“Vhalla?” He was understandably confused.
“I know you don’t understand.” She swallowed the lump in her throat. “And that’s okay, you don’t have to. But I want you to hear me and take my promise that I will fix this. I will put an end to the caverns once and for all.”
“I believe you.” With that simple agreement, he added fuel to her purpose. His belief in her was more than she deserved, and she would treasure it forever.
Vhalla hugged him gently, a creature that she knew would spook if she moved too quickly or held too tightly. “Stay safe, and be happy.”
Jax was waiting behind her when she released Daniel. Vhalla hadn’t even heard him dismount, and the man was still as a statue. The two Golden Guards, likely the last two living members, assessed each other.
“Soldier,” Jax took a long pause to gather both words and emotions. “You’re dismissed from your post.”
It was something Vhalla would’ve never thought to say, but the profound impact it had on Daniel was instantaneous. Tears glistened in his eyes, overflowing at the corners. He reached for Jax, and the two men embraced.
“Baldair would want you to know that.” Jax rested a palm on the top of his head. “You have been honorably dismissed from the guard.”
Jax drew his hood as soon as he broke away from Daniel. They all did as they rode out and away from Daniel’s home. Elecia and Fritz talked lightly between themselves, the distance from the South finally beginning to lighten the mood between them all. But one of them still had a dark cloud hanging over his head. Jax kept his head down, and his hood drawn tightly around his face, all the way into Paca.
The small Eastern town was just as Vhalla remembered it. A worn town hall was the largest building, a small stage for announcements and elections at its front. It was also where the band would play during the Festival of the Sun. She paused, smiling fondly.
“Is this your home town, Vhal?” Fritz stopped as well.
“No.” She shook her head. “But my family would often come here to trade in the market or for important events. Leoul is even smaller than this, not much there.”
“How far is your home from here?”
Vhalla hummed in thought. “Perhaps a day’s ride northwest?”
“Not in the direction we’re headed then,” Fritz sighed on her behalf.
“No, it’s not.” Vhalla couldn’t keep the wistful longing out of her voice.
“We should go,” Aldrik said definitively.
“To your home,” he clarified.
“But it’s a day’s ride out of the way, and we’re in a hurry,” Vhalla protested weakly.
“I think we should go as well.” Elecia was the last person Vhalla expected to voice her support. She elaborated at Vhalla’s inquisitive stare, “Family is incredibly important. I would want to make sure my father was safe.”
“We will stay here for the night, get a good night’s sleep, and ride to your home tomorrow.”
The Emperor had spoken, and a weird mess of contradictions waged war in Vhalla’s chest. She was excited to go home. She missed her father desperately after all that had happened. But she was terrified of what she may find. Her origins were no secret. What if Victor had sent a monster out for her father? And even if her father was safe, what if he wanted nothing to do with her? So much had changed since she was last home. Would he be proud of the woman she had become?
Luckily, Vhalla knew the route to the inn well enough that she didn’t have to dedicate much of her cluttered mind to it. There wasn’t any risk of the inn being filled, given the circumstances of the world, so they didn’t have to fight for stables. An old man, bald at the top and white on the sides, was asleep on the counter.
“Geral?” Vhalla blinked at how little had changed. Between her speaking and the door closing behind Fritz, the portly man stirred, adjusting his suspenders.
“W-welcome!” He coughed away the sleep that was stuck in his throat. “Not many travelers these days! How can I help you?”
“Geral, is it really you?”
“Well, I don’t know who else I’d be,” he chuckled. “And who is really you, miss?”
Vhalla lowered her hood, and he stared at her face blankly. She knew her hair was a mess and she was caked in dirt. Crossing the gap to let him get a better look, Vhalla rested her hands on the countertop that she had been barely tall enough to see over the last time she’d touched it. Geral squinted at her from the other side.
“I . . .” Disappointment hit her harder than she expected when he was unable to place her. “I was just a girl the last time I was here. It makes sense you don’t remember me. I would always come with my mother and father for the Festival of the Sun and . . .” She daydreamed away for a long moment. “Sorry, we’ll need a room for the night.”
“Two,” Aldrik corrected.
“Three silver.” The man turned to fetch keys that hung on hooks behind the desk as Aldrik placed the money on the counter.
“So, ladies’ room and gents’ room?” Elecia inquired as they headed up the stairs. Aldrik shot her a look that explained such was not the case, eliciting a sharp gasp. “Don’t make me sleep with them!”
“You’ve been sleeping with them the whole time.” Aldrik rolled his eyes and thrust one key into Elecia’s hand.