(Aww yeah! I'm done! I'm done! Wheee! This is the last chapter of this story. I wrote it over the course of a few days, and I just finished it now (late at night), so it might be a bit scattered. I hope it'snot, though! Make sure to tell me what you think, and enjoy!)
"Everyone! They're here!"
As soon as the shout rang out, the mumbling villagers grew perfectly silent. The only audible sound was that of the driving rain as everyone strained their eyes in the darkness, trying to catch a glimpse of their returning heroes. The rain beat on the landscape, building suspense like a giant drum.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, the slightest clattering of wheels could be heard through the rain. Two big, lumpy forms hulked into view. The noise grew steadily louder and the black silhouettes grew steadily bigger until one of the shapes could be recognized as a cold, fatigued, sullen papaopamus, shuffling through the muddy path with downcast eyes. When the crowd could identify the other form, so much cheering erupted that its volume made the very miasma balk.
There were the heroes, thoroughly soaked by the fearsome downpour. Ter Van, settled at the driver's seat, raised a tired hand and grinned as people roared with welcome. Caliphen, whose cream-and-brown fur was slicked wet against his skin, and Anne, dressed in clothes so soggy they sagged nearly to the ground, waved as well, looking utterly bedraggled. Elga bounced into sight from behind the caravan, the rain making little chiming noises against her armor.
Everyone was relieved to have their saviors back home again.
The special four were drawn into a huge circle of friends and loved ones who congratulated them and fussed incessantly over them. Ter Van peered over his little brother's head and saw Ralthia, his own sweet Rallie, watching cautiously. He took a half-step towards her, but she took a full two steps back, shaking her head. Ter Van was insulted at first, itching to know what had happened to her. Then the truth smacked into him like an accident that had never meant to be.
Ralthia must have read the expression on his face, because she nodded once and turned away, striding to her brother. Suddenly, everything in Ter Van's world drained away. He couldn't see anything but Rallie, drowning in a sea of either memories or perceptions of the future. Which, he couldn't tell.
In that blur of emotion, of glinting metal and soft wings, Ter Van felt like washing away, vanishing deep into the earth like the rainwater that dripped from his lunar-hued hair. He had fought so many battles, both physical and emotional, and he had fought them for her. But now…
All of his accomplishments had been wiped away.
Desperately, he struggled through the rest of the evening. He needed one chance, one opening, one opportunity to talk to her, and then maybe he could fix this thing that had been done. His sharp Selkic senses were tuned to the sight of her, her voice, even her scent. Yet she was nowhere to be found.
Miraculously, the heavy rain cleared up soon after the caravanners arrived, as if nature itself were celebrating the occasion. The moon shone with acute sharpness, not gold but burning white, and the stars that twinkled around it were whiter still. Despite all this brilliant dazzling light, the night sky was blacker than oblivion, darker than a thousand ravens roosting in the clouds. The air was pure and thin. People were milling around outside deep into the night, stargazing, conversing, and reveling in the return of Tipa's own heroes. Even the shops were open late.
Ter Van literally spent hours wandering around the shadowy little town. He would be stopped every now and again by someone who wished to congratulate him on his achievements. Ter Van would thank them, but every time, he thought to himself, What achievements? The one thing I fought the hardest for is…lost.
His useless meanderings brought him at last to the high cliff on the edge of town. It stood rigidly above a sprawling green meadow, purple in the moonlight, with the occasional tree or patch of pastel-colored flowers. The colors and shapes of everything were warped this late at night, and Ter Van was thinking that everything seemed so dizzy that he might be dreaming when Ralthia appeared.
She seemed to come from nowhere. She materialized in the darkness, an endless mystery in and of herself. Ter Van looked at her and he barely even recognized her, he was so drunk with fatigue and pure disbelief. "So it's true," he said, ever so slightly slurring his words. "You're getting married."
Ralthia flinched at the bold, straightforward way he said it. "Yes," she murmured. "It has been…decided." Ter Van looked up at Rallie's face, wondering what kind of eyes peered back at him from under the bright helmet, and whispered, "There's no way to…" "No," Ralthia cut in. "Yukish law is very strict." They both fell silent. Neither one had any idea what to say. It was almost as if the love between them was starting to warp, unsure and cryptic as the night around them.
Then Ter Van shocked them both by saying, "Let's get away from here." Ralthia became rigid. "What…? What do you mean?"
"I mean what I say. Let's run away from Tipa. Together."
Ralthia stiffened even more, then slowly backed away from her beloved Selkie. "No, no, no. No way. I cannot…I mean, it would not…I…"
Even through her hesitant stammers, it was obvious that she wanted to escape just as badly as Ter Van did. Ter Van looked at her with a radiance like pride, only more regal and more fierce. It could only be described as determination. Nothing could stop him now.
Madly thinking of a sensible way out of the situation, Ralthia crossed her long arms. "Well, it seems like you have forgotten, but we're surrounded by miasma. How in the world would we…"
"There's always the back-up Chalice."
Ralthia became silent as she pictured the town's extra Crystal Chalice, their assurance of survival in case anything should happen to the original Chalice. She went on a mental journey, tracing from memory the path to Roland's home, going out back to the entrance of the tiny lean-to behind his house. She remembered seeing the Chalice there many times before, guarded only by a lazy row of horizontal iron bars that anyone could get through. Up till then, nobody had really wanted to steal the Chalice; to do away with it was to do away with Tipa's last hope. Not to mention the punishment for the Chalice's theft was extremely harsh…
"Ter Van," she said blankly, "you know the penalty for a robbery like that." Ter Van nodded quite matter-of-factly, his eyes dancing wildly. "Yeah, yeah, the person who's caught with it is sentenced to death. Whatever. By the time everyone figures out what hit them, we'll be miles away."
"Miles away and wanted for stealing."
"That's what name-changing is for. We could have completely new identities."
For the second time in that frenzied conversation, Ralthia could find no words. She knew that Ter Van was like dry tinder: once an idea caught within him, it blazed furiously until it could be quenched. He was…like that, and he always had been. Some would call it passionate; most would call it stubborn. Ralthia lowered her great inhuman head. "But," she said, hardly more than a whisper, "but…you're asking me to elope, and I haven't even touched you yet."
Something in Ter Van's face softened. She's right, you know. Don't be so rash. Maybe it had been a bad idea to propose this crazy plan, but now that he had started, he couldn't stop. Ignoring little plagues of fearful contortions, echoes of the fact he hadn't completely come to grips with loving a Yuke, he said, "Well, touch me now."
At first, Ralthia shrank back a bit. The words had come out suspiciously like a challenge. Quite frankly, Ralthia was intimidated by the raw splendor before her, the silver-blue blur that occupied her every dream. He had always seemed so unreachable, so untouchable, so out of the question that she could not help but want him. But now that his heart was within sight, what could she do?
No option seemed more right than to oblige his request. With shaking hands, she reached out to his face.
Her touch was tentative at first. Her finger first alighted on his cheek, staying very briefly before moving to his silky hair. Carefully, as if Ter Van would break if she made a wrong move, Ralthia tucked the stray lunar strands behind his ear. Her hand left him for a moment, and in that moment, the Selkie boy felt more tired than ever. It felt as if, somehow, those great, smooth hands had stolen energy from his very core.
Then, without warning, Ralthia put both large hands on Ter Van's face. The great striped digits swept like cracked suede across his cheeks, his brow, his nose, soaking up the heat that rose to his skin due to his awkward embarrassment. Rallie's hands moved feverishly, reminiscent of the desperate touch of a blind woman.
It seemed like Ralthia was memorizing each and every aspect of his face when her hands suddenly dropped to her sides. Ter Van's mind was still catching up with the events of the past few moments, and thus, he was rendered speechless. The two watched each other in a slightly detached manner, as if they were on different sides of glass. The moon hung above like a mirror's silver backing that had escaped its glass, and it seemed every star was threatening to fall, to burn the world below into a charred fantasy of senselessness, when—
The invisible boundary fell apart. It didn't even bother to shatter…it just slipped away, disappeared. No longer were they looking through blurry dream-lenses of eyes; now both of them seemed closer to their lives than ever.
Even though her face was concealed by bronze, Ter Van could miraculously tell that Ralthia was smiling. "All right," she said quietly. "Let us get going. If we're going to do this, let us go now."
A few meager belongings and just enough food to last a week or two had been gathered in the haste of darkness. The tattered edges of the horizon were already drunk with pre-dawn purple. It was time for Ralthia and Ter van to leave.
Ter Van hugged the bags of goods close, slinging one over his shoulder. He glanced over to see Rallie—his Rallie, now—cradling the stolen Chalice in her long arms, seeming to worship its fragility and the immense possibilities it held. "Ready?" he asked, and she nodded without the slightest quaver of hesitation.
Turning around, they gazed at the little sleeping town of Tipa for what could have been the last time. "Good-bye, Tipa," Ralthia half-said, half-chanted. "You have been good to us, but now it is time we fled the nest." Ter Van simply nodded and smiled at the one most unlikely girl to ever win his heart.
And yet…somehow, she had won it.
"Let's go." He shifted the bag on his shoulder and took one step. Ralthia, also, took a stride forward, and Ralthia said, "The first step to a new life."
The sun was coming up now, and new beginnings swam thick in the honeyed air. The wind tossed gently along, somehow granting the couple with confidence equal to that of any warrior or king. Their love would surely flourish now, and what grows from love this untainted and true, anyone could say. The horizon lay endless in their future, holding infinite lands and dreams. "Yeah," said Ter Van, looking into the sunrise. "A new life just for us."
(Sooo...there's room for another sequel, if need be. Got the trilogy thing going on, I guess. I want to thank everyone who read (and reviewed!) this. Special thanks to regular readers like Korean Boron and The One True Koneko! All the support--from all of you out there--has helped me tons. Now, until next time...ciao! --Topaz Fox)