We left the village around noon with our packed provisions. I was still sore and somewhat sleep-deprived, but better than the day before. I got dressed in my travel clothes. Aleph and Tetora had dyed them a muted wool gray earlier since they would never be bright white again.
“Here.” Tetora handed me a long oak stick.
“A bo-staff?” I asked, looking up and down the length of it.
“Yes. It will have many uses on our travels.”
“How long do you think it will take me to master it?” I hefted it up and down.
Tetora laughed heartily. “You?”
“Like, a few months?” I tried unsuccessfully swinging it around like I had seen in the movies.
He laughed harder. “Gold dragon or not, I shall master it before you!”
“You haven’t mastered it either?” I thought he practiced stuff like this for his whole life!
“Anyone who says that they have is a liar! However, for now, it will help you train. You won’t need to worry if you break or lose it, either. It is effortless to make another.”
I missed my aluminum bat. “Wouldn’t a metal weapon be better?”
“You will not find enough free metal throughout the village to even forge a dagger pommel, little one.” Aleph apologized.
“Oh. Sorry... That must have sounded selfish.” I looked back at the wooden huts. “Is there any industry here? I mean–”
“The ground is mostly barren here.” Tetora shook his head.
“Then why even try to live here?”
“This area… was assigned to us,” Aleph said.
“We are lucky we had a place to go and that it was close to the shrine. The village receives a small stipend to tend to the altar.” Aleph explained.
“It was my idea!” Tetora shouted, startling me enough that I dropped the staff. “I only made him go along with it, so if you are mad, punish me!”
“Eh?” I picked up my staff by kicking my foot under it before lifting it to my hand.
“The stipend is for decorating your shrine with flowers, but…”
“Flowers?” Also, it’s not my shrine, but I was sick of trying to win that argument.
“We used it to buy supplies for the village instead.” Tetora hung his head.
Nora shook her head. “Rae hates flowers anyway.”
“Cut flowers,” I clarified. “Who decided plant corpses make excellent gifts?”
“The guy who ran out of animals to sacrifice?” Nora sassed back.
“Then you are not angry with me?” Tetora asked me hopefully.
“Why would I be? The money should be for the village. That stone doesn’t care if it’s covered in flowers or not. But who was giving you the stipend?”
“It’s sent by the church every season,” Aleph replied. “It always comes with a note signed by Holy Sage Relias himself.”
Relias! Oh, how thoughtful! “What did he do after Raelynn… left?” I asked.
“Relias ran out of the throne room and sealed it shut with holy amity. The only thing he had in his hands was your, I mean, Raelynn’s shield,” Tetora explained, glancing at Aleph.
“He told us how Oliver had sent Raelynn away to another world. With all the injuries she sustained, it was hard to hope that she would survive,” Aleph added. “Laverna was angry that Relias had sealed the room without letting us pay our respects, but he said even in death, King Epiales’s corpse was exuding demonic animus.”
“Wait. Sealed up? It looked more like that entire area had been leveled out.”
“That happened later… The general assembly of clergy came and purged the entire area before the three remaining holy orders dismantled the castle.”
“That must have been quite the undertaking…” Nora frowned thoughtfully.
“Did you leave with him after he originally sealed the castle?” I asked Tetora.
“Yes, but by the time we reached Chairo, the church had already called for an inquisition.”
“Inquisition?” I asked.
“To determine how Oliver had infiltrated our party,” Tetora explained.
It was Aleph’s turn now. “They blamed many for Raelynn’s… unanticipated departure.”
“Laverna’s past was publicly uncovered, and she was tried for several crimes. Many people tried to say she was Oliver’s accomplice,” Tetora sighed loudly.
“Laverna…! She wouldn’t do that!” I exclaimed hotly.
“She maintained her innocence, but it took a toll on her,” Aleph clarified. “We haven’t heard from her in about three years now.” He then took a deep breath and continued quickly, as if the conversation had turned painful. “The mage tower, who had recommended Oliver to Raelynn, was destroyed. Dark mages are still persecuted, even inside the wastelands, which reminds me Nora. You should… do the thing.” Do the thing? That’s not how Aleph spoke!
“Doing the thing!” She pulled off her robes with a flourish. She had a standard light tan tunic and dark pants underneath it. I was disappointed. It wasn’t as outrageous as I had expected. Not even a single sequin or feather. Was Nora losing her touch?
“Behold!” She flipped her robes inside out. Suddenly, they were just like an ordinary traveler’s cloak in a forest green that complimented her eyes.
“They’re reversible!” I gasped.
“Of course! Everyone always has an extreme opinion about magic users, one way or another. It’s best to wear the right costume for the right audience!”
“You sly, sly dog, er, rabbit!” I admired.
“I can remove the top part of the staff too, see? It becomes an instant walking stick. I was going to show you at the fair, but the opportunity never presented itself.” Nora tucked the caged orb inside her cloak.
“Yeah… things kinda went a bit sideways.” I agreed, scratching my head before returning to Aleph and Tetora. “What did you mean about being assigned to the land?”
“Hybrids… are the outcome of ancient experiments conducted by dark mages.”
“Yes, I remember that from the story.” Sad origins, but certainly not the fault of the hybrids for existing, right?
“The church has decided that we should not gather in groups larger than twenty.”
“That’s awfully arbitrary, isn’t it? What are they afraid of?”
“They say hybrids generate too much animus and therefore must disperse to the edges of society to maintain balance in the more populated areas.”
“That sounds like a giant load of bull-” I suddenly looked at Aleph. Oh, he might not appreciate that.
“Bull what?” he asked so innocently that I couldn’t tell if he was playing me or if that saying simply didn’t exist here.
“Uh.” I looked at Nora.
“Ackamarackus!” she suggested happily.
“What?” we all asked simultaneously.
“Look it up!”
“I can’t. She took our phones!” I retorted. Not that they would have worked, anyway.
“Oh yeah. Sorry, habit. Ackamarackus. Nonsense.”
“Then just say that!” I fumed.
“Ackamarackus is fun to say!”
“Ackamarackus. Yeah, okay, I see your point.” I conceded. “But anyway. Haven’t hybrids been living together for hundreds of years in large communities all over the world?”
“Yes,” Aleph nodded. “However, the environment has also changed a lot recently, so the church passes anything remotely associated with decreasing ambient animus into law.”
“Ambient animus…” Nora repeated to herself.
I focused more on the legal implications of his statement. “Law? You said the church decided.”
“They aren’t separate?” I asked.
Tetora snorted. “Separate? How could they be? Priests crown kings!”
“Oh. Yes. I guess that shows who’s really in charge, huh?”
“As for Holy Sage Relias…” Aleph looked at me with large, sad eyes. “He tried to take the blame for all of our shortcomings. He begged the council of elders to assign him penance commensurate with our collective sins so they would spare us.” Wait, spare you? Spare you from what?!
“Collective sins?” Nora inquired before I could register my dissent.
“Had we not sinned, Raelynn would still–”
“What are you saying?!” I fumed. “A demon lord deceived everyone! How is that your fault?”
“If we had been more dutiful in our–” Aleph started again.
“Bullshit!” I shouted. “No offense, but Ackamarackus doesn’t cut it this time!”
“See? Even Rae thinks it’s bullshit!” Tetora agreed with me.
Aleph’s long face appeared to grow longer. “Even I find discomfort in the church’s approach to the situation.” He sighed again. “Eventually, the council agreed to his request, and we were free to go, provided we returned to this village. As far as we know, Rel still resides in the north tower of the main temple, where he continues the Sacrament of Penance.”
I glanced at Nora questioningly. Organized religion wasn’t something I knew much about firsthand. Mother had a particular disdain for such practices, and my only real interaction with religious professionals had involved the hospital chaplain after my emergency admission.
“Acts of repentance, assigned by the church and carried out in quiet devotion,” she murmured.
“So he’s been in punitive isolation… for all these years?” I felt my stomach lurch.
“Yes.” Tetora and Aleph agreed.
“To think we haven’t even asked about the demons themselves yet…” Nora sighed.
“Yeah, and just exactly what has Demon King Oleth–” Suddenly, Tetora wrapped his giant hand around my mouth, cutting me off. It tasted absolutely awful.
“Never, ever say his name!” Aleph shouted with uncharacteristic heat. “He can hear you if you call him!”
Nora jumped with a start. “Okay, that definitely wasn’t made explicit in the story!”
Tetora released me, and I wiped my mouth. “Let’s… take a break, shall we?” I suggested. “You know, before we get ourselves into bigger trouble.”