There is something... not quite of this world about the elven woman they call the Herald of Andraste.
Even though, perplexed by her appearance, the Inquisition's troop of former Templars ran tests on her, and declared that she is not possessed by any malicious entity - thus disproving, once and for all, what most parishioners of the Chantry might have deduced from her staggeringly tall built; and from her angular features; and from her striking complexion, which has a far more evident metallic golden undertone than the brown skin of a Nevarran or a Rivaini; and from her blazing eyes, with irises the colour of some overripe Antivan citrus.
Even though Madame Vivienne, First Enchanter of the Orlesian Imperial Court, who is prudently distrustful of anything that comes from the Fade (and the bizarre elf did quite literally topple out from the other side on top of their heads), personally engaged her in long, complicated riddle games designed to provoke and draw out a demon - which the Herald emerged out of with flying colours, still herself, with no deep echo of a second voice breaking through her quiet, polite speech.
Even though, to cut it short, the Inquisition's foundling from the Fade has repeatedly proven herself a mere mortal, and one with good intentions too... There still is... something.
There is still this bewildering sensation her aura gives off, a sign that she is hiding some uncrackable puzzle, a source of equal shares of mesmerized fascination and frustrated headache for quite a few people she has been encountering.
From (again) the Imperial Enchanter to that Tevinter slaver who tore a volatile, ever-spreading gash through the fabric of time and space, all for the sake of sabotaging the Inquisition's alliance with the rebels from the shattered Circles.
When the Herald tried to negotiate with the man in the Fereldan village of Redcliffe (that was part of his scheme as well: to lure her in, to keep her talking, and then to wield his spitting, acid green magic and erase her from the very history of Thedas), he almost forgot whatever villainous speech he had prepared, and just gaped at her, across the small, mead-stained, wobbly-legged table at the local tavern. His slouched shoulders spread out, his back straightening, and his tired, bruised eyes suddenly grew huge with a profound interest that almost made his cast off the mantle of a nefarious slave trader bargaining for 'his mages'. If he lingered but a moment in this eager pose of his, he would surely have started bombarding the Herald with questions that were not at all part of the script lined out for him by the leader of his maleficar cult.
He did return to that script in the end, however, jerking his head in annoyance, taking a deep breath and steepling his fingers in front of him with precisely the sort of demeanor a madly cackling, demon-worshipping magister is supposed to have. But at least this momentary lag in the negotiations gave that pale, worried-looking young man that was with him - his son, he had explained - a chance to edge closer to the Herald and, feigning a fit of sickness, lean heavily against her and pass a warning note into her hand. A message that she was in danger; that the slave-herding magister cared for naught but killing her.
The slaver's former apprentice, who was also going against him and trying to help the Inquisition, was also quite astonished to see the Herald when they crossed paths for the first time. Hardly had she crossed the threshold of the modest rustic Chantry where they were supposed to meet to discuss the magister's murder plot, when the apprentice froze up on the spot, one eyebrow cocked at a steep, wondering angle, while his flawlessly groomed moustache almost seemed to visibly twitch like the whiskers of a cat in a playful mood.
At the time, though, he could not afford the luxury of pouncing at a new mystery before him - for the poor little Chantry building was rapidly nearing the point of bursting at the seams with the chaotic energy left in the wake of the magister's journey back in time. The air rippled so much that, through its shifting veil, the solid stone floor appeared to have turned into broiling broth, spilling uncontrollably into the aisle and lapping against the thick carved legs of the wooden pews. And like the surface of a broth is covered with glossy round specks of fat, so the floor was covered in circles of yellowish-green glow - which, if one carelessly stepped over their flaming, hissing outer border, either sped up every motion to a dizzying flash, or slowed it down, so that even stepping back into the (relative) safety of the bare floor required colossal effort.
And to add to that, much of the space above the broth-like floor was slashed through by searing ruptures in the Veil, with demons clawing their way forcibly out of them in a relentless horde. One of such demons was right in the middle of gliding towards the helpful Tevinter - a massive creature of molten lava, with a bulbous head and a huge maw that was like a dark hole crossed by the narrow, white-hot bridges of bubbling ooze. As it took a crushing swat at the magister's apprentice, almost singing his moustache, all he had time for was to toss a businesslike remark over his shoulder, nodding towards the largest Veil tear,
'Help me close this, will you?'
The Herald readily sprang into action, nursing an orb of shock magic between her palms (ice would have been more fitting, but she is not too fond of this particular element; nor of fire, for that matter).
When she released the lightning charge to whip at the demon's groping fiery claw, the Tevinter arched one eyebrow again and said, effortlessly combining the flow of conversation with a powerful, perfectly aimed thrust of his staff's sharpened bottom half, which he sank, blade-like, into the jutting green chest of another demon (a vaguely insectoid being this time),
'My, but you are something, aren't you? Your spells do not feel like... well like any magic I know! Part of having that fabled Mark, hmm?'
And that is what strikes other mages about her the most. The way she casts her spells.
They may seem fairly regular, at first.
The same old arcane bolt to leap in between advancing bandits, scorching one oversized, obviously stolen cuirass after the other and leaving behind a sickly, cloying smell of melting leather and skin. The same old electrified wall to spring up out of the faintly rumbling ground, barring the path of wild-eyed, swaying rogue Templars before they can add another terrified, helplessly whimpering refugee to the endless list of people slain 'just to make sure' they did not suddenly begin to sling around balls of flame and turn themselves into abominations with lumpy skin and faces stretched out to the side of their skull. The same old jagged line of white, striking from above to turn a gnarled makeshift staff to ash in the hands of a runaway mage and prevent him from using it to attack a merchant caravan.
Same old, same old. And yet, not quite.
Her shock magic has a peculiar quality to it - just as, for that matter, the healing magic that she so often switches to after the fight is over, a warm muted glow filling up mangled wounds like honeyed water and wishing away the blood and the swelling and the feverish throb of infection.
It is hard to put into words, but it is there - some alien energy that lies dormant within her and then courses free, striking the onlookers more than ever, when she is on the battlefield, keeping her companions safe and healed.
And then, of course, it bears remembering that her arsenal also includes actual spells that no-one has ever thought possible to cast. Not even their resident apostate Solas, who studied outside the Circle and thinks outside the rigid frames set by a Chantry-overseen education system; or the helpful Tevinter, Dorian, who comes from a country where risky experimentation with magic is more than encouraged.
Out of these unknown spells, she favours two in particular.
One rolls from her grasp like a ball of ghostly twine, letting a thick thread of silvery-blue vapour wind its way towards whatever goal she has set for herself; be it the edge of maze-like woodlands where she and her companions have been wandering aimlessly for far longer than a person's sanity (and blistering soles) can handle, or a very particular little store that they are supposed to find among all the other azure-walled, gilded buildings underneath the soaring coral and crimson flags of Val Royaeux.
The agents of the Inquisition, baffled as they are by it at first, do not take long to get used to it. They have even come to rely on it, to expect it, and the Herald has so very often literally served as their guiding light as they blundered through the moist, clammy grey fog along the Storm Coast, endless swathes of gravel rolling under their feet with a sharp grating noise, or descended into abandoned catacombs, either dwarven or elven, where the distorted, echoing skitter of the deep stalkers sounds like the creaking of some infernal mechanism that spews out oily blackness.
It is convenient, and reassuring, to have magic that will keep you - and, even more importantly (as far as, say, Warden Blackwall is concerned), the lost little orphans or clueless green Inquisition recruits that you are shepherding - from taking a wrong turn in the dark. Magic that will lead you right to a clump of briar thicket concealing an ancient elven relic or a priceless artefact stolen from a Circle - which always brings a tiny, fleeting smile of acknowledgement to the face of Solas, as he places his hands on a cracking jade globe that buzzes and spins to life at his touch, and to the usually icily composed visage of Vivienne, as she gracefully bends down and flourishes her long-nailed hand to telekinetically pull a dusty tome or a slightly bent arcane tool from under the tangled branches.
Even Sera, the messy-haired scrawny elf with a habit of making rude grimaces at things she cannot understand - 'weird magey shite' included! - has eventually deigned to approve of this spell.
The Herald once showed her how the spell aided her with scouting the grassy hills of the Hinterlands in search of some loot caches hidden by Sera's many 'friends'. These battered little chests tend to be stuffed inside a non-descript log, or capped with a layer of dried-up moss, and usually contain valuables lifted off some noble as a take back for rationing his estate's supplies so that the villagers starve while he dines on pyramides of sugar-glazed patridges. Or for beating an elven servant one night till he could walk straight, and then beating him some more because he did not show up for work the next day. Or for torching his own wheat field 'for fun' while so drunk that it was a wonder his horse did not get sick from the stench coming from his mouth, and then blaming the lack of harvest on his labourers' laziness. Sera has 'many stories to tell bout these butt-nuggets, but it ain't make the mood better, yeah?'.
And so, when the magical thread successfully mapped the Hinterland landmarks and helped the two women find and open yet another of such caches, Sera passed her verdict.
'S pretty useful, I reckon,' she said genially, as she plopped on her behind in front of the chest and, with her long grasshopper legs in bright plaidweave leggings crossed together, spat on her palms and flexed her scabby fingers in preparation for picking the lock.
'Long as you don't cast this thread thing to lure people off cliffs and shite. But you don't seem the type to do this kinda stuff anyways. And if you ever turn into a tit like that, I'll get ya'.
And after that conversation, Sera has been watching the guiding thread unravel with barely a flinch. But whenever her fellow elf Solas gives her an interested nod and begins to say, 'Ah, so you are not averse to magic! Our kind have...' she still flips around and shows him a couple of middle fingers.
The other spell is not as easy to meet with acceptance. To begin with, its tint is not soothingly blue, but red. Red, deepening from vibrant crimson to tar-like black. Red as the ripe drops oozing from a cut in the open palm of a blood mage that is a heartbeat away from powering up some unnatural ritual; a perversion in the eyes of Andrastian mages like Vivienne and servants of the Qun like the supposed 'mercenary' Iron Bull alike.
A ritual like summoning a demon, with leering ravenous jaws and blank eyes as red as the blood pooling in its new master's hand. Or sneaking a clot of darkness into another person's mind, letting it slither through the soft crevices of the brain like the trailing coils of a puppeteer's string - and finally culminating with an imperious tug that launches the victim's limbs into motion against their will. Or thrusting an unseen sting into the heart of some poor wretch that wriggles weakly, suspended in mid-air, and drawing the life blood through it with a prolonged thirsty squelch, like a mosquito enlarged millionfold, until nothing remains but a drained husk, and the spellcaster is left revitalized, their fatigue gone, any of their wounds closed, and their cheeks glowing with a healthy pink flush of another's blood.
The latter is what the Herald's red magic looks like the most. One wave of her hand, and the flesh of the people around her begins to pulse with a hot ruby glow, each vein and artery suddenly visible to the Herald and those companions who stand close enough to her, as though some monstrous blighted spider has spat out a jet of bleeding webs right onto their flesh. And in the centre of these webs, the hearts twitch, ensnared and ready to be tapped into.
Bull and Vivienne always stiffen when they see that. As the spell burns brighter and brighter, two pairs of hands - smoothly bronze and coarsely grey, with and stubs of missing fingers - clasp round their respective weapons, their knuckles turning pale with the tension. And two throats - one slender and swan-like, the other thick and gnarled with veins and traces of old wounds - tighten in a restrained gulp, as the Enchanter and the Ben-Hassrath spy try not to look at the glow of veins breaking through their own skin.
But presently, their fear always eases: for the Herald does not use this spell to attack people. She merely casts it to quite literally reveal living, beating hearts.
And this spell, too, turns out to be 'pretty useful', as Sera put it. Useful for locating groups of dwarven workers trapped by a cave-in in the impenetrable murk of the Deep Roads. For spotting the throb of red amidst the emerald sea of rustling foliage and undergrowth, and reasoning that the elusive Dalish clan must be nearby. For keeping an eye out for a Freeman ambush on the jutting rock ledges as the Inquisition shields those fleeing the Civil War's massacre in the Dales.
After the spell and its wielder prove themselves benevolent, time and time again, even the First Enchanter and the Ben Hassrath might eventually mellow to it. Especially given those two... Particular incidents. When they went so far as to breathe a sigh of relief as they saw the red blossom in the Herald's hands.
The first incident was when Dorian got separated from the rest of the group in the Fallow Mire - that desolate, plague-ravaged marshland where the lighting shifts between night and day seemed to have blended together in some manner of never fading, oppressive rainy goo that tinted the air a dark bottle glass green.
One moment, they could see him when they looked back. Shuddering all over, his hair plastered along his face and the streaks of his running eyeliner looking like extensions of the wet black strands. Grabbing clumsily with one hand for support at the slippery, mouldy post of a dilapidated boat jetty, while shaking something that looked curiously like a dead frog out of his boot with his other hand. And cursing in Tevene under his breath all the while.
And the next moment, he was gone. No more 'Fasta vas, why didn't I stay back at camp?!'. No more angrily stomping figure in a robe that was definitely too white, too silky, too full of complicated straps for the surrounding ambience. Just the veil of greenish rain, and the lazy ripples on the stagnant water.
Bull jerked his head upwards when he realized that Dorian was not showing any signs of reemerging - and his only eye glinted with pained worry that made it quite clear that his friendship with Dorian had already managed to deepen far beyond the casual jokes about watching each other take a bath that the two of them had been passing not an hour before. But then, the Herald - the only party member tall enough to reach for his shoulder - rested her palm on it in a comforting half-squeeze, while snapping the fingers of her free hand to ignite her blood-red glow. And sure enough, the spell revealed the frantic beating of Dorian's heart - right in the middle of a bog hole that had begun to suck him in, so rapidly that he had barely had time to cry for help before his mouth got clogged up with tangy peat.
'Keep casting, boss,' Bull granted, flexing his shoulders - and, head bowed forward, charged off across the water, towards the flickering speck of red, ignoring the corpses of the plague victims, which had started rising out of the reeking bowels of the marsh, their pallid clammy hands groping at his ankles. With a lot of loud splashing, he reached the place where Dorian had stepped into the swamp's trap, and dragged him out to safety, both of them falling over onto the shiny wet grass, chests heaving with exhaustion. But when the Herald caught up with them, her breathing shallow and her gaze anxious, the Qunari raised his hand, giving her a cheeky thumb-up. It no longer mattered to him that what she had done suspiciously resembled magic - so long as 'the stupid Vint' was safe, and had recovered from his shock enough to begin grumbling again.
The second incident was on that horrible night when the festivities in honour of the Herald closing the Breach were abruptly, cruelly cut short by the descent of an enormous winged shadow that ploughed across the darkened heavens, churning through the clouds in a steep downward spiral - until it was close enough to open its fanged mouth and let out an endless, head-splitting screech that escaped together with a jet of purplish flame. The shadow's breath licked greedily at the thatched cottages, as though they were little square biscuits with grated white chocolate on top - and after each hungry gulp, the straw and the wood caught fire, so that soon, the cozy, welcoming settlement turned into a hazy whirlpool of molten white and yellow, black silhouettes darting against the blaze. People running, stumbling, ramming head-first into each other, blinded by the scalding sting that almost boiled their eyeballs, and deafened by the frenzied drumming of primal fear in their blood.
In their daze, not all of them made their way to safety - to the shelter of the Chantry, the village's only stone building. Some wandered into the jagged cages of flaming debris, with no way to get out on their own, or tripped over something (Maker, this is not a... charred corpse, is it?) and somersaulted into dirty thawing snow, a crackle of agony in their ankle bones preventing them from getting back up again. Escape was not made any easier by the fact that the winged shadow had not come alone. Its arrival had been preceded by a wave of marching creatures that, at some point, may have been called men and women. At some point - long in the past, before their flesh had begun to crystallize into a spiky ruby crust, sprouting huge triangular humps on their backs and lances of hardened crystal where their forearms used to be.
With their faces now little more than fleshy sacks, thrust carelessly onto jagged red growths, and their eyes bleeding as the tiny many-faceted needles pierced their lids and sockets from within, they trampled heavily past the burning buildings, searching relentlessly for uncorrupted flesh to dig into with their crystalline claws. And to rescue their prey, to yank the curled-up bodies, still living but petrified by dread, right from under their... whatever passed for noses on those nightmarish visages, the Herald used her life detection spell again.
It was harder to make out the magic's patterns this time, red clashing against red - but still, she tried. On and on, she kept trying, walking through the fire-engulfed waste, under the shower of blows of oversized crystal limbs - casting her spell while her companions shielded her from harm. And her tireless efforts did bear fruit: now and again, she would spot a beating heart under the rubble, or past a wall of roaring flames, or amid the billows of smoke. That was when Vivienne would come in.
As the Enchanter walked alongside the Herald, keeping pace remarkably well despite wearing not too combat-friendly high-heeled shoes, she keenly picked up any sign of a living being revealed by the red magic - and instantly set to work with spellcraft of her own. A flourish of telekinesis to clear the rubble; a tall row of ice spikes to quench the flames; a gust of conjured wind to thin the smoke. And when, one by one, the freed survivors staggered into the light, tears drawing white lines on their sooty faces, she would give her companion a long, intent look, the corners of her lips curling up just enough for the Herald to break into a small, shy smile right back at her.
The Herald's appearance, and presence, and magic is different. Peculiar. Not quite of this world. But throughout her adventures, she has been using her two spells, a guiding blue and a life-revealing red, to save the people in her care.
At some point, though - not long after her use of red magic impressed Vivienne - her tale almost came to a premature end, as, cold and bleeding and irrevocably drifting off into unconsciousness, she lay trapped under a thick layer of snow, left behind in the heart of an all-crushing avalanche that she had herself unleashed to sweep off the enemy horde advancing on Haven... The question back then was: would she be able to awaken the sparks of two-coloured light in time to save not someone else, but herself?