Well, this is it. The end at last. I hope you’ve enjoyed the story so far, and if you’re just joining us, you can get caught up with the previous chapters now.
Epilogue: The Next Journey
The ceremony began.
The crowd hushed as Yarnig approached from their left. In the distance, the rush of the river could be heard. Yarnig’s boots crunched on the blackened gravel beneath his feet, all the remains that the machines had left behind after Retgard’s abandonment.
He felt oddly relaxed. All he had to do was speak well, and that was the one aspect of leadership he was skilled at. He wore the finest clothes he had been able to find, and a circlet of gold – a replica of the one that had been lost with the death of Empress Lorganna – sat upon his head.
He came to stand before the center of the crowd, beside a kneeling figure in polished chain mail and fine furs. The crowd spread up the side of the valley, arranged so that they all had a view of the ceremony. Leha, Drogin, Doga, Benefactor, and Natoma stood in the front row, smiling.
Yarnig faced the assembly. “First, there came the Tor Sinnis, the Tor Makers, who led our people away from oppression and founded this nation. Then came the Tor Vargis, the Tor Liberators, who freed our people from the rulership of the Northern Clans. And finally, the Tor Lannis, the Tor Defenders, who broke the power of Jansia and made Tor Som one of the great nations of the world.”
He lowered his voice, dropping his eyes mournfully. “Then, when the Automatons rebelled, our nation was shattered, and our leaders were wiped out. Only I, the last scion of the Tor Lannis, survive, and I have never been prepared for the burdens of leadership.”
He brought his gaze up to face the crowd, slowly raising his voice. “I cannot lead our people into the future.” Solemnly, he reached up and removed the circlet from his head. “Perhaps the day will come when my line shall again lead, but it is not today. I hereby abdicate the throne of Tor Som.”
He turned to the kneeling form at his left. “But there is another with the strength and the wisdom to bring our nation into the future. Today, we begin a new dynasty,” he said, his voice echoing through the mild autumn air. He reached down and placed the circlet upon the pale hair of the kneeling figure. “I crown Eranna Tor Kellis, the Tor Savior, empress of all Tor Som!”
The crowd erupted into jubilation.
Leha clapped and cheered.
“Hail Eranna!” Doga shouted, his deep voice booming, and many in the throng echoed his words.
Eranna came to her feet, holding up a polished spear. “Thank you. I promise that I will do all I can to ensure that our nation recovers from the horrors of the past year. Tor Som will rise again, my friends.”
The people cheered louder.
Yarnig applauded his successor, feeling a burden lift from his shoulders.
* * *
The celebration lasted throughout the day and into the evening. The sun disappeared behind the rim of the valley, and the stars came out above, and still they celebrated.
The celebration was not just for Tors. The coronation of Empress Eranna constituted the first step towards rebuilding the lives that people had before the rebellion of the Automatons. This brought them all closer to reclaiming what they had lost. Thus, Tors, Eastenholders, Karkarans, Urannans, Clanspeople, and even a number of Lost Ones and ice creatures all joined in the merriment.
For Leha, circulating through the gathering and sipping her ulu and brandy, it seemed a magical night. It was a chance to relinquish the burdens of leadership and simply enjoy herself, something she had not done in a very, very long time. The air was cool without being cold, and the stars were bright. If the night had been crafted to be pleasant, she didn’t think it could have been better.
There was little food to be had, but that didn’t matter to the revelers. The chance to enjoy each other’s company, and to do so without fear, was worth more to them than a thousand banquets.
The festivities also brought the chance to enjoy something else that had been all too rare over the past year: music. During the struggle with the Automatons, there had been little time for music, and even in the few moments of peace, no one had felt much like playing, or listening. But now things were different. Now, they had both the time and a reason to enjoy themselves.
Most of the musicians and instruments of the other nations had been lost in the war, so the music came courtesy of the Clanspeople. Their music, played primarily with large drums and horns, was loud and booming while still being harmonious and melodic. Smaller wind instruments provided subtle undertones to the songs.
Leha danced for what felt like hours. She danced with Drogin and with Lahune, and she and Doga taught each other the dances of their respective worlds. Once, near the end of the night, she even danced with Yarnig.
Afterward, she thanked the young Tor for saving her life after the battle with the Automaton Lord. He smiled, seeming to enjoy the compliment. She watched him go, thinking of how much he had changed since she had first met him. He had a purpose now, she saw. He was not just a lost boy anymore.
Those at the celebration spoke much about the future. The trials of the past months had necessitated the loss of many social inhibitions, and there was no separation between high and low-ranking individuals at the celebration, so Leha was privy to all the discussions.
The Tors mostly talked of rebuilding their nation. They wistfully described the beauty that their cities had once had, and they speculated on how things would change with the reconstruction. They talked of resuming their lives, of again farming and doing business.
The Karkarans also planned to rebuild their nation. Some had already headed south to begin the work.
The Eastenholders seemed divided. Many were eager to return home and rebuild what the Tors and Automatons had destroyed, but others believed that it would be better to move forward and find a new homeland. So much of the world was now unclaimed.
Many Eastenholders believed that they needed to reform their government, to elect a new magistrate. All agreed that, in such a contest, Leha would be chosen in a heartbeat. She tried to steer them away from that idea. She had no intention of accepting new responsibilities. Besides, she reasoned, she knew little of law or governance.
The Clanspeople had lost the least to the Automatons, and they did not have much recovering to do. Their lives would change little. However, there would be one major change for them. To Leha’s delight, they had negotiated an agreement with the Tors that would not only see them open trade but also allow the Clanspeople to make use of the northern reaches of Tor territory, land that had belonged to the Clans before the Tors had claimed it as their own.
Members of all nations talked of going south, to Uranna. Most of the country’s once vast population had been killed, and a host of people were eager to resettle the clement, fertile land.
Lahune said that he planned to stay wherever populations were high. Recent events had rendered people more open to his order’s teachings, and he planned to make the most of it.
Most of the Lost Ones and ice creatures would be returning to their worlds to aid in rebuilding what the machines had destroyed – many had already done so – but others, especially among the Lost Ones, had become enamored with Barria and would be staying. Some hadn’t decided.
Late in the festivities, Leha took Doga aside and asked what his plans were.
“I’ll be staying here for the moment,” he said. “I plan to help Eranna rebuild her country. I learned much about logistics and organization while we fought on the northern front. I should be able to help.”
“After that, I am not sure. I miss Tyzu, but I want to see more of Barria. I want to see it without the pall of war obscuring my vision.” He breathed in the cool air and gazed up at the stars. “For seven thousand years, every Lost One has dreamed of visiting Barria. I’m not eager to leave.”
She nodded again, trying to imagine what it had been like to be cut off from humanity’s homeworld.
He peered down at her. “What about you? What are your plans for the future?”
“Natoma and I are planning to head south,” she said, her voice slightly slurred by the brandy. “There are survivors in Pira, Karkar, and Uranna, and they need to know the war is over. They need to know that there are other humans out there who can help them. We’ll take a small group and find everyone we can.”
“Many people scattered when the machines rebelled. It may take years to find them all,” he said.
She agreed. “We won’t be able to search everywhere, but we’ll do what we can. Benefactor wanted to come, so we’ll be able to use his telepathy to look for nearby minds.”
“When will you leave?”
She shrugged. “In a week or two. There are a few loose ends that need tying up first.”
He wished her good luck with her journey, and she thanked him.
He asked if she wanted to dance again, but she refused, citing her tiredness and the effects of the brandy.
Sometime after midnight, with parts of the celebration still going, Leha found her way to her to tent and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
* * *
The cool air whipped past Yarnig’s face as he rode up the lane, his horse’s hooves pounding on the unpaved dirt. The road had been neglected for the better part of a year, and leaves and detritus covered it, but it had not yet become impassable.
Trees lined both sides of the road, their branches occasionally arching overhead to provide shade. This far north, the leaves had already begun to change, and the bright sun reflected off reds, yellows, and oranges as well as the green of the leaves that had not yet begun their metamorphosis. The scent of fallen leaves filled his nostrils as he rode.
He could have made this trip by jumping point, but he relished the opportunity to ride through these woods again. Every smell and sight brought back pleasant memories of his youth.
As he looked about him, he saw no signs of Automaton-inflicted damage. He took some hope from that. The nearby town of Timbrocken, where he had jumped in, had been flattened. But the machines had not had time to completely scour the world of human influence, and there had been reports of isolated homes or settlements surviving.
Ahead, the road forked. He took the right fork, grinning as he tore around the bend.
Yarnig had planned to come here for months. The notion had been at the back of his mind since Leha had ordered the settlements abandoned, and once the war had ended, he had promised himself that he would make the journey.
Healing wounded and helping with the recovery had kept him busy for days after the battle at the camp, and then the journey back to Tor Som had kept him distracted for several more weeks. Now, he had started to help in the reconstruction of Retgard, but Eranna had allowed him time for this personal journey.
He spotted a pair of gates ahead, and his heart skipped a beat. They appeared intact.
He brought his horse to a halt and dismounted. He stepped forward. The gates were made of iron and spanned the distance between two pillars of stone. They were remarkably simple for something owned by a royal family and bore little adornment. They were a bit rustier and more weather-beaten than he remembered, but they were otherwise undamaged. Lines of tall evergreens, planted many years ago by servants of his ancestors, extended from either side of the gates, delineating the edge of the lands owned by the Tor Lannis family.
Beyond the gates, Yarnig could see the roof of his country home.
Behind him, Yarnig’s companion reined in her horse and dismounted, streaks of blue touching her hair as the sun glinted off it.
“Is this it?” Natoma asked, hitching their horses to a tree.
He nodded. “Yes.”
He produced a key from his pocket and unlocked the gates. They swung open with a whine, and Yarnig and Natoma stepped into the courtyard.
The country home stood ahead of them. Like the gates, it was very simple by royal standards. This place had been built as a place to retreat from the burdens of court, and its builders had not wanted a reminder of their rank and responsibilities. It was a large dwelling, but it was far from a palace. The months of abandonment had left it in need of some maintenance, but it seemed largely undamaged.
To their left, a building that had once housed servants stood in a similar state of disrepair. To their right, the wind whistled through an abandoned stable.
Out beyond the country home and a few small outbuildings, the vast forest stretched into the distance, the trees sighing to each other.
They moved forward, taking in the sights.
“This is where you grew up?” Natoma said.
“Yes,” he said, striding across the leaf-covered stones of the courtyard. “We spent most of our time in the palace in Retgard, but this is where all the good things happened.”
She breathed deeply. “It’s beautiful.”
He glanced about, smiling wistfully. “Yes, it is.”
He went to the front of the home, opened the door, and went inside. He moved through the rooms, inspecting them to see how they had weathered the past months. Natoma entered a few moments after him, following a path slightly different from his through the house. The air smelled of dust and mold, and he noticed signs of mice and other vermin, but no severe damage had been done to the place.
“It isn’t too bad,” he called to Natoma from a guest bedroom. “A few weeks work should be enough to restore it.
She strolled into the doorway behind him. “Do you plan on coming back here permanently?” she asked.
He turned to face her. “I don’t know.” He went to the room’s window and looked out. “I love it here, but it will be very isolated until the countryside is repopulated, and I’m needed in Retgard.” He considered. “I suppose that’s where I’ll stay for now. But I want to come back here one day. Soon, hopefully.”
They resumed their exploration of the home. Yarnig lost himself in memories of the past.
Sometime later, he found himself in one of the sitting rooms, the one in which he had first thought of traveling north to contact the Clans. He went to the far wall and found the map that he had stared at all those months ago. He wiped a thin layer of dust from it and considered the blank stretch that represented Clan territory.
He heard Natoma come in. “Who is this?” she asked.
He turned around. She stood before a sketch of a woman with pale, flowing hair and noble, elegant features. Yarnig’s servants had brought much of his artwork with them when the place had been abandoned, but this one had been left behind.
“My mother,” he said, coming to stand next to her.
Natoma glanced at him. “I can see the resemblance.”
“Have you decided whether you’ll be coming yet?” she said after a moment. She referred to Leha’s mission to the south.
He sighed. “I don’t think that I can. They need my abilities in Retgard.”
She turned to face him, nodding understandingly.
“But you’ll be jumping back for supplies regularly, right? We should still be able to see each other,” he added.
She smiled warmly. “Yes, we will.” She kissed him.
He returned her smile.
She collected the portrait of his mother, and they left the home together, hand in hand.
* * *
They arrived in a flash of green-white light, briefly illuminating the ruins of Three Gates.
Leha, Drogin, and Eranna stood in what had once been a square. The homes and shops that had surrounded it were now nothing more than charred rubble and broken foundations. The sun shone almost as brightly as it had on the day of the city’s death, and a light wind ruffled their clothes. The air was silent, and their breathing sounded loud.
They began to move, picking their way through the rubble, saying little. They soon split up, each going to confront the past in their own way.
It had been Leha’s idea to come. The idea of traveling here to put the past to rest had been in her mind for weeks now. One night, she had suggested it to the other two, and they had taken to the idea.
None of them had set foot in the city since its fall. They had passed by it on their journey to Tor Som after the Battle of Heart, but the Tor army had already looted it of useful supplies, so there had been no reason to enter it. At the time, Leha had wanted to avoid the ruins and the memories they brought up. She suspected the others had felt the same way.
As she made her way down the rubble-strewn streets, Leha realized she hardly recognized anything. Almost nothing was left standing, and little of the remains were identifiable as what they had been.
She supposed it was surprising that this much remained. The Automatons had ground the cities of the other nations into nothing but dust and pebbles, but they had been far less thorough with the Eastenholder settlements. They hadn’t had time in the early days of the war, she guessed, and her people had abandoned the country, so the machines had probably decided the scouring of Eastenhold could wait. She didn’t doubt that they would have done it eventually.
Here and there, she spotted pieces of white bone. She shuddered.
She hoped she had done enough. She hoped nothing like this would ever happen again.
At last, she came to something too familiar not to recognize: a rectangular foundation filled with enough rubble to indicate that the building had had a second floor. Her shop. Her home.
She stepped through what remained of the doorway. Numbly, without thinking about what she was doing, she began to sift through the rubble. The sound of stone against stone echoed eerily in the quietness of the ruins.
She moved a large chunk of brick, and something glinted. She reached down and retrieved the object. It was the Urannan mirror she had removed from the window on the day of the attack. Its glass had been cracked, and its frame was scuffed, but it was in surprisingly good condition otherwise.
She studied her reflection.
She didn’t look as she had on the day of the attack. Her face remained youthful, but her eyes, with their deep blue pupils, lacked the sparkle they had once held, and her longer hair made her look older.
She noticed a small scar beneath her right eye. She ran a finger along it, trying to remember how she’d gotten it. She couldn’t.
She sighed and set down the mirror. With one hand, she collected her hair at the base of her neck. She sent a small amount of acid trickling down one claw of her other hand, and in one quick motion, she burned through her hair, leaving it shoulder length.
She retrieved the mirror. Her hair now formed a frame around her face, barely reaching her shoulders, as it had before the war. She put on a smile, and in the reflection, she almost looked like she once had.
She continued to rummage through the ruins, but she found little. Her books had been consumed by fire, and most of her artifacts and trinkets had been smashed.
In the end, she left it all behind.
As she made her way back, she encountered Eranna. The Tor’s eyes widened slightly when she noticed Leha’s hair.
Eranna asked a few questions about what she had been doing, and Leha briefly described the return to her shop. They fell silent for several long moments.
“I used to have dreams about this,” Eranna said, gesturing at the shells of buildings.
Leha glanced at her questioningly.
“I dreamed about the battle,” she explained. “In my mind, it melded with the battle in the Mannall Range, and sometimes with other battles as well. Whenever I closed my eyes, I saw the fire, the blood.” Her eyes stared at something Leha couldn’t see.
“Do you still have them?” Leha asked.
Eranna shook her head slightly. “They’ve been getting less frequent since we won the battle at the camp. I haven’t had one in a few weeks. I’m hoping that they’re gone for good.” She managed a smile.
Leha squeezed her arm gently.
When they returned to the square they had jumped in at, they found Drogin waiting for them. He carried a small sack in one hand. He showed Leha its contents: a small bronze sculpture of General Phanto and a few other items from his home.
They took one last look at the ruins, and then Drogin raised his wand. Green-white light flashed around them.
* * *
Eight days later, early on a frosty autumn morning, Leha and the others who would make the journey south began the final preparations for departure.
The Clanspeople had constructed several hovering wagons specially for the journey. Having already been stocked with food and weaponry – there was always the risk of encountering Automatons that had evaded the hunting parties – the wagons were hitched with their teams of reindeer and brought to the edge of the valley that Retgard sat within.
A tingle of excitement ran through the air. Leha smiled often, looking forward to seeing more of the world, even in its ruined state, and Benefactor twitched eagerly, baring his dark teeth.
Leha felt a kind of cheer that she had not in a long time. Since her journey to Three Gates, the pain of the past had not seemed so strong.
A great crowd gathered to see them off, waving and calling out good wishes. They stayed at a respectful distance to allow the members of the party and those close to them to say their goodbyes privately.
Leha joked with Lahune about how their lives continued to interfere with their recording efforts. Then she and Drogin shared a long hug, saying their heartfelt goodbyes. Yarnig and Natoma stood close to each other and shared a few hushed words of farewell. Doga and Eranna went among the members of the party, wishing them good luck. The other members of the party bade farewell to their friends and family.
The time came for them to leave. Leha and the others boarded the wagons, still calling out final words of parting. The reindeer began to move, and the wagons set off down the road to the south, the sun shining brightly upon them.
The next journey had begun.
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Also, I currently have no plans to release any free chapters of the next two books beyond the free previews currently on Smashwords and Amazon. If you want to see the continuation of Leha’s adventure, I encourage you to check them out.
In Children of the Gods, our heroes must face the dark legacy of the Old Gods when a heretofore unknown offshoot of humanity lands on the shores of Pira. Leha must defend her people, but in so doing, she betrays everything she has fought for. Will humanity’s survival come at the cost of its soul?
And in Human Again, a haunted Leha must confront the cost of her gambles: an entire universe of worlds ruined by her mistakes. Can she withstand such horrors? Can the saviour of humanity save herself?