Chapter 10:


The Last Rae of Hope

Since so much of my costume was white, I was a little preoccupied with making sure I didn’t spill lunch on myself. My smoked turkey leg was less than half finished before the other two were already on to chatting animatedly about the story. We were trying to summarize our brainstorming kickoff session, but Eura kept dancing around preliminary plot points we needed to solidify.

“So you’re going to go with a time skip, then?” Nora asked Eura. After checking my notes, I circled number four on the list of suggestions.

“Yes… No other way around it at this point. It’s been seven and a half years since the events of chapter fifty-six.”

“Not five?” I asked around a mouthful of turkey.

“It’s been five years since I published the last chapter, but for the world of Speranza, seven and a half years have passed.”

“Lots of things could have happened in that time period,” Nora noted. “What’s Euphridia up to?”

“She’s about to bring Rae back.” Eura replied.

“Euphridia herself found her in the next world?” Interesting. That wasn’t anywhere on our list.

“Uh huh.” Eura seemed reticent, or maybe she was just bored. Whatever the case, she refused to further elaborate on the details.

“What’s Rae like now?”

“Mmm… older.”

“Did she recover?”

“Well, physically she’s mostly fine, but… she doesn’t remember anything from before.”

“Memory loss trope, huh? Risky business, but we can work with that. Are you going to have her use forbidden, otherworldly knowledge from the next world to break her current level cap?” Nora was going through a list of questions she had written in her leather journal and taking notes as she went.

“No… given the circumstances, she didn’t really hone any skills.” I was secretly relieved to hear that she wasn’t coming back overpowered. There’s too many stories already that focus on the main character becoming, by happenstance alone, an expert on the very next plot device that solves all the world’s problems.

“So, it was like she was just on vacation?” Nora chewed her lip. “She didn’t do anything heroic?”

“Nothing to really make note of, anyway.”

“Hey…” I interjected. “She deserves a break once in a while! And it’s not her fault if she doesn’t remember!”

“Surely she did something important in the next world during those seven years! Your audience isn’t going to be too happy with a sudden time skip with no explanation and no payoff,” Nora warned.

“The next world is boring. It’s not worth writing about!” Eura caught the frown I was making. “Oh! But, even if she can’t remember, even if she’s older, she’s still the same Rae and that’s all that matters!” Euphridia declared. “As soon as she gets back to where she belongs, everyone will be much happier.”

“Ah…” Nora looked a bit defeated. “Well, what about Relias? What’s he been doing?”

“Oh!” Eura laughed nervously. “Uh, I’m sure he’s fine! Euphridia told him to do whatever’s necessary in the interim. He’s very capable, so… yeah.”

“I’m sure that’s true,” Nora agreed. “However, I think we need something a little more solid to work with.”

She ignored her request and instead turned her intense gaze towards me. “He’s really handsome too, right?”

I shrugged noncommittally, but it wasn’t enough. It took me a moment to realize she would not continue until I gave her my opinion. “I mean, I guess? The cover art would suggest it anyway…” He had long blonde hair and aquamarine eyes like many male protagonists of the fantasy genre. To me, though, he was Raelynn’s one-and-only, so he was off-limits.

“I really did my best with Relias, you know.”

“Wait, you illustrated your own story, too? You’re really talented!”

She laughed for‌ a while, though I wasn’t sure what was so funny about what I said.

“So, Relias is still around?” Nora asked for further clarification once her laughter died down.

“Definitely… most likely.” Why wouldn’t she just say yes?

“What about the rest of the party?”

“Mmm… unclear really.”

I set down my turkey leg and wiped my hands on a cloth napkin. “They’re not together?”

“Doubtful. Losing Rae… I don’t think they’d stick together without her.”

I glanced at Nora’s notes, which were full of cross-outs and question marks. “Seven years pass, the party disbanded with their whereabouts unknown, a new demon king, and the world is without the goddess…” I tilted my head. “Wait. Was Euphridia gone the entire time?!”

Eura looked a little guilty. “W-well… she was looking for Rae, so…”

“We’re looking at a lot of variables here!” Nora mused. “We can take this in all sorts of directions!”

Eura shook her head. “No! One direction. Euphridia is going to send Rae straight to the holy capital. It’s likely Rel’s in Chairo’s main temple.”

I imagined their fateful reunion. “Euphridia should let Holy Sage Relias know that Raelynn’s on her way!” Would their meeting jog her memory? Would he finally confess? That’s how true love works in these types of stories, right? It fixes everything.

Eura’s face filled with consternation. “Uh, Euphridia normally would send word of her impending arrival, but she’s having trouble connecting with Relias.”

My thoughts fizzled. “So he might not actually be okay?” I can’t build the ship if you don’t give me the raw materials!

“N-no, I’m sure he’s fine. Probably.”

A cold thought gripped me. “Wait. Did Olethros… No, he promised to let him go! Even if he’s a demon, he promised!” He wouldn’t dare go back on his word!

Eura slammed her fists on the table at the mention of his name. “That bastard! That dirty, rotten bastard! He’s why Euphridia can’t get in touch with Rel!”

“Plausible.” Nora was inspecting her turkey leg for any last vestiges of meat. “Though I think he’d rather just listen in on those kinds of conversations rather than cut them off entirely. I bet they’d be full of important information he wouldn’t be able to get otherwise.” Bold move there, telling Eura she’s wrong about her own story.

“Ah, you don’t think he’d just put up a barrier to keep Euphridia out completely?” I asked Nora quickly while Eura grit her teeth, obviously holding back an angry rebuttal. “If I were him, I really wouldn’t want either of them coming back.”

“I doubt he has that much power. Remember, he’d have to maintain it, and it’s not like he has anyone to help him.”

“Uh, what about the other demon lords?” I was struggling to recall their names while hastily trying to move through the topic. All I could picture was a giant beast of a warmonger and scantily clad sorceress with enormous bat wings.

“You mean General Ragnerus and Dark Mistress Aziza?”

“Right. They could be in cahoots with him.”

“Cahoots?” Nora laughed at my word choice. “With the signing of this dark pact, we are now in cahoots together for eternity! Calamity to the varmints opposing us!”

“All joking aside, it’s possible!” I said defensively.

“They never worked together before.” Nora continued to scribble notes even as she turned again to Eura, completely unconcerned by the fact that her eyes were still blazing with anger. “So you’ve settled on Demon King Olethros being the new villain, then?”

“He’s always been a villain!” Eura yelled. “Even more so now!”

Nora tapped her pencil on her notebook. “You’re saying he’s even worse than his peccant progenitor?”

I got confused with that one. “Peccant… progenitor?” It sounded a little dirty!

“Evil daddy,” Nora substituted.

“Oh.” I still wasn’t sure if she was being lewd or not.

“He’s not bound to the wastelands like his progenitor was,” Eura sneered. “He can destroy anything he wants now that Epiales is gone.”

I couldn’t help but think about the Olethros of my dreams - oh, you know what I mean. “Maybe… he’s not interested in following in his footsteps. I mean, he doesn’t have to follow his orders anymore.”

Eura shook her head. “The only purpose a demon has is to destroy the things Euphridia loves the most! They care about nothing else!”

That sounded too one-dimensional. “Wouldn’t it be more interesting to examine other possible reasons for—”

“No!” Eura shouted. “He banished Rae while she was on the verge of death! All demons are absolutely irredeemable! Don’t ever, ever question that!”

I flinched at her tone, feeling like she was chastising me for a major transgression. What’s wrong with having a complicated antagonist this time around? I kept my head down as I mulled over what she said in sullen silence.

Nora let the awkwardness between us linger for a few minutes before continuing. “What about Rae’s sword? Does Olethros still have it?”

Eura exhaled with a huff. “Most likely.”

“With Rae’s sword under Olethros's control, it’s going to be hard for her to confront him. He didn’t destroy it, did he?”

“No,” Eura said firmly. “Euphridia forged the Will and the Faith especially for Rae. Olethros will never, ever be able to destroy either of them. He might hide the sword somewhere, though.” Made sense actually, considering it was probably the only thing that could actually kill him now that his father was gone.

“They’re a set, right?” Nora pondered. “Are they magically linked?”

Eura finally gave Nora something to work with. “The shield and sword were forged from the same star, yes.”

“From cosmic metal? That’s so cool!” Nora marveled, and I came very close to calling her a suck-up before realizing that was exactly the tactic she needed to employ at this point.

“Thanks.” Eura preened. I felt her eyes on me again. Did you think I was going to sing your praises, too? I renewed my will not to look at her. Nora could play the good cop.

“Since they’re linked, could Rae use the shield Rel has to find the sword?” Nora pressed onward.

“Oh, yes, she could!”

“So then…” Nora started making a to-do list. “Rae reunites with Rel, gets her shield back, gathers the rest of the party, and goes out in search of her sword and King Olethros?”

“Why would she need to find the rest of the party?” Eura asked.

Recently reprimanded or not, I wasn’t going to let that one go. “Because they’re her stalwart companions!” I shouted.

“All she really needs is Rel.” Eura waved her hand.

“Laverna, Aleph, and Tetora are just as important!”

“I’m not sure that’s really…”

“They have to be in the story! They just have to be!” I stood up and pounded my fists on the table this time, earning a startled look from Eura.

“Just go with it.” Nora whispered to her. “They don’t have to do all that much, but you should probably give her this little win. You have no idea how long she can hold a grudge for.”

“But… it might be hard to find them…” Eura hedged. “For all I know, they could already be–”

“No! They’re alive! I just know it!” I folded my arms angrily. He promised to let them go, too. Otherwise, Rae would have never surrendered like that!

“Alright, alright, she can look for them, too.”

I huffed and sat back down, surly about the whole idea of ignoring half the protagonists. Introducing epic characters only to dump them off as fodder a little while later is absolutely infuriating!

Eura watched my face for a few moments before laughing nervously. “It’ll all work out for the best, in the end. I promise!”

“I’m holding you accountable.” If anything happened to those three…

“Um… maybe you’re just thirsty?” she asked, and I realized she was right. After I conceded with a nod, she reached inside her handbag and pulled out a bottle of red wine with a very fancy label.

“What’s that?”

“Look!” She turned cheerful again with me almost instantly.

“Inspiration,” I read the tight script aloud. I was thinking I was thirsty for water, but maybe wine was a better choice. It would probably help me relax and go with the flow. Why hadn’t she started our discussion with something like this?

“Seems appropriate,” Nora approved. Eura pulled out two wine glasses and poured us each a glass of wine.

“What about you?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t drink. I wanted to celebrate our collaboration, though.”

“What should we toast to?” I asked.

“To happy endings?” Eura suggested.

“To happy endings!” Nora and I responded, clinking our glasses against the wine bottle in Eura’s hands.

I remembered drinking a single glass of wine. Then… nothing for a while. Suddenly, we were walking away from the faire, that much I was sure of. However, I couldn’t decide exactly why we were doing so. We were heading towards a nearby mountain peak. I glanced at Nora every once in a while, but for the life of me, I didn’t know what to ask her.

A small voice in the back of my head was trying to get me to… do something, but I couldn’t really understand it. Instead, I just settled on watching my feet march up the side of the mountain, pleasantly surprised with how easy it was. Normally such a steep grade would have tired me out, but I felt like I could do this all day long. Nora was matching me step for step, which had me bemused since it meant her stride was comically exaggerated. Eura was in front of us, her gold sash fluttering behind her.

The peak was covered in dense pines, though here and there the rocky terrain became exposed to sunlight that streamed in from above. Nestled in a small grove was an ancient stone archway bathed in a broad sunbeam. We headed toward the archway at a synchronous pace. The small voice in my head was becoming more shrill with each step. I still couldn’t make out any intelligible words, so I just ignored it.

“My place is just through here,” Eura said brightly, gesturing at the archway. Something was strange about that statement, but I wasn’t sure what.

Eura held out her hands. “Let me take your bags.” Nora and I wordlessly handed her the backpacks we had brought with us for our day-trip. Eura took them and set them aside. Then she looked me up and down one last time. “The hair will fix itself eventually, but I really don’t like those glasses. You’ll be better off without them.” She reached up and took a hold of them at my temples. Her warm fingers briefly brushed the sides of my face as she pulled them off.

“Much better!” she remarked. I looked at her questioningly, but again said nothing.

She then turned to Nora. “I guess you’ll be useful too, seeing as how you have the whole thing memorized. I hate to admit it, but the old man was right.” She pressed her right index finger to the center of Nora’s forehead for a moment.

“Understand now?” Eura asked her. Nora simply nodded, getting a better grip on her staff.

“Oh, you two should probably hold hands,” Eura continued. “You might get separated if you don't.” Nora held out her hand and I took it. We exchanged glances with one another.

“I really wish I could come with you, but it seems I’m going to have to wait until things get back on track. Try to see if you can do something about all the animus in the air. I’m sure it’s all his fault.” Eura locked eyes with me. “Do whatever you need to do to make things right.” All I could do was nod back.

Nora and I turned and headed towards the gate. The small voice in my head screamed, and I halted instinctively. Eura, however, was right behind us.

“Sometimes taking the first step is the hardest, so I’m going to give you a little push.” I felt Eura’s hand on my back as she hurled me forward through the archway with incredible force.

She called after us. “Remember, don’t let go!”