OK, here we go again. Dragon Age 2 oneshot, been a long time in the making. Buckle up, guys!
Maker, though the darkness comes upon me,
I shall embrace the light. I shall weather the storm.
I shall endure.
What you have created, no one can tear asunder.
Canticle of Trials 1:14
Knight-Captain Cullen was, by now, unaware of the time. He knew it must be a few hours before dawn, something in the darkness crowding the candles in the Chantry had that sense of a last charge against light before inevitably succumbing to the brilliance of the sun. He hoped that in this was a parallel – and prophesy – for his own struggles with temptation, and his overcoming them. He'd been reading and rereading his small copy of the Chant of Light in the pew overlooking the massive statue of Andraste since a little past sunset, and stayed long after the various Sisters, Brothers, and Mothers had all retired to their dormitories in the back. Even so, he wasn't quite sure how many times he'd read through the Canticle of Trials; his mind kept drifting. Years, it had been, since he'd last seen her, and hardly on friendly terms. They'd almost come to blows, in fact. But even now, far away in both time and space, he could still see her sitting at the library table with a copy of the Chant spread out before her like a map and her small book of notes blossoming ink as she scrawled messy half phrases that she knew only he could read. Notes for him. And the scene replaying over and over in his head, haunting him as things in Kirkwall threatened to explode.
"Excuse me, apprentice," he called. He wasn't used to being up here, away from the Templar's quarters. If he wasn't at his post on the south balcony, he kept to the lower levels. And it seemed that all the mages ran together, despite the brightly colored robes. It was hard to recognize a face when no one would make eye contact. "Excuse me, apprentice. In the green robes."
The apprentice he'd been trying to flag down turned, bristling. "I have name, you know."
"No," Cullen said, approaching the mage. "I didn't know, or I would have used it."
The apprentice cocked an eyebrow. "Sure you would have. I don't believe you, you see, because instead of introducing yourself after so rudely reducing my identity to the color of my clothing, you've instead begun bickering with me. I can only assume that between teaching you how to bash heads in and abusing your station, the Templars haven't taught you common greeting rituals. Here, let me teach you." He stiffly held out his hand, then forcibly grabbed Cullen's gauntleted one, artificially replicating a handshake. "Hello, fine young Templar. Lovely weather we're having in our stone tower in the middle of a lake. My name is Jowan. And then you introduce yourself."
Cullen wanted to smack Jowan, but not only was he not on duty and the mage had done nothing but be a smart ass, it would produce the exact opposite effect of what he wanted. "Nice to meet you, Jowan. I'm Cullen."
"See, was that so hard? You should make sure to practice." The apprentice dropped the hand and turned to leave.
"App- Jowan, I actually had a question for you." He hastily added, "If you don't mind."
Jowan turned, feigning surprise. "My, so polite! You're a fast learner, for a Templar. What can I do for you?"
Cullen couldn't help but blush. "I, umm, I'm looking for another apprentice I've seen you with on occasion."
"Well, that was specific. Do you have name? Or perhaps you'd like to call he or she a color. If its taupe, though, we could run into trouble – this week the fad is taupe robes."
"Amell. Solona Amell."
Jowan's rakish grin fell off his face like glass shattering out of its pane. "Haven't seen her." He moved to leave again, this time with far more purpose, causing Cullen to snatch at the man's robes.
"She's not in trouble… I don't think, anyway." He tried to hide the note of desperation in his voice, ignoring that clutching the apprentice's robes smacked of desperation anyway. "I just haven't seen her in awhile and I was, I mean, I am getting worried."
The mage stopped, confused. "Worried? She's not an abomination, someone would have noticed by now. I mean, she has abdominal qualities, specifically in the morning, but I'm fairly certain that's just Solona and not a demon."
Worried about the looks he was attracting, Cullen led the other man into a large sconce partially filled with a pillar. "No, I'm not worried about that. My guard duty is the south balcony, and the last couple of months she and I would… converse to pass the time. She hasn't been by in a week, though. I'm worried…"
Jowan's eyebrow was up again, almost threatening his hairline. "Worried what? She's seducing another Templar?"
Cullen grabbed Jowan's collar before he could think, "How dare you insinuate-"
"Insinuate what?" the apprentice squeaked. "That she's infatuated with you? Because from what I've heard, I'm pretty sure you knew that one already." He waited to be put down. "Please don't hit me," he added for good measure.
Cullen took a deep breath and put the mage back on his feet. "From what you've heard? What are the rumors saying?"
The mage shook his head. "No rumors, just what Solona's told me. She does a good job controlling the rumor mill in the apprentice quarters. Mostly by setting stuff on fire. Also, before you decide to call on your Maker-given penchant for beating defenseless but dashingly witty mages to get your information, Solona's in the library. Has been for a week." Again, he made to leave, and this time Cullen didn't stop him.
He waited instead for his heartbeat to calm before heading the opposite direction and making for the massive library. The majority of the tower was this library, spanning several sweeping floors and spilling out into what once might have been dormitories. With nothing better to do, the mages were obsessed with knowledge. For the older enchanters it made sense; they pored over tomes and then proceeded to write their own books about it, creating a constant flux in the perception of magic in the Circles, if not in Thedas. The apprentices and mages, though, who weren't at that level yet, consumed knowledge the same way rabbits consumed well kept grass. They'd gnaw it bare down to the roots, their analysis and obsession destroying what was once there. As if it wasn't bad enough, they turned it into a competition. Whichever mage had read the most inane and useless tomes and then proposed the worst theories about them was considered the most academic. Cullen had never noticed this for himself, but had heard the process described by Solona in such detail it was hard to doubt her conclusions. She was of the very small school of thought that believed experimentation was the more admirable academic pursuit, although she readily acknowledged it was also the more dangerous one.
It had been her refusal to stop experimenting with setting things on fire that had almost gotten her made Tranquil more than once, but Irving couldn't bear to let one of the brightest apprentices lose her mind like that. Instead, he'd directed her toward the south balcony where if she got out of control, the collateral damage would be minimal – one stone abutment and a newly minted Templar. And if she made herself an abomination, it was a fairly simple thing for Cullen to run away and lock the door until someone else could come dispose of her. Of course, he hadn't know that when she began spending her time on the balcony, and the first time she'd cast a spell – a small fire in her hand to keep both of them warm in the night air while they spoke – he'd almost jumped out of his skin. After that, they'd chosen a safety word. Pancakes.
There was no formal information desk for the library since most mages had the filing system memorized from a young age, so Cullen was forced to interrupt studious mages, more than one who looked murderous when he politely asked if they'd seen an apprentice with dark red hair and a tattoo sweeping the left side of her face from jaw to brow line. The general, though irritated and convoluted, explanation was that she was in the religious documents section, specifically the histories subsection. Even so, it took him close to an hour to find her. Solona had taken up residence at the largest table in the center of the floor, though the shelves were so labyrinthine that he would see her between a gap in the shelves and have to walk the opposite direction to find a clear path.
When he finally approached, making more noise than was typically accepted this deep into the catacombs of books, she refused to acknowledge him until he coughed and spoke her name.
She looked up, her blue eyes lined with sleepless grey bruises. "May I help you?"
"I umm… How are you?"
She made a sweeping gesture over her books. "Busy, clearly."
He tried again, "I haven't seen you in a while."
She returned to her scribbling, again gesturing at the books surrounding her.
"I… I've missed you," he whispered, embarrassed.
She sighed heavily and put her quill down. The look she gave him was something like scathing pity, which he couldn't particularly understand, much less describe. "I was under the impression that my continued experimentation on the south balcony was 'distracting' from your Templar duties."
He scowled. "The experiments weren't the problem, Sol-"
She stood, furious, "No, the problem is that I'm a mage and you're a templar and if I'm not overtly trying to kill you, I must be using some other covert means of magical seduction to over turn law, justice, and peace."
"Solona!" He moved around the table so he could better tower over her diminutive frame. "This has nothing to do with the experiments or a distrust of mages. You tried to kiss me."
"I tried?" She shoved against his breastplate with both her hands, not moving him much. "You tried, you had your face right here" she held her palm almost flush to her nose, "and then panicked at the last minute."
"Templars can't go around kissing mages, Solona, you know that. I'm sorry if I misled you."
She put a hand up in the universal motion for stop. "No. Templars and mages are people, and people are more than welcome to go around kissing each other. Where, specifically, does it say in the Chant that mages and Templars can't fraternize?"
He squinted, suspicious. "Is that what you're up here doing? You're researching Templars?"
"So what if I am? You know, Andraste never taught about the imprisonment of mages, Circles came after her death. And Templars? Templars -"
Cullen grabbed her shoulders, stooping his face down to hers like he did so frequently in their arguments. "Solona, I know the history of the Templars. I know Andraste didn't create them and that there's no provision for them in her teachings. I know they used to be an inquisition force, I know all that. What you don't seem to understand here is that my refusal to romance a mage is my own personal decision. If I loved you and, Maker fend, something went wrong, in that moment I couldn't be a Templar. I took an oath, Solona. That comes first."
The fury in her eyes was so intense he wondered if the heat on his cheeks was actually the physical sensation of her hatred. She was silent for a moment before saying flatly, "You're doing it again, Cullen."
It took him a moment to register what she meant, and then he realized his mouth was inches from hers. He jumped back like he'd been burnt, something Solona seemed to be contemplating making a reality. She only pointed to the exit to her little cove and mouthed the word, "Go."
That night he was woken to attend his first Harrowing. When the First Enchanter led in Solona, his heart dropped out from under him and he realized that even without that kiss, if something went wrong tonight, he couldn't be a Templar in that moment.
Sitting in the Kirkwall Chantry now, almost a decade later, he still remembered the feeling of helplessness he felt that night, and for some reason the memory had been haunting him for days. He knew, in his mind, he'd done the right thing, that Solona was a mage and she would have used a romance between the two of them to her advantage. After the uprising in Ferelden's Circle, and after her refusal to put down the blood mages and abominations in the top of the tower, he'd even convinced himself that her rage at his rejection had been because he'd escaped her snares and not any real emotional hurt he'd dealt her. After that, it was so much easier to… not hate her, but at least not love her anymore. Why, then, did he wonder what would have happened if on that balcony he hadn't pulled back? Why was Solona's face haunting him?
At the end of the pew came the knocking of a walking stick and the rustle of Chantry robes. Her hood was up against the cold of the building, but even though the Sister's face was obscured, he could tell she was tired. She sat a polite distance away and began humming a hymn he didn't recognize.
She finished her song and asked, "What lays so heavily on you, Knight-Captain?"
He tilted his bowed head toward her. "Are you offering to take my confession?"
She shrugged and laid the walking stick across her lap. It was adorned with all sorts of fetishes from across Thedas, small bird skulls, beads, bells, and one that he could have sworn looked like a dragon tooth, but charred black and inlaid with a tiny gold runes. For some reason, the handwriting, though in a different language, looked familiar. "If it would do your soul some good. I am a missionary, and I stay in Kirkwall only to rest for a night before I go west again, so if I received your confession, it would not stay in this city to haunt you."
He nodded. "I am haunted enough, Sister. But I cannot give you a confession."
The hood bobbed. "You are tortured, but not remorseful."
"How did you know?" he asked, shocked.
"Knight-Captain, I have traveled Thedas spreading the Chant and easing men's souls, and a man cannot be comforted with the cleansing of repentance without remorse for his sin first. I see in you, like I have in thousands others, remorse but not repentance. You regret something, but you doubt its sinfulness."
He sighed, "You read minds, as well, Sister?"
She laughed, the sound like glass bells oddly familiar. "If I could read your mind, Knight-Captain, I would better know what comfort you need."
Something about her, perhaps it was the laugh, made him want to trust her. His mind reeled, he could not fathom pouring his heart to this stranger. And yet… her voice sounded like the dark crimson oil he'd seen carried in on cargo ships from Antiva. It was smooth and thick like honey, but at even the smallest spark it would light and burn with an intensity enough to melt the flesh right off a man's bones if he stood too close. Unlit, though, the same oil made a salve for wounds so effective that the danger of almost instant combustion was worth it for most sailors, Templars, and mages, the Knight-Captain included. Somewhere, in the unspoken danger and the soft comfort he felt in her voice, there lay a familiarity he couldn't reach. Like it was on the other side of a foggy glass, or in a pool of murky water deep inside his mind. He found he could not help himself.
"Sister, I find myself haunted."
She tilted her head back, leaning against the pew. The hood fell still almost to her nose, obscuring her eyes, but he was able now to examine the right side of her silhouette. The red lips parted, smiling mischievously. "Yes, you said as much. By what, Knight-Commander? Is it what happened almost ten years ago in Ferelden's Circle?"
Again, he found himself stunned. "This is magic, isn't it?" He reached for the sword he'd left leaning against the pew. It'd fallen against her leg when she sat, and rested there still.
Her knee bent inward, the sword clattering to the ground. "Hardly, though your paranoia reveals you. It is simple observation. I hail from Redcliff, and left shortly after the Blight myself. We were neighbors across a lake, even if we didn't know it at the time. Anyway, many of you Templars passed through Redcliff on your exodus away from whatever personal hell transpired in that spire," she paused to smile at her poetry, "and you all carried the same look. I would have thought it'd have fallen off by now, but I supposed not. It could also be that your trauma is exacerbated by Kirkwall's own spiral into madness, yes?"
The sword was out of his reach without lunging for it, a move that didn't seem necessary yet. "You are well read, Sister."
She nodded, still grinning, and waited for him to continue.
"I am, in part, haunted by that place. But my torment is less of a 'what' and more of a 'who.'"
The sister turned, examining him, her hood falling back to cover her face. In the dark, he could see nothing under the cowl, but could have sworn there was a glimmer of blue where two eyes should have been. "A woman?" He nodded. She leaned back again, her mouth emerging once more. "A mage, I wager. Ah, wait, I am a Sister now, I can't wager, can I? Still," she waved her hand, "a mage. Do you think you are the first templar to fall for a mage? As I understand the stories, the Hero of Ferelden had a brief affair with a Templar," Cullen's heart stopped, "before he left her to become King."
Cullen let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. "His Majesty never took his Templar vows."
"He had a loophole."
"I suppose you could call it that. But training alone does not make a man – or woman, I suppose – a templar. The vows represent everything we believe, everything we stand for."
She nodded. "So, to deviate from the strictness of those vows is to deny your faith and cease to be a templar."
He nodded enthusiastically. "Exactly."
Her smile fell, slide slowly off her face into contemplation. "Forgive me if I am wrong, but do we not teach that everyone has a personal relationship with the Maker? And if that is so, if we truly give ourselves to the Maker, do we not, in some part, dictate the personality of our faith?"
He frowned. "I'm afraid I don't follow, Sister."
She sighed, and leaned her elbows on her knees. "Alright, let us take a more worldly example. Knight-Commander Meredith. If I were to walk up to her, have a conversation with her, I would have established a relationship, even if it were thin one. Then, after having established this thin relationship with her, if I were to say, 'Meredith, my friend, I am off to have dinner with my sister, who knows where an apostate lives,' and then leave before she said anything, I would not know her mind despite knowing her. However, you ser, have a long and established relationship with this same woman, and if you were to say 'Meredith, my commander, I am off to have dinner with my sister, who knows where an apostate lives,' she would not have to say anything and you would know precisely what she was thinking, yes?"
"She would want me to find this hypothetical apostate my hypothetical sister knows."
"Would she have to tell you as much?"
"No," he frowned, "of course not."
"And why is that?"
"Because… Because I know her. She wouldn't have to say it because I know enough about her and her passions that it goes unsaid."
The Sister nodded under her hood. "Precisely. And if we know the Maker well enough, can we not also have this sort of bond with Him?"
"Only a fool presumes to know the Maker's will," Cullen stated, no doubt in his mind that this sister was a missionary because she'd been thrown out for flirting with heresy.
"By the logic of that statement, you are a fool, Knight-Captain." Outrage flickered across his face, but she continued. "You profess to be a man of faith, yet instead of establishing a relationship with your Maker by which you might glean his intentions for you, you instead adhere to antiquated vows that may not have any real significance in His personal plan for yourself. By these vows you presume to know the will of the Maker, and presume he does not want you to love a woman simply because she can shoot fire from her finger tips." She gestured to his copy of the Chant. "Those words you pour over may give you some comfort, ser, but without a voice behind them, they are as dead as the ears they fall on."
"I…" He found he had no response. "You challenge my faith in ways I fear I was not prepared for, Sister."
She laughed, "I thought I might." That sound like tinkling bells rang out and as he turned to the candles that were almost burnt out, they looked as if the flames danced with her victorious mirth.
He was back on that balcony at the Circle almost instantly.
"Solona, I feel like I've been lenient and even supportive of your insane experiments, and if you want to set yourself on fire, fine, I will be more than happy to carry you to the infirmary again." Younger, happier, less haunted, Cullen's concern expanded only as far as the terrace.
"But?" Her red lips parted mischievously.
"But I have no desire to be set on fire myself!" As so often happened when they bickered, he found his gauntleted hands on her biceps, as if he could physically prevent her from flying off into her fancies again.
She smiled wider, and winked, and he found it was too late, he'd done exactly as she'd wished. He'd stepped into the chalked circle on the balcony, barely wide enough to hold both of them, and even as flames began licking up from the cobblestones, he was frantically searching the runes she'd sketched all around the ring for smudges. The flames were almost shoulder height when he noticed one to his left, and indeed flames seemed to be licking at them closer from that side. Knowing that at this point the spell was too powerful for his meager training to extinguish, and doubting that screaming their safety word would accomplish much, he wrapped his arms around her and tried to cover as much of both their bodies as he could with his armor and shield.
But she was laughing. And not just that giggle she had that sounded like glass bells, it was hearty and full, and when he tilted his head up from her shoulder, he realized they were incased in a dome of fire, none of which was touching them. And all of which was dancing in time with her laugh so full of mirth to be infectious. His terror melted away to be replaced with awe. They were standing in the middle of a bonfire. He couldn't help it – he began laughing as well. They laughed and embraced, smiling and full of a love of life. Slowly, slower than they'd began, the flames diminished, then finally winked out.
Still in the circle, he took a deep breath of the sweet night air, relishing the new warmth he felt. She was stationary as well, though examining her runes and the charred stone around them.
"Every single night you challenge my faith in ways I fear I am not prepared for." She looked up, smiling still, glee radiating out of her face. "Solona?" She said nothing, and he realized she was holding her breath. "Thank you."
There she was, still in his arms, smiling with such happiness he thought he would melt. And then his face was inches from hers, their lips almost touching.
Cullen jumped back, as if finally burnt by the dead fire.
Solona looked up at him, confused. "What's wrong?"
"I…" he stammered, "I can't. I can't, Solona."
She began to look hurt, "Can't what?"
"I'm a Templar," he said, as if that explained everything. To him, it had, but now he wondered why he'd thought so. And with that he'd fled, leaving her and her scuffed up ring of runes.
Back in the Chantry, almost ten years later, that sensation of being burnt by a long dead fire was back, searing his very soul. There was a moment of silence while her laughed echoed around him.
He lunged for her hood, yanking it from her head and undoing what had been a loose bun. Long red hair, the color of a dying fire seen through dark and foggy glass, came pouring out as the sun began to rise through the glass. For a moment, Cullen thought she'd pulled the same stunt and surrounded them both in fire once more, but the illusion passed as the sphere continued to rise in the silence.
Her face had aged. He shouldn't have been surprised by that, but she was no longer the apprentice setting a balcony on fire. There were wrinkles, and grey at her temples. But most shockingly, her eyes had become a deeper blue. Before they'd been the color of a Ferelden sky on a clear day, now they looked like that same sky the moment between dusk and dark. They hadn't been so dark in the Tower, had they? It must have been that damn Archdemon, whose tooth he realized was dangling from her staff. She could have set the whole city ablaze with a wink and a bad mood, and that staff he'd mistaken for a walking stick probably represented more power than all of Kirkwall's Circle alone. And for all this, the danger he felt was not of being set on fire, or crushed in a magical prison, or possessed by a demon, or ripped apart into a thousand shreds, all thing he knew she could do and probably wanted to.
She broke the silence, the sun now pouring over his shoulders and onto her. "You thanked me for that once."
He blinked, coming back to the moment. "Come again?"
"You thanked me for challenging your faith in ways you weren't prepared for, once."
"Why are you here?" His voice was hoarse, he didn't know what to say.
The red hair was being gathered into its bun again. "I am meeting with someone. A meeting that will hopefully assuage the coming conflagration." She looked at his sideways. "This time not my doing. I would suggest leaving, Cullen. No ring of chalked out runes will save you this time."
He should have been taking in the veiled warning. But he couldn't breathe, and he felt as if the whole world was about to ignite like those casks of the Antivan oil at the docks. Suddenly there was warmth on his lips, then on his cheeks, cutting hot lines down his face. She was kissing him, long and hard, and as tears ran down his visage, he was kissing her, too.
They broke apart, panting, unthinking, then were together once more, fingers fumbling at armor latches under each other's cloaks. There was a pop, then another, and his breastplate came sloughing off. As he shrugged it free, he managed to find the clasp of her robes, shaped like a dragon's claw, and his hands were exploring her skin in ways he'd berated himself for imagining. She was hot, her flesh warming his hands and her mouth warming his, pouring heat into him until he felt as if the fire was inside him now, burning lower and lower until all thought had been burnt away like chaff and all that was left was need.
But suddenly, the heat was fading, and her worried face was swimming into his vision. Her cheeks were wet with tears, but he couldn't tell whose. "Cullen, I can't."
"There's too much at stake here, Cullen. Kirkwall is about to ignite, and I shouldn't have come here. I shouldn't have seen you. But I couldn't help it Cullen. Ten years, you still burn through my veins like fire." She leaned forward and kissed him, and he felt her own need matched in his lips. But she broke away once more. "Get out, my love. Leave this place."
He smiled, the bitter irony of his words pulling away at him. "I can't, Solona."
He lips pursed. "Find me, then. When all this is over, or maybe when it's just beginning, find me." She pulled off the dragon tooth from her staff, the leather braid with it, and tied it around his neck, then began clasping the latches on his breastplate for him, covering the trinket. "Write these runes in sand with the fetish, and I'll know it. Promise you'll find me."
He nodded, pulling her fingers away from fumbling with his armor, and kissed her hands. "I promise." He paused, unsure what to say, then, "Maker, though the darkness comes upon me, I shall embrace the light. I shall weather the storm. I shall endure. What you have created, no one can tear asunder."
Her breath caught in her throat, a choke that sounded almost like a sob, and then she was gone. Not even up and walking away, just gone. The sun had bounced off the gilded wheel below them, the intense light making him blink, and when he refocused, his hands were empty and she was gone. The only sign she'd been there was his sword laying on the ground and the press of the dragon tooth against his chest.
From behind, Knight-Captain Cullen heard the familiar click of authoritative boots, and rose hastily for the Knight-Commander.
She looked at him, and frowned. "Do you weep for your city, Knight-Captain?"
Cullen swiped at his cheeks. "I spent the night struggling with my faith, Knight-Commander. I weep for what is lost."
She turned to the wheel, saying, "I weep for what is lost as well, Cullen. Tell me, do you see hope for this city?"
He touched his breastplate, pressing the tooth into his chest and above his heart. "I have a renewed hope in the Maker's plan for each of us, Commander. That is all."