Epilogue

Morry rode hard toward the cabin, his tall mount neck and neck with Shane's. They had nearly reached it when someone rose up out of the grass before them. Both horses spooked and reared, and Morry heard others all along the column doing the same thing. He shifted his weight with practiced ease to maintain his seat, but several thuds and blistering curses told him that others were not so skilled. Then the shady figure sprang toward him, and Morry dared not release his reins long enough to pull his sword and defend himself.

"It's you!"

"Tetsu?" Morry blinked in disbelief at the young ex-assassin perched on his horse's withers, sword raised to kill.

Tetsu dove off and rolled away. "Morry." His quick eyes flicked along the line of riders. "Shane. Clio. And the duke of Crestil." His brows came together. "Follow me. Avain is in danger."

Shane hardly waited for his horse to come back down on all fours before he kicked it into a gallop, nearly running Tetsu over in his mad dash to get to the cabin. Morry arrived right behind him, and the two brothers dismounted without even bothering to stop all the way. Shane had his sword out as he stared at the scene before them.

Sarran and Avain stood together, locked into a tight and tearful embrace. Another boy about their age sprawled in the grass at their feet, and two men knelt off to one side, looking for all the world like humble courtiers paying their respects to the king.

Morry sidled up to Shane and whispered in his ear. "What's going on?"

Shane shook his head. "No idea."

Jory and Emar arrived next, wheeling their horses about as they gaped around. Tetsu followed close behind. Even on foot, the young man had outrun most of the weary horsemen. He took in the scene in an instant, then promptly knelt down just like the two Killiki men.

Shane took a hesitant step forward. "Sarran? Avain?"

The two boys jumped almost guiltily, then broke apart, wiping at tears as though they could somehow hide them. Avain spoke first.

"It's all right. It's over."

Morry indicated the fallen boy. "Who is that?"

"His name is Arie," Sarran replied, his tone bitter and resentful. Avain shot him a reproachful look. "He's the Guildmaster."

----------

Tetsu knelt down in the grass, bowing his head so low he felt the slender blades brush his forehead. A few short moments after Sarran's pronouncement, he heard a pair of shuffling footsteps moving toward him and recognized them as Avain's, but he did not lift his head.

A small hand fell on his shoulder. "Tetsu, what are you doing?" His words were nearly lost in the pounding drone of dozens of horses galloping up.

Tetsu shrugged the hand off. "It is my duty to show fealty in the presence of the Guildmaster."

"You don't have to do that anymore. We beat him."

"Not the old Guildmaster. We owe allegiance now to the new Guildmaster, to your brother."

"What? I don't understand."

"The title of Guildmaster always passes to whoever defeats the previous one. This has always ensured that only the most powerful of us could run the Guild."

Avain started to say something, but Shane's harsh laughter cut him off. "So, Sarran, what will you do with your new army, such as it is?"

Sarran did not reply for a moment. Then he drew in a deep breath. "Disband it. Assassins are used only for killing, and there is no honor or glory in killing alone."

Tetsu looked up so fast the back of his head smacked into Avain's chin where the boy crouched before him. Avain fell back with a yelp of pain, but Tetsu ignored him. "Dis--? But how?!"

Sarran shot him a crooked smirk. "I was thinking my new lieutenant could handle that. After all, you know more about this Guild than I do, Tetsu."

"R-right!" Tetsu frowned in concern. "But where will they go? Most of us have no other home."

"Oh, I'm sure you'll think of something," Avain interjected, rubbing his jaw and grimacing. "But I know I'd like to take at least one home with me. You know, just to study the enemy in case the Guild ever reforms."

"H...home...?"

----------

Darton swung down from his horse and crossed over to the boy lying in the grass, since no one else seemed to be checking on him. He reached out to feel for a pulse, but Sarran caught his wrist.

"Dead he is not," the boy informed him in his typical fumbling Crestilian. "Drugged only."

Shane came forward. "Thoofyr ath veer?"

"Dreamgrass," Sarran replied. Then he seemed to think of something, and Darton practically saw the flash of insight. "Kiru!" The boy ran off toward the cabin and burst through the door.

Shane started to follow him, but Avain caught his shoulder and shook his head. "Rone me."

For a moment, Darton thought Shane might argue with him, but then he subsided and turned to his friend instead. "I didn't know you were here, Darton."

"Yeah, well, everything was pretty jumbled and confused back there, and you really looked like you didn't need anymore distractions, so I kept to myself."

Shane nodded. "How did all of you happen to be here just in time? There's no way that was coincidence."

Darton shook his head. "Well, shortly after you all left, Jesse Conchlari and Prince Mendrel turned up missing. The Captain knew they hadn't followed along after you all, or the Sand Drake would have sent them straight home, but a blind monkey could guess that they'd gone off seeking adventure somewhere. He mustered every Ranger he could get his hands on and we rode north. Once we'd gotten well away from Crestilan, he told us of a second force he'd sent out, a group of Killeen'ghymn bearing a message for the High Council of Ellys'ghymn. I think the leader was some guy named Emar or something."

"Emar!" Avain whirled and dashed off.

"Anyway, we rode hard and caught up with them just across the border. Good thing we did, too, because someone had hired a bunch of thugs to attack them. We thought to provide relief, but a group of other Killeen'ghymn arrived at precisely the same time we did, and it was pure chaos until Duke Rills and that Emar fellow managed to sort things out. After we had recovered the two boys and sent them packing with an escort, the Captain decided we would serve as honor guard for his messenger.

"Unfortunately, we reached the High Council at the same time as the Sand Drake's messenger, who bore news of the shipwreck and your boys' danger. So we rode out again." Darton grimaced. "And I told Maya we'd only be gone for three days at the most!"

Shane laughed suddenly. "She's going to kill you!"

"I know," Darton groaned.

But then Shane frowned. "But who sent those sellswords? Who could have possibly known about Jory's plans? Even I didn't know there was a second group of Killeen'ghymn. And why would anyone want to ruin them? Who could possibly be against ending this stupid war?"

"I don't know, Shane. We've all been asking ourselves that a lot, but no one seems to know."

Shane opened his mouth to respond, but then a heart-wrenching wail arose from within the cabin, and both men dashed for the open door. Inside, they found Sarran sitting on the floor, cradling the lifeless head of a beautiful, black-haired girl.

----------

Zacal jerked awake. Had she been dozing again? It really wasn't that surprising; this Crestilian wizard was so powerful. It was exhausting to heal him, for he fought her off even while unconscious. She sensed that he was hiding something, probably several somethings, because every time she allowed her power to flow into his body, his own would rush over and beat her out again. She had never felt anything like it.

The healer sighed and turned back to her patient. By employing a series of quick probes and lucky guesses, she had managed to heal most of his injuries. Thankfully, they had all been minor--cuts and scrapes and bruises, and one cracked rib. That had been difficult, and Zacal grimaced as she recalled the experience. She had finally settled for wrapping the rib manually and infusing the two pieces of bone with healing energy to speed the process. She checked her work swiftly, then withdrew her presence from his body before his fierce power bore down upon her.

"You know, you're really a pain," the woman muttered under her breath.

"I try."

Zacal jumped. Had he just spoken? "Are you awake?"

"No."

"You bastard!" The healer leapt to her feet, knocking back her stool. "Have you been awake all this time?"

The wizard levered himself up on one elbow, and Zacal reached for her shikar. "No, I've only just woken." He winced and peered at her. "Put that thing away. I'm not going to attack you."

Zacal backed off a step. "I think I'll keep it close, just in case."

He sighed. "Have it your way. But I am in no condition for combat. My magical strength is still so depleted, I can barely maintain ether-vision."

Zacal felt her eyes widen of their own accord, and she narrowed them instantly. His strength right now is enough to crush me like a bug. What is he like fully rested? She shuddered at the very thought.

The wizard had managed to work himself into a sitting position. He held one hand to his injured side. "My name is Drake. And you are...?"

"Zacal."

"I see." He regarded her levelly for a moment, then smiled slightly. "I take it you are a bael'kar?"

Zacal nodded once. "And more than a match for you."

Drake laughed, then stopped and grimaced. "No doubt." His eyes glazed over for a moment, and then he smiled again. He glanced around the room. "So this is the headquarters of the fabled Guild, is it?"

Zacal nodded warily.

Suddenly, a streak of green dashed out from beneath the bed and into Drake's lap. The little lizard curled up against him, humming in pleasure. Drake laughed again, and stopped again, pressing his hand against his side. "Hello to you, too, Karla."

Zacal lifted her shikar. What was that thing?

"Come now, friend. I should think you could trust me a bit more. I'm on your side, you know."

"Are you?" Zacal shifted back another step. "You're Crestilian."

"No. I am human." He winced again. "If you wouldn't mind, I'd appreciate a bit more healing. I would do it myself, but...I really haven't the strength to spare." He smiled slightly. "You should find it much less of a pain now that I am awake."

Zacal lowered her shikar slowly, carefully.

----------

Clio stared into the blazing funeral pyre. He had pulled guard duty, watching over the shack where they had left the unconscious Arie and his two lackeys, so it was hard to see the flames with everyone else crowded around. He recalled the last funeral pyre he had seen, and felt anew the bitter void his friend Julio had once filled. He resisted the urge to leave, to get out on the open road or in the closed woods, to just walk and walk until he could hardly move...

I don't even know what I'm looking for. But I know it's not here. I'll never find it in a place where people have died.

A soft noise caught Clio's attention, and he focused in on it until he recognized it as...a sob. Someone was crying nearby. Clio considered going to investigate, but then he decided against it. After all, he was supposed to be on guard.

Moments later, gentle footsteps drowned out the soft sobs, and Clio listened hard as someone sat down against the far side of the shack. The two people did not speak for a long time, until the sobbing one had cried himself out. Even then, another long moment passed before one of the two finally spoke.

"Why they to burn her? Don't they know she is Kille'ghymn?" The voice sounded thick and nasal, and Clio guessed that the speaker had been the one crying.

"Emar and I discussed it at length, Avain. We're going to burn her, and then bury her, to help seal the hope for peace between our two peoples." Clio recognized this voice as Shane's.

"I guess...that is all right..."

Another lengthy pause. Then: "Avain, do you know why we burn the dead?"

"Once, you told me. I don't to remember."

"We burn the dead so that their spirits are set free and can find peace with the Creator. I'm sure She has a very special place in the Otherplane for Kiru."

"How burning does this?"

A slight rustle of cloth indicated that one or the other of them shifted position. "The Otherplane exists far, far above us. If you watch it, the smoke from the fire goes up and up and up, out of sight and out of our world. The spirits of the dead travel along with it, all the way up to where the Creator watches over all of us."

Clio had heard something similar from his parents long ago, and, like then, he caught himself staring up into the night sky. But then Avain spoke again.

"But...when fire burns, I to feel its heat. It goes not up alone, but into me, also." He sniffed, and Clio wondered if he was crying again. "If spirits to travel with fire, then they to travel to me and you and everyone, not to Creator alone."

Clio brought one hand up to his heart. Could he be right? Julio, are you in here with me? Sonia, are you not as lost as I thought?

Shane's voice held the hint of a smile. "You know, Avain, you are very wise for so young a lad."

Indeed he is.

----------

Carl Pors paused beneath the midday sun, lifting a hand to wipe sweat from his brow. He glanced over at Kydo, who had also stopped. The younger Ranger grinned crookedly.

"This trip sure seemed a lot faster by sea, didn't it?"

Carl nodded. He glanced over his shoulder at the litter he and Kydo hauled. Three wounded sailors reclined on the patchwork driftwood. The few other healthy Crestilians pulled more litters, while the mobile wounded watched over the Killiki sailors who hauled the rest. They'd been marching south for two days now, and the Egius Mountains had just appeared on the horizon. The comfort and safety of Zilur awaited them amidst the soaring peaks, but they had to get there first.

"Come on." Carl shifted his grip of the edge of the litter, and they started forward again.

They had not gone much farther when Kip called for a halt. Carl scowled--that man had been giving him trouble ever since Morry had left them in joint charge. Carl gathered that Kip was not used to sharing command, and the loss of his first mate couldn't have helped.

The two Rangers lowered their burden to the ground before Carl stormed off to find Kip. He found the man staring off to the north, back the way they had come.

"What's going on?" Carl demanded. "Why did we stop? We've got to get back across the border as soon as possible!"

Kip lifted a hand for silence, then pointed.

Carl followed his gaze to where a large cloud of dust rose up on the far horizon. He swallowed. "What is that?"

"Horses. A lot of horses."

"Enemies?"

"How should I know?"

Carl's mind whirred to life, and he began barking out orders, assembling his meager troops. Healthy people in front, mobile wounded behind them, with the prisoners and seriously injured as far back as possible, with only a token guard. He wished that Shane or Morry were there--they were so much better at this whole leading thing.

The dust cloud finally resolved into a line of riders headed right for them. Soon, Carl could pick out individuals among them. He squinted, not quite believing his eyes. But then Kip laughed suddenly.

"Is that what I think it is?"

Carl shook his head. "It can't be."

Kydo clapped his back. "It is! Those are Crestil's colors all right!"

Carl peered across the distance at the charging riders. None of them wore the Crestilian green and gray, but the one in the lead held aloft a banner of those colors. Was it possible they were friends? Then his jaw dropped. "Drake! Drake and Morry got their message through! They sent men to help us!" He turned around. "Does anyone speak heal'ghymn?"

----------

Tyjar glanced down at Nissal. "We're nearly home."

The girl nodded, her young face pinched in thought.

The healer felt his heart soften a bit. "Don't worry, Nissal. We'll rebuild the village. We have to. If we don't, there won't be any place for our young heroes to return home to."

"You mean Sarran and Avain?"

Tyjar nodded.

"Are they really heroes?"

"Would you call them something else?"

Nissal seemed to consider for a moment. Then she nodded. "Yes. I'd call them baeleen'kar."

Tyjar grinned. "Is there really any difference?"

Nissal smiled back at him and slipped her hand into his.

The two of them paused at the base of the last hill between them and their old home. "It seems like it's been years, a whole lifetime, even."

Nissal looked down. "It has been. It's been Cyred's whole lifetime since then."

Tyjar drew her in close and hugged her around the shoulders with one hand. "You will always miss him. As you should. A comrade is a terrible thing to lose."

The girl nodded vaguely, then took a deep breath and started forward. Tyjar followed along behind her.

But Nissal froze at the top of the hill.

Alarmed, Tyjar dashed the last few steps and drew up beside her. He, too, froze on the spot.

Below them lay not the ruins they had expected, but a small cluster of buildings, some patched and repaired and most not yet complete. And, amidst the wreckage and reassembly, little human figures moved about, hauling materials, hammering wood, setting stone. A group of perhaps a dozen gathered around a central campfire.

"Who are those people?" Nissal whispered.

Tyjar shook his head. "I have no idea."

Abruptly, Nissal's face lit up. "Look! It's Casama!"

In the same instant, Tyjar recognized another face, a friend who had gone missing after the battle. Wonder and awe filled him to the brim, and his breath caught in his throat. "It...can't be..."

"What is it? How did they survive? Where did they come from? Oh, Tyjar!"

Tyjar caught Nissal's hand, his eyes bright with unshed tears. "They...They must have fled. All of those people down there--our people--look, Nissal, they are all parents with young children! They must have fled the battle and returned afterward! They...They are the survivors of the baeleen'kar!"

Nissal laughed, a giddy little tinkle of noise, and raced down the hill to greet her long-lost friends in the fading sunlight.

----------

Ian tapped Kyle's chest with his stick. "I win again!"

Kyle scowled darkly and levered himself up onto his elbows. "It's not fair! You're a lot bigger than me!"

Ian grinned. "Not a lot, really. Besides, you're really fast. Come on, get up. Let's go again."

"Do we have to?" Kyle groaned as he reached for his own fallen stick.

"Yes! We have to train super hard so we can be Rangers someday!"

"But I don't want to be a Ranger..."

Ian lifted his mock sword, his grin growing. "Then I'll have to work even harder so I can be a really good Ranger and come save you all the time!"

"I don't need saving!" Kyle snapped irritably.

"Do so, you big baby!"

"Do not!"

"Do so!"

"Do not!"

"Then show me!" Ian lunged.

----------

Jory knelt stiffly on the ground before the High Council. Drake and Shane knelt to either side of him, with Sarran, Avain, and the rest of the Crestilians arrayed behind them. The elderly man who sat at the head of the council considered Jory's words for a long time before he nodded slowly.

"I see," he began in slightly accented Crestilian. "Your assistance in this matter is greatly appreciated, Duke Rills. Ranger Hanson, you have the gratitude of all our people, for you have played an immense part in the restoration of our nation's greatest strength and pride." The council head stood abruptly. "In our darkest moment of need, our neighbors in Crestil did not take advantage of our people as they might have done, but instead extended a hand in friendship and welcome. The wrongs of the past must not always be allowed to shadow the good will of the present." He smiled faintly. "Rise, my friends. Return now to your king and inform him that it is our deepest wish to correct the tattered bonds between our peoples."

Jory stood slowly along with everyone else. "Nothing I have could ever compare in value with your words, my lord. But please, accept my most humble and personal thanks."

The old man inclined his head politely, his bright eyes sparkling.

----------

Kydo stretched and yawned, full of warm food and tasty ale. "I'm glad we finally got to enjoy the governor's hospitality," he remarked.

Kip shot him a quick grin. "I never thought an old salt like me would share the governor's table."

"Heh. You're not so old yet."

"No. But I feel it." The pirate's humor faded away.

Kydo felt his own mood darken as his thoughts strayed to all the injured men being treated just next door. Then he downed the tankard of ale in his hand and slammed it onto the table. "Well, no matter. Tell me, what do you intend to do once we leave here?"

Kip cupped his chin in one hand. "I hadn't really thought about it. I'll be needing a new mate, first off. Then...Well, I suppose I'll just head back out to sea and take whatever comes my way."

"Didn't you mention owning a shop here in town?"

Kip chuckled. "That I do. But now that I've had a taste of the ocean breeze once more, I simply can't imagine myself sitting in that stuffy old dump a moment longer. I'll sell it off to some aspiring salesman before I weigh anchor." He shot Kydo a sidelong glance. "And what of you, my young friend? What will you do?"

Kydo leaned back in his chair, rocking it onto its rear legs. "Well, I guess I'll just head back home. And await orders. Like always." He sighed. "It's not nearly so much fun there."

"You know, you'd make a fine seaman. Level head, strong arm, good sense of humor...and you can hold your drink with the best of them. You've even got the sea legs for it."

Kydo frowned slightly. "Really, Kip, I'm a Ranger. I couldn't just run off with pirates."

Kip laughed. "And you do a passable Shane imitation."

Kydo flashed him a brilliant grin.

----------

Mendrel perched nervously on the edge of his chair, twisting his hands in his lap. Jesse sat beside him, lounging back as though they were not in serious trouble.

"Really, Rel, just relax. We did a good job. If it weren't for us, Emar might not have been able to deliver his message. We played an important part in a big adventure, and it was fun, wasn't it?"

Mendrel nodded hesitantly. "It...it was, really."

"See? We won't get in trouble, I promise. When have I ever gotten you in trouble?"

"All the time!" Mendrel blurted out.

Jesse started to reply, then frowned. "Well, maybe sometimes. But I always get us out again, right?"

"Well...yes, I suppose."

"And nothing really bad ever happens, right?"

"I...I guess..."

"It'll be fine. Just relax."

Mendrel bit his bottom lip and tried to take his friend's advice. But really. Just because Jesse's father always smiled and shook his head and never got mad didn't mean that Mendrel's father was the same way. Father was scary when he was upset!

Suddenly, the door cracked open a bit, and Mendrel started so violently he nearly fell from his seat. Jesse laughed as the door swung open and Mendrel's father stepped into the room. "Hey, Uncle Quin."

But the king ignored Jesse and went straight for Mendrel, who shrank back, certain he was about to get slapped or yelled at. But then Quin swept him up into a fierce embrace, and Mendrel blinked. This was...unexpected. He returned the hug somewhat furtively.

After a long moment, Quin released him and knelt down before Mendrel so that he could look his son in the eyes. "Rel, my dearest, dearest lad...I'm so glad you're safe."

"I...I'm glad too, father."

"Rel...listen. I know you were only trying to help, and I understand that Jesse is a terribly bad influence on you, but...You can't just go running off all the time. This has to stop."

"Yes, father."

"I mean it. Seriously. Because you see, I'm going to need you here, Rel. I'm going to need your help very soon."

"But why, father?" What could anyone possibly need me for? I'm only ever in the way.

"Because...Because, Rel, you're going to have a sibling. I'll need you here to take care of him. Or her."

"A...a sibling?"

----------

King Quin Wildwind stared down at the three boys who knelt before him. It felt good to have both of his dukes safely at his side once more, and Jory's reports gave him the kind of hope he hadn't had in years. But there was still this last matter to attend to, and Quin hated such matters.

"Arie of Ellys'ghymn," he began, speaking slowly and carefully, "you have committed more crimes than I care to list before my court. Your actions have caused many people a great deal of harm and extend far beyond the borders of my realm. But you are lucky to have targeted such generous and compassionate victims as Sarran and Avain. They have urged me to spare your life, and I tend to agree that there have been enough deaths in this whole messy affair. Therefore, I sentence you to a lifetime spent imprisoned in my dungeon, where you will have plenty of time to consider your foul deeds. May your conscience be your only companion. Take him away."

The two guards took Arie by the arms and led him from the hall. Quin allowed himself a faint smile as he turned his gaze on the remaining two boys.

"Sarran and Avain of Ellys'ghymn. Rise, for your actions have made you heroes of my people." Both boys stood quickly, though Avain hid a quick grimace as he did so. "You have sacrificed much for both of our nations, and have suffered more than you should have. But you persevered and won the day in grand style, facing down danger after danger and successfully capturing an international criminal. I could not have asked more of my most skilled Rangers. I hereby recognize the pair of you as honorary members of my Rangers, and extend to you all of the rank and privileges thereby implied." His smile grew a bit. "I hope that you will stay and enjoy my hospitality for at least a short while before you return to your home."

----------

Jesse paused before the heavy wooden door, then took a deep breath and pushed it open. "Uh...hey, dad."

His father turned from the window, a glass of wine in his hand. "Jesse. Sit down." He indicated a wooden chair.

Jesse sat. There was something strange going on. His father wasn't smiling. But he wasn't yelling, either. "Uh...Where's mom?"

"She's out. I thought it was about time that you and I had a little chat."

"A, uh...a chat? About what?"

"About you."

Jesse winced. Uh-oh. Had he finally gone too far?

"Jesse, I know I haven't been the best parent, and I'm sorry. Really. But you see, I never really got to be a boy, and I sort of felt that by giving you as much time as you wanted to play and grow, I could somehow make up for it. But your recent actions have taught me something. I've let you go too far, Jesse. It's high time I reined you in a bit. So..."

Jesse looked down swiftly. Here it comes.

"...I'd like to start training you to be my successor. Starting today."

"You...what?" Jesse's whole face lit up. Was he serious? "You mean...you mean..."

"That's right, Jesse. You're not a child anymore. It's about time I started treating you like the accomplished young man you are. From now on, you're going to have to work long and hard to better yourself as a person, as a wizard, and as a future duke. It's going to be a lot of responsibility and a lot of tedious work, but I think you're up for the challenge."

Jesse leapt to his feet, grinning hugely. "Oh, you bet I am, father! I am so ready!"

"Good. Now, let's get to work..."

-----------

Maya punched her bread dough hard. She wished Darton were back. When I get my hands on Shane, I'm going to tear him apart. How dare he draw my man away--again!

Little Shanna stirred in her cradle at Maya's side, and the woman glanced over to make sure she had not woken up. I can't believe we named our firstborn child after such a stubborn, irresponsible, inconsiderate lout. She punched the dough once more, just for good measure.

Maya had just finished separating the dough into loaves and was stirring the soup over the hearth when someone knocked on the door. She took her ladle with when she went to answer it.

It was Darton.

With a wail of relief, Maya threw herself into her husband's arms. Darton staggered back a step.

"Maya! I-I missed you so much!"

"As you should, you great dolt!" Maya drew back to get a good look at him. He appeared to be unharmed...

Someone cleared their throat. Maya turned. Her fingers curled around her ladle. "Shane."

Shane smiled sheepishly. "Uh...Hey, Maya...I, uh...I brought him back. He's okay."

"Shane, you...!" Maya saw red. Then her ladle came up, and Shane yelped and ducked back, but he wasn't fast enough. The handle left a very red welt across his cheek.

"Ouch! Maya, that's hot!" He clapped a hand to his face.

Maya gasped. "Oh! Right! I forgot it was hot! Oh, Shane, I'm sorry! You'd better find a healer; I didn't mean to burn you!"

Darton stood gaping at them as Shane swore and Maya apologized over and over again.

----------

Arie sat against the wall of his cell, staring blankly at the opposite one. He couldn't believe he'd been tricked. But it hardly mattered. He had still lost. Sarran had beaten him.

He took everything from me...again. Arie closed his eyes. Sarran had taken his title, his honor, his very essence. For the second time. And what can I do about it now? I can't do anything.

How did I lose? Why did I lose? How could he have beaten me? I planned everything...I worked so hard...And Sarran had ruined everything. Everything. And the worst part about it was that Arie was still alive.

Avain. The boy's face flashed through Arie's mind, the dark hair, the dark eyes, calm and steady and full of resolve. This is Avain's fault. He's the one who ruined everything. He wasn't supposed to be there. He should never have interfered. If it weren't for him...I would have won. I would have won everything.

Footsteps. Arie's eyes snapped open. Someone was coming.

It was Sarran. Arie turned his head away.

"Arie."

"What do you want?"

"I have...a question for you."

"I won't answer it."

"It's about my father. My real father."

Arie said nothing, but turned back to look at Sarran.

"Why did he switch us? Why would he do something like that? Why did he hurt you so much?"

"That is more than one question."

"Please...I want to know."

Arie considered. Then he looked away again. "How should I know?"

Sarran sighed a bit. "I see." His voice hardened. "Have fun in your cage, Arie."

Arie leapt to his feet and ran to the bars of his cell, grasping two of them as he pressed his face against them. "I'm not the only one in a cage, Sarran!"

Sarran stopped dead two paces away. Then he turned back, and Arie whipped up a spiteful, sneering smile, but it withered away when he saw that Sarran was also smiling. And his smile was genuine. "Perhaps not."

And then he left.

----------

Kip stood at the gunwale of the Golden Guppy. His first priority once he'd seized control of it would have to be to change the name. Guppies were such ugly fish. He ran his gaze over the deck, picking out at least four of his old crewmen. He was fairly certain enough of them had snuck aboard to pull off a successful coup. I only wish I had one more...

"You there! Get to work!"

Kip shot the current first mate a murderous glance, but he shoved away from the rail and went to untangle a nearby pile of rope. Yes. Just one more...

The Guppy was scheduled to sail as soon as the tide changed. Kip glanced over at the dock again, not entirely sure whether or not he expected to see anything. Or anyone.

Someone tugged at the rope in his hands.

Kip whipped his head around so fast it stung, and a huge grin split his craggy features. "There you are. I thought you'd never show."

Kydo returned the look. "Like I'd miss this for the world."

----------

Tem poked at her dinner, moving the bits of food around without eating any. Her mother frowned across the table at her, but said nothing. She didn't speak much nowadays anyway, and when she did, it was usually to scold Tem or voice some new worry or concern about her absentee sons.

I wish Shane was here. He always knew how to liven things up and make everyone smile. Tem missed him terribly. But at least I'm not thinking up new ways he could have died every moment! The girl shot her mother a fierce glare, not sure whether she was glad or peeved that the woman was looking down at her plate and didn't see it.

Someone knocked on the door.

"I'll get it!" Tem hopped out of her seat and dashed out of the kitchen and across the front room. She threw open the door, eyes shining at the thought of seeing Shane and Morry again.

But it wasn't them. Tem's face fell as she bowed swiftly to Duke Rills.

He smiled thinly. "Hello, Miss Hanson. I've brought you a gift."

"You...have?" He had never come to see her before. He always wanted to see mother or Morry. "A gift for me?"

"All for you." He stepped aside to reveal the most beautiful young filly Tem had ever seen.

The girl squealed in delight and brushed past the duke to throw her arms around the horse's dark head. "She's wonderful!"

"And so are you, little sister."

Tem felt her heart stop in her chest. "Shane?" she whispered, hardly daring to trust her own ears.

Two strong arms snaked around her waist, and Tem whirled around and threw herself at her dearest brother, nearly knocking him over. "Oh, Shane! You're home, you're home, you're really home!"

Shane laughed and swung her around. "Of course I am! What, did you think I'd gone and got myself killed or something?"

Tem squealed again and hugged him harder.

A very familiar laugh rang out behind her, and Tem jerked away. "Hey, save some of that for me, would you?"

"Morry!" She tore away from Shane and ran to her other sibling.

"What's going on, Tem?" their mother asked as she appeared in the doorway. All three of her children turned to face her, and the woman nearly fainted dead away. Luckily, Jory caught and steadied her.

"Hey, mom," Shane and Morry chorused simultaneously.

"Oh. Oh my." The woman swept down the stairs with her arms out wide, and both of her sons went to her.

"I missed you all so much, mother," Shane muttered into her gray hair. "I'm so glad to be home."

"As you should be," the elderly woman chided, pulling back a bit. Then her eyes flickered. "Oh! What is that?" She pointed at Shane's face.

Tem danced around to get a better look. An angry red wound slashed across her brother's cheek. He lifted a finger to it almost self-consciously. "Oh, this? It's...nothing."

"Is it a battle scar?" Tem asked, excited.

"Uh...sure," Shane muttered as Morry snickered.

"You've got to tell me all about it!" Tem danced from foot to foot, all bouncing energy and eager worship.

But inside, she seethed. They both went off on a great adventure without me. They always go off without me. But next time, I'm coming with for sure!

----------

Nissal splashed cold water over her face. She'd been working hard all day. Ever since she and Tyjar had arrived home, everything had been a blur of hard work and festive attitudes. Everyone was celebrating. At first, Nissal had not understood why. But now she thought she did. They weren't celebrating the rebuilding of the village, as she had at first assumed, but the rebuilding of something else. Maybe rebuilding was the wrong word. More like...rebirth. The rebirth of the baeleen'kar.

And I'm a part of it. The girl swelled with pride at the thought. She had been so sad lately, so caught up in the death and loss all around her. But that Jesse kid...he had reminded her how to laugh, and she smiled even now as she washed away a day's worth of dirt and grime. It's like the phoenixes from legend, Nissal mused as she looked around at the no longer cluttered streets. The newborn rising up out of the ashes of the old. Just like we baeleen'kar.

Scorch marks and ugly scars marked the places where old stone and wood had been deemed fit to be included in new buildings. Someone laughed nearby, and Nissal turned to watch as two children splashed each other with water from the well. She smiled.

I wonder...when they'll come.

Nissal turned her gaze to the south, just like she did every day, straining to see as far as she could, to focus in on the distant hilltop where two boys returning home might pause. But today, for the first time, there was something there.

Two distant figures stood silhouetted atop the steep rise. Two familiar distant figures. Nissal's smile grew tenfold.

Welcome home.