This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
This is madness. I shouldn't be here. Cullen
repeated the thought while watching a drunkard attempt to open the door
to the Hanged Man, except the man missed by about six feet and was
currently yanking upon the shutters. Either he would abandon hope, or
climb in through the window. Cullen felt naked without his templar
armor, having scrounged through a found box for a worn tunic and a
disquieting pair of pants. How long had it been since he last wore them?
The tug across this thighs felt a fresh betrayal of the order with each
pace. He should abandon this foolish plan, return to the Gallows, to
his room, and forget that he even saw her.
It wasn't the first time he found an unexpected woman waiting for him in his room. The initial one was a prank from some of the other templars, which still gave him a headache to think upon. They paid one of the lady's from the brothel to sneak into the Knight-Captain's quarters and wait for him. When he confronted them later they insisted it was a gift, but as Cullen tried to get her to leave without melting through the floor, the Knight-Commander happened to walk by. Pure coincidence of course, there was no possible way the conspirators had anything to do with her interference. By the Maker's mercy, Meredith drew almost no attention to the half-naked woman sitting upon his bed. She only said that whatever she came for could wait for another time, and then gently reminded him of the visitor policy.
The next time Cullen opened his door late at night and saw the silhouette of a woman outlined by the waning moonlight, he would not be taken by unawares. Sighing, he shook his head, and mumbled, "I am sorry, but you've been brought here under false pretenses. I have no interest in any of your, um, talents."
"Oh? That's a shame, I do have many." The mystery woman turned to face him and Cullen's knees gave out. If it weren't for the table he hooked an elbow on, his body would have smashed to the ground. Six years took a toll on those from Ferelden, no one involved in the blight escaped its wrath unscathed, but she still radiated an ethereal glow beyond a mortal beauty. Even before she became everyone's hero, Cullen couldn't take his eyes off a vibrancy that floated off her. By the lone candle flickering on his desk, Cullen could only see the supple cheek risen in a cocky smile and one eye glittering in mischief.
"I...you, no. I can explain. There was a prank that, um..." he stampeded through a thousand different explanations while rubbing his hands across the desk that saved him. Maker, how were his gloves already dripping with sweat?
She only smiled and placed a delicate hand upon her soft hip, drawing his attention to a form he should not reflect upon. "A prank? Must have been interesting."
"It was childish and I...should not be telling, I doubt you care." Sucking in a breath, Cullen steadied himself and asked properly, "What brings you here, Lady Amell?"
Her smile dipped for a moment and she tugged upon her mage robes. They were not the blue and silver of the wardens; she still wore something similar to what was used in the circle though with a silverite sheet of chainmail over top. "I require the help of a templar. Someone in Kirkwall to assist me with a mission."
Cullen nodded, that made sense of a kind, but did not explain why she'd need sneak around to his room like a common bandit to ask for it. People would have greeted her gladly with open arms, especially the mages who held up the Hero of Ferelden as if she was their personal accomplishment. "Do you wish to speak with the Knight-Commander? I can go and get her..." He wanted to kick himself for laying out the option, as if he feared her presence so he needed a chaperon.
Her lips pursed as she glanced around the walls. Lowering her voice, she said, "This is a delicate matter, and I need someone I can trust."
Through the concern at her secrecy, pride swelled in him. She trusted him? Even now after all that occurred at the tower? It seemed too much to believe. "For what purpose?"
But she shook her head, "Not here, meet me at the...oh, what is that tavern called? The Stretched Man? I'm sure you know what I mean."
"Why can't you tell me?"
She wound a scarf across her lips and pulled up the hood of her cloak, blanketing her features behind a mask of fabric. "I will remain at the tavern for two days. If you do not appear within that time I shall make the journey alone." Without leaving behind footsteps, she moved towards the door. Cullen had no idea how she, a mage, intended to leave the Gallows unseen, but she had somehow gotten into his room without raising an alarm.
"Lady Amell..." he tried to reach out to stop her, but she turned her head to him. Only the glow of those intoxicating eyes were visible through her disguise.
"Two days," she repeated. "And, given the circumstance, I think you can call me Lana."
He spent the night waffling from an attempt at sleep to pacing through his quarters trying to determine why she of all people would track him down. What could the Hero of Ferelden possibly need from a solitary templar in Kirkwall? As the day carried on, Cullen went from refusing her offer outright, to excitement at the prospect, to curiosity, to confusion, and then landed at dread. Meredith seemed to sense a change in her second-in-command, her crisp eyes watching him from across the yard and calling to him more than was usual. After the day's duties were finished, Cullen lost two hours sitting in his room. Prayer should have calmed him, or perhaps brought sense to his fevered mind, but when he'd turn his head he'd still see her silhouette staring out his window. She came for him and no one else.
"Andraste, preserve me," Cullen whispered as he opened up the door to the Hanged Man. He'd attended to this establishment in the past, always under official means and usually with backup in tow. Now, in plain clothes and mostly unarmed, the denizens did not even bother to look up from their drinks at the recent addition. Two men were arguing about the nature of heroism in the corner, a deep discussion plumbing the depths of human nature only the truly besotted ever reach. Further in, towards the back row of benches, a man was engaged in his own rabid theory with whoever would listen. In this case he managed to entrap only one within his web of ramblings. Cullen could only see the man's fiery face, the nose and cheeks distended from drink as he banged his fist against the table in emphasis.
"I bet that Hero of Ferelden didn't even fight no archdemon."
"No!" His singular audience was turned away from Cullen so he could only see her back, a scarf knotting up her hair.
"She couldna, because there wasn't no archdemon."
"Sure as shit," the man burped, then took another drink. "I's all Ferelden tryin'a get us to feel sorry for 'em for Orlais, but we dinna need to pull that kinda shit when we threw 'em out. They're wanting to pull a fa't one over our eyes. But I'm on to 'em, on to 'em all. No blight, ain't had one in four hundred years. Why have one now? And it finishing up so soon. Can't be."
"Fascinating," she continued, the softest laugh in her voice.
Cullen clapped the conspiracy theory man on the shoulder, drawing his bloated attention. "I believe you've had enough."
"Sod off!" the man shouted, then jerked a mug to his beautiful audience. "I got company here."
Cullen glanced towards Lana, "Should we speak privately?"
She smiled and nodded, but the drunk man wasn't about to give up easily. "Hey! Tha's not your decision to be making there, bud." The man tried to rise out of his chair, but his shoes slipped in the special on tap, causing his elbow to smack against the table. Cursing haphazardly, he shook his fist at Cullen and shouted, "That'll cost ya!"
Somehow, Cullen never found himself engaged in a bar brawl before, most mages wise enough to keep their fireballs away from combustible liquor and accidental backdraft. He readied his fists to dodge the attack, but he needn't have bothered. Still smiling, Lana waved her fingers and parted the fade. The man's eyelids drooped and his body fell slack, the chin smacking into the table was punctuated by snores. It was so subtle, Cullen could only taste the lingering burn of mana by concentrating upon her. To everyone else, it appeared as if the drink finally took hold.
Solona wrapped her hand upon his arm and molded her body around him. He tipped his head up, doing his damnedest to not smell her earthy and lilac scent. The heat of her body racing up his arm was impossible to escape. She giggled and in a breathy voice whispered, "Let's move somewhere more private, shall we?"
Cullen could only bob his head, terrified of the squeak that might tumble out if he spoke. She guided the pair of them while giving the impression he was leading her into a back room. Beds stacked two high filled the area, but no one filled them despite the late hour. The Hanged Man kept its own strange hours. Lana closed the door, then waved her hand across it again. "There, no one will be getting through that," she said and unknotted the scarf around her hair. Despite sharing the same lineage as Hawke, they bore almost no likeness - the Champion all sharp lines and cutting cheeks to go with her brand of wit, while the Hero of Ferelden was a supple wholesomeness with a round face, full lips, and bemused eyes all making her appear younger than seemed possible. The only trait they shared was the raven black hair, hers short and braided in sections around her face.
"You know, you're rather good at playing dumb," Lana said, dropping into a chair at the lone table.
"With the drunk, I nearly thought it would come to blows myself."
"Ah, yes," Cullen massaged the back of his neck, happy to pretend that he was fully anticipating her interceding. "Why did you let him speak those lies to you?"
"If I'd called him out on it, I'd have blown my cover. What little there is here. I did not anticipate so many Fereldens in Kirkwall," she frowned.
"But to treat the blight as if it were a lie. Why would anyone fake the destruction of the darkspawn?"
"People'd rather chase ghosts than admit to evil in the world. It does not bother me, I know the truth. I lived the..." she shook her head to blot away a frown and continued, "there are greater beasts to slay. Have you come to hear me out, or...?" she gestured to the chair opposite her, but Cullen continued to stand.
"I need to know, this favor you ask of me, will it go against the order or the vows I have taken?" He feared just how far he'd go for her if she but asked, but turning his back on the templars, on his duty, and spitting in the eye of what he swore upon would go against everything inside of him.
She smiled, "I'm afraid I'm not current on all the vows a templar takes, but on the surface this is a rather simple request. So no, I would not ask more of you than what you are willing to give."
"What is it, then? Why do you need a templar?"
Reaching into her pocket, she unearthed a bottle. Red liquid pulsed at the bottom of the crystal glass, stoppered in the seal of the Templars. It was a phylactery. Cullen turned from the bottle back to her and she said, "I need you to help me track down a blood mage."
"I..." now he sagged into the chair, his fingers reaching towards the phylactery. She dropped her own hand away, letting him touch it. He hadn't done the hunting aspect of being a templar often; most of his commanders keeping him back at the tower to watch over their charges, but there were some things one never forgot. Closing his eyes, Cullen ensnared his hand around the vial of blood and concentrated. The hair along his arm stood on end, and he felt a tug towards the west, the phylactery guiding him towards the original supplier of the blood.
"Why not bring this to Meredith or Gregoir?" he asked.
She frowned, "Gregoir is...getting on in years. We speak, but I heard he has plans to move to Denerim." She paused and stared through him. They both knew what that meant, moving a templar away from the circle back to the chantry meant he was no longer of sound mind to serve. Lyrium took its toll. "Regardless, the mage I'm chasing is in the Free Marches, and I...the fact is, the matter is delicate."
"Yes, you said as much in my room."
"I do not know Meredith." She chose her words carefully. She was the Hero of Ferelden, defeater of the blight, and Arlessa of Amaranthine. But she was also a mage, under more scrutiny than an average person of nobility. Someone of that background who openly questioned the Knight-Commander of Kirkwall could find herself in a dangerous situation. "But," Lana reached over, her fingers skimming across the tops of his. Her touch radiated a warmth into him, causing the phylactery to pulse harder, tugging him even more into the west. "I trust you."
"You..." Cullen swallowed, "you do?" He only saw her once after the archdemon fell and the blight ended, when she was being paraded up and down the street along with the other heroes of the day. Cullen stood with the revelers, ordered to watch the mages that fought in the war. Were they some of the ones who survived the slaughter of his friends by luck or by siding with Uldred then switching sides? He had no time for the festivities flooding Denerim, he didn't want to celebrate anyway. The world might have been spared yet he cared not one whit. But when she passed, he couldn't help but watch her pinned up on the back of a horse, decorated as their hero. She wore a smile and waved, but it looked pinned on, her eyes blinking rapidly to maintain the illusion.
Lana slid the phylactery out of his hands and twisted it around, watching the blood convalesce in the glass, "This is no simple blood mage, as I am certain you guessed. He is a grey warden who...summoned a demon and nearly destroyed his entire order. There were bodies...I need not tell you what destruction blood mages can cause. I've been tasked with finding and stopping him." Her fingers closed around the phylactery, and she bore into his eyes, "I trust you, because I know you despise malifecarum, your reasons to hate them. I do not need a soft heart for this, I need a strong arm."
A voice screaming in the distance. His friend? He couldn't tell anymore. All the voices sounded the same. Sounds of teeth shredding apart muscle, a crunch of bone, more screams, then silence. Blood dripped down his face, but he didn't look up, couldn't watch the demon finish off what had once been a person.
Cullen shook off the memory, and nodded his head at her, "Then you shall have it."
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