First off, a very big thank you to everyone who's read, reviewed or favourited this story - thank you all so much. This is the last chapter, and is rather different in style to the way I would normally end any kind of story, so I hope it works. Also, I'm a little unsure if the rating is entirely correct given some of the content - I think it's alright, but please let me know if you think it should be upped. Bioware owns nearly everything, as always.
Chapter Five: Endings
This high up, the air was glass-brittle and cold when she tried to breathe it. Haven had proved frozen and dank, and hiding terrible secrets. Many times at the Tower, she had read of the weather, and its changing moods, but this chill that sank bone-deep and sent her teeth chattering and the tips of her fingers numb was like nothing she had ever imagined. She spent the daylight hours swathed in furs and grouching about the frost, and emerged to sharp dawns cursing the night-time cold. Inside her boots, her feet were frozen and cramping again, and the rough terrain between the peaks was not helping.
Up ahead, the path knifed between high walls of rock, slick with glaze ice. She walked carefully, hands locked around her staff, and with her breath pluming between chapped lips. Her heel skidded, and she swore. Alistair reached out and wordlessly steadied her.
Through a tall set of doors, and she found herself staring at a figure that seemed cut from the cold air itself. He called himself a guardian, and seemed little more than a man in ornate armour, but when she looked at him, she could not quite see the edges of his plate and helmet and weapon. He spoke, and his voice resonated strangely, and she supposed it was some magic of this place, though she could barely summon the energy to care properly.
"Do you believe you failed Jowan?"
"Yes," she said, quietly, angrily. "Yes. I did."
More questions followed, and the others answered, but she was barely listening. She led them on, through stone corridors and under high, echoing arches. Deep beneath the mountain, they discovered a chamber full of whispering air and pale figures who demanded answers to riddles. Alistair handled some of them, but she remembered enough of the history she had read at the Tower to step in for a few.
The door at the far end of the chamber swung inwards, and she saw him.
For a long, terrible moment, she wanted to bolt to him. Wrap her arms around him and bury her head against his chest and ask how he had done it, how had he known where to come, and how had he escaped the templars and the Circle?
No, she thought. He's at the Tower, or dead already.
But Maker's wisdom, it looked like him. This thing, this spirit, whatever it was – it looked like him down to the unkempt mop of black hair and lazy stubble and slender white hands. Blue robes because he liked the colour, and because red and yellow made him look sallow, but he only knew that because she told him once.
Arenyth knotted her hands together. Someone touched her shoulder, gently, and mercifully said nothing. She was tempted to lean back, or turn away. But he was still standing there, his face open and fixed in a welcoming expression. One that never came naturally, some insidious thought prodded.
"You're not Jowan," she blurted.
The thing – ghost, spirit, memory – only smiled. His mouth curled up in a frighteningly familiar way, and her stomach roiled. "I didn't think you'd be fooled."
The voice was the same, and yet not, somehow. The tone was too confident, the lilt on the words too wryly amused.
"Why are you here?" she asked.
"To see you." He smiled again, and the blue eyes above sparkled. "I need you to know something."
"I need you to know something." He leaned up on one elbow. His fingers played along her arm nervously. "I, ah…I'm glad we do this."
Curled up next to him, Arenyth giggled. "Well, that's a sweeping compliment just guaranteed to make a girl swoon."
Jowan scowled. "I mean it."
She traced along his ribs, smirked when he pulled away from her. "Sensitive."
"Jowan?" She coiled herself closer to him again, so that her head was under his chin. "I'm, ah…glad we do this too."
"What?" She gritted her teeth. "What could you possibly say that I would need to hear?"
"You need to forgive yourself. Forgive yourself, just as I have."
"That's…" She wrestled with the urge to run away. His hands hung loose and calm at his sides, and she could not help but notice how wrong that was. She was aware of the silence, and the spirit's blue eyes, and oh Maker, the small scar on his chin. The one he got when he was sixteen and made a mess of shaving. "What's the point of this?"
"The point?" Another easy, sweeping smile. "You have a long way to go, Arenyth. Don't carry the past with you, not like this, not if you don't have to."
"You know me that well, do you?"
"Of course I do. I'm you, I'm Jowan, I'm this place."
"You're not Jowan," she said again. "Jowan's dead."
"Perhaps. But you are alive."
The spirit moved, blue robes rustling. Slender hands clasped hers, warm against her chilled skin. She had expected the ephemeral brush of something not-quite-there, and the solid press of confident fingers startled her. He was too close, and her nose was abruptly full of the scent of lavender and his skin and lyrium. Every raw nerve in her screamed her to flee. "What are you doing?"
"I have something for you." His fingers tightened inexorably over hers. "I want you to wear it, and I want you to remember that it was not your fault. Maybe if we'd planned it better, or had more time, or taken another route…"
"We didn't plan anything," she said. But she did not try to move, and for one awful, longing moment, she wondered if his mouth would taste as soft and familiar as he always had.
"Arenyth," the spirit said, gently. "Be strong. You need to be strong."
Between one heartbeat and next, he was simply no longer there.
Cupped in her palm, she held a delicate silver necklace. Forcing herself to look down, and away from the empty patch of air in front of her, she saw that it was beautiful, and set with a single, pale stone. She fumbled with the clasp, realised her hands were shaking uncontrollably. "Alistair?"
"I'm here," he answered. "Are you alright?"
She could not quite make herself turn around and face him. "Could you…could you put this on for me?"
Somehow, mercifully, her voice stayed steady. She waited, listening to the sound of her own breathing, while he stepped up behind her. He brushed her braided hair aside, quickly fastened the clasp at her nape. The pendant jangled against the other one, the one given at the Joining, the one that hung dark with trapped darkspawn blood.
She mustered a bright smile. "Thank you. Let's see if we can find that Urn, shall we?"
She lasted until the echoing, empty corridors fell behind. She lasted through the bridge, and the flames, and the guardian's final intoned pronouncement that they might take Andraste's Ashes from the sacred Urn, and cure Arl Eamon, if they so desired. She lasted until they crossed back through the biting, clinging cold outside, and the dragon on the high peak shrieked and swooped.
Some part of her heard Zevran scream for her to move, to dodge, anything. Two arrows whipped past her head. Alistair thundered past her, shield held low, stance braced. Zevran shouted at her again, and she heard his footsteps behind her, hurtling. She darted away from him, her vision filled with nothing but the dragon's gaping jaws and the dark burning in its eyes. She called a searing column of flame, high and bright enough that it half-blinded her. She heard the dragon roaring, and the others calling her name, but she no longer cared. Her skin was flushed and on fire with the magic. The dragon curved overhead again, the thick flesh around its mouth bristling with arrows. The thud as the dragon landed shook her, bone-deep. She invoked another spell, a crackling wall of lightning, and watched as it burrowed and snapped across the iron-hard ground.
"Arenyth! Move! Now!"
Zevran again, she realised angrily. Why was he ordering her around? She drew her arm back, halfway to conjuring a fireball. Something large and dark sliced in front of her, and something else dug into her side. Pain followed, oddly distant, and cold. She narrowed her eyes, reached down. Saw how the blood was streaming from her fingers. She took another swaying step. She opened her mouth to say something, but the ground rushed up to meet her.
She felt a hand wrap around hers, the fingers long and slender and cool. "Jowan?"
Zevran's lilting laugh answered her. "No, my Grey Warden. I am sorry to be a disappointment."
She tried to lift her head, winced when her stomach somersaulted. She gripped his fingers tighter, realised that his hand was callused and wiry and probably smaller, and could not possibly be Jowan's. "Sorry, Zevran. I didn't mean…"
"Hush." Very gently, he extricated his hand from hers. "You need to rest. You were very badly hurt."
"Morrigan and our brave templar taught the beast the error of its ways."
"Is everyone else alright?"
"Yes. No one else thought it suitable to run straight at a dragon's mouth wearing only those pretty robes of yours."
He pressed a potion bottle into her hands. "Drink this. You need to sleep."
"Any chance of a hot bath while I'm just lying here?"
"Arenyth, we really shouldn't be doing this."
"Oh, hush. I've bribed Ilanna to watch the door."
"But the door doesn't lock. And what if Ilanna gets bored or goes away?"
She grinned and heaved her robes off over her head in one smooth motion. "You could stand guard and watch if you want."
Jowan scowled. "You're evil when you want to be."
"I know." She dipped her hand into the hot water, watched as the steam twined up. "I'm also really cold and I am not going to throw away this opportunity. So are you going to stand there or are you going to join me?"
His hands flew to the buttons around his collar. "We still shouldn't be doing this."
"Mmm-hmm." She sank into the water, sighed happily. "I know. We're a terrible pair of apprentices. Now, are you coming, or do I have to wash my hair and the rest of me by myself?"
He was in the tub behind her in an instant, water sloshing over the rim.
"My goodness." She smirked over her shoulder at him. "I don't think I've ever seen you move so fast."
He scooped up a large handful of water and quite firmly dumped it over her head. "And I don't think I've ever seen you shut up so fast," he said, grinning when she glared at him.
"Oh, that's it. You're dead." Laughing and spluttering at the same time, she twisted round. Her skin was slippery against his, and when she wrapped her arms around him and tried her level best to drag him under, she was almost certain that he let her.
"Arenyth, my sweet? You're not drinking it."
She swallowed most of it, almost gagging at the oily, cool texture. "Foul."
"I'm sure Wynne will be most offended." Zevran's hand played down her cheek. "Do not scare us like that again, my Grey Warden. I thought for one terrible moment that Andraste wouldn't be the only one coming down off this mountain in a very small bag."
Arenyth laughed, then groaned. "Don't make me laugh. It hurts."
"Forgive me." Zevran squeezed her hands. "Go to sleep."
She did, and for once, her dreams were blessedly quiet and unremembered.
The months passed too quickly after the mountain and the ghosts. Arl Eamon was roused from his deathly sleep, and pronounced little the worse for wear. To Arenyth, tired and worn and just waiting for someone to tell her it was all over, it seemed as if the rest of the world was rushing towards something important.
She lay on her side, blankets pulled up to her chin, listening to rain thrumming down on the tent walls. A day's forced march away, she knew that Denerim burned; two parties of harried, injured scouts had brought the news before the sun had set. While Alistair patrolled the lines of Redcliffe soldiers in burnished, regal armour that sat strangely well on his shoulders, she had been packed off to rest.
Through the panes, she could see the rain, sheeting down onto the grey lake below. She wrestled with the catch, tried to push the window open.
"You know," Jowan said from behind her. "I didn't think we did too badly today with those fire spells. Well, you didn't. So there's probably no real need to throw yourself out of the window."
"Idiot." She threw a quick grin over her shoulder. "Help me?"
He sighed, but knelt on the windowseat beside her anyway, jerked the window wide. Cold air rushed in through the gap, along with the first scent of winter. Arenyth reached out, letting the falling water spatter down onto her fingers. She turned her hand over, cupped her palm until she caught the rain.
Awkwardly, Jowan leaned out beside her. "It's cold."
"Yes." Keeping one arm wound around his shoulder, she leaned further out, tipping her head back so she could feel the cold, harsh droplets against her eyelids and her mouth and her hair. "I like it."
Jowan wrapped his arms around her waist and hauled her back onto the windowseat. "You might, but I don't want you to find out whether you really can survive a fall into the lake from this high up."
Her hair was damp at the temples, and wisping. She settled comfortably against his chest and sighed. "Spoilsport."
He brushed rainwater away from her forehead and very gently kissed her. "Always."
She breathed in, tasted the coldness again. "Jowan?"
"Can we leave the window open?"
She felt his answering laugh, and then his hands, stroking through her hair.
"Oh, I think we can."
She kicked the blankets off, close to fuming, and scrabbled to find the boots she had tossed away earlier. She raked her hair into a loose plait and stumbled out through the tent flap and into the damp night air. Torches sputtered, smoking in the soft fall of the rain. The guard nodded to her and mumbled a quick greeting. She managed a reply before ducking past him, eyes firmly fixed on the wet earth. Somewhere past the hastily constructed smithy and the tent Zevran had told her the soldiers used mainly for dicing, she walked into Alistair. She dragged her head up, noticed again the incisive tilt to his head, the new strength in his stance. "Sorry. I wasn't really looking where I was going."
"I forgive you, I promise." He folded his arms. "Can't sleep?"
"Not really. I think I just want it to be over."
"I know what you mean." He gazed at her for a long moment. "Arenyth. What is it? Apart from, you know, the whole thing where we'll have to go into Denerim and find the archdemon. That one I know about."
She stared down at her hands and fought to find words. "I'm sorry. I'm just very tired. I feel rather stupid about it, though."
"Well, I'm not about to be made king. And I don't have to give yet another dreadful speech in the morning."
He groaned. "I'm not doing that badly, am I?"
She looked up at him, into his open face and sincere brown eyes and wondered if he would ask again about Morrigan. "No, you're not doing too badly at all. I think you'll be fine."
"I saw Morrigan lurking outside your room earlier. The look she gave me was icy even for her. Did she want anything important?"
She curled her nails against her palms. She had already made her choice, and Morrigan had left, snarling something about stupid decisions and how death was so much more certain, now. "No, I…no. Just…mages' disagreement. Nothing to worry over."
"Oh. Well, as long as everything's alright, I suppose."
Afterwards, in the pale morning, when it became obvious that Morrigan had fled, she had kept her mouth firmly shut and said nothing about blood rituals or choices or the terrible awareness that the witch knew all along what would happen when the archdemon met its end.
"Well, it's nice to know that someone believes in me."
"I do," Arenyth said honestly. She stifled a yawn into the back of her hand. "Suddenly sleep seems much more tempting."
Alistair grinned lopsidedly. "I'll come running if the darkspawn swamp us."
Back inside the empty gloom of the tent, she left a tiny point of light glowing beside her shoulder. Rummaging in her packs, she found the wrapped flask of wine Oghren had palmed off on her weeks ago. She stared at the bottle, and the pale liquid inside, sighed, and let it drop. Her stomach was heavy and knotted, and she doubted she would keep down two swallows of it. Burrowing into the blankets again, she doused the light. The darkness yielded no comfort, and her thoughts wandered.
She dragged him down the corridor, heard him laugh when she stumbled up the first flight of steps. She made it through the next door and he caught her around the waist, spinning her until she was facing him again. She could smell the sweet white wine on his lips, and her own head was enjoyably fuzzy. She knew she should probably be protesting or pushing him away, but when he pressed her against the wall and quite thoroughly kissed her, she simply gave in.
Too soon, she heard footsteps, and wriggled out under his arms. She grinned at his noise of disapproval, grabbed his wrist again and tugged. "Come on."
But the corridor proved distractingly long, and they ended up poorly hidden behind a tall statue. She pulled away from him long to breathe again, and said, "This is ridiculous. You know that?"
"Yes." Jowan grinned down at her. His hair was disheveled, and his face was delightfully flushed. "Fun, though, isn't it?"
She looked at him and laughed. There was no reason for it, except the wine and the warm night air and maybe the sparkling, pleased light in his blue eyes. She was still laughing when he swore and covered her mouth with his hand.
"Templar," he muttered.
Entirely unrepentant, Arenyth gently bit his palm. "So?"
"Wicked girl." When she dissolved into laughter again, he kissed her silent. "Upstairs, yes?"
Arenyth stood at the gates of the Denerim and watched the city burn. The dawn was lost to the fierce glow of the flames, and the ugly roil of the clouds above. Her mouth and nose were full of the scent of death. Above the blackened spires and towers, the archdemon circled, sweeping great wings against the red sky. Whenever she looked at it, her head ached, and her fingers prickled. Somewhere behind, she was aware of Alistair and Riordan, voices rising as they argued.
"Alistair," she said, almost absently. "You're staying here."
"You are staying here," she said. "Don't bother arguing, and don't make me say it again."
"You're going to be king. You're going to be a good king, and you can't do that if you're dead. If this is the only way I can help you, then I'm going to do it."
"Arenyth," he whispered. "Don't do this."
"The archdemon is going to die," she said. "And so will a Grey Warden. That Grey Warden will not be you. I am as sure of that as I have ever been about anything."
"Arenyth," he said again.
"Don't argue. I'll just get Sten and Shale to hold you back."
"It might be Riordan, mightn't it?"
"Yes," she lied. "It might be Riordan." She leaned up, very gently kissed his cheek. "You'll be a good king, Alistair."
She turned away from him then, in case he tried to reach for her. She called for Oghren and Zevran and Wynne, and without looking back, she led them through the burning gates.
She looked up from the table and the open book. "Yes?"
"Are you alright?
"Good," Jowan said.
She leaned back in her chair, looked him up and down. "Why are you shuffling?"
He froze. "I'm not."
"Yes, you are."
"I was worried," he said. "The healers said you probably shouldn't be up so soon. Not after fainting like that."
She shot him a pointed glare. "Oh? And you've never blacked out after trying to hold a spell too long?"
"No, I have, I just…well." He leaned over her, flipped the book closed.
"You do know I've now lost my page?"
She looked past him, saw that the narrow ravine of bookshelves around them was mercifully empty. "Do I get to choose your penance?"
"No." He caught her wrist, pulled her out of her chair. "Not this time."
There was something in his voice, something rough and rather unusual. "Jowan? Are you alright?"
"No," he said, eventually. "I was so worried. I don't know why. You're always alright. And the healers sent me away, and told me you just needed sleep."
"You were there when I woke the first time."
"But not afterwards."
She opened her mouth to say something reassuring, but then his lips were on hers, devouring words and breath and thought. Her hands clutched at his shoulders when he hauled her closer.
"Holy Maker, you had me worried." He leaned his forehead against hers. "Arenyth, I…I think I…"
"I know," she said, too quickly, cutting him off. "We could go back to the dormitories. See if it's empty."
"Oh. That's not what I meant."
She grinned up at him. "Well, as exciting as this is, we're still in the library, you know."
"No, I meant…I needed to tell you something."
She guided his head down, kissed him slowly. "Then you can tell me later. Right now I have this sudden desire to go elsewhere."
But he never did tell her later. And lying across him, listening as his heartbeat jumped every time she kissed his throat, she never did ask.
"Arenyth?" Softly, Wynne touched her shoulder. "Are you ready?"
"Yes." White light glowed along her staff. "I'm ready."
They discovered the roof of Fort Drakon littered with the dead. Arenyth stood, frightened almost speechless, as the archdemon lowered its great dark frame onto the far walkway. Furious fire burned in its eyes, and when it threw its head back and screamed, every bone in her rang painfully. There were soldiers up here, standing in solid ranks, bows strung. Others darted past them, forcing back the charging lines of darkspawn. There were mages up here as well, she realised, throwing tangles of white lightning that sputtered and cascaded off the archdemon's spines.
"Irving," she called, as soon as she saw him. Ignoring Oghren's gruff command to stay put and hurl some spells of her own, she bolted across to the battlements. "Irving?"
Rumpled and exhausted beneath sweat-soaked hair, the First Enchanter motioned more mages forward. "Arenyth. Child, you're alright."
"Yes." She clutched at the pale amulet, dug her fingers against the chain. "First Enchanter, did he die well?"
"Yes. Yes, he did."
She nodded slowly. "Thank you."
She smiled, then, and looked across the scorched stone to where the archdemon waited, coiled and dark. Its mouth opened, and it screamed again.
"I know," she said, quietly. "I know what you wanted to tell me."
The archdemon rose up against the crimson clouds, wings flinging wide. The pain in her head sharpened, and she gripped her staff. It roared again, close enough that it filled the sky with its anger.
It was coming for her, she knew, coming for the drop of darkspawn blood that betrayed her as a Grey Warden.
She breathed in the sharp scent of flame and steel, and felt free.
The grey dawn flooded through the high windows. Arenyth kicked the heaped blankets away from her warm, flushed skin. She felt drowsy, close to sleep, but he was half sitting up, and she though talking might be more enjoyable. She leaned up, let the pale light dapple across her hands.
"You look far too decadent," Jowan remarked lightly.
She laughed and flopped down beside him again. His bare skin was hot, and he murmured appreciatively when she sank against his chest. "Jowan?"
"You'll still want to see me afterwards, won't you? After your Harrowing, and mine?"
He laughed. "Why wouldn't I?"
She trailed her fingers along his collarbone. "I don't know. You're older than me."
"Not by much."
"You might go through your Harrowing first."
"Maybe. It won't change how I feel."
They lay silently together, curled around each other. She listened to him breathing, and the soft, barely-there sound of his fingers playing through her hair and down over her shoulders. Somewhere beyond the locked door, footsteps rang against the stone, quickening pace as someone called out. She found his other hand, and firmly laced her fingers through his.
"You know," Jowan said. "Some days I think that maybe it's not so bad after all, being here. Do you know what I mean?"
She nestled under his chin, kissed his throat, and felt safe. "Yes," she said. "I know what you mean."