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What Comes After

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To think this all started months ago with a dragon, a daring escape and a leap of faith.

Erik remembers settling more comfortably in the creaky chair in the Church nestled in the Foothills of Heliodor, marvelling at the abrupt turn his life had taken. The Seer had warned him, told him what to look for, but half of him was extremely sceptical, and the rest was still back with his sister. It shouldn't have been a surprise, and yet it was. He had been in a dungeon, wiggling his fingers tauntingly and shooting aggravating smiles at the Guards that patrolled outside his grimy cell, itching for the moment when he could slither down the hole he’d been digging. Idly, he'd wondered how the heck he got in this mess. And then somehow he had found himself sat in what passed as a sickroom, watching the Luminary sleep, completely unbroken despite what should have been a plummet to the death.

Now he’s back in that same Church, watching the Luminary again, both of them burned out from saving the world, watching it fall, and saving it again.

Funny how these things turn out.

Erik tips forward in the pew, eyes fixed on the figure talking to the woman who runs the place. A friendly woman, in the habit of helping thieves and people down on their luck, a woman that Erik's gone to for help more than once before, and quietly deceived equally as many times. Not maliciously, just for safety, his and hers. Erik’s happy she survived the mess that followed their last interaction, although the Church is still battered and there are suspicious stains all over the mangled pews that he doesn't want to think about. He watches his friend instead, watches him inquire about a safe place to sleep for the night.

El still doesn’t look like much of a Luminary. He’s still tall and thin, with annoyingly nice hair that looks silky and smooth, something that more than one person has commented on during their travels, much to Erik’s amusement. He remembers thinking, back when he first found El, that there was no way this kid could be the one the Seer talked about. Even now, when Erik thinks of the Luminary, he thinks of battle-worn, rugged men with decadent armour strapped to every inch of skin. He thinks of a red star in the sky. He thinks of the Seer’s words and he feels his gut clench.

This guy had looked nothing like that. He looked like a kid, bright-eyed and determined, but wildly lost, even in sleep, like he was searching for so many things all at once and finding nothing but closed doors and more questions. Physically, there’s not much difference between then and now. If anything, he’s thinner, but then again, they all are. End of the world as everyone knows it doesn't put much food on the table, and it's only been twelve hours since the world began again.

"Oh yes, dear, there's a place not far from here. It was abandoned when I last looked," says the woman, a warble of sorrow in her voice. Her paper-thin skin is wrinkled and her eyes seem tired, but she stands stoic and steady, ready to aid anybody who comes knocking. El's shoulders drop with what might be relief at her words.

El told Erik his name, briefly, in the cells. It was something soft, something that belonged to the valleys and the mountains. Erik has called him El ever since, like the letter, short for Luminary. At first it was because if he thought about that soft name and those bright eyes, he was going to want to keep him safe. And yeah, that was sort of what he signed up to do when they sprinted through a dungeon with clattering Guards and dragon fire at their heels, and but still. It was the principle of the thing, and Erik hadn’t really wanted that. He had been looking for forgiveness, not another burden to bear.

Things really are different now, but El is still El. Erik has other names for him too - names like Favourite Little Leaf and Hero that make him pause and fluster and shoot Erik strange, patient looks that Erik doesn’t understand. Sylv heard him use one, once, and Erik will never live it down. He likes those names, but he always goes back to El.

He sits back again when El turns to face him, and Erik wonders how he could ever have doubted that this was the Luminary. It’s all in the eyes. There’s hope there, luminous. Even now, under the bone-deep exhaustion and the will for things to go back to how they were before, there’s a steady, reassuring determination to trudge along and see things through.

And they have. They’ve seen things through.

Which is why they’re here, in the Church, halfway between Cobblestone and Heliodor, halfway between where things began and where things began to go wrong.

“She says there’s a house nearby?” Erik asks when El joins him in the pew. He doesn’t sit down, and Erik suspects it’s because he’ll fall asleep if he does, just slump there against the dark, battered wood and close his eyes and fade for a bit. He just nods instead, fingers playing with the clasp on his bag, his mind a million miles away.

“Guess we better go and see if it's any good then,” Erik says. His knees crack when he stands. He’s not old enough to have cracking knees. He’s also not old enough to have battled a thousand monsters or have inadvertently turned his sister into gold, or be trailing a list of past crimes as long as The Emerald Coast, but there we are.

They find the house a little further down the road, on the way to the Manglegrove. Walking through the valleys only highlights how much everything’s changed since they started out. There was never much out here, or so Erik thinks, but now even the ruins are ruined. Molten rock simmers in some places, and he can see the threads of darkness that still have yet to fade. Monsters still flitter around, and Erik has to bash a few beasts in the head before they reach relative safety. They should be dead soon, if Rab's opinions and predictions are right.

It’s weird, walking with just El. He's used to having people at his back, chattering and casting aimless spells and generally getting on his nerves. Jade’s at the remains of Heliodor Castle, with Rab and Hendrik, waiting for the rest of the soldiers to lead King Carnelian home from The Last Bastion. Sylvando is escorting Serena back to Arboria via the Salty Stallion, where she can be with her parents before he goes home to see his Papi and his weeping parade - and wasn't that a weird story to be told. Erik’s heart clenches as he thinks of Veronica, and he bangs open the door to the house and stalks towards the fire to give himself something to do, something to distract himself from the pain of loss.

There’s a statue outside underneath a low-hanging branch and the air is warmer here, but not stiflingly so. It feels like a warm blanket, and Erik knows they’re safe from anything that might come a-calling. He still keeps his knives nearby though, as he stares around the hut. It must have belonged to someone because there are belongings littered here and there, but it’s dark and musty, and the bed hasn’t been slept in for a while, by the looks of things. Shattered pots line the walls and several bags are ripped open, and a few books sit crumpled on the shelf.

“Whoever was here, they aren’t here anymore.” Erik grimaces. “Poor sod. Hopefully, they just went off to visit some family members or something.”

El makes a non-committal sound behind him. It’s possible that El knew whoever lived here - he did grow up in these parts, after all. Erik sighs out a breath that feels far too heavy to be healthy, and a flick of a match that he finds in a box on the mantle gets the embers in the fireplace going. It helps, to have something to do with himself. If he stops, even for a second, he's going to have to think.

They need to go back to Cobblestone eventually. El knows this, Erik knows he does, but neither of them has mentioned anything about it since they left the Princess and the old man at Heliodor. There are people scattered all over the world that need seeing to, people they need to check up on, people they've met and want to make sure are okay. Mia is lying on a bed in Sniflheim, still healing, and Erik needs to be there, but at the same time, he needs to be here. Right now, though, he can’t get up the energy to do much more than slump in a nearby chair and watch El stand in the doorway, looking as lost as always.

There’s so much to do.

“We could go back to your home,” Erik suggests, as El shuts the door behind him. “I’m sure Amber will want to see you. Didn't you say she’d have a stew waiting for you? And there’s Gemma and Sandy. Cole will probably want to shout about your heroics.”

Erik knows a lot about El’s life. He knows it because he coaxed bits free during those first few weeks, when they stayed at campsites and watched the stars burn side by side, listening to the flames crackle and the distant wail of monsters. At first, it had been because of boredom and some idle curiosity: the Luminary was a thing of Legend, shrouded in mystery, and Erik wanted to know what he was dealing with. El wasn’t what he expected, though.

He didn't talk much, but when he did, his tales were heartfelt and warm. He spoke of a Grandfather, Chalky, whom everyone loved, and his adopted family, and the way his village huddled together to help each other grow. He weaved tales of their childish adventures, and he told him possibly everything there was to know about Gemma and his mother and Sandy, the dog that they’d rescued, told him enough that Erik began to feel a small seed of jealousy bloom in his chest.

All Erik had when he was growing up was Mia and Vikings, and sometimes the people of Sniflheim, who never cared enough to save them. He had back-breaking work and the terror of being responsible for his sister, and at the time it had been all he had known, and he had loved every minute of being with Mia, although he could have left the rest. And then the cursed relic had turned his sister to gold, Erik had turned his sister to gold, and then he had nobody. He had wandered around, settling in cities and stealing and searching desperately for answers. Listening to El, back then, tell stories of his life and the people he loved, just made Erik ache.

Once he got past that ache, there was another stage - Erik wanted to know everything because El was sort of special, even if you took away the Luminary aspect of him, and Erik felt strange roiling things deep inside every time he managed to wrangle a few words out of him. He wanted to know El, and now, he feels like he does. Maybe not all of him, but he's getting there.

El shakes his head, joining him at the table. He’s still weighed down with armour, and he clatters when he walks like a set of pots falling down some stairs. Erik finds his mouth twitching at the sound, and El must notice because he shoots Erik a wry look.

“All that can wait until morning if you want," Erik offers, lounging back in his chair. "Or later. Whenever. Just get changed out of that gear before I have to laugh in your face, and go and get some sleep.”

He moves to rifle through their bags while El bangs around in their background, shedding his armour and pulling on his old clothes, soft and worn. Erik is very determined not to look as El falls into the only bed, shifting far enough to the side so that there’s room for another person. Erik doesn't linger on what that might mean.

They’ve depleted most of their stock. They’ve got a few herbs left, a few healing bits and bobs, and enough spoils of war to knock out a Jargon with. He spreads everything edible out on the table and puts it into piles, waiting for familiar soft snores to fill the room. The place is still quiet when he’s put everything back into the bags, left the ingredients for broth out on the side, and kicked off his boots. The snores don't come.

Erik turns, rapping his knuckles against the back of the wooden chair as he sighs. El is lying on his back, staring listlessly at the ceiling. Erik wonders what he’s seeing. It could be anything: numerous battles, the ghosts of his family, his friends falling to pieces, the fall of Yggdrasil, or that final moment before the darkness disappeared, before Mordegan disappeared, when they weren’t sure that they were going to make it.

“You should be asleep,” Erik says. It’s fully dark outside now, and the only light comes from the glow of the fire. His voice comes out softer and quieter than he means it too.

El shrugs one shoulder, a little awkwardly since he’s lying down. His hair is all over the place, the pillow caught up under his head. He doesn’t look inclined to move into a more comfortable position, but he also doesn’t look like he wants to go to sleep, either. Erik sighs softly.

“Not tired?” Erik asks, strolling closer.

El shoots him a look so dry that Erik almost turns to sand, right there and then. He chuckles lowly, a bit rueful, and sits on the edge of the bed, turned in so that he can see El. The springs squeak beneath his added weight.

There’s room for him, but it’s a bit weird. They’ve slept near each other around campfires, and in Inns, but there was always space between them. Sylv called them lovebirds more than once, although usually only when Erik could hear, and he liked to get up first in the mornings, looking pointedly at the way they had gravitated toward each other in the night, and wink at Erik until Erik threatened to curse him. El never saw. He was either still asleep or burdened with thoughts of his past and his destiny to the point of being happily oblivious.

“I know it's probably hard right now, but you really need the rest,” Erik says, shuffling around until he’s closer than before. He had planned to pile some blankets on the floor and sleep there, but he can see quite clearly that he’s no longer following through with that.

“Whatever you’re thinking about, it can’t be fixed right now,” Erik adds when El remains silent, still staring listlessly up, fingers threaded loosely on top of his stomach. Erik stares at them, at the mark on the back of his hand that often glowed so sweetly.

Often, he wishes the Luminary had been someone else. He wishes someone else had been born with all of El’s bad luck, that someone else had lost a family and a village and been shoved into a world that wanted to hunt him rather than help him. And then he re-thinks his wish, because selfishly, if it was someone else, Erik wouldn’t have met El. He would have met someone else who had the mark of the Luminary, and he wouldn’t feel all these things for them, he’s sure. He feels these things, these indescribable things, for El, a boy from Cobblestone, and not the fabled Luminary, Prince of Dundrasil. He might be both things, but it’s not the title that sticks in Erik’s chest and makes him want to stay put.

“D’you reckon Sylv’s got them to Arboria yet?” Erik asks. He gives in to his decision to stay and hauls himself into the bed. El makes an alarmed little noise as the mattress shakes, and Erik bonks his head on El’s shoulder before shuffling back onto his side. El’s so surprised that he forgets to answer Erik’s question, so Erik muses aloud instead.

“I think they’re probably there, safe and sound, so that's two down. King Carnelian should have started to march home by now, which means Cobblestone should be empty of pig-headed Royal Heliodorians by morning.”

El snorts softly with laughter. He’s always found it amusing, the way Erik jumps to hold a grudge in his place. Erik will maintain that somebody has to feel the petty emotions that El seems incapable of feeling.

Erik holds his breath when El shifts closer, rolling his head onto Erik’s shoulder. His voice is remarkably calm when he answers El’s silent plea to keep talking.

“Rab and Jade will have to deal with the King and the rest of his loyal beasts. That’ll be a weird reunion, especially with Hendrik there. I wouldn’t want to sit in on that family dinner. Talk about awkward.”

A soft, sleepy sigh sends a flutter down Erik’s spine. Nobody would ever assume that he grew up with Vikings, he thinks to himself, faintly amused. Not if he gets flutters whenever a pretty boy breathes near him.

“I know we’ll see everyone again soon enough, but it’s weird. Sylv’s not going to let us forget about him, and I know Serena wanted to help wherever she could after she’s seen her family for a bit.” He swallows thickly, grateful that El doesn’t seem to be listening anymore, too drowsy to tell the difference between the words escaping him. “They must have missed her. I know I miss Mia. I’ll see her soon, though. Maybe she could come here. We have money, now, after all the fighting we've done, and we could settle down wherever we wanted. Get away from Sniflheim."

El is fully asleep, now. His soft snores fill the room, blending with the sound of chirping bugs outside. Erik thinks he can hear the sound of something scuttling off into the distance, repelled by the statue’s kindness.

It’s odd, to feel safe, after so long. Erik does, though, and he knows that it’s only partly due to the statue.

The rest of it he owes to this boy asleep on his shoulder. He's going to have a dead arm in the morning, but he doesn't care much. He tucks his head against El’s and moves to pull the quilt over them, staring up at the dusty ceiling. All the problems of the world can be fixed tomorrow, he thinks.

“Whatever happens, though. I’m not leaving you. None of us will, but especially me." He smiles slightly, closing his eyes. "You were stuck with me from the minute you started throwing pots around in that dungeon.”