Epilogue: Tomorrow Never Knows
One year later…
Linseriel had to see it to believe it. In spite of all her doubts, there was, in fact, a school and orphanage right next to Sotherby Estates. Just to be sure, she rubbed her eyes and walked over to investigate. The bricks and mortar certainly felt real, and the children scurrying around didn't strike her as anything out of the ordinary, but she still wasn't entirely convinced.
"I could give you a tour if you want, Lin." Ah, that would be the man behind this supposed act of generosity. Sotherby's bangs were shorn, fully exposing his bizarre third eye and that lazy smile he always kept, but he had otherwise remained the same. Linseriel braced herself for an exasperating encounter and put on a false smile.
"Perhaps later. One of us is surely too busy. I never thought I would see the day, though. If I didn't think you might have some ulterior motive behind all this, I'd say you're almost sweet, Elroy."
"Well, being cast out of my own house when I was born gave me an appreciation for children without families."
"Ah, and the school?"
"A stupid population is just begging for trouble. Hopefully this will fill a few generations with wisdom enough to avoid stagnation and boredom. At the very least, I don't want them to kill each other." Linseriel pouted playfully.
"But I thought you liked anarchy and nihilism."
"Moderation, Lin. Dead people are even more useless and boring than stupid ones. And I would hate to live in a world where you and I were the only survivors. Itzamna forbid we should have to repopulate!" He laughed; she shuddered.
"Yes, that sounds absolutely repulsive—on many levels. On a different matter, I'm having Halona check in on our friends, making sure they're not stirring up too much trouble. You know, as useful as that girl is, I may just lift my prejudice on nonhumans and seduce her."
"Nah, she's too sharp to fall for that. She seems perfectly content idolizing you. If she happens to come by here, I'll be sure to treat her well."
"And what makes you think she hasn't already?" Linseriel grinned. Sotherby pointed to his third eye, and excused himself to speak with members of his faculty. Linseriel didn't believe that anything good would come from this new direction Elroy was taking, but for now, she wished him well, amusing though his situation was. Satisfied, she boarded her dirigible and settled in for a long, cozy flight. The austral continent was not going to civilize itself, after all, and she'd need all the strength and cunning she could muster…
"So that is our story, great Sibyl, as much as Naline and I have participated. The wonders of the world outside have defied our imaginations, and I believe that it will behoove us in the future to acquaint ourselves with it better. But not anytime soon."
"No indeed," the old woman said. "Surrendering centuries of isolation and deeply-rooted culture would take years, decades… Perhaps even your children may not see it, Chinwe-Pathfinder. But you are most likely correct in assuming it must be done. Is this not so, Naja-Huntmaster?"
"My Sister has attained more wisdom than either of us in her travels, great Sibyl." Chinwe's adopted sister smiled at the dark-skinned warrior and her newfound lover, knowing full well that she had gained much more than mere insight. "We must defer to her in matters of the outside. I am particularly interested to hear of the former Queen Florespa, and the warrior Rhiannon-Huntmaster. But now I believe a ceremony is in order. We must welcome our Sister back into our fold…and we must greet a new member of the family."
"As long as I don't have to go through any more pointless tests," Naline said. Naja and the Sibyl both smiled.
"Nay! From what Chinwe-Pathfinder has told us, you are more than worthy of joining our family, Naline of Shandre. But are you certain of your decision? All ties to your former life will be cut, and you will forfeit everything for a life in Espa."
"As long as I'm with Chinwe, I think I can handle it." She smiled warmly and Chinwe glowed back; the Sibyl coughed before the lovebirds could really lose their sanity.
"You have sealed your fate, then. Tonight it will be made official. Until then, take care of one another, Sisters. I foresee great things in your future." The trio bowed low to the ground and climbed down the long ladder from the Sibyl's hut. Naline shivered with excitement as her bare feet touched the mother earth. She had not felt so fulfilled, so…at ease…in her entire life.
"I think I'm going to enjoy it here," she whispered. Chinwe smiled and drew her into a tender embrace, their foreheads and noses grazing against each other. Naja plowed into them giddily, boorishly breaking up the intimate moment.
"So tell me, ladies, what was it like making love to an Elf and a Kitsune? And what other sexual conquests did you undergo?"
"Ho, boy," Naline sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. "Well, she's still better than my snot-nosed 'noble family' back home (no offense, brother). What all do you want to know, 'Sister'?"
Anastasia d'Elvalone stared emptily at the stacks of papers she had not yet touched. Transferring the seat of power in Elvalone from a barony to a republic was all well and good—in principle, at least—but all the mountains of paperwork involved! And all the offended allies she had made! Well, perhaps that was an exaggeration; after all, only Volslan stood to lose anything from this flux. Queen Hjordis was still breathing down Anastasia's neck, and all ties and communications with the barbaric country had effectively ceased. There were embargos on the rise, a blockade in effect, diplomats scurrying between borders (usually smuggled), threats, insults, slaps to the face…
Anastasia paused to smile at the memory. She had known Hjordis wouldn't take the news well—Anna was, after all, refusing to marry her son—she just didn't expect the warrior-queen to actually strike her. A war could have very well broken out then and there if Sigmund Volsung, Anastasia's affianced prince, hadn't gallantly stepped in and defended her honor. He calmed his mother, and later, had calmed Anna during a long walk around the garden—and then a tour of the country—and then a romantic boat ride on the lake—and then on many moonlit nights thereafter. That certainly made the Baroness lose some resolve. She certainly hadn't planned on actually falling in love with the barbaric young man.
Or, a year after that fiasco, to find herself carrying his child.
"Confound this morning sickness," she cursed under her breath. "I could endure it were it not for the cravings, and the nausea. MITHRA!"
Never far from her lady's side, Kael rushed over and stood to attention.
"You called, Anna?"
"Oh, forgive me—there I go being formal again. It's these wretched hormones, and I'm barely even two months along! Urgh, what am I going to do? I'm sorry, Kael, I'm babbling. Could you fetch my medication for me? I'm feeling woozy."
"You need to rest, Anna. How many times do I have to tell you?"
"I can't rest, not until I get at least half of these documents signed. I'm also planning on gathering a parliament together, so I'll need to see my parents' advisors and any other esteemed heads of state we keep around here. Of course, they'll all be inane fools who wouldn't know how to run a race, much less our homeland. God, what I wouldn't give to find a miraculous successor to this country."
"You could always run it yourself, you know. You've certainly earned the right."
"I plan to, but not my entire life. If I'm assassinated (not that I doubt your skills, Kael), there'll be no one left to fill the void. Perhaps we should align with Clifford in Minarha; he's been a good president thus far."
"Perhaps, but he's married."
"That's not the kind of alliance I mean, Kael. And I already told you, I'm not marrying Sigmund. I just can't. We're both too willful and too stubborn. We'd tear each other apart."
"But you do love him," she said gently, placing her hands on Anna's shoulders. "And he is the father of your child. He needs to know."
"He's better off ignorant of the matter, Kael. I wish I had never met him. I wish my parents had never conceived of that union." Even as she said this, Anastasia was trembling and crying. She had fallen very deeply in love with the barbaric prince, despite her every conception of him and his kin, and knew that her unborn baby would need a father. In an ideal world, perhaps they could be a family—but she knew it would only be reduced to a power struggle, and perhaps a coup. Mithra's heart broke for her lady, and she bent down to embrace her. Two years ago, Anastasia would've cast the Draconian aside like a leech: now she welcomed the affection with a weary sigh.
"It'll be okay, Anna. Somehow, it will work out. Just trust that I will always be by your side, and I will always love you."
"That's something," she admitted, reaching up to caress Mithra's unruly golden hair. Kael decided to take a little risk, and touched her lips to Anna's forehead. Their eyes met in that stolen moment of time, and she placed her lips on a spot a little lower.
A slight nudge woke Xune from her sleep, and she felt life stirring anew as she drew a deep, refreshing breath. Laying next to her was a beauty clothed in white skin and crowned with black hair, exactly the opposite to Xune's black skin and white hair. The mesmerizing contrast was not lost on the Drow as she smiled warmly and cuddled even closer to her lover. Xylia's single sapphire jewel flickered open as Xune's velvety skin touched hers, the friction delicious, drawing out a soft, satisfied purr. The two women shared a quiet smile, black and white on white and black, arms and legs entwined so as to fully unite them. The merge broke as Xune shifted and straddled her lover, her ethereal nakedness glittering in the soft light of morning.
"Good morning, Xunie." Xune's silky white hair tickled Xylia's bare chest as the Drow descended, drinking deep from her love. Whispers interspersed between kisses. "Mmm, I love it when you call me Lia."
"That's why I do it," she hissed, moving her lips around Xylia's face, not daring to miss a single area. "But you know I hate it when you call me Xunie."
"That is why I do it," she giggled, wrapping sweet lips around her ear. Xune whined and lost her advantage: the ears of Elves and Drow are incredibly sensitive and easily subjected to sensual pleasure. Xylia only remained beneath her lover so she could easily caress her naked back and curvy rear (adding a loving squeeze for good measure); her hands traveled to Xune's most intimate place and the Drow let out a sharp cry.
"Oh, Xylia!" That was her last coherent thought for a long time: Xylia was determined to waken her beloved properly. It was not until Xune had stopped screaming did the lovers hear the door to their room shudder with impatience.
"Xunie! Xylia! Are you two gonna sleep in there all day?! Get your lazy buns out here and help us!" Xune growled and muttered under her breath as she got out of bed and dressed.
"Damn it, Shelia, can't we get one moment of peace? We don't interrupt you when you're having sex!"
"She is still technically your elder," Xylia gestured. Xune dunked her head in a bowl of water, gasping as she flipped her long white hair back. Xylia's stomach leaped and twisted; everything her lover did was drenched in grace and eroticism. Quietly she removed herself from their bed, wrapping long pale arms around the frustrated Drow. "She has a point, though. I am shamed to have slept in this long."
"Yeah, well…we had an exhausting night."
Both ladies blushed.
"Very exhausting," Xylia purred, blowing into Xune's ear. The Drow melted; the few clothes she had put on were forgotten. It was a wonder they ever made it outside their room.
And Shelia was right pissed once they did.
"This treasure hunt was your idea, Xunie! If you can't show a little enthusiasm for your ideas, why do you even bother?"
"Chill out, Shel," she yawned, taking her position on the ship. "Lia and I were just being intimate. You could've waited until we were finished."
"We'd be waiting all day if that were the case!" Halona cracked a smile as she wedged through them and took the helm. Although the ship belonged to Tseti, Halona had taken over all aspects of the vessel and the voyage—which was only natural, as she was now regarded as one of the greatest navigators and explorers in the entire world. Her grin assured the mad lovebirds that she would not judge their actions, but neither would she take sides. "But I guess it's okay. We're still nowhere near our destination."
"That doesn't mean you can put off your responsibilities. This is Tseti's ship and Tseti's rules." Xune gave her a catty grin as she climbed the mizzen-mast.
"Feeling awfully high and mighty, aren't we? I know I would if my girlfriend were captain of her own ship."
"Alas that I was made for the land," Xylia groaned, clutching her stomach as she leaned against the rail. Shelia smiled sympathetically and rubbed her back, then decided to patch things up with her kinswoman. After all, even though she was Xune's superior—in age, at least—they were still best friends, and no power under the sun would ever change that.
"Xunie, you know I didn't mean to snap at you. It's just that it's almost noon, and we have a lot to take care of. If you two hadn't been up all night having sex…"
"You forgot the dancing, the wine, the candlelit dinner, the way Lia sang to me…"
"You sang?" Halona chortled; Tseti grinned; Shelia stared dumbstruck. Xylia blushed, but was in no condition to give a demonstration.
"I made an attempt. There is a large difference between the two."
"She's just being modest, ladies: my sweet Lia sings like a bird."
"A crow, perhaps," she muttered, fluffing her elegant black hair. Xune blew her a hidden kiss.
"More like a beautiful raven. But I am sorry for delaying us, 'Captain Shelia'. I promise to make it up to you."
"Hey, you'd better! Otherwise you don't get your cut of the treasure!"
"And Xunie doesn't want that!" Halona laughed. Tseti grinned and waved at the Drow.
"Ey, Xunie! Keep those sails in good condition, okay? And be sure to keep a sharp eye out for land!"
"Darn it, you all, stop that!" Shelia fumed. "Only Xylia and I can call her Xunie! It's off limits to the rest of you!"
"I hate you guys," Xune said, meaning the exact opposite as she smiled.
Bright, clear blue skies, faint puffs of clouds, sweet emerald leaves waving in the breeze, casting flickering shades on the ground, the gentle twitter of birds, the thrill of an unknown path and a challenging quest, the company of good people… It certainly was a beautiful day. Angelina de Sotten agreed with her insight as she chewed the last of her apple and cast a warm glow to a certain healer. Harumi had injured herself during their most recent battle, and kindhearted Kaladar (now just "Kallie" to everyone there) had rushed to heal her. The hybrid's skill with the Craft was amazing enough to Angelina, but that was merely a hint of the admiration and…yes, the love that she was feeling.
Angelina had felt aimless and disturbingly empty after she descended from Nimbus to more familiar fields. She no longer felt so concerned about winning, or victories, or being the best at anything—she no longer needed any of that, so long as her friends had her back. Xylia and Chinwe had given her glimpses of the possibilities before her; traveling with Momo and her entourage fully opened the door and exposed her to pleasures she had never considered. There was just something about this tightly-knit group that could not be found by intense training, or meditation, or personal trials, or battles, or anything else she had once placed value in. Their bond even transcended sexual intimacy: they were more like a family than most real families Angelina had known. Theirs was a love too pure and too powerful to be disturbed by all the mundane troubles that plagued many other relationships, and merely being in close proximity to the quartet filled Angelina to the brim with it.
And then there was Kaladar. Sure, Chiyoko had made plenty of advances (as had Toru, the werewolf), and while Angelina did not entirely ignore them, she found herself focusing more on Kaladar. Even while the halfling was healing Harumi, their eyes met and shared sweet intimacies that lovers can only dream of. Kaladar returned her warm smile and grinned, showing rows of sharp teeth that gave Angelina shivers (as she wondered what it would be like if Kaladar nibbled on her, oh-so-gently). The fact that she was part Drow and part Draconian, covered with gorgeous black scales that sometimes made her shimmer in the sunlight (and gleam in the moonlight), sporting a sleek, muscular tail, small horns protruding from her forehead (oh how Kaladar might purr if Angelina stroked them!), and the wings of some sweet goddess of the night (ah, to be enveloped by them!), attracted Angelina like no other woman had—not Hjordis nor Chinwe nor Brunhilde, nobody.
"Stop whining, it will be over soon!" She smiled and threw the apple core away, approaching the group and ready to get moving. Her eyes were still locked onto Kaladar's face; the beautiful black elf-dragon could barely keep her focus on Harumi's wound. Ever since Angelina had joined their merry troupe, she had become more aware of the older blonde's growing attraction to her. Angelina never made her feelings hidden. She did not say anything out loud, but she didn't need to: it was obvious from the way she moved and looked and smiled and (subtlest of them all) spoke that she was captivated. And Kaladar was, too: no human had looked at her, and smiled at her, and touched her, and spoke with her, the way Angelina did.
"Jeez, they've got it bad," Chiyo muttered. She looked on with mounting melancholy. If only those two would stop dancing around each other like that and say something—damn it! They were so strangely perfect for each other! Kaladar had all the ferocity and strength Angelina wanted, but also had the gentle sweetness and indomitable kindness she needed (and by Itzamna, was she great in bed!). Angelina's own strength and confidence would match perfectly with Kaladar's, but the embers of her sweetness and compassion, small though they still were, would nevertheless warm Kaladar's timid heart and change her for the better. Chiyo actually squirmed with impatience; she hated seeing two people so seemingly right for each other teasing one another like that—and teasing her!
"Why won't they just admit it? It'll be a lot easier on all of us!"
"Don't interfere." Shai sat next to her silently, offering a skin of water. Her Hunapu garb was all but forgotten now; she bared her chitin-covered arms and husky brown face with impunity. "The natural order has its ways. Chiyo should mind Chiyo's own business and let Angelina and Kallie sort everything out. Not all are so impatient as Chiyo."
"But they would be so beautiful together," she whined. "And I've been praying for Kallie to find true love ever since the day we first met. Here it is, right in front of her, and…"
"Chiyo." Shai leaned over and gave the Kitsune a quick kiss on the cheek. "Shut up."
"Yes, she has her own love-life to worry about." Toru smiled mischievously as she approached the duo, and bent down to kiss her lover tenderly. "Listen to Shai, sweetie. She's very smart and sexy. Shai?"
"Yes, Toru?" The werewolf giggled as she kissed the Sand-Wanderer directly on the lips. Shai blushed cutely and shied away.
"Thanks for keeping our girl in line. We'll be back on the road soon, once Harumi the pigeon stops screaming."
"I told you, I'm a PHEASANT! Bad dog! Bad!" Toru winked playfully and blew her friend a kiss.
"Whatever you are, just be ready in a few minutes. Did you get that, Kallie?"
"Got it, thankss." Kaladar smiled at Toru and kept her happy expression as she declared Harumi fit and firm. Angelina brushed against her and went on ahead, mouthing something mysterious and no doubt wonderful. Kaladar's heart skipped a beat as she followed; Chiyo just sighed as she stood up.
"I guess you're right, sweetie. They'll come around eventually."
"Shai thought Chiyo would see it that way." Shai smiled and made sure to hold Chiyo's hand tightly as they joined the rest of their friends. Little did they realize that two shadowy figures were trailing them, keeping a sharp lookout for any signs of danger…or perhaps not.
"Seems like Lady de Sotten's found herself another fling," Yumi sighed.
"I know," Jasmine nodded. "What are we, then?—chopped liver?" Kaladar heard them and whined.
"Pleasse don't mention liver, you two! I'm sstarving!"
The Shinobi exchanged wary glances before resuming their stealthy pace.
Fifteen strong they stormed the Tower of Heaven,
Fifteen strong guided by a golden herald.
Some fought against a terrible creature with fingers like vines,
Some faced a wizard with an entrancing fountain,
One special man confronted his inner demons,
And one special man saw the truth behind lies.
Yet awaiting the heroes at the apex of Heaven,
Was a man birthed mortal of miraculous skill.
He could bring to sweet life anything you could imagine,
Merely by magic and a patient brushstroke.
T'was the duty of the heroes to decide their own fate:
To rule a world destined to chaos and strife,
Or to let the Creator guide it to uncertain peace.
What decision do you think they made, O friends?
"What indeed." Pearl smiled as her children moaned out to her: Sen was hungry and Tiv needed to be changed. She put down her quill and attended to them, rocking peacefully in the late afternoon warmth. Sen moaned a little louder as she supped at her mother's breast; Pearl could sense the baby's impatience.
"It's okay, Sen, daddy will be home soon. You know he's never far from my side."
I do wish he'd hurry, though, she sighed to herself. Once I finish my chronicles, I want him to be my first audience. How lucky I am that so many of my friends had such colorful stories! Except for those first few shaky days when she descended from Nimbus with her companions and attempted to reconstruct her life, the last year had been good for Pearl. The circumstances surrounding that great adventure were too important to be forgotten, and since she was already an established bard and scribe, she devoted the tale to posterity, as much as her friends were all willing to share. Pearl could fill in the majority of the chronicle herself, as she had been in the midst of their number and had been fortunate enough to share in their many exploits, but in order to properly fill out her story, she had to interview every last one involved. Now, though, she had nearly reached the end. All the story needed was an epilogue to wrap everything up.
"Starting a new project yet?" Pearl gave a start as the father of her twin children approached from behind, smiling coolly. He was half-naked as always, hefting a pile of lumber on his back. Pearl set her daughter down and helped unload, chastising him for his sudden appearance.
"Don't sneak up on me like that, Gwil! I was in the middle of feeding! But now that you mention it, I haven't given much thought to what I'll do next. I'd like to do some more research on Senjata's background, but aside from what I've written here, there's not much to go on."
"Ask Mithra; she used to be her student."
"I can't do that. She's too busy helping that spoiled brat baroness of hers."
"We could probably go visit," he said, shrugging off his burden. "It's not like we need to stay here."
"I happen to enjoy a settled life." Pearl closed her eyes haughtily, which only caused Gwilym to snicker.
"Nah, you'll be begging me to leave soon enough. 'All true bards are but rolling stones'—weren't those your words? Who knows, you might be able to seduce Mithra away from that doomed fantasy of hers."
"Would you be able to leave me?" she said seriously. Gwilym conceded, kissed her on the forehead, and lifted his son off the ground. Pearl's face warmed, and her thoughts turned to her relationship with her bodyguard. She loved Gwilym, and wasn't ashamed to have slept with him all those months ago (her first time with a male), but she wasn't going to marry him, not anymore than Mithra could marry Anastasia. They would remain friends, inseparable, bonded by love and devotion and an inability to surrender the other's cherished presence. They were a family—just not husband and wife. And that was good enough.
"So how should I end this?" she said aloud. She glanced up and blushed as she saw her friend remove the rest of his clothes and dip into a nearby river.
"It's not like you to have writer's block!" he replied. "How about 'they lived happily ever after'?"
"Too conventional—and I don't want to lie to people. None of us can predict how we'll respond to the future."
"It'll come to you when you're not looking, Pearl. Come on and join me; I have a few splashes with your name on them."
"My name in the waves?" She giggled at the idea and, entrusting her children to their crib, took off her clothes and hopped in. Gwilym was more right than he knew: as twilight dimmed and the stars came out to shine their radiance against the rippling grasses, trees, and rivers, Pearl found her inspiration and penned the final entry in her chronicle.
"Tell me if this is any good," she whispered to her babies:
Thus the heroes were given control over all of Itzamna; the fate of the world was literally in their hands. Although no matter what we did, we would leave that place with blood on our hands, sometimes the land must be cleansed with blood, just as a forest must be consumed with fire in order to grow anew. I have finally come to understand this truth, so perhaps my quest has come to an end. Regardless, this incident which thrust grave responsibility in the hands of common and uncommon alike was but a single thread in the grand tapestry of our world, merely a verse in the Song of Itzamna. There were many other adventures before us, and many more verses to complete.
But that is a story for another time!