I watched the sun begin to set from the high snow covered hill west of Grenths’ Door before tossing the lit torch onto the pyre. We left the Priory camp at Pinion Pass earlier in the day after resting and recuperating. The Priory members were a kind lot, offering their healing skills and spare change of attire for any of us who needed it. They asked a lot of questions too so I quickly devised a story about a band of rogue Ettins who had claimed territory nearby and saw us as a threat as we explored the area on our way home from a Norn moot in Hoelbrak. They all nodded and ceased their questions.
It had taken some time, but we had managed to gather enough dry wood to support Liliana’s large Norn body. Clarkus and Dee felled the trees with our recovered weapons while I helped Alena carry the logs. Tuborg and Quint stacked the wood, creating a sturdy base and building up from there. We barely said a word to one another as we worked and I preferred it that way. After the pyre was built, we carefully wrapped Liliana’s body with linens we got from the Priory camp and I watched as the others gingerly hoisted her up to the top of the pyre. It was the best Norn death ceremony we could offer her. At least she was free from this life now and free from any other pain I could cause her.
We couldn’t even do that for Artis.
I pulled the dark fur-lined cloak tight around me that Priory Explorer Casta had in her trunk of spare attire pieces. The female Charr looked down her long muzzle at me with her bright green eyes and told me to take better care of it than the bloodied and torn clothing I had arrived in. I took the cloak and thanked her before leaving her to her work repairing an old boot casing.
When the flames had finally reached Liliana’s body, I turned around. I couldn’t bring myself to watch while the flames consumed her. Slowly, I stiffly shuffled past the others, keeping my gaze down upon the white blanketed ground. I swore I could feel their eyes on me, burning deep as I passed.
There was a sudden rush of wind and a flapping of wings. A flutter of white, grey, and black flew past me and landed on a snow covered branch. Two yellow eyes peered at me from beneath a petite crowning of feathers and she opened her beak to let out a pair of smooth hoots. The rangers’ animal companions had returned from hiding along the perimeter, waiting to be called by their masters. Yunkle was the last to return and only came out from the tree line after Quint had coaxed him out with some parsnips he had dug up nearby.
Athena hooted again, a low forlorn tone to the sound. When we left the Priory camp at Pinion Pass to retrieve our things left behind at Grenth’s Door, as well as Liliana’s body, we found Athena perched on the Norn’s lifeless corpse, pulling at her hair with her beak. The bird had been trying to wake her mistress but had not been successful. When approached, the owl flew to us as and circled around our heads, hooting constantly.
“She’s gone Athena,” I said to the grief-stricken bird perched on the branch. “You’re free.”
Frowning deeply, I stared at the persistent owl. “Athena go! You’re free.”
“She’s dead!” I yelled, startling the owl. She fluttered her wings, gaining some height, and then settled back down on the branch. “She’s dead and she’s not coming back!” My breath caught in my throat as I did my best to hold back sobs trying to break forth.
A still silence broke out amongst the rest of the group. My hands balled and shaking at my sides, I looked over my shoulder at them but said nothing. What could I say? I’m sorry she died because I made a bad call and played into Alec’s hand? It wasn’t enough. Nothing I ever did would ever be enough.
Uncertain looks filled my narrow field of vision as I kept my gaze over my shoulder. My heart sank as the realization set in that this was how they would look at me now: always wondering what lies I had hiding beneath the surface. Would they constantly fear for their lives now because of the world I brought them into? My heart began to race as I wondered if they would now fear me too?
“She soars with Owl now and runs with Bear,” Dee announced solemnly, breaking through the silence with her proud voice. The Norn had undone her two braids letting her dark hair hang in long waves that rest past her shoulders. “Let the stories of her battles and victories never be forgotten.”
Clarkus offered a throaty rumble in agreement and banged on his chest hard with a closed paw in salute. Little Alena clasped her hands together and offered a quiet prayer to Grenth while Dee and Tuborg stood quietly watching the flames. Off to the side, Quint stood with Michi and Yunkle, trying to keep the two creatures from chewing each other to bits. One by one, they all backed away from the pyre and turned to leave, all the while keeping a watchful eye on me. I ignored their glances as they passed by me until I was the only one left. After I flashed Athena a scowl, I turned around to the funeral pyre and offered a few quiet words asking for forgiveness.
The trek home was thankfully uneventful but filled with a heavy uncomfortable silence. I remained in the back of the group while Dee and Tuborg took point. Thanks to the gods-given magics pumping through my veins and the skilled healing of the Priory team stationed at Pinion Pass, my body had started to recover, but was not fully healed. My open wounds had healed over and stopped bleeding, but my muscles remained sore and tight. My shoulder blades still felt like they had been pierced by a pair of talons digging in deep. Flexing my wounded hand, I could feel the pulling of tight, healing tissue and the ache that came with the strain. I must have been lacking blood as I grew winded after just a short distance into our trek.
“Are you doing alright?” Quint asked me quietly. He wore Liniana’s bow on his back. Michi followed close at his side, swishing snow back and forth with her tail. Yunkle trailed behind, giving the drake a wide berth but still watching the creature with a keen eye under his heavy warthog brow.
“I’m fine,” I managed to breathe out between labored breaths as I hugged the dark cloak around me. Underneath, the thick wool tunic and trousers from the Priory team made my skin itch furiously. It took everything in me not to stop walking and dig my nails in all over. “Did you see Torx’s body anywhere where we found Liliana?”
Quint shook his head. “Just his hand near your axe and a bloody trail in the snow that lead north away from Grenth’s Door.”
I stopped and sighed heavily. “I didn’t see or sense him either. The rat got away,” I grumbled.
“Perhaps we should put out some feelers and see if we can find him,” he offered.
Clenching my jaw, I nodded. “I have some contacts,” I said. “Now, will you stop hovering? I’m fine.”
The Adviser fought a smile pulling on his lips. “Well if it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll stay back here and make sure these two don’t rip each other to shreds,” he said motioning to Michi and Yunkle.
I raised an eyebrow and flashed him a half-exasperated glance. “If you insist.”
“I do,” he replied simply and we left it at that.
After a short night’s rest at a logging site on the western side of Lornar’s Pass, we finally reached Lion’s Arch. As we ascended the steps built into the hillside that lead up to our hall, I saw the shield and sword emblem waving in the chilly autumn breeze. I used to feel pride in the emblem every time I looked upon it. Now, all I felt was shame and sadness. It didn’t represent what it once did. Our sword and shield didn’t represent our strive to defend peace anymore. It was nothing but a pile of lies I had designed to look like a respectable guild and home all because I wanted to have the best of two lives.
Ariella sat ever vigilant at her post next to the main door and as soon as she saw us crest the hill, the Norn immediately rose from her chair and rest her hands on her pistol hilts. She offered us a polite nod and then surveyed our group with her dark eyes. Raising her eyebrows in surprise, Ariella looked at me but didn’t say a word. I knew what she was going to ask.
I shook my head.
The Norn thief bowed her head and gripped her pistol hilts tightly. “Raven had brought me unsettling dreams.”
“The fallen will be missed,” Tuborg replied sadly.
“Has Seren returned?” I asked Ariella, abruptly changing the subject.
She nodded. “And left again.”
“Hm,” I said thoughtfully as I narrowed my eyes. “Did she say where she was going?”
Ariella shook her head.
Clenching my jaw, I nodded slightly. “Okay.”
As we entered the hall, the others branched off to go to their respective rooms. I waited a moment for them to leave and get settled before I planned on hobbling down the hall to my room. As I waited in the main hall, I closed my eyes and sent out my senses. They didn’t have to go far before I felt the familiar biting cold power. It was still there. It was still safe.
The sound of doors closing caused me to open my eyes. The others had retreated into their rooms so I decided it was time for me to do the same. My muscles screamed at me as I took a step but I figured if I was able to walk here from the Shiverpeak mountains, then I could muster the energy to make it down the hall to my room. Slowly but surely and with one unsteady step in front of the other, I made it to my door and into my room. Gently closing the large wooden door behind me, I leaned back against it and slid haphazardly down to the floor, letting the sobs pour out of me like violent waves during a sea storm.