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, blurry land masses grew more prominent with every passing second. A translucent gold light formed a bubble around us, cutting us off from the icy cold air whipping at our bodies. We 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 primarily 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, turning 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 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 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 fair 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 will 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 stone, or at least plated in stone.”
“It looks like she went through a lot of trouble for us. I’m all for inspiration, but I feel like we’ve tumbled into the uncanny valley.”
Two masculine voices abruptly echoed in from the surroundings, 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 prayed fervently that Eura had gone to get us a wardrobe change as they approached our hiding spot.
“I’m telling you, if another pilgrim brings red camellias, I will 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 overcome 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 approaching the altar with heavy footsteps. Please don’t peek back here!
“It’s us again.” The deep but gentle-voiced man murmured.
“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 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 me, knocking me onto my back. The back of my head hit the stone floor, and I only saw white for a moment. 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 entirely. 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 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 giant hammer threateningly over Nora. She was frozen stiff, with her hands up as if under arrest. The tile in front of her was utterly 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 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 momentarily looked deep into my eyes as if 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’ve 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 possible. “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 returned her staff and offered his arm as balance. Nora took it and followed behind me with a staggering gait, 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, " he added.
“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 knew he would explode when he realized I wasn’t actually Raelynn.