It wasn’t long before they had been brought into the massive hall where Prudentius’ statue resided. Jeriah looked at the wall and saw that golden cages lined the walls, but they were all empty and the cage doors were open. There were enormous pillars that kept the room from caving in and the pillars had wreaths of colorful flowers and also were adorned with the bones of victims.
“Um,” Darya cleared her throat. “Prudentius, we’re the Royals that have come to complete the contract you gave us in exchange for the cure. We were not the ones who you gave the contract to, but we are the ones who have completed the work.”
Prudentius appeared from the shadows, as she always did when meeting new arrivals. “At last,” she said. “I was worried your connection to the Monarchs might prevent you from completing your work. But, it seems that you have indeed finished. Ah...but I see that one of the Monarchs have followed you. How interesting.”
Renatus suddenly appeared next to her in a beam of light, as seemed to be his signal of arrival, and he looked on at them with distrust in his golden eyes. “The Royals have proven their great loyalty to the Immortals and will surely be blessed for doing this work and bringing forth the thieves.”
“We really don’t need any sort of blessing or gratitude,” Darya said as she waved her hands. “We just want the contract to be finished.”
“Prudentius-” Jakob started, but Laguna grabbed Jakob’s wrist tightly and shook her head.
“Don’t say anything,” Laguna whispered. “You have to follow what they say. You can’t ruin this for us.”
Jakob pulled his wrist away, but he wasn’t sure what to do. He wanted to beg Prudentius and Renatus to allow them to live, but he knew the Royals couldn’t risk Prudentius being offended and potentially not being willing to complete the contract. He knew his foolish words could be offensive. The Immortals were easily offended, after all.
“Let’s make this simple then,” Prudentius spoke again. “Thieves, step forward.”
Jeriah looked at his companions, and gave one last look to Jakob, and then he walked forward to stand before the two Immortals. The Wanderers seemed quite afraid, but they didn’t know what was going to happen in this moment.
Prudentius laughed. “The thieves at last. Relinquish your Life Stones to Renatus,” she said. “Do so immediately.”
“Wait!” Jeriah exclaimed. “Tell us first! Will...will we die if we return these Stones to you?”
“Ahh, is that why you’ve run so far away and stayed hidden for so long? You were afraid that losing these would mean losing your lives?” Prudentius mused. “No, foolish guardians. These Life Stones have a special magic in them that is almost like...well, it’s like time has stopped for you as long as it is in your possession. But, once you give them to us it’ll simply be as though time has returned to normal. You’ll age normally, just as you should have hundreds of years ago.”
Kiyah clapped his hands. “I told you! I told you we wouldn’t die!”
Verity was so overwhelmed with emotions that she hugged Zhai. “We’ll get to live our lives! Just as we wanted!”
“We were busy running for so long...we didn’t even think to ask this question. We were too afraid,” Zhai chuckled and shook his head. “We were too foolish. This could have ended so long ago.”
“It doesn’t matter. Now we know we can live our lives,” Emersyn said. “The past is past and now we’re free.”
And they each lifted the Life Stones that had become like a heavy weight on their chests and placed them into the hand palm of Renatus. They felt like they could breathe easier now. Even in this creepy cavern of the Underworld.
“They are intact,” Renatus said as he rolled the stones over in his palm carefully. “And at last they are where they belong.”
“Can we leave now?” Emersyn asked.
“Not so fast, young guardians,” Prudentius said as she raised an eyebrow. “You have returned these objects, of course, but you must pay for your sins. Well, one of you must pay.”
They looked back up at the Immortal of Death and all the joy seemed to melt away. There was always a catch with the Immortals. It was never so simple.
The Royals, who had been quiet all this time, grew uncomfortable with this news as well. They had told Jakob they wouldn’t bring harm to Jeriah or the Wanderers, but now it seemed that that promise was null and void.
“Great Immortal, don’t you think you could show mercy this once?” Darya spoke without even thinking. She couldn’t help it, her emotions often drove her thoughts.
Minda clamped her hand over Darya’s mouth, and Darya looked shocked at her much taller friend. Minda shook her head, and Darya knew she had been wrong to even ask.
“I am the Immortal of Justice as much as I am the Immortal of Death, for I must cast judgment over every soul that enters my Halls. Those that do ill in life must suffer, those that do good in life must have peace. Is this not how you keep justice in the Mortal Realm as well?” Prudentius asked as she turned her gaze to the three humans.
“That is usually how it goes, unless someone can pay their way out of their crimes,” Laguna said with a small nod.
“Human currency means nothing down here,” Prudentius said as she turned her gaze to Jeriah.
“Prudentius, please,” Emersyn said as she suddenly fell to her knees and bowed her head. “You know very well that we are creatures who do not have souls to put to rest. Our souls burn up with the flame in our heart and then we have nowhere...we are just gone. Couldn’t you possibly have mercy? Just this once?”
All the Wanderers fell to their knees and followed her motion. They were begging for mercy, for an opportunity to live life without hiding in the mountains and being in fear. They wanted to live beyond their task to wake the Monarchs. They just wanted a chance.
“Please!” Jakob’s voice cried out.
“Jeriah is the thief, and as such he must pay with his life,” Prudentius responded simply “I cannot let it be known that I allow thieves to come and go as they please.”
“My lady, please!” Emersyn begged as she lifted her head. “Please! We are sorry for what we did...Jeriah is especially sorry! But you know he only wanted to live long enough to see his brother, and now he’s been reunited with him! We regret what we did, but we felt it was the only way to live to see the Monarchs again. Please have mercy-”
“My justice cannot be denied,” Prudentius replied coldly.
Then more servants of Prudentius came out of the shadows and began grabbing and pushing the other Wanderers away from Jeriah and dragged them back over to where the Royals still stood. The servants used their bodies as barriers so the Royals, Jakob, and the Wanderers could not approach again as Prudentius enacted her judgment.
“No!” Jakob cried out as he shoved against the bodies of the servants. “No, Prudentius! Take me instead! Don’t hurt my brother!”
“I have no need for you, young Monarch,” Prudentius said. “You are not the thief.”
Zhai threw his shoulder against one of the servants and managed to knock it away, but just as he was about to run forward he collapsed to the ground. He struggled against a mystical force that seemed to be holding him down against the ground, and then they realized that Renatus was creating magical barriers around all of them to keep them from disrupting Prudentius. The two Immortals that dealt in Death and Rebirth were a team and weren’t going to let puny Mortals stop their punishment.
Jeriah closed his eyes and bowed his head. He couldn’t move, either, so he knew Renatus was holding him in place, too. He had thought this might happen. He hadn’t wanted it to, he had hoped that there might be a chance Prudentius would just let them go after returning the Stones, but...he knew that was foolish. He had to die, but the others would be able to live their lives now. And he had gotten to see Jakob one more time. That would comfort him as his soul burned up and his particles returned to the stars.
Jeriah glanced back at Jakob and he smiled softly. He saw the tears and heard his cries, but he just wanted to comfort him with a smile before he was gone. Then he looked to his friends who had traveled with him and endured all of his selfish demands for all these years. He saw tears, he heard their objections, but it was all pointless now. They had to accept it, and he had to accept it.
Maybe one day they would be reunited under better circumstances.
And then everything went black, and all he could feel was coldness.