Cullen couldn't quite decide who he pitied more, Josephine, Vivienne or Ellana. Now they had finally put Adamant behind them, they'd moved their focus to the assassination of Empress Celene. For the first time since The Breach had opened they didn't have to race to get things in order. The Inquisition had a date for when the assassination attempt would take place and they couldn't act until that time. Orlais had been embroiled in a nasty civil war and they had it on very good authority that the assassin would strike at the peace talks. The problem was, said peace talks were taking place under the guise of a masquerade ball. And their Inquisitor, a guest of honour, was Dalish. While she had natural grace and poise, she was more comfortable with a staff in her hand than she was a champagne flute. So Josephine and Vivienne had the thankless task of preparing her. Ellana had deemed it a disaster in the making. Cullen had slightly more faith in her than that. Slightly. But if the numbers in Varric's betting book were correct, they could expect fire balls any day now.
It was dark by the time Ellana arrived at his office, practically humming with pent up, nervous energy. After dropping a quick kiss on her mouth he watched with barely concealed amusement as she paced, muttering about dance steps and Orlesian politics.
"...and why do I have to know what every single mask means and what it represents? You know, when I first met Vivienne an Orlesian man said to me, with no sense of irony whatsoever, that it gets tiresome seeing the same old faces at every event! How? I almost laughed, I thought he was joking. Bloody ridiculous Orlesian fashions."
"Need to work out some frustration?" He asked. She stopped pacing to raise an eyebrow at him and he groaned, "Behave yourself Ellana." He pulled her staff and his own practice weapons out from under his desk and waved them at her. She looked at him sceptically,
"But you hate training me with an audience. You know we can't use the training ground without attracting a crowd."
"I found somewhere else," he said, turning her and propelling her back out the door.
"Very mysterious," She looked up at him with a smile, frustration momentarily forgotten, "Ooh, maybe I'll get callouses. That'll show them!" Rolling his eyes Cullen pulled the door closed behind him and wrapped an arm around her waist.
"This is a great idea, why didn't we think of this before?" They stood on the roof of one of the higher towers. Cullen was relatively sure they wouldn't be interrupted but took no chances as he blocked the hatch they'd come through.
"They only finished repairing this roof a few days ago. Could you get the torches?" With a flick of her hand the torches burst into flame, revealing the box and blanket Cullen had hidden earlier in the day. Ellana's face lit up when she realised the effort he'd gone to,
"That's for later." He said, with a smile of his own, tossing her staff to her. She caught it out of the air with one hand and stretched her arms over her head.
"Alright, ground rules: No magic. But if you could mark up my face a little I'd appreciate it, a lady can't be expected to mingle with nobility with a black eye after all."
"And risk incurring Josephine's wrath? No way." He waited while she finished stretching. She rolled her shoulders, took a deep breath and closed her eyes. When she opened them again she was focused and he knew she was ready. She span her staff in her hands, shifting the grip slightly and nodded at him. They circled each other with practised ease, well worn steps they both knew well. Cullen attacked first, feinting to her left before switching sides. She batted it away easily. It was all part of the game, slow easy attacks that gained in speed and strength as they progressed.
"I have some good news by the way." Cullen said as he backed off, looking for another angle,
"Yeah? What did I miss?" It was Ellana's turn to move in, bringing her staff around her side, aiming for his shoulder, it bounced easily off his shield.
"Varric and I have traced some red lyrium shipments." He brought his sword up high, Ellana brought her staff up to push his attack over her head, leaving her body wide open. She realised her mistake the instant before his shield would have connected, turning she managed to side step it and back off.
"That really is good news. How'd you find them?"
"Over confidence on their part." She brought her staff around her back, feinting an attack at the nape of his neck, the instant he moved she pulled it back around her shoulders, trying to hit his chest, he only just caught it, bringing his shield up. "Nice. They're using trade routes in The Emerald Graves."
"They're actually just moving it along roads?" Cullen brought his sword low, trying to take out her knees, she had to jump over his arm to avoid the swing, landing on the balls of her feet she flipped her staff over to block his back hand swipe before springing away.
"I did say they were over confident." Cullen followed her steps, not giving her the advantage of distance.
"Can I get to The Emerald Graves before the ball?" Quick jabs from her staff kept him further away than he'd have liked, alternating between his shield and sword he blocked them but they were hampering his progress,
"Unfortunately another shipment isn't due until after the peace talks." Letting her staff slip between his body and sword arm, he trapped it. Ellana had to angle it down to free herself, bringing her back into sword range.
"Ooh, I'll remember that move, that's crafty. Alright, so it's straight to The Emerald Graves after Halam'shiral?" Cullen picked up the pace of his attacks further, trying to catch her off guard.
"That's the plan. It'll be guarded though."
"Yes Commander, I'll be careful." She used her staff to pivot behind his back, landing a blow across the back of his shoulders.
"Good. Hopefully it'll lead to where it's being mined. Oh, I heard something else today." He turned to face her quickly, not letting her gain distance again. "According to a stable hand, who got it from the cook, who heard it from a scout who works the rookery, your dress for the ball is due to arrive tomorrow."
"What?" She froze, just as she blocked an attack from his sword, he pushed his shield into her ribs.
"Seriously, Ellana?" He laughed. She countered, dropping low and bringing her staff around in an arc at the back of his knees. He caught it with his sword, flicking it up and knocking her off balance. With agility Cullen couldn't have copied if he'd tried, she let go of the staff and allowed her body to go off balance, turning it into a roll.
"Red lyrium you're fine with," He let his shield fall to the ground, grabbing the end of the staff she'd dropped, "I say dress and you freeze." She had hold of the other end, rather than try to take the staff back by force, she slid her arm up and twisted it, spinning her staff over his head until it was braced on the back of his neck, with one of her hands on either side of his head.
"It's my one weakness." She grinned up at him. "I win, by the way."
"Ahem," He poked her in the ribs with the sword he had positioned perfectly.
"Oh." She winced, "A draw?"
He let go of the sword, wrapped his arms around her waist and kissed her hard, she dropped her staff and he felt her fingers twine into his hair as she pressed herself against him.
"Alright, maybe not my only weakness." She said when he finally released her. He chuckled as he put an arm around her shoulders and let her over to the box he'd prepared earlier.
"I'll be sure to keep that knowledge far from The Red Templars." Throwing the blanket down on the ground he indicated that she sit while he pulled food and a bottle of Golden Scythe Black from the box.
"You were joking about the dress though, right?"
"I'm afraid not. If the rumour mill around here is right, and it usually is, it's on its way from Val Royeux as we speak."
"I thought I was just wearing my dress uniform like the rest of you." She sighed dramatically, "The sacrifices I have to make."
"Oh hush and eat your supper."
Propped against the wall, feeling sleepy from the food and alcohol and with the comforting weight of Ellana tucked under his arm, he pulled the coin from his pocket.
"There's a lake near where I grew up in Honnleath, I'd go there sometimes to escape my noisy siblings. Of course, they always found me eventually. The last time I was there was the day I left for Templar training, my brother gave me this," He held the coin out to show her, "It just happened to be in his pocket at the time but he said it was for luck. Templars aren't supposed to carry such things, our faith should see us through."
"You broke The Orders rules? I'm shocked."
"Until a year ago I was very good at following them, most of the time. This was the only thing from Ferelden that The Templars didn't give me." He tipped it into her hand, she leant up to look him in the eyes, "Humour me. We don't know what you'll face before the end, this can't hurt."
"I'll keep it safe."
"Good." He said, softly. Pulling a fine chain from the other pocket he laced it through the hole in the coin he'd made earlier, and slipped it around her neck, "I know it's foolish, but I'm glad."
Cullen was barely through the gates when Rylan approached him,
"Commander, you're back? How was The Winter Palace?"
"It was...very Orlesian." Rylan huffed a chuckle, "Any news on the Red Lyrium shipments?" Rylan handed him a report as they crossed the courtyard.
"We just got word a few days ago, they're shipping out early. I'm afraid it's bad news for The Inquisitor. If she doesn't set off tomorrow she's going to miss them."
"Tomorrow? Damn. Has she got a copy of this?"
"Waiting in the war room for her."
"Good. She'll rotate her team too, send a copy to Blackwall, Sera and Dorian. She won't want to take anyone that's just been to The Winter Palace, they need a break." Not that she'd actually take one herself of course, he added silently.
"Yes Commander. Anything else?"
"Our contact in The Emerald Graves is this Fairbanks? Send word ahead that The Inquisitor is on her way. Also cherry-pick some soldiers and a few Templars that aren't going through lyrium withdrawal to send along behind her to keep the area secure. Anyone that's coming off lyrium needs to stay far away from the red stuff, it's hard enough already. I see no sense in making it worse." Looking at the grim expression on Ryan's face, Cullen asked, "Speaking of which, how're you doing?"
"I won't lie, it's tough. Harder than I expected, but no regrets." Cullen studied his face closer, there were new lines around his eyes but he looked determined, if a little pale. Cullen clapped him on the shoulder, trying to put a lot of unsaid things into it.
"Don't go getting soft on me Rutherford, our lady Inquisitor will get jealous." Maker take gossipy soldiers, Cullen thought before dismissing Rylan. He read the report as he headed to his office, Rylan had been right. If they didn't move quickly they'd lose the only chance they had to ambush the smugglers. Why couldn't they have waited a few more days? The Winter palace had turned out to be a lot more complicated than any of them had been expecting and it had taken it's toll on Ellana. She wasn't eating or sleeping nearly as much as she needed to but this was a now or never situation. He didn't waste his time wondering if he could convince her to send someone else in her place, it was a conversation they'd had before and he'd yet to come out on top. Instead he'd focus on making sure they had the troops to secure the region and preparing an assault on the source of the red lyrium.
She was doing it on purpose, he was convinced. Ellana had slipped into his office as he was briefing his men on The Emerald Graves and setting up the guard rotations. Catching his eye as he was mid-sentence. She raised an eyebrow at him, giving him a sultry look and making him completely lose his train of thought. She smiled innocently at him but her eyes were glittering with mischief. Definitely doing it on purpose. He managed to fumble his way through his last few orders before practically throwing his men out of his office.
"That wasn't funny." He said when he'd finally shut the door behind the last of the soldiers. He braced his hands on the heavy wood with a sigh.
"Oh, I beg to differ." He could hear the amusement in her voice and had to fight to keep his voice stern,
"You're not nearly as funny as you think you are."
"Do you think I can't see you smiling from here?" She asked, bumping him with a shoulder playfully as she moved to lean against the wall facing him.
"I was smiling about something else that happened today." He lied, giving up the pretence and grinning at her,
"Really? Well if you'd rather I just left-"
"Don't you dare." He said, catching her hand as she reached for the door, she laughed as he pulled her into the space between the door as his still bracketed arms. She leant to up leave a long, lingering kiss on his lips before slipping her hands to the back of his neck, searching for the pressure point they'd learned eased his headaches and the tension of the muscles in his shoulders and neck. He hummed his approval when she found it, his entire body relaxing.
"How do you always know?" He asked, "When I need that, you always just know."
"Because I know you Cullen, the same way I know you'd never take a break if I didn't come up here and distract you. You'd work yourself to death, and then where would we be?"
"Ah, so that's why you're here. Working for the greater good of The Inquisition?" A self-deprecating smile tugging at his lips.
"Well, I may have a little personal investment." She mumbled, pressing kisses to the underside of his jaw, "We all need to make sacrifices." He could feel her smile against his skin.
"In that case, my neck and I thank you for your effort on The Inquisition's behalf." Her surprised burst of laughter made his stomach flip over, he loved making her laugh. She didn't do it nearly often enough. Feeling better than he had all day, he reluctantly moved his arms, releasing her so she could go perch on the edge of his desk.
"So, it's The Emerald Graves tomorrow? It never ends, does it?"
"The war won't last forever." He shrugged, walking over to stand in front of her, "When it began I-well, I hadn't considered much beyond our survival, but things are different now."
"What do you mean?"
"I find myself wondering what'll happen after. When this is over. I won't want to move on," Cupping her face he ran a thumb along her cheek bone, "Not from you. But I-I don't know what you-" He looked away, dropping his hand, suddenly unsure of himself, "That is-if you-"
"Cullen," she grabbed the hand he'd dropped and tugged him back around to face her again. The teasing laughter from a few moments ago was gone, replaced by a tenderness that made his chest ache, "do you even need to ask?"
"I guess not, I want-" The sound of shattering glass made them both jump a little as Ellana knocked a bottle off his desk,
"Oops. I hope the end of that sentence wasn't "the Garblog."" He laughed and shook his head,
"It wasn't." He replied, sweeping the rest of his items from the desk onto the floor.
It wasn't the first time he'd had this particular nightmare. Some parts of it changed, others stayed the same. There were always demons, always taunting him with his failures. They started out quiet, whispering from the shadows. Whispers he could block out. Then they'd get louder. And louder. Until it got the point he couldn't hear himself think over the sound. They'd always offer him a way out. There was always a price. He always said no.
"Leave me!" He snarled, sitting bolt upright in his bed. It took an instant for him to realise the huge eyes staring down at him belonged to Ellana and not some demon, long buried in his past. She'd jerked back when he'd sat up but the hand on his chest was firm and comforting.
"Sorry." He muttered, covering her hand with his own before falling back onto the pillows and closing his eyes with a sigh. Not really the way he'd wanted to start the morning after their first night together.
"Don't be. Bad dream?"
"Mmm," he hummed, "They always are. Without lyrium they're worse." Opening his eyes he saw her brow was creased with concern. With his free hand he smoothed out the crease with a thumb, "I didn't mean to worry you." She turned her head until his hand was cupping her face.
"You can let me worry about you a little. Despite the nightmares, is it still a good morning?"
"Well, that depends." He replied, raising an eyebrow at her, "What time is it?"
"It's still dark. There's plenty of time."
"Then it's perfect." He said, pulling her back down next to him for a soft kiss. Long, willowy legs wrapped around his as he pressed his forehead to hers, "You are-I have never felt anything like this." Her eyes opened and locked on his,
"I love you." And with three words she changed Cullen's world. Everything inside him clenched in a grip so tight it was physically painful. He, who from the age of eight had pledged his life in the service of others, finally had something that was just his, something that he wanted. It was stronger, more powerful than any lyrium could hope to be. The woman that lay in his arms could bring Thedas to it's knees if she so desired, and she loved him. Him. He hadn't the faintest idea what he'd done to deserve it, to earn it, but he would give his last breath to keep it. "You know that, right?" He did. He knew it because Ellana had never lied to him, would never lie to him. If she said she loved him them she did. He finally said what his heart and soul had known since he'd watched the avalanche swallow Haven.
"I love you too."
When he kissed her it was with such reverence it made her whimper against his mouth. The barest brush of his lips across hers. The smallest of nips as he carefully took her bottom lip between his teeth. Brief sweeps of his tongue against hers. By the time Cullen pulled back Ellana was half beneath him, her cheeks flushed but she was smiling at him.
"Do you think if we just stay here the war will sort itself out?"
"Sure." Cullen replied, "How bad can Corypheus' regime be anyway?" Her laugh was loud, long and completely unfettered. Cullen decided it was his favourite sound. Until his lips found the hollow of her throat and she moaned. Alright, second favourite.
Cullen waited impatiently for Ellana's return from The Emerald Graves, filling his time with training and continuing their research into lyrium addiction. It was immensely frustrating to be unable to help any further with the Red Templar situation. Unless Ellana's mission bore fruit they were out of options. The only lead they'd been able to find was that the Red Templars were using the trade routes through the dales to move the red lyrium. Even with all their spies they were unable to discover where they were shipping it to or from. Unfortunately, when Ellana's letter finally arrived she didn't have good news. Even though they had ambushed several red lyrium smugglers they'd been unable to find out where the lyrium was coming from. They had, however, been able to discover that the Red Templars themselves had come from Therinfal Redoubt. Therinfal was an old, abandoned Seeker fortress. What the Red Templars had been doing there was anyone's guess but it certainly needed investigating. Taking Ellana's letter with him he went in search of Cassandra.
Cassandra was in her usual place in the training grounds. It was rare to see the woman without a sword in her hand.
"Commander, what can I do for you?" She asked as he approached. Shoving the letter under her nose he waited impatiently as she read, "Therinfal Redoubt? Is she quite sure?" Cassandra asked when she'd finished,
"She wouldn't have said if she wasn't. This needs investigating as soon as possible."
"I agree," she said, handing him back the letter, "When does The Inquisitor expect to return?"
"It'll be days yet. She wishes to investigate some other concerns in the area before leaving. There seems to be some confrontation with the Freemen of The Dales. Numerous rifts are also posing a problem."
"So what do you propose Cullen?"
"I propose we investigate Therinfal before her return. Hopefully we'll be able to find where these red lyrium shipments are coming from." Cassandra thought over his idea for a few moments, then said with a nod,
"I agree. As much as I dread the idea of walking into Therinfal again after finding out about the Seekers, I will go with you. I would also recommend talking to Cole. I still do not trust the demon-spirit-whatever it is, but Ellana does. And it does claim to have spent time in Therinfal, it might have some information."
"Alright, can you please ask Varric to come along too? We'll set out as soon as you're ready."
Cole had been as hard to understand as always when Cullen had spoken to him. All he'd been able to grasp in their conversation was that Templars had been holding Therinfal at one point but were there no longer. Information that Cullen could have surmised for himself. He still wasn't entirely comfortable around Cole. Anyone that knew even the slightest detail about his history wouldn't be surprised that Cullen hadn't wanted him in Skyhold. Ellana trusted him though and since Cullen trusted her he hadn't argued.
The fear in Cole's eyes had been clear when Cullen had spoken to him of Therinfal, but when Cullen had said they were going Cole had insisted upon joining them. To help, he'd said. Cullen could respect that.
He'd sent a quick note off to Ellana before they'd left, telling her what was going on. He was hoping they'd make it back to Skyhold before she returned from The Emerald Graves, this was, primarily, a reconnaissance mission. It shouldn't take too long.
From the outside it looked as though Cole had been right, the fortress certainly looked abandoned. Nobody answered their hails, the banners hanging from the walls were sodden and torn. The trees and shrubs had already started to reclaim the place, ivy covered the walls unchecked. The light drizzle turned to real rain as they made their way inside the outer gates. Despite appearances Cullen couldn't shake the feeling they were being watched, the hairs on the back of his neck raised as he peered closely into the shadows. Something here wasn't right. Cole was more jumpy than usual, muttering to himself in the ethereal way he did. Varric did what he could to comfort him but his anxiety seemed to grow with every step.
They came to a sudden halt as they entered the courtyard. Bodies in Templar uniforms scattered the ground. They had been abandoned as surely as the fortress. Some lifeless fingers still clung to swords and bows while others were unarmed. They hadn't even had the chance to reach their weapons before death had claimed them. Wind blew ghostly whispers through the gables, that and the drops of rain the only sounds in a courtyard that had once rang with the cacophony of one of the most respected orders in Thedas. A chill that had nothing to do with the weather raced down Cullen's neck, settling in the small of his back. This had been his order, his life before The Inquisition. Whatever his feelings toward The Chantry, these had once been his brothers and sisters. The cause to which he had pledged his life hanging in ruins. Cullen hoped he wouldn't recognise the man as he rolled the closest dead Templar onto his back,
"These are regular Templars. No sign of red lyrium corruption." he muttered.
"They tried to run." Cole whispered, "They wanted no part in any of it. They didn't trust the red ones."
"So the Red Templars were here." Cullen said, getting back to his feet and forcing himself to focus on the matter at hand and not the myriad of what-if questions that were flying through his mind. "Let's hope they left something behind."
Pushing the large doors open they headed into the hall. It was dark and damp even in here, and certainly much colder. More bodies lay across the ground here too. More good men and women cut down, Cullen thought bitterly. A few Red Templar corpses were among them but not nearly enough. Nothing stirred and the air was stale, nobody had walked these halls in some time.
"This cant be all of them." Cassandra said, her voice was muted but even so it seemed too loud as it echoed off the stone walls. "There were many at Haven but it can't have been the whole order."
"Some resisted," replied Cole, "Many more tried but they couldn't. Needles in their heads. Needling. They need the song. The lyrium sings to them, the red lyrium is louder. The needles made them thirsty. It hurts. Hands like ice. Need to drink. Take the red or face the needles."
"Wait. You mean to say they withheld normal lyrium so the Templars had to take the red lyrium instead?" Cassandra asked him, revulsion in her voice.
"Sounds like something The Chantry would do." Varric muttered. Cassandra glared at him but said nothing. Cullen's feeling of mournful anguish gave way to blessed anger. Coryepheus had done this and Samson had offered his own brothers and sisters up to him on a platter. Teeth ground so tightly together he couldn't have spoken if he'd tried, he led them on in silence.
The first few rooms and corridors revealed nothing but more dead, before long they found another courtyard with doors to smaller buildings all around. The first door they tried was locked, Cullen stepped aside to allow Varric to pick it.
"I think this is the Knight-Captains office," Cullen said, "If anyone knew about the red lyrium it will have been him."
The stench when Varric opened the door was overwhelming. A body had been dumped in a corner. Holding his breath Cullen pulled back the sheet of fabric that had been dropped over it,
"Maker," he whispered, "This was Knight-Vigilant Trentwatch. I'd thought him dead at The Conclave." This body was older than the other ones they had found, decay had already set in. If not for the sigil on his armour Cullen may not have recognised him at all.
"As did I. It appears that wasn't the case." Cassandra was rifling through paper work on the desk, "Here is a letter the Knight-Vigilant must have dropped. It's from Lord Seeker Lucius, asking him to meet a man named Knight-Captain Denam. At night, alone and saying not to tell any of the other Templars. Maker, what have you done Lucius?"
"Did the Lord Seeker and Denam do this?" Varric asked,
"We're only going to find answers to that inside." Cullen answered. He pulled a Templar banner from the wall and draped it over the Knight-Vigilant. Murmuring a quiet prayer for the departed under his breath.
The further inside they went the more red lyrium they found. Crates of the stuff that had been left behind had burst as the lyrium grew. Even with all the progress Cullen had made on his own addiction the lyrium still sang to him. Cole had been right, it was louder. He clenched his fists as he tried to block it out.
"It only sings if you let it." Cole said, pitching his voice low so only Cullen could hear. "It's strong. Think of something stronger."
He thought of Ellana. It helped.
More devastation awaited them. Nothing moved as they explored the fortress, finding just ghosts and letters. Through other peoples accounts they were able to piece together what had happened. After The Conclave Lord Seeker Lucius and Knight-Captain Denam had taken over. They'd restricted lyrium to The Templars, especially the ones who were addicted, and the lyrium they had acquired had been of low quality. It wouldn't have been enough to quell the symptoms of addiction. They had then slowly started introducing red lyrium, starting with the officers. By the time the regular Templars discovered what was happening it would be too late. Everyone in charge would already be infected. The officers then introduced it into normal circulation, encouraging it's use, going so far as to reward the use of red lyrium through higher quality rations and lighter duties. They found notes signed from Samson himself, encouraging their actions and damning The Chantry. It wasn't until they found the office that was used by Lord Seeker Lucius that they discovered the information they needed. They found a letter from Samson, the red lyrium was being mined in a remote area of Emprise du Lion.
"This is it." Cullen said, "It's coming from a mine near Sarnia. I wonder why no one in that town has requested The Inquisitions help if Red Templars are around?"
"Do you really want the answer to that Curly?" Varric asked. Dread curled in Cullen stomach at the thought, no, he probably didn't.
Mission accomplished they headed back through the fortress, Cullen already mentally making plans to recover the bodies of the fallen Templars to see them laid to rest properly. Cole's voice interrupted his thoughts,
"Somebody's here." He said,
"Who? The Templars?"
"No. Something else." The certainty in Cole's voice had them all drawing their weapons as the approached the final courtyard. A single figure stood out in the open with their back to them. The wind lifting damp, silver hair to blow around the persons head.
"It's The Inquisitor." Cassandra said, moving to put her sword away as she stepped forward,
"Enlea?" Varric asked, "What are you doing here?"
Cullen hadn't moved yet, the not-right feeling he'd had since their arrival had his instincts screaming at him. Everything here was wrong, something had been watching them, measuring them. He'd stopped trusting his instincts after Kirkwall, Ellana had been helping him to learn to trust himself again. Right now his intuition was crying out that this wasn't what it looked like,
"Stop." He commanded, "That's not Ellana, I don't know what that is."
As if on cue the creature imitating Ellana turned. It looked just like her, everything except the eyes. It hadn't got the colour quite right, they had the eerie grey cast of the dead that had littered the fortress and seemed to shine with a malevolence he'd never witnessed in Ellana.
"It's a demon." Cole said, "Envy."
"Ah, Compassion." Cullen shuddered as it addressed Cole. The voice was even hers, but hers had never sounded so empty, almost hollow. "Why have you returned? There is nothing left for you to help here."
"Your doing no doubt." Cassandra spat at the creature,
"Not my doing alone." Envy replied, tilting it's head to the side. "He failed. The Lord Seeker was weak. He was supposed to bring her here. I was supposed to learn. I should have had a new face, a new destiny. The world I was going to create, it would have been glorious." Cullen felt his blood turn to ice as he realised the demons plan.
"You were going to become Ellana?"
"The Inquisition was to be mine. I would have accomplished so much. But this is a nice consolation prize. Let us see what I can learn from you."
With a screech Ellana vanished and the creature took it's true form. The hideous demon was impossibly tall, legs and two sets of arms longer than most full grown men unfolded from unnatural angles. Pale, sickly skin stretched tight over bones jutting sharply from it's joints. It's mouth took up most of the monsters face, the rest of which looked as though it had been torn apart and crudely stitched back together. It screamed before disappearing into the ground and reappearing at Cullen's feet. It slashed out with it's huge hands, nails as long and sharp as daggers scrapped along his shield. The others sprang into action immediately. Bolts bombarded it as Cassandra and Cole advanced, weapons at the ready. They hacked and slashed as they avoided the giants sweeps of it's arms but within moments in vanished again. Cullen frantically scanned the courtyard for it before spotting the demon in a corner, it had erected a magical barrier in front of itself and conjured spirits of long dead Templars to fight in its stead.
"Envy is a coward," Cullen yelled to the others, "But it is clever. Do not let it hide. It will try to manipulate you."
He rushed the nearest spirit Templar, knocking it off balance with his shield before plunging in with his sword. The Templar vanished in a puff of smoke.
"What is it you're looking for Seeker?" Envy's voice rang across the courtyard, "Do you really think the Seekers of Truth survive? That they deserve to survive? The things we could teach each other; the Lord Seeker told me so much. Don't you want to learn?"
"Ignore it." Cullen shouted over his shoulder as he slew another Templar spirit. An arrow hit the ground over his shoulder, only just missing him. Throwing his shield up he charged the archer, quickly dispatching it. Varric had found high ground by climbing some scaffolding and was raining bolts from his crossbow at the demons barrier, it finally shattered under the assault and Envy emerged once again. The monstrous form held them at bay with it's extended reach, slashing at them with it's huge hands. Cullen had just moved through it's guard when it vanished into the ground once more. Safe behind another magical barrier it conjured more spirits to it's aid.
"Dwarf!" It screeched at Varric, "You're curious about the red lyrium, do you want to know how to cure it's effects? It can be done you know."
"If a spirit of justice can't do it, then you've no chance ugly." Varric shouted back. They were in a rhythm now, within moments the spirits had been vanquished and only Envy remained. As it's barrier broke it emerged in Ellana's form.
Hardening himself against it and reminding himself it wasn't her, he rushed forward to meet it. It was able to imitate her spells but, thankfully, not at their full power. It sent a freezing spell in his direction, he dived to the side and avoided it. Cassandra raced in from the other side as one of Varric's bolts hit it in the leg. He got to his feet as Cassandra was thrown backwards. Not letting it gain momentum he charged with his shield in front of him, knocking the demon to the cobbles. An instant later it vanished into the ground again. Cullen felt the air shift as it reappeared directly behind him. Spinning he hit it with the flat of his blade and the demon crumpled. It looked at him with Ellana's face, Cullen looked away as he pushed his sword down with all his strength, forcing it into the creatures chest. He was breathing hard as the others approached. Focused on them rather than the still form at his feet, it somehow looked more like her now it was dead, he took note of the small wounds they were all nursing. Luckily none of them had any lasting injuries, plenty of new nightmare material but at least they'd live to see their nightmares. Small mercies, right?
"Come on," Cullen said, "We're done here." It didn't feel like much of a victory as they silently left Therinfal Redoubt, but they'd got what they'd come for. They'd discovered where the red lyrium was being mined.
It was late when they finally arrived back at Skyhold. Cassandra, Varric and Cole bade Cullen goodnight at the gate and made their way off to their own quarters. The guards on watch greeted him with salutes as he approached their station,
"All quiet?" He asked the man in charge of the night shift,
"Yes Sir, you'll be the first to know if anything changes. The Inquisitor and her party arrived a few hours ago," he said before Cullen could ask, "All present and accounted for."
Cullen flicked through the reports the officer handed him and took half a dozen steps towards his office before changing his mind and turning towards the main building. It was already late, the reports could wait a few more hours. The great hall was abandoned so no one was around to see him let himself into Ellana's quarters.
She'd fallen asleep fully clothed and on top of her sheets. Cullen felt his chest loosen for the first time since leaving Therinfal. He knew Envy was just a clever mimic. Still, some images were harder to shake than others. She'd been trying to keep herself awake with paperwork, the evidence of which was spread out on the bed around her. Shifting the papers and folders to the floor, he dropped the heavy cloak and plate that made up his armour onto the sofa, and joined her, pulling her into the curve of his body. She shifted in her sleep before relaxing back against him. Running light kisses up the side of her neck he stopped when he heard her breath catch as he found the sensitive spot where her neck joined her shoulder,
"You awake?" He asked in a whisper,
"Not yet." She whispered back, "Try again." He smiled and went back to her neck, she shivered when he reached her ear, "OK, I'm awake ." He was laughing when she rolled over to face him.
"I'm glad you're back." She said, running her fingers along his unshaven jaw, "I was starting to worry."
"And I'd have no idea what that feels like." Cullen replied dryly,
"Alright, point made." She chuckled before looking at him seriously, "How was Therinfal?"
"We got what we needed. The lyrium is being mined near a small town called Sarnia. It's high up in the mountains, cut off from most places in the winter. Which is why we've not heard anything from them before now. That's the innocent explanation and hopefully the correct one. Of course, knowing our luck, it won't be." He tried to keep his tone light but was, apparently, not fooling her. She prodded him in the chest but her voice was gentle when she said,
"That wasn't what I meant."
"I know. It was...insightful." He answered, taking her hand in his own he slid his thumb under it to sweep across her palm.
"The only living thing we found there was an Envy demon. It seems that Lucius was to bring you there, it would then imitate you and take over The Inquisition."
"What? Seriously?" She asked with raised brows.
"That seems to have been it's plan, yes."
"Well, that's just creepy." She said with a shudder.
"Demon." He reminded her.
"Yeah, but still."
"Don't worry, Envy isn't going to be attempting that trick again." He repressed the image of killing it while it was in Ellana's form. He had no intention of telling her, one of them with that mental image was more than enough.
"So how is this insightful?"
"Therinfal got me thinking." He rolled onto his back, pulling Ellana with him to rest her cheek against his chest. She remained quiet, giving him time to put his thoughts into words. Nimble fingers slipped under the loose lacing of his tunic to trace lazy patterns on his skin. "They purposely infected The Templars with red lyrium. Starting with the higher ranking officers then letting it filter down to the others. Most of them wouldn't have had a choice, they wouldn't have even thought to question what was going on. They were just following orders, they trusted their officers. Why wouldn't they? If things had turned out differently I-I don't know. The Red Templars need to be stopped but it's so easy to just see the monsters Corypheus and Samson have turned them into. To forget that underneath that corruption in a man or woman that pledged their lives to helping people. I'll have known some of them. Hell, if my life had gone differently I might have been one of them." The hand on his chest stilled and he felt her stiffen against him.
"Maker, that had never occurred to me. You, Cass, Leliana, Josie, you are The Inquisition. I can't even imagine you not being here." She winced, "I'd have never got them out of Haven if you hadn't been there." She finished softly.
"You'd have found a way." Cullen leaned forward to place a kiss on her forehead, "How about you? Do you ever think about how your life would have been different? If you'd never been at The Conclave?"
"Not really. I'd still be a nomad wandering the forest, more than likely."
"Do you miss it?" He'd never thought to ask before. She was the only one here that hadn't volunteered, that hadn't had a choice.
"The forest?" She leant on one elbow, propping her chin on her hand to look at him, "In the beginning I guess. Before The Conclave I'd never been away from my clan. But I have a new clan now, a new family. And a home, I've never had a home before. Don't worry, I'm exactly where I want to be. I know we're at war but I've got a lot to be grateful for."
"And the anchor? The self-proclaimed God, personally hunting you down?" Ellana shrugged,
"Without them I'd have never met you." She tilted her face down to kiss him, "Totally worth it."