The leather of the book felt smooth against my fingertips. Deftly I disengaged the old, yet still strong, lock that kept the tome bound but paused for a moment before I turned the worn cover to peer at the knowledge inside. My employer specifically requested that the book remain unopened, undamaged, and at all costs removed from its current owner.
I couldn't help my curious nature so naturally I ignored whatever orders were given to me. My end of the bargain would be fulfilled and the item my client wanted would be delivered but I had to take a peek first. Just to make sure nothing had been tampered with of course.
Shivers raced up my arm as I turned the first page over. A strange crest greeted my eyes that looked like two hawks perched vertically on each other's talons. I ran my finger over the red inked design and traced the elegant lines. Pretty. With an idle flick I went to the next page and the next and the next not caring about the time that passed while I looked at pretty pictures. What was that one? I peered closer at it. Imps, perhaps? Their sickly, dark appearances gave the impression of that. There were no words to describe what was taking place in the scene of a man with a staff aiming a…spell at the intimidating devil. A faint memory squirmed in the back of my mind.
"Magic," I wondered out-loud? Was I hired to steal a spellbook?
Magic had been forbidden by the Chantry, a very powerful and influential group of religious nuts I thought, for hundreds of years and for a grimoire to be still intact and not be in ashes from the Purge in the 1600s was rare indeed. I had only seen two before and those were passed down in my family for generations. I couldn't even begin to fathom how much even a page of this tome was worth. A smirk crawled its way on my face. I could easily find out.
I continued flipping through the ancient sheets of parchment and pieced together a history of the man who became a champion through many trials. The next page a familiar symbol caught my immediate attention and I hissed air through my teeth. Templars, I snarled. The hated enemy of the Circle of Mages lived to hunt us all down and tear apart our small organization that had fewer numbers each year due to the Templars incessant need to wipe all magic-users from the planet. I felt my mana spike at the built-up anger and I was forced to pause and take a deep breath to steady its sudden flow. It wouldn't be good for a fire to break out in the sealed library that I had stolen into.
A glow at the corner of my eye had me looking down at my left hand. My glyph of protection pulsated with a light blue near the back of my knuckle. Carved into my flesh by my own knife its glow told me that the wards I placed to foretell of guards had been tripped. I had only a few minutes before they would catch me. I waved my hand over the tome and watched the lock click in place. Magic was so convenient.
The tome was too thick and valuable for me to stuff into my bag so I was forced to carry it. Resizing spells were never my forte. My magic was more suited to combat and besides a few odd spells here and there my specialty was throwing fireballs into people's faces which made it odd that I, specifically and by that I mean the client knew my name, was hired for this job. As I snatched up the spellbook, I heard heavy footsteps a second before the tall doors into the library opened and I realized why I was paid in advance. Before I rushed into a darkened corner I saw the Templar symbol of a blue sword wreathed in flame stitched on a Kevlar vest with a nasty silver Desert Eagle model gun sniffing out my position.
I groaned under my breath. Seriously, Templars? The guy who owned the mansion really had gone overboard with the paranoia and the expenses. Hiring the best really put a dent in ones wallet. I would know. I was pretty fantastic in my field of thievery and intimidation and my price-tag included a lot of zeroes. I know it made me sound like a mercenary but one couldn't live on forbidden talents alone. Besides what kind of job could I get with creating icicles out of thin air? A demented shaved-ice business?
The guard crept closer to my hiding spot near the empty pedestal where the book had been put on display and was now tucked under my arm. If his intelligence was above that of a worm he was bound to notice. I frantically looked around for a better place to hide but as far as the eye could see were rows upon rows of priceless books that stretched to the black void of the ceiling above me. If I moved the Templar would shoot me. If I stayed the Templar would shoot me. If I could phase through the floor I would be fine but unfortunately my arsenal of spells didn't include the superpowers of all the X-men. Private tutors, hired by my parents when I was a child, hadn't seen the need for metal claws to shoot out from between my knuckles. I told them it was cool; they called it useless and instead forced me to ignite and extinguish a candle for three hours. My idea was better.
Wracking my brain I looked down at my right hand and turned it so that I could see my palm. Carved in my skin were numerous glyphs that stretched to my fingertips. What appeared to be a chaotic mess of seemingly meaningless designs was an organized chaos in my eyes. I poured my magic into one of the runes shaped like an eye in the middle of my palm that was my first to be created. My mage-sight – used to identify spellwork – made my hand glow only to my eyes as if I had stuck it in a nuclear reactor and I began to check off spells that would help me out of this situation. Spell of fire…no. That would be bad for all the paper in the room that was definitely flammable. No ice, wind, or earthquake – very cool but one that required more concentration than I had at the moment and would most likely collapse the roof on top of me – and conjuring up a thunderstorm all sounded like bad ideas.
Right hand was useless so I tossed the grimoire for it to hold so my magical gaze could focus on my left which had more defensive spells. See? Organization. One glowing rune on my thumb would work perfectly. There was a reason the mutilation of my body and it didn't stem from the typical teenage rebellion, but in fact literally having spells at my fingertips disallowed a staff for my mana to flow through. A staff or wand was merely a medium for mages to concentrate on and sift through their magical knowledge to produce the correct spell. Staves were not just pieces of wood we mages waved around but rather a portable spellbook as the wood was covered in runes. But why carry something around that screamed MAGE to all the Templars? I simply forewent the middleman. It required less mana to activate the glyphs as it remained unfiltered through a staff and it was pretty convenient. I mean, it was difficult to misplace hands.
However there was a downside to my ingenious idea. It bordered on blood magic which was the only thing the Templars and Mages agreed was forbidden. Technically it wasn't blood magic because I had never bargained for the power with a demon but I had never gone to the First Enchanter for the finer points of outlawed practices. Me and the old man didn't exactly get along. I mean communication between absent father and rebellious son usually consisted of grunts and head nods, but First Enchanter Bastard didn't even like to acknowledge my existence. Yeah, the leader and most powerful mage of the Circle was my father. Big surprise there. The Amells were an ancient line that stemmed from magic thousands of years ago and ignoring a few name changes, embarrassing non-magical children, and the occasional accidental death by ignorance of the cardinal rule that "fire is hot", I was descended from a rich bloodline. Whoopee.
Wait, name changes…that crest I saw earlier-!
"Hold it right there! Access is not permitted in this area! Raise your hands slowly and turn around or I'll put a bullet straight through your skull," came the order from behind me.
I turned with a smirk. About ten feet from me stood a scowling man with his high-powered gun trained between my eyes that would punch a grapefruit sized hole with just a little twitch of his finger. Even magic couldn't help me scoop my brains back into an empty skull.
The Templar was a heavy-set with a wide chest and tree-trunk sized arms that must have been made my working out three hours a day every day. My biceps weren't sticks but they still sobbed in comparison. He had brown hair and bright green eyes that didn't seem to fit on a killer's face. I always imagined the murderers of my brethren to have red eyes and a forked tongue. I didn't know if the guy before me fit the criteria of the latter but he definitely didn't have demon eyes. They were actually quite pretty. I was a sucker for green. And blondes. And brunettes. Hell, if they had two legs I'd flirt with them. Not jump into bed right away, I had higher standards than that, but I've been known to be quite a charmer. Yes sir, I traveled down a road with broken hearts in my rear view mirror. Alright, that was an exaggeration (a big one) and I doubted that sweet talk could help me now.
"Alright, alright you caught me," I began and started to raise my left hand. "Just hold on a second will ya?" Before the Templar could suspect anything, I snapped my fingers with an orange spark and the world around me slowed to a crawl.
The Haste spell didn't actually make the world slower it made me incredibly fast as the name suggested. This spell was learned for selfish reasons as I had gotten into quite the amount of trouble at the Tower, which was exactly that, a big tower in the middle of freakin' nowhere. More than once I had been forced to clean the stairs from the basement up and if I did my punishment three times as fast then it only took half the day to complete. And the Tower? It was a school for the gifted.
Let's go back to the X-men reference I made earlier. Imagine Professor X and his school of mutants where knowledge was abound and people learned to control their powers. It was like that except the added danger of deals with literal demons which didn't happen as often as you'd think. It was a secret place and safely protected by numerous strong spells that prevented anyone without magic to enter. So far, it hadn't been discovered and destroyed by the Chantry and their Templar minions but I had heard of places that weren't so lucky. We were one of the last.
After pulling a face at the sluggish gunman, I ran to the opened doors where I knew from studying the blueprints extended into a hallway with a balcony that granted me access to the roof. A tingling between my shoulder-blades warned me of danger before the actual bullet tore into my side. It hit me with enough force to turn my whole body around and crash back-first into the door I nearly made it out of. Dammit, the Templar had reflexes fast enough to cast a cleansing aura before I could escape. This one wasn't a novice. I was dealing with a full-blown Templar with enough experience to clear away any enhancing or debilitating spellwork in an eye-blink. Well…shit.
"You're a mage," he spat out the last word with enough venom for me to flinch as I slid down to the cold wooden floors with one arm wrapped around my bleeding side and the other clenching the book to my chest. He'd have to kill me for the book before I'd hand it over to him.
The Templar brought his wrist to his mouth without letting the gun waver from its preferred spot on my chest. He spoke into the compact radio I assumed he wore, unless he was freakin' insane which was a possibility that I couldn't throw away. There were more than a few cases of Lyrium addled Templars. Lyrium was the stuff that gave mana muscles. An average mage that could cast a fireball as big as his head could throw one as large as a tank if he popped a Lyrium pill. It gave ordinary humans a taste of what magic could really do. It also gave the Templars the power to fight mages on even ground which was why they were so dangerous. Templars were trained just as we were.
There was a downside though. Lyrium was highly addictive. I mean, five times more addictive than heroin if taken in too large a dose for an extended amount of time. The distribution of the new magic blue pill was tightly controlled by the Chantry, but just like cocaine dealers people manage to get their hands on it and sell it on street corners. A Lyrium junkie was bad news and gave mages a ghastly reputation. When people hear on the news that a bank just got blown to pieces, the culprit was usually a junkie desperate for cash for their next fix. Mages didn't go around exploding things for the hell of it. Well, sometimes. More than a bit of shrubbery had faced my wrath I admit when my father and I had a row.
"Permission to terminate intruder," asked the Templar whose green eyes I thought adorable were now narrowed in disgust at what I was. Bastard.
"Reason?" The voice responded curtly. It sounded like a woman, but I couldn't be sure. I was kinda bleeding out on the floor. The maids were definitely going to have a hard time cleaning between the wood.
"Trespasser is male and has been identified as a mage by use of illegal magic."
There wasn't even a pause on the other end of the line. "Granted." No discussion, no explanation, just permission to murder a human being born with powers that others didn't understand. I had never wanted to know how to turn a person into a toad more than I did now.
You know how in movies the bad guy likes to gloat or ask the cliché line of 'any last words'? This guy would have none of that Hollywood dazzle. He simply pulled the trigger.
It wasn't nice to underestimate a mage trained in combat. I wouldn't just sit there patiently for the grumpy Templar to put a bullet in me. I wanted to see if this Templar could cast as fast I could.
I dropped the spellbook to have both my hands free for the battle. In front of me a thick wall of ice erupted from the floor to stop the shell from putting a new hole in me. The Templar had a look of surprise on his face before he glared. I smirked and stood up. Didn't expect that, huh?
My icy shield melted like an ice-cream cone on a summer day from his cleansing hex but I already had another spell spring from my fingertips. With a pained yell, my opponent dropped his gun that had turned red from the heat I had imbued into the metal. His burned hands smoked in the darkness, but he could only watch as I simultaneously casted a Haste spell along with a cardboard coaster that I threw at his feet from when I had snitched it from the bar I visited earlier. However the coaster wasn't just something to prevent wet rings on the wooden bar it now had a Glyph of Repulsion scribbled on the back with black sharpie that I carried around with me. Handy for on the fly spellwork. As soon as it hit the ground I charged the glyph with my mana and watched as it activated and sent the Templar flying into the bookcases which started a wonderful domino effect. Gravity you are a bitch. A wonderful, temperamental bitch.
I didn't have time to enjoy the avalanche of antique volumes, of which I hoped were incredibly heavy, as I was sure that backup would soon arrive and although I had faced down more Templars than Mr. Green Eyes I wasn't prepared to fight three or four on my own. Also, the Glyph was one-time use only. The coaster lied completely dormant and harmless now. Gritting my teeth with my arm wrapped tight around my side, I scooped up the tome and pretended that my ass was on fire. With the Haste spell still active I made it to the roof in under a minute.
The night air made a chill race down my spine and didn't seem bothered by the jeans, or leather jacket that I wore. With a blink I cancelled Haste. I walked over to the edge of the building to watch personnel scramble around trying to find the reported intruder. Well, I would be gone soon enough. I chanced a look at my injury. It didn't look good and still sluggishly bled out of two holes. At least it had been a clean shot. Through and through. There weren't any intestines spilling out so I assumed that it hadn't hit anything vital but I hadn't a clue what or where my spleen was so what did I know? Healing wasn't exactly a field I excelled in. Or dabbled anywhere near it. In fact I was the last person to go to for even a paper-cut. You might wind up with a foot for a hand and that would make eating extremely awkward.
I shook my head to clear it of distracting thoughts. Escaping the scene of a crime was always the riskiest part of a scheme and had the greatest probability of getting caught. Good thing I had a plan then. In my mind I pictured what I wanted: every detail exact and nothing overlooked. This was a kind of magic that didn't require special runes or nifty Latin words. It was something that only a few could accomplish as only the most powerful and skilled had the ability to change shape. I saw a strong golden beak and cruel talons meant for hunting prey. Feathers of russet red sprouted from head to tail. Small heart beating, powerful eyes seeing things no human eye could see, and wings longer than a man's reach. I let my power swell over me.
But a cold grip stole my concentration and wrenched me from the roof's edge. It was extremely dangerous for both mage and the person interrupting a change. If the mage didn't have enough control, the mana necessary for the change could backlash and kill both people. Thankfully I had more practice than that. However that didn't mean the moron who grabbed my arm would live much longer. I tried to wrench my arm holding the tome out of the person's grip even as my vision tried to clear but I wasn't let go.
"The hell are you doing? Get off!" I spat and sacrificed the arm keeping the blood inside my body to form a fireball.
"My, my isn't that impressive? No incantation or staff to help. You are a powerful mage aren't you, boy? So similar and yet so different. Might it be enough though? I guess time will tell."
It wasn't a voice I had heard before. It sounded old and dangerous. Not a combination that I heard often but it forced my body into stillness like a predator's growl paralyzes helpless prey which was exactly what I felt like. This woman, I realized once I could see again, was ancient. There were no clues in her face: smooth skin, yellow eyes, and white hair. Deep in my bones I felt a power greater than my own. I was frightened and that wasn't something anyone could do. She was no woman. No human being had a black aura such as hers. I then realized that I hadn't cancelled my mage-sight but I wasn't about to do it now.
"What are you?" I whispered and saw my breath form a cloud of white smoke. The fire in my hand steadily burned. I had an idea that it wouldn't do much against this…creature but I would fight until my last breath.
"Hmmm, you won't lie down and die easily I can see that. Good, good you are more like him than I could have hoped." She chuckled which made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up on end. "You even look just like him. It's amazing what selective breeding can accomplish." Her other hand not clawing into my arm reached up to cup my chin. She slowly turned my head from side to side before stopping to stare into my eyes. "Same defiant blue eyes, blacker than night hair, and…oh, no scar by your right eye. Well we can fix that."
I managed not to scream as she drew a clawed finger and sliced deeply into the sensitive skin at the corner of my eye. She didn't stop the torture until the middle of my cheek. With a maniacal grin she flicked blood from her fingertip and I felt a warm river travel down my neck and settle in a pool at my collarbone.
"Bitch," I snarled.
She merely laughed away my insult. "The soul reflects your body does it not? I need you to be exactly the same. Well, almost," she chuckled. The woman trailed over my body and stopped at my fiery hand. "Put that out before you hurt yourself, boy."
I made it burn brighter.
Finally I got a reaction out of her besides amusement. Her eyes narrowed. "The first thing you will learn is to listen to every word I say." She snatched my wrist and neatly broke it. This time I did scream as my fireball blinked out of existence and my hand hung limply. "And obey it without question. Do you understand me?"
I bit my lip and didn't answer besides my ice blue eyes glaring at her with enough hate to drown in. As punishment for my defiance she squeezed my broken limb harder.
"Fine!" I snarled and managed to grit out. "I understand."
The witch cooed. "Good." She released me completely but snatched the grimoire.
I cradled my limp wrist and wondered what kind of shit I had stepped in this time. Daddy dearest couldn't talk me out of this one. A couple of steps away from her I glanced down at the ground. Damn, too high of a jump to survive, and the spells that would let me get away without injury were useless now. No slide of ice, no cushion of earth I could summon, and no wind to break my fall. Bitch had taken away all of my offensive spells. I was trapped in her neat little web and she knew it as the woman idly flipped through the ancient tome with the air of a person who had all the time in the world. Which she did. I noticed that the men and women who were running around looking for me had all frozen in place. Not literally. They weren't ice cubes but time had stopped. I hadn't a clue who had the power to actually cease the flow of time for more than a minute. For the longest time I didn't think it possible. Boy was I proven wrong tonight.
"Am I allowed to ask questions?"
A taloned hand waved me away. "Of course. How can one learn without asking questions?"
I buried my insult underneath my tongue. Don't poke the dragon with a stick, I muttered to myself. I didn't know at the time how close I had been to the truth with my analogy.
"What are you?"
"Again you ask that? Very well, I will answer. Some call me Flemeth, the Witch of the Wilds, or even Asha'bellanar."
I hadn't an idea what any of those names meant or even what language the last one was in. "That wasn't what I asked. I want to know what not who."
Flemeth glanced up from her fiddling with the book to smirk at me. "Very good. Most don't make that distinction. It is refreshing to see an open mind and not one made of mush. But I shall not answer. You are not ready."
Again I ignored the tantalizing need to spit out my anger.
"You did well in retrieving this from an owner that did not possess any clue as to what this actually is. But then again, neither do you. You took one look at the reward and gave no more thought to the dangers in your path." Flemeth frowned. "Do not be so foolish again. Your life is more valuable than you believe." A pause. "Did you open it?"
A nod. "I thought as much, but you do not understand what it is about." The witch closed the tome and locked it back up. She ran her talons across the leather bound front almost lovingly. "It is a tale of chaos, death, love, and betrayal. It is of one man that fights a war he does not understand. It is of death so heartbreaking that it brings him to his knees. It is of love so powerful it blinds him and of betrayal so great it breaks him. It is the story of a man. A man who fears magic. It is his and yet not."
Her words confused me and I said as much.
"I don't need you to understand. I need you to listen. I will tell you what I told Garrett Hawke."
Hawke! The crest in the grimoire! That was the name that had been on the tip of my tongue. Our family descended from them. I remembered one of the numerous shields above the fireplace at our family's mansion. It claimed the same design.
Flemeth continued. "We stand upon the precipice of change. The world fears the inevitable plummet into the abyss. Watch for that moment…and when it comes, do not hesitate to leap. It is only when you fall that you learn…" she trailed off and on deadly heels she stalked towards me and there was nowhere else I could go besides over the side of the roof. Delicately she placed two claws on my forehead and it felt as if electricity coursed through me. Flashes of people I never met but knew intimately. Monsters I only heard of in legend I fought with a blade. Conversations that I never partook of made me laugh in remembrance. My mother, my brother who was a Grey Warden, and my dead little sister who had her life taken from her too soon. An entire life superseded my own until I couldn't tell where Hawke began and I ended. "…whether you can fly."
Flemeth pushed me over the edge.
Time returned to the earth and I felt the wind roar in my ears as I plummeted to the ground with a lifetime of images and feelings rushing into me. I saw a silver-haired elf– Fenris, my mind whispered – shift curious eyes to me, a kiss, a warm night together, love, and then it shifted to a battleground with him standing behind me as I held a knife to a blonde man's throat. He whispered his reasons but did not apologize. My grip tightened. Anger. Hawke was so angry and betrayed. The knife plunged into his heart. Aveline stood undeterred by my side. Isabela the promiscuous pirate, Merrill the naïve elvhen blood mage, Varric my brother of the dwarven race; all of them fought with me for long years. Some disagreed with Hawke's decisions but stayed by my side nevertheless.
I saw the ending of Hawke's story but I would land in the middle of it all.
"Heed my words, child of Amell. There is great power in choices as there are in lies. Listen to both and know the difference," I heard in my head as I continued to fall a far greater distance than I imagined. "Your ancestor's life is now your own, but remember this if nothing else: the burden of this war with Templars and Mages fell onto the shoulders of a man who knew nothing of magic. Your future of dwindling mages was decided with swords. Magic must be met with magic, let no prejudices blind you." Flemeth paused and her final words to me rang louder than a bell. "You have my thanks…and my sympathy."