This chapter had originally been the epilogue, and then it was the first chapter to something else and then I changed my fickle mind and it became the epilogue again to tie up some loose ends. I figured I'd try and end this and then retire to someplace warm…except I already do live someplace warm. Well, at least where there'll be no smell of damp dog and the chance of two-day old Ferelden Lamb and Pea Stew…
Anyway folks, thanks again for bearing with me thus far. You've been great company! I hope you enjoy the final, final, final chapter in Merran's story.
Epilogue – Life After Death
Riordan knelt by the great bulk – or at least, the main bulk – of the dragon. The remains of the Archdemons were strewn about the surface of the tower in a jumbled, draconic jigsaw. By the amount and shape of this particular bit, this was probably the torso…Then he spotted a yellowish object that appeared at first to be a large curved rock. Working it loose of the surrounding, clotted flesh with the tip of his scimitar, he revealed it as a claw. He looked back at the mighty heap of beast speculatively. Perhaps a haunch then? Whatever part it was, the smell was the same: unbelievably, hideously, nose-searingly awful - and that in comparison to the individual standing nearby.
"Wonder what these things taste like?"
A dull metallic thud. Scritch, scritch, scritch…burrrrrrpp!
The malodorous stench of stale ale and spirits wafted over Riordan, straining his olfactory tolerances further. The claw he tossed to the dwarf – Oghren – who caught it and sniffed at it while Riordan continued to work at the scales with his scimitar, working around the base of the scales to get them free so he could carve into the flesh underneath. The trader the young Wardens had been travelling with had offered to strip the beast of its scales later – dragonscale was at a premium and the Wardens would have their share of the profit.
The blood of the Archdemon however, needed to be collected first.
"Ya know, there's nuthin' like a good spit roast," Oghren said conversationally, giving the claw an experimental gnaw.
Riordan did his best to ignore the dwarf. Collecting the blood was quite a task. While there had been a lot of Archdemon on the top of Fort Drakon, Riordan had had to work fast. The alternative was to have all the bricks taken up and squeezed of blood – a labour intensive idea, and not a practical one.
"Spit roast and a tankard of ale – make that a barrel – considerin' there's a lot of spit roastin' to do up here." Behind the Grey Warden, Oghren counted the heaps of Archdemon, leather-clad finger sketching a tally in the air, calculating under his breath, the dimensions of the open-air rotisserie required for the task.
Riordan almost turned. With sheer force of will, he maintained focus on his own task. Weisshaupt would not be displeased with the amount he had been able to collect. There would even be more than enough to boost the numbers of Grey Wardens here in Ferelden.
"Bit of hot sauce – always gotta have hot sauce with Archdemon – take the taste of the Taint out, I s'pose."
Riordan stoppered the small flask and placed it in the crate with the others. He stood, surveying the carnage – the piles of fly-blown, rotting flesh; bodies barely recognisable in their fast-decaying, bloated states - and then at the remains of the Archdemon itself. It was hardly an appetising sight. He squinted at the dwarf; leaning nearby on the handle of his massive battleaxe.
"You would eat the Archdemon?" Riordan asked.
Oghren shrugged. "Well…all this meat…seems to me a waste to let it go to maggot and carrion…"
Riordan looked down at the remains of the Archdemon. He supposed that for a Grey Warden, it would probably be safe…What am I thinking! He gave his head a shake, dislodging the stupid thoughts that crept into his sleep-fogged mind. This is madness…! And yet, he could see Oghren's point. There was an awful lot of dragon up here…but only enough to make up one of them.
He could find no trace of young Warden Merran. If she had managed to transform into her human form, this body had not been found either. As for the Archdemon, it would have to be disposed of in the same way that the corpses of darkspawn would be disposed of – by fire.
It would be a roast, just not as the Dwarf imagined.
"The taint in the dragon's flesh would kill you," Riordan reminded himself as well as Oghren, banishing the vision of the Victorious feasting on the Archdemon's body on the top of Fort Drakon alfresco from his rebellious mind.
"Ah…what's a bit of dangerous gastronomic adventurin' now and again?" Oghren mused. "Once ate a two-week old stew the pike-twirler made – we kept adding to it every evenin', to see whether it would taste the same as when we started out, heh heh. I swear it turned my insides green. Spent the rest of the next day with me arse glued to the bog and a bucket under me beard. Stew comin' out both ends and woo hoo! Did it ever, sodding burn!"
Riordan glared at the chuckling dwarf, wondering why, of all of the Warden companions, he had chosen this one to accompany him to the top of the Fort. Probably because of all of them, none of the others had been willing to face the place where their companion had died…gone…disappeared…Not yet at any rate.
He grimaced. "Thank you for sharing."
"Always a pleasure." BURRRRPP!
Riordan winced. The next few weeks were going to be…busy.
"So…this is where you've been hiding…"
Jowan stood at the doorway, looking around the sparsely furnished room. It was small by anyone's standard - and that coming from someone who had spent most of his life in a crowded dormitory, where one needed to crawl over the person next to you if you wanted to reach a notebook or a spare quill. There was a narrow cot pushed up against a tallow-stained wall. A battered chest served as storage as well as a bedside table. The only feature worth remarking upon was the window, showing an impressive view of the city of Denerim. Battered, crumbled and crushed as the city was; it was still an impressive sight.
Antlike, the people of Denerim continued to clear away the rubble industriously, salvaging what they could, removing the bodies…the skeletons of scaffolding replacing solid walls until the flesh of the buildings - stone and mortar - could be grown back, brick by brick.
And yet…despite the damage to the rest of the city and the palace itself, the Grey Warden compound in Denerim had been relatively untouched, as if the darkspawn had to draw the line somewhere. The rundown, dusty and dishevelled two-story stone building had once been the original soldiers' barracks, converted into living quarters for the Ferelden Grey Wardens. It was clear no expense had been spared to outfit the building with the best second-hand, recycled, hand-me-down fittings that Denerim had just…you know; lying around, doing nothing much but gather dust…might as well give it to the Grey Wardens – they don't mind a bit of falling apart…These days, the building lay slightly slumped to the side of the shiny, real soldiers' quarters, as though slightly embarrassed to be caught outside dressed inappropriately in stained sleepwear with curlers in its hair.
Alistair had been tracked here, after the battle with the Archdemon – once Cullen had identified the young Grey Warden's trail of blood as his own and not some random soldier that had dragged his bleeding body from the top of Fort Drakon. He had been close to death and reluctant to be brought back from the brink of it, almost draining Wynne of the last of her own life force to do so.
Alistair had returned, but he had come back…slightly changed. He spoke little and when he did, it was…odd conversation. No one really knew how to talk with him – those who hadn't travelled with him for one and a half years preferred not to talk to him at all, labelling him eccentric if they were kind and insane if they were not. He spent most of his time in this building, contemplating Alistair-thoughts that needed to be contemplated.
As Alistair had shown no sign he knew he had company, Jowan crossed the two steps across the room to join him at the window, trying not to feel nervous around the other Grey Warden.
After a few empty minutes had fallen between them Jowan began, "Leliana said 'goodbye'." He looked at Alistair. It seemed the words had not registered. "She said she wanted to try and beat Brother Genitivi's team to the Temple of Andraste," he continued. "Mentioned something about it being turned into a 'theme park'…whatever that is…" his voice trailed away as he realised Alistair wasn't looking out of the window; his attention fixed instead on a long, cloth-wrapped object, held reverently in his gloved hands. Clearly, it had significance for him, though Jowan was reluctant to ask the question as to what, why and how.
"I asked her to marry me'" Alistair said suddenly, making Jowan jump slightly.
Recovering, Jowan pondered the statement, frowning. "Mages don't get ma…" he began, snapping his mouth shut on the rest of his sentence. Given Alistair's unpredictable behaviour, it was probably best not to remind him that the Chantry frowned upon Mages living like normal people – and he wasn't one to talk, considering the circumstances under which he had come to leave the Tower of Magi. Wracking his mind for something else to say, he managed to locate one memory: "She asked you first, didn't she? Up in the Frostbacks?"
Alistair flicked him a bewildered look. "What?"
"Nothing. Nothing," Jowan sighed inwardly. His eyes inevitably drifted down to the package and curiosity finally got the better of him. "So…what is that?"
"I meant to give it to her."
"And…what is it?" Jowan persisted patiently.
"I told her it reminded me of her."
"Mm." Jowan gritted his teeth. This was what it was like, talking with Alistair – a person would start a topic of conversation and the Grey Warden would take it, make it his own, then shift it somewhere to the other side of the planet. Jowan thought he was getting used to it. As long as he remembered it worked out better if he just talked to himself, supplying all the answers he wanted to hear, until Alistair returned from wherever he had gone with the original topic.
"I got a ring," Jowan told him, watching the almost-Templar with borderline patience. "Apparently it will track my movements all over Ferelden."
"It was the first thing she'd enchanted for me."
"Just a simple ring. Silver, most likely. A bit cheap – made my skin turn purple the first time I wore it."
"I was going to give it to…well it doesn't matter, I suppose."
"Had to see Wynne about it – she asked all sorts of embarrassing questions. Apparently she had seen 'purple finger' before…" Jowan shook his head at the memory as Alistair continued.
"I found it in Lothering. Famous place; Lothering. Famous for its roses and Qunari warriors in cages."
"And then she wanted to confiscate it so she could send it to the Circle of Magi to study it." Jowan took a deep breath, wondering vaguely which one of them would break first.
"I remember when I picked it. It was an early summer day – partially cloudy, with a chance of showers later."
"I told her she'd have to remove it first because the bloody thing was stuck fast. Not even a bit of duck grease could shift it."
"That was Lothering for you – grey one day, darkspawn tainted the next."
"She suggested sending my hand to the mages."
"Still, I never regretted the rose – or Sten."
"So I told her purple was my colour and I didn't mind actually. She followed me around camp pestering me, telling me it would probably fester and fall off anyway."
"I never gave it to her. I wonder why?"
The mention of Lothering finally caught up with Jowan's ears. "Wait," his frown deepened. "You found a rose in Lothering?" He readjusted his own verbal dribbling. "I thought Lothering only did chickens. Chickens and Chasind." Jowan's eyes were drawn once more to the object in Alistair's hand – the Grey Warden was slowly, carefully, peeling the wrapping away.
It was revealed to be – indeed – a rose. Jowan stared at the object, the skin on the back of his neck prickling eerily. It was still a bud, blood red and perfectly formed…and yet Lothering had been a long time before Redcliffe and the walking dead, before Jowan had been rescued from a cramped cell and conscripted by the man standing next to him. Jowan tore his gaze from the perfect rose to settle on Alistair, thoughts tumbling over themselves in his head, eager to leave it.
"Merran enchanted this?" he heard his voice hoarse and unsteady.
"Preservation spell," Alistair said simply. "She told me to wrap it up securely and not sit on it. Except that I did sit on it once, but it came through okay…or was it Shale? I can't recall exactly…"
The rose should have been a dried up, decayed thing. The Mage that had enchanted it was dead. Her enchantment should have died with her...Jowan's first impulse was to seize the flower from Alistair's hands, but he stopped himself. There had been no body…he reminded himself. There had been nothing to burn, bury or entomb – a head, a nose…a little finger. There had been nothing to mourn, nothing to weep over; nothing to parade in front of the cheering thousands. At the time the lack of…anything had not seemed surprising. Anyone – or anything close enough to the dying Archdemon had been nearly obliterated when the thing had exploded so spectacularly. Alistair had barely made it back alive…and according to Riordan, there had only been the remains of one dragon atop Fort Drakon.
Impossible, his mind told him. It should be impossible…yet the logical part of him told him the evidence was right in front of his eyes. The rose, like the mage that had enchanted it should be dead.
But it wasn't.
"The rose…!" the words burst out of Jowan's mouth in an incoherent dribble. "Dead…unless living she…everything…wrong! No, start over…enchantment by the mage that was…I mean…poop" was all Jowan could manage.
"I feel like some shaved ice," Alistair said suddenly. "The dwarves have a machine set up in the market district that freezes water and then turns it into flavoured shavings. I wonder if they have blue cheese flavour?"
Jowan reeled visibly from the abrupt change in conversation, feeling an urge to smack his head on the wall – or failing that, smack the wall with Alistair. Or both. Yes. Both would be good.
"Lemon," Alistair added hopefully. "Lemon would be good too." His eyes brightened suddenly. "Or mince pie. Ooh…mince pie…"
"Listen to me Templar freak!" Jowan grabbed a hold of Alistair by the pauldrons, attempting to swing him around to face him – and failing completely to cause the stronger, heavier Grey Warden to even wobble a bit. He hoped the old, disused nickname could crowbar into Alistair's head; to find some kind of purchase into the more saner reaches of the Grey Warden's mind. "Do you know what this means?"
Alistair turned to Jowan, looking rather hurt, bottom lip protruding. "No mince pie?"
"When mages die, so does their magic!" Jowan shouted, arms waving frantically – the announcement for his own benefit as well as Alistair's. "If Merran enchanted this rose – it should have returned to its natural age when Merran died. Do you understand me…?" In his desperation to make the other Grey Warden understand, Jowan went with his first instinct and grabbed the rose from Alistair's hand.
"Heyy! Give it back! That's mine!"
"Merran's still alive!" Jowan yelled at him. "If she wasn't, then the enchantment on this rose would be gone!" As doubt and bewilderment lingered in the other man's eyes, Jowan waved his fists in frustration. "As long as this rose remains alive, so does Merran. I don't know how – I certainly don't know where…I just know that she is…"
Alistair looked from the rose to Jowan, his brows knitting scarves across his frown-carved forehead.
"You're a blood mage," Alistair muttered darkly.
Jowan groaned, dropping his head into his hands. "And you're a bloody idiot!" he snapped. "If I thought the woman I loved could be alive somewhere and I could be with her somehow, then I would damn well find a way to be with her!"
"So why didn't you?" Alistair asked, deceptively quiet.
"Why didn't you go after Morrigan?"
Baffled by the turn in conversation, Jowan could only shake his head in bewilderment. "That's none of your…"
"What?" Alistair's eyes narrowed accusingly. "Was doing the dirty, dark ritual, demon-baby-making thing just another way of having breakup sex?"
Jowan's head snapped back as though he'd been struck, the unexpected depth of clarity in the other man's eyes terrifying. "How did you…?"
"That is why yourgirlfriend enscorcelled Riordan isn't it? The night before the horde turned up? To perform the Joining so you could become a Grey Warden? So you could do her little blood magic ritual? Did you think we couldn't tell? Merran knew why Morrigan travelled with us. She wasn't stupid!"
As the first flash of guilt subsided quickly, to be replaced by anger, Jowan's own ice-blue eyes flashed defiantly. "I wanted Merran to live!" he spat.
"I wanted her to live too!" Alistair bellowed at him abruptly. "But I wasn't willing to throw away everything she'd achieved to do it!" Alistair seized Jowan by the shirt. "Create another Old God so it could be tainted again by the Darkspawn? After all she'd done to end the Blight? To release the Archdemon from forced service to the Horde?" Alistair shook his head, loosening his hands on the mage, shoving the other man roughly away. "You're the bloody idiot, Jowan," Alistair stated plainly. "You talk about all this being about Merran, but it's not really. If you were her friend, truly her friend, you would have kept your promise to her about blood magic."
"It wasn't…" Jowan began then stopped. "It really is useless talking to you. A new Blight didn't start all over again because a living being with the soul of an Old God was created."
"It's just a matter of time," Alistair told him grimly. "A new Blight might not have begun straight away – but what happens when the child is old enough for the Darkspawn to enslave and control? Leashing an old god – in the form of a dragon – is bad enough. Doing it to a child? How do you think Merran would have felt about that?"
"You don't know?" Alistair completed the other man's sentence in mocking tones. "You didn't think, did you? You went behind Merran's back and performed the Joining, knowing how she felt about it. You performed a ritual with the pretence of preserving a friend when really it was about impressing your girlfriend…"
"It wasn't like that!" Jowan protested angrily. "You're not the only one in Ferelden who cared about Merran. You might have thought that you were the only one in this country who had a right to care, but…"
"So you agreed to a little witchy ritual to keep everyone alive, so that Merran could live a few more days to suffer some more, is that it?" Alistair held up the rose, waving it accusingly in front of Jowan's indignant face. "How much do you think she would be suffering now, if she were alive? Succumbing to the Taint, wherever she is? And if she still is alive – do you think she appreciates it? Do you think she's enjoying being alive, turning into a ghoul or a darkspawn herself? You're a fool, Jowan – Merran trusting you had always been a bad idea and my thinking you could ever redeem yourself was an even worse one."
As he spoke, a petal detached itself and floated gently between the two arguing Wardens. While they watched, the rose darkened and shrivelled; a couple more petals falling away. Jowan's expression turned into one of horror, seeing the once fresh-looking rose succumb to age and decay in front of his eyes.
Skin ghost pale, Alistair cupped his hand around the remains of the rose and carefully returned it to its wrappings, along with the desiccated, blackened petals.
Alistair leant both hands against the window sill, head tucked low between his shoulders, his expression no longer visible. After a short time, his voice emerged, small and strained. "I guess that answers your question, doesn't it?"
Taking another step backwards, so that his shoulders brushed the stone of the walls, Alistair headed towards the door. He paused at the doorway, shooting one last, hard look at Jowan. Then wordlessly, Alistair turned and left; the sound of Jowan's weeping echoing down the empty corridors after the departing Grey Warden.
Was that necessary?
I'm not sure…I'd actually forgotten about it, to be quite honest…
Quite the romantic, aren't you?
Well...You grow up in a tower…you hear stories. Next thing you know, you're meeting a prince and…
There was actually no white charger in your case.
The Golem was…whitish…sort of…anyway, there wouldn't be – not if the prince was allergic to horses.
Never heard a story about a prince who sneezed his way out of rescuing a damsel in distress.
That's just so stereotypical! What if the damsel was not the one in distress? What if, for a change, it was the prince?
The damsel rescues the prince in distress? I don't think that idea is going to catch on…Somehow.
We'll see…anyway – it's your move.
Actually, I believe it is yours.
Really? Are you sure? I'm pretty sure I just made my move! It can't be my turn again…Oh, you know, I really can't play these sorts of games. I'm useless – I always forget what the squares mean, how to move the pieces, never mind the rules…You do realise that I'm just going to end up playing to lose?
How unsporting of you…
Sloth Demons and Ladders – now there's a game I can get my teeth into. Old Chantry Maid is another, even if I always get Old Maid, no matter how I play.
I have never heard of any of these games. Are you making them up?
Of course not…Um…Oh all right, how about a few rounds of 'Where's Mr Ferret'? No? Well okay, here's one you'll really love. We have to be standing up for it though.
In the Fade we are standing, sitting, lying, all at the same time.
Look, can you stop going all technical on me? Honestly, if I'd known an Old God was going to be this difficult…
Sigh…Very well. What must I do?
All right. Stand. Now. Stick your left – uh – claw out…okay, next put it back down to your side – now repeat that gesture and shake your talon about…nice shaking there! All right, now right claw same thing…and…what?
You're teaching me the Hokey Pokey…Is that what you're trying to do? The Hokey Pokey?
…Uh…yeah…? What; are Old Gods too godlike to do the Hokey Pokey? Too dignified? If it makes you feel better, we can do this to chamber music or something…
No…I think…that I have a better idea.
You want to play 'Where's Mr Ferret?' after all? Great! Now where did I put my Fade Ferret puppet?
No, not quite what I had in mind…Of course, one word of warning…when you return, you won't be quite the same person. Think of it as…my gift to you.
Your…what? Did you just say…? Returning? Oh ha, ha…this is your little joke, right? Right…? Because I could have sworn you just said…Um…Returning where…? Do you think you might be a bit more specific? Do I get a map? A short briefing? Hello…? Helloooo! "Urthemiel? This is my…"
Sharp pain and the throbbing beat of her heart in her ears…but she had no ears. She wasn't supposed to have ears, owing to the fact that she no longer – actually – had a body…But she could feel again as though she had a body and she wished she couldn't – and didn't.
She opened her eyes – then opened them a second time, feeling that slightly jolty sensation one felt when severing the connection to the Fade. It was dark – and warm and cold at the same time…and there was a smell that was all too familiar. An ominous hooting noise, like a herd of rabid, mating nugs drunk on too much apple cider echoed in the distance. Breathing hard Merran extended her hand, muttering the spell for fire…nothing.
Tamping down panic before it sent her into spasms of terrified screaming and ripping out of hair, Merran forced herself to think. After a while her eyes began to adjust. There was barely enough light to see where she was…it was not the Fade…It was worse; so very, very, very much worse.
Dropping to the ground, she curled up into a ball, wrapping her arms around her head protectively, muttering words that she hoped would eventually turn into magic ones by sheer force of repetitiveness.
"Nug poop. Nug poop. Nug poop. Nug poop. Nug poop. Nug poop. Nug poop!"
This was her reward for rescuing an Old God from the shackles of the Darkspawn?