And here goes, ladies and gentleman, the last chapter of "Shadow Line". I won't say "very last" 'cause there's still the epilogue to go.
You may want to take a deep breath before diving into this one, as it's as long as three normal chapters. I knew beforehand it'd be a long one, I didn't know how long.
10. Tomorrow's Rain
"Tomorrow's rain will wash the stains away
But something in our minds will always stay"
It was dark in the ruins of what remained of the capital of Netherie, dark as the darkest night that has ever befallen a planet. Which, Ashley mused, was precisely what it was.
In the sky above, gray and black clouds twisted and twirled like countless whirlpools, groaning and growling under their own weight. The upcoming storm could be smelled even above the general stench: the air was heavy with evil, eating away at Ashley's courage even as the poisons in it burned her lungs. It seemed alive with its own will, pulsating maliciously in strange discord with the thunder.
The clearing was closed upon from three sides by the walls of the palace. The walls were gray and black too, the once splendid murals and mosaics covered in slime and dirt by years of careful neglect. A few windows were boarded up, but most were smashed. No light was seen from them.
As for the forth side, there was a large open space that once might have been a garden: the burnt and broken-down stumps of trees were still scattered across it, hardly distinguishable from the rubble. It was a sorry sight, a reminder of what evil sought to do to all pretty things.
The gray sand crackled. Melissa, tall and proud in her gleaming orange-and-gold custom, stepped away from the shadows, into the clearing.
Ashley held her breath. Andros! Her mind cried out. Oh, Andros, it has started…
Andros, Zhane and Karone exchanged dark looks as the image of the clearing flickered before their eyes.
"They're in", said Karone quietly.
"We have to hurry", said Andros. He had the weird impression that he received two images, not one. "I'm not sure if we'll make it in time"
"Don't be ridiculous", hushed him Zhane. "We've come too far to fail now"
"Quiet, both of you!" hissed Karone. "We don't want to attract attention!"
"Well, excuse me for not being a telepath!" shot Zhane.
"Nonsense, if we can do it than so can you" shot Andros back.
"Later!" hissed Karone, angrier this time. "I mean it, the fact that we weren't attacked so far doesn't mean we won't be!"
"How far are we, anyway?" asked Zhane.
Karone and Andros shrugged.
"We need to rely on others' memories to find out way here", said Karone finally.
"You mean you are relying on another's memories", said Andros. He resumed his step, walking faster than before.
Zhane and Karone joined up behind him, exchanging a brief, worried look. Both seemed to have the same question reflected in their eyes: he isn't holding all too well, is he?
Carlos's communicator beeped, but the black Ranger couldn't spare the concentration to answer it. He was gliding above the swarm of monsters. No matter how many he shot down, more seemed to crop out. Finally, the person on the other end hailed him over the helmet comm.
"Carlos, are you there?" came Ashley's voice.
"Sure am!" yelled Carlos. "Just fighting off more monsters than I've ever seen in my life!"
"Pull back! You don't have to fight them anymore, we moved into last phase"
"Why didn't you say so?"
"Why didn't you say so right away?"
"I thought you were fighting for your life!"
"So how can you spear so much breath? Grab Shiera and get out of there!"
"I'd like to see you "grab" Shiera!" The green Ranger was fighting hand-to-hand. She was making good use of the dagger Andros has given to her: even the tiniest scratch from it seemed lethal. Carlos smiled under his helmet. "Take that back; I'd like to see Dark Specter try!"
"Carlos!" Ashley sounded exasperated.
"Okay, we're outta here!"
Ashley remained hidden in the shadows as Melissa stepped unto the clearing. The redhead hasn't made it more than 5 meters across the sand when the air rippled violently. Melissa didn't slow down, even as Dark Specter materialized in front of her.
"So, Phoenix", he greeted her. "We meet at last"
"At last, we do" she agreed, coming to a halt.
The two glared at each other across the long patch of sand that separated them.
"Tell me, Phoenix, to what do I owe the pleasure of your company?"
"I've come to kill you"
"Oh, is that why you brought your little army along? Too bad they'd be wiped out"
"Not necessarily so"
"You probably think that you can kill me, don't you?"
"No; I believe so"
"Too bad that faith is not enough; too bad for you, that is"
"I know that Faith is not enough"
"Yet you are certain that you will succeed"
"I'm sorry to disappoint you", said Dark Specter, not sounding sorry at all, but gleefully happy, "But there were only three who could kill me: two died – one of them by your hand, by the way – and the third has no idea who he really is. Even if he knew, the memory would probably drive him insane"
"I am not at all sorry to disappoint you", replied Melissa with grim satisfaction. She paused, waiting to see what effect her words have on her opponent.
She didn't have to wait long.
"What do you mean?" asked Dark Specter sharply.
"Well… Andros is coping very well so far, I did not kill Karone, and…" the mask pulled back, revealing Melissa's face "As you can see, I, Yuria Melissa to the house of Êjérnor, am very much alive"
Dark Specter actually retreated a step. "Darkonda will pay for failing me like this!"
Melissa's laughter was hollow. "He already had. Haven't you heard? I killed him"
"He has more incarnations left"
"I took all the five he had left"
Dark Specter's unlit aura expanded suddenly. He raised his arm, and the part of the aura that wrapped his arm stretched and solidified, forming a massive great sword almost as large as a person.
"Darkonda failed, but I will not", said Dark Specter. "You will not live long, Yuria". He spat out the last word like a derogatory. "You will join the ashen remains of your garden"
"Perhaps", said Melissa, unsheathing her thin ice-like blade. "But I believe it is you who will join the ashes"
Ashley watched the two duel with such rapt attention, that she almost didn't hear the footsteps behind her. When she finally did, she turned, started, only to find Andros, Zhane and Karone.
"How is she holding?" asked Karone straight away.
"She's okay", said Ashley. "Look for yourself"
While Dark Specter was considerably larger than her, Melissa had the ability to fly. She cut through the air like an air-born creature, moving so fast Dark Specter barely managed to deflect her attacks. She also managed to avoid most of his blows – but the few that did reach their target sent her zooming backwards. On several occasions she almost crashed against the walls.
It was a strange battle. The fighters' auras were so much bigger than the people to whom they belonged, that it sometime looked as if it was two fire spirits doing battle, rather than two solid persons. The auras danced and moved almost independently of the two warriors, allowing them longer range.
Dark Specter just landed another blow on Melissa, using his sword to bat her away. Lucky for Melissa, the blow sent her in the direction of the open field. She managed to pull up in the very last second. She zoomed high above, and dove right down at Dark Specter, now moving so fast that she hit him before he even realized where she went.
"We need to complete the Sequence", said Zhane.
"You're first", said Karone.
"Are you sure?"
Karone nodded. "Yes, I am. It has to be either you or Ashley – and Melissa chose you years ago"
"Okay". Zhane stared at the fight. "Karone? I don't know how"
"Of course you do". It was Andros who spoke. "Except for Melissa, you were the first among us to accept the light"
"I don't know how", insisted Zhane.
Meanwhile, Ashley's mind has caught up with what the others meant by completing the Sequence. Adding that to Melissa's repetitive use of the words believe and faith, she knew how to help Zhane.
"It's just a simple choice, Zhane", she said. "One that you already made; you just have to say it out loud. There are two who fight before us. Which one has your loyalty?"
"Melissa". Even before Zhane completed the word, an aura formed around him. While essentially orange, it had a metallic – almost silver – quality to it.
Melissa's wings of gold have turned bright orange.
Dark Specter cried in anger and pain when the accursed golden sword cut through his aura. The blow hurt more than the previous one. He attacked more ferociously, landing a specifically heavy blow. To his great dismay, Melissa was hardly affected by it.
Melissa laughed at his voiced frustration, circling him just outside his reach.
"Wondering how is it possible that I am growing stronger, instead of weaker?" she asked. "It's easy, very easy. I have the power of six, not just one, and I am far from using this power to the fullest!"
"Well, then, perhaps you should!" growled Dark Specter, and stabbed at her, his sword growing suddenly longer.
"I Know you can win", stated Karone simply, looking straight at Melissa.
Dark Specter stumbled and nearly fell, as Melissa was not where she was a fraction of a second before, and his blow missed.
Melissa was suddenly behind him, her aura much brighter and larger now. It was still mainly orange, but it had shimmering azure-blue margins, and was crisscrossed with blue veins.
She launched herself at Dark Specter, moving distinctly faster than she did before. So did Dark Specter. In fact, the two moved so fast now that the spectators could hardly make out their moves. All they could see was two forms of light, snaking and twisting around each other.
The three Rangers and Karone were not the only spectators watching the fight. Perched on the tallest balcony, invisible against the black walls, stood Ecliptor. He had abandoned his post when he heard Karone's name being shouted, and stood there watching the battle ever since. Across from him, under the low roof, his could see the light dancing where his child and her friends stood.
The discovery that his daughter was alive was relieving. It was startling, however, to discover that Phoenix was her cousin. Like everyone else, Ecliptor firmly believed that Melissa Êjérnor died years ago. Strangely, though, Ecliptor was almost glad that she had survived.
Ecliptor didn't participate in the massacre of Netherie. While he never admitted it, he felt better knowing that he was not a part of that so-called battle. To him, it was an act of pure and brutal violence, not at all something to take pride in. There was no battle, he thought, in winning by sheer numbers. No honor.
It was with a divided conscience, therefore, that he watched the Monarch of Evil and the Yuria of Netherie doing battle.
"My turn, isn't it", said Andros matter-of-factly.
Dark Specter has changed his tactic. He was on the defensive now. As Melissa's attacks lacked the brutality required for getting past his blocks and diversions, she was wearing herself out while he was getting relative rest.
No-one said anything, as they all knew that it was his turn in the sequence.
"Just one problem, though" continued Andros. He was not looking at his friends, but rather staring at the battle, never tearing his eyes away from it. "I feel as if by adding Red to the Light, I'll be contaminating something pure. Red has done too much evil"
"Andros, you've been fighting for the cause of Goodness all your life. Don't be a jerk", said Zhane sharply. He looked at Ashley.
"Darkonda could have taken me instead of Karone; it's merely a coincidence that the Rangers fought an evil princess rather than an evil prince"
"And I would have brought you back, just as you brought me back" said Karone. Her fingers toyed with the blue light around her as if it was solid substance.
"I'm not so sure I would have turned back as you did", said Andros.
"Andros". Ashley laid her hand to his cheek, and forced him to look at her. "You're thinking about Kaylan, aren't you?"
"Answer me two simple questions"
"Zordon hated Kaylan, didn't he?"
"Yet he chose red – Kaylan's color – as a Power Ranger's color. More than that, he chose red as leader. Why?"
Andros didn't answer.
"Answer me", said Ashley softly. "Please, Andros?"
"He chose red…" Andros licked his lips nervously, but his eyes never left Ashley's. "Because he knew that without courage, Goodness doesn't stand a chance"
"Hurry up, you two" said Zhane. "He's nearly had her this time!"
Andros and Ashley didn't need to ask whom he was talking about.
Andros took Ashley's hand in his and, turning again to look at the fight, said loudly and clearly: "Be brave, Melissa"
Ecliptor didn't see the red tentacles forming around the blue veins in Melissa's aura, as he wasn't watching the fight. Instead, he was watching the small shape zooming close to him.
With a sharp break, Carlos's glider stopped not far from Ecliptor. Carlos and Shiera jumped from the glider, and it soared up and disappeared from view.
"What have we missed?" asked Shiera.
Ecliptor looked down again, at the fighters.
"They're even" he said. "I've been wondering were you've been"
"Fighting", said Shiera. "But I wouldn't miss this battle for nearly anything"
"I thought Phoenix killed you both", said Ecliptor. "Karone grieved over you, before she too was taken"
"You call her Karone?" Carlos's voice was more-than-mildly surprised.
"It was Astronema who wanted a weapon against the Rangers, but it was Karone who wanted a friend", said Ecliptor.
"They're just two aspects of the same person" said Shiera. She, too, was watching the battle intently.
"She was always an amazing child" said Ecliptor softly. "Like water, rather than like stone…"
"I told you, Dark Specter!" shouted Melissa. She and Dark Specter stood at the far ends of the clearing. "Your victory is not half as certain as you thought it would be!"
"Neither is yours!" he shouted back at her. "I only see four colors!"
"Hope will not fail this time!"
Dark Specter laughed. The ugly sound echoed back, distorted and disconcerting. "Not that it matter! Where is your Sixth, Yuria? Who is the Sixth?"
"He will arrive in time", answered Melissa evenly.
Ecliptor turned and looked at Shiera. "I thought you were the Sixth" he asked, rather amazed.
"How do you know about the Light Bearers?" asked Carlos sharply.
Shiera shook her head. "I'm the Rainbow Walker. I don't know who the Sixth is", she added sadly. "I just know that without him, Melissa is likely to lose. Dark Specter will kill here. And if she dies fighting him, the other Light Bearers who joined with her will die, too"
"I know". Ecliptor tore his gaze, and was now looking again at the battle. "My daughter's destiny is tied with hers…"
"Now what?" asked Ashley nervously. "Is it my turn?"
"No", answered Karone. "You should be the last in the Sequence"
"Where is the Sixth?" questioned Andros. "Can we win without him?"
"I'm not sure", admitted Karone. "Three out of six should be enough to give us a chance of victory, but…"
"…but Melissa won't survive", completed Zhane. "Each of the Bearers need the color that complete his or hers in order to survive this"
"It's part of this fixing-the-past thing, isn't it?" asked Ashley.
Karone seemed confused, but Zhane understood. "Yes, it is", he said. "Only I have no idea how the Sixth can fix things, if his color was missing last time around"
"Perhaps by simply joining with us", said Karone. "Makes sense, doesn't it?"
"It does", said Andros.
"You know who the Sixth is, don't you?" asked Carlos.
"How do you know about Oshra's prophecy?" asked Carlos again.
"It's a long story, better reserved for another opportunity", said Ecliptor. His eyes were locked on the battle.
"Whoever he is, he'd better join fast", said Shiera. "Melissa can't hold much longer…"
Dark Specter withdrew his arm. The sword contracted, disappeared, and turned into a long whip of lava-like darkness. Dark Specter flogged it at Melissa. The whip cut through her aura, the bright colors dimming.
Zhane, who's been supporting Melissa the longest, sank to his knees. Karone pressed her palms to her temples with a sharp hiss of pain. Andros bit his lip so hard the tender skin was broken.
"Where are you?" shouted Ashley at the sky. She has never felt more helpless in her life. "We need you!"
The clouds thundered louder.
Dark Specter seemed more skilled with the whip than with the sword. The second lash landed on Melissa before she had time to recover from the first one.
Her aura shrunk around her body, regaining its brightness. She pulled sharply upward, trying to get out of the whip's range.
She wasn't quick enough. The whip wrapped around her.
Andros was swaying on his feet, deathly pale. Karone was on her knees now. She was shaking badly, and barely restraining herself from howling in pain. Ashley wasn't sure if Zhane was still conscious. He lay in a heap, blood trickling from his nose.
She could sense that the time window in which the Sixth could join them was almost over. Soon, it would be her turn in the sequence. If the Sixth won't join – if Melissa would die – it would be up to her to defeat Dark Specter.
"Come on", she whispered. "Where are you? We need you…"
Shiera raised her hand to her temple. "Karone is in pain" she said, her voice strained.
"How do you know?" asked Ecliptor sharply, looking at her.
"I'm bound to The Light, though not a Bearer", she said. "The Bearers are linked to each other. If one suffers, they all do"
Ecliptor turned his eyes back to the battlefield, where Melissa was struggling to wriggle free, and failing.
Carlos watched Ecliptor intently. He had the distinct impression that the monster was experiencing an internal struggle. In a sudden inspiration, Carlos recalled a single word Ecliptor had said before, and the black Ranger knew what was torturing the dark warrior.
"She's a daughter to you, isn't she", said Carlos. "You said so before"
"Yes, she is", answered Ecliptor. His eyes were still locked on the struggling Melissa. She was very weak now, her aura hardly visible, yet she kept resisting.
"Any second now", said Carlos, "And Melissa will lose"
Dark Specter pulled back his whip. Melissa fell to the ground, not quite crashing in a heap, but not landing gracefully either.
"Who's right and who's wrong now, Yuria?" asked Dark Specter mockingly. "It is you who have fallen, it seems…"
"The battle is not over yet", breathed Melissa. She pulled herself to her knees and was doing her best to stand up. Her sword lay to her side; either it fell from Melissa's hand, or she put it away in order to use her hands.
"Yes it is, Melissa", said Dark Specter. His whip contracted back into his aura. He now held his paw-like palms close together, forming a massive orb of darkness between them.
Ashley was left the last one standing, but she barely noticed it. All her attention was turned on the clearing, and the two people in it: one standing, one kneeling. Soon, Ashley knew, it would be her turn to fight. She won't have the backup of the others behind her. She'd be on her own.
Please stand up, prayed one part of her mind. Please, Melissa, please, for the love of everything you've fought and lived for, please stand up.
The other half of Ashley's mind was still bent on the missing one. Show up already! She wanted to scream at him, but her throat was hoarse already. Show up, we need you! Where are you, don't you care?
"Come on", she whispered, "Come on…"
Dark Specter cast his orb of Darkness.
Ashley didn't have time to scream.
Shiera moved but, for once in her life, someone else was quicker than she was. Ecliptor threw himself down from the balcony, falling at an incredible speed. His body intercepted the orb merely a few feet before it hit Melissa.
As his now limp form fell, Melissa seemed to gather herself together. With a wordless cry of defiance, very much like a bird of prey, she had gathered all that was left of her aura in one small, compact sphere, and hurled it at Dark Specter.
The sphere being not larger than a tennis ball, and Dark Specter clearly not expecting it, it burned right through Dark Specter's aura, and hit him on the left of his chest, just below his shoulder.
Where the light touched Dark Specter's body, a white burn appeared. From that spot, brilliant rays of light in all the colors of the rainbow – and much more – grew across his body, more white spots appearing next to the colorful strings. Wherever such a white spot appeared, more strings sprang from it, quickening the process. Dark Specter howled with agony.
It was over almost before it had started. In a flash of multicolored light, Dark Specter's body blew up. His soul remained hovering in the air for a few more seconds, a menacing dark fog, but it, too, was consumed by the light.
The Monarch of Evil has fallen.
He's dead, thought Ashley dazedly. He's dead, and the sequence isn't even completed yet. It can't be… can it?
From their position on the balcony, Carlos and Shiera saw Karone running past Melissa, towards Ecliptor's body.
Carlos caught Shiera's arm as she made a movement as if to jump.
"Don't be stupid", he said.
It was a slow march across the sand. Both Andros and Zhane were taller and heavier than Ashley and, while Andros was able to support at least some of his weight, Zhane was exhausted to the point of literally falling off his feet. Ashley was the middle of the trio, supporting both boys. She was never more grateful for the strength that being a Ranger gave her.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a small black shape descending. Expecting an attack, she halted and nearly dropped the boys, but Andros fastened his grip on her shoulder, stopping her: the approaching shape was not a minion of evil, but Carlos and Shiera, both riding Carlos's glider.
They landed softly next to the other Rangers. Ashley nodded and smiled weakly when Carlos eased Zhane off her, but she wouldn't pass Andros to Shiera, and the green Ranger did not insist. Ever so slowly, they walked across the sand to where Karone was kneeling next to her adopted father's body.
She was holding fast to his hand, crying silently and unabashedly. Zhane landed heavily on the sand next to her and pulled her to him. Burying her face in his shoulder, still too shocked to make a sound.
"It's going to be alright, love", murmured Zhane into her hair, lowering his face so his lips were grazing her cheek, kissing away the tears. "It'll be alright", he repeated, though he had no idea how it could be: her grief was burning in his heart, too.
Someone made a little gasp, or perhaps more than one person: upon hearing a voice – or perhaps feeling their steps across the sand – Ecliptor opened his eyes.
"Karone", he said, very weakly. "Princess…".
Immediately, Karone was holding his hand again. "You're still alive", she whispered, amazed. "Don't give up; please, don't give up. I know you can make it…"
He shook his head. "I'm dying", he said. "I'm sorry"
"Don't be sorry". Her voice broke. "Please, live"
Ever so slowly, he moved his hand, caressing her hair. "I'm sorry", he repeated. "I am a being of Evil, who went against my origin. Even if my body was to survive this blow, my spirit won't last long"
"No!" insisted Karone. "There was enough Goodness in you to raise me; to love me. Surely there's enough Goodness in you to live through this!"
Ecliptor parted his lips, but he was not strong enough to speak. Instead, he shook his head.
Karone's hands glowed in faint violet, as she attempted to heal his body. Her attempt did not work, as the strength of his spirit was crushed by Dark Specter's blow.
"What of your stuff?" asked Shiera suddenly. "Melissa's sword has magic in it, to make good those who are evil. Can't you…?"
Karone shook her head, hands still glowing. "No", she said, ruefully. "My staff doesn't have the appropriate spells over it, and I can't make them now"
"What of this dagger, than?" asked Shiera, bringing out the dagger that Andros has given her.
Everyone stared at the sharp blade, resting in Shiera's open palm.
Andros was the first to speak.
"It might", he said heavily. "After all, it suits itself to its master"
"How do I do it?" asked Shiera. Then, offering him the dagger, she added: "Or would you rather to it yourself?"
"I don't know how", said Andros, shaking his head.
Shiera offered the dagger to Karone but she, too, shook her head. "I can't wield it", she said.
Shiera turned to Zhane, and he refused just as well.
Shiera took a deep breath. "Karone, would you like me to try?"
Karone nodded wordlessly.
"I might as well kill him", warned Shiera.
"He'll die anyway if we won't do anything", said Karone.
"Fine" said Shiera, fastening her hand around the hilt.
"Wait", said Ashley suddenly.
Everyone looked at her; even Ecliptor.
"I'll do it", she said, licking her lips nervously: if possible, they were even drier than they were before. "I'll do it", she repeated. "I think… I Hope I can"
Realization dawned in the others' eyes, as they realized what it was that Ashley was saying.
"Of course", breathed Andros. "The sequence is not completed yet…"
Shiera put the dagger in Ashley's free hand.
"A scratch will do", she said.
Ashley nodded. She heaved Andros unto Shiera's shoulder, and kneeled by Ecliptor.
"Do you understand?", she asked. "Do you understand what I'm about to do?"
His head moved a little; perhaps he tried to nod. Then, gathering what strength he had left, he breathed out: "Your… hope… is… enough"
Ashley held the blade to his arm, about to do as Shiera said, when Andros's voice stopped her.
"Not like that", he said. Walking on his own – though shakily – he stood over Ashley and redirected her hand to a point above Ecliptor's torso. "This is where he stabbed her"
Ashley stabled the dagger with both her hand. "I sure hope this'll work", she said.
Golden sparks swirled inside the green metal, as if in reply.
Ashley thrust down the dagger.
Ecliptor gave a small gasp when the blade cut through his skin. Still, when Ashley pulled it upwards, there was no blood visible on it, and no wound in Ecliptor's side.
For a few tense second, nothing seemed to happen.
A dry sob escaped Karone's throat. Ashley's heart beat like crazy.
Then, Ecliptor's body seemed to shift before their eyes, shrinking and changing color, until before them lay not a monster, but a pale-skinned man, dressed in a black armor, his black hair highlighted by three white stripes. The black armor was churned and damaged, but the man's skin – where visible – was blissfully unscathed.
He coughed. Karone helped him on his side.
Taking a deep breath, he opened his eyes. His pupils were almost drowned in the dark color of his irises.
"Unbelievable" he said, and attempted to sit. He coughed again. "I'm alive"
Karone hugged him tightly, and he returned the hug just as fiercely. When they broke their hug, he looked seriously at Ashley. "Thank you", he said. He looked around at the gathered Rangers. "Thank you all"
Andros was the first to find words. "You're welcome", he said. "After all… We're family". His eyes lingered on the three stripes in Ecliptor's hair.
It was Carlos was phrased the unspoken question in Andros's eyes. "How come you've got a hair like Andros's?"
"I do?" asked Ecliptor. He passed his hand through his hair. "As I didn't have hair until a few moments ago, I find that a hard question to answer". He stared at his own, very human hands. "I don't even know how this transformation was possible"
"Perhaps", said Zhane thoughtfully, "You really are family"
"What do you mean?" asked Karone sharply.
"Oshra's curse", said Zhane simply. "She cursed Kaylan – and all his dynasty – that their looks will mirror their hearts. Why can't Ecliptor be Kaylan's descendant?"
"There's no reason why not", said Andros quietly. "Oshra loved her twin, despite everything. She'd have loved to bring the family back together like this"
"Speaking of Oshra", said Ecliptor. He staggered to his feet. Ashley shooed off Karone and helped him up; Karone and Zhane supported each other. "Where is her heir?"
"Mourning", said Shiera softly.
Dark Specter died, vanished before her very eyes. For one blissful heartbeat, Melissa's heart soared with happiness at her victory: she made it back home.
Then she sobered. The sorry sight that met her eyes was not the home she remembered. Is this all that's left? She wondered. It would take years to undo this damage. Her eyes wondered around, taking in every little detail and comparing it to her childhood memories. I used to consider my perfect memory a blessing that helped me through many hard days. Now, seeing how far it is from reality, it is more like a curse.
Her eyes fell where the inner garden once was, and filled with tears. Years? It will not take years! I may spend a lifetime trying to recreate the beauty I remember, and still fail. Seeing nothing but the defiled garden, she walked across the clearing. She bended above the soil and picked a handful of it. There was no life in the grains. Try as she might, she could not detect any sign of vitality.
Her hand trembled. Reality finally sank in. She returned home – but not in the way she wished; she may never return home that way.
Her tears fell to the ground. They absorbed in the dead soil without leaving the faintest mark of dampness.
They stood and watched her cry, her body rocking back and forth, as none of them dared to approach her.
"I forgot", whispered Karone. "She's an Ecomancer. Every Yuria is"
"She's a what?" asked Carlos blankly.
"A mage attuned to the ecosystem", explained Zhane. "It basically means that she's hurting together with the planet; as if it's not enough just to see this", he added bitterly.
"Doesn't it mean that she can heal it, too?" asked Shiera.
"Apparently not", said Andros. "Even mages have their limits"
"Even if all of you guys worked together, like you just did?", insisted Shiera.
"Even if we worked together", answered Karone.
Ashley looked up at the clouded sky. "What an awful weather for a victory", she said.
"She's strong, she'll make it", said Ecliptor.
Zhane's lips quirked in something akin to a smile. "You know, it feels awfully wrong to call you Ecliptor"
Ecliptor considered this. "It is wrong", he said. "I'm no longer a bringer of darkness"
"You are Hurán", said Karone, "The chain-breaker"
How long she sobbed, she did not know. Each second was as infinite as the one it followed. Her tears fell, not one by one but in streams, and still absorbed without a mark.
A hand touched her shoulder.
Looking up, startled, she saw a stranger, a man with lined armor and highlighted hair. She stared at him, not recognizing, until he spoke.
"It's alright to cry", he said. "It would have been wrong if you didn't"
It was the voice that she recognized, for it hasn't changed with his transformation.
"It's good that you live", she said, eyes wondering into the landscape, "But I find it hard to be happy about anything right now"
"Were you happy, even for one moment?" he asked tenderly. His hand was still on her shoulder.
She closed her eyes as even more tears welled up in them. "I was. Then I saw that the greatest struggle lies ahead of me, not behind"
"Greater, yes, but not necessarily harder", said Hurán.
"How?" she questioned.
"You are not hunted anymore. You are not lonely and isolated. You have family, and friends, and allies: who will not aid in healing this planet?"
"There's no life in the soil", she said, getting up but not dusting her hands. "I've felt it".
He tried to pull her closer, but she resisted.
"Let me hold you", he said. "You've been too strong for too long"
See may have tried to protest, but her throat was blocked with tears.
He wrapped his arms about her, rocking her gently, as the years of sorrow were poured into tears on the sand.
"It ain't fair", said Zhane. He was leaning so close to Karone that it looked as if their bodies merged together.
"Let's worry about fairness later, shall we?" she asked. "Just being is enough for the moment"
"Look", said Carlos suddenly.
"What about?" asked Ashley.
Carlos held out his hand and, in a few seconds, they all saw what he meant.
A slow smile stretched across Shiera's face. "You think it's her doing?"
"If not, it only makes it more beautiful, don't you think?" he answered.
Ashley held out both her hand, awestruck. "Guess I was wrong about the weather", she said.
"Who would've thought it's a good sign?" agreed Andros.
Smiling, Ashley held out her fingertips for Andros to check out. "Isn't it amazing?", she asked.
"It is", he agreed, and before she could say anything more, he kissed her fingertips, effectively stopping her breath.
For a moment they locked their gazes, then they leaned closer to each other, lips touching and opening.
"Melissa". Hurán nudged Melissa's shoulder. "Melissa, look"
She lifted her face from his shoulder, looked around her, and then back at him. "Can it be?", she mouthed, and then asked aloud: "Can it really be?"
"It can; it is"
Karone's laughter bubbled merrily. "Oh, isn't it wonderful?"
"I like your laughter better", said Zhane.
"Flirt", she accused, still laughing. Her mind spoke different words, though, and when Zhane spoke, she knew that he heard her, for he said: "I love you too, princess"
Raindrops fell, large and fat: they dangled from Shiera's locks, soaked Zhane's hair, added their sweetness to Andros and Ashley's first kiss, mixed with Melissa's tears.
Raindrops fell, more and more of them. They dangled from rooftops and broken branches; they gathered in puddles and long-dried river beds; they spilled unto the ground and were absorbed in it as soon as they touched, for the soil's thirst was beyond measure. And as the rain fell, its mark became apparent, and moisture showed on the ground.
Raindrops fell, a true sign of life's victory.
And here we (almost) end the "Shadow Line" trilogy. This series was very special for me to write, and I hope it was special to you too.
A couple of special thanks: Rach and Akasha – who've been there when I started and made some extremely helpful comments about grammer (I never thanked you, did I?); Rene – for keeping company and for her stories; Shy-Shadow Reckless and archmore – who dropped in just when I was willing to give up; Crystal Raven – for constant and enthusiastic reviews that often made me blush; Mara Aoife – for reviewing and beta'ing; Danny – for being there.
And a very special thank-you for Roie, for being a great friend, pointing me to plot holes and helping me fix them, and for the actual upload of more chapters than you know.
Thank you all.