Untitled and Unfinished, Ch. 21

Chapter Index

Cloaky twitches in place, her face a mix of fear and spite. “No! It can’t be!”

“It is what it is,” says Jason, now flanked by his longtime friends. “You’re done!”

“I won’t yield. Not when I’m so close!” Cloaky lunges for them with a dangerous lightning-and-fire mix forming in her hands—

—but then all of a sudden, white binds catch her wrists and ankles, stopping her cold. While she screams her disbelief, I take a quick scan to see who launched that spell. It wasn’t Franco; he’s right in front of me and not using any magic right now. It was actually Princess Vivian, who’s now kneeling on the ground with her arms extended in front of her. She must’ve moved closer to get in range to throw that binding spell while I wasn’t looking. In the same instance I spot Vivian, I also see that Prince Mathias has risen to his feet and is leaning on a nearby rock. With the royals accounted for, I switch my attention back to the three young heroes.

Jason shares some meaningful looks with his two friends. “Let’s do it like we practiced!”

The three of them raise the Phoenix Stones together. Erika, the last of the three to grab a Stone, is the one who begins the incantation. “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!”

Franco goes next. “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!”

Last but not least comes Jason, whose voice rises to a shout as he nears the end of his part. “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!”

The Phoenix Stones flash three times in unison. On the third, the light becomes so bright, I’m blinded by it even with my eyes closed and covered by my hands. Some pretty horrific sounds go out—namely, the blood-curdling scream of Cloaky meeting her end along with a Shadow Snapper-like screech that’s so deafening, it must belong to a much bigger beast. In the former’s case, Kalmina must be playing it up as she leaves her book world.

The one other sound I hear is something between a simmer and a ring. The light dims enough for me to open my eyes, and that’s when I see it—a bright shape soaring through the blackened skies. I can’t discern the exact shape, but it’s a light both white and gold that pushes the darkness away as it soars from east to west. I move to stand and watch what plays out next.

If you can imagine a giant magical paintbrush sweeping over the scene to turn all the dark and dreary colors bright and happy, then you have a pretty good idea of what I’m witnessing now. The magic paintbrush in question is the Spirit of Life, of course, and it’s shaped more like a hybrid butterfly-phoenix trailed by fireflies. It creates another flash when it slams into the Aura Gate and flies off again. When I look back, the crack in the golden door no longer exists, like it was never there at all.

As the Spirit of Life soars over the horizon line and out of sight, the sky becomes blue, dotted here and there by small streaks of clouds. The rocky ground I’m standing on has some green sprouting on it now, and I jump back once the detail fully registers in my head. The gasps of wonder from the royals and the young trio tell me they’re looking around in as much awe as I am.

The grass doesn’t spontaneously grow taller than us or anything, but seeing it in a place where it had been barren before is still a sight of wonder. Combined with the blue sky unveiling overhead to reveal the sun, we have one beautiful scene forming here. Meanwhile, the Phoenix Stones continue to glow brightly in the hands of their holders, but over the course of ten minutes, the glows regress to normal. The Spirit of Life returns around that time, and we watch it soar over the Aura Gate before disappearing from sight once more.

After that, silence—the calm kind, not the eerie kind. But it’s no less surreal. It’s like things have frozen in place again, at least from my perspective. This time, I can say safely that we’re too awed at what we’ve witnessed to speak up. A whole minute goes by before I hear Jason say it: “It’s over.”

“Where did the Spirit of Life go?” I ask.

“Back to sleep within the world,” says Franco. “I could sense it through the Phoenix Stone.”

Mister Red and Miss Blue nod to that, telling me they probably sensed it, too. After another quiet pause, the latter suddenly breathes a deep sigh of relief that soon turns into laughter. No one’s giving her any funny looks, though. Through her fit of laughing, she finally manages to squeeze out some words. “We did it. We actually did it!”

The boys follow suit as Jason pulls them into a group hug. I join them in the next second, but I pull away when I notice the two royals coming towards us. They may be limping slightly, but the fact that they’re moving means their wounds aren’t as serious as they look. The trio breaks off soon after to greet them.

Mathias smiles and gives a single nod. “It’s finally over. Thank you for your tireless efforts. We wouldn’t have won without you.”

Slightly bashful, Jason scratches the back of his head. “Hey, we didn’t do this alone. You and Princess Vivian helped, too… not to mention your armies and all the other people we met along the way.”

The princess catches everyone’s attention with her quiet giggle. “A humble soul, even after saving the world. It’s another reason why the Phoenix Stone chose you.”

Mister Red turns away all shy—but then suddenly, he looks surprised. “Oh… where’s the Chief?”

One look around tells us that the Chief-slash-Cloaky is gone, nowhere to be seen. As for Kalmina, she’s probably back home by now, based on what she told me. I’ll find out for sure when I go home and check if my e-mail has a new message or not. But obviously, I’m not going home right this minute.

The next few hours go by like this: we search around the Aura Gate for any sign of Cloaky, only to come up empty. We then return to the armies, where the royals set up several search parties to look for our enemy. Some of those parties are led by Commander Redford, Melinda, and Donovan. A couple of mages tend to the trio and the royals’ wounds, and they’re fine by the time the search parties return.

Redford approaches Vivian and Mathias and salutes. “We’ve found no one else on this landmass. There’s no trace of the Chief anywhere.”

The princess scratches her chin. “Then it’s possible she was killed when the Spirit of Life appeared. The Spirit of Decay’s presence within her body would’ve made her a target to be eliminated, just like the Shadow Snappers.”

The prince nods. “And now, Decay sleeps. Its presence won’t affect us for centuries to come.”

Jason’s concern turns apologetic as he faces me. “Wait, if the Chief is gone… then you never got a chance to talk to her, did you?”

When it clicks with everyone else, they also give me saddened looks. It’s clear to me by now that they were unaware of how Chief Cloaky caused time to stand still in this world, so of course they have no idea that we really did talk. Much like with many other things about me, they’d have no way of believing the full truth.

So I raise my hand to assure them everything’s okay. This time, the words come to me easily. “I did, actually. I… I had a vision, I guess, that allowed me to talk to her one on one.”

“Did you glean any insight on who the Chief really was or how you can go home?” asks Franco.

I begin my answer with a nod. “Believe it or not, yes to both. I can go home without any problems now, whenever I want. As for the first part… ‘Chief’ was someone named Isabelle before the Spirit of Decay possessed her. If I also recall right, she was a High Priestess of Taura…?”

Vivian straightens like she’s been shocked. “High Priestess Isabelle… I’ve heard of her. She was well respected among the clergy, but she surprised everyone by retiring early. That must mean…”

I get it, and I think everyone else does, too. Isabelle’s early retirement had been caused by her succumbing more and more to the consciousness of the Spirit of Decay. Certainly, whoever she used to be was not the person we encountered at the Aura Gate. Weren’t we told that her soul had been devoured? All things considered, we may have done her a mercy. It’s just too bad she probably suffered a lot beforehand and that we only realized that now.

We discuss all that in more detail, but none of us have anything to add other than the princess declaring she’ll look more into Isabelle’s situation. It’s too late to help the former High Priestess, of course, but maybe the knowledge can be passed down through the generations for the future’s sake. The last thing anyone needs is for the Spirit of Decay to possess someone else and start this whole mess over again.

Eventually, we head to where we docked the ships. With the Aura Gate repaired and back to full strength, our job here is done, so all that’s left for us is to head home. Judging from the weary but relieved faces I see around me, everyone’s glad about this. The world will keep spinning, and heck, it always feels good to be going home, doesn’t it? Besides, I think Jason and his friends would very much like a long nap.

But like I said before, I’m not leaving quite yet. I want to see how this story ends while I’m still here. It’ll help when I talk to Kalmina again back in the real world, but you know what my main driver is? Honest curiosity, plain and simple. I’ve been with the story this long, so I feel that I have to finish it. I won’t let myself do anything less.

So let’s see where the road ahead takes us, shall we?

Over the next several days, Princess Vivian and Prince Mathias organize an assortment of operations. First and foremost, they coordinate the Taura and Scorpus halves of the joint army to return to their respective homelands and to their old posts. Second, they arrange a peace summit to talk about what the two countries will do going forward. Last but not least, they schedule trials for Wendell and Dorian to determine their punishments, though I imagine it would be some variant of life in prison.

That’s all on the political side of the fence, however, which isn’t the kind of battle Jason and his friends can fight. None of us even sit anywhere near where the proceedings happen unless we’re specifically asked to, which happens all of twice. All we have to do is work some enchants on the prisoners’ chains, though.

The rest of the time, the four of us hang out in Taura’s capital until today, the one day Vivian can spare to congratulate the trio’s efforts in saving the world. I’m with them, too, even if I’m not the hero they are—Vivian insisted. So all of us stand at the front balcony of Taura Castle, watching as the crowded city below explodes with cheers and activity. Jason, Erika, and Franco bow but don’t look like they know what to do with themselves until it’s time for the feast in the courtyard.

That night, we mingle with everyone who’s singing, dancing, eating, drinking, and generally enjoying themselves. It’s because of this that I find it the perfect time to ask the new heroes of the world what they plan to do once the celebrations are done. To make hearing ourselves easier, I pull the trio aside to a tree with golden leaves, taking a spot underneath its canopy. There’s enough space around us to act as our bubble in the crowd.

Once we’re settled in, I drop the question on them. The trio exchange some inquisitive looks before Jason, like usual, takes the lead. “I’m not sure yet. The Phoenix Stones will brought back to their shrines, but the royal families will be taking care of that themselves. As for us three—” he gestures to himself and his friends—“I just know we’ll go together, wherever that may be. It’s how we always do things.”

Franco snaps his fingers. “Actually, about that… the princess said she wanted to look into more information regarding High Priestess Isabelle, but with all the duties she has in the past two weeks, she hasn’t had the time to start.”

“So you figure we should look up that info for her?” asks Erika.

Jason slaps both of them on the shoulders. “I say we go for it! After what we did at the Aura Gate, a little research shouldn’t be too hard.”

A sly smirk crosses the face of Miss Blue. “That depends on whether or not someone keeps his head on straight.”

Mister Red throws her an exaggerated frown. “Already have me pegged as the troublemaker, huh? How do we know it won’t be the resident sneak instead?”

“Hey, I get us into sneaky trouble—the subtle kind.” The playful sarcasm goes into full force as she goes on. “Your kind of trouble is anything but. It might lead to things like—I don’t know—saving the world from a giant evil spirit.”

“I’m pretty sure reading books isn’t going to summon a monster on top of us.”

Franco slaps his forehead, laughing the whole way. “You never know with magic, but I think we’ll be fine. Besides, if we do get into trouble, it’ll probably be the fault of both of you doing something you shouldn’t have. I should know by now.”

“And yet, he hangs around us anyway,” says Jason, nudging the mage with his elbow. “Clearly, this guy’s the weird one.”

“From what I’ve observed, you’re all weird,” I tell them. “You showed no fear in facing the Spirit of Decay or any of the other monsters we ran into along the way, and that says a lot coming from me.”

The laugh we all share after that feels like letting out a breath we’ve been holding for too long. Or maybe that’s just me. In any case, as their banter goes on, I’m reminded of my conversation with Kalmina and wonder how much about the characters and their world I may have missed since this started. It makes me notice a strange contradiction—I’ve learned so much about her story and yet also very little at the same time, all because I spent my focus on looking for clues that would lead me out of here. Now, I’m almost kind of sad to be leaving soon, even though I know it’s what I have to do. It’ll be great to read the story, literally, instead of being a part of a world I was never meant to be in.

Besides, I’m not sure how much more time I can afford to spend in the book. Kalmina did say her energy reserves would keep things going until I reached the ending. I’ve lived through these past several days like they were each twenty-four hours, but prose can sum up all that time in a couple words you could read in a second. In the real world, I doubt a whole lot of time passed—certainly nowhere near the amount I’ve spent in here….

My thoughts cut short when Erika pokes me. When I turn to her, she asks me, “So what are your plans for the immediate future?”

“Er, me?” It takes me a few seconds to fully acknowledge I’ve been brought back into the conversation, so I stumble over my words. Once I regain my verbal footing, I lean back, cross my arms, and let out a quiet breath. “I was thinking of heading home.”

Jason’s face grows curious. “Do you know how you’ll get there?”

“Yeah. I learned it from my vision. I should start from the town we met in so I can use it as my guide back.” Of course I know I don’t have to go there to return home. I would just like to visit Gravelton again for nostalgia’s sake.

He slaps his hands together, excited. “Oh, Gravelton! There’s a church there! That’s the perfect place to start our research! Plus, it’ll be quieter than the city, and it’s close enough to home that we can stop by there, too. We should definitely go with you, Claire.” Erika and Franco nod to that, their faces changing to mirror their friend’s.

Their happiness is pretty contagious, so I laugh and tell them, “Sure thing! I’d love the company.”

“When were you thinking of going?” asks Franco.

They’re probably going to be sad to hear this, but I should be straight with them. “I was thinking tomorrow morning, actually.”

“Aw, so soon after the party?” As emphasis, Erika gestures to the ongoing festivities around us.

“It seems like a good time, actually. Things are calming down between the kingdoms, so going home should be pretty peaceful. You can take me as far as Gravelton, but from there, I’ll go it alone.”

Though all three of them look surprised at that, Jason’s the one who blurts out, “You sure?”

“I am. Please don’t try to talk me out of this. I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, and I’m pretty set on it.” And I have. I’m pretty sure I’ll look like I’m vanishing into thin air when I leave, and I’d rather not scare anyone in the book with that visual.

None of them say anything at first. The surprise then morphs into sadness, but their sighs, nods, and tiny smiles tell me that they’re trying to accept the whole thing. Once again, Mister Red speaks up for them. “Well, Claire… if that’s what you want to do, then we’ll let you do that.”

I nod, which blends into a semi-bow. “Thanks, guys.”

With all that decided, we spend the rest of the evening together. If you’re wondering, yes, it’s a great time—and most importantly, it takes the sting out of the coming departure. Only after we turn in for the night do I realize how much even I needed the relaxation time. When I drift off to sleep, it’s quiet and dreamless.

When morning comes, we set out after a bite to eat. It turns out Commander Redford had gone ahead to resume her post at Gravelton, and now the lieutenants she had brought to the capital are mobilizing to meet her. The trio and I hitch a ride with this group—specifically, with Melinda and Donovan, the very first people I met in the book. Donovan’s even the one riding the carriage. And the chocolate-colored horse leading us along? Same one as before, Mister Speedy Horse himself. Although I think his actual name is Rocky.

When I ask for confirmation on that, Melinda throws her head back and laughs. “Yes, his name is Rocky. You must’ve forgotten after everything that’s happened.”

“Kind of, yeah,” I admit. Kind of impressive that I actually did remember the horse’s name or even recognized that particular one. I mean, how long has it been since I’ve seen Rocky the Speedy Horse? Sixteen chapters?

Donovan is the next person to laugh out loud. “Miss Claire, you’ve come a long way since looking lost and confused in the middle of a road.”

“Without an idea of what’s going on,” I add, nostalgic.

Someone lightly elbows me—and by that, I mean Jason, who’s smiling like a kid. “Things have changed a lot since then, haven’t they?”

A smile forms on my own face. “More than we could know right now, I bet. Given enough time, I’m sure we’ll be able to name all the specifics.”

“If I may,” Donovan cuts in, “I would like to apologize to you, Miss Claire, for thinking you a spy for so long. With you gone and then the battle at the Aura Gate, I haven’t had a chance to tell you that.”

Of all the things I completely forgot about since the beginning, that was actually one of them. When I do remember it, though, it’s like someone flipped a light switch in my head. “Oh… oh, that. It’s okay; don’t worry about it. It actually never bothered me, if you were wondering.”

“Really? Well, then, I’d call you most forgiving. Thank you for the kind words… and for all you’ve done.”

‘Most forgiving,’ huh? That might be more true than he realizes. I’d think about that more this instant if we didn’t pass through the entrance to Gravelton.

Returning here hits me with a sense of homecoming. I see the white watchtower in the center of town, standing tall despite all the Shadow Snapper attacks it must’ve endured. In fact, the church, the shops, and most of the buildings I remember seeing are in tact; only the barracks is undergoing repairs to its roof when we stop by. It’s good to see this place is still alive and kicking.

In front of the barracks stands Commander Redford, finishing up delivering instructions to the repair crew. She turns her attention to us as we approach while Donovan takes care of the horse and wagon. Redford greets us with a bow of her head before focusing on me. “Good to see all of you. I heard last night that you’ll be leaving us today.”

My reply is almost practiced at this point. “That’s right. I’ve been away from home for a lo-o-o-ong time. Figured I should go back, see how things have been.”

“Of course. We didn’t know each other long, but I daresay I’ll miss you. Will you need an escort for your journey?” I tell her pretty much the same thing I told the trio last night, ensuring that I’ll be leaving the town alone later. The commander shows her understanding with a thoughtful nod. “In that case, I wish you the best of luck. Feel free to visit again anytime.”

“Thanks,” I say, “for your help when we first met, and for everything after that. You have no idea how much that helped.”

“I could tell you the same.” With those words, Redford bows and resumes working.

I give similar words of thanks to Melinda and Donovan before we part ways. From there, the trio and I head to the opposite entrance of town—specifically, the one Melinda and I passed through the first time we met, running away from a Shadow Snapper ambush. The trio follows me, of course, but we stop once we reach our destination. This is the perfect setting for some final words between us, but at first, the words don’t come.

Finally, Jason sighs and stretches, then faces me. “Guess this is it, huh?”

I toss him a nod. “Yeah. This is my last stop before I go solo.”

“It’s going to be strange not having you around,” says Erika. “I mean, you’re practically part of the team, and now you’re going off alone.”

“Your insights will be greatly missed, as will your company,” adds Franco.

“Hey. I may be leaving now, but no one said I’d become a stranger. Something tells me this won’t be good-bye forever.” No, really—in a way, it won’t. I’ll probably see this story again, just as a reader instead of an active participant.

All three of them share a collective yeah before Jason finishes for the group. “We’ll see each other again. I’m sure of it.” He extends his hand to me. “We’re going to miss you, Claire.”

I take his hand with a firm grip. “Please… call me Cali. Cali Landan.”

Wide eyes go all around, making me wonder if Erika and Franco notice that I’m trying to shake their hands, too. They do after a few seconds, and at the same time, their faces dawn wide smiles.

“Cali, huh? That’s your real name?” asks Erika.

“Yeah. I figured it’d be safe to tell you now.” Seriously, at this point in the story, there really isn’t any danger in telling them my actual name. They can think of this as a parting gift.

“It has a nice ring to it,” says Franco.

I laugh at that and thank him for the compliment, which segues into me thanking the whole group for their friendship. I wouldn’t have survived without their help. After that, it’s time for me to go, so I make my way through the entrance. From behind me come the trio’s calls of thanks and good-byes. The one that stands out the most, though, is Jason. “See you later, Cali! It’s been fun! Hope to see you again someday!”

“Same to you!” I call back.

The last I see of those three is them waving to me and heading back into town. I turn away, too, and walk along the dirt path through the grassy field with a bright, blue sky overhead. Once the trio’s voices fade away, it takes me a few seconds to realize something: I’m alone. And now that I’m alone, it gives me plenty of time to reflect on everything that’s happened to me.

In particular, I think back to my talk with Lisa Kalmina. With each step I take forward, I realize there’s more I would’ve liked to have said to her. Can’t do much about that right this minute, but we can start once we contact each other in the real world. At this point, she probably figures no one else would understand her work or her thought process, so that should give me the chance to ask her the rest of my questions. I doubt any of that will appear on the pages you’re reading now, though. I’m sorry you’ll miss out.

So, about Donovan’s remark about my being ‘most forgiving.’ Did I forgive Kalmina too easily? I don’t blame you for wondering that. Heck, I’m still wondering if I did. I mean, she did disrupt my life—practically kidnapped me—and almost killed me. But something in our talk at the Aura Gate told me that she wasn’t planning to go that far, not on purpose. She just didn’t think her whole plan through or its potential consequences. She was so eager to have the last word on her Totally Awesome Story that she forgot she could’ve taken a much simpler route, like a normal person.

All that said, I can’t imagine what blowing up at her would’ve accomplished. Where we were, she was a goddess with a temper. Plus, fighting anger with more anger only makes a situation worse, not better. If I had thrown all my frustration about what happened at her back in front of the Aura Gate, I could’ve guaranteed my own death and become a major black spot on someone else’s conscience. Never mind that most of my frustration had burned out by then. That wouldn’t have resolved anything, plain and simple.

That’s why I have to talk to her again once I’m back in the real world. Call me a mother hen if you want, but I have to check up on her. I also need to see if she’s willing to tell at least me where she found the spell that started all this. A discovery like that is… well, if it’s too dangerous to share, then you should put it in a place no one else can access. I’m sure Kalmina realizes that, too. It was written all over her face, just as clear as her regret. She may be brash and prone to acting before thinking, but she’s also pretty smart and imaginative when her temper’s not flaring. I mean, she made up this whole story with Jason and his friends, didn’t she?

Speaking of which, there’s also quite a lot of technical talk I’d need to have with her in a writer-editor correspondence. I don’t know how much insight this copy of the manuscript will be for her, but I can use it to pinpoint different details to her—which places could be filled in more, which places could use a trim, which places could be reworked, when and where to foreshadow things to come, et cetera. It’ll be great to learn about Jason, Erika, and Franco and to see them grow individually into their roles as heroes. Also, I should encourage the author to keep the globe-trotting part of the story because it’s a fun way for readers to learn about the world the characters inhabit.

If I go on or give more specifics, we’ll be here all day, so I’ll leave that thought there. Once we learn from the bigger points that happened in this copy of the manuscript, we can close in on the nitty-gritty. It’s all part of the process of polishing up a work for publication. Maybe during the more technical talks, we can discuss the personal stuff I mentioned more thoroughly so we can really put this whole incident behind us. No one ever said a writer and an editor couldn’t be friends.

I’m pretty confident about this, honestly. Kalmina isn’t beyond reason. She also looked pretty ready to make up for the whole mess escalating as far as it did. Might as well leave that path open, right? If we could reach an understanding once, we can do it again, no matter what kind of crazy and unexpected situations pop up.

Now that I’ve been walking and thinking a while, I should see where I am. As it turns out, I’m coming across a familiar wooden house with a water wheel. It’s on my left now instead of my right like when I first saw it because I’m going in the opposite direction this time. Just like before, I see no one else around. The surrounding scenery is also as beautiful and colorful as I remember it. I’m officially back where I started. It’s the perfect place for me to make my exit.

Hey, thanks for sticking around. I couldn’t have gone through this without your help. You may not have thought you contributed much by only flipping pages, but you did. It’s a huge relief to know someone’s looking out for you—a big small thing, if that makes sense. Anyway, I have a lot of work to do once I’m home again. I’m sure you have things to take care of, too, so I’ll let you go. We may never meet each other in real life, but know that I’m eternally grateful for your part in this whole adventure. Really, thank you. Thank you so much.

All right, then. Here I go.

Chapter Index


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