Untitled and Unfinished, Ch. 4
Commander Redford takes me to the barracks across the street from the watchtower. It may be early in the morning, but people are milling about already. No huge crowds or cart traffic; just a few people hustling here and there. I don’t look around that closely because the commander ushers me through the door.
The main feature I see upon going in is the wide open space with two rows of tables to my left and right. The walls on those sides have two doors each which lead to some bedrooms; I can see a hint of the beds as the guards move in and out. The door in the back must lead to a kitchen because I can see someone bringing out some plates with food. Among the people seated at the tables are Melinda and Donovan, who wave to me when our eyes meet. Sitting across from them are the three newbies, who are enjoying some food and laughs over a joke I hear only half of. With one look around, I see that the tables are just about two-thirds full from end to end with the town guards.
Once everyone notices the commander has entered the barracks, everyone stops what they’re doing, stands, and bows to her. I make an awkward bow of my own almost on instinct. Must be left over from the days I worried about fitting in with the rest of the crowd.
“Good morning to you all,” says Redford. “As you know, today is the day we’ll be welcoming a special guest. We will be receiving her at the entrance of town, at which point we are to escort her to the church in the north end of town. I will need only four of you to accompany me in the escort, but I expect the rest of you to be at the church. This meeting is of great import. I don’t want any of you missing it, especially for the sake of those already on patrol right now. I expect you all to be ready within the hour.”
All the guards salute her in unison. Commander Redford gives them the okay to sit down and go about their business. As the general murmurs of the guards permeates throughout the room, she approaches four different guards—Wendell and Natasha among them, it looks like, along with two others. I guess I know who’ll be going with the commander later.
Redford herself approaches me afterwards. It’s a good thing, too; I’ve been standing here for the past several minutes wondering what I should be doing right now. As if she’s read my thoughts, she pats me on the back. “Remember, Melinda and Donovan will be looking after you during your stay. You should join them.”
“R-right,” I answer.
However, her hand goes to my shoulder then. “It would be safest for you to stay with them even when they go to the church later with the rest of the troops. If anyone asks, say I permitted it.”
I give her a nod. “Gotcha.”
So I go over and greet Melinda and Donovan with another nod. That’s about when Jason lets out a really loud laugh and gives the table three hard smacks. No, I’m serious; he’s taken boisterous laughter to a whole new level, that kid. But as soon as he’s calmed down, he looks around with this utterly sheepish face. He must’ve realized he’s silenced the whole room because sinks a bit into himself. The one word he utters afterwards is a barely audible, “Sorry.”
Erika shakes her head, but I see a smirk poking up at the side of her mouth. “You are such a dork,” she tells Jason.
Franco, meanwhile, looks about without altering his stoic expression much. As soon as the murmurs resume, he says to his red friend, “Do try to remember we’re in a crowded, indoor space. You’ll attract a lot of undue attention if you’re not careful.”
Jason waves him off. “Yeah, yeah.”
I can’t help myself and catch their attention. “Do I want to know what that was all about, or…?”
The trio exchanges some knowing glances with each other before Franco answers, “It’s an inside joke. Relatively harmless outside of some embarrassment on our parts, but hard to explain.”
“Ah, I see.”
All right, so something to ask them about at a later date. No big deal. This will give me enough time to decide whether I want to hear the story straight from the trio or if a flashback would work better. Wait, wouldn’t the author of this story have figured that out already? Forget it; I’ll see it whenever.
I turn to Melinda next since she’s right next to me now. “So, did you all have a chance to work together last night?”
“Oh, yes,” she replies, then gestures to the newbies. “They’re a lot more organized than their little moment just now might’ve suggested. Jason seems to be the leader of their group.”
I give another nod. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Donovan motioning to one of the cooks coming out of the kitchen. They don’t exchange words, but the cook rushes back through the door as quickly as he came out. A few minutes later, and I have a tray of food set in front of me.
“Thanks for this,” I say. The cook responds with a light bow before taking off again. After that, I dig into the bread and the apple they’ve given me. It’s only while I’m eating do I realize just how hungry I am, so I go through my food pretty fast.
Since we’re in a bit of a lull, I should probably address an elephant in the room that only you and I would be aware of. You know what it is—the one about my calling that test from last night a success. I know using that incident isn’t enough to come to definitive conclusions, but as I said, I have to see where my limits lie. That in itself will consist of a myriad of tests that I’ll be doing on the go. All told, I’m not sure I’m going to ever get an ideal testing situation or location, so I’ll have to work with what I get.
As for how much you can do in this situation, I’m not sure. You probably noticed that I can talk to you, but I actually can’t hear anything you might be saying at any given moment. The only reason why this story is going anywhere is because you’re turning the pages. No, I’m not entirely sure how I’m aware of that, but I am, so I’m going to roll with it. In any case, it might be the one thing you’re doing to influence the story, but it’s absolutely vital.
Speaking of which, let me get back to it. Maybe things will liven up a bit.
I spend the rest of meal time chatting it up with Melinda, Donovan, and the newbie trio, at which point I join them in heading to the church. It seems the church is to the north, situated opposite the entrance of town. Donovan grabs the horse and wagon he and Melinda were driving when I first met them, and I hop on after the trio does. Redford took off with her chosen group a while ago, leaving the rest of the guards to shuffle over to the meeting place. I watch as several guards go past us either on foot or on horseback, though strictly speaking, my little group here isn’t the farthest behind.
All the chatting with my newfound friends has given me quite a bit of insight. For instance, I was right about the trio having known each other for a long time. Jason’s the son of an expert swordsman, and Erika learned her knife-throwing from her mom. Both of them were neighbors in their childhood, and Franco entered the picture when his parents took him out of the magic school he’d been attending. He’s not sure about the reason why. All three of them met when they were about ten years old, roughly two years after the end of some major skirmish. Very pleasant people, those three.
Jason leans forward, his brown eyes fixed on me like a happy puppy. “So Claire, where are you from? What did you used to do before you came here?”
“I’m from a country called Whitiger,” I say. I’m not entirely sure how to describe my job to him, though, and tell him so. Do they have even a concept of a writer/editor in this world? I doubt they have anything like a printing press. After mulling it over a bit, I settle for this: “I used to assist people who wrote books. I’d help them with anything that may be unclear or what might sound sloppy and fix it up before we put the books together and ship them out.”
“Wouldn’t that be hard to do if the books are written by hand?” asks Erika.
“Well…” How do I explain this? “It’s a lot easier to make books and ship them where I come from, but it comes with its share of hurdles. We basically have to work hard to keep things easy, but you’d have to see it in action to really get it.”
“I guess so,” says Jason, “because that doesn’t make any sense at all.”
Franco leans back in his seat and strokes his chin. “It does if what she means is that some processes are made easier because they work hard at others.”
I snap my fingers, ending by pointing at him. “You got it.”
Jason and Erika nod in understanding, but that’s just when Donovan’s voice cuts in to inform us that we’ve arrived. I’m not even standing to leave the wagon when I set my eyes on the church.
The most notable thing about it the building its size. It’s not incredibly tall, certainly not the same height as the watchtower. It’s very wide, though, with noticeable wings stretching to the east and west. The walls are made of white bricks, much like the watchtower, and adorned with some stained glass windows. Nothing fancy like a cathedral’s rose window, though. Donovan parks us at the front of the east wing.
When we walk into the church, we head straight down the main hall and sit in some pews in the middle rows. Speaking of which, there has to be about a hundred pews in here, fifty on each side of the aisle. The altar ahead of us is no taller than the average table, but the display attached to its back stretches a little more than half way up the wall. I’m not sure what kind of symbol it is, but it resembles a vaguely bird-shaped tree whose top branches hold three spheres. I can draw a triangle between the spheres in my head, actually. The whole room is swathed in blue thanks in part to how the light is coming in through the windows. Arches line the space between the pews and the walls.
I nudge Melinda a little and keep my voice low. “What’s in the east and west wings of this place?”
“The west wing holds classrooms; the east wing, housing for the priestess, her family, and the brothers and sisters of the church,” comes the reply.
“The priests and priestesses are allowed to have families?”
“In Taura, yes. I’m not sure about Scorpus. Are you surprised?”
“Not really. I just know that in some of the countries I’ve heard about, people who dedicate their lives to the church take vows of celibacy and whatnot.”
Melinda answers with a shrug. “I guess every country’s different in that regard.”
“It might differ between districts in a single country, actually.”
The slight scrunch of her lips, raised eyebrows, and shot nod, indicate her agreement on that statement. Our random talk gets cut short by a door slam behind us. I whip around to see the basic shape of Commander Redford, her group, and a hooded figure I’ve never seen before. That must be our guest. The five of them move forward until they reach the pews.
The commander stops then, puts her feet together, leaves one hand at her side, and places her right fist over her heart. “All hands, at attention!”
Every guard rises and returns the stance. They remain that way as Redford’s entourage walks down the aisle, turning only to keep up. Once the hooded figure arrives at the altar, Redford nods to the guards, prompting them all to sit down. She herself remains standing with her hands behind her back.
From there, she makes her announcement. “As I told you before, we have here a special guest. She has important information for us not just as the local guard, but as the defenders of southern Taura.”
That last part hits me like a jab to the back. The defenders of southern Taura? That’s a bit more important than just the town guard—though now that they’ve brought it up, this group does seem more organized than I would’ve expected for the peacekeepers of one town.
Redford goes on to present our guest, who steps forward and removes the hood of her blue-violet cloak. Her blonde hair is tied in a ponytail with a bun at the top, and I can see some gold-colored embroidery around the white high collar of whatever this guest is wearing underneath her cloak. From what I’ve seen already, our guest is one of the nobility at the very least, royalty at the most. We are in a kingdom, last I checked. This lady is definitely not a peasant, I’ll say that much.
“Whoa, she’s beautiful,” says a whispered voice to my right. A glance over tells me that was Jason.
Erika nudges him, but a smirk is on her face. “Don’t go crazy on us now.”
But anything else they want to say is interrupted by the guest clearing her throat.
She begins her speech with a bow. “Greetings, members of the Redford Guard. I thank you for meeting me today on such short notice. My name is Vivian Selene Taura. As you have likely guessed, I am the princess of Taura. I’ve come with an update on the Shadow Snappers.”
Looks of surprise go flying between Melinda, the newbie trio, and me. I’m not sure what they’re thinking, but I know I’m pretty glad for this upcoming exposition dump right now. I’ll finally know what the plot of this story is supposed to be.
The princess glides closer to the front pews like a flying fairy. “In our discourse with the Kingdom of Scorpus, we’ve learned that the Shadow Snappers appear to be coming from the lands to the north. Scorpus scouts have been investigating the cause since around the same time we began ours. They, too, have suffered attacks. Our kingdoms have not always seen eye to eye, but in this, I believe we are united.”
Jason mutters something about Scorpus, but I can’t hear him when he’s two people away from me. All I know is that the mention of the other country has darkened his expression. Erika motions for him to keep paying attention.
“If the Shadow Snappers are coming from the north,” says the princess, “then I fear the Aura Gate may be weakening. We will need the aid of the Spirit of Life to strengthen the Gate before the Plague Drift is loosed upon the world again. To that end, I request that we search for the Phoenix Stones.”
I look to my left at Melinda, then to my right at Erika. I have no idea what any of those terms mean, but I’m guessing they’re important. Not only that, but the words Plague Drift have bad news written all over them.
But the princess goes on before I can ask any questions. “My family and the rulers of Scorpus must do all we can to maintain order in the realms, which is why I have come to you today. I know you cannot leave this region undefended, nor would I wish you to; our armies are spread thin as it is. However, we will need a group to find the Phoenix Stones and call forth the Spirit of Life as soon as possible. I ask this of you because of your skill and honesty. I fear that the Shadow Snappers are but heralds of a greater danger.”
You know what I realize while she’s talking? The info she gives about this important spirit and the Phoenix Stones has me looking at that altar display, and I’m suddenly thinking that the spheres are those stones. It would explain why the tree holding the spheres looks like a bird; upon closer inspection, it’s more than just a passing resemblance. I’m no closer to knowing the exact mythology behind all this, but I can make a few decent guesses now that I have the pieces together.
I’ll have to ask for specifics later, though. The princess doesn’t elaborate on what any of those terms mean in the rest of her speech; she just stresses the urgency of the situation. When she’s done speaking, she bows to us. We stand and return the gesture immediately after, and Redford orders the guards to take their usual posts for the day. In the meantime, the commander and her group will be taking the princess to the capital.
While we’re shuffling out, I pull Melinda and Donovan aside because something’s been bugging me since Lady Vivian arrived. “Is it all right for the princess to have such a light escort? I mean, did she even have an escort while coming to this town? Why the hooded cloak, too?”
“Taura is a peaceful land, tensions with Scorpus notwithstanding,” says Donovan as he readies the horse.
“It still seems unsafe for her to go it alone, tensions with another country or not.”
“It’s also been quite common for the royal family to travel the kingdom with little to no escort. This town also isn’t that far from the capital. However, I understand your concern. I did get the feeling that Princess Vivian knows more about the situation than she revealed, but she is an honest soul. She must’ve had a reason to tell us as much as she did.”
“She must’ve also had a reason for being so discreet,” I point out. I take a moment to board the wagon before going on. “I don’t mean any disrespect to her; I just find the whole situation a little weird. It’s, er… it’s not quite how things are done where I come from.”
“Commander Redford has things under control.” After saying so, Melinda snaps the reins to spur the horse. “She should be back before sundown. Like Donovan said, the capital isn’t far.”
I glance over at the trio sitting across from me. Jason has his arms sprawled over the back with Franco at the back corner and Erika in the middle. Of the three of them, Jason looks the most troubled—very much the image of a brooding teenager.
Before I have a chance to ask, he suddenly blurts out, “Can’t believe we’re actually cooperating with Scorpus on this.”
I clear my throat, bracing myself for the inevitable questioning stares that I know will come. “Sorry for asking a dumb question here, but what’s up with Taura and Scorpus anyway? What’s the importance of the Spirit of Life and the Phoenix Stones, and does it have anything to do with the tensions between the kingdoms?”
Jason’s answer is blunt and cold. “When I was eight, I lost my mother and brother to Scorpus. They thought Taura sent bandits their way. Wasn’t true, but they struck back anyway.”
There’s no time for me to even begin to express any sympathy because Franco adds some more to his friend’s statement. “Taura and Scorpus were at war for several years, but these days, the conflicts are restricted to the odd border skirmish. Jason’s mother and brother were killed during the last one, and he and his father barely made it out alive. He met Erika and me about two years after that.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I say.
Melinda cuts in then. “Such skirmishes are a negotiations nightmare. As for why the kingdoms once warred against each other, they had a territorial dispute regarding the shrine of a Phoenix Stone. There are three, you see, and one rests in Taura while another rests in Scorpus. The third once resided in a shrine that lay on neutral ground, but the kingdoms have grown large over the centuries. Their borders expanded until they ran up against each other. By this point, this land has no neutral ground anymore. The last war decided that.”
“So where is this third shrine now?”
“The land where it once lay is now a part of Taura, but the shrine itself has been repurposed into a guard outpost, and the Phoenix Stone it once contained was said to have been moved to the southern mountains. From what I’ve heard, each Phoenix Stone was moved from its original spot after the last war, but the ones that were already held by Taura and Scorpus have stayed with them.”
That certainly clears up some questions, but I decide to cut to the chase on the next part. “Is it safe to assume that this Plague Drift is a danger to everyone, and that only the power of the Spirit of Life can stop it?”
Melinda glances back quickly enough to give me a startled look. “Yes. I daresay that’s the quickest anyone’s ever summed that up. In any case, the Phoenix Stones were given to our ancestors long ago as a means of communing directly to the great spirit if we needed to stop the Plague Drift again. The three stones just have to be brought together in a single location.”
“Any location in particular?”
“Strictly speaking, no. Not as far as I know, anyway. But if we summon the spirit close to the Aura Gate, it’ll be right where it needs to be.”
When I ask the predictable question, Franco answers that the Aura Gate is the seal that keeps the Plague Drift at bay, courtesy of the Spirit of Life. I don’t hear why the Plague Drift couldn’t be eliminated outright, but maybe it’s one of those equals-and-opposites-can’t-destroy-each-other quirks. The important thing is that the Aura Gate is never supposed to weaken, and that the Shadow Snappers are actually connected to the Plague Drift in a way that eludes my friends.
Apologies for the quick summary. I’ve been taking in a lot of information and haven’t had the time to digest it all. I need a break. You could use one, too, right? So I spend the next few minutes doing just that, but I’ll spare you the details since I’m just repeating things to myself.
While I’m thinking it over, however, a thought strikes me like lightning. I’ve read through about as many manuscripts as I’ve consumed other forms of media, so I know story patterns when I see them—and right now, I think I’ve just deduced the pattern of this story. Two countries who were once at war have rising tensions just as they find hints about a worldwide threat coming? Plus, a member of the royal family has traveled in secret to convey this information to a small group of volunteer militiamen. A group she turns to for their skill and honesty.
Yeah. I can see where this is going. Pretty sure of it, anyway.
Because of this, I latch onto the front of the wagon so fast and hard, I startle Melinda and Donovan.
“Sorry,” I say quickly, “but we have to catch up to the princess.”