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My Warden

 My Warden

by

Sabrina Zbasnik

MY WARDEN Copyright © 2016 by S.E. Zbasnik. All rights reserved.  

Surprise

This is madness. I shouldn’t be here. Cullen repeated the thought while watching a drunkard attempt to open the door to the Hanged Man, except the man missed by about six feet and was currently yanking upon the shutters. Either he would abandon hope, or climb in through the window. Cullen felt naked without his templar armor, having scrounged through a found box for a worn tunic and a disquieting pair of pants. How long had it been since he last wore them? The tug across this thighs felt a fresh betrayal of the order with each pace. He should abandon this foolish plan, return to the Gallows, to his room, and forget that he even saw her.

It wasn’t the first time he found an unexpected woman waiting for him in his room. The initial one was a prank from some of the other templars, which still gave him a headache to think upon. They paid one of the lady’s from the brothel to sneak into the Knight-Captain’s quarters and wait for him. When he confronted them later they insisted it was a gift, but as Cullen tried to get her to leave without melting through the floor, the Knight-Commander happened to walk by. Pure coincidence of course, there was no possible way the conspirators had anything to do with her interference. By the Maker’s mercy, Meredith drew almost no attention to the half-naked woman sitting upon his bed. She only said that whatever she came for could wait for another time, and then gently reminded him of the visitor policy.

The next time Cullen opened his door late at night and saw the silhouette of a woman outlined by the waning moonlight, he would not be taken by unawares. Sighing, he shook his head, and mumbled, “I am sorry, but you’ve been brought here under false pretenses. I have no interest in any of your, um, talents.”

“Oh? That’s a shame, I do have many.” The mystery woman turned to face him and Cullen’s knees gave out. If it weren’t for the table he hooked an elbow on, his body would have smashed to the ground. Six years took a toll on those from Ferelden, no one involved in the blight escaped its wrath unscathed, but she still radiated an ethereal glow beyond a mortal beauty. Even before she became everyone’s hero, Cullen couldn’t take his eyes off a vibrancy that floated off her. By the lone candle flickering on his desk, Cullen could only see the supple cheek risen in a cocky smile and one eye glittering in mischief.

“I…you, no. I can explain. There was a prank that, um…” he stampeded through a thousand different explanations while rubbing his hands across the desk that saved him. Maker, how were his gloves already dripping with sweat?

She only smiled and placed a delicate hand upon her soft hip, drawing his attention to a form he should not reflect upon. “A prank? Must have been interesting.”

“It was childish and I…should not be telling, I doubt you care.” Sucking in a breath, Cullen steadied himself and asked properly, “What brings you here, Lady Amell?”

Her smile dipped for a moment and she tugged upon her mage robes. They were not the blue and silver of the wardens; she still wore something similar to what was used in the circle though with a silverite sheet of chainmail over top. “I require the help of a templar. Someone in Kirkwall to assist me with a mission.”

Cullen nodded, that made sense of a kind, but did not explain why she’d need sneak around to his room like a common bandit to ask for it. People would have greeted her gladly with open arms, especially the mages who held up the Hero of Ferelden as if she was their personal accomplishment. “Do you wish to speak with the Knight-Commander? I can go and get her…” He wanted to kick himself for laying out the option, as if he feared her presence so he needed a chaperon.

Her lips pursed as she glanced around the walls. Lowering her voice, she said, “This is a delicate matter, and I need someone I can trust.”

Through the concern at her secrecy, pride swelled in him. She trusted him? Even now after all that occurred at the tower? It seemed too much to believe. “For what purpose?”

But she shook her head, “Not here, meet me at the…oh, what is that tavern called? The Stretched Man? I’m sure you know what I mean.”

“Why can’t you tell me?”

She wound a scarf across her lips and pulled up the hood of her cloak, blanketing her features behind a mask of fabric. “I will remain at the tavern for two days. If you do not appear within that time I shall make the journey alone.” Without leaving behind footsteps, she moved towards the door. Cullen had no idea how she, a mage, intended to leave the Gallows unseen, but she had somehow gotten into his room without raising an alarm.

“Lady Amell…” he tried to reach out to stop her, but she turned her head to him. Only the glow of those intoxicating eyes were visible through her disguise.

“Two days,” she repeated. “And, given the circumstance, I think you can call me Lana.”

He spent the night waffling from an attempt at sleep to pacing through his quarters trying to determine why she of all people would track him down. What could the Hero of Ferelden possibly need from a solitary templar in Kirkwall? As the day carried on, Cullen went from refusing her offer outright, to excitement at the prospect, to curiosity, to confusion, and then landed at dread. Meredith seemed to sense a change in her second-in-command, her crisp eyes watching him from across the yard and calling to him more than was usual. After the day’s duties were finished, Cullen lost two hours sitting in his room. Prayer should have calmed him, or perhaps brought sense to his fevered mind, but when he’d turn his head he’d still see her silhouette staring out his window. She came for him and no one else.

“Andraste, preserve me,” Cullen whispered as he opened up the door to the Hanged Man. He’d attended to this establishment in the past, always under official means and usually with backup in tow. Now, in plain clothes and mostly unarmed, the denizens did not even bother to look up from their drinks at the recent addition. Two men were arguing about the nature of heroism in the corner, a deep discussion plumbing the depths of human nature only the truly besotted ever reach. Further in, towards the back row of benches, a man was engaged in his own rabid theory with whoever would listen. In this case he managed to entrap only one within his web of ramblings. Cullen could only see the man’s fiery face, the nose and cheeks distended from drink as he banged his fist against the table in emphasis.

“I bet that Hero of Ferelden didn’t even fight no archdemon.”

“No!” His singular audience was turned away from Cullen so he could only see her back, a scarf knotting up her hair.

“She couldna, because there wasn’t no archdemon.”

“Really?”

“Sure as shit,” the man burped, then took another drink. “I’s all Ferelden tryin’a get us to feel sorry for ‘em for Orlais, but we dinna need to pull that kinda shit when we threw ‘em out. They’re wanting to pull a fa’t one over our eyes. But I’m on to ‘em, on to ‘em all. No blight, ain’t had one in four hundred years. Why have one now? And it finishing up so soon. Can’t be.”

“Fascinating,” she continued, the softest laugh in her voice.

Cullen clapped the conspiracy theory man on the shoulder, drawing his bloated attention. “I believe you’ve had enough.”

“Sod off!” the man shouted, then jerked a mug to his beautiful audience. “I got company here.”

Cullen glanced towards Lana, “Should we speak privately?”

She smiled and nodded, but the drunk man wasn’t about to give up easily. “Hey! Tha’s not your decision to be making there, bud.” The man tried to rise out of his chair, but his shoes slipped in the special on tap, causing his elbow to smack against the table. Cursing haphazardly, he shook his fist at Cullen and shouted, “That’ll cost ya!”

Somehow, Cullen never found himself engaged in a bar brawl before, most mages wise enough to keep their fireballs away from combustible liquor and accidental backdraft. He readied his fists to dodge the attack, but he needn’t have bothered. Still smiling, Lana waved her fingers and parted the fade. The man’s eyelids drooped and his body fell slack, the chin smacking into the table was punctuated by snores. It was so subtle, Cullen could only taste the lingering burn of mana by concentrating upon her. To everyone else, it appeared as if the drink finally took hold.

Solona wrapped her hand upon his arm and molded her body around him. He tipped his head up, doing his damnedest to not smell her earthy and lilac scent. The heat of her body racing up his arm was impossible to escape. She giggled and in a breathy voice whispered, “Let’s move somewhere more private, shall we?”

Cullen could only bob his head, terrified of the squeak that might tumble out if he spoke. She guided the pair of them while giving the impression he was leading her into a back room. Beds stacked two high filled the area, but no one filled them despite the late hour. The Hanged Man kept its own strange hours. Lana closed the door, then waved her hand across it again. “There, no one will be getting through that,” she said and unknotted the scarf around her hair. Despite sharing the same lineage as Hawke, they bore almost no likeness – the Champion all sharp lines and cutting cheeks to go with her brand of wit, while the Hero of Ferelden was a supple wholesomeness with a round face, full lips, and bemused eyes all making her appear younger than seemed possible. The only trait they shared was the raven black hair, hers short and braided in sections around her face.

“You know, you’re rather good at playing dumb,” Lana said, dropping into a chair at the lone table.

“I…what?”

“With the drunk, I nearly thought it would come to blows myself.”

“Ah, yes,” Cullen massaged the back of his neck, happy to pretend that he was fully anticipating her interceding. “Why did you let him speak those lies to you?”

“If I’d called him out on it, I’d have blown my cover. What little there is here. I did not anticipate so many Fereldens in Kirkwall,” she frowned.

“But to treat the blight as if it were a lie. Why would anyone fake the destruction of the darkspawn?”

“People’d rather chase ghosts than admit to evil in the world. It does not bother me, I know the truth. I lived the…” she shook her head to blot away a frown and continued, “there are greater beasts to slay. Have you come to hear me out, or…?” she gestured to the chair opposite her, but Cullen continued to stand.

“I need to know, this favor you ask of me, will it go against the order or the vows I have taken?” He feared just how far he’d go for her if she but asked, but turning his back on the templars, on his duty, and spitting in the eye of what he swore upon would go against everything inside of him.

She smiled, “I’m afraid I’m not current on all the vows a templar takes, but on the surface this is a rather simple request. So no, I would not ask more of you than what you are willing to give.”

“What is it, then? Why do you need a templar?”

Reaching into her pocket, she unearthed a bottle. Red liquid pulsed at the bottom of the crystal glass, stoppered in the seal of the Templars. It was a phylactery. Cullen turned from the bottle back to her and she said, “I need you to help me track down a blood mage.”

“I…” now he sagged into the chair, his fingers reaching towards the phylactery. She dropped her own hand away, letting him touch it. He hadn’t done the hunting aspect of being a templar often; most of his commanders keeping him back at the tower to watch over their charges, but there were some things one never forgot. Closing his eyes, Cullen ensnared his hand around the vial of blood and concentrated. The hair along his arm stood on end, and he felt a tug towards the west, the phylactery guiding him towards the original supplier of the blood.

“Why not bring this to Meredith or Gregoir?” he asked.

She frowned, “Gregoir is…getting on in years. We speak, but I heard he has plans to move to Denerim.” She paused and stared through him. They both knew what that meant, moving a templar away from the circle back to the chantry meant he was no longer of sound mind to serve. Lyrium took its toll. “Regardless, the mage I’m chasing is in the Free Marches, and I…the fact is, the matter is delicate.”

“Yes, you said as much in my room.”

“I do not know Meredith.” She chose her words carefully. She was the Hero of Ferelden, defeater of the blight, and Arlessa of Amaranthine. But she was also a mage, under more scrutiny than an average person of nobility. Someone of that background who openly questioned the Knight-Commander of Kirkwall could find herself in a dangerous situation. “But,” Lana reached over, her fingers skimming across the tops of his. Her touch radiated a warmth into him, causing the phylactery to pulse harder, tugging him even more into the west. “I trust you.”

“You…” Cullen swallowed, “you do?” He only saw her once after the archdemon fell and the blight ended, when she was being paraded up and down the street along with the other heroes of the day. Cullen stood with the revelers, ordered to watch the mages that fought in the war. Were they some of the ones who survived the slaughter of his friends by luck or by siding with Uldred then switching sides? He had no time for the festivities flooding Denerim, he didn’t want to celebrate anyway. The world might have been spared yet he cared not one whit. But when she passed, he couldn’t help but watch her pinned up on the back of a horse, decorated as their hero. She wore a smile and waved, but it looked pinned on, her eyes blinking rapidly to maintain the illusion.

Lana slid the phylactery out of his hands and twisted it around, watching the blood convalesce in the glass, “This is no simple blood mage, as I am certain you guessed. He is a grey warden who…summoned a demon and nearly destroyed his entire order. There were bodies…I need not tell you what destruction blood mages can cause. I’ve been tasked with finding and stopping him.” Her fingers closed around the phylactery, and she bore into his eyes, “I trust you, because I know you despise malifecarum, your reasons to hate them. I do not need a soft heart for this, I need a strong arm.”

A voice screaming in the distance. His friend? He couldn’t tell anymore. All the voices sounded the same. Sounds of teeth shredding apart muscle, a crunch of bone, more screams, then silence. Blood dripped down his face, but he didn’t look up, couldn’t watch the demon finish off what had once been a person.

Cullen shook off the memory, and nodded his head at her, “Then you shall have it.”

The Bronto

He'd never been so close to a bronto before, and he'd have died a grateful old man if he never had to know the experience. The beast snorted at the impotent human clinging limply to his bridle, and sprayed thick mucus across Cullen's back. Yellow as curd, most of it slopped off to the ground. His fingers tried to wipe the rest off, giving him an up close view of the snot as well as the revolting smell. Visions of slicing the creature from neck to navel flashed through his mind. How easy it would be to unearth his sword and send the clearly miserable animal back to where it belonged -- serving demons in the void.

“Ha! I think ol’ George here likes ya,” the woman sitting primly in the driver seat called out.

“Quite,” Cullen muttered. George’s eel-like tongue lolled out of his gaping mouth and slurped up the remaining mucus. It seemed an innocuous move save the lone beady eye that stared through Cullen. He caught the message ‘I despise you and will do all in my power to make your life hell.’ Unfortunately, Cullen was stuck in the same position as the creature, but with the added bonus of bronto snot dribbling down the back of his pants.

Lana walked further ahead of their miniature trade caravan. Using her staff as a walking stick, she’d break ahead to spy on potential dangers, then return to report to him. Or, seeing as the only eventful moment of their day long march involved bronto sneezes, she’d check in, politely sympathize, then ask about the phylactery. She trusted him to carry it wrapped in his pocket, but every half hour she’d slip back and want to see it to make sure the templar didn’t accidentally sit on it or something. He’d find it annoying if it didn’t also give him an excuse to speak with her.

“Know that I find you insufferable and would rather suffer a meal of gristly bronto stew than drag your carcass across thedas,” Cullen whispered to George. The bronto snorted a fresh round, but the crafty human dodged out of the way this time.

“You findin’ yourself a friend too there?” the driver asked. Mentally, he changed her name to ‘the sitter’ seeing as how he was doing all the driving of the beast while she vaguely pointed in a direction from her prim spot atop the wagon. Lana hired them from some small hamlet on the outskirts of Kirkwall. He’d hoped they’d find their own horses, but she thought traveling with company would be better advised.

“Yes, it’s delightful,” Cullen tried to lie, his face stone. One could hew a quarry with the sneer.

He heard a snicker from further ahead, and turned to catch Lana standing on the hill. Her hand shielded her eyes as she watched him try and play nice with their unexpected companions. A burn inched up his legs from her attention, aiming for his cheeks. Maker, he was better than this. He was no longer some flippant young man reduced to babbling tears from the approving glance of a…no, no he was still that bad. The steel in his spine melted like wax at her innocuous smile. Twisting around to face the sitter, Cullen patted the bronto’s nose hoping Lana missed the red burning up his cheeks.

“Gettin’ too much sun there, boy? Not surprising, yer as white as one of them undead types. You ever go outside?” the sitter shouted in her amplified brogue to anyone within a five mile radius.

“I, uh…” His work kept him in the shadows of the statues looming over all who passed through the gallows. At least he didn’t wear the helmet. Most templars suffered a familiar strip of darkened flesh across their eyes from the helmet’s slit. It made them instantly recognizable anywhere outside the gallows.

“It’s not often we have Grey Wardens traveling with us,” one of the other wanders pipped up. This one was young, in that not quite a man nor a boy stage. His eyes drifted down Cullen’s armor. No, it was her armor, he was just the one wearing it. Not that he was wearing the armor she wore, that would be, uh…not a prudent thought to have. It was some warden set Lana unearthed from her belongings in the damned tavern. “Templars would draw too much attention on the back paths. I don’t want to alert White early. And people tend to offer assistance to Grey Wardens.”

“Then why do you wear none?”

“Grey Warden mages are the exception. If anyone asks, I’m a scribe of yours moving with you to Adament.”

So while the real Grey Warden slipped in and out of the periphery, Cullen played the part and did a Maker-awful job of it. It did not help that the chest plate pinched his sides, and the hem of the pants cut off at his lower calf, exposing most of his shins to the switch grass. Who was this armor designed for, an emaciated dwarf?

The sitter squared up, twisting the limp reins in her hands, “Nice to have a bit of protection on this run, especially from the Grey Wardens.”

“When they’re around, so are darkspawn,” the third traveller spoke. He wore more leather than seemed wise given the heat, and kept a hat tugged so far over his eyes he was doomed to walk blindly into bronto dung. Dipping in and out of the shadows when possible, the man put Cullen in mind of the apprentice mages who learned just enough of a fire spell when attempting to show off to set their bed clothes aflame.

“Hold yer tongue, Martin,” the sitter chided, “don’t you go invoking those horrible creatures name here.”

“At least our esteemed Grey Warden will warn us if we’re in any danger. That is how it works, right?” Martin turned his snake grin on Cullen and eyed him up and down. Cullen tried to not turn back to the real Grey Warden skipping over the dunes, so he patted the damn bronto instead.

“Who was the last one we traveled with, Ser…Something?” the sitter continued.

"Ser Branaugh," Martin said, while picking at a strap haphazardly thrown over the wagon full of --probably illegal -- goods bound for Orlais.

“Aye, that was it. Nice chap. Did those bandits up a treat.”

“He had no troubles steering the bronto, either,” Martin continued, his gaze cutting deeper into Cullen’s skin, “and he was handsomer, too.”

“Oh no, no…well,” the sitter attempted to come to Cullen’s rescue, then backed down instantly. “He did have that thick rugged hair, and those sparkling blue eyes. Like crystal ponds they were.”

His fingers tugged on the bridle, almost dragging the beast’s head with him while the sitter rhapsodized about Ser Branaugh – the most dashing Grey Warden in all of thedas. The chantry needed to rewrite some of their history seeing as how the sun itself rose and fell from Ser Branaugh’s backside. It was a wonder he did not defeat the blight with just his radiant smile.

“Getting along?” Lana’s sweet voice caused Cullen to jump clean out of his borrowed boots. Sweet Andraste, did she hear all that? It burned his heart to wonder where her opinion stood in the ‘how did Cullen’s looks rank amongst traveling Grey Wardens’ discussion. The mages would have them often, debating the attractive merits of each templar, some going so far as to draw up charts and lists. It did nothing to the ego to stumble across one and find you fell somewhere in the middle.

“Yes, it’s…we’re fine,” his voice jumped an octave before settling back down. Martin glared a bit more before sliding towards the end of the cart. That’s right, disappear back into your hole. Cullen thought, sneering in the unimpressed man’s wake.

If Lana noticed it, she paid it no heed. With one hand she patted the bronto’s nose, trifling her fingers through a strip of white hair. With the other she reached close to Cullen’s pocket. “Are we still on the right path?”

He dipped in for the phylactery, not that he needed to bother. That close to his skin he could feel the pull of the blood without needing to concentrate. It was a difficult sensation to describe to non-templars, a bit like a book needing to return to its proper place. You could set it down on a different shelf or another table entirely, but the world felt wrong until it was returned home. Lightly thumbing his finger across the glass, he nodded his head, “Yes, it still feels west, but…”

“What is it?”

“No matter how far we move, the distance never decreases.”

She puckered her full lips together in thought before speaking, “He could be keeping pace with us.”

“Then we should move quicker than him, and abandon this…caravan of horrors.”

Lana giggled at his shudder, and it was so sweet Cullen’s bad mood broke – at least for a breath. “They provide excellent cover, and…” she leaned closer into him, placed her hand upon the blue linen stretched over his upper arm, and whispered, “someone in the caravan likes you.”

“What?”

She didn’t explain, only lifted her eyebrow in conspiracy and smiled brighter. How did she seem to be enjoying this? Was it a fresh delight in traveling incognito as an average Ferelden and not the conquerer of the blight, or did she find a perverse joy in his discomfort? Maker knew plenty of other mages got their jollies from trying to make his life miserable and mages had more ample means than the average person. Even the word prank made his teeth grind. All he wanted was to find this blood mage, finish the job, and return to the Gallows. Meredith was less than pleased with his request for a sabbatical, and suspicious of his need for no other templars to accompany him. But Cullen had proven himself for five years in her stead. If she could not trust him, who could she? The city was quiet, surprisingly, having fallen into a summer stupor silencing the eternal templar versus mage debates. Plus, it now had a Champion to look over it. One measly templar missing for a week would not go noticed.

“Wait a moment,” Cullen stumbled in his steps. He reached deeper into his pocket, trying to unearth the phylactery. Upon skin contact he knew with certainty what he’d felt in his gut; the direction had changed. “It’s moved,” he whispered to Lana.

“Where?”

Cullen closed his eyes, trying to make sense of the vague feelings crawling up his skin, but the message was muddled. He whipped his head around, trying to scour the landscape of little more than farmland followed by untamed thickets of trees. “This makes no sense. He should be here, right here. The direction keeps altering from east to west, even north or south. I don’t understand.”

He’d expected her to look as concerned as he felt, but she only rolled her eyes and sighed, “I feared as such. Well, you have your wish. We’ll need to be leaving the caravan.”

“What? I don’t understand.”

She smiled, and patted George again, “Don’t look a gift bronto in the mouth.” Then, raising her voice to the sitter, she said, “I’m afraid the Grey Warden has sensed a darkspawn nest that must be destroyed for the sake of the local populace and his duty to the order. You’ll have to carry on alone. We thank you for your hospitality.”

“Oh, that’s a real shame,” the sitter said. “But we understand. Don’t want those filthy creatures chasin’ after us and givin’ us all the blight. Your time and company was much appreciated!”

Lana slipped her hand around Cullen’s arm and guided him away from the wagon. He tried to rein in his slack jaw, but the relief was tempered by confusion. As the travelers pulled away, it was Martin of all people who looked back at him with a strange sorrow and then winked. Returning to the Gallows had never sounded more enticing.

“I do not understand…” he began, expecting Lana to remain watching the caravan rattle off. But she tossed off her own facade of bumbling scribe, strength shoring up her bones as she strode towards the north.

“The reason the phylactery keeps changing position is because our blood mage is below us,” she explained over her shoulder.

Cullen jogged to keep up, trying to close the gap between them. He had no idea she could move so quickly. “Are you saying that…”

“Yes,” she stopped and turned around, “he’s in the Deep Roads.” Lana frowned, and placed both hands on her hips. “Cullen, I can’t ask you to follow me. The Deep Roads are not safe to travel, they barely are during a blight much less so many years after.”

“And you expect me to let you walk through it alone.” He couldn’t believe what she was saying. After all that time she took collecting him, to abandon him now a days walk outside of Kirkwall.

Lana only shrugged, “I’ve done it before.”

“Maker!”

"I prefer to have someone watching my back, but you will not be able to sense the darkspawn the way I can, and you will not be..." she reached over and caught his hand. Her eyes pleaded through a pain he couldn't read. With her thumb, she massaged the back of his hand -- the intimacy throwing Cullen off guard, "the blight could kill you."

“This blood mage, he is dangerous?”

“Very much so,” she said, still clinging to him.

“Then it is my duty as a templar to stop him, blight or no.”

Lana’s bittersweet smile plucked upon a dangerous string in his heart, but she didn’t fight him on his decision. Releasing his hand, she nodded her head and said, “As you wish. Now we just have to find an entrance into the Deep Roads.”

“That should not be too difficult, follow the darkspawn?”

Lana frowned, her nose crinkling in disgust, “I’d prefer to avoid them if at all possible. Luckily, I set out with maps of the area. We should establish a camp and rest up, there will be little sleeping once we’re in the deep.”

Rabbit

At least she didn’t laugh at him. That was Cullen’s only saving grace as he struggled to skin the rabbit he’d more blundered into than snared. They had stores, but Lana thought the coney might serve them better for the night while the rest was preserved for the deep roads. He wondered how long she thought this chase would last.

“Do you need help?” she asked, her voice airy even as she watched him like a hawk that would have made a cleaner job of disemboweling the rabbit.

“No,” Cullen knee jerked, then regretted it instantly as his knife skidded across fatty tissue and bit deep into muscle. Blood welled across the rabbit’s fur, marking another failure on his part. “You already gathered water and started the fire. This seems the least I could do.”

“Well,” she twisted her fingers around the jumbled wood pile. From her machinations, the metallic twang of the fade danced upon Cullen’s tongue. Flames licked higher off the kindling, twisting not with the wind but her whims. “This part was a bit of cheating. It was about all I could add to traveling for…a depressingly long time. Have you ever dressed a rabbit before?” She turned from the fire to watch him, her eyes burning a hole through every poor cut he made.

“Yes…though not since I was young.” And even then most people would chase him away from any butchering, terrified of what remained to work with after he hacked away at it. There was a good reason he never planned on the farming life. “What of you? Not many opportunities to learn how to skin your own game in the tower.”

She smiled, “I am uncertain of that. Have you seen the size some of the spiders could reach? You could hollow a few out and make a nice rowboat.” Cullen laughed with her from the memory. Neither mage nor templar found the source of the giant arachnids swarming through the crawlspaces of Kinnloch. It was a rare coming together moment for both sides as they decided to wall up the area and never speak of it again. “But, aside from pest control, the tower did not prepare me much for life outside it. Imagine. So, I picked up what I could here and there. It’s better you’re doing it, actually. I’d have sliced my thumb open by now.”

“Oh, well, that’s…” he giggled at her admittance, and tried to bite down the blush crawling up the back of his neck. A spider would have been preferable. Lana must have missed his discomfort as she returned to the fire, weaving it through her fingers like a strip of grass. “Here,” he lifted the gutted and skinned carcass off the stump and held it out by a still attached foreleg. That felt wrong for some reason. “Um…where do you want it?”

“We’ll have to stew it, unless you brought a frying pan with you.”

“I’m afraid I left it in my other skirt,” he said, lowering the rabbit into the simmering water. While she tended to their dinner, lifting the pot away from any rising flames, Cullen wiped his knife clean of rabbit blood, then his hands. It took him so long to finish the job, the gore began to clot. Crimson globules wobbled in the grass beside his boots, which he tried to not trod through. He sheathed his knife across his chest and turned around to watch Lana sprinkle something green into the pot, her delicate fingers hovering just above the water. She shouldn’t look so achingly beautiful in the tempering glow of firelight, her lips pursed in concentration with her lower jaw jutted out. A thick cloak wrapped around her body rendering it shapeless, but it didn’t matter. He feared his tongue would trip away even if she were covered in dung and dressed in a burlap sack. A small part of his brain tried to remind him that she was a mage, and he a templar, but the extenuating circumstances about that arrangement sat beside her. When he wasn’t wrestling with the rabbit, she pored over the maps, that same enchanting pout upon her lips.

“Perhaps now is a good time to go into more detail about this blood mage we’re chasing,” he said, clinging to the first distraction he could find.

She twisted around to him and planted a hand upon her knee to see up to his height, “That is fair. Forgive me for the secrecy, this is not easy and Wardens do not go for help lightly.” Cullen crossed to his bedroll and sat down on her right. It was a good six feet away, but he still shifted upon his hip to maintain a proper distance. “He is an elven mage. Slight frame, slight even for an elf. He calls himself White, though that is not his given name.”

“Why White?”

Lana smiled, a sentimental one that softened her face. Cullen felt a stir of something primal through his gut. What was this White to her? “When he was twenty something, he entered the fade and the experience turned his hair stark white. He’s called himself nothing but since.”

“Twenty? How old is he now?”

“Forty, I think three. That would be useful, I suppose.”

A small smile turned up Cullen’s heart. Forty three was far too old…and, he caught himself. What right did he have to speculate on what she found old? “What circle was he with?”

Lana frowned and pursed her lips, “He was not with a circle, he was a Grey Warden.”

“I understand that, but you must have some connection with a circle. Templars to watch the mages even within the wardens.” She stared through him and he continued to explain her own order to her, “For protection from abominations.”

“I’m aware what templars are for,” Lana cut in, the first whiff of frost between them. “White was in the circle in Nevarra. I forget which, precisely. Then he was recruited into the Grey Wardens. Mages who take the…join, fight darkspawn, but White showed skills in study and manipulating the fade beyond any of our scribes. So he was moved to the order’s outpost in Ostwick to research the blight for the First Warden.”

“And that was where he became a blood mage? Where he attacked his fellow wardens?”

Lana stared at the rabbit’s mutilated muscle bobbing below the waterline. Without breaking from it, she said, “Yes, it was Ostwick. It was—”

“You were there?”

She lifted one shoulder, “I was not present at the time of the attack, but I had to see for myself, to…aid in tracking him. I’d prefer to not speak of it, if it’s all the same.”

"I..." Cullen slunk back. The pain was fresh in her voice, the wound still weeping. He knew the same need burning inside her. People often asked him about Ferelden, especially after he first transferred to Kirkwall. They wanted fun stories about the blight -- heroics, bravery -- and all he had to tell them were horrors that kept him up at night wearing a hole through his floorboards. Rain was the worst. Not a torrent, but the slow drip as the last of the storm passed. Each plop sounded so very like blood dribbling through gaps in the floor.

“I’m afraid dinner won’t be for another hour at best,” she sighed, prodding her finger into the rabbit and watching the flesh bounce back. “What shall we do ‘til then?”

“Please not charades,” Cullen groaned.

She chuckled, then wiped her hand down her face to straighten her features, “I promise no charades, no guessing games, and no miming.”

“Sweet Andraste, I forgot about that cursed invisible box that…what was his name?”

“Rothchild.”

“Yes! Rothchild would climb into near on every meal.”

“People seemed to enjoy it,” she said, always quick to defend the defenseless. But there was no excusing the man’s antics. He was a senior enchanter near on fifty, yet he preferred to spend his time pretending to be caught in an unexpected windstorm, or moving down a nonexistent set of stairs much to everyone’s chagrin.

“That was the worst part, the encouragement,” Cullen shuddered.

Lana’s laugh broke through the falling night, and she shook her head. Through a smile stretching her cheeks, she asked, “Was there nothing you liked about the tower?”

Panic struck Cullen. He whipped his head away as if he spotted some animal rustling in the bushes, even sticking a hand out to follow the imaginary thing. She had to know the answer to her question. No matter how much he tried to walk it back in his mind, confessing the truth of his infatuation to her face burned through his memory like a torch. The shame and the immorality of it stung him still, a stain no amount of prayer could blot away. He’d never wished someone was actually a demon so badly before, or for the ground to open up and consume him. That didn’t seem such a terrible possibility now either. But no darkspawn horde erupted from the grass, and she’d probably warn him if it was about to.

“It seems to have gone,” he said at first, sticking to his cover, before smoothly sliding to, “What did you? Oh, um, I rather enjoyed the desserts.”

“Yes, the butter cookies,” she jumped up, her face ripe with enthusiasm, “with that sugar on top, not a glaze or a frosting, but I could never figure it out. The cooks at the Keep can’t seem to get it right.”

Right, she wasn’t just a Grey Warden but the Grey Warden placed in charge of a keep in Ferelden. An entire arling, in fact. “I admit, I am surprised that you travel alone. I’ve never known nobility to move from one room to another without five people trailing them.”

Lana snorted at that image, then sighed. “Yes, I’ve been to court a few times as well, against my better judgement. One man, I think it was only a bann no less, had a servant carrying around a footstool during a dance. For hours. He never even sat down. I don’t understand any of it.”

“So no servants in the wings to clean your shoes off with their lips?” Cullen asked, dragging his teasing on.

Her pulled face told him all, but she still shook her head and volunteered a, “Maker, no.”

"There must be someone who watches out for you, to -- you know -- keep you safe for the wardens?"

“Grey Wardens tend to be their own bodyguards, and I think I’ve finally gotten off the Crow’s list. If Zevran is to be believed.”

He should have stopped after that. They were on polite but distant terms. No reason to go and… “You left no one behind?” his tongue wagged freely, as if loosened from drink. He wished he could blame it on intoxication.

But Lana used the chance to make a small joke, “Only a keep full of soldiers, and wardens who can’t find their own bottoms without my pointing out they sat upon them.” Cullen decided it best to drop his inquiry before the awkwardness consumed him entirely when she sat higher and offered up, “but, no one else of importance. Wardens, we do not…fraternize.” She managed to twist the last word from a spit to a regretful sigh. Prodding the rabbit anew, she turned her attention upon him, “What of you?”

“Me?” Cullen pointed at his chest, roughing up the griffin across the sternum, as if someone else were present.

“You must have enchanted some pretty thing in the echelons of Kirkwall society,” her voice was genuine, but a smirk sparkled in her eyes.

Cullen snorted at the insinuation, as if he had any time for the few nobles who thought it sport to prod into templar business. It was Meredith who dealt best with them; when they were passed off to her second-in-command she wanted a curt and tactless response.

“Fair enough,” Lana bobbed her head, “and I do not blame you for it. My seneschal has perfected the ‘No, the Arlessa is not available for marriage at this time’ response.” She chuckled at the foolish idea of her settling down, then turned her eyes upon him, “The Templar Order’s not against marriage, I thought. You’re free to couple.”

“True,” Cullen spoke before his mind could scamper away to form anything of a passing excuse. If any of his fellow templars had shown an interest in him, he did not see it. He did not want to see it. His life was busy enough with his devotion to the order and maintaining a balance in always precarious Kirkwall. It was also beyond the pale for him to take up with a woman underneath his command, the nobility bored him, and…there was no one else. “I would rather protect and guide the knights below me than…uh, bed them.”

He felt an idiot for saying as such, but she nodded her head as if he spun sage advice instead of terrified dribbles. She caressed her forehead, her fingers cupping her face, “I understand. They’re your…children sounds dangerously patronizing, doesn’t it?”

Cullen shrugged, he’d felt the urge to call the other knights that and much worse at times. Especially given the recent crops proclivity for pranks. “It is lonely at the top,” he said, then shook his head. No, that wasn’t right. He wasn’t lonely. He was determined, quiet, introspective, but not lonely. Sadness or grief had no place in the order, not when there was duty.

Lana did not call him out, she only sighed again and slipped her eyes closed. A thousand emotions played across her gentle features, each a story he could only read a sentence of before it disappeared behind her commander mask. It tugged at his heart to see the steeled eyes deny her internal pain. They mimicked the same that stared out at him through the mirror each morning.

“Ah!” she cried, her finger bouncing the correct depth into the rabbit, “dinner is done.” Stabbing into the carcass with her own knife, she lifted the rabbit out of the pot, yellowed water dribbling off the pale skin. Dropping it onto the cutting log, she sawed into it. Without any hint of jocularity, Lana asked, “Are you a chest or thigh man?”

Dreams

Cullen picked at the ashes now barely warm hours after they’d been doused. He could sleep, she assured him it was safe of darkspawn, and bandits would find a rather unfortunate end if they tried. After a few hours of twisting upon the ground, never missing his creaky bed more, he gave up on the fruitless effort and sat beside the dead fire. Maybe it was being in an unknown location for dubious reasons, perhaps it was the incessant crying of the wild animals echoing through the trees. Or, most likely, it was due to the woman curled up on her bedroll. She had her knees almost tucked up to her chin, her cloak stretched out across her body like a blanket. It must not have been as warm as he suspected. On occasion, her arms would tremble deep in sleep, shaking the cloak like a flag in the wind. She’d grip tighter to her knees, pressing them deeper into her chest until the tremors passed.

It was idiotic to even entertain the notion. Cullen was more certain of that fact than almost any other in his life. He’d watched countless mages sleep, or feign sleep, during night shifts counting beds. A few would glare back at him, their sullen eyes sullen daring him to say a word against them. They were technically in bed, and there were no orders they needed to be asleep in said bed. For a brief moment he was powerless against them. Those were far from the worst. It was discovering a mage missing not because he tried to escape but was in anothers bed that ratcheted up his anxiety.

At twenty and as inexperienced as a hermit with a fascinating pin collection, stumbling upon two people becoming very well acquainted all but drew the breath from his lungs. Something of an order had tumbled from his throat, though to his ears it sounded like a goose cry. The activities froze and both heads sheepishly dug out from under the blanket. Uncertain of what to say, Cullen -- with a face as bright as a strawberry -- suggested they go to sleep. He did not let them rise from the bed or even disentangle, just sleep like that for the whole night.

Knight-Commander Gregoir found the report humorous and gave a ‘people will be people’ response, but there was an announcement to the apprentices to try and contain their affections as best they could. There was no mention of Cullen’s idiotic order to the pair, but somehow the mages found out, because there was nothing they loved more than gossip. It spread faster than a misplaced fire spell. They would whisper “Finish quick or you’ll have to sleep like that,” every time he passed. Apprentices thought they were oh so hilarious.

Lana stirred in her sleep and she rolled to face him. Slips of dawn barely breaking up the horizon lanced across her face. She was beautiful, you’d have to be an idiot not to see that. He thought time would temper that, reveal his idolization as little more than youthful folly. She could not be as heart racing as he remembered. This trip had done nothing to shatter his fantasies, even a hard day of traveling and finding rest upon the dirt did nothing to mar her temperament or beauty. Of course, she could not care for him, he was…not good enough, for her or anyone he’d wish to spend time with. It was an oddly comforting thought to know where he stood, a shield against the traitorous parts of him that dreamed of dangerous things. Though, he could not stop watching her slumber.

The cares of the world were erased from her brow while she traipsed through the fade in her dreams. It was her smile that shifted her from a beautiful woman into someone that knotted his tongue every time he stood near her. It took almost three weeks upon first meeting her before he could even bark out a "move along." Before that, he'd made squeaking noises and wave with his hands, which only made her smile wider and -- on occasion -- laugh. Andraste's breath, he was finished when she'd laugh.

But that was a lifetime ago, another man, a foolish and naive man who thought mages were good people at heart. Now he knew the truth, bore their scars on his body and…elsewhere. And yet, Lana was different. Even becoming a Grey Warden, those fearsome slayers of darkspawn, she maintained her gentleness. She was one of the good ones.

Lana stirred again, but this wasn’t a soft tremble from dawn’s chill. Her shoulders pivoted back and forth, slamming her sides into the ground. Whimpers vibrated up her throat.

“Lana,” Cullen whispered in the air.

If she heard him, she gave no sign, her eyelids undulating in pain. Her calm face shattered, dragging her lips into a rictus of horror. She screamed something that sounded like a chant, the words foreign to him. Her voice hissed and snapped, giving the strange tongue a demonic turn.

“Lana,” Cullen tried again, leaping to his feet. “Solana!”

Still she would not respond, her fingers clawing at the cloak around her neck while more of the unholy chanting broke from her throat. He dropped to a knee beside her bedroll, ignoring dawn’s frost chewing upon his shin.

“Lady Amell,” Cullen reached out to her, prepared to catch her hand and yank her awake from whatever ensnared her. “Warden Commander!” he shouted.

Lana’s eyes snapped open and she sat bolt upright. Her fists both flared, blue light warping around her hands as magic gushed out of the fade. Ice shards erupted from the ground spearing through the sky nearly twenty feet in all directions around them. She blinked thrice, then stared at her hands. Shaking away the buildup of magic, Lana finally turned to him. It was only her that peered out through her eyes.

“That was all the wards, wasn’t it?” she asked, tapping her fingertips together “Ouch! Yep, all of them. The blowback’s the worst part.”

“Are you…” Cullen’s hands froze, one inches from her, the other inside his armor.

Her fingers raked across her forehead, leaving furloughs of red flesh in their wake. “I, sorry. It’s a Grey Warden thing.”

“A Grey Warden thing?” Cullen repeated, his body rigid.

“We, uh,” Lana’s eyes slipped closed for a moment as she continued to claw across her skin. “On top of sensing darkspawn sometimes we hear them as part of…part of what makes us Grey Wardens. It’s most prevalent in dreams.”

“You have nightmares about darkspawn?” It should not be surprising, few came back from war unchanged, but he couldn’t stop the shock upon his face. She was the Hero of Ferelden, surely she was strong enough to resist the horrors of war. Somehow, despite knowing her before she became that mythic warrior, he’d bought into the hype around her. Perhaps it was because he knew her before he wanted so much to believe it, to think she was untouchable.

Lana pursed her lips and nodded, finally pulling her fingers away from her forehead. The scratches were deeper than he expected, more reminiscent of a cat attacking than her chewed down nails. “I should have warned you.”

“Do they happen often?”

“It’s worse the closer I draw to the deep roads. Some remnant of my joining during the blight.” Her eyes didn’t water, but her gaze drifted past Cullen and towards the lightening horizon. For a time neither said a word, they only shared in the silence of the early morning broken by the chirp of birds. “I should probably get up, anyway.”

It wasn’t until she struggled to rise to her feet that Cullen noticed how close he was to her. He staggered back to let her up, and turned his back to her. Certain that she was Lana and nothing else, Cullen released his hold on the knife hidden inside his armor. His fingers trembled and he held them close to his chest, trying to will away the rapid beating of his heart. If she noticed how close he nearly came to killing her out of fear of possession, she did not voice it, only scooped up her water skin and headed towards the creek. Any mage was vulnerable, Cullen repeated, watching her unsteady steps. Any mage was dangerous.

Stairs

Lana kept a close eye on the maps while Cullen was supposed to keep an eye on the trail. The fact he could not find this imaginary path only aided in him smashing his boot through every tree, puddle, and rabbit burrow along the way. “You have no idea where you’re going,” he chided himself as he plunged calf deep into a hole. Mud suckered up while he sneered at his bad luck.

But it was Solana who answered, “No, I’ve got a fairly good handle. That pile of rocks there, the white ones. I think they were part of the old temple from before the second blight. One of those pagan ones later altered into an Andrastian pre-chantry, then burnt down during an exalted march years after.”

Cullen only saw vines and moss sprawled across a lumpy hill, but he had no reason to doubt her, she was the grey warden. “Do you do this often?”

“Chase down blood mages?” she asked, her face buried in the map. After a moment, she pointed towards the east and nodded her head. “I’m not a templar.”

“No, I know. You couldn’t be a…” he tried to rise up from his stuck boot and sighed. His leg refused to budge. “Hunting for entrances to the deep roads long lost. I wondered if this is part of the average grey warden duties.”

“Ah,” she smiled and rolled up the precious maps into the pack slung across her back. “A grey warden’s job is to stop blights. Which means I peaked rather early in my career, I suppose.” She stepped close to Cullen, her body so near the wind ruffled the hem of her robe onto him. His heartbeat picked up from the heat of her inches away.

“That’s a shame,” Cullen squeaked out. He snapped his teeth to try and hide the ecstatic terror building at the back of his brain. What was she doing?

“Truly. So, some of my sunset years involves traveling across the land, finding darkspawn, following them to their filthy holes, and destroying them.” Her tone was stark and dry, but her eyes sparkled in a dangerous mischief. Lifting half her smile, Lana dropped to her knees. His hands reached for her shoulders to raise her out of the mud and to stop her from… Maker, whatever she was doing, it could not be that. Cullen swallowed a squeak when her fingers grasped around his calf and she began to yank upwards. Andraste’s tears, of course. If the blood mage or the darkspawn didn’t end him on this trip, his runaway mind would. Together they worked to unstick him from the mud.

“You don’t send some of your underlings to do that?” he gritted through his teeth, trying to distract from the awkwardness blooming up his cheeks. To even think that, no, it was only a passing…Maker, when did it get so warm? His boot erupted from the sinkhole, the ground popping in rage from losing its toy.

Lana held out her hand and Cullen took it, helping her rise. Her robes were filthy, the knees down to her feet coated in mud and moss. She paid it no mind as she grabbed up her staff. “Sinkholes are a good sign.”

“To predators looking for an easy meal,” Cullen grumbled.

“It means the ground is weak, and where the ground is weak an entrance to the deep roads is near. Come on, should be just past that hill.”

Lana strode ahead of him as she always did. On occasion she’d bang the end of her staff into the ground, listening to the noise. After a few steps and bangs, she resumed their earlier conversation. “I don’t like the idea of sitting on a throne. I made a lot of sacrifices to be what I am, and I don’t want to waste them.”

"I never--" Cullen began, but Lana gasped and ran up the hill away from him, her lighter steps making the climb much easier than his. He gritted his teeth and, not as excited about the fragile ground, took each step with more caution. The last thing he wanted was to force her to have to fish him out of a sinkhole by the waist. As he rounded up the hill, Lana waved her hands over a cavity dug so deep into the earth to render it essentially bottomless. Packed mud around the entrance gave way to rock chiseled away from the earth after five feet down into the pit. Further than that was inky blackness, an ominous fog drifting atop the impenetrable bottom. The hole was a good twenty feet in diameter, more where the rock cleaved away from the mountain like a cracked bone. Rotted boards were nailed up by a blind man working off the instructions of a deaf man to create a staircase for giants. The staircase circled around the edges of the pit, down into the depths beyond sight -- at least what parts of the stairs that hadn't fully succumb to time and their poor craftsmanship. Cullen tried to see to the bottom but could only spot a hint of a wood pile hundreds of feet below them. That must be where the stairs went to die.

“Here we are,” she said, waving her hands at it.

“We’ll never survive that.” Cullen tried to sound optimistic, but it always turned into pessimism when possible death was involved. “Is there another entrance closer? One nearer to the ground part of the deep roads?”

Lana shook her head, “Not for miles, and in the opposite direction. If we take it, we could lose White forever.” Above the squawks of carrion birds was an eternal creaking from the staircase shifting to its inevitable doom. He leaned over the edge, trying to see if enough the stairs remained in place all the way to the bottom to insure their survival, but shadows either hid vital sections or they did not exist. He couldn’t tell.

“Cullen,” she spoke so close to him, he jumped from her whisper, “you can still turn back. Once we take this, it’s the deep roads and I don’t think there will be any getting out.”

He nodded and reached for the sword upon his hip, the same blade he’d carried since landing upon the shores of Kirkwall. Pulling it tighter to him, he said, “I am willing to enter the deep roads, though I’d prefer to do it one piece.”

“Oh, that,” Lana waved his concerns away as if they were little more than a child’s insistence that the bogeyman lived in the wardrobe, “I can help with that. Come on.” She stepped to the edge of the stairs and, without pausing to test it, slid two down. The entire structure groaned in pain from her addition but did not collapse.

Her eyes bore into him and she waved for him to get a move on. After composing himself, Cullen stepped forward, “I should go first.”

Lana sighed, “No, I’ll test it. With your, um, greater weight, it’s more likely you’d break the stairs and leave me stranded.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” he asked even as he eased onto the rickey case. Amazingly, it continued to hold him upright, even with his “greater weight.”

“Grey wardens don’t work in hugs and comforting lies. Though we’ve got a smashing pie recipe for some reason,” Lana chuckled, her lighter steps twisting her deeper and deeper down the staircase. She vanished below Cullen and he increased his careful steps downward.

“You’re telling me you don’t hug darkspawn to death?”

“Not particularly,” her voice carried from below. It was a strange comfort to speak to the voice. Even if he couldn’t see her, at least he could still hear her. It also covered up the mournful wail of the structure supposed to be supporting him. “Do templars kiss demons?”

“Some of them,” Cullen dead panned. He didn’t even notice the joke until she began to laugh below him, light as air. How was she not bothered by this? Digging his fingers deep into the wall, Cullen increased his gait while gravel scattered from his handholds. It also drew forth even more groans from the stairs. “Why Lana?” he asked, needing anything to cover over the sound.

“Huh?” her voice was even more distant now. How far did she get below him?

“Why do you call yourself Lana? I thought your name was…”

“Solona,” she spoke the name as if a curse. “I never liked it. No idea what my parents were thinking, sounds like an estate by the sea for addled Orlesians.”

Cullen chuckled at her rather apt description. It was days before he learned the name of the apprentice that caught his eye, and that was only from inspecting a class roster he wasn’t supposed to see. Amell was good, but the given name did not fit her in the least. While the senior enchanters called her Solona, her friends all had some version of Lana or Lanny. She seemed content with either, but frowned when anyone used her proper name. Templars were supposed to call the mages their rank followed by family name but he almost called her Lana once on accident. After the tower mages and templars took the rare trip outside to stretch in the sun, she and a few other apprentices wandered off to a blueberry bush. Cullen wished to follow, but he clung to his duty and remained watching over the others tending to a haphazard garden. When thunder broke above them, the mages scurried inside all save Lana and her friends. When he ran over to them, they were gorging on the berries, their laughing faces blotted in purple juice. That was when the familiar name almost broke from him, “La…Solo…mage, there is a storm beginning!” He thought for certain he twisted his words quick enough to hide his blunder, but she didn’t look him through that day. It was the first time she looked at him.

And now she was somewhere in the depths of a certain-to-break-their-necks staircase, dragging him into the pit of a darkspawn lair. Cullen twisted around another turn of the hole and spotted Lana’s back. Her hand clung to the wall to steady herself as she leaned over, peering down through the depths. He must have huffed harder than he meant to from the climb, because she twisted away from the long fall.

“We’ve hit our first rough patch.”

He followed from the edge of the staircase, broken like a jagged tooth, down towards where it picked back up again. It was a neck breaking jump, no way anyone could make it. Cullen stopped five stairs above her and tried to crane down to see the bottom. Only darkness glittered back despite their moving deeper into the earth. “What do you propose we do now? Head back up?” he asked, pointing towards the climb that might hold them.

Lana chuckled, “No, I have a better idea, but you need to get closer to me.”

“I…is this all right?” he asked, hopping down a stair. At her hand wave, he moved down another, then two more until he stood both feet on the one stair above her. It complained greatly from his weight.

“Here, hold this…” she twisted around to pass him her staff.

Even as he took it, he asked, “Why?” An unearthly power radiated from what looked little more than a shed branch, stripped and polished.

“Because, I need both hands free for this next part,” Lana smiled, then turned back to face the drop off. Magic twisted around her fingers as she drew them across her body. The sound of wood splintering and cracking apart echoed through the pit. Cullen reached for the wall, bracing himself for a fall, but the stairs they stood upon remained stationary. Something moved out of his field of vision and he turned to watch a small section of the staircase yank off the wall above him. Barely showing any strain, Lana guided the section of stairs lower into the pit. It drifted so close he could have reached out to run his fingers across the stripped bolts that she ripped clean out of rock.

Carefully lining it up below her, she stepped onto the stolen stairs and nodded her head. Lana kept her hands extended, magic crackling around her fingers. He’d seen mages throw things before, a chair here, a book there, mostly out of boredom or to make some point. Even when it was little more than a cup, the tendrils of whatever fade energy they corrupted into the world would hiss and spit around the mage. But it circled Lana’s fingers like a loyal dog would its mistress. She stepped down her floating stairs, increasing her light steps again.

“Come on, Cullen,” she called, already halfway down her levitating steps.

Gripping tight to the staff, as if that would somehow protect him from falling, he eased onto the floating stairs and was surprised to find the ground as steady as any other. He expected it to bob like a ship on the sea, or pitch to the side. With a greater care, he eased downward, his eyes level with the ground and trying to not think of how they’d get back up if this part of her plan failed. A gap of three stairs hung between Lana’s yanked out chunk and the continuation of the original. She paused at the drop off and turned towards him.

“You’ll have to take it first.”

“Why?”

To demonstrate, she dipped her hands an inch and the world shifted below Cullen. His hands flailed to try and catch himself upon nothing, but before he could fall she realigned the stairs. “If I jump first, the stairs will tip,” she still explained as if he wasn’t very aware how much his life rested in her steady hands.

“All right, I understand,” he said. Lana tried to flatten against the crumbling railing some safety conscious person took the time to put up. It was a kind effort on her part, but the stairs were only built wide enough for one person. Cullen slid to his side, easing down the stairs while staring at her instead of the ground below him. His boot searched for a landing, hovering through empty space before moving his weight downward. He attempted to lean back to give her room, but a warning from the edge of the stairs pinned in him place. There was no avoiding crushing her fingers into his armored chest.

“I am sorry,” he said and plowed forward as quickly as possible to minimize the pain. Lana crinkled her nose and sneered as her fingers banged across the metal griffin. Cullen kept silently apologizing, but he never felt the platform dip. She hung on until he stood at the precipice.

“Do not fall,” she instructed, as if he had any other plan in mind. Eyeing up the destination, he leapt. It was not agile, his ankle fumbling in the landing, but the stairs did not collapse. Holding tight to the staff stretched across his arms, he turned back and shouted, “All right!”

Before he finished speaking, Lana hopped from her position and smacked full on into his back. Instinctively, she cushioned the blow with her hands, breaking contact with the floating stairs. Without magic to suspend it, the structure plummeted to the depths of the pit. Lana spun around and waved her fingers just enough to slow the descent so it softly landed on the pile instead of splintering into wood and nail shrapnel.

“Well, that was fun,” she smiled.

“Your idea of fun would send hardened generals scampering under their beds,” Cullen said, peering through the cracked railing at the stairs he occupied only a moment earlier. It wasn’t until he leaned back that he realized she had her hands gently splayed across his back. “I should probably continue downward.”

“That would be advisable,” Lana said.

“Right, I’ll just do that then…” he took two steps down and felt her hands slip away from his body. A shudder twisted up through the spine of the staircase. “Oh, Maker,” Cullen’s body paused, his foot hanging above the next stair. He tried to turn his head to look up at Lana. Her face was screwed up in concentration as she stared down at still deadly fall. “What do we do now?” he whispered through a held breath.

The staircase screamed like a forest ripped apart by turbulent winds. He reached for the railing to steady himself, but that final bit of weight started a chain reaction. Boards rattled away from their support beams, popping off the nails. Stairs rained down below them, shattering into the ground.

RUN!” Lana shouted, shoving her shoulder into his back. Cullen did just that, leaping two or three stairs at a time, as the ground raced away from them. It was like trying to run up a hill of sliding sand, the entire structure collapsing beneath him while he tried ti use it. If he ever stopped moving he’d fall dead and Lana would tumble behind him. He jumped forward just as a board vanished below his foot. Twisting to warn Lana, his eyes widened as a piece of wood rose from the wreckage to slot into place.

“I’ve got it. Go, go, go,” she ordered. Her arms flew like she was conducting a symphony, slapping every broken board and section of splintered staircase below them. Even as he picked up speed, the staircase gave up on its fight and the remaining boards below them smashed to the ground. There were no more stairs to ease them downward but Lana was resourceful. Debris, planks, anything she could find she lifted from the bottom of the cavern and slapped it all just below Cullen’s feet. He didn’t slow, having to trust that she’d put something below him just as he stepped onto it. His shoes stomped through the wood, splintering at each step. The planks were packed with mud from the old rains sloshing up the ravine. His heel cracked through something and he glanced down at a shattered skull grinning up at the boot through its head.

“Don’t mind the corpses,” Lana called, lifting everything she could find.

Cullen nodded and used her staff to balance his body as the decline steepened. Lana was running out of corpses to trod on. He was about to shout something when he spotted the ground below. It was the pile of broken stairs, not the softest landing, but Andraste knew how much longer the one mage could maintain their ramshackle descent. Bunching up his knees, Cullen launched himself off the final plank and crashed onto the pile. Splintered boards and rusted nails tried to pierce through his armor, most missing except for a chunk of stair digging into his exposed shin. He flipped around to watch Lana follow after his leap. Tossing her staff to the side, he caught her around the waist, the momentum shoving him deeper into the pile of splinters.

"That could have gone better," she struggled through gritted teeth. Cullen could only bob his head, which almost smacked into hers. He released his grip and she rolled off him, her hands still raised as if she didn't want to touch anything. Not that he blamed her. The smell was atrocious -- fetid meat during the height of summer couldn't compare to what wafted through the exposed ravine.

Lana nodded at her staff, “Could you pick it up for me?”

After yanking the splinter that felt much larger than it was from his shin, Cullen nodded and procured it from the rest of its dead brethren. Without the fear of falling to his death, Cullen noticed that what he thought were notches carved into the wood were actually names, dozens and dozens of them chiseled deep into the rosewood. He tried to hand it back to Lana, but she was turned away from him, her focus on the gaping hole carved into the bowels of the earth. A solitary dwarven statue stood guard before it. Its primitive head lay at its feet, the eyeless face gazing back at its feet. Cullen’s own stature came up to where the nose should be.

“Welcome to the deep roads,” Lana said.

More of that fetid smell oozed through the gaps in the rock. Sweet Andraste, if that was what it smelled like this far from the source, what was he about to find deeper in? But Cullen agreed to this, he wasn’t about to turn back now. He twisted around to glance at the ramshackle stairs hundred of feet above him and sighed. It was not as if he had any means to escape it. Nodding at the grey warden, he crossed the threshold and stepped onto the ancient roads of the dwarves. Lana followed behind him. After a few steps in, she reached out for her staff. As Cullen turned to hand it back, he watched every stair, every plank, and every corpse plummet to the ground. The sound was deafening from forests of lumber cracking into itself, and a dust cloud billowed in all directions. Most of the debris shattered into the walls of the entrance, the pair protected by the broken statue.

Lana watched it with a cool eye, unsurprised at the damage, but Cullen couldn’t stop from leaning out. The entire staircase was gone, there wasn’t even a sign it ever existed. Maker’s Breath, had she been holding the entire thing up while they climbed down? How was that even possible? Cullen turned back to her and a chill crawled up his spine from a power he’d never thought any mage capable of.

She smiled at him and tipped her head into the deep roads, “Shall we?”

White

There was a darkspawn tale his family favored telling while Cullen was growing up. It involved a pair of siblings who chased after a wounded deer/pet dog/demon that promised them gold. The object of their pursuit changed based upon who was telling it. Mia would often shift it to the last to cause her brothers to squeal in terror, taking time to mimic the rings of razor sharp teeth in the demon’s three mouths. In the story, the siblings stumble across a gap in the earth. Not a hole filled with dirt and worms, but an eternal cavity cleaved into the heart of the world with no end in sight. No light could penetrate the endless black because it wasn’t shadows but evil itself that blanketed the realm of the ancient dwarves. Cullen considered it little more than childhood nonsense until he stood inside the deep roads. He’d faced mage fire bursting against his shield, watched malifecarum carve up their own arms for one more inch of power, suffered demon’s claws swiping across his skin, but he’d never felt evil like this. The hair on his neck stood on end the moment they crossed past the last of the faceless dwarven statues, and it hadn’t settled down since.

Lana did not seem to notice the pervading aura as she drizzled oil across her makeshift torch and lit it with a touch of her finger. She passed it to Cullen. The heat scalded his face and fingers, but it was a welcome relief to chase away the shadows pricking about the edges of his eyes. The grey warden laid her staff to the side and ran a hand along the walls of caverns. They’d shifted so quickly from the lain stones of the ancient dwarves into the unfinished bones of the earth, Cullen missed the transition.

“Hm,” Lana inspected her fingers, “no sign of blight here.”

“I hope that’s a good thing,” Cullen said, gripping tighter to the torch with his left hand and keeping his blade close with the other.

She nodded, then cranked her head to the side. It looked as if she was trying to hear a whisper far in the distance. “Nothing so far, we may be in better luck than I hoped,” Lana smiled. He was overreacting, amplifying things to a greater danger than they really were. Cullen tried to return the smile, but the smoke of the torch bit into his eyes.

“Will it be safe to travel with this?” he asked, trying to waft away the smoke curling around them like an overeager puppy. The walls pressed into them, the cavern perhaps large enough to fit three people at a time, while the ceiling dipped and bowed, nearly skimming across Cullen’s head. He was grateful in the long line of things that clawed across his brain, claustrophobia wasn’t one of them.

Lana picked up her staff and turned away, not answering him. She no longer used it as a walking stick, her feet as silent as she could make them while crossing the ground. Cullen tried to mimic her, aware of every jangle and clang the armor made. For being what grey wardens regularly wore into the deep roads, it was poorly muffled. Even his breathing expanded the chest enough to draw forth a metallic bang that amplified through the echoes in the tight cavern. And grey wardens suffered this for days or weeks down here? How was he going to last?

As sure footed as a cat stalking its prey, Lana slipped ahead of him down the dark corridor. The occasional prick of blue light from the mushrooms sprouting along the rocks gave just enough light to keep one from fearing blindness, but nowhere near enough to guide by. Yet, Lana moved with an almost terrifying certainty, as if she’d done this a thousand times before. Cullen closed his eyes against the smoke inhalation, tried to silence his ears from his own deafening echoes, and chased after her. He kept a count of his steps, as if it would be important in returning to the surface. It was probably foolish seeing as how he wasn’t about to climb the pile of debris, but it kept the memories at bay.

He didn’t fight darkspawn during the blight. He wanted to, to have anything to do beyond sit in that room and watch helpless as the people who tortured and murdered his friends returned to their lives. Gregoir insisted there were no more blood mages remaining, that they’d all been killed, but that was impossible. To have found so many mage survivors when so few templars, who were trained to fight demons, made it out… And the mages cared not a whit about what happened. Three days after she rescued them, the mages were back in their rooms, still splattered in blood joking with each other. One made some quip about how if the templars were such pushovers, maybe they should put the mages in charge of protecting them. Cullen glared impotently at the betrayers chuckling, his hands metaphorically leashed. Every laugh was a fresh insult to his fallen brethren. Why should they feel joy when so many others suffered? The anger threatened to overwhelm him to a breaking point, where he couldn’t hold himself back, when all the mages marched to Denerim. He remained behind, never seeing a darkspawn or the horrors of the blight itself. Cullen still wondered if in the end that was a blessing or a curse.

“Hey!” Hands wrapped around his arm, silencing his step. His eyes snapped open and he stared slack jawed across a magnificent sight. A cavern split open through the earth. Blanketed in veins of lyrium, the walls towering above and below lit up like the stars of a moonless night. The blue glow bathed the cavern into an almost serene experience. It was beautiful. Cullen blinked, grateful to no longer have smoke piling in his eyes, and turned to the woman holding him.

Lana’s eyebrows raised and she pointed to his feet. “You almost fell,” she said. His boot hung an inch off the edge, prepared to take him even deeper down the crevice into whatever void waited beyond.

Cullen shuffled back a bit while Lana clung to him. He nodded a thanks, then returned to staring upward, “This is not what I expected. The color and emptiness. It’s magnificent.”

“You’re lucky,” she said, “my first trip into the deep roads involved dwarven politics. It was far less magical.”

He turned to her, her face lit up with the lyrium glow, her eyes transcendent from the awe inspiring view. Even for being a jaded grey warden she still relished in the beauty of the Maker’s hand. After a time she must have felt him staring at her, as she caught his eyes. But Lana didn’t glower or break away, instead she held his gaze for a beat and smiled. More than the heat of the torch blasted his face. A creeping terror rose up from the depths of his mind. What if he couldn’t break away from her? What if he didn’t want to?

Lana shook her head and lifted her hand off him. “We should continue this way,” she pointed towards the left. An outcropping of rock offered support above the long fall, but they’d have to travel one at a time. While Cullen tried to pound back half a thought into his brain, Lana took up the lead again. Her path twisted in and out of rock dissolved away by time and water, the lyrium providing a better light source than the torch. Cullen still held it high, clinging to the last bits of the outside world as they drifted deeper into the infested lairs of the darkspawn.

At some imaginary node, Lana turned to the left. It was one of a dozen other possible twists they passed and did not take, but they all looked the same to Cullen. He tried to not imagine how easily they’d become twisted around in the dark labyrinth, making a mental picture of every turn. Yet, deep in his gut he knew that if he lost his grey warden guide, he’d most likely die at the end of a darkspawn sword before finding his own way out. The caves narrowed again, nowhere near as pressing as the entrance, but Lana slowed and waited for Cullen to catch up. Her hand lifted and she pressed the back of it against his chest.

“What is it?” Cullen whispered.

Her eyes slipped closed as she mashed her lips together like sucking on a candy. It was strangely hypnotic, drawing Cullen closer. He almost jumped when her eyes snapped open, certainty burning in the light of the torch. “There’s a nest of darkspawn to the left of us.”

“How many?”

She shook her head, “It doesn’t work that well, I’m afraid. But I’m getting the sense there are enough I’d not want to challenge them. Luckily, I think the phylactery should be pointing us to the right?”

Cullen fumbled to reach for the glass, her gaze unnerving him. His fingers only managed to skim the surface when he felt a rush of the beacon across his skin. The prey was close, and in the exact direction she felt. “How did you…?”

Lana shrugged, “Grey Warden secret.” The right path dipped down, the ceiling pinching them low to the ground. They both had to slip along the rocky wall, one at time to make it past little more than a keyhole. The rock bulged out of the wall, as if a fist tried to reach into the cavern and froze. Cullen was fairly certain he could make it through. After Lana dipped past, he handed her the torch and tried to make himself as small as possible.

The rock bowed outward at the top, providing more room at the bottom, but he wasn’t about to go crawling on the ground. Pulling in a breath, Cullen twisted to the side and eased into the hole. A squeal of scraping metal thundered against his ears as he dragged himself against the rocky wall. His armor was just large enough to catch.

“Hurry,” Lana whispered at him, holding the torch closer than seemed wise.

“I am trying,” he huffed, each shift pulling forth more of the squealing.

“Or be quieter,” she added, her peeved voice drawing the same ire from him. Did she think he planned this?

“I would be if it weren’t for this Maker blighted armor,” Cullen cursed, inching his body along. He made it nearly halfway through the gap when the griffin on his chest bulged with a breath he didn’t mean to take. “Oh no. No, no, no,” he cried softly, struggling to unstick himself.

“What is it?” Lana asked, as if she couldn’t see the fool he turned himself into. It was one thing to die in the deep roads from darkspawn or blight, or even the deep stalkers she mentioned, but wedging oneself in the rocks and starving to death earned nothing more than the Maker’s scorn.

“I am…I cannot move,” Cullen collapsed, wishing he had more to give. He was about to tell her to move on, find White and do what she could without him, when Lana dropped her staff and shifted the torch to her other hand.

“Ah,” she said, and wiggled her fingers up through the gap of his collarbone.

What was she doing? You couldn’t remove the armor while was was pinned in place. Lana didn’t reach for a strap or buckle, instead her finger touched against the back of the breastplate. She didn’t slip her eyes closed or even appear to concentrate, but Cullen tasted the fade drifting into their world. A chill crept off her skin like fog across a graveyard at dusk. It bloomed down his chest, the ice skimming across the metal griffin. It grew from an uncomfortable frost to a stinging pain biting through the linens and into his bones.

“What are you…” he began to ask when the armor popped, the seal against the rock broken.

Lana snaked her arm away from his armor and grabbed onto his arm. Thankfully, her hand was warm as she yanked upon him. Without the rock in place, Cullen was able to squeeze out into the cavern beside her. As he tried to check himself for damage he spotted a sheen of frost clinging across the griffin relief now slightly dented inward and scuffed. He looked up at her, and Lana shrugged.

“Cold metal constricts.”

“You could have warned me.”

“I suppose, but ‘I’m going to freeze your armor, don’t move,’ seemed pointless when you already couldn’t move. Here,” she passed back his torch and lifted up her staff. “White’s near. I’m certain of it now.”

He nodded his head and reached for the hilt of his sword. Lana placed her hand over his, the same one that he now suspected could shatter his armor if given cause. How powerful did she grow in the intervening years? “Not yet,” she said, her fingers digging into his.

“This is a dangerous blood mage. I should be armed,” Cullen said, meeting her gaze. For a moment she looked about to argue, but Lana dipped back, her heat breaking from him.

“Of course, you’re right. I…come, he’s around this bend.”

Unsheathing the sword that’d seen the end of far too many of Kirkwall’s renegade mages, Cullen followed behind Lana as she moved through the dark like a deep stalker. The lyrium veins drifted away here, only a few patches of the blue lighting up the stones around them. But Lana didn’t need it, it was almost as if she could smell the other grey warden. Perhaps she could. Or…

Cullen shook the idea off. She came to him, came to the templars to hunt a blood mage. There was no way she could be…no, he refused to even entertain the thought. It was madness. Lana paused at the end of another turn in the rock. Mercifully, this was large enough to fit him. Even with his lyrium ration nearly drained from his system, the mage was close enough Cullen could feel it through the phylactery. He gripped tighter to his sword, the leather crackling.

Lana watched his hand dig into the longsword, her stare a hundred miles away. She seemed to be contemplating something, or perhaps remembering another moment. Cullen was about to shake her out of it, when she whipped her head up towards him. Closing her eyes once, she nodded her head. Magic crackled around her entire body as she jumped around the rock to face down White. Cullen was inches behind her, his blade extended out.

Oh shit!

He nearly sliced into her elbow as he wrapped his sword arm around Lana’s waist, pinning her close to him. Cullen dug his heels in, anchoring them both from the gigantic gap in the floor only inches away from their feet. She pressed back into him, her feet scrabbling to find purchase as she gazed downward.

A neck breaking fall below, the ground burst in an unnatural red fire. What drew them both to it wasn’t the churning lava but the tentacles whipping in and out of the platform suspended above it.

“Broodmothers,” Lana sneered, a hate twisting her face into something macabre.

Even from the vast distance, the creatures appeared massive. Their mottled, hairless flesh undulated off their upright chests as their tentacles slapped into the ground. An old memory of catching an ancient sow on her last litter stirred in Cullen’s mind and he looked at the monsters anew. Oh, that wasn’t just sagging skin dangling off their chests. Vileness radiated off the horrific things, pinging a primal disgust inside of him. These things weren’t just unnatural, they were atrocities. He watched the two of the broodmothers tug upon something like a dog with a sock. It wasn’t until the legs ripped apart, blood splattering in the wake, that he realized it was the bottom half of a corpse – which both creatures happily devoured. Bile rose through the back of Cullen’s throat, and he had to lean back before he vomited all over the back of Lana’s robes.

“Yes, Lady Mage,” a voice spoke in the darkness, “the mothers of…I believe hurlocks. So, you know what that means.”

Lana snapped her fingers and kicked out a ball of light. It arced above their heads and highlighted a man standing on the other side the pit. His hair was stark white, whiter than the snows of the Frostbacks, which appeared even more striking against the fine features. If they were aged, he wore them well. She wasn’t kidding about him being svelte, even for an elf. He wore the blue and silver grey warden armor, though with less metal than of Cullen’s, but his body was so slight he all but disappeared inside of it. His head bobbed upon a sea of fabrics and chainmail.

“White!” Lana shouted just as her ball of light faded away, blanketing him back in shadow.

But the mage lit up his own light source, a blue turning his patrician face gaunt and horrifying. “You’re hunting for me. Of course you would. You always would. But do you know why?”

“White, listen to me. Please. You don’t want to do this,” Lana pleaded, trying to shout without drawing the attention of the horrible creatures below.

For a moment the elf sagged, his shoulders crumpling fully and he stared down at the broodmothers. “They wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for us, you know? That’s how they make us. We made them, then they made us.”

“What is he talking about?” Cullen tried to interrupt, but Lana waved him off, her bony shoulder burrowing into him.

“I understand, you’re scared. But what you’re planning to do won’t fix anything. You know that. Please, let me help you,” Lana’s normally stern voice cracked, a gurgle of a cry breaking up her words.

White shook his head, then under great strain climbed up his staff to raise his head higher until he could look over at them. “You brought a templar with you. Wise. Best way to stop a blood mage is with a templar.”

Lana stiffened in Cullen’s grasp, her entire body tightening like a rope about to snap. Did she hope to pass him off as another grey warden? Cullen tried to bring up his sword, but he was mostly useless at this distance. He couldn’t even drain the mage’s mana without leaving Lana vulnerable.

But White didn’t outright attack them, only twisted his head, and sighed, “Templar, forgive me for not knowing your name. But I suspect it’s Templar in your mind. Templar all the way down. Templar in the blood.” He tapped his head and twisted his lips into the cruelest grin. Cullen squirmed, steeling himself for a mental invasion by the blood mage, but nothing came. Not even a whisper skimmed over his thoughts. “No, it is good you are here. You should know too. Know the truth, know everything. It’s in you, too, you chose it, some didn’t. It’s in all of us, or should be. The truth, we keep getting it almost right, but even more wrong.”

“What truth, White? Why are you doing this?”

“Lady Mage, so young. Too young to be in this. That’s what they do. They need them young, to feed to it. Everything we were told, it’s all a lie.”

“Wonderful,” Cullen sighed. When anyone said the phrase “everything we’ve been told was a lie” it was best to lock up the sharp objects and keep them from swallowing their own tongue.

Lana didn’t roll her eyes at White, but tried to inch closer to him despite the gap full of whatever the broodmothers were. “White, I’m sorry about whatever you’ve seen, but I need you to come with me. Please.”

For a moment the elf looked about to cross to them as he extended a foot. He’d slip down into the cavern and break his neck, true, at least it’d solve the problem one way or another. But then his self preservation instincts kicked in and he slid back, “I wish I could, Lady Mage. You were better than most, we found some amazing answers together. But it didn’t matter. None of it does. This is all wrong, everything, even this!” He flicked his fingers and the air above him flickered, revealing a thread of green light peeking out from the Fade itself. Somehow, he tore right through the veil! Cullen gripped tighter to his sword, the threat of demons now on the table. He’d never seen any mage rip apart the veil so easily before, most requiring enough lyrium to light up a cavern.

White slipped his fingers back, closing up the veil without a second thought.

“How did you do that?” Lana shouted, her eyes white in terror. That oddly comforted Cullen, knowing she was just as frightened of this unseen and unknown power.

“The same way I do anything, the same way you do…could do, will do. Nothing lasts forever, Lady Mage. I have to do this, for all of us. I am sorry if I hurt you in the process,” White shouted. Then he drew forth a silver blade, the edge a ghostly blue in the light of the lyrium.

“Sweet Maker, he’s going to…” Cullen shouted, but there was nothing they could do. White slit across his arm drawing forth the power of the blood. Cullen gripped tighter to Lana, extending his sword before them both. His hair stood on end as she snapped up some kind of protection spell, the energy wrapping around their bodies.

“White!” Lana screamed even while lifting up a bolt of lightning, prepared to throw it at him. “Do not kill the First Warden!” The blood mage looked up at her, his eyes drifting down in regret. Then he lifted his hands and the blood rose up around him. Thick and black, it clotted in the air around White. Lana tensed up, her shield thickening around them.

Rocks shattered off the walls, hissing in rage, but White did not throw the pile at them. Instead, he blasted the cavern above the pit. Boulders and chunks of the ceiling broke off and careened down towards the broodmothers. Their bulbous heads twisted up, the tentacles slapping in terror but there was nothing they could do to stop the incoming bombardment. The first struck one in the head, killing it instantly. Blood splattered into the lava below. The second screamed in rage as rocks slammed into the torso and tentacles. It wasn’t until the final roof spanning boulder dislodged from the ceiling and splattered across both of their bodies that the screaming stopped.

“White!” Lana shouted, shaking off the horror of the broodmother’s deaths quicker than Cullen. She gripped onto his arm while leaning as far out as possible. But the elf had drifted back into a tunnel and blasted the ceiling again, sealing himself off from them. “Damn it!” Lana screamed, kicking her boot into thin air. Cullen clung tighter to her, his eyes bulging from the effort while she raged over how close they came.

After her rain of curses dropped down to sacrilege under her breath, he said, “Do as before, with the stairs. Raise the debris up and form a bridge.”

She sighed, her head lolling forward, “It wouldn’t matter. He’s too powerful, he can just collapse more in front of us. We’d be digging for ages before we’d get through.” Her entire body leaned back into his, pressing the armor even tighter to his body. “He killed them, the broodmothers. No reason, they didn’t even see us, but he didn’t hesitate.”

“Was that…” With the danger passed Cullen realized he’d been holding his arm just below her chest for what now felt an eternity. Struggling to not croak, he continued, “What does that mean?”

“That he’s still a grey warden. I thought he was possessed, surely only someone that…but to put an end to those things.” Lana’s body shuddered in his grasp, a fact that wasn’t helping his realization that he was still holding her.

“What are they?” Cullen asked.

“They are what create darkspawn. This one would give birth to hurlocks. But it’s not what they are now, it’s what they were.” She struggled through a breath and patted his arm, “They were women once. Humans the darkspawn corrupted into those.”

“Sweet Maker!” Cullen cursed, sobering up instantly. He tried to peer back down again, to find a hint of humanity in those horrifying creatures, but only a few limp tentacles were visible beneath the carnage.

“The Maker had nothing to do with it,” Lana spat. “‘They looked on what pride had wrought, and despaired.’

‘The work of man and woman, by hubris of their making. The sorrow a blight unbearable,’” Cullen finished the canticle, both of them staring into the hissing pit as the last of the rock dust burned up on the lava’s surface.

“I know a way we can catch up to White, cut him off before he gets through the thaig,” Lana spoke, her voice a whisper.

“Why do I have a sinking feeling about this plan?”

She snorted, and began to slide away from him. Cullen released his grip as she drifted to the side of the crevice. Staring into his eyes, Lana delivered her death sentence, “Because it takes us straight through the darkspawn nest.”

Darkspawn

“Do you have any advice?” Cullen whispered above her ear. He was grateful Lana took the lead so she didn’t watch his measly color drain from the horrors below them. Creatures not of the Maker numbered in the multitudes, their malformed skin slick with ichor as they all dug bare handed into the rock below them. There was no cohesive movement, no planning on the darkspawn’s part. It was a twitching mass of terror, like a dead druffalo bursting with maggots.

“Advice?” She glanced around the caverns, knots of paths winding up and down throughout the area, most seeming to end in the pit below. On occasion, a cry or blood curdling shriek would echo up as one darkspawn threw a chunk of dislodged rock at another. Anywhere else it would cause a fight between soldiers, but the darkspawn shook it off and continued working. That froze Cullen’s veins more than the broodmother’s tentacles.

“For how to handle that many darkspawn in one area.”

“Yes. Don’t,” Lana pivoted from their vantage point and stared up into his eyes. Terror skirted through her face, and it soothed him to know that despite her years walking through the deep roads even she found this madness.

“What now? We could still attempt to dislodge the rocks,” Cullen said. It was a struggle getting through the cramped space for a second time, and while he did not relish the thought of a third, it was preferable to diving headlong into a hundred plus darkspawn horde.

“No, I believe I have something better,” Lana said.

“Return to the surface and intercept White where there are no darkspawn hordes, as any sane person would,” Cullen spoke aloud the words floating in his brain. He whipped around, a blush rising from his flippant tongue.

But Lana smiled, “I’m the hero of Ferelden, sane was never in the job description.” She pointed towards one of a dozen holes carved into the cavern, the entire area dotted with them like a wasp’s nest. “According to the map, if we follow that one it should twist around and drop us onto the road between two thaigs, which will intercept with White.”

“And here comes the problem…” Cullen said even while calculating how they could drop down to reach it.

She softly elbowed him, “You’re getting the hang of this grey warden thing.”

"It seems to amount to run head long into danger, then -- at the last moment -- devise a brilliant way to survive."

That drew a chuckle from her, the sound so foreign in this demonic pit he felt himself smile. Lana slid around her pack and opened it. He couldn’t fully see what she was inspecting, only the tops of something clay colored wrapped in wads of cushioning cotton. “When I get closer to the darkspawn they will sense me. It’s part of the deal, we sense them but then they can sense us.”

“Can they sense you now?”

“If they did, they’d be climbing over top each other to kill us. So, gonna guess not.” She snorted and shook her head, “A rare time when a non grey warden would do better in the deep roads. Which is why you’ll have to go first.”

“And trust you can slaughter all the darkspawn alone?” Cullen tried to not sound indignant given what he’d seen of her powers, but even that seemed to be reaching into the realm of fantasy.

“No, I’m going to have trust that you can clear all the darkspawn in the way to create a path while I carry this,” she hefted up one of the clay pots from her pack. It was nearly too large for her smaller hand, the pot sealed fully save for three holes drilled into the top.

“What is it?” Cullen asked, leaning closer.

Lana tucked it tight to her stomach like it was a fragile egg and breathed, “You’ll see, but trust me. It’ll do the job. If not, I have three more. First, we have to get down and without, um, exploding.”

“Exploding?” Through sheer willpower, he kept his voice from cracking.

Lana ignored him, her neck craned so she could peer down at the ledge below. He watched calculations pucker the folds along her nose, the kind that seemed to be ending in more running than he anticipated. After a time, she turned to him and asked, “Do you think you could hold me?”

“Uh…”

“I can bend time to slow our descent, but we’d have to do it together and I’ll only be able to use one hand.” She indicated the supposedly more terrifying clay pot still snuggled to her midsection.

“Oh,” Cullen gulped a few times, willing saliva down his raw throat, “yes, I am sure I could if…why don’t I hold the pot thing while you cast spells with both hands?”

Lana’s eyes widened as she glanced towards whatever it was, then she chattered her teeth, “That would be unwise. Very, very unwise. We only found a balance if a pressure is applied to…Just, you’ll have to trust me.”

“I do,” he said so quickly she blinked from the confession.

“All right, good, that’s…good. Grab me and we’ll get started.”

He’d already thrown his arms around her to stop her from falling once before. This was no different. There was no reason to treat it like an insurmountable task, just grip onto her body and think about darkspawn. Winds shifted, casting the smell of fetid sulfuric air through his nose and Cullen glanced down at the mass of creatures unaware of them. He pressed his fingers into Lana’s hips, surprised to find less give than he expected. Something other than the typical corset protected her midsection.

“Ready?” she asked. Cullen nodded, then remembered she couldn’t very well see him and whispered in her ear. It must be his imagination that she trembled from his breath, or he could unnerve her. Mages tended to skitter away from templars, and that’s what she was a mage. And he was a templar, holding onto a mage, trying to find any canticle to recite that would get him through this.

Light sputtered up around the ground directly below them, the air refracting into frosted edges around them. It looked like water droplets splattered across a glass. “Jump!” Lana shouted. Together they both stepped off the outcropping and plummeted towards the rock a leg breaking distance below. The forces of the world tugged at Cullen, as strong as normal, and he tried to hiss in her ear when something yanked him upward. It was soft, and delicate, like gloved hands carefully plucking him up. They couldn’t compete against the power of his jump, but each one slowed them a bit more until the pair landed flat footed.

The light melted away, and Lana sighed, “There, not so bad. I knew I could still do it.”

“Still do it?”

“It’s been a few years since I tried that one. I don’t make a habit out of jumping off cliffs,” she shrugged her shoulders and Cullen realized he still held her tight. Breaking away, she stepped forward, but didn’t rush off to the supposed path out of the darkspawn. Instead, Lana turned to him and nodded, “Now’s the time for swords.”

“Right.” He unsheathed his sword, the edge far too notched than was regulation. It’d seen an excess of use as of late. Cullen rotated his wrist, settling the blade into a comfortable stance. “This is when I take the lead.”

Lana nodded her head and stepped back, her face vanishing into the shadows. Almost no lyrium chewed through the rocks here and they had to abandon the torch. At least he could unearth his shield with his free hand. The symbol of the order faded into the dank along with everything else in the deep roads. Cullen stepped forward, his eyes glaring down at the mass of darkspawn, then snapping back up ahead of them. So far so good, the monsters were too enraptured in their digging to bother with a couple of humans crawling above their heads. Even by the barest light of only a few deep mushrooms, he could see the path’s entrance ahead. This was going rather well, all things considered.

“Ah,” Lana cried behind him, her voice at a whisper.

Cullen stopped, but didn’t turn to face her, his eyes hunting down at the unobservant darkspawn mass. “What is it?”

“The cavern is not empty,” she said, a malice shredding her voice. She gestured the end of her staff at their only hope for an exit as two of the human sized darkspawn stepped into view. What were they called? Hurlocks? The last was lankier, its head extended like a wolfs. It struck Cullen how they milled about the same way a human soldier would, their weapons tipped across their backs as they slowly slid along the path. If he didn’t know better, he’d swear somewhere there was a darkspawn lieutenant who screamed their names every day for insubordination.

“What now?” he asked. Three blood red eyes snapped at him and an unholy scream echoed from one. Well, that answered it. The first hurlock untethered its own axe and came at Cullen jabbering in their tongue. Swinging fast, Cullen caught the edge of the blade with his shield. He threw all his back muscles into knocking it away. The hurlock twisted to the side, giving Cullen the opportunity to attack with his own sword. The blade sliced up the creature’s side, splitting through rib and offal that scattered in his wake. Still shrieking, the hurlock tumbled to the ground, black blood dribbling across the dirt. Cullen spun away from the dying creature to stare into the cold eyes of the second one. He tried to roll his shoulders back to bring the shield up, but the creature was too close. Its hammer swung high for a bone breaking blow.

Lightning crashed up the creature’s armor, it’s skin charring from the heat as its limbs convulsed. Unable to maintain its hold, the hammer slipped out of the dead hurlock’s hands and its body crumpled backwards. The smell of burnt flesh twisted Cullen’s stomach, but he still turned back to Lana. Her eyes glowed with the power of the fade. She didn’t see him, her focus was on the last of the group. The final creature tipped its head back and cried, the sound drilling through Cullen’s marrow and strangling his brain. He dipped down, summoning every mental exercise he’d used fighting against blood mages to will his arm up. The shrieking darkspawn lopped towards them like a gangly dog, its claws extended towards the prey.

It leapt into the air, teeth baring to bite down on Cullen, when the templar rose up and bashed the edge of his shield into the creature’s jaw. It flew up from the force and Lana shot another bolt of lightning at it, knocking the body off their platform.

“What was that shrieking horror?” Cullen gasped, trying to shake his ears back to life.

“A shriek, actually.”

“A creative endeavor naming that one, the grey warden’s were really stretching their limits.” He continued to rant until he could finally hear his own words, the shriek’s spell having broken. Something brushed against the back of his arm, and he turned to see Lana prodding him gently with her staff. She still held the clay pot close, but her attention was on the landing below.

The shriek’s body skipped through the darkspawn horde like a stone across a still pond. Ripples of creatures rose up from their digging to glare at the invaders who dared to kill one of their own. His early estimate of their numbers was far off. The darkspawn horde wasn’t in the hundreds. The hundreds stood upon more hundreds, who were now trying to climb over them to see what disturbed their work. Thousands of red eyes hunted through the dark, sniffing for the grey warden.

“Oh Maker,” Cullen cried, waving his impotent sword.

“To the path! Now!” Lana screamed, waving her hand towards it.

Cullen picked up his legs, the muscles groaning from all this sprinting. He ignored the pain and faced their only hope, which was quickly filling with more darkspawn. The horde may be mindless, but they caught on fast to what the invaders were up to. While some scurried up the rock face to climb to them, others ran along the paths, their blackened corrupted armor jangling like the peel of a death bell.

Fifteen of the creatures stood as a wall blocking off their path. Each snarled and snapped while waving their blades in fury. They didn’t have to form a proper blockade, only one needed to get lucky. Cullen extended his sword and he tried to burrow under his shield. This was suicide now, but he wasn’t about to back down. The air thickened and pulled from his lungs. He gasped for more and found himself swallowing icicles. Before he could turn to Lana to warn her, a blast of ice shot just over his shoulder. It struck two darkspawn in the chest, then linked to ones standing beside it, then another and another, until the wall was a fractal snowflake, each creature frozen solid.

“Bash through them!” Lana shouted, her words whipping against unnatural winter winds.

Cullen threw his might behind his shield and did as she said. When his body met darkspawn, there was no pushback from the creatures. They cracked in place, their cleaved bodies shattering into pieces strewn across the ground. He hacked a path through them with his sword, trying to carve it away and not think about the horrors of what it would look like upon thaw.

“Don’t drink any blood!” Lana shouted, a dangerous exhaustion curling in her voice. How much more did she have in her?

“I wasn’t intending to, rather doubtful the darkspawn have clean glassware,” Cullen answered back, finishing off the last of their wall. His sword stuck into the meat, the body not shattering into pieces. The ice spell was wearing off quickly, even though it managed to kill fifteen creatures in one throw. He’d ever seen anything so destructive before. Maker, if the mages of Kirkwall learned how to do something like that…

His thought trailed away as the first wave of darkspawn crawled their way up to their level. “Lana! Behind you!” he screamed, waving his sword at her.

She spun and with one hand, smashed the bladed edge of her staff through the darkspawn’s chest. Shoving it off with her foot, the creature tumbled back into its own, blood curdling on the ground.

“It’s not dead!” Cullen shouted. Despite her best efforts, the blade only bit a few inches into the creature’s skin.

Lana sneered and she raised the crystal end of her staff at the bloodied but not beaten darkspawn. The smell of decay and waste wafted off her as she cast something at the creature. For a moment it blinked, waiting for the spell to take effect, but nothing happened. She must already be out of mana. Cullen tried to shove her aside, but she stood her ground and with a flick of her wrist brought the staff blade through the darkspawn’s skull.

Its entire body erupted, coating the walls and darkspawn behind it in blood and gore. Cullen ducked down, but Lana threw up a barrier, the ichor sizzling in the air before harmlessly falling to the ground. The other darkspawn, now coated in their compatriots life blood, twitched and writhed until one by one they all exploded in the same gore. The mage turned away from the scene and checked on the pot cupped tight to her breast. She must have sensed Cullen staring up at her, as she explained, “Virulent walking bomb combined with a little something I picked up in the Anderfells.”

“That’s…” The ground twisted below them, a massive quake vibrating up his legs and rattling every rivet in his borrowed armor.

Lana’s face drained, the whites of her eyes almost visible in terror, “Oh shit, ogre!”

He’d heard of the horned creatures, ten feet tall with mouths wide enough to rip a man in half. The stories did not do them justice. Cullen gripped tighter to his sword as he turned to face the ogre rising up towards them, its feet smashing through the path. Each step rattled the cavern knocking rock off the ceiling. “How do we defeat it?”

“We don’t, we run, now! To the exit!” she pointed towards the pitch black cavern that the giant was slowly climbing to cut them off of. Cullen whispered a prayer to Andraste as he willed his thighs to obey him one last time. That was all he needed, just one more burst of energy to make it through. More darkspawn climbed from behind, but the pair ran away from them. Lana was quick on his heels, her staff zapping out a bolt here and there, but if anything hit it was by luck. He swung both sword and shield with all the skill of a recruit, neither of them caring if they took anything down. All that mattered was survival.

A massive hand, as grey as the grave, reached for Cullen. He tried to swing to slice into it, but Lana snapped a more powerful lightning bolt at the ogre’s leg. Its horned head shook and the hand moved for the mage attacking it. Cullen jumped high, straining his reach to try and slice into the ogre’s arm. His blade bit at best a few inches into the thick flesh, but it was enough for the ogre to rear back. Lana dashed to the side, and both slipped into the cavern.

Pitch black, only the sound of their heartbeats and pounding feet echoed through the passageway. Cullen tried to ask if there were anymore darkspawn ahead, but his breath rattled in his chest, unwilling to part with a single word. The ogre tried to follow after them, but its gigantic size couldn’t fit. Instead, it beat its fists against the outside of the passageway, shaking rocks off the ceiling. And through that, the horde continued to follow behind them.

“Lana?” Cullen managed to gasp out.

“Get to the exit!” she screamed, her breath steadier. Maker, how often did she do this? His elbows slammed into the walls and his feet rolled across uneven ground, but he didn’t falter in his steps. Twisting through the black earth before them, Cullen felt a breeze fresher than anything from behind.

“I think I can feel it ahead,” he said. Either it was his mind playing tricks or the area before them was a softer shade of grey in the field of black.

“Ah!” Lana cried, the sound of her scrabbling against the twisting landscape echoed behind. Cullen twisted and reached for her without knowing where she was. Somehow he caught her elbow, and heard the sounds of her staff clattering to the floor.

“Sod this,” she said, shaking off his grip. Rising up, she lit her fingers with a flame. The burst of light bleached his eyes until he blinked and could see her face. People spoke of her duel against Loghain Mac Tir in the palace’s throne room. How she bore a face out of ancient myth, the terrifying hero emerged from an unknowable land that steps out of it to save the world with a certainty unavailable to mortals. He thought it nonsense of course, but in this moment her face twisted into a controlled assurance so cold there was no arguing with her power.

Lana touched her fingertip to the clay pot. The end caught in fire, and she hurled it as far from herself as possible. The darkspawn watched the fire arc into their midst, the front ones twisting back from it. As it shattered into the wall, light and a powerful force burst free, shaking the walls of the cavern like ten ogre fists. Grabbing up her staff, Lana shoved into Cullen and the two of them rolled into the exit. The sounds of rocks smashing into earth and splattering bodies echoed in their wake. Even still, Lana yanked open her bag, unearthed another pot, lit it and tossed it in. This time the darkspawn screamed as they were aware of death shattering through the air. The few surviving ones scrabbled as the grenade caught and exploded into the walls of the cavern. There was no one to crawl out in the end, not that they could. The entire path collapsed into a wall of rock.

The humans held their breath, counting to hear if anything would try and crawl out through the debris, but it seemed to be impenetrable. Only their heartbeats echoed down the chiseled stones of the road they stood upon, dwarven runes lighting a red glow around them. Lana tipped her head, listening to that internal grey warden sense. After a moment, she smiled wide, “There are none near us. We did it!”

She jumped up and threw her arms around Cullen’s neck. His fingers knotted behind the small of her back, lifting her higher as they gave in to the jubilation of walking through an army of darkspawn and coming out alive. Her cheek pressed into the side of his neck, and he felt it widening, the smile even infecting his dour face. They stood like that, bodies entangled in a celebratory hug for what felt both like hours and a heartbeat. He was well aware of the dangers that could be lurking in any of the multitude of shadows, but he also did not want to let go.

Lana’s hands broke from his neck, her retreating heat chilling his skin as she slipped down off her raised toes. She stared up at him, only the ghost of a smile twisting up her lips while an enigmatic thought dove in the depths of her eyes. Whatever she was thinking, he knew he’d never fully know it, her mind always shrouded in mystery. Cullen bent his knees and, against all common sense, softly pressed his lips to hers. It was the barest of touches, a terror crawling up his spine at daring to try. His hands limply draped against her back if she needed to flee.

Her lips slipped away, and Cullen let her go, prepared to accept his mistake. He began to pull back when Lana hopped up onto her toes. Threading her fingers through his curls, she pulled his head down to hers. This wasn’t the almost chaste kiss of before, she drunk from him like a woman walking the wastes. She tasted of the twang of magic but there was a sweet spice below, her tongue encouraging his, leading his. Cullen’s fingers gripped into the small of her back, pulling her body tighter to him. A moan rolled in her throat and her fingers drifted out of his hair and down the armor. Her eyes flew open as she circled the griffin relief and she dropped off her toes breaking contact.

Cullen opened his arms, and Lana stepped out of them, her two fingers patting her lips. Shock threaded across her face and her eyes stared through him. “You should probably rest,” she said, still sliding back as if afraid he might lunge for her. “After the fight, we’ll have time to catch up to White, you’d want to be at your best.” Lana continued to start and restart new sentences while she scooped up her staff and clutched it tight to her chest.

“I,” Cullen began, his arms still outstretched. He felt too foolish to even lower them, “I did not intend to…”

She skirted around him, dashing deeper into the shadows of the roads. “Darkspawn could still be, I’ll go and, go…” her voice carried, as if she needed to come up with an excuse to get far away from him.

Cullen lowered his arms, watching her vanish into the darkness. He could chase after her, try and explain that it was all a misunderstanding. He hadn’t meant to, there’d been, it was just that…

“Maker’s breath!” he chided aloud. Bunching his hands into fists, he glared at the ground and silently screamed in his head. Out of all the things you could try, you had to do that! You were here for a purpose, a purpose you just jeopardized for your own selfish wants! For the love of the Maker she’s a, she’s…

Knowing Lana was a mage used to chill his lust, or at least temper it until he could extract himself from the situation. Then she left, became a grey warden, saved the whole world, and he took ship to Kirkwall. He knew in his heart he’d never see her again. Certainly never speak with her again, or be so near to her his heart skipped in a delightful pain.

But she came to him, searched him out, needed him. And you went and destroyed all of that for a kiss. Cullen touched his lips in the same move as Lana did before she skittered away. He could still taste her on him, the lingering undertones reminiscent of lyrium. Did all mages have that same spark against their skin or was it just her? Why was he even wondering it? It’d never affect him again. Shaking his shoulders as if it could remove the memories of the past hour, he unknotted the bedroll off his pack. Little more than a celebrated blanket, Cullen snapped it a few times against the air hoping that assaulting it would make him feel better.

He didn’t want her to need him. Many people needed him, needed him to hold that line between chaos and order in Kirkwall. Needed him to make the choices they couldn’t, that they wouldn’t, so blood didn’t run through the streets. He wanted her to want him, and that thought made him feel even more worthless than before.

“Cullen…”

Twisting away from the beaten bedroll, he watched Lana step out of the shadows towards him. A determination roared in her eyes, which only made him shy away from her. He glared at the broken nub of an etching carved against the wall and spoke, "I should apologize for what I --"

She picked up his dangling hand and threaded her fingers through his. “Don’t.” Her thumb rubbed the back of his hand, the same way when she didn’t seem to want him to follow her into the deep roads.

“But it was my unwanted affections that—”

Lana slipped her body in front of him until she was only a breath away. She tossed her staff to the ground without a care and cupped his cheek. Cullen turned his gaze even lower, embarrassed by the burn inching below her fingers. “You have nothing to apologize for,” she said.

His eyes snapped up to hers, and he almost snorted in shock from a smile curling up her lips. “I don’t understand,” Cullen gasped, paddling to find some sense left in the world. “You, and I, it was…you left.”

Lana’s smile fanned out, and her finger circled across the stubble of his chin, “I needed a moment, to steady myself. To think. It’s been…” her eyes dipped down and she shook her head, “I’m afraid I’m not very good at this.”

“You’re not alone,” Cullen admitted, getting a chuckle from her. She raised her head and claimed his lips as her own, claimed his body, claimed his heart. He’d offered it up to her long ago without even realizing it. Now it struck in his soul how much of himself he’d abandon for her. All she had to do was ask.

The kiss was much gentler than their first, like two young lovers struggling to see if this other person could possibly care as much. He scooped her up and lifted her body to him. Their lips softly pressed and cupped against each other, trying to find the perfect spot to meld into one. He felt Lana break into a smile below him, which broke his own concentration. Slipping away from her, he brought his forehead to hers. His eyes slipped closed and he whispered, “This is not wise.”

Lana chuckled again, “It’s the deep roads, nothing here is ever wise. But, would you rather do something unwise now or regret never attempting it later?”

“I…” Cullen’s life was staying in line, minding himself as best he could, and keeping others from shattering the rules. Wrapping Lana in his arms, he lifted her up and placed her on his bedroll. It was the least romantic spot he could imagine but Maker he did not care, and she didn’t seem to either. Her fingers curled up behind his jaw, pulling him in for more kisses. Lana sighed as she leaned back, her hands exploring across his body. For the first time in an age, Cullen wanted to do something stupid.

Pillow Talk

If he was going to the void for that, it was worth it.

Lana propped herself up on her side and stretched across the bedroll until her toes clipped against the cold rock. His one hand rested against her naked hip, gently massaging the curve of it. He was too terrified to touch any other part of her, even after…

Andraste’s grace, did they really do that? Did he do that? She caught his eyes and ran her fingers against his increasing scruff, knotting it against the grain. A warmth radiated off her body keeping the chill away between them, but a cool breeze still wafted against his backside. Knowing his luck, this would be when the darkspawn finally broke through their cave in – while he was bare-assed and unarmed. Cullen shook off the dour thoughts invading his mind and let his eyes drift down across Lana’s body.

He'd expected her to dress quickly after...no, he hadn't expected any of that, truth be told. But it all happened so fast, his head buzzing with a thousand different thoughts -- all of them traipsing about in an ecstatic panic -- he could only sample parts of her. Now he felt he had all the time in thedas to savor what didn't seem possible.

Her graceful neck sported a birthmark shaped like a melting flower that bloomed down into her collarbone. He only saw the barest hints of it peeking out below her robes before. The mark of hers fevered his imagination since the days when she was an apprentice and he wished to kiss it endlessly. She’d laughed at his attempts during, almost taking the top of his head to her chin when he tried, but he loved it. Loved the scoop of her shoulders, the muscle chiseled below her skin from years carrying her staff across thedas. And…a blush burned up his nude neck as his eyes drifted down to her breasts. Each handful cup rested atop themselves, the depths of her cleavage inviting him. Freckles dashed up the side of her breast and under highlighting the part that was called…

“What is it?” She spoke for the first time since they’d disentangled.

“Hm?” he snapped his head up trying to wipe away any guilt across his face, but Lana had to see it. He was a horrible liar.

She chuckled, her finger twisting through the knotted curls above his ear while her other arm propped her head higher. “You were thinking something so profound your lower lip jutted out in concentration. I have to know what drew it from you.”

“Oh, that, it was…” Cullen tried to scrounge for anything deep or philosophical from the depths of his brain. Unfortunately, that organ was still short on blood and refused to offer assistance. “It’s not important, I was only…it is trivial, foolish, and. I was tying to think of the word people use for the part of your, um, body that…” he mumbled his sentence to death, terrified to continue on.

But Lana rose up, curiosity burning a sparkling focus in her eyes. She broke her hand away from his hair and pointed at her nose, “Is it this?”

“No,” Cullen sighed, aware of how this would go. He wished for once a poet would inhabit his skull instead of his usual fumbling.

“Oh,” Lana gestured to her collar bone, her fingers rolling across the birthmark. “How about this?”

“No.”

“This part?” she patted her stomach, her fingers prodding against an old scar bisecting up her hip. Cullen shook his head, chuckling from the game, when her hand slipped in between her thighs, “It cannot be this bit. You seemed to be well acquainted with that one.”

An unmanly squeak erupted from his throat, and he squeezed his eyes shut tight. “It’s the breast,” he cried, cutting off her game before he embarrassed himself into a puddle, “there’s a term for the part of it that’s…I was thinking of it, trying to think of it. The word I mean. And I don’t know why I’m still talking.”

Lana laughed with such strength her in question anatomy bounced, the hypnotic jiggle drawing his attention like a moth to a flame. “Swell!” the word dawned in his jumbled brain as if by magic.

“You’re not so bad yourself,” she responded, still chuckling.

“They call it a swell, the swell of the breast.”

“Who’s they?” she shook her head, knocking around her knotted braids.

“I don’t remember where I read it,” Cullen exasperated, not wanting to be on trial. “People who describe breasts often, I suppose,” he grumbled. Someone was taking the piss from him and he feared it was himself.

Lana ran her fingers down his shoulder and onto his bicep. Her own attention into his interrogation waned for a moment as she squeezed his muscle. Cullen thought he might be free before she shook her head and asked, “Do templars often describe breasts?”

The blush charred up his cheeks and moved towards the forehead. He remembered where he’d first read it, and there was no way he would confess it to her. The chantry could be strict about what it expected from future templars, but even the patrician sisters knew that a pile of adolescents trapped together with rampaging hormones needed a guiding hand once in awhile, and a feigned ignorance the rest. The book was terrible and trite, but every recruit passed it from one to the other, often emphasizing the dirtier parts.

“We, I…” He floundered, gritting his teeth to will away the guilt and shame when Lana pressed her lips against his. It took a moment before he thought to kiss her back.

She settled back onto her hand and said, “I’m sorry, you’re rather adorable when you’re stewing. I couldn’t help myself.”

Cullen’s head dipped down but the shame evaporated in a breath leaving a goofy smile in its wake. How did she manage to calm him with a single kiss? He gazed down at those swell of breasts or however one classified them in groups. Despite decorating the deep roads in scattered clothing, Lana kept on her long necklace. The pendant dangled above her pressed cleavage, a quartz cylinder with a dark thick liquid lapping inside.

He blinked at it and lifted his hand off her hip to reach for it. “Is that your phylactery?”

Lana frowned and picked up the vial in her palm. He stopped short of touching it, watching the liquid in the haunting light of the dwarven ruins. “My phylactery?” she sighed, shaking the bottle back and forth, “This tiny?”

She was right, the mage’s blood was preserved in bottles at least seven centimeters tall. The bottle itself would change with time and tower but they would all fit comfortably in the hand. The templars wanted them to be easy to carry, but not something small and misplaced.

“What is it then? That is blood, isn’t it?” Cullen asked.

And with that, a wintry draft wafted between them. Her frown etched deeper as she cupped the pendant in her hand. “It is, but it’s not what you think. It’s from the joining, my joining into the wardens. It’s the blood of the darkspawn I killed, the blood I…how I became what I am. I wear it to remember.”

“Remember what?”

She stared into the liquid he now realized was black as ink and bore no resemblance to the pulsing glow of a phylactery. And he’d jumped right to the most deadly conclusion, unable to imagine a mage would have any other reason to wear a pendant of blood outside of being a malifecarum. Lana’s eyes snapped up to his and she dropped the vial to her breasts, “That there’s no going back.”

He expected her to shy away from him after he all but accused her of consorting with demons, but Lana slid over to him. Burying her head into his chest, she dipped a hand across his hip, her fingers drifting towards his bare ass. Cullen wrapped his free hand around the small of her back and pulled himself tighter to her. Days traveling, even in the depths of the darkspawn horde, and her skin somehow smelled of rose water and a sweet musk. Maker only knew what he reeked of after struggling through the depths of the world in the grey armor. He planted a kiss against the top of her head and she sighed.

“You probably have your phylactery stored somewhere else, of course,” he spoke his internal thoughts aloud. “If the chantry has no control over grey wardens they have no reason to keep it.”

“I…they did gift it to me, but I didn’t keep it. It’s in the hands of someone else. So he can find me if I should ever vanish or know if I fall.” Her warm breath ruffled the downy hair across his chest, but the words were cold and aloof.

“Only a templar can track a phylactery,” Cullen continued, unable to leave the thread alone.

Lana snorted, “Despite his years sitting on the…out of the game, I don’t think he’ll forget how to do that.”

There were rumors that placed the Hero of Ferelden in damn near everyone’s bed, even some tracing her as Empress Celene’s arcane lover. They all grew increasingly outlandish with each new romance, to the point it was a wonder she had any time to stop the blight in between all the snogging. One even suggested Lana seduced Loghain and then his daughter to end the civil war in Ferelden. Through the were-dragons and demon lovers there was one that repeatedly bubbled up, the new King of Ferelden. It fit; he a grey warden, she the newest recruit, alone together in the world turned against them fighting to save it from impenetrable odds. Only a true idiot would not notice Lana, and despite the rumors about king Alistair it was doubtful he was that brainless. It was a few years after the blight that Cullen remembered he met the man who would be king during the lowest stage of his life. Maker, he’d even confessed his affections for Lana while her possible new lover stood there. That churned up his guts for a few months no matter how hard he tried to shake it off.

His jealousy was unfounded regardless if the rumors were true or not. He’d had no right to act as if he had any claim to her. The fact it bothered him burnt his shame brighter for too many years. And now she was here with him, all of her. She pressed her body against his, her hip bones knocking into his own. Cullen curled his leg up around her hip, enveloping her deeper. It was hard to say who sighed from the move, perhaps both. The warmth of their bodies yanked them deeper into the fade. Maker, he never dreamed he’d sleep with her wrapped up in his arms.

“I should let you sleep,” she murmured, but didn’t break away from his hold.

“What of you?” he asked, struggling through the fog of exhaustion. The smart thing to do would be to rise and re-dress, but his body cried for him to give in to the uncomfortable bedroll.

“I told you, I don’t sleep in the deep roads.”

“I thought you couldn’t hear the darkspawn anymore,” he continued, struggling to understand what drove the grey wardens.

“That’s not how it works, I…” She burrowed deeper into him, her words so muffled by his own skin he couldn’t understand her.

“I’m sorry, I missed that,” he said. Lana slid away, and Cullen started from tears brimming in her eyes.

“I lied to you earlier. It isn’t a grey warden thing that keeps me awake here. We hear them, sense them, but I can sleep if I…It’s…there was an attack. I was struggling to cast a spell, low mana on uneven footing – bad luck all around,” Lana explained, as if the templar knew anything about the rigors of spell casting. “When a genlock pops out of the ground and sticks a sword right through my shoulder,” she pointed to a jagged white mark raised off her skin.

“Maker,” Cullen cried in sympathy and ran his thumb against the fading scar.

Lana shrugged but watched him tend to it as if the wound was still fresh. “It wasn’t the worst I’ve had. It didn’t even stop me from casting. At the time I thought little of it. I’d been injured so many other times before and after, seen things…the arch demon, for the love of the Maker. But, I close my eyes, I lay my head down in the deep roads and it’s as if someone’s sat upon my chest. I feel the blade sawing through my flesh all over again.”

Lana turned down, unable to face him, “It’s pathetic.”

“You’re not alone,” Cullen blurted out.

She sighed into her own chest, “I know, the shock of war. I’ve heard it before from the old soldiers walking the battlements talking of their days on the fields.”

“Lana,” he curled the back of his fingers against her cheek and felt the tears streaking down them. She hadn’t made a noise to cry them. “I get them too. From the,” Cullen steadied himself, “the blood mages, in the tower. And…”

He never talked about it, not to anyone. Speaking of it could lead to lesser commands, or even a forced retirement – as much as templars retired. He didn’t want to face either possibility. What he wanted was to serve, to protect others so they didn’t have to suffer the same fate as he did. Save them so they wouldn’t wake screaming in the night from a blood mage shredding apart their mind, slicing open every buried pain inside their head, and dangling their greatest fear before them. It wasn’t noble anymore, not some great calling from the Maker like he dreamed when he was younger. He needed it, needed to be fighting against the always wearing line to protect the innocent. Some days, thinking he made a difference was the only reason he could keep going.

Lana slid up higher so her eyes could stare into his. He blinked, feeling the sting of smoke in them despite the torch being long doused. “Once, while asleep, I encased an entire campfire in ice from the nightmare,” she said. “I have to sleep with my hands under me or I might accidentally hurt someone.” Her pupils danced back and forth while she stared into him, waiting for him to condemn her.

“The sound of rain, any water dripping, it…it’s like a vice upon my heart. I, I’m back in the tower, in the cage with the blood and…” Cullen fell silent, unaware he was trembling until he felt her hand slide down the entirety of his side. She lifted it back up and continued to stroke him like he was a mabari, but it soothed him. It took some time before his shaking stopped, Lana’s petting never slowing as her eyes held his.

“Orange,” she said. “It’s orange for me.”

“The fruit or the color?” Cullen asked.

For a moment she smiled, then leaned forward for a kiss. Cullen accepted it gladly, her touch grounding him. Lana leaned back so she could continue to stare into his eyes, “The smell, actually. It wasn’t darkspawn but a demon. The things it did…I doubt I need to tell you, but when it reached out and gutted a man, it must have pierced an orange in his satchel. The smell wafted on the wind while it littered his intestines across the ground.”

Her voice paused and she shuddered, “I despise the things now. The smell of oranges turns my stomach and I have to get away lest I vomit all over some noble’s shoes. It’s rather sad to think the Hero of Ferelden can be defeated by fruit.”

She pouted after her final proclamation and Cullen giggled at the insanity of it all. The Lady Amell, Hero of Ferelden, conqueror of the Blight, laying beside him in the deep roads, both of them naked as the day they were born, confessing she could be stopped by an orange. Her lips curled into a frown, but for once Cullen didn’t stumble. He cupped her cheek and pressed his forehead to hers.

“You are the most awe inspiring person I’ve ever known.” Despite years of denying it, he ripped back the edge of what he buried deep in his thoughts. “The things you can do even with the horrors of war in your mind, you saved the world. It gives so many hope, the Ferelden refugees in Kirkwall, the way they speak of you…you’re so much more than a hero to them. You’re a…they care for you,” He blathered on, but not into the depths of his heart. He’d learned how to seal it off after Kinnloch.

Lana sighed, “That’s sweet. I never, well, no, I did sort of know after, but…But it doesn’t change anything. I still feel broken.”

“So do I,” Cullen admitted, his eyes slipping shut. “Not much changes it, certainly not platitudes.”

“Then why…”

He shrugged, a hint of a smile twisting up his lips, “I wanted to tell you the truth either way.”

Lana kissed him, a lustful heat burning through it as she lapped up his lips with her tongue. He rose to the challenge, matching her new dance. His fingers drifted down her side to cup that swell of her breast and then take in the rest of it. Never one to be passive, Lana kneaded into his ass cheek.

Despite how much he wanted her again, Cullen pulled back to ask, “I thought you intended to leave me to sleep?”

An ornery smile twisted up her flushed cheeks. She pounced upon him, twisting him flat onto his back. Straddling across his stomach, her thighs clenched against him. She leaned down and whispered, “Sweet dreams.”

Spires

 

Fire crackled across the creature’s skin while smoke and the smell of blackened fat buffeted around it. The deepstalker yipped and screeched as it dashed for cover straight through the rest of its brood. Every one caught alight. Lana carelessly blew her fingers off while watching them scurry back into their holes, flames trailing their departure. The deepstalkers only attacked them a few times, but with every fresh assault their ranks grew bolder and greater in number. Cullen rolled his arm around to glare at the blood slicking up his sword. The darkspawn gore was the worst, Lana insisting she wipe it off and then burning her rag when finished, but the deeptstalker ichor clotted in blobs across the metal. It appeared as if his own blade scabbed up.

“How much further until we find this thaig?” he asked.

“How many times are you going to ask that?”

“Until we’re there.” He struggled to scrape off the deepstalker’s blood, his fingernails straining below the scabs trying to pop them off. Pain lanced up his finger as the nail bent inward, the blood not about to give in. Lana laid a hand across his shoulder drawing his attention up to her eyes. She smiled and wiped her fiery magic down his sword, the metal heating to a flaming red without reaching below the hilt. Cullen stared a question at her but kept his hand above his own blade as she poured enough power to ignite three deepstalker nests into it. She cut off her mana and her cooled hand gripped onto his. Together, they swung his sword in an arc splattering the walls in deepstalker blood and leaving his blade nearly pristine.

Cullen stared in awe at the simple move, he’d never even thought to try such a thing. There were perks to traveling with a mage. Lana seemed to sense his thoughts and she curled her fingers behind his jaw to pull him into a kiss. Definite perks to traveling with a mag. A grey warden mage.

After breaking away, she smiled, “Were you always this surly or did you stumble into it in old age?”

“I’m not surly,” he cut back, unable to bite back a grumble. Stumbling to find his mental balance after the kiss, Cullen swiped his sword through the air to cool it.

“Right, not surly at all.” Her fingers trailed across his forehead and down the bridge of his nose, “You got these glower lines from smiling too much.”

Cullen grabbed her fingers in his. Her light hearted smiled faded until he brought her hand to his lips and kissed it. A brazen heat still burned off her skin leaving behind a flush trailing from his mouth up to his cheeks. “I’m new to smiling,” he said intending it to be jovial, but the truth warped his tone. He’d never had much reason before.

Dragging her fingers through his scruff, Lana twisted her head to the side. Her voice drifted away as she spoke, “We do what we must so others won’t.”

“Hm…?”

“Just something I heard once. Anyway, the thaig is close. Which is lucky seeing as how this road ends in an inescapable pile of rubble,” she gestured to the end of the road they’d been following for what felt like days now. How Cullen managed even a few hours of sleep he was uncertain with every horror the deep roads could throw at them only a thin rock collapse away. Lana kept guard over him and he woke to find her crouching over the first of a growing pile of deepstalker corpses. She’d licked the magic flame off the end of her fingers and inquired if he was hungry. There was none like her in all of thedas, he was certain.

He voiced many pointed concerns about the deepstalkers at first, but the worm-like creatures seemed easy enough to kill if they kept focused. While he kept an eye on the chittering holes lining the walls, Lana led them through the roads of the dwarves. Lava gurgled down grooves running the lengths of the road, the fiery light highlighting runes carved across the sunken walls. Cullen never put thought into the dwarven kingdom, their people having no fear of mages, but as he stood in awe of their ancient wonders he felt remiss. Pitched pillars collapsed into the vast space, the rubble causing them to have to scrabble around, but just as many remained upright after thousands of years and darkspawn calling it home.

As he first walked down the stone floors, he felt an awe replaced by alertness from the deepstalkers renewing their attack. The awe shifted to exhaustion as they continued to pass the same architecture; broken stone pillar, faceless statue, runic warding carved into the wall now silent. The relentless repetition made him yearn for the lyrium caverns – at least the blue light didn’t sear his retinas the way a lava burp would.

Lana gestured at the wall long ago smashed into a thousand pieces and fully blocking off any hope of an exit. It would have required a battering ram to take something that structurally sound down. She couldn’t have had anything to do with its collapse. Cullen paused, remembering the grenades she chucked at the darkspawn tunnels. The power at the disposal of the unchecked grey wardens rattled him. How many others knew the strengths the wardens could reach if the need arose?

“I hope you know of a way through.” He picked up a broken brick scattered away from the rest; a symbol was etched into the cracked end. It was hard to make out, but the edge of the triangle looked a bit like a blade’s tip.

Lana shook her head, “Don’t need a way through it, I’ve got something better.” She hopped over the lava streams and flattened against the wall. Not expecting her to leap, Cullen subconsciously reached forward as if he could keep her from teetering back into the scalding lava. But Lana was more than capable as she crept along the wall and reached her arm into a crevice carved in the rock. Her free arm flailed for balance while she dipped down and yanked back upon something buried in the rock. Gears roared to life from deep within the walls and along the ceiling. No one had cracked into whatever this was in awhile as dust rained down like a snowstorm. Or perhaps it was debris remaining from when the back wall collapsed.

The section beside Lana cracked in half, and both sides of what’d seemed impenetrable rock folded in on itself. Despite being created by dwarves, the doors were large enough to let an ogre through. Lana extracted her hand and smiled, “Ta da. This is thaig…well, I doubt you care what it’s called.”

Carefully extending his leg over the lava pit, Cullen stepped to stand beside her and tried to pierce into the darkness of this once closed off world. “I should light the torch,” he said and tried to fumble with his own mediocre pack.

“That won’t be necessary,” Lana said. She flared up her fingers to a brilliant green and placed them against the door. The light caught as if placed in pools of oil. Green sparks raced across the walls, blooming like her fractal snowflake until every arc of magic circling and amplifying through the thaig met at the ceiling. An orb hung above the thaig, a chill circling along its surface. The metal seemed iron in appearance but from the way her magic lit up inside of it Cullen knew it had to be something else. The green light folded around it, arcing off the ceiling like hands cupping around the ball until they lanced together to bring it alive.

He’d heard of the underground cities of the dwarves but pictured them more like, well, the domain of gophers. Dirt, hole, and dwarf, perhaps with some rock thrown in. But this was grander than any splendor he’d ever seen on the surface. The ceiling reached so distant, Cullen had to crane his neck up to make out the retreating specks of green light dotting through the crags like stars. Ten spires of white brick stood at attention throughout the thaig, each top skimming across the stone ceiling. The pillars, easily a hundred feet in diameter, were carved with small doorways. Paths twisted up and down through the cavern connecting all the doors like an undulating maze. Woven through the bottom of all the pillars rested a lake still as a mirror. Cullen feared he’d fall into the eternity of the reflection if he stared at it too long.

“Rather impressive, eh?” Lana said, lightly nudging him in the ribs.

“Impressive? The White Spire is impressive. This is…I have no words,” he choked.

Lana snorted, “You’ve been to the White Spire? Even I haven’t seen it.”

“There’s still time,” Cullen said, his eye drawn to a glimmer of jewels still embedded at the top of a spire. Time or scavengers hadn’t reached them yet.

“Perhaps,” Lana said before shaking her head, “We need to head this way.” She took off, even more sure footed than before, crossing a narrow bridge over the lake. A bone brittle frost crested above the black water, the chill chewing up Cullen’s still exposed shins. Lana didn’t say he should not touch the water, but every instinct in his body warned him against it. More than likely a finger breaking the surface would draw forth legions of undead from below the briny depths. That was just his luck.

Lana twisted off the bridge to stand before a wall branching off one of the spires. Her fingers skimmed across the runes carved along it, lighting each tile up in a pattern. They barely deserved her attention, her hand guiding them into place by memory while she watched the metal orb above them. A soft chime echoed through the rock and the floor just before them lifted upward forming a ramp into the sky.

“I’m beginning to suspect you’ve been here before,” Cullen said.

She chuckled and strode confidently up the incline. Cracked gold was poured into the edges of the ramp still lifting below her feet. The rock itself hummed from the glow of the magic in the air. “Yes, though the last time it was under a pile of darkspawn.”

“Rather glad I missed that one,” he mumbled following behind her.

“It took an unending amount of time to clean them out. They’d dug in deep for centuries.” Now a good fifteen feet above the ground, Lana pointed towards an area beyond the crystal lake where a dark spire was shadowed amongst the white ones. None of her magic light touched the blackness, though not for want of trying as it circled around the edges snapping in anger. “That was their main nest. Unsalvageable, of course. Everything they touch rots into nothing.”

They dipped through the first of the doorways, Cullen having to bend to keep from smacking his head. He was surprised to find the room wasn’t empty save for a few statues or other shattered decor. A stone bed big enough for a family rested in the corner. Beside it was an end table baring a mug still tipped over from the last owner. Perhaps he, in running to raise the alarm from the encroaching darkspawn, knocked the cup over in haste then never returned to right it centuries upon centuries ago. He shuddered at the enormity of history encapsulated in a spilt glass. “Why did you clear this place? Is that what grey wardens do, empty thaigs of darkspawn?”

Lana shrugged, her fingers plowing through another magical lock, this one up to four colors. “Sometimes. I seem to often, though it’s more a detour of my mission than the main objective. I…” She paused in her machinations and frowned. Snapping her teeth in thought she turned to Cullen and sighed, “I came here with White. There were other wardens with, it’s not wise to go through the deep roads alone.”

“She says now.”

That broke the regretful frown for a moment, but it slotted back into place as she continued to talk. “We weren’t trying to clear the thaig. We didn’t even know it was here. It began as a research mission.”

“Research? Into what?” All Cullen could see were the marks of the darkspawn and the rotted bones of a long abandoned dwarven empire. Anything of value was long picked clean.

Lana twisted to him, and a spark burned in her eyes, “I have a theory that at some point before the darkspawn and the blights began, the elves lived with the dwarves. I’d found mentions in an old thaig of elven refugees but refugees from what? My best guess is that they were fleeing the destruction of Arlathan itself. Of course, any translation of ancient elvhen or dwarven is suspect due to the languages having been forged and reforged over the years from scraps of memories. For all I know, the scrolls referred to a word for an elven pie that could also represent refugee, slave, and/or frilly hat. Though my theory would explain the dwarven use of enchantments despite their lack of access to mages. Was it the elves of old who taught them? Or perhaps they were once on more equal footing. Of course neither the dwarven Shaperate nor the dalish would ever admit such a thing was possible. The implications alone…what?” Her musings slipped away as she caught sight of him. Folding her arms across her chest Lana glared back.

“I…” Cullen shook his head, trying to wipe away the idiotic grin that made it appear he was laughing at her, “you’re so, it’s nice to see you excited about something that isn’t killing darkspawn.”

“Oh,” she unfolded her arms and a blush crawled up her cheeks, “well, there was plenty of killing darkspawn here too. Grey warden priorities and all.”

“Of course,” Cullen nodded. Lana returned to the panel and, with her full focus, unlocked the next platform. This one extended horizontally above the lake towards a pillar on the far edge of the thaig. Blackness charred up the side of the structure, reaching just below where their newly formed bridge ended. “How come no one’s living here now?”

“Darkspawn make for impolite neighbors,” Lana chuckled while stepping out onto the bridge. There were no railings to keep a person from falling the hundred or so feet into the bottomless lake below, but she didn’t flinch.

“Wouldn’t dwarves want to take back their own thaigs?” Cullen continued following after her.

“Before they can attempt it someone will have to cough up the coin to warrant sending an expedition, everything is about coin for the dwarves. And on top of funding they’d also require dispensation from a descher. People can’t simply gather a bunch of friends together to take back the deep roads. Dwarven politics, I will never understand it.” Lana’s rant faded away as Cullen paused at the middle of their bridge.

In the long stretch of terrors that clawed across his brain, for whatever reason heights wasn’t one of them. Still, he couldn’t help himself from staring off the bridge into the depths of the lake. The reflection was so perfect he could see the wisps of a blonde man dressed like the fearsome slayers of darkspawn staring up at him from far below. For a foolish moment he wanted to wave at the drowning man.

He heard an “a hem” and glanced up to find Lana on the other side. She didn’t tap her foot in impatience, but she might as well have. They had a job to do and it didn’t involve sightseeing. Apologizing, Cullen picked up his feet to join her.

Lana continued her thread about the dwarves as he joined her, “And while they bicker over who finances such a trip, the darkspawn return. It leaves me to wonder if they have any real interest in gaining back their empire.”

This second pillar was sharper than the others with metal spikes wedged into every corner. Where curves formed the doorways before, this one had the rock chiseled away so it appeared as if the frame was a set of jagged teeth about to bite down. The pillar wasn’t meant to be a friendly bedroom or even a neutral foyer. Like the gallows, this place was designed to set a person on edge. Cullen’s fingers notched around his sword hilt as he eyed up the doorway. A pair of statues guarded the entrance. Far less stylized than the typical dwarven ones these were primitive as if the sculpture saw no reason to finish beyond cracking away rock in a vaguely human shape. But there was a disturbing fluidity to the movement. One had its arms extended high as if about to pound a fist into an invisible foe while the second held something crushed in its arms.

“Those statues look as if they’re about to come to life,” he commented as an aside, but Lana’s eyes flared and she spun around. Ice crackled around her fist while she watched both statues remain perfectly still. Eventually, when the statues continued to not move, she shook the ice off pushing the fade energy away.

“What is it?”

“I take it you’ve never seen a golem before,” she took a breath to steady her voice. “We had to fight through them to reach the top spire.”

“Fight? But they’re made out of rock.” Cullen knocked his fist against the stomach of one and only the thud of solid stone echoed back.

Lana pointed to a pathway winding below them, “See that stain on the ground?” It was hard to view at the distance, but something dark blotted across the stone just below a statue crashed to its knees. “That was my blood before I blew its head off. Golems. Not fun.”

“Maker,” Cullen hissed. He flipped back to the two guardians and eyed them up anew. How long would it take his sword to hack even an inch off their hide? Would even that stop them? A memory tugged on his mind and he voiced it, “Funny enough, I remember a statue that looked a bit like these. It was in Honnleath, in the square.”

Lana whistled softly under her breath, “Oh, you don’t say?” She stepped into the doorway, her fingers raising the light runes as she passed.

Running one hand down the golem’s still frozen form, Cullen mused, “It was smaller though.” Trusting that the statue wasn’t about to come to life and snap his neck, Cullen slipped through the doorway after Lana. His mage was nowhere to be seen. A few stone tables nestled along the wall covered by dust and scraps of broken metal, but no other furniture filled the area. Neither did the grey warden who was his only hope out of the deep roads and away from murderous masonry.

“Um, Lana? Hello?” he asked the thin air.

“What?” her voice exasperated what sounded inches from his ear. Cullen jumped, twisting his heel across the slick stone while searching for the source.

“Where are you?”

“Where am…oh for the, did the illusion snap back into place? Hang on.”

He didn’t have much to add to the bodiless voice, so Cullen gripped tighter to his sword and stared at the air. She cursed a few times under her breath and then, as if she’d always been standing there, Lana appeared inside what had been solid rock.

“Old magic, elven I suspect, not that the college would ever listen to me,” she muttered and pulled her hand away from a device. As she broke contact, the wall reformed around her.

Cullen cried, reaching out to save her from a stone suffocation, but Lana touched the panel again and she snapped back into sight. “It should be maintaining but the spell’s breaking down. Here, take my hand.” She grabbed onto his fingers and pulled him close to her. Perhaps she expected him to put up more of a fight, or the mage didn’t know her own strength, but Cullen slid across the floor. His body plowed into hers. By the Maker’s grace, the true wall kept her upright and not sprawled out below him. Cullen threw his hands flat against the wall beside her head to try and keep himself balanced as he glared down at his traitorous feet.

“Sorry about that, I, uh…” all semblance of thought vanished as he fell adrift into those bemused eyes.

“You’re not one for subtlety, I see.” Lana broke her hands from the panel and wrapped them around Cullen’s back. The stone wall shimmered into place, but he was too lost in the heat of her body to notice they were trapped in a false tomb.

“I did not intend to, that is…you know.”

“Not really, no,” she smiled, peering into him. He tried to form a response but the lithe body clinging to him pulverized all his words into a gooey mush of ums and uhs.

In almost crushing her beneath him, her hair had slipped across her right eye. Cullen pushed the strands back behind her ear, her warm skin beckoning him to explore further but he flattened his hand to the wall beside her instead. Why do you unnerve me so?

“People grow twitchy when they learn I killed an arch demon,” Lana said.

The color drained from Cullen’s cheeks and he whipped his eyes at the mage pinned beneath him. “Did I speak that aloud?” Her eyes narrowed and she nodded her head.

"Oh," a combination of relief that she hadn't skimmed his thoughts and mortification that he spoke without realizing stampeded across his face. "I, it's not your combat skills that..." he swallowed a sigh and stared down at her shoulder. It was the only part of her body he suspected wouldn't cause him to blush. "Even before you became a warden, I found myself, um, that is to say- Maker, I'm making a fool out of myself."

Her fingers dusted along his jaw and chin, pulling his face to her. “It’s a very handsome fool, if that helps.” She had to feel the burn bright under her fingers as he tried to shrug away her compliment. It didn’t matter what mages thought of his appearance. It shouldn’t matter for his duty, but he secreted her words deep into his heart to listen to again later.

“I’ve been bumbling around you ever since the first time we met,” Cullen admitted, daring to let his memory drift back to Ferelden.

Lana screwed her eyes up, “I don’t remember that.”

“The blueberry bushes outside the tower during the storm when I almost called you by your preferred name, not that I should have used any name.” The confession burned on his tongue. He feared he needed to recite a few canticles afterwards to appease Andraste for his sin.

Lana shook her head, “We met long before that. I remember it. The mousey templar with the Orlesian name was giving a new knight the tour around the tower. He always took a perverse joy in stomping unannounced into the bathing area.”

“Oh Maker,” Cullen squeaked, his own memory jogging in line with hers. How did he forget that?

“Ah,” Lana smiled, “I take it you also remember a rather impertinent apprentice who covered the entire room in watery suds.”

“You had good reason,” he said. He’d never told the then nameless woman how grateful he was to have her blanket the area in opaque foam. It was obviously some sort of hazing ritual, Charnell chuckling at the new knight about to melt into the floor from their bursting upon where they should not have been. The mages hustled for towels and robes while Cullen wished he could spin his helmet around and walk out of the room. And then, a smile plastered across her face, one of them obliterated a block of soap. Water and suds erupted through the room shielding every naked surface and soaking into both of the templar uniforms. Charnell grumbled for days about the mess while Cullen was ecstatic to have escaped. The Knight-Commander had a few half-hearted words with the templars about minding their manners, not that it amounted to much officially. But the templars who didn’t wish to stand around for a day with their smallclothes sopping wet gave the apprentices their rightful space.

“How did you know it was me?” Cullen asked. “I was wearing the helmet at the time.”

Lana chuckled, “You really think we didn’t know who was who under all that metal? We lived with you, same as you knew us. I could spot your amber eyes from a hundred feet away. Plus,” her hands slipped around the back of his neck and she lifted on her toes to meet him eye to eye, “you kept stuttering when I asked a question. That made it easier to find you.”

“I’d assumed that you, you wouldn’t have even, that is…”

“See, that stutter.” She curled into him and gently kissed his lips. Her tongue dipped into his mouth leaving behind a cooling sensation from her frost spell that melted inside him. Cullen froze for a beat, his own mind trapped back in the circle. Every touch from her still drew forth the same question ‘Could this really be happening?’ Did he deserve this? Lana broke away and pecked once more against his lips. She brought her forehead against his, and her fingers twisted around one of his short curls trying to draw it forth from the mass. This shouldn’t be happening, he had no right to impose himself into her life like this. Whatever this was. What could truly come of it after, anyway? He may be on unsteady ground in matters of the heart but he wasn’t naive. That finger twirling in his hair could burn deepstalkers alive. Those hands that caressed his skin could freeze darkspawn solid. She was a mage, she could become corrupted, she could fall. And the only way to rid herself of the curse of magic would be to give up everything that made him love her, everything that made her Lana.

“Charnell was the reason I was at your harrowing,” Cullen spoke trying to douse his enflamed body. “He drew up the list, selected me specially. At the time, I did not realize why he chose me. I’d thought it an unlucky draw of the Maker, not that he’d try to punish us both.”

Lana’s fingers slipped out of his hair and down his sides. She didn’t push him away, but that barrier flared up between them, that reminder that they were forever opposed like water to oil. “Funny how the harrowing was the least worst thing to happen to me that day. Not all mages are so lucky.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, uncertain what to say.

“Never mind.” Her cheeks sunk down and her smile lines folded away, leaving her face as stark as frozen snow. For the first time Cullen saw the Amell resemblance. “We should stop White before he hurts anyone else. I never imagined he’d be capable of so much…”

Cullen nodded his head. “Blood mages are vicious and unpredictable. Once a mage dabbles in the forbidden, it’s only a matter of time before they kill.”

She twisted her head towards him, her eyes narrowing. “I know that blood mages can come from anywhere. It took a friend, ex-friend to teach me that.” Lana slipped out from under him and pointed to a staircase hidden on their side of the illusion. After adjusting her robes, she started up the stairs.

The pillar was not a friend to people of the long legged variety, the stairs being just close enough together to make climbing one at a time difficult, but far enough apart to render two a test of flexibility. Lana handled it well for awhile, twisting higher away from Cullen, but even she seemed to slow. Her labored breath echoed through the stairs above him. He knew he was making even more death rattling noises, but something in her struggle pulled at him.

“Are you all right?” he called out. Rounding up the stairs he found her leaning against the tight wall, her head tipped down in thought.

Lana nodded and pursed her lips. She rose from her lean and forced a smile, “Waiting for you to catch up.”

"I've felt woefully out of practice for this trip," Cullen admitted. He wasn't prideful enough to feel an ego sting from following her commands -- she knew the deep roads and the darkspawn, but he wished he could add more beyond slicing up a few monsters and waving his blade at the blood mage from across a ravine.

Her fingers skimmed across his gauntlet, “You will be of great use soon enough, we’ve almost reached the top.”

“I suppose now’s a good time to ask what makes this spire so special.”

Lana continued to trudge higher up the stairs and Cullen noticed she was using her staff as a walking stick again. The blade bulged from where she strapped it to her back, ready to be knotted back on the end in the event of a fight. “As you probably determined already, this spire was once part of the defenses for this thaig. We think there were four in total just like it, along with a fifth one that housed the golems and other ancient dwarven traps that’d spring at the most unexpected of times. Two of the pillars collapsed, most of their treasures submerged into the lake.”

“The third one?” Cullen asked. He paused in his steps as an unexplained dread settled in his gut. His skin hummed the way his armor would when mages practiced their lightning spells. The smell of the air during a summer storm hung thick through the staircase. He licked his lips and a spark shot off his tongue.

Lana sighed, “Darkspawn,” then turned around to watch more sparks erupting from his mouth. “Ah, that’s a good sign, sort off.” She drew her hand so close across his face her palm glanced upon his lips, but no energy chased out to sting her skin. The humming across his body fell silent. “It’s the reason we were drawn here. One of the reasons. Come on, it’s easier to show than explain. Probably because I’m still not certain how it works.”

Finally, they emerged at the top of the spire. Another iron ball sat in the middle of the room, turbulent green light circling its surface. It sunk to chest height into the floor, only the top half visible while the rest was submerged into the tower. Someone took the time to try and set up a short ring of boxes around it as if to keep anyone from accidentally knocking or falling into it. “What is it?”

“We have no idea, even any mention in the memories is more hearsay than record.” Lana placed her staff on the floor and turned to gaze out through the windows. The spire overlooked the rest of the thaig and was so close to the ceiling they could reach out and touch it. They were also now eye level with the ball that first erupted with the green magic across the entire thaig. So close, in fact, Cullen realized that while the one at their feet could crush a battalion, the one overlooking the cavern could kill an army.

“White called it the node because it was better than big green metal ball thingie. Each smaller one located in the security spires is, or was, connected to the main node located above us,” Lana pointed to the massive thing screwed into the ceiling above their heads.

Cullen watched closer and realized that the light didn’t burn off the metal as he’d thought but drifted across it like a verdant fog. Hazy shapes formed upon the surface of the giant node, leaving behind glimpses of things that burned his eyes. “What does it do?”

“This should impress the templar. It negates nearly all magic in the area. Watch.” Lana spun on her heels and raised both hands. Her eyes glittered as she moved through the familiar motions of casting a fireball, now aimed directly at Cullen. He threw his shield up, instincts twisting his body into place, when she shoved her hands forward. Fire should have pounded into him and scattered off the edges of his shield, but only a whiff of smoke trailed off her fingers. “See.”

He stared at the unmarred metal of his shield and then back to her, “I’ve never heard of anything like this. And the dwarves have it? Had it? But why?”

“That was my thought too, why would they need to protect themselves from magic if they cannot cast it? Were they in conflict with someone who could, or did dwarves once have a connection to the fade that was then lost? Imagine the possibilities if that were true?” Her eyes lit up even more than when she cast her fire smoke. Cullen felt an overwhelming urge to pull her into his arms and kiss her after each ecstatic sentence as she explained every theory in her mind. Instead, he massaged his neck, the hiss of whatever was blanketing magic coating his body anew.

“What were you and White actually looking for here?” he asked.

Lana’s smile faded as reality snapped back, “It wasn’t this, we stumbled upon it purely by accident. I wish we could send a real team down here to study it, but it’s not safe for circles to attempt through the horde and wardens don’t have time for such frivolities.” Her wistful gaze turned away from the node and she faced Cullen. Lana squared her shoulders as if to present herself before an assembly, “We’d been trying to unravel the secrets of the blight. Our hope is, was to one day find the exact location where the darkspawn began and believed that knowledge would lead us to the how.”

“We know how. Tevinter magisters breached the golden city turning it black. The Maker turned his gaze away from us and blighted the world.”

“So says the chantry,” Lana said diplomatically.

Cullen rounded upon her, “Are you saying you don’t believe in the chantry?”

“I’m a mage, the chantry doesn’t particularly believe in me.”

That wasn’t true. Magic should serve man not rule over him, yes, but the chantry didn’t call for a purge of mages. Just to watch over them, keep them safe from themselves. Any mage could be a danger so they had to be watched, but… “What of Andraste or the Maker?”

“Oh, for the love of…I found the ashes of Andraste.” Lana threw her arms wide and glared at him, “This isn’t about my beliefs! I…grey wardens have a reason, a personal reason to want to find the truth, to bring light to the darkness about the blight. Whatever the chantry does and does not claim to have happened is no concern of mine. I want answers, not comforting songs.”

“I, I shouldn’t have pushed it. I’m sorry. I’d just, given all you seem to suffer through traveling in this desolate abyss had hoped you…”

“Had someone to confess my sins to after?” Lana snarled.

“Had someone to find comfort in,” Cullen shrunk down, uncertain why he kept picking at this. All mages in the circle were raised Andrastian by chantry law, but he knew plenty who turned from it. Some of the elves picked up the creator gods of the dalish, but just as many turned from any gods. The latter took a perverse joy in taunting the ones who stayed within the embrace of Andraste. It made for loud discussions and louder explosions when matters of religion arose in the eating hall. Cullen kept himself away from all the old arguments, the question of free will versus sin, the Maker’s plan, but he trusted in Andraste. In his darkest days, when he feared each breath would only bring a fresh pain through his body and soul, when everyone turned from him, all he had to cling to was his faith. It kept him buoyant before he could find a purpose to guide him.

“Cullen…” Lana gripped onto his forearm, drawing him out of his sulk, “I’m not alone.” She tried to smile in reassurance but he knew that lie well, told it to himself often enough. He was never more alone than when he was surrounded by his own knights. They needed orders, not a friend. His own hand covered hers and he wrapped his fingers tight as if to shield her. For a world’s heartbeat they stared into each other, waiting to see who would break away first. It stung Cullen to realize how often he kept finding pieces of himself reflected back in her as if they were two sides of the same coin, bundled together in a never ending flip of fate.

“We should prepare for White,” Lana spoke. She slipped her fingers out of his grasp and wound them around her staff.

Cullen nodded, “Of course, but don’t we have to find him first?”

Lana sneered, “He will come to us.”

“Why?”

“Because when I lit up the node the defenses awoke. A barrier’s locked off the entire thaig. The only way out is by destroying the node. And the only way to destroy the node is by getting through us.”

Confrontation

Her plan was -- he wished he could call it sound but he barely understood the intricacies of it beyond stopping White. The green node continued to cast its magical interfering qualities through the air. Lana stood beside the window, gazing down at the lake below. She'd only break away from her vigil to inspect the node, clucking her tongue at some impenetrable change in the magic, or anti-magic, or however it worked. The device unnerved him. With each passing minute, Cullen found it increasingly difficult to stare at the node. He tried to keep his back turned and guard the staircase that White would have to take, but movement kept drawing him back to the shifting light across the mottled iron. At first it made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end, the buzzing upon his skin increasing. But as he continued to stare at it, he found himself able to peer inside the solid ball. The inner working pulsed with an unexplainable heartbeat, slower than a living person's but far more powerful - as if pulsing with the world. He wanted to reach out and touch it, merge his fingers into the inner-workings.

Lana grabbed onto his extended fingers, pulling Cullen back to the real world. Pain stung his watery eyes from the lack of blinking while he fell into whatever compulsion the node produced. She tried to catch his sight while Cullen scrunched his eyes up, “Are you all right?”

“It’s difficult to look at,” he said.

Her forehead wrinkled, and she whipped back to the node, “What do you see?”

“Ah,” he wiped at his eyes with the back of his glove and stared back at the clearly solid ball. Whatever vision it produced was just that, an illusion probably brought on from exhaustion and ancient magic hissing in the air. “It was like seeing a mana clash instead of feeling it”

“Hm…”

“Or, I could be mistaken. It…Ah!” Cullen jumped as another spark shot across his nose and arced into the gauntlet. “At this rate we shall electrocute ourselves before the blood mage has the opportunity.”

Lana smiled in sympathy and cupped her hands upon his face. Once again the twitching across his skin died down. Cullen caught her hands in his and held them at the side of his neck. He wanted to ask what she kept doing to alleviate it, but his words knotted together at the concern in her face. It’d been a long time since anyone looked at him as if they wished to take his pain away. Still clinging to her fingers, Cullen dipped his head towards her. A spark zapped from his lips into hers causing Lana to yelp.

“Andraste’s flames, I’m so sorry!” Cullen cried as her hands slipped from his grasp. Lana massaged her lips with her fingers. He opened his mouth to apologize again, when Lana threw her arms around his neck and plunged into a kiss. As her lips sucked upon his, a metallic bite rolled off her tongue into his. His body stretched thin; he felt as if he could wrap his arms twice around her if he wanted. His legs slipped away from him, the toes elongating past his boots.

She pulled away and smiled. The thinness snapped away leaving Cullen rapidly aware of where his fingers, toes, and the rest of his limbs were. Right where they’d always been. Lana said, “I overloaded you with enough mana you should be glowing. It ought to at least keep the sparks away for a few hours.”

“That was…I’ve never felt anything like that,” he admitted. Cullen tapped the ends of his fingers together to make certain they were still entombed in the gloves.

Lana smirked, “You should make out with more mages. Wait until you see what we can do when we’re really creative.”

Whether it was from the mana coursing through his system or the proximity of the node, Cullen caught the blush blundering up his neck and willed it back. “I will take that under advisement,” he managed to cough out, blanketing his imagination before he had to make adjustments in an already tight spot.

Horns blared through the entire thaig rattling stones and shaking the ground below them. Cullen shielded his ears from the assault, but Lana dashed off to the window.

“It’s as I suspected,” she said, yanking up her staff, “he’s here.”

With one hand Cullen unsheathed his sword, and with the other he pulled the lyrium bottle from his pocket. He’d only set out with the one in his kit, assuming this trip wouldn’t take more than a day or two at most. It also seemed unlikely the chantry would willingly let him leave their grasp with more than a ration or two at best. They kept a tighter lock on their lyrium than they did the tranquil’s enchantments.

Popping off the lid with his thumb, Cullen tipped back the vial and downed it. Far too much time had passed since his last draught as a sharp stinging rattled through his veins. He kept pushing it lately, against even Meredith’s watchful eye. As the stinging melted away, a calm chill swept through his bones. Certainty followed in its wake, reinforcing his duty to the symbol upon his shield. His grip tightened upon his sword, his muscles snapping to attention from the strength flooding him. He felt whole again.

Something drew his attention, and he turned to see a queer look across the mage’s face. Lana sighed in contention while watching him take the lyrium but did not speak a word. Instead, she swung her head back to gaze across the thaig. What could she say? She needed a templar and she got one. The lyrium was necessary for him to fight mages. It was how the world worked, whether they liked it or not.

“White is coming,” she said, her voice toneless, “prepare yourself.”

With the node activated both she and the blood mage would be on an even playing field but it would not affect the templar waiting to finish him off. It was relying on this ancient dwarven artifact to do something that as far as he knew was impossible that pushed his limits of believability. How could it cut off the connection to the fade with a wave of a hand? Another horn blasted through the air, but Cullen didn’t flinch from the sound. His own blood rushed through his ears pounding with the beat of lyrium.

Lana yanked up her staff and Cullen realized she never tied the blade back on. Was that part of the plan? He tried to reach out to ask her when a voice echoed through the stones.

“Lady mage, I knew it would end here. We almost solved the node. Could you imagine? To control, limit magic before it even left the fade. But no, it wouldn’t work that way. We were so close to figuring out the what we forgot to add in the why.”

“White!” Lana shouted out the window, her hand steadying her as she leaned forward. She ignored his ramblings and jumped straight to the point. “What you’ve done is reprehensible. You know this. You know I cannot let you live for what you did to those wardens.”

The chuckle trembled up Cullen’s legs through the stones of the spire. He spun around expecting to see the mage rising up the stairs but only blackness remained behind him. “Oh Lady mage, I wished I had a choice. I tried to explain to them, but they wouldn’t see. Refused to admit it. Couldn’t. It killed them.”

Lana’s hand gripped tighter around her staff, frost circling down it even with the node active. “No, you killed them.”

“Yes…” his voice drifted away from all around them and landed upon the tower directly across the lake. The one coated in darkspawn blight. Fire burst from White’s hand but it was only a torch. He extended it outward from the blackened tower as if he intended to wave to them. White appeared alone and unarmed without even a staff for protection. “Yes, I did kill them. All of them. I shouldn’t have, but…if you only knew.”

“Come and explain it to me, White. Please. I need to understand,” Lana shouted to the man.

He looked about to argue and speak in more cryptic sentences, when he sighed, his entire body slouching, “Yes, one way or another it needs to end.” White took a step out of the window into the vastness of air. Instinctively, Cullen dashed forward as if he could reach out to catch the falling man, but White didn’t plummet into the lake below. He didn’t raise a stone to meet his feet either. Somehow the elf stood upon nothing extended hundreds of feet in the air.

“How is he…?” Cullen asked waving his sword at the mage.

Lana remained unsurprised, her eyes hunting across the scrawny elf walking through thin air towards them. “Dwarven illusion, like the wall. If you look carefully you can see the gaps in the air where cracks have formed over the years.” She pointed at one of these invisible cracks but all Cullen saw was an endless fall the blood mage should be taking. “This is nothing, you should have seen the trials at the Temple of Sacred Ashes. Bloody puzzles.”

“Where are his demons?” Cullen asked. He tried to peer past Lana to the darkness behind White but nothing moved through the shadows. It was impossible to think the blood mage would come truly alone. He had everything to lose from not unleashing a horde upon them.

Lana ignored him as White ground to a halt a few dozen feet away from her. “I shall come no closer,” he said waving the torch before his eyes. The smoke had to sting, the blood mage not used to using non-magical fire. “I have not forgotten the templar you brought.”

Lana gritted her teeth and sighed, “White, you know why I was able to find you. You gave it to me for that very reason.” She must have meant the phylactery pulsing in Cullen’s pocket. “I could have sent a battalion of wardens to track you down, but I came alone. Nearly alone. We will not attack you until we hear you out.”

“This is typically where some trap is sprung and the obliging villain falls to his doom,” White said.

Parting her hands, Lana shifted with exaggerated movements as if she were facing down a feral animal. With White’s eyes on her, she snapped her arms forward. Only a light breeze waffled the elf back. “The node is active, I cannot harm you. You cannot harm me.”

White tipped his head, “You can harm people without the use of magic, I have seen it often.” That caused Lana to grumble, a shadow drifting across her face. “For what little it is worth, Lady mage, I am sorry.”

“For murdering your friends?” Lana shouted to the man too far away for either of them to reach. Cullen itched to chase after him, but his brain screamed that it was a certain death. Could he even be supported by this invisible bridge?

White slipped his eyes closed and a gentleness smoothed his face. The elf looked as capable of malfeasance as a young child.

“White?” Lana prompted.

Fire tumbled from his hand, racing to splash into the lake below. No longer carrying the torch, his hand unearthed the hidden dagger. Yanking back his sleeve, the mage slit across his scarred arms thrice. “Forgive me,” he whispered.

The node shrieked an ear piercing howl as the green light flared to a horrifying red. Lana flipped away from the blood mage drawing power from his own veins to face down the device behind Cullen. Her eyes focused and he could taste the fade pouring from her into the node, green light wrapping across its surface. For a brief second the device skipped, the fade energy overpowering whatever White was doing. But it wasn’t enough. She’d wasted so much mana for no good reason, just to keep him from zapping himself? How could she be so reckless when there was a blood mage about?

Cullen shouldered past her and aimed what powers he had at the mage, trying to boil all the mana White suckered from his own blood inside his veins. It was foolish, and it rarely worked properly, but it was their best hope before the mage unleashed demons upon them. Dipping deep into his own psyche, Cullen tugged upon the emptiness inside of him. It was the void itself that chewed through magic gobbling it up and rendering it impotent. He touched the emptiness flowing in his veins and drew it towards White, putting every drop of lyrium in his body into it. The power snapped out at the blood mage. It was enough to drag any man to his knees, but the elf waved his hand up and smiled.

Cullen’s own spell twisted back at him, the blow burning through his veins. Somehow the mage reflected it back, his own lyrium set aflame inside of him. Pain chewed and clawed up every inch of his skin, the torment snapping against his brain. Cullen screamed, blood scattering from his tongue and out his nose. Blood the mage could scoop up for his own use. The mage the templar couldn’t stop. Darkness slipped across Cullen’s vision, his own heartbeat staggering as the mage’s poison knocked about his veins. He stumbled backwards and a hand landed upon him.

Lana gripped tighter to him and she began to drain every ounce of mana from his body. The pain dissipated along with the power, all of it flowing into her. She’d used him as a storage device, the last place White would think to look. Strength snapped back into his body as the internal flames doused off his skin, but Cullen remained limp in Lana’s arms. Her fingers squeezed him once more, then she snapped her hand at White.

Ice that could shatter mountains whipped off her and directly into the blood mage. Somehow he threw up a barrier before she could hit sending the force of winter ricocheting into the walls. Frost blanketed the area, covering even the invisible bridge in the curse of winter. Hissing and popping, the stone caves creaked from the dramatic temperature change. After centuries of standing, this could take them down around them. Lana didn’t back down, her insurmountable attack continuing even as she reached the bottom of Cullen’s stores. Now all she had left was whatever she could pull from herself.

Still White didn’t budge, his own protection spell holding as the ice froze his own pools of blood dripping off the invisible bridge. Lana screamed as she released her hold on Cullen and thrust the last of what she had at White. Her legs gave out, but Cullen rose up to catch her around the waist. Her final attack shattered against the barrier, but one lone icicle pierced through the bubble and embedded into White’s shoulder.

He didn’t cry out in pain, only stared down at the ice spear melting from his own warm blood dribbling down it. “That was a surprise,” the elf said. Then he brought his hands together in a clap. The force threw both Lana and Cullen backwards against the wall. Cullen bore the brunt of it with Lana still in his arms, her body crushing that cursed warden armor into his chest. He slid to his knees, trying to shake off the blow to the back of his head. Nausea knotted through the blurry vision, but he didn’t have time to worry about that.

Lana hopped up first, her fingers scrabbling for her staff, while White calmly walked through the window. The elf watched her, a smile upon his lips, then he whipped back at Cullen struggling to get up to a knee through his throbbing hands. “I know your tricks templar, I can counter them all. Do not try again. But you,” now he turned to Lana, “what we could have accomplished if you’d simply-”

“No,” Lana cut him off while brandishing her staff to try and bash him in the head. It was all they had left now.

“They’re wrong, you know, the chantry. Wrong about this, this power,” White waved his fingers down his arm and the wound scabbed up instantly, the blood drying in its wake.

“I shouldn’t have sent you in alone, I should have been there,” Lana shouted. She twisted carefully around the back of the node while keeping an eye on White. Cullen could only see the top of her head as he slipped behind the ball still hissing from whatever blood magic threw it off balance.

“It would not have changed anything, I’m afraid. You weren’t of the right blood to see it for what it was, what it will be, what it should be,” the crazy mage kept his focus on Lana, his head twisting away from the templar struggling to rise.

“Why do you intend to kill the First Warden?”

White snapped his head back and glared at Cullen and the templar’s fingers itching to yank up his fallen blade. Turning back to Lana he answered her, “Because, it is the only way to stop the cycle before it begins. Can’t you see it? Can’t you hear it? We will bring the end because our hubris blinds us all.”

“Tell me what you know, White. Tell me what you saw in the library. Please,” her voice shattered as she paused in her walk.

The elf looked about to argue when he placed a hand near the node, power tumbling below his fingers as he readied to destroy it and free himself. But then a tenderness weaved through his face and he eyed up Lana, “I am sometimes sorry you were not my apprentice, the depth of your curiosity is only matched by your tenacity. But even you would not accept the fact. Solona, what we wish, what we hope to accomplish is all for naught.”

“What are you talking about?” she continued while rounding the curve of the node and drawing closer to him. White was so enraptured in her he didn’t hear Cullen scoop up his sword.

“The Grey Wardens. We’re so certain we are the only ones who can stop the blights, who can end the archdemons.”

“We are.”

“Oh,” White twisted his head, “then how do you yet live?” Lana sneered at that, whatever the mage meant passing over Cullen’s head. Her eyes darted over White’s shoulder and she spotted Cullen rising, his sword at the ready to end this madness. Ever so softly she shook her head no.

“You found something in the blight itself, please, tell me what it is. Tell me so we can help future wardens, save people from this sickness,” Lana pleaded, her eyes focused upon White.

“What I found would hurt you.”

“It’s already hurting me,” she said.

“True enough,” White said, “Perhaps you should share in the burden.” The elf reached his bloody hands towards Lana whether to attack or not, there was no way to know. Cullen sprung forward, his shoulder slamming into the elf while the sword slipped unimpeded through White’s ribs and pierced out his chest.

“No!” Lana screamed and she threw a force powerful enough at Cullen his body skittered back against the wall. She wrapped her arms around White’s body pulling him into her hands as both sank to their knees. The elf’s blood gushed out of the wound splattering down her own chest as she tried to lower him to the ground. “White, please, tell me why. Tell me why you did it.”

Color drained from White’s face as his own veins spilled across the floor. The blade sliced through his chest but still he didn’t scream in pain, as if nothing could hurt him anymore. His hand paddled in the air and landed upon Lana’s shoulder. With a rasping voice, he whispered, “In the end, none of it matters.”

Her fingers flared as she placed them against White’s chest, but the magic sputtered away, yanked from her body by her own trap. Not that even she could cure a blade through the lungs. Lana held White’s empty body awkwardly in her arms, trying to keep the end of Cullen’s sword from piercing into her own skin. She struggled under the growing weight of it as the soul fled into the fade, but wouldn’t put him down.

“It’s my fault, I told him to look into it. We found a text, not even that, a piece of writing that was barely legible, but I had such hopes. And I urged him to figure out what it was. It had to be him, only he could…” Lana stared at White’s still open eyes, unable to close them with her hands full with his body. “I’m so fucking tired of getting it wrong.”

Cullen didn’t move from where she threw him. Though the force was far gentler than what White concocted, and he remained on his feet, he was wary of the mage with a seemingly endless power that openly attacked him. He was also unarmed. Holding one palm flat he tried to reason with her, “Lana.” She didn’t turn away from the dead elf, but her shoulders shuddered from the reminder she wasn’t alone. “He was a blood mage.”

“I know,” her voice whimpered, only a shadow of the powerful woman who hacked through a darkspawn army. “It was why I chose him.”

“What?”

Finally, she released her hold on White. The body slipped out of her fingers and crumpled to the ground. Her entire chest was mired in scarlet blood, the same blood dribbling its last onto the floor unable to harm anyone anymore. Lana rose off her knees and gazed down at the body. White curled up on his side, appearing as if in sleep save for the sword still run through him. She leaned over and wrapped her fingers around the hilt of Cullen’s sword. His legs tightened, fearing that she would try to destroy his only weapon.

It took a bit of tugging to yank the sword out of White. A groan hissed through the hole left behind, gore slopping down to fill it. She twisted the blade up to her eyes and inspected it. Cullen froze as the now armed mage approached him. Could he stop her? What if he hurt her?

Maker, what if he had to kill her?

Lana stopped only a hair’s breadth from him, her eyes as inscrutable as the moment before he first kissed her. She seemed to stare through time itself while weighing his sword in her hands. Summoning a breath, she extended the sword to him hilt first. Cullen blinked, trying to shake off every horrible thought that stirred in his mind. Of course she wasn’t going to hurt him. She wouldn’t do that. She was…

He gripped onto his blade, glad to have the heft back in his hand. Lana stepped back, her shoes sliding in the gore upon the floor. Her eyes shifted to his and she nodded her head once. “Do it.”

“Do what?” Cullen was unmoored, terrified to twist his sword away while Lana stood unshielded just before the tip of it.

Her stone face shattered, tears pooling at the edge of her eyes. The wobbling in her lip warped her words, “I struck a templar. I know what that means.”

“No, no, I can’t, no. You were…” Cullen stammered stepping back into the wall.

Lana pressed closer, the tip of his sword nipping across her crimson chest, “I lived in the circle for fifteen years. I know what happens to mages who step out of line. I could have injured you, or worse, killed you. In the end, I impeded your duty.”

“Lana, no, you were distraught and…he was important to you,” his hand shook as his normally solid muscles melted away. He didn’t want to be here, didn’t want to stare into those eyes facing down death by his hand.

“Important? I did not think templars took much stock in the excuses of mages. You kill for less. You certainly invoke the rite of tranquility for less.”

“Against blood mages and abominations,” Cullen said.

“Against anything your Knight-Commander deems unacceptable,” Lana threw herself forward bypassing the blade to jump into Cullen’s face. “You think I don’t know the rumors about Kirkwall’s circle? That it’s breaking chantry law? Or how mages are fleeing for fear that they could be branded because of some imagined misstep? How many live in terror every day that it could be their last regardless if they passed their harrowing?”

“You know nothing of what the mages in Kirkwall are capable of. They’re more devious, more dangerous than the ones in Ferelden,” Cullen shouted back. “More blood mages move amongst them than you can imagine.”

“Any one of us is dangerous, you know that. You’ve said as much repeatedly. And you saw what I am capable of!” Her venom subsided and she turned away from him. With her eyes boring into his hand gripping to the extended sword she sighed, “I could kill you. I’ve had six years to whet myself into a force of nature.” Her voice overflowed with regret, the smart little mage honed to a sharp edge. She cupped his cheek with her hand and pressed into his skin with her thumb.

“But you won’t,” Cullen cried out, biting through a pain crawling out of his heart. He’d been so certain that every mage was dangerous, any mage could turn, but not her. Never her. He needed that fact.

Lana sighed, “How do you know that?”

“You’re not like them, not like what they do to people; the horrors, the pain they… You, you could have turned to demons at any time to stop the blight, but you didn’t. You haven’t,” he grabbed onto her wrist, pinning her fingers tighter to his cheek, “You won’t!”

“White was a blood mage when he joined the grey wardens,” she said, derailing him.

“What?” Cullen glared into her eyes, but they danced away. “That’s madness. How can anyone trust a blood mage?”

“We take any who are willing to make the sacrifice, any who can fight darkspawn. Pickpockets, murderers,” she paused and snorted, “long lost princes, malifecarum. Anyone.” Her shoulders sagged in exhaustion and she pulled her hand away from his cheek. Cullen was glad to let her go as she stepped away from his blade and abandoned her certainty that he would strike her down. Pins and needles erupted down his forearm while he lowered the blade, the muscle unhappy from such abuse.

Lana dipped down to White her knees sloshing up the blood. With a shaking hand she slipped his eyes closed. Silence descended between them as she kept watch over his corpse, Cullen watching her. Only the hiss of the once again green node broke through them.

“Do you know why he turned to blood magic?”

“The same reason as any mage would; power,” Cullen shook off her plea. He’d heard all the sob stories before, but at the end of them all the same thread – the mage needed to be stronger than someone else, needed to overpower someone else, and blood was the key.

“He did it to save a friend. He was years past his own harrowing when his friend took ill, a disease no healer could find an answer to. So he did it, he did what every circle mage should never do and turned to a demon for help.” Lana glanced over her shoulder at Cullen, “All to save a templar’s life. Of course they found out what he did, one can’t cure the un-curable without raising questions. So White ran. The circle nearly caught up to him before he stumbled into a warden scouting party.”

“The templar?” Cullen asked, his voice cracking beneath him.

“She recovered, then they told her what happened, loaded her with lyrium and…and she was the one sent to track down White. They,” Lana paused and tipped her head back, “they assumed he wouldn’t harm the person he fought so hard to save. As demented as it is, they were right. The wardens had to conscript him against his own will. He would have let himself die by her still living hand if it weren’t for them.”

“I…I’m sorry,” Cullen threw out, unable to think of anything profound.

Lana wiped at her eyes and rose to her feet. “That’s what they do,” she cursed not at Cullen but the world itself, “pit us against each other. Us versus them. Bound against our will, terrified to step out of line. What choice do we have but to slaughter each other when the time comes, when the breaking point is reached? We never even had a chance.”

“What do you propose we do then? Give mages free run of the cities? Turn our backs to abominations? The poor chained mage is a heart wrenching image but what is the solution to freeing them without risking others?” Cullen spat at her, dragging back the same dozen arguments probably being shouted through the streets of Kirkwall at that very moment.

But Lana didn’t snap with her own retorts. Her eyes softened and her lips parted with a gasp. “I wasn’t speaking only of mages.” Pointedly, she turned to look at the empty bottle of lyrium broken across the ground.

“That…I,” Cullen dashed away from her pitying look. The lyrium was necessary, everyone knew it, and it helped to squelch the aspects of templar life that haunted his thoughts. He willingly yoked himself to the chantry; to blanch now because the waters turned foul was unfair to those taken in the line of duty. Even if Meredith wielded the brand with an alacrity that by light of day unnerved him. She kept people safe, that was what mattered. A means to justify an end.

“You want answers, everyone does, but I have none,” Lana folded in on herself, her head slumping to her stomach. “I’ve never had any. Kill one person to save a hundred, sacrifice a city to preserve a keep. Send a man to his death for the good of the order. I’ve been making those choices since I was nineteen. Never even seen the world and they pinned it all on me to stop a civil war and save it. Do you know how pathetic it is for me to order around a fifty year old veteran? I’m not some great hero, a warrior ordained by the Maker to save us all. I’m stumbling through every day hoping that I can live with myself to the next moment…” she stared down at White, “and I keep getting it wrong.”

Sacrifice one to save a possible hundred. That was his life, but without the epic songs to accompany his battles. Instead he had to scrutinize every mage that passed him, listen for every whisper of disobedience, hone his blade to strike the most innocent face. And if he failed, if he let one of them slip by unnoticed, countless people suffered. It was a war of attrition, he only had to miss once, sympathize one time, to fail. It gnawed upon him in a way that he thought no one else understood. Cullen wiped his blade clean of White’s blood against his rag and carefully sheathed it. He felt Lana watching him as he kept his movements slow and methodical, taking the time to secure his weapons properly.

Now unarmed, he extended a hand to her. Her eyebrows knotted in confusion as she stared at it. He wanted to explain it to her, assure her that she wasn’t alone, but his voice sunk into his chest unwilling to lift. Admitting his own defeats aloud gave them a power, a voice he feared he could never face down. All he could do was offer her his hand. Lana slipped her fingers into his, as cautious as a wild animal accepting food. Cullen shuddered at the contact, his heart trying to pour itself out through his hand. It was doubtful Lana understood an inch of it, but she didn’t try and pull away. She wrapped her fingers tighter into his, and he shielded her hand with his own. He wished he could do more, but she revived from his unspoken promise, the flush of anger and sorrow upon her cheeks fading.

“We…we can leave, once I shut down the node. I should close up the thaig too so darkspawn don’t stumble back in,” Lana mumbled while wiping away the tear stains on her cheeks. She still clung to his hand with her other.

Cullen nodded, back to the unequal footing they began on. Then he glanced down and stared at the man he ran through. In death, White looked even more fragile than before, his thin hand stretched upon the ground as if waiting for someone to grab it. “I could carry his body up to the surface for a proper funeral.”

Lana smiled from his offer, “No, that won’t be necessary.”

“Why?”

She slipped her fingers out of his hand. “Dying alone and forgotten in the deep roads is a proper grey warden funeral.” Cullen started at her stark response while she dropped to her knees and whispered against White’s ear, “Hahren na melana sahlin emma ir abelas. In death, sacrifice.”

Back Where We Began

It would have been more poetic if a sunrise greeted them as they emerged from the depths of the deep roads. Instead, the afternoon sun blazed down through the red cliffs crowded around them. If he’d stepped out an hour earlier or later, the light would have been blocked by the rocky precipices instead of into his eyes. They’d only been in the darkspawn lair for a day and a half but it felt a week passed. Cullen glared at the sun when he should have felt ecstatic at seeing it again.

A hand gently tapped his arm and he turned away from the sky. Lana had remained silent through their climb out of the deep, only gesturing to some danger or drop off and trusting he’d remain close enough without losing her. He had only the drum of his shoes upon the ground to keep him company through a mile of climbing back to the surface. By the summer day light her cheeks appeared wan, her eyes blotted and strained. She thinned her lips in a restrained thought, probably one he didn’t want to hear. He’d tried to think of something to say to her as they walked away from the mage’s body, but every idea warped in his mind into only renewing their buried argument. After a time, Cullen decided that if she wanted to talk she’d say something and it was best to let sleeping mabari lie.

“We can continue along this dried riverbed,” Lana said, her voice rough as the rocky edge. “There’s no need to climb the cliffs.”

“No?” Cullen rolled his shoulders, trying to waken his strained muscles. At this point, the best his arms could offer was a meager shrug, scaling anything was out of the question.

“No death defying leaps off crumbling stairs this time,” she sighed and tapped her fingers against his arm.

“Oh, that’s almost. I mean, it wasn’t so…” She wanted something, she needed something from him. For the Maker’s sake, say it! “Where are we?” Not that.

Lana didn’t catch on to the internal war ravaging behind Cullen’s eyes. She slipped ahead of him and waved a finger that he should follow. Silently, she led him down the dead riverbed while limping over the red clay cracked like broken eggshells. It wasn’t until they’d stepped out of the tower that Cullen realized she’d been injured in their fight against White. Lana silently tied up her ankle and relied upon her staff to support her. She didn’t turn to him once for help.

Pausing at the edge of the riverbed where the land fell away as if a giant snatched it up, Lana pointed a finger below them. Cullen sidled up beside her and a southern wind blasted sea salt into his eyes. Gulls shrieked above the clouds while dipping in and out of masts of ships decorated with the flags of Nevarra, Kirkwall, and Ferelden. Despite over five years in Kirkwall, his knowledge of ships reached somewhere in the ‘that’s a big one, and that’s a little one’ range. There were a lot of big ones bobbing along the sea, most glinting in the glare of the sun off the calm waters. A handful of the smaller ones took up near the coast itself, the wooden docks extended like a complicated maze into the sea.

“Cumberland, or near enough to count,” Lana said. She peered over the edge down at a dozen dock workers scrabbling against cargo. Two elves held a box between them, the crates marked with the symbols of every port they’d ever landed in, while a qunari of all things stood stone still watching over them. Lana pinched her nose and sighed, “I wonder sometimes if they have any idea how easily all of this could fall. Without the grey wardens maintaining the seals on the deep roads…” Her thoughts trailed off as she watched a box slide off the ramp and bowl through the elves. The qunari tipped her foot up and stopped the box without shifting.

“I…” Cullen understood her message and why she brought him here without her having to say it. He threw his shoulders back to stand in attention in the hope that would blot away the regret blooming in the back of his mind. “I can…shall take a ship back to Kirkwall.”

Lana turned from her vigil and that ornery spark of hers twinkled in her eye, “You know I’m going to need that armor back. The wardens get very particular and grumpy when people ‘not of the order’ wear it.”

“Oh, I…” He patted down the steel griffin that’d been horribly abused in the short time he wore it. “I hadn’t thought…”

“So, unless you plan on traveling back to Kirkwall naked, I think it’s best I stick with you.” Her tone was flat, but for a brief second her eyes flickered down his body.

“That would be preferable to…the, uh, sunburn I’d have to explain,” Cullen stammered. “And other things too.”

Lana didn’t laugh at him, her energy seeming to be already spent. Instead, she gestured to a path dug into the cliffside that led right into the heart of the port. “I know where we can rent some horses. Shouldn’t be more than a days travel back. And no brontos this time, I promise.”

Cullen smiled from her jibe, but the edges stung. Her lighthearted nature was buried under the mask of command, the glint in her eye matted and her sharp smile dulled. She shielded herself and her pain behind the grey warden banner. He wished he could find some way to speak to her, to get her to speak of whatever weighed upon her heart, but he knew he was too incompetent to manage such a feat. And, a dark part of him taunted, he did the same damn thing with the templars as she did the wardens.

Lana was true to her word, seeming to know everyone on the docks of not-quite Cumberland. They procured two of the better horses and rode away from the setting sun towards Kirkwall. She kept far enough ahead perched upon her bay that Cullen was left alone with only his thoughts and the sturdy horse below him. He found himself missing the bronto.

By the time they broke into the outskirts of Kirkwall, the sun was rising. It was mostly farmland, save the occasional stand and ring of houses. She did not offer for them to stop, and he did not challenge the idea of riding through the night. Lana dismounted from her horse and let it slip off to a creek for water.

The city woke below them. Smoke poured out of the foundry in Low Town mutilating the pinks of the sunrise into a foggy grey. He knew the sounds of Kirkwall – peddlers belting their lungs out until it rang in your ears for days – the smells of Kirkwall – there was a delicacy to detecting the scent of various fish rotting on the docks – and the pain of Kirkwall. But here with only untamed grass wafting in the breeze and a few herds of sheep chomping away upon it the city looked deceptively peaceful. Dare he think it, even inviting. To his right was the Waking Sea, more of the biggest ships sliding through the opened locks to drop off that rancid fish. And in between them lay the gallows. He could just make out a few of golden statues, their heads clutched in their chained hands.

“Well,” Lana stood alone, her own inscrutable eyes canvasing every inch of Kirkwall. “Back where we began, and the city isn’t aflame.”

“It’s a wonder,” Cullen commented. “I’d have assumed at least a dragon attack.” Lana scrunched her face up and touched her shoulder as if in a memory. He caught the familiar pain and remarked, “You’ve fought dragons as well?”

She shrugged her perhaps once dragon mutilated shoulder and continued to gaze across the city. “A couple…dozen.”

“Andraste’s tears,” he exclaimed. Why didn’t she rant and rave? Thunder from on high to every man or woman who dared to rise against her the terrors she’d clipped away from Thedas? That her opposition might as well turn around and head home before she turned her wrath on them? If anyone deserved to retire to the quiet life away from the pain and blood it was the hero of Ferelden.

“Well,” she said, turning to face him, “you might as well strip.”

“Beg pardon?” He tried to not whip his eyes to the gallows and what felt like hundreds of eyes judging him from across the water.

“The armor,” Lana said, her hand breaking away from her staff to point at it.

“Oh, right, uh…” He should be able to take it off in his sleep, but his fingers slipped against the buckles yanking the chest piece tighter than it already was. Lana’d been the one to pull it off him in the…Cullen swallowed back that memory trying to stuff it deep into his mind. So deep he could almost trick himself into thinking it never even happened. It was only his imagination playing him the fool.

“You can put it in my bag,” she said, only glancing over him as he struggled through undressing himself. She kept a vigil across Kirkwall, her eyes piercing the movement of a waking city the way a distant hawk would.

Cullen stuffed each bit into her pack as it came off until he stood in only the blue under layer, the starched collar tight upon his neck while the deep cut exposed his nearly translucent chest hair. A cool breeze wafted through the thin linen freezing his skin before the summer sun rose. He grabbed onto the hem of the tunic when Lana’s fingers wrapped around his.

“No, that’s, as much as I’d enjoy watching…you can keep it and the pants,” her voice bobbed around and she shook her head. “I’m not so cruel as to send you bare assed back to the templars.” A flush rose up her cheeks and she bit down on her tongue. Tell her now! It’s the perfect time!

“Thank you,” Cullen said while flattening the edge of the shirt back against his hips.

“You look good in blue,” she mused. Her fingers drifted above the tunic as if she regretted letting him keep it.

“That’s, I, uh…will you be able to carry all that?” He pointed to the bag now overflowing with armor and all the necessities of surviving the deep roads she began with.

Lana bowed her head, a smirk twisting up her lips, “I learned a few tricks over the years. I think I can handle it.” She didn’t grab up her bag, but traced the edge of her fingernails down her staff. “I…I feel as if I should pay you for, uh…”

Cullen paled. He knew what she meant, but the implications rattled him, “No, that’s, that’s not necessary. I was acting as a…templars do not accept coin.”

“Right, forgot about that.” She turned away from him until she stood in profile, her haunted eyes gazing across a world that didn’t care one whit for what she did. How many other drunks in how many other taverns spoke of the hero of Ferelden as if she were only a conspiracy? How many people dismissed her as nothing more than that little mage who got lucky?

“Lana, I…”

Her eyes blinked against dawn’s light and she turned to him. A soft smile turned up her lips. “Yes?”

“I…” love you. I love you. I’ve loved you for years. The thought of you feeling hurt, or lonely, or broken rends me apart. I want you to be happy, to love in return. “I was wondering why White called you Lady Mage?”

She sighed, “A joke on his part. Everyone knows who I am by reputation, so I tend to come with no introduction. Since none was offered he referred to me as ‘that lady mage.’ It stuck and I found it refreshing in a way. He…he was a good man once.”

“He was a blood mage.”

“He was that too,” she admitted. Her fingers ran down the length of her staff, and Cullen noticed that she wasn’t haphazardly flicking at the wood. Each movement traced one of the names carved in it. Lana cocked an eye at him, “You noticed them? It began with those lost in…when I wasn’t there at Kinnloch. I keep adding more. I’m uncertain what I’ll do when I run out of staff. Every person I failed to save.”

Cullen grabbed onto her hand wrapping his fingers around the top of hers and holding it above the names of the dead. “It’s not your fault.”

He expected her to yank back her hand, but exhausted eyes turned to him and she twisted it in his grasp. Threading her fingers around his, she sighed, “That’s not how it works. You of all people know that.”

Cullen felt struck from her words. How did she know him so well? How did she cut to his quick without even trying? Lana glanced out at the sea, then slipped her free hand around his back. Their bodies pressed together. With Cullen still holding her hand they looked like two people about to dance together on the hills at dawn. His right hand lay limply at his side, uncertain what to do, when Lana placed her head against his shoulder. Her fingers massaged the small of his back in tender circles. Even aware that one of the other templars could be wandering the outskirts, Cullen enveloped his arms around her.

“Mage and templar,” she whispered.

“You should hate me,” he said, his breath warming her forehead.

“I would say the same,” Lana countered back.

“I could never…” Cullen began when his tongue tripped over itself. Yes, he could have. If she’d been in the tower when Uldred and his army of blood mages began the revolt he knew he’d hate her with the same fury as he did everyone else who survived. Maker, he was so tired of this anger. “You’re special to…so many people.”

“Cullen, I could be any mage in any circle. I stumbled into a chance opportunity. How many more never even get one?”

“That’s specious reasoning, for all you know just as many would falter in your position, or use that power extended to them for their own ends.” His arms stiffened around her, the anger rising.

Lana didn’t prod him, instead she folded her arms tighter around him, her forehead nestling deeper into his chest. She sighed, “You still see mages as problems, not people.”

The starkness tripped him up. “I…I don’t see you that way.”

She lifted her head and searched through his eyes. Sweet Andraste, he wished he knew what do, what to say. Even to return to the man he was before the circle fell for a few days…Lana rose up on her toes, her eyes slipping tight as she kissed him. She didn’t prolong or tease with her tongue, but she put all of herself into what he realized would be their last meeting. Cullen wrapped his arms even tighter, trying to memorize the feel of her skin, the taste of her lips, and the curves of her body before it all fell apart.

Lana slipped down breaking contact, but his lips still buzzed from her presence. “Your heart belongs to the templars,” she said patting his cheek.

He found enough presence of mind to stare into her eyes to say, “And yours to the wardens.”

“That’s…” she snickered, “that’s perceptive of you.”

“There’s not much hope, is there?” he voiced the words that’d followed their every touch, every kiss.

Lana shut her eyes and he watched a few tears dribble down her cheek. “No. I’m afraid not. Doomed before it even began. Perhaps, perhaps there’d be a chance if you left the templars and I the wardens.” She knew the finality of her sentence. It would never happen, neither of it. He needed the templars as much as she needed the wardens. While the chantry had him bound through lyrium, something in Lana’s words told him she was just as knotted up in the wardens. The chance of their rekindling anything was a dream to survive through an empty night, nothing more.

She broke her hands away and placed them upon his chest. Cullen lowered his own, prepared to let her slip away. Her fingers traced his chest below the thin linen following the curve of his pec. Lana paused and closed her eyes. Fade energy snapped out of the world below her fingers. A warmth spread all through Cullen’s body leaving behind a renewed vigor in his bones. He felt as if he could jog the entirety = of the wounded coast now.

“What did you do?” he asked.

“A simple protection spell. In case, I heard there was a lot of criminal activity in Kirkwall and…I didn’t want to leave you unprotected.”

“Lana, that’s not—”

“Please,” she blinked away the last of her tears while sliding away from him, “let me do this. It helps.” A cold wind whipped between them carrying the stinging sea air and the sound of ships rocking against waves.

“I should return to the gallows,” Cullen said aloud to remind himself of where he belonged.

Lana nodded as she dabbed away any regret clinging to her face. What was left behind was the fearsome Commander of the Grey, cold and aloof so she could rise every day. He wondered how many wardens under her knew about her staff of the dead, knew that she carried the burden of them all even if she didn’t need to. Extending her hand, she gripped Cullen’s for a polite handshake, “Thank you for your services, Knight-Captain. I believe it’s best to part ways here.”

“But you could take a ship from the gallows.” That selfish part of him didn’t want to do what was necessary, didn’t want to give her up. Just a few more minutes.

Lana smiled as she shook her head, “A mage covered in blood, I wouldn’t make it two steps before someone cut me down.” His eyes fell away from her, smothered by the truth of it. It was doubtful they’d even let her dock before picking her off from the walls. She hauled up her pack, his lost armor jangling together, and motioned her head towards the city proper.

Unable to watch her leave, Cullen turned to face the sea. A gull drifted in and out of the clouds, unwilling to decide upon a spot to land on the waves. The other clustered birds squawked at it, but that gull chose to remain apart.

“Cullen,” her voice cracked above the cry of the lonesome bird. He glanced over his shoulder. Only her silhouette was visible against the rising light of the sun. “Stay safe.” And before he could answer, she resumed her walk out of his life.

Securing passage to the Gallows was easy, the dock workers more than happy to move anyone there free of charge. The fact that the only people who traveled to the gallows -- templars, mages, and chantry -- were also ones that could make the sailor's lives hell aided greatly. As his feet stepped upon the stone ground, Cullen heard the rare sound of laugher echoing amongst the statues. In his absence, someone decided a few of the apprentices should have a little run around the landing area. They varied in age and height, the youngest perhaps ten while some of the apprentices closer to their harrowing slowed to let the boy catch up. Kicking about a ball with no true end goal, the real fun seemed to be in stretching their legs away from the cell walls of the circle.

Nodding at his boatman in thanks, Cullen stepped crisply towards the gallows while ignoring the game when the ball skittered across the front of his feet. He stopped in time, but the girl chasing after it didn’t. She smacked into him, her elbow digging into his side.

“I’m so sorry for that,” she laughed while pulling her wild blonde hair from her face. Her smile froze as she looked past the blue undershirt and into his face. “Knight-Captain, I didn’t realize it was you.” Terror crept along her eyes and her mouth bobbed with unspoken words. The game was abandoned by the others, the court falling silent as every apprentice turned to look at them. “I…please forgive me.”

How did he not notice the way they looked at him? It wasn’t respect but fear that shook the girl…the mage. He tried to summon a smile, but it flipped to a broken frown as he spoke, “It is all right. Accidents happen.” Leaning over, Cullen snatched up the errant ball and pushed it into her hands, “You may continue.”

It wasn’t until he stood at the door into the heart of the gallows that he heard a single mage breathe again. Their chatter picked up as a few of their exasperated words carried on the wind. “I thought you were done for!” “Andraste’s tits, how are you not shaking to death?” “That was damn lucky, it was.” Mage and Templar. Us versus Them.

Leaving the mages behind, Cullen crossed into the gallows. The stationed templars paused for a moment before recognizing their Knight-Captain. He clipped past them, aiming to find the Knight-Commander. Meredith was an early riser and today was no different as she paced about her office from behind the closed door. He thought he heard the barest whisper of her voice speaking alone, but it faded away after he knocked.

“Ah, Knight-Captain,” Meredith stood leaning against her desk. No one else was present in the room. She shuffled some parchment scattered upon her desk and turned her full gaze upon him, “you have returned to us. I trust your mission went well.”

“The blood mage is dead, ser,” Cullen said, his shoulders straightening into formation. He wrapped his hands behind his back for balance.

“Excellent work. And your little accomplice, I assume she’s skipped back across the waters to Ferelden?”

Cullen blanched. He hadn’t told anyone about Lana. “Ma’am?”

Meredith’s unyielding sight cut through him, “The chantry turns a blind eye to the dangers of the grey wardens but I trusted you’d keep a watch on her. Maker only knows the damage she could do if unleashed.”

He could only bob his head along as if that’d been his plan the entire time. “I am ready to return to my duties.”

“We’ve had a few interesting developments in your absence. Three suspected blood mages escaped the gallows.”

“I will change and track them down immediately,” Cullen said raising his hand for a salute.

But Meredith held a hand out to stop him while she glanced across a letter upon her desk, “That is not your orders. I’ve decided that it should be the Champion’s duty to track down these dangerous mages and bring them in.”

“The Champion? She’s not a templar,” Cullen stated the obvious in case Meredith somehow forgot.

“Ha,” Meredith snorted, “that much is clear. But if she is to be the guardian of this city then she should be made well aware of all the dangers lurking within, no matter what she bleats on the steps of the chantry.”

Cullen twisted his head trying to shake logic out of Meredith’s words. It was the templars job to protect the people from magic. They ignored the Qunari threat looming over the city for far too long because of politics and so many suffered because of it. To drag the Champion into their work would only muddy the waters more, as if Kirkwall wasn’t enough of a heaving mess without a Viscount. What game was Meredith playing at and why? “I don’t understand,” he said, watching his Knight-Commander continue to pace again. She seemed unable to sit still for more than a few seconds as of late.

“I have it under control, it will work to our advantage I’m certain,” she blinked and turned as if seeing him for the first time, “Knight-Captain, you’re out of uniform.”

“I…” Cullen patted down the warden tunic, “did not stop to dress.”

“You should do that, then return to your vigil outside. Let the people know we are protecting them…even as their Champion forgets,” Meredith lapsed into her dark mood, the conversation over. Her Knight-Captain turned on his heel and left her to her own devices.

When Cullen opened the door to his room, for a heartbreaking moment he thought he spotted a silhouette of a woman standing before his window – but it was merely a trick of the light and his exhausted eyes. He yanked off the last of the warden attire, taking a special glee in removing the shortened pants and bunching them up for the launders. Something bulged in the pocket and Cullen yanked out the crystal vial that began this whole quest. White’s phylactery was black now, as dead as the mage it was connected to. He could return it to the tranquil; they’d clean it out, polish it up, and fill it with some other apprentice’s blood. That was the smart thing to do, the proper rules of the order to follow.

It was also the only thing he had left that connected him to Lana. Folding up the grey warden tunic, Cullen placed the linen deep in his sparse chest. Below that he secreted away White’s phylactery.

Dressing quickly in his templar armor, Cullen returned to his duties. The apprentices had already gone, leaving the gallows empty save the few shops and the other knights pacing about. Whatever may come of Lana, whatever may come of the grey wardens or the future itself, at least he knew where his place in the world lay. The templars were his home and that would never change.

Epilogue

An axe was still embedded deep in the Knight-Commander’s desk. Three years since that apostate destroyed the chantry, cast the circle into ruin, and Meredith lost whatever grip on sanity she managed, and Cullen couldn’t be bothered to remove it. He hated being in her office, hated the constant reminder of his failure wrapped around him, but it was where the Knight-Commander – even if he was only acting – held meetings. So, it was where he had to stay.

Things had been getting better. The first year was…Maker, even now it was still a blur. So many people crushed under rubble. Fires rampaged through the streets. Starvation set in followed by disease and all anyone cared about was finding the mage that started it all and dragging him to justice. After screaming himself raw in front of a makeshift tribunal of nobles, Cullen would have stretched his own neck on the gibbet if it’d gotten him bread for the hungry and shelter for the cold. Every moment was only measured by how to survive to the next. He never thought they’d see the light again, but somehow, each day they managed to solve little fires which in turn put out larger ones. With the mages scattered across thedas, the remaining templars focused on aiding Kirkwall as best they could. He pitched in with the Guard Captain. Both avoided any mention of the Champion and her mage consort, though Cullen suspected Aveline would be more likely to pummel something than he. And it was working, templars and the city guards for once worked together, until the Grand Enchanter and the whole college voted to disband all the circles.

One by one his templars began to vanish to chase the apostates fleeing their own towers as part of their sacred vows. Every day the ranks collapsed, leaving the rest of his remaining people forced to stretch themselves to nearly the breaking point to manage. Twelve hour days became the norm a month ago. Cullen hadn’t slept in a bed for nearly a week, finding it more efficient to pass out from exhaustion in a chair near the office. It also kept the dreams at bay.

“Knight-Commander!” Ser Addley saluted skidding to a halt outside the doorframe. A mage had burned the door itself off in the fight and he saw no reason to replace it.

Cullen shuddered from the rank and look up at the templar knight. She still wore the armor despite many forgoing it after the chantry abandoned them, though her skirt was covered in flour prints. Was Addley even assigned to baking bread today or did they lose someone else from the makeshift kitchens? Maker, what day was it? They all ran together.

“I’d prefer you not call me that,” Cullen said even while accepting his losing battle. They needed a leader and he was the only one left to slot into place. “What’s the status on the excavation of the chantry?”

“Slow, but…”

“And the report off of Sundermount. Unexplained lights and eerie sounds off the mountain? Could be demons or blood mages…”

“Turned out to be a pair of chipmunks that tripped into a campfire.”

That caused Cullen to pause and focus anew on Addley, “Really?”

Addley shrugged, “Stranger things, Ser.”

“Right.” He struggled to swallow while shaking off a pounding behind his temples. It began a week ago; the pain intermittent, but the dry mouth endless no matter how much water he drank. “I still need to hear about—”

“Ser!” Addley interrupted, snapping his full attention to her. She gestured her head to the side of the door in a rhythmic fashion that made Cullen’s neck ache. “There’s something you should know about that’s not reports and other…reports.”

Cullen slid next Meredith’s desk for support and crossed his arms. “What is it?”

“It’s the Seekers, Ser,” Addley said, still bobbing her head and dragging it out.

“What of them?”

“A Seeker is here,” a new voice spoke as a woman strode in through the open frame. She bore a chiseled look that put Cullen in mind of a dragon surveying her horde and about to snap off anyone that dared to cross her. He couldn’t quite place the accent twisting up her vowels, but it wasn’t Orlesian and that surprised him. She eyed up Addley, and with a dismissive snort said, “Leave us.”

Addley glanced at Cullen and threw her head back. She was prepared to disobey an order from the Seeker for him. He tipped his head to her to tell her it was all right. The Seeker wasn’t going to cut him down in the office, probably. Sliding out the door, Addley kept an eye on the two of them before she more than likely slipped to the storage closet on the other side of the wall that overheard everything.

“I am Cassandra Pentaghast, Seeker of Truth and Right Hand of the Divine.”

Cullen blanched at the final part. No templar wanted to see a Seeker, that was a given, but the Right Hand of Divine Justinia and in Kirkwall. Andraste’s tears, they weren’t sending an Exalted March, were they? “Knight-Captain Cullen,” he said while trying to bury the weariness in his voice and rise to attention.

“Not Knight-Commander?” the Seeker asked, her sharp eyes cutting through him.

“I was never officially granted that title.” Not that I’d want it. “If the Divine was sending a Seeker to put the templars back in line, you’re a few years too late.” Cullen pointed out the door towards the west, “But you might be able to catch some before they begin their foolish endeavor to destroy thedas.”

Cassandra snorted at that and it threw him. He’d never seen a Seeker before, but every templar knew of them. The guards of the guards, when they were sent for something had gone or was about to go horribly wrong. He anticipated their arrival for months after the disaster, but no one came to drag the only remaining authority figure – namely himself – before the pyre. The Divine sent some aid for the refugees and a few of her own elite guards to assist. They were the most useless swordsmen he’d ever had to deal with. They wanted action and glory, but it wasn’t monsters that needed killing in the aftermath. No one becomes a hero by moving stones to clear a path for wagons to carry supplies, but it had to be done.

“I have not come to enact a tribunal for what occurred in Kirkwall,” Cassandra said.

Cullen snapped out of his reverie and nodded, “Good. It’s doubtful we could find enough people to try the remaining templars, much less punish them.”

“Knight-Captain, you must agree that this madness has to end. Templars and mages are fighting in the streets all across southern thedas and innocent people are suffering for it.”

A flinch tore up his face from her words. Innocents. It was always the innocents caught in the middle. Innocents that drove them. Innocents that were the backbone of the order. But who was truly innocent? Could he even tell anymore? “And you need my templars to go wage your war, is that it Seeker? I’m afraid I don’t technically command them what with the circles disbanding and the order dissolving into madness.”

“Yet they listen to you,” Cassandra glanced down the hall in Addley’s wake, “they rise up to shield you.”

Cullen shrugged, “They want guidance, as most do. I suggest what needs to be done and they do it.”

“That is what brought me to speak with you. In spite of all the chaos sewn in the wake of a tragedy of unheard of proportions you have maintained order. Not just order, you are repairing what was lost. That is impressive,” the Seeker praised him, but it only strung deeper. No, he was doing what he had to, what he needed to. Not for those supposed innocents but to pay for his mistakes. Meredith wiped out the Circle, pulverized chantry law due to her own vengeful delusions, and she did it right under his nose. It was as much his fault as that rebel mage’s.

“I’m doing what I need to,” he said.

“You are out of uniform,” the Seeker unexpectedly exclaimed, her eyes drifting across his faded blue tunic. One morning he woke, his back sore from shifting stones off a house crumpled by the head of Andraste, and he couldn’t put on the templar armor anymore. He’d worn it day in and day out since he was eighteen years old, but now the thought of it touching him turned his stomach. He only saw his own broken promises glinting across every piece. So he slipped on the only shirt in his possession that hurt him in a different way. No one recognized it as being of warden make, but everyone came to know the once crisp blue meant the Knight-Captain was around. Wear and dust off the rubble faded the vibrant color to a softer almost grey hue.

“I am no longer a templar,” Cullen said, folding his arms across the tunic. “Last I heard there is no order to be a member of.”

“This is why I have come to Kirkwall, with a writ from Divine Justinia,” Cassandra hauled out a book thicker than most mage tomes and bound in a rich leather. She waved it around as if it gave her power, but didn’t pass the book to Cullen. “The Divine is hosting a conclave between the mage and templar leaders.”

“So I heard. I pray it succeeds but plan on it not,” Cullen cut back but the Seeker didn’t frown.

“The Divine hopes the conclave will succeed, but if it fails she intends to bring back the Inquisition of old to put back together the tattered pieces and end this rebellion without destroying thedas in the process.”

“The Inquisition…” He’d heard the stories, all templars did. It was what birthed their order, but it was also bloody and, in the end, shattered under its own weight.

“We’ve watched your progress with a close eye repairing what you can in Kirkwall and think you could offer much to assist the Divine. I came to ask you to lead our forces,” the Seeker pressed. “To help bring order and security back to thedas.”

Cullen snorted and turned away from her. He’d spent the past six years blindly serving the forces of a mad woman. Her own anger led her to a madness, an anger he thought they shared for the greater good. That anger drove her to condemn Kirkwall and push them along this path of rebellion. And he never spotted it, never stopped it before it boiled over into every circle. He had that forever dangling off his neck. “And who would lead this Inquisition? Divine Justinia?”

“No. She does not wish it to be seen as an arm of the chantry,” the Seeker answered.

“You then? Or some other Knight-Commander you’ve sworn to your cause?” Cullen continued. He couldn’t do it, he couldn’t put his blind faith in someone knowing how easily they’d twist the power to their own means.

“We hope the Hero of Ferleden will be our Inquisitor.”

Lana? Cullen’s fingers gripped tight to his chest. He’d tried to seal her away with the rest of his handful of sweet memories but she always found a way to bubble back to his attention. A few months after the chantry explosion a solitary letter appeared upon his desk addressed not to the Knight-Commander or even the Knight-Captain. It was meant only for Cullen. There was no signature indicating who sent it or from where, but he didn’t need it. He knew from the two solitary words on the page, “Stay safe.”

The Seeker plowed through his silent reflection, “Sister Leliana is in Denerim right now attempting to track down Lady Amell’s whereabouts. We hope that, despite her being a mage, she will see reason in putting an end to this fight.”

If anyone could move a mountain, drain an ocean, and fix the world it was Solona Amell. When he was on the brink of exhaustion and anger flooding his brain, he would remember the touch of her lips as he first kissed her. The way she parted them in surprise then kissed back even harder. His rage would cool leaving an ache in his heart that could only hurt him.

“I’ll do it,” Cullen whispered closing his eyes. She knew, Lana knew what his own Knight-Commander was doing better than he did. Had tried to warn him before, but he wouldn’t listen. How would she look upon him now, knowing that he’d slaughtered so many mages in the name of justice? He would bear the brunt of her hatred, her scorn, if he could provide some aid to her and be near her once again.

“Beg pardon?” the Seeker asked.

Cullen turned and faced her, “I will lead your troops to the best of my ability.”

Cassandra smiled as if she already anticipated his reaction. “Good.”

“There is…something you should know.” Cullen massaged the back of his neck, struggling to find the words. As Cassandra nodded her head at him, he continued, “I’ve decided to stop taking lyrium.” He couldn’t stand the idea of the order having him either in body or soul.

“You are yet standing,” the Seeker said dissecting him with her calculating eyes.

“It’s been a few weeks without, I…if I cannot perform whatever duties you require of me. If I, if I do not live up to what you need, then…”

Cassandra laid a hand across his forearm drawing his attention. “Commander, I swear on the Maker I will do my best to judge if you are able to continue to the best of your abilities.”

Cullen nodded his head, “How do we go about planning this Inquisition? What do you need from me?”

“I have to wait for Leliana’s forces to return with news but…in the mean time there is something you can assist me with.” The Seeker unearthed another book from behind her back, this one plastered in a garish cover. She passed a far too familiar tale to Cullen and pointed at the cover smeared in a garish yellow text proclaiming it ‘The Tale of the Champion.’

“I need your help in locating the author of this book,” Cassandra said.

Cullen twisted the book around and smiled, “I know exactly where to find him.”

 

 

***

 

 

Claws ripped apart her sleeve and raked across the skin. Blood welled up through the abrasion but she was too far gone to notice the pain. The hurlock jabbered something at Lana, its rotted teeth spraying spittle against her cheek. She tipped her hand up and willed an icicle into being off her palm to drive through the creature’s stomach. It was enough to kill the darkspawn but also obliterated the vestiges of her mana. She grabbed her upper arm to try and slow the bleeding while sliding back. Three darkspawn remained and there was nothing left in her to finish the job.

So this was how it ended. Lost in the twists of the deep roads, blood pooling from her wounds, and three darkspawn scrabbling over their dead brethren to finish off the hero of Ferelden. Well, she wasn’t about to make it easy for them, even if that had been the entire point.

A genlock tipped back on its back legs and roared. Lana shouted back, “Oh, sod off!” Swinging her staff blade forward, it slicked across the gargantuan’s back leaving a line of red behind but doing nothing to slow the creature. “What happened to these damn things?! You shouldn’t be so big!” she screamed again, still trying to slide away from the creature while jabbing her staff like a kitchen knife. There were no more spells in her arsenal, no one was coming, no one even knew she was here. At least no one would know how ignominiously she died. It was a strangely comforting thought as her back flattened against the wall. No escape for the hero of Ferelden. Her time finally came. The genlock hissed, stamping its feet across the ground like a bull about to charge.

“Get on with it, already!” she shouted at it. Lopping into a run, the genlock sped towards her on all fours. It reared back, ready to strike her across the chest when fire burst upon its back. The genlock screamed, its skin crackling in flames. Lana twisted her hand around trying to figure out where the spell came from, her mana was still dead. How could she have cast it?

Then a woman in red and black armor burst out through the caverns behind the darkspawn. She bore a blade nearly as long as herself and hacked through the last two hurlocks with an infectious madness. Ichor bubbled up from the greatsword’s wounds and the darkspawn turned their attack on the unexplainable woman. Lana had bigger problems than this newest pawn on the board. The flames died across the genlock’s skin and it twisted its teeth back to her. Slipping down, her fingers gripped onto the first leather hilt she found hidden in her boot. Underhanded, Lana slit a dagger across the creature’s throat. Black blood gushed from the powerful beat of its heart, drenching across her robes. It stumbled from the final death throes and landed upon Lana, dragging both to the ground.

Pinned under the genlock, she could just see the woman’s massive greatsword chopping through the heads of the hurlocks, sending them scattering to the ground. The woman smiled at her destruction, then turned around to ask, “Please tell me this is the right one.”

“I am positive she’s here,” a male voice spoke behind her.

“That’s what you said last time, you know, before we walked in on an ogre.”

"85% positive, then."

Lana wiggled below the genlock’s corpse and limped to her feet. Using her staff as leverage, she rose to eye up her unexpected saviors. The woman was turned away from her, trying to mop up the darkspawn blood spattered across every inch of her. But the blonde man in a feathered coat blacker than the deep roads instantly struck Lana, “You!”

Anders clucked his tongue, “Told you it was her.”

The woman spun away from the abomination and smiled. Blood was swiped across her nose but it was too red to be darkspawn. She cracked an even greater grin than before, as if that were possible, “I guess I owe you a drink.”

“Anders,” Lana sneered. She was in no state to fight him, her own body threatening to shut down after two weeks in the deep roads, but she couldn’t stop the rage boiling behind her eyes. The traitor here, right in front of her, after all this time. After all he did.

The woman stepped in between them and stuck out her hand, “Solona, right? Solona Amell.”

Anders tapped the woman on the shoulder and whispered, “She hates being called that.”

Lana shoved away the woman’s proffered hand and leapt into Anders’ way, “Tell me why I don’t kill you right now for what you did?”

“Because I doubt you could hurt a kitten in your state,” Anders cut back, but his eyes darted up to the woman and he mouthed ‘This’ll end well.’

“Do not act as if you know my limits, Anders,” Lana cursed, trying to summon all she could. “You betrayed your promise, the order, my trust and the faith I placed in you. In both of you.”

Anders blinked and his cocky smile slipped away at her mentioning Justice, as if she hadn’t figured it out the moment both vanished from the Keep. Reports of a mage with glowing blue eyes in Kirkwall sealed the deal as far as she was concerned. The woman grabbed onto Lana’s shoulder, her grip friendly but with a flexing dig to warn the mage that she could shatter her collarbone if she had a mind.

“All right, let’s not go into who betrayed who.”

“There’s nothing to go into. The answer is obvious,” Lana spat back, not taking her eyes off the abomination. Anders slunk back from her venom, his eyes darting up the wall to avoid her. Shame was a surprise; she never thought the man capable of such a thing.

“You are her, right? Hero of Ferelden, big stopper of the Blight and slaughtered of darkspawn and all that?” the woman continued.

Lana slumped forward in her grasp, “I am, and you are…”

Anders interrupted, “This is the Champion of Kirkwall.” Of course, who else would dare to travel with him after what he did?

“Hawke, at your service,” she said finally releasing her grip and then patting Lana on the back. The force was enough to crumple a deepstalker’s skull, but Lana gritted through it. “It’s great to meet you, in the flesh. Love your work, you know. Killing darkspawn, stopping blights. It’s great all around. Did you know we’re family?”

"Oh?" Lana shook her head, trying to clear the never ending buzzing from her thoughts. In doing so, she glanced over at the abomination and saw him attempting to do the same. Once a grey warden, always a grey warden -- no matter how far you ran.

Hawke was the only one unaffected as she beamed, “Yup, my mother’s side is Amell. You’re like a second cousin twice removed or something like that. They showed me charts once but I didn’t get it. I was never very good at lineage shit.”

“Delightful,” Lana said. She prodded at the wound below her shredded sleeve, then hissed as pain and more blood poured from it.

“I can heal that,” Anders said, but Lana glared at him.

“Do not come near me.”

His eyes crumpled, but he kept his hands folded across his chest. She didn’t want a thing from the traitor, nor anyone else for that matter. No one was supposed to come save her. Wrapping a strip of fabric around her arm, Lana knotted it with her teeth then asked Hawke, “How did you find me?”

The Champion tipped her head at the sulking mage, “Some magic warden tingle, and not the fun kind neither. Oh, and we followed the trail of darkspawn corpses. Lots of those. Lucky thing we stopped by when we did too, eh? Seemed you were in a rather tight spot.”

“Yes, lucky,” Lana glared at the dead genlock that nearly finished her. “I assume you have some reason why you trekked into the deep roads and risked blight to find me.”

Hawke’s smile dripped off her cheeks and she shared a look with Anders. The mage dug into his satchel while Hawke continued to speak, “I did. I need a warden’s help.”

“You have one already, unless he’s forgotten how to help,” Lana said.

Anders grumbled but kept digging in the pack for something. Hawke shook her head, “A warden with access to all those wardeny things.”

“Wardeny things?” Lana repeated. Maker, keeping up with this woman was giving her a splitting headache.

Anders finally extracted whatever they wanted out of the pack and handed it to Hawke. “I hoped you could solve this,” she twisted around and thrust a small red vial towards Lana.

“That almost looks like lyrium,” Lana said. She reached her fingers towards it when a thousand voices echoed from inside of the thin glass, each chanting the familiar words of the archdemon. Sweet Maker! “What is that?!”

“That’d be why I went to the trouble to find you, for you to solve the it and what its being is.” Hawke passed the bottle to Lana. She held it between thumb and forefinger extended as far from her body as possible. Still the voices called from inside it, begging to draw her inward, to join them in a blissful serenity. For a brief moment that old curiosity gripped Lana and she wanted to dissect every inch of this red lyrium, trace its origins and discover what created it. How could lyrium have the calling burning through it? But it faded as soon as it caught, the dampener on her brain yanking her curiosity away. She came to the deep roads for one reason, and by the Maker’s grace she was going to accomplish it.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can help,” Lana passed the bottle back to Hawke who frowned as infectiously as she smiled. Only Anders breathed a sigh of relief at her refusal, more than likely afraid his old Commander would make good on her promise of ending him. It was only bluster, Lana was far too exhausted to bother enacting justice on him. And, deep in her heart, she doubted she could raise a blade to him. He was one of hers once, for good or ill.

Hawke cradled the vial and sighed, “That’s not what I was expecting to hear, but I guess you have big warden things to do. Why you’d come down here alone and all. Saving the world and shit. Been there, done that, then kinda blew it up again.”

Lana bobbed her head at the babble, then she glanced back at the vial. It was small, but there was an artistry to the design of such a simple thing. Someone took the time to make it instantly noticeable. The bottle’s familiarity finally struck her and she had to ask, “Where did that come from?”

“Oh that?” Hawke shrugged, her frown already slipping back to her resting smile, “Kirkwall. Some of the templars there were taking it instead of the regular blue flavor. Might still be for all I know.”

Kirkwall? Templars! Lana snatched up the bottle and lifted it to the pale light of the dwarven runes. Yes, it was the same as the ones the Free Marcher templars used, even bore the seal of the chanty upon the top. Maker’s breath, what did he get himself into? She’d wanted to go to Kirkwall after news of the chantry explosion reached the shores of Amaranthine along with boats overloaded with refugees but it was deemed unwise. A powerful mage walking the streets of Kirkwall days after one destroyed the chantry; she’d only cause more panic than solve. Still, it took her seneschal and even Ali…the King of Ferelden to talk her down from it.

Hawke watched her inspecting the bottle anew and cocked an eyebrow, “Does this mean you’ll help?”

What were the templars doing with this? What was it doing to them? Andraste’s tears, if Cullen had somehow blighted himself she might be the only hope he had left. Gripping the vial tight, Lana turned to Hawke, “Tell me everything you know about this red lyrium.”

 

 

 

 

 

TO BE CONTINUED in MY TEMPLAR


My Warden

  • Author: Sabrina Zbasnik
  • Published: 2016-08-25 03:35:10
  • Words: 46354
My Warden My Warden