I am a terrible person who has terrible ideas sometimes.
One of those ideas is, "So what if, instead of Leandra, Quentin takes a Circle Mage Bethany during All That Remains? And what if Cullen has to go after her?"
The result is this story.
One of the mages is singing.
Her voice echoes off the stone walls of the Gallows and is whipped away by the ceaseless wind. Cullen glances up as a shadow passes overhead—a bare-headed carrion crow lights on one of slave statues. It croaks harshly and preens a wing. Beneath it, the statue crouches with hands to its head in a wordless and eternal expression of torment.
The summer sun casts deep, harsh shadows in the courtyard. The mage's voice is still singing, a tune familiar enough to bring tears to Cullen's eyes.
So give a sailor not your heart
lest sorrow you do seek;
let true love not be torn apart
by favours from the sea.
The voice falls silent; Cullen imagines she was interrupted, shushed by a cautious hand. Something in him lurches, and then settles.
Days pass, then weeks. The voice is raised, over and over again. Her name is Bethany; she is treated with velvet gloves, since her family is noble and her elder sister, the scion of the family, does not hesitate to make it known that Bethany is under her protection.
Cullen has met the eldest Hawke child and seen the bright, mad light in her eyes. So they allow Bethany freedoms few other apprentices are given, out of respect and fear.
So Bethany sings Fereldan songs in the Gallows as the summer sun gives way to fall rainstorms and winter ice. Cullen watches, and waits.
Emeric is on about the missing women again.
It is a shame about Mharen, who is quietly mourned still in the corners of the Gallows. No other mages have gone missing, the city guard has dismissed poor Emeric as a fool, and Cullen is starting to wonder if it isn't time to suggest that Emeric retire to Val Royeaux, or somewhere else sunny and quiet. This is often how it starts—paranoid obsessions, conspiracy theories. It's part of Cullen's job to watch out for the encroachment of lyrium madness in the Templars, to catch them before they act on their obsessions and mages die unnecessarily.
He wishes he could bring it up to Meredith, but his commander is less and less involved with the day to day of the Order as the years pass.
"It's all connected! The lilies prove it." Emeric is looking around him, eyes narrowed. "Why won't any of you listen to me and help?"
Cullen goes to him, and lays a mailed hand on his arm. "Not here, Emeric. Let's get out of the sun, and we can talk about it—"
"All we ever do is talk." Emeric shakes Cullen's hand off of his arm. "I've talked to you until I was blue in the face." He walks off through the courtyard, heading for the docks, shoulders stiff.
Cullen sighs, watching him.
There's a suspicion tickling the back of his mind. He remembers Kinloch Hold, how one of the older Templars insisted that the Circle had been infiltrated by blood mages. Mad old man, the mutters had gone. Poor thing.
They had sent him to Denerim a week before Uldred had become an abomination and ripped through the senior levels of the Circle like a hot sword through gauze.
Just because he's paranoid doesn't mean he's not potentially right.
But when he tries to talk to Meredith about it, the Knight Commander tells him it's not Templar business. His hands are tied. She won't even let him retire the man. We need every sword we can muster, she says. No retirements. Not now.
He watches, helplessly, as Emeric vanishes for longer and longer periods of time, until the day when he doesn't return at all.
Life in the Gallows follows a predictable rhythm, the rise and fall of days like breath sighing in and out of stone lungs. Cullen has been here in Kirkwall for five years, and he has gotten used to the sounds that marks the passage of time as reliably as the Gallows bells or a water-clock.
This evening, something is different.
There is a stir in the quarters of the older apprentices, stifled giggles and whispers. Cullen is walking his usual patrol path, making sure to make enough noise that the mages can track his movements. They do these things for one another, the mages and the Templars, despite everything. Cullen still believes in kindness, or tries to.
And more importantly, he knows the little tricks that make life go a little bit smoother in the Circle. Things he does by reflex now. Reflex gets him through his days, lets him deny the smell of burned, rotted flesh, the screams, the violet wash in the air.
Remember that they are people, the Sister had told him in Greenfell. Try, Cullen. They are dangerous people, but they are still people.
So he tries.
One of the apprentices, a boy of about fifteen, comes dancing out into the hall, humming off-key, holding a flower in his hand. A white lily.
Hadn't Emeric been going on about lilies? They were sent—
Cullen's hands are curled in the front of the apprentice's robe. The boy's lips are drained of color, his eyes wide and staring. "She gave it to me!" the boy stammers. "I swear I didn't steal it!"
Cullen doesn't remember grabbing the boy, or asking him a question. I must have. "Who?" he growls, his voice harsh. "Who?"
"B-Bethany!" The boy is shaking, and the lily's fallen from his hand. The sweet perfume from the flower mixes with the scent of burned flesh that Cullen knows is a ghost from Kinloch Hold, but can never be rid of. "Her admirer sent them."
"Where is she?" He shakes the boy.
"Don't—don't know! Please, ser! I don't know any more." The boy is shaking like a leaf, and the roll of his eyes presages panic. Cullen lets him go, and he drops to his knees.
Bethany is not in the Gallows, no matter how much they search.
"Get her sister," Cullen snaps at one of the trainees. "At the Hawke estate. Now."
They find her too late.
A nightmare follows—demons, abominations, and the final insult, a patchwork woman wobbling towards them and collapsing, wheezing with Bethany's ruined voice—
Cullen's world washes with red.
An instant or an eternity later, he is kneeling above the ruin of what had once been a mage, unrecognizable now, just meat like the pulsing sacs that had clung to the walls of Kinloch Hold. There is silence in the foundry.
Hawke strides towards him. Offers him a hand.
He ignores her and pushes himself to his feet. Turns and leaves without a word.
When the autumn wind knifes through the Gallows, it carries ghosts of a sweet voice that will never again echo from the stones. Cullen ignores it.
He returns to his duties. Argues with Meredith. Tries not to think about his failures.
Hawke visits the Gallows sometimes.
She never speaks to him. Just looks at him with eyes in which the light has dimmed to darkness and malevolence.
The carrion crows gather in flocks, now, and the wind has fallen silent. The Rite of Annulment has been sent for. They only wait for an answer, now.
Kirkwall holds its breath.
Cullen waits, as much a statue as the tortured giants above him, and tries not to listen for a sweet voice raised in song.