With a rush of magical energy and a change in air pressure that always made Aviva’s ears pop, the environment around them changed. The back garden of the manor in Aelfheim became a golden blur, replaced in an instant by the warm orange glow of Scanderimus. She felt Halei lean against her as the Drow shook off the momentary disorientation. “That never gets easier.”
“Better than sailing, at least,” Aviva offered. Halei grunted a begrudging agreement.
“There are my misfit daughters,” came a familiar rumble.
Aviva grinned as the old Orc slouched into view at the edge of the portal, smirking around his tusks. “Good to see you too, pep pep.” She stepped forward, arms wide, and Grummer swept her into a crushing hug. “Still alive?”
“I should hope so,” Halei remarked from behind them. “You still owe me a rematch, old man.”
Grummer snorted a laugh as he released the Tiefling and spread his arms toward the Drow. “Big words from someone who’s still short,” he retorted, giving her a squeeze. “As I recall, your wife and I put you to the ground more than once.”
Aviva held up both hands. “Whoa, hey. Don’t look at me, I only get involved to exorcise possessing spirits. Besides, children, we’re here for a party, not a brawl.”
Both Grummer and Halei waved off her admonishment with a good-natured grumble. “It’s the Council’s party, not mine,” the Orc continued. “They wanted to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of Gurgu’s return, so Xylia asked if I could call in any famous friends.”
“Ahh, the celebrity life.” Aviva sighed dramatically.
“And how is good Master Undaunt?” Halei asked, pale eyebrow raised. “You two lovebirds still doing well?”
Grummer shrugged, but a smile played at the corners of his lips. “She makes an old man happy.” Before the two women could pounce on his Gnomish romance, Grummer shooed them from the portal in the direction of the city centre. “Come on, come on. Go put on your party clothes, the party starts in a few hours. Don’t keep Gurgu waiting.”
“...Are you sure?”
“I’m old, Aviva.” Grummer shrugged, his shoulders lowering like a glacier. He turned his gaze to the revelry happening below their balcony, watching the Gnomes quietly for a moment. “I’ve been away from the desert for too long. It’s time.”
Aviva nodded. “Then, to the desert we go. How do you want to travel? We can go the long way, we can take the portal… Or we could call Morgan and take you on one more trip on the Highwind.”
After a moment of thought, Grummer smiled. “I think I could go for one last flight.”
The Tiefling was sitting bolt upright in bed, frozen in the darkness. A beat later, she spoke into the empty air: “Thank you. We’ll be there.”
“We’ll be where?” Halei asked, pushing herself upright in turn.
“Sending from Xylia, via one of the Ghost Beetle casters.” Aviva paused. “It’s Grummer. She thinks this is it.”
Halei nodded, already rising from the bed and reaching for her trousers. “We’ll be there.”
The inside of the tent was cool, the heavy fabric shutting out the harsh rays of the desert sun, and it took Aviva’s eyes a few moments to adjust to the dim light. Rising from a rough-hewn wooden chair set to one side of the tent flap, Morgan nodded in greeting, her hands fidgeting anxiously at her sides. Deep, even breaths floated from a large bed laden with furs and blankets, and as Aviva, Halei and Morgan approached, Grummer opened his eyes and gave them a weak smile. “Hello, strange daughters.”
“Hello, old man,” Halei murmured. “Ready for that rematch?”
Grummer huffed a laugh that quickly turned into a breathless cough. “Of course. If they’d let me out of this bed, I’d have you on the ground in no time.”
Aviva sat on the edge of the bed, taking Grummer’s large, calloused hand in hers. “Good thing they won’t let you out, then. Can’t have you making a mess of her, she’s a mother now.”
“No excuse,” Grummer wheezed. “How old is she now, five? She should know how to use a sword, a spear and a javelin, at least. Raise her like a proper Orc.” As Morgan settled on the bed to his other side, he gave her an exaggerated wink -- which, given that he had never had his lost eye replaced, looked decidedly more like an awkward blink. Morgan giggled despite herself.
“I’ll get right on that,” Halei smirked, stepping in to stand at Aviva’s side.
“Hey,” Aviva protested. “You’re the ancestor of every Orc tribe in the desert. I think one grandchild can stay a Tiefling-Elf."
Grummer waved his free hand dismissively, letting it rest on Morgan’s knee as he closed his eyes. “Every Orc in the desert,” he repeated softly. “Who knew an old killer like me would ever see peace?”
Aviva glanced up at Halei, who put a hand on the Tiefling’s shoulder. Morgan’s posture tightened. None of them spoke.
“I didn’t mean to live this long, you know.”
They did know -- the memory of their first meeting, when Grummer nearly collided with Halei in the hallway of a dark dungeon and bellowed ‘Are you doing to be my death?!’, had been fondly recalled over many a shared drink. Halei squeezed Aviva’s shoulder.
“I was ready, back then. Ready to die in glorious battle. I didn’t know there were other ways to live, or other ways to die.” He offered another laboured laugh. “And then it turned out I was some weird vengeance ghost, and suddenly a death on the battlefield seemed less important. Living and seeing the world at peace… That became important.” A smile bloomed across his scarred face. “I rode the magma rivers in Scanderimus. I forged treaties between the Orc tribes. I taught a new generation of warriors the true meaning of honour.” Opening his one good eye, Grummer grinned. “Fifteen years past that day, and here I am. At peace. Who knew?”
A choked laugh-cry escaped Aviva’s lips as tears started to trickle down her cheeks. “Who knew?”
“Oh come now, don’t do that,” Grummer chided, but his tone was gentle. “Didn’t I just say I was at peace?”
“How about one more time, just so we’re very, very certain?” Halei’s voice was steady, but her fingers shuddered against Aviva’s shoulder.
Grummer sighed and closed his eye again, smile never faltering. “If you insist. This body, this heart, this soul… I, Grummer of the Ghost Beetle, the Hero of Light… am at peace.”
His smile faded. His breathing stopped.
He was at peace.