Illyana finally woke up.
“Are you going to be okay to keep going?” I asked.
“I think I’ll have a migraine for the next month,” Illyana answered. “But I’ll be fine. Let’s find Michael.”
Getting down was a challenge, given the hole Entrik had left behind. I had to help Illyana too, since she couldn’t see to find hand and foot holds.
We found our way down to the ground floor. There was a staircase to a basement partly blocked by rubble.
I quickly chanted and slammed my palm against the floor. The ground rippled and surged forward, pushing the rubble back so we could pass.
We descended. There was a heavy scent of blood and the area looked like a torture chamber.
We found Michael in the central area. My heart sank immediately.
His chest was horribly burned, his armour was melted into his flesh.
One of his wings was completely shredded. His silver hair was both matted with blood and singed. His flesh had turned even paler than Illyana’s. For a moment, I thought we were too late.
Illyana hurried over, seemingly sensing something I couldn’t. “Michael?” she grasped his shoulder gently.
“… yana,” His voice was so low I could barely hear him. I moved over to them.
“We’ll get a cleric,” Illyana said. “Just hold on.”
“It will not help,” he whispered. “I… kept my vow but it… did not help.”
Illyana felt around the ground for a moment and took his hand. “Save your strength. Don’t try to talk.”
“Illyana, I will not make it,” he gasped. “I can already see Thanatos approaching.”
“Michael,” her voice was pleading and sounded like she was going to cry. I put a hand on her shoulder, not sure what else to do.
“Go ahead,” I tried to keep my voice collected.
“My people are avenged,” blood dripped from his mouth as he spoke. “But light must still be shined on Sadow’s misdeeds.”
“We’ll make sure of it,” I promised.
“Thank you,” Michael stated. “Illyana, do not cry. If anything, I was fortunate. When my people fell, I was granted a stay of execution.”
“It’s so damned unfair,” Illyana stated. She was crying at that point. We were both crying. “This has been looming over your head forever and now that you’re finally free of it…”
“Now, I am truly free,” Michael gasped. “I am thankful to have had friends and companions like you. It is proof that I did something right.” His head fell back.
I put my ear against his chest. There was a heartbeat, barely. It managed to keep going for about thirty seconds.
My oldest friend was gone. All I could do was hold his swords close.
I barely remember the trip back to Callie’s estate. I remember hearing Tynan’s massive hoofsteps greeting us. I remember hearing Callie say “You’re all right, thank the Gods!” followed by a loud smooch.
Most of all, I remember Aiko bounding over, asking where Michael was and then falling very silent. She knew even before anyone said anything.
We returned to Sadow’s estate a couple days later to gather the bodies, including Michael’s, for a proper pyre. I stayed with Aiko while the others worked. She hadn’t been speaking much.
“I can’t believe he’s gone,” she whispered. “We never even had a chance.”
“I know,” I agreed. “I loved him too. In a different way, of course. It’s so hard to process that someone you’ve been with forever is just gone.”
“I wish I could have known him as long as you did,” Aiko said. “It feels like there’s so much more to say to him… to do. I just feel so… empty.”
I gave her a hug. “Do you want to come back to Wicadia with me?” I asked. “Maybe talking things over would help both of us.”
We sat in silence for a while. “No, I think it’s too soon,” Aiko answered. “I need some time on my own. Sorry.”
“Don’t be,” I stated. “We all grieve in our own way.”
We mostly stood in silence while the bodies burned.
After that, things move pretty quickly.
Lynai said she’d be staying with Callie for a while if any of us needed her. Tynan and Gabriel were eager for their next adventure.
Aiko travelled with me for a while. We both carefully avoided talking about Michael. I think we both wanted to have some time to think about him on our own.
“Well, we’re a couple hours away from Wicadia,” Aiko said. “I’ll take my leave now. I… I hope.” She stopped and took a deep breath. “I’ll come see you, when I’m ready.”
“I understand,” I stated. “Aiko, take the Phoebian blade. I think he would have wanted you to have it.” I held it out for her.
“You should keep it,” Aiko argued. “You were his best friend.”
“And I’ll take the Helion Blade with me because of our friendship,” I stated. “But really, I want you to take the other. Please?”
I let her pull the sword from me.
“I’ll treasure it,” she said. “Farewell.”
“Until we meet again,” I said. I listened to her footsteps fade and I was almost alone.
On my shoulder, Drake made a chattering sound as though to cheer me up.
I returned to the Academy and heard a familiar voice.
“Well, hello again.”
It sounded like Michael, but I knew it couldn’t be.
“Pan?” I asked.
“Not one to let wishful thinking get in the way are you?” the voice shifted. “Yes, it’s me.”
“Why are you here this time?” I asked.
“I’m just here as a witness,” he answered. “You’ll soon find out why.”
“Illyana!” She was running towards me. I could hear it. I could also hear Professor Mord’s cane tapping.
“I’m home, Mother,” I said.
She hugged me tight. “My poor Girl. I’ve heard… well, never mind what I’ve heard.”
“I thought you were still in Het Wald,” I said.
“Well, the situation is stable now,” she answered. “They don’t need me. Although I did run into an interesting visitor on my way back.”
“A visitor?” I asked. “Who?”
I heard a nervous throat clear. “Illyana. It’s been too long.”
“Sylvie!” I ran towards her voice and collapsed into her arms. “There’s so much I need to talk to you about.”
She gently stroked my hair. “So I’ve gathered. Is it okay if I say something first?”
“Anything you want,” I answered. Though I suspected she was here about our promise.
She cleared her throat. “Illyana, I love you. If anything this time I’ve had since my last confession has only enhanced that.” I’d been expecting the general sentiment, but hearing her actually saying it, hearing the passion in her voice, still blew me away.
“You don’t have to become my bride if you don’t want to,” Sylvie said. “But I wanted you to know my feelings haven’t changed.”
I felt her cheeks. They were warm. Then I kissed her. “Neither have mine,” I whispered.
“You kids better just get the ceremony over with soon,” Professor Mord called out. “I don’t want to miss it.”
I’d forgotten he was there.
“I can transfer to the Temple in Wicadia,” Sylvie said. “I can mostly help in situations in the surrounding area.”
“Well haven’t you thought this through?” Mother stated. “That’s quite admirable.”
“You honour me, Miss Elivy,” Sylvie said.
“Please, call me Luc,” Mother said. “We are going to be family, after all. Now, Illyana, tell us everything you need to talk about.”
A crack of lightning interrupted before I could even begin.
There was something heavy in the air. Everyone was silent. This had to be why Pan was observing.
“Luc Elivy, you have been chosen!” A commanding female voice rang out.
“What is it?” I whispered.
“A floating woman in very intricate robes with white hair, a fair face and glowing eyes,” Sylvie whispered.
“Chosen for what, Great Hecate?” My mother asked.
“My Magi have been thinned,” Hecate’s voice answered. “You are the second replacement. Illyana Fensen, you will be the third.”
“With all respect, Great Goddess,” I said “I can not serve you in this way.”
I felt a powerful shock wave. It nearly knocked me over. “And why, pray tell, is that?”
I was terrified, but I had to stand my ground. “Because your generous gifts for your Magi include not ageing,” I answered. “And there is someone I can not have leaving me behind.” I squeezed Sylvie’s hand.
“Then let your life forces be tied together,” Hecate decreed. “As you do not age, neither shall she. Should one of you die, so shall the other. Now you may serve and, hopefully, not have regrets.”
The heavy atmosphere dissipated. I felt very strange.
Being a Magi would be a new challenge, for certain. But I was confident that I could serve in that role more compassionately and less arrogantly than those who had fallen. For all my friends. For my soon to be bride and for my dearest, oldest friend. So that his sacrifice would really, truly mean something greater.