is supposed to be here in, like, two minutes. Deep breaths, Max. It’ll be fine.”
As promised, Belle dropped the phone away from her ear, giving the red symbol on the screen a little tap to disconnect before dropping the device into the purse slung over her shoulder. “Ooooh,” she groaned, dropping her head back with her eyes shut tight. “Lord give me strength.”
The fresh silence dropped her back into her own mind to focus on what she should have been worried about. It had been almost three months since her half-brother, Spencer, went missing. He and Belle lived pretty close to each other, and were just generally pretty close. She’d never really understood why he wanted to be a firefighter. He was smart as a fucking whip—could have been anything—but he was a damn good firefighter. He promoted like a rocket after finishing his Bachelor’s Degree, only twenty-two and already a lieutenant. It made his disappearance all the more confusing.
He’d gone out for his morning run and just vanished into thin air. He’d had his cellphone on him, and took the knife he used for protection. And Spencer was no small man. His build made men and women swoon and fawn over him in bars. It was rather obnoxious, really. Belle always thought him the prettier of the two of them, his attractive bronze complexion a stark contrast to her easily burnt alabaster skin—he was more like his mother than their father—and striking blue eyes much brighter than her hazel ones. He was tall, fit, and well-muscled where she was still tall, but a bit chubby with a round face and ample bosom and backside. She liked chips, cheese, and chocolate—appetites she was unwilling to abandon to save her a little spare flesh.
All that said, Belle had been paying the rent on Spencer’s apartment in addition to hers for two months in the hopes that he would come back or be found, and the police still had no leads. It was time to go see her father and stepmother and find out what they thought the next steps should be. The idea of giving up hope on her little brother was still too much, but she was, above all, a pragmatist. She couldn’t afford to keep paying double rent every month, and she didn’t have room for all of his stuff in her apartment. But there was no way in fresh hell that she would get rid of even a scrap of it. So she was hopeful their parents would be willing to chip in for a storage unit, one close enough to Belle’s apartment that she could go and visit Spencer’s things from time to time.
Their parents had once given them matching hamesh necklaces—the Jewish symbol for protection—hers in gold and his in white gold, though he rarely wore his in public. He thought it was too gaudy. But Belle knew for a fact that he’d been keeping it in with his turnout gear, and had dug it out of his duffle bag two weeks after he’d gone missing. She took to wearing his charm on the chain with hers. The religious symbolism of it didn’t really bring her any comfort—she wasn’t terribly religious, after all. It was more the feeling of having something of him with her that kept the charm fastened around her neck.
She ran her thumb across the back of his gleaming hamesh as she stared down the street in the direction her phone had told her the Uber would appear. The app said two minutes five minutes ago, but it wasn’t unusual for them to get caught in traffic. The fingers of her other hand tapped at the smooth plastic handle of her rolling luggage, a combination of nerves and impatience conquering her resolve in their tiny physical manifestation. Half her life was packed in the carry-on check bag duo, including outfits for nearly every foreseeable occasion. Much of her family thought it would be wise to convene at the same time, since Belle and Spencer were so rarely able to visit, so she had to be prepared for any eventuality.
Always prepare for any eventuality. It was a mantra that made for a good first responder and a good lawyer. Predict, prepare, preempt. Her mind chanted it over and over, even as she took stock of herself one last time before the Uber’s supposed arrival.
Her curly-wavy copper-red hair was freshly washed, her curtain fringe meticulously straightened over her forehead and just brushing against the top of her oversized prescription sunglasses. The overall length had been growing out well with the painstaking care she’d taken of it after chopping off over two feet a little over a year ago—it was already to her armpit. The gauzy, short sleeved lavender tunic she’d chosen for the day shouldn’t set off any detectors at the TSA checkpoints, and was heat-appropriate given the unseasonably hot autumn weather. Her skinny jeans hugged her curves tight, likely because they, too, were freshly washed. She twisted and stretched her legs a bit awkwardly at that thought, hoping to loosen her pants up a bit before getting on the plane where the waistband would undoubtedly cut uncomfortably into her gut. She already knew the black yoga mat flip flops on her feet would be shucked the second the wheels left the ground. She preferred her feet bare.
The thumb that had been stroking Spencer’s hamesh moved to massage the back of her left earlobe—a habit she’d developed to cope while her right ear had still been perpetually covered with a headset. It stuck with her long after she left dispatching to become an attorney, though she learned to manage it when clients were grating on her nerves. But in that moment, her aggravation mounted with every passing second the Uber driver didn’t appear. Geoff. She stared at his picture on her phone. He was older than the average Uber driver, his cheerful smile and more gray than brown beard at once welcoming and unsettling. What the fuck was taking him so long?
Belle’s skin crawled as goosebumps raced down her arms and legs, her hair rising skyward. She glared down at her arm, and caught a glimpse of her red curls spreading and separating, lifting away from her shoulders. It was like that time she touched the static ball at the science museum. The faint hum of electricity buzzed in her ears and coursed through her veins. Her eyes darted about, fear rising rapidly in her gut. Nothing around her was moving. Nothing seemed at all affected by whatever was happening to her.
A deafening crack made her scream and flinch, her right hand still clutching her bags even as her left flew up to block her face from what she was certain was an explosion. Instinct dropped her forearm away from her eyes. If someone was hurt, she could help.
No one was hurt. What she saw was worse than carnage. Less than two feet in front of her hung a hole. Not a hole in the ground, but in the air. It was surrounded by neon green tendrils of light that seemed to reach out like paralyzed lighting, striking the ground constantly and in only one place per filament. At the center of it was something her mind would only describe to her as a wormhole. It was black inside, but also not black inside. Faint images of something peeked through the darkness, distorted by space and time.
Belle didn’t know enough about wormholes. In her Wikipedia wanderings, she’d read some wild theories—stuff about time travel and inter-dimensional transportation—and some more scientific works that mentioned how a wormhole could connect two points that were trillions of lightyears apart in a distance of just a few feet. In all her random reading about wormholes, however, she’d never heard mention of one popping open on an actual planet, let alone in a crowded metropolitan area right in front of someone’s face.
But there it was. Or at least that was the most her mind could comprehend of what floated in the air before her. Predict, prepare, preempt, she thought. How, exactly, would her mantra apply to a random green glowing wormhole in the middle of a residential street in Orange County? She considered her options, her static-frizzed hair rising up around her cheeks, almost crackling in the charged air. Run. She should run away. That’s what people were supposed to do when disruptions in the space-time continuum opened in front of their faces, right? Run? Run.
Before she had the chance to finish pivoting away from the anomaly, another cacophonous crack pierced the air around her. The opening seemed to come alive, the green glow and lighting rolling and fluctuating and reaching. One bolt of green lightning snapped, and she felt it hit her. But not like lightning. It didn’t strike and leave. It held onto her. It pulled her.
Belle screamed as loud as she could, emptying her lungs until they ached and holding onto the only things she could reach—her luggage and her carry-on. Stupid. The fucking things rolled. So fucking stupid. Still, she clutched at them with everything she had.
One sharp tug from the wormhole wrested her feet from the sidewalk. She shrieked again, still holding those stupid fucking rolling bags even as her body was sucked into the not-black blackness. They followed her into the wormhole. Maybe.
Oh God. I just died, didn’t I?
“—econd one. I think it’s safe to assume that this was not a coincidence.”
“If it’s not a coincidence, then perhaps Corypheus is sending them through to infiltrate the Inquisition. She should be locked up in the cells until we find out why she’s here.”
“Or perhaps there is something less sinister at work here. The young man has proven himself quite useful to you over the past several months, hasn’t he?”
“And to you. While that may be true, I am nevertheless considering locking him up as well!”
Arguing. A French-sounding woman and a British man were arguing over Belle’s dead body. Or maybe her not dead body. Maybe her still alive and once again conscious body. What a coup it would be if she hadn’t died in a wormhole. Huzzah.
She chanced opening her eyes, praying all the while that she’d somehow been dosed with acid and made it to the airport where she passed out. Belle abhorred narcotics, but anything would have been preferable to what in absolutely no way could have happened. So she cracked her eyelids apart.
Subtle daylight peeked through a couple of thin slits that she supposed purported to be windows, skinny and useless as they were at providing any substantial form of light. They did manage to illuminate the space enough for her to tell that the walls were made of gray stone. Her sunglasses had been removed, and no one had bothered to replaced them with her regular glasses. Typical. Her vision wasn’t too terrible, though, so she squinted to make out her surroundings. The room was moderately sized, and filled with very old furniture. It all looked sturdy enough, if not terribly odd and plain. She wondered offhandedly about the decorating choices of the security staff at John Wayne Airport.
Her bags lay open on the smooth stone floor, her belongings ruffled, but not quite strewn about. Another tiny victory, she supposed. After all, it’s not as if one’s bags come flying through a wormhole in tow every day, let alone come out the other side intact. But she hadn’t gone through a wormhole, had she? She was still alive, and the man and woman were speaking English, so she must have been somewhere at least vaguely familiar. Right?
A tentative tilt of her head brought the still-arguing pair into Belle’s blurry view. The woman’s back was turned, though her figure—even hidden under some sort of old school chainmail and purple cloth hoodie—made it quite obvious that she was a woman. Wide-cuffed brown leather gloves and boots enveloped her extremities, making quiet shuffling noises as she shifted her weight to uncross and recross her arms.
The man, from what Belle could see without her glasses, may have been rather good-looking. His golden-blonde hair seemed slicked back away from his sunkissed face, though it was all a little…smudgy. She could make out a ridiculously large surcoat with a poofy collar made of…fur? Something? It draped over silvery armor that gleamed even in the weak light. His hands balled into fists at his sides until one would rise to point a very stern finger at the French woman.
Belle squinted hard, confusion prickling at every one of her senses. Something was definitely wrong. More wrong than the hallucinated wormhole.
“Did someone drag me to Medieval Times while I was unconscious?” she rasped, not realizing until she spoke that her throat was really goddamn dry. “Did the fucking Uber driver bring me here instead of the airport?” Fucking Geoff.
Perplexed, angry, and still indistinct eyes landed on her. The woman turned only her head, giving Belle the barest peek at her bobbed red hair and blue eyes. Her gaze was critical, appraising in its depth. Nothing new. It was something Belle had to contend with every time she walked into an executive’s office, or every time one walked into hers without having bothered to Google her first. She could always tell.
She sat up a little too quickly, and her head swam for a moment as she reached for her sunglasses on the small table beside the bed. Her purse was too far to go for her regular glasses, and she had no intention of staying wherever she was anyway. The other woman turned and the man scowled as she perched the plastic frame atop her nose, giving the bridge a tiny push with her middle finger.
Ah. Everything was much clearer. And the guy’s surcoat collar was definitely fur. Or faux fur. Fuck it, it had a fur-like consistency. His eyes had been just far enough from hers to stop her making out their color without her glasses. But even through the shaded lenses she could tell, then, that they were a very unique shade of amber. And he was good-looking. A years old scar bisected his upper lip just to the right of his nose to a flattering effect. She wondered if it was stage makeup for the show.
“Medieval times?” the French woman asked. “Are you referring to a place or an age?” The inner corners of her eyes narrowed almost undetectably.
“Oh God, here we go. So not Medieval Times, then? What are you guys, LARPers or something? That’s fine. That’s cool, man. I make my living with clients like you.” Belle slipped off the bed onto her knees as she prattled, closing and zipping her suitcase and carry-on and haphazardly throwing her purse over her shoulder. “Didn’t have to rifle through all my shit, but whatever.”
She stood with a sigh, all of her bags in hand and ready to move. “Okay, so I appreciate you both helping me out after I obviously went all…hallucinogenic and wandered away from in front of my complex. But I’m pretty sure that I’ve missed my flight by now, and I really need to get to the airport so I can get to my family’s house up north.” The faces staring back at her were unfazed—still assessing and agitated. Great. “Sooo, I’ll be going now, then.”
The little plastic wheels on her luggage rolled and clacked against the stone floor as she headed for the unfinished wooden door. These people took this shit far too seriously. The hooded woman’s arms never unfolded, though her eyes and head followed Belle as she passed. “A place or an age,” she thought. They can’t even be bothered to get out of character after a drugged woman shows up and passes out.
Just as she was about to reach the door, the large blonde stepped in front of her. Her chest nearly crashed into his silvery armor, and she staggered back a step to avoid the collision. She had to admit he cut a pretty impressive and imposing figure, even with his stupid red and black pimp coat. It was a thought that might have carried more weight had he not been looking down his nose at her. Unacceptable.
“Please move so I can leave.”
“You cannot leave. Not until we’ve uncovered what happened to bring you here.” His scar twitched with his almost imperceptible snarl.
“Thank you for your concern, but I’m fully capable of investigating that on my own. Now, please move so I can leave.”
“You cannot leave.” He spoke slower and louder. She could feel her blood starting to boil. No one was entitled to treat her like she was stupid.
Belle used her middle finger again to slide the bridge of her sunglasses down to the tip of her nose, tilting her chin up to meet the man’s unyielding amber eyes with her own. “I’m a lawyer, and even though it’s my job to stay out of court, I should tell you that I went to school with some very good plaintiff’s attorneys. If you do not move out from in front of the door and allow me to leave, I’ll be happy to sic one or two of them on you for false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and whatever other causes of action they can come up with to decimate your likely meager bank account.”
The arch of a blonde eyebrow was the big asshole’s only reply.
Okay, fuck this. “Listen, bro,” she said, letting her luggage stand alone in favor of poking him in his stupid chest plate. Her painted fingernail tinked against the metal. “I did not somehow get dosed, hallucinate myself through a fucking wormhole, and meander my way here just so I could be kidnapped by some overgrown, thick-skulled, takes-himself-too-seriously, LARPing motherfucker in a ridiculous coat and some weird hooded chick who likes to watch. So allow me to address you as you’ve seen fit to address me.” She cleared her throat. “Get. The fuck. Out. Of my way.”
He seemed shocked when her two-handed shove knocked him off balance, his eyes going wide as his back slammed into the unfinished wooden door. Self-satisfaction and adrenaline roiled through her body, flaring her nostrils and squaring her shoulders. Served him right.
But she hadn’t anticipated how fast he could move in heavy armor—an oversight she regretted instantly. She didn’t even see him move before she felt his hands squeezing her biceps, locking them to her sides. He wasn’t hurting her—she suspected that was an impressive level of self-restraint—just holding her in place. Under his furrowed brow, his warm, furious eyes darted back and forth between hers, searching for lord knew what. The woman’s voice sounded from Belle’s back just in time to save the asshole’s testicles from her knee.
“Let her go, Cullen.”
The creases between his eyebrows deepened as his scar stretched, reaching for his cheek. Belle could feel the slight heat of angry puffs of air leaving his nose. He looked to the hooded woman, disdainful as he spoke. “Let her go? Leliana, you cannot be serious. You, of all people, should seek to discern the reason for her presence here.”
“I do. And I have a feeling we shall have a better opportunity to find out if you let her leave.”
Belle craned her neck to glimpse the woman—Leliana. Her right arm had uncrossed itself, and her knuckle brushed to and fro under her chin. She had a look of certainty about her that was rather unsettling. The whole situation was rather unsettling. Something was so wrong. Belle’s mind screamed it over and over, pleading not to be ignored.
She turned her gaze back on the man still pinning her in place. Cullen. He was looking down at her again. She narrowed her eyes at him. “You heard mommy,” she snarled. “Let me go.”
The muscles on either side of his jaw expanded and contracted. “Fine.” He removed his hands from her arms, throwing them out to his sides in an impotent gesture of futility. “On your head be it.”
Belle nearly sobbed out her relief when he stepped out of her way. She talked a big game, but doubted she could have stopped him if he really wanted to hurt her. He was so much larger than her, and the self-defense she’d learned didn’t cover fighting an armored man. And threatening to sue someone didn’t always work. It certainly didn’t work on him. Pushing her glasses back up her nose and taking her luggage up behind her, she shoved the door open with her shoulder.
The first shriek that left her throat was reflexive. An icy gust of wind swept across her body and hurled the hem of her light tunic up to her chest. Why was it so cold?
The second shriek acted as a pronouncement of her terror and rage. Her surroundings were…not what they should have been. She stood atop a stone pathway on the outskirts of what looked like a huge castle. All around her, mountains jutted up from the earth to impossible heights, forming impossibly low valleys below. Everything but the castle—every fucking thing—was covered in a thick layer of snow. Blasts of freezing wind rushed sideways across her path, making little whistling sounds as they passed through gaps in the stones.
Her head whirled around to look behind her. Leliana and Cullen had followed her out, and stood just outside the doorway. Belle’s lip quivered. Whether it was due to the cold or her fear didn’t really matter.
“Where the fuck did you take me?” She backed away from them as she cried out her question, desperate to go home. She just wanted to go home.
“Only a few miles from where we found you,” Leliana said. She was calm. Too calm. Too fucking calm.
“Only a few fucking—Fuck you! It’s hot. It’s a hot September. They said it on the news. It’s supposed to be hot for weeks. There’s no snow.” Belle’s breath came in erratic, heavy puffs. Panic attack. Asthma attack. Who knew? Who cared? “There’s no snow for four hundred fucking miles. Where did you fucking take me? Where am I? Who the fuck are you people?” An unbidden tear trickled down her cheek, turning her skin to ice along its slow path.
The hooded woman was still too calm. “We are the Inquisition. We found you at the Temple of Sacred Ashes and brought you to our keep, Skyhold, in the Frostback Mountains.”
“God, just drop the fucking act!”
Leliana took a step forward. “I assure you, I am not acting. The year is 9:41 Dragon. I am Sister Leliana. This,” she held out her hand toward the blonde, who still eyed Belle warily, “is Commander Cullen Rutherford. We work with the Inquisition. You are in our keep—our home, Skyhold. We are on the Orlesian side of the Frostback Mountains in Thedas.”
“The—Thedas? That’s not—Not a place.” Belle’s every utterance was halting and disjointed, fragmented by wheezing breaths she couldn’t control. She was getting very dizzy. She was losing feeling in her fingertips and face. She was going to pass out.
“And Drag—Dragon is not…” Her eyelids fluttered. Her knees wobbled. Her head bobbed. “Not a year. It’s not even…”
Mercifully, everything went black before she hit the ground.