“Again,” Tetora instructed. “Who are you?”
I put my hands on my hips proudly. “Raelynn Lightbringer, Knight Captain of the Holy Order of Gold, Chosen One of the Goddess, 7th Appointed Hero of Legend, and … uh, Wielder of the Faith and Will of Euphridia.” The titles really were tedious, and that last one…! Obvious lie!
“Hmmm… You need more confidence.” Tetora remarked. “The pose is good, but you don’t sound like you believe yourself.” Of course, I don’t believe myself!
“We’re done for today, right?” I pressed. “Let’s keep going!” Although moving forward would take me closer to the holy city, it at least afforded me a distraction where I could hide behind my cloak and mask. Tetora threw his hands up in frustration but took the lead once again.
“Maybe it would help if we talked about the titles,” Aleph suggested after we were well on our way. “It might help you connect to her character.”
“Actually… Can we start with her name? Raelynn Lightbringer is her name, right? Or is Lightbringer a title?” I asked, thinking her last name could go either way.
“Raelynn Lightbringer is her covenant name.” Covenant name? I must have been making a face of ignorance because Aleph continued. “When she was received in joyful fellowship by the church. It was on her sixth birthday exactly.”
“What’s her real name, then?” Nora asked, eyes wide. I admit I was also quite curious. “The story didn’t–”
“She never told us,” Tetora interjected. “Not that she should have, mind you! That sort of thing is very personal.” Didn’t you guys travel together, though? Wasn’t it weird not knowing her real name?
“Is Tetora… not your real name?” I asked in confusion.
“Tetora is not the name I received at birth,” Tetora turned away slightly, his cheeks red. “Don’t ask what it is, either. It’s weird to be having this conversation!” Are birth names some sort of secret?
“Uh, okay. So, Raelynn Lightbringer. That’s quite a name for a young girl.” I tossed my head slightly.
“She grew into it rather quickly. Holy Sage Relias gave it to her himself.”
“She… met him… when she was only six?” Oh no. The more I thought about that, the more it sounded wrong!
“Yes,” Aleph asserted. “Euphridia herself told him of her coming. The entire world was waiting for her return.” Minus the bad guys, of course.
I was about to inquire further, but the sound of raucous laughter interrupted our discussion. Three mercenaries were making their way along the road from the other direction. Their armor was rusty, scratched, and piecemealed together with tattered leather straps.
“Look at what we got here, boys!” The tall one in the middle sneered. “It’s a good thing you have beastgirls with you! I was getting kinda lonely!” Beastgirls? Lonely? Oh, heck no.
“But boss, there’s only two!” The smallest one on the right whined in a high-pitched, nasal tone.
“So what? I want the tall one!” The leader pointed at me with his giant oar of a sword. “You guys fight over the other. The smaller ones are usually rats or rabbits, and I ain’t into buck teeth!”
“You always get to pick first,” the diminutive swordsman muttered.
“That’s the perk of being in charge!”
“I don’t know about this, guys. What about the big cat over there?” The middle-sized one on the left asked as he gestured at Tetora. “He could be trouble.” That was an understatement, of course. But did they not even see Aleph with the giant war hammer strapped to his back?
“Pfft. Don’t think for a moment that you stand a chance!” the leader guffawed at us. “No one around here gives the tiniest shit about what could happen to you. So just do what we say, and maybe you’ll live to see tomorrow. But you even think about attacking us, and we’ll skin the lot of you!”
I glanced furtively at Aleph and Tetora, but they hadn’t taken a defensive stance.
“You two have this one,” Aleph stated loudly when I caught his eye.
“No reason for us to get involved,” Tetora confirmed with a prominent stretch. He had sparred with me almost religiously three times a day since we left, but I didn’t think I was ready for a real rumble. Nora was already chanting, however. I recognized the words to Ventos, the spell to summon a giant wind. Oliver had been a genuine fan of that one, rocketing off antagonists he just didn’t feel like dealing with anymore with a flippant gesture. However, I was worried that Nora might not deliver that kind of outcome. It also left me solely responsible for party defense until she finished the spell. I ignored the tight feeling in my chest, focusing on the need for party protection.
“Dark mage!” the shortest adversary cried, taking a few steps back as if he was about to break into a run. I would have let him go, but he suddenly dipped his hand to his left boot, and I saw a glimmer of steel fly at Nora as he brought his hand back up. My reluctance to engage dissipated. In a heartbeat, I leaped into the projectile’s path and deflected it with a flick of my staff. I’ll admit, attempting to take out the caster first with ranged combat was a solid strategy. I wasn’t in the mood to admire his tactics, though. Nora was my best friend, so how dare he try to hurt her! I heard a guttural scream and was surprised to find that it was coming from my own throat. Consumed with a level of rage I never thought possible, I crouched low and launched myself towards him, closing in swiftly. I think he had trouble tracking my movements because I saw his eyes flick nervously left and right until I was right in front of him as if he had momentarily lost sight of me.
“Do! Not! Throw! Knives! At! My! Friends!” I punctuated each word with a whack of the staff, one to each leg, one to each arm, one thrust to the gut to double him over, and one upward swing to stand him back up momentarily, and a final crack over the head. He collapsed in a boneless heap, unconscious. I blinked. One down already? Seriously, what just happened?
“Wow… must have been his first day,” I murmured to hide my confusion as I glanced in Nora’s direction, only to find her juggling the middle-sized goon with her wind spell.
“Up and up you go! Oh, oops,” Nora flinched as he fell to the ground. She raised her hand, and up he went again at the last moment. “Up and down you go, I mean.”
The leader had frozen with shock and confusion. He looked frantically between his friends, one motionless at my feet and the other screaming obscenities as he helplessly floated up and down in Nora’s spell.
Eventually, he focused on me. He raised his impractically gigantic sword over his head and gracelessly charged me. He brought the sword down in a clumsy strike, which I sidestepped. I couldn’t understand why countering came to me so easily. I just felt his movements were very predictable and slow. Nothing like Tetora or Aleph, both of whom had moved with graceful economy and terrifying speed during our lessons.
“Are you trying?” This… dingus was nothing, I realized. For the first time since arriving in this fantasy world brought to life, I felt like I knew exactly what to do. Was I… enjoying this? Why?
He growled and brought his sword up and around in a horizontal slash, which I quickly hopped over. He followed up with a kick, which I deftly turned aside with my staff. I indulged myself with a little mockery before finishing him.
“I’m going to give you a 2 out of 10. Is this your first time using a sword?” I mean, I don’t recall using one myself, but I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to hit with the pointy end. “Or is it a boat oar?”
His face turned scarlet with rage. “Hold still, and I’ll show you what this ‘boat oar’ can do, you mouthy b****!” he roared. That was the very moment I decided I’d heard enough out of him. I twisted around his thrust. He was too close to bring my staff around for a strike, so I let go of it with one hand, grabbed the sword’s handle just above his hands, and yanked it out of his grasp. He staggered backward in surprise.
I hefted it one-handed over my head and pretended to inspect it. “Ugh, the balance on this thing is awful! No wonder you’re having trouble hitting me. Here, you can have it back.” I tossed the sword up in the air, and then, while his gaze followed it, I snapped a right cross to his face. He howled in pain as he fell to the ground writhing. His sword landed in the dirt with a dull thud a few moments later.
“That’s what you get for name-calling!” With the threat, such as it was, neutralized, I began to feel a wave of guilt wash over me. His nose was definitely broken. His tiny companion was also still laid out on the ground, crumpled in places you don’t normally crumple. “Look, I’ll make you a deal. You leave right now, take your two moron friends with you, swear never to come back or hassle any hybrids ever again, and maybe you’ll live to see tomorrow! We’ll keep your weapons so you aren’t tempted to misuse them again. Clear?”
Unable to speak, the leader nodded furiously, and Nora let down the amateur skydiver. He took a moment to throw up in a pile of scraggly weeds before helping his leader carry off the unconscious one.
Once they were gone, Nora and I walked over to Aleph and Tetora, whose grin threatened to split his face in half.
“That seemed… easy,” I said as I started to shake. It was way too easy, unrealistically easy.
“It is because of all the training you’ve done with your peerless teachers, of course!” bellowed Tetora.
Aleph nodded. “Tetora likes to reserve most of the praise for himself, but in truth, you both did well.”
“What gave you the idea to juggle him?” I asked Nora, hiding my tremulous right hand behind me. I knew it would stop eventually.
“Well… I didn’t think you’d appreciate me just flinging them away, so… I thought I’d control it a bit. I was trying to get the two of them, but I missed. Next time, I’ll get the whole bunch all at once!” Next time? I had two minds about the possibility of the next time. However, skirmishes like these had been peppered into the story in the first place, so the likelihood of more good-for-nothings showing up was probably pretty high.
“It seems you both have natural talent,” Aleph continued. “Not that I had any doubts. Keep up the good work.”
“Mmm…” I didn’t trust myself to speak at that point. Intentionally hurting someone… didn’t seem right. However, another part of me noted the jerks threatened our safety first, and I had to admit winning without taking damage felt good. It was like both sides of my brain were fighting the other. Who should win?
“Just take the compliment, Rae!” Nora scolded.
“Oh, right. Thank you.” I went over to pick up the enormous sword, thinking it might be worth something to one of those wandering peddlers. Even the most oversized sword should not be this heavy! What kind of dense fantasy metal was it made out of? How in the world had I thrown it up into the air like that? I glanced suspiciously at Nora.
She deflected the glance back at me. “What’s this now?”
“What did you do to me?” I asked in an accusatory tone.
“Nothing lately,” she replied. “What did you think I did?”
“Some sort of superhuman strength spell when I wasn’t looking.”
“No such thing on the dark mage side, at least that I know of. Why?” She went over to the sword and tried to pick it up. “What the..?!”
“Yeah, that’s where I’m at.” I turned my suspicion on Aleph and Tetora.
“She’s giving the angry look again,” Tetora whispered loudly to Aleph. “Should I just ignore her? She’ll just start yelling again if I try to explain it.”
Aleph stared at his companion for a moment before sighing loudly. He looked at me like he had just lost a bet. “Anecdotally, you seem to use amity to strengthen yourself in times of combat, just like… someone else we know.”
Amity. The positive emotional forces implicated in using holy magic. Emotions like empathy, friendship, peace, goodwill. Raelynn Lightbringer famously used those qualities to empower herself.
I couldn’t prove Tetora right. He already had a swelled head, so there was no need to make him more arrogant. “... Oh.” I left it at that. The three of them looked at each other uncomfortably but said nothing.
“I’m hungry,” I declared loudly. “Time to eat!” I dragged the sword off the road before they even made a move. I had no headspace available to deal with things I didn’t want to understand.