It’s funny, the way the world works.
A little apocalypse, and everything changes.
One day, I was nobody. A nobody just like most of us. Just a young and wary Dalish apostate traveling the woods and coasts, learning about the animals and herbs. Making up songs and singing them to myself, honing my magic, and wondering if there was a spell that would either tame my hair, calm the waves, allow me to talk to the halla, or that would enable me to call the wind when I sailed my little boat through the rocky shallows.
All I’d cared about then was living life on my own terms and meeting my own internal, if slightly odd, life goals: Becoming more proficient at mage-fighting from horseback because it looked both elegant and badass. Playing with storms and drawing the magic away from the places where it might harm people or animals, and where it would do the most good. Watching the skies. Reading the raindrops. Progressing further down my path as an elemental mage or ala'syl'ise'man'thanelan (yeah, I know, sorry—sometimes Elven really is a bit much sometimes). Staying away from Templars.
Ours was a world that was crueler than ever to mages… especially if you were an apostate… and a woman.
I acknowledged that danger… and prepared myself accordingly. I’d been hurt before, and cruelly, in a forest the previous year, when I’d been captured by three Templars and held for three days before I’d been able to escape.
The result was that I was rabid on protecting myself as an apostate, and especially from Templars. I was in fact nearly obsessive about maintaining distance. And it had warped my trust in men, and the enjoyment I’d always been able to find with them. Suddenly I no longer smiled at the men I met; I froze, instead, a halla in the forest, scenting danger.
It had been a nightmare, one I refused to remember or countenance. But after that, I’d dedicated myself to self-protection, and the result was that I was as good without a staff (or nearly so) as I was with one. Forget the dangers from whispering demons—I was merciless in my control of the magic I possessed and would never allow myself to be hurt in such ways again. I’d risk the demons in return for the power, anyway. Every fucking time.
No one would hurt me that way again. No demon. No liar. No spirit. No man.
The side effect of all of this intensive study afterward was both strange and distinctive, however; suddenly and constantly, I shed sparks, a blue aura, whenever upset or aroused or moved. It was a biological thing, utterly beyond my control. It did not involve Fade energies, a fact confirmed by our clan’s Second. I was simply elementally magical enough that I occasionally sloughed off the excess, typically when my emotions were at their highest. I wasn’t thrilled at the development as it was simply one more way for me to be an open book to others (since my emotions already defined me and I was already a person who preferred action to talk). However, at least the diagnosis stopped people from gathering firewood whenever I was nearby.
Still, even after my mishaps and new talents, even after the incident in the woods the previous year, I was nevertheless less distrustful of shems, non-elves, than most of my clan. I’d learned more about the world from the dwarf merchants and mercenaries I’d met in taverns than I ever had from my careful, cautious Keeper Taerethi, or her Second, a talented healer named Faellin. Even after the incident with the Templars, I’d held onto myself. I’d still believed the world, as damaged as it was in its recovery after the Blight in my childhood, was good.
But here’s where it gets strange… because it’s about memory. And it turns out that my own memory isn’t so reliable anymore these days. There are these gaps. Blank spots. There are moments when I don’t actually know what I did or didn’t do.
Did I hurt people? Others? It’s possible. I don’t think I would do so deliberately, but I can’t know. And I don’t… not yet.
Just thought I’d warn you.
In the meantime, I just want you to understand me, this—that all of this was my life before, and it had been acceptable to me then. Cherished, even. Safe and (of course) unappreciated.
Then suddenly I’d found myself on a mission. I’d agreed to Taerethi’s request to leave my rainy seashores and to go check in on some vague but important thing, a political meeting called “the Conclave” far off in the Frostbacks. Something to do with the Chantry, but even more importantly, that it might stop the devastation and madness of Templar versus mage that was sweeping across Thedas. She hadn’t actually used the word ‘spy’ when referring to my list of tasks, but it had certainly been implied. My clan was nervous, desperate. There was a scent to the air that nobody liked, a feeling of coming doom. They wanted someone willing to watch, to listen, to speak if given the opportunity, and to come back with information. I agreed. My only request in return was that my people try to consider outreach to friendly shemlens. To try to consider diplomacy before arrows.
Mind you, I didn’t much care for people, either—or gatherings. Or (ugh) talking.
Especially those where Templars might be present. But people didn’t scare me, however. I might dislike them but I’d be able to stand up for us. And my increased powers had made me more assured, confident that I could defend myself even against multiple aggressors if I had to. Bring on the shems, I told myself; I would bring them down. If I had to.
But still. I’d hoped I wouldn’t have to.
And maybe, I’d thought, if I went, I could make a difference. Maybe I’d be able to speak to someone, maybe even help make things a little easier for the Dalish, we who lived so often like rabbits, afraid of their own shadows, fleeing from forest to forest, tossed from one suspicious town or village outskirts to the next. I was not a poet, and in fact I was more comfortable fighting than talking, most of the time, but I was willing to use whatever words I could find, to make a case for some kind of mercy.
I showed up to the Temple on the appointed day. Despite my own assurances, I felt my stomach catapult when I saw the crowd about the impressive building, and quailed inside. “Shut up,” I told myself. “Stop it right now.”
My body continued to shiver. Like it knew something I didn’t. Which was, by the way, my body’s default setting for everything. My stupid body and my stupid mind disagreed constantly. And my body almost always won.
The Temple was impressive—massive and real, dauntingly monumental. It stood atop a slightly flattened peak in the Frostback Mountains, appearing suddenly in view when I trudged across the last rise. The thin mountain air was clean and icy cold in my mouth, whistling into my lungs as I finished the last ascent. The Temple was subtly terrifying in its size and scope as I regarded it.
I walked to the outskirts and watched, warily, then saw that there was some kind of official cease-fire happening between the mages and Templars, so I walked up boldly, just like the other mages were doing. I strode right into the mix like nothing could touch me, even though my heart pounded, scowling at the Templars who looked at me with their flat, pale eyes. I looked back smiling and blank. Try it, scum, I smiled. Try me, and let me boil your blood in your very veins. I am good at fire. And I will never be taken again.
I sidled past, carefully, trying to hear whatever I could. I talked with a few mages throughout the morning, but no one seemed to be able to say whether the talks would succeed. Evidently Fiona, the Grand Enchanter, had not yet shown up, nor had several Templar leaders. The Divine was here, along with many high-ranking Chantry officials, but I hadn’t seen her yet.
After awhile, I sat myself near the back of the nave, on a bench in the shadows, and watched the interactions around me. It was hard not to dislike what I saw. So much arrogance, the Templars walking as if their armor made them invincible, the mages, meanwhile, just as brazen. As if taunting, as if tired of shackling their magics and eager to set them free. And then the men and women of the Chantry, who seemed to feel their righteousness put them beyond dispute.
Me, I wasn’t sure I liked any of them. They didn’t look much to me like people who were there to listen.
Meanwhile, as the morning went on, I noticed an older woman who seemed to be high up in the Chantry, but she was dressed simply in white, as a Revered Mother of the Church. She was tired, and had visibly sharp yet kind eyes. But she was often besieged in the midst of dozens of people, voices, supplicants, all with many plaintive requests and petitions. After a few hours or so, at last she sent them away. She glanced around herself, as if marveling at her moment alone, yet as I watched her, she wavered, slightly, as if faint. I hurried over to her and offered her my hand.
“Can I get you some water, mother?” I asked. “Here.” I walked her over not far from my previous alcove, to a spot near the Temple’s entrance, but back against the wall, in the shadows and partly blocked by the columns that marched down the length of the temple on either side. I led her to the bench there, and as she sat down with a sigh, a tall thin man saw me helping the woman, and his outrage was so great it was almost comical.
“Ma serannas,” said the woman, awkwardly yet with real care, and I stopped, touched at hearing my own language from the lips of a shem. The man I’d seen, meanwhile, was approaching us, glaring at me fiercely as he looked from the woman, to me, and back.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he cried.
“I was afraid she was going to faint,” I said.
“You do not lay hands on the Divine,” he sneered. “Especially not such as you.”
“She was simply doing me a kindness,” said the woman, clearly and calmly. “Now go away and worry about more productive things, Herriol. Make sure we are prepared for the Conclave. Meanwhile, I would like to talk to this young woman alone for a moment. And, not least, to apologize for your rudeness.” The man grimaced, but acceded, after another dark look at me, and left.
She turned back to me, and sighed. “I am sorry, child, that your kindness was treated with such discourtesy.”
“It’s all right,” I said, and shrugged. “I’m Dalish. We’re used to it.”
“That does not make it right, child,” she said sadly.
“No,” I said. “But it’s the world. Meanwhile, I’m not a child, and if I can help you, I will.”
She chuckled. “You are a child to me,” she said quietly. “How many Springs have you seen?”
“Twenty-nine,” I said. “So as you can see, I am far from childhood. And truly old enough to know who I want to be and where I want to do that.”
“You are fortunate if you already know those things about yourself,” she said. “For most, a lifetime is not enough.” She smiled. “And you are fortunate, I think, for your solitude.” She sighed. “My job is to serve the people, and I do it gladly, but it also means that I must wander through a forest of men to do the Maker’s bidding… and that can become tiring.”
I made a face in spite of myself. “I don’t think I’d like your job.”
“No,” She smiled back. “I do not think you would. I can see from your face that you prefer the air and sky.”
I put my hands to my cheeks and laughed, flushing slightly in embarrassment. “My Keeper says I’m alhasha, a wild thing. She disapproves. I keep forgetting to shield myself from the sunshine.”
“Nonsense,” she said. “You are a rest for my eyes. You almost bring the ocean breezes with you. And… a little fire, too, I think?” Her eye was sharp, and I smiled.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m a mage. Elemental, mostly. But I promise, not a danger to you or anyone here. Unless a Templar tries to take me.”
“No one will touch you, child,” she said sadly. “That I promise. Now, tell me of your magic. Do you enjoy it?” There was something open and likable about her curiosity, almost innocent.
“Of course,” I said. “It’s part of me, of who I am. I know that too many people have been taught to fear it, but there is nothing to fear, if the mage is strong and capable, and skilled in her connection to the Fade.”
“I am glad to hear it,” she said. “I have often wished I could know what it felt like to do magic, but alas, I never had the gift.” Her eyes were back on the crowd before the Temple, where mages and Templars were arguing loudly. She looked tired, grieving, and defeated.
An idea occurred to me. “Here,” I said impulsively, and quietly held my staff, Isenatha, before her. The staff was a handsome one, capped in red ivory and banded with silver. I had carved the headpiece, a crude figure of a dragon, clumsily myself. “Don’t be afraid,” I said. “Just touch it gently, only for a moment.” She didn’t hesitate, but fearlessly laid her fragile pale fingers gently against the staff, just above the slender bands of silver over the golden polished wood. Making sure no one was watching us in our little corner, I concentrated my skill, opening only to the tiniest thread of the Fade. Instantly, a brief and subtle electric light shimmered around us, and us alone, as if we were in a reverse snow globe like those my people sold to the shems cheaply in village marketplaces… The globe expanded, the circle marked and spangled with tiny flashes of silver fire against a fragile bubble of deeper, momentary darkness… a starry night alive and twinkling against the heavens, close enough to touch. Then it faded in a tiny, barely audible clap of thunder. The entire thing had taken less than five seconds, and my new friend looked at me in surprise, then chuckled in delight.
“What was that?” she asked. For a brief moment her face was young and wondering. “It wasn’t just light. I felt something, a power… yet gentle. As if I were alone, and watching the night sky.”
“A funny little spell I came up with as a child,” I said, somewhat apologetically. “Storms and starlight. My two favorite things. There isn’t much practical use for it in combat, but it’s beautiful, and I thought you might like to see it.”
“It is beautiful indeed. I do not understand how you can do such marvels,” she said. “But thank you for that. It was a gift.”
She looked so tired. “Are you feeling better?” I asked. “I can go get one of your people.”
“I would rather talk to you, if you have a moment,” she said.
“Sure, if I can help,” I shrugged, puzzled but interested. “But I’m nobody special.”
She smiled. “Everyone is special to the Maker, child. Who are you?”
“I’m Eliaden,” I said. “Ellie. Of the Dalish, clan Lavellan. We’re concerned about the way the conflicts between the Templars and the Circles have increased lately, so I’m simply here to make a case for peace if I can.”
“I am Justinia. And I am also for peace,” she sighed. “Unfortunately it is easier said than done.”
I hesitated, then spoke firmly, realizing all at once who I was sitting beside. “Mother Justinia—Divine Justinia—this war between the mages and Templars harms more than just the two of them. Caught in between, the common people, and especially my people, the Dalish, are hunted, like rams, like halla. Would you… would you speak for us, if the chance allows you to? To speak for us to continue to live as we have, for us to manage magic and magery in our own ways?”
She thought for a moment, but there was sadness in her face. Then she nodded, but I knew somehow that it was not a nod of agreement, precisely. “I could tell you, child, that I will make a difference for you today. But that is not what my heart is telling me. I can only trust in the Maker, and tell you that I will do whatever I can.”
“Thank you,” I said.
She stood, sighing, and I looked up to view Herriol gathering a new crowd of petitioners, mages, priests, and more, already headed our way. I saw that the shouting mages and Templars were right in the middle, and grimaced.
“I think they’ve found you again,” I said. “But thank you for talking to me. It was nice meeting you.”
“Nuvas ema ir’enastela,” she said haltingly, and smiled. I gave her an awkward almost-curtsy in return as thanks.
“Don’t let them bully you,” I said, grinning. “Or I’ll blast them.”
She laughed quietly at that, another twinkle of humor in her eye that made her my age again, if just for a moment. “I don’t know,” she said. “You seem kinder than that.”
“I didn’t say I would kill them,” I explained, embarrassed. “I’d just, um, bruise them a little.” Sheesh. Even the Divine thought I was too soft. Taerethi would have laughed out loud.
She shook her head, smiling, and I knew she understood. “Maker be with you, child,” she said, and then turned and joined the crowd.
I felt a slight sense of sadness, of loss. As if I’d lost a friend, or a potential friend. Even in such few moments.
Then green fire in blackness. Voices. A feeling of obliteration, of hopelessness like nothing I could ever have imagined.
Just so you know… my memory stops there. Right there.
After that, everything goes—well, not black, but dark, fractured and hidden. Blackness and green. A sickly combination as if the world’s very stars had been corrupted against the warm black velvet beyond.
I got a few brief fragments, flashes in the blackness: Somehow I know that I was there, that I didn’t leave. I have the impression that I might have stayed around to see how things progressed. At a certain point, though, I do have a clear image—a feeling of being alone, with me outside as everyone else went inside for the talks. Or I think they did—I’m not really sure.
And that’s all I know.
Because somehow after that, I was adrift in a world of darkness, terror and green fire. And then there was only darkness. Then nothing.
Until awakening, confusion, imprisonment, and loss.