There is heresy, and there is sin.
Over the span of two days—or an hour—or perhaps an eternity—Cullen learns the meaning of both.
There's a demon here, and she has caught him in her cage of ice and shadow, and Cullen kneels down on the hard stone floor and prays.
It does not halt her approach.
O Maker, hear my cry: guide me through the blackest nights, steel my heart against the temptations of the wicked, make me to rest in the warmest places—
"Such faith you have, Knight," the demon says, almost chidingly. "Did you think your Maker had any power here?" She comes closer, hips swaying, smug and smiling like a cat with its prey. "Isn't it your own Chant that teaches that He has turned away from you?"
Cullen shuts his eyes and does not look at her.
O Creator, see me kneel: for I walk only where You would bid me, stand only in places You have blessed, sing only the words You place in my throat—
Her fingertips are on his cheek. He shudders away. She is laughing.
My Maker, know my heart; take from me a life of sorrow, lift me from a world of pain, judge me worthy of Your endless pride—
"But you aren't worthy," the demon whispers, her voice soft in his ears and her hands curling warm around his neck. "You are not worthy, and you know it—so why do you pray?"
Because his friends are dead. Because the Tower is broken and the Veil has shredded and the mages have become abominations, and there is a demon touching him, and his breath is coming ragged in his throat and Cullen doesn't know what else to do. The demon is laughing again, low and amused, her hand on his chin as she forces his head up to hers.
"Look at me," she says.
"No," he grits out, tight and furious and defiant, and keeps his eyes squeezed shut.
O Maker, touch me with fire that I be cleansed—
"Or don't look at me," the demon says, sounding as though she might be shrugging. "I suppose it hardly matters. Such passion you have, Templar—such rage and fury and desire—"
"Shut up. Go away." Where is his sword? He would run her through, had she not taken it from him; he would stand and push her away and break her neck with his bare hands—if he could move. He cannot.
"—tell me," says the demon, consideringly, as though he had not spoken, "what is it that you want most in this world? You can have it, you know."
Cullen snarls at her and does not speak. It doesn't matter; she already knows.
You can have anything you like, the demon murmurs in his mind. Anything and everything, for just the price of your soul.
(This is heresy.)
"What would you like?" the demon asks.
Her hands are on his chest and she is brushing her lips against his ear—and her presence is close, close, like morning mist, like a shadow across his soul. Cullen draws in a breath, harsh. The air smells like smoke and lyrium and demon.
"Never mind," she murmurs. "I think I know."
And then the demon is laughing again, the timbre of her voice changing into something softer and sweeter and infinitely more familiar—and it's her, Cullen knows it's her, he would recognize her voice anywhere—it's her hands on his chest, her lips against his ear—
—and it will have to be the Maker who forgives him, because Cullen never, ever will—he is a knight and a Templar and he knows that this is a demon and he knows full well what it is that demons do—
—but he opens his eyes.
And it's Amell laughing up at him, winding her fingers in his hair, curling against him there on the cold stone floor as he gasps and kneels and does not pray; she's laughing, lovely and golden, and he still can't move and the air reeks of magic.
"Get—away from me," Cullen says, the words forced past his gritted teeth.
She smiles at him. There's an edge to it that has never been there before—sharp, like broken glass, and glittering just as cold and deadly amongst the shadows of the ruined Tower.
"No," Amell says.
And she kisses him.
Her mouth is warm against his, a terrible bright thing that sears him with its wonder, and in the midst of it the bindings twist and break and Cullen finds that he can move again.
It takes him just a moment too long to shove her away.
(This is sin.)
Demons are dangerous, and not because they kill.
Anything can kill. It's simple enough—a sword, a pyre, a leap off the top of the Circle Tower—it's only death, after all, and it is everywhere.
Demons have so many more ways than this to make a mortal come undone.
The stone is cold against his palms. There's blood everywhere; some of it is Cullen's.
Hmm, says the demon, rifling through his dreams.
Cullen staggers to his feet. This is real, this is solid, this is not any sort of vision—his armor is sitting on his shoulders cold and heavy, the floor is shaking with reverberations from the demon-mages up above—his sword is there, half-buried beneath a pile of fallen books, and he stretches out his hand and reaches for it—
His fingers touch ice. The cage comes slamming down.
"Come now," the demon chides. "did you think it would be that easy?"
He'll kill her. He'll see her destroyed if it's the last thing he does.
"You're certainly welcome to try," the demon says, amused, and Cullen shudders away from the shadowed touch of her fingers on the back of his neck.
"Six of your number, together, could not take me on," she murmurs. "What hope do you think you have? One solitary Templar, one bladeless knight alone in the dark—"
"Shut up," he snarls at her.
Of course, she doesn't.
These are the virtues the Templars preach: duty, honor, charity.
In that order.
Be righteous and uphold the law, the Chantry says. We are the will of the Maker on the face of Thedas; be righteous and uphold the law, be steadfast and do not waver, have faith and do not doubt—and above all, remember the obedience you owe to the Templar vows.
(There is heresy, and there is sin.)
Be on your guard.
The dream tugs at him, inexorable.
Amell smiles up at him. His armor is gone; the Tower is gone; they are on a grassy hillside drenched in summer sunlight and his fingers are twitching for a blade that is no longer there.
"You've had a dream like this," Amell says.
And the worst thing is: it's true. Cullen draws in a sharp breath and closes his eyes. "I won't be fooled so easily," he says harshly. "This isn't real. None of this is real—you aren't real—"
"Of course it isn't real." Her hands are on his clothes, and Cullen cannot move, and her hair smells like flowers—O Maker, steel my heart against the temptations of the wicked—and her laughter is soft in his ears as she works her way down the buttons of his shirt. "You would never indulge yourself if you thought this was real. But come now, Templar—this is only a dream, after all, and you've wanted her for so very long—"
Not like this. Not ever.
"Such a steadfast knight," she murmurs, and then she's kissing him again and he can feel the shape of her breasts bare against his skin, and Cullen cannot move—
—My Maker know my heart take from me a life of sorrows guide me guide me—
There's something hot and desperate and terrifyingly empty clawing its way through his chest, a thundering in his ears, the earth tilting dizzily about them as all of a sudden she's naked in his arms—
He staggers back, gasping. The ground comes up to meet him.
Amell is on him in an instant, her hands trailing down his chest and stomach and—and down, further—and Cullen grits his teeth at the shock of it, his heart pounding, the grass of the hillside rough against his palms as he arches up to meet her with his breath coming short and fast in his throat. There's sunlight in his eyes. She's laughing—she's laughing, as though this were amusing—she's laughing and he's shuddering against her, helpless, and her mouth is slanting down hard against his.
He's had a dream like this, in the deep watches of the night.
(But Amell had been gentle then, and desire had been sweet—not this dark, twisting, brambled thing, all bloody thorns and jagged edges—
—and he's gasping, because dear Maker it hurts, this empty ravenous wanting—)
Amell is on top of him, and Cullen is drowning, and he wants her more than anything else he's ever known.
With a sickening lurch, he realizes that his hands are on her waist. Cullen wrenches himself away.
The dream ends.
It's easier to breathe here, amidst the dusty stones of the Circle Tower, and the sunlight is gone but Cullen hardly cares. He's on his knees, gasping. Amell is watching him.
He still wants her.
His heart is pounding. If he closes his eyes he can remember the touch of her fingers on his skin, the way she moved against him that he'd never had the imagination to dream of, the feel of her hair in his hands and the taste of her on his lips—
He'd touched her. Maker, he'd touched her, and it had been of his own will there at the end.
And he hates her, and he hates this, and Cullen thinks he hates himself most of all.
Amell is gone when he can look up again, and it's the demon regarding him from beneath dark-lidded eyes, her lurid purple skin gleaming in the faint light. "She was just some mage," Cullen spits at her. "Some mage I cared for, and she isn't even here anymore—"
"Some mage you cared for?" the demon asks, and she sounds almost disappointed. "Don't try to lie to me, Templar—you loved her, as much as you loved anything in this world."
He'll never want anything again, Cullen thinks bitterly, if this is the price he has to pay for only the desire.
He straightens up with an effort. The demon is standing just beyond the cage, trailing her fingers along the bars of ice and shadow, and the only sound in the emptiness is the echo of his ragged breathing against the ruined walls. "You're lying," Cullen snarls. "You're a demon."
"Is that what the Chantry teaches these days?" the demon asks, almost idly. "What falsehoods you humans tell—you, the most-beloved children of the Maker—"
Too late Cullen realizes that he's arguing with a demon. He shuts his mouth, breathes in hard, and does not finish his answer.
O Maker, raise me and judge me worthy and guard my heart against temptation—
"The Chantry lies, you know." Her voice is low and drawling and contemplative. "Demons never do."
Demons tempt. They twist and corrupt and defile, and that is a hundred thousand times worse than a simple deception, and Cullen grits his teeth against his fury and wishes the demon dead.
"Will you lie to yourself, Templar? Did you love her?"
It's cold in the room. The weight of his armor is heavy but the weight of memory is heavier.
He hates her. Some mage he had cared for once, and it had been utter folly, and what does it matter now if he had loved her or not? He will never care for her again; he will never care for any mage again—
His heart is thundering against the gnawing emptiness in his chest.
Cullen should have remembered how fine the line was between mage and abomination.
Let them all die. Let the Maker sort them out—they were all lost, anyway, every last one of them damned or deserved to be.
(Hatred is bitter on his tongue, like ashes.)
The Fade is so close here, the Veil shredded and thin and fragile, and he's holding on to reality—cold stone, shadow, blood across the walls—but it's slipping away from him like sunlight falling into dusk. The air is warm again.
It smells like smoke.
There's fire, everywhere, and the flames are licking at his skin.
None of this is real. It's a lie like any other, though the demon might not call it such, and Cullen grits his teeth and tells himself that it's a dream—a dream, all of it—the pyre, the stake, the demon wearing the face of a mage he used to know—
"You did this to your saint," Amell says idly, from beyond the flames. "Do you remember?"
Andraste. The saint, the prophet, the Maker's bride—of course he remembers.
The heat is upon him suddenly, close and intense and inescapable; pain is searing across his skin, harsh, like jagged claws—
The flames come rising up and up around him.
And pride is such a hollow thing, but it's all that keeps him from screaming.
O Maker, you are the fire at the heart of the world and comfort is only yours to give—
The world is going black and red at the edges. The demon's voice comes to him, wavering and distant: she burned for such a very long time, your saint.
"She died," Cullen gasps out, smoke filling his lungs, stinging his eyes. "She died a martyr—"
"True," Amell says, amused. "An honorable death, to be sure—but there is no one here to watch you, ser Templar, and I am enjoying your company far too much to let you die."
—O Maker, comfort is only yours to give and you are the fire—but there is no comfort in these flames. These flames blind and choke and sear, and Cullen is burning and burning and he cannot die—this is a dream, all of it, the worst nightmare he's ever had, because when he wakes the demon will still be waiting for him and he will still be caught in her cage—
He's choking, smoke and ashes tearing at his throat. He hasn't the breath to scream.
So this, Cullen thinks dizzily, is the glory of a martyr's death; without either the death or the glory, because he isn't dying, and he's gasping at the feel of red-hot brands against his skin that blaze with the promise of forever.
—O Maker— you are the fire, you are the incandescence, you are the inferno and the tinder sparking and all the glory of the immolation—
Pride is such a hollow thing—
(—it's cracking in the flames, like a songbird's bones.)
And he hates himself for it, but it's a relief—shameful and guilty and profane, but it's a relief—to see Amell take up the sword, the silver blade glimmering cool as starlight against the inferno. She hefts it in her hand, pensive, and waits for Cullen to ask.
The smoke is rising thick into the air; he coughs, chokes twice, breathes in against the pain.
"Please—" he says, like a dragging prayer.
The starlight flares.
And Cullen tilts his head back, unresisting, as Amell comes up close and smiles at him a very little bit, the pain of the sword-point through his heart cold and sharp and welcome as the first kiss of snow.
Dust. Stone. Tower. Cullen is curled on the cold floor, coughing at smoke that isn't there. The demon is crouching next to him, waiting and patient; the world is spinning, and he's exhausted and dizzy, and pushing himself up to his knees is the hardest thing he's ever done.
The demon flashes away in an instant when he makes a grab for her.
The silver sword is gone. His chest is covered by the heavy bulk of his breastplate; when Cullen moves, there's only the echo of a wound that never was.
It still hurts.
And his flesh feels raw and scorched, as though he had been in a fire.
(It hurts—the remembrance of the flames and the sword and the demon, but the memory of that last lingering please most of all.)
So much for the steadfastness of the Templars, Cullen thinks bitterly. So much for defiance and honor and unyielding will—it's dark here in this ruined Tower, and he's alone with a demon, and all the virtues in the world are empty comfort in the face of the demon's guile.
Which is still no excuse for having forsaken them.
My Creator, judge me whole; find me well within Your grace, tell me I have sung to Your approval—
The Chant dies on his lips, half-unformed. He is not worthy—and prayer, too, is empty comfort against the dark.
Time passes. He hasn't bothered to keep track of it.
The dreaming comes again, rising up around him like a tide, and all of a sudden: flowers.
There are more flowers than he has names for here—golden stands of lilies, trailing vines of roses and honeysuckle, small white blooms wavering in the grass and the drift of bright cherry blossoms above him, and off in the distance drooping branches heavy-laden with purple and white and pink; flowers, a glorious flood of them opening up like the Maker's mercy, and in the dreamscape garden Cullen is on his back with the demon curled atop him like a prelude to a midsummer's ballad.
There are vines around his wrists—slim, fragile things, but they won't break if he strains against them, and Cullen is bone-weary from dashing himself against impossibilities.
He tries, anyway. The vines leave green sap on his skin and hold him fast.
"Tell me, Templar—" and it's Amell's voice again, Amell's face, her fingers trailing along his cheek "—if I had possessed her at her Harrowing, would you have killed her?"
"Yes," he snarls, jerking his face away from her touch.
"Yes." With joy in his heart at seeing this demon slain—
"Such an angry knight you are," the demon says, leaning down to kiss him.
It's a draining thing, a demon's kiss—even from a demon who looks like a girl he used to love.
And Cullen is tired, so so tired after all these hours or days alone in the dark, and his will is stretched out thin and fine as a gossamer thread, and all that's left in the world is rage and duty and despair. Her mouth is on his, with a sweetness as empty as prayer; her fingers are tangling in his clothes as she pulls them off.
He hates her. It's as hollow a passion as anything else.
Her lips are on his throat, and above them the sky is going dark. His first kiss, Cullen thinks bitterly—his first kiss, his first anything, and it's with this demon who wants to see him break; her lips are on his throat, her skin sliding smooth against his, and he's shuddering, torn, with the taste of ashes on his tongue and helplessness coiling bleak into his bones.
"Fight if you like," the demon murmurs in his ear. "It will make no difference."
No, of course it won't, Cullen thinks—and there's viciousness in the thought—she'll make it hurt, whatever he does. She's winding her fingers into his hair; she's laughing, naked and amused, and then all of a sudden the vines are coiling away and she's upon him and he's arching up against her with the shock of it—a dark dire thing, deadly in its intensity, and his hands are tight on her hips and the world is going starkly white as he gasps and breathes and does not die.
There's a pitiless wanting flooding up in him, bright as a blade-edge and cutting twice as sharp.
And he should not be doing this—should not—but his breath is coming harsh and ragged in his throat, the rising tide dragging him under as the demon presses close against him, the thread of his will fraying beneath this relentless empty hunger—and around them the flowers are dying—
(—this is the Golden City blackened, the eternal garden turned to ash; heresy and sin, both at once—)
—and he can't stop.
It makes no difference.
The demon is laughing. She's murmuring hot encouragement in his ear, her nails raking across his shoulders, and his heart is pounding like the drumbeat of a dirge; the stars are spinning, dizzy, and the flowers are falling, and every beautiful thing in the world withers and dies and goes to dust as the dark hunger comes surging forth and undoes every vow that he's ever made.
Cullen shatters at the tempest's edge—a sharp, clean break, straight down the center between duty and rage.
The stone of the ruined Tower is cold against his cheek. The demon is trailing her fingers through his hair, and he's shuddering and spent and exhausted and he couldn't move even if he'd had the will to try.
(There's a taint on his soul—like sin, like heresy—and there's not enough grace or repentance in this world to undo this defilement.)
"A fine game, Templar," the demon says in Amell's voice. "A pity more of you didn't survive."
Six of them had gone up against the demon. One of them still breathes.
Cullen closes his eyes against the gathering shadows and wishes that he had died with the rest.