The End

Lauren Heaton

       Forgotten ruins were the last place to meet anyone, let alone your enemies. Ammon thought the engraved invitation was a dramatic touch, but it got the point across. This would be their final meeting. No one else was to come with them. Their battle would be settled by the first glimpse of morning twilight. A resigned sigh left his lips as the stallion beneath him continued its steady gait. Losing wasn’t an option, but winning didn’t seem like one either. A choice trapped between waves of fate. The thought of life after Azazel, but one too many wounds were laid on that foundation to hold under the pressure of newly acquired knighthood. Demands would split the two and Ammon rose faster in favor than his dear friend. Azazel’s accomplishments paled in comparison to Ammon’s own. His jolly disposition soured and grew bitter towards the loyalty that he swore to. A quest sealed his fate into that of ruination when he was coerced into the seductive darkness that plagued the kingdom. Ammon never lost hope in his friend’s goodness, but the kingdom didn’t hold the same thought. They sent countless hordes of knights after Azazel’s chaos, but none of them came back in the same condition they left, if they came back at all. The king deemed Ammon’s attention and skills to be of use in this quest, as if he wasn’t already trying to track Azazel down. Although he withheld his thoughts on the subject from his king. He had come close a couple of times to talking with Azazel, before the king demanded his service to hunt down his friend. The thought of killing the man that he shared a life and happier memories with made him breathless. Ammon’s gauntleted grip on the stallion’s reins tightened with the slight sound of crushed metal echoing in the inky black of night. The stallion’s ear flicked back and he huffed out a breath before proceeding with Ammon’s chosen path. However, thoughts of past actions would have to be pushed aside for the moment as Ammon mapped out the once-familiar path to their hideaway; Azazel was always one for dramatics and symbolic moments.

       ***

       “Stars are the guides to home,” Azazel once said, “and if you ever are unsure of where to go, always follow the arrow of the archer.”

       The lessons that they taught themselves as children worked to make them resourceful people indeed. He wasn’t lost for long as the forest opened up to reveal their hidden treasure. A long-forgotten ruin falling to pieces in its belly of emerald greens. It was once a paradise to the two orphans; it was a home to call their own. Memories of laughter filling the air warmed Ammon in the coming chill of autumn. Life was simpler as children, but adulthood came knocking upon their own kingdom all too soon. Ammon dismounted from the stallion and wound the reins around a branch that was within reach. He needed a light stronger than the stars provided to move around this place. Ammon reached into the saddle bags that he carried with him and dug around for a torch, a flint and steel, and a little bit of courage.

       His armor made a hallowed echoing as he approached the ruins. The clanging of metal stopped the forest’s voice. Moving forward into their once sanctuary, Ammon recognized the new patches of sky that were made from the last time he was here. The fire’s gaze directed him to the stairs off to the side of the hall. Being surrounded by watching shadows shouldn’t move one to destiny faster than necessary, but that is what the hollow rooms he passed caused. His pace quickened to outmatch the feeling of guilt lining his stomach, weighing it down. Loud footsteps echoed within the emptiness until he was met with a room mostly unscathed from the crumbling architecture, illuminated with the soft glow of scattered lanterns. There were no doors to hide and wait behind; they had fallen off years ago. In the center of the room stood Azazel, face blank in a way it had never been before. Yet, his eyes were sorrowful, and his smile held a wistful tinge. Ammon wondered if he was feeling the same about their shared beginnings and their divided paths. Azazel wasn’t dressed for a battle, he clothed himself simply with chainmail as a defense. Leather vambraces replaced the metal ones he used to wear. No breastplate to stop a blow from a sword, but another piece of leather shaped into a crude mockery of armor. Ammon’s friend had stripped himself of the protection of the kingdom and looked for a replacement of his own choosing. Azazel repeated often enough that nature will always provide something pure in what humans corrupt. Azazel’s eyes focused on Ammon’s and any hint of the kindness in him disappeared as a hateful shine took over. A twitch of his lips pulling downwards in a snarl. Azazel’s voice rose and reached with barbs to greet him, “Hello Ammon. It’s been an awfully long time.”

       ***

       “Why do we need to follow the arrow, Azazel? Wouldn’t any other constellation work just as well?”

       “Arrows are the only things  I know to fly true and land home. Maybe I like the idea of arrows always pointing me to the truth.”

       “Azazel, that doesn’t answer my question!”

       “But I did, Ammon. The archer holds the arrow pointing to home. The other constellations don’t have a direct path to follow, they can lie and deceive. Only the arrow holds any truth in this realm.”

       “Well, I guess that's true. You found me with your arrow when I was lost! But how is this going to lead us to a home, Azazel?”

       “Be patient, Ammon. We will know when we get there.”

       “Together?”

       “Together.”

***

       “Azazel.” A greeting, nothing more. Though, it felt like more. Maybe it was the echo of the chamber that made his words hold more weight. Or the fact that it wasn’t a greeting at all, but a goodbye waiting in the wings. Ammon knew the truth would come from this meeting because the arrow pointed him to his home once again. Yet, the stars were always to be fickle to Ammon. He trusted Azazel to be his guide when his doubt grew strong in them. What was he to do when it was his turn to guide his friend back to who he was?

       “Ammon, are you angry with me?”

       “No.”

       “Ah, but your words say differently. You only answer in one word when you feel angry.” Ammon was puzzled because he wasn’t angry; he was worried. Guilt was resting on the tip of his tongue, but he knew Azazel would sooner be defeated than hear word of them. Ammon struggled to think of what to say in the face of the only brother he knew. What to say when nothing sounded right?

       “After what I have done to your precious little kingdom, I thought the answer would lie in that for itself.”

       “That kingdom isn’t mine.” Ammon threw his arms out from his sides and gestured to the chamber around them, “This was our kingdom. One we made our own.”

       A frown graced Azazel’s lips and he shifted forward slightly. The hatred in his eyes lowered to a shimmer.

       “That’s not true.”

       “How could it not be? The arrow led me here, so truth is all I speak tonight.”

       “If you say it, let it be so.”

       “Will you be doing the same?”

       Azazel paused as if in thought and nodded to himself, “I will.”

       “Then answer me this one question. Why turn against your word to the darkness?” Azazel seemed stunned that this was presented to him. Then he came back and arched his neck to let out a throaty laugh. Perhaps what Ammon said had amused him, but he wanted answers from his brother that took truth to be his code. Azazel came down with his laughs trying to pull in air at the same time leading to huffing laughter, slowly calming.

       Azazel stared Ammon down, seeing something in Ammon’s expression that held a shred of childhood confusion, “Fine.” Azazel turned away from him, crossing his arms and releasing a deep sigh, “I turned my back on the truth because it wasn’t accepted within the ranks of knighthood. The pinnacle that I believed knights held was destroyed when they would lie about their bravery, only to flee when things got to be too much. I turned my back because I wasn’t accepted into their golden rings. I was cast out for being a truthsayer. Exposure isn’t lovely when it ruins your reputation. The truth is not pretty. It's ugly and no one wants that. Falsities work better than truth. You were accepted easier than I because you held doubt higher than truth. Bitterness is hard to swallow when one works hard and isn’t rewarded for it.”

       Silence took hold of the air as Azazel turned back to face Ammon, expression guarded and cold.  Ammon moved forward with measured steps and Azazel tensed with each step, moving slightly back. They said nothing to convey their intentions, but maybe they should have. Maybe they should have said something. Because swords being drawn was the last thing that was needed when feelings were high. Fights between brothers shouldn’t be fought to the death. According to Azazel, though, they were no longer brothers. Ammon was grouped with the enemy. He would be doing nothing short of betraying his vow of loyalty to his king if he were to stop his dance with death, but it was too late for that. Swords clashed against each other. Azazel’s skin was nicked and sliced in places that weren’t prepared for battle. Although Ammon had lost his helmet with a good wallop from Azazel’s sword, he was faring better than him. Panting sounded from both sides, sweat dripped down their brows. All it took to bring his brother down was one lucky strike aimed to the gut through weakened chainmail and into soft flesh hidden below. Azazel was too slow to parry; too shocked to respond with his own fatal strike. With his hands rushing to cover a gushing wound, his sword fell to the ground with a defeated crash. His body followed stumbling to the stone floor. Ammon looked on at the fallen man that he once called friend and brother but was now reduced to an enemy in swings from his blade. Nothing could save him now, for destiny had to be met. The next string of events were to unfold from the skillful hands that wove them.

       Ammon dropped to his knees next to his brother with a harsh clang of metal on stone that was only softened with the squish of fresh blood seeping into his armor’s joints. He reached out to Azazel as he originally intended and hugged the man tightly with every emotion he held. His eyes welled with tears. Ammon felt one of Azazel’s hands reach around him in a semblance of a hug. It felt weak. He knew he didn’t have long. He loosened his hold on Azazel and looked into dulling eyes, “I am sorry, brother. But there is one last truth you must hear.” Azazel focused as much as he could, straining for this one last truth to touch his ears. “You were supposed to be the hero of the story, and I the villain.” With that Azazel had gone with death, grasping his last breath, a death rattle in his chest, and leaving him with widened eyes. A dead man’s tear clinging on his cheek, a kiss of true death. The emerald forest’s voice echoed a mournful wail, announcing the birth of a new tale.

Contributor's Note

Lauren Heaton is a senior majoring in both English and Mass Communications. She is a lover of fairytales, folklore, and mythologies! Anything that is animated, she makes plans to watch and enjoy it. She says that they are a study of methods when it comes to storytelling. She believes that if you have to do work, do something that brings you joy. 

Heaton.jpg