Taras had never realised how enjoyable the smell of hundreds of freshly printed books was before. It was in the bookstore, nine months after their battle with Nemesis, and people were queuing from the desk he sat, out of the front door. As he pushed his glasses up, he smiled. Never would he have imagined this moment. Dreamed, maybe. Hoped, even. But now he was really here.
"Mr Sykes?" the bookseller suddenly broached, pulling him out of thought. "Signatures?"
He nodded. "Of course." He glanced up at the next fan, eagerly clutching their copy of Hailstorm – not simply named for his comrade, named for those memories of ice and defeat, that catalyst for the great journey -and handed it over as he signed it and wrote a little personal message. He had poured his heart and soul into the pages of that book. It was the story of his journey, from the ice fields of his career, to the coal mining town, to the fiery rage of Athena. He couldn't believe he had ended up here. Here, a published author. Here, the embodiment of his dreams, and pride of his late father.
Three hours later he left the bookstore, shrouded in his brand new coat, and headed down the street. People turned to watch him as he walked. After all, he had done numerous television interviews and was now a well known face. Not the old television channels mind. New ones. Free ones. The new government didn't interfere in the media.
Suddenly he gasped. There was a movement in the corner of his eye, but when he span round the figure he had noticed had disappeared. The only trace left was several embers floating about wistfully.
It's her… By the Faith! She's back, just as Micah said!
He looked up to the sky and smiled. Ruin had returned, and the happiness he thought had met its limits had outgrown even him.
Meredith gazed out across the water, glistening in the light. Butterflies in great shoals swept above the lake, but she watched them disinterestedly. Nine months. Nine months since her life had changed so dramatically.
She was sat down at the lakeside, tall grass and reeds hissing with grasshoppers and crickets around her. Her family were gone, but she felt like she owed them something. Success. She had to forge her own path now, and make a life for herself. She had spent nine months wandering, floundering, and moving on from what had happened. She'd had little contact with the others either, except Hail, whom she had met up with only three weeks back. He was well, and now he was a father. She wished him the best of luck.
First of all, she needed a job. Going into the military was the most obvious choice, because this time it would be different. She could use her skills for good, without the manipulation of higher powers.
But do I want to fight anymore? Do I really want to hold a gun yet again?
In the end she decided that she had strayed too far from that road to return. There were other things she could do. Hundreds of opportunities just waiting for her. And then, she turned, noticing a shimmer in the crystalline waters of the lake.
It was a shimmer of reds and oranges. It was the hint of warm, mystic flames. And then that face moved beneath the water, drifting, smiling, and then fading.
She's here. She's returned, just like Micah told us.
"And she still believes in me," Meredith whispered. "After everything, she still believes in me…"
Connor pondered on the white hot branding iron. He wasn't scared of the hot, shocking touch. Fear didn't come into this action, only renewed faith, and a permanent symbol of memory, mind and mysticism.
He raised the iron into the air, then opening his eyes he cried out her name quite deliberately. "For Ruin!" then the scorching hot iron slammed into his naked back, etching its mark onto his flesh for eternity. And there, in the numb writhing furnace before him, he saw her.
"I'm the first of your Firewalkers," he said. "The first of your many followers. Your disciples."
The first, Ruin whispered back, voice flickering in the fire. But certainly not the last.
"No, my Lady. You've given me reason. You've given me the Light. I'll walk into the flames for you Ruin."
I'll be back soon Connor… and that offer might just become reality soon enough. Nemesis was defeated but there is always darkness in the hearts of good and light.
He smiled, feeling the burn cooling on his back. Glancing over his shoulder, his eyes honed in on the marking. A phoenix, elegant and mystic, embodied that idea of the legend. He felt just as fervent as before, yet this ardency had a new focus, a new embodiment of his faith and ambition. He'd follow her to the ends of the world. He would live his life supporting her cause, and in the end he could only hope the warm embrace of the flames would take him away…
Micah felt the familiar tingle of the radiant sun on his skin. When he turned and saw Vetra he had to remind himself that this wasn't just a dream; he had come through the worst, survived his wounds, and here he was, walking the lengths and breadths of home, smelling the warm, fragrant winds of the desert, eyeing the emerald green lizards and bone white butterflies.
"The vow stands," he suddenly said. "It stands for eternity and beyond even that." Vetra stared up at him, not giving away anything. "These winds whittle away the rock, they pound it into sand. But memories and promises – love – those are things that can't be broken so easily."
"As eternal as the sky…" she whispered back. "As eternal as the seas, as the land, as this world. That is the truth of my love."
He smiled, savouring the exotic taste of her lyrical words. Suddenly he remembered Ruin – Micah had become the prophet, the harbinger of her second coming. And every night he felt her fires grow, and he knew she was close to coming back.
They crested a large sand dune, peaked and whipped into a curving ridge. Vetra gasped aloud, raising her hands to her mouth. Micah stepped forward carefully, dazzled by the sparkling turrets rising on the horizon. It was a majestic scene, dire in its intensity, beyond the comprehension of human imagination.
"Meridian," he whispered, "The city of dreams…"
Hail sat on the bench, staring up into the sky and waiting. He'd done that a lot lately – waiting. Waiting for life, waiting for change, waiting for an eternity. But the wait had held its own glimmers of light, casting back that residual darkness, now washed away by the malicious currents of Nemesis.
For once, I feel… Happiness. Joy. All of them, I feel. But where is she…? Micah said she'd return but it's been nine months… She's taking her time, I'll give her that.
"Hail," he glanced up at the voice; Zhanna was there, settling down on the bench cradling a bundle in her arms. Baby Leo, the fragment of hope that Hail would never relinquish. She slowly passed him to Hail, and he took the baby, smiling without even realising it.
He had Hail's green eyes, though a little paler than his own, and Hail's sharp, powerful face. His hair was the jet black of Zhanna's though, a bald baby scalp peppered with black shoots, hints of the hair he would have soon enough.
"And how are you Zhanna?" he asked.
"Coping," she replied softly, before leaning towards him and kissing him on the lips. These meetings were not purposely clandestine, but Aden would not allow Hail in his house – there were happy endings, but some people would never change.
"I hear you Miss Ordina," he said with a smile, kissing Leo on the forehead.
My flesh and blood… my kin all died by the High Circle's hands, but now out of the wake of that carnage comes a legacy. A real, viable legacy. He almost burst into tears at the thought.
"Taras released his book today," Zhanna said. He nodded, glad that the academic had fulfilled his dream. "It received rave reviews… he even did an interview on channel one this morning." She looked up at the sky for a moment. "Athena's a crater… could we have ever imagined that we'd end up here? I remember you jumping into my train cabin, jumping into my life. Back then I felt like I could face the world, but I guess I feel different now."
"My journey started long before that," he said quietly. "But then we all have a story to tell, don't we?"
She nodded. "You're right."
He sat with her a few hours, until the day began to wane, the tides of evening pulling in. Then he kissed her, kissed Leo, and said his goodbyes for the time being. He couldn't settle in Namé, he would be far too close to Aden for comfort. In fact, he felt guilty enough as it was. He was a traveller, moving from one place to another, but he would always come back here. He had a son – and he knew it would be irresponsible to leave forever. He had ties with Zhanna as well. It was love, and though it could never blossom into the great orchard of fairytales, it would survive. It was a tough sort of love, weathered by the storms of fate, and he knew that it would be a hard bond to break.
He climbed onto his motorbike – a purchase made only a few months ago – then left along the northern road in a cloud of smoke and gravel. He travelled for an hour, the final flares of daylight bristling on the horizon. That was when he passed the hill. The hill itself did not draw his attention; it was a bleak, nondescript part of the landscape. It was the promise atop, the glowing hint of both the past and the future.
He pulled up at the foot of the hill, climbing off the motorbike. It was her. No mistaking.
Ruin stood there, gazing out into the distance, red hair billowing in the wind. Her face was marble, resolute and serious.
"She's come back to us," Hail whispered, half crying, half laughing. "The girl of fire has returned…"
And then like Xavier Erisa two thousand years beforehand, Hail felt the end of one age, and the magnetic pull of a new one. Ruin stood there, a symbol of the world, a harbinger of a new time. A calm darkness began to fall, Orion and Vesta winking in the sky. The Halo shimmered restlessly, an eternal monument.
Ruin began to come down the hill, moving like a wraith across transient ground. For a brief moment, Hail considered himself merely a spoke in the great wheel of time. His little hailstorm in the eternal history of the world was over, but he knew there would be others, so many others that would leave lasting marks on this ever changing landscape.
As Ruin walked towards him, he found himself lost in deep thought. The ages will keep coming. But one thing is certain; we're at the heart of everything. The people who can make things happen. The people who can change things. Ruin might be some great, ancient weapon sent to change the face of our planet, but without us she'd be nothing. Without us there would be no stories to tell. And where would we be then? Without a story, without a purpose. Without memories, resounding echoes in the cavernous halls of time…
To Be Continued...
A/N: This might be surprising, but my plans for the last chapter completely changed while I wrote. It's funny how stories take on a life of their own and the characters seem to demand things of you. In my original plans (which went unchanged until I actually came to writing the last chapter) Hail and Zhanna were never going to reconcile, let alone kiss. Most surprisingly, Micah was going to die. Yes, die! I was writing away and literally the story took over… I thought: I love these characters; I can't kill any of them. And then with Hail and Zhanna I didn't even decide to change my plans right up until half way through writing the scene. I just pictured him kissing her. I just imagined her all vulnerable. And there we have it… happy endings all around! I hope the epilogue suitably summed up the characters individual threads for you, and on a broader scale, brought the main themes to a conclusion. In a way it was an ending to both Time of Kings and Hailstorm – the book on Asterland has finally closed.
For those who have followed this story from the beginning, thank you so much for your support. I really and genuinely hope you've enjoyed it. Sure, this story has its flaws. I'm still learning so much as a writer, but I felt like Hailstorm contained my strongest characters yet – each with their own story to tell, though I do accept a few characters probably weren't as developed as I may have liked… My next piece of writing will be even more character driven. Hailstorm is going to be a stepping stone to the story I've wanted to tell for so long… my most ambitious fantasy project yet, steeped in magic and history. More information on this project will come soon – keep an eye on my profile, and an ear in the Roadhouse. I hope to have the first instalment up in the New Year (or maybe even before). Thanks again guys, you're the real heroes!
I'll see you beyond the Seventh Gate soon enough ;)…
© Luke Frayling, 2010
Warning: I retain full and exclusive legal rights to this story, its plot-line, and the characters within it. Unauthorized publication or duplication of this piece is prohibited. Actions of the previous nature will be prosecuted!