Terra Incognita—The Last Chapter

This, at last, is the end.  For those of you who have read this far, or will at some later date read this far, I thank you and hope it has been worth your time.  I enjoyed writing this story, but most of all I enjoyed finishing it, as doing so proved to me that I had the discipline necessary to write novels.  It may not be a great story, or well told, but it will always have a special place in my heart.  You always remember your first, they say.

So, thanks again for following Marcus and Heather.  I hope you enjoyed it.

Chapter 18

After the foul-smelling air of the Necromancer’s tower—Erasmus’s tower—the gentle wind of Glenfold assaulted him with its freshness and purity. Even as he sat next to the great fountain that he and Lorelei used to race to as children, he coughed in fits that left him gasping for air. The elven healers told him that his lungs were trying to force out the contaminants they had taken in during his brief captivity. He found himself wondering as he stared into the lightly churning water how Erasmus had survived so long in such a place, but a thought later he understood. Erasmus had not attained such extraordinary power as what he displayed in his efforts to take over the land of Terra without paying a price. His soul? Yes, Marcus knew, that had been included in the bargain, but also his physical body had suffered, as evidenced by his radical change of appearance.

Then, there was Lorelei. How had she survived even a short time in such a place of death? Marcus knew he would never know.

Nor, he realized suddenly, did he care.

After teleporting away from the tower with his two friends in tow—one dead and one barely alive—he stepped into the land of Glenfold at a full run, seeking the one person in the land that might yet save Heather. Leaving Wilkey’s body next to the fountain where the halfling and Lorelei had discussed her feelings for Marcus, he ran through the streets and raced up the steps of the royal palace three at a time. The guards at once moved to stop him, but he paralyzed them with a brief wave of his hand, not nearly enough to risk dropping his precious load, but enough to clear his path for the necessary few seconds. By the time the alert was raised, Marcus had entered the Audience Chamber and discovered the horrible truth.

King Lanian, the only hope he had for saving his beloved Heather, had died.

Marcus stood before the empty throne, holding Heather in his arms. He could feel her shallow respiration and the long, too long, pauses in between. Her skin, normally so soft and hot to his touch, felt cold and tight. Her eyes were closed and her slightly parted lips had abandoned their usual red hue for a deep purple.

Marcus looked at the empty throne and his heart broke. Collapsing to his knees, mindless of the impact upon the marble floor, he lay Heather before the throne and sobbed, unable to control his emotions any longer. So much had gone wrong on this quest, yet victory had still been won. The price, though, was more than he could bear.

Dozens of elves poured into the Audience Chamber around him, but he paid them no heed. Only the muffled sounds of voices and footfalls pierced the cloud of grief that surrounded him. He cared not for their conversation, their movements, or their alarm at his sudden entrance. All her cared for in the world, in any world, lay dying before him.

From that point, Marcus found his memory vague and disjointed, like a dream recalled hours after waking. Firm hands had led him from the chamber. He remember struggling against them, furious at their intervention in his mourning. He had stopped short of using his powers against them for their words were comforting, even if he could not hear them. As he was being led out of the room, he turned back and watched several healers place Heather’s limp form on a litter and bear her swiftly out another door.

The elves, members of the royal household that he knew well and not the guards, herded him away from the palace to the great fountain where another host of healers tended to his injuries, binding the wounds as well as he would allow before being sent off to tend to Heather. Seeing the spray of water refracting the light of the sun stirred greatly mixed emotions in him—anger, regret, and sorrow among them. Collapsing against the side of the stone basin, his body shook with wracking sobs that still did not express the depth of grief tearing at his soul. After some minutes, he calmed down enough to take stock of his surroundings. The dozen or so elves surrounding him eyed him closely, their worry obvious on their faces. Marcus steadied himself, thanked them, and apologized, although he had no idea why. He was not sorry for grieving for his loss, a sacrifice that had been made not only for himself, but for them as well. One by one, the elves departed, leaving only their best attempts at comforting words in their wakes.

Hours passed while Marcus stared alone at the water rising, then falling again into the basin before him. The waves of light dancing upon the waves of water might have fascinated him had he been seeing them, but the only image his mind would see was the lifeless form of the woman he loved lying upon cold marble.

He fought against the powerful urge to go to the Halls of Healing, to receive the final, definitive word that Heather was indeed dead. Several elves waited just beyond the common area between him and the lane that would take him to the healers, placed to stop him should he try to interfere. His magic would certainly allow him to bypass them without difficulty, but his rational mind had returned enough to tell him the idea was a poor one, more likely to offend the elves than to be of any help. He knew the knowledge of healing ran deep within the elven culture, but he also knew the limits to that knowledge. The blade that had wounded Heather had nearly killed him and her wound had been graver still. The healers were battling an enemy they could not defeat and Marcus waited only for their surrender.

The sun descended slowly toward the trees and after several hours of staring at its beams bounding off the surface of the water, Marcus decided he had waited long enough for the inevitable news. Taking a deep breath to steady himself, he stood and turned away from the fountain.

What he saw stopped him from taking a single step.

A woman was walking toward him across the grass. At least, the figure approaching had the appearance of a woman, though Marcus knew better. Her long white hair flowed down over her equally white robes, both plain and beautiful in the afternoon sun. Her bare feet moved over the grass, yet not a single blade bent from her passage. With her coming, he became acutely aware of the magic that flowed through him. He could feel it pulling toward her like iron shavings to a magnet. Marcus could see the lovely face and glittering eyes as she drew closer and felt comforted by them, though he could not explain why.

She knows of death, he thought, no one better.

Terra, the embodiment of the land itself, stopped a few feet from him and stood regarding him in silence. Looking beyond her, he saw that the elves assigned to watch him had disappeared.

“You have done well, Marcus,” she said, this time choosing to speak aloud rather than in his mind. “My gratitude is yours.”

Marcus started to tell her that she could keep her gratitude, that he had sacrificed the one thing that meant more to him than her and all the beings that inhabited this land and her gratitude was not enough. Instead, he forced away his anger and nodded. His eyes drifted down to the grass at his feet, afraid to meet the gaze of those intense blue eyes for fear that they would read his anger.

“I felt the need to come in person and thank you for what you have done,” she said, “ not only for the elves, but for all, for had the Necromancer been allowed to conquer here, other worlds, including your own, may have felt his wrath.”

Marcus tried to imagine Erasmus turning his powers upon his world, beginning with the one who lived closest to the portal leading to it—his grandmother. The thought, as unlikely as it seemed, sickened him.

“I also came to repay the debt I owe for your sacrifice,” she continued. “You have risked much and lost much to defend me and my subjects, and I wish to give you something in exchange.”

“Can you give me Heather back?” he asked, tears welling in his eyes again. “That is the only thing I would ask from you.”

“There are some events even I cannot change,” she said gravely. “Death is one of those things, as much a part of me as life. Once bestowed, it is beyond my power to take it away. Only those seeking power apart from that I give have control over it, though even that control is false and vile.”

Marcus put his face in his hands and started to collapse to the grass. Strong hands, though, caught him and held him up.

“Know, Marcus, that while my powers over death are few, my powers over life are strong and so long as life exists, even as death draws near, my magic holds sway.”

Still holding Marcus, she stepped to the side and allowed him to see the commons behind her. At the far end, standing in a pale blue dress, stood Heather.

Marcus started, standing independently of Terra’s hands. His eyes widened in surprise and disbelief.

“Her will to live, to see you again, was strong and that, her love, allowed me to save her,” Terra said softly.

Marcus barely heard these words. His feet began carrying him forward even before she finished. Across the expanse of grass, Heather broke into a run toward him. They met at a full run, Marcus sweeping her into his arms and twirling her around. For time uncounted they covered each other in kisses, hardly believing the other was real. Great tears of joy streamed down both their cheeks, only to be kissed away before they fell to the grass. When, at last, stimuli from the rest of the world began to filter through their joy, Marcus turned back to thank Terra.

She was gone, as he knew she would be.

“Thank you,” he breathed to the air, knowing his words would be received.

For the remainder of that day and night, Marcus and Heather remained in a room in the royal palace given to them while they awaited arrangements to be made not only for the elven king, but also for Wilkes Poppinjay, the halfling hero who had slain the elven traitor Lorelei at the cost of his own life. The elves decided, after hearing Marcus’s tale of the Necromancer’s fall, to reward Wilkey with a state funeral and lay him near the tomb of Lanian, whose kingdom he played no small role in saving. Hearing this news touched Marcus, but enhanced his sorrow over losing such a loyal friend and the closest thing to a father he had ever known.

Still, Marcus knew, Wilkey would have enjoyed the elves making such a fuss over him and the idea that the halfling might be looking down on them from somewhere, nodding his fervent approval, lessened the ache.

While Marcus and Heather waited, they celebrated their reunion by making love, more slowly and passionately than either could remember doing in a very long time. Although it brought them great relief and physical pleasure, both cried throughout the act—for Wilkey, for Lanian, and for themselves, for their own loss. They had passed through the storm shaken, but still alive to feel the sharp pain of death that had claimed so many.

Later that night, both Marcus and Heather slept, cradled in each other’s arms. Had he slept alone, Marcus thought upon waking, he felt sure that his sleep would have been troubled by dreams of death—Wilkey’s, Heathers, his own. Heather’s arms, though, wrapped around him kept those dreams at bay and allowed him the first real rest he had found since returning to Terra. Seeing Heather’s smiling face as she woke, he knew his arms had done the same for her.

They were greeted soon after waking by two familiar faces. Polan and Valista, their faces beaming, brought them a hearty breakfast of venison and fruit. The tantalizing aroma of the food made Marcus realize how hungry he was, but he did not eat until he had spoken at length with the two elves about what was to take place that day and what they would have to do to prepare. After nearly an hour, Polan ushered his wife from the room, leaving Marcus and Heather to enjoy their meal.

Well rested and fed, they dressed in garments brought to them for the day’s ceremonies. Marcus donned a set of silk-lined robes, burgundy for the elven color of mourning. The new black, Marcus thought wryly. Heather wore a matching silk gown that fell from her shoulders like a scarlet waterfall. Her brown hair cascaded down her back and Marcus felt his breath stolen by her beauty. Kissing each other again, they had to fight the temptation to remove their finery and make love again. Heather finally liberated herself from Marcus’s embrace and started across the room before an unseen force lifted her up from the floor and sent her floated back toward Marcus.

“Stop that,” Heather scolded him playfully. “This is not the time for your silliness.”

Marcus conceded the point and the two of them made their way to the Audience Chamber where King Lanian would lie in state until that afternoon’s interment. Once they entered and saw the elven king lying upon a length of purple cloth, their moods sobered, but their hearts did not ache as they had on the previous day. The deceased ruler looked proud and noble in death, a victorious leader and savior of his people. His face no longer showed the pain and weariness that marred it until the end. Now, his countenance looked peaceful and content.

A dense group of elves surrounded Lanian’s body to pay their last respects. Many cried, particularly members of the royal household who had cherished the old monarch like a favorite grandparent. Others wept silent tears, unwilling to allow their emotions to show more than watery pools at the corners of their eyes. As Marcus and Heather approached, the elves parted to allow them to pass, many bowing to pay their own respects and condolences to the human couple who had come from another world to deliver them from destruction. Heather sobbed into Marcus’s shoulder, overwhelmed.

After a few quiet conversations with a few of the elves near where Lanian lay, Marcus noticed another thick group off to the far side of the Audience Chamber. He guided Heather, her hand on his arm, over to this smaller group and again the elves parted before them and bowed. Marcus could hear the whispered comments from some of the elves marveling at her beauty and knew by her blushing cheeks that she heard them as well.

When the last knot of elves noticed their coming and parted, Marcus and Heather beheld the body of their dear friend. The elves had dressed Wilkey in the finest garments, befitting a member of the royal household more than a common rogue from the tiny village of Yellow Banks that was no more than a pile of ash beside the Misteld. The halfling’s face, like the elven king’s, showed none of the trials that had led to his death. The relaxed muscles spoke silently of rest and leisure while the high-arching eyebrows and slight grin he wore gave him a mischievous look that caused Marcus a brief pang of sorrow. Moreover, beneath the folded hands across the halfling’s chest rested a ruby roughly the size of a tennis ball. Marcus smiled. One of the gems had been with Wilkey when he died. The other had been bartered for years of lodging, food, and drink that the halfling would never be allowed to enjoy. The second, Marcus suspected, had been recovered from the pub in Yellow Banks after its destruction. Both had been stolen from the elves and now, in their gratitude, they allowed Wilkey to keep them.

At dusk, the entire population of Glenfold, no longer forced to diligently guard their borders against legions of undead, lined the avenues of the city to witness their dead king and their halfling hero being escorted to their final rest. Members of the royal household and royal guard carried the elaborate oak caskets through the streets. Save for the chill wind that whistled between the buildings, the entire journey was silent as those unable to visit the palace paid their final respects to their king. Even the young children watching the scene, Heather noticed, kept their mouths closed in respect for the occasion.

Marcus and Heather walked immediately behind the two honored dead as they were carried to a hill just outside the city which served as a royal cemetery. The interment itself was quick, with surprising little ceremony, and for that Marcus was grateful. As the gilded door closed on the tomb, he heard a strong voice in his head telling him that the time had come for he and Heather to return to their own world.

The night following the funeral, the elves held a great feast to honor Marcus and Heather for defeating the threat to their nation. During the proceedings, the new king, a nephew of the late Lanian, asked Marcus to stand and speak to the assembled members of the court. The request took him by complete surprise, but as the cheers and anticipation of the crowd grew, Marcus stood and stepped to the head of the long table set in the gardens of the palace. At once, the elves fell silent and Marcus felt the fear rising inside him that came not from public speaking, but from speaking unprepared.

“My wife,” he began, indicating Heather to his right, who offered no objection to the title, “and I thank you for your hospitality, your care, and your condolences for our loss. We offer you those same condolences and pray the new king,” Marcus nodded in his direction, “will rule as wisely and as justly and with as much compassion as did Lanian.”

Marcus took a sip of wine, then continued. “When we came here, our goal was to save you, and ourselves, from the evils of the Necromancer. That has been done.” At this, a great wave of cheers swept up the table. Marcus waited for it to subside. “But I tell you now, that the work here is not done.”

Many of the seated elves gave Marcus concerned glances. A low whispering replaced the cheers. Again, Marcus waited a moment before continuing. “While the Necromancer has been defeated and his tower thrown down, there is work for the elves of Glenfold, work that my wife and I cannot complete. That work, my dear friends, is to rebuild this land and bring life to the places where the Necromancer brought death.”

The elves now wore expressions of mixed curiosity and determination. Marcus liked this and pressed on.

“This means not only the damage done to your borderlands, but also reaching beyond your lands to assist those unable to resist the legions of the dead. Yellow Banks, burned to the ground, will be rebuilt so that any who lived there that may have survived, will have a home free of fear. Even the dwarven kingdoms in the Norags, your enemies of old, need your help should any there be alive to accept it.”

This last statement brought a rough muttering from his audience which he ignored.

“I hope that you will hear my words and heed them. There is a saying where I come from: United we stand, divided we fall. Such is true in my world and such is true here. Should a threat as the Necromancer rise again, your best hope lay not in such as me, but in such as yourselves, united with the other peoples of this land to provide a sound defense against evil. This land may be dying, as some have told me since my return, but the best way to preserve it is to work together toward life.”

Marcus stared out over the assembled elves and found that he hand nothing more to say. He felt awkward for a moment as well over a hundred pairs of eyes studied him. Then, bowing quickly, he took his seat.

The new king, Kevken, stood and shocked Marcus by pledging to follow the suggestion of renewing ties with the dwarves if possible and branching beyond their own borders to provide assistance where they could give it. For the remainder of the feast, Kevken talked with Marcus and Heather about ideas for repairing what the Necromancer had destroyed, his memories of Lanian, and what Marcus and Heather had planned for their future.

Marcus realized that Heather felt the same urge to return home as he when she told the king that they would be leaving for the cave the following morning. Kevken, the gracious host, implored them to stay, but Marcus agreed with Heather’s sentiment. The king accepted their departure, but only on the grounds that they return when opportunity allowed.

The next morning, Marcus, Heather, and a small contingent of elves—including Polan and Valista—set out along the banks of the Misteld in the direction of the ruins of Yellow Banks. They traveled through the unseasonably mild weather at a leisurely pace, traveling until they grew tired of riding, then spending the rest of the day drinking in the last warmth of autumn before the winter chill. Often, Marcus and Heather sat together on the banks of the river wrapped in each others arms staring out over the water, engaged in private conversation. They talked of many things including their lost friends, but these moments were not laden with grief, only tinged by a faint shade of sorrow. As they rode across the rolling hills, this time on horses rather than griffons, Marcus and the elves told Heather many stories about the land she had helped save. Now that she had time to enjoy it, Heather observed the land and marveled at its beauty. Colors, smells, and sounds all seemed more vivid in this world and she Marcus why he had chosen to go back to the real world at all.

“Don’t you know,” he asked in return. “Can’t you feel it?”

She could feel it, she realized, more than ever as they approached the cave. As much as she enjoyed the world she now found herself in, she longed for the life waiting for her in North Carolina. She missed her friends, her job, and especially the Victorian that she would be moving her things back into when she and Marcus returned to Asheville.

Heather also noticed a subtle change in Marcus. She could not define the exact difference, but she felt a closeness to him now that she had never felt in their previous two years together. For once in their relationship, Heather felt that she knew all his secrets and Marcus seemed more relaxed for it, no longer having to bury such an important element of his past.

Finally, they reached the woods surrounding the cave where they had met the centaurs. Heather was apprehensive about a possible reunion with the creatures that had so willingly tried to help Erasmus kill her and Marcus, but the elves assured her the way was safe. Scouts had been deployed before their departure and reported that none of the centaurs at all remained in that part of the land. Where they had gone no one knew, but the path to the cave was secure for their passage.

As they made their way through the trees, leaves falling all about them like rain, Heather looked to her side and saw Marcus regarding her with a slight grin on his face.

“What are you smirking at?”

Marcus laughed. “Okay, I have to ask. How did you get the gun?”

Heather laughed in return and patted the pack tied to the pommel of her horse. “You remember in your room at your grandmother’s house when you told me to pack anything I thought I might need?” She patted the pack again. “I saw it in your suitcase and thought that if I was going into the woods at dark, I was going armed.”

Marcus raised his eyebrows and nodded. Damn good thing you did, the expression said.

The cave came into view gradually through the curtain of falling leaves. No scar was left of the recent trouble except for the large chunk missing from one tree marking Heather’s first attempt at using the Colt. Heather felt a lump rise in her throat as she thought of how close she had come to killing Wilkey there, before he could play his role in saving her and Marcus. She swallowed the lump and said a quiet word of gratitude to the halfling.

The entrance waited before them as they dismounted and said their farewells to the elven escort. Valista embraced both Marcus and Heather, her cheeks red and streaked with tears.

“Be careful,” she told them. “And be good to each other.”

Polan, ever more quiet than his wife, surprised Marcus by embracing him and shedding a few tears himself. He thanked Marcus and Heather for saving their land, and his wife, and bid them good fortune in their life ahead.

One by one, the remaining elves, most of which Marcus did not know well, thanked him and Heather for their deeds and began back toward Glenfold until only Valista and Polan remained to see them off.

When they packed their belongings and turned toward the cave, Heather found the gaping hole had lost its menacing quality. Now, it looked to her like her own front door after a long journey away. She and Marcus waved one final time to the remaining two elves and entered the darkness, hand in hand. They passed through without incident, giggling together after Marcus forced himself to burp, hoping to lighten the atmosphere.

Emerging on the other side, Heather felt slightly disappointed. The brilliant sunshine of Terra had been replaced in their own world by gray skies and steady rain. The sound of it upon the leaves sounded to her like clapping, applause for the great things they had done. Looking down, Heather saw her clothes, the elaborate traveling garb provided for her by the elves, had reverted back to the clothes she had worn when they entered the cave. Her pack, likewise, had transformed back to the yellow Columbia backpack she had donned upon leaving Sylvia’s house.

Marcus stepped to the side of the cave entrance and found the metal ammunition box he had left there. Pulling it from the natural shelf, he opened it and pulled out his watch. He looked at it and smiled before handing it to Heather. Heather looked at the watch face and blinked in disbelief. The hands revolving around did not concern her, but looking at the date…

“You mean we’ve only been gone for two days?”

“Yep,” Marcus said as he put the ammunition box back into his pack. He stood up and looked at her, a mischievous grin widening upon his face. “Now, what should we do with the rest of our week’s vacation?”

Marcus took her into his arms, kissed her, and led her through the rain-soaked woods back to their lives.

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