It’s over. After a year of waiting, I wrote the end for you. And maybe it’s not the ending that it could be. But at least it is AN ending, and now if I want to revise it, it will be easier to make sense of. Speaking of revisions, I haven’t forgotten anyone’s comments/criticisms, and I want to thank everyone for making comments/criticisms, and I’ll definitely be taking them all into account when/if I get around to revising.
I am not sure where to put the first scene in this. It feels like a scene that goes in the middle of a chapter. But there isn’t really room in the flow of the story to move it. That’ll be another thing to revise. :3 This chapter took two days to write, and is approximately 8100 words long (out of a total of approximately 69,600). The only part that I had written previously was the part about sandwiches, and the death of the spacedragon.
If you want to read from the beginning before you read this new chapter, here’s a link to Chapter 1 for ye. If you’re just looking for your cameo character, everyone gets several minutes in this one, except Marcus, who is ded-ded-dedy-permaded. I might turn around and throw in a reference to him later, or I might not. I haven’t really decided yet. But thanks everyone for letting me borrow their characters; they were super helpful to have around and I’d be glad to see them again.
Hope you enjoyed this story in all its rough-draft glory. I’m glad to have written it.
The night was dark and moonless. The air was still, although the scent of late summer flowers still hovered in it.
Illinia stood on her balcony, in her husband’s arms. There was no other place that was home for her; not even Mirkwood was home now unless her husband was there as well. His warm embrace, his gentle voice, his cool clear scent, that was all she wanted from life. And she had it. Was there any other as fortunate as she was?
“Illinia,” he said, almost inaudibly, “there is something… I need to tell you.”
She looked up at him quizzically. “Something difficult to tell?”
“Yes. I… forgive me.”
She smiled fondly at him. “Whatever it is, if you are here, I can bear it.”
He let her go and took two steps back. “Then I should never tell it to you.” His voice was hard, not his own.
She stiffened in apprehension, and he hesitated, clearly agonized by the decision he was about to make.
“Mith’las…” she said at last.
He interrupted her. “That is not my name.”
“Well, no, but-”
“No, I am not him. …Forgive me!”
She blinked in frightened incomprehension, then drew back as his form blurred. When she could see him clearly again in the starlight, he was a little shorter, blue-skinned, white-haired, black-eyed.
Her world tumbled around her and she felt dizzy. “What?”
“I’m sorry,” he said miserably. “I… couldn’t resist.”
“…It’s complicated. I don’t know whether it was originally to hurt you, or if I’m desperate enough to act around the fact that you would never accept me as myself… Illinia, please… you’ve broken me. I’ve lost. You should let them kill me. Just do it.”
“No!” she cried. “No, no no no… Michael… how could you…?”
“Because I love you, you stupid little naive bird.” His shape began to blur again, to take her husband’s form, but she turned away quickly, hiding her face. It was amazing. Only a few moments ago she had nothing to wish for. Now her life was almost as broken as the man in front of her.
After a pause, arms went around her. She pushed him away ineffectually, then saw that he was in his own form again. There was something in his dark eyes, some kind of desolation, that almost matched her own. Perhaps that was why she didn’t fight as he kissed her again.
He kissed her harder, and to her own unwelcome surprise, she found herself kissing him back. She was weak, she only wanted someone to comfort her… and Michael needed comfort as well. Tears began to stream down her face.
She broke away and stumbled hastily across the balcony to huddle in a corner. “Was this your own way of winning, in the end?” she asked hoarsely. “Your greatest betrayal short of murdering everyone in the castle?”
He flinched. “Not this time.”
He stood silently for a long time, like the soldier he was. Illinia was no soldier. She curled into a little ball and sobbed quietly.
“I’m sorry, Illinia.”
“Why?” she whispered. “Why couldn’t it have been real? Why am I so weak?” Even as she spoke, she knew that it was right that he tell her, even if it was wrong that he had deceived her in the first place. It would have come out eventually, because all lies came out eventually, but it was right that he had told her himself, on his own initiative. For that, perhaps, she could be proud of him. When it stopped hurting so much. “You don’t know where he is, do you?”
She stopped herself from asking ‘why’ over and over, at least out loud, and sat leaning against the balcony wall. “We should try to sleep.”
He gave a short, unhappy laugh. “As if it’s possible. But I will attempt it.” He hesitated still. “I’m sorry.”
She gave a jerky nod. “Things might be better in the morning.”
“No, they won’t. You should kill me.”
“Michael! Don’t kill yourself.”
“What else do I have to live for?” He came back from the doorway to his room, white brows furrowed. “I am your slave. I can no longer function among my own people. I can’t function without you among your people. You twist me to your will without trying, without even knowing, and you will never, ever see me as more than a… a… I don’t even know how you see me. A… …friend.” It was the first time he’d used the word in anything approaching an unironic sense, and she looked up in surprise. “I have no hopes there, certainly not after the stunt I just pulled. Although I’m pretty certain you did just kiss me willingly… No one else here will accept me without you, not even… Lusiel, or Eliara, or Kaisten. Your former friends hate me, your new friends only tolerate me because of you, and the others would hate and fear me if they found out what I really am. You may have won against me, but you cannot win against the world. It’s the same thing as when we met.” Words spent, he fell to a sitting position across from her.
She swallowed. “I know you won’t believe me, but you may have things to live for besides me. Maybe you just don’t know them yet.”
He snorted. “Oh? Like you have other things to live for besides your husband?”
That brought another rush of tears to her eyes, but she controlled them with an effort, clenching her teeth together until they passed. “I would not want to live without him, no. I left behind my homeland, my family, my old friends, for him. And yet… I have new friends. I do think Lusiel and Siasara, Kip, Eliara, Jaye, all of them do like you in their own way. You can’t dismiss them.”
He pondered that for several minutes. “I don’t believe you yet. But I will acknowledge my world-view isn’t as strong as it once was. I still think you would throw yourself off the nearest cliff if you had irrefutable proof that your husband was dead. But I never had a chance in the first place, and I’m still alive, so I guess I can go on living for the time being. Perhaps you’ll find some purpose for my life…”
She faced him and rose to her knees, giving her a rare height advantage. “I am not going to sacrifice you, and you are not going to sacrifice yourself for me.”
He grinned tightly. “Well, there goes my melodramatic plan. Fine. Whatever you wish.”
“Michael, what is it you want besides my affection?”
He started, as if he wasn’t expecting that. His hand half reached out to her waist, and when she made no move to stop him, his eyes grew wide. “You… I just hurt you, the worst I’ve ever hurt anyone – except myself by getting myself into this mess – and the worst you’ve ever been hurt, I would guess… and you still trust me.” He tentatively touched her side, but did not pull her into an embrace. “How do you do that?”
She tilted her head and raised her eyebrows inquisitively. “You’re not going to throw a tantrum this time?”
“This ti- Oh.” She still remembered how he had struck her on their first day in Harken Keep. “No.”
“You can always hurt me,” she said gently. “You could even hurt me physically, although I don’t fear that anymore. But you are also lost and confused in this strange world, like me. You’re in a place you never thought you’d be, doing things you never thought you’d do, aren’t you? Things that once you would have thought against your very nature, perhaps, as far as your nature was a reflection of your environment. And yes, my heart is newly broken, but I can’t hate you for it. Maybe I can’t forgive you just yet, but I will. In fact, I am rather proud of you, for the way you’ve adapted, for the way you’ve coped, for confessing to me on your own…”
“Like your pet dog,” he growled, and she sighed.
“No. Michael, you are my friend, a good friend. You can’t be my lover. But… if you don’t fit in this world anymore… come with me to the next one. Come with me to Valinor.”
“He would be there too, though, wouldn’t he?” His fingers tightened on her side.
“In Valinor you will find healing for your heartache. I swear it.”
“That doesn’t answer my question-”
She pulled away and stood abruptly. “Go to bed. We will talk more in the morning. For now… I do need some time to myself.”
He slowly pulled himself to his feet.
“Don’t do anything foolish,” she said anxiously, trying to read his face, and turned to go down into the garden, where she could let out some of the tears of loss that were still tight in her heart.
“Have another sandwich?” Stella asked her, offering her the plate.
Illinia smiled at the ridiculousness of it all and took another sandwich.
Jaye, his fiancée Stella, and Illinia were sitting in the middle of a broad grassy meadow, sun shining, birds chirping, breeze rustling the young trees nearby – on a picnic. Stella, who was short, blonde, and buxom, had arrived on a visit two days earlier, a week after Illinia’s evening confrontation.
Immediately on meeting Illinia, Stella had fussed over her thinness and the shadows of her eyes, and insisted that they go out for a picnic one fine afternoon. Jaye had bowed helplessly before his lover, and Illinia had been dragged along in wide-eyed consternation. Lusiel had laughed at all of them, and Michael had hidden himself.
So they were sitting in the sunshine, pretending as best they could that everything was normal, while Eliara and a band of her best scouts surreptitiously patrolled in a 500-meter radius around them.
“Tell me about your lover,” Stella persisted, giggling girlishly, leaning towards Illinia in a way that suggested she had known her since forever.
“Ah… well… what do you want to know?” Illinia asked shyly, cradling the cup of her drink in front of her like a shield. It was more difficult than it used to be to think of her husband now, warped as it was by the deception of the previous months. She hadn’t told Jaye about it. “I could tell you many things, but it’s hard to find words for some of them. Even now, when ever-green memory brings him to me, and I think of his familiar aspects, I find it hard to put in words. But he is very brave, and kind, gentle with me, but fierce to our enemies.”
Stella squealed giddily. “You’re so poetic!”
Jaye held up a hand, listening intently – not to her, but to something in the world around them. Illinia tilted her head, straining to hear, and heard nothing.
No, not nothing… something Stella’s squeal had partly masked. There had been a cry of pain, and the echoes of it were still in the wind and the trees.
Everything went very still for a moment.
Then screams came pouring over the side of the hill to the south, screams of agony and screams of terror, mixed with harsh rasping noises and the growling of a massive-sounding creature.
Jaye leapt to his feet, seizing the lance that he never let stray too far from his side, and settled into a defensive stance as Eliara came running up to them, her winged helmet slightly askew.
“Sir!” she cried, saluting hastily. “Some kind of creature has ambushed us! We don’t know what it is and we can’t hurt it. We’re taking heavy losses, sir!”
“You didn’t bring a weapon, did you?” Jaye asked Esgalwen, who shook her head and showed him her new little knife.
“I’ll have someone bring you a bow,” Eliara said quickly. “Sir, permission to send Kaisten for aid.”
“Permission granted,” Jaye grunted. “In fact, we should all retreat back to the castle.”
“What’s going on?” Stella asked Illinia in a frightened whisper.
“I don’t know,” Illinia whispered back.
A huge jagged silver shape rose over the top of the hill; Eliara’s troops were fleeing before it. Eliara growled and ran to help them, barking orders and brandishing her spear. The silver shape grew clearer – it was shaped like a dragon, but it seemed to be made of metal, and covered in far too many spikes. Its eyes glowed a bright, malevolent green. It opened its jaws and roared, and a noxious green gas billowed out. Two unlucky soldiers who breathed it in coughed and fell limp to the ground.
Stella whimpered, and Illinia was frozen to the spot. Even Jaye’s hand shook slightly.
But in front of them, Eliara was shouting orders, running to and fro to individually shake terrified soldiers into some semblance of self-control. The giant dragon was not quick, but it was still bearing down on her as one soldier ran up to Illinia to give her his bow.
Eliara had gathered a small band around her, and instead of retreating, was leaping into battle against the dragon itself. It didn’t seem affected by any of her attacks, instead swatting at the attacking elves as a minor distraction while it continued straight on its way – towards Jaye, Stella, and Illinia.
“Eliara!” Jaye’s bellow resounded easily across the meadow. “Retreat! We need reinforcements!”
Eliara’s helmeted head turned toward him, and she nodded reluctantly. She took a look down over the other side of the hill, and flinched. Then she came speeding back, the remnants of her party behind her.
“Sir!” she gasped. “There’s a vast army! Many thousands, perhaps, and I can’t tell who they are.”
Jaye swore under his breath.
The silver dragon crouched back for a moment, and then sprang heavily into the air. The elves dodged easily, but it shook the ground so hard when it landed that a number of them lost their footing.
“Scatter!” Eliara cried, stabbing her lance at the monster’s eye. There was the sound of shattering glass, and the eye went dark. The elves fled in all directions, with Jaye sheltering Stella and Illinia following the tall elf.
But the dragon did not seem to be in any discomfort, or to have lost any vision – it reached out and batted Eliara away twenty feet; she landed in a crouch and came sprinting back to the attack. It snapped its teeth at her and she skidded to a halt, trying to find some way to attack it away from its dangerous head. A claw reached out towards her with sharp shining claws.
“What are you doing?” came a distinctly unimpressed voice, and another voice laughed cheerfully.
An arm wrapped around Eliara and the far-too-tall figure it was attached to was already in motion, dashing towards the retreating group, as a shorter figure appeared hovering in the air above them.
The dragon froze, shuddered, and crumbled into dust.
“Hey, lassie,” the tall figure said to Illinia as he trotted easily past her.
“V-valiensin??” she gasped, startled.
“What about me?” said a voice on her other side, and there was Tharash, blinking into existence beside her.
All she could do was gape.
“You can close your mouth now,” he told her gruffly. “Also, why are you running?”
Eliara struggled and kicked until Valiensin put her down. “In case you didn’t notice, that dragon was not all we had to deal with. Thanks for saving us from that, but there’s a giant freakin’ army behind it too.”
“That one?” Tharash said in a monotone, pointing ahead of them.
Jaye shielded his eyes with his hand. “No! That’s Lu and our army. All right, Stella, you go with Siasara and get back home safely, do you understand?”
“Yes, Jaye… You come back safe yourself, or I will hunt you down and kick you in the shins!”
As Jaye had said, Siasara came straight for Stella, with a quick, anxious glance at Illinia. But for Illinia came Torrigan, Mira, Kellan, and Michael; Michael was carrying her weapons and took a place close beside her. They might not have resolved their relationship yet, but she knew he would guard her more closely than ever before, and she was grateful.
“We have to retreat immediately,” Jaye said to Lusiel.
The cheerful commander grimaced. “We can’t, actually. Siasara’s going to keep Stella near the back, maybe try to sneak her out with magic if there’s occasion for it, but they’re cutting us off. It’s a very nicely laid trap. We saw you were going to be in trouble from the tower and came as soon as we could. Now we’re going to have to fight.”
“We’ll give it to them!” Mira cried, astride a young armoured griffon. “Orders?”
Lusiel smiled, and glanced at Michael.
“They lured us out from our best defenses, to hit us with overwhelming strength,” Michael said slowly, tucking blonde hair behind his ear. He glanced back at Lusiel. “The question is, do you want to retreat to our defenses, which would be sensible and what they were built for, or do you want to do something daring to take them by surprise?”
“How is that even a question?” Kip put in from behind Lusiel. “You know what he’s going to say. And I agree with him.”
Lusiel nodded vigorously.
“All right.” Michael frowned at the screaming tide of outlandish warriors bearing down on them. They didn’t look like the enemies they had normally fought. “There comes their cavalry around our flanks. I recommend our cavalry form a wedge, the tip of a spear we shall drive towards the river. We can break out of encirclement and fight more effectively near the water. How many aquamancers do we have?”
“A couple,” Lusiel replied, and raised his voice. “Form wedge! Cavalry, point, charge west!”
Illinia was conscious of her lack of armour, but there was nothing she could do about it now. She tested the string of her bow as they ran behind their cavalry to meet the left wing of the enemy army. Ahead came the familiar clashes and shrieks of battle, and then the flak of spells filled the air above them along with a wave of arrows. Illinia ducked instinctively, then sent a trio of arrows arcing back in answer.
The enemy was upon them, and there was no time for more orders or strategy. This would be a slugging match, not the kind of battle she liked; where each side wore each other down by attrition. But their own side was so much smaller than the other side to begin with. This was probably going to be the end of the war – and of her quest. And her life.
A purple lightening bolt crackled past her and sparked through a section of the enemy, but it wasn’t as devastating as it usually was. Kip frowned and tried again, twirling his staff. “Someone has dampened the magic in this area.”
“Perhaps the stream is not an effective goal, then,” Lusiel said. “We’re surrounded. We fight here!”
She could hear Tharash and Valiensin bickering about the probabilities of successfully applying chaos magic, and marvelled at how they fought together. They were both quick-footed, but Valiensin’s great sword was flickering and twirling as if it weighed nothing in his hand, while Tharash just melted the face of any soldier who came close to him. They supported each other, fought as a team. She wondered how often they had done it before. Jaye joined them, and then no enemy dared go near them.
Then she caught sight of a massive, hulking figure in the midst of the horde. That must be the enemy leader. She didn’t even remember his name, didn’t care. If he was defeated, then the battle would be over, wouldn’t it?
As if they’d had the same thought, she saw Torrigan and Lusiel leaping at the figure. Torrigan’s sword shone with an orange-tinted white, and a glow was around him. Lusiel’s swords glowed blue and green, and left butterfly-shaped sparks behind. Mira and Kellan followed them, Kellan doing cartwheels right up to the figure and then darting away, and Mira stooping from the sky at him on her griffon. Mira laughed; it was plain to see that she loved flying. Then an arrow struck her griffon’s wing and she tumbled to the ground in the middle of the melee.
Illinia swiftly nocked a pair of arrows to her bow and let fly at the enemy leader. It would be suicide for her to get in close, but she could certainly help her friends from where she stood. Except that her arrows bounced off the dark grey armour as if they were made of twigs.
She cried out as someone pushed her, and looked up to see Michael standing over her, halberd on the defense. There was a thunk, and he jerked. An arrow stood out from his chest, entirely too close to his heart.
Illinia screamed and reached out to him. For the briefest second, just as she caught him, her mind went completely blank, and she felt something much greater than her touch her mind. There was a wrench, and then she was herself again, stumbling to her knees with the deadweight of her friend against her small body.
Something white and shining swept over the field. “Oh, great,” Tharash muttered. “A deus ex machina.”
“Don’t complain too hard,” Valiensin grinned at him. “You’re only one step below that yourself.”
Illinia didn’t even see as the field was emptied of enemy soldiers, as the people fighting them simply vanished, as the tall leader figure clutched his chest and crumpled to the ground. All she could see was the shapeshifter gasping for breath in her arms, his mouth twisted in pain and his eyes wide with fear. Even as she gathered all her healing powers, he jerked and fell still, breath sighing away.
Michael’s body shivered, and his elven disguise faded away, leaving him as himself.
“Uh, hold on,” Lusiel said. “Eliara, Jaye, keep the soldiers away…”
But it was too late.
“Is that… a shapeshifter?” “Why is our Lady clinging to a shapeshifter?” “Is that why we were so badly outnumbered, did he betray us?” “Who was he among us?”
As they began to gather, some pointed their weapons at her, but she paid them no attention. She rocked back and forth, clinging to his bloodstained body, tears streaming down her face, and she lifted her face to the blue sky and wailed.
The white light swooped down on the battlefield, and plucked Illinia from where she sat.
Instantly, the world turned cloudy white-gold, just as it had done before, when Illinia had died. She shivered, hoping she wasn’t dead again, and tried to stem her tears.
“No, you are not dead,” the voice of Ilora broke into her thoughts. “I wished to speak with you again.”
Now Illinia really trembled, because while her shyness made it difficult for her to express coherent thoughts sometimes, her thoughts had no such shyness and were running faster than she could catch them. She tried to voice the important ones, though. “Why me? What was this all about?” And sniffed mightily.
The goddess drifted closer, smiling. “Because you are an elf, but not one of my people.”
Illinia shook her head, confused.
“The evil Lord was not of this world either. None of us could fight him directly, not even when he allied himself with the servants of the evil gods. And then he picked a fight with my people. Mine. I do not know why. But you… I did it to help you, and to let you help me. I was glad when you died, because then I could speak to you. And this now, having spoken to you once before, having manifested now, all makes it possible to speak face-to-face with you again.”
“I know your quest. I watched you travel. Your trials were not entirely arranged by me, yet by choosing you, I could give you the strength you need to continue on.”
“You mean my strength comes from you?” Illinia despaired. She had thought she was growing inside, but if it came from Ilora, she would still be weak once she left this world.
“No, but by choosing you, by giving you greater trials, you have grown far beyond what you once were, and yet you are still yourself. I like you, outsider Esgalwen, and I wish you well in your quest. And of course I am grateful that you saved my people – and Elberron itself – from destruction. And so I have a gift for you.”
“You don’t have to do that…”
“But it is so easy!” Ilora chuckled. “Look closely. I do not know much outside this world, but I know a little. Is this not him whom you seek?”
Illinia gasped. There was her husband, on the edge of a lush green forest, looking out on a barren grey wasteland. There was his companion beside him. Her husband looked anxious and sad, and yet he was as handsome as he had ever been. Her heart longed to be there with him, to smooth as much of the worry from his face as she could.
“He misses you,” Ilora said off-handedly. “All the while he was in this world, he missed you.”
“Why did you not choose him to save your people?” Illinia asked. “He would have been a much better choice.”
“But the evil Lord already knew him and was hunting him. He was not hunting you and so you were safe a while longer.”
“Can- can you take me to him?”
“No, I cannot. You will have to ask your demon friend to help you.”
Illinia frowned. “I don’t have a demon friend…”
“He looks human, but he is not.”
“Tharash is not a demon!”
“He is not wholly human, either, and his power is too great to be wielded by a mortal. Be glad that he is a friend of you and Flairé – him you call Valiensin – or my allies and I would go to war with him for his unnaturalness.” Ilora’s voice was cold.
Illinia looked away, not wanting to fight the goddess, yet wanting to defend Tharash. “What happened to the enemies?”
“They are gone,” said the goddess offhandedly.
“Yes, of course. I removed them all.”
Illinia flinched. “That seems… a bit unfair.”
“They were killing my people. I killed them. What would you have done?”
“I… would have sent them back home…?”
“Where they could gather again?”
“But without their leader…”
“It doesn’t matter. Death is all they deserve, a quick death to send them off to their cruel gods.”
Illinia shivered. Sometimes allies were not all they were advertised to be.
“I shall return you to your friends now,” Ilora said, as smiling as if the topics of voidmages and genocide had never come up.
“Oh!” Illinia cried. There was one other thing. “What about Michael?”
“The shapeshifter who died for you?”
“Is it possible… you brought me back…”
“No. He is not one of my people, or Culann’s people, or in fact anyone’s people. He is alone, and will never be welcomed into any of the pantheons. I admire what you did, but his transformation was not complete.”
“But it was!” Illinia pleaded. She trembled for her life, hoping the goddess wouldn’t get angry. “He lived with us, worked with us… he loved me, he died for me. Surely he receives more than eternal nothingness or damnation.”
“Shut up,” said a familiar sarcastic voice. “I’m busy being dead. There might not be a lot here, but there’s definitely not a lot in the living world. So leave me alone.”
“Michael!” Illinia cried. “Where are you?”
“Dead. Go away. Go to your husband. The two of you have waited long enough, and I don’t want to be around to see your reunion.”
Illinia faced Ilora again. “Is that really him, or are you tricking me?”
“I am not the goddess of tricks, Twice-Born.”
Michael appeared, blue skin and white hair, and gave a ghostly sigh. “I can’t even rest in peace, can I? What do you want?”
“I want peace for you, but real peace. I don’t want you to be forever alone.”
“You want me to have a happy ending?” His smile was sarcastic, but a little bit sad, too. Illinia recalled their early discussions and guessed that he was thinking of them too.
She smiled. “That would be nice.”
He spread his hands. “If I told you that I am at peace, would you go? I am happy, Illinia, as happy as ever I’ve been. You’re safe. That’s all that matters.”
Tears came into her eyes. “You idiot. There’s more to life than me.”
He actually laughed. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you call someone an idiot before. Did I get under your skin that much?”
She sniffed and tried to smile. “I told you – you can’t be my lover. But you are a good friend, and I… I really like you. I don’t want to lose you, not when you’re still finding yourself.” She leaned forward tentatively. “I can’t hug you, can I?”
He shook his head. “That’s all right. I don’t think I could control myself, and I’d end up making out with you under the disapproving gaze of what’s-her-face over there. And then I’d get burned to a crisp for touching her champion. No thanks.”
She laughed a little and sniffled some more.
“Oh, don’t cry,” and despite his words, he crossed the distance to her, trying to hold her in his ghostly arms. She felt nothing, yet was comforted anyway. “I’m not lying. I accomplished my goal. I have no regrets. Except for deceiving you, of course.” He peered anxiously at her. “Have you forgiven me yet?”
“Yes, yes, of course I have,” she said, reaching up to touch his untouchable face. “If you are so adamant about it, I won’t go hunting for a way to reincarnate you. But… if you ever wish to come to Valinor…”
“Now that I’m dead, I’ll have all the time in the world to find it. Even if it’s not actually in this world. I’ll go there and wait for you. She can’t stop me. None of them can stop me.”
Illinia grew calm again. “I’ll wait for you, too, if I get there first. I actually think you and my husband might get along well.” She smiled a little. “I hope we get a chance to find out, someday.”
He shrugged. “Can’t say I’m terribly fond of the idea yet, but you said there’s healing for heartache there, so perhaps I won’t mind so much once I make it there.” His arms fell to his sides, and he stepped back. “You’d better go. Don’t keep the others waiting too long. That Tharash person doesn’t look very patient, and if you want him to take you to the next world…”
“I know,” she said, trying and failing not to start crying again. “Thank you so much, Michael.”
“Don’t say goodbye,” he said gently. “I love you, Illinia… Esgalwen.”
“I… Thank you. I-I love you too.” Platonically, it went without saying. But it felt right to say.
Ilora moved closer to her, smiling serenely as she usually did, and everything grew too bright to see.
She came to herself in a small tent, still clutching Michael’s body. It was cold and heavy, but she held it closer as she looked around.
Lusiel was there, face smudged with blood and dirt and clothes torn, looking like he wasn’t sure whether it was safe to really let his smile out or not, though he clearly wanted to. “Are you all right?”
She let out a deep breath. “Yes. Thank you. How is everyone, Lusiel?”
“They’re pretty shaken up,” Kaisten chirped from over by the door to the tent. “At least, the soldiers are. Ma’am. Er. Illinia.”
“I understand,” she said, and laid Michael’s body gently on the cot beside her. “I guess it would be a shock to learn that the tactician responsible for many of our victories was actually someone you thought of as an enemy.” She looked at Kaisten. “You’re not shaken up?”
He rustled his wings a bit uneasily, but shrugged. “I reported to both of you a lot. I guess if you trusted him, it’s good enough for me.”
“And you’re so obviously upset by his death,” Eliara said, frowning. Her helmet, tucked under her arm, was missing one of its wings. “He must have had some good in him. I’m not going to call a witch-hunt on anyone.”
Kip poked his head in through the tent door. “Yes, she’s awake.” He withdrew and held the door open for Torrigan, Mira, and Kellan.
Mira rushed to Illinia’s side. “You! You scared us all so much again!” As Illinia leaned away from her wrath, her face changed abruptly. “Oh my gosh, you got to meet Ilora twice? You are one crazy-lucky lady! What was it like? You spent a lot of time talking to her this time, didn’t you? What did you talk about?”
“She told me why she chose me,” Illinia said, and explained as best she could why it had been her to be chosen as the hero of the elves, and not some more deserving person.
“Sounds dumb,” Kellan grumbled afterwards. “Kinda risky and circumstantial.”
“Gods and goddesses don’t usually make sense by mortal perspectives,” Torrigan said calmly. “I am very glad to see you alive, Illinia. I will even say I respect Michael for what he did for you. You were right. And I am glad of it.”
Illinia looked down at him. “Ilora wouldn’t let me bring him back. But he came and told me he’s all right with that. I did want him to have a happy ending, but he doesn’t agree. I told him to go to Valinor, and he said he would, so maybe I’ll see him again someday. I hope the Valar accept him. I hope Eru accepts him.”
“I’m glad,” said Torrigan, nodding. “I think he will. If someone can give their life for a friend, a friend who used to be an enemy, I can’t think of a god in the good pantheons who would turn him away.”
“There you are, a professional opinion at work,” Mira said, and pointed dramatically at Torrigan, who smiled a little.
“What are you going to do now?” Lusiel asked.
“One of the things she granted me was a vision of where my husband is, or at least where he was recently. I want to ask Tharash if he will please take me there so I can continue my search…”
“He’s an odd one,” Kip put in. “And that’s coming from me.”
Illinia smiled. “I can agree with you. But I like him.”
“You like odd sorts,” Kellan said. “So I can’t figure out why you don’t like me!”
“I never said I didn’t like you,” Illinia protested. “I just… don’t understand you, and you scare me!”
Jaye and Siasara also entered the tent, which was beginning to feel rather crowded.
“I have the army begun the burial work, Lu,” Jaye reported, saluting.
“And I’ve got some of them working on preparing the celebratory stuff,” Siasara said, slipping behind Lusiel’s folding chair and hugging him from behind. “Hi, Illinia! I’m so glad you’re still alive.”
“Me too,” Illinia said, fighting tears yet again. “And all thanks to Michael.”
“Yes, I’m sorry about him. We’ll honour him.”
“Will the others, though?” Eliara said. “Like I said, I have nothing against him, even if he wasn’t what we thought he was. I take it you guys knew. But even if I don’t have anything, a lot of the army does. If we bury him with honours, in two days his grave will be vandalized.”
“I don’t suppose you’d consider taking his ashes with you, perhaps?” Kip asked. “It’s a perfectly respectful form of interment, am I right, Paladin?” Torrigan nodded.
“I could do that, yes,” Illinia said, and brightened. If she did that, and if he felt anything near her the way she felt near her husband, then he would rest easy through all the strange lands she carried him through. Even if he had no land to call home, she could be his home. The thought pleased her.
“Kaisten, could you please go see if Flairé and Tharash are still around?” Siasara asked. “I don’t know how long Tharash is going to stick around, and you don’t want to miss your ride.”
“Miss what ride?” Tharash grumbled, appearing in their midst. “Am I going to be used for cheap taxi service again?”
Valiensin followed the mage in a more conventional fashion – by walking – and swatted at his hat. “Oh, come on. We respect your vast over-poweredness. Think of it more like a cheap taxi service… in a gold-plated carriage pulled by Akhal-Teke horses. With champagne and cakes. Except you don’t resemble any of that, Mr. Scruffypants, you just take us to otherwise impossibly-inaccessible regions.” He turned to Illinia. “I gather you’ve been busy since we last met. I’m proud of you, lass, I really am. I hope this stubborn brat’s help has been useful.”
“Not to mention the ineffectual hacking of this overgrown swordie,” Tharash put in.
Illinia smiled. “Thank you so, so much, everyone. I am forever in your debt.” She made to rise, but Tharash held up a hand.
“You know where you’re going?”
“I know what it looks like. I don’t know where it is or what it’s called.”
“That’s all right. I’m sure Flairé will be able to pull it out of your head, despite his lack of mind-magery, and then it will be no trouble to make a temporary rift to wherever it is. I was going to say, if you know where you’re going, then I will be willing to take you after whatever celebrations there are this evening.”
“You know you wanna stay!” Siasara said, grinning.
“We’ll have proper food,” Kip said with satisfaction. “Some of it cooked by me. Speaking of which, I should go get started.”
“I’ll come help,” Valiensin said. “The rest of you, relax.” The two left.
Jaye glanced at Lusiel and Siasara. “I think we should go check on the troops and make sure everything is going smoothly. Also to dispel any ugly rumours that might already be emerging.”
“That sounds like an excellent plan,” Lusiel said brightly, jumping up. His twin swords swayed at his waist as he led his wife and best friend from the tent. Eliara and Kaisten followed, with a nod to Illinia.
Tharash glanced at Torrigan, Mira, and Kellan, nodded once, and disappeared.
It was just the four of them, together again.
“I will miss you three,” Illinia said.
“We will miss you, too,” Mira said. “I still haven’t thanked you enough for all your help! I may not be an elf, but I’m dating half a one, and that’s close enough.”
“If you ever come back to this world, you will be welcome wherever we are,” Torrigan said. “I don’t know if we’re planning to stick together after this, and in fact we might not, but we’ll each be glad to see you if you ever come around.”
She smiled. “Thanks very much. That means a lot. I might not come back in your lifetimes, though.”
“I figured as much,” Kellan muttered. “Hey, your dead body there… what are you planning to do with it?”
She looked down at Michael’s body, slim and cold and unmoving, still spattered with his blood. “I don’t know. I suppose we should get him ready for cremation.”
Together they picked up the body and brought it outside again, taking it to where other people were preparing bodies for burial. They got a few side-long looks, but Illinia ignored them and concentrated on cleaning away as much of the blood as she could. When she was done, she and her companions built a small pyre of firewood and laid him on it.
She took a moment to brush his white hair away from his brow. He still looked like he was frowning a little, concentrating on something mildly difficult, even in death. She would miss him, and his ever-changing face, and his bitter sarcasm… She choked back fresh tears.
She kissed his forehead, and stood back.
Kellan clearly wanted to use some kind of gizmo to light the pyre, but Torrigan gestured to Mira, who cast a small fire spell. The dry wood caught easily.
Illinia could not watch the flames devour her friend, but she sat beside the burning pyre until there was nothing left. The others stood silently behind her, and she felt their silent comfort – even from Kellan. She hugged herself and felt the scars on her arms.
And it was Kellan who offered her a small glass vial, within which she poured a lot of the ashes that lay there. The rest she cast in the air to let the wind blow where it would.
The sun was setting by that time, and Kaisten came in search of them to bring them to the feast that was prepared. It took Illinia a little while to adjust to the change in tone, but the others there were merry, and she was soon laughing along with them. She had helped save the world, after all. Perhaps it was not her world, but it was saved nonetheless.
And then Lusiel asked her to sing.
With wide eyes, she protested. There were too many people, and they would all be watching her. But the others insisted, and soon everyone was insisting, although only a few of them had heard her sing anything in the long grim days that had gone before.
She wasn’t even sure if she could sing properly anymore, or remember the words.
But there was a hush as she stood in her place at the table, and looking up at the stars, she remembered when her husband came to visit her at her little house in the woods, and she sang for him.
She sang now, an old love song of undying fidelity across unknowable distance, and although the others did not know Sindarin, she knew it touched them. She smiled as she sang: despite all the pain she had been through, despite the heartbreak and the injury and the fear, she would never give up until at last she was held in his arms again, and the certainty of that fact, the certainty of his love for her as well, made her strong.
The tables erupted in cheers and whistles when she was done, and she quickly sank back into her chair, her face as scarlet as her dress. Lusiel patted her on the back, Mira looked filled with joyful wonder, Valiensin was smiling easily as he applauded, and even Kellan and Tharash looked appreciative.
All too soon it was over, and it was time for her to go. She didn’t want to, now that it came down to it. She waved to the general assembly as she left them, and some of them waved back, but they didn’t seem to know she was going. It was for the best. But her friends she wouldn’t get rid of that easily.
“Tell the soldiers I’m proud of them,” she said to Lusiel. “It was an honour to fight beside them, to lead them these months.”
He bowed. “It has been an even greater honour to have you with us, Illinia. I hope you won’t be a stranger if you ever return.” He straightened with a twinkle in his eyes.
She smiled involuntarily. “I am thinking I may have to return at some point. And of course it was wonderful to meet you, and Siasara, and Jaye, and Stella. You have all been so very kind to me! I wish you well.” The others nodded. Jaye bowed, but Siasara stepped forward and hugged Illinia, and then of course Lusiel had to as well, and so did Stella.
“Take care of yourself, okay?” was Siasara’s advice. “I know you’re going to go around trusting pretty much any old person you meet, but make sure they’re not particularly heavily armed while you’re getting to know them.”
Illinia giggled. “Okay. Thank you.”
Kip and Eliara and Kaisten were next in line. Kaisten looked shy again, and Illinia didn’t know what to say, so an awkward, feathery hug ensued. Eliara didn’t mince her words, though.
“Linny, you better tell that husband of yours to watch your back. I know you’ll be watching his, but I want him to know that you have friends who want him to take as good care of you as you do of him. Got it?”
“Um, yes, I think so?” Illinia laughed. “Don’t worry. He is an even better archer than I am. He will keep me safe.”
Kip patted her shoulder. “Everyone wants you to be safe, even your enemies. That’s part of your problem. You’re so blessedly exceptional.”
She sniffed. “That’s very kind of you to say.”
“Now, now, don’t cry. You’ve made it this far.”
But the tears had started and wouldn’t stop. “I’m sorry. I’m just going to keep crying now until I leave. This always happens.”
Mira tackled her. “Awww, c’mere, Illinia! It’ll be all right. You’ll see. Kellan will settle down in a mansion somewhere, and I’ll go marry David and whoop monster butt with my griffon partner, and Torrigan will become a saint, and we’ll all live happily ever after. So don’t you worry about this parting.”
“I-it’s just because partings are sad on principle,” Illinia sniffed, hugging Mira back. “I’m sure you will all have happy lives. I will, too.”
“That’s all we can ask for. It was great to travel with you.”
“Yeah, you’re not half-bad,” Kellan said appraisingly. “Besides, you know, that one time, but it turned out all right in the end, I guess.” He coughed and rubbed his nose with his sleeve, doffing his broad-brimmed hat. His bald head shone in the setting sunlight. “Sorry, allergies.”
“You’re a terrible liar,” Mira said.
Torrigan hugged Illinia awkwardly. She guessed that Paladins didn’t hug anyone on a regular basis, and also that Torrigan’s own detachment was getting in the way. “I have nothing to say that hasn’t already been said. May the light of Pelor, and whatever god you follow, go with you all your days.”
“Thank you, Torrigan. …I always looked up to you, you know. You were a great leader for our little group.”
“Er, thank you. I… I’m glad to hear that!” He grinned, suddenly, and it turned his face surprisingly boyish.
Finally she turned to Tharash and Valiensin.
“You done yet?” Tharash asked, sounding bored.
“Yes, I am ready,” she said, her tears beginning to dry as she had said they would. She looked at Valiensin.
“I’m coming with you at least to the next world, lass, so you won’t be rid of me just yet. You’ve come so far since I met you! I’m proud of you.”
“Thanks.” She bowed her head.
“Yeah, you weren’t a terrible student,” Tharash put in. “Actually, I’m lying. I was pretty impressed by the mental and psychological progress you’ve made since I found you. And summoning a goddess is no mean feat. Now if you were only interested in chaos magic…”
Valiensin laughed. “Not going to happen, Tharash. Are we ready to go yet, or what?”
“Where are we going?” Tharash asked. Illinia described what she had seen as best she could, fidgeting with her locket, and Valiensin made a picture of it. It looked like what she had seen, and she nodded. Tharash looked closely at it, and nodded. He knew what world it was, she guessed, or could tell what world it was.
“Good-bye!” she cried to all her friends, and waved.
Behind her, Tharash waved his hand, and a black split appeared in the air. Valiensin stepped through it first, completely unafraid, after his own wave of farewell to the others. Illinia hesitated for the barest second. It didn’t look like the other rift she had gone through from Middle-Earth to Elberron. But Valiensin had gone through, so it must be all right.
She stepped through, and found herself on the edge of a jade green forest. Behind her, she could hear water trickling. Before her, she could see nothing but grey wasteland, rocky and desolate. Tharash and Valiensin were nowhere in sight.