It Worked Out Well for Her
Cullen told her all he could about the beast. Told her that all along they had been waiting for it to show itself. Told her that they had to wait, because without an Archdemon the Grey Wardens couldn’t end the Blight. He told her of the Wardens, that they and they alone were the only ones who could truly bring a Blight to its end, that they were special, they were people who took the Taint of the Blight into themselves, which allowed them to slay the Archdemon permanently, as the tainted Old God’s essence could only be allowed to jump into a Grey Warden, a fellow tainted thing, which would destroy the Warden and the darkspawn both. If anyone else were to slay the Archdemon, its soul would simply jump into the next available darkspawn which would turn into a new Archdemon and would not end the Blight.
Eleanor only kept nodding. He would explain, and she would nod. He would elaborate, in case she hadn’t understood, and she would nod again. She was hearing everything he said, that much was true, but whether or not any of it was penetrating her mind was another story completely. She had seen a lot of weird shit since this whole thing started, seen, yes, and done, and become.
But Cullen was trying to tell her about a fucking dragon.
It hadn’t sunk in at first, as she held Swiffer close and followed its path across the sky with her straining eyes, as its blackness and the sky’s blackness began to fade into one, and it just became a patch where the stars weren’t the further and further away it flew. But once it was gone, once Cullen had released his grip on her, and they followed Dorian into the house, her brain began to process again, and it told her, “You have just seen a dragon, flying in the skies above your home in Indiana.” And now Cullen was telling her that the dragon was not a dragon at all, not a dying, desiccated dragon even, but that it was really a demon. An Archdemon, for whatever difference that made. And not even just that, but it was a dragon that was a demon that had once been and Old God.
Eleanor could accept this strange gift of magic that she had been granted, because she could feel it, had seen it manifest, had had it confirmed by those around her.
Eleanor could accept that these men and their soldiers had come to her home through a dimensional rift, because she had seen it happen, and because she had met the people that had come through, had lived with them for some time, and had reached a point where doubting their experiences, discounting them as little more than an elaborate story, was more irrational than accepting the truth. And even if she couldn’t do the maths for it on her fingers, there was science that perhaps suggested the maths were there.
Eleanor could accept that a Blight was killing her land, was diseasing everything it touched, because Eleanor knew about sickness; she had seen it in the world, had seen the cancer eat her father, had seen her own crops fail, and if this sickness took the form of gnarled, mangled humanoids, she could reconcile that, because she had seen twisted, broken forms of living things ravaged by many different kinds of disease.
But even Eleanor had a limit. And that limit fell somewhere in between, “I have just seen a dragon fly over my house,” and “I have just seen a dragon fly over my house that is not actually a dragon but is some kind of Lovecraftian horror that so terrifying and existentially numbing that it is literally the physical embodiment of all the other bullet points on the list of weird shit I have henceforth been willing to accept.”
“El? Are you listening?”
Eleanor blinked quickly as the sound of Cullen’s voice saying her own name startled her out of her reflection.
“Y-yeah. I’m here. So… can we just go get some Grey Wardens?”
Dorian hung his head a bit as though this had already been explained, and maybe it had, and maybe Eleanor had just missed it while she was still coming to terms with The Dragon That Wasn’t Actually a Dragon. “Cullen, it’s late. We should let her get some sleep.” It was punctuated with a non-verbal, “She’s had a long day,” and indeed, she had, in a few different ways.
But even still, Eleanor objected. “No, I’m alright. This is just… hard to wrap my head around. I’m trying.”
Cullen smiled a sad sort of smile and shook his head. “We can talk tomorrow. It won’t make a difference,” he said, and there was such resignation, such finality in that last phrase that Eleanor wanted to pluck it out of the air, take it away from the ether and make it so that it had never been spoken. She knew he only meant the time; the hour was late enough that it was already tomorrow on the clock, and delaying their conversation until the sun rose was the sensible thing to do. But it was the way he said it.
It won’t make a difference.
The way he said it she could tell that he felt the words in his bones in some other context, in any other context, and she wanted it not to be true for him. Not now, not ever.
And the memory of his rejection of her that afternoon, the rejection of her magic, of her magedom, stung fresh.
She must have winced, or made some face, because he reached out - he reached out and touched her on the hand, the same place he had pulled back from only hours before - and asked, “What is it?”
Eleanor wanted to turn her hand over, to have his fingers resting on her palm so that she could curl up her own hand around his and squeeze it, if even just to reassure him that she was there, she was listening.
But Dorian rose to address Cullen’s previous statement. “True enough,” he said, rising from his seat with an exaggerated stretch. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to bed, barring any further dragons that may seek to invade.”
Cullen nodded, pulling back from Eleanor, and rose, too, pushing in his chair as he watched the mage walk down the hallway. But then his eyes glanced down to Ellie, still seated at the kitchen table in the dim glow of the fluorescent light above the sink. He frowned when she did not look up at him.
“Look, El,” he began, and her attention was removed from whatever point in space she had been staring into as she finally glanced up at him. “I was wrong to… to do what I did. To you.”
She nodded, but didn’t speak, only brought her hand to her chin and rubbed at it with her thumb and forefinger, as though she were waiting to say something, or waiting for him to say something more.
“I would blame it on my training but that would be a lie, mostly. I’ve worked with mages, with magic, for years now. I’ve seen the good it can do.” He was going to say, “And the bad,” but that was not the discussion they were having. He was having. “In truth, I think,” he paused, trying to figure out how to say what he thought, “I think I was afraid.” Now Eleanor opened her mouth to speak but he put up his hand, quietly pleading to let him finish, so she did. “I know. It’s stupid, quite frankly. But a templar’s biggest fear is to have magic used against them. It’s why we’re taught to dispel it. And…” he pulled a thought together that had hadn’t previously, “and maybe because we’re taught so many defenses against magic it becomes our biggest fear.” He sat again so that he could be level with her, and said, “I reacted. Perhaps at first without thought, and then my thoughts filled in and confirmed my biases. I didn’t think,” he didn’t think she would hurt him was what he didn’t think, but she knew that, and so he said it again, with more finality. “I didn’t think. And for that, I am sorry.”
Swallowing hard, Eleanor bowed her head in acceptance. She brought her hands to the hollows under her eyes and and rubbed them hard, letting his apology sink in.
“Alright,” she said, without picking her head back up. “Alright.”
He started to stand again, but stopped, and went back down into the chair. His face looked strained, and when Cullen spoke again, it was very slowly. “I thought…” but then he seemed to take it back. “I fell in love with a mage once.”
Eleanor’s head picked up now, her eyes looking at him straight instead of from beneath her heavy lids.
Cullen went on. “I was young, but I was already a templar. Maybe it wasn’t love, maybe it was -” he shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. She didn’t return my feelings. Or maybe she did, but I never knew. She left the Circle.” He smiled what seemed to be an embarrassed smile, raising his eyebrows in an expression that said he was aware of how he sounded. “But it worked out well for her, in the end.”
Eleanor cocked her head to the side, asking the question without words.
“She ended a Blight.”