Every breath burned, sending fresh waves of pain screaming through his tortured frame. The dull field of crimson gave way to white-hot panic with each labored inhale and each hurried exhale.
Still, he breathed deeply and with intent. They wouldn't see. He couldn’t let them. Not yet, anyway. He carried his secret with him, hidden and deadly. They would all know soon enough. The time was coming, and it was fast approaching, when he wouldn't be able to hide it.
It was growing stronger. With every step forward, every swing of the sword, every bash of the shield, there was more of it and less of Cullen.
For now, though... for now he fought on. He fought through the persistent shadow, the grim and dark terror that flayed his mind with pain, leaving it raw and vulnerable. He fought through the bloody haze he could see even now around the edges of the world.
Through the siren-call of the song, so wrong but somehow still so sweet, he fought on.
The Inquisition needed him, and while he still had his wits about him, he'd not abandon them.
Almost there. Just a little further. I can control this until we're there. I can. I will.
Foe upon foe fell before him. Red Templars and elven guardians alike saw the edge of his blade, the last breaths choked out of them by the violence of his desperate fury. He was a man possessed, a force of nature, burning a path through the Emerald Graves, wide and sure.
The voracious horror continued to consume, flesh, bone and soul, with breathtaking speed. He could feel it growing, eagerly taking root where he’d been left empty and wanting for lack of the Chantry’s leash.
It was devouring him; taking in everything that he was and twisting it into everything he dreaded.
The whispering behind his eyes became a dull roar. Phantom voices sang to him in haunting discord, lovely cacophony urging him down. Down under, deep into that foaming red sea he'd been treading since that innocent slip. The smallest of mistakes, really. Just a fumble, a stumble, and a misplaced hand.
That's all that it took to kill the Lion of Skyhold.
How long had it been since the misstep that was so stupid but so very costly? 15 minutes? 20? He wasn’t sure. Time didn’t mean much on the battlefield, but those hateful, wonderful singing voices told him he didn’t have much longer. The countdown had begun; the time where he could hold the madness at bay marched inexorably towards zero.
So close. Just a little further.
Amber eyes, eyes that didn't yet know they were dead, rose to survey the battlefield ahead. He could see the temple rising from the forest's canopy. Just past this creek bed, and they'd be there.
Finally. Cullen's breath of relief became a strangled gasp. Fingers of pain, suffocating and strong, clamped his airway with a grip like a vice. The world grew dim and dizzy, swimming in front of him, and he thrust his sword into the rocky creek bed for support. He felt the crunch in his muscles. He heard the snapping in his bones as his hands closed around the hilt.
Not long now. What do I have? 15 minutes, 20 at most?
Surely, he could hold out long enough for the Inquisitor to get into that temple. After that? Well, after that, it wouldn't matter. He'd fulfill his duty as long as he could and then...
"Kaffas! Cullen, behind you!"
Too slow, the Commander turned to face yet another onslaught of Red Templars, a behemoth at the front of the charge bearing down on him. He felt Dorian preparing the barrier behind him, familiar magic that was oddly comforting even now, but he knew there was no way the mage could cast the spell in time. The behemoth pulled back one twisted arm, preparing the death blow. A calm washed over Cullen as he closed his eyes and exhaled slowly.
This will be cleaner than what awaits me...
But the blow never came. Cullen opened his eyes and saw the monster hesitating, its head cocked to the side. It gazed into the commander's eyes for a heartbeat, considering. One breath and then another, and it decided.
The creature moved on, passing Cullen and moving to target Dorian as more Red Templars filed into the little clearing.
Cullen blinked, somehow both shocked and unsurprised at what had just happened.
That gaze. That expression. As if it was… listening. Maker’s breath, what did it hear?
But Cullen knew what the thing had heard. How could he not, when it echoed throughout his mind even now? The song. The song. The winding melody, dark and sinister, had called out to the creature.
And it had called back.
Brother. Join us.
“No. I still have time,” Cullen whispered as he turned to face the behemoth that was quickly approaching his friend.
"Inquisition, to me!" Cullen howled as he pulled his sword from the creek bed with a violent jerk. More snapping and crunching rewarded his effort, but he didn't have the time or luxury to care. "Take down these red bastards and the way to the temple is clear!"
With a mighty swing of his sword, Cullen hamstringed the hulking monster, letting his creaking body follow the momentum of the blow to come around and knock the creature to the ground with his shield. Not wasting a moment, he made short work of the rest, separating the thing’s head from its shoulders cleanly and quickly. Efficient.
Dorian arched an eyebrow. "I was quite fine, you ridiculous man."
"Didn't look... like it... from... where I was standing," Cullen panted. He could feel the sweat rolling off of him, despite the chill that ran down his spine. His body shook, a slight but constant trembling that he could do nothing to prevent.
"Cullen? Andraste's blood, man, you're barely standing. Even this… thing.. took pity on you...." Dorian's voice fell flat as his eyes narrowed. Cullen could see the gears turning in his friend’s head. He dreaded what came next.
"Not that I'm not grateful you still draw breath.... but why didn’t…."
"Cullen! How's it going here?" The worried voice of the Inquisitor cut Dorian short before the question was fully formed. Cullen found that he was thankful for the intrusion.
Lavellan made her way toward the Commander, holding her hand up in greeting.
“We met Leliana a ways back. Seems she has everything under control…” the elf’s voice trailed off as her face pinched in concern, “You don’t look well, Commander…”
"Don't.... don't worry about us, Inquisitor. Keep going. The temple is... just there," Cullen raised his hand, putting all of his willpower into hiding the trembling as he pointed at the temple that rose above the tops of the trees.
He flashed Lavellan a slow smile, one he hoped communicated that everything was just fine. Her furrowed brow and the way she bit her lip told him he’d failed.
“Vehnan, we’ve routed the Templars here. The way to Mythal’s temple is reasonably clear for now. We should hurry if we’re to reach… ” Solas’ eyes focused on Cullen as he approached, face clouding while he inspected the shaking, sweating man. “Commander?” he asked, delicately lifting one eyebrow. Something in his eyes and the way he set his jaw…
Maker’s breath, how does he know?
“It’s fine, Solas, just take the Inquisitor and go,” Cullen answered.
“If you’re sure?” Solas asked, “A healer might…”
"Listen to the man, Cullen. You're unwell," Dorian added, his face lined with worry.
Cullen grit his teeth and fought to remain standing as another shock of pain blasted its way through his body. He opened his mouth to argue - Just go. Just go. Just go. Please go. - but Solas was already steering the Inquisitor away, toward the temple. He knew. Somehow he could sense that awful gnawing misery boiling through every fiber of the Commander’s body. Somehow, he knew that it was already too late.
“Unnecessary. Go," Cullen answered.
There was no hitch in his voice, no sign of wavering in what was Cullen's final command as leader of the Inquisition's forces. Time was nearly up, that fact was as certain as the sunrise, and he wouldn't allow his fate to hold them from completing their mission. He had no wish for the Inquisitor, Lavellan with her soft voice and sad eyes, to see what was about to happen.
He had no wish for her to see what he was about to become.
The air grew thick as Cullen felt the heft of Solas' scrutiny upon him.
“As you wish," the elf finally replied. Lavellan cast her eyes back at the Commander one final time as Solas lead her with a gentle hand at her elbow. Cullen nodded curtly, and her party disappeared into the cool darkness afforded by the trees.
"Cullen..." Dorian began as he started forward, "Cullen, what is it? Tell me so I can help."
The mage continued to plead, but his words fell on deaf ears.
Time's up, brother, the song soothed, time to join us. Time to lay your worries down and submit.
Pain! So much pain. I can't stand it. I can't. Maker, it's too much. I can't breathe. I can't... I have to...
His chest was caving in on itself. Pressure like he'd never felt before, like the vast and deep leagues of the seas were all pressing down on him at once, stole his breath as fire cut pathways across his skin.
He fell to his knees in the shallow water, crying his pain to the heavens with a ragged shout. Dorian stopped his approach, the hand he was reaching toward the howling Commander hesitating in the space between them.
This armor! It's the fucking armor! I have to... if I can get it off... if I can...
He unbuckled his bracers frantically, tossing them into the water as he pulled worn gloves from his hands. Pale skin, slick with sweat and water, was marked with deadly flowers of red crystal. All was still for a moment as Cullen considered them.
Somewhere in the distance, he heard someone wail a single word - No! - before that pain was back. Demanding. Hungry and screaming in his mind, it threatened to shatter his sanity into so many shards. The pressure - crushing - was relentless.
The furred mantle was thrown from his shoulders as clawed hands fought with buckles and straps. Fingernails ripped from their beds in the Commander's desperate fight to remove that cursed armor so he could just breath.
He never flinched, so small was that pain when compared to the torment coursing through his veins.
Don't fight it. It's easier if you don't fight it.
"Maker, I'm done fighting. Please. Please. Just make it stop. Please," the Commander pleaded with the thing inside him, voice a low, plaintive whimper as his cuirass finally fell with a splash.
No sooner than he was he free from his oppressive metal cage, the reason for his torment appeared. Wicked crimson crystals burst from his chest, tearing through his tunic and padding like so much paper. He felt it crawling up his neck and along his cheek.
He drew breath, finally, pure and clear and blessedly free from the sickening pain he'd felt mere moments before. He was a new man.
And now it is done. And now you are one of us. Part of the order again. Our lost brother. our wayward templar.
"Yes," he whispered.
And now you must stop them.
"Yes," he agreed, "I must." Eyes that were honey gold no more, mindless eyes that glowed red, dangerous light pulsing in time with the song, looked upon Dorian.
The thing that was once the Commander rose slowly.
"Cullen?" Dorian asked, eyes wet and face colorless.
The thing didn't give Dorian time to react. It didn't give Dorian the time to blink an eye. It crossed the distance with unbelievable velocity and lifted the mage from the earth by his own leathers. Dorian squeezed his eyes shut, waiting. Death was coming for him.
"No." A whisper so low it may have been imagined. Dorian felt his feet hit the ground again as the thing pulled something from his belt. Grey eyes opened, the sunlight peaking through the trees blinding him for a moment before...
Cullen. Those were Cullen's eyes again behind that red glow. A whispered, “I’m sorry,” and then the Commander smiled, bright and sweet and sad and haunted, before he fell.
Lifeless, Dorian's dagger buried to the hilt in his chest, the Commander lay in the shallow water, golden curls waving in the lazy current.
Leliana's shaking hands betrayed her feelings as she read the report she'd forced Dorian to write. The fine vellum trembled in her grasp. Dorian's handwriting, usually so precise and dense, was broken and ragged on the page. Ink ran where his tears had fallen.
Official Inquisition Report: The Emerald Graves Incident
As reported by Dorian Pavus
Incident? Is that what we're calling this? An incident?
I marched with Cullen... the Commander... on the Temple of Mythal. The heat was sticky and oppressive, and the walk was quite long. We were joking. I remember that. There we were, walking to battle, tossing playful jabs at one another as we trudged through the jungle.
I can see now he meant to keep my spirits up. He always tried to... well, it doesn't matter now.
He said something particularly biting. Andraste preserve me, I can't even remember what it was. I meant to pay him back for his remark. Humble him a bit. In fun, mind you. I just. I just thought it was all in fun.
I pushed my staff between his feet. Just a small stumble. I didn't know. How could I know?
He tripped, but caught himself on the body of a red templar - just crawling with the stuff - that had fallen... I suppose to one of those damnable elves.
I don't even think he realized it was me who'd done it.
He got up, brushed himself off, said he was fine. He said he was fine as he rubbed the back of his neck like he always did and his face reddened with that blush he so often wore.
He said he was FINE. FINE. He said.
And I believed him, more the fool I.
We reached the creek. He fought like a wild man. He fought without abandon or reservation.
Maker, he fought like he was dying.
I'll not relive the events at the creek. That scene haunts me each time I've closed my eyes since. I won't write it down. You have the reports from his men. Maker damn you, that's enough, isn't it?
I heard from your people that one of his gloves was torn. That's how the lyrium got him.
That, and my staff, of course.
Fuck. Fuck. FUCK.
This is all my fault. My fault. No more jokes. No more drinks. No more chess. I'll never get to tell him how I...
And it's all, every bit of it, my fault. I killed him just as surely as if I'd driven the blade into his heart myself.
But that's not what you want to know, is it? No. Facts. Facts about the incident are what you're after, right?
After discussing the reasons why the red took him so quickly with Dagna, Solas, and, surprisingly, Cassandra, we came to the conclusion that it was the lack of lyrium that accelerated the growth. Maker be with him, the thing that he thought would make him better killed him.
With my help, of course. I'd laugh if I weren't crying. What do I touch, what do I hold sacred, that I don’t completely fuck in the end?
But again, you want facts, don't you? Not my heart breaking and bleeding on the page. Not that, oh no.
Here's your final fact, Madam Spymaster. The time between his fall and his fall.
In the end, the red took him, mind and body, in the span of only an hour.