Untitled and Unfinished, Ch. 16
We fly so fast, it doesn’t even feel like we really flew. I know when my feet rise off the ground, but that flying sensation barely takes hold before we land on some lush grass. A better look around tells me we’re back in the courtyard of Taura Castle. The elaborate fountain and colorful trees are a dead giveaway.
Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of trouble brewing. Guards are shuffling all over the place with their weapons primed. Those who aren’t brandishing weapons are hauling bags around to form barriers or escorting the few servants I spot indoors. Among the more heavily armored castle knights are members of the Redford Guard—and specifically, there’s Melinda. I can tell because of her light-brown braid dangling behind her. It’s like she hasn’t unraveled her hair since I last saw her.
She blows the horn she has around her neck—the same one I saw her with at the very beginning—catching the attention of several Redford Guardsmen. “All troops to the north end! Donovan’s group has this place covered!” she cries out. The troops waste no time in heading north through the castle.
At that point, there’s a clear enough path between her and us that Jason rushes for her. “Melinda! Melinda, it’s us! We’re back!”
By the time we reach her, she’s already turned to us with a bewildered expression on her face. Did she miss our entrance, or is there just so much going on that a five-man group warping into the courtyard wouldn’t register on anyone’s radar? If this isn’t a minor plot hole, then it really drives home how serious things are right now. In any case, Melinda brightens upon seeing us again after who-knows-how-long.
The first thing she does is initiate a group hug. “I’m so glad to see you again! Sadly, I fear you’ve just stumbled into a crisis.”
Jason takes a step back from her, glancing around. “I can see that. What’s happening? We’ll help in any way we can!”
“Shadow Snappers. Lots of them. Their numbers have been increasing steadily since you left. Even Princess Vivian is having trouble staving them off with just one Phoenix Stone.”
“You all found the Phoenix Stone of Taura?” asks Mathias.
“We did—or rather, Princess Vivian did while traveling with Commander Redford.” Melinda examines the prince more closely before she stiffens suddenly and bows before him. “Goodness, Prince Mathias! What are you doing here? How?”
“It’s a long story, but I’m here to help. Where is Vivian?”
“She’s stationed herself at the north balcony to support the troops there.”
Jason punches his palm, a determined fire brewing in his eyes. “Let’s get to it, then!”
Melinda has to join her troops on the north end anyway, so she takes us through the castle to the aforementioned balcony. We pass by Donovan on the way, scruffy beard and all, but we don’t get to exchange much more than a smile and a nod. When we reach the balcony, Princess Vivian is facing away from us. Standing by the entrance is Commander Redford, whose greeting consists of a broad smile, a bow, and a handshake for each member of our traveling group.
“It’s good to see you again. Was your search fruitful?” she asks us.
Mister Red talks fast, counting the points on his fingers as he does. “Well, we followed the traitors, learned they had a boss, ran into Prince Mathias and let him join us, arrested the Scorpus wizard traitor, and obtained the Phoenix Stone of the Gray Crags. So yeah, I’d say it was pretty fruitful.”
The commander jerks back in surprise, staring at us like she’s just heard the most unbelievable news in the world. To be fair, we were far more successful over all than even we thought we would be. Wendell and Cloaky are the only ones not accounted for now. Once she’s done processing everything Jason’s told her, Redford nods. “That’s some good work you’ve done there. Where is the Scorpus wizard?”
“He’s in custody with the southern Scorpus patrol,” replies the prince. “We made sure he wouldn’t escape.”
By this point, I catch Princess Vivian approaching us out of the corner of my eye and turn to her. When everyone else sees her, I follow their lead and bow to greet her. She returns the gesture before saying she’ll want to debrief us later, though we give her the quick summary anyway. After that, she touches her chin, and I can almost hear the gears turning in her head as she thinks over the next course of action.
Finally, she looks up and gestures to each member of the trio. “Since you have a Phoenix Stone, young Jason, I want you and your two friends to join the troops stationed at the north end of the city. Commander Redford will stay with me. Mathias, if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like you to remain nearby as well. We don’t know when a Shadow Snapper will slip through the windows.”
“Of course,” Redford and Mathias say in unison.
That just leaves me. Before I can point this out, however, the princess directs my attention to a nearby room to her left. “You can hide there. If I recall right, you said you were not a trained warrior.”
“Far from it,” I confirm. “I’ll tuck myself in there and try to blend in with the furniture.”
The princess laughs, her expression somewhat sheepish. “All right. I’m sorry I couldn’t think of a better place for you to hide under such short notice. If we had the time, I’d have someone take you to where my mother is hiding right now.”
“It’s okay. I’ll manage somehow. I survived this long, didn’t I?”
Nods of approval go around, and then we break to take our positions.
The room I go to hide in is pretty small and empty. So much for blending in with the furniture. If I had to guess, an archer or two could take up a post here for a little and shoot through the window grating. At least it looks decorative with all the fancy woven patterns. It also happens to have some holes to help facilitate aiming an arrow, if I’m making the right assumptions here. The patterns also aren’t so numerous and intricate that I can’t see what’s going on outside.
I know the safest thing to do would be to stay as far from the window as possible, but I can’t help myself. I have to see what’s going on out there. I want to make sure my friends will be okay. Considering where I am and what I’ve been able to do, maybe watching them to ensure their safety will actually work.
When I peer outside, I lose my bearings for a second because of what I see. The gray of the cloudless sky is more pronounced northward, and I see a mass of shadows outside the walls of the city that I know can’t be part of the natural scenery, not when it’s writhing like flailing limbs. Then, in the course of a few seconds, the mass rises like a tsunami wave, and dozens of Shadow Snappers peel out of it. They clash with the soldiers stationed to the north, but a huge flash of light dispels the front-most Snappers. That must’ve been Jason’s work. As the light fades, more of those monstrous shadows pour in. Even from my location, I can see the soldiers engaging the enemy.
I hear a faint sound like a simmer, followed by a laser blast, all from my left. A beam of light hurdles forward and wipes out the second wave shadows. I think that light came from the balcony, so that shot must’ve been fired by Princess Vivian. If I remember right, she’s also handy with magic, so I’m guessing she can get a lot of mileage out of her country’s Phoenix Stone. I mean, I just saw her nuke a whole line of monsters. After everything else I’ve learned so far, how could I conclude otherwise?
The battle rages on for a while. I’m not sure about the minutes, and I lose count of the waves after the fifth one. At one point, I see Erika leap onto a rooftop with the help of a wind burst, which I assume came from Franco. I’m also going to assume she uses the vantage point to aim her knives better. Later, I think I see her drop down into the mass of soldiers. Shortly after that, the line has to pull back a few streets. That’s not good. The Shadow Snappers don’t look like they’re going to let up anytime soon.
I lean forward so my forehead touches the window grating. From there, I concentrate hard—really hard—on one thing: hoping to goodness everyone makes it out safely. I repeat the same words to myself over and over like I’m trying to keep from going crazy. I don’t close my eyes, though. I’m afraid I’ll miss something if I do that. The pose I’m in isn’t the most comfortable in the world, so eventually, my body screams at me to move. When I pull back, I straighten my posture, and my train of thought slows down as my eyes register the changed playing field.
Or at least, they would have if a few Shadow Snappers weren’t flying towards the castle. My body moves before my mind catches up, and by then, I’m already on the floor. A slim, stringy Snapper slips right through the grating. Last I checked, this room was empty. Crap! This is just like when I first arrived and rode that empty wagon—
My brain shifts gears as I scramble around the room, dodging the whipping limbs of the Shadow Snapper while I search around for a weapon. Yes, I know I said the room had nothing in it before, but that wagon didn’t have anything in it, either. That didn’t stop me from finding a weapon that I could use. I have to ignore that ear-piercing whiplash sound. I need a weapon. Now. Right the eff now!
That’s when I see it—a plank of wood in the corner. Another plank ex machina for the win! I make a mad dash for it, barely registering the Shadow Snapper’s limb brushing against my back. Once my hands grasp the plank, I whirl around with it. I hit something, but it takes me a second to realize I just slapped away the Snapper’s limbs. I deflect them again once they come back around.
No, I haven’t become a combat expert all of a sudden. I’m operating on instinct, and instinct is telling me I can’t run from this Shadow Snapper. It’s standing closer to the door than I am right now. I also don’t have a definite means of killing it. I’m going to have to make enough noise for somebody outside to hear. So I do the only thing I can really do—flail that plank around to defend myself and call for help.
The Shadow Snapper lets loose again, and I barely have it together enough to fend off its quick attacks. It’s hard to keep my voice steady when I should, but I manage it somehow. “Someone help! There’s one in here! Help me!”
Please say my pathetic shrieking was loud enough to reach someone!
Then the door bursts open, and someone flies into the room and slices the Shadow Snapper clean in half. In the seconds it dissolves into nothing, my mind goes blank before registering who the new person in the room is. It’s Commander Redford, and she’s just saved my hide.
“Are you all right?” she asks. I tell her yes and she adds, “Try to stay out of sight.”
Easier said than done. Redford leaves the room, so I take the opportunity to duck under the window. I can’t do much with the plank of wood in my hands, and it’s not big enough to barricade the window any. I just have to hope another Shadow Snapper doesn’t pop its way in here. That could happen real easily if the battle out there would end right about now, but I can still hear the clang of weapons and the bursts of magic sizzling in the air.
That’s what I should’ve done earlier. Hear me out. Ending the battle would ensure everyone’s safety anyway, and that would also prevent it from dragging on too long and causing all the collateral damage a prolonged fight would inflict. I know what I have to do now.
I don’t know if the battle seemed like it’s taken a while from you just reading it, but it feels like it has from my perspective. An hour, maybe? I daresay it’s gone on too long. Time to bring out the red pen. I’m demanding that this fight get cut. Shortened. Something that would end it now. And I mean now. Why does it feel like I’m trying to ram my head through something? The battle has to end now.
The sound of a horn surprises me so much, I jump. It sounds like Melinda’s horn, actually. Curiosity gets the better of me, and I peer out the window again. The line of Shadow Snappers is retreating back north, receding past the wall as if the sun were chasing them off. This doesn’t change that unnatural gray tone in the sky any, but the Shadow Snappers retreat far enough away that they disappear over the horizon line. After that comes about a half a minute of silence, followed by the sweetest sound anyone could hear in this instance: a cheering crowd. Even beyond the door of my room, I can hear people shouting, “We’ve won!”
I let out a sigh, slump against the nearest wall, and slide down onto the floor. Thank goodness, it’s over. After wrestling with that invisible wall, I feel spent. Warping the reality of the manuscript usually happens so fast, I don’t notice anything until after the fact, and that includes the appearance of my new plank ex machina. I even forced a scene change. Why did it take so much energy just to end the huge skirmish?
Oh, I’ll figure it out later. I’m really tired.
I set the plank of wood beside me and stay where I am, losing track of how much time passes in my daze.
In the next hour or so, the soldiers return with their wounded, some of which include civilians. The soldiers who haven’t been hurt are staying outside to keep watch. The castle goes nuts with people rushing here and there for medical supplies and mages who know healing spells, but I’m not sure how many people among the injured are actually casualties. I’m hoping against hope that there weren’t any.
While I’ve since risen from my spot and left the room, I’m not quite out of my funk. It takes Commander Redford coming to me and pulling me along to shake off the rest of the headache. Among the people I see passing by are Melinda and Donovan, both of whom are issuing orders to different soldiers walking beside them. However, it looks like the queen is the one heading up the recovery effort.
Before I can ask where we’re going, the commander tells me, “We’re heading to the throne room. The princess is there, and she wants a full report of what happened when you and Jason’s group were away.”
Well. There’s my answer.
We weave our way through the moving crowd and eventually come to our destination. The doors to the throne room stay open until we pass through, at which point Princess Vivian orders them closed. The two guards that were flanking the entrance bow and shut the doors as they exit. That leaves just the princess, Mathias, Commander Redford, Jason’s group, and myself in the blue-tinted room. Everyone looks a little worn out but not seriously injured. That’s a relief, considering the activity in the rest of the castle.
When Vivian gives the okay, Jason proceeds to fill her in on everything that happened since we left. Erika, Franco, and I chime in here and there, but for the most part, Jason takes care of the info dumping. Mathias explains his part afterwards. His story goes that the Phoenix Stone of Scorpus had been stolen shortly before Wendell and Dorian attacked Taura Castle way back when. According to the manuscript’s own retcon, the prince had gone to Taura Castle specifically to warn Vivian in order to warn her, but then traitors happened. After that, Mathias went to the Gray Crags to obtain the Phoenix Stone there, where he met us.
Once the explanations are over with, Vivian nods in approval before her face turns more grave. “In light of this last attack, it’s all the more important that we organize an expedition to the Aura Gate. Many were lost and more were wounded, and the relentless push of the Shadow Snappers will only grow worse the longer we do nothing. We have no choice now: we must act, or we will lose all we hold dear.” Collective nods go all around the room before the princess gestures to Jason. “We have two of the three Phoenix Stones with us, and according to your information, we can find the third by confronting Wendell and Dorian’s Chief.”
“That’s why I’ve come with them,” says Mathias, gesturing to Jason. “This is a matter that concerns both our kingdoms, and I wish to help organize a joint military force for this endeavor.”
Vivian nods to him. “We can discuss the details in a bit. For now, young Jason and his friends must know how to summon the Spirit of Life with the Phoenix Stones. If either one of us should fall, another worthy holder of the Stones can act in our place.”
The same look of surprise crosses the faces of the young trio, but it’s Mister Red who speaks. “Don’t each of the Stones’ chosen need to hold one or something?”
At this, the princess shakes her head. “So long as the Stones deem a person worthy, one could bear all three Stones, or three could each bear one.”
Ah. So the Phoenix Stones could choose multiple people. That should come in handy later. In fact, I can make a guess now as to which three people are going to be holding the Stones at the end.
Jason exchanges knowing looks with Erika and Franco, then turns back to the princess. “Prince Mathias told us the truth behind the Spirit of Decay in the Gray Crags, so we know what we have to do and why. The only thing we don’t know is how we’re supposed to summon the Spirit of Life.”
“The holders of the Phoenix Stones must recite an incantation,” replies the princess. “This ancient incantation was split into three parts long ago, and each piece went to the keepers of each Stone.”
“So I guess that means your family and Prince Mathias’s together have two parts of the incantation.” Jason scratches his cheek, his brow furrowing in confusion. “Who has the third part?”
“The third part was entrusted to Sister Therese’s family,” replies Mathias. “She shared it with me before I went to search for the Stone.”
This gets a brightened look out of Jason. “Oh! Okay, then.”
Vivian raises her hand to grab everyone’s attention again. “The incantation is a poem, and each part consists of two lines each. For the summoning to work, the holders of the Stones must say every line in unison. I’ll provide you with the first two lines, and Mathias can provide the next four.” For this, she clears her throat, bows her head, and places her hands over her chest like she’s praying. “Spirit of Life, Soul of the Earth, lend us the strength to endure. May you cleanse the dark and doubt and bolster all that’s good and pure.”
Mathias steps up next, taking the same stance as Vivian. “Spirit of Life, Solace of All, we open ourselves to you. May you soothe our souls and heal our wounds and set our lives anew. Spirit of Life, Herald of Dawn, hear our voices and our plea. Take flight once more and breathe new life o’er land and sky and sea.”
Jason nods to that, and then he and his two friends recite the lines to themselves a few times. I do the same, but I just mouth the words rather than speak them aloud in full. Man, I wish I had a pen and a notepad or something. This is a little too vital for saving the world to leave just to memory. Then again, it’s worked fine for the royal families of Scorpus and Taura all these years….
Vivian’s voice snaps me back to attention. “When we obtain the last Phoenix Stone, the holders must stand together and keep the Stones close to each other while they recite the incantation. There can be no interruptions, so soldiers will have to protect the holders for the duration of the summoning.”
“That’s what I’m here for,” comes the confident tone of Commander Redford. She even taps her shoulder with her sword. Don’t worry; it’s in its scabbard, and she’s too pro to cut herself with the blade regardless.
Instead of worrying over the high stakes at hand, Mister Red makes another nod and bumps his fist over his heart. “I think we got it. We won’t let you down!”
From here, Vivian and Mathias go to discuss the logistics about bringing soldiers to the Aura Gate. When the subject comes up about what to do with me, I tell them one thing: “I’m going. Call me crazy, but I have to follow you all into the final battle and talk to the Chief. Trust me on that one.”
Franco raises an eyebrow at me. “Are you sure? The number of Shadow Snappers we’ll be facing will, in all likelihood, number in the thousands. We also don’t know how powerful the Chief is.”
“Claire’s instincts have been right so far,” says Jason, patting me on the back. “We’ll keep an eye on her. I think we’re pretty good at looking after her and each other.”
Erika laughs out loud. “After all we’ve been through? Yeah, we better be!”
With just a sheepish smile and a nod, Franco concedes the point.
The royals start sweating out the details about what to do about the assault on the Aura Gate. The Queen of Taura, according to Vivian, will be staying here to oversee the defense of the homeland. Mathias has to send word to his father in Scorpus to update him on the situation, but I have a feeling the king will be taking a similar stance as Vivian’s mother. The heroic trio and I will be accompanying the joint armies, which will be led by Vivian and Mathias together. Long story short, there’s going to be a lot of commotion at the Aura Gate pretty soon.
Would you believe this is where the original manuscript ended? I told you it just kind of stopped. But that means this whole next part is uncharted territory. The story is going to make things up as it goes from here on out.