AN: 2/18 Update - I've scaled way back the amount of background info that was previously in chapter 1, so hopefully this chapter flows better now without so much plot summarization bogging it down. But sinceI pick up the game story in progress rather than starting at the beginning, this first chapter is basically setting the scene of where we are and summarizing what's happened up to this point. I get all of that out of the way up front and then we start moving forward.
This story is a bit of an experiment. I wanted to write a hero that isn't the typical strong, handsome type with unflappable confidence. It was a challenge to write a character that was ugly yet charismatic, weak yet capable, prone to mistakes yet intelligent, frustrating at times to others yet inspirational, etc. Let me know if you think I pulled it off or not.
"Alim!" exclaimed Alistair, shaking his head at his fellow Grey Warden marching along several meters ahead. "Are you even listening? I asked you a question."
"Huh? Sorry…" Alim replied distractedly, glancing back while continuing to walk. Most of his companions seemed to be in foul moods, so as the day progressed he'd been doing his best to just keep to himself. "What did you need?"
"We were trying to get your opinion on these wolf attacks. Do you think they are becoming more frequent?" The party had already been attacked a few times since leaving Denerim on the North Road to begin their journey to Orzammar, and they weren't half way yet. The most recent skirmish had ended not even half an hour earlier, and though a dozen wolves hadn't posed a significant threat to the seven battle tested companions, it was still wearying.
After falling silent for a few moments, the younger warden shrugged. "This is a fairly desolate stretch of highway, so it does not surprise me. And we have seen warning signs a couple of times about wolves in the area, so apparently they are common enough to warrant that."
"Well, I think there are more of them than usual," offered Alistair.
"Well that settles that, it must be true," Morrigan mocked. The raven haired witch of the Wilds seemingly never missed an opportunity to tweak the former templar. Then again, her rapier-like wit had a way of finding its mark with pretty much everyone.
Making a sweeping gesture of his arm towards the pair, Alim answered, "Outside of my travel from the Circle Tower to Ostagar, you two have been with me nearly the entire time I've ever been outside the Tower. This is actually my first time on the North Road."
Alim turned away, glancing up at the cloudless sky and briefly wishing for some respite from the mid-day sun beating down on the party before refocusing his attention on the road ahead. Behind him he could hear Alistair give up on talking to Morrigan a minute later with an exasperated sigh, and knew his fellow warden had fallen back further to walk alongside Sten, the stoic and reticent Qunari warrior. Truthfully though, he didn't blame Alistair one bit. Alim wasn't really in the mood for all the banter himself, especially since the current mood of most of the group meant that bantering was just as likely to be bickering or backbiting. That was the main reason he took the initiative to take point after the last wolf pack encounter. At times it seemed like trading insults was the group's most popular pastime, and anyone was fair game.
The elven arcane warrior maintained a pace that was brisk but would not put undo strain on the big Qunari ambling along in heavy plate armor. Off to his side was his faithful Mabari warhound, Scorch, who trotted easily while wagging his stubby tail happily. A dozen meters back of him was the Antivan elven assassin, Zevran, walking with the Orlesian human bard, Leliana, and Morrigan on either side of him. Right behind Zevran was the human mage Wynne, an elderly senior enchanter who, like Alim, was from the Circle of Magi. Another dozen or so meters further back still were Sten and Alistair, the human Grey Warden that had recently been revealed to be the bastard son of Maric, former king of Ferelden.
Pulling back the hood of his dark green cloak, Alim poured a small amount of water from his skin on to his head, running his hand through his thick, slightly longer than shoulder length reddish brown mane and over his face as he tried to cool off. Pulling his hand back he noticed that he'd wiped wolf blood off his face in the process. Sighing, he poured a bit more water into his hand and wiped his face mostly clean.
"You should not waste your water like that, my friend," called out Zevran from behind him in a tone laced with mirth.
"Why is that?" Alim asked, not glancing back as he continued walking.
"'Tis a long way, Warden," Morrigan answered. "It would be a pity to see you collapse and left to the vultures because bathing with your drinking water caused you to run out."
Alim rolled his eyes, choosing not to bother replying to her. He generally liked Morrigan, in part because he felt she was forthright and honest, she was one of the few people he'd ever met that he didn't feel spoke in layers of meaning and motive. The other part was she heaped less abuse on him than she did the others and he thought maybe in her odd way that was how she expressed friendship. But he was by no means immune from it. He'd hoped being a bit away from the main group would keep him from being targeted, but as it turned out, he wasn't so lucky.
"And it's not like the blood is going to make him look any worse," added Zevran in a low voice, intending his comment for only the two women next to him to hear. Alim heard it anyway.
"Yes, 'tis truly a face only a mother could love," Morrigan sniped, chuckling.
Alim closed his eyes and sighed to himself, both from the comments being said behind his back in a way that seemed like they thought he couldn't hear them, and from the laughter that indicated the amusement the two of them were having at his expense. This wasn't the first time he'd heard that phrase from Morrigan, she'd said it in front of Flemeth and Alistair shortly after he'd gotten out of bed back at her mother's hut.
"He definitely got taken out back and beaten with the ugly stick," Zevran agreed, drawing more laughter from Morrigan and giggles from Leliana.
"That is terrible!" Leliana chided half-heartedly while still giggling.
Alim flinched at the sound of her laughter before gritting his teeth angrily. He wasn't happy with the others either, but Leliana and Alistair were the only ones of the group other than his dog that he'd have said were genuinely friends and not just acquaintances he was friendly with. So it stung even worse that she was laughing along with them.
"I guess I was wrong about her, after all," he thought solemnly to himself, picking up his pace to get out of earshot from them. After awhile he couldn't help but think back on what made him a target for those types of comments.
The two youngest Grey Wardens raced across the bridge towards the Tower of Ishal, ducking arrows launched from the darkspawn forces that the king's armies were engaged with here at Ostagar. As they dashed into the courtyard in front of the tower, they suddenly came to a abrupt halt, exchanging shocked glares. This was supposed to be the boring, easy job, just make their way up to the top of the tower that was already held by Teyrn Loghain's forces, then light the beacon to signal the remainder of the army led by Loghain himself to charge. A plan that sounded so dull that Alistair had actually lamented the lack of action they'd see. But what they saw now changed everything. The broken remnants of the contingent Loghain had left behind at the tower were fleeing for their lives. A large number of darkspawn were in the courtyard, slaughtering anything in their path.
"This is bad…" muttered Alistair somberly, barely loud enough for Alim to hear over the din of battle. Alim agreed, but the inexperienced young mage managed to keep his wits about him long enough to flag down a tower guard and a fleeing soldier.
"You two!" he barked, "with us, now!"
The soldier briefly scowled, looking like he wanted to tell the elf to go take a flying leap, but he merely sighed in resignation and answered, "Yes, Warden."
Spotting a cluster of darkspawn that had just finished swarming a soldier, Alim cast a fireball that obliterated them, sending charred corpses flying in the process. This immediately drew the attention of the remaining darkspawn. A number of hurlocks, large burly warriors wielding war axes, charged the group, while several smaller genlock archers moved to attack range. Alistair and their two new companions stepped forward to intercept the charging hurlocks, engaging them in melee combat. Alim stayed back, briefly surveying the battlefield before beginning to launch ranged attacks from his blackened heartwood staff.
The three upfront managed to hold their own against the hurlocks, though they weren't making much progress offensively. After a minute of ducking and dodging arrows and countering with bolts of energy, Alim cut loose another fireball that took out the group of genlocks. A couple of more hurlocks joined the fray, and recognizing the little mage was dealing the most damage they charged directly at him. Alim threw out his hands and cast a flame blast that set the pair of darkspawn on fire, but they plowed ahead into him and knocked him roughly to the ground. He managed to roll out of the way of an incoming axe blade that stuck violently in the ground at the spot he occupied a moment earlier, but a wild swing from the other hurlock slashed his arm, cutting through his robe and opening a gash.
Alim screeched in pain, which drew Alistair's attention. The mage let loose a mind blast that stunned his two adversaries, allowing his fellow warden a free run at the now defenseless darkspawn. Alistair quickly cut them down before returning his attention to the other group. Alim flanked the enemy line long enough to cast a flame blast that ripped through their rank while avoiding his allies. The attack gave his companions the advantage they needed to overwhelm and finish off the last of the hurlocks in the courtyard. Seeing there were no more enemies in sight, Alim dropped to his knees, gasping for breath as the adrenaline left him and realization set in.
"Are you alright?" Alistair asked in a worried tone.
Alim nodded. "Sorry… still new at this…"
"Fighting darkspawn? Few have much experience at it."
Shaking his head, Alim answered, "Before today I'd never fought or killed anything, actually."
"Are you kidding me?" asked the tower guard incredulously. "You've got that kind of offensive firepower and you're telling me you've never used it before?"
"I guess if you want to count my Harrowing I have killed a demon before, but we do not exactly practice on live targets at the Circle Tower."
Alistair nodded. "Well, if you've caught your breath, we need to move on. They're counting on us to get that beacon lit."
"I am fine, let's go."
By the time they reached the top of the Tower of Ishal, Alim was quite literally panting for breath, with sweat pouring off of him. He'd never experienced anything like this, and he simply did not have the endurance for the kind of sustained fighting they'd been engaged in all throughout the tower. The quartet had left dozens upon dozens of dead darkspawn in their wake, but as they burst through the door to the top floor, what he saw was scarier than anything they'd fought to this point. Stalking around the far side of the room was a massive darkspawn ogre. It was easily more than twice as tall as Alim, and extremely broad and muscular. The curved horns on its head and razor sharp talons on its claws only completed the look. This was truly a beast designed with a single purpose – destruction.
Unfortunately for Alim, he had next to nothing left in the tank. He was exhausted, he'd burned the last of his lyrium potions a couple of skirmishes back, and at this point he couldn't even summon a simple flame blast. The ogre roared ferociously and charged, causing the group to scurry like mice around it. Alistair and the tower guard attempted to flank the giant beast, and the soldier tried to stay between the ogre and Alim while at the same time not getting himself killed. Realizing they might not win the battle and even if they did it would take awhile, Alim darted over and snatched a torch off the wall, hurriedly tossing it onto the highly flammable timber that served as the beacon. The wood ignited immediately, flaring dramatically against the backdrop of the night sky.
Alim had barely let out a relieved sigh and begun to turn his attention back to the ogre when he suddenly felt a searing pain tear through him. The ogre had taken advantage of the elven warden's distraction to swipe one of its claws violently at him, and two of its talons found their mark. One sliced off the top third of Alim's left ear before continuing on and opening a long gash from his hairline down across his cheek to his chin, while the other talon cut open an even deeper gash that started a few inches higher on his head and raked angrily across his forehead to his left eyebrow. Between the pain and the blood flowing down his face he could barely see, let alone fight, and it was only a couple of moments longer before another strike from the ogre connected flush with the side of his head and the world went dark. He'd only find out later that his three companions managed to take down the ogre by spreading out, with two attacking while the one the ogre was focused on concentrated on defense. Unfortunately, neither he nor Alistair knew what became of the other two. Alistair collapsed after the battle and assumed he was dying as he lost consciousness. He was no different than Alim in not having any further memories before awakening in Flemeth's hut.
Still seething at his companions for making jokes about his physical appearance and laughing about it, Alim tried to occupy his thoughts with other things to take his mind off of them – off of her. In his mind he began to recap the situation they were in and what they'd done up to this point.
For Alim Surana, this was all just a whirlwind that was becoming increasingly difficult to deal with. He had barely finished his Harrowing at the Circle Tower and elevated from apprentice to full mage before the Grey Warden commander Duncan whisked him away from the Tower to join the Grey Wardens and the effort to defeat the Blight.
The group had so far managed to secure the support of the Dalish elves, one of the three groups the Grey Wardens had long standing treaties with. They still needed to travel to the Circle of Magi and to Orzammar to cash in their treaties with the mages and dwarves respectively. They went to Redcliffe to talk to Arl Eamon Guerrin both in regards to the situation with Teyrn Loghain branding the Grey Wardens as traitors after Ostagar and in dealing with the darkspawn threat, only to find out the arl was gravely ill after being poisoned by a blood mage. That led not only to a large battle with the undead minions of a demon that had possessed the arl's young son, Connor, but to the revelation that Alim's former best friend, Jowan, was the maleficar involved.
Back at the Circle Tower, Jowan roped him into a scheme to destroy his phylactery that nearly got Alim killed in the process. The end result was that Jowan escaped and left Alim in the bind afterwards that led directly to him being sent away to join the Grey Wardens. Alim had been so angry at discovering Jowan involved with the mess at Redcliffe that he'd told Eamon's brother, Bann Teagan Guerrin, to execute Jowan.
After traveling to the Circle of Magi tower and having to save the Circle from summoned abominations that had overrun the tower, one of Alim's old mentors, a senior enchanter named Wynne, joined the group. Alim was so exhausted after returning to Redcliffe Castle and entering the Fade to fight the desire demon holding Connor's mind that he completely forgot to ask First Enchanter Irving about the treaty afterwards. And truthfully, he had been extremely annoyed when he woke up later and found out that neither Alistair nor anyone else had thought to ask. So they still had another trip to make to the Circle Tower to ask about the treaty.
The group then tracked down the Urn of Sacred Ashes of Andraste to the remote village Haven in order to cure Arl Eamon, and after healing Eamon the party left for Denerim to wrap up some prior quests they'd started, do some shopping and have armor made from the drake scales they obtained while fighting through the dragon cult in Haven, and for Alim to help Leliana with a personal problem that she'd confided only to him.
It turned out that her ex-mentor, Marjolaine, had tracked her whereabouts from Orlais and was in Denerim. Leliana was concerned that Marjolaine planned to have her killed, and wanted to act preemptively. She worried that Alim would consider her problem a dangerous diversion and tell her no, or even worse tell her that she couldn't travel with him anymore because it, but he hadn't even blinked before agreeing to help her.
The two of them confronted Marjolaine, and after defeating her they intended to let Marjolaine go. However, Marjolaine foolishly declared that it wasn't over as she turned to scamper away, and the infuriated elven mage darkly declared that Marjolaine signed her own death warrant by continuing to threaten his friend. He shocked Leliana by casting a crushing prison spell on Marjolaine and squeezing her life out right there, and then surprised her further by handing Marjolaine's exquisite recurve longbow to Leliana to have. He had no way of knowing that she herself had given that bow to her former mentor and love, at great personal expense to herself.
While camping near Denerim, Morrigan came to Alim with her own personal request. Alim had recovered Flemeth's grimoire in the Circle Tower while they were fighting the abominations and gave it to Morrigan afterwards. The witch discovered in it that Flemeth maintained her centuries long life by raising up daughters when she got old and then possessing them. And Morrigan was to be next. Alim, Wynne, Sten, and Zevran detoured by the Korcari Wilds to confront Flemeth on Morrigan's behalf, only to have Flemeth turn into a dragon and attack them. It was a brutal battle, one in which Alim nearly died before Wynne cast a revival spell to save him. But they finally prevailed, and obtained Flemeth's true grimoire for Morrigan before meeting the rest of the group back in Denerim. Now they were on the North Road, making their way towards Orzammar.
Attempting to manage the big picture goal of raising an army to defend Ferelden against the darkspawn invasion and kill the archdemon to end the Blight amidst the current political climate was trying enough for Alim, even before adding the stress of keeping a growing group of diverse personalities and backgrounds all on the same page on a day-to-day basis. Even though Alistair had been a Grey Warden for a few months longer than Alim, and was three years older than the 20 year old elf, he constantly deferred to the younger, less experienced man to the point that Alim became the de facto leader of the ragtag group that seemed to gain more misfits at each major area they stopped in.
He wasn't exactly known as being the most social person around while growing up in the Circle Tower, where he'd lived since being taken from the alienage in Denerim when he was only three, so the constant interaction with others was stressful at times. If anything, Alim preferred solitude to the company of others simply because of growing up in an environment that was both highly competitive among his peers and under intense scrutiny by the Chantry templars that oversaw the Circle. He grew up learning to distrust the motives of others, and to take very little at face value.
Alim sat on a fallen tree towards the rear of the party's camp with his back to the others. It was dusk, the group had just finished setting up camp, and Alistair was beginning to prepare dinner since it was his turn to cook. Normally everyone but Morrigan would cluster their tents around a single bonfire, with Morrigan always choosing to setup her own tent and fire away from the rest of them. Tonight, however, Alim let the others establish where they were setting up their tents, and then he set his up as far away from both Morrigan's spot and the main group's spot as possible. He didn't bother with preparing a fire for himself, it would be a warm enough night that he didn't need one and the other two fires provided sufficient light in the camp. He talked to the others only long enough to establish the shifts for that night's watch, and was already losing himself in thought while staring off at the horizon and thinking about Leliana.
As antisocial as he felt at times, Alim could almost never resist the urge to talk to the bard when he had a chance to away from the others. He was more religious than most mages at the Tower, one of the few that didn't knock belief in the Maker simply out of petty spite towards the templars and the Chantry. He found Leliana's attitude towards the Maker a refreshing change from the rampant cynicism exhibited by the rest of his companions, even the Chantry raised Alistair. Of course, he wasn't going to delude himself into thinking that was his only interest in her.
He'd naturally noticed she was quite attractive back when they'd first met, though contrary to what Morrigan thought, that had no bearing on his decision to allow Leliana to join them. But it wasn't until they were in the Brecilian Forest securing the support of the Dalish elves and she'd traded in her Chantry robes for a set of Dalish leather armor that he realized just how stunning she was, as the mid cut form fitting armor that only came down to mid-thigh left a lot less to the imagination. He thought Alistair would never let him hear the end of it, loudly pointing out and teasing Alim mercilessly for openly gawking at her when she came out of her tent dressed that way for the first time. He remembered feeling horribly embarrassed at the time, though he was grateful that Leliana let him off the hook with a gentle smile after briefly giggling along with Alistair.
The elf's thoughts were interrupted when he heard someone approach from behind.
"Do you wish to train this evening?" asked Leliana. She, Alistair, and Zevran took turns training Alim in the various aspects of melee combat, which he'd requested when deciding to become an arcane warrior. He'd improved rapidly under their combined tutelage, aided by being able to increasingly channel his magical energy into physical combat strength. But tonight he just wanted to be left alone.
"No, I do not," he replied tersely.
It was obvious that Alim was in a sour mood and had been for awhile, but Leliana didn't know the source of it. She sat down on the log next to him, noticing him stiffen at the closeness of her presence. "Do you wish to talk?"
"No, I do not," he echoed.
Leliana didn't make any move to leave. She remained silent for a couple of minutes and when it became apparent that Alim wasn't going to say anything else, she sighed lightly. "Please tell me what is wrong."
Alim bit his bottom lip tensely. "And why do you care?"
She flinched a bit, taken aback by his reaction, but decided to press on anyway. "We are friends, no? Would you do any less for someone you cared for?"
Scoffing, Alim shook his head. "Friends?" he asked incredulously. "You and I apparently have very different definitions of the word." He stood up to go to his tent, but before he could leave she reached out with the deftness only a rogue could possess and snatched hold of his arm.
"Why are you acting this way?" she demanded firmly.
With his free hand, Alim reached up and pulled his hood down. The piercing gaze from his large emerald eyes bore holes through her sapphire blue eyes as he pointed to his disfigured ear and scathingly said, "Despite what it looks like, this freak does actually have two functioning ears to hear with. I heard, Leliana…I heard you laughing at me with them, so don't give me that tripe about caring for me." With that he yanked his arm free from the stunned bard and disappeared into his tent.
"I-I am sorry…" she whispered softly, to herself since Alim was already gone. She bowed her head sadly. Truthfully, she found herself caring even more deeply for him than she'd admitted, more than just friendship. She had adored him even before he risked himself for her in dealing with Marjolaine back in Denerim. She was enamored with his vibrant spirit, and his wide-eyed innocence had made her fall in love with the wonders of the Maker's world all over again. She felt a sense of peace in his presence that was addicting, and she'd come to believe that Alim was a gift to her from the Maker himself. Leliana waited several minutes before getting up, both to see if he'd come back out and to fully compose herself. She debated on going into his tent after him to apologize, but eventually decided she'd wait until later when he was less emotional. Sighing in resignation, she went back to the others.
Alim sat in his tent stewing, and even though no one else came to call on him, he refused to make an appearance for dinner because he just didn't want to deal with any of the others at the moment. He also felt he was probably too harsh on Leliana. Even if she had hurt him, he could have handled that situation better than he did. But he didn't want to see her right now, and he didn't want to see her passing the time she was not spending with him with Zev instead.
Alim hated to admit it, but he knew he was jealous of the attention Leliana had given Zevran since he'd joined, especially since the Antivan elf often flirted with the bard and she seemed to enjoy that tit for tat banter with him. Despite not having any experience with women, Alim recognized his own developing feelings for Leliana. He knew they were foolish, there was no conceivable way a beautiful, worldly lady with so much to offer could ever be interested in someone who had so little to offer in return. Still, it didn't stop him from wondering if her interest in Zevran went beyond friendly curiosity and a means of passing the time while traveling. Alim was envious of Zev's ability to socialize so easily, and even jealous of his looks when he was being honest with himself.
Being the only two elves in the group, Alim couldn't help but compare himself to Zevran. And he didn't like what he saw. Zev was tall as far as elven standards went, approximately 5'8" in height, making him almost the same height as the 5'9" Leliana. Alim was a much more modest 5'3". Zev also had a stronger, sturdier build than many elves. Alim had worked hard to build strength and muscle ever since he'd decided to go from being just a pure mage to an arcane warrior following their discovery of an ancient arcane warrior in some ruins in the Brecilian Forest. But even still he had the typical wiry elven body type. More than once Morrigan or Sten had rather condescendingly questioned whether or not his constitution could hold up to the rigors of their task, and he knew his lack of endurance had been a liability at times early in their adventures.
Perhaps the worst comparison though was the one that made Alim most self-conscious. By any standard, Zev was a very attractive man physically. Alim hadn't been much to look at before Ostagar, but the disfiguring he'd received in the battle at the top of the Tower of Ishal made things much worse. The remaining portion of his left ear looked more like a human ear cut flat on top rather than having the distinctive elven point his right ear still retained. And while Flemeth and Morrigan had done much to get him back on his feet after Ostagar, they couldn't do anything about the scars left behind from the ogre's attack. He'd gotten so many stares and comments from strangers and companions alike that he'd taken to wearing a hooded cloak over his armor most of the time in order to hide his appearance from casual observers. All in all, he didn't feel like he had any redeeming physical qualities, and the cruel reminders of it made him gravitate between aggravation and depression.
While churning through the thoughts about his companions angrily in his mind, and faced with the prospect of things not getting any better, he came to the realization of what he needed to do. At first he was slightly afraid, but the more he thought about it, the more his resolve took over. Finally he lay down, figuring he'd better get as much rest as possible before his watch shift, since the next day would be a long one.