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Whatever Gods May Be

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He arrived at the tower still high from his first taste of lyrium, its song humming through his veins. With the Chant of Light continuing its winding litany just behind his thoughts, he reported to the Knight-Commander to receive his first assignments.

He moved like a machine, precise and easy, through his patrols; his body and mind had been finely tuned by years of study and devotion for this work. Even when on guard duty, as dull an assignment as there ever was, he kept his thoughts on the words of Andraste, reciting verse after verse of Her Canticles. He would never let himself forget his purpose - to guard and protect, mages and innocents both. It was a holy calling, and one he had felt since childhood. If he was going to be a Templar, he was going to be the best damned Templar there was. That was the resolve that got him through six long years of rigorous training and one seemingly endless vigil.

And all it took to dismantle that willpower was the sight of two vibrant green eyes under a fringe of honey-colored hair.

He was midway through Threnodies when his gaze just happened upon her. She was speaking with another apprentice in the great hall, and her eyes sparkled with excitement. The clockwork in his mind halted completely and the once-steady chant ground to a sudden stop as his entire perception of the world shifted around those eyes.

Their color shifted with the light. They were sometimes jade, sometimes olive, but always intensely focused on whatever she set her mind to - books, fellow apprentices, spellcasting… Maker’s breath, he really shouldn’t ogle her like that. He shouldn’t wish she could somehow see him and hold his gaze with hers.

It was impossible, anyway. His full steel helm shielded him from errant fireballs as well as her scrutiny, and the standard-issue Templar plate was purposefully engineered to make its wearers indistinguishable from one another. The Order prided itself on its ever-vigilant army of uniformed sentinels.

And he was especially, painfully vigilant when it came to her. When he patrolled the halls, he somehow knew which classroom she was in at a glance. He sensed immediately when she came into the room in which he stood guard. The only relief from her pull of his focus came during his waking off-duty hours, when he still had some semblance of control over his thoughts. In sleep, however, all he saw was green.

He tried to keep the chant going, but whenever she simply breathed near him, the words seemed so unimportant.

He’d begun making a concentrated effort to resist her, and for a month, he’d succeeded - or did better, at the very least. She still glowed on the edges of his vision and her light demanded to be seen and felt. Although he wouldn’t allow himself to watch her eyes, his ears caught her voice, and once, as she walked right past him, he caught her scent. It had hit him full in the face through his helmet and nearly made him stumble.

Lemongrass? Sweet and tart, light and earthy… extraordinary. And he really, really didn’t need to know that.

His resolve weakened daily, and over time, it became impossible to not watch her cast spells. Her intense expression became even more fierce as she summoned the elements, and she moved with a staff like she was born to it, spinning so fluidly, combat became a dance.

He genuinely hoped he’d never be on the receiving end of her magic. He believed himself to be a decent Templar, practiced at both swordsmanship and anti-magic abilities, but watching her create a blizzard with one hand and throw lightning with the other was intimidating. She was utterly relentless - her mana pool must be vast to keep up the barrage of spells.

When watching her cast, he had to admit that he envied mages a bit - they derived their magic from something already inside them. Magic was an integral part of themselves, and mages like her could will it into existence as readily as breathing. It was difficult to witness the ease with which they naturally called upon their abilities and not feel jealous that they could do it all without becoming addicts.

They would never have to worry about losing themselves to withdrawal or madness.

He understood why lyrium was necessary, and he could never deny the benefits, but remembering that his path only led to those ends was sobering. He lay awake one night in his bunk, contemplating how his life seemed to be set in stone in this way. He reminded himself that he chose the Order, and he chose to bear its consequences.

The next morning, he had purposefully not taken his morning philter, just to see if he could go without. To his shock, he felt the effects almost immediately - starving, chilled, and his head was throbbing before midday. The symptoms were impossible to ignore, making it more difficult to concentrate on his duties, and the effect amplified whenever she was nearby.

He nearly ran to the barracks during his noon break. He grabbed the first philter he saw and lifted it to his lips, drinking deep and greedily. He gasped with relief as the cool, clear substance washed through him. It warmed his fingers, quenched his headache, and hardened him back into a weapon. His thoughts cleared, but he felt twisted up with disappointment anyway - he couldn’t last a single day.

He grimaced at his weakness and dependence, and recognized that this was probably just a taste of the rest of his life - one missed philter away from desperation. He didn't think he'd have the strength to resist the lyrium's call for longer than one morning.

Strength. Was it strength to deny himself lyrium and dig himself out of the pain? Or was it strength to set aside his simple discomfort at the idea of dependence and do what was necessary? Neither path was easy, but it was clear which was right at this time.

His stomach churned as he felt the blue mineral happily thrum through his veins. With a heavy sigh, he walked to his next post, the lyrium weighing on him like shame.

He trudged into the classroom just behind the elven senior enchanter. He stood inside and just to the left of the door, which allowed an uninterrupted view of everything. Including her.

The enchanter, an elderly, spectacled elf, called the apprentices to order with an announcement. “Because you are all now eighteen years of age, the time has come to begin your preparations for the Harrowing.”

His heart dropped as he remembered the first Harrowing he’d been assigned, only a couple weeks after he came to the tower. The mage did not survive.

“To become eligible, you must add something worthy to the circle's body of knowledge.” The apprentices froze where they stood, listening attentively.

The enchanter's voice became more lively. “This is a chance for you apprentices to seek out a branch of magic that truly interests you, so work to find something you're passionate about. Don't settle. The possibilities are endless, but any proposal must have written approval by a senior enchanter or First Enchanter Irving and each submission must be accompanied by a written report.”

The other apprentices murmured amongst themselves, but she stood quietly, lost in thought as her eyes flashed in the light streaming through the tall window. Dust motes swirled around her, backlit by the warm afternoon sun, but she remained still with her arms crossed, one hand raised to her mouth. Her thumb rubbed over her full bottom lip absently, and he had to wrench his eyes away from the sight as the elven enchanter began his instruction. His inability to resist her was much worse since his experiment this morning.

She retained her occupied expression through the class, her face twisted in concentration even as she retreated down the hallway when the apprentices were dismissed.

She began to spend hours in the library at night, specifically with books on Elven history. He knew because (naturally) he was posted right next to the Elven history section three nights a week. His curiosity was piqued by her sudden interest in the subject  - very few mages pulled books from there, and the ones who did were typically elves.

She’d already been there nearly three hours tonight, moving only to turn the pages. Otherwise, she was as motionless as he. Her eyes nearly glowed with the degree of her concentration as he watched her over stacks of books. Maker, even when she wasn’t moving, she was interesting.

She blinked abruptly after a while, and her eyes lost a bit of brightness. She shook her head and yawned as if she suddenly realized the late hour.

Then she stretched luxuriously . She lifted her arms up, arched her back with stunning grace, and tilted her head to the side to reveal her slender neck. She reached back and rubbed at her neck just under her collar. Her delicate hands worked at a knot so hard, her fingers left white trails on her skin as she dragged them up and over her shoulder.

He could feel himself sweating in his armor, and he shamed himself for his lewdness. He still couldn’t help but wish it was his hands rubbing the pain away for her. His rough hands, calloused from years of work, sliding all over her perfect skin with just the right amount of pressure to -

He shut his eyes against the sight of her and let out a breath as silently as possible. Unacceptable. He was a better Templar, a better man than this. He was not about to tarnish the Order by leering and drooling over a mage, and he simply could not allow himself, as a man, to think these thoughts about a woman, especially given their relative positions.

He kept his eyes closed as she packed up and left.

She approached the elven enchanter shyly after his lecture a couple weeks later. She seemed… unsure of herself. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever seen her so hesitant. She had waited until the other apprentices had left, wringing her hands in unease.

“Cyrellion, do you remember that book you lent me? The one about the elven arcane warriors?” She clasped her hands behind her back and squared her shoulders, maybe to slough off the nerves weighing on them.

The old elf didn’t seem to notice her inner struggle, concentrating instead on shuffling some parchment around his desk. “Oh, yes, my dear. Did you enjoy it?” He asked absently. The papers seemed to move of their own accord; the enchanter’s hands were dwarfed and hidden by the voluminous sleeves of his robes.

“Very much, I was just wondering if you had more?” Her voice lifted hopefully.

The enchanter turned his wizened face to offer her a sad smile. “I’m afraid that book held the sum total of my knowledge of their order.”

She sighed. “I thought as much.” She looked down and away as the rustling of parchment resumed, catching her lower lip between her teeth in thought. Maker, she really needed to stop doing such distracting things with her mouth.

The enchanter turned when his rummaging was complete and eyed her thoughtfully. “What’s troubling you, my dear?”

Her hand-wringing resumed. His own hands itched to tear off his gauntlets and run their thumbs over her knuckles, to soothe the unrest plaguing her.

“I had an idea for a project for the Harrowing, but I’m not sure how feasible it is without more source material….” Her disappointment was nearly tangible, and her wistfulness tugged at his heart in an unprecedented way. “There’s almost nothing about them in the tower’s archives, and it seems such a shame to me that their technique is just... lost . They seemed so unique - I haven’t heard of any other established method of combat that combines magic with swordplay.”

She was interested in martial combat? Maker, could she be any more intriguing? The way she lit up at the unusual topic made it slightly more difficult to breathe.

A grin strained against the enchanter’s pursed lips, struggling to hold something in. “Perhaps… you should create your own.”

Her bright eyes narrowed in curiosity. “My own…. What are you proposing, exactly?” She asked.

“I propose that you take what you know about them and develop your own arcane warrior technique. You could document anything a mage would want to know about learning and augmenting swordplay with their magical abilities, including things like mana and stamina management, accurate spellcasting without a staff….”

The enchanter continued his outline ecstatically, but he was distracted by a mental image springing to life of her clad in shining armor, wielding a greatsword sheathed in lightning. Her emerald eyes burned as she summoned a tempest with golden hands and leveled waves of enemies with a devastating swing of her blade. Maker’s breath…

His reverie was interrupted as she stepped towards the enchanter. “You’d trust me to do this? I’m not even an elf. I wouldn't want to… impose on your culture, stupid as that sounds.”

“The skills of the Dirth’ena Enasalin are not exclusive to my people. And I believe that you could do them more justice than any other apprentice here, elves included.”

A breath of laughter tumbled from that mouth with a surprised grin. Her eyes danced with the compliment, but dimmed a bit as she asked, “Do you… Do you think the First Enchanter would—“

“Yes.” Cyrellion said with a reassuring nod, even though his smile was traced with sadness. “Without a doubt, Irving will write the most glowing recommendation he can muster.”

Her face crumpled in gratitude. “Thank you,” she said, with breathless sincerity.

She stepped forward and placed a hand on the enchanter’s wrist. “I won’t let you down.” Her eyes hardened to gemstones with the weight she gave her promise.

Cyrellion covered her hand with his own with a fond smile. “Oh, I highly doubt you could, my dear.”

She was positively radiant with affection and respect for this shriveled old mage, whose balding head barely reached the height of her chin. He gazed back at her as a parent would a child, and the Templar suddenly felt like he was intruding on an intimate moment.

It seemed the only times he cursed his duties were when she was involved. Mages - people deserved more privacy than this. He remained still as a statue and kept his breaths even and quiet.

“Perhaps we could ask the Knight-Commander to recommend one of his Templars?”

Her brow furrowed. “I’m sorry, what?”

“To tutor you? What else?”

She stayed frozen in confusion for a beat before withdrawing her hand. “I’m sorry, what?”

Cyrellion let out a musty chuckle. “My dear, you weren’t expecting to learn the sword from books, were you?”

“I can try!” She stared after the enchanter as he retreated to his desk and fished a quill out of his sleeve. He began scribbling something down on a clean roll of parchment.

“I’m afraid this requires a hands-on approach, and you have an entire tower full of skilled warriors at your disposal.”

“None of whom would willingly help a mage!”

Time slowed to a crawl around him - the enchanter’s quill stilled, the dust motes hung in the sunlight, her wringing hands paused. His mind started working on overdrive, screaming at him that he could be that Templar. He could be the one to subvert her expectations.

An astounding, an absolutely miraculous opportunity had presented itself right in front of him, a chance to know her, a chance for… something with her.

Something? What was a something? Would she even want a something in return? A something could earn him a dismissal from the Order and tranquility for her was a very real possibility…

He was still working though the implications, when he noticed the two mages turning to leave through his door, still talking animatedly. She began to slip away before his eyes, his miracle just seconds from being squandered.

Years later, he would believe that the Maker himself placed him in this room on purpose, but whether it was for good or ill, he couldn’t say.

His body moved of its own volition before he could recall the dozens of reasons why this was a terrible idea. He stepped forward, cleared his throat, and spoke.

Chapter Text

A sudden cough stopped her in her tracks as she was leaving the classroom with Cyrellion. She blinked in surprise at the source - a Templar she had honestly forgotten was even there.

“Um… If I may… Perhaps I could be of assistance?”

Maker, had there ever been a Templar so awkward? He shuffled towards them, mail skirt rustling, as his words tripped over themselves. It flew in the face of everything she’d observed about the Order in the ten years she’d been in the circle.

“To teach swordsmanship, I mean. If you’ll allow me,” he finished haltingly.

She stood still, dumbstruck for a moment, as the fact that a Templar was asking permission for something sank in. She glanced over to Cyrellion for assistance, but found he was already watching her with a curious expression. The enchanter’s chin rose and he stared her down through his gold-rimmed spectacles as he waited for her to respond.

“You want to teach me?” She was having a difficult time believing his motives were so altruistic. “Why?”

He settled into the Templar resting posture, clasping his hands behind him. He probably meant to ease some tension out of the conversation, but as his shoulders rolled back, the sword on his heavy chestplate pushed forward, and the sunlight gleamed off the Order's insignia brightly.

“You have need of a skilled swordsman; I happen to be one,” his words and posture were still stiff and formal, but they demonstrated a strength and competence that ran deeper - an unshakable will of iron kept him upright as much as muscle.

“And just how skilled are you?” She smirked, and a chuckle rumbled out of his helmet at her question. She'd never heard a Templar make a sound like that - her eyes widened and her smirk faltered a bit. Shivers ran up her spine unexpectedly in rhythm with his throaty laugh.

“Enough for your needs, I assure you.” He answered her in a low voice, just under his breath. Her eyebrows rose of their own accord, and she felt her blood rush into her face. Did he just… flirt? In front of Cyrellion?

He straightened suddenly. “I mean—! I wasn't, um...,” his words stumbled again, to her amusement, but he soon composed himself and spoke more deliberately, “I was at the top of my unit during training. You can ask the Knight-Commander.”

She wasn’t about to look a gift Templar in the mouth, but it was difficult for her to believe that simple luck dropped a skilled enough swordsman into her lap right when she needed one. And since when did Templars have a sense of modesty or humor?

The blackened sword of Hessarian shone proudly on his chest, so her walls stayed up.

“I imagine Greagoir will have a thing or two to say about this, indeed.” Cyrellion spoke up with resignation and absently adjusted his spectacles.

“I haven’t accepted the offer yet, Enchanter.”

“My dear, you are unlikely to find another Templar as helpful as this one.” He peered over his spectacles. “I advise you to accept this offer immediately.”

She studied the Templar for a moment, trying to size him up, but his armor made it impossible to learn anything about the man wearing it. He shifted under her scrutiny, and a corner of her mouth ticked up at her accomplishment of actually making a Templar uncomfortable .

As always, however, Cyrellion was right about everything.

“Very well. I accept,” she relented, and looked pointedly up at him. “With gratitude.”

The Templar gave a polite bow of his head - a deal had been struck.

“There,” Cyrellion sighed, “now that that’s taken care of, ser Greagoir awaits?”

“Actually,” the Templar interjected, “Perhaps I could speak with the Commander alone? He might be more agreeable to this… something… if I spoke to him myself rather than ambush him with two mages such as yourselves.”

Mages such as yourselves? A red flag went up at his secrecy, but he had a point - the Knight-Commander was barely civil towards them on the best days.

“Alright,” she acquiesced. “I suppose we’d better not poke that dragon.”

Cyrellion nodded sagely as the Templar chuckled again, “Indeed,” he remarked dryly. She could easily see herself becoming addicted to that laugh - something in the back of her mind whispered that would be a very bad thing , but she shoved the offending thought aside. She suddenly realized just how much she needed to see his face, his smile.

“Perhaps a more proper introduction is in order, ser Templar?” She said with mock formality in an attempt to make him laugh again.

“Ah, yes, of course.” He spoke rapidly and under his breath, berating himself for forgetting something so important.

His steel hands rose to his helmet, and her heart rate inexplicably skyrocketed until she thought she'd vibrate out of existence. The near-instantaneous shift into intense anxiety was dizzying. She’d seen one, maybe two helmet-less Templars ever. She held onto composure by watching the sunlight glint off his gauntlets as they wrapped around the full helm and lifted.

A strong, stubbled jaw, a mouth curled into a nervous smile, and deeply-set eyes exactly the color of liquid gold.

Her lips parted slightly as she took in his undeniably handsome face - chiseled, but soft and full of warmth. Gold deepened to amber as their eyes met for the first time. Both openness and apprehension radiated from his expression, starkly contrasting with the unyielding steel of his armor.

Maker, was he nervous? How did that make any sense?

His eyes questioningly searched her face like a torch in the night, a glowing trail following the path his gaze took. Her skin burned under his stare, and she realized she was probably blushing like mad.

“Um… Cullen Rutherford.” He tucked his helmet under his arm and thrust a gauntleted hand towards her with a uneasy smile, his cheeks half a shade redder than they were before. The lack of a rank before his name seemed deliberate, and his surprising shyness was a balm to her jagged nerves.

Maker, how did he make her so anxious? She’d seen handsome men before - granted, none of the were Templars, and none of them gazed back at her with the boldness and reserve that he did.

Maker, she was better than this. She suddenly heard Madame Lucine’s shrill Orlesian voice, berating her for being so afraid of the Templar who brought her to the tower. Stand up straight, and for Andraste’s sake, stop shaking.

Her spine stiffened reflexively, and she extended her hand with as much grace and control she could muster.

“Solona Amell.” The back of his hand was plated in steel, but a thin layer of supple leather was all that separated their palms as she placed her hand in his. His grip was gentle, but she felt the edges of the small lobstered plates covering his fingers bite against her skin and suddenly felt like a mouse caught in a spiked trap. She dropped his hand quickly, and an awkward silence settled around them as a shadow of confusion and… disappointment crossed the Templar’s face.

“Senior Enchanter Cyrellion.” The tense moment dissolved as he spoke up excitedly, stepping forward and vigorously shaking ser Cullen’s still-outstretched hand. “My deepest thanks for volunteering in this matter - We will ensure your assistance is credited in any published works...”

Cyrellion then launched into an embarrassingly lavish commendation of her academic achievements. Ser Cullen watched with an amused smile as the enchanter rambled fervently about her project. She knew he wouldn’t let up for a while, which gave her mind time to process what had just happened.

Since she first learned what the Harrowing was—what it meant —she’d had just one goal: complete it, and leave the tower with a recommendation from the First Enchanter. If a simple test was all that stood in the way of her future, she would pass it. While Kinloch Hold felt more like home than the Chantry orphanage ever did, she was so very tired of its cold lyrium lamps, dense libraries, and whispered tension.

She wanted light. She wanted grass under her feet, wind in her hair, the sun on her face. One of the few things she missed about the orphanage was the sheer amount of time she spent outdoors as a child. As a circle mage, her time outside was strictly regulated, amounting to maybe two hours a month.

She wanted a road with a dozen crossings reaching out in front of her, each leading to a different future. Maybe down one of those paths was the truth about where she came from—was she truly alone in this world, or did she have an actual family somewhere?

Now all these possibilities, all these futures, rested in the hands of a kind Templar. She could only hope ser Cullen was as good at teaching as he was at making her question every judgement she’d ever made about the Order.

She suddenly realized that she was currently ogling Cullen’s strong arms and broad chest. She surreptitiously lifted her gaze to his face to see if he noticed; he was already looking back at her with a brow raised. Her cheeks flushed again and she shifted her attention from him to Cyrellion, who watched her as well, waiting for the answer to a question she hadn’t heard.

“I’m sorry, Enchanter?”

“When can you begin training?” He enunciated each word carefully, clearly put out at having to repeat himself.

“I can be here at the same time tomorrow, if that is convenient,” the Templar offered as he took a half-step towards her.

“Tomorrow?” She repeated dumbly, set off balance by his eagerness.

“Is that alright?”

“I- yes,” Anxiety rose in her chest again, to her dismay. She wanted more time to prepare for this, but she supposed the sooner they began, the better; there was no telling how quickly she’d pick up the art.

And the quicker she mastered it, the quicker she could be free.

Cyrellion impatiently whisked between them towards the door. He paused before it to look back at Solona. “If you two are finally done being awkward at each other… We really should be off to inform Irving.”

“As you wish, Enchanter,” ser Cullen stepped back and opened the heavy door for them easily with one hand, his helmet still tucked securely under his free arm.

She nodded a polite farewell as she followed Cyrellion through the door. She passed just in front of him, close enough to see the crinkles at the corners of his eyes as he gave her a small, tentative, confusing smile.

She was halfway down the hall, already focused on their imminent conversation with the First Enchanter, when she thought heard ser Cullen exhale deeply, as if he had been holding his breath.

Chapter Text

“You did what? ” The Knight-Commander half-rose from behind his desk, face reddening and eyes wide with disbelief.

“I volunteered to… tutor an apprentice,” Cullen rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly, his helmet still under his free arm.

“In swordplay,” Ser Greagoir's voice remained level, but hinted increased agitation.

“Ah… Yes.”

Greagoir closed his eyes, let out a deep groan, and pinched the bridge of his nose with steel fingers.

Why?

Why, indeed. Once Solona had left with her advisor, a deep sense of dread settled in. The clandestine moment wore off and the realization that he was practically guaranteeing either fraternization or a broken heart reared its head. However, he could hardly tell the Commander the truth - that he saw a beautiful woman in need and felt a compulsion to help her.

“The apprentice,” Cullen slowly began, picking his words carefully, “wants to resurrect a technique used by a long-dead order of elven warriors. I think it's... commendable.”

Commendable? Do the words ‘emotional distance’ mean anything to you, corporal?”

“Absolutely, but -

“And do you know just how dangerous an abomination this could create? A mage with this knowledge could become just that much more deadly!”

“Ser, I don’t believe she could be so easily corrupt-”

“Oh, she? ” The Knight-Commander's greying eyebrows nearly met his hairline as Cullen's words caught in his throat. He struggled to not betray his emotions as he watched a knowing, humorless smile tug at the Commander's mouth.

“Yes, the apprentice is female,” Cullen asserted matter-of-factly. He braced himself for the worst, but the Commander only paused as a shadow passed over his features.

“Corporal,” he began slowly, “I have been the Knight-Commander here for a long time. Do you think you're the very first young man in my command to have fallen prey to a pretty mage's smile?”

Cullen tacitly refused to confirm or deny his feelings for Solona Amell, not that he could easily define them. Instead, he changed tactics and advanced, eager to gain control of the situation. “Ser, I think this could be a valuable opportunity to improve relations between mages and Templars.”

Ser Greagoir’s eyes narrowed as his chin lifted in curiosity.

Cullen continued, “I know our role, and I accept it wholeheartedly, but when too many people, especially Templars, believe that every mage is nothing more than an abomination waiting to happen, everyone suffers - mages most of all. We cannot fault all of them for the actions of a few, and I cannot refuse aid to a mage who needs it.”

Ser Greagoir remained still and silent as Cullen kept going. He was still trying his best to give nothing away. “Ser, I understand the risks of what I am doing. I simply ask that you trust me to do my duty only if it becomes absolutely necessary. And I give my word that no emotional entanglement will make me forget that duty.”

Greagoir leaned back in his seat as Cullen finished his outburst. The frustration that etched the already deep lines of his weathered face drained away completely.

“You know,” he began, “if you were any other Templar, I would refuse. Immediately. However… I’ve known a great many Templars, and I know you’re one of the good ones - I know you value the name of our Order highly. You believe in it, and not everyone does. You could probably become a successful Commander yourself if you wanted to.”

“Um… Thank you, ser.” He honestly didn’t expect that from ser Greagoir. In the few months he’d been at Kinloch, he wasn't sure he'd ever heard the Knight-Commander speak highly of anyone.

The grizzled Templar sighed. “I give my consent, pending Irving’s approval.”

Cullen breathed a deep sigh of relief, and fought to contain the sudden waves of joy sweeping over him, only allowing himself to smile gratefully at the Commander and respond with another, “Thank you, ser.”

“There are, however, a few strings attached.”

Cullen nodded - he was ready to do anything. Ser Greagoir continued, “First, I’m assigning you to be her executioner when she submits to the Harrowing.”

Cullen's heart stopped. Except that.

“Ser-! That's not nec-”

“It will incentivize you to keep your distance, and if she remains as incorruptible as you say, you'll have nothing to fear, now, won't you?”

He worried that his panicked reaction to Greagoir’s demand had revealed his attachment to her, but the Commander just stared him down, waiting for a response.

Cullen nodded stiffly. “Yes, ser.”

“Also, you will do this on your own time. I don’t want you distracted from your current duties.”

“Of course.”

“And, corporal?” Knight-Commander Greagoir's voice and demeanor hardened to steel as he looked Cullen in the eye and continued, “Do not doubt me - one whiff of fraternization, and you will be dishonorably discharged and the mage will never touch a blade again.” The harsh implication made Cullen's blood run cold.

“I... understand, ser.”

“Good. Dismissed.”

Chapter Text

Not for the first time this evening, she wondered what in the void she was doing.

She had dressed simply after dinner, substituting wool pants and a light linen shirt for her complicated robes. She had to borrow the pants from a friend, so they were too big in the waist, but she figured they would be more conducive to sparring than a skirt.

She grumbled inwardly. She hadn’t worn actual pants in years.

She climbed the steps to the Templar quarters, feeling very exposed without all her usual layers. Her shirt ghosted over her skin whenever she moved, calling too much attention to her boyish frame for her liking. She missed the quilted silk and cotton of her robes; the structure made her feel more secure. As she was on her way to meet a Templar on a Templar floor, she would have welcomed the comfort.

Her tall leather boots padded up the stone stairs. This section of stairway was virtually identical to those below it, but it felt decidedly different to her; it led to a floor she'd only ever visited once, on her very first day in the tower.

An Enchanter had led her up these steps to ser Greagoir's office for an interview. The Knight-Commander was blunt, stoic, and easily the most intimidating thing she had ever seen. Although his questions were routine and relatively innocuous, his harsh tone had her cowering behind the enchanter's skirt.

She just was a terrified little girl then, newly plucked from a Chantry orphanage with no possessions to call her own. No family, no friends; even the clothes on her back were borrowed. She had nothing, and the Commander made her feel like nothing.

The memory cast a pall on her ascent, but she was braver now. Even so, she was grateful ser Cullen volunteered to talk to Greagoir for her, even if the Commander had obviously put the fear of the Maker into him.

When she’d approached ser Cullen after Cyrellion’s lecture this afternoon, he'd simply told her where and when to meet him before turning sharply on his heel and marching away. He hadn’t even taken his helmet off.

She told herself he was probably just trying to keep as much distance and professionalism between them as possible, but the clipped, impersonal tone of his voice was distressing. He hopefully wouldn’t always be like that.

She reached the top of the stairs and pushed through the metal door emblazoned with the Order's seal.

It would have felt like any other level of the tower but for the dozens of banners hanging from the ceiling in the rotunda. They seemed to be examples, replicated or authentic, of Templar heraldry through the ages. The effect was chilling; the flaming swords of mercy all pointed straight down at her, finding the single guilty mage among the pure. She forced herself to keep a slow, steady pace through the rotunda even though her heart was in her throat and ducked into the hallway, recalling ser Cullen's directions.

The Templar’s training facilities seemed to be open to the corridor; sparse echoes of battle were ricocheting off the walls. She rounded a corner and saw a couple of Templars sparring on the far end of the room, and another was oiling the joints of his armor.

She found ser Cullen slumped on a bench against the wall nearest her. His forehead rested on his clasped hands, and she was close enough to hear mumbles of prayer.

“Ser Cullen?”

He leapt to his feet in surprise. “Oh! Um, hello.” His eyes shone as he took her in.

“Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you.” she apologized with a half-smile.

“It's alright, I was just… thinking.” He straightened, and as he moved, she realized that instead of his bulky armor, he wore a simple black gambeson. Seeing him stripped of the Order's insignia smoothed her jagged nerves and offered her a glimpse of who he really was under all that metal.

Her assessment: the quilted fabric looked thick, but did a better job showing off the lines of his body than steel plate ever could. She was staring again.

He cleared his throat awkwardly in their silence. “Um, I have something for you.”

“Oh, gifts already?” She cringed inwardly. He was clearly putting effort into maintaining a sense of professional detachment, and she reflexively flirts with him? He cracked a smile at her quip, though, and her heart lifted in spite of her misstep.

“Of a sort.” He held up a garment similar to his, but smaller, and cut in more at the waist. He stepped forward to present it. “It was the only women's gambeson I could find. If we're going to be sparring, you'll want some kind of defense, and it's prudent to learn swordplay wearing something you might actually fight in. I also brought some potions… just in case.”

She had taken the heavy linen from him and was fiddling with the laces at the collar when the mention of potions caught her ear. She looked over to his spot on the bench, and sure enough, a small crate of elfroot potions was hiding under the seat.

Her brow furrowed. Did he think she was so incapable that she could hurt herself with a blunted weapon? Or was he worried she'd injure him somehow?

At any rate, she now fully understood his opinion of mages without him even saying so.

“You should put that on. I'll bring some equipment over.”

She shook off the offense and turned the gambeson over in her hands. Even without metal or leather, it felt extremely protective. She pulled the stiff fabric over her head and nearly sneezed into the musty lining. This thing had clearly not been used in decades, but when its weight settled around her like an embrace, she felt shielded from all those flaming swords; like adopting the mantle of a Templar somehow absolved her.

The gambeson narrowed at the waist, but it still felt very loose around her middle. She tried to tighten the laces under the arms, but it was proving impossible to do one-handed.

She was still fumbling with the ties when Ser Cullen returned with a dummy and two sparring swords. “Um, help?”

He set the equipment down with a clatter and approached her side, stepping close enough to pick out the individual stitches around his open collar. With a gentle hand and a practiced movement, he lifted her right arm up and rested the elbow on his right shoulder to access her side.

She had to fight to contain her gasp. She didn’t know what she expected, but it certainly wasn’t this. Though softened by the gambeson, the pressure of his fingers seemed to prick through the layers and shoot sparks up her arms. This was a mistake - he was standing too close - she could smell him and see the undercurrents of brown in his eyes and hair.

He released her arm, pulled firmly on the laces, and tied them quickly. She couldn’t figure out whether it was the tightness of the gambeson or his dangerous proximity that stole her breath. The air crystallized around her and seemed to prickle down her throat when she tried to breathe. Ice filled her lungs, but fire raged through her heart and lightning threatened to skitter across her fingers until she remembered where she was.

Without looking at her face, he switched sides and repeated the process on her left. Did he not feel the charged air settling around them? Her blood was boiling, but he seemed completely unaffected by their closeness; his indomitable focus never strayed from his hands.

He stepped away, and she was finally able to exhale. Maker, she was in trouble; five minutes in, and she was already flushed. So much for professionalism.

She knew she had to shut these feelings down now. If someone caught wind of an emotional entanglement here, she knew they’d be separated immediately and she’d have to start from scratch. It would be nearly impossible to find another Templar willing to teach her anything, so she just had to ignore the fact that, frankly, he was the most attractive man she’d ever seen. And that he inexplicably smelled like a summer storm. Void take me.

Suddenly, she remembered Cyrellion - old, balding Cyrellion with his stale breath and moth-eaten robes, whose weak, cloudy eyes had no effect whatsoever on her pulse. Cyrellion, who was counting on her to keep this part of his culture alive, who’d known her since she was a knobby-kneed child. The blaze in her veins subsided, and she breathed a sigh of relief as ser Cullen returned with two old sparring swords in hand.

“Here.” He held one out to her by the blade. “Feel the weight - it’s balanced towards the hand, so it’s easier to move than a staff.”

She was grateful to get down to business, and took the blade’s leather-wrapped grip as the light glimmered dully off the pockmarked metal.

He was right; the sword was heavier than she was used to, but most of the weight sat right around the simple, crossed hilt. Compared to a staff, it was practically asking to be swung. She let her wrist move around naturally, and watched as the blunted point drew sweeping curves through the air.

He observed the motion thoughtfully. “A lot of people believe it takes great strength to properly wield a sword. While that’s true to some extent, it’s far more about control than force.”

Cullen led her to where he had set up a training dummy. “When used properly, it’s the most versatile weapon on the battlefield, being robust enough to parry or sometimes even block a blow, but light enough to deliver quick, precision strikes.”

His words sounded rehearsed, and the notion that he might have practiced for her was infinitely endearing.

He settled into a stance in front of the dummy, and Solona took a moment to study his posture. Knees bent, right foot back at an angle. He held his hips above his back foot, but he leaned forward enough to apparently spread the weight evenly between his feet. He was crouched down more than she expected - they were practically the same height now.

“The key to all of this is control, and by extension, proper edge alignment.” In slow motion, he lunged forward and delivered a blow to the point where the dummy’s neck met its shoulder.

The very same point on her neck twinged—a phantom kiss of cold steel, as if he held the blade to her throat instead.

“The blade must hit precisely in line with your attack. If your angle is off, the blow will be ineffective and you will have expended valuable energy for nothing.” Moving only his wrist and hand, he flicked the blade up and over the head of the dummy. The point drew a graceful arc through the air and landed in precisely the same spot on the opposite side. “Even the strongest warrior with sharpest blade is no better than an amateur swinging a club if the edge of that blade is not properly aligned with the angle of attack.”

Even though the sparring sword still longed to move in her hand, she knew it would take weeks of bitter work to move with the control he commanded. Forget about incorporating magic into this - she’d need to focus solely on the sword for a month at least.

She gazed at the strong line of his shoulders and the way his eyes hardened to bronze as he stared down his canvas enemy. She could think of far worse things to stare at for weeks on end.

She felt herself relax as he continued speaking. “It becomes imperative to treat the weapon as an extension of your arm. Accept it as a part of you, not just as an object you’re holding. Just as you can know what your hand is doing without looking at it, you should learn to control your blade without much conscious thought.”

He sighed and dropped his sword arm, looking embarrassed. “Forgive me. I doubt you came here for a lecture.”

She smiled. He had nothing to be ashamed of - his passion and understanding of the art was magnetic. “I'm here to learn, aren't I? If you have another one prepared, I'd love to hear it.”

He straightened up completely. “No, you don't need to hear me go on like that. I've just… I’ve never done this before. I've never had the chance to teach anybody, and I imagine you've had your fill of lectures.”

She let out a chuckle. Oh, he had no idea. Her entire life thus far could be defined by listening to old men ramble and debate.

“Perhaps,” she said through her laugh. His warm expression stirred the embers in her chest like a breeze, and a madness took her. “Would you suggest a more… hands-on approach?”

His gold eyes flew open and his sword hand spasmed at her obvious flirtation. “Hands- I, ah…”

Victory tugged at her lips as a breathless laugh escaped him. He looked at her questioningly, maybe even with hope, if she dared to hope herself.

Did you just…? He asked without words.

She adopted the most innocent expression she could muster. I have no idea what you could mean.

He ducked his head, but failed to hide the glow in his eyes or his charming half-smile as he stepped back and motioned for her to take his place. “If you insist.”

She knew she was playing with fire, but she was a mage. She played with fire every day.

She stepped in front of the dummy settled into what she hoped was a copy of ser Cullen’s posture. He thoughtfully cocked his head to the side and begun to circle her until he was out of view. She felt the weight of his scrutiny on the back of her neck, but stayed focused on the target, waiting for his evaluation.

A hard shove hit her shoulder and she stumbled to her knees, nearly losing her grip on her sword. “Hey! Wha-“

She looked up to glare at him and was shocked to see the tip of his blade just inches from her face. The point followed her as she reared back onto her heels, and she peered up at him along the length of his sword. Lightning shot through her when she saw his victorious smirk. Her lips parted on a gasp, but it was cut short by the light dancing in his eyes and reflecting off the blade pointed directly down at her heart.

“If I were your enemy, you’d be dead.”

Oh, of that she had no doubt. His golden eyes had hardened to bronze again and seemed to cut straight to her bones, sharper than any sword. She felt bare under his gaze, as if all the layers and padding of the gambeson amounted to nothing.

Maker, how could he not feel this…. This energy between them? It couldn’t possibly be all in her head, right?

The moment passed as he dropped the blade to his side, his gaze falling with it. “You need to lower your center of mass. A warrior needs to be ready to take a hit at a moment’s notice.” He deftly tossed the sword in the air and caught it by the blade, offering the hilt to help her stand.

Stand up straight, and for Andraste’s sake, stop shaking.

“I’m no warrior.” She ignored it and stood up on her own. She couldn’t find it in herself to be truly annoyed with him for knocking her down because he was right; she had to learn to take a hit. She rubbed at her shoulder, which stung, though not as much as her pride.

His eyes fell to her hand, and his expression instantly crumpled. “I’m- I’m so sorry, that… trick was pulled on me my first day as a recruit and I… Are you—”

His apologetic rambling was interrupted by the blue glow and low hum of healing magic leeching into her shoulder from her hand.

He tried to hide the briefest flash of fear in his eyes and the faintest twitch of his sword hand as he took half a step back, but she saw everything anyway. It was just an exploratory pass of a low-level healing spell, to prevent any bruising before it started, but he’d recoiled like she’d conjured a firestorm.

She was ashamed to admit that it broke her heart a little.

“I’m fine. As I said,” she purposefully held his gaze as her magic continued its work, “I’m no warrior.” It was an attempt to convey that she was both physically well and also no danger to him, but she could practically see the barriers rising.

She rolled her shoulders experimentally: good as new. She pulled her magic back, but he kept his guard up as he walked back towards the dummy. “Try again; follow me.”

Instead, she froze where she stood, watching him retreat. The clipped, Templar tone was back in his voice, the last of its previous warmth dissipating into the cool tower air. He might as well have been clad in steel again, helmet and all.

Regret continued to chill her heart, but she obeyed, unable to defy the iron in his voice. He stiffly took up his stance once again, and she followed suit, trying to mirror his example.

“Lower.” He stood not two feet away, but it felt like his terse command had come from across the ocean.

She groaned as she sunk further down into the stance, and felt the muscles in her thighs complain; she’d definitely be sore tomorrow, at this rate.

“Keep your eyes on me.” The words were hard, but his voice was softer and almost apologetic in some impalpable way.

If you insist.

Chapter Text

He was impressed—to say the very least—by her work ethic.

Swordplay did not come naturally to her, but in the last few weeks, she had thrown herself into training. In the beginning, her stance would be off, or her stroke misplaced for the twentieth time, but she would immediately try again until she got it exactly right. The only person he knew who pushed themselves that hard to succeed was himself. She wasn’t someone who did things halfway, a quality he thought they shared.

She improved by the day, and after only a couple of weeks, he judged that she was ready for sparring. He kept his movements slow and obvious the first few times until her reflexes caught up, but it wasn’t long until he actually had to put effort into besting her. He might have the advantage of discipline and strength, but she was so slim and light on her feet that she could be nearly impossible to hit.

Thankfully, she seemed willing to forgive him for the icy demeanor he’d adopted during their first session together. That evening had been disastrous, on many levels. Not only had he openly flirted with her, but he knocked her down—he’d hurt her, and he’d only just recently been able to forgive himself—when it was clear she was willing to forget about it. They’d been able to maintain a carefully-constructed aura of friendly professionalism since then, and he was infinitely grateful for it.

He was also grateful that she’d apparently figured out how to tie her gambeson without his assistance.

Their relationship was tenuous at best, however, and sometimes it felt like they stood on the edge of a cliff, just half a step away from falling together. The worst part of the whole thing was how much she seemed to love the edge.

Cullen stepped into the training room and recalled one such conversation. They’d finished sparring for the evening, and she was helping him put their equipment away when he’d bid her farewell in probably the most awkward way possible:

“Well, ah… Goodnight, apprentice.”

“Oof, maybe don’t call me that? It makes me sound like a… student ,” and she was right; it was an appallingly terrible thing to say.

“My apologies, although… Aren’t you my student?”

“Only technically. And temporarily.” She set her jaw and leveled her emerald gaze at him in a dare. “Just call me Solona.”

And he’d been trapped. How could she possibly have noticed that he’d purposefully never said her name out loud to her?

But he—stubborn ass that he was—refused to back down.

“Then goodnight… Solona.” It felt like silk, tasted like honey, and every other tortured metaphor he could possibly conjure. She’d given him a small, secret smile, like she was thanking him just for the sound of her own name.

Then she had said simply, in a low voice that tugged at his very soul, “Goodnight, Cullen.”

And Maker… that was so much worse. The simple lack of a “ser” before his name made her farewell unexpectedly… intimate. He’d shut his eyes as the implications washed over him, and only opened them in time to see her walking away. She’d looked back at him over her shoulder with eyes sparkling and that smile pulling at her lips, like she knew exactly what she’d just done.

The memory winds him up more than he’d care to dwell on. Her words and the thoughts they conjured hadn’t faded a single shade, though that particular conversation had happened over a week ago.

The energy buzzed just under his skin, demanding some sort of outlet short of pinning her against a wall, a doorframe, anything; anything to feel her underneath him.

He grumbled in frustration; this would not do. If he couldn't rise above his base nature for this woman, what kind of man did that make him?

He stripped off his gambeson and tossed it onto the bench. He hated admitting it, but he really needed to punch something. Since punching his libido didn't seem to be an option, he settled for the training dummy. He rolled the sleeves of his linen undershirt to his elbows and stepped up to meet his foe.

He threw a few punches, but they felt half-hearted and did nothing to silence the humming in his veins. He leaned on his knees for a moment, trying to work through the tension twisting up inside him.

He looked back up at the dummy, but instead of plain canvas, he saw himself—a twisted, depraved version of himself that he’d rather die than become. This was the Cullen who would look at Solona Amell like she was a piece of meat, who ignored her sharp wit and gentle voice and just took what he wanted, honor and decency be damned.

He was a monstrous thing, but remained an inseparable part of his being. He wasn’t under the delusion that he didn’t find her attractive, that he didn’t want her in some carnal way, but the depth and severity of that want felt out of place with his life: a knight of the Templar Order, a holy warrior.

Holy warriors shouldn’t be constantly fighting these mental battles.

His dark double constantly scratched at the wall built to contain him when she was near; to get out, get his claws on her, maybe sink his teeth into that slender neck and find out if she really did taste like the honey of her hair.

Stop.

He could not set this monster free—a woman like her deserved more than the base, instinctual want of man. He longed to be everything for her: confidant, friend… lover… but he felt helplessly bound.

Bound by duty, bound by lyrium, bound by desire. All these chains tying him down and holding him hostage. His sense of free will seemed to be slipping further away by the hour, and the beast inside him struggled against the shackles. Was he no longer the master of his own fate?

The turn of phrase caught in his mind, and he smiled a bit to himself as a poem he'd memorized as a child swam to the surface. He thought he’d forgotten the words, but there they were, right under his tongue. The verses flowed like water through him again, words melting into phrases as easily as breathing. The power of memory was indeed stronger than he’d previously given it credit.

The poem edified and centered him in a way that Chantry literature couldn't quite match, and his younger self reminded him of the kind of man he always wanted to become.

“It matters not how strait the gate,”

The kind of man who did what was right, not what was easy.

“How charged with punishment the scroll,”

The kind of man who earned instead of envied, be it trust, a position of honor, or the love of a woman.

“I am the master of my fate.”

He alone set himself on this path, and the very fact that he chose this life meant that he was strong enough see it though. Strong enough to carry the mantle of the Templar Order and to weather the myriad temptations Solona Amell awoke in him.

“I am the captain of my soul.”

He wouldn't disappoint the memory of his past self by playing the victim and pretending that he never had a choice in any of this. He always had a choice, every second of every day, and he chose to not let his base nature define him. It wasn’t strength to break his chains - it was strength to bear them.

He launched himself at the dummy with renewed vigor, fists flying with a fury that surprised even him. He struck down his demons and self-doubt, each blow weakening their grip until he finally felt free , breaking through to a deep sense of clarity and calm he hadn’t felt in weeks. He knew it was silly to deal with his frustrations in this way, and that his demons weren’t truly gone, but it felt like he had finally reclaimed some kind of control over himself.

His fervor subsided, and certainty rose up to replace it as the dummy swayed drunkenly on its post. He wasn’t so boastful as to claim that he’d broken it, but it certainly seemed… less stable than before.

“Was that—“ he didn’t hear her approach, and made an embarrassingly loud noise in surprise.

“… a poem?” Solona finished. “Sorry.”

“Ah…” he faltered a bit until he decided it would be cowardice to hide this from her. Templars were supposed to be well-read, after all. “Yes.”

“Huh.” She took a few steps forward as he busied himself with gathering their equipment. “Who's the author?” Her curiosity seemed sincere, and the idea of just having a normal conversation with her (even if it was about poetry, of all things) eased the very last of the tension out of his shoulders.

“I honestly don't remember,” he replied, lifting their sparring swords from a rack. “I read it in a book years ago, and I suppose the words just stuck with me.”

She chuckled under her breath, and he turned in time to see her cover her mouth to try to hide it.

“What is it?” Even if he had just embarrassed himself, it was all worth it to see her like this—carefree and laughing.

“I just… I thought all Templars were just blunt instruments.” The joke was there, but so was genuine surprise. He’d impressed her. That thought alone sent him reeling, and he even allowed himself to hope he was on his way to earning her love, whatever that meant. 

He only scoffed good-naturedly before throwing on his gambeson. “Maybe some Templars.”

Chapter Text

“Jowan, I told you, I have a sparring session tonight.” He groaned inwardly at Solona’s obvious statement. He wasn't stupid; he saw the gambeson smoothing down her curves and the tall leather boots giving her a lightness to her step that no one but him seemed to notice.

“Look, this is important! I need to talk to you about something!” He stood directly in front of her as she sat on her bed lacing up her boots with newly calloused hands.

“Can it wait until tomorrow?” She asked, still not looking at him. “I’m going to be late.”

Tomorrow? Solona, It’s not even seven…” she stood to leave, brushing past his shoulder as he stared after her. He was growing desperate. “You can't give me ten minutes?”

“Jowan, I’m sorry, but you can tell me about your project in the morning, okay?” Her voice echoed from the corridor as practically bounced out the door from the apprentice quarters.

He huffed in exasperation. In the past weeks, he’s hardly seen his best friend at all, not that she seemed to care. Maybe he'd steal another small loaf of bread for her, hot from the tower's oven. It was a gift he'd fallen back on several times recently, but it never failed to get her to stop and really listen to him.

She was the closest thing he’d ever had to a sister, and it was like she’d willingly forgotten their early apprenticeship spent in the kitchens together. That they clung to each other like lost siblings their shared first year here, cooking and cleaning and taking care of tasks older mages and Chantry people couldn’t be bothered to do.

She'd opened up about the orphanage in those kitchens, a feat that he knows no other mage has accomplished. She didn’t like talking about it, but from what little she’d told him, it wasn't exactly a pleasant place to have a childhood.

He knew that the headmistress at her orphanage used to be a baker, and he knew that the smell and taste of freshly-baked bread reminded Solona of the years before her magic manifested. He knew that after that, she was all but shunned by the people she thought she could call family .

He knew that the one object she's held onto from that time was a weathered strip of parchment with her name written in an elegant hand. He knew she treasured it like it was gold.

They were both just scared children then, and their friendship had cemented quickly when they’d realized how very lonely they were.

And now? Now she was Solona Amell, star apprentice on the fast track to the Harrowing. She could do no wrong, and seemed to be content to leave him struggling in the dust as she flew through all the turns and hoops the Circle seniority threw at her.

He shouldn’t resent her success, he knew that, but she made everything look so blighted effortless. It was sobering to think that even at his best, he was a mediocre mage compared to her.

Her flame blast decimated the straw dummy in front of her, reducing it to ash in seconds. His barely singed the exterior. Her glyphs were drawn with near-perfect accuracy. His were haphazard and shaky. He’d get winded just casting the simplest healing spell, while she could somehow imbue a classmate with haste, sheath another in a force field, and summon armor of stone to encase her entire body without a single misplaced hair on her head.

Maybe bitterness was clouding his memory, but it was hard not to elevate her to perfection when mediocrity was all he would ever reach.

After one particularly rough day of struggle after struggle, Senior Enchanter Torrin had pulled him aside to offer him some tutoring outside of regular class hours. The enchanter had meant to be discreet, but he felt the eyes of every other apprentice in the room witness him failing .

Except Solona didn’t even notice. She’d been absorbed in conversation with Torrin’s assistant, Niall, and had been ignorant of his humiliation until he told her about it himself a couple days later.

He missed the days when they could know what the other was thinking with just a look and could finish each other’s sentences. Now he has to beg for scraps of conversation with bread .

Void take him, but he was lonely without her. He’d clung to her friendship for so long, he felt like he’d missed out on the opportunity to learn how to make friends.

His thoughts turn to that pretty Chantry girl with petal-pink lips and soft eyes. Even if any sort of relationship with her wasn’t forbidden, he’d never work up the nerve to speak with her.

He left the apprentice quarters for the dining hall. He sat alone, picking at his dinner without eating much of anything.

The more he thought about it, the more insulted he felt that Solona had assumed he simply wanted to discuss a project with her. His concerns were more of the life-or-death variety.

A couple weeks ago, Senior Enchanter Uldred had pulled him aside and gave him news that nearly shook Jowan to his knees. He couldn’t remember ever being more afraid.

After a meeting with tower seniority, Knight-Commander Greagoir had stated his belief that Jowan should be made tranquil unless his abilities improved drastically.

Jowan had panicked in Uldred’s office, actually felt hot tears stinging his eyes. He knew he wasn’t gifted, but never in his darkest nightmares had he imagined tranquility as his fate.

Then the panic had burned away to rage.

How was this fair? He had never asked for this, never asked for magic and its trappings to invade every aspect of his life. And now, because he didn’t meet some arbitrary set of standards written by the blighted Chantry, he ran the risk of losing his very humanity.

Uldred had waited patiently and eyed him with a queer expression as Jowan worked through his emotions, then extended the same shameful offer Torrin did—tutoring.

Jowan had balked immediately; he was done being condescended to like a child. The enchanter had acquiesced, but encouraged Jowan to come back if he changed his mind.

The dining hall slowly emptied, but Solona was still nowhere to be seen. He disposed of his uneaten dinner and headed to the kitchens. Any bread ready to be stolen had likely cooled completely by now, but he figured it would better than nothing.

Maker, the lengths he went to just to talk with his best friend.

He was about to go down to the apprentice floor and wait in their shared quarters with his cold loaf until she returned, but he decided to stop waiting for her to come around to him. He was in the middle of a crisis, and he needed her.

Even if she couldn’t offer any help, which was likely, he’d feel better just talking it though.

He climbed the steps and pushed through the door with the Order’s seal. He’d never been in this part of the tower, and he honestly hoped he’d never have to, especially once he passed the Harrowing—if he even made it that far, he thought with a rueful twist of his heart.

It was quiet in the atrium—the Templars were either lounging in their quarters or on their night watches on the mages’ floors. Cold moonlight drifted through the tall windows high on the walls and scattered around the banners hanging from the ceiling.

In the soft blue light, the flaming swords seemed extinguished, but stirred the embers of his rage anyway. His skin crawled just being here, but he needed to push through it. He hoped that just seeing him here would be enough and he wouldn’t have to pull the pathetic lump of bread from his pocket.

He felt the magic in the air before he heard it. A healing spell? Why would she need a healing spell?

The implication gripped him and urged him forward, but the anxiety of being in Templar territory compelled him to try to stay hidden.

He padded through the atrium into a darkened corridor and slipped into the shadow of an archway further down the hall from the spell. He didn’t think he’d be able to hear them from here, but he peeked out experimentally anyway.

He felt the blood drain from his face. Words didn’t matter at all compared to the sight before him.

Solona Amell— star apprentice Solona Amell—was kissing a Templar full on the mouth.

Chapter Text

She’s not sure which was worse—the sound of Cullen’s wrist breaking, the sickening crunch she felt up the length of her blunted blade, or his strangled cry of pain that ripped right through her heart.

Solona dropped her sword arm as quickly as his blade hit the floor as she realized what she’d just done with a growing horror.

They’d just been talking while sparring, as usual, giving each other grief over their respective uniforms. She didn’t understand how wearing all that heavy armor could possibly be tolerable, and he balked at the idea of wearing clothes that offered so little protection.

“You know,” he’d said, “I was wondering if mages even owned pants.” His lighthearted quip seemed at odds with the precise strokes he aimed at her heart, but it had sent her body humming with delight and possessed her to respond with blatant innuendo.

“Exactly how much time have you spent thinking about what’s under my robes?”

He’d stumbled, and then the blow she’d aimed at his shoulder, that he meant to catch on his own sword and deflect away, slammed into his right wrist and shattered the bones there.

“Cullen, I'm so sorry.”

“It's alright,” he replied. “I’ve had worse.” His voice was twisted up in pain, but he didn't let it show in his face as he stood, cradling his broken wrist in his other hand.

It was so stupid, the guilt welling up in her throat—she should have anticipated an injury at some point in their sessions, but she never thought she’d be the one to hurt him.

Serves her right for flirting with him mid-swing.

She saw his eyes dart over to the bench, searching for the crate of potions that wasn’t there. Whether by conscious choice or forgetfulness, he hadn’t brought them for some time.

Even if a potion suddenly materialized in his hand, she realized that she couldn’t just let him use it. She needed to be the one to fix this, she just had to.

She looked up at him and saw the vulnerability threatening to spill through as he held the wrist she broke.

She had to.

“Cullen, let me heal you.”

His eyes went wide, the pain forgotten.

“I—I don’t… That’s probably….” she felt his suppressive Templar aura prickle at the edge of her awareness, threatening to dampen her magic. He’d never done that before, and truthfully, she'd forgotten that he could.

The feeling of no feeling at all beyond the aura was chilling, but his touch that wasn't quite a touch still sent a jolt down her spine.

She pushed through the unrest and discomfort. “Please? I’m the one that did this to you—let me make it right.”

They held each other’s gaze for a while. He’d painted his features pensively, trying to give nothing away, but she saw the fear in his eyes before he could hide it. She worried she’d pushed too far, that he’d crawl back into the steel of his armor and keep her at a sword's length again.

This time, though, something softened in his expression, and he slowly lowered his aura without a word.

In that moment, she felt like she could fly.

He eased the glove off his injured hand and held it out to her. She leaned her sword against her hip and shucked her gloves as well, flexing her fingers in preparation.

“This might sting a little,” she warned, “depending on how bad the break is.” She knew that magically healing bone was not exactly painless.

“You’re sure you know what you’re doing?” His voice sounded like it was being pressed in a vice.

“I’ve studied with Wynne,” she answered, and looked at him deliberately, begging him to not take back his trust before she could truly earn it. “I wouldn’t offer if I didn’t.”

Apprehension still furrowed his brow, but he’d thankfully left the pensive mask behind as he nodded for her to begin.

She willed her magic to be a creative, healing energy. He watched as her right hand began to glow blue, and made no move to recoil as she reached for him.

He hissed and clamped his eyes shut as the light slicked into his skin and began to knit the broken bone together. She itched to touch him, to offer him some comfort or distraction from what she knew was an unsettling experience. She wondered if his skin felt as warm and steady as his gaze did, when he thought she didn’t feel him watching her.

“I’m… I'm not sure I’m familiar with Enchanter Wynne,” he mused through a clenched jaw.

Senior Enchanter… how do you not know her?”

He countered with a pained laugh. “I doubt you could name any Templars besides myself and the Knight Commander.” In his brittle voice, the accusation was teasing and had no bite, but was correct.

“Fair point,” she replied.

Her magic hummed pleasantly. His bones were mended, and she could have— should have—stopped there, but guilt compelled her to heal him completely. She turned her attention to the bruised flesh and muscle around his hand and up his forearm.

He breathed a deep sigh of relief as the pain faded away, and the knot of unease began to loosen in her chest.  

“Thank you,” he said.

“Anytime,” she offered sincerely.

He finally opened his eyes to watch her work with guarded curiosity, but also genuine interest.

Lit by her spell, he was stunning . The light washed over him, accenting the angles of his face and turning his golden eyes almost green as the last shadow of tension was chased away.

The whole situation felt out of place with her worldview--a mage insisting on healing a willing Templar of an injury she had inflicted. She sadly wondered how many times in recorded history this has ever happened.

She couldn’t help but hate the Maker a little bit for making them this way, for placing them in opposite corners like this. In this small, fragile moment, both divested of their uniforms, would be so wonderfully easy to forget that.

So she did.

She cast her gaze around the room while her magic continued to heal nothing in particular.

“Do you… could we stop pretending, now?” The training facilities were empty, but she kept her voice soft anyway, hardly above a whisper.

“Pretending… pretending what?” He asked, still watching her hands. His brow furrowed again—in confusion, this time.

Her heart lurched. Was she making a mistake?

But she instantly recalled the look on his face the first time they'd locked eyes, the way his voice frayed just saying ‘goodnight’ to her.

And she knew she was right. She was not only positive that he cared about her, but also that he was doing everything he could to deny it.

She pushed through the nerves and spoke before she could reason herself out of doing so.

“Pretending that we don't have feelings for each other.” She gave into temptation and clasped the inside of his over-healed wrist with her glowing hand.

His hand automatically mirrored the gesture. It felt just as solid and reaffirming and right as she’d hoped.

His eyes sparked with panic and his fingers spasmed against her skin as he realized what he’d unconsciously done. “I, ah… Feelings? I—I don’t…”

He was trying his hardest to back out of this, to hide behind their labels and ignore the emotions written plainly on his face and in the warm clasp of his hand that he still hadn’t pulled away.

She let go of her magic, but tightened her hold on his arm and felt herself fall into her illusion, believing for a moment that they really were just a man and just a woman, with no immutable circumstances keeping them apart.

“You're a terrible liar,” she breathed, and called his bluff. The last of the light died away as she pulled down on his arm and leaned up on her toes to brush her lips against his.

Chapter Text

She’d intended to leave it at that—a simple, chaste kiss just to emphasize how she felt, but they both failed miserably at keeping it simple or chaste.

In her defense, it did start out that way. He’d drawn in a shuddering breath at the contact, and slowly released her wrist to cup her jaw tenderly with both hands.

Kissing Cullen was… everything. Everything she’d ever thought a kiss should be. It wasn’t her first, but it was by far the best.

There was a tangible undercurrent of care in his movements. He held her in shaking hands like she was made of glass, like he’d never forgive himself if she shattered in his grip, no matter how inevitable that might be. In a tightly controlled manner, like he was lowering her into stream of deadly rapids, he slowly deepened the kiss until she'd happily drown in it. But you know, safely.

As if there would ever be a safe way to ride out this storm she started.

As endearing as this gentleness was, a significant part of her resented being treated like a fragile object. She was a feeling person, made of flesh and bone, blood and life; just like him.

In this haze, her world no longer included the Circle or the Order. Or even magic, save for the fire in her veins. In this illusion, she was no more a mage than he was, and she ached to show him their common ground: that in the end, they were both just people.

Let go. You won’t break me.

The plea echoed around her disjointed thoughts like a litany until she grew impatient and bit down on his lip, freeing a jagged groan from his throat.

His touch turned sharp, his kiss biting. A hand left her cheek to slide around her waist posessively. His fingers dug at her gambeson like he wanted to burrow into her skin through all the padding. The unyielding expanse of his chest was a wall she itched to tear down.

Though these flashes of sensation, she thought she could really see him, like the sun shining through the Circle’s garden canopy. She chased the light, driving forward and returning the kiss with equal fervor, pushing past all the layers and plates of unseen armor to find the warmly beating human heart underneath it all.

I thought all Templars were just blunt instruments.

Maybe some Templars.

The contempt between their factions ran deep and bloody, and was worn proudly on the sleeve of every mage. And maybe Templars did have the habit of viewing mages of less than people, but mages were no less guilty of doing the same.

She realized she was complicit in that, in being willfully ignorant of the humanity flourishing behind all those flaming swords. And healing one man’s wrist did not absolve her.

His tongue slid over hers and prevented any further attempt at philosophy. She whimpered in response and grabbed at his waist to pull him closer, a tacit apology at her fingertips; she resolved to never be ignorant like that again.

If her blade made a noise as it fell from her hip to the stone floor, she didn’t hear it.

But Cullen did. He broke the kiss on a gasp, but his solid grip on her cheek and waist kept her anchored to him. He rested his forehead against hers, and she thanked whatever gods may be that he didn't immediately retreat. That he didn't withdraw into shell of his armor, leaving her cracked open and shivering here.

They struggled to breathe in the thick air.

“This… is a mistake,” he groaned, more to himself than to her. His hand released her jaw and slid down her neck just under her collar, gently kneading the skin where it met her shoulder and betraying just how much he really didn’t want to leave her.

Lightning threatened to arc off her knuckles and spill onto the floor at the sensation until she remembered that people didn't have that kind of power.

“Probably,” she replied as her hands slid up his broad, solid, strong chest, and felt his pulse hammering there.

“No, you… you don’t understand,” he said, pulling that gentle hand away, “this… can’t happen.” Desperation ate at his voice, and her eyes opened to see the raw, tangled emotion nearly coming off him in waves.

But he was right. “I know,” she sighed.

“No, you don’t.” She pulled back a little at his tone, but the strong arm around her waist held true.

It was bitter, and the anger behind his eyes concealed some deep and aching dread—a pain a thousand times more potent than a broken wrist.

Something far beyond her ability to heal.

“You don't... know everything ,” he calmly clarified. An apology of his own lined his shoulders.

She reached for him. Not for his trembling hand or stricken face, but for him —that beating heart he kept buried under layers of duty, but was trying so very hard to breathe.

I promise I won’t break you.

“So tell me,” she begged. She needed to help him share this burden that was clearly eating him alive.

He tried to take a breath to steady himself, but it caught in his throat. She brought a hand—the one that healed him—up to his cheek, and the tension shattered. He looked at her with such a fierce gratitude, she felt undeserving.

His breath tickled her wrist as he let it go, and his voice cracked under the weight of his confession.

“What do you know about the Harrowing?”

 


 

He knows he should feel guilty for spying on his best friend, but Jowan figured the ends more than justified the means in this case.

It certainly explained why she’d been so absent-minded lately. And busy. And why she’d torn through the tower’s small poetry section last month. He grumbled inwardly—poetry for a Templar? It was absurd.

He just couldn’t understand how he didn’t see the signs earlier; Minus the poetry, he had been guilty of the same behaviors the first time the beautiful Chantry girl caught his eye.

He just never expected Solona Amell to be as weak and human as the rest of them, and if the seniority ever found out… It spoke volumes that they hadn’t found out already, and suddenly, his own object of affection didn’t seem quite so untouchable.

The Templar pawed at her waist, and Jowan looked away, betrayal stinging in his chest brighter than the shock of this spectacle.

She chose a Templar, a brute who could smite her, cut off her magic, kill her… over him . Over a friendship that he’d been nothing but loyal to for the past ten years. Here he was, begging for her attention while she was having an affair with one of the Templars who would make him tranquil.

He could be angry. Rage would be perfectly justified, but all he felt was resignation. And hurt. She’d clearly moved on from him a long time ago. It took witnessing… this for him to realize it.

She probably didn’t even remember, but she was his first kiss. It was meaningless, an experiment born of idleness one late night in the library, but it was a pleasant memory. Even after everything, he was still glad it was her.

He sighed. He knew it was time. Friendships don’t last forever, and theirs had gone as stale as the bread in his pocket. He left it on the cobblestones and didn’t look back as he left, determined to do some moving on of his own.

His lessons with Senior Enchanter Uldred began two days later.

Chapter Text

I don't fear the Harrowing.

I've seen the consequences of failure up close. Forgive me for not having your confidence.

It's a test. I'm good at tests.

 

Commotion echoed through the Great Hall, where the mage seniority and a swarm of spectators had gathered. Apprentice projects didn’t usually have a visual element, so Solona’s work had generated a crowd.

She stood a few paces away from a cluster of a dozen straw targets, dressed in her gambeson with a blade at her hip, now looking as comfortable armored as she did in robes. The mages didn’t know what to expect, so they kept their distance. Those in front looked more than a little nervous and chattered incessantly to try to hide it.

Cullen wasn’t supposed to be here, but he'd been breaking dozens of rules for her lately—what was one more?

  

It’s the test. It’s not something to be taken lightly.

I don’t suppose you’d give me any advice, then?

You know I can’t do that. I've already told you more than I should.

Worth a try.

 

Technically, he should be patrolling a couple floors above, but he’d traded assignments with Carroll. It had been a simple trade at first, but when Cullen refused to say why he wanted to be in the Great Hall at this specific time, Carroll raised his price: Lyrium. And Cullen decided he’d rather face withdrawal than petition the Knight-Commander.

He’d felt a physical pang as he handed over what was left of his weekly supply. Five philters— three days’ worth. He barely made it a single morning last time. He hoped that not having a philter to fall back on would help him push through, but it was only about ten hours since his last dose and he was already feeling it.

 

So you’ve never…?

No. And I’d hoped I never would.

You won't have to. I promise.

 

The First Enchanter slid out of the crowd and prompted her to begin. She cleared her throat and introduced her work to the audience. It was nothing he didn’t already know, but he drank in her soothing voice to distract from his headache. Their last conversation had been ringing through his thoughts recently, but the memory was a poor substitute for the real thing.

It had been weeks since they talked. She’d been working with Cyrellion since… well.

 

We should probably stay away from each other. Until… after.

That would be wise… And truthfully, I doubt there’s any more you could learn from me.

Mm. I could think of a few things.

I, ah… that—that would be… un wise.

 

When she was finished, she stepped in front of the field of targets and drew her weapon, but paused before readying it.

She turned to address the seniority directly. “I’d also like to acknowledge the efforts of a talented and...” she failed to hide a smile. “very patient Templar. Without his expertise, this would have been impossible to do on my own.”

Her secret meaning was not lost on him—the separation seemed to be hard on her, too. Under the strain of withdrawal, his heart felt like it was being wrung out. He missed her more than reason at this point.

She raised the sword like a steel torch and strode gracefully towards the target field with purpose glinting in her eyes. Even armed and armored, an apprentice among superiors and Templars, she moved like nobility—commanding the attention of the room as easily as the fire flaring up her blade. He couldn’t look away if he wanted to, not that that deviated from the norm.

 

It’s going to be difficult… watching without being able to speak.

Isn’t that basically what you did before we met? Once I leave the tower, things should get better.

You… you want to leave?

 

Her weight shifted, and she smoothly settled into the stance he taught her with the ease of a hardened warrior, even though the targets were out of melee range. She brought her left hand up, and swept her blade down and across with her full strength in a savage cut. A wide band of flame leapt from her blade like a whip, licking through the air and igniting the targets in front. The momentum carried her through an elegant series of sweeps, spins, and slashes that toed the line between combat and art. She advanced into the field, sending more arcs of fire spiraling out to catch the straw.

The room was silent save for the crackling of flames, the pad of her boots, and the soft slicing of her blade through the air as she danced through the fire.

He saw himself in the line of her shoulders, the angle of her feet, the grip of her sword. She’d adapted what he taught her to include magic, but he was indelibly there. In his addled state, there were no words for what that meant to him.

The light from her sword was casting her shadow around the room in a dizzying whirl as she flew through the burning field. The blade flashed as it hammered against the targets at every turn, sending out stray embers to catch the edges of her gambeson, the tips of her hair.

Stunning. She was stunning.

She stood in the middle of the field now, fire blazing all around her—the targets must have been enchanted to resist crumbling to ash, but the spell seemed to be fraying in the heat. Her hands and blade continued to carve through the air, but she had planted her feet—she was channeling something big.

She raised her arms and strained against the magic hanging thick in the air. Cullen’s instincts took over, and he caught himself reaching for his dispelling aura, but pulled back when he spied Cyrellion watching her as calmly as if she really were just dancing.

Her free hand gripped the spellwork above her head, and Cullen felt the entire hall hold its collective breath. He braced for a shockwave.

She closed her fist and ripped the magic from the air, quenching the fire.

 

I'm not ready to let go of you.

Neither am I, but… Cullen, If I stay here, this could only end in heartbreak or death. Both, most likely.

 

The temperature plummeted, but her control, her mastery over her magic was what sent a shock through him.

She remained motionless but for her fist falling to the side. She closed her eyes and drew in a breath, stirring the ashes floating through the air. She exhaled, and her breath fogged before her, turning the ash to snow.

She dipped into her stance again, and swept her free hand in a low arc around her knees. In a flare of white-blue magic, the cobblestones under the still-smoking targets were glazed over in a layer of ice. She gripped another spell, knuckles straining for purchase on thin air, then pushed down into the floor, causing the field around her to explode outward.

Jagged icebergs erupted from the stones with a bone-chilling screech, creating walls and obstacles separating her from some of the larger target groupings. It was brilliant—even though the targets here weren’t hostile, she could easily control the flow of a real battle this way, creating choke points and isolating weaker enemies. From a tactical perspective, this was an invaluable ability, and made her an utterly unique opponent.

She pushed off the wall beside her, sliding over the ice to slam another spell into a target with her off hand, encasing it in solid ice. She did this repeatedly, and her speed built with every push, until she was just a blur behind the frozen targets, and it was hard to pin down her location.

With a cry and a flash of steel, a target shattered into nothing. And another. And another, until she stood in the middle of a ring of ice with chunks melting down her blade looking suspiciously like blood.

She began to channel again—her arms wove above her head, generating a freezing wind that gusted around her. Snow built up on her back and settled on her shoulders to form plates that froze to her gambeson and bore a striking resemblance to his own armor.

 

As long as I’m a mage of the Circle, we can’t be together. And I’m not about to ask you to give up being a Templar.

What if I said I would?

You don’t mean that.

 

She released the spell, and a blizzard settled inside the ice ring, sending out gusts that buffeted the robes of the audience and swept around the steel of Cullen’s armor to bite through the mail and linen underneath. The apprentices shivered, but the First Enchanter continued to watch, seemingly unaffected by the cold.

A distinctive blue flash drew his attention back to Solona—he looked to her in time to see her draining the last drops of lyrium from a potion she’d pulled from nowhere. Even through the driving snow, the blue was unmistakable, and he felt his heart lurch against his ribs.

She drove the point of her sword into the ice at her feet, then looked into the audience, at Cyrellion, and gave a sharp nod. With anticipation lining his smile and every quiver of his frail arms, the enchanter began to lift a shimmering barrier from the floor. The seniority took notice and added to his spell until half of the Great Hall was walled off with Solona and her blizzard isolated on one side. What was happening?

She tossed the empty vial to the floor and began channeling a third time. Bolstered by the potion, she pushed and pulled at the magic in the air like she was wading through a mire. Above her head, a dark, roiling cloud materialized over the snowstorm, purple sparks igniting in the friction between the spells.

She held the full force of both in her gleaming hands, outstretched and shaking under the weight. Even from far away, through the haze of magic, Cullen saw her face screwed up in tension—possibly even pain, and he felt a spike of fear for her safety.

The barrier separating her from the audience billowed in the gale, but held true. Even if he were at full strength, he doubted he’d be able to tear through a barrier held by the entire tower seniority.

A disturbance in the audience caught his eye, and he saw the Knight-Commander push through the wide-eyed apprentices to gape next to the First Enchanter. A flash of panic bloomed behind his eyes, but Greagoir’s gaze was locked onto the mage past the barrier.

Still holding the spells in her hands, Solona forced her eyes open to glare at the vortex of magic overhead, bearing her teeth in the face of some invisible battle Cullen couldn’t comprehend.

Suddenly, she smiled, and some of the tension left her. She released a breath, and slammed her hands together above her head.

 

It would be difficult, and it could take months to find a position somewhere nearby, but…

It could be real. We wouldn’t have to hide.

Yes.

Then yes.

 

The very air cracked as the spells crashed together, and Cullen understood the need for the barrier. The tempest she summoned was unlike any he’d seen—it was like she’d conjured a hurricane right here in the tower. Storm clouds laced with lightning billowed out from the epicenter and pressed angrily against the shimmering barrier, and more than one older mage raised their hands to add to its strength.

In the eye of the storm, Solona pulled her sword free of the ice, and took up her stance once more, taking several breaths and steadying her footing on the slick floor before peering back up into the tempest. Carefully, like she was approaching a snarling animal, she reached up with her off hand to grip a fragment of the chaos churning above her.

A violet bolt streaked down from the clouds to fracture around her hand, and she staggered under the blast. The lightning licked down her arm and across her frozen shoulders towards her sword, where it settled around the hilt. She released her grip on the storm, but her hilt now buzzed and cracked with its energy.

The storm was now so thick, it obscured the windows and dulled the light from the lyrium lamps as Solona turned her gaze to the ring of frozen targets. She was lit in shades of purple reflecting off the melting ice and flickering at her hand, but her emerald eyes still burned through the storm.

He’d never seen a more beautiful sight.

She pushed off a melted patch of stone to streak across the ice with her blade raised. With every blow she made, a bolt splintered down out of the tempest to strike her target and fork around the ring of ice, until she was fenced in completely.

She skidded to a halt in the middle, and dissolved the ice at her feet into nothing with a wave of a hand before looking up again. She adjusted the grip on her sword, then thrust it into the storm. A bolt caught the steel and held tight, flickering down the blade and caging her arm. Her hand gripped the spells still churning overhead, and she began to channel. With each sweep of her blade overhead, more forks shot down to touch it until the entire storm seemed to swirl in time with her. She released the spells to grip her sword with both hands and up momentum.

Cullen had never felt magic like this before—it prickled across his neck and stole the air from his lungs. But maybe that was just her default effect on him.

The mages were standing on their toes and some of the Templars (like him) had abandoned formality to watch her openly, but Greagoir gripped his sword in its scabbard, ready to draw in a moment’s notice. Cyrellion was beside himself with pride, and the First Enchanter watched intently, holding his chin in thought.

Suddenly, she reversed her grip, drove the tip of her blade into the ice, and Cullen’s world went white as explosions shook the very foundations of the tower.

 

Promise you won’t forget me while I’m gone?

Never.

 

His hearing returned before his eyesight did. So subtly he thought it was rain beating on the windows outside at first, a cascade of applause spread through the hall.

He squinted through his clouded vision and saw Solona kneeling before her sword, surrounded by melting shards of wood and straw, blown apart by multiple simultaneous lightning strikes. The storm had dissipated, but the copper tang of raw electricity still hung in the air. He straightened as she lifted her head in response to the applause with surprise lining her features.

She was immediately swallowed up by congratulations. Her legs were shaky from exhaustion, but she weathered the deluge with as much grace as she could muster. The apprentices inundated her with questions and requests, and the seniority offered handshakes and approving nods. Cyrellion waded past all of them as quickly as his age and voluminous robes would allow, and gave her a brittle hug that obviously contained all his strength.

Cullen stood apart from the scene with the rest of the Templars and felt the weight of his armor more acutely than he ever had.

Through all the cheers and compliments, the Knight-Commander’s agitated voice rose. He was engaged in an argument with the First Enchanter, and even though Cullen couldn’t hear the exchange, he understood it well enough. The First Enchanter, however, seemed unfazed by ser Greagoir’s tirade, and pushed past him with an amused smirk to where Solona was still being received by the mages.

She politely brushed the apprentices aside when she saw Irving drifting towards her with a gleam in his flinty eyes. She took a steadying breath, and met him in the very middle of the hall, her shaking hands struggling to control the sword pointing down at her fidgeting toes.

Anxiety was coming off her in waves, but stilled under the First Enchanter’s hand settling heavily on her shoulder. His voice rumbled, and the more he said, the wider Solona’s smile grew until tears of joy were gathering in the corners of her eyes. She lunged forward and embraced the Enchanter, with two unmistakeable words on her lips:

“Thank you.”

 

What would you want to do? Outside the tower?

I don’t know.

Why does that make you smile?

Because I get to find out.

Chapter Text

She was swinging… Swinging from an old tree swing perched on the edge of a cliff.

The rhythmic creak of the rope, the gentle swaying, the warm light of a dying sunset—the sensations spoke of comfort, of simplicity and youth, and her pulse fell easily in time with the pumping of her legs. She knew where she was, what was going to happen.

If she stopped moving, she could just drift off and away from here, maybe to someplace better. But she knew she had to keep going, swinging steadily at the edge of her world… waiting.

A cool autumn breeze rushed past her ears and sent a chill to her fingertips. A dark cloud had gathered on the horizon—or had it been there all along?

Regardless, it bubbled like an overflowing pot and swept closer until the sunlight was blotted out and the landscape below was painted in grey.

Almost time.

The rumbling thunder grew louder, overpowering the creaking of the branch, but she kept swinging in time with her heart even as the shadow of the cloud slid up and over the cliff—towards the crowded cabin where she lived.

She heard footsteps, running. But the cloud was already sparkling and flashing with energy, with magic, and she was already reaching towards it, inching closer and closer as she swung back and forth.

“Solona!”

Something was wrong. The voice calling to her was deep and full instead of shrill, and the footfalls were accompanied by the jangling of metal.

The gale whipped around her shoulders, picked up the hem of her dress... except it wasn't the undyed wool she remembered, but silk and linen, and the curves underneath were more womanly than boyish. This wasn’t how it happened…

She turned to look back at whoever was calling to her, pulled by her heart as much as curiosity.

A Templar , no— Cullen, sparring sword at his hip, was running through the tall grass towards her swing. He called out again, pleading, tearing at her soul to come back, away from the danger.

But the cloud towered over her now, black and hungry, reaching out grasping hands of lightning to pluck her from her tree. And her arm was still extended, ready and eager for the embrace.

Only it wasn't just the lightning now, wasn't just the elements that clawed at her robes. Talons, dripping with blood, gnashing teeth, and dead eyes blacker than the void beyond the cliff that somehow cut just as deeply. Their shapes licked their way over the edge, clutching at the roots for purchase, grabbing at her feet to tug her down.

The decaying tree shifted, and her branch cracked. She fell to the earth, and the lightning meant for her, meant to be a cherished gift, shot like an arrow through Cullen's unarmored chest.

He staggered to the ground like he’d been hit by her sparring blade.

It's alright—I've had worse.

The wind rose, blowing sleet in her eyes and the chill in her fingers spread across every inch of her skin to settle in her stomach as this beloved memory, this turning point in her small little life, was contaminated.

But the shadows kept slithering towards her, hissing and snapping, and she heard her Templar yell through the gale as a twisted, manacled hand reached out.

The first touch of the darkness wormed its way under her skin and stole her breath. It began to take root in the deepest parts of herself, living in her blood, her bones, determined to become a part of her identity as much as her own name.

She looked back at him, but where concern and care used to live—in the lines around his eyes—only duty remained as he watched the frozen corruption eat its way up her legs, over her ribs, showing like a bruise under the white of her robes.

A gentle but unyielding tug pulled her towards the cliff. The grass turned ethereal under her scrabbling hands, and a cry of her own left her lips as she realized what she'd done, what she'd allowed to happen.

“I was wrong,” he said hollowly, suddenly standing again. He looked down at her without a hint of affection, with no emotion at all, as a jagged red gash bloomed over his gambeson. “This is worse.”

He roughly drew his sword. The sound grated against the inside of her skull, and she knew without even looking that the blade now held an edge designed to carve flesh and purge evil—she pressed her face into the earth to hide from it as much as the wind whistling around them as he stalked forward heavily, his footfalls echoing more like steel on stone than leather on earth.

The chill in her bones was still growing, still burrowing through every pore, every vein, working its slow but inevitable way to her heart. She looked up at him, but instead of molten eyes and a soft smile, there was only steel shining in cold blue light. He drew his sword back over his shoulder, his grip reversed with one glimmering hand resting on the pommel, preparing for a thrust.

She wanted to fight— this wasn't how it happened, take me back to how it happened —but she was frozen to the ground now, helpless as a child.

An abandoned child—an orphan.

Her eyes shut tight against stinging tears and the sight of steel descending as the chill of despair crept closer to her heart.

But there was no crackling ice, no blade slicing through her robes. Only a wizened hand on her shoulder and soft words flickering like candlelight as she bolted upright in her narrow bunk in the apprentice quarters. In Kinloch Hold. Her home.

“Solona… My dear, it’s time.”


 

He waited dutifully in the chamber for her with the weight of his assignment sitting on his shoulders like lead.

Only the Knight-Commander and First Enchanter had knowledge of Harrowings before they happened, so when his heavy barrel helm was dumped onto his chest in the middle of the night, rousing him from soothing green dreams, he knew immediately why. And the look on ser Greagoir’s face told him exactly whose Harrowing it was.

His hands had shaken as he belted his sword on, almost as badly as they did during those three days of withdrawal that he’d willingly endured simply to be able to see her.

It was arguably the most foolish thing he’d ever done, only narrowly surpassing his volunteering to teach Solona Amell in the first place. Or allowing her to heal him. Or kiss him. Or kissing her back. Maker’s breath.

But watching her sharp eyes stare down a training dummy, witnessing that deadly display of magic in the hall, the look on her face as she pleaded with him to share his secrets… Foolish or not, he’d do it all over again in an instant—he couldn’t regret a single thing. She was worth it— more than worth it.

The chamber door opened with what had to be the loudest screech he’d ever heard, but the mages filed in as quiet as a whisper—First Enchanter Irving, Senior Enchanters Cyrellion, Sweeney… a couple others whose names he hadn’t yet learned. Solona was the last to enter.

Her eyes were clouded and hair rumpled from sleep, and she shuffled nervously at the sight of so many people in the chamber—she’d never looked younger than she did right now.

Her tired eyes flitted between him, ser Delves, and ser Hadley, the three armored and helmed warriors in the room, but couldn’t settle on one, focusing instead on ser Greagoir as he explained the mage’s test.

He told himself that the anonymity was good, that in the event of a failed harrowing, the abomination can’t know from which direction to expect an attack, but his stomach still churned at the thought. He wouldn’t let it show, wouldn’t let himself so much as blink until it passed.

She was staring calmly at the lyrium font in the center of the chamber as the Knight-Commander spoke, but at the mention of demons, her expression turned incredulous.

“You’ve all done this?” she asked, turning to face the mage seniority.

Weathered heads nodded in assent, but their eyes were focused inward, remembering with tortured smiles and creased brows.

“All mages must submit,” ser Greagoir insisted, an edge of impatience in his voice.

She bristled at that, but held her disheveled head high as she looked to the lyrium font once more, purpose glinting in her eyes.

She approached with a hand outstretched. The barest touch of a finger in the concentrated substance, and she gasped as her eyes rolled back into her head.

A groan left her throat as Irving caught her limp body under the arms and lowered her gently to the cobblestones, cradling her head in his elbow. Cyrellion stepped forward as she was laid down, knelt beside her to stroke her cheek with a trembling hand. He whispered something not in the common tongue to her, then took Irving’s offered arm to pull himself upright again.

She could have been sleeping—her brow was smooth, her lips parted in repose. It was a sight he never knew he longed for.

He shouldn’t have been surprised—he’s attended other Harrowings, seen other mages in a similar state.

But he wasn’t in love with them.

It was the first time he’d allowed the thought. He’d acknowledged the ambiguous notion of feelings, accepted that he harbored affection and concern for her, but love?

He never thought he’d be so lucky—or cursed—since he joined the Order.


 

Ten minutes passed, maybe twenty.

Her body twitched as her spirit wandered. In the dim moonlight leaking through the high windows, her eyes were drawing fevered circles behind their lids. What was she seeing? Having never consciously passed through the Fade himself, he couldn’t begin to imagine what this ordeal was like for mages.

The theory behind the practice of the Harrowing was sound enough—being the easiest gateway from the Fade to the waking world, a mage needed to be able to withstand the temptation of a demon. Not for their sake, but for every other person in this tower, in all of Thedas.

The moment a mage becomes possessed, they die. Not from the Templar’s blade, but from losing their spirit, their identity. Abominations aren’t human, aren’t a person.

Templars slay one monster to save a thousand—the blade is a mercy.

 

 

Ten more minutes passed. Or it could have been hours; time wasn’t moving properly.

Delves and Hadley could have been statues and ser Greagoir’s face was carved from granite. He watched her impassively, like a hawk tracking a rabbit, eyeing the pulse at her neck and wrists. He needed to do the same—watch for signs of corruption, but a murmur from the mage seniority was buzzing in his ear.

Cyrellion seemed to be mumbling some elven prayer, hands clutched behind his sleeves, head down, and the other mages had adopted a similar posture.

Only under the scrutiny of the Knight-Commander could this collection of great minds—scholars and alchemists, historians and theorists—look so small. Even the First Enchanter, supposedly the best of them, the most experienced, seemed shaken by just being here.

Guilty. He looked guilty. And Cullen imagined that the First Enchanter carried every Harrowing—both failed and successful—with him everywhere.

Perhaps Cyrellion was saying goodbye to her… just in case.




Surely it had been hours now, but the moonlight still dripped steadily, at nearly the same angle it had been when she first entered the chamber.

It was a myth that a mage would be struck down for simply taking too long, but ser Delves was growing visibly restless—evidence of his youth. He shifted his weight, shuffled his feet, mail scraping against plate in the silence, but sers Hadley and Greagoir were still the picture of vigilance, and Cyrellion continued to pray.

And Solona continued to wander.




In the long hours of the night

When hope has abandoned me,

I will see the stars and know

Your Light remains.

-Trials 1:2

 

Too long now. She’d been gone too long. The mages had joined Cyrellion’s mumbling with silent prayers of their own, their thoughts probably echoing what Cullen was desperately trying to ignore:

That after a certain point, the longer a mage was under, the less likely they were to survive.

The other Templars were fidgeting compulsively—even Hadley, as faithful and disciplined as a Templar could possibly be, had settled into a resting posture after so long at attention. And the Knight-Commander…

Ser Greagoir’s attention had abandoned Solona and was now focused directly on him. His heart stuttered, wondering if ser Greagoir had somehow heard his thundering pulse through the quiet.

And then Cullen realized he was on trial as well.




Before any among his advisors could draw breath,

Hessarian took blade to hand and himself

Dared the fire that consumed the Prophet.

With one swift strike he pierced her heart.

-Canticle Of Apotheosis, “Hessarian takes pity on Andraste”

 

It wouldn’t be her. He wouldn’t be killing her; she’d already be gone, her spirit overcome by an evil that would use her skin to terrorize and maim while forcing her to watch.

She’d be suffering; She’d want him to do it.

The blade is mercy.




It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishment the scroll.

I am the master of my fate.

I am the captain of my soul.

 

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from—

A gasp, long and pained, split the silence—she drew her first real breath in hours like she’d been drowning under the lyrium. Delves and Hadley snapped back to attention as Irving and Cyrellion rushed to her side to help her sit upright, eyes brighter and more pure and alive than he’d ever seen them.

She did it—she passed the mage’s test.

He allowed himself a cleansing breath, purging the miasma of fear that had built up under his helm, but shame kept pricking through the joy blooming in his heart—how could he ever have doubted her?

She regained control of her breathing, her back rising and falling under the weight of the First Enchanter’s approving hand as ser Greagoir warily approached her with a test of his own making—because he wasn’t convinced yet.

“Magic exists to serve man,” he began imperiously, interrupting the mages and calling those incredible emerald eyes up to his, “and never to rule over him.”

She finished the verse without even blinking, defiantly holding ser Greagoir's unyeilding gaze.

“Foul… and corrupt are they who have taken His gift…” she rasped, and had to clear her throat, “and turned it against His children.”

Her tone was stilted, but the words were purposeful and confident. A more powerful demon, one adept at retaining a possessed mage’s outward appearance, would have refused to complete the verse simply on principle.

Ser Greagoir nodded, satisfied, and stepped away from the cluster of mages gathering around their newest member.

“Templars, dismissed,” he ordered.

Delves and Hadley turned instantly, marching in step after the Knight-Commander, but Cullen’s legs failed him, his boots welded to the floor. He wanted to leave, to not draw attention to himself, to retain his anonymity…

But he just… couldn’t. Because her pull on his loyalty was now stronger than ser Greagoir’s, and that terrifying notion paralyzed him.

Maker’s breath, how had that happened?

He should be through the door with his brothers, lock-step their Knight-Commander, like every other Templar who’d ever stood here. His duty was done; It was time for him to leave. The mages took care of their own, like Templars always had.

But she wasn’t just a mage anymore—she never had been, and neither had the rest of them. They’d always been scholars and alchemists, some of the most intelligent men and women this world had to offer. How many losses have they suffered at the hands of Templars like him?

It was unworthy of him to have never seen this, that it took falling for one of their own and nearly losing her soul to a demon for him to understand.

But what about the failed Harrowings? What about the mages who walked into this room and never came out? Didn’t their memory deserve more than an unattended funeral pyre?

Were their families even notified? How did he not know? How had he never even thought to ask?

And damn it, this armor was so heavy … How had he never noticed?

And suddenly, it was all too much, and it was a miracle he didn’t collapse under the sheer weight of the questions assaulting him.

How could he have agreed to ritually imbibe the same poison that forcibly drives mages from their bodies? How could he have sacrificed his agency in the name of controlling people that have been taken from their homes, from their loved ones?

How could he ever have thought that this was helping people?

Because these were people, right in front of him—huddling around each other, offering comfort for this woman who had survived a literal nightmare, hunched over stones that had seen more blood than he’d care to contemplate.

These were the people in most need of his help.

The cruelty of it was so clear now—painted in the impartial attitude the other Templars were presenting, when all Cullen wanted was to join them on the stained floor.

“Dismissed, Corporal,” the Knight-Commander warned from the door, layering under neutral tones a threat that cut deeply and helped him remember himself, where he was, what he wasn’t doing, and the consequences of continuing to defy.

Dozens of eyes turned to him, but hers were the only ones he really saw, widening in recognition when she understood, and he felt the bottom drop out of his stomach when they filled with tears.

Void take this blighted helmet, this shining armor. The damned sword that hung at his side like he wanted it there.

If he were a stronger man, a better man, he would…

He would…

Shed his armor, his weapon, run to her side, and tell her in front of everyone how amazing she is—how proud of her, how utterly in love with her he is. Maker damn the consequences.

But that would be... insanity . Wouldn’t it? It was unthinkable—those were actions of someone far braver than he was.

He was at a loss, his boots now stuck to the floor by cowardice as well as defiance. Except he’d never been defiant before, never so much as doubted before, and he didn’t know what to do with all these new feelings and questions that kept piling up like refuse, that threatened to collapse his carefully-constructed world.

But though all the questions, the doubt and fear, the smallest movement caught his eye: a corner of her mouth, pulled up in the tiniest hint of a smile—of a rebellion— just for him. Only for him.

And certainty dawned with the sunrise, giving him new stones to build with.

Certainty that he loved her.

Certainty that, though exhausted and vulnerable, she was somehow stronger and braver than he could ever hope to be.

Certainty that she gave him the strength to enact the smallest rebellion of his own—something he’d never witnessed another Templar doing for a newly Harrowed mage but should have been the first thing said after she woke up.

Above all, he felt certainty in his decision to step forward and say as clearly as his ragged voice would allow, “Congratulations, Mage Amell.”