Untitled and Unfinished, Ch. 11
We enter the base again more quickly than we did last time but without dropping any of the caution. It’s kind of a surreal stretch of time for me. While I’m following my more professionally stealthy friends, my mind wanders back to the words of Cloaky McMystery. If she’s the author of this story like I think she is, how much influence does she have over everything? And more importantly, how badly is that going to clash with whatever I can do?
I know. I’m not going to find out now. Answering that question would require the two of us to sit down somewhere to conduct a few tests, and that would require mutual cooperation. Considering she looked about ready to kill me before, I don’t think Cloaky’s interested in that.
Once my mind comes to that conclusion, my full attention fixes on the here and now. By this point, we’re well within the base. Now I can see that we’re alone in here; Cloaky, Wendell, and Dorian are nowhere in sight. The thing is, it looks like the warp circle I spotted before has some noticeable wide marks smeared across it now as if a boot had done the work. I’m guessing Cloaky was responsible for that, but I’m not sure how she managed that before teleporting away. Her author powers at work, maybe? Probably. No one with a foot as huge as those marks would be able to fit in here comfortably.
When we reach the bottom floor, I notice that the other two circles are in tact. That’s strange. If the terrible trio didn’t want us to follow, why ruin just one warp circle and leave the other two in the room in top shape? Now that we know where it is, this base would be useless to them. They’d have every reason torch the place, so to speak, and never return.
My three young friends must’ve been thinking about this, too, judging from how their standing: Jason has his arms crossed over his chest and is eyeing everything; Erika has a hand on her hip and keeping careful observation of our surroundings; Franco is scratching his chin and swiveling his head around to observe each warp circle. As for me? All I notice is that the table and chairs from before are in pieces and are everywhere except where they used to be.
Finally, Jason sighs and points to the ruined warp circle. “Who wants to bet that cloaked lady went through that one?” He holds the pose until we’re all looking.
“I’d say that’s a good bet,” says Erika.
“If it’s ruined, we won’t be able to follow them,” Franco informs us. “Even if I were to redraw the missing pieces, it wouldn’t remember where it was set to go before. It’s as good as dirt now.”
Jason kicks at the ground, but as his brown eyes go around the room, the anger seems to leave him. “So what about the other two? Why were they left alone?”
“It could be that they just didn’t have time to wreck more than one circle when they left.” Upon noting that, Erika sits down. “Either that, or there’s a reason they don’t want us to head that way.”
“Because that would help us reach the Aura Gate, right?”
“I think so. Let’s check the map to be sure.” Miss Blue smirks, then whips out the little bag with the papers we found in that other base.
The rest of us crouch near her, forming a circle of our own, while she fishes for the map of warp circles and lays it flat between us. Sure enough, the base we’re in is linked to other bases to the north and south—though not so much to the north anymore, of course. From here, I trace the lines going to another base further south. A different line from there heads straight for the right-most marker on the southern continent, the mountainous one. If I had to guess, the base south of us is just a stepping stone to help reach the continent further beyond. One of our two leftover warp circles must lead to that stepping stone.
So why is there a third one? Where does it go, if anywhere?
My question there is spoken aloud by Jason, but Franco can’t answer with anything other than an I don’t know shrug.
“Should we take it and see where it takes us?” asks Mister Red.
“We should,” replies our mage in green. “It’s the only way we’ll learn which one leads to the southern base.”
“And once we find that out,” adds Miss Blue, “we can zip our way to the southern mountains and the Phoenix Stone hiding there.”
From my perspective, the two warp circles are to my left and right, the latter of which is closest to the entrance of the base—difference in elevation aside, of course. We decide to take the warp circle to my left first.
That turns out to be something of a mistake because we arrive in a tiny shack in the middle of who-knows-where. The space is occupied on all sides by shelves of various books and bottles, which serve to cram us close together on our arrival—too close to fall over, in fact. The room was designed to compact people, I swear.
“Can’t—see—anything,” Jason says through clenched teeth.
Erika gives him a rough nudge. “Your squirming isn’t helping!”
“Yours isn’t helping, either!” he shoots back.
Franco ignores them and instead works the warp spell again to return us to the more spacious base. He barely has enough room to make the arm movements necessary for it. When we return, we fall into a heap on top of each other. I can’t see too well, but I’m pretty sure we look like a tangled Twister nightmare. That, or a horrible sandwich. Either way, I’m on the bottom and it is quite uncomfortable. Ow, ow—
Jason decides that’s the perfect time to state the obvious. “Okay, so… wrong place.”
I’d be mad about that, except his deadpan sarcasm sounds exactly like my inner voice.
It takes us a few minutes to unscramble ourselves, which is to say the trio stops fidgeting, drops, and rolls while I wait for them to get the frig off my back. Several accidental slaps and kicks later, and we’re all on our feet again.
“All right, so what do we do now?” I ask.
“Well… we could fix that ruined warp circle to send that message to Princess Vivian,” says Erika, prompting Franco to perk up. “The thought just hit me while we were crammed in that stupid shack.”
“That’s kind of a random thing to think about,” says Jason. “I mean, it’s definitely important, but it’s still random.”
Erika pops up one of her shoulders. “I try.”
She then goes over to smear up the warp circle leading to the shack. It’s not like we could’ve used anything in there, and the more we hinder our enemies, the better. Meanwhile, Franco repairs the one that was damaged before. You know which one I’m talking about, right? The one I think Cloaky ruined on her way out. I assume it was her, anyway; she was the last one in here.
That just leaves the one warp circle we haven’t touched yet. Taking it leads to a much more straightforward trip to a similar-looking base. It’s shaped like a cylinder instead of a square, but it’s also almost as empty. The one light overhead shows that the only details of note are two more warp circles, and we occupy one of them on arrival. Just like I thought, this is just a stepping stone base. Since there’s nothing else of note for us to grab, we head straight for the circle in front of us.
This brings us to another shack, except it’s more similar to the tiny base near the border of Taura and Scorpus than the human compactor. Light’s coming through the tiny sliver of a window behind us, and in front of us is a short door. No, seriously, we’re going to have to crawl our way through it in order to leave. Either this is someone’s idea of a lame joke, or whatever’s outside gave the builders no choice. Kind of makes me wonder why they would choose this spot of all places in the second case scenario, but I guess it’s not that important in the end—not in the face of knowing we’re on the right track, that is.
As we crawl out one by one, I notice we emerge from a small cave, confirming my second guess. This cave turns up slightly and leads to the outer portion of a mountain. All around us are mountains, actually, plus deep canyons and crags—but the only reason I see any of them is because of a couple lightning bolts snaking between the clouds. The rain from the storm isn’t too heavy for the moment, but at the same time, we are going to have to walk on wet, rocky, uneven terrain.
Jason speaks for me on this matter. “Watch your step.”
It must’ve been a collective instinct or something similar because the four of us back up against the stony surface and start shimmying our way down a curved, narrow pass. A wider path opens up after we shuffle around about half a circle, so we resume more normal walking posture from there. I bet we look like one of those video games where the party walks all in a line behind the leader—except in a game, I don’t think you ever had to worry about the rain washing you away.
Despite that, we keep going without much incident. I even consider asking Franco to use a spell to send us down, but he’s already conjured a bowling ball-sized light in his hand to light our way. Besides, with it being so dark due to the nighttime lighting and the storm overhead, it would be really unsafe to try and find the bottom. I focus my attention instead on watching my footing and where my young friends are going.
When I hear two booms of thunder within fifteen seconds of each other, I realize finally that the intervals between them is growing shorter. Coupled with the rainfall becoming heavier, I can tell the main part of the storm is creeping up on us. It announces its arrival with a thunderclap like a whiplash close to the ear.
My hands fly over my ears on instinct alone. In front of me, Erika stumbles but manages to catch herself before falling. The path at this point is flat enough that I’m pretty sure someone has come this way before, but we’re alone right now, making it a small comfort. Goodness gracious, where is the end of this path?
Amid the downpour and the rumbles above, I hear Franco’s yelling. “I think I just saw a temple down there!”
“How close are we to it?” cries Jason.
“Not sure, but we’re almost there!”
Oh, okay. That’s a relief!
We don’t miss a beat, keeping our pace so we stay on our feet. The last thing I want to do is fall from our position into the whatever below. Believe me when I say the sky looks brighter than the utter darkness of the yawning canyons so near us. Think of it like a horror movie—you know certain doom lies in the shadows, but the shadows themselves are hiding just what the doom looks like. Not the most happy of thoughts to follow you on a stormy night.
I don’t know how far we’ve gone since Franco’s observation, but a lightning bolt strikes right behind me. It must’ve hit the wall beside and behind me rather than the ground because I feel the bulk of the shockwave near my shoulder. My left foot steps on solid ground to catch my balance—
—but I’m thrown right off when that portion of ground breaks. I’m falling, I’m falling, I don’t know what’s below—
A hand grabs me. I look up and see that Erika’s the one who’s caught me. Another flash of lightning shows me Jason has grabbed onto her and Franco, onto him. We’re a chain of people high up a mountain without any harnesses, and every part of the storm overhead is ready to pounce on us.
Erika’s voice sounds over the thunder. “Hang on, Claire!”
“No one gets left behind! We’ll pull you up!” adds Jason.
I have never been more grateful for their company, but I can feel my grip slipping. Erika’s struggling just to stay on her feet; meanwhile, Jason has her by the waist with barely steady footing. I futz my feet around for some kind of leverage to secure my balance, but everything breaks away. Another lightning bolt crashes near Erika and Jason, and I feel a sudden jerk when they both lurch. Somehow, they don’t fall.
Franco juggles between maintaining his light spell and conjuring another, but it looks like that’s trickier for him to perform than any of us would like right now. Also—shoot, is that a Shadow Snapper rearing up from behind him? That’s not cool!
Only one thing to do—hope to all that’s good that we can skip to the part where we reach that temple already! Come on, scene, change! Change like you mean it!
I blink once, and I’m suddenly staring at a wooden ceiling. A few seconds later, and my body registers that I’m lying down on wooden flooring. Then I notice I’m lying in a futon-like bed, complete with white blanket and pillow, except I’m not sure this world calls them futons. I don’t feel hurt or sick, so I sit up.
Jason, Erika, and Franco are lying in their own futons nearby. We’re arranged like a two-by-two tile with our bags and folded cloaks between us. The spacious room we’re in is made of wood in all directions. The aesthetic reminds me a lot of a Buddhist temple—pillars supporting the ceiling above, beams stretching along the inner roof, long planks stretching from underneath us. The small stage’s fence is adorned in an intricate, golden weave pattern, but it’s plain enough that it doesn’t invoke any Earth-based culture. The circular windows show me that the sky outside is blue.
Oh, phew. My request for a scene change actually worked. At least, I hope it did. I don’t know where we are, but if the narrative followed my train of thought, we should be in that temple Franco spotted in the last scene. I hope to goodness that scene took place last night. The last thing I need to hear is that a whole month passed in the scene change just now. Why? Because I know the narrative will account for the amount of time that was supposed to pass between scenes.
I’m the only one awake right now, so let me check on my young friends first. I don’t want to start an investigation about this place without some backup, and I also don’t want to leave them unattended when they can’t defend themselves. Jason’s the closest to me, so I shake his shoulder and say his name.
He groans first, then wakes with a start. A smiles spreads over his face a second later. “Claire! You’re okay!”
“Uh, yeah, I am,” I say. “Why? You make it sound like I got knocked out or something.”
The smile fades from his face. “You did. We managed to pull you up onto the ledge, but the Shadow Snapper slammed you against the wall. Erika kept you from falling off again, and we drove off the monster. I carried you down part of the way until we met up with the priestess of the temple. She took care of us and let us sleep here for the night.” After the explanation, he studies me for a bit. “You sure you’re not feeling sick or anything?”
I shrug. “I feel fine. No fever, no pain anywhere in my body… I’d say I’m all right. So where are we, exactly?”
“In the temple Franco spotted before we were attacked. We spent the night here, as you’ve probably guessed.”
My scene change thing definitely worked, then. Awesome.
Our talk must’ve awakened the other two members of our group because I hear more shuffling coming from their direction. Sure enough, their sitting up on their futons, yawning, and then more or less repeating Jason’s happy reaction at seeing we’re all okay. I have to admit, the whole moment is warm and fuzzy—and not just because the group hugs brings us up close to each other.
After we roll up the bedding, we check over the contents of our bags to make sure everything’s in order. Somehow, someway, all our stuff is present despite the hectic night. I think I’m more amazed than they are because I didn’t go through the event Jason described to me; the scene change happened fast enough that it felt like instant teleportation. Jason’s explanation served to fill in the gaps for me in the most logical manner the narration could think of.
All things considered, I don’t think I’ll look this gift horse in the mouth. We’re alive, and we have all our stuff, so we’re good.
Now, who is this priestess who supposedly came to the rescue last night?
As if on cue, a door opens somewhere behind a pillar blocking my view. In steps a woman wearing a long white robe with flowing sleeves, her steps softened by the socks on her feet. I bet with my own socks, I could slide across the floor of this place pretty well, but I don’t think our priestess here would appreciate that. Speaking of her, the woman’s black hair is tied in a bun with a prominent red decoration shaped like a feather. Just another reason to think she’s the priestess.
She greets us with a warm smile and a bow. “Ah, you’re all awake. Wonderful. If you would come this way, the other priests and I have prepared a meal for everyone. You’re probably hungry.”
The mention of food has my young friends grinning wide. Considering that we’ve been eating only the small portions we have in our bags so far when we could, a full meal sounds real nice right now. No offense to the leaf-wrapped goods we’ve devoured before, of course; they were tasty and filling. It’s just, you know, an actual meal is always good. It’s no wonder my stomach’s growling.
The priestess laughs and leads us out. Along the way, I hear Jason say to her, “Thanks a bunch, Sister Therese.”
“You’re welcome,” she answers.
All right, so the priestess’s name is Sister Therese. Gotcha.
She takes us down an outdoor walkway that has part of the roof going over it. The railing’s dotted by the occasional slim pillar, making it resemble a hallway with a wall missing. We go through the fourth door on our right, which brings us to a room with several tables. They’re all low to the ground, so the cushions by their edges must be our seats. Most of the round cushions are occupied by the other priests and priestesses Therese mentioned.
We take the table in the far right corner since it’s the only one that’s completely empty. While our traveling group takes the four cushions already in place, Sister Therese pulls an extra one from the nearest table that has only two occupants. She doesn’t sit down right away, instead opting to slip through a curtain door. When she emerges from there a few seconds later, she has a set of bowls, a dish, napkins, and utensils in both arms and hands. She carries them all without breaking stride, much like an experienced waitress.
The dish doesn’t hold anything that reminds me of a typical breakfast from back home. It reminds me more of a monk’s vegetarian dinner delight, actually, complete with thin noodles in a soup-like sauce. I’m not about to say no to good food, though, so I dig in with everyone else. How good is the food, exactly? Enough to make me not think too hard that I’m using a wooden spork on an Asian-inspired meal.
While we’re eating, Sister Therese stops for a moment to ask, “What brings you travelers to the Gray Crags?”
I have to remind myself to chew and swallow before speaking. “The Gray Crags? Is that where we are right now?” It’d be great to call this region something other than the southern mountains.
Therese nods, but the rest of her remains in perfect posture. “Indeed. We stand apart from the northern kingdoms but not as enemies. As such, we have visitors on occasion from both Taura and Scorpus.”
Erika wipes her mouth first. “Whoa. Really?”
“I speak truly. Though the names of countries may differ, the people who live in them are more similar than they realize at the end of the day. If it’s not too much to ask, might I know where you’re all from? I guessed Taura last night. Am I wrong?”
“No, you’re right,” says Jason. He sets his bowl and spork down and lowers his voice. “We’re searching for the Phoenix Stone in this region.”
Therese makes one of those ah, I see kinds of nods, slow and steady. “You would not be the first in recent days to ask about that.”
I’m in the middle of stuffing more food in my face, so when I hear that statement from the priestess, I stop with a cascade of noodles hanging out of my closed mouth.
Franco speaks for me in this case. “Someone else is looking for the stone, too?”
“Yes,” says Therese. “A man named Matt asked us about it when he arrived four days ago. He was pure of heart, like all of you, so I trusted him with the information. I’ll tell you what I told him—the Phoenix Stone is indeed in this region. However, the way is hidden. It won’t show itself to just anyone.”
Erika taps her bowl with her spork. “It’ll only show itself to people who are worthy. Is that it?”
“Yes. The few who have ever looked for the Stone since its arrival have been lost. Our ancestors knew the way, but since then, the way has closed itself to us. I can only assume the Stone is protecting itself.”
“And someone else is trying to find it now.” Mister Red takes another bite of his food before facing the priestess again. “You said the guy’s name was Matt?”
“Yes. He said he was from Scorpus. He’s been back and forth between the outside and our temple, leaving at dawn and returning by nightfall.” Suddenly, Therese looks down. Her shoulders slump, and her face becomes crestfallen. “At least, that’s how it was for the first three days he was here.”
I chew and swallow the noodles in my mouth while Jason asks the obvious question. “What happened to him?”
“He left yesterday morning and hasn’t returned since. The storm may have slowed him down, but I’m worried nonetheless. He would not be the first to search for the Stone and perished on the way.”
I exchange looks with Jason, Erika, and Franco. I can see where this is going, so I start on finishing my food.
Mister Red closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and lets it out. His grim face contrasts a lot with his more positive tone of voice. “Don’t worry about a thing, Sister Therese. We’ll go look for him.”
Therese’s amber eyes go wide for a second, and then she bows her head. “Thank you for this.”