A line stretched for nearly a mile onward, secured by rows of people on each end, thousands altogether, creating a pathway rounding the bottom floor of the terraced grounds and leading just outside where a pile of dried wood lay stacked together. Despite the numbers present, it was eerily silent, only the occasional whizz of the wind and caws of the crows breaking it.
At the very start of the line, a small group was huddled together in a circle, surrounding a simple-looking yet elegantly carved wooden coffin. Lino stood among them, tepidly silent, his eyes eternally glued to the spiraling pattern resting on the front side of the coffin. While those around him chatted in murmurs -- namely Lucky, Althone, Evelyn, Valkryia and Felix’s Grandfather, Butcher of the North -- he sipped mead in silence, his other hand tucked inside the pocket of his tattered pants.
“... Lino,” Lucky suddenly called out to him, pulling his sleeve. “Are you going to sing?”
“I’ve many talents,” he smiled faintly, replying. “But singing ain’t one of them. You ladies do it.”
“It’s not about the talent,” she rolled her eyes at him, sighing. “Everyone will be singing, I was just asking whether you’ll start it. You should.” she added lowly.
“... alright.” staring deeply into her eyes for a moment, he nodded faintly in agreement. “I’ll start.”
“Father-in--ah, sorry,” Lucky stuttered, shaking away her flushed cheeks as she spoke out to Felix’s Grandfather. “Do you have anything to say?”
“... you can call me father-in-law,” he said, smiling lightly through the yellowed brow. “Rather, I’d like it if you would. And a word or two only. Nothing much.”
“Alright,” Lucky nodded, taking a deep breath. “Everyone ready?”
“Let’s go.” the Butcher -- who hardly lived up to his title at the moment as tears cradled his cheeks -- spoke out, walking toward the coffin and lifting its back end. “If you’d do the honors, Empyrean.” he turned toward Lino and pointed at the front.
“... let’s send him off.” Lino nodded faintly, putting away the mead and picking the front end, putting it on his shoulder.
Althone and Evelyn took the left side while Lucky and Valkryia took the right as the six slowly began moving toward the artificially carved out path. Even with the wood, Lino realized, the coffin was light, like a feather... yet also as heavy as an entire mountain. His steps were even, slow and brisk, yet soundless. World around came to a halt, blending away into colors and formless shapes. Sounds morphed into a distant voice, one full of curiosity and strange naivety.
He hadn’t thought much about Felix, as he did his hardest to always occupy his mind with something else. However much older he may be now compared to before, it still stung just as much if not more. It coldly probed, time and again, like a sword slicing away at him, bypassing all his defenses. Until now he’d dealt with it by focusing on the anger spawned from his death, ignoring all other accompanying emotions -- most notably pain. But, he knew he couldn’t delay it forever. He couldn’t live eternally entrapped in the convulsion of rage.
Walking almost by instinct, he didn’t know where he was, how far along the path they were, or really anything else relating to his surroundings. His mind was flooded by a flash of memories, some distant and some recent. Altogether, it hasn’t been all that long since he met Felix -- just a few years -- yet, it hardly mattered. Relationships are rarely ever defined by the length. A year or ten is irrelevant, at least to him, when it comes to belonging.
The memories grew more vivid, beginning from the moment the two met in the garden of roses, to the boy’s genuine curiosity of the world, desire to know, to experience, to realize. He still remembered it all clearly -- one of the downsides of being a cultivator, he mused. Purging thoughts... purging images... memories... is hard. Even if it were easy, however, he had no desire to do it. However painful they may be, they’re a necessity. To forget him would be to deny his very existence. Especially so considering just how much it all meant to Lino.
It’s an entirely different thing to be a maverick traveling the world lonesome, and being in care of someone, teaching them, watching them grow and change, bit by bit, through your own efforts. By the end, however, Lino mused, he was never able to change the boy’s dream -- perhaps only expand it slightly. It might be that he was a terrible mentor, or the best mentor possible; it didn’t matter, however. Either way, in the end, he was his own self.
Finally coming to, Lino realized they’d stopped, standing right next to the pile of wood while the people behind broke the two ends and converged into a half-circle surrounding the six at the front. Though his eyes were slightly moist, Lino realized his cheeks were dry. However much he wished to, he knew he was now well past being able to break down like a child and cry. Right now there are thousands of people behind him expecting him to lead them, to guide them, to be their light. They are watching his back, and he can’t bend it, can’t slant or sink his shoulders, can’t turn to tears.
It wasn’t with a light heart that he accepted the role he never asked for, which was why he’d already also accepted that the role came with numerous strings attached -- one being that people he knows and cares for... will die. His only hope was that, from now on, they would start from the top of the tree, where wrinkled faces and old bones awaited, rather than from the bottom where youthful dreams would become preemptively snuffed.
“You’re up, Father-in-law.” Lucky said as Lino felt the weight of the coffin increase slightly. The old man walked around and stopped next to the pile of wood as Lino shifted on his heel and faced the silent crowd. Lucky remained standing next to him while Althone, Evelyn and Valkryia retreated and joined the crowd.
“... when I’d learned that Felix would be departing the continent with the revered Empyrean,” the old man said as Lino groaned inwardly, yet his expression remained the same. “Unlike most of the family, I was happy. I, too, once upon a time wished to leave and explore, but I was never brave enough to do it. That boy... however... I knew he was.”
“In my heart of hearts,” he continued, lowering his head, his voice growing coarse. “I expected, should he ever return, he’d return like this. I just hoped that, however long his venture may be, he’d live it out fully. He was a brave boy; naive, yes, even slightly foolish, but brave. I’d rather have him die an honorable soul than watch him grow old and turn into one of us... crooked, corrupt, proud, ignoble. So, however much it may pain me to see him like this, to bid him goodbye rather than the other way around,” the old man’s voice cracked further, interrupted by faint sobs ever so often. “At least he died chasing his dreams, of right mind and heart. I know our Ancestors will welcome him with open arms, and sing songs in his praise. Thank you,” he suddenly turned toward Lino and bowed, causing the latter to wince. “For giving him a chance, for opening the world to him. However far and wide he may have searched otherwise, I know he couldn’t have ever found a better Master.”
“...” Lino didn’t know it was a theatrical compliance due to the fact that there were currently thousands of people looking at him star-eyed, or whether the old man genuinely felt the gratitude, but it didn’t matter in the end. “I’ve failed him.”
“You have n---”
“It’s fine,” Lino interrupted him, smiling faintly. “I have failed him. If I can’t accept that, if I can’t live up to it... what worth was his faith in me to begin with? Right now, I can only offer my apology and say you’ve raised a fine man... one far kinder, far more heartfelt than I’ve ever or will ever be. I know words matter little when it comes to the dead, but... what else can we offer them?”
“... thank you.” the old man clutched his hands into the fist, his expression crumpling as tears escaped the corners of his eyes like streams. It felt strange, Lino mused, seeing a wrinkled, old face in delirium of weeping... yet also freeing, genuine. “Thank you...”
“... he hasn’t been with us for long,” Lino said as he slowly and gently put the coffin on the pile of wood. “But, he’s left a mark on me, on the world, one that will never be erased.” running his hand over the coffin’s surface once more, Lino smiled brightly for a moment before standing up. “Light it up.”
A hum and a whizz later, the fire was kindled; warm and golden it soon rose tens of meters upward, consuming the pile of wood and the coffin. It burned starkly in the midday, lighting up nearly all of the tribe’s grounds. People glanced at it and exclaimed softly, some weeping, some holding their children tightly in their arms, some smiling with faint trace of reminiscence in their gazes, and some just standing still, seemingly lost in thoughts.
All funerals, however different in scale they may be, are always the same; the rituals, the ways, the songs, hymns, prayers, speeches, colors and means... they’re all just a way to say the final farewell. They were never meant for the dead, but for the living, those staying behind. A way to say the last goodbye, to cut the last karmic thread, to shed the last tear. Whether Emperors or peasants, it’s all the same. However grand a ceremony, death is the last, true equalizer of the world, where status, titles, honors, riches and glories don’t matter.
“... the boy comes home,” Lino suddenly sang out in a coarse, deep and slightly crackling voice. “From the fields of dreams...”
“His journey written in tomes...
“Its pages dyed in tears...
“Soon it shall all fade,” one by one, soon everyone began to join in as a choir of voices, each different and unique, sang into the sky.
“Like the night by the dawn
“Oh boy, don’t be afraid
“You will never be truly gone
“And the skies shall sing...
“Your very last hymn...
“And we all shall hear...
“Your very last hymn...
“The boy’s now home...
“And here shall he stay...
“Through the rains and snows...
“Oh boy, light our way...”
Fire crackled and cracked, sounding out like an accompanying instrument, dancing like a dancer, swaying freely in the wind. It bore down upon the world, showering it in light and warmth and a kindling feeling of a new day. A better day. A more hopeful day.