The cavern was quiet, the water still. As Nolan and his men made their way into the space, they only found Idriss crouched in the water, his back to them and something – someone – clutched to his chest. Broga gestured to his men to check the cavern before he and Nolan then approached Idriss.
The was bitterly cold, immediately making Nolan’s feet and legs go numb. He had to will his teeth not to chatter as they gingerly waded through the water. “Idriss.” Broga said gently, touching the man’s shoulder.
“I was too late.” he whispered. “I failed.”
Nolan was loath to see whose body it was that Idriss held in his arms. He didn’t need to see the green tunic to know that it was Erinael. “No. Oh no, no.” he murmured. “It can’t be…” When he moved to take her away from Idriss, the man growled and shoved him away. It was only through Broga’s assistance that Idriss would release her to Nolan.
A sob caught in his throat as Nolan thrashed to the edge of the water, almost losing his footing twice. As soon as he had lain her out, he began pumping on her chest and breathing into her mouth. It took two men to pull him from her. “Let go of me!” he bellowed, struggling against them.
Morena threw herself down in front of him, taking his face in her hands. “She’s gone.” she said softly. Tears spilled down her cheeks. Helpless, he collapsed against her as wracking sobs overtook him.
Behind them, Broga pulled Idriss from the water, the man doing little to resist. Broken, he then crawled on hands and knees to Erinael, curling up next to her and pulling her into his arms.
Her skin was pale and cold to the touch, a blue tinge to her lips. There were no obvious wounds to indicate the manner of death, and her expression was serene. She had gone peacefully.
“Where is Tanis? Seresana?” Broga asked,his voice soft as he questioned Idriss.
Idriss carefully ran a finger over Erinael’s face, committing her features to memory. “They crossed over.” He said simply. “Zuran and Marisandra, too. They were all of the kindred and they just dissolved.” He wept as he kissed Erinael’s face.
Broga sat back on his heels and surveyed the cavern. The runes were slowly dimming, and the roots seemed to be becoming dull. Not lifeless, but like the Great Tree had lost some of its essence. Even Igdrasil’s spirit had crossed over.
“Eraltes and Igdrasil didn’t seal the portal completely. They merely prevented anything from being brought through.” he murmured. “And she was the final sacrifice…”
Idriss lunged for him then. “Don’t you speak of her in that way, ever!” His eyes had become crazed as he attempted to throttle the Dead Hunter.
Broga broke the sloppy choke-hold easily enough. “There’s still time, you fool.” he scolded. “You could cross over and be with your parents. Be with her.” He gestured to Erinael’s still form.
Idriss returned to Erinael, pulling her into his arms and rocking back and forth. He picked wet hair from her face and kissed lifeless lips. Then, without a word, he lifted Erinael and carried her into the water wading ever deeper.
The only sign of his passing was the surge of bubbles that propelled Erinael’s body to the surface, where it floated in graceful effigy.
Broga retrieved her from the water and then quietly carried her up the passage to the outside. There, what remained of Tanis’ men were putting the final touches to a set of funeral pyres. Only one was needed,the rest were ceremonial. Despite the freezing cold of his wet clothes, he personally performed the Final Rites.
Dusk was upon them, and soon the stars would begin to appear in the night sky. And the Dragon Star would begin the end of its journey. It was a fitting end.
Exhausted and lost in the shock of grief, Nolan could only hold on to Morena as the pyres were lit. A new normal would have to be found. They would return to the west, and Nolan would be crowned. The Dead Hunters would rally and hunt down all that remained of the Necromancer magic. Only then could the Eastern lands begin to heal and Broga and those like him who felt the weariness of a long life would then join their loved ones on the other side.
The water was cold. It burned her flesh and her lungs as she forced herself to breathe it in. It choked her, but she resisted the instinct to kick to the surface. To cough and to sputter in the air.
The water soon began to feel not so cold. Almost warm, even. The choking lessened.
She was not alone. A man took her by the hand, smiling at her as he led her deeper. It was as if she could breath underwater, the chest-splitting ache was gone.
The water grew darker as they swam deeper. But there was a light. A warm and beckoning light.
And then they broke the surface of a warm sea. The sun shone down on them as they gulped in the warm, sweet, salty air.
“You’re Igdrasil, aren’t you?” she asked, knowing exactly who he was. He nodded, and laughing, pulled her with him toward the beach where others were waiting.
He ran onto the beach, getting lost in the crowd that hurried to embrace him. Erinael followed sedately after him, noticing her white gown for the first time. She felt a sudden pang of nervousness as the group turned to welcome her as well.
“Welcome, Kin of my Kin!” they said happily. “We have been waiting for you!”
She quickly found herself caught up in the joy of the moment as three more figures were spotted making their way to the shore. Seresana she recognized easily enough, the woman having disguised herself as a mender the whole time Erinael had known her. Igdrasil met her out in the surf, picking her up and whirling her around and around. Marisandra and Zuran advanced into the crowd of their kin, Zuran looking more pleased than the other.
Erinael was happy to see that Seresana and Igdrasil had been reunited at last. However, remorse was in competition for her heart. She had left Idriss behind.
Hearing cries of welcome, she turned, anxiously hoping to see that Idriss had come after all, only to see Tanis wading toward shore. Tears filled her eyes as she purposefully stepped towards him.
He caught her in a hug, squeezing her tight. “You did good, girl.” he said.
“But I left him.” she whispered. In reply, Tanis turned her to look out over the water.
He continued to hold her as Idriss stepped on the beach. Seresana and Igdrasil were the first to make their way to him before all three were swallowed up by the crowd of Kindred. When at last Idriss had broken through the gauntlet, his gaze settled on her.
Tanis kissed her cheek before pushing Erinael forward. Her steps were halting as she made her way towards him. He had followed after her to this place. This Summerland. There was no death, no pain. Only joy and love. With a bound, Idriss closed the gap, seizing her in his arms.
“I thought I lost you.” she said, tears streaming down her face.
“No, you didn’t.” he said as he kissed her.