This was not the army he would have chosen. Give him half this number – men whose training he could trust, men who knew their duty, men of the Beresaad – and he would take this city by noon. Give him a commander who had a plan, who had the will to see it through to its end. But we must make do with what we have. She had taught him that.
Striding along the disordered rows of soldiers, Sten looked to the man walking beside him. He had known him only a short time in life, had fought beside him only briefly, but he was one of the few bas among them worthy of this fight. At first he had not thought it possible, this human who had once left his own men to die. But now they fought together, and for the same reason – to atone for the mistakes of the past. The man knew his duty and was not afraid to face it. This was worthy of respect.
"I am no longer a Teryn. This body is no longer a Teryn."
This one claimed to be possessed of a saarhissra; he claimed to have died. Sten did not know what to make of it, but he would not allow his discomfort to show. As they waited for the Wardens, he had overheard the strange, tattooed dwarven girl explaining something of her kind to Leliana. The Legion of the Dead they named themselves, claiming that one must die before they can truly fight. It was freedom from distraction, from desire, from all that was forbidden by the Qun. He had to admit that he approved.
But if this was a dead man, he did not act as such. Glancing behind them, Sten sighed. "Ter... Spirit. You are being followed."
Loghain followed his gaze, his scowl faltering in surprise. The little queen was trotting after them, a borrowed blade bouncing awkwardly at her hip. Sten had watched her practicing with it beneath the trees. She had a will, if little enough skill, but she was a woman and should have remained behind. Still, the last time they had stood upon these fields, it had been a woman who led them.
Thankfully, they had reached their appointed place. He turned away, doing his best not to listen.
"Anora. You should not be here."
Sten turned to take account of the van, issuing commands to this others as his eyes passed over them.
The little queen stood stiff, uncertain. But she drew herself up, daring the spirit to challenge her words. "I wanted to say goodbye."
"Goodbye...?" His hesitance made it a question. After a moment, Loghain raised a hand and patted her awkwardly on the shoulder.
"I know you're not my father."
"Not really. But I didn't get to say goodbye to him. So I thought I would... say goodbye to you. Just in case."
"No." Loghain's grip tightened. "I will kill this archdemon. I will end the darkspawn threat... for you." The last seemed almost a confession, a strange look of realization passing over him.
"You can't promise that."
"I... Then I will make sure he comes back. This Howe."
The words did not have their desired effect. He had clearly meant it as a comfort, but the queen stepped back with a hiss. "You needn't bother. If he never returns it will be too soon."
"I simply meant that... your husband is dead... and this body remembers..."
"Stop it. Don't do that." She gathered herself visibly, shaking her head with a bitter chuckle. "Cailan... They are all the same, aren't they? I should have seen it before."
Loghain took a hesitant step forward, but Anora was already backing away up the hill. She held up a warding hand, but he closed the gap between them, wrapping it round with his own. Though she stiffened, Loghain pulled her to his chest and held her there.
It was a moment before the queen relaxed, letting herself sag against him, burying her face against his marred and dented plate. Her shoulders heaved and Sten turned away, feeling suddenly indecent.
He found Leliana grinning up at him. "A beautiful moment, no?"
"I do not know what you're talking about." He loosened his blade and checked the poultices in his belt, but the bard was staring behind him still.
Sten watched from the corner of his eye as the queen pulled away. Her cheeks were dry, her expression as proud and calm as ever. "Goodbye, Justice. I wish you luck."
He did not hear Loghain's reply, did not look at him as he watched the girl go. There wasn't much time now and Leliana's knowing smirk was beginning to make him restless.
They had all gathered – the bard and the Crow and the mabari. Shale gave him a deep nod as he passed. It would be good to have the golem at his back again – the dog too, he supposed, though the thought of the long and lonely hours spent with the witch when she had taken that form still unsettled him.
The saarebas would be their key advantage, as they so often were. But let them keep their magics. This was the battle he craved, a victory born of sweat and blood. As he drew his sword – his asala– he felt the rows of men and women behind him, their excitement and their fear.
The urge took him suddenly, one that he had not felt in far too long. Raising his sword above him, Sten led the charge. Raising his sword above him, he roared.
"Not in yer life, Howe." Oghren sat atop Wynne's back – strange as thatwas – and tried not to let the other Warden sense his restlessness. He'd always wanted to try one of them ponies the humans were always going on about, but if they were anything like this... He grabbed a fistful of feathers to keep himself from slipping to one side, almost losing his balance entirely as Wynne squawked. "Shaddup, you. Just don't bloody drop me."
The griffon gave an indignant sniff.
Anders seemed to share his restlessness, shifting and twitching beneath Howe. With a sigh, the man gave the griffon's neck an idle pat.
Oghren raised a brow.
Remembering himself, Nathaniel smirked. "How does it feel? The thought of going up into that great, big sky?"
"Bought as nice as my axe burying itself in yer knee. See how you like ridin' with a bad leg."
"She won't drop you." His voice softened, suddenly serious. "Wynne knows what she's doing." He gave Anders a gentle prod with his boot. "More than I can say for some."
Anders flicked his tail and shook his head.
Oghren grinned, nodding to where Alistair sat alone across the clearing atop the black griffon. "That Morrigan's the one I'd worry about. Has a bit o' the wild in her, if ya know what I mean. Like to buck a man right off, you can tell."
Apparently Howe didn't get the joke; he simply stared expressionless in their direction.
"I heard a rumor, y'know. 'Bout another way she found to end the Blight. Er somethin'... I didn't pay much attention to the details. But seems you can save the world by ruttin'!" He teetered with laughter. "Too bad, she didn't ask ol' Oghren. We'da sent that archdemon runnin'!"
Wiping the tears from eyes, he saw that Howe hadn't even cracked a smile. Stone, you'd think they were all about to ride to their deaths. Oghren paused. It was a sobering thought. He pulled the flask from his belt with half a mind to offer some to Howe but, thinking better of it, he tilted back his head and emptied it in one, long pull.
They were down to the sour Chantry wine that Wynne had uncovered. Maybe she'd meant to use it for healing, maybe not, but he'd seen the way that Alistair had been eyeing it. Oghren belched. If they archdemon didn't kill him, keeping that boy sober might well do it.
But Alistair was coming toward them now, away from the vantage that had let him look out across the field. Coming to stand beside them, he hung his head. "They're through the gate."
Oghren wiped his mouth with the back of a hand. "'Bout damn time."
"Are you sure you're ready for this?" Alistair looked up at him, something almost like a smile twisting his lips. "I mean, all that sky..."
"Aw, right. Make fun of the dwarf. Everybody have a good laugh."
He did smile then and Oghren had to chuckle with him.
"An' what about you, Commander? Not gonna make a speech?"
Again, Alistair seemed to sag. But realizing that he was leaning against Morrigan, he straightened, shifted, glanced round the clearing and ended up staring at his hands. "Would it matter if I did?"
"Maybe. Maybe not."
"I don't suppose you have any wine left?"
Alistair sighed. "Right. Well... let's go. And... try not to fall off."
"Very inspirational," Howe mumbled.
Oghren elbowed him. "Speak for yerself."
The growl died on his lips as Wynne's claws slid in the earth, her tail streaming out behind them as she leapt toward the treeline. Fast, too fast, but her paws beat at the ground beneath them, tearing through the brush, pounding away across the dying grasses. There was a rhythm to it, his balance shifting with each stride. Maybe this wasn't so bad.
When her wings flared out to either side of him, Oghren shrieked. He would have looked round to see if Alistair or Howe had seen, but the world had suddenly gone dark. It was only when his breakfast came lurching up into his beard that he realized his eyes were closed.
A handful of feathers had come away in his hands, but he only tightened his grip. There was something below them, tiny buildings, tinier dots scurrying in all directions. At first he couldn't make sense of it, couldn't see anything beyond the darkness behind his eyes. But as Wynne climbed higher, he forced himself to look, forced himself to see.
Those big ones there were ogres. He found himself squinting at the others, but everything was too small, too damn confused. Whoever was down there, they were on their own. Fighting had consumed the market district, had broken through into the Alienage. They were pushing through.
The cry on his lips was a bit less strangled now; he could see Alistair and Morrigan ahead, Howe and Anders off to his right. Wynne banked and for a moment everything went dark, but he soon noticed Morrigan and Anders doing the same. The fighting was down there, but up here they were alone.
"Where's the bloody archdemon?" The others couldn't hear him, but had come to the same realization.
Oghren pulled his axe from his back and rested it across his lap. They were circling the tower at the city's center, a tempting target for the darkspawn archers positioned there, a tempting snack for anything bigger. A volley from the tower fell short, but Wynne swung wide, bringing them closer to Fort Drakon. It looked no prettier than he remembered. They'd destroyed most of it in the last battle, but the rubble seemed different now, glittering as it caught the rising sun.
Oh, sod. "It's a nest. It's a soddin' nest!"
Maybe Wynne understood him. She rolled away, corkscrewing back toward the tower and his breakfast came surging back again. Up was down and down was up; he prayed to the ancestors, cursed them, cried for his mother and – of all things – Branka.
And when the world righted itself, the sky erupted into blackened flame.
His breeches were warm. Stone, somebody had pissed in them.
The archdemon took to the air on massive, beating wings, turning the very wind against them. Wynne compensated, diving low and he could see Morrigan and Anders closing in. The griffons had gotten them here; now it was their turn.
Still he had his axe to hand and it was only dimly that he recalled the crossbow Alistair had given him. Right, the axe was bloody useless up here. He gave the handle a final squeeze, pinning it with his knee as he slipped the bow from his back and fitted a bolt.
Howe, too, had unslug his bow and was fitting the arrows two at a time. Showoff.
Oghren fired with a roar and was already pulling a new bolt from his quiver by the time he saw the first one miss. Useless. Alistair seemed to be having less luck. As he watched, the boy overshot and lost his bow altogether. He drew his sword as it fell and Morrigan darted close.
Right. The wings. Aim for the bloody wings.
Anders dove past them, bringing Howe in close before soaring away again. Still Nathaniel was shooting, but he wasn't wasting arrows. Pinpoints of light seemed to shine through the archdemon's left wing, tiny tears where the arrows had found their mark. And with enough tears...
"Left, woman. Go left. Bring me in close."
Wynne was quick to obey, maybe quicker than he would have liked. Luckily, his breakfast seemed to be already gone.
Oghren fitted another bolt, missed again. With a growl, he tossed the bow away and took up his axe. "Sod it. Closer, c'mon. Closer!"
Alistair and Morrigan swooped close, Alistair's sword flicking out to just catch a small bit of wing. The archdemon growled.
"Now that's what I'm talkin' about!" Oghren readied his own swing, but Anders burst from beneath them. Wynne had no choice but to bank high and roll away. "What in the—?"
Two more arrows Nathaniel loosed and this time the archdemon roared with pain. It twisted suddenly, one claw slashing out blindly. Oghren saw it connect, heard Anders' own howl. It was half a roar and half a squeal – strangely human too. It was all Oghren could do to hold on, watching as Anders and Howe careened toward the roof of Fort Drakon.
He screamed with them, but it died in his throat. It was now or never. Sod it all.
He leapt with a roar, his axe swinging out before him. When it buried itself in the muscle of the wing, the jolt nearly tore his arms off. But he held fast, vaguely realizing that he'd struck home, that the archdemon was circling, limping toward the roof. Oghren laughed, letting himself be carried along with it. He'd ridden a griffon, after all. How bad could a dragon be?
When the griffons came soaring overhead, he could not help but stop to watch. Zevran leapt forward, landing in a crouch as his daggers flashed out to either side, taking a pair of genlocks in the throat and belly. He straightened slowly, flicking away the blood and letting his eyes follow the progress of the three tiny figures, so far above.
He caught Leliana watching as well. They shared a wry smile across the battlefield before the tide swept them up again. She would make a song of it, surely. And why not? But he had heard this song before, knew too well how it ended.
Whirling aside, his elbow took a hurlock beneath the chin, staggering it as his other hand thrust a blade through its middle. The Alienage was theirs, it seemed. A contingent of dwarves had already breached the inner gate, sending it crashing down with a rumbling explosion as they made their way deeper into the city. Dwarves were everywhere he looked, in fact, defending the great and blackened tree at the Alienage's center, rousting those darkspawn who had nested in the poor and crumbling houses. Zevran had to laugh. This was Her doing, dead or no. She had made strange bedfellows of them all.
He followed the surge through the gate and into the palace courtyard. Sten stood tall atop the steps, rallying them still and Loghain led his own press round the walls. Funny, how the slightest taste of victory, of advantage, could invigorate even the most pathetic force. He had walked amongst them, had felt the restless stirring in their ranks as they waited on the hills. It was fear that he had tasted, though it had taken him a moment to realize it. But fear was like anything else, no different than the pinch of deathroot that he placed beneath his tongue each morning. Resistance was merely a matter of practice.
And now they were swept up in something greater. Desperation, he would have called it, but even that felt a vague and foreign thing. He could still recall his last visit to this courtyard, his eagerness, the sight of Her plunging ahead into the fray, the sound of Her maddened laughter. It had still been a game then, and he had resolved to play it by Her side. He had not seen – had not allowed himself to see – the reckless abandon painted there so clearly.
They had taken the yard now and he found himself laughing again. Perhaps he understood what it was that she had felt.
Beyond the next gate, Loghain stood watching the skies. The archdemon had appeared at last. Zevran stood with him, watching as it twisted and breathed its shadowed fire, watching as those three tiny blurs – suddenly so much smaller than they had at first seemed – darted and dodged away.
"Come," was all the dead man said.
Zevran should have followed, should have left the Wardens to their work, but it was better than looking to the fortress that loomed ahead. So small they were. What hope did they have of winning? Did any of them? But he had not come here to win.
When the arrow thudded into his chest, he spun with the force of it, landing hard on his back. But he did not feel it, not truly. Suddenly his breath was simply gone. His eyes were still on the battle raging above, on the crumbling battlements that he remembered all too well.
Is this what She had seen, lying in the shadow of Fort Drakon? Is this where She had died?
He rasped a chuckle but found that breath eluded him. Poetic, yes? And is that not what he had wanted?
Zevran watched with dazed detachment as the archdemon lashed out, sending one of the griffons reeling. He watched as it circled away, landing clumsy on the roof above. The others dove near, seemed to strike a wound of their own and it was the archdemon's turn to howl. It jolted him back to something like waking.
His fingers curled round the arrow's shaft, trembling to find it still there, standing stiff and true. For Rinna he had come to Ferelden, to face his death at the hands of the mighty Grey Wardens. But for Her... for Her he had sworn no less than to storm the gates of the Dark City itself. And, though she was gone, he knew no darker city than this.
A life for a life, yes? It was the only noble principle he'd ever had.
Chuckling his last, Zevran's hand curled round the shaft. Chuckling, Zevran Arainai prepared to die.
He gave the arrow a sharp twist, but found that it would not turn. He tried again, pressing down, but felt only a vague pressure against his chest. Looking to his fingers, he blinked in surprise. No blood.
Struggling up onto his elbows, he tried to breathe, found that he could. It was only a dull ache, as one has when the wind is knocked out of them. Head spinning, he prodded at the wound, gasping in surprise.
The Warden. She would not leave him alone, it seemed.
Laughing truly now, he ripped the front of his leathers, pulling free the small and battered book. The arrow had pierced it through, making a ruin of those well-read pages. Chance – and some rather sturdy leather binding – were all that had kept him from being skewered along with it.
Zevran blinked, sitting up to survey the courtyard. Save for the dead and dying, he was alone. Even the skies above were quiet. The battle had passed him by and no one had stopped to mourn his passing. And truly, who would?
He looked again to the book in his hands. Such a tiny thing, but it did not deserve such an end. Wrenching the arrow free, he tossed it aside and smoothed the pages. Destroyed. Useless. Perhaps it is time to leave it behind. He could practically head Leliana's voice behind the words.
Pushing stiffly to his feet, he found a likely bit of rubble. It would be in the right spot, or near enough. Lifting a fallen stone he tucked the book beneath and stepped back to admire his work. A strange vigil, to be sure. It seemed to be a day for metaphor and poetry. Perhaps he had a future as a bard, himself.
But first... There was blood to be spilled, fiends to be vanquished, a giant dragon to be slain. That last he would have preferred to avoid, but seeing as how he was in the neighborhood... With a smirk, Zevran darted up the steps and into the mouth of Fort Drakon.
When she had seen Anders fall, she had screamed. She hadn't been able to help it. Sten had been by her side, though, had pointed out the griffon's clumsy descent toward the roof. Leliana did not remember much of their battle through the halls of the fort; it seemed she had been holding her breath until the moment they broke through into the sun.
It almost seemed strange that the sun should shine here, but it had risen as they fought their way through the city, leaving the dark things no place to hide. This was a place of warmth, of light, of hope. Her eyes had scanned the rooftop, forgetting all of it for those few breathless moments.
But Anders had been there, lying amongst the rubble with Wynne at his side. Both were naked, bruised and human. There was a great gash across Anders' back but it was already knitting beneath Wynne's hands. It wasn't until she said that he would be alright, until he smiled up at her, that Leliana had felt truly warm.
There was no time for more than a thankful nod, a whispered prayer to the Maker. Darkspawn were still storming through the doors, her arrows taking them two at a time. She spotted Morrigan, human again, being helped to her feet by Nathaniel Howe. She shoved him away as Leliana watched, summoning a gout of flame to engulf the nearest genlock. Of Alistair there was no sign.
Sten and Loghain burst through the doors, taking the darkspawn in the rear. Maker, she had gotten ahead of them. Had she truly made her way through those halls alone? Again, she said a silent prayer of thanks.
But they weren't alone. Humans, elves, dwarves – all had made it to the rooftop. Some of the elves had already taken up position, using the rubble as cover as they unleashed volley after volley at the archdemon.
The archdemon. She saw it there at the dragon's feet, a tiny and crumpled figure, his long red beard splayed across the stones. But there was another there then, holding his shield above his head to deflect a gout of black flame as he dragged the dwarf out of harm's way. Leliana marked their progress, feathering the darkspawn that blocked her way with arrows as she followed them.
Alistair had taken cover behind a fallen column, propping Oghren against it. Leliana crouched beside them. "Is he...?"
Oghren groaned. "Ow."
"Maker's breath!" Alistair wrapped his arms round the dwarf, causing him to curse and wince with pain. "Oh... sorry. But that was... that was amazing!"
Leliana lay a hand on his knee. "Are you alright?"
"Wouldn't say no to a drink."
Alistair chuckled, but stone shifted beneath them as the archdemon roared. Another figure crashed into the column and Alistair turned to find himself face to face with Loghain.
"Come, Warden. We should end this quickly."
Rocking back on his heels, Alistair slowly raised his eyes to the archdemon. For one small moment, it seemed as though he had forgotten his purpose here. He had let himself feel relief, the thrill of victory, but it was not yet complete. Leliana wanted to reach out to him, but his gaze was distant, gone somewhere that she could not follow.
After a long moment, he sighed. "I will. I'll end it. You stay here."
Alistair blinked at that. "This is a job for a Grey Warden. Besides, the dead can't die."
"This body did die. Fighting as a Grey Warden."
"Yeah, until you brought him back." He made as if to rise, but Loghain – Justice – was quicker, his steps long and proud as he stepped through the rubble.
"No!" Alistair darted after him, grabbing his elbow to spin him round.
Another skittering of stones heralded Zevran's arrival and Leliana leapt in surprise. The elf crouched easy beside her, sharing a nod with Oghren, but his eyes were locked to the argument now raging before them. As she watched, his face went strangely pale.
Even Oghren twisted round to watch. "Arguin' over who gets to die. Heh. I should be out there."
"You have done enough." Leliana held him down.
But Zevran began creeping slowly forward. With a look of warning for Oghren, Leliana followed after. If they failed, he would get his chance. She half-wondered where Anders and Nathaniel were, but the further the better. She flushed at the selfishness of the thought.
"...I can't let you do it!" Alistair had not released his hold on Loghain's arm.
"You do not have a choice. You cannot do it alone."
"Then just – Maker, I don't believe I'm saying this – help me."
Loghain stepped close. "You are asking for my help?"
Alistair snorted, shaking his head. "Maker, look at me. I need everyone'shelp. I can't do this alone, but neither can you."
"We need each other."
"Yes, yes, fine. It's all very touching. But I'll..." He swallowed hard. "I'll be the one."
"If that it your wish."
"It is." Of all things, Alistair began to laugh. "It is."
Beside Leliana, Zevran cursed beneath his breath. "This is not the time for talk." She blinked at him, but he only shook his head with a rueful smile. "Trust me."
"Are you alright?"
"No more than you, let us say. And a good deal better than our dear Alistair." But as she watched, his eyes went wide, looking to something beyond her. Zevran burst to his feet, leaping the crumbling stones with a strangled cry. "Loghain!"
Too late she turned, too late she saw. Alistair and Loghain's argument had not gone unnoticed. It had put Loghain's back to the archdemon, had given it time to swoop behind and wrap him in its thick and piercing claws. High it lifted him as Alistair chased after, one idle toss flicking Loghain into its snapping jaws.
She could see him struggling still, groaning for the teeth clumped round his middle. Still his sword was to hand, held aloft in trembling arms.
Alistair screamed as the specter of Loghain leveled the blade, driving it into the archdemon's eye with all the force left to him. The creature howled, flinging him aside, but not before the blade landed ringing at Alistair's feet.
He stared at it for a long moment. The whisper beneath his breath might have been a final plea. But then he was scooping up the sword, running headlong across the rooftop, closing the gap as the blinded dragon thrashed. Alistair crashed hard onto his knees, letting the momentum bear him forward, raising the sword above him to slice the archdemon from neck to belly. As it collapsed, he rolled free, staggering to his feet.
Before Leliana could move to stop him, he turned the blade before him, plunging it down into the archdemon's skull.
The force of it threw her backward, the light tearing cross the sky, blinding all the world. She imagined that she heard a whisper, an answer to a question unasked, a thread of blue-tinged shadow slipping through the white. She imagined she saw Alistair, calm and safe at its center as the skies flared and boiled. But then she could see no more.
When the light faded, the archdemon was dead, that much was clear. Leliana was one of the first to rush forward, stumbling half-blind, tripping on stone and blood and Maker knew what else. But then Alistair was before her, standing beside the lifeless beast, staring down almost uncomprehending as the sword slipped from his fingers.
"Alistair!" She wanted to throw her arms around him, but as he turned she stopped short. "You're not..."
"I'm fine, I... Maker's breath, I'm... alive." He sounded surprised.
The others surrounded them now. Leliana found Anders being supported between Nathaniel and Wynne. With a nod for the old mage, she took her place beneath his arm, laying a quick kiss on his brow. But her eyes strayed back to Alistair.
He put a hand to his head, wincing in wondering pain as he made his way to the roof's edge, looking out across the place where She had fallen. Zevran moved hesitantly to his side.
When finally Alistair spoke, it was as if to himself, the whisper soft and strange. "It is a rare thing for a man to die twice. Is it enough? Are you now sated?" After a moment, he chuckled and shook his head. "No. I thought not."
"Alistair?" Leliana's eyes narrowed as they darted to Morrigan. "How...?"
But the witch looked as surprised as she. "This is powerful magic, but it is not mine."
"I asked for help. Isn't that what you wanted?" The familiar petulance in his tone was almost a relief, but he turned with a heavy sigh, raising his eyes from beneath lowered brows. They were pupiless white, tendrils of pale fire licking toward his temples.
Beside her, Leliana heard Anders mutter, "Uh oh."
The flame seemed to snake up his arms, a halo of blue-tinged shadow that seemed to follow his every movement. Alistair turned back to the edge, looking out across the city. Below them, the darkspwan were scattering but still Denerim burned. "It is... not right. But Loghain is dead. Justice... the only justice I ever wanted... is done." Again, his voice grew soft. Alistair raised a hand, watching the strange flame flare and flicker between his fingers. "Or perhaps it is just beginning."