Everyone looked at Fret, who appeared uncomfortable again. "Sorry…" he mumbled, "Just thinking of things I hadn't thought about in a long time. Why were we reading my old journal again, anyway?"
"Your reaction to seeing your old armor, and why you locked it away in the first place," Erin reminded gently.
"Ahhh… yeah… Wyl, I want you to know that I don't mind you having my old armor. I just wasn't prepared to see it again, especially not on you."
"I take it I remind you of yourself in it?"
"Wyl," explained Erin, "I know you've had people tell you most of your life how much you look like your dad, but if we could somehow stand you up here right now next to Fret in that same armor from 17 years ago… no one would be able to tell you two apart. So that has all of us a bit out of sorts, your dad especially. I have a feeling though the other part about the armor will be explained by your mom when she gets back."
The younger Asad spoke up. "In the Hall of Heroes in the royal palace there is a portrait Lord Fret in that same armor, battling an enemy mage on the castle parapet. Wyl looks just like him in that picture."
"Nuh uh, no way…" said Fret, scoffing playfully. "Just drop the 'Lord' stuff right now, kid."
The adults at the table laughed in response. "I am sorry children," Chrodechild chuckled, "We should have reminded you that Fret does not have much use for formal titles. But yes, that portrait is of him, depicting his leading the forces to reclaim our kingdom from the Order of the One True Way. We may never have gotten our home back if not for Fret. Even if he has always refused to take credit for it, I shall never forget what he did for us."
"Chrodechild…" he groaned.
Asad raised his hand, smiling. "Just accept the compliment, Fret. You've always been too selfless for your own good."
"Fine…" he groused, scowling playfully again before breaking into a grin. "Just don't go turning it into some stage play or something."
Chrodechild and Asad glanced at each other, chuckling nervously. Fret groaned again at their reaction, knowing it was already too late. "You're killing me…"
Marica returned carrying a short stack of carefully folded parchment. "Fret, I thought about it on the way back down. Can I let Jale or Erin read it out loud? I know me, I'm absolutely going to cry during it," she admitted sheepishly.
Fret chuckled, nodding wordlessly.
"Uh oh, if it's crying worthy you'd better give it to Jale and not me," said Erin in jest. Marica laughed, handing the journal over to Jale and taking a seat in Fret's lap, wrapping her arms around his neck and resting her head on top of his while pressing his head into the crook of her neck.
Jale cleared his throat and began to read.
Where to start? Maybe with how it's Erin's fault that I'm writing this in the first place? She suggested that organizing and writing down my thoughts about stuff would help me get out of this post-war funk I've been in. Marica thought it was a great idea and has been hounding me ever since. Soooo…..
"Time out!" exclaimed Erin. "My fault? You actually wrote that?"
Fret laughed. "Hey, now. No interrupting! I probably said horrible things about everyone back then."
Jale chuckled softly before starting once again to read.
It's been several seasons now since we defeated the One King. With each passing day the bustle around the castle grows less and less. At first, other than the groups that had a definite home to return to, most of the Starbearers were excited to stay on and keep Cherem Company going. But as the weeks and seasons have passed, many have grown restless and are moving on. I suppose it is to be expected, there is no longer a common goal to keep us united, and there are only so many job requests coming in to keep people busy. Still, it makes me sad at times to see what we had falling apart. Saying goodbye to some Starbearers is harder than others, but I almost wish that everyone still here that was going to leave would go ahead and go, as if having them all leave at once would be less painful than this steady trickling out the door.
Some of the first groups to leave were ones that I had the strongest bonds with. The Blades of Night's Veil along with Asad's mage army crew returned to Pharamond a couple of days after getting back from the final battle. It was important to resume the rule of Astrasia, and they were going to be leading the rebuilding of Cynas, but it still hurt watching them leave so soon. I know Chrodechild will be a great queen though. She's been a great leader as long as I've known her, and I think I've rubbed off on her in a good way in understanding and relating to people. One of my favorite memories of her will always be when in Salsabil she finally allowed herself to loosen up and be silly, even if she did threaten to kill me on that trip! That was also the trip when matchmaker Erin succeeded in getting her and Asad together. Those two are great together, and he should be able to keep a reign on those uptight tendencies of hers. I expect them to get married as soon as things settle back down in Pharamond. More than anything I hope we stay close as the years pass. I'll never forget that it was Chrodechild and Asad that led the Magedom forces that saved our skin at the beginning of our adventures, offering their help when Fergus and Conon were about to kill us on the way back from Cynas the first time, and then offering to help defend Citro without expecting anything in return. They've been great mentors and friends ever since.
The Furious Roar left early on for Cragbark, which was also expected. I know they made do as best they could with the food selection in this region and were excited to return to hunting Pekklar on the Marsinah Plains, but I miss their companionship. Diulf and Lycia especially, even if she did try to kill me once. Is there some kinda pattern with females wanting to kill me? I'd better ask Marica… (she says yes, and that I should write that "it's only because I deserve it." Hmph!). I'll never forget Servillah and Lycia catching up with us in the dead of night to make sure we were alright during the desert world fusion on the way to El-Qaral. Mostly I'll never forget Cougar, the first non-human friend I ever had. Unless you count Liu of course. I've never figured out if the Scribes are human or not. They look human, but they talk down about humans like they aren't human themselves. I should probably just ask Liu one of these days.
Speaking of Liu, he and Len-Lien are still here, but it's only a matter of time before they go to join Luo-Tao and the others. He hasn't said anything specific to me about returning to the Scribe village, but I know he has to go take up his role as Elder Scribe before long. Liu has been with me through thick and thin for 5 years now, maybe he's dreading going our separate ways as much as I am. I suspect when he does leave that we'll talk about staying close but won't. The Scribes are traditionally very secretive and live isolated from the rest of the world, and I don't see Liu changing that. He's a great friend and very smart, but his leadership skills are suspect. I'm just not sure that he won't give into pressure from the old guard and go back to their old ways. I wish he didn't have to go. I hope he and Len-Lien have a long, happy life together though.
The Porpos-kin returned to Naineneis at the same time the Furious Roar left. The Auster Folk left the same day, making it the biggest exodus we experienced. A few days later the Ritterschild trio left, along with the Starbearers from the Empire of the North Star. Shams, Manaril, Mubal, and Nuzhat went back to Salsabil after a season. I'm kinda glad they took the Dreambeast machine with them. I didn't want to hurt Nuzhat's feelings (if that's even possible), but training against illusions that can kill you wasn't my idea of a good time. Shams will be a good king when he eventually takes over for his dad. For a young guy he's wise beyond his years. I hope Mana finds happiness in something other than playing sidekick to her brother. I heard she's going to teach mage arts at an academy in Salsabil. Hopefully cranky old Nuzhat doesn't crush her spirit.
Many of the smaller groups and individuals have left gradually. The latest to leave were the Dromon Pirates, who took off the other day. I really liked those guys. I'll always remember Xebec teaching us how to throw knives. At the time I did it to humor Marica and because it just sounded like fun. Little did I know how important that skill would become.
Sometimes I lay awake at night and wonder what the future holds for us. Will I awaken one day and the only ones left here are Marica and me? Will we even stay at that point? I can't see us going back to live in Citro Village, our lives have changed too much. Jale and Erin are getting married soon, will they stay here or move to Grayridge? I'm afraid to ask. Erin is as close to a sister as I've got, I love her to death. And other than Marica, the person I most can't imagine missing from my life is Jale. The absolute worst part of our adventures was when I almost ruined our friendship by blabbing to Erin that Jale was in love with her in front of them and Marica, then followed that up with making Marica so mad at me the she left for another world right before a huge battle to recover stolen Chronicles from the Order. And after she returned days later I was convinced that she was done with me. I ended up having to trick Jale into trying to kill me to get him to forgive me. I'm still half surprised Marica didn't finish the job at the end.
I've never told anyone this, but after I left Marica's room crushed that day and then got told off yet again by Jale immediately afterwards, I went to my room and ripped off my sky blue armor and threw it on the bed along with my black blades. I grabbed my old red leather armor and cudgel out of the closet, the same gear I started the adventure with. I suppose I was trying to be dramatic about throwing away everything I'd gained in my adventures, already feeling like I threw away my friends. Bah, maybe I really am as emo as my friends tease me about being. After dressing I scribbled out a quick "I'm sorry for everything, good luck and goodbye" note that I left on the table, and prepared to walk out the door and never come back. I guess I figured someone else would take over leading Cherem Company and I'd just do my own thing solo against the Order, at least until I got myself killed. Not that I really cared either away about living or dying right then. As I turned to walk out the door I looked at my cudgel and remembered that Elder Rajim gave it to me, which reminded me of Marica. So I threw it on the floor and walked out empty handed. I vividly recall arriving downstairs and seeing Liu, Len-Lien, Erin, and Buchse in the entrance hall, and realized that I'd completely forgotten I had already committed to meeting them for a mission, and that my parting shot to Jale before storming off was for him to gear up and be downstairs in 30 minutes (I might have had a few curse words in the original phrasing of it). When it quickly became apparent that Jale had stood me up and had Buchse take his place, I got so mad that I forgot all about intending to leave in the first place and chased after Jale, leading to the fight and to having him, Erin, and Marica forgive me. It's hard to imagine just how different things would've have turned out if I did leave that day.
"Dude… this is getting a little awkward here," admitted Jale as he paused and looked up from the pages in his hands.
Fret nodded. "I'd forgotten all the stuff I rambled about. Anyway, it is what it is. Go ahead and keep reading."
I suppose one of the biggest differences if I'd left is that Marica wouldn't be pregnant with my child right now. We only found out a week ago, and we haven't told anyone yet. Only Eunice knows, she's the one that confirmed it for us. It's killing us to keep it a secret, but Jale and Erin are getting married next week and we don't want our news to take any attention away from them. They deserve to have everyone focused on them on their day. We'll tell our family and friends a few days after Jale and Erin are off on their honeymoon, and tell them when they get back. I wonder what kind of dad I'll be. Will I be a cool dad that kids love doing stuff with? Will I bust them on all their schemes because anything they can come up with I've already pulled as a kid? Ugh! It's official, I'm scared. I can only hope we have another Marica and not another me. We've already decided that if we have a boy we'll name him Wyl, and if it's a girl it will be Bria, after Marica's mom.
"Ha!" Asad interrupted. "Little did you know then that you were actually going to have twins."
Fret and Marica laughed. "Guess it was good we had both names picked out," Marica said, grinning.
Jale resumed reading.
What happens when two Starbearers have children, anyway? Will our children inherit any of that? I guess it's too late to have one of the other couples be the test subjects on that one.
After talking with the others, we've made the decision to put the remaining Chronicles in the basement and seal it off. Some day someone will no doubt find them, but for now it seems like the safest thing to do. They have no more use for us Starbearers, and the war with the Order is still too fresh for us not to be concerned about them falling into the wrong hands. Tuhululu asked if there are always only 108 Starbearers, does it mean that when a Starbearer dies their star moves on to someone else in the world. We don't know how exactly it works, but that sounds reasonable. So then the little bastard asked what's to stop someone evil from getting a hold of one or more Chronicles and then killing off Starbearers that won't do what he wants until he gets the stars transferred to people who will follow. It sounds ridiculous, but it stirred up a surprising amount of concern from a number of Starbearers. That's another reason we're locking the Chronicles away, to protect the Starbearers from being targeted.
I told Marica that when we seal away the Chronicles in the basement, I'm putting the sky blue armor in with them. She wasn't happy with me for it, and me being me I made her even madder by suggesting the only reason she cared was that she got turned on by seeing me in it. After she calmed down she told me that while that was true, it wasn't why she was upset. She said she was upset because I was running from my problems rather than dealing with them. Maybe she's right, but this is just easier. When Jale, Marica, and I originally found the chest with the armor in it while exploring the castle, we had no idea where it came from or the significance behind it. Jale gave it to me to wear simply because it fit me and not him, and I wore it because it looked cool and was a heck of a lot nicer than the armor I had at the time. After I'd put it on, we all remembered the guy we saw in the vision from Shining Legacy, and that he was wearing something similar. But we didn't know who the guy was, or what the vision was about. We hadn't even heard of the One King at that point.
We learned a lot more along the way about the visions and what was going on, and when our friend Atrie came to visit from his world a little while later he told us that the armor belonged to his friend, the guy he used to come and visit in this very castle. The guy that none of us could explain what had happened to, because the castle just kind of showed up in place of the ruins during a world fusion. Atrie said I kinda looked like the guy, except his friend was much older. I didn't think much of it at the time. Slowly though the clues began to come together. Leading up to the siege of Cynas and taking out the old kook, Valfred, Atrie told me more about his older friend that had lived at the castle and wore the sky blue armor. He told me that the man and his wife had a son, but that the baby was lost in some kind of freak accident with a gateway portal. I had never told Atrie my background. He knew that I was unable to use the gateways to travel to other worlds, but I'd never said that the Wanderers told me it meant I wasn't from this world. And I didn't tell him that I was found as a baby and raised in Citro Village, and that no one knew where I came from. So what Atrie didn't realize was that he casually devastated me with the news that his friend he used to visit in this castle was my birth father! I only vaguely remember staggering into the tavern in a haze after leaving Atrie and then waking up in the medical clinic in the middle to the night to find Marica and Erin sitting up watching over me. They filled me in that I'd sat down at the bar and freaked out Logan and Erin, babbling and not making sense. Logan apparently threw me over his shoulder and carried me up to Zahra's. They thought I'd snapped under the pressure of being asked to potentially sacrifice the other 107 Starbearers in a massive unit attack to defeat the One King, a unite attack that would only leave one star left alive – me.
It wasn't until the next night that I actually snapped though. According to Marica I thrashed around quite a bit in my sleep. She said she just held me and cried, scared for me and scared about dying if I united all of the stars. She knew I was having nightmares about it, that sacrificing everyone went against everything I believed in, even if it was the only way to defeat the One King. I remember waking up in a cold sweat screaming in terror. We'd had all the pieces from the various Chronicles, but they were all jumbled out of order and seen over many seasons. In my nightmares it was like putting together the puzzle, and I finally saw all of the visions from all of the Chronicles pieced together into a complete picture. Zenoa had once said something in passing that had nothing to do with Starbearers, and suddenly those words echoed over the visions I saw, over and over in my head like the tolling of a bell – "Where there are many stars, the future holds many possibilities. Where there is but one star, only one future remains." Suddenly it all made sense, the One King was the result of combining all of a world's 108 stars. The One King was the Tenkai Star that was left! And every time a world attacked the current One King that way and won, the Tenkai Star became the new One King. One star, one king, one future.
That would have been great if that's all I figured out. But from the vision from Shining Legacy I knew… I knew that the man in the sky blue armor… the Tenkai Star of his world… my birth father… was the One King. I knew my birth father wasn't strong enough to resist the urge to unite all 108 stars, and that he became the One King as a result. I cried in pity for him, I screamed in hatred for him. Marica stayed up with me the whole night consoling me, trying to hold me together. As much as I drive her crazy, I hope she knows how much I need her. She's better than I deserve. I talked it over with Liu, Marica, and Jale the next morning, telling them that we were definitely not combining all the stars. We were going to fight the One King straight up with all we had. Liu suggested that we keep the part about the One King being my father a secret, saying it was an unnecessary detail that could cause more problems than it was worth if other people knew. I was skeptical and wanted to at least tell the people closest to me, but when the others agreed with him I went along with it. I was too emotionally shot to argue anyway. The only compromise was that I insisted Erin know because I didn't want Jale stuck in a bad situation with us having to keep the secret from her. It would have just been awkward to have to be careful what was said around her. I told Liu he should tell Len-Lien as well, but he disagreed. He said that they rarely talked about personal stuff like that involving other people. I guess the Scribes are weird in that way. To this day the 5 of us are the only ones that know the truth about the One King and me.
The battle went on as planned, and the combined forces of Cherem Company plus the Starbearers from Atrie's world and the other Marica's world took down the One King. I'm happy that we saved our worlds and the Infinity, but it's hard not to have some regret about the whole thing, even though I couldn't have done anything to save him. At times I still have stray thoughts about him, trying to humanize the One King back into my father. I wonder if my birth mother was a Starbearer as well and threw away her life needlessly. Or did he just kill her along with the rest of their world. I wonder if anything would have been different if I hadn't been lost to them. Would I have given him the extra strength he needed to resist sacrificing the other Starbearers? Did losing me cause him to give up hope? I know I shouldn't feel this way, even without my friends telling me I shouldn't, but in some ways I feel guilty. About being related to the person that caused so much destruction as the One King. About my possible role in him making the decision that resulted in him becoming the One King in the first place. About hiding it from almost everyone. About not being able to save him and having to kill him. I feel guilty about feeling so guilty about a father I never knew, like having these strong feelings is somehow disrespectful to my "real" dad, Elder Rajim. Like I'm giving the birth father I never knew too much importance and not giving Elder Rajim enough. Strangely enough, the guilt I no longer feel is for the death of Kaari. It's like saving the world validated her sacrifice for me. Maybe I should feel guilty for no longer feeling guilty.
Even as the final battle details fade from most of our memories, I'm having a hard time gaining "closure" as Erin puts it. I know that's why she suggested I write all this down. Putting on the sky blue armor now often gives me flashbacks of the vision of Shining Legacy, where I see my father in the armor, standing in front of the One King with a defiant glare before shouting and charging forward in the unite attack. That image barely fades before I see his face in the garb of the One King. It makes it hard for me to focus when I'm wearing the armor, and I know my companions sense there's something wrong with me. Marica tries to be a rock for me, but she knows as well as I do that it's something only I can get through. Knowing that the presence of the sky blue armor triggers so many of these haunting thoughts, like it or not I think it's for the best if I seal it away with the Chronicles. I'll just wear the Hero Armor I got in the Statue of the One King, it's better armor anyway. I know locking the sky blue armor won't make me forget about it, and I know that I'm not really solving the problem as much as avoiding it. Maybe years from now when the One King no longer haunts me I'll dig it back out and wear it again. Or maybe I'll pass it on to our kids. Either way, I just feel like I need to be away from the sky blue armor for now. For how long, I don't know.
I don't know what the future holds for me. Hopefully many years of happiness with Marica and our children, other family, and friends. People joke with me about it, but it really does feel weird being 17 years old and knowing I'll never accomplish anything greater in my life than what I've already done. Or knowing that in close to two years fighting the Order of the One True Way I've accumulated a magnificent castle for a home, an amazing wife, and more potch than I could spend even if I lived to be 100. What does a teenager who doesn't want for anything and who has accomplished everything do with the rest of their life?
Many seasons ago Marica and I joked about living to see our 50th anniversary, and about our kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids gathering around and begging for us to tell the story of saving the world from the One King for the thousandth time. At the time it sounded like the most obvious thing to be proud of and want to retell over and over. I have to admit, right now I wonder how long it will be before I retell the story even once. You read about heroes in storybooks doing amazing things, but the stories always end right after the hero saves the day. You never find out how going through something so life altering changes them. You don't realize how much they suffer for it, where even in victory and with the world celebrating them, they just wish for it to go away and for things to go back to how they used to be. You don't realize that being singled out and tugged on everywhere they go wears on them, that the fame isn't all it's cracked up to be, and that sometimes the hero just wants to a regular guy and not constantly reminded that he isn't. Unless, of course, you're the Hero. And then you understand that saving the world comes at a cost that runs deeper than simply living and dying. And on the best days you smile and feel proud of what you accomplished. And on the worst days you selfishly wish you hadn't. And so you live on, drawing strength from those you love and those who love you, and hope you have many more best days than worst days.
Fret, on the 21st day of Sprout season, 108 days after the fall of Cynas and the One King
Jale finished reading, quietly refolding the pages and setting them down on the table in front of him. For a couple of minutes no one spoke as they all thought about what Jale had read. Finally, Fret couldn't take the awkwardness and broke the ice.
"So who all's up for slitting their wrists after that uplifting story?" he asked with mock excitement. No one laughed, though Asad at least smiled politely.
"Does at least help if I tell you guys I'm not nearly as much of a head case now as I was when I wrote that stuff?"
"It's been almost 16 years, dude, I'd hope not," said Jale, forcing a grin. "But seriously… wow… even I didn't know about how much you went through back then."
"I-I cannot believe the One King was your father," whispered Chrodechild hoarsely in disbelief.
Asad hung his head slightly. "My friend, you should have let us help you after it was all over. You did not need to continue carrying that burden."
"D-dad…" said Wyl softly, guilt weighing heavily on his mind, "When mom went upstairs to get the journal, you said that you were thinking about some things you hadn't thought about in a long time. D-did me wearing this armor cause you to have flashbacks about your father and the One King again?"
Fret nodded solemnly. "I hadn't seen that vision in a lot of years." He admitted softly, "I've seen it a few times tonight since you first entered the tavern." Smiling weakly at Marica, he said, "I guess you were right after all, hun, avoiding the issue didn't resolve it, it only put off dealing with it." She hugged him tighter.
"Dad, I'm sorry!" cried Wyl. "I'll go change and put this armor back downstairs…"
Fret shook his head. "You will not feel guilty, Wyl. You had no way of knowing. I will get over my problem, it's not your fault I didn't listen to your mom and deal with it before you were born." Smiling genuinely, Fret added, "Besides, you look pretty damn cool in it. Almost as cool as I did!" This time everyone did laugh at his joke, even though his friends knew Fret was just being Fret and trying to lighten the mood.
"Hey! Almost?" asked Wyl, "I thought you guys said I look just like you did?"
"Yeah, but you aren't me, so that costs you some coolness points right off the top," replied Fret, grinning wickedly. Wyl grinned back, relieved to see his dad's mood improving.
Chrodechild added, "It is one thing to go around looking like a legend, but it is another to fight like him. You have your work cut out for you, do you think you are up to the challenge?"
Wyl nodded. "I am, Queen Chrodechild. I want to do this, I want to follow in dad's footsteps. I may never have to save the world, but I want to be worthy of his legacy, and to establish a worthy legacy of my own."
"Worthy goals, indeed," agreed Chrodechild. "Perhaps one day you will make a fine commander of the Blades of Night's Veil yourself."
Wyl's eyes grew wide as possibilities of the future danced through his head. He glanced down at his hand, still intertwined with Hildegard's. "Commander of the Blades of Night's Veil and with a beautiful princess for a wife," he thought to himself.
Hildegard saw Wyl's head turn, and glanced up. She made eye contact right as Wyl was thinking about her as his future mate. She instantly caught what he didn't even intend to communicate to her but had anyway, and she gulped in realization that she knew without a doubt she was looking into the eyes of her husband-to-be.
The wordless exchange didn't go unnoticed by the adults, even at this late hour. They all smiled at each other knowingly. Fret and Marica, Jale and Erin, Asad and Chrodechild. Each husband and wife looked at each other, and looked at their respective children. Without saying anything, they all understood. Their own parts in the story had largely been told, but their children's stories were just beginning. And their futures burned brightly, thanks to the reluctant leader and his motley crew of Starbearers that had given the world its future back.
Fret, the leader who never asked to lead, the hero who never asked to be the hero, would wake later that day in his wife's arms, and she would see the special gleam in his eyes that had been missing for far too long. And when she asked him about it, he would tell her that he'd finally been able to lay his demons to rest, he was free. That tomorrow for him was no longer going to be his personal future without a future, bound to the past and always on the run from it in his mind. Because at last he fully embraced that the future they'd given back to the world was his too. And when they cried together right then, the tears were of joy. And that 50th anniversary gathering and retelling the tale of saving the world from the One King no longer seemed so farfetched. Because where there were many stars, many possibilities existed. And where many possibilities existed, you'd never know how things were going to turn out until you tried.
AN: With this, we have finally reached the end. I hope those of you who stuck around until the end enjoyed reading the story as much as I enjoyed writing it. Special thanks to those that have reviewed, sent me PMs, or favorited the story. And thanks to everyone who took the time to read it.