The Last Rae of Hope
You know that feeling, that one moment, you’re suddenly flailing about and the next you’re on the floor and you have no idea what happened in the space between? Well, that second moment did not come to me for a dreadfully long time. Instead, I was shocked sober with the nauseating feeling of free falling. I gripped Nora’s limp hand and tried to scream, but no sound came out.
We fell through darkness into a clear blue sky, skydiving without a parachute. Below us there were blurry land masses that grew bigger with every passing second. A translucent gold light formed a bubble around us, cutting us off from the icy cold air that had been whipping at our bodies. We ended up piled on top of one another at the bottom of the bubble.
No. Not there. Over there. I could finally understand the voice inside my head.
“What?” I mumbled, peeling my suction-cupped face off the side of the floating bubble.
The wastelands. Head for the wastelands.
To the west, I saw a large, brownish yellow continent mostly devoid of anything resembling vegetation. It did not strike me as particularly welcoming. “Why should I listen to you?”
There was no response. However, something seized control of me, and I bashed my body into the bubble to turn its course towards the west as we descended.
“Wait, stop!” Again and again I hurled myself into the bubble’s side. I tried to get Nora’s attention, but from a side glance, she appeared to be unconscious.
We need to get a better sense of what’s really happening out there.
After a few more bashings, the possessing voice let me go just in time for me to collapse.
I was lying face up in a pile of sandy rubble. I felt dirty and disoriented. My right hip was particularly angry, so I rolled onto my left side. I think I forgot to mention I was feeling nauseated as well. Never in my life had I ever been so drunk before. What the heck was in that wine?
“Nora, are you alive?” I saw her form also sprawled out on the uneven stone tiles around us.
“I think so. Are you?”
“I feel awful, so I’m going to say yes.” I sat up with effort, brushing rocky dust from my face.
Nora grunted as she used her staff to help her stand.
“My glasses! I can’t find my glasses!” I suddenly panicked as I realized they weren’t on my face.
“You can’t see a thing without your glasses.” Nora agreed as she started looking for them.
“Yeah wait… everything’s crystal clear!” I marveled, temporarily forgetting my bruised hip and other complaints.
“Maybe you’re still drunk.”
“Maybe.” I looked around. The roof of the makeshift amphitheater we found ourselves in was mostly gone, with only a few pillars standing high enough to arch over us. Rubble was piled around all the edges. “I think there are several building code violations going on here. Which part of the faire are we in?”
“Who knows? Eura has the map. Where do you think she went?”
“Not sure.” I stood up finally and swore. “It’s all ruined.”
“My costume. Wearing white is just asking for trouble,” I sighed. “Do you think this is going to come out of my pay?”
“Rae… I think we have bigger things to discuss.” She pointed to a giant stone altar in the exact center of the amphitheater.
Within the throne room of the King of Nightmare
Knight Captain of the Holy Order of Gold
Chosen One of the Goddess
7th Appointed Hero of Legend
Wielding the Faith and Will of Euphridia
Origin of Evil
May Euphridia’s light return you to us
I stared at the ridiculously sized altar. “Just how much money does Eura have?”
“You have to admit, it looks pretty realistic.” Nora put her hands on the altar. “I think it’s actually stone, or at least plated in stone.”
“It looks like she really went through a lot of trouble for us. I’m all for inspiration, but I’m feeling like we’ve tumbled into the uncanny valley.”
Two masculine voices echoed in from the surroundings abruptly, cutting off our conversation. Nora and I silently agreed we didn’t want to have to explain why we were rolling around in the dirt to strangers, so we ducked behind the altar. I was praying fervently that Eura had gone to get us a wardrobe change as they came closer to our hiding spot.
“I’m telling you, if another pilgrim brings red camellias, I’m going to slice them clear in two! She didn’t die!” The first voice declared indignantly.
“No, you won’t,” the other voice disagreed gently. “You’ll just keep complaining about it to me, but that’s alright. You’ll feel better once you’ve let go of your excess anger.”
“Oh, I mean it this time! Blood spatter everywhere! Screams of agony and-”
“Hush now, we’re here.” They stopped talking, but I could hear at least one of them moving closer to the altar with heavy footsteps. Please don’t peek back here!
“It’s us again.” The deep but gentle voiced man murmured quietly.
“What’s taking you so long to come back? I’m going to give you such a scolding, you know! Three times as much if you haven’t been practicing your fighting forms! I–” he halted abruptly and let out a terribly frightening growl. I only thought wild animals could make such a noise!
“What’s this?” The gentle one’s voice suddenly turned hard. I heard a loud thud and saw that the floor tiles surrounding me rattled. Then a whirlwind of white and gray descended on top of me, knocking me onto my back. The back of my head hit the stone floor and for a moment, I only saw white. Then I heard a loud sniffing.
“Raelynn!” He was shaking my shoulders roughly. I was too terrified to speak. His face wasn’t human, at least not fully. He had whiskers, literal cat whiskers, and gray and white stripes on either side of his face. His golden eyes were wide with excitement as his white tiger ears twitched on the top of his head. “Where have you been?! Uh, I wasn’t worried, of course, but you really upset Aleph! How could you do that to him?!”
Aleph? As in Aleph and Tetora? But that couldn’t be right; they’re not real. Real or not, he then crushed me with a fierce hug.
“Tetora, I think she’s in shock. That dark mage might have done something to her.” I turned slightly and saw a giant man with flowing chestnut hair and dull gray ox horns holding a large hammer threateningly over Nora. She was frozen stiff, with her hands up as if she was under arrest. The tile in front of her was completely pulverized. Had the ox giant done that as a warning?
I tried to gather my wits. “Nora wouldn’t do anything to hurt me. It’s you two that I’m afraid of!”
Tetora and Aleph exchanged a quick glance.
“On second thought, she doesn’t seem like she’s possessed,” Aleph noted, rubbing at his cropped brown beard.
“But since when is she afraid of anything?” Tetora complained. “What happened to my fierce little dragon?”
“Nora…” I squeaked out loud, but she failed to respond. Swallowing nervously, I tried my best to glare threateningly at Aleph. “Don’t you dare hurt my friend Nora!” The ox giant looked deep into my eyes for a moment, as if he was searching for something. “I, I mean it!” I reiterated.
“Yes, I can see I was mistaken about your friend.” Aleph stepped back from Nora to give her room. Tetora, however, kept his grip on me. I saw his tail lash back and forth as he picked me up.
“Put… put me down!” I struggled.
“You’re gotten weak! Can’t even break my hold! Time to train!” He carried me out of the ruined amphitheater over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.
“I’m not who you think I am!” I shouted. I freed my right arm and began pounding on his back as hard as I could. “You’re making a huge mistake!” If I had been in my right mind, I would have realized that I was the one making a big mistake. I was trying to beat up a furry martial artist that was three times my size.
“To the left! I have a knot back there behind my shoulder blade! Maybe your mosquito bite punches will fix it!” He laughed happily and tossed me a few times in the air in what I could only imagine was misplaced exaltation.
“Nora!” I screeched, extending my now free arms out towards her. This time she took a big breath and I could see her brain resetting. Her eyes suddenly sparkled. No Nora, this isn’t what you think! Don’t fall for it!
“You’re Aleph, aren’t you? Oh, I’ve read so much about you!” She was squealing now, her high-pitched voice hitting whole registers above those the human ear could decipher.
Aleph nodded with a slow smile and gave Nora a hand up. He then handed her staff back to her and offered his arm as balance. Nora took it and followed behind me with a staggering gait at first, which later became more sure of itself with every step.
“Where are you taking us?!” I demanded.
Tetora shifted me slightly. “To the village! We have much to celebrate!”
“Stop jostling me or I’ll throw up all over you!”
“What, you’re feeling sick? When did you become so delicate?” He stopped walking, but didn’t let me down. Aleph and Nora caught up to us. He must have taken the threat to heart, though, because he stopped tossing me.
“We need to keep moving,” Aleph advised. “It isn’t safe here.” Tetora started down the dirt path again. We were heading into a dark, sickly forest populated with petrified trunks devoid of branches and leaves.
“Ms. Nora. May I carry you on my back for the rest of our sojourn?” Aleph asked politely. “The forest floor is rather rough, and somewhat difficult to traverse.”
“Permission granted!” She scrambled up his back. She was taking this much better than I was. “Can I–” she started.
Aleph cut her off. “I would prefer that you didn’t.” I saw she was staring intently at his horns. “Please put your arms around my neck instead.”
“Why don't you do that for me?” I asked Tetora. “Then this wouldn’t feel so much like kidnapping, you know.”
“You always pull my whiskers when we do that. I’m not stupid!” Although he sounded indignant, I noticed he was hugging me tightly again. I just knew he was going to explode when he realized I wasn’t actually Raelynn.
About ten minutes later, Tetora suddenly dropped me on my feet and extended his claws. Aleph also set Nora down, although much more gently, and stepped in front of her protectively.
“How many this time?” Aleph asked.
“Three - no, four. The last one’s injured and moving strangely.”
I could see three large, gray, ape-like beasts skulking between tree trunks ahead of us. Their arms hung down to the ground, ending in giant knuckled fists. Angry red tufts of fur covered their backs.
“You two stay right here with Aleph. No heroics!” Tetora leapt forward on all fours, letting out a loud roar. One ape, larger than the rest, screamed in response and shot forward to meet Tetora’s charge. The other two apes hooted excitedly, but made no move to join.
Aleph pointed. “He challenged the alpha, so the other redbacks should hang back. When Tetora wins, the others will take off.”
The combatants were circling each other now warily. The alpha ape attempted to lunge forward first, but Tetora leapt to the side. As he landed, he twisted his body and drove his claws into the underbelly of the ape. The ape screamed again, though this time it was filled with agony.
Tetora leapt on the ape’s back and drove his right fist, claws and all, into its side. The ape collapsed to the ground with a howl and Tetora pulled back. The other apes melted back into the stone forest. As the alpha glared at Tetora, he slowly backed away to join its companions.
“Over there!” Nora pointed, and both Aleph and I turned. Off to the right, two giant alligator-like lizards had joined the tree line and were now running straight towards us.
“Megalanies!” Aleph shouted as he charged forward with his war hammer poised to strike. One of the giant lizards veered off to one side while the other darted around the other way in a flanking maneuver. Aleph smashed his war hammer into the skull of one while the other came at him from behind.
Nora aimed the orb of her staff at it. “Fulgura!” she shouted. A bolt of lightning shot out from the orb and coursed through the tail of the giant alligator, shocking it throughout its body. The alligator stopped moving entirely. Aleph took the opportunity to strike the other alligator again in the eye. All I could do was gape at Nora in disbelief, though she seemed just as surprised as I was that her spell had actually worked.
Behind you! The voice inside my head screamed as it whirled me around. Another ape had taken advantage of the chaos and was hurling itself directly at me.
Better to meet this head on. I found myself running towards the new challenger. Unlike the other apes, it made no audible challenging calls.
We’re going to have to kill this one outright. It no longer eats or thinks rationally. I noticed its jaw appeared to be hanging somewhat slack. A fragment of bone was sticking out from the side of its cheek.
Kill it? Are you crazy? I don’t have any weapons! Despite my silent protests, I was still running forward.
You have your fists, your feet, and your teeth, don’t you?
There’s no way I’m going to bite that thing!
Then stay out of the way and let me handle this.
The enraged ape threw up its arms to smash me to the ground, but I dove under them and drove an uppercut into its injured jaw with all the force I could muster. The ape, even when it was on all fours, crested my height, but my blow had forced it to stagger backwards. I drove a front kick into one of its exposed knees while throwing up my arms to block any of its counterattacks. I then tucked my feet back under myself and launched myself backwards to put space between us. Blood was pouring from its mouth and the leg I had struck collapsed slightly inwards. Just how hard had I struck it?
Not hard enough. Tetora is right, you need to train.
As if the voice had summoned him, he leapt out from behind me, smashing his clawed right fist directly into the ape’s eye. It quivered, then fell to the ground, dead as Tetora retracted his claws. He was puffing, and I could see that he was trembling with anger. “What did I tell you?” His voice was actually dreadfully quiet, which was quite the contrast to what I assumed was his usual yelling.
“It w-wasn’t me…” I stammered.
Go on, talk to him, Raelynn!
I’m not Raelynn.
Then who are you?
Raeonna, third Appointed Hero of Legend.
Raeonna? A predecessor of Raelynn…?
“Well, I’m waiting for an answer. If it wasn’t you, then who was it?” He was snarling softly now, his tail flicking side to side.
“Raeonna.” He blinked and considered my answer for several moments. Maybe he never heard of her?
Tell him he should stop favoring his right side so much. One of these days, he’s going to get knocked on his back, permanently.
Now doesn’t seem the best time to criticize him!
Nonsense. Do it or I will.
I swallowed and repeated Raeonna’s message. Tetora’s anger slipped away, and it looked as if he was going to take those few words to heart. Aleph and Nora had joined us.
“Rae! You punched that redback in the face and broke its jaw!” Nora shadowboxed for a moment.
“It was already broken… Wait, why are you so surprised about what I did? You just cast a… spell! You summoned… lightning!” There were several expletives I omitted at the last moment.
“You’ve never used animus before?” Aleph asked.
“No, that was my first time!” I could practically hear Nora thinking something like, ‘and it won’t be my last!’
“You may need training even more desperately than Raelynn.” Aleph frowned thoughtfully. “Let’s keep moving. It would be best if we made it to the village before the sun sets.”