I had drifted in and out of consciousness as Alistair and Markun brought me out of the dungeon. Only when they brought me out into the sun did I start to have any kind of real awareness again.
They brought me to a small inn where an apple-cheeked matronly woman who smelled of pears fed me broth and spiced cider to nurse me back to health. Every time I woke, which was often as I didn't want to fall back into nightmares, someone sat in the room with me.
On the second day I found my wits and voice enough to ask Alistair the only thing on my mind: "Where's Rina?"
He looked away from his book, softly closing it with one hand to set it on the small table beside him. Heavy lids and dark circles under his eyes made him look tired, old. He let out a sigh and pushed himself out of the chair with the arms.
He came over and sat on the stool Mrs. Corchren used to feed me, putting a hand on my shoulder. No matter how much Alistair washed, he always had the unmistakable smell of steel and leather. It was his scent. Since my time in the dungeon, I focused on smells more since dreams might have sight and sound, even touch, but they never had smells.
As long as I smelled something, I knew I was awake.
"Son," he said slowly, "I'm sorry."
Three words. Three words to crush my heart.
I felt tears well up immediately, spilling out of the corners of my eyes. Part of me wanted to be angry, to lash out that he and Markun should have gotten there sooner, that they should have tried more things, but I wasn't angry at them. I was angry and sorry that I hadn't gotten to say goodbye.
"Tell me," I said.
"The disease, curse, whatever it was, kept spreading. Whatever the lich had done to her, Markun couldn't stop it. She was . . . becoming something else. She spoke to us. Wanted us to tell you goodbye. I was already trying to wake you, but she didn't want you to see her like that."
I remembered the snatches between nightmares of the curse consuming her flesh to leave only animated bone.
"What did she say?"
"She wanted us to tell you not to worry about her. She'd be free and at peace. She also said that she would haunt you if you moped about."
Alistair smiled at the last; I did, too, and it made me cry all the harder.
"Markun called down fire. We wanted to make sure the lich couldn't pervert her corpse any more."
"Thank you. Thank Markun for me, too."
He nodded. "She wanted you to have this." He pulled Rina's locket from his pocket, dropping it into my hand. "I'll be outside if you need anything." He squeezed my shoulder one more time, then walked out of the room.
I clutched the locket in my fist, never wanting to let it go. I brought it up close and smelled the roses again. Smelled her."Goodbye, Rina."