Untitled and Unfinished, Ch. 14
Because of how late it is when we emerge from the shrine, we consider camping out in a cave not far from the lake. We don’t go through with it, though. What do we do instead? Teleport.
I’m not the one who suggests it; the prince does. Needless to say, he receives some pretty incredulous looks from the trio and Franco especially.
“I’ve cast several spells today,” he says. “I’m not sure I can spare the energy for a teleportation spell. I’m not even sure we’ll cover the whole distance back to the temple; we traveled all day.”
Erika points to the unconscious husk that is Dorian. “We also have one of the traitors with us. It’ll be tricky keeping an eye on him even through one night.”
The prince says nothing at first, then catches Jason’s attention. “Take out the Phoenix Stone.”
Our red-clad hero raises an eyebrow. “Why?”
“Even just one Phoenix Stone is a powerful artifact by itself. We can use it to amplify the effects of magic, for instance.”
“Oh.” Jason turns to Franco then, Stone in hand. “Do you think it’ll help take off the strain when you cast the warp spell?”
The mage in green scratches the back of his head. “If what the prince has said is true, then it should. I don’t know how much it will help, though.”
“It’s okay. We’ll watch your back.”
Franco nods to that. “It’ll take me some time to draw a circle. Will the rest of you be all right in the meantime?”
“I think so,” says Erika. “We have three other people here who can keep a close eye on our traitor here. Even if he wakes up, the ropes should keep him bound.”
I move up to join them, but my mind is about two steps ahead of my tongue. “I can keep watch, too. I mean, I can’t fight, but I can help watch him.”
“Any amount of help is much appreciated.” And on that note, Mathias sets Dorian on the ground. Afterwards, he exchanges looks with Jason and Erika. “The three of us should keep watch of this area in case we’re ambushed by Shadow Snappers. I think two should be enough for a patrol, and the last of us can stay with Miss Claire and the traitor. Does that sound good?”
“It sounds great,” says Jason. “I’ll hold onto the Phoenix Stone until Franco’s ready to use it.”
We break to fill our new posts. Erika’s the first to take the spot near me and Dorian, followed by Jason and then Mathias over the course of several minutes. I hear the sounds of combat ring only a couple of times, both brief, but nothing major comes barreling towards us. This, combined with Dorian’s fantastic ability to stay knocked out, allows Franco to draw that warp circle in peace. Jason’s about to come back to me for the second time when the mage in green grabs our attention.
“All right, it’s done.”And on that note, Franco wipes his forehead.
Once we’re all gathered together, Jason asks his friend, “So how is this going to work? Should you hold the Stone while you casts the spell, or should I?”
“It’ll be enough if I just put my hand on it.” Franco purses his lips and averts his eyes, thinking for only a few seconds. “That’ll leave only one of my hands free, but I think I can manage. Hold it out for me.”
Jason does exactly that, and Franco begins threading magic into the lines of the circle. When it’s all lit up, we shuffle onto the circle. If you’re wondering, Mathias has Dorian hoisted over his shoulder again. Franco grips the Phoenix Stone tighter and throws his hand up like a salute, which causes that white veil to surround and lift us into the sky.
This weightless feeling I get whenever we warp isn’t something I’m used to yet. Also, I don’t know whether it’s the Phoenix Stone or just my imagination, but I think we’re flying even faster than we did before. I want to say it’s the Stone. The prince did say it could amplify magic, didn’t he?
The light carries us across cliffs, valleys, crags, and shorter mountain peaks in a matter of seconds before it drops us off at the front of the temple gates. When the light dissipates, Franco stumbles over, but Erika catches him before he hits the ground. Jason seems to slip the Stone into his pouch as an automatic action because his attention is fixed on his friend.
“Are you all right? Do you feel sick?” he asks.
Franco holds up a hand, panting. “I’m okay. Just tired. Stone helped a lot. But I’m really… really tired.”
“Let’s get you inside.” Erika proceeds to help him stand.
We take only two steps forward when I hear the sound of Shadow Snappers nearby. I exchange a one-second look with Erika before we switch to having Franco lean on me instead. Meanwhile, Miss Blue goes to join the fight alongside Jason and Mathias. I lead our mage in green to the front steps of the temple and hear the front doors open, letting out several monks who rush to the battlefield. Sister Therese meets me at the bottom of the steps—
—when a huge flash covers the whole area in a warm light. The Shadow Snappers screech all at once like a tone-deaf chorus. After that, the only sound that lingers is the cool breeze.
Wait. What happened to the battle?
I turn around to find out. The source of the light is from the Phoenix Stone—big surprise there—and it’s bright enough to let me see that people drew their weapons but didn’t use them. Jason’s holding the Stone high, but he starts lowering his hand while I’m looking. As he does so, the light regresses to its normal, not-so-bright level.
Sister Therese prods me to keep moving, and everyone else seems to follow suit. As we shuffle inside, I make another glance back to see Mathias join two monks, and that particular group goes off from the rest. I would guess they’re going to secure the Scorpus traitor in a place he can’t escape from easily. It’s just common sense, isn’t it?
While the other brothers and sisters of the temple disperse, my small group goes to the mess hall room we ate in before. The trio and I take the same table, even. Sister Therese goes into the kitchen and comes out about fifteen minutes later with some simple meals consisting of rice and assorted vegetables. Mathias enters the room after a pitcher of water and some cups are set in front of us, and Franco’s quick to down a drink. Sister Therese greets the prince warmly, but then he tells her something I can’t hear. He must’ve asked her to leave us alone because she bows and departs shortly after. Once it’s just the five of us, Mathias sits down at the table.
“Where’s the traitor?” asks Jason.
The prince glances over his shoulder at the entrance to the mess hall. “He’s secure in the basement, chained to a wall and guarded by two of the residents here. He won’t be going anywhere now.”
Erika brings up the next question. “How are we going to get him back to Scorpus without him escaping?”
“I sent a message out already to the southern patrol of my kingdom. I know the captain of that guard personally. While it will take the message about a day to reach them, they should be here in short order afterwards. In all, this shouldn’t take more than three days on horseback. That should be plenty of time for me to pry some answers from him—like where his cohorts have taken my country’s Phoenix Stone.”
“What should we do in the meantime?”
The prince finally turns back to us. “I want to oversee the transport of Dorian personally and see to it that his bindings are secure. It may be a bit paranoid of me, but with magic practitioners, you can never be too sure.” At this, he delivers an apologetic look to the mage in green. “I mean no offense to you or any of them at large…”
Franco waves him off before he can finish. “It’s okay. I understand completely. Truth be told, I’d do the same. With me here, I can put an enchant on his cuffs and chains to make sure they don’t break for the duration of his trip. Then we could use another warp spell to take us to wherever we need to go next.”
Mathias nods to all of that. “Indeed, we could… but not until you’ve recovered your strength. Not until we’ve rested ourselves, either. We’ll need to be at full strength if we’re to prepare ourselves for the next step.”
Jason leans back, resting an elbow on a raised knee. “And what’s this next step?”
“We must head to Taura. The queen and the princess must be made aware of what’s going on, and we also need to see if they’ve had any luck in securing their Phoenix Stone. If you recall the legends, all three of them must be brought together for them to utilize their full potential.”
“To strengthen the Aura Gate,” adds Franco.
Mathias takes a sip of water from his cup, but when he sets it down, he looks downcast. That becomes a certain grimness when he lifts his head to meet our eyes. “About that…”
A curious Mister Red snaps awake. “Yes?”
“Since you’ve been chosen to carry a Phoenix Stone, then the other two should have no trouble conceding to you if their respective chosen aren’t able to meet you. Because of this, I have vital information for you regarding the Aura Gate and the Plague Drift—information that’s been lost over the centuries to all but the royal families.”
“Really? What more could there be? The Spirit of Life trapped the Plague Drift behind the Aura Gate, then gave us the Phoenix Stones to summon it again to strengthen the Gate if we needed that done again. Isn’t that the gist of the most important parts?”
“It is,” Mathias agrees, “but the true scope of the disaster to come is far greater than anyone can imagine. People are aware that it would spell the doom of the world, but not of how quickly we’ll lose everything should the Plague Drift be released. Of all the things that have been lost with retellings of the legend, that should not have been one of them.”
“How ‘quickly’ are we talking here?” asks Erika, whose tone is all confusion.
The prince takes downs the cup before he continues. “To understand what’s to come, you must first understand the true nature of the Plague Drift. It’s not just an idle force of nature—it’s the Spirit of Decay itself. Long ago, before the dawn of civilization, the Spirits of Life and Decay had an intense debate over how to regulate their respective forces around the world. The Spirit of Decay sought to consume lives granted by its counterpart more and more, and their debate eventually came to blows. They would fight throughout all of early human civilization until the Spirit of Life decided on one solution to end the conflict for good.”
“Seal away the Spirit of Decay,” Jason finishes.
“Exactly. The Phoenix Stones are so named because the Spirit of Life itself is a phoenix. Because of the damage caused by their constant warring, the Spirit of Life has spent much of the time since repairing the damage and allowing life to thrive. However, all mortal things die, and so the Spirit of Decay can recollect its strength from the inevitable loss of life. It feeds off the act of dying itself.
“Without the Aura Gate to keep the vast majority of its power at bay, the Spirit of Decay would run rampant across all the lands, consuming all life until it can escape the limits of this world and devour others beyond ours. Not only would we be gone, but the Spirit of Life would become too weak to sustain any other life forms. And all this could happen within a year if we do nothing.”
An entire planet gone in the span of a year because of a spirit who’s a massive slave to its hunger. I may have worded that funny, but believe me—I’m well aware of just how serious the situation is now and of how frightening this end-of-the-world scenario would be. Judging from the wide-eyed looks of the young heroes, I’d say they’ve also been hit with the real scope of what we’re trying to stop. The more I think about it, the more a Pac-Man comparison fits the situation, except at least Pac-Man is the hero and able to stop eating for a few seconds.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like the Spirit of Decay will stop. Ever. I don’t know how good people’s knowledge of astronomy is in this story, but I know enough to realize, without exaggerating, that this omnivorous spirit will keep going until it’s eaten everything in the universe. Can you imagine something like this existing in the real world, and it comes barreling into the Solar System to eat every planet, moon, and asteroid? That’s not a pleasant thought. At all.
The prince goes on to add, “We would see its effects as shriveled greenery, dried-out lakes, or animals weakening and dying on the spot. This is why we called it the Spirit of Decay in the first place—a few seconds of seeing its full form in flight would look to us like a shadow that caused everything in it to atrophy and perish.”
“And if things aren’t dying already, it’ll just make them die,” adds Jason. “Do I have that right?”
“You do,” says the prince.
“So what we’re trying to stop right now isn’t just a worldwide disaster. We’re trying to stop a monster from growing right under us.” Our red-clad hero rubs his forehead, a tired sigh escaping him. “You’re right. That is worse than anything we would’ve imagined.”
Erika nods, but she hasn’t looked up from her cup. “I can kind of see why some of the truth was covered up. If the public at large heard about all that now, there’s bound to be a widespread panic.”
“I agree,” says the prince, “but people fear only what they don’t understand. If we give them the full truth, we should be able to control the panic.”
Suddenly, Jason stumbles back. “You’re not suggesting that we announce what’s going on to everyone in the two kingdoms, are you?”
Thank goodness Mathias shakes his head. “As much as I would like to, we don’t have the time or an efficient means of doing so. Even a momentary panic isn’t something we can afford now. Ideally, this would’ve been something that wasn’t covered up in the first place. It’s too late for that, now, though. We’ll tell them afterwards.”
“How do you know all of this?” asks Franco.
The prince sets his cup aside. “As I said, the royal families of Scorpus and Taura kept the complete knowledge of the legend in tact. If you asked Princess Vivian, she would tell you the same information. It’s just as I told that traitor—he and his cohorts have no idea what kind of disaster they’ll unleash.”
Strictly speaking, I would think Cloaky McMystery of all people would know what the Spirit of Decay is all about, more so than the characters in-the-know, because she’s the author. It’s a simple fact that no characters in-universe would know as much as the author, ever. I stay quiet about that, of course. I should see how the rest of this plays out.
I haven’t zoned out at all, but it feels like I have when I hear the prince declare, “As soon as we see Dorian off to Scorpus, we’ll head to Taura together.”
Franco raises his hand until we’re looking at him. “If I can put that enchant on the chains, we could start on our way to Taura sooner.”
“That’s good of you to offer, but can you ensure the enchantment will stay on as long as needed?”
“I can specify that the enchantment will stay until either I dispel it myself or I die.”
Jason pats the mage in green on the shoulder. “Well, no one wants you to die, so I guess you’ll have to dispel that enchantment on your own later.”
“Sounds like we have a plan.” After saying that, Erika reaches for a bowl and starts dumping food into it. “If we’re all set, I’m going to start on this.”
Mathias lets out a hearty laugh. “We are indeed all set, so the rest of us should start on this, too. Goodness knows we could use a moment to wind down.”
Yeah, no kidding. Eating some good right now is totally fine by me, so we all dig in. We must’ve been starving because no one really talks; we just eat until we’ve had our fill. It’ll be good to put the giant monster we’re trying to stop out of our minds for now. The trio takes the time to catch Mathias up to speed with what we’ve done so far. Sister Therese returns a little later to tend to the table and then lead us to the rooms we’ll sleep in tonight.
Somehow, despite hearing the truth about the Spirit of Decay, I fall asleep easily. Maybe I was more tired than I thought? Regardless, it’s great to sleep in peace despite impending doom.
We wake up around brunch time, although I don’t think this world has a concept like brunch. In any case, I’m just about to finish eating my first meal of the new day when one of the monks comes to our table.
He looks to Erika, then to me. “Which one of you is Claire?”
I raise my hand. “I am. Why?”
The monk looks positively sheepish about this. “The traitor from Scorpus is demanding to see you. I’m not sure why, but since soldiers from Scorpus won’t be here for some time, I thought perhaps to fulfill this one request.”
That’s a little unexpected. Why me of all people?
Jason must’ve thought this is strange, too, because he bumps the table with his fist. “We’re going with her.”
The monk’s brow furrows like he’s considering saying no, except he doesn’t. “The man didn’t specify wanting to talk with Miss Claire alone, so… all right. All of you may come.”
Mathias nods his head to that. “I’ll go with them.”
No one’s about to refuse a prince, so the monk returns the nod, bows, then gestures for us to follow him. When we leave, the others shuffle around me so that I’m in the middle. Jason’s in the lead with Mathias and then myself behind him.
Because of this arrangement, a thought suddenly pops into my editor’s mind. If I were looking at this manuscript in my office, I’d wonder if Mathias appearing when he did would’ve been fine, or if it would’ve been better if he had appeared sooner—as in, eight chapters sooner. It could help his appearance be less random, or so I’d say to the author. Thing is, I’m not sure if he really was there during the incident I’m thinking about and I just missed him, or if he really wasn’t. Eight chapters is quite a long time ago, so I figure I may as well ask about it and see how the characters react to find out.
Let me clear my throat first. “Excuse me, Math— er, Prince Mathias.”
He turns to me but keeps walking forward. “Yes?”
“I was wondering… were you in the castle in Taura’s capital when we fended off that inside attack by Dorian and his crony?”
Something a little creepy happens, then. It’s not just Mathias who gives me that curious-glint-head-tilt combo—it’s him and the young trio both. They even tilt their heads in the same direction. After watching that for a few seconds, everyone rights themselves to how they were standing before, and Mathias nods his head. “I was there in the throne room, helping Vivian protect her mother and my father.”
“I thought you looked familiar,” says Franco. “We must’ve passed right by you but didn’t realize who you were.” Jason and Erika give murmurs of agreement.
Huh. Looks like the story did it again. Which means Mathias was definitely not there at the story point in question. Whoops. Notes to send to the author later, I guess—assuming she doesn’t kill me in this world first.
We grow quiet after that odd conversation. The monk takes us into the basement, which is rather extensive for the temple grounds. He explains to us how out-of-date or ruined statues are put into crates and left down here to await repairs or remodeling, but he admits progress on that tends to fall behind. At any rate, it explains the odd collection we pass by.
Our stop, however, is at a door halfway down the hall. Once we reach it, the monk opens it and gestures for us to go in. We shuffle in one by one, and since I’m still in the middle of the group, I don’t see what’s in front of me right away. But sure enough, we spread out enough in the largely empty room so the others can arrange themselves in a box with me in the center.
Before me is Dorian, who’s had his wrists and ankles bound in chains with a third attached to both and also to the floor. If he had his chains spread out as far as possible, they’d form a shape like a capital I. In his position, it would be impossible for him to do anything without us seeing it, and that’s assuming he could even move well. He doesn’t look like he’s about try anything, though. He just glares at us after we enter the room.
The first thing I do is make sure I’m well away from him before speaking. “I heard you were looking for me. What do you want?”