Untitled and Unfinished, Ch. 8
Nope. Not even after thinking about it for the rest of the evening, I can’t figure out why this story seems familiar now. As I said, it goes further than just having seen these find-artifacts-to-save-the-world quests before. I could swear there was something about Commander Redford’s issuing of assignments earlier that struck me with the déjà vu vibe, like I had read it somewhere before. But no matter how much I think about it, all I draw are blanks.
That’s okay, though. Maybe if we go further, I may find some other details that I might recognize. It’s the only way I’ll be able to distinguish this story from the hundreds of other manuscripts I’ve gone through in my career. Until then, I’ll have to keep going like I have been so far.
We’re assigned guest rooms in the wing opposite the healer’s place. The boys are given one room while the girls and I are given the room next door, but only one person actually stays in a guest room all night. That would be me, the non-combatant. I hear the doors open and close along with my other group members shuffling about as one pair’s turn ends and another’s begins, but I make sure I’m not facing the door. They don’t have to know I’m awake. Well, half-awake, really. I’m dozing more than fully sleeping.
Anyway, the only other sounds I hear are two instances of combat in the distance outside, probably against more Shadow Snappers. I can hear those monsters’ distinct whip-like cracks from my room every time they move or attack. The activity within the castle itself is quiet.
By morning, I overhear confirmation that there were indeed two Shadow Snapper attacks that the knights fended off. What’s more surprising for me, though, is what Commander Redford has to say upon visiting us in the hall. After she requests that Jason and his two friends meet her later, she faces me and adds, “You come along, too, Claire. You’ll want to hear this as much as the others.”
Me, too? If we’re segueing into the part I think we are, this is a little unexpected for me. But I don’t have much of a choice in the matter, so I comply. As per Redford’s instructions, we’re to meet her in the courtyard by the fountain soon. Like, ten minutes soon. So the trio and I hustle to ready ourselves and head out.
We arrive just in time to see the commander talking to Melinda and Donovan, who salute her before parting ways. Oh, right; they’re leaving to gather additional forces for the defense of the capital. It’s going to feel a little funny without them around, now that I think about it. I should talk to them before they go.
A thought crosses my mind as I approach Melinda, which I repeat once I catch up. “I guess this is good-bye, then, huh?”
She nods to me, and the smile she bears is just a smidge sad. “I suppose it is. Donovan and I won’t be gone long, though.”
“That may be true, but I might be going along with the trio here.” When I say so, I point nearby to the ones in question. “We may not see each other again for quite a while.”
“Oh… I see.” Melinda nods again, her eyes downcast. After shuffling her feet for a second, though, she perks up with another smile. “I’m sure we’ll see each other again, no matter how long it may take.”
“I can get down with that.” I offer her my hand for her to take, and we shake on it. “Thanks a lot for looking out for me. I’ll miss you.” Then I peer over her shoulder at her fellow Redford Guardsman. “You, too, Donovan.”
He gives me a curious look before walking over. When he’s close enough, I think I hear the tail-end of a laugh from him. “You may not have made the most sense while we were together, but… dare I say it, I think I’ll miss you, Claire.”
“Yeah. Good luck to you two.”
“And good luck to you as well.”
I finish up with a nod, after which the newbie trio exchange some good-byes with Melinda and Donovan, too. We watch them mount the wagon with Mister Speedy Horse and take off. Meanwhile, I refrain from asking when they found the time to grab the horse and the wagon. First of all, I know Melinda awoke and left the guest room before I got out of bed this morning; and second of all, I have every reason to be afraid of how anything I say can change the flow of the narrative. I don’t think I need to elaborate on why at this point.
Once Melinda and Donovan are out of sight, the trio and I approach Commander Redford and stand like soldiers at attention. She in turn stands with her back straight and her hands behind her, making her appear taller than she’s ever looked. Actually, she stands about half a head taller than Jason. The second I hear Redford clear her throat, though, the thought leaves me.
She begins by saying, “It’s good to see you four. I hope you’re all well rested because I’m about to give you a task of utmost importance. I believe you already know what it is.” On that note, her blue eyes lock on us with a certain intensity—the kind that compels a person to listen to what’s coming next.
She’s right about one thing—we already know what the goal of the upcoming mission will be: to track down the traitors of Taura and Scorpus, Wendell and Dorian. So with a collective nod, we let her know that we’re ready for the details.
In turn, she begins to pace slowly in front of us. “When the last of the scouts returned late last night, they informed us that they spotted evidence of a camp site in the northeast four miles out. It looked like it had been put together and abandoned quickly. None of the scouts reported anything of the sort.”
“Just four miles out?” asks Franco. “It’s better than ten, but do we know for sure that camp belonged to the traitors? It wasn’t someone else’s camp, was it?”
“A sound question—and you’re in luck because we have an answer. You see, the only other notable detail about the camp was that it looked like a magic rune had been written in the ground near the campfire. Whoever was there last must’ve known magic and was in a hurry.”
“So it’s them, then, isn’t it?” On saying so, Jason breaks from his more formal stance and punches his left palm. “Four miles out to the northeast? We can track them there.”
Erika puts a hand on his arm to calm him down, then turns back to face the commander. “What else was there? Are you sure there wasn’t anything else suspicious in the area?”
Redford nods to this. “The camp site wasn’t far from a cave, but the scouts had to double back around then. Turns out a Shadow Snapper caught sight of them and chased them off, and it ambushed them at the gates once they returned. You may have heard the commotion last night.”
I make the connection fast and blurt out, “I thought I heard two attacks last night.”
“The first attack was when the scouts returned. They thought they had outrun it, so they didn’t know the Shadow Snapper had been on them the whole time. As for the second, that occurred more than an hour after the first. There’s a chance there was a connection between the two, but none can say for sure with Shadow Snappers.”
Now Jason crosses his arms over his chest. “Like if that Scorpus sorcerer summoned them?”
Franco looks his way and shrugs. “If it were possible to summon Shadow Snappers, maybe.”
“You make it sound like it’s not possible.”
“It isn’t. If we could summon or control the Shadow Snappers somehow, they wouldn’t be such a problem for everyone.”
“Oh. Good point.”
A short pause sets in before Erika clears her throat. “Did the scouts ever go into that cave before the Shadow Snapper saw them?”
“They gave no indication of such, no,” replies Redford.
“Then it sounds like our first stop is that cave,” Jason declares. “What should we do if we find the traitors?”
“The four of you are to stop them dead or alive. If you can confirm their motives, all the better. But most importantly, you are to track them down before they can cause any more damage. If Claire is right, then Wendell and his cohort are too dangerous to leave running around.”
It takes me a while to digest all of that, but when it hits me, I shoot a glance at the trio before facing Redford again. “The four of us? Am I going with them? But I don’t know how to fight.”
And she nods at me as if she were telling me the best news of my life. “You’ll have three others to look after you, so I wouldn’t worry. Moreover, you may claim you’re not a prophet—and you may not be—but your analytical eye is… something else, for lack of a better phrase. Unique in all the world. I apologize for involving you in our affairs, but I have no doubt your abilities will help Jason and his friends on this mission. It could save lives down the line, much as they did here at the castle.”
Wow… talk about putting my skills on a pedestal. Much as I appreciate the thought, the fear I have about messing things up because of those same skills just goes up. I give Redford a quick thanks and assure her I don’t mind helping out, but I think I can feel my stomach turn, literally.
The commander gives each of us a handshake, not once missing a beat in talking. “Princess Vivian has made some arrangements for you to get started. Meet her at the front of the castle gate. When your mission is complete, report back to her here in the capital. We will secure the Phoenix Stones in the meantime. You are dismissed. I wish you the best of luck.”
Jason does a fist pump, smiling with way more confidence than I have right now. “We won’t let you down!”
And with that, we set out. I’ll spare you in-depth details of how we meet with the princess, grab our satchels of supplies, don our cloaks, and leave the capital, but we do go through all those motions. To look as inconspicuous as possible, we’ll have to travel on foot. This is going to guarantee a long journey ahead of us, making me all the more certain that this mission is going to take up the rest of the story. This also means that, despite what I heard from the commander, the Phoenix Stones are going to wind up in our hands eventually.
I mean, come on. I’m with the main characters. All the important stuff always happens to them. That’s just how you tell a story. It would be a real cop-out to do otherwise.
Anyway, that’s not the important thing right now. I’ll get back to you once we reach our destination.
Four miles is a little more than six kilometers, and traveling that distance on foot through the forest of evergreens takes us about an hour. We probably could’ve made the distance quicker, but our own scans around the area for potential ambushes slowed us down. At any rate, it’s not like we can catch Wendell and Dorian anytime soon, so we’re not in too much of a hurry, paradoxical as that might sound. This gives us time to check everything once we’ve covered the distance to find signs of the camp site we heard about in our briefing.
And sure enough, we find the place. Rocks and twigs are scattered around, but they still conform to a rough circle shape surrounding some scattered dirt. From the looks of it, a boot definitely went over it with a sweep and a few stomps. Everyone kneels down with me as we examine the marks that have been left in the dark dirt, both where the campfire used to be and around it. Unfortunately, I don’t see anything out of the ordinary.
Not until Franco begins tracing some lines—curved, parallel lines that are thin enough to have been made by a stick. “This is definitely the place. Here are the lines for the magic circle… and here’s the rune that’s part of it.” As he says that, he moves his finger over another set of curved lines. Between them is a hooked and jagged mark that I can’t make heads or tails of, but it must be the rune he’s talking about.
Some shuffling to my right causes me to look up and see that Erika has shifted in her spot. Her eyes are studying the dirt with a certain hawk-like focus before she makes a sweeping motion with her index finger. “I see more footprints heading this way… right for that cave over there.”
At that last part, she moves her hand up to a hole in a nearby hill. This hill is actually behind me; I have to swivel my head to look over my shoulder and through the evergreens to see it. If I had to draw a comparison, I’d say that it’s like a dirt cascade falling from some grass on an upper level to a lower one, where we are.
Crouching opposite me is Jason, who sticks his tongue out ever so slightly, smirking all the way. “They must’ve been in a real hurry if they’ve left behind this big of a mess. Pretty easy for us, huh?”
“You don’t know if they have something else up their sleeves,” says Erika, “but you’re right—this is a great start for us.”
Jason takes that as his cue to stand. “Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s see where this goes.”
“Don’t be too hasty now. We don’t know what kind of trap is waiting for us.” Both Franco’s tone of voice and choice of words betray his concern.
But Mister Red taps his foot, nods, and says, “Let’s see where this goes carefully.”
That seems to do the trick—whatever that trick is—and so Franco and Erika stand up. I follow them once they’re on their way to the cave, glancing in every direction as I go. You never can be too careful about these things. At least to keep my freak job powers in check, I just have to keep my mouth shut or not think too hard about every funny-sounding detail.
That said, I really do hope Wendell and Dorian were stupid enough to leave behind this sloppy trail in their panic. The info from our briefing was a bit scant, but the conservation of detail rule for storytelling alone would dictate that we’re definitely following them, not someone else.
As we slip through the cave entrance, Franco lights up a small flame in his palm and takes point next to Jason. Erika lets me pass her so she can take the rear guard. We walk down a slope, which reveals to me that the cave is more extensive than it looks on the outside. The slope isn’t all that long, though, because I can turn and see the entrance even after we touch down on level ground again.
I snap my head forward again when the flame in Franco’s hand flies away. I don’t have time to feel shocked because the flame latches onto a torch embedded in the dirt ground by the back wall. It provides just enough light for us to see that, between the four of us, the cave has enough room for one other thing—a magic circle. A complete one, that is, not like the ruined one from outside, and it’s big enough to hold maybe four people. Seeing one in its entirety makes me realize just how elaborate one of these is, what with all the beautiful designs. I have no idea how much time it would take to make one of these.
Actually, why don’t I ask? There’s a mage in the group who seems to know his stuff, so I might as well. “Hey, Franco? How long do you think this took to draw?”
He starts his answer with a big sigh, scratching the back of his head. “Oh, man… I know from having drawn a couple myself that it would take me about three hours trying to get it all right, and that’s if I’m being quick, too. It could take as much as six hours depending on how big of a circle you’re trying to make. As for whoever drew this… given its size, I’d say it must’ve been four to five hours.”
“So, somewhere in between,” concludes Erika. She takes another glance around before she speaks again. “The footsteps lead right to the circle, so I’m guessing whoever drew this must’ve used it as their escape.”
Jason glances down, then up at Franco. “Any chance we’d be able to follow them?”
The resident mage scratches his chin for a second, examining the circle the whole time. He closes his eyes, then finally straightens his posture. “I don’t sense any magic lingering in here, leftover or otherwise, so I’ll have to generate the spell myself. I think the person who drew this and the circle outside must’ve had one of them lead to a warp circle elsewhere.”
“Because warp spells tax a mage’s strength, right?” asks Erika.
“Exactly. This one was made with greater care, so I’m guessing this one connects to another circle in another location. With any luck, that’s the location our traitors went in.”
“What about the one outside?”
“A circle appears underneath your feet when you leave and when you arrive if you don’t have one set up in advance—assuming you’re landing on dirt, that is. It’s the only reason I can think of as to why there would be one outside that was also stamped out.”
Jason points to the circle between us with his foot. “So I guess that means the next thing we have to worry about is where this one will lead us.”
“Hmm… good point. And casting a warp spell would leave me pretty drowsy.” Franco shuffles a bit, his eyes never leaving the circle. “Then again, if this one is hooked up to another circle, then it’ll take some of the strain off of me. All I’d have to do is run a magic current through the lines.”
To all of that, Jason nods and crosses his arms over his chest. “We’ll have to stay together on the circle anyway, so Erika, Claire, and I will surround you when you cast the spell to protect you. Let’s get into position.”
Franco goes first, kneeling so he can reach the circle’s lines with his hands. He moves them in the air as if wiping down a table, sometimes slowly and other times quickly. After about half a minute, the lines begin to light up starting from where the mage is crouching. It’s like watching a cup with window openings fill up, just with light instead of water.
Once the circle has been lit up completely, our mage in green rises to his feet. “That should do it.”
Jason punches his palm for the second time today. “All right, then. Let’s do this.”
Needless to say, he’s the first to step onto the warp circle. With magic running through it, Jason is able to walk on it without leaving any footprints on the dirt. Now I see how our traitors didn’t leave a mark. I watch Erika move onto the circle next. I’m just about to follow her when suddenly, I think I see another light source in the upper corner of cave in front of me.
Wait, what? Is that another spell? How?
Franco grabs my arm and cries, “Wait, don’t move! You’ll set off the traps!”
I whip my head around to eye him, my mind racing. “Didn’t you just say you didn’t detect any other magic lingering in here?”
He gives me that look—first a curious glint in the eye, followed by a slight cock of the head. Jason and Erika are doing the same, and for a long pause, all three of them are dead silent. The extra light vanishes in the blink of an eye, and the Franco lets me go. Then once his face returns to normal—along with everyone else’s—he shows only a mild concern.
“We don’t know what’s on the other end of this warp circle,” he says. “A trap could be waiting for us.”
“Didn’t you just say that?” asks Jason.
“I did, but I just wanted to make sure you knew. You have to be careful at all times.”
And just like that, no magic trap goes off in the cave.
Wait… did that just happen? Did I prevent some trap from going off by pointing out the slight continuity error? And did everything change to accommodate again, complete with the characters not remembering what was said just a second ago?
Because if so, I am totally down with that. Here’s hoping this starts a streak where my freakish skills actually help us for once!
So Franco uses the magic circle under us to begin a warp spell. Jason and Erika take positions to flank him, prepping their hands to grab their weapons. I stay nearby, too, just like we’ve planned in case I need to shove our mage in green out of the way should we arrive in hostile territory. It’s about all I can do, really.
The lines of the magic circle light up with a violet color, almost lavender—and in the next instant, white flashes all around us. I have to shut my eyes to keep from being blinded, and then something else happens that really wracks my nerves.
Oh, my goodness. I think my feet are rising from the ground.