The hawk turned, saw me and tipped his head in acknowledgment. Red had been my companion in the desert, not that he’d wanted to be there. But as one of my father’s three familiars, he’d been sent to watch over me.
I lifted a hand to him. I would not slight him. He was a good familiar, even if he was not one of mine. And he’d helped me, knowing I did what I thought was best and supporting me as much as he was able at the time, even against my father’s wishes.
The newest graves were closest to the gate, and if I kept quiet, perhaps my father wouldn’t notice me. Though his betrayal was not truly his, with his mind manipulated by Cassava and then Blackbird, I could never truly allow myself to feel for him again. He was just a pitiful old man now, broken and weak, his family lost to him. I refused to let myself believe he would ever be anything else.
I bent beside the grave closest to me. Persimmon, Simmy, my old friend from the planting fields. She’d died when the lung burrowers had gone through our family, and her daughter blamed me.
Another old hurt; I’d not saved more of my family.
I moved past her grave and to the next and the next, until I came to the far right side of the graveyard. I glanced over at my father. He was still oblivious to my presence. That or he was ignoring me.
Enough stalling. I looked at the grave I’d come to see. Against the thorny wall, his name was etched into a flat piece of obsidian.
Ash, loyal Ender of the Rim.
Rest in the mother goddess’s embrace.
My throat tightened and fear made me stumble. He would not be in the grave, I had to believe. I dropped to my knees, the soft ground giving way with a poof of dust that rose around me. Pausing, I glanced at Peta who hadn’t moved from my side.
“You can do this. No matter the outcome, I am here. I am with you.” Her words were all I needed. Even if I lost Ash, I had Peta, and she would see me through this darkness too.
Closing my eyes, I buried my hands into the soil of the grave. “I am afraid, Peta. Spirit, you said it is getting wild and—”
“Then do it fast, Lark. Do not hesitate,” she whispered.
I opened myself to Spirit and it roared awake, like a beast inside me. It tangled itself with Earth as if it would take hold of my other element again. I held my connection to the earth tightly to me and Spirit slid away and down my arms like nothing more than a petulant child.
But it was not trying to take control, not this time.
Twenty feet deep, Spirit fell and then wrapped around a body. Images and flickers of what Spirit felt came back to me. An Ender vest, a short sword, nothing else. Yet even that was enough to confirm for me that the mother goddess had lied to me yet again.
And her lie broke me.
I couldn’t stop the cry that escaped me, the budding hope dashed as though slammed with a sudden frost. A trembling set of hands touched mine.
“Death is not the end, my girl.”
I blinked up, and found myself staring into my father’s face. He’d aged since I’d seen him last, and not well. He’d not been at the battle against the demons, and now I knew why. His once-robust frame had thinned and become gaunt, his hair had gone completely gray, hanging down in a knotted mess to the middle of his back. But the second his hand touched my skin, his eyes, fogged with confusion, cleared. These were the eyes of the father I recalled from my childhood. Dark forest green and full of kindness, full of strength and wisdom.
A sob escaped me. “I cannot keep losing those I love.”
He caught me against his chest, crushing me to him as I’d longed for him to do for years.
No more words passed between us and yet the forgiveness was there. He held me as I sobbed, unable to stop the grief from pouring out of me, finally finding some refuge in my father.
Peta put a paw on my hand, adding to the love that surrounded me.
“Child, why do you grieve so hard?” My father set me back from him but I made sure to keep some contact on his skin.
“Ash, he’s in the grave, and I thought maybe . . . maybe he wasn’t.” Stupid, stupid words, I couldn’t help them.
Red fluttered his wings. “There are more ways than one to find out if the body is truly that of Ash.”
Basileus frowned. “Red is right. If there is any doubt, bring the body up.”
I swallowed hard. “I do not know if I could stand seeing him half eaten by worms.”
My father nodded. “That I understand all too well. I brought your mother up not long after she was buried. I couldn’t believe she was gone, I had to see her with my own eyes again.” He grimaced, pain shooting across his face like a falling star. “While it was one of the most difficult things I have done, it allowed me to move on.”
I bit back the retort that perhaps instead of moving on he should have killed the one who’d murdered my mother.
I kept a hand on him.
“Lark.” He smiled at me. “You are so like your mother. When she put her hand on me, my mind cleared, just like now.”
I gave him a smile, though it slid from my face quickly. “Basileus. When I let go of you, I want you to go back to the Spiral. Please.”
“I have to tell you something first.” He leaned in close to me, so our foreheads touched. “There is a story I remember from when I was very, very small. Barely to my mother’s knees. Whispers of a legend I didn’t recall until now, yet I think you must hear it.”
I wasn’t sure what to think. Was it a true clearing of his mind or had he slipped further into his madness? I glanced up at Red who ruffled his feathers. “I’ve not got a clue of what he speaks.”