Untitled and Unfinished, Ch. 12
Sister Therese gives us a few primers about the area, all of which are pretty obvious—lots of steep hills and narrow passes means watch your step. Kind of learned that the hard way last night, but the reminder’s good now that I can see how bottomless the valleys look. Our old cloaks took a beating, so Therese gives us some new ones from the temple. After promising to return with Matt, we set out.
There’s one more important piece of information Therese tells us on our way out, and that’s a hint on the Phoenix Stone’s location that her ancestors have passed down to her: “Two points of light, one hidden from sight. Hand from below barred by land and tide seeks greater hand in distant sky.” Considering what else she said, I’m going to assume everyone’s lack of knowledge on the Phoenix Stone’s true location and the treacherous terrain has been the sole security measures. I’m sure a lot of people have met gruesome ends in the Gray Crags, but a part of me keeps thinking the security surrounding such an important object is a bit bare-bones.
As for the meaning of that riddle? I’m going to assume the Phoenix Stone is hidden in a cave whose entrance is hidden by a waterfall. We can probably find it by following the light of the sun and see how it falls along the mountains. For all I know, there’s an old sundial-type system here that will focus the sunlight in the right direction. The hands obviously aren’t literal hands; I would guess they’re metaphors for both the light and the Stone.
Before I can say any of that, however, Franco says it all. He steals my thunder without even realizing it. Then again, I didn’t start off as a character in this story, or even as a part of the heroic adventuring party. I’m just a stagehand by comparison. I have to admit, though, it’s been tough to believe I’m not an actual character with a part to play lately. I’ve been feeling like I’m getting into this, and I don’t mean because I’ve been tossed in here on someone else’s whim.
So Jason leads us forward, following Franco’s advice on what to keep an eye on. As for who we’re looking for, we have to find a tall man in light, black armor, short brown hair, gray eyes, and tanned skin. That’s how Sister Therese described this Matt from Scorpus we’re out to find. Hopefully, nothing bad has happened to him.
Not long after we leave the temple grounds, I catch the attention of my young friends by calling their names. Then I point out to them, “Sister Therese trusted us pretty easily. Does that seem strange to anyone?”
“I’ve heard that the people of the Gray Crags have a special ability to sense the hearts of others,” says Franco. “It doesn’t allow them to read minds, but they can sense intent. More than likely, that’s what she was using when she was speaking to us.”
“Oh. That’s handy.”
Kind of wish I heard more of this beforehand, but that might be my own fault for advancing the plot faster than originally intended. It’s possible that the exposition on the Gray Crags and its people was supposed to happen in the gap I made with that scene change save I triggered. I guess if anyone asks, I’ll just say I was knocked out or wasn’t paying attention. It would be much easier than explaining the real reason.
During part of our trip through the mountains, two Shadow Snappers fly out from below and bear down on us like hawks. One is big like a kite; the other is more stringy like a snake. Thankfully, the pass we’re on is a lot wider than the one we walked on last night, so we have room to spread out—or in my case, duck for cover behind a big rock. I’m close enough to watch the trio whip out their weapons and engage our foes, but I hope to goodness I’m far enough away that I can go unnoticed.
Jason strikes first, delivering a swipe across the face of the kite-shaped Snapper. It double backs and loops around like it wants to strike Mister Red from behind, but he turns following its path and renders its would-be tactic useless. He charges forward with a sword stab just below the Shadow Snapper’s face—or at least a pattern that looks like a face. It retreats again, but it’s not fooling Jason about where it’s going.
Not far away, Erika jabs at the stringy Shadow Snapper with one knife, than another. She doesn’t throw either, given the terrain, and instead moves around her opponent like a martial artist who’s also had dance lessons. The cuts she leaves behind are proportionate to blades of her small weapons, but she manages to deliver about five in almost as many seconds. The hits distort the monster’s shape, but it doesn’t disappear from sight.
Closer to where I am, Franco’s backed up all while making small gestures with his hands. A light glows in front of him before he launches two small electricity balls, one to each Shadow Snapper. The first ball snags the kite-shaped Snapper in the middle, anchoring it long enough for Jason to slice its head off. The second ball follows the stringy Snapper for a few seconds before finally slamming down somewhere near its neck, and then Erika stabs its face with both knives.
With her and Jason having delivered those last blows, the Shadow Snappers dissipate into a dark mist. A few seconds go by where they look around for any other monsters, but nothing else appears. I watch as the three come together again and perform a triple fist bump, followed by laughter. I take that as my cue to emerge from my hiding place. I’m tempted to compliment them on their teamwork, but I can’t think of a way to word it without coming across as the lazy one of the group, so I let it be.
We march forward, occasionally stopping to fight off Shadow Snappers. Franco at one point uses a wind spell that lashes at one particular Snapper until it dissipates. Altogether, we run into a total of five skirmishes with these things. After the fifth one, Jason wipes his forehead and turns to face us.
“Is it me, or are more Shadow Snappers showing up lately?” he asks. “We’ve run into a lot for only one day.”
“I don’t think it’s just you,” says Erika. “Remember, we’re trying to stop a group of maniacs from releasing the Plague Drift.”
“Their plans involve weakening the Aura Gate,” adds Franco. “They’re probably doing that right now, which is causing more Shadow Snappers to appear.”
“Then let’s hope we can stop them from making things any worse than they are.” And with that, Jason punches the palm of his hand. I think it’s safe to say that’s his determined-to-get-stuff-done gesture at this point.
Not long after continuing our thus far fruitless exploration, we finally spot a human figure in the distance. He or she is farther ahead of us on the path to the point of looking like a line, so we pick up our pace. As we draw closer to the figure, I can see that he’s a he, and that his basic appearance matches up with what Sister Therese said before about Matt. Did we find him?
Jason’s the first to speak up. “Hey! Hey, you! Wait up!”
The man stops, showing us a tanned face with gray eyes and short brown hair. His armor looks more like dark red leather than true black, but the hue is close enough. He stands taller than all of us easily—a half a head taller than Jason, just like Commander Redford. Given the suddenness of our arrival, I’m not surprised to see him look startled.
But then he gives a respectful bow of the head. “Hello, fellow travelers. What brings you all the way out here?”
“We’re looking for someone named Matt,” says Jason. “You wouldn’t happen to be him, would you?”
“I am, actually. And who are the lot of you?”
Mister Red proceeds to point to each one of us and gives our names. Afterwards, he informs Matt about how Sister Therese asked us to look for him and ends with, “We’ve spent our whole day looking for you.” Wisely, Red leaves out the part about the Phoenix Stone.
For his part, Matt concedes with a sad nod. “I’m sorry she’s been worried. Unfortunately, I can’t return just yet. There’s something out here I need to find, and I think I’ve almost discovered it.”
“Is that so?” Jason crosses his arms over his chest. “You don’t have to tell us if you don’t want to, but I have this gut feeling you may want some backup. Better to travel as a group than all alone in a place like this, you know?”
“I can’t argue that, especially since I’ve traveled alone for the past few days. Some company would be nice.” He gives us another bow of his head. “Let’s travel together, then.”
Well. That takes care of that. The way Matt talks strikes me as carrying higher diction than a commoner, but I decide not to pay it much mind. Besides, something else creeps in as the new concern—the utter silence that brews between us and Matt.
Upon closer observation, Jason has that brooding look in his face. If I remember right, he has a beef with Scorpus—and Matt’s from there, last I checked. Therefore, Jason’s trying to keep his cool and not let a whole lot of pent-up frustrations overtake him. I’ll keep an eye on him just in case. The kid’s got a big heart, but his eagerness has had to be checked more than once by his friends in the past.
He must’ve been so busy concentrating on not blowing up that Erika studies him for a few seconds. One quiet breath later, and she breaks the silence for everyone. “So… Sister Therese says you’re from Scorpus.”
“I am,” Matt answers without turning around.
“What do you think of Taura?”
“It’s a fine place. Talking one on one with citizens from there… the people from the two kingdoms are very much alike.”
“Even the bandits?” comes Jason’s embittered voice.
Matt sounds more subdued when he responds. “Sadly, yes. Even the bandits. They are the worst offenders of peace.”
He’s facing away from me, so I can’t read his face to determine how sincere he is. I don’t want to make a scene when we’re about to walk along another narrow pass, so I stay quiet as we each shimmy along the mountainside. No one says a word until after we’ve all crossed.
“If we told you we were from Taura,” says Jason, “what would you think?”
“I would think it fascinating,” Matt answers. “Why?”
“I was just wondering. Last I heard, things were tense between the kingdoms again.”
“’Twould not be the first time in their history.”
Okay. That archaic contraction of it would is a dead giveaway that there’s more to Mister Matt than he’s letting on—not intentionally, at least. My guess is that he’s actually some kind of Scorpus nobility because of his choice of words and that he’s aware enough on the goings-on between the two kingdoms to comment on the larger implications. Lastly, being nobility would be a good reason to hide his true identity as much as possible. Matt may not be his real name, even.
We hit a quiet spell in the conversation, so I tug on Jason’s cloak and pull him aside. The others stop in their tracks to wait for us.
Once we’re far enough away from the rest, Jason gives me a curious look. “What’s up, Claire?”
I lower my voice, forcing him to lean closer. “I don’t know much about him, but let’s not do anything hasty for right now. We’ll interrogate him if he betrays us. Are you okay with that?”
Something burns behind those brown eyes of his, but then he nods and motions for us to resume our exploration. When Matt asks us if anything’s the matter, Jason assures him it was nothing. Put more precisely, “She just wanted to know if I was okay, and I am.”
Matt seems to accept that because he doesn’t pry any further. All he says is, “If you’re tired, don’t worry. I think we’re almost there.”
So our traveling party walks a little bit longer. We’ve been walking so long with minimal breaks, the aches in my leg muscles distract me from just how far we go. When I kick myself to focus again, I take the opportunity to look around. I have to reevaluate where we are.
As usual, the peaks of the steep mountains are clear to see, fading into the afternoon sky the farther they are from us. Their heights have varied since no two mountains have looked the same so far. Now, though, I spot two that actually do look alike—same height, same width, and standing very close together. In fact, they merge into a single body. My imagination dictates that, many ages ago, something cut into a huge mountain that resulted in the twin peaks I see now. I have no idea if any part of my off-the-cuff guess is true, of course.
I’m so fascinated by the sight that I call over the trio and point to the conjoined twin peaks. “Check that out. Doesn’t that look amazing?”
“Yeah,” says Jason, “especially with the sun setting over there.”
Franco stiffens suddenly. “Wait. Sunset?”
Mister Red nods, his face utterly confused. “What about it?” Then recognition crosses his face, showing most clearly in his wide-open eyes.
Except Matt’s the one who answers the question. “I think that’s the sign telling me my search is over. Shall we investigate?”
It hits me pretty quickly that he’s talking about the Phoenix Stone. Sister Therese said he was looking for it. I can’t believe that almost slipped my mind, but now that it’s in the forefront of my thoughts, I guess this means we wait. Good thing we’re on a large path. It’s also long enough that we’ve been on it for about half our trip so far. Sheepish looks have overtaken Jason and Erika’s faces, so they might’ve been having similar thoughts. They don’t have time to stay like that, though, because Matt starts on his way down the slope.
The slope isn’t too steep, thank goodness, so we all quasi-slide down until we reach a lake. A waterfall pours its contents into the water of the lake on one side while a stream takes that somewhere else in the area on the opposite side. A closer look at the waterfall reveals that the setting sun is pointing right at it.
Now that I’m closer to Matt, I see the slightest smile appear at the corner of his mouth. “This has to be it.”
“All right, let’s go in,” Jason declares. “Be careful, everyone. We don’t know what to expect.”
“Like you being extra cautious?” After saying that, Erika nudges her red-clad friend.
Franco laughs out loud, but briefly. “Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.”
“Hey, I’m not that reckless,” Jason shoots back. “Not all the time, I mean.”
I look at Matt, but he’s not facing anyone. His eyes haven’t left the waterfall. When we all start heading towards it, he moves in as much of a straight line that the terrain will allow. He seems oddly fixated on what’s ahead, I must say. As long as he stays where we can see him, though, I think we’ll be okay.
Time to see what’s behind the waterfall. Matt winds up leading the way if only because he started walking before we did. I trail behind everyone else, but not so much that they’re out of my sight. One by one, we slip through the narrow space between the flowing cascade and the stone entryway. Water splashes us all a little on the way in; we’re too close for it to have left us alone.
The cave grows dark when we’re only five steps in, so Franco moves up next to Matt and conjures a light spell. He does this fast enough that we don’t miss a beat in our strides. This cave is pretty narrow, though. Also, I hope finding the Phoenix Stone doesn’t require us to follow the sunlight because I can’t see any other light source other than Franco’s right now. All that said, this cave is narrow enough to force us into a single-file line, so it’s not like we’re going to get lost anytime soon.
We go down a slight slope, but for the most part, we keep going straight. It’s not until Matt stops when everyone else stops in their tracks, too. No fancy door opens, though. In fact, nothing happens.
“What’s wrong?” asks Jason.
“It’s a dead-end,” says Matt.
At Jason’s incredulous remark, Matt gestures to the rock wall in front of him. “How do you propose we move forward, then?”
Jason clears his throat. “I don’t know. Try pushing the rock.”
“I already did. It won’t budge.”
Before things can escalate into an argument, Erika taps the resident mage on the arm. “Franco, shut off the light for a second.”
“Why?” he asks.
“The sunlight came in through here. Your light might be interfering with that.”
Franco doesn’t argue further and kills the light spell. The tunnel goes pitch-dark, blinding me with a splash of dulled color before my eyes adjust to the shadows. Once that’s done, I see that it’s not quite as dark as I thought it would be. Why is that? Because the light from the sun has somehow poked its way through the waterfall and down this tunnel to land on a spot above our heads. We might be able to reach it if Jason stands on Matt’s shoulders, but I’m not sure. It’s really hard to see right now.
On the plus side, this part of the tunnel isn’t too narrow. If we have to shuffle around to adjust who’s first in line, we have the room to do it. In fact, I move so that Erika and I can face each other. Both of us look up to the thin beam of sunlight at my suggestion. At the front of our line is Matt and Jason.
I’m not quite sure how long we stand there waiting, but it’s long enough for Franco to ask, “Should I give us a light again?”
“Wait for it,” says Erika. “Something might happen if the sunlight manages to touch something on the other side of that rock door.”
An irritable Jason chimes in next. “You’re sure it’s a door?”
“That light’s going into something above our heads there. It might need both the sunlight and a worthy person at the door before it opens.”
Now Mister Red just sounds confused. “What makes you think that?”
“When you pick locks a lot, you come across a few that have obscure rules attached to them. You can’t pick most of those.”
Just when I’m about to ask the ever quiet Matt for his two cents, something shines brighter in the sunlight’s line of sight on the other side of the rock wall in front of us. Then, suddenly, a rumble and a tremor pulse through the tunnel. In front of us, the stone wall retreats into the ground, sending vibrations everywhere around us. Oh, no—I hope this doesn’t cause a cave-in.
It doesn’t, thankfully, and the stone door reveals a simple mini temple setup before us. Light washes over us from the room, whose chief color is a light brown. After an exchange of looks between themselves, the trio walks in first. I prompt Matt to go in before me, making myself the last one in.
At the back of the room sits a display almost identical to the elaborate tree mural from the church back at that first town I visited in this world. What did Commander Redford call it? Gravelton? Something like that. In any case, the mural has three circles, but two of them are just that. The third one—the middle one—is dark because it’s indented a little more than the other two circles. And you know what? That thin beam of sunlight is shining right on it.
Oh, my goodness. I think we found it. I’m just about to point out what I observed when a voice speaks behind me.
Wait—behind me? But I was the last one in—
“About time somebody found this place!”
We all whip around to see who spoke just now—but out of the corner of my eye, I notice Matt hasn’t turned with us. Instead, he jerks suddenly into a straight but rigid pose. As for the mystery speaker, I recognize him straight away as Dorian.
Jason’s hands go to his sword immediately. “What are you doing here?”
Dorian sighs, betraying a fair amount of exhaustion in his tone. “I was just following the trail of a rather conspicuous guest to this region. He calls himself Matt, but I know his true name. Don’t I, Mathias Wolfrain Scorpio?”
Mathias Wolfrain Scorpio? Okay, now I know “Matt” must be some kind of nobility. His name is structured the same as Taura’s princess—Vivian Selene Taura.
Oh. Oh, wait.
Franco states Matt’s full name before exclaiming my realization. “He’s the Prince of Scorpus?”
“Right you are!” Dorian does a little elbow pump with his left arm, drawing my attention to the black book he’s holding in it. When the dark-robed wizard starts laughing, I freeze in place. Is that a slight glow around the book I see?
Jason steps towards Dorian, but Matt juts in between the two of them. This stops Jason’s advance, so he asks his next question from where he is. “How did you track us, and what did you do to him?”
The wizard shrugs again. “Oh, nothing special. I inflicted a little mind control, is all. It wasn’t hard. He didn’t do a good job of disguising himself. I caught him last night, actually, but I didn’t strengthen the spell until just now. After all, I figured his heart would be noble enough to bypass whatever failsafe this shrine might’ve had, and no intent is better than having ill intent. Keeping some control over him allowed me to track him without having to watch him constantly. Pretty clever, don’t you think?”
Okay, I’ll give him that one—him and the author. Exploiting one of those only-the-worthy-may-pass conditions isn’t something you see everyday.
“There’s still only the two of you and four of us,” Franco points out. “What do you plan to do with him once you have the Stone?”
Dorian laughs again but more quietly. “Tell me… where did you study magic, boy?”
Franco’s brow furrows, clearly puzzled by the off-topic question. “The Sorcerer’s Academy in Taura. Why?”
“Believe it or not, I studied there, too. Snuck right in there, in fact—but that’s not the important part. What is important is that we both learned our craft in the same place. That means you should know exactly how this mind control spell works.”
The hands of the young mage start trembling. “I do. Where are you going with this? You couldn’t control us if you tried; you don’t know our names—”
“That’s where you’re wrong. Remember, I work with someone who used to belong to your little Redford Guard. He knew everyone’s names, including those of the new recruits that came aboard before his cover was blown.” Dorian shoots his hand out, pointing straight at the lot of us. “Do you understand now, Franco?”
The silver glow around the book shines brighter for just a second, and then Franco’s entire posture changes. Whereas before he was in a martial artist’s ready stance, his head jerks up as the rest of his body shifts to standing straight up like Matt. Jason and Erika look on, their eyes wide and mouths agape, as they watch the focus leave their friend’s eyes. In my complete shock, I’m vaguely aware that Matt has the same blank stare.
Jason runs up to the mage in green and grabs him by the shoulders. “Fight it, Franco! Fight it off! Magic’s your specialty; you can think of something! Franco!”
Nearby, Dorian shakes his head and sighs. “You’re wasting your time, kid. Just accept that you’ve lost.”