The Calm after the Storm

Tara heard a distant echoing cry that seemed to pulse from the very core of every rock, tree and living thing on the planet, as if nature herself was shrieking with terror as the dark portal to Kradonia whirled with renewed intensity, seeming to threaten to engulf the whole of Merranda. The brooding sky above and the barren, rocky world within the volcano reverberated with the terror-filled sound, intensifying to a point where Tara thought she could stand no more of the pain the fearful notes induced. The tone of the cries seemed familiar, then Tara, scrambling desperately to grab hold of the sharp, inhospitable rock walls that were hurtling past her at an alarming velocity, realised why - it was her own voice screaming.

Tara stretched out her hand as far as it would reach and managed to make contact with a small, rocky outcrop. The tiny ledge splintered, covering Tara's hands with painful lacerations that oozed runnels of crimson that tumbled along with broken shards of rock debris into the raging vortex below. Oblivious to the pain in her hands, Tara dug her nails into the rock and desperately strived to find footholds, to take her weight off the precarious ledge that threatened to part company with the rock wall at any moment.

/This is where it ends, she thought, I fulfilled my destiny ... there's no more reason for me to struggle, no more reason to be the only one left behind..."/

A new emotion was breaking through the fear that enveloped her - a calm acceptance that convinced her more with every moment that passed that she was no longer required to survive . she could cast herself into the volcano, allow herself to fall into the oblivion of death . and no one would notice.

Life, liberated from Retor's malevolence, would go on with little thought of what had happened to her; there was no one left to care.

/Even the torments of Kradonia cannot match the pain in my heart, she told herself, choking on the aggrieved tempest of tears flooding her face, I have lost all that I set out to protect ... what's to stop me dying now? What is there left to fight for?/

She was ready to release her hold, thus sentencing herself to an eternity in the dark land of the dead that was never meant to exist and abhorred even by the gods, when a terrified voice cried out desperately somewhere above her:

"Tara! Tara, hold on!"

"Mike?" Tara cried, surprised to see the blind king scrambling down the uneven and treacherous trails and ledges on the inside of the volcano, striving desperately to reach her. She'd heard him cry out before, she realised, just as she fell - but she hadn't remembered, somehow, that he was still alive - that Maya's falling body had pulled him out of the way of the sphere of dark energy that would have stripped him of his life.

"Hold on!" he yelled again, making a perilous leap to a ledge just above the one where Tara was cling on desperately. He threw himself flat against the rocky shelf, stretching his hand out towards the heartbroken warrior that had just given the world a new chance at survival. She made no attempt to take it.

"Tara," Mike begged desperately, "Please take my hand ... you can still make it out of this!" "What's the point?" Tara was fast falling beyond the reach of reason, "What's left for me now that Joe and Jason are gone?"

"It's not your time to die! Don't let grief get the better of you ... take my hand, please...!" There was a definite note of panic in Mike's voice now - something above and beyond the concern of a friend and, even in her distraught state, Tara noticed it - it bothered her.

"Why should you care?" she yelled, "Get out of here, Mike!"

"I'm not going to leave you to die!" Mike snapped, "Don't make the mistake of thinking that Joe and Jason were the only ones who cared for you - there are those who still live who need you!"

Tara shook her head ... how could he expect her to go on without Joe and Jason? She'd welcome the release of death if it meant she could be with her family again with nothing, this time, to separate them for eternity.

"You won't find them on the other side of that vortex, damn it!" Mike cried, reading her emotional thoughts, "Come on! Don't leave your son without his mother ... Julian's lost enough of his family already!"

"Julian..." the name broke through Tara's fragile mind and dispersed the mist that had clouded her judgement. She longed to hold her son in her arms, to feel the child in her womb growing with each day that passed, safe in the knowledge that there was no danger like Retor left that could threaten her or her family. She wanted to see her children grow, to identify the small spark of Joe's spirit that flowed through their veins, that she had already seen shining through her son's adoring eyes.

She looked up at the man above her, her mind suddenly clear and her heart filling with new determination, and reached out to grasp the strong hand that he was offering her.

Mike grasped her hand firmly and, grabbing her arm with his other hand, he hauled her onto the ledge beside him, then helped her to scale the rocky cliff-face back up to the summit. The volcano rumbled angrily just as they reached the rim of the dark mountain, nearly overbalancing the pair as they vaulted over the volcano's quivering lip and began a rather hurried and undignified descent. Tara and Mike stumbled more than once, loosing their footing as the uneven surface shook and rumbled, large sections of it falling away entirely.

Tara fell hard, jarring her leg just as they reached the place where the injured dragon was waiting, unbalanced by a particularly violent tremor that brought a flurry of rocks crashing down around her. She shrieked and Mike, who had been thrown some distance down the side of the volcano, climbed back up, helped her to her feet and pulled one of her arms around his shoulder as he helped her limp over to Flyht, giving her a leg up onto the huge animal's back.

"Mike, his wing's torn ... he can't fly!"

"He can still run faster than we can!" the young king vaulted up onto Flyht's back, behind Tara and grabbed her shoulder to stop her falling as the gigantic animal leaped forward, covering the ground with huge strides.

Mt Mauna bellowed, belching clouds of noxious fumes into the air, as if choking on the malevolent god who had been cast into it. A great rumbling sounded from its fiery depths and, just as the dragon with his two human passengers reached the foot of the angry mountain it shot one more column of dark light into the shrouded heavens, then settled into a still silence that seemed eerie after its constant activity.

Tara rolled off Flyht's back and lay face down on land churned by the many feet of the warring armies, heaving great, overwhelmed sobs of mingled grief and relief at the sudden cessation of violence. Mike slid down, crouched beside her and placed a consoling hand on her shoulder, but he was lost for words, unable to say anything to comfort her.

A shaft of warmth struck Tara's face and she looked up at the sky, surprised to see the brooding shadows give way to the glorious patterns of sunset, painted on the canvas of a rapidly clearing sky. Bright light flooded the land, filling a world that had been shrouded in intense, cold shadows with welcome warmth.

Startled by the sudden change in light, somewhere in the clearing a bird warbled, followed closely by a second, and third, until the entire island was alive with birdsong. Conceding defeat, the creatures of darkness shrank back - leaving the survivors of the epic battle to regain their breath and giving them the chance, finally, to acknowledge and grieve the deaths of their fallen comrades. The death toll had been unbearable, Tara realised as she sat up and gazed through misty eyes at the bloodstained figures - men, women, elves and many more - picking their way through the carnage in search of loved ones. People fell, wailing, over the motionless forms of the fallen, shedding oceans of tears as they performed whatever last rites were appropriate for their people. The wounded cried out in pain - some, convinced of their impending deaths, attempting to say their goodbyes to distraught friends and relatives trying to lend aid in any way they could. The battle had ended, but the scene was no less chaotic, the situation no less desperate. The day's events had left wounds - both physical and emotional - that would cause a world of pain for generations to come. Though in time the achievements of the war would be recognised, too much had been sacrificed for the battle to be considered a victory on that evening.

"Tara," Mike said gently, intruding on her wildly raging thoughts, "You're hurt - let me see to your injuries."

Tara ignored him; she had seen something that made her heart plummet and tears spring anew to already red and puffy eyes. She seemed to move in slow motion as she rose stiffly to her feet and limped through a magical barrier that parted to let her pass, then sealed itself behind her. She passed the motionless form of a once-proud, silvery white unicorn, his head and horn tucked under his bloodstained neck, making him seem more like a horse. Tara swallowed hard at the sight of Limbius lying so unnaturally still and moved among the bodies littering the land, feeling her throat constrict even more as she passed members of Joe's gypsy clan, a few unicorns from Solus, Sundrian and Roccian's herd that had escaped the massacre in their valley, and...

Her heart clenched as she knelt beside one motionless form and reached out to close the deep, blue-green eyes that had once been so full of light and warmth. A tear escaped her own eye as Joe's lids closed on his pale, bloodstained cheeks, as her fingers brushed his cool skin.

A sudden feeling of hopelessness washed over her. She had lost him ... the one thing she had sworn never to loose. He was gone ... gone from her forever and she was left alone. She picked up his cool hand, clasped it between her own and felt a tidal wave of grief flood over her.

Suddenly she cried out and doubled over him, gasping with pain ... not grief, but white-hot pain. She shot her hand instinctively to her still- flat stomach - surely not her baby, too?

But no ... it wasn't her womb causing this pain. This pain clenched at her heart, like a manacle of steel suppressing the rhythm of life. Her strength deserted her and she fell, collapsing over Joe, still clutching his hand in hers.

The shadows opened wide to swallow her, as if the descent of the last rays of sunlight below the horizon heralded the ebbing of her life force. What little warmth she had gained following the dispersing of Retor's malignant influence fled her now as her soul was plunged into the icy, barren depths of the world between worlds - where not so long ago ignis fattus had sought to lead her astray, through the fluttering curtain from whence there was no return.

/"I am not so easily defeated, Baker!"/ a familiar voice rasped, then something hit Tara from behind, grabbing her with cruel fingers that were, once again, skeletal and hard; whatever strength Retor had gained in the physical world was lost here.

Tara screamed as she found herself being dragged towards the curtain separating this dark, barren wasteland from Kradonia, struggling against the god's steely grip, but to no avail. He pushed her up against the icy cloth of the curtain, so close that she could hear the screams emanating from the other side, then he spun her around, so that ghost and god were face to face.

/"You may have defeated me, Baker," he spat, "But don't think you've won; I'll take you with me, daughter of Bolindia, and show you the true meaning of suffering!"/

"Do as you will," Tara snarled, "I don't care any more, Retor - you're banished to Kradonia, your threat upon Merranda is ended, what difference does it make if you kill me or not?"

Retor grinned maliciously, showing rows of yellow teeth against a rotten jaw. /"You may not care about your own life, Baker, but I'm sure you don't feel the same way about your children - the brat in your womb will die with you, and I assure you - my followers will hunt down and sacrifice your son, just as they did your daughter, and bring me back to full power. You cannot defeat me, Baker! I will always win ... in the end!"/

He tried to push her back, through the dark portal to Kradonia, but Tara, incensed by this threat to her children and reminder of Lauren's brutal death, growled in anger and pushed back, feeling power pulse through her hands, spectral though her body was. Retor, taken by surprise, staggered back and stared in angry disbelief at the woman who was standing before him - Tara's spirit was surrounded by a bright light, pulsing with the same power that had protected her on the summit of Mt Mauna, but stronger this time, more intense.

Tara stared down at her hands, disbelieving of what she was seeing - how could she have this kind of power in spirit form? Then she felt the sharpness of the ground beneath her feet and realised - she was becoming corporeal, gaining substance - somehow, she was no longer a spirit.

/"No!" /Retor snarled, /"This can't happen! It cannot end this way!"/

/"What's ... happening to me?"/ Tara gasped, recognising a change in the tone of her voice - it was more powerful, rich with magical strength. What she was feeling was like what she had experienced during her last encounter with Retor - but stronger, it seemed that a part of her had fallen away, dissolved in the incredible power now coursing through her body, which, she sensed, was not the same one she had left behind when Retor had dragged her here.

/The human part of me is dead!/ She realised suddenly, recognising the situation for what it was with startling clarity,/ there is nothing but the goddess part of me remaining!/

She felt a softening in the tension around her, as if something of the evil in this land was being released, and looked down at the ground at her feet where she could sense a distant echo beneath the surface. Loosing all awareness of the evil god in front of her - or perhaps it was that she no longer felt the need to fear him - Tara dropped to her knees, reaching out an aura-shrouded hand to touch the cool stone. She closed her eyes, feeling the distant echo strengthen and pulse through her hand, into her body - she could sense life beyond the barren tomb of rock and desolate earth. It seemed to speak to her - calling out for release, sending shocks of empathy through her heart. Drawing on some inner instinct, Tara plunged both hands through the dusty earth, the immense might of her power shattering the rock beneath to reveal a richer, more fertile soil. Tears flowed down Tara's cheeks, falling in shimmering droplets to add their life- giving force to the land as a green shoot, uncoiling swiftly as if awakening from a long slumber, burst from beneath Tara's fingers and rose towards heavens suddenly ablaze with light. It quickly grew into a mighty oak tree with large, arching roots that broke up more of the rocky land around it. More shoots appeared in the newly excavated land, nourished by the tears of pure joy flowing from the new goddesses bright eyes, becoming more trees that filled the world between worlds with much-needed oxygen, paving the way for life to return.

Tara's tears flowed faster, creating runnels of water in the newly fertile world that quickly swelled into rivers and streams, carving their path around the trees and through the vast fields of grass that were springing up everywhere.

/"No!"/ Retor raged, /"This is a place of death ... a place of darkness and despair!"/

/"Not any more,"/ Tara smiled - a radiant smile that seemed to kindle a bright sun that blazed overhead, lending warmth and light to the new plant life. She walked towards Retor calmly, assuredly, leaving a trail of flowers unfurling in her wake, filling the clear air with the smell of blossoms. /"The darkness of the land you created had leached all the life from this place, Retor, but now it's time for it to return - and for you and Kradonia to vanish, for neither were meant to exist!"/

/"Spoken like a true goddess!" /Retor sneered, though he did not seem as assured as he had been. There was an uncertain expression on his skeletal faces, something about his posture that seemed wary and hesitant. /"But there is no need for you ... there is already a goddess of life and, though she is your grandmother, I doubt she will share her power!"/

Tara smiled again, calmer than she could ever remember feeling. Here was her nemesis - the creature she had been fighting against for so long that she was weary of all the battles and bloodshed - and he was scared of her ... she felt that, at last, she truly had the power to face him, that she equalled him in strength.

/"Life isn't about strength or power, Retor," she said, her laughter ringing around them like birdsong, trilling through the trees, "It's about cooperation, of sharing and mutual support and friendship - something you know nothing about, or have forgotten. Do you even remember how you felt when you lost your family, before you became the twisted creature that you are? Tell me - were the feelings of love and grief over the absence of life any weaker than the anger over the presence of death? I have felt them both, Retor - I know the former to be stronger. Yes, I feel anger, but I won't stoop to your level, I won't destroy without reason. Give up this pretence at godhood, and I will help you move on."/

Retor stared at her for a long moment, then threw his head back and shattered the serenity of the place with his ringing laughter.

/"Good try, Baker! I should have known you wouldn't have the courage to destroy me! Give up this existence? When I still have the chance to get my revenge on humanity? No ... you have merely put my plans on hold. Sooner or later, I will get free and then, Baker, you will see the true destruction my powers can wreak on your precious world!"/

/"So be it!" /Tara held out her hands before her, palms facing the god - she had given him the chance and he had denied it. There was only one option left to her now; as much as she felt for the human Retor had once been and, she felt sure, still resided somewhere deep within the dark chasms of his mind, she was bound to protect the life he was threatening to destroy.

/"Both Fire and Earth I summon,"/ she started, repeating the ritual she and her companions had used two years ago to bind the evil god within a ring, to give the world a chance to prepare - but this time she meant to do something more dramatic, to alter the spell to achieve a much greater aim.

/"NO!"/ Retor shrieked, darting towards her, but he was already captured by the manifesting elements, held in place as Tara calmly chanted the incantation.

/"And Water and Air in their turn,

I call to these for elements

To bury, flood, bellow and burn!"/

Retor was trapped within a swirling vortex of rock, fire, wind and water, completely imprisoned as the spell took hold:

/"I ask them to trap this spirit,"/ Tara continued,

/"Within this dark world to depart,

By the powers within I beseech you

By the strength of my will and my heart."/

The curtain to Kradonia flew wide, admitting a sharp, strong wind that caught the vortex holding the malevolent god and dragged it in through the doorway. Retor shrieked in dismay - but there was nothing he could do about it, no way for him to fight back.

/"Both the dark land and creator,"/ Tara could feel the power within her intensifying and the world around her resonated with tension - as if the newly created life could sense that a great evil was about to depart. /"Are redundant, were not meant to be, Come forth and from life's presence remove them, So life can at last be set free!" /

She shouted the last line as a great booming sound issued from beyond the curtain - before it, too, was swept into the dark vortex that was the entrance to Kradonia. Many wispy, silvery shapes drifted out of the portal - spirits that had never been meant to be there finally finding their freedom. Another boom announced the dark world's destruction as the vortex imploded - shrinking into nothing and vanishing, leaving a sudden startled silence and calm.

Tara stood staring at the place where it had been, trying to comprehend what she had just achieved - not only was Retor gone, but Kradonia had fallen, too. She couldn't believe it was over - that the tumultuous events of the last few years had finally ground to a halt. Retor and Kradonia were no more than memories ... the world was safe.

Tara sighed and closed her eyes, feeling the new power pulsing within her and wondered what would happen to her now that she had left her physical life ... there was nothing left for her in the mortal world, now and she knew little of the world of the gods.

Maybe, she thought hopefully, now that she was a goddess she might be able to visit Mauna and see Joe and Jason again - but if she was immortal, would she ever see Julian again? Would she have to watch him grow up from a distance, see him become old and die whilst she remained the same for eternity? What would happen to her baby, when it was born? She doubted she would be able to bring it up to lead a normal life . she would most likely have to give it up.

/"I have no desire to be a goddess,"/ she whispered, her voice resonating with the sound of a mournful, rain-filled winter wind as her tears flowed freely, /"I only ever wanted to be a wife and mother - both Joe and I fought for that right, now both he and my children are taken from me! Why am I being punished? Why do I have to suffer an eternal existence when all those I love are gone?"/

Then, like a beam of light illuminating her mind, she suddenly knew what she had to do. Of course! Why hadn't she seen it sooner? Why had it taken her so long to see the opportunity that was being presented to her?

She held her arms in front of her and above her head, the palms facing the sunlit heavens, threw her head back and closed her eyes, revelling in the gently caress of warm sunlight and the blossom-scented winds. She reached deep inside herself, into the very core of her being where the gift of eternal life resided, then visualised it as a stream of light that flowed up through her body, out of her mouth, and nose, quivering in the clear air as it waited for her instructions.

/"Let the influence of Retor's evil be cleansed from the world once and for all," she said, her voice like the ringing of a thousand melodic words, "May all that was destroyed be mended, may all that was fallen rise again. Let light overcome darkness, life overcome death! Let all that he did be undone. That which was lost let now be found, for this is my will - let all hope destroyed by Retor be kindled anew!" /she brought her arms sweeping down as the magical energy she had drawn from herself swept away, surging out of the world between worlds and circling Merranda within a matter of seconds. Tara sensed it falling into a valley, flowing over the motionless forms of a herd of fallen unicorns, she saw it hit a Bolindian village, restoring stone people to full life, then it was off over the boundless ocean, reaching a volcano island and descending on the carnage of a battlefield just as Tara felt the last of her power drain and her body dissolve. She rushed through a tunnel of vibrant, white light at a terrifying velocity, sensing that she was travelling over a far greater distance than any traveller could claim to have gone - she had been to the land of the dead and back not once, but twice.

Suddenly she was back in her physical body, coughing and gasping as pain returned to her. She sat up; hissing as stiff muscles jarred and she felt the sensation of her lungs sucking in air - a strange feeling, after her brief spell as a goddess.

"Oh, thank the gods!" Mike came running towards her, followed by Cass, whom he'd obviously gone to fetch when he realised that his attempts to revive her were useless. "Tara, are you ok?"

Tara barely heard him; she crawled over to Joe's motionless body and grabbed his hand again, feeling her heart leap into her throat ... what if it hadn't worked? What if her attempt had been in vain? "Joe," she said gently, brushing the hand that wasn't holding his over his cool brow, "Joe, can you hear me? Please, please answer me."

Cass was weeping against Mike's shoulder, having just spotted her son's body but restraining herself from interfering in what she thought was Tara's way of coming to terms with Joe's death and saying goodbye. Mike held the old woman, lending the only aid he could as he observed the scene with confusion - Tara knew Joe was dead, what in the world was she doing? What had happened to her?

He had been sure she was ... gone ... when he'd finally, reluctantly, left her to go and seek Cass and give her the bad news that both her son and daughter-in-law were dead. Yet here she was - alive and conscious, but she seemed different - what had happened to her in that other world and how had she managed to return?

"Joe," Tara repeated, oblivious to the two people watching her, "I love you .... don't leave me."

Joe remained motionless, his lids lying gently on his pale cheeks. Tara waited for what seemed like forever for the miracle that never came, then heaved a great sob and bent down to kiss him, tasting the salt of her own tears as her lips brushed against his.

"I love you..." she whispered feebly, "I tried, Joe ... I really tried!" She broke down into hysterical sobs, hardly comprehending when Cass broke away from Mike and came and threw her arms around her, rocking her as she would a child as the two women shared their grief.

Tara pulled the old woman into a tight embrace, wailing like a banshee as she contemplated her life without Joe there to guide and support her, to give her the unconditional love that had been all that had kept her going at time. She was oblivious to everything around her, save the other woman who was grieving with her, feeling pain of the same intensity, if not exactly of the same kind.

She didn't notice when one of her own tears fell, shimmering, to the churned ground and, glinting with a last trace of the goddess energy that Tara had sacrificed in the hopes of reviving her fallen family, sent a ripple of power pulsing through the battlefield.

Mike, however, did notice it; his psychic eyes, more sensitive than his normal ones had ever been, picked up the rippling energy and he watched, in amazement, as the auras of the fallen flickered back into being, like candles being lit in a dark room. One by one, as if waking from a deep sleep, those who had been killed slowly sat up, looking around them in bewilderment, suddenly finding themselves back in the physical world after being in the land beyond life. Mike watched incredulously for a long time, then a thought struck him that sent a surge of hope through his body and he turned, hurrying to a figure covered with a phoenix-emblazoned cloak...

Tara, completely unaware of what was going on around her, had let go of Cass and had thrown herself over Joe's body, sobbing into his cold shoulder. She felt utterly lost, as if her whole world had come crashing down around her. Gently she stroked Joe's hair, brushed her hand against the skin of his face and wished that she could feel him hold her just one last time. She fell deeper and deeper into the dark depths of her grief, not hearing Cass's voice as she tried to comfort the hysterical woman, controlling her own grief in order to help her daughter-in-law.

Tara didn't notice, at first, when the hand she was holding in hers returned the grip, or that the soft lashes had lifted from bloodstained cheeks, revealing two, blue-green jewels that glimmered with intense love and tenderness. It wasn't until Joe whispered her name and reached up to brush a tear away from her cheek that Tara finally comprehended what was happening. She sucked in her breath, afraid to look in case she was imagining the touch and she would find him still lying motionless, his eyes closed. In any case, her tears were falling so thick and fast that she could see nothing but a foggy haze over her vision. She tried to stop them, but it only resulted in hiccupping sobs that threatened to tear her chest.

"Don't cry, Maid," a familiar, voice said softly, then a hand - calloused yet gentle, brushed the shimmering prismatic droplets away from her eyes. Finally, Tara could see the man lying on the ground beside her, his eyes shining with love and vibrantly alive.

"Joe! Oh, Joe!" she let out a long laugh of relief and elation, then threw her arms around her husband. Joe returned the embrace, kissing her gently, first on the cheek and then, when she loosened her hold enough, on the lips.

"I thought I'd lost you..." he whispered, his eyes flashing momentarily with concern, then it faded and was replaced with pride as he smiled at her, "You did it! You defeated him!"

Tara laughed, suddenly feeling all the weight lift from her shoulders. It was over! Retor was defeated and they were all still alive!

"Jason!" she said suddenly, standing up and staggering over to the place where her brother was just coming round, groaning as pain knifed across his head. He grinned, however, when Tara fell on her knees beside him and threw her arms around him.

"That's one great power you have there!" he choked, gently disentangling her arms from around his neck as she threatened to strangle him, "Careful, I don't want to die again today!"

Tara laughed and helped him to his feet. A short distance away she saw that Maya, too, was back on her feet and held in Mike's tight embrace. Limbius snorted and struggled to stand up in the slippery mud, finally having to be helped up by Joe and Cass. All around the battlefield, others were rising - until there were only a few left dead.

/I guess they were the ones who didn't want to return./ Tara thought sadly, then she spotted Morbidus and his spectral cart approaching. "Ah, no!" she muttered, wondering what he wanted this time and if she had angered the gods by reviving her companions. Joe came over to her and laid a protective arm about her shoulders; whatever happened, she knew he would stand by her and was glad to see him by her side once more.

/"It will be a long time before this battle is forgotten, Tara Baker," /Morbidus' skeletal face stretched into what could have been considered a grin as he approached them, leaving his spectral henchmen to gather the few souls who had elected not to return to the land of the living and lead them to the cart. "An admirable decision, to cast aside the chance to become a goddess in order to save those you love." "You're not angry?" Tara asked, stunned. Morbidus laughed.

/"Angry? When the world is free and Retor has not even the blood of the fallen to show for it? No, Tara, I am, if anything, the exact opposite. This day will be a day of celebration, for gods and mortals alike. Oh, and by the way ... there is one more soul that is yet to be returned!"/

Morbidus turned and beckoned to the cart and Tara felt her heart jolt when she saw a young girl with lustrous dark hair and deep, blue-green eyes leap from it and sprint towards her. The girl was older than she remembered, having gained the years she had missed out on, but Tara would have recognised her anywhere.

"Lauren!" she shrieked, hardly daring to believe it. She scooped the girl up into her arms and nearly smothered her with frantic kisses as she held her close, crying tears of joy. Joe, too, was overwhelmed. He crushed Tara to him, so that their long-lost daughter was held between them, and stroked the girl's raven-black hair tenderly.

"How?" Tara wanted to know, "Why now?"

/"You restored all life taken by Retor, remember? This, daughter of Bolindia, is down to you, not the gods or myself." There was rare humour in Morbidus's voice, "Oh, and I have a message from Carenos and Bolindia - they say 'thank you'."/

Tara nodded, knowing that the destruction of Kradonia had released her parents from their eternal torments - they would probably now be in that world between worlds that she had so recently changed from a barren wasteland to a paradise, or perhaps in the world of the elves, but perhaps, someday, they would gain the strength to return.

"Give them my love." Tara requested. The Collector of the dead bowed his head in acquiescence.

/"Of course. You should return to Bolindia now; I believe your brother is waiting to help you ready yourself for your coronation; he is able to stay within the walls of the White Castle, now that the ley lines are back in their correct states."/ He grinned again and Tara sensed he was pleased that the oldest child of Bolindia had returned from the realm of the end - even if his injury meant he couldn't stray beyond the castle and therefore could never be king; rulers needed to be able to travel, to go where there was trouble in their country. /"I expect you have much catching up to do. Fare thee well, daughter of Bolindia. May good fortune shine upon you and the time when we meet again be long distant!"/

He turned with a sweep of his long cloak and vaulted onto the front of his cart as it hurtled past him, vanishing rapidly into the distance

Tara couldn't stop smiling as she turned her attention back to her husband and the daughter she had thought she had lost forever. She was oblivious to everything - even the rest of her companions crowding around them and the sound of the armies applauding in the background as they recognised her as the heroine who had rid the world of a dangerous demon god, giving them all another chance at survival. All she could see were the two pairs of bright, blue-green eyes gazing back at her with love as intense as she was feeling for them, all she could feel was her radiant happiness and the hand her husband was clasping over her stomach, reminding her of the life stirring within her.

/Joe was right,/ she thought, smiling as shooting stars streaked the clear, star-lit night sky just as Joe raised his sceptre, summoning a portal that would transport them all back home where, finally, they could afford to rest, /even when everything seems impossible, there is always hope!/


Althea allowed her words to fade into silence, smiling as she reached the end of her tale. Tears streaked the faces of the two children - but they were tears of joy at the happy ending, at the thought of a mother finally being reunited with the child she thought she had lost. Even Mike seemed blissfully unaware of the griffin lying between him and his sister, completely engrossed in his own memories of highlights in the story.

Outside the storm had abated and night was giving way to the first light of day. Somewhere in the forest a bird warbled a single, shy note and waited for a response from a robin closer by. Sokar yawned and stretched his powerful front paws, shaking himself as if to throw off the mantle of sleep that had settled over him in the last hour or so.

"What happens next?" Laura asked eagerly. Althea laughed.

"That, I'm afraid, is a story for another time," she smiled, then looked up when she heard two voices outside calling the children's names. "There's your parents ... it's time for you to go."

Laura sighed with reluctance, but she and Mike rose to their feet and shuffled out of the cave into the growing light of dawn, making their way through the grass sparkling with the night's moisture. Althea, followed by the griffin, walked to the cave mouth with them, then waved and smiled when they thanked her and ran off in the direction of their parent's voices.

She watched them leaving, smiling as she thought about how remarkably similar they looked to the children she had watched grow up, so long ago. Briefly she wondered if she had been wise to tell them so much, then decided she had been right not to hold back; her enemies would be their enemies, and the legions of darkness would not discriminate against age.

"Travel safe, my darlings," she whispered, closing her eyes as the sight started to return to them, as her hair darkened, thickened and lengthened, surrounding her face in a nimbus of dark brown waves. Her skin smoothed out, straightening the lines of age until she appeared to be a woman in her mid twenties. She opened her eyes, deep brown and filled with the mystical secrets of hidden strength and power, of the inner knowledge and assurance only the Sight could bring.

"Come," she said softly to Sokar as she pulled the hood of her cloak up over her head, exposing her arm for a brief moment in which the blue 'alpha' mark on her arm was illuminated by the early morning sunlight, "Our task here is done; what happens next is a story to be told on another night." She walked out into the shelter of the trees, leaving the campfire to mysteriously extinguish itself, then turned to face the griffin - but where the animal had been there was now a sword, hovering through some mystical power before her, the face above the hilt smiling at the memory of the adventure she had just described and the ending that everyone had thought to be impossible at the time.

The woman smiled back, then reached out to grab the sword's hilt, just as glad the story was over -the retelling had been almost as traumatic as the actual events but, given the chance, she would have done it all over again just to see what she had seen today - the continuation of her line, the survival of her blood in the two children who had listened so eagerly to her story.

She smiled once more, reminding herself about how there was always hope, no matter how desperate the situation seemed. Whatever Laura and Mike had to face in the future she was sure they would pull through it - just as surely as they were the descendents of Bolindia.

She let out a laugh as she and the sword faded from view, vanishing to some distant location and, just for a moment, the forest seemed to ring with the sound of her crystal-clear, otherworldly voice.

The End.


A/N: Well, that's it :) That's the whole story told, done and dusted, finito, lol! Seriously, I hope you enjoyed it, please read and review. Read some of my other works, if you have the time :) Part two 'The Alpha Warriors, the Phoenix of the Frozen Fire and the Light of Darkness' will be coming soon - though the title may have to be shortened :(

See you soon,

Blessed Be,

Andaren xxx