Pain.

That was my world.

All I felt, all I knew.

Blackness streaked with white lightening, all I saw.

I was in this world I don’t know how long.  Minutes?  Hours?  Centuries beyond measure?  I floated, I fell, I ran and I crawled across the nothing, the darkness.  Feeling only the white searing flashes of noise echoing throughout my ravaged soul, for I had no body in this place between worlds.

Slowly-Maker so slowly!-the lightening faded and the darkness lifted.  In time I found myself surrounded by a soft, white light.  I felt warm finally, after never knowing I was cold.  I stared at this new, softer nothing, for that was what it was.  I had traded one kind of emptiness for another.  And I waited.

Then it seemed to me that the light was growing brighter in one direction.  I moved towards it for no other reason than it was something.  It was different.  I cannot say I felt curious about it but there was nothing else for me there, and it was something to do.

As I grew closer to this one patch of brightness, two forms began to take shape.  Dark, formless shapes at first, but soon enough I was able to make out limbs, clothing, and features.  Hauntingly familiar features…

“Mother?” I whispered questioningly to the nothing around me, startled at first by my own voice.  When had I gained a voice?  A body?  But those questions were put aside as I saw the familiar, beloved forms of my parents before me.

“Lurianna darling,” my mother, Teyrna Eleanor Cousland said with a smile as she wrapped her arms around me.  Her long silver hair was pulled up and braided into two buns that sat at the nape of her neck, and she wore the traditional high necked gown of a noble lady.

Many thought my mother was a harsh woman, for she often walked about with a rather stern expression on her face.  And many would be right for there was not often a noble woman in Fereldan who could not be stern or harsh.  One had to be to keep a household of several hundred souls running smoothly.  But it was her eyes that gave away her true nature.  The color of a stormy sky, those eyes would nevertheless sparkle with an inner light whenever she looked upon her husband or her children at play.  It was those eyes that showed she was also a woman with a strong, kind heart and a strange sense of humor for one of noble birth.

I clung tightly to my mother, caught in her embrace and looked over her shoulder at my father, smiling at the both of us.  “Well done pup,” he said to me, using a childhood nickname I had never grown tired of.

Unlike my mother, my father Teyrn Bryce Cousland was a man who was easy to read.  Tall and broad shouldered like any good warrior, my father’s salt and pepper hair belied his youthful heart.  Laugh lines around his eyes showed he was quick to smile.  Loyal, honest and brave, my father was a man who loved his king, his country, his family and people more often than not loved him back.

Pulling away from my mother, I clasped hands with my father and asked them the question that new found curiosity had kindled in me.  “What are you doing here?  Where are we?”

My parents looked at each other before answering, the kind of look that only years together in a loving, fulfilling marriage can create passing between them.  They knew something I didn’t and by the looks on their faces, it wasn’t entirely good.

“What was the last thing you remember?” my mother asked gently as she turned back to me.

I frowned, thinking.  I remembered nothing beyond the white we found ourselves in, but something deep inside me was screaming that there was a ‘before’.  After a few futile minutes I gave up, shaking my head in frustration.  “Nothing mother, I woke up here, with you.”

“Think hard pup,” father encouraged.  “You’re a Cousland remember! If wars and dragons cannot stop us, why would we falter at mere memory?”

I stood before them, my face screwed up in confusion.  There was nothing before this, before them.  Just…pain?  And a darkness.  But before that, a battle? A…dragon?

I gasped and clutched my head, my knees giving way beneath me as my mind’s eye was assaulted with images.  The battle with the Arch Demon, fighting the Darkspawn, building an army, gathering my companions, Alistair, becoming a Grey Warden, fleeing my home after…

“You’re dead!” I cried out, the full weight of my memories crashing down and resting heavily on my shoulders.  “I remember, the battle with Arl Howe’s men, fighting to find you, leaving you there in that storeroom as they…” I stopped myself there, unable to continue.  Tears rolled down my face as I remembered everything that had happened almost a year ago as if it was mere moments in my past. “How could I leave you?” I whispered brokenly.

I had never had the time to properly mourn the loss of my parents.  Almost a year ago, the Grey Wardens had reported the beginnings of a Blight, that one time every few centuries when the Darkspawn would arise from the depths of the earth that they lived in and attack the surface.

Darkspawn were dark, twisted creatures and the Grey Wardens were men and women from all the races sworn and dedicated to defeating them wherever they showed upon the surface.  Their order was created during the first Blight and often they were the only ones that stood between us and the Darkspawn.

Darkspawn hated everything.  The killed whatever living thing they came upon, ate whatever they could, and burned everything else.  They left nothing but death and destruction in their wake.  Centuries ago the world was ruled by mages, a corrupt and decadent society called the Tevinter Imperium.  The first of the Darkspawn were rumored to be a group of Tevinter mages who grew so prideful and powerful that they dared to take on heaven itself and were cast down for their hubris.

Fortunately they weren’t too bright either, or too loyal to each other so for the most part the surface world only ever dealt with small raiding parties at a time and those few and far between as the Darkspawn hated the light.  But once every few centuries it seems, something would change and the Darkspawn would leave the darkness of their homes en masse.

There were seven dragon gods worshiped by the Tevinter Imperium and at their fall, so too were their gods thrown down.  The scriptures say the Chantry imprisoned these dragon gods deep below the earth.  Some say these dragons are truly gods and other that they are just that, dragons.  Ancient, powerful, High Dragons, and that they have merely gone into deep hibernation.  No one truly knows for none are left to speak the truth.  All we know now is that the Darkspawn seek out these sleeping dragons, these fallen gods.  And once they are found the Darkspawn corrupt them by feeding them their blood, creating a new creature from their ancient and powerful forms: an Arch Demon.

Arch Demons can communicate with and command Darkspawn.  And be they dragon or god, the one thing they think about once woken is returning to the surface, to the world they once ruled, and ruling it again.  So they gather the Darkspawn in the pits of the earth and they march forth to take back what they believe to be rightfully theirs.  These are the times known as Blights.

I was my curse to be born in one such Blight, the fifth since recorded history.  King Cailan, new to the throne after the passing of his father King Maric, heard the reports of the Grey Wardens and called upon the lords of the lands to muster their men for battle.  The one battle, if we were to believe it that would defeat the Blight before it started.

My father called his vassal, Arl Howe to our home to march to Ostagar where the battle was to be fought.  We were told that the arl’s men were delayed, so my elder brother Fergus was sent ahead with our men with the arl’s to follow the next day.

But that day never dawned.

I was awoken that same night to the sounds of battle and the screams of the dying.  The arl had lied.  His men were set loose upon the castle, slaughtering all in their path.  Their orders: Leave none alive.

I found my mother in the confusion, and we fought our way to my father’s side, but it was too late for him.  Duncan, a Grey Warden who had come recruiting for the order earlier in the day, found us and offered my father to take my mother and myself to safety, on the condition that I joined the order.

My mother never made it.  She stayed behind with my dying father to buy Duncan and I what little time she could before they were both cut down.

That night I fled my burning home with Duncan.  We went straight to the king’s camp at Ostagar, where I was initiated into the order.  Immediately after, I was thrown into the battle where my king, my people, and my new found brotherhood were betrayed by the king’s father-in- law, Teyrn Loghain.

I never fully understood why Loghain betrayed us all that night.  I learned much, much later that his hatred for Orlais, our neighbour who once claimed us as a vassal state had driven him mad.  Loghain had fought in the wars that freed us from Orleasian law, and in the grips of his madness, saw them as the true threat over the Blight, especially when the Orleasian Grey Wardens came with several battalions of backup for the battle at Ostagar.

So Loghain got rid of what he thought was the true danger to Fereldan: The king and the Grey Wardens.  Instead of bringing his men in to join the battle at an appointed signal, Loghain retreated from the field, leaving everyone to be slaughtered by the Darkspawn.  With the king and army dead, Loghain branded the Grey Wardens as traitors, and I found myself on the run again with the last Fereldan Grey Warden survivor Alistair.  We never stopped after that, fighting Darkspawn, evading assassins Loghain sent after us, traveling all across Fereldan recruiting allies to defeat the Blight.

My life up until that moment was constant moving, running, fighting.  Never a moment to stop, contemplate my losses and properly mourn my family.  In the back of my mind, I was grateful for that for I feared my sorrow would cripple me if I let it in at the wrong time.  But here in this timeless space with no one hunting for me, calling for me, demanding my time and attention, I finally found the chance to grieve the way I should have long ago.

And so I wept.  I cried until there were no tears left.  I screamed until my voice broke.  I let everything out until I felt empty and hollow on the inside but also somehow cleansed.  It was only then that I felt a strong, warm hand on my shoulder in comfort, and without looking up I knew it was my father.  As much as I loved Alistair, no one else has ever been able to make me feel so safe.

“I know you regret leaving us that night pup,” he said softly.  “But you did what we asked you to do.”

“You needed to live darling,” my mother said as she helped me to my feet and wiped my tears as if I were a child again.  “You needed to find your brother, avenge us, and retake our home.  We didn’t want that end for you.”

“You have done well.  You’ve done everything we could have asked of you and more.  We knew you would be great one day, but we never imagined you would save all of Fereldan from a Blight, and become its queen!”

My parent’s eyes sparkled with undisguised love and pride and I could not help but feel a little embarrassed.  I never felt that I was doing anything extraordinary.  I fought only because I felt it was the right thing to do, that anyone else caught in my position would do the same thing.  Not only to serve and defend the realm, but to protect the ones I loved.  And if that meant destroying an Arch Demon and his Darkspawn army to do it, I would do my best to win.

And apparently I did.

Or did I?

“I’m dead, aren’t I?”  It only made sense.  If my parents were dead, killed at the hands of Arl Howe’s men, then it only stood to reason that I had fallen in battle to the Arch Demon.  I only hope I took the bastard down with me.

“You’re close darling, but not yet,” mother said.  “You’re body was terribly hurt in the battle, and your soul came here to escape the pain.”

“You’re standing on the threshold of heaven,” father said grimly. “You’re soul would have crossed over by itself or been collected in time, had we not intercepted you.”

I shook my head, confused. “But why did you stop me?  We can finally be together again.  Isn’t that what you would want?  I’ve missed you both so much.”

“And we’ve missed you too darling, but this is not your time,” mother explained.  “Even now your mage friend works to heal your wounds before your body succumbs to them.  You can survive them so long as your soul does not cross over.”

“So you know about my companions?  What else have you seen?” I asked, cocking my head at my mother.

“We’ve kept watch over you all this time pup.  We’ve watched you grow these past few months, and seen the great things you have accomplished.  You united a kingdom at war!  You renewed ancient bonds between the Grey Warden and their allies the elves and the dwarves, and even with Fereldan itself!” my father exclaimed.

“And we have seen the love that you have found with Fereldan’s new king,” mother interjected.  I blushed at that.  I certainly hope they weren’t watching all the time. There were some things that no parent needed to see from their child.

“You’re story is not over yet daughter, but you have a choice to make now.” Father’s face grew stern again.  “Your body is healing as we speak so you can return to it.  You can return to your world, and continue having adventures.  Or…” his voice trailed off.

“Or you can come with us,” my mother finished softly.

“But you just told me my time’s not come yet.”

“And it hasn’t darling,” my mother assured me. “If you go back, you will survive.  Your soul came here to escape the pain of your body.  If you stay here, or come with us, your soul will be lost, taken to the Maker or lost to the Fade, and your body will die.  We only came here to keep you from straying too far, too soon.”

“Are Oriana and Oren here too?” My sister-in-law and little nephew, the first of the family casualties that night my world changed forever.

Mother nodded.  “They are here, and they watch over Fergus as we watch over you.”

“Fergus is alive?” I asked excitedly.  When I arrived at Ostagar, my brother was out with a scouting party.  I was to tell him what had befallen our family but I never saw him before the fates whisked me away.  I had vowed to myself that once the threat of the Blight was past I would find my brother, one way or another.

“He lives.  All that remains is for you to seek him out,” my father confirmed.

I studied the beloved faces of my parents as I though over all they had told me.  Could I do that?  Walk further into the light and leave everything behind?  Leave my companions, my love, my burdens of life?  The Maker knew I was tired of it all.  The damnable politics, the pointless squabbles, the fighting.  I wanted nothing more now than to rest.  Would anyone argue that I didn’t deserve it?  I had gone above and beyond my duty.  I had seen so much, saved so many, surely there would be no one would begrudge me this rest.

But would it be worth it?

I sighed and straightened my shoulders.  “I cannot come with you yet.”  I looked at my mother, stern and kind; my father, proud and strong.  I knew this would be the last time I saw them until I was finally called to the Maker’s side.

“You’re right.  It’s not my time.  I am tired, but there is too much left undone.  I cannot leave with so much waiting for me.  Denerrim needs to be rebuilt.  Fereldan needs to heal.  I must find Fergus.  I can’t leave him alone and,” I paused and took a deep breath, “I cannot leave Alistair so soon after we found each other.”

Mother and father nodded at me, as if they knew all along that I would choose this.  I could see that they were saddened by my choice, but I also think that no matter how proud I had made them before, nothing would top this moment for them, no matter how heart wrenching.  I had choosen duty over family.

“Go now pup,” my father bade me.  “Return to your king and companions.  Be a good queen to your people.  Tell your brother we are all here waiting for the both of you when the Maker calls.  There will be time enough for us to spend together when you return.”

Father smiled that reassuring smile I knew so well.  I remembered it from when I was a child and had done something wrong, or when I was hurt, when I was scared, or lonely, he would give me that smile.  That smile told me everything would be alright.

I would return to them.  Leliana and Sten.  Shale and Wynne.  Zevran, Oghren, my hound Kiché, and even my beloved Alistair.  I knew not what the world would bring us now with the Arch Demon being dead at my hands.  But with that smile I knew that no matter what happened to me, to us, we would get through it.  Either together as companions, or separately as friends.

I embraced my parents one last time before I turned from them and walked away.

I don’t know how long I walked.  All I knew is I was going back, or at least I hoped I was.  Eventually the light dimmed around me and I started feeling heavier somehow.  There is a fundamental difference between knowing you have a corporal form and actually having one.  I could only assume as the weight descended upon me that I was returning to myself.

It became harder to move, the more I walked into the darkness until I couldn’t anymore and I was surrounded by nothing again.  So I waited, feeling heavy and sore.  My whole body ached and it was hard to breathe.  I like to think a lesser man or woman would have panicked in that suffocating darkness.

But I had faced down Darkspawn hordes, powerful demons, fearful abominations, golems, dragona, and creatures from the darkest reaches of nightmares.  I was scared, but I did not let it rule me.  I stood there waiting, watching, and listening.  I felt the weight of my body, the ache in my bones, the softness that seemed to be all around me until finally I heard something.

A soft whine came from somewhere far off in the darkness.  There and gone in an instant I nevertheless recognized it right away.  As well as the sadness and the loneliness that so infused that one small sound.

“Kiché?” I called questioningly, but heard no reply.  Kiché was my Mabari war hound, a species known for its intelligence and loyalty to one master.  Many said that the bond between hound and master were so close that they were not only often of one mind, but also one soul.  Mabari hounds were often found guarding the bodies of their fallen masters and few hounds outlived their masters’ deaths, dying either on the sword of an enemy or of a broken heart.

By that sound I knew my beloved hound and the closest companion most of my life was hurting for me, and suddenly I was no longer content to sit and wait.  I wanted to move, to speak, to see.  To wrap my arms around my hound, look into the faces of my friends, and feel the lips of my love on mine.

At first only able to feel my body around me, now I took control of it and forced my eyes open.

Part 2: What Came After

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