Untitled and Unfinished, Ch. 19
When we pass under the archway Wendell was guarding, I’m hit right away with the sense that this is well and truly it. Ahead of us is a massive, monolithic set of double doors situated in a mountainside, both of which rise high enough into the sky that I can’t see the tops of either. The huge doors are shining a golden color, no doubt the source of the pulsing light on the horizon I saw closer to the shoreline before. The pattern on the doors is that bird-tree image I saw way back in the Gravelton church in Taura, except its sheer size prevents me from seeing the top; I just see enough to identify it.
“There it is,” says Princess Vivian. “That’s the Aura Gate.”
Despite how huge the glowing Gate is, the fluctuating light doesn’t brighten the area. The sky above is as dark as ever—darker than what I saw at the shoreline, if that’s possible. A crack in the doors shows Shadow Snappers flowing out of it like billowing ribbons of black smoke. And there, at the foot of the crack, is a lone figure in a long cloak performing motions like a ritualistic dance. I recognize the figure as Cloaky McMystery herself. I just hope I have her real name right. I’ll find out soon enough, I guess.
Before we move from our spot, the trio and the royals discuss a plan of attack. I assure them that I’ll find a suitable place to hide like always even when we move closer to our target, so they shouldn’t worry about me. They take care of the other details from there before the royals step forward to lead us further.
It’s uncanny how calm everything feels right now. The one barrier that contains the biggest monster ever sits before us, and there’s a blasted hole in it. The crack hasn’t gone up the whole length of the Gate—however high that goes—but at the same time, it doesn’t look small. The Shadow Snappers swarming out of it are probably on their way to the army that’s farther behind us now. I observe along with the others to see if any come our way, but none do. Cloaky just dances away. But despite all this, like I said before, I feel a certain amount of calmness. Maybe it’s because we’re finally here. Even with the stakes as they are, we’re now at the place where we can finish this. All that’s left is to get the job done.
When we’re behind a pile of rocks closer to our target, Mathias stops and turns to face the rest of us. “All right. Let’s do it like we planned.”
The reply comes in the form of a bunch of nods, and I break off from the rest to duck for cover behind the rocks. The young trio and Mathias brace themselves to move while Franco and Vivian go to stand somewhat apart from the others. From there, the two mages begin moving their arms to conjure a spell. Slowly, an intricate magical circle of white light forms above them.
From the smaller circles that line the main one, bright lights shine before becoming thin beams that make a beeline for Cloaky McMystery. They start off moving in an arc, but as they approach their target, they snap into straight lines that surround her like bars to a cage. She jumps back, her ritual interrupted, and we all take the opportunity to charge. I just stay a few steps behind everyone else until I find the next set of rocks to dive behind. Hopefully, that’ll keep me out of the way long enough to give me the chance to talk to Cloaky when the time comes.
Anyway, fight scene. Erika stretches one of her arms back as she runs before slinging something forward—probably one of her knives, knowing her. I can’t see it from where I am, but it becomes a moot point when a light bursts from Franco and Vivian’s spell. It’s too bright to look at right away, so when I’m done shielding my eyes, I make a quick scan of what’s happened.
Cloaky’s broken free from the spell that caged her before. As for the knife, it looks like it found its way into her hand—except instead of being hurt, she’s caught it by the handle. Meanwhile, everyone else is moving to collect themselves. Cloaky twirls the knife in her hand and then dishes out her own spell that pins everyone against a nearby rock wall.
I freeze where I am, but it’s no use—Cloaky waves her arm once, and suddenly, magic circles appear above and below me. Bars of red-tinted light crash down, trapping me just like how Cloaky was for about two seconds. The magical birdcage then rises into the air with me inside, where it moves to hover some ways behind our enemy. Crap. I had a feeling she was going to be powerful, but she just turned our whole plan completely on its head. Now what do we do?
Rather than kill us all right there and then, however, Cloaky opts for a classic villain tactic: talking to her enemies. I’m actually kind of relieved she’s taking this route, but this isn’t getting us out of our fix anytime soon.
She starts by studying the prince and princess like they’re museum pieces. “Asana and Hathor… the great heroes of the world, the Founding Mothers, the First Queens. Together with the Spirit of Life, they banished the Spirit of Decay behind a great gate, believing they had secured a future for all life on the planet. Asana formed the Kingdom of Scorpus in the west; and Hathor, the Kingdom of Taura in the east. Thanks to their efforts, the world knew a century of peace. But alas… that ended with the schism.”
“The first war,” says Princess Vivian.
The cloaked hood bobs, indicating a nod. “Indeed. To this day, no one is sure who the true aggressor was. All we have is a few books’ word regarding the first battle Scorpus actually started.”
“But that was well after the war had begun,” says Mathias.
One robed arm makes a dismissive gesture. “Regardless, the kingdoms’ alliance was never quite the same afterwards. The only constants in your history are change, and a horrendous inability to recall who struck first when.” Once she says that, she seems to eye both royals. “Now I have the honor of meeting the legacies of the Founding Mothers here at the legendary Aura Gate, the place where our era began. I couldn’t imagine a better way of celebrating the end of all.”
Jason struggles against the spell holding him. “Why are you doing this? Are you jaded with everything, too, like Wendell and Dorian?”
Cloaky’s almost playful in how she pivots and walks. “You could say that. You also could say I was tired of how nothing really changed, or how I thought this would be the wake-up call the world needed to unite once again. They’re reason enough, and they inspired quite a lot of fervor in my assistants. But those were their reasons. Not mine.”
“So what are yours? How different are they?”
To my surprise, Cloaky pulls off a low-key laugh that sends shivers down the spine. “The Spirits of Life and Decay aren’t mindless, you know. They can think. They can dream. And in their dreams, they can reach out to the world and its inhabitants. The more spiritual a person, the easier they can hear us. I’m sure you’re all aware, also, that the Aura Gate weakens over time. The weaker the Gate is, the stronger Decay dreams.” She stops at this point and raises her hand like she’s trying to grasp something out of the air. “It was through this that the woman before you—a former High Priestess of Taura—was altered to become the perfect vessel. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this awake. And soon, I’ll regain my true form and and my full strength.”
Oh, crap. Crap, crap, CRAP. I don’t care how last-minute this revelation is; this is huge. The widening eyes on my young friends and the royals must mirror my own; they must’ve come to the same conclusion I have. Among shocked gasps and murmurs of no, Franco’s the one who stammers the answer. “You can’t be… You’re the Spirit of Decay itself?”
“Just the conscious mind, but yes.” Cloaky’s laugh starts low, like before. Except then the laugh grows louder, and her whole body starts to shake. By the time she arcs back like a wolf howling to the moon, her laughter’s as mad as it is loud. Suddenly, the woman in front of us is the most frightening monster in the world. It makes me wonder if Cloaky—the author, I mean—is just putting on a performance that fits the story or if she’s lost it. Please tell me she hasn’t lost it.
All her laughing has caused her hood to slide off her head, revealing a woman with graying hair and lightly tanned skin. Her eyes are also completely dark, not a speck of white to be seen. After a good minute, she calms herself enough to speak again. “I’m sure my old enemy will have quite the rude awakening. It’ll be good to roam once more… to feed and grow. Soon enough, I’ll be free.”
“No, you won’t,” says Jason, still squirming against the spell. “We won’t let you!”
“And how do you intend to do that? Your plan just now was quite clever, I’ll grant you, but your enemy is death itself. What makes you think you’ll win?”
Jason doesn’t answer. Not with words, at any rate. I finally notice at this point that one of his hands is bound close to his belt pouch, which he struggles to dig into. He must’ve reached in just far enough because I see a glow from within it suddenly. The Phoenix Stone! The glow intensifies the more the red-clad hero fights the spell holding him in place until finally, the magical bindings on everyone short out.
Everyone except for me, that is. Cloaky’s glaring at me and closing her hand around an invisible nod. Is she intensifying the spell around me? Probably. She makes a whirling motion that sends me and my magical cage off to the side as the trio and the royals rush by. Actually, I wind up about where they were all pinned just now, which gives me a perfect view of the battlefield.
It’s a pretty intense scene. No matter how close Jason, Erika, or Mathias get to our enemy, Cloaky fends them off by either pushing them away with a wind blast or deflecting their strikes with a reddish barrier that sparks to life on contact. Furthermore, she seems to shove away the melee fighters and dissipate the mages’ spells with one shot. This gives her greater control over the battle than what Wendell had to work with, but this doesn’t deter the efforts of the five heroes.
I’m noticing something here that I didn’t when I last saw Cloaky, though. See, every time she whips her arms high, her cloak rises enough for me to see more of the plain shirt and pants she’s wearing underneath. After some more careful observation, I see a belt strapped around her waist and another band going diagonally across her torso. Each sport a bag, but the one she has on her torso is larger. If she’s carrying the last Phoenix Stone like we’ve speculated before, it’s probably sitting in one of those two bags. Which one, though? The larger one is more prominent, but that would also make it better to cover the smaller one, especially since they’re both on Cloaky’s right.
The melee fighters must’ve noticed this because I hear Erika shouting to Jason, and when he’s next to her, she points to the opponent in a quick, subtle motion. After that, Jason’s eyes go wide before he gives her a quick nod, and then they’re back to dodging Cloaky’s dark-colored magic. Some of her spells look like a mix of fire and lightning strewn together with sounds to match. A few times, I see Erika making a stance like she’s about to throw one of her knives, but she’s forced to move when another attack flies towards her. Good thing she’s quick on her feet.
The exchange of blows goes on a bit longer until Cloaky drops to one knee and slams the backs of her hands onto the ground. Red light spreads out from under her right foot and both hands like cracks on ice or glass, catching everyone on the field. Something like a shriek rings out and the ground goes up in pieces, but not quite like an explosion went off. It would be more accurate to say chunks of dirt and stone pop out of their places, flinging the young trio and the royals into the air. And as the people fall down, so do the rocks, which break apart further as they descend.
The group lands near me with Franco and Vivian coming the closest. In fact, those two are close enough for me to see that they were hit by the rocks on the way down. Vivian’s not moving. I see blood on the side of her head, but it’s not much. I can’t tell how badly hurt she is; I just hope none of her wounds are fatal. When I call her name, she doesn’t answer.
I call to everyone else, but the only people who move are the young trio. Jason rises first, looking around with cuts and bruises on him. Despite that, he’s able to tell me one thing: “I’m okay!” No sooner does he say that, he goes to check on his friends, starting with Erika since she was closest to him. The next closest is Mathias, but like Vivian, he doesn’t move. Erika and Jason check on him next. Meanwhile, Franco inchworms his way over to the princess.
“How is she?” I ask him.
“She’s… okay. But she’s out,” he tells me. Suddenly, he stiffens and his eyes pop open. “The Phoenix Stone…!”
Oh, that’s right! Someone needs to hold it. Franco searches for the princess’s pouch and finds it near her feet. It must’ve snapped off its strap from either the attack or when Vivian landed on the ground. Without missing a beat, Franco crawls over to the pouch, opens it, and reaches in. When his hand emerges, he’s holding the glowing orb of the second Phoenix Stone. Its light briefly pulses thrice in tandem with Jason’s.
Speaking of him, he and Erika have come over to Franco by now and look in awe at the Stone in his hand. I’m sure no member of the trio ever expected to be a chosen one, never mind two of their group. Once they look like they’ve collected themselves, I ask them about the prince.
“Out cold,” says Jason, “but we’ll make sure he and the princess stay safe. We have one more Phoenix Stone to grab, and I think we know where it is. Erika spotted a possible place earlier.”
I nod to them, and I watch Franco take Vivian’s Stone and the pouch with him. Then the trio turns to face Cloaky. I can’t tell what their expressions look like since they’re facing away from me, but given the situation, I can only imagine that they’re looks of grim determination. Together, all three of them rise to their feet, ready their weapons or spells, and begin to approach their opponent.
As for what Cloaky was doing through all this, she was trying to resume her dance from when we first spotted her here. I saw it through all my quick scans around the place while the trio moved. Now that they’re approaching her again, though, she stops and watches them. The way she’s standing makes it seem like her whole body is asking, What are you up to now? or Really? You’re trying again?
“Still alive, are you?” she asks, her tone indifferent.
“Yeah,” says Jason, “and we’re going to keep getting up until we defeat you.”
In a slow, lazy motion, Cloaky adjusts her stance to look at them straight on. “After everything I’ve told you? After everything I’ve done? Do you seriously think you have any chance of stopping me?”
This time, Erika steps forward. “You said yourself that only your conscious mind is in that body. All we have to do is knock you out of it.”
“That may require us to kill the host,” says a grim Franco, “but considering who’s possessing her, I’m not sure there’s much of the original soul left.”
Cloaky nods but shrugs. “An excellent deduction. And you’re right—the original soul is gone, devoured by my presence alone. Ever since, I’ve seen the world more clearly than I have in a long, long time.” Suddenly, she spreads out her arms. “But enough of this. You’re not dead, which means the battle isn’t over.”
Before anyone can retort, she throws her hands in front of her, creating another force that pushes the trio away. They tumble down the hill back towards me, but they don’t roll as close to me as before. I immediately start hoping that they’ll stand again. They do eventually, but it takes a little longer than usual because of all the blows they’ve endured so far. And as they stand, I overhear them talking among themselves. I can’t hear them from here, but I’m pretty sure they’re coming up with a plan.
They confirm that for me with what they do next. Franco starts with flinging a series of small fire bolts towards Cloaky, who’s quick to go on the defensive. Jason charges in next while Franco keeps firing, forcing Cloaky to split her attention between avoiding the bolts and fending off against Jason’s sword swings. Erika joins in not long after, going in close with swipes and stabs. It’s in the midst of this combined attack that Jason quickly taps into the power of the Phoenix Stone, allowing him to move faster and strike harder than he was previously. Seriously, he’s like a red whirlwind now.
Cloaky must be feeling the pressure because, from that point on, she doesn’t try to turn her defense into attacks. Franco varies up his spells, switching between fire, lightning, and wind, the last of which he throws out more strongly in the split seconds when Jason and Erika aren’t in his way. One of those blasts tosses Cloaky closer to me, and she throws up a barrier to deflect both a spell and a knife.
With her this close, a thought crosses my mind. It’ll look absolutely insane to my young friends, but if anyone will make sense of what I’m trying to say, it has to be Cloaky. Let’s see how reacts when I use her name. “Lisa, right?”
She doesn’t answer, but her head jerks to eye me for a split second before turning away. As far as the narrative is concerned, she must be growing frustrated with the trio that won’t back down. So far, they haven’t noticed anything.
I take a deep breath and try again. “You talked to me before, remember? You know, about not messing with the story? I know this is kind of a leap, but your real name is Lisa, isn’t it? Lisa… Kalamana?”
She whips her head to look at me over her shoulder with a gaze I can only describe as strained. Her tone of voice couldn’t be angrier, though. “Kalmina.”
I jump back, mentally kicking myself because I know she’s right. That was the name. The realization surges through me like I’ve been struck by lightning. “Lisa Kalmina? That’s who you are?”
Another growl from her, and then, “Yes, you nitwit. Now shut up! There’s a story happening here, and it’s not yours!”
Either because of the noise the battle is making or because of something I’m doing subconsciously, no member of the young trio jumps into our conversation with the obvious questions and looks of confusion. They go on as if they aren’t seeing anything off about me or the magic cage I’m in, and Cloaky, who’s very clearly dividing her attention between me and the trio. That works for me, honestly. And if it helps out the young heroes, then so be it.
“So it’s really you, then,” I conclude. From there, I try to keep my voice steady. “You’re Lisa Kalmina, the author of this manuscript. Sorry for remembering your name wrong. This is quite a world you’ve come up with. Can we talk about it?”
“I told you to shut up!” And with that, Lisa breaks through the attacks coming her way and launches herself over the heads of the trio. That puts an end to that conversation, so I watch as she prepares for the next onslaught.
The trio goes to pursue, but Jason lingers for just a few seconds to catch my eye. “Hang in there, Claire! We’ll free you as soon as we bring her down!”
I see him off with a nod and watch as he and his friends engage their opponent. Things get a bit crazier from there. When the trio starts their next attack, they maneuver around Cloaky—Kalmina—until they make a triangle formation. The thing is, Kalmina’s attacks aren’t as focused as they were before. The spells flicker a lot, she leaves herself open more often, and she shouts more loudly than before. But the main thing I notice is that my magical cage also flickers, and that becomes more frequent in the next few minutes. I brace myself for impact so that when the spell fizzles out completely—which it does—I land on my feet. I waste no time in looking for another place to hide.
Finally, through a constant wind funnel spell from Franco, Erika whips out a knife in each hand and throws them. The two blades catch Kalmina by the sleeves of her robe and embed themselves in a nearby rock slab, taking her with them. Jason charges her next, striking forward and down with a swipe that cuts off both the bags Kalmina had on her right. The bags drop to the ground, and the smaller of the two comes loose to reveal a box. That box must’ve been fragile because it breaks open… and the final Phoenix Stone emerges.
The Stone begins rolling down the hill, but Erika doesn’t waste any time. From her slight crouch, she springs into a run and dives straight for the Stone. Franco and Jason rush to cover her. At the same time, Kalmina tears herself free from her bonds. Right as the little blue thief is about to grab the stone, the cloaked author throws up her hands and gives the most inhumanly loud yell I’ve heard in my life.
If I didn’t know what author powers would look like in a story before, I get a good impression of it in the next few seconds. With Kalmina’s shout, the whole world goes still. Jason, Erika, and Franco stop in mid-motion. The Shadow Snappers streaming out of the Aura Gate freeze up. Any dust and dirt kicked up around us in the battle settles right where it is, either in the air or on the ground. Absolutely nothing makes a sound or even so much as twitches. Nothing except for Kalmina… and me.
I approach her slowly, looking all around me at the utter stillness of everything else in the area—in the world. It takes me a while to stop and look ahead, only to see that the author is staring straight at me, her head tilted forward.
“You idiot,” she says, “you wrecked my concentration. You made a mess of things—again. And your blabbing a minute ago? That was the last straw.” She takes one step towards me, then another. “You and I need to talk.”
Kalmina’s blue eyes burn with an inferno I know she would throw at me if she could. Given what she can do in this story—her story—that’s very much in the realm of possibility. There’s no doubt in my mind. If she didn’t feel the need to talk to me, she’d kill me. Right here. Right now.
My heart’s pounding. I’m sweating, shaking. My breathing’s heavy. I could die at any time… but I have to calm down. It’s the only way I’ll get out of this. I focus on that fact and breathe in, then breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.
When I find my voice again, I respond to her at last. “Yeah. I’d say we definitely have to talk.”