Kicking Back Into A Nightmare

Little in the world we know inspires as much wonder as the night sky, unspoiled by the sickly yellow light of the city. Trillions of stars hang overhead; glimmering amongst the endless void. Our eyes and those of our ancestors' trace shapes among the points of light. From the depths of our imagination we craft stories to tell ourselves and those who follow. These stories told of times beyond our own. They grew with each retelling, expanding and merging with each other to create entire worlds within our imagination. Stories now surround us. Worlds that we believe only exist within our imagination play out for our amusement. Some lie within the pages of a book: letters on a page evoking strange lands and fantastic experiences in our mind. Others play out on screens, like a live performance for us to enjoy. Yet others give us a means to participate, with our choices changing the lives of those within them. All stories share this: they lie only within our imagination; brought to life by thought and emotion.

What if that were not the case? What if these fantastic worlds lay in a realm beyond our own, playing out on their own paths? What if the distance between us and the worlds we love were merely a barrier keeping us apart? And what if one day, for one unremarkable individual, that barrier became all too thin?

~ March 2017, Rice University

"…if there are no further questions, I wish you the best of luck on your midterm tomorrow."

Isaac dropped his head and quietly groaned. Around him his feelings were visible in the expression of every student as they packed their things. Isaac glanced down at his notebook, where he had jotted down as much review material as possible and winced at the scrawl that greeted him. 'Well that's what I get for trying to write down everything.' The room soon beheld a flurry of activity as the hour struck and students made their way out of the classroom. The professor remained at his desk while students flooded out. Isaac grabbed his things and joined the flow, silently drifting with the current until he was out the door. A few turns through clogged hallways and he stepped out into the sunlight.

Outside the heat lay on him like a heavy blanket, smothering the students as they quickly split off. Soon Isaac was walking alone, following the same route as he had the day before, and the day before that. Around him students talked with each other about their classes, their parties, and all the usual gossip. Isaac passed through like a ghost, no one acknowledging him or vice versa. His mind ran over the highlights of the lecture until his phone began to buzz. A jolt of excitement ran through him as he quickly pulled it out. His grin widened and he brought the phone to his ear. "Hey Dad!"

Static filled his ear until "Hey Isaac!" broke through. Isaac grinned as his dad continued, "How have you been?"

Now animated Isaac shared all that had been happening with his classes. "We've got a midterm tomorrow but after that it will be a while before anything big shows up so we'll have plenty of time to hang out when you come."

His dad's voice lost some of its enthusiasm, though at first Isaac didn't know it. "Yes, we'll have plenty of fun when I get back. Speaking of…"

Isaac barreled on ahead. "I can't believe we've only got one more week to go. I've made plans for our hiking trip."

"We're not going on a trip Isaac." This time his dad's words managed to cut through Isaac's enthusiasm.

"What do you mean?"

Isaac's dad let out a heavy sigh. "I'm sorry son, but word came down this morning. They've extended my deployment another year."

Isaac came to a halt on the sidewalk, ignoring the other students that bumped into him and grumbled about him being in the way. "What? But you've already been there a year?"

"I know but I don't have a choice. I'm sorry."

Isaac swallowed past a lump in his throat. 'Sorry for what? For being gone all the time? For not being able to keep your promise again?'" No, it's fine. I understand."

Some of the stress left his dad's voice. "Thanks Isaac. We'll do something when I get back, ok?"

"Yeah. Yeah ok."

They continued their conversation half-heartedly until they were forced to cut it short. The phone clicked and Isaac looked at the black screen for a moment before readjusting his bag and trekking back to his dorm.

One month before the Conclave, northern Free Marches

Summer in the Free Marches brought out the land's beauty. The dismal mists of winter faded away and the forests awakened. Shafts of sunlight tinted green by the foliage illuminated the forest depths and the sounds of deer moving through the undergrowth and birds singing in the trees created a symphony of life. But even the most beautiful of landscapes can hide danger. The snapping of branches and muffled cursing betrayed the approach of a small band of humans. They stunk to high heaven, worn and dirty clothes hanging off them and rusted weapons at their sides. Their voices were gruff and one of them rose, "How much longer till we find the blasted knife-ears?"

"Quiet you dolt! Them ears aren't for show!"

"Let them hear us? I'll take all their ears and make a nice necklace out of them." The man laughed, joined by a few others. Another joined them. "Yeah! Teach them to steal from us!"

A cool voice interrupted their banter. "Teach who?"

They turned as a group to see an elf standing on a small hill. Her slight frame was relaxed, casual almost were it not for the long bow in her hands and the sharp glint in her eye. She wore armor or ironbark woven together by leather strips and the vallaslin upon her face marked her as one of the Dalish. One of the men spit and swore. "You, you thieving knife-ear."

She tilted her head ever so slightly. "Come now bandit, is it really stealing when you take from a thief?" Her voice dropped in pitch, steel entering it. "I suggest you turn around now shem, before we water the trees with your blood."

The men snarled and drew their weapons. The leader gave a sickening grin. "I'm going to have fun with you knife-ear."

"Not while I'm here." The men and the elf's eyes widened with surprise as a fireball flew from the trees opposite into their midst, sending them flying and scorching their exposed skin. From the trees another Dalish appeared, staff crackling as she brought lightning down upon them. The first Dalish scowled and quickly began to fire arrows into the group. From the bushes beside her three more Dalish appeared, all raining arrows upon them. Within a minute the group of bandits had been dealt with and the first Dalish stormed over to where the mage was standing. "What were you thinking Shaehari?! We had that under control!"

Shaehari shrugged and made a show of examining her nails, a smirk tugging at her lips. "I helped you rid the world of scum. I don't see a problem there Namira."

"Don't see the-!" Namira appeared ready to tear out her hair. "Had you let us do it we could blame it on other bandits or even guards but no! Burns and scorch marks are not so easy to explain Shaehari! Do you want the templars to come for you?"

Shaehari scowled, a predatory glint in her eye. "I'm not afraid of some shemlen. I've dealt with them before."

"Oh, by Andruil why do I bother! Come on, let's tell the Keeper what happened." Namira stormed off grumbling as Shaehari followed. Their steps led them along a game trail that would be invisible to any city-dweller but to them was clear as day. A short time later it brought them to the main encampment for the clan. The halla grazed in a clearing nearby while children ran among the aravels. Their laughter filled the air and brought a smile to Shaehari's face. Namira led her over to the Keeper. An elderly woman, Keeper Istimaethoriel was an imposing sight to behold. Her stern gaze fell upon Shaehari, who faltered slightly before her pride reasserted itself. The Keeper looked over at Namira.

"What has happened Namira?" As the huntress explained, the Keeper's face turned into a disappointed frown. With barely a glance at Shaehari she instructed Namira, "Gather the hunters and tell the clan it is time for us to move on. I will have words with my First." Shaehari could not restrain her flinch. 'No names this time. She's really not happy, but it's not like I did anything wrong!' As Namira ran off the Keeper refocused her gaze. "Shaehari." The First instictivelly took a step backwards, head lowered in submission. "I told you not to go after the shemlen. Why were you not with the children as I told you?"

Shaehari set her shoulders back and met the Keeper's gaze. "Why should I be with them? I went with the more important task."

"Your task is to keep and pass down our history, our traditions. It is vital that you teach the children to remember our ways."

Shaehari scoffed. "Teach them what? They've heard the exact same stories again and again every week. They can go a week without being bothered by it."

Keeper Istimaethoriel growled, "You think that it is a bother do you?"

Shaehari ignored her instincts and pressed, "Compared to shemlen at our borders? Yes, the safety of the clan is of greater importance."

"The safety of the clan is what you jeopardized!" The Keeper reigned herself in. "Beyond that however you have deliberately disobeyed me. My decision is this: you will not go with me to Arlathvhen."

"WHAT!" Shaehari bristled. "I have to go!"

"You obviously do not care for our traditions, so you do not need to attend. Instead you will serve the clan in another way."

Shaehari reeled in her anger, aware that now others of the clan were listening. Seething she lowered her voice. "I haven't seen my mother in ten years. You can't keep me away from her."

The Keeper narrowed her eyes, firm in her decision. "You have tested my patience time and again. This is my final warning. You will go on the task I have given you. You will do what must be done and then return. If you do not, if you decide that you are better off on your own, then you will be banished from the clan and I will find another First. Do you understand da'len?"

Shame made her ears burn; the Keeper having pronounced this before the clan. Behind her she could hear the mutterings of her clanmates. Her grip on her staff tightened so much she was surprised it didn't snap in her hands. "I understand, Keeper."

"Good." Keeper Istimaethoriel held herself high as Shaehari shrunk back. "A Conclave has been called by the shemlen leader, Divine Victoria. She is attempting to bring peace to the mage and templar war. You will attend to gather information for the clans, for what happens there will determine the fate of all Thedas."

One Month Later…on Earth

The dorm lay dark and silent as the storm brought its full fury to bear on the city. Rain poured from the sky like the seas of heaven unleashed. Lightning crackled across the sky in a thousand bolts; so fierce at times the rooms were lit bright as day before plunging into darkness once again. Thunder boomed, the concussive sound rattling windows in their frames. Nothing stirred within the residence until the relative peace of the apartment was interrupted by the slamming of something against the door.

The handle jiggled for a moment followed by muffled cursing. The lock clicked and the door swung open just enough for Isaac to slip in and close the door behind him. With only a black t-shirt and shorts to cover himself, he was drenched. He grumbled as he locked the door, "Of course we get a storm out of nowhere. What else would we get in Texas?" Water dripped from his body as he dropped his bag against the wall and felt around for the light switch. The light flickered briefly with another lightning strike before steadying. He gave the kitchen counter a glance and picked up a note that had been left on it. Opening it he briefly read,

"I'll be staying at the frat house tonight, so don't worry. You just focus on getting ready for that exam!

Bryan

Isaac grinned and shook his head. "Of course, he's there. He never studies." Setting the note down Isaac stepped over to the bathroom and quickly dried off and changed into fresh clothes. Returning to the main room he rubbed his neck and groaned. "I really don't feel like studying tonight. Maybe…" Glancing over at the T.V. and Xbox he grinned. "I guess I can relax an hour before I catch some z's." Booting it up he looked over their library muttering, "Witcher or Borderlands…Witcher or Borderlands." A strange compulsion came over him and he reached deeper into the cabinet to pull out a dusty case labeled "Dragon Age: Inquisition."

Examining he justified to himself, "I guess I can do an old favorite." A strange sensation came over him, and almost on autopilot he put in the game. Lightning flashed and he froze. Was it…tinged green? Shaking it off he brought it to the main menu, when another green flash erupted. Shaking his head he considered just turning it off but something stopped him. Looking at the steams of templars and mages heading to the Conclave, he pressed "A" to start. A brilliant green flash engulfed his vision.

Conclave

Shaehari was in a foul mood. The Conclave had dragged on and on, so much so that the Arlathvhen has long since ended and with it any chance of seeing her mother again for the next ten years. She fumed as she paced down worn stone corridors. 'How dare she send me here. This entire place is devoted to the Chantry, the reason my people lost everything. Whining mages. Bull headed templars. Talks that go in circles about Circles.' She quickly ducked into a side corridor, away from the eyes of the templars. Once out of sight she quickly let fire and lightning engulf her hands, feeling her anger drain into the spell before she allowed it to dissipate. She brushed her hair back behind her pointed ears, having made no effort to conceal her vallaslin. Why should she be ashamed of what she was?

Stalking down the hall she abruptly stopped. The air…felt charged with magic. Her skin prickled and a sensation of nausea came over her. Swallowing her nerves she crept forward cautiously. 'This magic…it feels…wrong. Where is it coming from?' A voice echoed through the gloom, "Now is the hour of our victory." Shaehari shuddered. The voice, it sounded like the Void itself was speaking. Divine Justinia's voice followed, "Why are you doing this? You, of all people."

Shaehari froze for a moment, briefly considering letting whatever was happening continue. But then she groaned and broke into a run. 'She is shem but whatever that…thing is… it feels evil.' The first voice came again. "Keep the sacrifice still." 'Sacrifice!?' Shaehari rounded a corner and saw a massive wooden door before her. Slamming it open she demanded to know, "What is going on here?"

Her bravado crumbled at the sight before her. Red streams of magic held the Divine aloft. They bound her and were sustained by…Grey Wardens. What took her breath away and sent a primal burst of fear through her body was the creature before them holding an orb of green flame. The Divine acted quickly, smacking the orb out of the creature's hand and towards Shaehari, who rushed to pick it up. She threw her head back in agony as it seared into her palm, sparks of fire flying from it as pain electrified her nerves from her fingers to her jawbone. The creature roared in horror and charged Shaehari only to be blown away when the orb exploded in her hands. Just before her vision went black, she saw another hand lay upon the orb. A human hand.

The Fade

Isaac hurtled through a void, the sensation of falling his only companion until it ended abruptly, replaced by pain as his shoulder slammed into the ground drawing a cry from him. He rolled off of the shoulder, holding it and muttering curses. Briefly he felt his shirt growing wet and he grumbled, "Oh don't tell me we have a leak. That's the last thing I…need." He trailed off as he looked down at the ground. Instead of familiar wooden flooring of his dorm, the ground was made of stone, tinted green with bright green swirls running through it. A thin sheet of water covered it, soaking through his clothes. A pit of dread settled in his stomach as he closed his eyes and counted to ten. When he opened them, he slowly looked up and saw an endless green sky, spires of rock floating in the air. 'I've gotta be dreaming. This is all a dream. I fell asleep on the couch or hit my head or…'

His panicked thoughts were interrupted as searing pain erupted through his palm. Hissing he cradled it against his chest as pain erupted, bringing spots to his vision. When it cleared he looked down, his face illuminated by an emerald green glow. On his hand lay the Anchor, sparking and burning. 'The Anchor, but that means… No no no no I'm not really here! I can't be here!'

Sitting upright he stared at the mark, praying it would disappear. The mark continued to spark as if taunting him but something was off. It could be his imagination but it seemed, smaller, as though only half of what it should be. Distant screeches caused him to whirl around, but the surrounding landscape was now cloaked in a foggy gloom. His heart raced in his chest; he began to feel dizzy from the rush of blood. Closing his eyes he tried to calm down. 'O.K., I'm in the game. Settle down. Just got to find Justinia, get out of the rift, then find a way to get the hell back home!' A feminine groan caught his attention. He turned to the side and felt his breath catch. 'Woah…'

The girl beside him was similar to him in age but had an ethereal beauty to her. Her skin was pale with only the slightest tan. Her attire was rough and ragged as if constructed quickly or to blend into a crowd. Black hair tumbled down to her shoulders and her face completely marked with a royal purple tattoo. Vaguely Isaac remembered that particular pattern was dedicated to Andruil. She stirred slightly and her dark locks parted to reveal the tip of her pointed ears. 'She's…an elf. One of the Dalish.' His thoughts were both careening out of control yet his mind felt blank. When he heard a familiar crackle but felt no pain, he looked down to see her hand was marked as well. Strangely, it appeared half as strong as well, and it was on her right hand rather than her left. His mind jolted into action again. 'Two Anchors? What the hell?'

The screeches echoed louder causing Isaac to look over his shoulder. He quickly moved over and gripped her shoulder. "Hey, wake up!"

She woke a little and groggily replied, "What…"

Her voice was similar to the British female option, but to Isaac it sounded softer, more melodic. He shook her harder. "Come on, wake up!"

His loud voice brought her to full awareness. Her eyes snapped open and for a moment Isaac couldn't breathe. They were a breathtaking swirl of amethyst and sapphire. The spell was broken as his world spun and she had him pinned below her. "What the-?" He tried to get up but she quickly pinned him in place, her lithe form possessing far more strength than he anticipated. She brought her hand to his face, flames erupted from her bare palm. Isaac's eyes widened. 'Oh crap, I'm going to die!'

Her eyes flashing dangerously the elf growled. "Who are you? What is this place? Why did you bring me here? Talk or die shem!"

As best he could while pinned Isaac held up his hands in surrender. "I'm Isaac. I think we're in the Fade. I didn't bring you here. Please don't kill me!" The flames increased in intensity and Isaac racked his brain for a way to survive. Looking at her vallaslin he quickly spoke, "Ir abelas, I wish I had answers for you. I swear by Andruil I had nothing to do with this!"

She hesitated briefly before leaning down. "If you're lying, I'll send you to Falon'Din." She snuffed out the flames in her hand before looking around frowning. "I've been to the Fade before, but it's never been like this."

"I think we're here physically. Speaking of which, let me up?"

She huffed and stepped on him as she stood before backing away. "What do you mean physically?"

Standing up slowly he continued, "Well, I'm not dreaming and I don't think you are." Isaac glanced around before pointing in the distance. On the top of a hill a rift was glowing. "There! Let's get out of here."

The elf saw the rift and began sprinting in that direction. Isaac called, "Hey, wait for me!"

She ran as if he didn't speak. Grumbling he ran after her. Along the way they caught up with Divine Victoria. Isaac hesitated a brief moment before his resolve hardened. "Go ahead of me Most Holy." She nodded, terror filling her eyes. The three of them ran towards the rift, coming to the base of the hill and climbing up the stairs as fast as they could. A skittering sound echoed behind them and Isaac barely kept himself from turning. 'Fear demons, don't look at them!'

They barely reached the top before the Divine cried out. She was yanked back and Isaac barely caught her hand. He dug in his heels and called to the elf. "Come on, help me!" The elf hesitated before cursing in elvish and rushing back to grab on as well. It didn't matter though, as all three were slowly dragged back. The Divine looked between them before looking to the elf. "Your part in this is only beginning. Do not lose hope, even when faith seems lost."

The elf growled. "Save the sermon and pull!"

The Divine turned to Isaac. Her eyes held a tranquility that seemed both within her and beyond her. "You can make things better, though some things cannot change. Only together can you save this world." Isaac tried to pull harder but the Divine jerked her arm, breaking free of both. Isaac tried to follow but the elf yanked him back. "Forget her she's gone!" She ran through the rift, Isaac right after her.