Untitled and Unfinished, Ch. 15
Dorian looks like he’s trying to set me on fire with his eyes. “I just want to know one thing: how did you discover our base in Scorpus so quickly? How did you learn our movements?”
I guess I can tell him part of the truth. Even if he escaped somehow and reported back to Cloaky, I doubt anything I say will be news to her. Still, one can’t be too careful. I start with a shrug. “We found one base by accident. It had a desk and a cabinet, which was where I found a book with a handy little map. If you’re wondering, the map’s not there anymore.”
“That’s impossible. The cabinet was locked.”
“It was a little tight, but it just needed a good push to open—”
“I put an enchant on it! No one from the kingdoms should’ve been able to open it under any circumstance!”
After Dorian spits that out, we stare each other down without talking. I watch as his face goes from frustrated rage, to sudden realization, to sheepish embarrassment as he slowly registers what he just said and what it means—that I’m not from Taura or Scorpus. By extension, and based on his own words, the enchantment’s conditions wouldn’t have applied to me, so I broke it without realizing it. That’s twice now that my withholding of personal information has been helpful. How about that?
The others must’ve caught on because when I look at them, they’re each sporting confident looks. Erika’s the one who happens to speak up. “Claire’s just full of secrets. I bet she’d fit right into a group of thieves.”
Ha ha ha. No. No, I wouldn’t.
I snap back to attention when I hear Dorian spit on the ground. “I don’t care how many secrets she has; they won’t save her in the end.”
Jason answers that first by crossing his arms over his chest. “If her secrets can’t save her, then we will. Simple as that.”
That’s actually a pretty good response, and I mean that in more than just how everyone else can fight except me. I let the others know that by thanking them, then turn back to Dorian. “By the way, I think you’re brilliant plan back there could’ve gone better if you had waited until after we grabbed the Phoenix Stone to spring your trap.”
Dorian doesn’t answer with anything except an averted gaze and incoherent grumbling.
The trio and I then step back as the prince moves to the front of the group, which I take as the sign that he wants to take control of the conversation. I don’t blame him. It’s like he said before, after all—we have plenty of time right now to pry some information from our traitor. This ought to be interesting.
Prince Mathias gets right to the point. “Where did you take the Phoenix Stone of Scorpus?”
The traitor wizard eyes him, smirks, and laughs, but he doesn’t say anything. The prince repeats his question with more force to his tone. Again, the wizard says nothing—not at first, anyway. The smirk falls by a smidge.
Finally, Dorian answers with, “It’s with the group leader, in a manner of speaking. Where she is now, I’m not quite sure. I also don’t know what her real name is. Wendell and I have taken to calling her Chief, but she’s been rather negligent in giving an actual name.”
“This ‘Chief’ of yours…” Mathias looks away like he’s thinking quick. “Does she wear a black cloak and transport herself in dark smoke?”
“Yes, actually. It seems to be her preferred method of getting around. She also never takes off her cloak in front of others.”
“So it was her. She was the one who led the effort to steal my kingdom’s Phoenix Stone.”
Dorian nods to that.
“Where is she now?”
“I told you, I don’t know. She tells us the details of her plans on a need-to-know basis. Where she goes, when, and what she does on her own time aren’t things we know. She never seemed interested in telling us about herself—only about her vision for the future. A vision Wendell and I both want to see fulfilled.”
Dorian doesn’t spill any more than that, so Mathias gives Franco the go-ahead to put that enchant on the chains, and we leave largely empty-handed regarding the Phoenix Stone of Scorpus. The information on Cloaky is about all we’ve gained, but a little info is better than none. I’m suddenly wondering now if her character was always part of the narrative or if Cloaky is a drop-in like me. She’s the author, so I imagine she could’ve inserted herself into the story, replaced one of the characters, or blended herself with one of them if she wanted. But that’s assuming her being the author gives her complete control over her narrative, my presence and influence notwithstanding.
I focus back on the now when I catch Mathias shaking his head out of the corner of my eye. At this point, we’ve left Dorian’s room and are heading up the stairs, and the conversation goes on while we walk down the hall.
“I’ll figure out where they’ve taken the Stone,” says the prince. “I won’t rest until I do.”
Erika sighs, dragging out the sound as she does. “I was thinking… he claims he doesn’t know where his Chief is, but maybe we don’t have to know where she is now.”
Jason stares at her like she’s grown a second head. “What are you talking about? If we can’t find her, we can’t find the Scorpus Phoenix Stone.”
“I know that, but… we have a map of their warp circles, don’t we? More than that, the map shows us roughly where the Aura Gate is. We don’t have to chase the Chief down if we can predict where she’ll go.”
Franco’s face brightens. “She’s right! We know what their plan is, so we can use that knowledge to intercept the Chief at the one place we know she has to go!”
Jason’s brown eyes go wide. “The Aura Gate.”
“Exactly my thoughts,” says Erika.
Mathias looks pretty surprised, but he relaxes and smiles in approval not long after. “That should help immensely. We’ll use that information to plan our strategy when the time comes.”
Once again, Jason looks confused. “The time isn’t now?”
“I want Vivian involved in the planning process since this is a matter that concerns both nations—the world, really.”
“Right. How are we going to return to Taura for that?”
“We can discuss it while we wait for my southern patrolmen to arrive.”
So once we return to the mess hall, we do just that. Once Mathias sees the map of warp circles we found, the plan comes together real fast. The gist of it is that we’re going to intercept Cloaky McMystery at the Aura Gate, which will put us in the perfect spot to grab the last Phoenix Stone and summon the Spirit of Life. Mathias is hoping he and Vivian can gather enough soldiers to support Jason’s group in confronting the massive amounts of Shadow Snappers that are going to be there, most likely.
The only real hitch to the plan is that we don’t have a clue where Cloaky is keeping the last Phoenix Stone. Considering how she’s written her story, she’s proven herself to be pretty clever, even if it was with one particular plot twist. If she wants to keep being clever, she would keep the Stone on her person. Since she stole the Stone, she probably can’t touch it directly like Jason and so has it in a box or a pouch—something that would be easy for her to carry around and keep it away from everyone else.
Erika’s the one who brings up this latter fact to the others, finishing her explanation with, “It’s what I would do if I wanted to keep something important away from people.”
Mathias nods, but then he raises an eyebrow at her. “You were not a thief yourself in the past, were you?”
Miss Blue shrinks into herself, looking sheepish. “Actually, I was. It was the only way I could find food for a few years. I just never joined a thieves’ guild.”
“I see. I’m sorry for the trouble you’ve faced.”
“It’s okay. All that sneaking around has given me plenty of handy skills. You have to admit, it’s good to have a sneak to catch some sneaks, right?” Erika smirks at this point, stretching her arms in front of herself.
This gets a quiet laugh out of the prince. “Certainly.”
Jason and Franco give looks of approval.
I take that as my cue to clear my throat loudly enough for them to hear. When all their eyes are on me, I let out a breath. “There’s something really important you should know about the Chief.”
“What’s that?” asks Jason.
“Erika made me think of this just now, but… we don’t know much about the Chief. I can’t give any specifics or particulars, but I’m certain of only one thing: she’s more powerful than any mage in the world.”
Franco leans back, eyeing me with curiosity. “What makes you say that?”
“It’s just a feeling.” That’s the only way I can sum it up, really. I base this on what I’ve been able to do in the story so far as a writer/editor who was brought in from the real world. If I can pop things into existence and invoke scene changes that fast-forwards the action, what can the author of the story do after inserting herself into it? I’m going to guess she can do a lot—way more than I can—which is why I tell the characters in front of me that it’s a hunch. All I’m doing is speculating.
When I look his way, the mage in green is tapping the table surface. “By any chance, is this the same gut feeling that made you think using your real name would be dangerous?”
I point to him with a snap of my finger. “Yeah, actually, it is. And it’s all the more important we’re careful when we confront the Chief because we don’t know everything that she can do.”
“My thoughts exactly,” says the prince. “It would be unwise to engage her without a few different plans of action.”
Jason doesn’t seem too perturbed by this, though. “Claire’s instincts have helped us a lot, so I believe her. We’ll handle whatever the Chief throws at us.”
The talk goes on a little longer, mostly with planning for some hypothetical situations, but we change the subject after a few more minutes. There’s only so much help a hypothetical can provide, you know? So we talk instead about how we’re going to Taura. Long story short, it involves a trip to a place called the Hills Temple in southern Scorpus. We’re in for a lot of traveling soon.
The prince tries a few more times in the day to pry information out of Dorian, but he doesn’t learn anything. When the southern patrol guards from Scorpus arrive early the next morning, the trio and I go with them and step inside an old-timey wagon. Dorian’s in a wooden cage surrounded by more of the patrolmen, which ensures that he won’t do anything fishy while we’re on the road. The prince has taken a seat up front with the drivers, where they discuss what to do in the immediate future. None of it is a really new compared to what we talked about before.
Though the patrolmen are pretty stoic, they’re not opposed to conversation or laughs, and that makes it easy for the more talkative Jason and Erika to pass the time. Franco’s fully recovered by now, and his concentration is fixed on reading a reddish brown spell book. Apparently, he had it in his bag this whole time just in case he needed to review anything in it. Me? I observe the scenery as it goes by us. It’s all I can do, honestly.
We travel over the suspended isthmus that takes us from the Gray Crags to southern Scorpus. The transition is a lot like walking from one set piece to another: we go from grounds of stone and dirt to more of that grass-patches-in-desert fields we saw the first time we arrived in Scorpus. When I look back, the peaks of the Gray Crags poke out in the distance, veiled somewhat in a hue that’s more gray than blue. I wouldn’t have thought much of it under other circumstances, but the blue of the sky looks more dull than usual despite the absence of clouds. When I point it out, all Franco can give me for a response is a grim look.
I’m drawn from my observation when I catch Jason leaning forward, his eyes focused on one of the patrolmen. Then I hear him ask, “How much farther will we have to go to reach our stop?”
“We’re coming up to one of our main outposts now,” says the voice of the lead patrolman, Samson. “We’ll keep the traitor there until His Highness gives us additional orders.”
“Make sure the sorcerer’s prison is secure,” the prince tells him. “He must not rejoin his allies under any circumstance.”
“I understand, my lord. We’ll spare no effort on the security. When do you expect to return to Scorpus?”
I hear Mathias sigh, and he doesn’t answer until a few seconds later. “I hope to be gone no longer than a week. When we reach the outpost, our visitors and I will need some new supplies for the road ahead. We won’t need much—only enough to carry in our bags.”
At this point, Jason shuffles in place. He must feel a little agitated about getting shafted out of the conversation just now, but he doesn’t yell or make any obnoxious noises. All he does is retreat, then lean forward again. “Say, Matt—er, Prince Mathias. How far away is the Hills Temple?”
“About half a day’s trip west from our outpost,” replies the prince, “but that’s assuming you go by horse. Speaking of which, Samson, could we borrow this wagon?”
“You may take whatever you need, Your Highness,” says the patrolman. “Shall any of us to accompany you to the temple?”
“I don’t believe so. We’re a sizeable group enough as it is, and also capable. To add more people would slow us down, and we don’t have much time to spare.”
We reach the outpost not long after that conversation ends. The place is made of stone walls and watchtowers, all of which surrounds a wide fort. We follow Samson and the patrolmen as they take Dorian to the fort’s basement and place him behind metal bars. Afterwards, we run around for some supplies to refill our bags. We’re not even at this fort for more than an hour before we head back to the wagon with Jason, Erika, and Mathias out front, and Franco and I in the wagon itself.
While Mister Red and Miss Blue have the reins, Mathias gives them instructions on how to reach this Hills Temple. The wagon bumps along at a steady pace while we pass through more flat fields of sand with grass patches which give way to hills both large and small. On three occasions, I spot the silhouettes of villages off in the distance, two to my right and one to my left. Their fences are made of simple wooden beams—definitely not like the more solid stone walls of Gravelton, the first town I stumbled across. They’re too far away for me to see any of the occupants, much less if they have guards or law enforcement. All the while, that odd tint to the sky hovers over them like some kind of bad omen.
A few hours later, we arrive at the grounds of some red-brown stone buildings, the largest of which sits in the middle. The others look like giant cubes with rectangles poked into them to make doors and windows. The big one stands out from the rest with its window tops shaped like arrow tips and the huge pillars flanking the doors. Those pillars remind me of giant pawn pieces from a chess game, but they’re neither white nor black. In fact, they look faintly gold. Together with the elaborate, vine-like patterns molded onto the front walls, they practically scream Very Important Building.
Mathias just confirms the fact. “There it is—Hills Temple.”
A monk from the temple greets us, and after he exchanges some words with the prince, he takes the wagon to the side of the temple. We grab our bags, leaving the wagon empty, and follow the monk’s lead inside. He leaves us alone once we’re all in.
We step into a main hall illuminated by little floating lights like fireflies. When I take a closer look, though, they seem to be actual floating lights. The highest concentration of them hover above an elaborate, circular mosaic whose main feature appears to be a human-animal hybrid with a scorpion tail. I would guess this is a deity or a famous mythological figure who’s important to the people of Scorpus.
When I lift my head, I see Franco looking upward, but his eyes are closed. Erika examines everything with a degree of awe, although not enough to be totally distracted. Meanwhile, I think I spy the Phoenix Stone’s glow through the belt pouch Jason’s stored it in. Is it reacting to the lights? If it is, it’s not doing anything more than glowing brighter than usual.
After a minute or two, Franco opens his eyes. “The magical power here is strong. I haven’t felt anything of this magnitude since I saw the central hub of the Academy’s warp network. If I combine this with the power of the Phoenix Stone, I could take us all to Taura without much strain, if any.” Quickly, he scratches his chin. “In theory, at least. I obviously don’t know for sure.”
“It would also be a one-way trip,” says Erika. “Once we leave this place, we won’t be able to make use of its power.”
“It should be all we’ll need for this,” Mathias assures us. He kneels down at that point and rests his forehead against his folded hands. “O Asana, Great Mother and Founder, may you guide our path.” His next words are too quiet for me to hear.
Once he stands, I gesture to the figure in the mosaic. “It that Asana?”
He eyes the mosaic and nods. “Yes. She was the first ruler of Scorpus, and my family traces our ancestry to her. I would elaborate more, but we can’t linger.”
“That’s fine. You can tell me the story later.”
“Right.” With that said, the prince catches the attention of the trio and has them gather in the center of the mosaic with him. “You should cast the warp spell here for the greatest effect.”
“I figured as much,” said Franco. “I never tried doing this without drawing a circle first, so I read up on it on our way here.”
“What will you need to do?” asks Jason.
“Uh… basically, a lot of arm movements and hand formations at certain intervals. It’ll help control the flow of magic in lieu of a circle. I’m going to need a lot of concentration for this, so…”
Jason and Erika nod to each other, but it’s the former who speaks. “No talking. Got it. Just remember we’re heading to Taura Castle.”
“Oh, I’ll remember. I can’t complete the spell without setting a destination.”
So Franco sets to work. After putting his arms forward, he makes circular motions with his hands like he’s smoothing something out. Meanwhile, his fingers curl on occasion as if he were playing cat’s cradle. At no point does he hit Jason, who’s standing next to him with the Phoenix Stone in hand. While the mage weaves the spell together, the lights around us swirl around, following his movements. The Phoenix Stone glows and brightens in tandem with the floating lights until I see more of them than I do the rest of the temple.
Franco touches the Stone finally, raises his free hand, and snaps his fingers. All around us, the white veil of light appears to grab us all. I chance a look at my feet and see the warp circle pattern under us, glowing brighter than everything else. After that comes lift off.
This is it, then. We’re on our way.