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An Ocean of Mirrors

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An Ocean of Mirrors

Chapter One

Rise to Fame

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“Stop crying. If you cry too much, you won’t have any tears left. You should laugh with me. If you laugh, then the things that are wrong won’t seem so bad.”

…Dias…

“Here, do you want some candy? I’ll give you some.”

…Where did you go…?

“That’s right. Hold out your hand…There you are. Is that enough? I have more if you want some. Don’t be shy, I have plenty.”

…I miss you…

“By the way, I’m Dias Flac. What’s your name?”

\/\/\/

“I’m leaving! Bye!”

The door from a small house in the corner of Arlia Village opened and a young girl with wild blue hair bolted down the steps, red fabric flying behind her in the form of a small cape. It looked more like a banner whipping in the wind with the way it hung from her thin shoulders.

Westa pursued her daughter, dropping the ladle that she’d been washing into the sink with a hollow clank.

“Hold on a minute, young lady,” she called back, doing her best to bring out her (Rena-dubbed) “Angry Mother’s Voice.”

Even at forty-two, she prided herself on keeping her body fit and nimble and could still outrun her daughter when necessary, now being one of those times. Her pursuit lasted until the bottom step, where Rena waited with baited curiosity only a few paces away, and Westa paused long enough to smooth back her navy ponytail. It looked less wild than her daughter’s, who preferred to keep it short and uncombed. The strands that had fallen free during Westa’s run wrapped like a wire around her round face, and sweat formed at her hairline from hours of house cleaning, something she wished her daughter would partake in. At least her room, if anything.

Rena appeared less like the accused and more like the victim with her confused brows knitted together. Westa crossed the lawn, deep wrinkles set around her eyes and at the creases of her frown. She approached Rena and shook her head.

“What, Mom?” Rena tilted her head to a shoulder and even had the bravery to smile.

Westa wasn’t in the mood for smiles, even if they were as lovely as her daughter. Her eyes fell to Rena’s short, Prussian blue hair, which fell longer on one side than the other. Westa had taught her better, but the girl’s hair stuck up around her head as much as it was uneven. A gold, crescent hairpin hung above Rena’s pointed left ear, ears unlike Westa’s own. The hairpin was something she had bought as a birthday present many years ago to match the gold pendant her daughter always wore.

“Don’t ‘what Mom,’ me, Rena. You’re not thinking of going to the Shingo Forest again, are you?”

Rena’s face scrunched. Although she fell silent, Westa knew all too well her child’s desire. Though seventeen and no longer a child, Westa could only see the girl she had raised when she stared into Rena’s sapphire eyes. Not knowing what else to do, Westa set her hands on Rena’s shoulders and sighed. Perhaps she could point out Rena’s messy bedroom or suggest that they make dinner together. Even a walk to the stream would be nicer than where Rena wanted to go. Westa couldn’t change her daughter’s mind most of the time, but with the recent dangers around Cross Continent, she feared for the safety of what little family she had left.

“Why don’t you take a break from there today?” Westa offered a wry smile. “You went there yesterday, and the day before that.”

Rena twitched under her grip and looked away. “But the Shingo Forest makes me feel so calm, Mom. Why can’t I go?”

Westa bit her lower lip. There were so many things she wanted to say, but the only thing that formed on her tongue was, “What is it about that forest?”

“I—”

“Rena, it’s too dangerous. We just had an earthquake yesterday and monsters are roaming these parts. You know that things haven’t been right since the Sorcery Globe crashed, yet, you insist on making me worry. Can’t you stay inside the village today? Please?”

Rena freed herself from her mother’s hold, though Westa did little to stop her. She didn’t know how to. Rena’s mind appeared elsewhere these days, but Westa wasn’t sure what she would do if anything were to happen to her only daughter, now that Noa was gone.

Rena sidestepped toward the cobblestone path, fingers interlocked behind her back. “Right. I’ll be going now.”

“Rena, please—”

“See you later, Mom.”

Westa reached out but grabbed air. Rena hurried around the corner and disappeared, the flutter of her cape lingering for just a moment before disappearing. Although Westa felt the urgency to chase after her, Rena couldn’t be bought easily. Even if Westa had been able to bring her back, kicking and screaming, Rena would find a way to visit that damned forest.

She always did.

\/\/\/

“My mother is such a worrywart,” Rena mumbled to herself once at the village limits and sighed. “Nothing could possibly be dangerous about this forest. I’ve been coming here for years.”

The entrance to the Shingo Forest beckoned with waving trees and bushes created by the gentle breeze, but she imagined them all alive with boisterous greetings as she returned from having been away for so long.

Even a day away felt too long.

She skipped across the trail, kicking loose brush and small sticks off the path as she went. Birds chirped overhead in the thick leaves, and she hummed a nonsensical tune.

The farther along she went, the more distinct nature smelled. White flowers reminded her of her mom’s perfume, while dew on grass blades had a scent like the house plant in Mayor Regis’ home after Lila watered it. From above, the sun hid itself behind a canopy of leaves, though speckled rays of light peeked out through open patches.

“I think I’ll wander a little deeper into the forest today,” she suggested to herself, and that felt like a good idea.

She stopped short at the sound of a sharp rustle from across the trail. Her eyes darted to a shifting bush, and her hands automatically curled into small fists. She kept still, the limbs and leaves rubbing against each other until a small head popped out. Peering closer, Rena recognized the long, white ears that stood on end and the pink, wriggling nose.

“It’s a bunny.” She laughed to herself. “Come here, bunny…”

The rabbit did not heed her call but didn’t run away. Down on all fours, Rena crawled off the path and through the blades of long grass toward the animal, cooing and giggling. The rabbit jumped from its hiding place in the bushes and bounded away just as Rena reached out to touch it.

“Awwww…” Her lips twisted and she watched it disappear behind a tree off in a nearby clearing. She decided to follow and scrambled to her feet, ignoring the dirt stains on her hands and knees, and ran in the direction of the tree.

She didn’t have to go far before she caught sight of the pointed ears sticking out from behind a small stump diagonal from the tree. The grass cushioned the noise she made as she walked, slowing her movements to a creep and halted the moment the rabbit poked its head out from above the stump, one of her legs hovering in the air. She struggled to keep her balance without moving too much and frightening the animal.

“You silly rabbit,” she whispered and held as still as a statue. “Come here, already.”

It hopped away again, and she lunged for it, but only clasped fistfuls of grass. The whirling fluff ball disappeared into a thicket, leaves shooting into the air behind it.

“I’ll get you,” she jokingly vowed, and pushed herself up to her feet before pursuing the animal again.

She skirted the edge of the thicket until a thin break in the trees and bushes allowed her to shimmy through and she found herself in another clearing. She’d never been this deep into the forest before, and it was more than she was used to. The thought was brushed aside when she spotted two little legs squirming and pushing the rest of its plush, white body under another bush.

“Raaaaaaabbit…” she sang and slowly moved toward the bush. She hovered over it and reached up with both hands. Fingers curling around thick branches in the shrub, she peered through the branches. “Now I…” with sudden force, she parted the bush with her hands and pushed herself forward, “…got you!”

A brown, furry face materialized inches from her own, and an unbearable stench wafted across her nose. Paralyzed, she couldn’t take in anything except for the stained, white fangs and yellow eyes.

The creature’s growl rumbled from the back of its throat before lobbing an arm at her face. The force hurled her back, and her head snapped against the ground before her body twisted and rolled away. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to sustain the throbbing in her head. Her pointed ears twitched at a sharp snap, body vibrating as something heavy thudded close.

Eyes snapping open, she hazily took in two hairy legs, the kneecaps bulging from thick thighs, and a torso like a tree trunk. Rena let a small gasp escape her lips when she saw the face in full regalia, the fangs hanging over the creature’s lower lip larger now than they had appeared before.

No, not a creature. A monster.

The monster’s beady eyes beheld her, and a large tongue swept over its lips. Never had she set eyes on such a beast, but she was positive that this would be the last time she saw anything again.

Rena used her hands and legs to flip onto her knees and scampered away. The monster pursued and swiped at her with claws nearly bigger than her own house door.

She screamed and twisted her body out of the monster’s reach, but her hip caught the monster’s forearm and she sailed back. Her head snapped against a tree trunk and she seized the wound in her hand. The ringing in her head buzzed as an array of colors flooded her vision, the tender spot on her head aching and pulsating under her fingertips.

The blurry figure of the monster snatched at her again.

“Look out!”

An arm locked around her waist and suddenly she was rolling, her body held close to something warm. She stopped on her back and opened her eyes to hazy vision and tinted green garments belonging to a lithe frame that could be anything but a monster.

The figure released her and pulled away. Once coherent, she looked over to whom had saved her, but the other body was already on their feet, aimed toward the monster.

It was a man not much older than she with sun-kissed blonde hair that touched his shoulders and swayed with his agile movements. The clothes he wore were unfamiliar to anything she had ever seen, a black undershirt and white pants becoming the closest things she could recognize. She wanted to say something, but her voice failed her. The man dodged the monster’s claws; its fist crashed into the ground and created a hole twice the size of Rena’s head.

She backed away and whimpered but froze when the man grabbed a stick and lashed at the monster. The makeshift weapon collided with its knee and splintered into several pieces, a stump left in the man’s hand.

“Dammit…” He jumped back and tossed the wood away.

The monster circled him, grunted, and balled its fists. It reared its arm back and thrust forward, but the man crouched and sprung to the side. Rena held herself still, unable to speak.

She watched the monster bound into the air, and the man evaded again. He pushed a hand into his pocket, withdrew something she had never seen before, and aimed it at the monster.

Before she could comprehend the object’s form, she was blinded by a burst of light. Rena slapped her hands over her face, the heat of the light warm against her body until it felt like her skin was burning. Ignoring the sensation, she peered through the slits between her fingers at her savior.

The man stood still, holding the object in his outstretched hands. The force of the blast thrashed against his hair and clothes, but he remained upright and balanced. Her attention turned toward the monster, whose body had deteriorated away in the staggering gust.

“The…Sword of Light…” she murmured.

The light vanished as quickly as it had come and the man dropped his arms, still clutching whatever it was in his hands. She could hear his heavy breaths, his chest heaving. For a moment, she thought he would collapse, but he gained some composure, and placed his Sword of Light into a pocket on his belt, which looked like a boxy version of a sword sheath.

“Good thing…I made it…in time,” he sputtered and stifled a cough before turning toward her, cheeks budded red. A bead of sweat trailed down the bridge of his nose and dripped from his face.

Rena fixed her attention on what he had put into his boxy sheath. His clothes and the beam of light were not an unfamiliar concept to Rena, despite how strange they looked.

He advanced toward her, and she jumped with fright.

“Are you all right?” he asked, checking her over. He reached for her arm. “You’re not hurt, are you? In that case, can I ask if you are—”

She screamed, swatted his hand away, and bolted out of the vicinity.

“Hey! Wait!” he called after, but she paid him no heed, darting in between trees and over bushes until she’d left the clearing far behind.

She ran until she could almost see the boundary of Arlia and passed the stump where she had first pursued the bunny. Rena tripped and fell but pushed herself to her feet and continued toward the forest’s edge.

Her mind told her to stop.

As though it had been someone else telling her to do it, she obeyed. The man had saved her life—she knew that. She wouldn’t be alive to run away if he hadn’t come along.

Rena doubled over, her chest stinging. Gripping at her gold pendant, she closed her eyes and suppressed the urge to cough.

“Who…who does he think he is? Trying to grab me like that…” She couldn’t help herself and had a short coughing fit. Rena wiped her lips with the back of her hand and mumbled, “He shouldn’t have…” Shifting her body so that she could peer back into the forest, she waited for movement from within the woods, but saw none. “I hope he’s okay.”

She squared her shoulders and waited a while longer. The guilt tugged at her mind and she wondered if he was wandering, lost and straying further from the path. Her breathing returned to normal, and her emotions stabilized. The more rational she became, the more remorseful she felt at having left him behind. Pacing did little to assuage her, especially when he never arrived.

“I couldn’t have left him that far behind. I know I didn’t.” But she didn’t feel convinced.

After another minute of being left alone in the forest, she began to worry and considered going to look for him but found that her feet wouldn’t move.

“There’s only one way out of the forest,” she told a dead sapling. “If he wants to get to Arlia, then he has to come this way.”

Then, as if on cue, the blonde man stumbled around a bush, his puzzled eyes absorbing the vicinity. She stopped pacing long enough to see him and raised her hand to wave. He didn’t appear to have noticed, so she called out to him.

Head whirling in her direction, he saw her and smiled.

“Hello?” he asked.

She reluctantly returned his smile. “Hello.”

He beamed and came almost at a charge toward her. “Fantastic, you can understand what I’m saying. I didn’t know what I was going to do if you spoke a different language.”

Rena blinked and raised her hand to her mouth to bite down on her finger. “Um…what?”

He rubbed the sweat from his face and laughed. “Ah, never mind me, I’m just rambling. I’m glad you waited, though. I wasn’t sure if you would.”

“I really wasn’t sure if I should or not, but you saved my life. It would’ve been rude if I hadn’t waited.” Rena rubbed her elbow. “Um…Sorry for running away like that.”

“Oh, no, don’t worry about it.” He laughed again but didn’t disguise his discomfort. “Under all of that pressure, if I had been in your shoes, I probably would’ve done the same thing.”

Rena bowed her head and continued massaging her elbow. “Still, it was wrong. Please forgive me.”

The man swept a hand through his blonde locks. A red headband peaked out from under his bangs. “It was pretty scary, wasn’t it?”

She didn’t share his humor.

Eyes downcast, she stopped rubbing her arm and gripped it instead. She gave a nod barely noticeable, and said, “Y-Yeah. It was. And…I ran away from you…” Lifting her head up to meet his blue eyes, she blurted, “I’m really, really sorry.”

He held out his hands. “No, just forget about it. After all, you did wait for me, right? No harm done.”

She bit her lip. “I…My name is Rena—Rena Lanford. May I ask yours?”

He fidgeted with his hands and sputtered, “Uh, yeah. I’m, uh, Claude. Claude C. Kenni, but Claude is just fine.”

She giggled at his nervousness, which enhanced her own in turn. So, she reached out to take one of his hands, to which he flinched, and shook it. After a moment, he relaxed and accepted the handshake.

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Kenni,” she said. After pumping his arm a couple of times, she released him and looked him over. “That reminds me. You wanted to ask me something before, right?”

“Oh.” He stalled. “That’s right. I did. Um, so…where are we?”

The question didn’t immediately register in her mind. How could someone not know where they were? Was this Claude an exception? But his strange clothes were a giveaway. If her hunch was correct, she was staring at more than just a savior, and she had been the one to find him. For the moment, however, she suppressed that hunch.

“We’re in the Shingo Forest, silly.” Then, spinning on one foot, she pointed to the forest entrance, “Beyond that point is Arlia Village.”

She expected him to understand, but when she turned to face him, he was just as confused as he had been the moment she met him.

“Shingo Forest?” he echoed. “Arlia Village?”

The ends of her mouth turned up in a wry smile. “Maybe I…should just show you…”

He stopped her. “And the planet? What’s the name of the planet?”

His odd questions made her eyebrows furrow. “You mean Expel?”

Claude’s blue eyes wandered skyward, as though expecting something to fall from the heavens. She followed his gaze but saw nothing but trees and sun rays.

Expel?” he asked in a soft voice. “I wonder which space quadrant that’s in.”

She decided to ignore his strange mumbling and took his hand to lead him out of the forest. Soon enough, he fell in step with her, and she released him. They approached a bridge with a clear stream running beneath it. From out of the corner of her eye, she watched him wander, mouth agape, taking in their surroundings.

She half expected him to question her about everything, as though he had never seen trees and birds, either, but he did nothing of the sort.

“So, Mr. Kenni…” she began, attempting to break the silence. “Are you a traveler?”

He jolted and whirled on her. Then, with a clearing of his throat, he said, “Oh, yeah. I guess you could call it something like that.”

“Well,” she placed her hands on the front of her skirt, clasping one at the wrist. “Where are you from?”

“Uh…” his gaze dropped. “I’m from earth.”

“Urth?” she mimicked his enunciation.

Earth,” he drug the word from his lips, long and slow. “It’s a place…uh…how should I put this? It’s a place far away from here. Like…” he stretched his arms to the side, “really far away from here.”

Her eyes lit up and she smiled. Another world, just like the Warrior. She had been right. He was the one.

“Wow, really?” She giggled. “That’s amazing.” She wondered if he would make mention of his reason for being there, the Sorcery Globe, and what he would do next.

He shoved his hands into his pockets and pushed air from his lips. “It’s not that amazing, really.”

She cocked her head but ignored his remark. She believed that he would announce his intentions to save the world later, but wanted her mother and the mayor to be present when he did. Dancing onto the bridge, she turned and said, “Mr. Kenni, once we cross this bridge, we’ll be in the village of Arlia.”

He didn’t seem to share her enthusiasm and looked around as though another monster would appear and attack. “This is your village, right? Are you sure they won’t mind me barging in?”

His nervousness was making her nervous, but she forced a laugh and said, “Of course not. Besides, it’s the least I can do for you saving me.”

He did not try to hide his discomfort. He drew imaginary circles in the ground with his toe. “I didn’t do anything that special…”

Despite his attitude, she vowed to stay positive. Things would turn out, she knew it. Perhaps he was being coy or disguising his true intentions. In a bright voice, she said, “Yes, you did. Now, follow me.”

Rena gestured him forward before turning heel to continue off the bridge. Sharp, pointed tips of houses and structures peeked over the top of the trees surrounding Arlia, and she couldn’t wait to introduce him.

She listened to the rhythm of their soles clicking against the bridge, keeping alert that he was still behind her. When his set of heels stopped, she followed suit to see what was wrong. He held still, eyes focused on a stray leaf on the ground. His head slowly looked from the leaf to something else on the ground.

Rena reached out to touch his hand, startling him once more. She pointed to the approaching village and he walked alongside her once more. However, his steps were far slower than when they’d first arrived. She tried not to take notice, especially once his gaze trailed a group of gregarious children, and he stretched his neck to follow as they darted past.

Houses unveiled themselves through the lines of trees, and other buildings, like the church, were tall enough to break the sky, or so she thought. A waterwheel churned the river, and groups of people worked in the streets. The bells in the church echoed into the sky, and Claude jumped. Then he eased.

She continued to watch him, unsure of what was going on in his head, but she was fidgeting, too. For the first time, she wondered what her mother would say when she barged in with a strange man in tow.

But it wasn’t just some strange man. It was the strangest man to have ever filled Expellian legends.

She brushed the thought away. “Welcome to Arlia.” She bounded from him and pointed to a nearby sign.

He didn’t say anything as he walked ahead and suddenly stopped again in front of a smaller bridge. A crystal stream circulated underneath, and he knelt to stare into it.

“It’s so pretty,” he whispered before pulling one of his green gloves from his hand to sweep his fingers through the water. He held it up to his face, the water trickling from off his skin. The droplets made soft plops and he smiled. “I’ve never seen anything this beautiful before.”

“Really?” Rena tilted her head. “Thank you.”

He craned his head toward the sky again and said, “Yeah, honestly. I like this place.” She stared at him, an awkward moment creeping up on her, and was glad that he couldn’t see it. It seemed best to let him do as he pleased for the moment. Even in the passing silence between them, while he studied her village, Rena stood back and waited patiently.

She didn’t want to offend her savior, the Warrior of Light, by appearing rude or annoyed. He was with her and no one else, in awe of her village. The Arlian girl knew he was exhausted from his journey, and that there would be plenty of time to discuss battle and the Sorcery Globe.

He wiped his hand on his pants before sheathing it into the glove, and continued onto the bridge. He suddenly clutched the rail, eyes focused on the grain in the wood. Rena found it amusing but stifled her laughter. From his grip, she almost swore that he had never seen a bridge. He was like a small child—or even a curious puppy, out of its kennel for the first time to experience the big world.

Puppy or not, he was cute—much cuter than she had anticipated the Warrior of Light to be.

He whirled on her, the biggest smile she had seen from him plastered across his face.

“Say,” he began, “would you mind showing me around the village?”

Rena flinched and felt the heat hit her cheeks but returned his smile and offered her undivided attention.

She hoped that the coloring had vanished into her grin, but hurriedly said, “Of course.” Brushing past him, she extended an arm and pointed to the tallest building in Arlia. “This is Velding Church. We hold weddings and ceremonies here. The Father is a wonderful man and is always concerned for us. Whenever I’m having a hard time, I come talk to him.”

“He does sound like a good man.” Claude followed her gaze.

“It looks like they’re beginning a study right now,” she hinted at the ringing bells—or at least hoped he understood her meaning, “or else I’d take you inside.”

“That’s all right. We can come back later.”

She continued to show him around the village until sundown, taking note of every building and who was in it, and answering every question he had. She was amazed that he had so many, and grew weary after an hour or so, though she kept up with his curiosities as best she could. More than anything, it puzzled her as to how he could not know about these things. They were a part of everyday life. Rena had never stopped to think about how these all affected her, much less explain them to another person.

The most surprising to her was that Claude had never heard of herbs. How he had survived so long without them was beyond her, but, then again, she didn’t imagine that the Warrior of Light would have any need of herbs.

They were stopped by Lucien, a young boy who was far too serious for his twelve years, at the edge of the village, whose suspicious eyes sized Claude up and down.

“Is he your new boyfriend?” he asked.

Her cheeks burned and she stepped in front of Claude. She leaned down in front of Lucien and said through gritted teeth, “No, he’s not my boyfriend. He’s just a friend I’m showing around Arlia today.”

Lucien cocked a brow and scratched his scalp under perse colored hair. “Oh, okay. I was gonna say, don’t let Alen see, but he’s stopped visiting the village lately, hasn’t he? Why do you think that is?”

The question took Rena aback and she tapped a finger against her chin. Now that Lucien mentioned it, she couldn’t remember the last time she had seen Alen roaming around. It had to have been a month or more. She said, “You know, I’m not sure…”

“Uh, Rena?” A hand fell on her shoulder and she glanced over her shoulder. Claude looked puzzled. “Who’s Alen?”

She laughed, hoping that the Warrior wouldn’t get the wrong impression. “He’s a childhood friend. He lives in Salva, just north of here. Although…” her eyes wandered, “…he hasn’t been by in some time, now that Lucien mentions it. I wonder why.”

Claude let his hand drop. “Oh.”

Rena motioned for him to follow her, but a recognizable gaggle of girls were huddled in a circle at the bottom of the hill, gossiping, no doubt, especially when Lizeth let out a sharp cackle. Rena felt a sudden dread well up inside of her. Lizeth, Araceli, Dulcy, and Nevaeh were slightly older girls, each from well-to-do families in Arlia. They meant no harm, though they meant more for themselves, especially being at appropriate ages when marriage became a topic of conversation.

Dulcy waved when her eyes met Rena’s, red ringlets bobbing around her chiseled face. The freckles across her nose and cheeks seemed highlighted by her smile and wave. “Rena, darling! Who’s this new guy? I’ve never seen you walking around with any other men besides Dias and Alen.”

“Yeah, is he your new boyfriend?” Lizeth’s green eyes visually traced Claude’s frame, and she twirled a lock of auburn hair around her finger. If Rena didn’t know any better, she suspected that Lizeth would’ve sank her claws into him if given the opportunity.

Araceli, on the other hand, was known for her boldness. Squaring her shoulders so that her busty frame came into immediate display, she smiled a perfect smile and said, “Well, if he’s not, don’t mind me snatching him up, all right? He’s so, soooo cute, Rena.”

Rena’s face scrunched, and she seized Claude’s hand before marching around the girls while they grabbed him and examined his blonde hair and strange clothes. He laughed and they chatted about his masculinity, feeling him up all the while.

Rena tore him from their grasp.

“He is not my boyfriend,” she protested. “And he doesn’t have time to be frolicking around with you.” Yanking him from Nevaeh’s grasp, she pushed him by the shoulders down the road, despite his complaints and stumbling. Rena ground her teeth and ignored everything else except for what they had said before.

Boyfriend.

But it didn’t stop there. She passed by Adrian, the grocer, and complimented the happy couple. Dax and Deanna, two little kids she often babysat while their father was away, asked if her new boyfriend would be playing with them, too. And even Lila remarked on what a cute couple they made.

By the time Rena got home, she was furious.

Claude said, “Come on, Rena, don’t take it to heart. It’s not that big of a deal.”

But it was a big deal if gossip went around that she and the Warrior of Light were engaged in a real relationship. She thought she would die if that ever happened.

“This is my house,” she said. “Could you wait outside for a minute, Mr. Kenni?”

“Huh? Well, sure, but—”

She slammed the door on him.

Falling back against it, she took the opportunity for a breather. Never had she been so irritated. Or was that flustered? No, no! Never mind that. She couldn’t believe that the townsfolk could think that…Claude…The Warrior…was her boyfriend.

“They don’t know what happened,” she mumbled. “They’re all such nosy people.” But she had to regain her composure.

Now was the time to announce to her mother whom she had discovered. If she appeared upset in any way, her mother would dismiss what Rena had to say and begrudgingly tend to her bad mood. Forcing a stiff smile to her face, she stood and smoothed her crumpled shirts and skirt. She crept up the steps and looked around the corner. Her mother hovered over the sink in the kitchen, finishing dishes, and Rena took a deep breath.

She dashed into the kitchen and grabbed her mother. “Mom! Mom!”

Balancing herself against her daughter’s weight, Rena’s mother set down the dish she had been drying and tossed the rag aside.

“Rena, welcome back.” She reached out to give her daughter a side hug. “I was worried, you know. You’ve been gone for most of the day.”

Rena pulled back and held Westa by the shoulders like her mother would often do when scolding her, offering a grave stare that seemed to take Westa by surprise.

“This is really serious, Mom,” Rena said and kept her face as impassive as possible. “Something big has happened.”

Westa lifted an eyebrow. “Really? Just what in Tria’s name has you so worked up?”

Rena gently shook her mother’s shoulders. “You’ve got to believe me, Mom. It’s finally happened.”

Westa took Rena’s hands, but did not remove them from her shoulders. She looked terribly frightened, now. “What’s happened, Rena?”

Rena couldn’t hold it in any longer. A smile cracked at her lips and she nodded toward the door. In a low voice, she said, “He’s here—right outside our door.”

Her mother’s eyebrows scrunched together, creating a crease right in between her eyes and on the bridge of her nose. “Honey, who? Who has arrived?”

She shook her mother again and hissed, “The Warrior, of course.”

Rena’s mother could only manage a, “What?” for the first moment until she fully comprehended what had been said.

Rena was incredibly worked up by now. “The Warrior. The Warrior of Light, Mom. The one from the legends. He’s finally come to save us.”

But Westa staggered out of Rena’s grip, lips pressed into a thin line. Rena recognized her mother’s look of disbelief all too well.

Westa said, “Rena…listen to me, Honey. Are you sure about what you’re saying?”

Rena sighed louder than she had planned, but her impatience chipped through her excitement. She wanted to introduce Claude to her mother as soon as possible. “Yes, Mom, he’s wearing foreign clothes, and he says that he’s from another world. Oh, and he has the Sword of Light.”

“The Sword of Light?”

Rena leaned forward to take her mother’s hand, “Yes, yes. He used it to save me in the Shingo Forest, Mom. I’m telling you, it’s the Sword of Light.”

“Save you?” Westa’s eyes lit up with fear. She cracked out, “What kind of trouble did you get into in that forest? See, this is why I’ve told you countless times not to go there—”

Rena stamped her foot and exclaimed, “Mother.” Westa paused long enough to return Rena’s stare. “The Warrior of Light is here. Do you know what that means?”

Her mother looked uncomfortable. “So, where is he now, Rena?”

“He’s right outside. I’ll go and get—” Rena turned and halted in mid-sentence, Claude’s form looming in the doorway. She jumped and shrieked, causing him to react similarly. He cautiously removed himself from the doorway, taking small steps backward into the dining room.

“E-Excuse me, Rena. I didn’t mean to barge in. It’s just…you’ve been gone for quite a long time, and after you slammed the door in my face…”

“You did what, Rena?” Westa glared at her daughter.

Rena kept her eyes away from her mother and on Claude instead. “I…I’m sorry about that, Mr. Kenni…But could you wait for me outside just a little bit longer?”

He had the right idea in asking if something was the matter, but her pleading face seemed to make him think twice.

Claude slowly nodded and his eyes pinballed around her living room. “All right. Do you mind if I have a look around in that case?”

She waved him away with a laugh that she hoped he wouldn’t realize was forced. “Oh, no, go right ahead, Mr. Kenni. I’ll come get you when I’m done here.”

He nodded again and started for the door. “All right, I’ll see you later, then.”

She waited until after he left before dropping her head.

“He surprised me,” she said after she was certain he’d gone. “I hope he didn’t hear what we were talking about. Everyone’s been so nosy and persistent since I brought him in, the last thing I want is for them to scare him off, especially right after we found him. I mean, you should’ve seen Dulcy and the girls. And even Adrian. I thought Lucien was going to throw rocks at him—”

When she returned her gaze to her mother, Rena stiffened at the sight of Westa advancing forward, eyes wide and face pale.

She was just about to ask if her mother was okay, when the other cut in, “Was that him?”

“Huh?” She blinked. “Oh, yeah, that was him.”

Westa picked up the ends of her dress and stopped only a couple of inches away from Rena. In hushed tones, she asked, “Are you sure we should just leave him out there by himself? If what you say is true, then someone else could whisk him away.”

It took Rena a moment to realize her own insensitivity. “I…I think he’ll be okay…” but she trailed off, her mother’s stern face making her swallow the rest of her words.

“I think it would be best if you asked him to come inside, Rena,” she said. “Go out and get him.”

Rena blew air into her cheeks and replied, “Yes, Mother.”

“I’ve got things to do.” Her mom moved toward the kitchen, then halted. “Actually, take your time, okay? Go show him around the village or something.”

“But I already showed him around the village.”

“Don’t talk back, Rena.”

Westa’s attention drifted elsewhere before returning to the sink where she’d been washing dishes, and Rena spun to face the door. A whirlwind of thoughts cycled through her head, like the Sorcery Globe and how it stood no chance now that the Warrior of Light had arrived. Rena would be remembered as the one who guided him on his journey and helped save Expel.

“Rena, are you still here?” her mother’s voice entered her thoughts. Westa wagged a wet wooden ladle at her. “Go and find him already.”

Snapping back to reality, Rena grabbed the door handle. “Yes, Mom,” but she stopped halfway, as the most important thought crossed her mind. “You…actually believed me.”

She was surprised that her mother could hear her, and from behind, Westa said, “Why wouldn’t I believe you, Rena? You’ve never given me a reason to doubt you. And besides, you’re my daughter. I love you.”

A smile cracked at Rena’s face and she raced back into the kitchen. Throwing her arms around her mother’s unsuspecting form, she nuzzled her cheek into her dress and said, “Thank you, Mom.”

And, as quickly as it had come, Rena released her and escaped through the door while shouting that she would be back home shortly.

\/\/\/

“Where is he?” Rena looked from side to side like a clock pendulum. “I hope he didn’t wander out of the village. I feel so bad now. If I can’t find him, Mom won’t be happy, either.”

The only clues she had to go by were what the townsfolk told her.

“Oh, your boyfriend? You just missed him. He was asking lots of questions, like about ‘masheeens,’ or something like that…”

“Rena, about that man you were with…Well, he was here just a moment ago.”

“You mean that boy? He had some lump of metal in his hands and was waving it around. I had no idea what it was, though.”

Wherever Claude was now, he was leaving behind a trail of crumbs, and had certainly garnered everyone’s attention. That left Rena in a slightly better state of mind, but it wouldn’t be any better until she found him.

She made it to the western end of town, jogging up and down behind houses, asking questions, but those who had seen him weren’t sure where he had gotten to. She went from door to door and then to the town square to find Dulcy and the girls. Rena wondered if they had found and snatched him in from off the street, but even they were of no help.

“He’s a real cutie, Rena,” Araceli winked at her. “You sure he isn’t your boyfriend?”

“I’m sure,” Rena flared and rubbed her thumb and fingers together.

Laughing, Dulcy placed a hand on Rena’s shoulder. “Easy, easy, we’re just asking. Seriously though, if he’s not your boyfriend, then what are you doing with him? I haven’t seen you with another guy since Alen came to town and Dias before that. But I haven’t seen either of them, lately.” Flashing a pearly white smile, Dulcy asked, “Did you break their hearts?”

“Did I what? No! And besides, Mr. Kenni is new into the village.” Rena rubbed her fingers together faster. “I’m just showing him around.”

She wasn’t about to divulge that she’d found the Warrior. The girls wouldn’t leave him alone if she did.

Just showing him around, huh?” Nevaeh shrugged. “Well, if you say so.” They turned to leave, but Nevaeh said over her shoulder, “You know, he took a real interest in Velding. Maybe he went in there.”

“The church?” Rena blinked and turned to stare at the bell tower.

Araceli waved. “Good luck, Rena. Hope you find your boyfriend.”

She flinched and shouted after them, “For the last time, he is not my boyfriend!”

She earned the stares of those in the vicinity, but Rena didn’t care. She pivoted on one foot and stomped in the direction of the church. The nerve of some people.

Her storming transitioned into a walk, which slowly progressed into a run. When she reached the other end of town, she found the church to be abandoned and silent, quite uncommon for the after-service hour. However, the door was ajar, which was stranger than its unusual silence, and she reached for the handle. She pulled it open and stepped inside, the darkness embracing her.

She couldn’t see very well and stumbled around until her hand grasped the back of one of the long pews lining the hallway. Using it as a crutch to guide her, she proceeded forward. A dim light from the front caught her attention. An assortment of colors passed through the light, and the floor glittered from behind the podium. Standing before the stained-glass window was Claude.

Despite her clumsiness, he had not heard her come in. His attention was focused on the figure etched into the window, the outline of a man with golden hair and strange clothes holding a sword up to the sky. Tremendous rays of light escaped from its tip, and his red cape flowed elegantly behind him. She watched Claude reach up toward the window, although it was far too high for him to touch the glass.

Rena felt relief wash through her as he studied the picture, and hoped that he would be pleased at their depiction of him as the Warrior of Light. The motif was older than Regis, as was the legend. She wondered who was considered holier: the Warrior or Tria. But Tria had never revealed themselves to the people like the Warrior had.

She walked closer. Her knee slapped the side of a pew, and she yelped before wrapping her hands around the injury. Claude called out her name and footsteps hurried toward her.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Yeah, I just bumped into this,” she said and patted the wood backing of the pew with one hand and used the other to rub her tingling knee.

“Be more careful.” He waited until she stood upright before continuing, “I have a question.”

She brushed her injured leg with the back of her hand. It still tingled from where she’d bumped it. “What is it?”

“That man in the window…” she gazed up at Claude, but his attention turned to the stained-glass picture. He pointed at it, “Who is that?”

“Uh…” She wasn’t sure how he’d take to her explanation of him but hoped he would be flattered. Playing coy, she said, “That’s the Warrior of Light.”

He cocked an eyebrow. “The Warrior of Light?”

Rena paused, wondering if he was playing dumb, too, and why he would. 

She nodded. “Yes, the Warrior of Light. It’s an ancient legend passed down for many, many years.” She clasped her hands together and faced the mural before reciting the words she had committed to heart, “When the people of this land called Expel suffer at the hands of a terrible evil, a Warrior in a strange costume from another world shall arrive and banish this wickedness with his Sword of Light.”

“Really…?” She wasn’t sure if he was listening. The picture had him mesmerized. “A Warrior, huh? Do you believe that, Rena?”

His question brought a smile to her face, and the thought of the man who stood before her, now. It came to her as a sense of ease, and she thought about how the Sorcery Globe would soon vanish from their land. She could hardly wait.

“I do,” she said with a nod. “Very much so.”

“I see…” He looked at her and shared her smile. Then, he closed his eyes. “I envy you,” he whispered, almost too low for her to hear.

“Huh?”

“It’s nothing. So, since you’re here, does that mean that you’re finished with whatever you had to do?”

A flush crossed her face, and she hoped that he couldn’t see it in the church’s poor candlelight. “Uh, yeah. Mom says she wants you to come to the house now.”

“Is she all right with that?”

Rena bent down to rub her injured knee again. A bump had formed. “Oh, I’m positive that she’s okay with it. She wants to thank you for saving my life.”

She heard him exhale through his nose before saying, “It…It’s okay, you know. I didn’t do anything that special…”

“You keep saying that, but please, Mr. Kenni…” She bowed. “Allow me to express my gratitude. Come to the house with me.”

Taking him by the arm, she led him from the church, thanking the darkness that surrounded them that he couldn’t see the grin tearing her face in two. She imagined that evening, the celebration over the Warrior’s coming, and how eventual peace would hover like an umbrella over Expel.