The Sordid Tale of Meryell Verlen, Chapter 54

It mocked him.

Taunting him, teasing him with the prospect of freedom before it dragged him back down underneath it’s waves. He fought, flailing and reaching for a hold to pull himself out, to escape. Yet there were no handholds to grasp and the cool blue swallowed him.

“Cullen.”

How did it still have such a hold on him when it was so weak? Why did it still gleam as if at full strength, merely a reminder of what he had been and had fought so hard to escape? It was a reminder of failure. His failure.

He hadn’t been strong enough.

Cullen.”

Cullen jerked, pulled abruptly out of his thoughts by that sharp retort of Gil’s voice, and finally tore his gaze away from the glittering phial. He blinked at her several times before he managed a weak, “Enchanter.”

She grimaced, teeth bared and throat tight, then demanded, “Date.”

He started to open his mouth and reality came crashing back like a hard blow from Cassandra’s shield, stealing his breath and rattling him to the core. When he recovered, he managed to reply, “9:42 Dragon. 9th day of Firstfall.”

Then his eyes fell back onto the phial she’d prepared lyrium in, an ache coiling low in his belly as his nostrils flared. Cullen quickly pushed himself away from the table and stood, running both hands through his hair and mussing it horribly. He wanted it, wanted with a desire that was almost as blinding as his for Meryell. That want, however, was false and he knew it. It was the lyrium still in his system wanting, the addictive properties of it that lingered making him crave.

“Maker’s breath,” he murmured, terrified at that ever so brief lapse. Was he getting worse despite actually starting to feel better on most days? He then turned, looking worriedly at Gil, but she was actually smiling at him. “Gil?”

“Do you know what you did?” she asked, her voice a whisper. When he just blankly shook his head, she laughed and gave her own a shake. “Andraste’s blood, Cullen, you got caught up in the song, lost time, recovered time, and then pulled away. Without hesitation. Without almost a breath between any of them!”

He frowned at her, not following where she was going at all, and she laughed.

“Look,” Gil said, moving over to pick up the patched and haphazardly sewn together notes that she had. He’d learned on the first day they sat down together – while he was still in a pallet on his tower floor and her perched primly in his desk chair – that everything in the odd looking collection was a note on lyrium or a templar. Eight years of discovering what lyrium did to a body and every discovery after of how to help in recovery from it. She sat it down on the edge of the table the phial was on and flipped through, passing crabbed notes that he couldn’t read at a glance and several sketches of body parts or what he assumed were organs. When she finally stopped, Gil planted a finger on a specific spot and declared, “There! My note from my fourth year in the company. We ended up with three templars around the same time that fall season and I helped them through withdrawals into the next summer. But, here, look at my note at the beginning of spring for two of them.”

Still frowning, Cullen kept his gaze away from the phial, studiously ignoring the liquid within. He could still smell it as he got closer, his nostrils flaring again, but it wasn’t as bothersome. At that distance it smelled more like the mage’s tower at Skyhold did.

It helped a lot that the lyrium Gil put together didn’t smell like his philter had or the lingering ozone scent he always caught around his templars and their barracks. That made it far less familiar when he took the draughts she made.

Resting one hand on the table at the edge of the notes, he leaned in to read the words underneath her fingertip.

14 Drakonis, 9:36

Cavan and Jennis are actually turning a corner, I believe! Cavan, as the older and longer serving of the pair of them, is having some clear issues with his memory but that is almost expected of a templar of his years. I am honestly astounded he retains as much as he has.

That is, of course, not what has signified their turn. It is more an observation I have made before but it has been a year since we last had a templar come into the company and that was when I first realized that there was something of a recovery pattern.

I had just given the two of them their dose that morning and then went to help Dorwell take his. I am sad to comment that his outlook is not as positive as that of his sword brothers and I’ve already asked our other templars to be ready. Cavan and Jennis will need them if their recovery continues on a good pattern.

After I helped Dorwell, I turned back to the other two. They were both still sitting there, phials in their hands and that glazed distant look on their eyes that I’ve learned means they are “listening” to the lyrium.

Jerking his head around to her, Cullen asked, “You know about the singing?”

“You think it doesn’t sing to us mages?” she asked with a soft smile. Then she nodded towards the phial on the table but he didn’t follow her gaze to it. Didn’t need to, his body knew exactly where it was. “The stuff the Chantry puts out has something laced into it that makes the pull of the song just that little bit harder. I’ve tried to figure it out but I can’t get anyone to talk to me about it. And by the time it’s diluted and shipped out to the Circles, whatever it is just blends into the lyrium and there’s no separating what it is.”

He wanted to be furious at that knowledge but he’d honestly suspected it already. Frowning, he inquired, “Where does the company get its lyrium then, if not the Chantry?”

Gil shrugged before replying, “We have several channels. Two sources in Orzammar, one in the Chantry storehouse, and there’s a few smugglers and bandits and pirates who we pay good money to for pure lyrium. The Chantry stuff affects all of us mages as well, though less than any templar that’s been on it of course, so we tend to avoid it unless in a pinch. Even then, when we do have some it’s mostly sorted around until it goes to a non-Circle raised mage so the effect on the rest of us isn’t exacerbated.”

Cullen blinked at her for a moment then asked, “Did you…”

“We shared one of our Orzammar contacts with the Ambassador. Didn’t think she’d be pleased about the others so we’ve kept them to ourselves. No doubt the Nightingale knows though.”

“No doubt,” he agreed before turning his eyes back to the paper.

I did as I usually do and moved quietly between their beds, calling their names as firmly as I could. Jennis was the first to react, startling at me before he said my name. He easily confirmed the date when I asked for it which is very good. The last time he was lost in the song, he came back thinking he was still in Ansburg on watch for a moment.

Cavan called me “Enchanter” when he finally alerted a few moments after Jennis (I excuse his taking longer due to his age) and gave me the wrong date first. It did not take long for him to direct correct himself, however.

This does not confirm my observation that a templar pulling themselves away from the song of the lyrium is truly recovering but it is a good sign. I will continue to look for this moment with others and take note of when it happens and if this changes after.

That was the end of the main section of the notes but there as a small addition crammed into a corner of the page before sprawling across the bottom in the space below the entry. He had to turn his head to read it all but the lettering was clear.

Dorwell died choking on his own blood two nights after this despite the efforts of myself, Folke, and Swift. I had our surgeon, Croaker, open up his body after we’d removed it from the room and had Valee and Bastian calming Cavan and Jennis. This may set their recovery back, losing their sword brother so suddenly, but we’ll help them as we can to see they aren’t alone.

Croaker and I determined after looking at Dorwell that there was no way he could have survived. I surmised that at some point he had been sickly, likely with a coughing sickness in winter. There were crystalline growths in both of his lungs, a thing I haven’t seen in any templar we’ve put on Croaker’s table. He said it would look just like lungrot from the worst tobacco user if it weren’t for the fact that it was obviously a crystal. His brain also showed the heaviest signs of onset of the crystallization that I’ve ever seen. There was one quadrant that was entirely crystallized with a hole in the middle of it. Croaker kept it for preservation here in the keep, for study and a reminder of what we are trying to fight.

I will ask Cavan and Jennis if Dorwell was a heavy user in a few days. Much as I may need to know for the future, I will not compromise their own recovery to further my research. Perhaps they will have answers to this when I dare ask.

His hands were shaking visibly and refusing to stop despite his clenching them tight against the table when he was done reading.

Could he…could he end up like that? Consumed by the slow growth of the lyrium left in his system? If so…

Maker, if so, then normal lyrium was truly no better than the red. Slower. It was only slower but leading inevitably to the same fate.

Dying early before it took the body or dying of madness as it grew inside.

“Is there really a way out of this, Gil?” he asked. Cullen could hear his teeth chattering, snapping together as he spoke, and realized that it wasn’t just his hands shaking.

He was shaking.

Can I live?” he breathed, voice dropped to a whisper that still seemed loud to his ears. “I just want to live. To grow old with Meryell at my side. Is that…is that too much to hope for?”

Gil’s hands folded over his and squeezed with more strength than he’d expected out of her. “Look at me, Cullen “ she said sternly, her voice ringing with the command of a woman who expected to be obeyed. He obeyed, was unable to do anything else, and met her pale brown eyes. “Are you listening to me?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Now…yes, you also have those growths inside of you. Every templar who’s ever taken lyrium, even once, does. Those are what gave you your attack, which was a strike back against not only them starving but your system attempting to remove them. But you, Cullen Rutherford, are not Dorwell Orrin. You are sound of mind, of body, and you have told the song where it could go stuff it’s fucking addictive self twice. And I’ve learned well over the years that that’s proof that it can be fought off.”

Her voice was fierce and furious as Gil went on, “You are of the few I’ve met who has fought and beaten the addiction for over a year on their own. A year, Cullen. Were it not for Haven and the stress that caused along with the reorganization in Skyhold, I have no doubt that you could have done it without what we’re going through now.”

Then her expression softened as she paused before saying, “You have an inner strength and a will to live that I have seen in very few. If you need no more proof of that, look to Kinloch.”

Cullen whipped his head back, staring at her in horror at the suggestion. “I didn’t survive the Tower,” he hissed. “Another man walked out of that horror and it wasn’t me.”

“Not the you of now, no, but it was you,” she pressed. “I was there, remember? I knew the templars that fell the same as you did. And you at nineteen were stronger than some who were twenty years your senior.”

He wanted to scream that it hadn’t been him at all, that the only thing that had kept him furiously clinging to the proverbial ledge was that they teased him with Kath’s form and he hadn’t let go of the image of her body. When they had painted her alive and full of sensuality that she’d never shown in life beyond an occasional daring touch and a secret smile, he had remembered her glassy eyed and still with her limbs stiff to the touch with rigor.

Instead he just huffed out a breath and murmured, “You have far more faith in me than you should, Gil.” He wasn’t going to share how he survived, not with her. Kath had been one of Gil’s students. If she hadn’t seen her body back then, he wasn’t going to hurt her with details now.

“I will be the judge of that,” Gil snapped in reply. She then softened her tone as she said, “No matter how much lyrium you’ve consumed in your years – and, yes, I do recall that you told us that Commander of yours in Kirkwall increased your dose at the start of your tenure there – you are still far and away from what Dorwell took. Cavan and Jennis admitted to me freely when I asked that Dorwell was an addict, a true addict, and would do anything to get his fix. The three of them served together at Ansburg, had been sword brothers and shield mates since Cavan had taken the other two under his wing when they were assigned there.” Gil paused to frown before she went on, “It was his addiction that made them leave the Order.”

He blinked. “They left?”

“Dorwell was caught filching from the lyrium stores and kicked out. Cavan and Jennis both knew that he wouldn’t be able to survive on his own, so they resigned themselves from the Order. They refused to let their brother suffer alone.”

Cullen’s throat was suddenly tight at the idea of having had someone like that. No one in Kinloch had seemingly cared (other than Gil, who hadn’t been allowed to help him). He’d had no one in Greenfell except clinical Sisters and broken fellows. Samson had covered for him and ribbed him on occasion, sometimes even dragged him out of a nightmare, but it had felt less brotherly and more like he was an annoyance to the older man. Then he’d lost that fragile handhold and had persisted on his own, clinging to the Order and (bemusedly) the mostly pleasant conversations he had with Hawke. After that – after Anders and the explosion and hours of breathing in smoke – he’d had Rylen and Carver during the recovery and that was closer. Cassandra was one more foot on the path and then…Meryell.

Meryell and Gil and Folke. Arnald and every random member of the company. Cassandra. Blackwall. Dorian. Cole. Even Sera.

He let out a breath he hadn’t been aware of holding and smiled. Maybe he hadn’t had someone when he’d first needed them but he had them now. And wasn’t the now what mattered most?

Calm settled over Cullen at that thought, driving away the panic and soothing most of the rattled edges of his thoughts. He then felt Gil pat his hand warmly and looked down at her as she smiled up at him.

“That’s better,” she said kindly. She then shook her head before adding, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have let you read that part. It’s not…it’s never a pleasant realization to come to and you’re not the first to panic about it. Normally I try to explain it more kindly than growths.”

“The lingering lyrium,” he said. “That’s what you said when we began talking about the attack. That the lingering lyrium in my body was to blame.I think I liked that explanation far better.”

“It is easier to accept over your body and mind possibly being infected by patches of lyrium crystals.”

Cullen frowned at that and moved his hands from underneath hers. He then leaned over and picked up the phial, his left hand shaking only a little now from normal withdrawal as he lifted it. For a long moment he regarded the glimmering liquid inside – a trap hidden beneath an illusion of power, a temporary advantage not worth the risk – before asking, “If they both cause crystals to eventually grow inside of us…then what is the difference between normal lyrium and the red?”

There was a long silence from Gil before she softly replied, “I don’t know, Cullen.” Then in a tone like steel that rang of truth, she added, “Find me the red and convince your advisors and our Meryell to give me reign to study it. I’ll find an answer.”

He shuddered at the idea of the red lyrium being in Skyhold – he could still taste its sickliness on the back of his tongue on the occasion that he dreamt of Haven’s fall or, worse, the rarest nightmare of it being in him when all that surrounded him was the stench of blood and heat with an all-consuming rage vibrating in his crystallized chest.

Yet…they needed to know.

“I’ll bring it up with Leliana and Josephine on the ride back to Skyhold,” he said after a moment. Then he frowned and added, “Varric, Hawke, and Carver as well once we get back so I can talk to them at once. They were at the Gallows to see what it did and I know they had at least one other encounter. Maybe they’ll have some thoughts.”

Gil nodded then flipped her notes back shut, picking them carefully up. “I will be riding with the Captain if you need me,” she said as she rubbed her fingers across the surface of the hardened leather that enclosed either side of her notes. Then she laughed, almost giddily, and mused aloud, “Who knew that a decade after that shit in Kinloch that we’d be here?”

Cullen just chuckled at that and replied, “I can only thank the Maker that he allowed such a coincidence. I’d probably be dead without you, Gil. So might Meryell.”

Her cheeks pinked at his words and she smiled, like an indulgent mother, saying, “Take your dose and get your ass out of my workspace so I can actually finish packing. The Captain’ll take the shit out of my hide if I’m late stowing my gear.”

Laughing, he saluted her briefly with the phial before he stared hard at it with one thought solidifying in his mind.

You won’t be the thing that kills me.

Then he downed the lyrium and gripped the edge of the table as an echo of what he’d felt while taking lyrium before he’d left the Order rocked through him. Cullen gritted his teeth through it and mentally recited one of the verses that had kept him sane since Kinloch.

Maker, though the darkness comes upon me, I shall embrace the Light.

I shall weather the storm.

I shall endure.

What you have created, no one can tear asunder.

ornament

“Report,” snapped Cullen as he strode into his office. Rylen had already gathered his other two captains and the lieutenants who were in Skyhold into the room, doing precisely as he’d asked when they met in Skyhold’s lower yard upon his return a few hours before. As he settled behind his desk and sat, he fixed the Starkhavener with a look. “Let’s begin, Captain Rylen.”

“Aye, ser,” replied the man smartly, no joking or playful ribbing about him now. That was one of those things that Cullen appreciated about the man. He could be the most easy-going fellow you ever met and skirt rules left and right if he saw reason but once things were serious he fell into line.

They went through the general reports quickly, every captain and lieutenants verbally summarizing what he’d missed while in Orlais. Then Rylen turned to one of his secondary captains and said, “Captain Morwen, that report from your sergeant in the Storm Coast…”

“Treno?” replied the woman and Cullen frowned. He knew that name…oh. The soldier who Meryell had approved of, the one who he’d spoken to himself when he’d come back to Haven at the end of his turn in the Hinterlands. Treno had proven worthy of the attention that comment had brought him and he’d consulted with Morwen and her lieutenant Connall, who were the man’s direct superiors, before he elevated him to sergeant and gave him Storm’s Solitude. “Yes, Commander. There’s something worrying going on out in the Storm Coast. Sergeant Treno sent in a raven not long after you left for Orlais saying that there had been something of a quake there.”

Frowning, Cullen pointed out, “Quakes aren’t uncommon in that part of Ferelden. It has something to do with the sea cliffs. Highever in particular has always had issues with them but they’ve never been anything to worry about.”

Morwen pressed her lips together tightly, causing them to go white with blood loss, before saying grimly, “That was just the first report, Commander. Another came in three days later, reporting another quake. Five days after that, there was an even more dramatic one that a scout witnessed pitch a giant from its feet.”

He stared at her for a moment then turned to frown at Rylen, asking, “And why didn’t this report get sent to us?”

“I didn’t send the report forward because I felt I didn’t need to,” replied Rylen and Cullen narrowed his eyes at the man. He would have to have a talk with him about that after the meeting.

Instead of focusing in his second in command, Cullen turned his attention back to Morwen. “And since the report about the giant?”

She straightened up before answering, “Regular reports after that, Commander. Every three or four days, reporting small tremors and the like.”

Nodding, he leaned back to dig into the drawers of his desk where he kept his own personal copies of all of the regional maps. Finding the one marked on the edge as the Storm Coast, he stood and laid it out on the desk, flattening its edges with stones he kept for just that purpose. He tapped a finger on the marker for Storm’s Solitude before he began, “Your Sergeant Treno commands from here and his forces are spread out across two other camps he’s established in the region: Small Grove and Driftwood Margin. Do we have any other forces in the area?”

“The Blades of Hessarian, ser,” replied Morwen. “They’re some sort of cult who the Sergeant’s men were having issue with but the Inquisitor won their allegiance. Part of them have been aiding in restoring the port the Inquisitor took from the Red Templars and the rest are helping the Sergeant.”

Frowning, Cullen reached for the quill and ink pot on his desk to make a new notation on the map, asking, “And do we know their numbers?”

There was a pause before the reply of, “According to the Sergeant, they’re half a size bigger or more than the men assigned to him. Which makes them one hundred strong at the least, not counting a few he notes aren’t fighters.”

Maker, he loved that woman. Instead of fifty, she’d given him a force of one hundred fifty in the Storm Coast.

Smiling, Cullen made the notation about the size of the Blades of Hessarian along the edge of the map in the sea. As he tapped the ink off of his quill, putting it away again, he said, “We need to look into these quakes. I know enough about them that they occur but also enough to know they aren’t supposed to be happening that frequently.”

What did he need?

More men in the Coast, for starters. Scouts to find the origin of the quakes, soldiers to guard it, experts to look at the cause. If possible, soldiers to begin investigating said cause.

Looking at Morwen, he said, “Captain, since it’s your sergeant in the Coast, I’m making this your operation. Any scouts assigned to you that are free need to be rotated into the region so they can find the source of these quakes. We’ll also likely need more of your men in the region.”

She nodded smartly and saluted, gauntleted fist clanging against her breastplate. “Yes, Commander. I’ll send Connall there as well as his other sergeants, Kavyn and Hildur. They’re not long back from being assigned to break the new camps in Western Approach and Emprise du Lion. Storm Coast will be a nice vacation from both of those.”

“Aye, ser,” came a murmur from amongst the lieutenants. “We can muster with the dawn and be on our way long before breakfast bell, Commander, Captain.”

“See it done, Lieutenant,” Cullen commanded with a nod. He then tapped his fingers against his desk before saying, “There’s a few of the dwarven stonemasons who helped us restore the keep and its outer walls still under Inquisition service. I’ll make inquiries and see if one can accompany you. Their knowledge of stone might be useful.”

Morwen nodded and he could see a dark head amongst the lieutenants doing the same. He then frowned and asked, “Anything else that needs to be gone over?”

When there was no immediate reply, Cullen nodded sharply. “If your sergeants or corporals are coming back in off a post for a rest, you’re clear. If they’re prepping to head back out and you don’t already know where they’ve been posted, see Rylen tonight in barracks or tomorrow morning at the lower training field. Dismissed.”

Nods and murmurs of his title followed that and one-by-one the men and women filed out of the office onto the cold. Rylen lingered, unmoving, hands folded behind his back, until the door shut behind them. Then he asked, “Do I need to be prepared for a dressing down, Commander?”

Snorting, Cullen shifted the stones off of the map after checking that the ink was dry and rolled it back up. As he bent to place it back in the drawer it came from, he glanced up and asked, “No. Should I though, old man?”

“You’re pissed about the report.”

Quakes in the Storm Coast, Rylen! Quakes far beyond the pale of what they usually are. You’re damned right I would have liked to know that before I rode back.”

“And what would that have accomplished, ser?” replied the man in a tone that sounded respectful but he could hear Rylen’s normal prodding underneath. “Other than worrying the Inquisitor, yourself, and the other advisors when you had bigger worries to deal with? You couldn’t exactly drop everything about saving the Empress to run back here and deal with quakes that haven’t done more than scare folks.”

Cullen narrowed his eyes at him before growling,  “It would have been nice to at least get an alert that something was amiss, Rylen.” He then took a breath before adding, “I trust you to handle things perfectly well, you wouldn’t be my second if I didn’t. However, it would have been nice to straightaway inform Meryell that she may have to return to Skyhold immediately after matters are settled in the Exalted Plains. The intent was for her to continue into Emprise du Lion since there are so many issues there with the Red Templar presence only growing.”

There was silence from the man for a long moment then he commented, “Well, at least if she has to, it won’t be months before you see her again since Skyhold is on route between here and there.”

Cullen glared at him then grumbled, “Yes, a few hours for which I’ll have her to myself, if even that. The prospect of having her and then immediately having to let her go again doesn’t fill me with joy, old man.”

Rylen smiled at that, a sad little curve of his mouth, and finally relaxed his tense stance.

“At least you have her, Cullen,” he commented. “There’s a lot of folks who don’t. Or don’t know for certain whether they’ll keep them.”

For a moment the comment made him burn with embarrassment because he knew plenty who’d lost someone then Cullen caught on the second half. He frowned up at his friend and asked, “Am I to assume that vague comment has some hint that you and Folke aren’t doing well?”

“You want me to kiss and tell, Commander?” asked Rylen with a wink.

“I don’t want to know about Folke’s cock or what it does, thank you.”

That made the other man snort before he said, “It’s fine, if you must know. I’m not expecting anything more out of him than what he can give.” Rylen then winked as he added, “I doubt you want me as your father-in-law, anyway.”

Maker’s breath,” moaned Cullen, clasping a hand over his face. “So help me, old man…”

“Just keeping your imagination fresh, ser.”

“Fuck’s sake, get out.”

Rylen was chuckling as he left and Cullen watched him go with an exasperated sigh. He briefly dropped his head into his hands and sat like that for a moment before he rose to his feet.

There was still another conversation to have tonight.

ornament

“Curly, are you fucking insane?”

“With you around, sometimes I wonder, Hawke,” Cullen quipped back at the woman. When she kept glaring at him, he sighed and lifted a hand to rub at the back of his neck. “The only reason I’m actually suggesting it is because Gil has been studying lyrium for years. She knows enough about it to be plenty wary of its effects.”

Hawke huffed out a breath then gestured towards Varric where the dwarf sat in his own sized chair (which was unsurprisingly a permanent feature in Hawke’s rooms). “You’ve done this kind of research,” she intoned harshly. “Talk some sense into him.”

At that comment, Cullen turned to frown at the dwarf before saying slowly, “You…you’ve looked into red lyrium? And you’ve never said anything?”

“A shard or two, nothing more,” replied Varric. “They’re what was left of the idol we found.”

Alarm bells went off in Cullen’s head because he knew that the lyrium that had laced Meredith’s sword had come from that idol. He’d gotten that much out of Carver since Hawke had fled the city immediately after the fighting in the Gallows was over, when he’d called off his templars and let her pass.

He flicked his eyes over to Carver, who was lounging on the couch next to his older sister in little but a patched training tunic and trousers. The other man looked half asleep, his head lolled back on a haphazardly placed pillow, but his blue eyes were sharp and alert despite being half-lidded. Carver gave a vague nod of acknowledgement and Cullen frowned.

Turning his attention back to Varric, he asked, “The shards…your brother kept them?”

The dwarf’s eyes widened then he turned his attention towards Carver, saying, “Really, Junior?”

Carver didn’t even move, just turned his half open eyes towards Varric and snorted before he said, “I wasn’t going to lie to my Knight-Captain, Varric. If you think I wasn’t going to share some of the shit I heard about or that we went through, you two should’ve dragged me out of Kirkwall with you.”

“I told you he took the Order seriously,” Hawke pointed out with a smug smile. Varric just waved a hand dismissively at her, making her laugh. It was odd how he’d actually missed hearing that laugh over the years.

He’d never once had any feelings towards Hawke (though there had been templars who had) but she’d become a staple of his life in Kirkwall. At one point he had actually looked forward to their conversations, just as something beyond the norm since it could never be said that they were friends. And that last year, he had noticed how little she’d laughed.

Varric then turned back towards him and Cullen met the dwarf’s eyes, noting that he looked far more serious than he’d ever seen him. “So how much did he tell you, Curly?” he asked.

Shrugging, he replied, “I asked about where the lyrium came from and he gave me the bare bones of the whole thing. That your brother betrayed you, taking the idol for himself. That later you found him gone mad with strange things happening in his home. All caused by those shards. And that he had sold the bulk of the idol to an unknown buyer, who turned out to be Meredith.”

“Bare bones indeed,” Varric mused, rubbing at his chin. Then he sighed before saying, “I’ve had people looking onto those shards for years, Curly. As many alchemists that I could hire, working in shifts with week long breaks between to keep them from going crazy. I even wrote to every mining caste house in Orzammar and they’ve never seen or heard of this shit. We haven’t figured out anything about it.”

“He even got a special vault built for it,” Hawke commented. “He was very descriptive about it in the letter he wrote me talking about the plan to get it made.”

“I heard that shit singing to me like it did to Bartrand,” Varric commented fiercely. Cullen jerked in surprise at that, unable to hide the reaction, and he saw every single one of them zero in on it. “Curly?”

“You heard it singing?” he asked, a little horrified by the idea. Regular lyrium hadn’t sung to him until he’d been off of it for months, with withdrawals already set in hard. Mages like Gil were a part of the Fade as much as lyrium, so it wasn’t surprising that some of them could hear it too.

But the fact that the red could just sing to anyone? Including dwarves, who were completely disconnected from the Fade? He hadn’t known that particular part from Carver’s shorthand account of the incident.

By Andraste, if that wasn’t terrifying, he didn’t know what was.

“Maker’s cock,” swore Hawke suddenly, “Curly, you went white as a sheet. The fuck?”

“Commander?” he then heard Carver say and turned towards the siblings, shaking his head.

“I’m fine,” Cullen insisted, holding a hand out towards them in an attempt to stop them from moving forward from their seats. He noticed immediately that his hand was shaking and clenched it into a fist…but not before Carver noticed.

A strong hand gripped his wrist and he looked at the other man to find him sitting up now, no longer sprawled and lazy appearing. No, Carver was fully invested now and his eyes were narrowed in thought.

“Commander,” he repeated. “Cullen. What’s this actually about?”

Cullen just stared at him as he idly registered Hawke and Varric sitting up straighter. Varric was mildly aware of his attempt to quit lyrium and his attack since he was in the inner circle but Hawke and Carver hadn’t been included in that meeting. They had kept his condition as close to themselves as possible (the only exception being the Fangs, who all pretty much recognized it on their own through familiarity).

“Junior,” the dwarf began and Cullen sighed before shaking his head at him. As Varric’s voice trailed off, he gently pulled his hand from Carver’s grasp and looked at the Hawke siblings in turn.

Clapping his hands together, he bowed his head and said, “When we joined the Inquisition, I made the decision to quit lyrium.”

He couldn’t see their facial expressions with his head down but he could see Hawke’s bare feet jerk with surprise and Carver wasn’t quiet when he began swearing a blue streak. Then Hawke asked, “Varric, you knew?”

“Got informed when Curly got sick,” Varric replied softly. “The whole inner circle got told that he’d tried quitting and there’d been some sort of complication that laid him up. Didn’t specify what but I know that mage Gil from the Fangs who’s been looking after him is a damned fine healer..”

“Good as Anders?” asked Hawke sounding surprised.

Varric chuckled. “Good as Blondie? No, she’s not quite that. She knows a lot more than just how to magically heal though.”

Carver coughed, interrupting them, then said, “You quit? Just like that?” Cullen glanced up and found the younger Hawke looking at him with a mix of awe and appallment. “I mean, I knew you quit the Order but I thought… Fuck. This could kill you, Commander. Shit, if I’m guessing right, that ‘sickness’ of yours was it very nearly doing just that!”

“You aren’t wrong,” Cullen replied wryly with a dry, humorless chuckle. He then straightened up, leaning back in his chair and rubbing the back of his neck. “I couldn’t continue taking lyrium after we left Kirkwall. It was just one more chain to the Order, one more to the Chantry, and after everything…I was done being controlled.”

He then took a breath and continued, “And that’s not even taking to account the things I’ve learned since meeting Gil.”

That’s what prompted this,” Hawke said. She then frowned and asked, “But, backing up, what was with the weird look when Varric mentioned the singing?”

“To a templar in withdrawals,” replied Cullen in a short, clipped tone, “regular lyrium sings.”

There was silence and then Varric muttered a quiet, “Shit.

Nodding, Cullen then turned to Carver and said, “There are also…disturbing things…that regular lyrium does to a body. Things the Chantry never told us would happen. Maker, I’m not certain we would have believed them if they had told us, it’s almost unbelievable.”

The younger Hawke went stiff at that before he growled, “You’re giving me an awful lot of incentive to officially tender my resignation, Commander. Not that the Order has much of anything left that we know of but those of us that you put under Commander Barris. And Rylen but I’m not certain he’s even still considering himself a templar.” He then paused before asking, “Does he know? That you quit?”

“Rylen knows what I’m going through,” noted Cullen softly. “Found out by accident early on and helped me cover a few times since then. He still doses so far as I’m aware but it’s not exactly something we’ve discussed.” Carver had been in the Order long enough to know that there was another sentence silently tacked onto that, that it was something no templar ever discussed.

One didn’t question the Knight-Vigilant or the Chantry.

He then ran a hand back through his hair before he said, “I won’t go into details about what regular lyrium can do because Maker knows I’m no expert. If you want to know, I can tell Gil that you’ll be coming to have a talk to her. But…” Cullen paused to take a deep breath then looked at all of them before he went on, “What it is capable of has a frightening connection to what we’ve seen red lyrium do. I know you say you haven’t been able to find anything, Varric, but maybe it just needs the right people looking at it. Not alchemists, but mages. And as much as the thought of any shard of red being in Skyhold terrifies me, the need to know those answers supersedes that fear.”

Hawke just blinked at him for a moment before she nodded. “I may not think it’s the greatest idea, Curly, but I agree with you. If there’s a connection, we ought to figure out what’s going on.” Then she smiled and shook her head before saying, “And, Maker’s balls, to hear you actually recommending mages. I can’t tell you how how refreshing that it.”

“It’s…it’s taken a lot to get me to see that my views when we first met were more than blind,” Cullen commented mildly. “That they were blatantly wrong. I can’t say that I’ll ever be comfortable around magic but…” He gestured helplessly before finishing, “It’s something.”

“It’s something,” she agreed with a smile. She then turned to look at her brother and asked, “Carver?”

He nodded his head before replying, “I agree with you, Treva. Perhaps not the greatest idea but I think we do need to know if they are so strongly connected to each other. And I think I will take you up on that offer to talk to Gil, Commander.” Carver frowned darkly as he paused. “I remember the initial speech from the Gallows healer about long service and lyrium use starting to take away my mind. I’d like to actually be around for a while to keep Mathis in line if he’s half as much of a troublemaker as we were when we were youths.”

“He’s half as much of that now at four,” Hawke commented with a snort. She then glanced over at Varric, her eyebrows arched questioningly. Cullen followed her gaze to the dwarf and found him with his arms crossed, the crease between his furrowed eyebrow indicating a deep concentration.

Then the dwarf looked up, locking eyes with him, and said, “I’ll talk to my contacts, Curly. If I can manage it, I might be able to manage transport for those shards I’ve got back in Kirkwall.” He then shrugged as he added, “No use letting someone possibly get infected by the shit to collect some when I’ve already got them.”

Smiling, he nodded and said, “Thank you, Varric. Hawke, Carver…thank you.”

Varric just grimaced and replied, “Thank me when Gil figures out what that stuff is and how we can make sure it goes back into dark where it should have stayed, Curly.”

Cullen glanced at Hawke and Carver, who were both worriedly looking at the dwarf, then nodded as he turned his attention back to Varric.

“I’ll thank you then,” he intoned seriously. He had faith that if anyone could do such a thing, Gil might just be the one to manage it.

It was a comfort to have the support of these three in conjunction with the wary agreement of Josephine and Leliana’s quick agreement (which had quickly revealed she’d been looking for answers about what lyrium could do and how much certain people knew about it since he’d become ill).

Now…now he just had to convince Meryell that it was a good idea.

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