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The Reluctant Alchemist's Guide to Thedas (Vol. 1)

Chapter Text

"Aconitum... Aconitum."

Margo stared at the yellowed parchment page with dull-minded ferocity. The staring lent no discernible result, safe for the bleary vision and thunderous headache gathering steam somewhere at the back of her skull.

"That's not an aconite, it's a delphinium, you mindless git."

For the most part, Margo loved ancient botanical treatises. The delicate scroll, the dry smell of parchment, the beautiful, minutely detailed hand-drawn illustrations. This one though, was an exception. As far as botanical treatises went, it sucked. And trying to translate said treatise at 10pm at night, after she had taught two lectures and one review session and was wrung out, sucked especially thoroughly. She could barely make out the plant names, likely transcribed by someone with only a marginal grasp of the subject matter, and even less aptitude.

The manuscript was anonymous, of course. As far as Margo could tell, it was likely a copy of a copy, commissioned by some provincial abbot to supplement some boondock monastery's piddling curriculum, and, judging by the abundant mistakes and heinous drawings, executed by a perennially drunken monk.

Margo decided to call him Brother Rufus.

That hadn't stopped the rare collections librarian from treating the manuscript like it was Paracelsus's lost formula for the elixir of eternal life.

"This is a very precious text," the pearl-wearing paragon of propriety had imparted on Margo, her platinum bob staying eerily immobile despite the unmistakable head shake of preemptive disapproval. Margo had nodded sagely.

Sure it was.

She should have felt grateful that it was even available. It wasn't like her new article on medieval materia medica trade routes was going to write itself without original sources. But there were original sources, and then there was Brother Rufus's magnum opus of mediocre drawings and bullshit plant names. The poor sod couldn't even identify an aconite properly.

Margo turned the page. Stared.

And then stared some more.

Brother Rufus wasn't just drinking, she decided. He must have been digging into the Datura supplies.

The drawing was poorly traced, and the ink had leeched into the paper over the years, but the picture looked more like some kind of sea creature plopped out of the water and left to putrefy – a mass of dark tentacles with some vaguely hostile looking red dots speckling the entire arrangement. Might have been berries, might have been eyes, for all Margo could tell. Either that, or Brother Rufus had spat out some wine on the page. Probably nose spat it, Margo decided, considering the slightly bumpy nature of the splatter. Centuries old wine mixed in with some dead monk's mucus.

What could be better?

There was a scribble next to the drawing which looked vaguely like a plant name annotation, but only if you sort of crossed your eyes and squinted at it sideways. Darth Rot? That didn't sound right. She snapped a picture of the text on her cellphone and ran it through the sharpen algorithm of her photo software. It didn't lend a stark improvement, but…

"Ok, Brother Rufus, what the hell is a Death Root?"

She turned to the next page. The drawing featured therein didn't exactly ameliorate on the previous entry. It had a cyan-colored tip and a fleshy base and looked like… Well.

"Alright. What shall we call you? I vote for Orc's Rod."

There was the distinct sound of someone clearing their throat. Margo looked up. To say the librarian's expression was disapproving would be like saying that leprosy was a chronic skin condition.

Margo schooled her face into something she hoped was appropriately chastised. The inscription next to the "plant," if one could call it that, was surprisingly legible at least. Really, though? "Deep mushroom?" As opposed to what, shallow mushroom? She sighed. Why don't we just cut to the chase, and call it "Some Fungus."

The next page didn't have any botanical drawings, but a kind of addendum, or perhaps commentary, by the otherwise anonymous Brother Rufus.

"Taken from the Compendium of Ines Arancia, Foul Beldams and Loose Mistress who is't shouldst has't been burn'd at the Stake f'r h'r naughty Ways and unholy Cons'rtion with the Flibbertigibbet, and did punish duly as wast pleasing and prop'r."

Margo frowned.

"Fuck you too, Brother Rufus."

"Ms. Duvalle! Please watch your language in the library."

Margo looked up again. "My apologies."

It probably wasn't a good time to remind the librarian that it was Dr. Duvalle, but it still chafed.

She got up, taking the tome with her.

"Ms. Kostinsky, do you happen to have anything on this Ines Arancia this manuscript mentions?"

The librarian looked at her with thinly veiled disdain and pointed her chin at the computer – itself a medieval artifact – and its supposed electronic catalogue.

"Have you tried to run a search?"

"I haven't, but…"

"We are closing in ten minutes. Would you like to return that?"

It wasn't really a question. Margo relinquished the tome, and went back to her desk to gather her stuff. There was a strange tingling sensation in her fingertips – not an itch, exactly, but a kind of dull throb, like the precursor of a burn.

She walked out of the library into the frigid night air. The snowflakes were twirling in the light of the single street lamp.

Her car was parked a good fifteen minutes away from the university library, and she bundled her coat against the chill, steeling herself for the walk. She wished they'd change the street lamps. The new lights were on the duller side, apparently for the sake of energy efficiency. At least, this part of town was mostly quiet, and heavily policed by the university cops.

The burn in her fingers was getting more uncomfortable. She wondered if it was an allergic reaction – perhaps to a compound that had sealed the manuscript's ink or had been used to treat the paper? She should have used her gloves.

She'd wash her hands when she got home. And then cuddle in bed with Mindy, the feline terror. Although the little furry traitor was probably sleeping on Jake's fold-out couch, while he was weathering another explosive breakup in her tiny apartment. Her brother has always been better with cats than with women.

She'd settle for a glass of Merlot and Netflix instead.

Her mind returned to Ines Arancia. She wondered who she had been – and how the inept monk had gotten his hands on this Ines's Compendium, from where he had copied the strange plant entries. If only she could track down the original, this could actually be quite interesting.

She was absorbed in her thoughts, which meant that she wasn't paying attention when the man in the leather jacket turned into her street and fell in step behind her. Even when the footsteps quickened, their staccato rhythm bouncing off the brick wall of the warehouse along which she was walking, it took her too long to register the danger, as if through a fog.

And then the wind was knocked out of her. She fell to the ground, hands thrown out defensively to try to stave off the impact with the pavement. The shock resonated through her bones, making her teeth clatter in her head. Before she could recover, someone grabbed her hair, and yanked her forward, then back up unto her feet. She tried to scream, but got a mouthful of leather glove. It tasted like stale cigarettes and gunmetal.

She tried to kick out with her foot, but it didn't connect. She was launched into the brick wall, and then the bastard body slammed into her, a hand fumbling at her jeans, the cold sharp press of a knife at her throat.

"Don't move, little bitch," he breathed into her ear, the air around him rancid with unprocessed alcohol and the acrid, metallic tang of cheap cologne.

She didn't waste her breath trying to argue, but kicked out again, and this time there was a satisfying meaty thump, and she ducked out and to the left, out of the knife's way.

She ran. She could hear her attacker lunging after her, but she fixed her eyes on the blue light of an emergency phone, all the way up the street, so she sped up, lungs burning with gulps of icy air.

She almost made it. He caught up to her some fifteen feet away from the blue beacon. When she realized she wouldn't outrun him, she turned around. Later, much later, when all of this is over, she will struggle to remember his face, and can't.

She dodged the first blow, and yelled "Help!" at the top of her lungs. And then, belatedly, "Fire!" Because crowd psychology was predictable when it came to women being attacked in the street.

The second blow landed on her stomach, connecting. She doubled over, with the sudden clarity that she was probably going to die, and that her hands for some reason were glowing green. They felt very hot, itchy, and like they should be put to some kind of use, though she couldn't quite fathom what – a weird thing to worry about under the circumstances. For an irrational second she thought of Ines Arancia, "Foul Beldams," and wondered if she did end up getting burned at the stake, as per Brother Rufus's suggestion, but then a pair of hands closed around her throat, and she couldn't breathe.

She tried to kick her assailant in the nutsack – because if ever someone had it coming - but he was expecting it, and her kick landed on his thigh instead. Dark spots bloomed, ate away at her vision. Her hands were on fire by then, though the fire felt cold and almost astringent, and Margo had the sudden, unwelcome insight that the pages were probably coated in some sort of plant toxin. Her mind, fuzzy and distant by that point, hurled towards the bottom of the cone of darkness, and at its center a greenish glow beckoned. A voice whispered something important. Well, not a voice, exactly, more like a sense of intent.

It told her that it could help.

It told her to stop struggling, and to just let it through.

It told her that it too had struggled.

It told her that it could give her justice.

Distantly, as if in another world, in another lifetime, her back hit the pavement. She felt the sudden cold bite of winter air on her bare thighs.

And so, with what remained of her awareness, she forced herself to move over, and to let the whispering thing come through.

A sensation of being turned inside out, and then falling down the tunnel while something else – something distinctly alien and so profoundly wrathful she had no words for it - rushed by, and before she reached the bottom of her free fall, she saw her body shoving its hands wrist-deep into her attacker's chest.

Her clawed hands.

Except not her hands anymore, because she was airborne, and then torn through some kind of cosmic membrane with a sound of ripping fabric. A sense of something vast and incomprehensible and distinctly non-Euclidean warped her mind to the breaking point and then past it, and then she plummeted into a darkness tinged with that same acidic green light.

***

When Margo comes to, there is a room, the smell of wood smoke, and a pungent, but not altogether unpleasant aroma – like inula and camphor, with an underlying spice she can't identify. Something like nutmeg, but more bitter. The smell is reassuring, somewhere half-way between medicine and incense.

When she tries to move, her body feels strange – like it's not quite sure it fits her. And then, the vertigo passes, and everything snaps into place. She sits up.

She is covered with a rough woolen blanket that smells of sheep. And underneath, she is naked. And this is definitely not her body.

"What the actual fuck?" she manages, and then a movement catches her eye.

"Good. You are awake" a man utters, the voice amused, but mild. "That is one less casualty than we have thought."

She pulls the blanket more securely around herself, and looks him over. He's slender, long, bald, and has pointy ears. And he is most definitely not human. Humanoid, yes. But this is not, as far as she can tell, the same sub-species. Like, say, mugwort to wormwood. Both species of Artemesia, two quite different plants.

"Is this a dream? A hallucination?" She swallows. While she's on a roll with the rhetorical questions, she might as well get the big one on the table. "Am I dead?"

"You most certainly were dead, so I must admit I am pleasantly surprised at your unexpected recovery."

She swallows. Her throat feels parched, and there is an ache in her side.

"What killed me?"

"A demon, I would guess."

"A what, now?"

"A demon." The amusement fades from his eyes. "We lost too many soldiers in the battle. We brought our wounded back, but many more I fear will not recover. Our medicine supplies are short, and there are too few mages in Haven to help the healing."

There is a strange sing-song quality to his voice that lulls her into accepting the statement as is. Before, of course, its meaning actually reaches her brain.

"Battle? Um… did you say mages?"

He simply nods, and then stands up.

"Rest. You were badly damaged, and it will take time for you to recover your faculties. I have more patients to see before the day's end."

"I…" She thinks. This doesn't feel like a dream, but even if it is, mindlessly gaping won't get her anywhere. She should be in a state of shock, but she is not. Her body - which isn't hers - is tired, but sedate.

"I think I have memory loss. I am not quite sure…what or who I am."

Which isn't a lie. The man stops, and walks back to the bed, crouching next to it. He brings his face close to hers, and at this distance, the slight difference of his physique feels less pronounced. Margo forces herself to remain still, to stand her ground. She tries to consider his features analytically, as if he were a painting, or a statue from a bygone era. She tries to decide whether he is handsome, but the differences snag at her perception too much for that.

"I can tell you that you are a warrior. Based on your weaponry, you are trained in stealth, and wield daggers. I thought I saw you kill a rage demon, but not before it struck you. Though its remains were nowhere to be found when I got to you. You were dying. I did what I could to repair the damage, but I had not thought it would be sufficient. And others needed my help." His grey eyes seem to cloud over, like he's stepping away and deeper inside of himself. "All decisions are sacrifices, are they not?"

Margo thinks back to her body dying in the alley, at the hands of some anonymous asshole. About the call for her to "let it through." About her hands, no longer her own, ripping into a chest. "I suppose. Is that all you can tell me?"

"Besides this, I can only tell you the obvious. You are skilled at war, but not skilled enough to not get mauled in battle. Though this is ill luck as much as flaws in training. Do you recall your clan?"

She blinks at that.

"You do not strike me as a city elf. Your body is clearly honed for physical activity." She thinks there's a twinkle of humor there, but it's gone before it can settle into something more definitive, and he is back to neutral. Good, because she is distinctly not in the mood for insinuating jokes. "I thought you Dalish." He frowns at that. "Though you are unmarked, so perhaps not. In any case, your memory will likely return in time, and you will solve that mystery yourself."

He gets up, very clearly done with the conversation.

"I have another difficult patient to care for, and if she does not make it, then I fear things will truly become desperate. When you are sufficiently recovered, seek out master Adan. He is as likely to blow you up as he is to prescribe you the correct tonic, but I would take the chance. Your ribs will keep paining you without an elfroot infusion."

"Thank you, uh…"

"Solas. Mend well."

When the door closes, Margo throws off the blanket. There is no mirror, but a wash basin stands next to the bed, its water dark. As a reflective surface, it's enough to get an idea of her appearance. The face that stares back is not her own. It has high cheekbones and large grey eyes, instead of her hazel ones. Its hair is flaxen, and tied back in a braid. It is younger than her, but not by much - late twenties to her 31. There is dried blood caked around her hair line. This body is shorter, narrower, with clear but lean muscles and a criss crossing of new and old scars. A bad one, pink and raised, bisects her abdomen.

And her ears are pointy.

"Who the hell are you?" she asks the water.

She is still naked, so she looks around the room. There is a set of clothes on top of a chest, and unless she wants to wander around in the buff, she better tackle them. Fortunately, they are functional enough that everything makes sense. And they are comfortable. A simple set of soft leather pants, cotton shorts of some sort that she assumes are underwear, a set of three bandages that she decides are for wrapping: one set for her chest, two for her feet, in lieu of socks. A linen shirt and a fur lined leather coat, well worn, with the strong smell of wood fires. It takes a few tries with the bandages, but the rest proceeds smoothly.

She notices the book when she's looking for a pair of shoes. It's propped on a shelf, its spine worn and a little greasy from handling, the gold lettering almost faded, but legible.

When she deciphers the author's name, the feeling is a nauseating mix of relief and dread. She supposes this is what "awe" feels like. The spine reads "The Botanical Compendium." By Ines Arancia.