Snow blanketed Haven in icy white silence, muffling all but the sound of steel clashing against steel as the newest recruits trained under the watchful eye of their Commander. Beyond that the hamlet was quiet, daylight fading into the grey of twilight that softened the world at its edges, the sky growing darker and the first stars struggling to shine out against the lingering rays of the setting sun. The shouts of the recruits and the ringing of their swords began to wane as one by one they were dismissed, carefully putting away their blades and shields to climb into their tents to rest until dawn, when they would begin the process anew.
The Commander watched until every man had retired before excusing himself as well, going up towards the Chantry, where his fellow advisors awaited him. Another meeting to discuss securing trade routes and arranging guard detail. Tedious tasks, but they could not entrust them to anyone else, not with how small the Inquisition yet was. Growing, to be certain, but their numbers were still diminutive compared to other such organizations.
The war room seemed strangely empty without Lord Trevelyan there, but the mage had left a few days prior to go to Redcliffe. The rebel mages, he believed, were the best option for closing the Breach. Cullen disagreed, but the Herald wouldn't hear it. And so he had departed and left Haven in the hands of his advisors. Advisors who seemed oddly serious without Trevelyan. There were no witty remarks, no infectious bursts of laughter, just the Nightingale and Ambassador Montilyet and Seeker Pentaghast and himself. Business was discussed, options evaluated, solutions reached. It was quiet and somber but efficient. Not two hours later, Commander Cullen departed the Chantry to try and rest himself. Dawn always came sooner than he liked.
But before he could even reach his bed, there was a commotion outside of the walls. Raised voices, shouting, and Cullen approached a small group of about ten men who had gathered just beyond the gate.
"What's the meaning of this?" he demanded, and the men, though still agitated, grew quiet.
"We keep hearing a noise, Commander, from somewhere far off," one of them answered, eyes darting over towards the frozen lake. The Commander frowned.
"It's the mountains. There is all manner of wildlife that call this place home. You don't need to jump every time you hear a nug scampering around in the undergrowth."
Another one of the men stifled a laugh, but the one who spoke still looked just as grim.
"No, ser, I don't think it's a nug. We keep hearing barking coming from over that way." He pointed off beyond the frozen water.
"A wolf, then," Cullen said smoothly, "or a coyote. Either way, I'll add a few more men on guard detail. Thank you for bringing this to my attention."
The man looked as if he wanted to argue, but his fellows muttered their agreement and thanks and saluted before ushering him back to their cluster of tents. Once more, Cullen attempted to leave for his own bed, sleep beckoning him with her sultry voice and welcoming arms. Once more the endeavor was futile, but only because, barely audible over the low drone of the wind, he could hear something in the distance.
Muffled barking, growing steadily louder. It was no wolf or coyote or beast of the forest, either.
Cullen all but ran to the edge of the lake, staring across the moonlight ice into the blackness of night where the sound was coming from. Several of his men stood beside him, weapons drawn and ready, though for what they did not know. The barking was reaching a crescendo before the source was revealing, streaking across the ice in a blur of brown fur and bared teeth; a Mabari, Cullen realized. One of the men nocked his arrow and took aim, but the Commander pushed the bow down.
"Don't shoot," he warned. The archer looked confused but obeyed.
The Mabari continued to bark frantically as he slid to a stop on the ice, looking from soldier to soldier as if he was seeking someone out specifically. Cullen approached the beast slowly, hand outstretched as he murmured words of encouragement under his breath. To his surprise, the Mabari quieted instantly upon seeing him, barks turning to soft whines.
"That's it, easy, boy," Cullen said, squatting down so he was at the hound's eye level. "Where did you come from, hm?"
The Mabari barked again and bounded a few feet out onto the ice before turning and meeting the Commander with frenzied eyes.
"I think he wants you to follow him, ser," one of the men said.
"I believe you're right," he replied, standing and gingerly making his way out onto the ice after the war hound. "Someone hand me a torch, please."
"You aren't actually following that dog are you, ser?" another soldier asked, passing him a light.
Cullen shot the man a silencing glare. "Yes, I am. Mabari are fiercely intelligent creatures, and it's strange to see one without their partner. Perhaps they're injured and sent their hound to look for help. Wait here and send someone if I don't return within the next hour."
His men murmured in agreement and the Commander returned his attention to the Mabari, who was barking at him once more.
"Lead on," he said, and the dog snorted before running, Cullen on his heels.
They ran on through the dark and the wind until the snow grew too deep for Cullen to run any longer, trudging through drifts that occasionally reached his thighs. Ahead the Mabari plowed through, barking every now and then as if to encourage the man to continue on. Strangely enough, it worked, and eventually they reached a copse of ragged trees that somehow still managed to block most of the snow and wind. The Mabari began to whimper again, and Cullen quickly learned why. Sprawled face first in the snow beside a long-dead fire, skin pale and grey from the cold, was who he assumed was the hound's owner.
Quickly, Cullen ran to their side, kneeling down to roll them over. Upon approaching, he realized that it was a woman, dressed in light leather armor, hood pulled over wavy, ashen blonde hair. Gathering her thin form into his arms, Cullen realized he was trembling, though it had nothing to do with the cold. Rather, the ghost he held.
"Maker's breath, it can't be..." he breathed.
"Hello, Cullen." Lyra Amell's voice was harsh, but the smile on her blue lips was as soft as he remembered. "Look at you, all grown up."
"I didn't think I'd ever see you again," he whispered, and he could not help but hold her closer. This, the woman who had haunted his dreams ever since she had left the Circle all those years ago. The woman that Thedas knew as the Hero of Ferelden, but he knew as the wide-eyed mage whom he had carried back to her bed after her Harrowing. Lyra rested her cheek against his breastplate, letting out a shaky breath as she pressed a hand against her left side. "Are you injured?" he asked, looking her up and down. Depending on how long she had been here like this, frostbite was likely a concern, but the way she moved communicated something else entirely.
Lyra looked up at him and sighed. "Yes, but it doesn't matter."
"Of course it does. Let me take a look." Cullen moved to examine the area but she grabbed his wrist. The contact was sudden and despite the bitter wind, Cullen felt heat rising up in his cheeks.
"Don't worry about me right now, Cullen, there isn't time." Her face was grim as she stared up at him. "I couldn't trust a letter, so I came as quickly as I could. Cullen, the Herald is gone."
Whatever warmth had blossomed on his cheeks faded instantly, his heart stuttering as it plummeted into his stomach. "Gone?" he echoed back, and his voice sounded like it was coming from somewhere -- from someone -- else. Lyra nodded, giving his wrist a squeeze as she winced beneath him.
"I wasn't far from Redcliffe when I heard that the rebel mages had gathered there. I thought maybe I could speak with them, help them somehow. But as you already know, I wasn't the first to arrive. That magister had already swooped in before I got there." She grimaced again, pushing harder against her side. "I had only been in the village for a few hours before the news spread through. The magister used some kind of strange magic and the Herald just vanished, along with the other Tevinter he was with. Pavus, I think? There was nothing left but ashes."
His mouth turned dry, tongue glued to the roof of his mouth. Lyra made a miserable noise, and Cullen held her closer.
"You should flee. I don't know who he is, but the magister was in service of someone called the Elder One. The Inquisition isn't safe, and though I don't know when, I know that he will wipe Haven off the face of the earth." Lyra's voice was bitter and Cullen could hardly force the words from his throat.
"There is no hope, then," he croaked. "Maybe the Maker has truly abandoned us."
"You know as well as I that there is always hope to be found, somewhere, Cullen." Lyra forced a smile, though it came across as more of a grimace. "After what happened during the Blight, I stand testament to that. I just don't see a point in lingering here, where the enemy already knows where you are."
Cullen forced his own tremulous smile, but only for a moment before his features settled back into a grim expression. "If what you heard is true, then the Inquisition will need as much help as we can get. Let me see your wound." Lyra tried to stop him again, but Cullen gently lifted the side of her tunic. The skin beneath was mottled in shades of angry red and purple, the wound weeping blood and something sticky where it had swelled up around what looked like the snapped-off shaft of an arrow. Lyra shifted under his gaze.
"I tried to do something, but you should know better than anyone that I was always abysmal at restorative spells," she said, trying to keep her tone positive. "Though I can turn into a spider now. Isn't that great?"
Cullen didn't answer, instead pulling her closer to him as he picked her up, one arm carefully supporting her neck while the other was under her knees. It was Lyra's turn to blush, and she made a soft noise of protest. "What are you doing?"
"I'm taking you back to Haven. We have a few healers there that can tend to you."
"I don't need you wasting resources on me, Cullen. I barely made it here, and I doubt I'll make it to morning with how much blood I've lost."
Beside them, the Mabari whimpered. Lyra sighed, dangling an arm down to brush her fingertips against the hound's fur.
"You'll look after Cullen, won't you?" she asked softly, and the Mabari barked.
"Are you asking your Mabari to look after me?" he teased, and Lyra shook her head.
"No, his name is Cullen. He reminded me of you, so I gave him your name."
"Oh." He couldn't think of what to say, but the Mabari bumped up against his legs as if to urge him forward, so he started walking.
The wind had died down a bit, but the temperature had plunged, and Cullen's joints grew stiff as he fought his way through the drifts, careful to keep Lyra as steady as he could so as not to make her injury worse. The mage was quiet for a long while, but he could hear her ragged breaths and feel her tremble from the cold in his arms, so he knew she was still alive.
"Cullen?" she said after a time. "I just... I wanted to tell you, if no one else has, that I am very, very sorry for what happened to you in the Circle. I'm sure it would have destroyed most people, but...seeing you here, knowing you've made it so far..." She paused, choking in a breath. "I'm so proud of you, Cullen."
She was shaking harder now, and Cullen realized she was crying.
"You...it wasn't your fault, Lyra, you don't need to apologize!"
"But I do. There's so much I want to ask your forgiveness for. Things I never did, never said." She shook her head, tears freezing on her cheeks, glinting on her pale skin in the moonlight. "Do you remember, after my Harrowing, when I talked to you on my way to speak to Irving?"
"How could I forget? You, uh, you were..." He felt warmth flood through his veins as he remembered her, all those years ago, bright eyed as she suggested they go off somewhere alone to, as she said in those butter-smooth words, get to know each other. "Yes, I remember."
She laughed raggedly. "I should apologize for that, too. You deserved better than my teasing." She snuggled up to his chest. "There were better things I could have said."
"Like what?" Cullen asked, trying to sound casual and failing miserably.
"I should have told you how much you meant to me." Lyra sighed heavily. "Because you did. Still do."
Cullen held her tighter. She was no longer trembling, and he wondered if that was cause for concern.
"Cullen?" she said after a time, voice soft.
"I heard rumors that something is happening to the Templars. That they're changing." A small hand reached out, tangled itself in the fur around his shoulders. "Don't let them change you."
There were many things he wanted to ask; what did she mean, the Templars were changing? Changing into what? But the flickering lights of fires and muffled voices rose up in the distance, and Cullen picked up the pace, desperate to reach Haven as Lyra once more fell quiet, arm hanging limp beside her. Despite her small frame, she felt heavy in his arms as she struggled to hold herself upright.
"Is that Haven?" She sounded so tired.
"Yes, it is. We're almost there, just hold on a moment longer." Cullen pushed through the snow with newfound fervor.
"Please, wait a moment, Cullen, if you would." He obeyed, slowing to a stop and sinking to his knees so that he could see and hear her better. Lyra reached up and placed her hand on his cheek, the skin of her palm cold, but he could still detect the faint thrum of magic in her veins. A gentle, warm magic that comforted rather than concerned him. How long ago it was that he had imagined sharing this kind of touch with her. Soft, unafraid, unashamed as she looked into his eyes and leaned closer.
Her lips were so cold on his, but Cullen still could not keep from making a soft sound as he returned the embrace. A slow, chaste kiss that held in it every word that had went unspoken between them over the years. Lyra fell back into his arms, eyes closed and a sweet smile on her face.
"I'm sorry, Cullen, for everything," she whispered. "Please, if you're able, reach out to Zevran and give him my love, and tell him I am sorry, too."
"Sorry for what?" he asked weakly, uncertain if he truly wished to hear the answer.
The answer never came. Beside him, her Mabari lifted his head, howling mournfully into the wind.
When the Commander came stumbling into Haven, still clinging to Lyra, it took nearly an hour for Cassandra and Leliana to convince him to let go of the Warden's body. She still wore that soft smile even as they covered her in soft furs, placing her in one of the empty cabins.
So absorbed were they in their mourning that the Elder One's men found no resistance when they came to Haven. The Inquisition had all but failed, men leaving by the dozens when word of the Herald's death reached the village. There was no hope, and so they sought to spend their final days either with their families or drunk in some dingy tavern.
And the Commander finally learned what the Hero of Ferelden had meant when she warned him that the Templars were changing.
His former brothers were hardly even human anymore. They were twisted echoes of themselves, with lyrium jutting out from their flesh, dripping from behind broken teeth. There was no kindness in them, no trace of humanity, when they tore Haven apart with their bare hands, all red eyes and cruel voices and fiery rage as they slaughtered every person who dared to remain.
Cullen saw Leliana dragged away by several of the creatures, spitting curses and vowing to kill them as soon as she was able. Josephine lay in a pool of her own blood outside of the burning chantry, her fine silken clothes in tatters from the dozens of arrows that stuck out from her back at odd angles. He did not know where Cassandra was.
He had been fighting for what seemed like days now, and his sword was growing too heavy to lift. All around him the Templar beasts he had felled called to him even in death.
Taste the lyrium, brother, they said, and join us. Taste the lyrium and share in our power!
His bones ached, blood burned, body craved the lyrium that was spread before him like a banquet. And in the icy air he could feel the warmth that it radiated, beckoning him in. But he fought the desire, pushing himself forward by his lust for revenge instead.
Lyra was dead.
The Elder One would pay.
Samson kicked his way through the bodies. It had taken his men the better part of a week to conquer Haven, but there was no sign of the village now. The chantry was a smouldering pile of ash and charred wood. The snow was a thick red slush from the blood that ran down the mountain like a river. No one had survived, not a single life spared.
Or so he had thought. For inside a circle of felled Templars, still gripping his bloodstained blade, struggling to breathe, was a man whose face he knew well.
"How far the mighty have fallen, eh, knight-captain?" Samson said with a wicked laugh.
"That is not my title any longer," Cullen spat back, blood frothing at the corners of his lips.
"Ah, that's right. You and your beloved Chantry abandoned the Order, left us to ruin." Samson stepped closer, flanked by another two of the twisted red lyrium beasts. "But the Elder One has lifted us back into glory, and he will never abandon us." Cullen opened his mouth to protest, but Samson struck him across the face with the hilt of his sword, sending him sprawling onto the ground, struggling to force himself back up onto his knees in the mud.
"You ought to learn loyalty. Or at the very least, obedience. You are still a templar, Cullen, and you still need it."
"No," Cullen protested feebly as the creatures surrounded them. Too many to fight. He was too tired, too weak. Two stepped forward, gripped his arms like a vice. Another twisted its broken fingers in his hair, pulling his head back and holding it still. Cullen struggled, but every movement was met with grips tightening to the point that even his terrified trembling brought with it excruciating pain. "Please, no."
Samson and the others only laughed cruelly. A sound that continued as the red lyrium was tipped down his throat. A sound he heard even over his spluttering and gagging as the sludge burned its way into his stomach.
They released him and Cullen collapsed, writhing about on the earth and screaming. He was on fire, every inch of his flesh surely melting away and sloughing off of his blackening bones. He screamed until his throat was raw and he could no longer make a sound. He clawed in the mud as he felt something moving, ripping its way through his skin. He did not have to look to know that it was the lyrium pushing its way from his body like some gory flower blossoming from the winter earth.
The singing in his brain was quiet at first, but as it grew louder, Cullen felt the pain recede, replaced by a pleasant, prickly warmth. He felt sick, but he also felt a strength in him that had not been there since Kirkwall, when he had sworn off of lyrium.
When he pushed himself from the ground, eyes red and veins glowing dully under his skin, he joined the ranks of his fallen brothers, and though few recognized his contorted and broken form, gasped his name in shock, he no longer knew it.
Cullen was gone.