Untitled and Unfinished, Ch. 18
My eyes snap open when I hear the sounds of combat and the shrieks of Shadow Snappers. A second later, and I realize I’m no longer sitting in the wagon. I’m not even running around on a ship. Also, someone has my arm and leading me forward. That someone turns out to be Erika, who’s following close behind Jason. Beside me is Franco, and all around us are the silver-armored knights of Taura, the black-armored soldiers of Scorpus, and enough Shadow Snappers to obscure the sky.
Right, so… we must have arrived at our destination. And we’re already on the move. This might be farther ahead than I had intended to go. Best to stick to my young friends like glue and see what else is around.
The more I scan the area, the more I see that we’re holding our place at whatever shoreline we’ve landed on. Despite the sheer number of Shadow Snappers, several mages are working on assembling forts while the ones already in place are holding. The latter set must’ve been put together in the time I skipped over, and we’re still close enough to the shoreline that I can see the ships we took to reach here; they look like small figures in a diorama. The bottom line is that we seem to have secured ourselves a foothold.
As for what’s ahead of us—besides Shadow Snappers, of course—is a dark, starless sky. The only reason I can even see the mountaintops ahead of us is because of a faint, pulsing light that shines from behind the horizon line. The light flashes for a brief second every half minute or so, and it doesn’t reach very far. The sun is setting behind us and to the west, but the dark sky hides it better than it really should.
So where are we heading now?
I stumble when Erika drops suddenly and ducks behind a rock, taking me with her. A second later, a rock falls on the spot where we were a second ago before it rolls down the hill we’re scaling. A few serpent-shaped Shadow Snappers spit more stringy darkness out of their mouths that lands near us, preventing us from leaving our cover for the time being.
I look over to Erika and Jason, then to Franco on my left. I have to shout to hear myself over the noise. “Where are we heading right now?”
“To the Aura Gate,” Jason yells back to me. “Once we secured our spot on the beach, Princess Vivian gave us the okay to head to the Aura Gate. We’re to neutralize any threats we come across.”
“The princess and the prince should be following us about now,” Erika adds. “They want to be close so we can strengthen the Aura Gate as soon as possible.”
All right. That’s good to know. Now for my next question: “Do we have enough soldiers to hold this position?”
“We didn’t lose anyone on the way here, so we’re backed up by the whole joint army,” says Franco. “We can’t stay long, though. The Shadow Snappers’ numbers will be infinite here, and we all have only so much endurance.”
So we have to end this quick. All right. That is also good to know.
Jason reaches into his belt pouch and pulls out the Phoenix Stone from the Gray Crags. Once he does that, he stands up from behind the rock in front of us and raises the Stone above his head. A light flashes, dispelling enough Shadow Snappers to fill the air with their screeches of death—but after that, their cries sound a lot more distant. I peer over the top of the rock and see a wide open space between Shadow Snappers that I didn’t see before. Unfortunately, it’s filling fast.
Jason motions for us to follow him. “Come on!”
We make a break for it. Erika hands me over to Franco while she goes up front to assist Jason. It’s handy being near the mage, as I soon find out, because the range of his barrier spells covers both of us and the other two pretty comfortably. He’s also good with his timing: every time a Shadow Snapper whips itself at us, he throws up a shield that causes them to bounce away. If I had to guess, the reason he’s not using a continuous barrier instead is to conserve energy.
So there we go, rushing through a sea of Shadow Snappers to reach the mountains ahead of us. My glances behind tell me that the army’s fine, even when Mathias and Vivian catch up to us. I even hear the familiar shouts of Commander Redford for a brief second, telling me other generals and lieutenants are leading the defense. Eventually, though, we’re too far away to see or hear much of the army; we get more of the Shadow Snappers instead.
Suddenly, Vivian stops in her tracks. Taura’s Phoenix Stone hovers in front of her and begins to glow brighter and brighter. Jason joins her soon after, and then in quick succession, the two Phoenix Stones they carry flash a light over everything. It’s so bright that even closing and covering my eyes still doesn’t block it out completely. When the light’s clear, though, I look up to see that the entire field of Shadow Snappers has been cleared. It’s so quiet, at least for now.
More Shadow Snappers appear from the mountains, but it’s going to be a while before they engage the army again. A nod from Vivian tells us it’s time to keep going, so we do just that. We run, following the lead of the prince and princess as they take us towards a cave that we slip into right before a cascade of slithering dark shapes blocks the entrance.
Meanwhile, Jason and Erika slice up the Snappers in front of us as soon as we’re inside. It’s not much of a monster encounter, seeing as how the sounds of combat are there and gone in about two seconds. For the rest of us, there’s no break in our stride; we keep on truckin’ through the cave.
It’s dark except for the light Franco provides us. Jason and Vivian seem to be preserving uses of the Phoenix Stones. Come to think of it, I don’t know how much energy it takes to use them, assuming it draws upon the strength of their respective holders. If that’s the case, Jason and Vivian aren’t showing signs of being tired. Either that, or they’re hiding those signs.
Better to make sure than to assume, I think, so I call out my question while we move. “Say, Jason? Princess Vivian? Are you two all right?”
“I’m fine,” says the former. Something about his breathing sounds a bit ragged, but no more than usual for someone who’s been moving around a lot.
“Same here,” says the princess in a similar tone. “We must be careful, however. To use the Phoenix Stone’s power too many times in succession will wear us out very quickly.”
Jason’s short laugh comes across as a bit sheepish. “Yeah, I think I know what you mean.”
Huh. I was right, then. Now I hope the fatigue bug hit them at the worst possible time—and by that, I mean not against Cloaky. There’s no way to be too careful around her, I’m guessing.
Speaking of opponents to come, we emerge from the cave to a clearing. While an arch lies opposite of the cave exit, something stands in front of us—and by something, I mean a familiar face. A familiar man wearing the uniform of the Redford Guard.
Jason steps forward, pocketing the Phoenix Stone with one hand and raising the other in a fist towards our old foe. “Wendell!”
The traitor in question crosses his arms over his chest and leers at us. “So you’ve come. Too bad you wasted your time because I’m going to stop you here.”
Mister Red readies his sword, gesturing to the rest of our group. “All six of us?”
Wendell draws his own sword, but it carries with it a red glow that I don’t like. “You’re not reaching the Chief.”
The battle starts when Erika throws one of her knives at him. The traitor deflects it with a swing of his blade, and in the same motion, he sends a sharp red-tinted wind blast out that forces us to split apart. The blow tears up the ground and hits the side of the cave entrance, causing some rocks to fall onto the field. The rocks are large enough to provide decent cover, so I dive behind them at the first opportunity. Now I just have to hope to goodness no stray blasts hit me.
Every now and then, I peek out from behind my hiding place to watch the battle. To sum up, the reason Wendell can manage against five different people with assorted skills is because of that magic sword of his. Each blast he throws out ensures he puts some distance between himself and the melee fighters, Jason, Erika, and Mathias. Vivian and Franco use their magic to deflect some of the shots while firing their own, so I see a lot of fire, red wind, and violet-tinted lightning fly around. Whenever the magic users make an opening for the melee fighters, Wendell uses the length of his two-handed sword to hold them back. Huh. So that’s how he can fight five-to-one.
How am I not getting hit by anything? I think it’s safe to say it’s because I’m willing the blasts away from me even if it’s only semi-consciously. However, this means the stray shots are hitting the rocks around us, altering the terrain from relatively flat to something much more bumpy. It doesn’t seem to be slowing anyone down, for better or for worse, but I know there’s a chance they might cause a bigger spill than what they’ve made so far. Oh, please, don’t get any worse than it is, please please—
Jason and Wendell lock blades, prompting the former to call out a question. “So what’s your story? Why are you trying to end the world?”
In between breaking off the stalemate and clashing blades, the traitor answers, “I told you a long time ago. Taura and Scorpus may have been founded by great heroes, but then their descendents made a mess of things. A peace that will transcend the ages? That’s a lie! Everlasting trust? It doesn’t exist!”
“So you’re just like Dorian. All I needed to hear!” And with that, Jason scores a hit across Wendell’s cheek.
The traitor rushes him and kicks him in the gut, sending the red-clad hero close to where I am. Erika throws another knife that catches Wendell in the arm, but aside from a yelp of pain, he presses on with a wind strike she barely dodges. Somehow, that same attack sweeps right by me, bouncing off the ground and soaring into the sky. In the midst of this, I dash behind a bigger rock that’s fallen during the battle.
“Only a great disaster to both kingdoms would’ve united them for any amount of time.” Wendell yanks the knife out of his arm as he continues attacking and ranting. “Dorian wanted to wipe the slate clean, and I wanted to see the two countries finally united. This was the only way to achieve that!”
“You’re insane if you think threatening the whole world is the only way to bring people together,” Jason retorts. “It’s just like with Dorian. You hit a rough spot, and you lashed out. When you did that, you became everything you hated.”
“No. I’m one of the few people in the world who has any sense. You’re just too young to see that.”
Erika’s the one who speaks next. “What, are you too old to care anymore? Look, we get it; the world sucks. But people like you aren’t helping!”
“Shut up, all of you! None of you get it!” Once he says that, Wendell unleashes three horizontal wind slashes that forces everyone to duck.
The rock wall behind us takes the hits instead and crumbles, covering the exit. Our only way out now sits behind our resident nihilist. I can see that realization crossing everyone else’s minds; it’s in that grim glint in their eyes. They turn their attention back to Wendell afterwards after only a few seconds, though—and I don’t think it’s just because it’s unwise to turn your back on an opponent.
Everyone rises and primes their weapons or spells. Mathias is the one who speaks up this time. “I’ve heard all that before, and it hasn’t convinced me to stop looking for solutions yet.”
“I concur,” says Vivian. “Even my own mother has cautioned me against my idealism, but I daresay that is why it’s all the more important to try. I never imagined it would be easy. I never expected it to be. It will be a struggle, always. That’s why we can never rest, why we can never give up.”
Wendell shakes his head. “You don’t understand now, but you will. The Chief made me see the truth, and eventually, you will also see my group was in the right all along.”
“There’s neither justice nor sense to what you’re doing,” the princess goes on. “You don’t even realize the horror you’ll unleash if the Aura Gate were to be destroyed.”
“It’s no use,” Franco notes, his tone both grim and sad. “We’re not going to reach an understanding here.”
“Heh. I’ll give you that one, Green Boy,” the traitor says. “You all clearly aren’t listening to me, so we don’t need to waste anymore time talking about this, do we?”
“You’re not giving us much of a choice here,” Jason points out. “If that’s how you want to play this, then so be it.”
Wendell throws back his head, laughing ever so slightly. “You want to kill me that bad, do you? Then you’ll be just like me.”
Erika spits on the ground. “Don’t give us that. Just killing you won’t change us in the blink of an eye.” She goes to emphasize her point by throwing yet another knife. Seriously, I have no idea how many she keeps on her or how many she has left by this point.
The battle goes on longer, but I have to duck and hide for much of it. The only ones who stay in my view at a consistent rate are Franco and Vivian; everyone else pops into my view for only a split second before charging in again. The sounds I hear are a chaotic orchestra of clashing metal, shouting, electric shocks, whistling wind, and sizzling fire, all capped off on occasion by small magical explosions. I can’t make sense of where any of the melee fighters are, given how so much of the field is obscured from my view, but I can tell about how close they are every now and then based on the sounds of everyone shuffling. While I keep an ear out for any sign that I should move away, I hope to goodness no one’s hurt too badly.
Three blasts hit all around me, sending a distinct ring through my ears. It takes me a few seconds to register that my heart is indeed still beating and all my body parts are where they’re supposed to be, but to say those close blasts startled me would be a massive understatement. It’s a miracle I didn’t empty my bladder then and there. Too much information, I know, but it’s the truth.
I have to see what’s going on while things are calm now, so I peer out from behind my cover again. The short version is that it looks pretty mutilated. The long version is that debris is littered everywhere, and each fighter on the field is hunched over in one way or another. There’s a lull in the action now as everyone is trying to catch their breaths. The most important detail, though, is that Wendell seems to be reeling from whatever blew out the field, and his sword is not in his hands. In fact, he has knives stuck in his lower right arm and upper left leg.
Jason springs forward suddenly, bum-rushing Wendell and knocking the older man down to the ground and dislodging the knives. Then the red-clad hero slugs the traitor across the face with a mean left hook. A few long seconds go by without anyone moving, but our opponent is the most still of them all. No doubt about it—he’s out cold.
“Is that it?” asks Erika.
Jason nods as he rises to his feet. “Yeah. I knocked him out. He won’t be moving for a while. Nice shot with those knives.”
“Thanks, but… you didn’t kill him?”
“He has to be brought in for trial, but I think we know how that’s going to go.” Upon saying that, Mister Red faces Miss Blue and shrugs, his face sheepish. “Besides, it might give him a chance to sort out his own demons.”
“Thank you for that act of mercy,” says Vivian. “He does indeed need to be tried for his actions, but all we can do now is restrain him.”
“How are we going to do that?” Mathias asks her.
“I’ll use a binding spell on him.” On that note, the princess approaches the unconscious Wendell. “We don’t have any rope, so this will have to do for now.”
She moves her hands and arms in several motions, causing a white magic circle to appear under the traitor. Princess Vivian continues weaving her spell together in the next minute or so, ending when a visage of thorn vines appear around Wendell’s upper torso and legs. For the brief few seconds the visages stay, it looks like he’s been tied up. Then the light of the spell fades, leaving a rigidly posed traitor on the stony ground.
The princess takes a moment to catch her breath. The others do the same in the meantime while I step out from my hiding place and join them. That’s when I see Vivian place a hand on the traitor’s shoulder. I can’t see her face, but judging from what she says next, she’s giving him a sympathetic look.
She lets out a deep breath. “Perhaps some day, you’ll be able to hope again.”
I exchange looks with everyone else. They’re tired from the battle, of course, but they’re not about to quit yet. Not when we’re as close as we are to finishing our mission. That said, I can’t help but notice a bit of pity from them, too. I don’t blame them.
Afterwards, though, Mathias turns to me. “We have to stop the Chief next. You said you had to talk with her, didn’t you?” I answer him with a nod, which he returns. “In that case, we should get going. She can’t be far now.”
Of course she can’t, so I give him another nod. Erika picks up her fallen knives, and then everyone takes deep breaths. Franco and Vivian in particular look like they’re doing some kind of breathing exercise, but I don’t know if more is going into it. They’re the mages, so they would know better than I would.
Once we’re ready, we head out to put an end to all this.