Raven tries to remember that she doesn’t belong in Thedas. Everyone else tries to make her forget.
Previous Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 10: The Better Part of Valor)
“So, you and the assassin, huh?” Rob raised an eyebrow at his sister, and she flushed guiltily.
He rolled his eyes as he helped pack up their gear. “Come on, Rae. He’s been hitting on you like a freight train, and then I come back and you’re practically in his lap…not to mention, in a much better mood. I’m no Sherlock, but I think I can piece together the evidence.”
Raven let out a breath, giggling. “Okay, fine. What do you want me to say? It was a good day?”
He smirked. “Hey, as long as your good day stayed on your side of the tent, I won’t judge.” Raven felt her face heat again; life in Thedas was really ratcheting up her blushing quotient. “Although…I mean, you realize he doesn’t really seem like a relationship kind of guy, right? I just…don’t want to see you hurt again, especially when I’m not sure I can kick the guy’s ass.”
“Oh, it’s not like that,” she reassured him with a laugh. “We’re not, like, dating or anything. It’s just…nice. To have someone look at me like I’m…worth looking at, I guess. Which sounds dumb, but there it is.”
“It’s not dumb. And,” he raised a brow, “only ‘nice,’ huh? After all his big talk? Tsk tsk, that’s too bad.”
Her blush intensified, and she gave him a playful glare. “I am not having this conversation.” After a pause, she added, “But for the sake of accuracy…it was more than nice. Incredible, maybe. Fantastic?” She gave him a sidelong glance. “Dare I say, orgasmic?”
“Ohhhhkay, I get the picture; no further adjectives required,” he laughed. She thought she had the upper hand, but he added, “Man, if Alistair didn’t have cause enough already, now he’s really gonna hate the guy.”
Raven whacked him in the face with her pillow.
Once they settled again, Rob sobered. “We do have to talk about one other thing, though, and you won’t like it. Turns out that when some creepy-ass Fade demon pulls a fantasy from your head, and most of the stuff in your head is from Earth, it gets…interesting. Though, I have to admit, now that it’s over, it is kind of funny. The TV was just a window into the next room with some elf telling me the weather, and Mom was using a microwave made with runes. It was bizarre.”
“Hm,” said Raven. “And how was Marian?”
“Fine, she seemed norm-, hey!” he glared.
Her grin was unrepentant. “You deserved it.
“Hmph. Anyway, I didn’t fully snap out of it until Aedan turned up, like you said.”
Raven paled. “Well…shit. I take it Aedan saw this dubious Earthlike technology?”
“Yep. And said we’d, and I quote, ‘need to have a little chat’ about it later.”
“Fabulous. Well, maybe we’ll get lucky and he’ll forget.” Rob snorted, and she sighed. “If not, we just have to give the least amount of information possible. We come from a realm beyond the Fade, we don’t know how we got here, and though Thedas exists as a sort of story in our world, we only know some things that might happen, not what will happen.”
“Okay, but the big reveal is definitely your area.”
Raven glanced at him as she finished buckling up her pack. “Aedan and Alistair are going to want to leave for Redcliffe right away, and I have to stay here to see what I can dig up about getting home…”
“So, Aedan will probably talk to you about it on the way to Redcliffe.” She winced, waiting.
“You’re not seriously expecting me to go with them and leave you here alone?! Raven, come on, that’s crazy! What if something else happens, like…like we missed a blood mage or something? The game might not show it, but that doesn’t prove it’s safe! Or what if you find the way home right away, and I’m not here?”
“Rob. I guarantee the Circle Tower is the currently the safest place in Thedas. The templars are on alert, and the few mages left won’t risk annulment. As far as finding the answer…you’ve seen the size of that library, and the shape it’s in. A lot of the books probably aren’t even in English. Even if there’s someone left alive who can help me, it won’t be quick. And in the meantime, we still need to monitor events in Redcliffe.”
He sighed, rubbing his forehead. “You’re just looking for an excuse to avoid that bitch Isolde.”
Raven huffed a laugh. “That’s not the reason, but it is a perk.” She paused in thought for a moment before making sure the tent was closed. “While we have a second, though, I need to show you something.” Pulling her phone out, she flicked to a list of files.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“Probably the most dangerous collection of knowledge in Thedas, to be honest,” she said wryly. “Back when I was moving a lot, I switched to e-books; they’re a hell of a lot easier to pack. So, because I also have a slightly unhealthy obsession with this game, I have every related thing ever released.” He whistled, raising an eyebrow, and she nodded. “I want to copy the files to your phone, so we both have them in case something happens to one of us- er, our phones.” He caught her slip and his face darkened with worry, but she shook it off. “I’m going to start writing them out into a journal too, just in case we end up…well. Just in case.”
He dug out his phone and started transferring the files. Quietly, he said, “My vacation leave is up tomorrow.”
Her worried eyes searched his. “I’ll do everything I can to figure this out, I swear. You know I will.”
Raven, Rob, and Zevran watched the boatman navigate the small ferry to the mage tower’s dock. Hohaku sat at Rob’s feet, and he idly scratched the dog behind the ears. “The kids can’t wait to meet you, boy,” he said.
“Kids?” Raven asked, unconsciously mirroring the Mabari’s curious head tilt.
Her brother shrugged awkwardly. “Yeah, that mage lady, Wynne, was guarding some kids when we found her. I got talking to them to chill them out. One of ‘em had a dog back home and Aedan said he’d bring Hohaku to visit after.” He glanced down at the dog. “They were pretty impressed he had a Mabari.”
The dog woofed, as if to say, “Of course they were.”
“Those poor kids have seen way more shit than any kid should have to,” he said. “It’s not right.”
Raven frowned. “That’s one of a long list of things wrong with how mages are treated, I’m afraid.”
“Maybe so, but I’d keep that opinion to yourself if you run into your boy Captain Goldilocks. Not that I blame him; that bastard Uldred really did a number on him. If he doesn’t have PTSD, I’ll eat my boots.”
“If I did not know better,” Zevran interjected as they disembarked, “I would suspect you of speaking in code, my friend. Who is this Captain Gold Locks, with his…devious bee?”
Rob and Raven burst out laughing. The elf could be so quiet when he chose that they’d almost forgotten he was there. “No no, he’s talking about a templar who’s…ah, a friend of the family. I asked Rob to look for him. His name isn’t Goldilocks; he just has blond hair – golden locks. Rob thinks he’s funny.”
“No, I know I’m hilarious.”
She ignored him. “And PTSD stands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s…something I studied once. People might get it after a war or some other terrible event, with nightmares and flashbacks and stuff.”
The assassin nodded. “Yes, the Crows know of this.”
“Oh? What do they call it?”
He snorted. “Life. Unless it distracts you at an inopportune moment; then they call it death.” After the siblings fell into an awkward silence, Zevran continued, “The Crows torture their recruits. If a man survives this with his sanity intact, he will be prepared for anything he may face afterward. Or so the masters claim.” He shrugged. “Perhaps they simply enjoy a concert of screams during their evening meal.”
Raven halted on the path up to the tower entrance, and turned to him with quiet horror filling her eyes. “Zev, that’s terrible. I’m so sorry you went through that.” She wrapped him tightly in her arms, wishing she could comfort the helpless child he’d once been.
He stroked her back with a gentle hand. “Truly, little bird, you need not sorrow for me; I am at peace with what I am. I did not tell you this to cause you pain.” He gave her a roguish wink. “Though I will never turn away the embrace of a beautiful woman.”
At that moment, Hohaku gave a happy bark and raced up the remainder of the path, while Rob smothered a snicker. “Oh look,” he said, “our welcoming party.” Raven glanced over Zevran’s shoulder…and saw Leliana with eyebrows lifted to her hairline in lurid curiosity, Aedan hiding a smirk, and Alistair looking oddly like he’d swallowed a live fish that got stuck halfway down.
She jumped back, instantly turning scarlet and feeling guilty for reasons she didn’t care to consider. “Oh, good! Hello, everyone!” she called with forced gaiety. “Congratulations on not being dead!”
‘Oh fucksticks, I did not just say that. I am an idiot.’
Aedan knelt to greet the Mabari, chuckling. “Why, thank you; I was pleased with that outcome myself.
“Yes, certainly,” Leliana chimed in. “I far prefer remaining among the living, don’t you, Alistair?”
“What?” he blinked. “Uh, yes. Definitely. Dying bad, living good, and so forth.” He shuffled his feet, looking so awkward that Raven nearly ran to hug him.
Which, of course, would not do at all. It was one thing for Zevran to be interested; that could’ve just been because she was present, had a pulse, and (unlike Morrigan) didn’t threaten to remove any anatomy he touched her with. But even in the unlikely event that Zevran was right in saying other men would feel the same…she was trying to go home. She knew Alistair’s feelings weren’t casual. Even if she were arrogant enough to assume he’d want her, she wasn’t cruel enough to start something and leave.
So, if Alistair thought she was with Zevran, that was probably for the best. Yes, for the best. Definitely. Taking the surprised elf’s hand, she led him up the path…sticking close to his side, and trying to feel happy about her oh-so-rational decision.
“So, how was bedding Zevran?”
Raven gasped in horrified embarrassment, nearly dropping the books she was helping to reshelve. “Leliana! Good grief, you did not just ask me that.”
The redhead pretended to consider. “No, no, I’m quite sure I did. I was right here, after all. Why; is it such a terrible question? Surely a man who claims all that experience can’t have been so disappointing?”
The scholar’s voice was muffled behind her hands, as she vainly attempted to hide her blush. “I don’t know who’s nosier; you or my brother.”
“Oh, that’s easy. I am, certainly. Though I am a bit surprised I did not see this coming. It’s always pleasant to be complimented, to be sure, but I did not think Zevran would steal your fancy from our dear Alistair.”
“I don’t have a fancy to steal. I just…I had a bad breakup not long ago, and it was nice to feel wanted.”
“I see…and how wanted were you, exactly?”
The bard’s impish gaze managed, as always, to melt her reserve. “Quite wanted, I’d say. It was a long day, and we were bored.” Giving in, she leaned close to her friend and gossiped, giggling. Unfortunately, she failed to notice right away when Leliana sat back abruptly, because she was too busy saying, “Seriously, it’s a pity he doesn’t shut up more often, because all the other things he does with his mouth are much more fun.”
Leliana looked past her and said, “Hello, Alistair.”
Raven couldn’t help it; she slumped forward, clunking her skull on the table. She only looked up, rubbing her forehead with a glare, when the other woman said, “I should go pack up my gear; please excuse me.”
Alistair sat gingerly on the chair Leliana had vacated, nodding awkwardly in greeting. After a long moment, he said, “So…quite a lot of books here, hm?”
She blinked, as he winced. “They do tend to pile up, what with it being a library and all.”
The cricket noises were probably her imagination.
“Can I…did…er, was there something you needed?”
“Oh! Um, yes, actually. I, ah, heard that you are planning to stay here while we escort the mages to Redcliffe. Is that right?”
Raven nodded. “They need all the help they can get here, especially with the library, and it’s probably better for me to do something I’m good at instead of slowing you all down like I usually do.”
“You don’t slow us down,” Alistair frowned. “In fact, I find it rather amazing how you went from life in a library to racing around the countryside shooting monsters in the eye for me- er, us. With us, I mean.”
“You do?” She blushed.
“Well, I…that is, yes.” He blushed too. Raven’s pulse raced at the sublime dorkiness of it all, until she remembered that she was going home, and not, not, absolutely not flirting with Alistair Theirin.
She cleared her throat. “So, what was it you needed?”
His face went completely blank, his honey-colored eyes wide with confusion. “Oh, right! How silly of me, ha…ha…” He coughed. “It’s, I was hoping you could do a favor for me, actually.” She kept her brow from lifting suggestively through sheer force of will. “When we cleared out the tower, we rescued a templar. He’d been…ah, tortured. As it happens, I know him from when I was a templar recruit. He’s a good man.”
“Yes! I knew the two of you must have been in training together!” she said triumphantly.
Raven kicked herself. “Um…Rob told me about the templar, and that you knew him…and I saw him in the infirmary…and I…thought you looked the same age, so you might have trained together,” she finished lamely.
“Yes. Well.” The Warden looked at her if she might have hit her head on the table harder than he thought, but continued. “Anyhow, the experience seems to have changed him…understandably, of course. But I’m worried about him. As much as I hated the Order, he truly believed in it and its ideals.” He gave her a rueful smile. “On the few occasions I bothered to listen to the Chant instead of daydreaming, I always thought Cullen must’ve been what Andraste had in mind when she blessed the Champions of the Just.”
Privately, Raven thought of the life Cullen had ahead of him and agreed. “He sounds like a good friend.”
Alistair chuckled. “I certainly got in a lot less trouble because of him. Of course, he got in a lot more trouble because of me, so he might feel differently. The point is, the Cullen I know would’ve fought to save every last innocent person in that tower. This Cullen argued for the Rite of Annulment even after the blood mages were dead. It isn’t like him.” He ran a hand through hair that glinted gold in the thin light slanting through the library’s high windows. “I don’t really know what it is that I’m asking you to do, to be honest. I don’t know if there’s anything you can do. I just…maybe if he would talk to someone, if he could get some of that hatred out, he could…be Cullen again…”
Impulsively, she placed her hands over his where they fidgeted on the tabletop. “Alistair, he may never be the same as the Cullen you knew; you do understand that? I’ve studied how trauma can affect the mind.” She had, actually; her mother was a therapist, so a lot of school projects over the years had used her as a source. And with a brother in the Marines and a world always at risk of war, PTSD had become a pet research topic. “You should know it’s unlikely Cullen will go right back to normal. It could take years, if ever.”
The Warden nodded slowly, his golden eyes clouding, and he was so sad and beautiful it broke her heart. “I’ll do everything possible, though. If he’ll talk to me, I’ll listen, and help him any way I can. I promise.”
He looked at her, eyes full of gratitude as he grasped her hands. In its ongoing campaign to destroy her equilibrium, the sun chose that moment to enter the tall windows at the perfect angle to bathe him in light. His hair was a tapestry of precious metals, his eyes glowed with warmth against the gilded tan of his skin, and of course, his armor glinted. He was literally a knight in shining armor. ‘Really, sun? Really?’
The moment passed, and they both came to the sudden realization they were holding hands. Alistair reluctantly released her and stood. “I, uh…should go see what our plans are. I thought the First Enchanter would need some time to recover, but he’s worried about Redcliffe and doesn’t want to delay.”
Raven nodded and said she’d be along shortly to bid everyone farewell, and the tall Warden strode off, continuing to be more attractive than any person had a right to be. And then, for the third time in a half hour, she had the life nearly startled out of her when a small voice piped up and said, “Izzat yer boyfriend, then?”
The small elven girl leaning against a nearby bookshelf calmly took a bite of an apple and watched the scholar turn red. “Ah, no. No, he’s not.”
The girl’s dark brows knitted together. “Why? ‘E’s awful pretty, and ‘e likes ye so much ‘e kin barely talk.”
Rae hid her face in her hand. “It’s complicated,” she muttered, wondering if Leliana had recruited the girl to tease her, or if she was just that unlucky.
“Shems,” the girl snorted in disgust, as if that said it all.
Not long after, Raven and the elf girl (who her brother introduced as Shanna) stood in the foyer with those about to depart. Greagoir seemed to disapprove of both allowing the mages to go, and allowing Raven to stay, but that might’ve been his normal expression. Rob gave her a tense hug and solemnly asked Shanna to take good care of his sister. Aedan called Hohaku to his side as they prepared to set out.
To everyone’s surprise, the dog walked calmly over to Raven and sat on her foot. Aedan’s green eyes grew wide. “I see how it is…abandoning me for a pretty face, eh?” With the disconcerting intelligence unique to Mabari, Hohaku walked over to the Warden, licked his hand, and then returned to Raven’s side. Aedan couldn’t help but chuckle. “Well, Lady Raven, it appears you’ve gained a temporary bodyguard.”
“So it seems. Or else he knows he’s more likely to get treats and games of fetch from the children here than on the road.” The dog gave her a reproachful glance. “Sorry!” she giggled, and waved as the others left.
Only later did she realize she’d forgotten to kiss Zevran goodbye. ‘Oops. So much for my pretend boyfriend.’
Once the bustle had died down, Raven decided to check on Cullen, her two self-appointed guardians at her heels. As he lay in fitful slumber, his familiar face was so young…and far too gaunt. “Looks like them bad mages sent ‘im through a wringer the wrong way,” Shanna said, and Hohaku woofed softly in agreement.
Lost in thought, Raven could only nod.
Next Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 12: What Doesn’t Kill You)