Untitled and Unfinished, Ch. 20
Kalmina storms over to me until we’re only a few paces apart. “I have a lot to say to you.”
The words fail me, but I have to get a grip here; she wants an answer. I swallow and take a deep breath. “I could tell you the same. I have some questions I’ve been itching to ask you ever since I figured out you’re the author of this story.”
Just before she starts yelling again, her fists tighten and twitch. “It took me years to come up with this whole story and setting before I even started writing it! Then you reject it, and when I invite you to have another look, you start scrambling the order of events and making things happen too soon!”
Did she say invite? Did she reduce this whole transported-to-another-world craziness to some special party she “invited” me to? I tell her exactly that but then add this: “If you wanted me to have another look, why didn’t you just resubmit the manuscript to the publishing company?”
“You already rejected it once, and you did it with such a high-and-mighty attitude. I swore I was going to prove to you how awesome this story is one way or another!”
“Wait, what high-and-mighty attitude? I used the same polite tone as with all the other rejection letters I sent.” Confused, I throw up my hands, cutting her off. I have to put my foot down here. “On second thought, hold on. Back up. We’re getting ahead of ourselves, but I promise we will talk about what’s on your mind.”
“You’re in no position to interrupt me.” Kalmina whips up one of her arms to gesture to what’s around us. “In case you haven’t noticed, I control everything in this world—my world, which I made up for my novel. I’m warning you, you do not want to tick me off anymore than you have already!”
“Believe me, I’m not trying to. It’s just a lot harder to talk when everyone’s fuses are about to blow.” I cross my arms over my chest, but I don’t say another word until she’s done fuming. “You obviously have a better idea of what’s going on here, so I think it’s safe for me to assume you have the answers to my questions.”
Her only response to my statement is to smolder in place and then toss a curt nod at me, but it’s a sign of compliance regardless—like a child who’s realized she has to listen to what her parents have to say. What cements the comparison for me is Kalmina’s half-growled, half-muttered tone. “Fine. I can wait a few more minutes. What do you want to know?”
Okay, deep breath. Stay calm. Everything depends on how this conversation goes. “Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Is that what you look like in real life, or is that only the appearance of the character you’re playing?”
The irritation is thick in her tone. “This is just the character’s appearance.”
“Then show me what you really look like. I’m here without any disguises. If we’re going to talk about real-world stuff, you may as well be your true self.”
I see her dark eyes turn away as she starts tapping her foot on the ground. After a couple of seconds, she huffs and spins around. One flash of light later, and the tanned, gray-haired woman from before is replaced by a much younger-looking lady whose skin is somewhat lighter, but her hair and eyes are both brown, almost black. The cloak she had before has been replaced by a violet button-down shirt with short sleeves and white-blue jeans. A beige cloth belt is slung through the rings on her jeans, but a long portion of it hangs free down to her left knee. Despite the drastic change in appearance, that stubbornly angry frown on her face is the same as before.
Aside from where we are, the two of us look like your average, modern day Jane Does ready for a day at the office. It’s precisely this detail that truly calms me down. This isn’t a showdown to save the future of the planet. This is just a meeting with an author about her manuscript. That is a battle I can actually fight. It’s my job; I can do this.
Kalmina shifts in her spot but keeps tapping her foot. “Do you have any other questions, or can I start talking now?”
“I have two more, then you can start. I’ll see what other questions I should ask after you say your piece. Deal?”
“Deal. Out with it already.”
“All right, so… how did you get us into your manuscript, and how do we leave?”
Hearing this must’ve set something off because the author’s face starts becoming smug, but the anger stays in her eyes. “The real world has its own mysteries and wonders people can discover. All they have to do is dig for it. Of course, it may take many years to find anything remotely interesting… much less something that could be used.”
That says so much and so little at the same time. If I weren’t in a manuscript world right now, I’d call that unbelievable. I should keep that thought to myself, though. I’ll answer her with another question. “What are you saying? That you found an actual magic spell to make this possible?”
“Yes—although it’s only good for the one thing. Sadly, I can’t explain the how well enough to answer your question in full. It would be a lot easier for me to use a visual aid, but obviously, I don’t have the materials here in front of me.” She punctuates her point by holding out her hands to either side. Sure enough, they’re empty. “Besides, this isn’t something you share with just anyone. I’m keeping that knowledge under more locks than you can imagine.”
“Could you conjure some facsimiles of these so-called materials?” I ask. “You’re the author, and you’re basically a goddess here, so—”
Her anger returns like the lash of a whip. “You don’t understand. Yes, I’m the author of this piece, and yes, this is my world to command based on the story I’ve written. But while I’m here, it takes everything I have just to maintain the world as it is. I’m concentrating on that even now. I don’t have a lot of energy to spare here. I put in a lot of effort to make sure a phone or a gun couldn’t appear because that kind of tech isn’t supposed to exist in this world.”
“I never actually tried making either of those things. All I kept getting were planks of wood.”
“Do you know how to use an actual weapon?”
“Then that’s probably why.” Suddenly, her tone is the tiniest bit sheepish. “Although I’m not sure why you got planks of wood specifically.”
All I can do is shrug to that last one. “Well, I’m not worried about that.”
And just like that, the angry author’s back in full force. “Anyway, the means I used to transport us here had an escape clause to prevent us from being trapped.”
“Oh, good. How do we get out of here, then?”
“One of us must concede defeat in our talk. We even have to use those exact words.” Kalmina’s next words escape through clenched teeth. “I think those were all your questions. Now it’s time for you to listen to me.”
Man, her mood swings are something else. Slowly—but not that slowly—I put my hands up. You could say that I’m ending my turn in this discussion; I’ll hear what she has to say before I ask more questions. That’s part of the deal, isn’t it? So I brace myself for whatever’s coming.
Kalmina wastes no time in screaming at me again. “I told you ten chapters ago to stop messing with the story! The heroes weren’t supposed to find the map of warp circles until after they obtained two Phoenix Stones, but you led them to it too early! This is my world, you know! I could sense whenever you were changing the order of events! I had to use up some serious concentration to make sure you couldn’t change more than you already had!”
Huh. I wonder if that invisible force from the battle and that headache I felt back in Taura was Kalmina fighting against me? It’s about the only thing that makes sense. If anyone could’ve interfered with my futzing around, it would’ve been her.
“Your stupid rejection letter had all of one good point, and I was already working on it when you sent it to me,” she goes on. “I added the ending. You were going through it with the heroes just now, actually. What? You thought you were writing my ending for me up ’til now?”
Reflexes almost make me tell her I didn’t think that at all, but I stop myself when I realize that’s not true. I thought after a certain point that we were heading into unknown territory—in other words, making things up as we went. Clearly, I was wrong about that. I’ll give her that one and stay quiet.
“All your other suggestions were ridiculous,” says the author. “Cut this, trim that—you even called all those character building scenes a waste of time. What kind of editor thinks character development is a blasted waste of time?”
Her ranting is making me recall more of what I wrote in that rejection letter, which gives me points to rebut with. “I never said to cut out all the character development or that it was a waste. I said repeating the same points was wasteful.”
“I didn’t repeat anything! There was a reason behind everything!”
To cut through her temper, I hold up my hand and keep my tone even. “If I recall right, your original draft had Jason getting over his Scorpus prejudice more times than you needed. What was the pattern…? Oh, yes. He rants to his friends about how Scorpus killed members of his family, they come across an injured Scorpus citizen or soldier, they decide to heal the guy despite Jason’s protest, the guy thanks them, and then Jason concedes that not everyone from Scorpus is bad.”
Kalmina grinds her teeth together. “Th-that… that’s right. But it was important for when he meets Mathias later!”
“I understand, and I agree that it’s an important arc for Jason. What I had a problem with is that you wrote out the same pattern four times over. Because it was always Jason who had to overcome his prejudice, he came across as someone who couldn’t remember that lesson to save his life. Even if it played several tropes to the hilt, that particular scenario only really needs to happen once. Didn’t I write anything like that in the rejection letter?”
The author looks away, kicking the dirt at her feet. “You wrote… something like that.” She’s glaring at me yet again in the next instance. “You also had the gall to call my story cliché. Well, sorry if there’s nothing really new under the sun! It’s a little hard to be original these days, but I tried my hardest. I brought you in here so you could see its merits despite the clichés!”
So she said before. I guess this is the reason for my invite. “Really? That’s why we’re both here now?”
“Yes, but it’s been a real double-edged sword. I didn’t think you’d be able to change as many things as you did. Because of all your shenanigans, you skipped over almost all the character building I had written in for Jason, Erika, and Franco! It was the same with Scorpus. I went out of my way to make the country distinct, and the heroes spent time getting to know the people. But when you went there, you didn’t even bother to look around!”
Oh… huh. I didn’t consider that. I’ve been so focused on staying alive and thinking of home that I didn’t pay attention to whether or not I was really learning about the characters the way I was meant to. I mean, I’ve learned plenty, but I have to give her this one, too—I think I really did skip over all those opportunities to watch Jason and the others grow as people. I didn’t pay that much attention to the traits that made Taura and Scorpus unique, either. Sure, I sidelined myself plenty of times, but that’s not quite the same. She’s right—I missed out on quite a lot, probably tripped out a third of the original story as a result, and it was my own fault.
I take step back, eyeing Kalmina’s every move. “Okay. You have a point there—a good one. Axing too much of a story can take the soul out of it, and it’s up to an editor to know when to stop trimming.”
“You concede defeat, then. You were wrong to skip around like that.”
“I admit I was wrong, but I’m not conceding.”
“Because there’s one thing I’m not sure you considered when you brought me into this world.”
Kalmina throws her arms down. “And what’s that? What could you possibly tell me that would be useful?”
“If I’d been able to look at your manuscript instead of getting brought into it, I would’ve been able to see what needed trimming and what needed expansion properly. Remember, I didn’t say to get rid of all the character building, just the excess. I’m better with a word processor or a red pen, but I can’t use either when I’m stuck in here. And frankly, this isn’t the best place for your author powers.”
That must’ve really cut deep because Kalmina freezes in place. At the same time, that inferno in her eyes goes out in a blink. Dare I say it, but she actually looks a little confused now. Surprised.
She gets it—that this whole fiasco didn’t have to happen at all. But I have more to say, so I keep going. “Both of us aren’t supposed to be in this story. If you didn’t want me screwing anything up, I shouldn’t have been brought into it like this. I can’t tell how much our presence has affected your story; I just know it never should’ve done so in the first place.”
For a moment, she looks like she’s about to blow up at me again. She doesn’t, though. Instead, her face turns a bright red, and her eyes open wide for a few seconds. She even remains still. If that doesn’t say “embarrassed,” I don’t know what does.
Time to point out one more thing to her. “You know what would’ve made this worse? I could’ve been killed in here. In fact, I almost did a few times. I had to invoke a scene change to save myself and Jason’s crew back in the Gray Crags.”
“Nothing would’ve killed you,” says the author, turning away even more flushed. “I control everything here; I would’ve prevented it from being fatal.”
“But how was I supposed to know that?” I let out a sigh and shake my head. “It’s clear to me this is all due to you being rejected. You obviously read the letter in full, so you must’ve seen my suggestion that you resubmit it. Why didn’t you do that? I’m pretty sure I told you that we’d look at it again if you had made all the suggested changes. And hey, if you didn’t like us, you could’ve submitted it to a different publishing company.”
I don’t hear a response at first, but when I do, Kalmina talks in a soft tone. “I couldn’t find another one in the country that would accept fantasy stories, never mind one as long as mine.”
“And you really wanted to share the story with people, didn’t you?”
The way she moves when she speaks next have the energy of a happy artist at work. “More than anything! I had this story in my head for years, ever since I was in high school. I loved writing the characters. I loved building the world they inhabit. This is kind of dramatic, but I put my soul into this. I want to share their story more than anything. It’s my first novel; I don’t care how cliché it is! And I was not going to let some know-nothing agent or editor stop me. That includes you!”
Those words are all too familiar, and not only because I’ve heard a similar spiel from other would-be authors and their submissions. “No amount of rejections should stop a writer. Goodness knows I’ve received my share. I have a whole bucket full of them.”
A flash of surprise crosses her face. “Y-you did? Er, you do? I thought you were an editor.”
“I am,” I say, “but I started as a writer. That’s why I know where you’re coming from. I’ve been there—sore attitude at rejection and everything.” A sheepish, rueful laugh bubbles out of me then. “Honestly, there are times I wish I could go back.”
“What do you mean?”
I laugh a bit more before answering that. “Let’s put it like this: I learned the hard way that a writer/editor is extremely self-conscious. I haven’t been able to write even a flash fiction piece in the last few years. Sure, I have three novels under my belt, but I haven’t started another one.”
Kalmina looks sympathetic, but it switches quickly to something more indignant. “Well, if you understand what I’m talking about, why’d you reject my story?”
“I spelled out the reasons in the letter, didn’t I? You reiterated some of your plot points and were sparse on others, you had quite a few shaky transitions, and you had no ending. Of course, you took care of that last one, so the third problem now is us. I don’t know about you, but I know this story would be a heck of a lot better without me in it.”
“Technically, I’m not in here,” the author says. “I’ve taken the role of High Priestess Isabelle for all this. She was supposed to have disappeared twenty years ago, and the heroes would’ve learned about her early on in the church of Gravelton. After Vivian talks to everyone there and leaves for the capital, Jason, Erika, and Franco would’ve returned to the church to learn the history of the country. From there, a surprise attack was supposed to have taken them to the capital, and things would’ve moved on from there as you saw it.”
“Ah, I see. I know what you mean. That really is pretty early into the story. I must’ve missed that because I connected the dots sooner than anyone was supposed to.”
“Yeah. That was the first major change I felt you make.”
“And we both know I fast forwarded through a few more points.” I take a deep breath after that. It’s safe to say now that the tension’s worn off finally, but some part of me can’t rest despite that. There’s more that I want to get off my chest. “Look, I’ve know I made a mess of your revised story while I was here, and I’m sorry. What does it even look like now, I wonder?”
The author makes a sound somewhere between a sigh and a huff, both resigned. “I have no idea. But everything you’ve done—that we’ve done—should affect only this copy of the manuscript.”
“All right.” With one more thought ready to be voiced, I step forward. “You may still be upset with me, and that’s fine. Now, though, we both have the chance to walk out of here—quietly—without causing any further damage. Let’s not do something we’ll regret later.”
I can’t read her expression well, but soon, she looks up to the sky. Everything has been frozen stiff ever since she put the world on pause, and she seems to look more sad about that as the seconds tick by. After I hear her grunt, she nods. “Let’s not cross any lines of no return.” Then it’s her turn to make the sheepish laugh, albeit a quiet one. “This whole time, I was mad at you for jumping the gun on rejecting my manuscript… but talking to you here made me realize I was the one who jumped too soon. I made my points, and you made yours. I get it now. This… this is enough.” She faces me, except that she closes her eyes and tips her head back. “I concede defeat.”
A golden glow suddenly surrounds her, and when it fades, a wind blows out in all directions. It has no effect on anyone or anything around us, although I feel it rush past me. I raise my arm on reflex, and only when I start lowering it do I see that a golden glow has surrounded me, too. In the next few seconds, though, the glow fades from both of us. Nothing else moves.
Huh. Strange. Was something supposed to happen? I look to the author and shrug. “So… what now? What did you just do?”
“I’ve conceded that this is my loss—my fault,” says Kalmina. “The escape clause was designed so that, if I lost, we would be allowed to return to the real world. All we have to do is think it, and we’ll be transported back to wherever we call home. You won’t even have to tap your heels together and say anything special to do it.”
A small laugh escapes me. That is an appropriate way to look at the situation, isn’t it? But that’s beside the point. “It’s that simple, huh?”
“It really is. And once we leave, the spell will lose its power. It should’ve affected only us anyway, but it definitely shouldn’t bother us or anyone else after this.”
“Good to know. What would’ve happened if I had conceded?”
“I would’ve been able to leave whenever, but your fate would’ve been whatever I decided for you. It would’ve been something humiliating.” She gives me a look both embarrassed and ashamed. “You’ve seen my temper, right? I probably don’t have to explain.”
“Yeah. Let’s leave that be.” I make scans around of the places to my right and left before focusing on the author again. “Since we can leave when we want to now, tell me something: how does this story end? What did you write up?”
Kalmina opens her mouth, but she doesn’t say anything right away. She only speaks up after nodding her head. “I’ll let it speak for itself. That right there?” She points to where Erika is about to grab the last Phoenix Stone. “That’s accurate to what I wrote—not so much the fight leading up to it. Anyway, with the Spirit of Decay sealed again and her soul gone, Isabelle will die. I’ll will myself home when that happens. After that, you’ll be on your own, but that shouldn’t be a problem. This is my story, so I’ll be able to maintain things for a while after I leave. It should be enough to carry you to the end. All you’d have to do is coast like you’ve been doing.”
I nod to all of that. “Gotcha.”
She takes a deep breath and lets it out. “Then I guess there’s only one thing left to do.” Like before, she spins around and is surrounded by a white light. When it disappears, Lisa Kalmina has transformed into the tanned, gray-haired woman in a cloak from before. She walks over to where she had been pinned before and positions herself to make it look like she’s just broken free. The only differences are that she has her right hand raised with her middle finger on her thumb, and she’s looking at me. “Are you ready?”
“Just about,” I tell her. “I want you to know something, though.”
She cocks her head to the side. “What’s that?”
“Don’t worry too much over whether or not you wrote anything ‘too cliché.’ If you tell your story well enough, no one’s going to care even if they notice. Besides, people use tropes because they work—and last I recall, your manuscript really wasn’t too bad over all. It may have a few kinks left in it, but we’ll iron them out.”
Kalmina has guarded hope written all over her face. “You don’t mind? I mean… you’ll look at it again?”
“Yeah. Work out what you can now, and then submit it like you did before. You know how to contact me and my company, don’t you?”
She shrinks into herself. “I think I’ll need to look up your contact info again. I didn’t memorize it. I’ll send a more substantial apology with it.”
“Hey, as long as we’re clear on this.” I let out a sigh, relieved. Her story’s been on hold long enough, so I give her another nod. “Okay. Hit it!”
She snaps her fingers, and all the noise from everything beginning to move again crashes on us like a tidal wave. I’ll call her Cloaky again to separate the character from the author, but anyway, Cloaky releases a shriek of anger and spite as she races towards the young heroes. She’s too late, though. Erika’s hands grasp the final Phoenix Stone, causing it to flash with a fiery, golden light.
It’s not alone, however. The light is accompanied by those of the other two Phoenix Stones held by Jason and Franco, and the power has enough punch to push Cloaky back into the rock wall. Meanwhile, that flood of Shadow Snappers pouring out of the Aura Gate dissipates in a massive chorus of monstrous shrieks.
That same light shoves me to the ground, and it takes me a few seconds to collect myself. When I’m done clearing my eyes and have propped myself on my elbows, I search around for the trio. It turns out they’re about where they were before, except now all three of them are standing. Despite the distance between us, I can see enough of their faces to see that determined look in their eyes.
They’ve won. They’re ready to finish this. And soon enough, we’ll all be heading home.