Disclaimer: See Chapter One.


First Light
By Braenah

Chapter Two

When Shepard woke, the pain had eased into a dull throb in her head and a slight ache in her joints. Nothing more serious than the first symptoms of the flu. She was warm, feverishly so, which made a nice change from the bone deep chill she'd endured before passing out. Someone had wrapped her in blankets and put her on an unbelievably soft mattress that made her own bed in the captain's cabin seem like a slab of rock by comparison. The scent of cedar and oak was heavy in the air, with subtler hints of moss, herbs, livestock and woodsmoke just beneath. The air was fresh, fresher than the stale, dusty air of the ruins, the acrid haze of a burning London, or the cloying stench of congealed blood and death from the Citadel. Even fresher than the sterile air of the Normandy. It was the unpolluted air of a planet untouched by industry or war.

It was heaven.

Now this, Shepard thought, is more like it. All she needed to do now was find the nearest bar.

Apparently she'd done better than she'd thought, and ended up in a cozy little corner of paradise. She wasn't alone. Beyond thin walls, people went about the daily business of living ordinary lives. No weeping refugees, searching orphans, broken families, soldiers bidding farewell, civilians wondering what horrible news the next day might bring, or worrying about another attack. No, these people had security, peace. Her ears caught the sounds children playing, calm voices carrying on conversations, the clank of cookware, hammering of metal, thwack of arrows sinking deep into wooden targets...

Wait. Arrows?

She must have heard that wrong.

Eyelids cracking open, Shepard levered herself up, and promptly frowned at her surroundings. She was in some sort of covered wagon. No, a caravan, one bursting with all kinds of knickknacks. Books mostly, crammed into a plethora of shelves attached to the walls and piled in corners. But there were other strange odds and ends. Little ivory carvings and statuettes decorated the bedside table, a couple of staffs stuck out of a huge clay vase, a wooden box filled with crystals was shoved beneath a desk while several leather pouches were scattered across the top. Clothes laid in rumpled heaps around the floor. A dress had even been tossed over a small stool.

It was... rustic. Granted, it fit right in with the smell of trees and fresh air. Not at all what she'd been expecting from the afterlife. Of course, Shepard was hardly the most pious person around. Maybe a cramped traveling caravan in the wilderness was the standard reward for a life well led. She could have spent those two years after her first death in another just like this one. For all she knew, it could be the same one she'd lived in before.

Though, all the clutter didn't exactly scream lifelong marine to her. And while Shepard was many things, a voracious reader wasn't one of them. Not unless status reports, galactic updates, and Fornax counted. Sadly, she highly doubted any of the thick, leather-bound tomes in the room showcased the latest xenophilia-inclined photo spread.

Flipping the blanket aside, Shepard's brow rose as she discovered that someone had dressed her in a mid-thigh shift before tucking her in. The web of glowing red scars that had reappeared over the course of the war were once again missing from her thighs and calves. Lifting her arms, she found no scars from her reconstructive surgeries there, either. Just smooth, unblemished skin.

Reaching up to her chest, Shepard breathed a sigh of relief as she brushed the cool metal of her dog tags, glad they hadn't been removed with her armor. Her tags were such a small, impractical thing compared to everything else she'd lost, but what they symbolized—that made them the most important possession to hold on to. Especially after the hell she'd gone through to get them back.

Swinging her bare legs out, Shepard rolled her shoulders and stretched her neck side to side, cataloging the extent of the stiffness in her joints and muscles. Considering her last memory was of pulverizing most of the bones in her upper body, a few aches seemed so miniscule in comparison, it wasn't worth noting. She'd woken up after missions less brutal than the events of the past day feeling considerably worse.

Though, she was irritated to discover that her right shoulder was still giving her trouble. Strange thing to stick her with in heaven.

Oh, no. No, no, no. Hell no. Not again.

Dropping her forehead into her hand, Shepard caught sight of her omni-tool on the bedside table, the first recognizable piece of tech anywhere. Shepard's frown deepened as she took the small chip and affixed it to the subcutaneous implant in her forearm, activating the device with a flick of her wrist and a slight curl of her fingers. The display obligingly powered on. She doubted she'd need an omni-tool in an afterlife consisting of a wagon in the middle of the wilderness. Damn it.

The first thing she had done after regaining consciousness in the ruins, before she'd even hauled herself to her feet, was attempt to make contact with the Normandy, or any of the allied forces. The reply never came. Not so much as a peep, from anyone, as if the entire system had suddenly gone dark. Now, however, she had the time to run a more thorough scan, and look for any artificial signals.

She found nothing. Not even a basic radio wave.

Shepard stared at the results, dread coiling in her stomach as she scrolled through each negative return. She knew the range of her omni-tool was still functioning, the transceiver Cerberus had installed was a powerful one, and Mordin had tweaked it even further. Probably with STG algorithms. It picked up several naturally occurring background signals—radiation being emitted by the planet's sun, pulses of a quasar, even several storm systems moving through the atmosphere. But there was no artificial subspace signal, no signs of intelligent life beyond what she could hear outside the walls of her caravan. Neither on the planet itself, nor anywhere within the immediate star cluster.

Shepard knew a number of communication buoys had been destroyed in the initial wave of the invasion. Perhaps she was in one such system?

Eyes narrowing in suspicion, Shepard deactivated the device and stood, continuing to rotate her right arm as she padded across creaking floorboards. There was a narrow window next to the door, and plucking aside the cheerful yellow curtain, Shepard looked outside.

As she'd expected, there were lots of trees. Huge and ancient things, bearing hundreds of branches that eventually disappeared into a canopy of deep green leaves, suggesting the season here was sometime in early summer. The woods circled a clearing roughly the size of a Kilimanjaro-class dreadnaught. There were more caravans in her immediate line of sight, and it seemed most were considerably larger than the one she was in. Just beyond, she saw benches arranged into a ring around a huge campfire, where the sound of clanging pots and pans was coming from.

Sliding her gaze to the right, where she'd heard the strange noise of arrowheads piercing wood, Shepard was still stunned to see a line of four men practicing archery. And not with the sort of bows that required a manual to string the complicated system of pulleys a modern bow employed. Oh no. These were the most basic set of longbows she'd ever seen, straight out of a historical vid or codex entry on medieval warfare.

Feeling like she'd just stumbled into a movie set, Shepard stared for several minutes, watching as one of the men plucked an arrow from the earth. He positioned it with a dexterity and swiftness that spoke not just of proficiency, but expertise, and in one smooth motion drew back the bowstring and released. Shepard couldn't make out the target from her vantage, but the arrow looked to have flown straight, and she'd heard another thwack.

How utterly bizarre. Somewhat interesting and impressive to see, but bizarre. Archery was a near extinct art form. Even in her Special Forces training, the only time Shepard had picked up a bow was during Survival courses, and it hadn't taken a very high proficiency to earn passing marks. Her instructors had only made sure they could carve it, string it, and shoot a sharpened branch a couple of feet. The general consensus was that if you needed to forage your own food—or god forbid face an enemy—with just a bow and arrow, the situation was well beyond the point of FUBAR anyway.

But the Ns were all about worst case scenarios, and taught the basics of any skill Just In Case. Outside of that? No one seriously bothered to train in such an archaic method of archery. Why would they, when even the cheapest gun on the market offered a hundred times better range and accuracy? Against a shielded target, the kinetic force of an arrow would barely register, never mind drain any of it's energy. Even without shields, the lightest set of armor wouldn't be penetrated by an arrowhead.

What sort of weird camp was this? More importantly, how the hell had she ended up in it? Especially since she should be dead a dozen and a half ways by now.

Shepard continued to watch the archers, attempting to puzzle out their motives and not getting very far, when her peripheral vision caught movement closing in on the perimeter of the caravan. Shepard's sights immediately zeroed in, finding a somewhat familiar looking woman bedecked in honest-to-god robes with a staff strapped to her back, bounding up the stairs. Shepard stepped back from the threshold in time to avoid being smacked in the head as the door swung inward.

Huge green eyes widened impossibly larger as the head peaking round the side caught sight of her. "Oh! You're awake!"

Shepard registered her accent, labeled it as Welsh, and continued to stare, dumbfounded, at the long and pointed ears sticking out of the woman's head.

The woman, or maybe teenager—she was a slip of a girl despite her long limbs—shifted uncomfortably before stepping inside. Shepard noticed she didn't shut the door completely, and left a good few inches of space between it and the frame. Along with her nervously fidgeting fingers and carefully maintained distance, her actions suggested anxiety. Perhaps even fear. "Feeling better?"

It was only Shepard's training that jump started her brain past the shock and confusion. She still watched the girl with her own narrow-eyed stare. It wasn't the simple, curving tattoos framing her eyes and bottom lip that had thrown Shepard. After Jack, no tattoo, no matter how intricate or how much skin it covered, would ever top the former convict's addiction to body art.

It was the fact that, while she resembled a human, she was also... slightly alien. Her face had something—not quite right about it's dimensions. Too wide in the forehead, too narrow in the jaw and chin. Combined with those abnormally large, feline eyes and pointed ears, there was just something off about her. She had all the traits Shepard associated with her species, but her limbs and torso were also elongated and thin, as if her bones had been stretched out a bit. Not to mention she had a waist a turian would double glance at.

Shepard had heard stories of parents who went overboard with genetic therapies. There were always the sensational news reports of people who'd spent thousands for custom modifications, like slitted pupils or purple skin.

Maybe this poor girl's parents had been similarly out of their minds. It almost made Shepard feel better about being dumped outside a hospital emergency room when she was an infant. Of course, given the extent of her own genetic and cybernetic modifications, including glowing red irises and scars, she probably shouldn't be judging. Glass houses, incendiary grenades and all.

Shepard glanced around the room before turning back to the girl, who was now chewing on her lower lip. "This... isn't like any hospital I've ever seen."

She could just imagine Garrus dryly saying, Well spotted, Commander.

"Hospital?" the girl asked, brows pinching together. Suddenly, her eyes widened. "I've heard of those! Places of healing the shem—humans use, right? In the cities?"

Shepard stared. She didn't consider herself human? Was she some sort of evolutionary experiment? For some reason modified beyond the amount of genetic rewriting that had been used on Miranda? Shepard hoped that didn't mean there were more Cerberus soldiers or scientists waiting to pop out of the woodwork like deranged, heavily armored roaches brandishing assault rifles. "Right."

"No, no. We don't have anything like that. The Keeper does all the healing for our clan. Well, I help out sometimes." Her gaze shifted to the side as her chin dipped. "I'm not very good at it. But I know a bit of herbal lore, enough to keep you alive until we could get you to the Keeper, anyway." Her head shot back up. "Oh! I'm supposed to tell her you're awake! She wanted to speak with you."

"Wait," Shepard said, sidestepping to the door and stopping the girl from leaving with a firm hand against it.

She recoiled as if Shepard had just shoved a shotgun under her nose. Cringing, the girl quickly scuttled backwards until the wall blocked her escape. Fear shone bright and wild in the stare tunneling in on Shepard. Swinging the gnarled end of her staff around, she pointed it at Shepard's chest. "I'll defend myself if I have to!"

Shepard was used to intimidating people. Hell, she depended upon that particular skill to get the information she needed to complete her mission on more than one occasion. She'd convinced two indoctrinated men to kill themselves by delivering a verbal bullet of much-needed reality to penetrate their bullshit. She'd made peace and strong armed enemies into working together by threatening to slaughter everyone if they didn't start acting sensibly, and stop annoying the piss out of her. On one memorable occasion, she'd headbutted a krogan warlord to shut him up.

But she'd never made a little girl cower just by holding a door closed before. Not while she was wearing a nightgown, anyway.

Shepard held out her hands in the universal sign of being unarmed and coming in peace. Not that it meant much from a biotic whose own body was a living weapon, but she hoped the gesture would calm the kid down. "I'm not going to hurt you." Not without cause, at least. So far, Shepard didn't have any reason to attack her. From the sounds of it, she had saved her life. With herbs. "I just want some answers."

The girl still looked as skittish as a varren facing a water hose. She did stop clinging to her staff, moving it marginally off to the side, which Shepard counted as an improvement. "I'm not sure what I can tell you."

"Let's start with your name."

She blinked, scrutinizing Shepard with a sharp, penetrating stare that gave the impression she wasn't as flighty as her behavior so far had suggested. After a moment, she appeared to come to a decision. It must have been in Shepard's favor, since she resettled the staff onto her back. "Merrill."

Shepard lowered her hands and nodded. "Nice to meet you, Merrill." She touched her chest. "Commander Shepard, Alliance Navy and Council Spectre."

Merrill's eyes took on a gleam of curiosity. "I've never heard of an Alliance or a Council before, but they sound very important."

Shepard's brow twitched. "You could say that." She frowned. "You really haven't heard of them?"

Merrill shook her head. One of the dark braids tucked behind her ear slipped free and swung against her cheek. "No. But I've only ever lived in Ferelden. Are they somewhere beyond the Waking Sea?"

"The... sea?" Now Shepard was the one staring, again. "Yeah. I guess you could say that," she muttered. Maybe Merrill had gotten mixed up by the mention of a navy? "The Alliance is the human organization for space exploration and settlement. The Council, they run just about everything else in the Milky Way, outside of the Terminus Systems. Is that where we are? Somewhere in the Traverse?"

It might explain how she'd never heard of the Alliance or Council. Of course, Shepard thought even the most backwater planets and colonies in the Traverse were at least aware of the Council. Considering the Hegemony's hostile stance towards any human settlements in the Terminus, the Alliance too. Maybe these people were isolationists? Some sort of anti-tech settlement, like a space colonizing Amish? It could explain why Merrill didn't consider herself human.

Still, there was obvious genetic tampering going on here, not to mention they'd had to use space ships at some point to have reached the planet in the first place. The whole situation felt off.

"I'm sorry," Merrill said, clutching at her hands and wringing her fingers again. "I haven't heard of a Terminus System or... anything you just said. We're camped at the southern edge of the Brecilian forest, in Ferelden. There's a human village half a day's walk to the west. Maybe they could answer your questions?" Suddenly, her ears perked. Actually perked, twitching upwards like a dog's. "Or you could talk to that human who helped us carry you back here. Duncan?" She leaned forward, voice quieting into a whisper. "I heard him tell the Keeper he's a Grey Warden. Can you believe that? A Grey Warden. Here!" She grinned. "It's been very exciting lately. Usually nothing interesting ever happens around camp."

Shepard pressed a hand to her forehead. Now Merrill was the one speaking gibberish. Ferelden? Villages? "Never heard of a Grey Warden."

Merrill started. "Really? That's peculiar. I thought Wardens were everywhere in Thedas."

"Thedas. Is that what you call this planet?" Shepard hadn't heard of it. She was beginning to get the impression that was to be a common occurrence until she found a way off this bizarre rock.

"Um," Merrill blinked. "Yes? Isn't that what you call the world? Do your people have another name for it?"

"Probably," Shepard said, teeth clenching. She wondered if this was one of the uncharted M-Class planets that had been secretly colonized. Or no one had bothered to register it with the Council or... whoever controlled this sector of space. Rubbing at her temples, where the throbbing in her skull was becoming quite pronounced, she asked, "I suppose it'd be too much to hope that you have an interstellar communications terminal nearby?"

Merrill was the one staring blankly at her this time. After an awkward beat of silence she said, "I really think you should speak to the Keeper."

Somehow, unless this Keeper of her's was some cult leader keeping a hell of a lot close to the vest, Shepard seriously doubted it was going to help. Still. Might as well try. If the Keeper was the local leader, it would be a good idea to make contact. "Why not."

Merrill's shoulders relaxed, and the poor kid looked terribly relieved. "I'll take you to her." She turned and was about to make for the door again.

Shepard cleared her throat. "My armor?"

Merrill halted mid-step, so quickly she nearly fell to the floor. Floundering for a moment, she whirled around and took in Shepard's head-to-toe state of dress, just a thin shift, with another blush. "Sorry! I'd completely forgot!" Her blush deepened. "Um, your armor. Yes. We had to cut it apart and," the strange, flat bridge of her long nose wrinkled, "peel it off you. Not a pretty sight." She gave Shepard a sympathetic look. "Whatever happened, it must have been very painful. The Keeper had to regrow most of your skin."

While Shepard heard everything, her brain immediately latched onto the words regrow and skin. That would definitely require a higher level of technology than anything on display so far. Perhaps this Keeper was keeping secrets from the rest of her merry band of pointy-eared medieval re-enactors. Certainly explained the title.

Merrill swept the fallen braid back behind her ear before adding, "I took what we salvaged off you to Master Ilen, our clan's... I suppose you'd call him a blacksmith?" Shepard's throat worked, but she decided to keep quiet. "But he didn't even know what sort of material it was, let alone how to repair it." He head dipped. "I'm sorry."

Shepard wasn't surprised to hear the sad fate of her armor, but was more than a little disappointed. That armor had seen her through battles with uncounted collectors, husks, soldiers and mercenaries. Had even survived a kick from a Reaper. But perhaps there was something from it she could salvage. Bits of wiring, a chip or two, if nothing else. "Did you throw it out?"

"Oh, no. Master Ilen still has it." She brushed past Shepard, towards a small chest sitting at the end of the bed. Lifting the lid and holding it open with one slim hand, she began rummaging through it's contents. "I'll retrieve it for you while you're with the Keeper. Hm, no, too small," she murmured, tossing one article of clothing after another onto the bed. "Must be something..."

Scratching her elbow, Shepard leaned towards the nearest bookshelf, glancing at the titles. The majority were in a language she'd never seen, with odd curving symbols and a liberal use of dots. A few had more familiar script, using an English alphabet—if a very old and formal version, but spelled words she'd never heard. Arlathan. Elgar'nan. Falon'Din. Fen'Harel.

"Maybe this?"

Shepard looked over her shoulder and saw Merrill lifting up a long set of blue robes that could have been mistaken for a dress. She shook it out, but the satin-like fabric remained badly wrinkled. Shepard noticed a great deal of intricate silver piping and the repeated motifs of a sun and beams of light worked into the bodice and the front of the skirts. Despite it's simple silhouette, a lot of complicated needlework must have gone into the robe's embellishments.

Merrill turned and presented it to Shepard with a small smile. "Here. Junar traded for this a while back from one of the villages. Robes from the Circle of Magi, apparently. Made for a human." As Shepard took the garment, Merrill's brows pinched together. "I wonder what happened to the mage. They don't usually part with their robes. Even the apostates." She paused only to breathe before continuing, leaning down near the door to retrieve a familiar set of undamaged boots. "I hope nothing bad happened to her. Maybe she needed the coin. How sad. I can't imagine parting with mine. The Keeper had them specially made on my last nameday."

Shepard had no idea what Merrill was blabbering about, so said nothing as she pulled the robes over her head. She was wrong about the fabric. It wasn't satin, felt far too stiff, but Shepard didn't know what it actually was. Something alien and native to the planet, probably.

Although, it was the strangest feeling, but she swore it was charged in some manner. There was a curious tingle suffusing her skin. Almost like she'd experience standing beside the Normandy's drive core, but far more subtle. She felt refreshed and... determined.

Lips pressed together, Shepard shook out the sleeves, not at all happy about the excess fabric dangling from her wrists, or that the full range of motion around her legs was compromised. She was used to tighter sleeves and pants that wouldn't get caught or pulled in a fight. But she managed to lift the ends of her mouth into a smile as she met Merrill's painfully earnest and hopeful gaze. Girl looked like a puppy that had brought back a stick, and desperately wanted a pat on the head.

Shepard wasn't one to coddle, but she wasn't one to boot puppies in the face, either. "Fits." She wouldn't be flashing her birthmark at anyone, at least. She took her boots from Merrill and worked them back on. "Thanks."

The girl positively beamed while picking up a small belt with a leather pouch hooked to the side. She gave it to Shepard and said, "I'm so glad! Feel free to keep them. Human clothes are far too big for me."

Pausing in the midst of slinging the belt round her waist, Shepard's mouth curled in the opposite direction.

Merrill's eyes widened again. "Not to suggest you're really large, or anything. Just... wider in the hips and thighs and..." As Shepard's lips drew back into a furious scowl, Merrill hunched in on herself. "I'll shut up, now."

She practically ran for the door, her long legs moving in a strange, loping stride.

Shaking her head and forcing her fists to unclench—the girl had saved her life, after all—Shepard took a steadying breath and followed.

Lifting her hand against the bright light, Shepard squinted and took hold of the skirts of the robes with her other before carefully descending the wooden steps. The gentle breeze felt refreshing against her fevered skin, although it was almost uncomfortably chilly across her forehead, where a slight sheen of sweat lingered on her brow. She could hear the rustle of the forest's canopy much clearer from outside, and a constant creaking not only from the swaying branches, but from a few of the other caravans that shifted as their occupants puttered around inside. Hurrying after Merrill's longer strides, she took an evaluating scan of her surroundings, and was able to pick out words from several nearby conversations taking place all over camp.

A few words, in particular, were continuously brought up. Shem. Warden. Maharial. Tamlen. Missing. Killed.

Merrill hadn't been kidding about the commotion buzzing throughout the camp. Tongues waged like gossiping quarians everywhere. Except right next to Shepard herself whenever they saw her approach. They shut right up to stare as she passed. Men, women—even the children stopped playing to watch with round eyes as she marched by.

Shepard's skin began to itch, and her frown became a permanent fixture on her face as her eyes hardened in response to the suspicious glares and leery, defensive posture of the camp's inhabitants. Some of whom were armed. With small wooden shields and swords, but armed none-the-less.

She was going to have to keep her guard up. If not for all the sunshine and fresh air, Shepard would have sworn she was back on Omega from all the hostile looks she was receiving.

"Your friends don't seem to like me much," Shepard said.

Merrill slowed, allowing Shepard to shorten her stride, making it easier to keep pace despite the ankle length skirt. She glanced to the side as they met up. "We don't have many visitors. Especially humans." She tilted her head, scrutinizing Shepard as if she were an abstract painting on some gallery wall, a picture that—no matter how hard she stared at it—she couldn't quite puzzle out. "You're only the second human I've ever seen." Her brow screwed up in thought. "Actually, I suppose you'd be the first. When you saved Fenarel and I from that monster. You're the second I've spoken to, though."

Shepard realized Fenarel must have been the leather-clad man attacking the creature with only a sword and shield. "Was he hurt?"

"Fenarel?" Merrill asked. At Shepard's nod, she smiled and shook her head. "No. Not seriously, anyway. You showed up before the creature did more than swat him a few times. His shield is a little worse for wear, but he's fine." She looked down to the ground before gazing up at Shepard with those strangely luminous eyes. Out here in the sunlight, the huge round pupils swallowed most of the irises of her already exaggerated eyes. It made her look remarkably like a baby meerkat. The effect was disarming and disgustingly cute. "I haven't thanked you for saving us yet, have I?"

Shepard shrugged, focusing ahead on a fenced off portion of the camp, about the size of the Normandy's cargo bay, filled with some kind of deer. Snow white deer, with antlers that did not branch, but curve and twist backwards like slender horns. "It's what I do." She frowned slightly. "Or try to." Merrill looked confused by her response, and opened her mouth, but Shepard curtly continued before she had a chance to say anything. "Is that your Keeper?" she asked, pointing to an old woman kneeling beside one of the animals, face crinkled with age and gray hair piled into a tight bun atop her head.

The distraction worked as Merrill's head whipped around. "Hm? Oh, yes, that's Keeper Marethari." Merrill hurried ahead again. Picking up her skirts, Shepard rushed after.

Having grown up in the city, a fragrant pasture wasn't something Shepard was used to, and she was a bit taken aback by the pungency of the odor. It was worse than the four hours she'd spent trapped in the Mako with Wrex and Kaidan after a hard drop had snapped the front axle. That whole afternoon, Wrex had been suffering from a bad case of indigestion, apparently having eaten the Normandy's whole stock of bean and rice burrito MREs on a dare from a suicidal Joker. In typical krogan fashion, he'd refused to visit Chakwas or even inform his CO. Shepard would never have believed anything would top that smell. She swore it managed to eek in her helmet through the suit's air filters. It grew so bad, Kaidan had thrown every bullshit excuse he could come up with at Shepard to justify a reconnaissance patrol—in the middle of a blizzard, on a glacial, frozen planet filled with nothing but ice and snow.

Apparently, twenty deer in a confined space managed the miraculous.

Squinting, nose crinkled, Shepard tried breathing through parted lips as they approached the pen. It didn't help, and she found herself furiously blinking her watering eyes as Merrill led her through the gate.

Despite her age, the Keeper was crouched low to the ground beside the front legs of one deer, metal hook in hand as she scraped the mud and—well, Shepard doubted all of the lumps on that hoof were clods of dirt. Like Merrill and Shepard, she was wearing a set of robes, but the skirts were wrapped and knee high, while a whole raven must have been plucked for all the feathers sewn into the pauldrons. Her feet were bare, which was brave of the woman considering the state of the ground.

"Keeper!" Merrill called, robes hiked up as she skipped strategically towards the older woman. "She woke up!"

"So I see," the Keeper replied, not pausing in her task as her green eyes flickered towards Shepard before returning to the hoof in her grip. "Andaran atish'an, stranger."

"Keeper," Shepard answered, her own gaze sweeping the grass as if she were crossing a minefield.

Marethari wiped the excess earth from her tool along the grass, then began to pick at the inner grooves within the ivory-colored hoof. "Merrill, please tell Duncan that our guest is up and about."

"Ma nuvenin," Merrill replied, giving a shallow curtsy before offering Shepard a quick, fleeting smile. "Thank you again. For saving Fenarel and me, I mean." Before Shepard could do more than nod, Merrill was rushing off in the opposite direction.

Shepard hoped Merrill remembered to pick up her armor from this blacksmith of theirs. Nice girl, but a bit scatterbrained. And skittish.

"From your expression, I take it you are not accustomed to animals?" Marethari asked, drawing Shepard's attention back to her.

Shepard cleared her throat. "That obvious?"

The hook clinked against the edge of the cloven hoof as she knocked the few remaining bits of dirt from the sides. "I'd greet you elsewhere, but Maren's son, Jolan, is abed with fever, and the halla need tending."

Shepard watched as the Keeper let go of the hoof and, still crouched, moved to the back leg. The—halla, she supposed, not deer—lifted it's head at the movement. It must have been comfortable with the Keeper's presence, because once it saw what all the fuss was about it serenely returned to it's breakfast. "I have to admit, I didn't expect to find the clan's leader getting her hands dirty."

"I wouldn't be much of a guide for my people if I did not share their burdens," Marethari replied. Even if she turned out to be some crazy cultist, Shepard found she couldn't argue with that. "May I know your name, stranger?"

"Commander Shepard, Alliance Navy and Council Spectre," Shepard said.

Marethari hummed thoughtfully. "It is rare for us to have one human amongst us. Today we not only have two, but both commanders, as well."

Shepard let her robes drop as she took up her usual stance, weight on her left leg, hip cocked, arms folded. "Funny, people usually only notice the Spectre part."

A sudden movement in the boughs of the trees a few feet away from the pen drew Shepard's gaze. She was certain the branch had shifted counter to the direction of the wind.

Archers?

"Then one wonders why you do not put it ahead of your other title," Marethari replied.

More subtle movement in the treeline. Reinforcements?

These people aren't screwing around.

Shepard suddenly felt far too naked and exposed in just a plain set of robes, and wondered if Merrill had been entirely truthful about the state of her armor. She also felt the emptiness at her back where her squad would normally be standing, watching her six. She may have been out of the ruins, but clearly, this was still hostile territory. "Depends on who I'm dealing with." Shepard said, letting her hands fall as she casually shifted into a more defensive posture, one where she'd be ready to dive to the side. "Doesn't seem as if either carries much weight around here." Otherwise, they damn sure wouldn't be pointing arrows at her.

"We Dalish have lived apart from humans since the destruction of our homeland," Marethari said, tone taking on a lecturing quality. "We do so, because we refuse to be ruled or enslaved again. My people do not recognize the authority of any human lord or officer."

Shepard had never heard of anything like that before. "Dalish? That's what you call your... race?"

Marethari paused, looking up again with her brows pressed together in confusion. "No. We are elves. But we are the last of our kind to follow the ancient ways of our ancestors, keeping what we can of our language, history, and culture alive."

Shepard stopped scanning the treeline long enough to glance in disbelief at Marethari. "Elves." This lady had to be joking.

Marethari stared up at Shepard for several quiet moments, before releasing the halla's leg. She stood, slow and careful, but with a gracefulness that belied her age. "Have you truly never seen an elf before?"

Shepard wasn't sure what to say to that. Apart from the obvious, "No."

Folding her arms, Marethari arched a white brow at the glacial note in Shepard's voice. "As I've never met a Spectre, it would seem to be a first for us both."

"Most haven't. If they're lucky, they never will."

Marethari frowned. "We have certainly had enough bad luck of late. As if Fen'Harel himself dogs our steps." She sighed, walking past Shepard and back towards the fence. Shepard twisted around to watch, keeping the grove of trees in her peripheral vision. The Keeper headed for another of those make-shift staffs, one that appeared far more complicated than Merrill's, with several curving branches at its top that formed a natural, hollow cage. Inside, secured by a length of twine, was a crystal the size of a heatsink. "Tell me, before you attacked the beast that threatened Fenarel and Merrill, did you happen upon two other elves?"

Shepard's brows furrowed together. "No."

Marethari glanced over her shoulder before taking hold of the staff. "You are certain?"

When it was clear she intended to leave the pen, Shepard started after her, nearly tripping when her boot caught the hem of her robes. Grabbing a handful, Shepard bunched the skirts up again. Once they were clear of the gate, her shoulder blades tensed from all the hostile eyes in the entire camp, not just the trees, that followed her every move. "Positive. Why?"

Marethari's shoulders fell, head dipped as she squeezed her lined eyes shut. After a moment, when they opened once more, the Keeper took a deep breath and said, "Fenarel and Merrill were not the first of our clan to enter the ruins. Two of our best hunters, Mahariel and Tamlen, found their way inside as well. Before they were attacked, Merrill and Fenarel discovered their weapons, abandoned, but of Mahariel and Tamlen themselves, there was no sign."

"You think something happened to them?"

"Yes. And given your own condition, I fear the worst."

Knowing all to well the grief and guilt that plagued the heart and mind after losing someone under her command, Shepard commiserated with the Keeper's loss. She would've preferred to have better news, but didn't believe in offering false hope. "If there are more creatures like the one I fought, and if your people were unarmed, the possibility of finding them alive is remote."

"I am sorry to say, but if they are still alive, it would be no kindness," said a deep voice.

The bearded man who'd spoken was only a few feet away, swiftly crossing the remaining distance. Dismayed that she hadn't heard his approach despite her heightened state of awareness, Shepard realized that even now, she still couldn't. His stride was large and sure, and while his plated boots must have been heavier than her own, the grass didn't make so much as a whisper as his footsteps carried him beside Marethari.

The newcomer was a tall man, at least as tall as Vega, and judging by the breadth of his shoulders and thick arms, not far behind when it came to muscles. And it was far more sensible armor compared to the Dalish, with a chest plate, greaves on his forearms and legs, and pauldrons over his shoulder. The long handles of two swords peaked over his back, resting at angles to one another. At the belt on his waist, Shepard spied another knife—long, curved, and wicked in appearance.

Shepard assumed it was the Grey Warden Merrill had mentioned. And from the Keeper's words, not just the only other human around, but another Commander as well.

"Hail, Duncan," Marethari said, apparently unsurprised to find the tall human suddenly strolling beside them. "It was as you said. The magic within the ruins was very dark, indeed. If Shepard was not responsible for our missing clansmen, I must assume the worst."

What does she mean not responsible? Shepard's expression instantly hardened as she realized the Keeper must have assumed she'd been the one who'd harmed or killed her hunters. That explains all the hidden archers and murderous glares.

Shepard would be the first to admit she was far from harmless. She had the blood of hundreds of thousands—no, millions—on her hands. She'd personally been responsible for the extinction of two sentient species (twice over in the Rachni's case, goddamn Reapers), but always to protect the galaxy. Shouldering those burdens—making not just tough calls, but damning calls that rotted the soul until the pressure put cracks in her face—because no one else would.

And that was why it hit her like an exploding round to the chest to be assumed guilty for something she had nothing to do with. In fact, she'd spent her last breath for these strangers. She had enough real blood that would never wash off without adding every random Tom, Dick, or Harry's on top of it.

And they dared accuse her of murder?

Any empathy Shepard had felt moments before evaporated into the ether as a wave of anger boiled her blood and heated her already burning skin. Heedless of the arrows aimed in her direction, Shepard scowled and leaned into the Keeper's space, forcing her to stop as she shoved her finger in Marethari's face. "I almost died saving two of your people, and in thanks, you throw accusations at me?"

Sometimes, Shepard wondered why she ever bothered.

She had to give the Keeper credit. She didn't step back or break eye contact. Chin lifted, she said, "Much has been taken from our people at the hands of humans, merely for being what we are. I could rule nothing out."

Great, more bullshit. Because dealing with the salarians and krogans, the quarians and geth hadn't been enough irrational stupidity for one lifetime.

Shepard's eyes narrowed into slivers, stare hard and steady as she zeroed in on the Keeper's face, until she could map out every wrinkle. A marksman's glare. "Not my hands. I've done nothing to your people, but it's still guilty until proven innocent?" Shepard snorted. "Sounds like it runs both ways."

Different worlds, different species, same old tune.

"Yet here you stand, alive," Marethari said, the grip on her staff tightening. "I am not imprudent, Shepard. But the Dalish have good reason to be cautious."

"You make it sound like you did me a favor. But all you wanted was information. If not for your missing clansmen, I doubt you would have gone to the trouble."

Marethari frown was so severe, her lips all but disappeared until there was nothing but a pale line. "That is not true."

Shepard's expression went from hard to stone. The Keeper must have taken her for an idiot. Unarmed and unarmored, yet archers and swordsman had done nothing but watch her every move since she'd left that caravan. "Don't spit in my face and tell me it's raining."

"Did I have suspicions? Yes. But I did not heal you on the assumption of your guilt," Marethari said stiffly. "We are not the callous people you believe us to be."

"I'm not sure what the hell you are. Calling yourselves elves? The tech here is centuries old, but you treated injuries my ship's infirmary would have trouble with." Fists clenched Shepard whipped back, swiveling away on the ball of her foot. She noted the growing crowd, warriors gathering in a strategic circle to box her in. She counted twenty, met their glares with her own, and marched four paces before halting, daring them with her narrowing eyes to try it. No one moved. Swiveling around again, she marched back. "I've been treated with nothing but suspicion. I see plenty of swords eagerly waiting for an excuse to slit my throat. And don't think I haven't noticed the archers hidden in the canopy either. All this, just because I'm human?"

Shepard ground her teeth. "Ever since I woke up in those ruins, nothing has made any sense." Taking another step closer, she was nearly nose to nose with Marethari, so close she could see the tiny gold flecks in her eyes. "Someone is screwing with me, Keeper. Either you tell me what the hell is really going on here, or I'll give you an actual reason to have those arrows aimed at my head."

Marethari met Shepard's furious eyes, with a calm, steady gaze. "And you should know, Shepard, the Dalish do not suffer the threats or demands of humans."

Shepard was about to tell Marethari she could dole out a great deal of suffering, when a powerful arm, followed by a heavily armored shoulder, forced it's way between herself and the Keeper.

"Enough!"

She found herself facing the bearded warrior Marethari had called Duncan. His expression was grim, his eyes filled with as much steel as he was apparently fond of wearing. "There is no need for threats." He looked over his shoulder. "From anyone." Turning back to Shepard, he pointed over her shoulder. "They will attack if you persist."

Shepard had a good idea of what was behind her. She twisted around to find the clan's armored warriors with their swords out, ready to swing for her head.

"The clan will protect their Keeper to the last man," Duncan warned as Shepard straightened back around. "But the Keeper speaks truly, the Dalish are elves, and have been given many reasons to distrust humans. However, I will answer any question you wish to ask."

Lowering his arms, he looked to the Keeper. "If you allow us to pass in peace, I will guide her out of the forest."

"I believe that would be for the best," Marethari replied. Looking out towards the gathering of warriors, she motioned with her hand. Shepard heard the swords scrape back into their scabbards. "I leave Shepard to your custody, Warden."

Arms crossing over his chest, Duncan gave a low, formal bow from the waist. "Thank you, Keeper."

Shepard narrowed her eyes. "Custody?"

Duncan gave a sharp shake of his head. Shepard could tell an order to shut up when she saw one. Her jaw clenched at the presumption, but she eventually decided he was right. She'd more than worn out her welcome, probably from the moment she'd woken up. Ungrateful bastards.

"You may resupply with Master Ilen for your journey," Marethari continued on coolly, "but I must ask you to depart quickly."

"You have my word," Duncan assured her as he stood back up, ignoring Shepard's increasingly frigid glare.

"Dareth shiral, Duncan. And good luck." The corner of her lips dipped into a small frown. "With this one, I have a feeling you are going to need it."

A small hum of agreement sounded from his chest. With a final nod of farewell, the Keeper strolled away, serene and calm as if she had not just stood toe to toe with a furious Spectre.

"Come," Duncan said, motioning with his hand as he headed in the opposite direction. "We must not tarry, for more reasons than unfriendly eyes."

That doesn't sound mysterious and vaguely ominous at all.

Told to follow one person after another, Shepard felt like she was being jerked around on a leash. Hands still balled into fists, she marched after him. "I expect answers."

"Then ask," he returned, gaze sweeping over every warrior they passed, peering intently into every dark space between the caravans. Evaluating the threat. Shepard noticed he also paid close attention to the trees.

Her anger was still there, simmering in the back of her mind, but Shepard blew out a breath and forced herself to ignore it. "You said they're elves," Shepard began, because honestly, she still didn't know what to make of it.

Duncan glanced at her before returning to his constant sweep. He nodded. "Yes."

"You don't think that's a bit... strange?" Shepard asked.

"Strange in what way?" he asked as they began winding through the outer ring of caravans. She could feel the Dalish watching. Making her own visual sweep, she discovered several peeking out their windows, and a few even standing by their steps. Shepard saw one woman grab a child playing nearby and hurry inside, slamming the door shut as they passed. "That there are elves living free outside the cities?"

Shepard wondered if he was serious. With her run of terrible luck this morning, probably. "I meant more in the sense of fictional beings existing in the real world."

He didn't miss a step, but he did pause in his scan long enough to glance sharply at her from the corner of his eyes. "As you can see, they are quite real."

"Were they genetically modified?"

His brows furrowed. "Jeh-neh-tick-ally—" After a moment, he shook his head and said, "I am unfamiliar with the term."

"How they came about."

The groves in his forehead deepened even further. "I am not sure I understand the question. Are you asking for their creation mythology?"

"Forget I asked." Shepard lifted a hand and rubbed at her own forehead. With her temper fading into bitter irritation, she waited until her breathing leveled out and the throbbing in her skull receded into a dull ache. Opening her eyes, she caught Duncan's intense scrutiny before he averted his gaze towards a small clearing near where Shepard had wakened. The archers she'd watched before Merrill's arrival were still working on their aim.

But they passed the younger elves and their wooden targets, and instead headed for a grouping of tents, the only ones of their kind Shepard had seen. They were large, octangular, and made of a stiff canvas that flapped loudly in the breeze. They had been dyed the same dark moss green that the Dalish were fond of wearing, a choice that made sense for a people who made their homes in the forest.

Shepard was somewhat surprised to find a column of smoke rising from the center of one tent, like one would see rising out of a chimney.

There was still another caravan parked beside the tents, of course. Apparently, they were mandatory for the neighborhood. This one was more modest in size than most, like the one Shepard had awoken in, obviously built for a single occupant. Outside, there were several tables pressed end to end, and a collection of items that, as they closed in, Shepard saw were weapons like the Dalish carried.

This must have been the blacksmith Merrill had mentioned.

"You will need provisions," Duncan said, leading her towards another elderly elf exiting the tent and moving towards the tables. He had to be Master Ilen, since his arms and chest were twice the size of any other elf she'd seen. Shepard wasn't surprised to find he watched their approach with the guarded posture of a salarian weapons merchant steeling himself to deal with a group of teenaged krogans.

Wiping his face on the end of his leather apron, he straightened his shoulders and said, "Make it quick, Warden."

"We will take no more of your time than we must, Master Ilen," Duncan said with the diplomatic air Shepard had come to associate with politicians, particularly asari politicians.

Ilen folded his arms, which Shepard had to admit was an impressive sight, and she'd spent her whole adult life around marines. "What do you want, then?"

Duncan began reciting a list of everything from salt, dried fruits, jerky, cups, plates, hides, water skins, and a tent, to stranger items such as, "...ten jars of elfroot poultice, six venom glands, three vials of concentrator and distillation agents..." with the seasoned professionalism of a requisitions officer. Ilen had his head cocked as he pulled crates from under the tables, plucking one after another of the requested items out. When Duncan finished his list, Ilen dropped two handfuls of pouches on the tabletop before returning to one of the back tents.

Duncan separated out a pile of rabbit furs, then grabbed a larger hide covered with the short, bristly hair of a boar. He wrapped the clay jars in the furs before setting them inside the tougher boar hide, alongside bundles of some kind of herb that smelled like crushed liquorice. "Do you require anything else?" he asked as he swiftly arranged the contents until no space was wasted.

Contrary to what Joker might have claimed, Shepard wasn't the sort to stand around while everyone else did all the work. Taking her own pile of rabbit furs and little clay pots, Shepard did her best to mimic Duncan's unconventional packing techniques. "Merrill told me Ilen had my armor." Shepard grimaced before adding, "What was left of it."

Pausing, he glanced over his shoulder. "Armor?" He took in her appearance with a visual sweep from head to toe. "You are not a mage?"

By now Shepard was expecting crazy shit to spew at her, like someone had shoved her head over a geyser of delirum, at any given moment. Which, truthfully, wasn't all that different from any other day. She hadn't had a banshee charging at her with it's LED stripper nipples yet, and after the horrific months she'd just gone through, that alone qualified as a rung up on the ladder of hellish situations. "I'm a biotic, not a magician."

"By-oh-tick?"

Naturally he hadn't heard of biotics. Shepard was in fantasy land, where people prattled on about cranky elves and herbs healing severe head trauma, while scratching their heads at any mention of the Alliance, Council, or biotics. "Yes. Biotic. Someone who can manipulate dark energy and form mass effect fields." Shepard rolled her right shoulder before adding, "In my case, I'm a CQC specialist."

Shepard could see the naked confusion written all over his face. She might as well have been speaking prothean. "You defeated the corrupted beast in the ruins with this by-oh-ticks and C-Q-C? Not magic?"

"You mean that bear-thing?"

"Was it a bear?" Duncan asked wryly, flipping the ends of the hide together, and securing them with a length of thin leather that looked like some kind of catgut. "I couldn't tell."

"If the mother bear fell in love with a Stegosaurus, and tried to eat her mutated offspring." Not that Shepard was one to talk when it came to unlikely pairings. Live and let live. At least, until they tried to eat you. "You were in the ruins?"

He nodded, selecting the next largest piece of hide and repeating the process. "I arrived shortly after your battle. I must admit, I did not expect you to survive. Nevertheless, I helped carry you back to camp." He looked up and smiled. "I am glad you proved me wrong."

"I didn't expect to, either. I'm still not certain how they managed it."

"Dalish Keepers are responsible for the well-being of the entire clan. All are well versed and experienced in Creation magics," Duncan replied as he tied the second pouch shut. "Marethari more than most."

And there was more of the crazy, psychotropic water exploding in her face. Shepard squeezed her eyes shut. She should have seen that answer coming after he'd called her a mage. "Magic."

Duncan took a breath and started to reply, but before he could say anything, Shepard heard another familiar voice calling out. "Shepard!"

She spun around in time to catch sight of Merrill, huffing and puffing, as she lugged a bag half her own size over her shoulder. She waved enthusiastically, was pulled off balance by the sack and nearly fell, but managed to recover. "And Duncan! Hello!"

Merrill heaved as she swung the bag down before Shepard's feet. "I wish I knew you'd be visiting Master Ilen," she said, wincing as she pressed a hand into her lower back. "I got halfway across camp before I heard you were already leaving." Her lips pressed together, forehead crinkling. "Is it just me, or does everyone seem a bit... cross?"

"Not just you," Shepard said, voice drier than Tuchanka. Crouching down, she tugged at the bag's bindings. "Sorry for the trouble."

"No trouble!" In one motion, she was kneeling beside Shepard, peering into the bag as Shepard opened it back up. "It's all there, isn't it?"

Shepard shifted through the warped, twisted remnants of what used to be her N7 Onyx suit. Hefting out the chest piece, she flipped to the inside and winced at the sight that greeted her. Charred, blackened gristle with bits of softer graying tissue. Shepard pressed the back of her hand to her nose, trying to ignore the odor. Worse than Wrex, worse than the pens, worse than anything.

She'd smelled burnt flesh before, but knowing it was her flesh... Shepard shook her head. Clearing her throat, she asked, "Combat knife?" When Merrill didn't say anything, Shepard turned to look at her and found the girl biting her lower lip, gaze lost on the grisly sight inside Shepard's armor. "Merrill!" Shepard barked, snapping her fingers.

Merrill started, gaze darting up.

"Knife?"

"Oh! Yes." She reached into the bag and shifted around until she pulled out the familiar sheath, though it too was badly singed while the handle was just as melted as the armor's plating. Silently, she handed it over.

Shepard took it, enjoying the whispered schwink as she freed the blade. Flipping what was left of the handle in her grip, Shepard set about scraping through the mess. Surreally, it was a lot like cleaning a pan that had caught fire and been left out on the stove for a few days.

"What are you doing?" Merrill asked, head tilted to the side as she watched.

"Salvaging." Shepard grimaced as she worked, cleaning one layer after another of crap away from where the inner wiring and tech was encased. After a moment, she found the first promising piece of equipment—one of her suit's sensors. Stabbing the tip of the knife in the side, Shepard carefully wiggled the blade until the sensor popped out.

Picking it out by the fingernails, she held it up to the sunlight and examined the casing. Shepard felt the knot in her stomach that had gradually tightened as the morning wore on loosen a little.

Merrill's eyes crossed as she studied the piece of metal. "Oh, it's lovely. Like a shiny pebble."

A pebble that can scan and transmit bio signatures, Shepard thought. Using her sleeve to wipe the sensor clean, she pushed it into her side pouch. "Never really thought of it like that before," she said, seeking out the next chip.

Footsteps heralded Master Ilen's return. In his hands, he carried another crate, this one loaded with slightly more familiar equipment. A crude pack, three bundles of what looked like whole bear furs—not the most pleasant of sights after her first and last encounter with one in the flesh—and an even more massive roll of scraped and tanned hide, which Shepard took for the tent Duncan had requested.

Duncan had finished packing the smaller items of food, crockery, and herbs, and turned his attention to the crate Ilen set down on the table. "Anything else?" Ilen asked, and the sliver of a frown he wore said quite clearly he hoped their business was concluded.

Duncan disappointed him. "Not quite. Do you have a spare set of human armor, perchance?"

Ilen eyed Duncan. "For her?" he asked, thrusting a thumb towards Shepard. Duncan nodded.

"Is something wrong with the robes I gave you?" Merrill asked, sounding concerned. "Has their magic worn off?"

Magic? Again? Shepard was ready to pound her head into the blackened shell of the chest plate in her hands. Instead, she redoubled her efforts at gouging all the way through. She worked so feverishly, she found a few more chips and sensors within moments. "No, Merrill." A sudden suspicion made her ask, "Did you tell everyone I was some kind of—" her lips twisted, "witch?"

Merrill's eyes rounded. "I told the Keeper and the Warden what you did. That's all." She smiled. "Don't worry! We don't allow Templars into the camp. The Chantry won't find out from any of us."

Shepard was growing more confused by the minute. Rocking onto her heels, she let her forearms rest on her knees as she fixed Merrill with a look that screamed, Report! "And just why should I be concerned about that?"

"I thought... Aren't you an apostate?" Merrill sputtered.

Slumping forward, Shepard dug her fingers into her pounding temples. If it weren't for the rest of their speech coming through loud and clear, she would have sworn her translator was glitching. She couldn't remember being so lost and insensate in a conversation since Mordin had decided to give her an impromptu lecture on the comparative genetics and mating habits of palavian fruit bats to their earth counterparts, which—in Mordin's twisted head—was somehow supposed to illustrate the dangers of cross-species liasons. All Shepard really recalled were the scratchy, squeaky audio recordings he'd so gleefully played for her, complete with rapid-fire commentary. Yet, even that brain-scarring discussion had made more sense then the things coming out of these people's mouths.

Scowling, Shepard shoved the rest of the scavenged equipment into her pouch before tossing her chest plate aside. After a moment of shifting through the bag, she grabbed the gauntlet meant for her right arm. "I don't even know what an apostate is. Or a Templar and a Chantry, for that matter."

The silence that followed her pronouncement was broken only by the rustle of leaves and grass. It was as if Shepard had just strolled into a Council meeting and declared—well, that giant, sentient spaceships were coming to kill them all.

She always did have a knack for capturing everyone's full and undivided attention.

At least I've got some talents that don't involve causing mayhem and inflicting bodily harm. Though Grunt would be terribly disappointed in me if he ever found out.

"How could you not know of the Chantry?" Ilen asked. His gaze whipped towards Duncan. "Is she from the Durgen'len city?"

Wordlessly, Duncan spread his hands.

Head shaking and muttering to himself, Ilen removed himself back into his tent.

Shepard glared. "Feel free to fill me in anytime."

"The Chantry spreads the teachings of the Prophetess Andraste, bride of the Maker." Duncan studied her quietly for a moment before continuing. "The adherents are mostly human, though many elves and surface dwarfs also believe and actively practice."

Dwarfs. Of course. It wouldn't be a proper world of elves and wizards without dwarfs, after all. She wondered how the faeries, unicorns, and flying monkeys were going to figure into all this. She was certain they'd too make an appearance, sooner or later.

Duncan kept on speaking, and Shepard forced herself to listen despite her short-circuiting brain. "It is one of the largest powers in all of Thedas, nearly a nation unto itself. Including its own standing army, the Templars, charged with protecting the faith and hunting down apostates." His lips pulled into a minute frown as he finished.

"Apostates?"

"Escaped mages or hedge witches living outside the Circle of Magi, and thus, outside of the Chantry's watchful eye."

Watchful eye. Well, didn't that sound so prettily Orwellian. "I take it they don't simply bring these people back to their... Circles... when they find apostates?"

Duncan's expression turned grim. "Only if the mage is harrowed, or thought to be worthy of a Harrowing. Otherwise, it is usually a death sentence for the captured apostate." He carefully rolled up the full boar skin. "I have heard there are Templars who take a more—fanatical view—of even harrowed mages. How much is truth and how much is rumor, I cannot say. The Chantry is not very forthcoming on the topic, and as a Grey Warden, it is not my place to ask."

And everyone believed she was some sort of apostate. While Shepard had definitely been through more than her fair share of harrowing experiences, somehow she doubted this Chantry's Harrowing involved nests of thresher maws or reapers. Fantastic. "I take it these Templars are best avoided?"

Duncan glanced her way. "If you are not a mage, then you would be in no risk of demonic possession, and thus, no threat." Demonic... what? Shepard pinched the bridge of her nose. "Assuming you can convince any Templars who accuse you of this fact." Duncan took a longer, thicker cord and bound everything together into what looked like a serviceable backpack. "But you will be in no danger when traveling in my company."

"The Grey Wardens are the only ones above Chantry law," Merrill whispered.

That sounds familiar. Are these Grey Wardens some kind of medieval Order of Spectres? "Why?"

"Because we stay out of politics, heavenly or otherwise," Duncan said, beard lifting into a small grin. "And for our services and sacrifices to the whole of Thedas, we are granted certain privileges. In theory, if not always in practice," he added softly, speaking more to himself.

Not medieval Spectres, then. Shepard was usually up to her neck in galactic politics. "Privileges?"

"That can all be explained in time," he said, lifting the pack—easily the size of his own upper body—without so much as a grunt.

Duncan made as if to carry it over, but before he could, Ilen called out from his tent. "Warden! I need the help of shemlen eyes! I don't adjust suits for her kind everyday."

Duncan paused, glancing over his shoulder to the elf leaning partway out of the tent's flap. With a nod, he gently set the pack down. "I shall return momentarily," he promised before striding away to join the elf. The two disappeared into what must have been the blacksmith's armory.

Having foraged what she could from the two pieces of armor that had the most tech installed, Shepard pushed the rest of the bag aside. Pulling the rolled up pack over to inspect it, she said to Merrill, "You can dump the rest of it."

"What about the Eluvian?"

Shepard tilted her head, eyes narrowed in confusion. "The what?"

"You were clutching a shard from an Eluvian when we found you," Merrill explained, reaching in the bag and pulling out a vaguely familiar shape of flat glass wrapped in cloth. Carefully, Merrill lifted the corners away, revealing the lengthy fragment of mirror Shepard had found beneath her boot. It looked as if during her last desperate charge, the shard had broken in half, since it was missing the larger upper portion.

"You mean that broken mirror in the big chamber?" Shepard shrugged. "What about it?"

Jaw dropped and floundering for words, Merrill gaped at her. After a moment she managed to say, "The Eluvian isn't just a mirror, Shepard. It's a relic of my people, said to have wondrous powers. It let the ancient elves of Arlathan communicate across fantastic distances with one another. And you found one!" She was almost bouncing on the balls of her feet as she knelt there, staring with open marvel at the shard cupped reverently in her hands. "It's worth is far beyond any gold or precious jewels. The history alone—it could teach us so much about our lost past!"

While Shepard wasn't ordinarily excited by relics and antiques—at best they sat around doing nothing, at worst they filled her head with visions of death and destruction—she was intensely interested in what this mirror was supposedly capable of. "Wait." She held up her hand, which managed to distract Merrill from the shard. "You're telling me this is some sort of long range communications device?"

"It's what the Tevinter Magisters now use them for," Merrill confirmed, speaking in an excited rush. "But they're so much more than that. Legends say they were capable of moving a person from one mirror to another in the blink of the eye! Can you imagine? Traveling across whole nations and seas in a single step?"

Shepard could indeed imagine such a feat. Easily. She did it every time she rode inside the Kodiak. But that was nothing compared to the power of the Relays, which flung whole ships across the galaxy itself in a fraction of a second.

Now, she too was staring at the fragment, lips pursed and brows so pinched in thought the ends nearly touched. Her mind raced.

She didn't understand how such a simple construct as a mirror could allow one to travel the distance of a relay. It seemed impossible. But so had prothean beacons, space stations orbiting black holes, and the Reapers themselves. Shepard dealt with the impossible all the time. Sometimes she was lucky if she managed to grab a decent cup of coffee before the impossible appeared out of thin air and started shooting at her.

Shepard activated her omni-tool, and ran a thorough scan of the fragment.

Merrill started, nearly leaping out of her skin, at the sudden display of orange lights that hovered over Shepard's forearm. "What in Mythal's name is that?"

Shepard glanced up, took in her wide eyes and paling skin, before turning her attention back to her haptic display. Judging by Merrill's reaction, if these people did have access to advanced technology, they had no idea what it was or how it worked. That, or it didn't involve holographic projections. "It's an omni-tool."

Shepard began scrolling through the preliminary data, frowning as she read a maelstrom of confusing results. There were distortions in the molecular structure that suggested it had recently come in contact with a tremendous amount of dark matter and element zero. Actually, Shepard wouldn't be surprised if that had something to do with the massive amount of damage to the mirror itself. It was entirely possible she had exited through the mirror, or at the very least near it, when coming out of some sort of jump.

But it was clear that despite that eezo fingerprint, it wasn't the mirror itself which had generated any mass effect fields. There were no power sources, conductors, transceivers—not even a hint of any material apart from silica, sodium oxide, and quicklime. It wasn't capable of conducting the amount of energy required for a basic comm unit, let alone a relay.

"Oh," Merrill said, voice small. Gradually, she began to inch cautiously closer, staring in open fascination. "I've never seen magic like that before."

Shepard grimaced. "It's not magic. It's a device, a tool. Like—" her head lifted, gaze roaming over the camp to find an apt comparison. Unsurprisingly, there was nothing. Rolling her eyes, Shepard returned to the baffling readouts as she settled for saying, "A really advanced compass."

Merrill's forehead crinkled, and she stared as if she couldn't figure out whether or not Shepard was teasing her. "I've never seen a compass do that before."

"Really, really advanced," Shepard repeated. "That tells me a lot more than simple directions."

Merrill looked as if she wanted to argue the point, but instead asked, "What is it doing?"

"Running a few basic tests on the shard." More baffling results were filling Shepard's screen. While she continued to find nothing particularly similar to any technology she was familiar with, there were some anomalous readings. She was surprised to see they were being categorized as organic, and now were being analyzed by subroutines that dealt with biological materials.

"What's it say?" Merrill asked, eyes shifting side to side, as if she were trying to read the data for herself.

"I'm... not sure," Shepard admitted, rubbing the back of her neck, just below her amp. "It's glass. Nothing too special in it's chemical composition, except some sort of unusual DNA fragments within its molecular structure. Organic, but it doesn't match up with any plant or animal species on file." Realizing she was talking to a member of a species her databanks had no record of, she snorted. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised."

After a moment, a sudden flashing line of text drew Shepard's gaze. Her brows nearly climbed to her hairline. "Wait a minute," she muttered, quickly entering in a new set of commands. Another few seconds passed before the results popped up again. "It looks like some kind of virus."

"What's that?"

"It's..." Shepard ran a hand through her hair, frowning. "You know when you're very sick with the flu, weak and nauseous and aching with fever?" At Merrill's nod, Shepard said, "It's actually caused by extremely tiny organisms, too small to see with the naked eye, that invade your body and attack it. That's why you can spread the infection from one person to another, if the virus manages to become airborn when you cough, or enter through the skin if you touch someone else."

"You're talking about a plague," Merrill said, expression alarmed as she leaned back.

"In the worst cases, yes." Shepard glanced through more of the readouts, particularly the diagram of the virus' spherical structure itself, and frowned. "Although, whatever virus this thing is... it's not quite—" Frustrated she huffed a breath. Something was very odd. It had all the markers of a highly infectious disease, but according to the readouts, it was missing certain gene fragments from it's RNA. Molecular biology wasn't exactly her specialty, but Shepard was familiar enough with field medicine to know that shouldn't be possible. Lips pursing, Shepard stared at the data with narrowed eyes. "Maybe artificial?" she murmured.

Mordin would know.

Shutting down the display, Shepard frowned at the shard. She hadn't found any traces of advanced tech, but something had clearly happened with that mirror and a dark matter event. And now, her own flu-like symptoms were likely the result of some artificially constructed infection she'd—somehow—picked up from the mirror. An infection that utterly baffled all her diagnostic software.

She had no idea what was going on, but whenever she came face to face with some unexplained event involving potentially catastrophic levels of death, Shepard found it saved time to assume Reapers.

"Hand it over," Shepard said, hoping the virus hadn't spread to Merrill as well. Hopefully their precautions when treating serious injuries included washing their hands. Really well.

Merrill looked down at the shard for a long moment, lower lip caught between her teeth. "It belongs to the Dalish."

"It's dangerous," Shepard commanded, tone hard and unyielding. Whatever was lying dormant within that little piece of glass, Shepard wouldn't be the one to let it run ravage throughout this primitive camp. However they healed her, she still felt like crap. That meant they hadn't been able to treat the infection. "Whatever it may have been, it's nothing but glass now, Merrill. Glass that's could be carrying a plague. I can't let you keep it."

"But—"

"Hand. It. Over."

Merrill looked at Shepard with shiny, pained eyes. Eventually, turning her face away, she folded the fragment back up before holding it out to her.

Shepard took it, held it between her hands, and concentrated on her amp.

Shepard wasn't the sort of biotic who had trained in delicate manipulations of matter itself, like Liara, Samara, or Kaidan. Her methods were more explosive and direct, more about shifting gravity, increasing or decreasing force. But she had worked on improving during her occasional visits with Samara, when the Justicar invited Shepard to join her in meditation. She'd been horrible at it, without the necessary finite control—not to mention patience—for even the smallest, everyday tasks, never mind use in battle. But Shepard hoped she could bend the matter to her will just enough destroy the shard and the virus it contained, together.

She tried to center her mind, focus it, put all her energy into manipulating each of the hundreds of fields around the shard. Slowly, a blue sphere swirling with waves of dark matter grew around the fragment, but Shepard—blinking sweat out of her eyes—could tell at a glance it was unstable. Jaw clenched, staring until her eyes burned from the strain, she focused every single bit of energy into ripping apart the very bonds that held the molecular structure of the shard together.

In an instant, it exploded into a shower of glittering dust, until dissolving altogether as it's molecular bonds fell away.

Breathing hard, Shepard released the excess energy in a long exhale, allowing it to curl away into the ether with what remained of the glass itself. That finished, she wiped her forehead with her sleeve and sighed.

"Impressive."

Shepard turned to find Duncan and Ilen had emerged, the latter carrying a folded suit of chain mail in the cradle of his arms. Duncan had that same look of intent scrutiny on his face, while Ilen just appeared even more put out.

Ilen sniffed and, tossing the armor down at Shepard's feet, said, "Not a mage my arse."


A/N: "Glass houses, incendiary grenades..." References Fenris' Mages in Glass Houses comment.

While I find fruit bats adorable, they also are connected to a lot of diseases. As I understand it, that makes them interesting to researchers—like Mordin. He'd probably be pretty familiar with them, and their unusual mating habits (far as animals go). I'm sure he thought they'd make the perfect learning aid.

Also want to note that, like Shepard, I'm not an engineer or biologist. I tried not to botch things up too badly.

A huge thank you to everyone who reviewed! I'm glad you're enjoying the story so far.

To drich147: Thanks for the suggestion! I put your advice to work here. Hopefully it showed.