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The Traveler

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Traveler cover

 

People like to believe, when poised at the beginning of a story, that they will eventually reach a happy ending. That the conclusion will justify the many turns that they had taken to arrive there. They hold on to that hope through the ups and the downs, through the endless grind in the middle, through the tragedy that shakes the very chords of their hearts. They reach for that blessed light as they blink away their tears, assured in their belief that when the words stop and the last page has turned, all of the people they met on this grand adventure will have found their own version of peace.

This is not a story for the believers. 

***

Through the vast oceans of time he could see the rise and fall of a hundred empires. Every time he blinked, the waves of the years swept over the edge of the Fade, shifting from one era to the next like one pool of ideas, interconnected and dependent on one another. It was better to look out on that ocean rather than to view the bitter records that lingered in his head. The Fade held few memories of the time before it existed, and so he was not forced to watch the summation of his pride destroy the world. Unless he wanted to.

He blinked again and let the anger drain from him, banishing it to the dark places within himself, where he could keep it hidden and safe. No one could see him in this land of imagination and insanity, but his sense of decorum kept him from ever letting the facade lapse. He was what he was, a symbol to the people, a figure that could stand tall against the insurmountable odds, and even when all the eyes of the world had been shut, he would remain as they saw him. If only in their honor.

Yet, he was not the man who had both won and lost a rebellion. Here, now, he was nothing and no one. He was unknown even in the thoughts and dreams of his own people, a fleck of history lost in the wash of time. It was better that he remain forgotten. Better that they know only of the skewed legends and keep their malformed belief systems. It was a relief for him, to step into the unknown, to wear the mantle of anonymity as easily as he wore the collar of his cloak. He could return to his roots, to the self that had been buried by the cause, and remember what it was that brought him joy.

He never wanted to be the leader again. He never wanted to wake up and feel the weight of the world hanging around his neck, pressing into his temples as the eyes of those who followed his footsteps bore into his soul. Now, he would become what he wanted to be. He would rest, and he would do as he had always wanted to do. He would see the world, and he would travel.

The would-be traveler let his feet hang over the edge of the bed. It was not his bed, as it was not truly there, but the synapses in his brain told him that the ground was beneath his soles and that the blankets were warm from the heat radiating off his skin. His eyes saw light filter in through windows that didn’t exist, as bright as the sun, unhindered by such realities as a sky or atmosphere to pass through. He stood, and walked over to the chair, upon which rested his clothing. He donned the items, methodically fastening the buttons and smoothing out the wrinkles. It was strange that he kept the habit, even in a world where he could simply imagine himself dressed and it would be so. Perhaps there were some patterns of behavior that could not be unlearned. 

Dressed, with cotton robes trailing along his sides, the mint green popping against his marble skin, he stepped across the room to the large mirror. He placed his hand along the frame, his fingers trailing over delicately carved designs. It was rimmed with hourglasses, a plethora of shapes and sizes, the simulated sand within them glittering in the bright light. Around the hourglasses were swirls of different colors, as though each timekeeper was floating amongst a rainbow in the clouds. At the top of the frame there was an effigy of a wolf, the only reminder of who he had been, of the title he had worn. He closed his eyes, taking in a deep breath and feeling the magic fill him. He focused on who he wanted to be, how he wanted to live, and when he opened them again the wolf was gone, replaced with another hourglass, suspended in a ring of stone, turning slowly as the sand within shifted between the two chambers. Beneath it rested a small plaque, the word “Uthvir” carved across silvery smooth stone.

Satisfied with his alteration, he palmed the cool glass. The mirror lit up in response, the surface rippling with green mana that glowed in a pulsing rhythm, matching the beat of his heart. He let it fill him and flow through him for a moment, reveling in a connection that seemed so distant and yet so close all the same. Then, with a half-stuttered breath that barely filled his lungs, he stepped through, and let the Uthvir take him where the energy willed.

As he drew in his next breath, he found himself hit with the chill air of the mountains, icy drops of moisture clinging to the back of his throat as he gasped. He could smell flowers, freshly cut wood, and the smoke of modest homesteads, all drifting on the meandering wind. He squinted as the sunlight pounded against his eyes, the sky a brilliant blue that hung stark against the snow-tipped peaks rimming the valley. Before him stood a small village, clustered in a flat plain, nestled in the middle of what could have been the Frostback Mountains, though he was not certain of his exact placement. 

The little village was teeming with life, and as he walked through the well-worn pathways between the quaint houses, he was amused by the simplicity of their lives. They concerned themselves with the general business of day-to-day living, and they pursued that endeavor with a bounce in their steps. In fact, there were few people that he passed that did not have some form of a smile bedecked across their face. It was fascinating to see such contentment, concentrated around nothing more complex than a place to call home. Or so it would seem, had he not known that the world is never so simple when it comes to bliss, and the fleeting taste of sweet smiles is often shorter lived than deserved.

It should not have come as a surprise to him, then, to see a spirit flitting between the people, hovering near one of the village girls. He watched the spirit guide her towards a young man who was stealing glances of the girl from behind his work, his nose red from the cold as it poked over the top of a fine wood carving. The spirit was unseen by the people around them, content to work from within the confines of the fade rather than breaking through to impose its will on the town - whatever that will may have been. Eventually the spirit was successful, and the girl stopped and turned just as she passed the young man, her eyes looking him over with curiosity. She struck up a conversation with him, and after some stuttering and the inept fumbling that came easy to the young, the boy was able to gather her interest completely, so they became immersed in one another’s company. The spirit, satisfied with its work, fluttered off from the couple, dashing into the woods beyond the edge of town.

As he watched it fly away, he was surprised to lay eyes on someone else watching from the edge of the woods. She was tall, with graceful horns curving out of the back of her head and a strong jawline framing a rounded face. Her cheekbones were swallowed by soft tissue, making her less severe in appearance than most Qunari he had seen, and her mouth was tilted in a warm smile that was uncharacteristic for her people. She had silver pigtails, braided into neat ropes, that were draped across either shoulder.

She noticed him then, their eyes locking together, and he was surprised again at the brilliance of the blue within them while they widened in shock. There was no preamble before she turned and ran, darting into the forest behind her like a startled halla. He followed at an immediate pace, his curiosity captivated by the girl that didn’t belong in a village in the mountains. 

She was adept at fleeing, but he had become adept at giving chase over the years, and he used his quicker footfalls to drive her path until she had run into a mountain wall, no escape available without turning and crossing his pursuit.

She rounded on him, and he expected her blue eyes to be full of fire and anger, a cornered animal ready to tear him apart for threatening her space. Instead, he saw only wary apprehension as she stood motionless, watching him. She watched him, and he stood and watched her, neither of them making a move in any direction. This impasse had the temerity to drag out, stretching across all of time. It was ludicrous, the amount of silence that hung between them, and his curiosity was burning a hole through the back of his mind that would drive him insane if it was not sated. He refused to break the stand-off, however. He was determined not to speak first. 

Finally, after they had lived and died a thousand different lifetimes in their own heads, her impatience got the better of her. “Why can you see me?”

“Do you know where it is that you walk?” he offered a question for her question, nonpayment in their social transaction, an escalation in the tension that was more interesting to him than simple answers. Aside from that, he was more curious to hear her responses than to provide his own, a selfish indulgence which he would allow himself, at least for the time being.

She scoffed, crossing her arms over her chest. “I am not a fool.” She rolled her eyes, and she looked surprisingly vulnerable for a woman at least a foot and a half taller than himself. Vulnerable and guilty of providing a completely unsatisfactory answer. He raised an eyebrow and extended his hand to prompt her to continue. “It is the fade. I am saarebas, and we walk the dangerous land.”

He rolled the word around on his tongue for a moment, feeling the unexplored language like a flavor, an unfamiliar dish that he had never before tasted. Saarebas. It was a thick word, seasoned with too much disdain and not enough understanding, tumbling from the lips like a curse rather than a noun. He concluded that he did not much care for it.

The girl, misunderstanding his silence, rolled her eyes again. “In your tongue, it would mean ‘a dangerous thing’.”

He smirked at her, amused at her assumptions. “Common is not my tongue. It is lacking in age by around a thousand years. Your explanation serves its purpose, however, and I thank you for it.”

He walked around her in a lazy circle, examining her hulking frame. She was as large as the Qunari he had seen before, but there was a delicacy to the way she stood and a softness to the curves of her muscles that was strange to him. She had large biceps and strong arms, but they felt as though someone had taken away all the edges, rounding her off until she was as a smooth stone at the bottom of the sea. She scowled at him, and where the majority of her race would appear threatening, she merely managed to appear afraid. He may not care for her language, but he found her incredibly interesting, and so chose to lean into this encounter.

“You are a mage. It seems you can travel the pathways of the Fade quite skillfully, at that.” He tapped a finger against his chin, playing the part of the scholar. “Tell me, have the Qunari changed their customs and embraced magical discovery?”

“No.” The word was as flat and bitter as the leaf from a poisonous vine. 

He clasped his hands behind his back, rolling onto the balls of his feet. “Then how would a Qunari such as yourself become so adept at traversing the realm beyond the veil?”

She broke eye contact, her gaze darting away to the sky above them as a sparrow caught an updraft and sailed into the sapphire heights. “It is the place where my feet are free. I learned to walk in my dreams and stand still when awake.”

He did not usually care for the Qunari, and he actively detested their current belief system, driven by fear and cruelty that marred the citizens it would presume to protect. Yet this girl, with her sky-bound eyes and her softer words, had managed to surprise him in a way he had not thought possible. She was made of a different mettle, yearning to be free of the bonds imposed by her people, and this spoke to a deeper part of him, a part that often drove him onward to seek new and exciting ventures for himself. Or make greater mistakes that could never be undone.

“Why walk here?” he looked through the forest, towards the village, finding peace but not necessarily what he would consider freedom. “Why this place, at this moment in time?”

She looked in the same direction he had, and her expression shifted into one of such longing that it was sweet wine pouring from her eyes. “They do not work for the Qun. They work for themselves and their happiness. The Matchmaker works for this, too. I like to see this. I like to see a different way.”

He blinked, taken aback by her answer once more, before his mind caught on one particular phrase. “The Matchmaker?”

“The spirit, the one that helps the girls find love.”

“Was that her task?” He raised an eyebrow.

“Do not mock me, elf.” Her scowl returned, this time with more ferocity. “You have not been here before, but I have walked these streets many nights. I know what the spirit does to them. I would have intervened if it were a demon.”

“And you know so well the difference?” he was highly amused at her response and charmed that she had not jumped to conclusions, like so many of those of her kind. Like so many of those of any kind. 

“I know what pain looks like. The Matchmaker does not create it. Demon or spirit, I will not intervene if it causes no harm.”

“Fascinating.”

Her brow furrowed as she glared at him with no small amount of indignation. “Don’t believe me? I’ll show you.” She grabbed his hand and took several long-legged steps forward, dragging him back to the village. As they went, she threw up her free hand, a simple flick of her wrist producing a ripple in the fade, which they subsequently stepped through. The ripple transported them through time as they continued on through space, taking them to the village at night, late enough that most the villagers would be heading to bed. He watched her look around, from one darkened window to the next, until she located what she was looking for: a window lit from within, a soft glow coming through the glass and shedding warmth into the cold air beyond. If it was from a candle, it was unlike any candle flame which he was familiar with.

She dragged him onward, pulling him to the window, and after a quick gesture of invitation from her he peered over the windowsill alongside her, two sets of eyes observing the scene within. He watched as the spirit from before floated above a young girl’s bed as she slumbered peacefully, an image of her dreams flickering in the air around her head. The girl was walking through the forest in her dream, alone, and feeling it intensely, wishing that she had someone at her side. The girl’s subconscious began to respond, to create a companion that she could stroll with, and it was then that the spirit interfered, creating the visage of another boy from the village and placing him at the girl’s side. The spirit then guided the pair of them through the woods and onto a life full of love and bliss, of weddings and children and endless happiness. It was a sweet dream, and the girl smiled in her sleep, giddy with the ideas that had been planted there. The spirit, content with its service, floated out through the window, sending a wave of greeting to them as it passed. 

“She shows them love, so that they might avoid unhappiness.” The Qunari’s explanation was quite unnecessary, as he could have pieced that much together on his own.

“How kind of it.” He could think of nothing more clever to say as he watched the spirit fade into the night sky, taking its warmth and glow along with it.

“I want to believe that it is successful, and that this girl will find her happiness with that boy.”

The idea formed before his sense had caught up with him, and he was asking the question before he could assert any kind of will over his tongue. “Would you like to know for certain?” he didn’t look at her directly, but watched her out of the corner of his eye. It was satisfying when her face lit with uninhibited hope.

“Yes, very much.” Her silvery braids bobbed as she nodded.

He tilted his head in the direction of the Uthvir before walking that way, allowing her to follow at her own pace. Her legs were far longer than his, but still she trailed three or four steps behind him, trained to keep her feet at a respectful distance. The eluvian recognized his desire to locate it before he had actually recalled where he had left it, and he could see it begin to materialize some paces before them. He heard the girl suck in a breath behind him as she saw it, and he smiled to himself at her wonderment.

As they arrived, the mirror lit up, welcoming him in with its intense green radiance, and he paused in front of it, bowing and extending an arm to indicate that she proceed in first. She waited for only a moment before she balled her hands into fists and strode purposefully forward, passing through the portal. He grinned, the first genuine smile he had felt in some time, before he followed in after her. 

The chamber within was simple. His bed, rarely used, lay against an unadorned wall, a chest of keepsakes closed and locked at its feet. He had little need for furniture, as he rarely returned here for longer than it took to think of a new place to travel. The Uthvir had thoughtfully placed an extra chair in the middle of the room, both of them now on either side of a small table currently exhibiting a tray of cookies. He was somewhat miffed at the offering, as the mirror had never welcomed him home in such a fashion. He turned and glared at the unassuming eluvian, and it responded by placing a teapot and two steaming cups of tea next to the cookies. He couldn’t decide if he was amused or further irritated. 

“Where is this place?” the girl was looking at the cookies with equal parts trepidation and hunger.

He picked up the plate and handed it to her as he spoke. “It is technically another location in the fade, though you would not be able to access it by normal means. Are you familiar with the eluvians?” she shook her head, crumbs lining her lips as she listened intently. He sighed, disappointed in spite of his more realistic expectations. “No, I suppose you would not have heard of them in your time, nor your culture. You can think of an eluvian as a doorway, a portal into a land which the elves of old had used to get from one place to another. These roads were far shorter than those on land, and so it allowed them to move freely across the world, sometimes in the blink of an eye.”

“That’s amazing.” She picked up a cup of tea, sipping it gingerly to avoid burning her sugar-coated tongue.

“Indeed, it was.” Memories clawed at the back of his eyelids, but he pushed them down, ignoring the clamor in favor of the numb fortitude that the present provided. “This eluvian is unique, however. The eluvians that the elves used for travel were all physical objects. This one is not. It exists solely in the fade, and it serves to transport me any place - and any time - that I wish to travel within it.”

“Can you not do this without the eluvian?” the word sounded strange on her tongue, the vowels dragged out farther than they should have been, but he was still impressed with her pronunciation.

“A good question. While it is true that, theoretically, one can travel anywhere within the fade, it is often not so simple as thinking it and then making it so. Most have found that in order to see a place in the fade, they must have seen it physically first. There are exceptions to this rule, obviously, as you have found your way to a village in Ferelden, and I assume you have not been there in the flesh.” She shook her head again, validating his assumption. “It takes a great deal of effort to go where you have not been, but with this eluvian it takes only enough concentration to imagine it.”

She walked up to the surface of the Mirror, touching an hourglass as though afraid she would break it. “Uthvir.” She drew out the ‘U’ sound, and her mouth curved heavily around the ‘R’, but he was again impressed that she could read it. 

“It means ‘the endless way’.”

“It is a good name.”

He tilted his head to the side, regarding her as his error in courtesy dawned on him. “Speaking of which, I believe it is past the time that I learned yours.”

Much to his surprise, she blushed and ducked her gaze to the translucent floor. “I am…they call me Evastaarit.”  She knew the truth of the name she had been given, and it shamed her for its lack of individuality.

“And if my cultural information still stands correct, that is not a name, but a title? A rank if I am not mistaken.” He gave her a warm smile.

“It means ‘the beginner that rises’. I am an apprentice at the bakery.” She fiddled with the hem of her shirt, frayed and suddenly dusted with flour as her mind recalled the reality of her world whenever she awoke.

“That is almost a pun. I’m surprised the Qun would not deem it too amusing and vanquish it to the void with the rest of the fun they’ve encountered in the world.” He sniffed for effect and was gratified when she giggled, clapping a hand over her mouth to stymie the reaction. “Well, I don’t feel that it suits you.” He trailed his knuckles against his jawline, rubbing the stubble-free skin as he considered the problem. “How about Eva? I believe that shall do wonderfully.”

Her eyes lit up and she smiled wider than he had yet seen. It felt like a greater victory than he had achieved before in his many years, and he could not keep himself from returning the expression.

“What is your name?”

It took him half a heartbeat to decide that he did not want to tell her his name, another half a heartbeat to feel guilty about it, and an entire pulse of the blood in his veins before he came to an acceptable name to give as a replacement. When he did, he felt as though it fit better than the titles he had been given by others. Nothing would ever wear so well as his original name, but this moniker would serve when he could not provide that.

“Call me the Traveler.”

“That is not a name.” Her frown was slight, but irksome in its severity.

“I have revoked your title and given you a name, and taken for myself a title to revoke my name. A fair trade if you ask me.”

“You are a strange man.” She eyed him suspiciously for a moment before she shook her head, dropping the topic like a stone in a well, to be fished out later when time and interest could provide. “You seem to mean well, so I will call you as you wish, mysterious Traveler.”  He knew she would have more questions, eventually. He knew he would never have answers that could satisfy her. For now, however, they had reached an accord, and he let himself feel pleased with the peace that settled between them.

He nodded his approval before he stepped back up to the mirror, placing his hand on the unassuming glass. He turned his head and smirked at her, raising an eyebrow. “Ready?” it was as much a challenge as it was a request for affirmation. She chewed on her lower lip for a moment before she nodded her own head. He didn’t give her a chance to change her mind, and he sent rivulets of energy through his fingertips and into the Uthvir.

When they stepped through the glowing surface, they again found themselves in the village.  Time had altered the sleepy town, but only marginally. There were a handful of new houses, and a large tavern had been built on one of the tallest hills. It still held an air of quaint happiness, however, and the pair of interlopers indulged in the feeling for a moment, breathing in the quiet comfort that could only come from a place so many considered “home”.

Eva’s hand tugged at his shoulder, featherlight. He turned, and she pointed towards one of the houses on the edge of town. He just caught the retreating form of the Matchmaker as it went into the house, the glow trailing behind it like the rainbow lights that danced in the southern sky on the coldest nights. They were off after it moments later, their footsteps leaving no prints in the undisturbed snow. 

When they reached the home, they peered in through the window, and their eyes were greeted with a warm scene, lit by the light of love as much as the fire simmering on the hearth. A bed was pushed up against the far wall, and laying within was the girl that the spirit had pushed.

For Eva and himself, it had been mere minutes, but for the girl in the bed it had been a lifetime.  The years had sunk into her face, one wrinkle at a time, painting laugh lines around her mouth and the feet of smiling birds at the edges of her eyes. She was surrounded by the fruits of the Matchmaker’s labor, the kind faces of children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, all bearing resemblance to the girl she had been, combined with the boy she had met. As they watched, the woman passed in her sleep, her spirit slipping from the grasp of her mortal trappings to travel where no living being could follow. Those around her hugged her and wept, and wished her well on this final journey. Above them, the Matchmaker hovered, glowing with pride and happiness, seeing her pupil off as she had reached the end of her story. She had lived happily ever after, a rare gift in a world that afforded little happiness to anyone.

He turned, to comment on the rarity of the moment, but his tongue was stilled as he looked at Eva. Her blue eyes were brimming with tears, rivers of sparkling beauty pouring from them and cascading down her cheeks. Her dark skin was an ashen sky, a storm that could never break because of what was in her blood, but her tears…her tears were pieces of sunlight, stolen from the heavens, torn straight from a heart that was too good by half for the fate it had been given. She was, in this moment, a beautiful representation of what was lost to the world, of what could never have been and never would be. She was defiant of the things he knew, and defiant of the things he had thought she should be. She was real, and here, and weeping with joy for another girl’s happiness, and it was a bittersweet drug that made him dizzy with regret.

He guided her back to the Uthvir without speaking because his words were heavy and useless against such a moment. The unspoken was more powerful here, and so he let it work its magic, sharing between them things for which no words existed. When her tears had dried and his regret had subsided, he sat in the chair across from her, studying her face. It had returned to her previously stoic expression, but the memory of the tears was still fresh in his mind, and he could not unsee the softness gathered in her eyes.

“Have you ever traveled beyond the village? To other places across the fade?” He hated to break the silence, but his curiosity ate away at him like a wasting sickness, and if he did not indulge he would disappear.

“Some, but not many. It is difficult to imagine the places outside of the Qun.” She sat with her toes pointed towards one another, her fingers clasped in her lap. Utterly contained, as the world had taught her to be.

He wanted to show her how to stretch her soul, and be as large as she wanted to be.

“Would you like to? Travel further, that is.”

“Yes!” her enthusiasm took him off guard, and their twin smiles of elation could not be suppressed. Then she flickered, like light being bent by the branches of summer-heavy trees. “I need to go. It is time to wake up, I can hear them coming to fetch us.”

“Go, and try to find some joy in your day. I will find you when next you sleep.”

Then she was gone, and the chamber was empty once more. He stared at the teacup, drained of its contents across the table, the echo of her hand still warm against the handle. He had never before been so sad to see something lacking in tea.