The Last Rae of Hope
I dreamt about the knife attack in the alley again. It was less like watching a movie and more like scrolling through a series of poorly taken photos. A giant man in silhouette holding a large knife. A monstrous mask covered with slick, matted fur. Blood everywhere. A flash of light, then complete darkness. The pictures stopped, and it was more about other senses than sight. Laying on asphalt. Booming laughter followed by someone swearing. Distorted sirens getting louder. The smell of fresh rain. Cold that settles deep into the bones.
I awoke with a start, only to find Aleph’s war hammer poking me in the shoulder. “Wuh?” I asked as intelligently as I could.
“Breakfast is ready,” he said almost apologetically.
“I’m not.” I rolled over in my bedroll and brought it partially over my head, which earned me another poke.
“Everyone’s waiting for you.”
“That’s so nice of them. Tell them I said thanks.” I curled up in a ball so he couldn’t poke me in the vitals. I should have just gotten up. Aleph was gentle about it, but…
“Up now!” Tetora tore the bedroll out from under me, flipping me end over end because I had refused to let go.
“Hey! I was sleeping in that!”
“Not anymore. We’re going to be late.” Tetora avoided making eye contact with me.
“Late for what?” We were still in the middle of nowhere!
“Church.” As he uttered the word darkly, I heard a bell tolling in the distance.
“Wait, an actual building? Is there more than one?!” I mean, churches rarely sprout up by themselves, right?
“Churches are more than just buildings, little dragon,” Aleph admonished. “They are good places to self reflect and also–”
“Yeah, but I mean, a solid structure! A place! Other people!” I was excited now, racing to gather up my travel essentials. Maybe some of those buildings had access to semi-modern conveniences! Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a really nice warm bath indoors. I think Aleph was going to evangelize me some more, but Tetora pulled him aside and spoke in low but heated tones. I strained my ears to listen, but couldn’t make out what they were saying. After a few moments of conversation, Tetora turned his back to Aleph abruptly. Aleph moved to put his hand on his shoulder, but then he must have thought better of it. Instead, he headed towards Nora and I.
“I’ll see you two at the church after breakfast,” Aleph said in his normal, gentle baritone. “I’d like to prepare Father Baram for your arrival. He’ll probably be able to tell that you’re full blooded humans and he might misunderstand.”
“O-okay,” I also tried pretending everything was fine as I pulled my hair back.
Aleph nodded to Nora with a small smile before he slowly made his way up the road.
“You should warn him I’m coming too!” Tetora shouted after him angrily, snarling. Oh, this wasn’t good.
“Where’s breakfast?” I asked uncomfortably.
“Here.” Nora absently handed me a red apple as she browsed through her small, leather-bound journal once again. She had ritualistically read through her notes from the ren faire every morning since we had arrived, as if to remind herself of where we really came from and where we were supposed to go.
“Apples again?” I felt my nose twitch threateningly into a wrinkle.
I sighed and bit into it. It was leathery and dry, but it was food.
“Some jerky, too,” she handed me a canvas bag of the salty meat.
“I distinctly remember the author describing large banquet halls with roasts drowning in their own gravy everywhere,” I muttered while trying to tear off a piece of jerky with my teeth.
“We’ll infiltrate the first large banquet hall we see to validate that fact,” Nora nodded firmly. “But really, that’s the sort of thing you remember? Verbatim food descriptions?”
“I… like food?” I didn’t really know how else to defend myself.
“What else do you remember?” Nora was always asking me that. Pardon me for not being able to recite all the words to every chapter!
“The general plot and the characters…” I answered the same as always. One character vexed me to no end, but I couldn’t even say his real name, so why bother bringing him up?
“You’ll tell me if you remember more, right?” Nora pushed.
“Yeah, yeah. If it’s important.” That’s right, he wasn’t important enough to deal with, at least at the moment. Or maybe I just didn’t know how we were going to deal with him… No, stop thinking about it, Rachel! Talk to Relias and everything will be fine.
The bell pealed again, longer this time. It was a pleasant interruption and I once again returned to the thought that civilization was nearby. I quickly packed up my stuff, put on my mask, and pulled up my hood before setting out. Tetora reminded me to drag my giant sword trophy with an emphatically curt gesture. I grumbled, but dutifully tugged it through the dirt as we walked. The first chance I had, I was going to sell that heavy hunk of rusty junk.
We soon crested a small hill, and the road opened into a small courtyard where a small, wooden church sat squat. Outside the main door, Aleph was talking with an older male hybrid with massive, curling sheep horns. Other hybrids were making their way to the church from the other direction slowly.
“You’ll have to wait until the congregation disperses for the day,” the priest was saying as he pulled nervously at his robes. “I don’t want to alarm anyone unnecessarily.”
“Of course, Father Baram,” Aleph murmured before turning towards us. “This is Rachel and Nora, and though human, I affirm they are neither surveyors nor inquisitors.”
I remembered Aleph’s discussion about surveyors, but we hadn’t talked about inquisitors yet. Hadn’t they already blamed everyone there was to blame? I was about to ask, but all the color in Father Baram’s face drained as his gaze shifted to Tetora.
“Iron Tiger T-Tetora,” Father Baram faltered. “I bid you good t-tidings.” I guess Aleph hadn't alerted him after all.
Tetora’s eyes bore into the priest’s face. “Blessings, Father,” was all he replied in a suspiciously neutral tone. I noticed his tail was low and motionless, save for just the tip, which swished back and forth slowly. Chester would do the same thing back home for about five seconds before pouncing on his target with claws extended.
“Ah, um, Father Baram, was it?” I asked awkwardly to break the tension. “It’s very nice to meet you!” I held out my hand expectantly.
Not only did he grab my hand, he pulled me into his side, and it took me a few moments to realize he was using me as a literal human shield. “Joyous blessings to you on this fine day!” he nearly shook my arm off, all the while making sure I stayed between him and Tetora.
Aleph glanced at Tetora with contempt. “Drop it now or leave this holy place.”
“You expect me to just—” Tetora retorted, but Aleph simply pointed back towards the woods we came from with the business end of his war hammer. Tetora looked between Aleph and Father Baram a few times before snarling and sprinting off, stirring up a giant cloud of dust.
“Let’s take our conversation inside, shall we? Father Baram must prepare for his upcoming service.” Aleph led us through the main doors, with the priest close behind him. I made a show of struggling with the giant sword, lagging slightly so I could confer with Nora.
“What do you think that was all about?” I whispered, hoping only she heard me as I shoved the sword into a forgotten corner. I didn’t think anyone would appreciate me taking it into the sanctuary. Given yesterday’s events, however, I was determined to keep the bo staff on me.
“No idea,” Nora admitted. “I’m guessing it was personal, though.”
“This will blow over once we leave here, right?” I worried aloud.
“He’s probably just sulking because Aleph told him to knock it off,” Nora shrugged.
“I hope you’re right…”
We entered the sanctuary where Aleph was waiting for us up near the pulpit. “We’ll sit here,” he gestured to the first row of pews.
“Um, wouldn’t it be better if we sit in the back?” I asked hopefully. “You and I are pretty tall… I’d hate to block someone’s view.”
“Nice try, little one, but no. Remember to keep your head forward and very few will even glimpse your face.” I would have been offended had anyone else said that to me.
Aleph left to assist Father Baram with the service, so I slid into the pew next to Nora. She was looking forward with an excited gleam in her eyes. I followed her gaze to the enormous banner hung from the ceiling. Emblazoned on the banner was a downward facing sword with a small buckler hanging from its hilt. A star at the banner’s apex illuminated the scene.
“Look! It's the Will and Faith of Euphridia!” she bounced in her seat.
“I thought the shield was bigger,” I commented. “It looks so tiny.” I bet the artist had never even seen the actual Faith of Euphridia.
Nora turned her head slowly to me, giving me a disparaging look. “Raelynn can change its size any time she wants, remember?”
“Oh yeah, that’s pretty convenient.” I admitted.
“Okay, I just have to say it!” She bounced harder in her seat, no longer able to contain herself. “Lemme do the thing, Rae!”
“I dunno what thing is that you’re talking about, so I’m not really stopping you?”
Nora puffed herself up and pointed at me. With a dramatic voice, she recited, “Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked.”
“What chapter is that from?” I blinked.
“Ephesians, chapter 6, verse 16.”
“Wait, from the bible? So Eura totally just ripped that off, too?” That sort of irritated me since I had always thought the weapon set had catchy titles.
Nora bobbed her head.
“What a lazy author,” I muttered.
“Now, now, they all do it. You can’t have a story that doesn’t connect to the real world. Otherwise the audience wouldn’t understand it, and isn’t a mutual understanding the point of telling a story in the first place?”
“Yeah, I suppose, but that’s borderline copyright infringement! Wait… is the bible copyrighted?”
“Most modern translations are, but that’s why I quoted the King James version. Fair use.”
“How do you even know something like that?” Just what else was stashed away in that head of hers?
She took a deep breath, but loud murmuring and footsteps coming from the back of the church interrupted her most likely long-winded answer. About two dozen hybrids, mostly sheep, ox, and rabbit variations, filled in various sections of the pews. We had already forgotten Aleph’s warning not to stay turned around for long. We couldn’t help it, though. The children were the cutest things I had ever seen. Wide-eyed, happy rabbits with their ears just twitching with excitement. Little baby lambs blatting anxiously for their parent’s attention. Some hybrids wore cloth masks like we did, since even inside there were fine traces of dirt hovering in the air. I’m sure it was weird that our hoods were up, but I think everyone was just being polite enough not to ask us to remove them. Though they didn’t speak to us, they did nod their heads slightly in acknowledgement. I heard the word “pilgrims” being bandied about in hushed tones to explain our presence.
“We’re over capacity,” Nora whispered softly to me. “Even if we exclude ourselves.”
“Hybrid counts.” Oh yeah, we were definitely over the limit of twenty.
“I swear if anyone threatens this flock, I’ll bust them wide open.” I whispered back heatedly.
Nora just gave me a wide, supportive grin in response. Outside, the church bell tolled again, signaling the start of the service.