The displaced siblings search for familiar landmarks…and eventually find the unlikeliest one imaginable, right before they meet the unlikeliest person possible. It’s a “never tell me the odds” sort of day.
Previous Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 1: A Perfectly Normal Camping Trip)
Within a surprisingly short amount of time, they packed up and set out. They were too far afield to get cell reception for GPS purposes, so Rob was using a compass to keep them headed north. Despite that, though, a few hours passed — already longer than they’d hiked the previous day — and there was still no sign of a trail. Rob’s eyebrows drew together more fiercely with every step.
And then, they stumbled upon the road.
. . . well, a road, anyway. He was expecting the well-maintained two-lane highway they’d taken to reach the park. This road seemed more like a wide hiking trail with delusions of grandeur. Rob frowned and pulled out their map, while Raven leapt at the excuse to park her butt in the grass, taking a long gulp of water before pulling off her hiking boots and socks. She sighed with pleasure as the breeze cooled her wiggling toes. At Rob’s amused glance, she said,” What? Socks are evil cotton foot prisons.” He rolled his eyes and went back to studying the map without comment.
“So… any idea where we are yet, Dora the Explorer?”
“Ha. You’re hilarious. And no. there shouldn’t be any other road between our camp and the highway. This doesn’t make any damn sense!” he growled, running his hand over his dark, close-cropped hair.
“Well, in fairness, calling this stretch of rutted dirt a road is remarkably generous. Maybe the mapmakers didn’t feel it was worthy of recognition?”
“They sucked at their job, then; this map is supposed to show every road, riding trail, and hiking path in the entire park.” He sighed, sitting down beside her and pulling out his own water bottle. “Well, if nothing else, it does lead north, more or less, and it’ll be easier than trying to force our way through the brush. How are you holding up?” Rob looked his sister over critically, his slightly too-casual tone belying his concern.
“I’m good. I mean, I’ve walked more in the last two days than I usually do in a month, and my feet are deep in conference about which vile curses they want to hurl upon you. And I’m still in the dreaded outdoors instead of inside a properly civilized building…” She grinned impishly. “But otherwise, you know, fine.”
“Well, if you still have the energy to complain, you must be okay.” His smirk faded into a serious, earnest expression. “Seriously though, don’t worry, Rae. Whatever bizarre shit is going on here, I’ll get us out, I promise. I won’t let anything bad happen to you.”
His determination was renewed when she smiled back with complete trust. “I know. I wasn’t worried.” She paused, then continued dramatically, “But I suppose that means it’s time to put my socks back on. Alas.”
The weirdness level escalated when their little baby road merged into a respected ancestor road, the kind that would inspire the whole Road family to gather round the fireplace and tell stories of their proud heritage. Huge blocks of gray stone made up the bulk of the lane, bordered by smaller squares in a geometric pattern. Massive stone arches soared thirty or forty feet overhead, and looked like they belonged in a medieval cathedral. Here and there, bits of the stonework had crumbled with age.
Rob hid his expression from his sister, but privately, he was starting to freak out. Lazy mapmakers or not, there was absolutely no way a road like this could’ve been hiding in the national park where they’d camped. They’d have heard of it. It would’ve been marketed as a tourist attraction. There would’ve been barricades around it to keep people from damaging the stone. There’d be a souvenir hut selling overpriced picture postcards. Nerdy parents would be enthusiastically explaining to bored kids about how some eccentric turn-of-the-century millionaire was inspired by Roman aqueducts to build a giant stone highway in the middle of absolutely fucking nowhere.
The lack of this proved exactly one thing: they were not in the park. And he had no idea where they were.
Rubbing his forehead irritably, Rob glanced at Raven. She was examining the nearest stone archway with a frown of concentration. “I feel like I’ve seen this before…like a picture of it, or a video or something. It seems familiar, but I can’t place it.”
“It’s not ringing any bells for me,” he confessed. “But it’s still heading more or less north, so our best bet is to keep following it. We’re not in danger of running out of supplies, and if we keep heading the same way, we should run into civilization eventually.” He tried to infuse his voice with a confidence he didn’t feel.
“Eventually is a pretty long time,” Raven worried, but then took a deep breath and fixed him with a stern look. “At this rate, all the guys you know are definitely hearing that I’m a better sniper than you.”
He exhaled with a chuckle, feeling his tension fade slightly. “Damn,” he said sorrowfully, “that’s it; my reputation’s ruined.” Laughing, they stepped out onto the stone highway and continued into the unknown.
They strolled down the stone thoroughfare for another hour or two, and finally began to see occasional hints of farm fields to the northwest. Rob decided to stick to the road a while longer in hopes of finding civilization, but it did cheer them both, knowing they could always backtrack and look for farmhouses if needed.
And then, finally, they came to a town.
A ramp descended from one side of the road, the ordered uniformity of the stonework meeting the chaos of a mossy cobbled path. Crumbling pillars indicated the road’s builders had made some sort of structure here once, but not enough remained to tell what it had been. Beyond it though, past a low stone wall, were buildings and people.
And everything looked…wrong, somehow.
The townsfolk bustled around with purpose. They seemed rather more athletic than the average populace, but their clothing was what really stood out; they all wore dresses or long shirts over trousers, in dull shades of yellow, rust, and brown. The building walls were covered in plaster or stucco rather than siding, which wasn’t that outlandish in itself. But the nearby roofs were made of rough planks covered irregularly by wooden shingles. And some in the distance seemed to be made of…straw? It felt like a cautionary exhibit of the poor construction choices of the Three Little Pigs, pre-Big Bad Wolf era.
The cobblestone path continued into town, but it didn’t seem wide enough for cars, and he didn’t see any. There were no power lines or streetlights, but an old-fashioned mill wheel turned slowly in the current of the small river that ran through town. A large building with stained glass windows gave the impression of a church, but the spiky symbol extending from its roof – a spiky compass rose, or maybe a stylized sun? – matched no religion he knew.
His best guess was that they’d somehow stumbled on a backwoods haven of some little-known ascetic sect that shunned technology. Combined with the disappearing trail and mysterious highway, the odd village was pretty much red-lining his weird-o-meter, and he figured things couldn’t get much stranger.
But then he glanced over at Raven, and saw that all the color had drained from her face. “No, that’s crazy,” she breathed. “It can’t be …”
“It can’t be what?” he asked sharply.
“Lothering. The village is called Lothering.”
“You…you know this place?” he gaped. “Where are we? How do we get home from here?”
A mirthless bark of laughter escaped her. “We don’t.”
Rob frowned, trying to contain his annoyance. “We don’t? What do you mean, we don’t?!?”
“We don’t get anywhere from here. We can’t even be here in the first place.”
Without tearing her eyes off the strange church icon, she whispered, “This place isn’t real.”
All his life, Rob had watched his big sister dive headfirst into her hobbies. Most of her favorite activities, from reading fantasy novels, to playing online games and Dungeons & Dragons, were stereotypically nerdy, but she never seemed to let that dampen her enjoyment. He admired that, and defended her against anyone who felt otherwise. Of course, this was the first time she’d claimed they were inside some alternate virtual reality. It did somewhat stretch his acceptance.
They’d pulled back a few hundred yards from the entrance to Crazytown, to a small clearing near the road. Rob watched his sister with concern. After her outlandish announcement that they’d landed in a video game, Raven had fallen into anxious silence. Her eyes flicked back and forth, speed-reading her frenzied thoughts as she pulled up a weed and shredded it into tiny pieces. “Rae, relax. Look at what you’re doing,” he soothed. “Talk to me. We’ll figure this out.”
She glanced down at her hands, seeming surprised to see the pile of abused greenery…and then gasped. “Elfroot. That’s why that plant looked familiar. It was elfroot. Because of course it was.” Her laugh was brittle and vaguely unsettling.
Lacking any more enlightened response, he simply replied, “…what?”
“Never mind,” she muttered, dusting the bits of plant off her lap. Taking a deep breath, she tugged the elastic band from her hair. Combing her fingers through the long, dark waves, recapturing the wayward curls, and returning her hair to its orderly high ponytail helped restore her calm, and she fixed Rob with a look of steady determination.
“Okay. So as I see it, here are the possibilities.” She ticked them off on her fingertips. “One: I am having a super weird-ass dream, which has inexplicably combined the game I’ve been playing lately, you, and an unholy amount of hiking. If that’s true, it doesn’t matter what I do, because eventually I’ll wake up.”
“Two: I am having a seriously detailed hallucination and/or have gone fully insane. If that’s the case, it still doesn’t matter what I do, because I might as well enjoy myself in Psycholand until the good drugs arrive.”
Rob snorted. “Except I’m sitting here with you having this conversation, so unless we’ve developed some sort of sleeping mind-meld or have simultaneously gone batshit, those don’t fly.”
She eyed him shrewdly. “Yes, but if you were a figment of my imagination, that’s exactly what you would say, isn’t it? So, that proves nothing.” Her raised eyebrow and smug expression indicated how pleased she was with her own reasoning.
Rob’s eye roll was practically audible. “Right, naturally. So what’s the next possibility?”
“Three: As you said, it’s possible, though unlikely, that we’re having a shared dream or mental breakdown. But if so, the outcome is the same; we do whatever we feel like until something snaps us out of it.”
“So basically you’re saying, one way or another, this isn’t real. We could run over to Ye Olde Town Square, strip naked, and sing TV theme songs all day, and it wouldn’t make any difference, because we’re just chilling until we hook back up with reality.”
“You didn’t let me get to option four,” she said archly. “Also, please don’t include ‘strip naked’ in any of our future plans, because, gross.”
His nose wrinkled in disgust. “I was joking, obviously. And pardon me, your highness; please, continue.”
“Option four,” she continued haughtily, “is that somehow, the universe glitched and actually dropped us into some sort of alternate dimension.” Her eyes lit with possibility. “Oooh, like…what if it’s some kind of collective consciousness, created by the all the minds that have focused on this game world? From everyone who played the games, read the novels and comics, or even created fan art? How badass would that be?!?”
Raven looked away, giving a sheepish shrug. “It would be cool, is all I’m saying,” she mumbled.
His eyes narrowed in blatant skepticism. After a long pause, he replied, “…riiiight.”
“Fine, what’s your theory then, Mr. Smart Guy?”
“That we’ve found some backwoods cult who thinks technology is evil, and it looks like a place from your game by sheer coincidence?”
She glared stubbornly. “The church is called the Chantry. There’s a person out front called a Chanter, wearing a long robe covered with gold trim and images of the sun, standing beside a bulletin board. There’ll be guys in full plate armor with a sword design embossed on the chest; they’re Templars. There’s a stone bridge over the river. Just past that on the right is a larger building; I don’t remember if there’s a sign out front, but it’s the tavern. Since I don’t know exactly when this is, I can’t say where specific people will be, but if we figure that out, I could go on, if you like.”
“So I should just wander in and start poking around?”
Raven glanced skyward as if praying for patience. “Wow, you must have aced whatever recon training they gave you in the Marines. You have a cell phone camera with zoom, jackass. Stand out of sight at the edge of the tree line and look to see if I’m right.”
Flushing in embarrassment, he rose, grumbling. “I would’ve thought of that if I hadn’t been busy talking to my delusional sister.” He ignored the face she made and trudged back to the road.
Shortly thereafter, he returned looking shocked and conceding defeat. Everything she’d said was true. Fortunately, her insufferable smugness was brief. Unfortunately, it dissolved immediately into stress mode again, as she considered the implications.
“Okay, so…let me think. First, you should know magic is a thing here. But don’t bring it up; people will act like you’re trying to chat about herpes. Oh, and there are other races, which…ugh, I’ll just have to explain more as we go; it’s a lot.” Raven was too busy with her rapid-fire analysis to pause for a paltry thing like oxygen. “The Chantry has a small library; if we go there, I should be able to get a better idea of what’s going on.” She looked stricken. “Assuming they speak English. But wait, Ferelden – the country we’re in – is kind of like England, so they should, right?” Glancing at Rob for confirmation he obviously couldn’t provide, she suddenly swore. “Shit, we can’t go there looking like this though; we’ll stick out like sore thumbs. We’ll have to steal something to wear.”
“Nice, five minutes in an unfamiliar environment and you’ve resorted to a life of crime. I’m so proud.”
“Heh, the problem is that it’s a bit too familiar, actually. And unless you have a sheep and a loom tucked in your backpack, I don’t know any other way to get clothes without being seen. Maybe one of those farms will have laundry out to dry.” Guiltily, she added, “We can return it later.”
And thus, for lack of a better plan, Rob found himself near an isolated house, just past the outskirts of a town that didn’t exist, in a world that wasn’t real, stealing clothing he didn’t want. Before he could stop and reflect upon these amusing quirks of fate, he snatched a few items that looked suitable, and hoped Raven would hurry up so they could sneak away.
And then, from the other side of the clothesline, he heard his sister exclaim, “Oh, for fuck’s sake…you have got to be kidding me.” If nothing else, he thought with a sinking heart, the day had certainly been interesting.
Raven stood opposite a woman who was presumably the owner of the laundry in question, even though her lithe form was currently wrapped in head-to-toe leather (an image he hastily filed away for later review). The short, chunky hair that surrounded her head like a dark, windswept halo was a shocking contrast against her fair skin and aquamarine-bright eyes. She didn’t seem overly concerned at facing a vicious pair of laundry thieves, but he felt this was probably related to the ease with which she twirled the wicked-looking dagger in her hand.
A myriad of expressions warred on Raven’s face so violently that he couldn’t read any of them. “Uh, this isn’t what it looks like. Well, it sort of is, but kind of not, but…” She paused and started over, with a brilliantly fake smile. “Hi. It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Raven, and this is my brother Rob. And you are?”
He found it strange that Raven looked unsurprised… and oddly resigned?…when the woman raised an amused eyebrow and replied, “I’m Marian. Marian Hawke.”
Next Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 3: It’s Who You Know)
[A Dragon Age Fanfic – All canon Dragon Age characters/material remain property of Bioware.]