Untitled and Unfinished, Ch. 10
Jason hands the papers back to me. His face looks kind of serious, as do Erika’s and Franco’s, but they seem more optimistic over all. Once I’m done putting the papers away and facing Mister Red again, he tells me why he seems serious yet hopeful: “So we have them figured out. We know where they’ll run.”
I nod to that. “Seems like it.”
When we arrived in Scorpus again, we left the shack and set up a camp in the woods. The trio needed some time to read and study the papers I took with me, hence why we hid among the trees. I don’t think we’re going to stay here for much longer, but at this point, I think the sky is showing a hint of orange.
Erika’s voice shakes me out of my thoughts. “Wendell and Dorian have one of the Phoenix Stones already. Princess Vivian said she’d secure the Phoenix Stone of Taura. That leaves the stone in the southern mountains.”
“Yeah. And I’m not sure how we’ll get there,” says Jason. “The map suggests there’s a couple of warp circles set up to take them to the southern mountains. There’s probably two in case they can’t reach one for some reason.”
I make another nod. “Sounds reasonable.”
“They also have a base around these parts.” Before going on, Franco doodles some lines and circles in the dirt. “We should see what we can uncover from there. They might’ve left more incriminating evidence.”
“If I had to guess, the papers Claire found weren’t supposed to be discovered—like, ever.” The observation seems to disturb Erika, though, because she leans back and crosses her arms over her chest with a frown on her face. “But if that were the case, they chose a really crummy place to hide that stuff. The only way all of that could’ve gone uncovered is if there had been some magic enchant on it, wouldn’t it?”
Franco agrees with a nod. “True. Even the simplest of lockdown spells would be enough to deter the average person.”
At that, Jason laughs. “Guess no one’s average in this group, then. We kind of just waltzed in there without any trouble.”
“And like I said,” I add, “that cabinet lock gave pretty easily.”
“We should go find that base tonight,” declares the ever fearless Mister Red. “It’s basically on the other side of the town we saw before, and we can sneak around better at night. But before we do that, we need to secure these papers.”
I pat the bag to my right. “I have them right here, but what should we do in a worst-case scenario? Like, if I’m captured or killed?”
“I’ll put an enchant on it,” says Franco. “I know a simple lock spell that’ll make it so only the four of us can open that bag. The only way it would be dispelled is if I did it myself or if I died.” He looks up at me suddenly. “You don’t have anything other than the papers in there, do you?”
“No. I moved everything else to the bigger bag over here.” The bag I’m talking about is to my left, and it’s my main bag for supplies and such. We were each given one for our journey, and they happened to have a smaller, flatter bag inside. The small one from my bag is to my right and holding our incriminating evidence.
So Franco proceeds to put that enchant on the Bag of Important Papers while Jason and Erika stand. It’s not long before the four of us start on the move again, tucking our bags under our cloaks like before. We run towards the town, carefully sliding our way down the steep slope. Meanwhile, I concentrate really hard on something.
What’s that thing, you ask? Well, basically, I’m wondering if I can somehow invoke a scene break or something like it to cut down on our traveling time. If that’s at all possible for me, then I hope it doesn’t make it jarring for the people in the story. Anyway, I keep concentrating on just getting to our destination now.
Ri-i-i-ght the heck now.
“All right. I think this is the place.”
That was Jason speaking just now. Wait, where are we?
I take a good look around. It’s hard to see because it’s nighttime now, but the moon is out and giving a good shine on everything on the ground. As for where we are, we’re at the bottom of a hole, it looks like. It’s just that the edges of the hole slope down into a little alcove with part of the ground sweeping up and around us. I bet from above, this area looks like a random letter U in the dirt.
The main point of interest, though, is that it looks like the wall in front of us has a circle cut into it. Otherwise, it looks no different than the sandy rock wall. Erika walks up and knocks on it once, yielding a sound like wood. She nods to herself, then slides her hand across the surface until she stops after crossing a rock.
“Here’s the knob. The door’s locked—but not for long,” she says.
Miss Blue then kneels down so she’s about eye level with the concealed doorknob. A couple of thin pins seem to appear in her hand out of nowhere, except knowing how she’s the primary sneak of the group, she probably has them hidden in her sleeves. In fact, that’s why she’s carrying the Bag of Important Papers right now. Goodness knows she has a much better grasp on how to defend herself than I do; plus, she’s hidden that little bag somewhere among her blue clothes. I don’t even know why I’m coming along, but at this point, I have nowhere else to go.
As for my earlier test, it looks like I was indeed able to zip us forward on our journey—enough so that I didn’t feel any of that travel time—but the narrative has taken into account how much time would’ve passed for us to find it. Furthermore, judging by how the three aren’t disoriented, I’d say I’m the only one who felt this trip blink us from one place to another. Conclusion? That scene break trick didn’t work quite the way I wanted it to. Oh, well. I’ll try again another time and see what happens then.
As for what’s happening now? Erika’s just unlocked the door, so she opens it without making a sound. Sneak expert indeed. Jason takes point, and the four of us walk in as quietly as a cat on the prowl.
Have you ever seen those cartoon shows where a little tiny building that barely counts as a house winds up containing an elaborate maze underneath? Well, basically, that’s what we’ve run into—except it’s not a maze. It’s actually a plain-looking base that has four short floors, and by “floors,” I mean rows of wooden catwalks strewn along the walls of the box-shaped room that leave the middle wide open. Rope ladders lead from one level of catwalk to another, but the entrance to the outside is just a short staircase.
The only thing I don’t quite understand is how a room this big is so well lit with just lamps holding candles at the corners and middles of the catwalks. The deep contrast between lights and shadows helps us, though, so I’ll pretend I never noticed anything. Instead, I’ll focus on something way more important.
Voices. There are voices coming from the bottom-most floor. Below the three rows of catwalks sits flat dirt, where three people have gathered around a table. I recognize two of them as Wendell and Dorian. The third person is draped in a hooded black cloak, so I can’t even tell if this person’s a man or a woman—not until I hear a female voice I don’t recognize, at least. Also? There’s a warp circle in the corner of the room opposite us.
The trio and I crouch low enough that we sink below the crisscrossed railing of the catwalk. The traitors and Cloaky McMystery are talking low enough that we can’t hear them, but Wendell smacks the table surface once, then twice. Apparently, whatever they’re discussing isn’t sitting well with him.
“Well, when do you want to strike?” he asks.
“As soon as we secure the Phoenix Stone in the southern mountains,” says Cloaky. “Once we have it, you and Dorian will steal Taura’s Phoenix Stone. Don’t screw it up this time. Remember, so long as we have the Stones, no one else will be able to use them to summon the Spirit of Life.”
Wendell calms himself and sits down in his chair. “Of course. If I may ask, however, what will we do once we’ve secured the Stones?”
“We weaken the Aura Gate, of course. Just as I’ve been doing so far. One of us is going to have to watch the Phoenix Stones for the duration of that operation, though. We can’t have them too close to the Aura Gate, and someone has to watch our backs.”
The slightest tinge of disappointment drips from Wendell’s voice as he speaks. “Well, seeing as I’m the weakest in sorcery, I suppose that job will fall to me.”
“Even your part will be important,” Dorian assures him. “Think of the end goal, and it’ll all be worth it.”
Okay. The evil plan is clear to see now. I also think I see a flaw with their brilliant plan. See, if they take the Phoenix Stones to one spot, then they won’t be making things easier for just themselves. They’ll be making it easier for us, too, because then we’d just have to defeat them once, grab the stones, and then bam! Done. Cloaky and her allies are going with a high-risk gambit, except I’m not sure they realize just how high-risk it is. Whatever the case may be, it’s clear to me that Wendell and Dorian have been taking orders from the mystery woman.
I take a glance over at Jason, who’s to my right. He nods to Erika, who’s to his right, and then she focuses her blue eyes on the people below. Without a sound, she draws three knives from her leg belt and grasps their handles between the fingers of one hand. Meanwhile, Franco and Jason get ready to jump. I can’t fight, so I’ll let them go ahead and stay up here. Someone needs to watch our exit, right?
Erika rises to her feet and throws the knives with just one quick swipe of her hand. I hear three quiet thuds that are drowned out by the sounds of wooden chairs falling on the dirt floor and yelps of surprise. Dorian’s clutching his upper arm where one knife passed by him; Wendell actually has another knife in his shoulder. As for Cloaky, it looks like she moved to make the last knife go through a sleeve instead of her head.
Dang. Erika almost killed all three of them right there and then. Unfortunately, it looks like the story plans to keep going from this point.
Jason and Franco don’t miss a beat. Both of them jump down with Erika, who I think has yet another knife from wherever else she hides them. Our green-clad mage throws the terrible trio around with a burst of wind that also cushions the landing for himself and his friends. The surprise attack does a number on our enemies, but Cloaky does a remarkable job maneuvering between both her allies and the swings of Jason’s group. The result is an impasse of blows between the villains and the newbie trio.
Actually, I have to give some credit where its due. The “newbie trio,” as I’ve been calling them, move way more skillfully than real newbies. Even my untrained eye for combat can see that their teamwork is something else. It’s the reason why they can keep the pressure on even if they can’t whip out a deciding blow.
“Don’t drag this out; get out of here!” yells Cloaky.
Just after she says that, Cloaky unleashes a burst of air of her own, sending Jason and his friends across the room. She launches herself up with the same motion and heads towards—
Oh crud she’s coming after me! I’m on my feet and scrambling for the door in a split second just before I hear her land behind me. Then she’s on me like a hawk, yanking me up by the back of my collar. The next thing I know, I’m in a choke hold. Not good, not good—
I hear Jason call out, “Claire!” but that’s just before a dark veil engulfs both me and Cloaky. This same veil zips us outside faster than anyone could run; we move so fast, I barely hear the door slam open and collide with the wall. My feet don’t touch the ground once while we’re on the move, so it really shakes me up when, after a few seconds of seeing massive blurs, my back hits something solid. That stops my momentum cold—mine and Cloaky’s.
How did she know I was up there? Maybe she saw me in the scuffle and I didn’t notice. I don’t think we’re too far from her hideout, if my split-second observations were at all accurate, and a quick look around tells me I’m up against a tree. Cloaky doesn’t have me in a chokehold anymore, but her hands are close to my neck, and I’m in no position to move anywhere or do anything.
To say I’m scared witless would be a massive understatement.
With that hood over Cloaky McMystery’s eyes and the nighttime lighting, I can’t see any details about her face. She has chin-length hair, but that’s all I can tell. What keeps me still is that growl she makes, low and seething. Can I have a rescue scene about now?
Finally, she speaks up. “Let me tell you something I know only you will understand. This is too early for the heroes to be finding the bases. Stop messing things up!”
A good chunk of my fear gives way to confusion, just not enough to make me feel brave. But it allows me to find my voice. “What are you talking about?”
The story? How would she know this is a story? Since when have any of the characters known they’re in a book? The only reason I know that is because I’m from the real world—
Oh. Oh, crap.
That’s it, isn’t it? I mean, this woman speaks my language. Which means she’s probably from the real world, too. Just like me.
“Who are you?” I ask, trying to keep my voice steady.
“You know. Trust me, you know.”
I need Jason and the others to pull a rescue right now. “I’m not so sure about that.”
“Don’t play dumb with me, you lousy—”
That’s Jason! Thank goodness! His voice came from behind my assailant.
Cloaky McMystery shoots a look towards him, growls again, and then slaps me across the face. The hit stings, no doubt about it, but I stumble more from how sudden it comes out than from its actual strength. In the same sweeping motion, Cloaky covers herself in that dark veil again and zips right past Jason and his friends. I don’t see the two traitors, and then their ringleader’s out of sight too fast for any of us to even think about chasing her. That just leaves me and the trio.
Jason runs up to me and puts his hands on my upper arms. “Claire! Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I tell him. “She just slapped me, is all. I haven’t been stabbed or anything.”
He breathes a sigh of relief. “That’s good.”
“What about our traitors? What happened to them?”
“The Scorpus sorcerer pinned us down with a spell while Wendell prepared one of the warp circles,” says Franco. Afterwards, he lowers his head. “They got away.”
Erika shakes her head. “I’m sorry. My aim should’ve been better. I had them!”
Hearing this, Jason turns to pat both of them on the shoulders. “The most important part is that we’re still alive, which means we can keep following them. They can’t outrun us forever, not when we know how they’re going to move.”
His friends give him nods but stay silent. I doubt that nagging feeling of defeat is going to leave them anytime soon.
There’s something I need to clarify with them, though. “Say, Franco? Did you say there was more than one warp circle in that room?”
He nods. “There were three of them, actually. We could see only one from where we jumped because the other two were directly below us.”
“Then they’re probably connected to one of the other circles,” I say. It’s the only thing that makes sense. If I remember the map correctly, one of those will take us to the base in southern Scorpus, and the other will lead to the mountains even further south.
Jason punches one of his palms. “Let’s go after them right now!”
“No,” says Erika, halting him with a hand to his arm. “They’ll be expecting a pursuit, and that cloaked lady probably has more magic up her sleeves.”
“It would be too dangerous to tackle two powerful sorcerers at once,” adds Franco.
“If anything, we should head to a place they won’t expect,” Erika continues, “somewhere else on their roadmap that they won’t realize we’ve gone too until after we’ve left.”
A light bulb seems to go off in Jason’s head. “Like to one of the Phoenix Stones.”
The resident knife nut nods her head, a smirk crossing her face. “Exactly.”
Catching on, Franco cups his chin. “We should send a warning to Princess Vivian. She needs to know that the traitors will come after her again once her team obtains the Phoenix Stone of Taura.”
“How? Do we have a spell for that?” I ask.
The resident mage smiles at that. “There is. It’s basically a minor warp spell. I know where Taura’s capital is, as well as its castle.”
Well, isn’t that convenient. If I were in my office at work, I’d probably put a note around here remarking on how there just happens to be a spell for something plot-relevant every time. Granted, I’m exacerbating the issue with my interference, so I know my would-be comment means nothing in this context. It also happens that this very same contrivance is extremely important to what we need to do right now.
“If we’re going to be using their warp circles,” says Jason, “we should head back to their base now. We don’t have to follow them, but it’ll give us a head start on grabbing that Phoenix Stone.”
We all nod to that and start back. It gives me enough time to mull over what Cloaky McMystery told me. She didn’t say much, but it told me a lot.
As I said before, she speaks my language. She’s the only person here besides me who’s aware that this is a story; her own words betrayed that. Also, her main gripe with me, apparently, is that I keep messing up the story. Back home, I would’ve chalked that up to being the behavior of an author with an ego complex.
That’s exactly why I think I know who she is, though. Kind of, sort of. Plus, this story seems sort of familiar to me. Put those facts together, and chances are good that Cloaky is the author of this story, and she submitted the manuscript to my publishing company at one point in time.
Unfortunately, I don’t remember her name—her real name. And without that, I’m not as close to solving this mystery as I would like.