In which Rob finds many unsettling thoughts and also a dragon.
Previous Chapter (To Dream of Dragons – Chapter 24: A Rock and a Hard Place)
Friday, 23 Harvestmere, 9:30 Dragon
Rob had been relieved to emerge from the dwarven kingdom. It was interesting, sure (other than the bits that were pure nightmare fuel), but by the time they left, he agreed with Morrigan; man wasn’t made to live in a hole in the ground. Seeing the sun again after two months, he’d felt the weight of the mountain falling off his shoulders.
The others had clearly sensed it too. Oghren was still adjusting, but everyone else got along better than they ever had. Rae and Alistair continued to corner the Thedas market on disgusting cuteness, and Aedan shook himself out of the funk he’d been in. Even Morrigan had an occasional kind word, threatening to gut Zevran far less often than normal.
It had been the best Rob had felt since … well, before they’d left the Hawkes, a thought he quickly called a halt on. After the Deep Roads, he knew there was a good chance none of them would survive the Blight, regardless of his sister’s confidence. He’d decided then it was better to focus on the present than to get angsty about an uncertain fate.
They traveled south along the western shore of Lake Calenhad. In one mountain pass, a lone merchant offered them a control rod for an old golem.
“We’ve seen more than enough golems lately, thanks,” Rob snorted. But Rae, with the evasive look she got when she was trying not to tell the future, said it might come in handy. Alistair perked up when the man told them the golem sat in the town of Honnleath. “That’s where Cullen is from,” he said, his eyes darting between Aedan and Rae. “We … we could check on his family for him.” Decision made, they thanked the merchant and moved on toward Haven.
Not long after, he found himself walking beside Sten. Despite traveling with the Qunari for six months, Rob had never really gotten to know him … in part because of Sten’s taciturn nature, but also because his outlook on things was so alien.
“Hey Sten,” he asked, “Do the Qunari know about the Deep Roads, or use them?”
“Why?” the gray-skinned giant demanded flatly.
He was taken aback at the abrupt response. “I—uh, I guess to make conversation?”
“So I am to chat for your entertainment? You would do better to approach the bard if that is what you seek.”
Rob raised an eyebrow. “Aren’t you a friendly one? I just noticed nobody seems to know much about you guys, and my mom always said most conflict comes from people not understanding each other.”
“There is nothing to understand. The bas are weak and undisciplined,” Sten stated. “They wander about, not knowing their place, wasting energy trying to be what they are not. The Qun eliminates this.”
“What, so, you prefer the system the dwarves have, where you’re born into a caste and stuck there?”
“Do not be ridiculous. Such a foolish practice results in forcing those who have no aptitude for a task into a life where they are unable to excel.”
“But you just said—”
Sten sighed, his annoyed expression shifting into patient condescension. “Under the Qun, we are placed where we will most serve all Qunari.”
“Who decides that?”
“Our tamassrans. In part, they raise our young, but more importantly, they watch and learn their talents and temperaments. When it comes time, they evaluate these factors, and assign children to the roles where they will perform best.”
Rob frowned. “But that sounds … I mean, people change through their lifetimes; they’re not always interested in the same things as when they’re kids. What if these tamassrans are wrong?”
“They are not wrong. Tamassrans are highly respected. Their position requires more training than any other, where they hone their natural talent for analyzing and assessing souls and minds to an edge. They judge not upon fleeting interests, but upon deeper strengths of character.” He paused, tilting his head. “If your sister were Qunari, she would be a tamassran, I suspect.”
“I feel like that’s a bigger compliment than I understand,” Rob said.
“Then you are smarter than you look.”
Monday, 26 Harvestmere, 9:30 Dragon
Rob watched Raven walk around the weird little village of Haven, her eyes bright with curiosity. Leliana was less enthused. “I don’t like this. It’s almost too quiet. Something’s not right. I can feel it.”
“What, besides how the only man who’s spoken with us urged us to leave?” Morrigan snarked. “Or perhaps you refer to the altar in yonder cabin, doused in blood. The way the villagers have all tried to kill us on sight? ‘Tis so mysterious why something might feel amiss.”
The weirdness factor only increased when they entered the town’s small Chantry and found most of the remaining residents staring in rapt attention at an oddly garbed priest. Rob was no expert on the Chantry, but he knew the big important bit was how the prophet Andraste was betrayed and killed. This priest talked like she was still alive.
“That’s impossible!” Leliana exclaimed, clutching an amulet Aedan had given her, rubbing her thumb over the embossed symbol of the Chantry. “These people are surely mad!”
“Seems that way,” Rob agreed. The priest, it seemed, did not appreciate their assessment; he and the villagers attacked.
Once their foes were dispatched, the group took a look around. Rob couldn’t contain his delight when he noticed a brick wall that didn’t match the rest of the structure. “Holy shit, Rae! An honest-to-god secret door!” He pressed a hidden panel, and when it swung open, he gleefully sang a Legend of Zelda fanfare. “You think they hid the Master Sword back there?” He turned to see his sister stifling a snicker while everyone else stared like he’d grown an extra head. “It’s, um … this game we played as kids, it’s … a long story, actually; never mind.” Embarrassed, he hastily stepped through the concealed doorway.
They didn’t find a magic sword, but they did find the famous Brother Genetivi, in bad shape but alive. After a healing spell from Wynne, he perked up and confirmed Andraste’s ashes were in a nearby temple. In short order, they set out.
They set out on a path that led steadily uphill, but the exertion didn’t stop Rae from chattering at the Chantry scholar like a star-struck fan. Brother Genetivi’s many books documented his travels across the width and breadth of Thedas, so she was bursting with questions. Genetivi looked more than a little amused by Rae’s enthusiasm but he was happy to share his knowledge, and his tales of far-off lands were interesting and surprisingly funny. Rob was almost sad when they reached their destination.
Aedan asked Brother Genetivi what they might encounter in the once-grand temple. The scholar quoted a vague bit of poetry about the Maker’s wrath awaiting the unbeliever, but Rob couldn’t resist laughing when he added, “Read between the lines, and you’ll understand that it is merely a simple truth draped in hyperbole and metaphor. After all, no one wants to hear: ‘Willy toiled for many a year to perfect the curious mechanisms that would send a sharpened spike up the arse of the unwary intruder.’”
Between the threat of those “curious mechanisms” and the villagers’ “kill first, chat later” attitude, Aedan decided he and Zevran would take point, with the archers next. It served the dual purpose of spotting and disarming traps and eliminating their foes before they raised an alarm, but it was not a fighting style Rob enjoyed. They’d approach a barracks or a library and hear normal-sounding people inside, wondering about the dinner menu or wishing for a warmer pair of socks. And then the rogues would stealth in, and those normal-sounding people would be dead on the floor.
“Shouldn’t we at least give them a chance to surrender?” he said uneasily.
It surprised him when the normally compassionate Leliana shook her head. “There is no point. These are fanatics. They believe they are the valiant defenders of the risen Andraste, and they will die to protect her.” She paused. “If I were tasked to guard Andraste, that is what I would do. Some things are more important than one’s own life.”
Sadly, the bard wasn’t wrong. Rob knew cults were a thing; he’d seen some of the weirder ones on TV back home. But it was unsettling to see in person, and he couldn’t help but feel there should be a way to redeem these people. He wasn’t giving the orders; Aedan was … but as they continued to bust in on people and murder them, he had to wonder where the line was between the good guys and the bad guys.
His concern faded when they ran into the official leader of Crazytown, a priest named Kolgrim. For a nice change, he was willing to use his words, but he didn’t give them any reprieve from the weirdness.
According to Kolgrim, Andraste had been reborn as a dragon. ‘Because of course,’ Rob thought. ‘I mean, obviously a chick known for helping people and singing would come back as a giant lizard that eats people and mainly says grr, rawr.’ Not only did the cultists claim Andraste’s spirit inhabited the body of a dragon, they worshipped the creature, fed it, and tended its young. The tone of Kolgrim’s voice was a flashing neon sign advertising batshit insanity.
Though he’d started out in “smite the wicked” mode, Kolgrim pulled a sudden one-eighty and tried to make a deal with them. Some guardian would no longer admit them to the innermost parts of the shrine, he said. ‘Gee, I can’t imagine why that might be, Mr. Crazy Cult Man,’ he thought. The dragon apparently couldn’t regain her full powers because of this. Kolgrim agreed to let them pass if they agreed to take a vial of Andraste Junior’s blood and mix it in with Andraste Senior’s remains. Leliana was appalled at this suggestion and, since the ashes were the whole reason they’d come here in the first place, Aedan swiftly declined.
The resulting fight was brutal. The cult clearly had no problem with magic because their mages were front and center and totally cool with wreaking as much havoc as possible. Nonetheless, eventually they defeated the psycho brigade and made their way out into the sun.
And that’s when he saw it. A real, live dragon. It may not have been the reincarnation of a dead prophet, but it was still amazing.
Rob knew his mouth was hanging open, but he couldn’t be bothered to care … and anyway, how could you not stop and stare? It was a literal freaking dragon! The thing was as long as a bus, maybe twice as wide and tall depending on how it held its giant head. One tooth alone was as big as Oghren!
“So …” he asked. “Are we gonna fight it?”
The reactions in the party were an even split of eagerness and dismay.
“Fight that thing? On purpose? A High Dragon is not a joke. I’ve already got a huge lizard to kill in my future; one’s quite enough, thanks,” Alistair said wryly.
“For once—and it galls me to say this—I agree with Alistair,” Morrigan chimed in. “Be cautious. A dragon such as this is better to avoid than engage.”
“Oh, come on,” groaned the dwarf. “Finally, a foe worthy of the great Oghren! We have to fight it!”
When everyone had weighed in, Leliana and Zevran wanted to bypass the creature, but Sten and Aedan were eyeing it with eager speculation. Wynne didn’t care either way. “Oh, I’m not afraid,” she joked. “It wouldn’t eat me anyhow. Tough and stringy. You lot, on the other hand …”
All eyes turned to Raven, and Rob sighed and waited for her to urge caution … but to his surprise, she gave Alistair an apologetic glance and said, “I vote we fight.”
The Warden gaped in shock. “What? Why?”
“Think about it. When Brother Genetivi tells the Chantry about this place, people will want to come here to study, worship, all that kind of stuff. How safe will they be if we leave a fire-breathing dragon hanging around to say hi?”
At that reasoning, the others relented. Rob’s pulse pounded in his ears as Aedan and Sten plotted out a battle strategy. Rae held tight to Alistair, looking much like she had in Orzammar when she knew the decision was right but wasn’t happy about it.
Once they had a plan, they headed out onto the small plateau. The huge purple dragon sat on a ledge far above them, watching them and flexing her massive wings, but she didn’t stir … until Aedan blew a long note on a horn the crazy priest had been carrying. With a rush of wind, she swooped down before them.
The battle was on.
Alistair taunted the dragon to face her away from the others. With help from the mages, he bravely deflected jets of flame with his shield. The other warriors hacked at scaled flanks. The rogues danced in and out of danger with abandon, and the archers fired at any glimpse of the dragon’s underbelly. All was going well; they were chipping away at the creature … and then it happened. The dragon inhaled, and Alistair tried to brace for the fiery breath, but his back foot slipped on a stray rock. With a yell of surprise, he fell. The so-called Andraste reached out one of her giant talons toward the Warden. There was no way Alistair would get up fast enough. Without thinking, Rob darted in front of his friend.
The pain was instant and excruciating. The huge talon wrapped around his body from chest to hips. As the dragon shook him and squeezed, he screamed, hearing his own bones break with a sickening wet crack. His whole awareness narrowed to forcing air into his battered lungs, and though it was probably only seconds, it felt like years until the dragon tired of him and flung him away like an unwanted rag doll. The ground rushed up to meet him, and when the impact sent his broken torso crashing into all the sharp dents in his armor, he shrieked in agony before the world mercifully went black.
When next he woke, both Raven and Morrigan hovered over him, and for once, they weren’t sniping at each other. He decided not to tell them how similar their looks of relief were when they saw he’d come to. He took an experimental deep breath and regretted it, though not as much as he expected. Wynne’s doing, no doubt; healing spells were one thing he’d always appreciate.
“Thank God you’re okay,” Rae said, eyes shimmering wetly. “When that monster picked you up and threw you, I …” She hung her head. “I’m so sorry; I should never have agreed to fight it.”
If Rob had ever doubted the existence of miracles, he would’ve changed his mind then. Morrigan opened her mouth—no doubt to unleash a venomous “I told you so”—and then closed it again. Her wolf-yellow gaze surveyed his face before she spoke. “Combat always carries danger. Any of us might perish at any time. ‘Tis foolish to berate yourself for something out of your control. Your brother is strong and will recover; let that be an end to it.”
Startled, Rae looked up, meeting Morrigan’s gaze over Rob’s prone form. “I—yes, I guess you’re right.” She forced a smile. “I should go tell Alistair you’re awake. I sent him off with Leliana to get Brother Genetivi, but he’s been beside himself with worry since they got back.” Rob squeezed her hand, and chuckled when she kissed his forehead like she had when he was young.
Once she’d left, he looked up at Morrigan. “Hey, pookie,” he said with a ghost of his usual smirk.
“Ugh, ‘tis obvious you’ve recovered, if you’ve already resumed being an insufferable ass.”
“You like it,” he grinned. “But, in seriousness … thank you for saying that to Rae. I imagine she didn’t react well to me getting tossed around like a chew toy.”
Morrigan tilted her head. “It was odd to see one so cold overcome with feeling. Leliana had to seize her by the arm to keep her from running out to you, and she only regained her wits when Aedan stealthed in and dragged you from harm’s way.”
He chose to ignore her comment about Rae’s lack of emotion, despite the extreme temptation to point out the irony. Instead, he listened while she updated him on events. They’d killed the dragon, and then carried Rob to the inner temple to get him off the icy ground. They’d had to discard the mangled remnants of his armor. Morrigan had put him under a sleep spell for about an hour while Wynne healed his injuries. “And …” she began, but stopped.
“Nothing; I … am pleased you survived.” She forced the emotion out of her expression, opting for a more familiar look of disdain. “Despite your misplaced impulse to save that fool Alistair, of all people.”
He smiled. “I’m glad you’re okay too,” he said, drawing her down for a kiss. Slowly, the tension melted out of her. When they finally parted, he added, “Pookie.”
Rob shrugged, trying to settle his unfamiliar new armor into place. While he was unconscious, Oghren and Sten had searched the cultists’ belongings for gear to fit him. Their concern had taken him by surprise. Despite being in Thedas for over six months, he still saw himself as an outsider … but when even the gruff Qunari and the drunken dwarf cared for his well-being, he had to concede that might not be the case.
Once he was back on his feet, he and the others filed through the only other door in the small antechamber, to find a similar room with a lone knight standing among the cracked stonework. “I bid you welcome, pilgrims,” he said, in a hollow, echoing voice. It gave Rob the creeps, but at least the guy confirmed Andraste’s ashes were near.
Of course, nothing could ever be easy. He told them they’d have to run a gauntlet of four tests of faith to prove themselves worthy. Rob elbowed his sister, whispering. “You didn’t tell me there was an Indiana Jones section in this story. When we get to ‘only the penitent man shall pass,’ give me a heads-up.” He snickered. “Ha … heads-up, get it?”
Rae rolled her eyes, but before she could reply, the knight turned to Aedan. “You abandoned your father and mother, leaving them in the hands of Rendon Howe, knowing he would show no mercy,” he said. “Do you think you failed your parents?”
Rob frowned. Aside from the weirdness of Ser Spooky knowing Aedan’s history, it seemed pretty uncool to throw the death of his mom and dad in his face. A muscle ticked in Aedan’s jaw as he responded in the affirmative.
The Guardian, as he called himself, then worked his way through the group, bringing up their worst doubts and fears. He asked Alistair if he should’ve died at Ostagar in place of his mentor; not looking at Rae, he said yes. Leliana denied making up her vision from the Maker to get attention. Wynne and Brother Genetivi both admitted they sometimes doubted the wisdom they dispensed to others. Sten stoically acknowledged his guilt for his crimes in Lothering. Zevran bit off his reply and refused to elaborate on it, and Morrigan declined to answer altogether.
Oghren’s response, though, hit hardest. “Why don’t I save you some time?” the dwarf grated. “Yes, I wish I could have saved my family from Branka. I wish I’d been a better mate; maybe she’d have stayed home and never gone after the Anvil. Maybe I failed her. And yes, I came to the surface because I’m barely a dwarf anymore. My family is dead, my honor as a warrior long gone. I’ve lost my caste and my house and I have nothing else to lose.” The silence that followed that painful confession was broken only by the sound of Oghren unscrewing his flask for a sip of composure.
Rob was still groping for an encouraging response when the Guardian turned to him. ‘Well,’ he thought, ‘this should be interesting.’
“Young soldier,” the Guardian said, “you are far from home.” It wasn’t a question, so he didn’t answer. Inclining his head in acknowledgement, the strange knight continued. “You claim you wish to return, but dream of blue eyes. And yet, you chase wisps in the darkness. Are you truly so faithless?”
‘Well shit,’ Rob thought. How was he supposed to answer that? He was grateful the weird ghost-dude hadn’t mentioned Marian and Morrigan by name and made it even more awkward, but … lacking a better option, he chose the truth. “I don’t know, to be honest. I’m way out of my depth here. All I can do is hang on and hope it all makes sense eventually.”
His answer must’ve sufficed, because the Guardian nodded and moved on to Rae, who wore a mask of false calm. “And last of all, the woman out of place.” The silence stretched out, making his next words a near-physical slap, and she flinched. “Lothering. Kinloch. Orzammar. Even today. You doubt your choices, and yet you persist in them. Do you believe you have the right to manipulate people thus, to save some and leave others to die?”
She blinked rapidly and stared at the ceiling, jaw clenched. “No,” she replied at last. “But I can’t just sit and do nothing. I try to do my best, but … it’s not good enough. It’s never good enough. It never will be.”
Alistair was quick to wrap an arm around her shoulders. “You are too hard on yourself. No one’s perfect,” he said, and she gave him a weak smile that seemed more for his benefit than her own.
“That is all I wished to know,” said the Guardian.