Untitled and Unfinished, Ch. 17
That night, I’m in the bedroom Erika, Melinda, Redford, and I had been given back when I was in Taura Castle the first time. It feels like ages since then. How many days has it been? I think it’s been about nine chapters, at any rate. No, I’m not sure how I can tell. Maybe I shouldn’t think about this too hard. Not until I return to the real world—whenever the heck that’ll be.
Needless to say, thoughts of all that’s happened and of what may come keep me awake. I close my eyes to try and fall asleep, but that doesn’t work out for me. Too much anxiety and all that. Hearing someone leave the room doesn’t help. That’s probably Erika passing through the door, actually. Melinda and Redford are still on their shift right now, last I checked. I wonder where Miss Blue is going? I’m not going to sleep anytime soon, so I think I’ll follow her lead.
I wait about ten seconds, then open the door a crack. One quick scan shows me that Erika hasn’t gone far. She’s three doors away by the room Jason and Franco took earlier, except the two guys are out in the hall with her. I guess they stepped out of their room shortly before Erika left hers. Seeing them together, I opt to stay by the doorway and just watch them. I don’t want to interrupt their moment.
Jason starts the conversation. “Can’t sleep, either?”
Erika shakes her head. “Not really. There’s just so much to think about.”
“No kidding,” says Franco. “No part of the plan is going to be easy, but ours will be the toughest to accomplish.”
“Yeah.” Erika throws her hands out in front of her like she’s tossing something away. “Walk up to the Aura Gate, say some fancy shmancy words, summon Spirit of Life. What could possibly go wrong?”
Goodness, I can feel the sarcasm from here. It’s probably a front, though. I don’t blame these young ones for being scared and coping in the only way they know how. It’s what I’ve been doing since I got here.
Franco responds to Erika’s statement with a curt breath. “Easier said than done. You all heard that we don’t know how many Shadow Snappers are going to come down on us. Will the joint army be enough?”
“If it makes you feel any better,” Jason cuts in, “I’m nervous about this, too.”
His friends turn to look at him, but I can’t tell what expressions they have. I can only guess that there must’ve been a raised eyebrow on at least one of them based on what I hear next.
“Hey, fearless leader?” says Erika. “Isn’t this the point in time when you tell us we’ll win no matter what? You know, like you used to when we were kids?”
“Normally, yeah, but being honest is better.” Mister Red sighs and turns to lean on the wall, pressing it with one hand. “I know there’s no guarantee we’ll win. I’ve known that every time I’ve said we’ll pull through in the past. Here’s the thing: every time I said that, we never had a choice. We had to win, or we wouldn’t get the food our families needed. We had to win or someone we cared about would be hurt.” He turns to face his friends again then. “And now, we have to win, or we’ll lose everything we’ve ever known and loved.”
Erika leans back and crosses her arms. “No pressure there.”
“The stakes are higher than we can imagine, true… but that doesn’t change what we have to do. When I think that, it helps me focus, and I actually grow less scared.”
“Do you think we’ll manage?” asks Franco.
“We’ve worked together for years now, and we’ve gone through quite a lot ever since we volunteered to help the Redford Guard,” says Jason. “And no matter what happens, we should see this through as the team we’ve been forever. That way, we can return home as we left it—together.”
I think I hear Erika laugh a little there and shakes her head. “Of course you’d say that. Which is why I’m going to have to watch your back so you can do what you just said. I’m not having you die on my watch.”
Franco shifts a bit in his spot. “I can’t say my fears have vanished, but I won’t let that stop me from watching you two. Goodness knows how much trouble you’d get in if I didn’t.”
“Thanks, Dad.” Erika ends her quip with a soft punch to the mage’s arm.
“I’m still scared, too, you know,” says Jason, “but I just have to remember I’m with you two, and I feel better about it.”
His friends nod to him, but Miss Blue is the one who speaks afterwards. “Yeah. Thanks for the reminder.”
Mister Red steps closer to her and Mister Green. “Anytime.”
The three of them share a group hug, and I take the opportunity to shut the door and return to bed. I may not have participated in the conversation, but I have to admit that I feel better after watching them. I’ll be staying with them when the assault begins, and I know they’ll watch each other and me well enough. The only way I can return the favor is to use my reality warping powers—carefully, of course. It’s the least I can do after everything that’s happened. I wouldn’t be alive now if not for them, and I really don’t want to think about what would happen if I died in the manuscript.
So we’ll make it through somehow. We have to, just like Jason said.
Somehow or other, Vivian and Mathias manage to organize their joint army in about a week. I’m not sure how or if that’s logistically possible, but there’s a lot I’ve stopped asking about since I arrived. I don’t want to invoke another diablos ex machina, and there are just some things about stories you don’t question.
With the army assembled, we head for the Aura Gate. We have to head north of the main continent, and we’ll have to take ships because of how utterly unfeasible it is to try and warp an entire army across a small ocean. I can rectify that, but the only one who’d understand how I could would be you. We’ll be taking off from North Port, so named because it’s a port in northern Taura. Apparently, it’s also reasonably close to the border of Scorpus.
This gives me plenty of time to think out how I’m going to intercept Cloaky. The first big roadblock on that venture, unfortunately, is that I have no idea where exactly she’s going to be. She’ll be in the vicinity of the Aura Gate, but where? The chaos of battle is going to make navigating the field difficult, so finding her in the middle of it all won’t be fun. Even if she made some big display of power that acted like a huge here I am beacon, that could also double as an obstacle in any number of tedious forms. Again, not fun. The only part of this plan I have figured out is that I stick by Jason’s crew as closely as possible so we can watch each other’s backs.
While I’m racking my brain over how the hey I’m going to reach Cloaky, a hand pats my left shoulder. It comes so suddenly that I whip around, only to find myself face to face with—who else?—Jason, Erika, and Franco. The first two are sitting on the bench with me while the last one is sitting on the floor. All three of them are giving me curious looks. In fact, they’ve all shuffled to my side of the wagon while I wasn’t paying attention.
Once I fully register who’s in front of me, I scratch the back of my head. “Oh! Er, hi. How are you?”
“We’re fine,” says Jason. “We were actually wondering the same about you. Is everything okay?”
I see no reason not to be mostly honest with them, so I nod. “Yeah. I was thinking about what we’re going to do once we reach our destination, is all. Battles get pretty chaotic from what I’ve seen, and, well….” I go on to explain the concerns I was just mulling over, and the trio looks on as if latching onto every word.
When I’m done, they seem to have some kind of mental conversation between themselves before turning back to me. Jason’s the one who speaks up. “Whatever comes our way, we’ll cut a path through to wherever we need to go. That’s all there is to it.”
I can’t help but feel a little embarrassed that he boiled down the concerns with the simplest and most straightforward answer to this, but it highlights to me just how much I’m worrying over this. That is to say, I’m sweating too much over details I know I can’t account for right now. The general plan of attack will form once the scouts have a chance to do some reconnaissance, while the thick of battle is going to be a moment-by-moment basis. That really is all there is to it.
I concede the point and relax a little. That moment lasts for all of a second before Erika asks me, “Why didn’t you jump into our conversation last night?”
It’s like a static shock straightens me out right then before I recollect myself. “Huh? Oh… you knew I was watching?”
Erika nods. “I saw enough of you in the doorway to tell it was you, but all you did was watch. Why didn’t you come over? We wouldn’t have eaten you, if that was what you were worried about.”
Franco looks like he’s about to puke. “Erika, please. That’s morbid, even as a joke.”
Miss Blue sticks her tongue out at him. “Oh, come on. We’ve heard worse.”
“So why’d you decide to spy on us, Claire?” Jason folds his arms over his chest as the question pops out of his mouth, but I can tell he’s not really upset.
It takes me a couple of seconds and muttered sounds before I find the words I’m looking for. “The truth is, I didn’t have anything to add. It kind of looked like a private talk between you all, too. Didn’t want to interrupt.”
“Ah, you didn’t have to be afraid of us. You’re our friend, too, in case you haven’t noticed.” Mister Red pats me on the shoulder again. “No harm done, though. Don’t worry about that.”
“All right, I won’t.”
He goes to say something, but then he stops himself. Something in the way his eyebrow furrows tells me he’s thinking over his question carefully, but the thought leaves me as soon as he faces me again. “Say, Claire? Is there some reason why you want to confront the Chief? Do you know why you need to?”
Oh, crap. How honest can I be with my answer? Let’s see how far I can stretch it. “You know how I said I foresaw that using my real name would be dangerous? Well, I also foresaw that the Chief would have an answer I’m seeking.”
“Answer to what?”
“To how I can go home.”
All three of the young heroes stare at me, bewildered. This time, Franco’s the one who speaks after a moment of silence. “That’s right. We don’t know how you came here or how you can go home. You never mentioned that to us—the first part, I mean. You wouldn’t be looking to answer how you can return home if you knew how already.”
I nod to that. “Right, right. As for how I came here… believe it or not, I opened a book, blinked, and wound up here. Not here, exactly, I should say. I landed near that town we all met in—the one with the watchtower in the middle of town.”
“Oh, Gravelton,” says Erika.
Franco shifts in his spot a bit, resting his chin in one hand. “Did you notice anything strange about the book?”
“Not really. It just looked… incomplete,” I tell him. Which was my way of glossing over how it didn’t look like a formally published book; it was more like one of those school-made books, complete with the cheap plastic-ring binding. Other than that, there was nothing else about it that was out of the ordinary—none that I could see before I got sucked into it, at any rate. As I said way back in the beginning, I opened up the front cover, everything went spinning, and then bam! I wound up here. But of course, the only part of this that would make any sense to my young friends is what I said aloud earlier. “It had no formal front or back covers, and I think someone improvised on the binding while putting it together,” I add.
Mister Green sighs, no longer meeting my gaze. “Did you see any magic runes written on it, or sense any aura surrounding it?”
I shake my head no. “No runes. The cover was blank and plain white. I also don’t know magic, so I can’t answer the aura part. And, well, I obviously don’t have the book on me.” Showing empty hands emphasizes that part. I also add in the whole got-transported-before-I-could-check-more bit, after which everyone falls quiet.
Until our resident mage lets out a breath, that is. “Huh. Whoever made the book must’ve hidden the spell somewhere on the book so it would be close enough to trigger, but also in a place where it wouldn’t be seen easily. I would guess that the culprit placed it on the back cover or even the middle of the book. That’s about the only thing that would make sense.”
Yeah, from the perspective of this world. What about the real world? Stuff like this doesn’t usually happen in the real world, so what would we look for, exactly? How would we tell genuine magical phenomena from all the fraud and sensationalism? I’m in no position to check regardless, and even if I were, I wouldn’t know where to begin searching. Would you?
I can’t say exactly all that, so I resort to telling the mage this instead: “You know magic better than I do, so we can go with your theory for now. It’s about the only thing that makes sense.” The scary part is, that last part isn’t wrong. Given how good the real world is at debunking the very existence of magic, Franco’s speculations really are the only things that make sense.
My attention’s brought back to the trio when Jason once again pats me on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about a thing, Claire. We’ll keep you safe until we get to the bottom of this.”
“Shouldn’t we be keeping her safe even after that?” Erika says, a smirk crossing her lips. “I mean, we are all friends. We always look after each other.”
Her friend just sticks his tongue out at her in response. “You know what I mean.”
We all join in on the laughter, even me. What? Laughter’s contagious.
In any case, we reach North Port soon enough It won’t be long now before we board the ships and sail north to the Aura Gate. One glance at the sky shows me that the perpetual gray that was overtaking the lands further south are much darker here. I don’t see even a hint of blue. I’m afraid to see what that fully implies.
Might as well bite the bullet, so to speak. If I want to help everyone to the Aura Gate’s land while minimizing army casualties on the way, I have to invoke a scene change. You probably figured I’d be doing this when I mentioned it earlier, right?
Okay, then. I’m going to close my eyes. And when I open them, we’re going to be at the Aura Gate’s doorstep, ready to go. Scene change, now. Right now.