Lovely Maize You Have
“So,” said Eleanor, once they were on a long, straight stretch of disused back road, “should we, like, make small talk or something?” The shotgun shells were poking her in the hip and she shifted in her seat to rearranged them as best as she could without shifting pressure on the accelerator. She used the moment’s adjustment to take her left hand off of the steering wheel and retrieve the pack of cigarettes from her back pocket. They were partly smashed now, but she’d smoked worse, and if hauling two men to a dry riverbed in a pickup truck Don McLean-style wasn’t excuse enough for a cigarette, she didn’t know what was. She brought the pack to her lips and gave it a little shake, and a slightly squashed filter jostled its way out of the pack. She stuck it between her teeth and pulled it out, then fished out the lighter and set the cigarette ablaze.
“Oh, I do hate small talk,” Dorian moaned, letting one arm hang casually out of his open window. He seemed to be catching on to the experience much faster than his cohort, who was still clinging desperately to the sides of the truck and, when he deigned to turn his head forward, looking rather pale. But then again, Eleanor figured as she caught a glimpse of the commander in her rear view mirror, Dorian was sitting up front.
“You and me both,” said Eleanor around her cigarette, then pulled it from her lips and let her wrist rest limply on the steering wheel. She breathed out a thick cloud of smoke and added, “but given the circumstances, I don’t think too much talk would be small.”
“You’d be surprised,” Dorian offered. “I could say something like, ‘Well, the sky is quite blue around here, isn’t it?’ or ‘Lovely maize you have,’” and he indicated what was indeed a corn field to their right. “What is this place called, anyway?”
Unsure of how specific to get, Eleanor only replied, “Indiana.”
“Indiana,” he said majestically. “Well, that is something. What does it mean?”
Eleanor blinked. Of course she knew what it meant, but she didn’t know quite how to deliver the history lesson without explaining how the European settlers of the land mistook the native peoples for an entirely different native people, or that there were no native peoples here really anymore, or what India was.
“It… uh… It’s a long story. It means that this land belonged to someone else.”
“Didn’t it all,” Dorian said flatly, and Eleanor was mildly shocked by the applicability of this statement. Perhaps his home and hers were not so different. After all, they both had corn, she thought with a small laugh.
“So, where do you come from?”
“I myself am from Tevinter, and Commander Killjoy back there is from a horrid brown place called Ferelden.”
“Are those, like, states? Countries?” Eleanor guessed, hoping that her words would even translate, so she offered again, “Kingdoms?” She motioned in a circle with her cigarette for him to fill in the blanks if she was missing anything.
“Very good!” said Dorian brightly. “Ferelden is indeed a kingdom. Tevinter is an Imperium, an empire. A magocracy, to be specific.”
“Dorian,” Eleanor heard Cullen caution queasily from the back. But Eleanor had read exactly enough fantasy literature to parse the word, and the corner of her eye twitched a bit.
“Get the fuck out,” she mumbled. She could take weirdos coming from the sky and landing in a field reverse Wizard of Oz-style, bringing swords and soldiers and threats of a blight, or a Blight, but magic?
Except that he had thought her computer was magic. Completely earnestly. Completely unfazed. Cullen was almost angry that she seemed to have what he thought was the very stuff. As though it wouldn’t be tolerated. As though he had seen it before.
And all of a sudden, she wanted to believe. So she had to ask.
“You have mages?” and she took her eyes off of the road long enough to see Dorian’s face split into a broad, white-toothed grin.
“My lady, I am a mage.”
Eleanor slammed her hand down on the steering wheel and laughed hysterically. “No shit! That’s… that’s amazing! That’s incredible! You can do magic?”
“Oh, blessed Andraste,” Cullen groaned.
She spent the next half an hour quizzing Dorian about magic and laughing. She was willing to suspend her disbelief to learn something incredible. He’d have to prove it, of course, Eleanor insisted. He told her he wasn’t sure it was safe to do any in the truck; he didn’t know how the thing worked or how magic would interfere, but once they got back to Eleanor’s home, or more, the empty field behind Eleanor’s home - he didn’t see fit to break any of her trinkets or dishes, not so soon into their friendship - he promised to show her.
“I’m sitting up there on the way back,” Cullen insisted, sticking his head up to the small back window, and not just because riding backwards was making his head throb, but he didn’t say that out loud. What he said was, “There are some things you have to understand about magic, Eleanor. About mages…”
But his voice quieted as they approached the ravine. Everything seemed to quiet. Eleanor shifted down into second and turned off the road going barely a dozen miles an hour. There was a wan breeze blowing into the cab of the truck, and it carried something on it, something none of the three of them liked.
“Am I… Do you…” began Eleanor.
“Feel that? Yes,” Dorian confirmed, and Cullen grunted his agreement.
Eleanor slid the truck into neutral, killed the engine, didn’t bother with the parking brake. She slipped off her seatbelt and opened her door, jumping down onto the grass. It had crunched beneath the tires, and now it crunched beneath her feet. It was dead. She shut the door as quietly as she could and surveyed the landscape.
Everything was dead.
There weren’t many trees on this flat part of the Indiana landscape, but the few that she could pick out with her myopic vision were barren. There were no wildflowers, no weeds, no stray bushes at all. A few yards ahead of her, the thing she had remembered as a dry river bed, set maybe a few dozen feet deep down into the earth, was now a great gash, seeming to claw down forever into the bowels of the rocky crust.
“Fuck me…” she muttered. “Is this a Blight?”
Cullen came up behind her and rested a gloved hand on her right shoulder. It was his left hand; his right held his sword, bare-bladed and glimmering weakly in the washed-out sunlight. “Partly,” he said to her gently. Gesturing with the point of his blade, he directed her vision to a spot further up the ravine from where she had parked the truck. “Can you see that?”
Eleanor squinted, and thought she saw something moving. A man? No. Something like a man, and not like a man at all. It was like the twisted impersonation of a man, a black and spiny thing, drawn out of darkness. She could smell its wrongness from where she stood. It hobbled awkwardly on two legs, and Eleanor wanted to hunker down, to keep herself from being seen, but Cullen stood up straight, defiant in the face of its darkness.
“What is…” she breathed.
“Darkspawn,” said Dorian, at Cullen’s right.
“That’s the Blight,” Cullen whispered. “Those… creatures… carry a powerful taint in their blood. It destroys everything it touches. If it gets in you, it turns you into one of them. A foul, loathsome thing, whose only purpose is to kill. To corrupt. And to breed.”
Eleanor put her hand to her mouth, possessed suddenly by a powerful trembling. There was no way she could deny it now. She was looking into the abyss, and it was looking back into her, and it was filled with squirming, writhing things, and she had the distinct impression that they knew she was there, watching them, and they were watching back, and waiting. The death, the blackness, the taint - somehow, though she was overwhelmed by the strange, the incomprehensible, the impossible, she knew it in the animal part of her brain. She knew it, and she wanted to get as far away from it as her legs would carry her. The sickly breeze picked up her hair and blew it around her mouth and her nose and seemed to threaten to choke her, to take the very air away from her. She batted it away from her face with frantic hands, taking one unsteady step back, and then another, and another, until she was backed up against the hot grill of her truck, and she realized she was crying.
“I’m sorry,” Cullen said, slipping his sword back into the sheath on his belt. “But… This is why we’re here. We’re here to stop that. To end the Blight.”
“Well, what he means us, not us specifically, of course. Only Grey Wardens can -”
But Cullen shot Dorian a sharp look that said now was distinctly not the time.
“Ah. Yes. We should… be off then, I suppose.”
Eleanor nodded rapidly, using her arms along the side of the truck to pull her toward the driver’s side door, as though her legs might give out from under her at any moment. She pulled herself up into the seat, lit a cigarette, and sucked on it for dear life, hand shaking violently.
Outside, Dorian, walking slowly toward the vehicle, said, “We should wait to tell her about the Archdemon, then.”
Flatly, Cullen answered, “Yes, Pavus. We should.” And without waiting for the mage, he let himself into the cab of the truck, claiming the passenger seat for his own.