“So that’s what’s going on…” Winona stared at the blue beast in front of her, which had remained stationary for a few minutes as Adam had explained the situation to her. “W-What should we do…? We’ve gotta change Charlotte back!”
“I’d love to,” Adam sighed as his body continued in its attempt to heal. “But I can’t snap my fingers and make things like that happen. At least, I don’t… think so? Charlotte—return to normal!”
His fingers would not allow this simple action. The flick Adam wanted to do failed as blood spewed from the contact point, flying all over the place.
“Gah! Wh-What the—”
Blood also began to gush out of his mouth as he started to shake, collapsing onto the ground in a violent convulsion filled with a mix of heavy coughing and agonizing screams.
“A-Adam…?” Winona was panicking at this point. She tried to reach down toward him but could not, as Charlotte had started to thrash around once more. Her focus had to remain on the sand within the bestial body if she hoped to keep her friend in place. This caused Winona to remain practically frozen in place except for her hands, struggling to maintain the situation.
“What am I going to do…? I’m going to lose both Adam and Charlotte if I don’t think of something! I’m… I’m at my limit right now. I…”
To Winona’s complete dismay, Charlotte began preparing a new method of attack. The slime that had surrounded her ascended, detaching itself from her body. It began to light up as it shifted from the gelatinous substance to pure phantonic energy. A humongous sphere had taken shape, and it was obvious what was going to happen next.
“If she launches that thing at us… we’re done for!” Winona motioned her left arm to the best of her ability, causing tiny amounts of sand to rise toward the sphere. “Even if I release the sand weighing her down, it won’t be enough…!”
Winona also had to consider the possibility of Charlotte retaliating the moment focus was taken off of her body. In her current state, it seemed like there were no options left for her.
“I’ve got to get Adam out of the way, at least!” She waved her arm, directing the sand in a new direction back down toward the bloody young man. “Can I get him out of the way fast enough…?”
Brandon, clad in fierce electricity, dashed through the cavern at remarkable speed. Although the mine was no longer swapping sections around, he would be quick enough to avoid getting caught in an endless loop.
“This is… a Concept, yeah!? This feeling is… freaking awesome!”
Brandon was going so fast, in fact, that he was soon to reach a wall where the path takes a sharp turn to the left. Normally, one would not encounter a turn in these caverns. However, he would—the obstacle being his first challenge as a Conceptor.
Brandon could see the stone coming toward him fast with the light from his electricity and the torches. What would occur next would all happen within a single moment.
“Crap, crap, crap!”
Brandon could feel the surge of electricity running through his entire body. This included his brain and nerves, as they began responding even before he was fully aware of what he was about to run into. His feet planted into the ground as lightning tore through the hard stone—Brandon shifting his body toward the left in an attempt to turn in time.
He slowed down, but could not stop entirely. His body slammed against the wall, smashing it to pieces.
However, Brandon barely felt anything.
Adjusting his footing, Brandon took off once more, quickly regaining his speed as he continued to dash forward.
“If I remember correctly, awakened phantons help keep your body more durable, or something. Man, this shit’s cool!”
Shaking his head, Brandon returned his concentration to the matter at hand— lightning scattering and dancing throughout the cave with each step he took.
“I’ve gotta save him…! For sure, this time!”
The mine began to open up around him as Brandon entered a new section away from the torch-filled passage. Far off in the distance, he noticed a bright light that seemed to be growing in intensity.
Gritting his teeth, Brandon picked up the pace as electricity crackled around him. He soared through the rocky terrain like an actual lightning bolt, aiming directly where Adam and the others were located.
The massive azure sphere was in plain view now as it began to descend toward Winona and his blood-soaked friend. In a split second, he understood what he had to do.
“I’m not letting that thing go off!”
Leaping into the air, he instinctively wound his leg around his body. Like kicking a soccer ball, he struck the side of the sphere in an instant—a frenzy of blue scattering at the source of impact.
“Wha—” By the time Winona reacted, the force of the collision knocked her off her feet, quickly spinning her body around to land back on them safely. “What is—”
She could not see what was interrupting Charlotte’s attack—the scene was far too bright. Adam, who had managed to calm himself down, glanced upward as his right eye viewed the phenomenon. Through his silvery-white eyes, he managed to make out a person’s silhouette, whom he recognized easily.
“Get this shit…” Brandon buckled his knees, building up enough force to knock the sphere off of its projected path and toward the right of its targets. “OUTTA HERE…!”
The attack collided with the ground and began to skid through the cave, shredding the solid stone to pieces as its energy dispersed—an explosion releasing its remaining power hundreds of meters away from them. In the same moment, Brandon landed much like a superhero would—something he managed to calculate doing.
“Heh…” Knowing what he had just accomplished, Brandon stood up with an incredibly conceited expression on his face. “It’s gonna be okay. Cause the Shepherd has arri—”
He collapsed onto the ground, unaware that he had broken his leg upon kicking the sphere away. “Guh!”
“Brandon…!? What are you doing here—are you okay!?” Winona rushed to his side, seemingly unaffected by the small amounts of electricity emitting from him.
“Gah… N-No, I’m not okay! M-My leg…!”
“You managed to knock Charlotte’s attack away… But going up against pure phantons like that was stupid! You’re lucky you hit it from the side, or else that wouldn’t have worked!”
“B-But I did knock it out of the way… Ain’t that impressive? Please…?” It looked as though Brandon was about to cry. “Please, don’t tell me I broke my leg for noth—” His eyes slowly widened. “Wait… did you say ‘Charlotte’!?”
He glanced to his right, quickly analyzing the now idle creature.
“…W-What the fuck is that—that’s not Charlotte!?” Brandon began crawling frantically away from the beast as he slipped on Adam’s blood, almost causing him to land on top of his friend. “…Huh…? Adam…?”
“I guess I have to be the one to thank you…” Adam chuckled, painfully shuffling his body so he could talk to Brandon directly. “For once, you were pretty cool… even if you did bust a leg to accomplish it…”
“D-Dude…” Brandon shook his head, violently. “Forget my leg! What happened!? You kept pushing yourself, didn’t you!?”
“I sure did—” Adam coughed—it took him a second to resume speaking. “We’re… both not cool, to be honest. So, we have to make sacrifices to pull off shit like this.”
“…That p-power’s gonna heal you, yeah…?” Brandon questioned, terrified of the state Adam was in.
“I’m not sure at this point…” The bloody young man started to sit up.
“Hey! You can’t move in your condition!” Brandon attempted to keep Adam in place. Winona, glancing back at Charlotte, leaned down next to the two.
“Adam, there’s nothing you can do right now. While she’s not moving, I need to get you two out of here! I…” She took another look at the beast, now beginning to whimper. “I can’t save all of us…”
“That’s okay, Win…” Adam patted her on the back as he sprung to his feet. “You did plenty. Let me finish this…”
“H-How…” Brandon was in disbelief at what he was witnessing. “How are you able to move, dude!?”
Adam, stop! You—” Winona attempted to grab Adam’s arm, only for her grip to slip off due to the blood that coated him.
“My World Mirror can’t do much right now… The Authority I somehow have over this place is the only thing helping me move…” Adam began to explain. “She shares the same Authority with me. I’m the only one who can reach her.”
“Does…” Brandon slammed his hands on the ground in frustration. “Does that even make sense!? Winona, does that make any sense!?”
“I’ll leave Charlotte to you…” Winona said—the words leaving her mouth against her will.
These words cause both herself and Adam to flinch upon hearing them.
“W-What…?” Winona’s body began to shake. “I… I didn’t…”
“No need to worry, Win. I’ve got this.” Adam began to step forward. Brandon attempted to stop him but could not, as he was incredibly confused.
“…What just happened? That wasn’t a natural exchange. At all.”
“W-What do you mean?” Winona asked him.
“You went from a hundred to zero! Ya can’t be all ‘No, don’t, stay!’ to ‘Alright, go.’ just like that! Freaking ‘Oh, I’m the only one who can reach her, let me handle this.’ isn’t a good response to have your whole attitude take a one-eighty—you’re too smart for that shit!”
Before Winona could respond, a burst of blue energy erupted in front of them—the force knocking them onto their backs. Mysteriously, Adam—who was closer to the event—remained in place.
Winona swiftly regained her composure while Brandon began to whine in response to everything occurring.
The earth that Winona had manipulated and transferred directly inside Charlotte’s body had been torn apart—a sandstorm now engulfing their vision. Adam, using his eyes, managed to keep his sight, not even flinching.
He could see Charlotte’s body begin to transform, decreasing in size. It was evident that she was returning to her normal, human-shaped self. However, with the dust beginning to clear, Adam could see what her new form looked like.
Although she was a white-haired human once more—rather, a ghost—Charlotte was now clad in several dark-blue scales that formed randomly on her skin. They covered her enough that she would not be nude, something Adam was thankful for, as he could not be sure how Brandon would respond to seeing his first naked woman in this situation.
Charlotte was leaning down, growling like a wild animal. Her teeth appeared razor-sharp like one would have, as well. Adam shook his head at the sight before him.
“Even without the Authority, it’s pretty damn easy to tell now…” He let out a small sigh. “You’re afraid, aren’t you?”
She had her attention entirely on Adam now, remaining in place as she hissed at him.
“This appearance…” Adam shook his head. “Charlotte. Are you able to talk in that state? If you can, then I want you to tell me how you’re feeling…”
Charlotte responded with a sudden, sharp, and agonizing shriek—one that shook the very souls of Adam, Brandon, and Winona. Thankfully, in this form, eardrums remained intact. Even if Adam could regenerate them, his friends behind him would not be as lucky.
“Gah…!” Winona held her head, trying to shake away the pain surging through her body. “C-Charlotte…!?”
“This…” Brandon was unsure of how to process how he felt as he heard Charlotte’s screams. “I…” He backed up, still crawling around on the ground.
Adam came to the realization. Whatever Charlotte was experiencing was something they currently could not deal with. They had no answers to what was causing her such grief. He knew that it was even worse, as she did not know why she experienced such anguish herself.
“Well, if that’s the case, then…”
He leaned down so he could be at eye-level with her as he began to speak.
“You listening to me? I’m not one to walk on eggshells—not anymore. If I think something or feel a certain way, I speak up. If… If everyone was honest with each other—didn’t hesitate or hold back on how they’re feeling, I feel like the world would be a much better place. Granted, it’s tough. Overcoming that barrier… Especially when you know you’re gonna have to deal with shit once you open your mouth. But… it’ll be done and over with. By not getting it out of the way—letting it muster up inside you… it just ruins you. I never said anything, and I just kept my opinion to myself as I watched everything crumble around me. That’s how I got to that point… Anyway. I would tell you to vent all of your frustrations right here and now, but there are two problems with that. One: You don’t even know what the problem is, yeah? That hole in your memory is gonna be a hassle to deal with… Two: There… are things that are really, really difficult to open up about. With how you’re reacting to pure emotions of whatever it is… I can tell. If you do figure it out, it’ll be hard to talk about…”
Charlotte had been staring at Adam in silence as he spoke. Her eyes slowly had vitality return to them, and she began to look more aware of what was happening. The scales were starting to crumble away, causing Adam to motion back at Winona.
“H-Hey! Help me out here!”
“…O-Oh! Okay!” Winona noticed the panic in Adam’s voice as she stood up, rushing over to him. “What… do you ne—”
“Cover her. With something.” Adam was incredibly blunt in his request.
Winona immediately motioned sand around her, forming a cloak-like object. Adam grabbed onto it—noting that it actually seemed quite soft—and wrapped it around Charlotte’s body.
Brandon attempted to chuckle lightheartedly. “S-Such a gentleman…” He said in a sarcastic tone.
“You’re lucky I know how you operate, or I’d slug you for that remark.” Adam sighed while keeping his focus on the girl in front of him.
“Charlotte… are you okay?” Winona asked, now sitting next to her.
The ghost girl had grabbed firmly onto the cloak—the comfort helping her regain composure. “Y-Yeah… I… I’m so—”
“Don’t apologize for something that’s not your fault.” Adam glanced downward. “It’s my bad… I rushed in here in the first place, and look at what happened.” He glanced at Winona. “Sorry. Looks like I needed your help, after all. I can’t create stuff out of nowhere—at least I think I can’t. And I wanted to make sure that Charlotte…”
“I don’t even know why I let you go like that…” Winona remarked. “It’s not like me to let something like that happen. You’re injured, and I let you walk right up to her while she was like that…”
“W-Why did I lash out…?” Charlotte began to raise her voice. Although not in tears, she sounded quite pained toward the circumstances. “I-I don’t even know—”
“Man!” Brandon was on his foot now as he skipped over toward the others. “Confusing stuff keeps on adding up, doesn’t it! I had a lot go down before I came in here and saved the day, and now—” He tripped—his face planting right into the stone ground. “GHH…!”
“I think he was trying to add himself into the convo so he could help us help you out…?” Adam shrugged. “And then he fell—good thing you have a Concept now, or else that could have really messed up your face…” He pulled on Brandon’s head, raising it to confirm its condition. “Yeah, it’s fine. As fine as you can be, at least.”
“Y-You guys are all over the place, aren’t you…?” Charlotte questioned, beginning to calm down.
“We sure are—that actually helps lead to the conclusion of what I wanted to say. Ahem…” Adam cleared his throat, took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. Opening them a moment later, a gentle smile formed on his face.
“The world is confusing. It can be so goddamn random at times, and usually not for the best. So, you’re lucky you associated with me—with us. We can handle that kind of thing. Even if it seems like we can’t… we’ll flip everything upside down until we’re able to. Whatever happens in the future, we’ll be there to solve it together.”
Charlotte was taken aback by Adam’s words. While investigating him and learning about his circumstance before confronting him, she certainly never expected such an attitude to be a part of who he was.
“Mhmm, mhmm!” Winona nodded her head, grinning from ear to ear.
“So freaking cheesy…” Brandon snickered. “But… good. You finally understand, don’t ya? We’ve gotta stick together—that’s the most important part. When dealing with anything.”
Charlotte giggled. “Well, you guys are the ones who live in this era. If that’s how we do things nowadays, then I’ll just have to trust you.”
Winona’s smile quickly faded. “Right… what Adam talked about. Not only is she an Ouderkirk, she’s…”
“…W-Wait a minute!” Charlotte sprang up, taking care of keeping herself covered. “Winona!? H-How are—how did you…!?”
“You’re just now reacting to her…?” Adam shook his head. “Well, you’re going through a lot, so I guess it’s natural.”
Winona placed her hands on Charlotte’s shoulders. “It’s okay. Adam told me. I-If there’s anything I can do to help out… then I will!”
“I don’t want you getting in danger, though!” Charlotte exclaimed. “I’m aware of how Unity operates, and—”
“Don’t worry,” Winona’s face was stern. “I won’t let anything happen to me. Or you. I swear…!”
“W-Well… all right.” Charlotte was hesitant in agreeing, yet managed to do so.
“I didn’t know they knew each other…?” Brandon bumped Adam with his elbow. “How long has that been a th—”
“GAH!” An astronomical amount of pain suddenly tore through Adam’s body, knocking him over onto his side.
“A-Adam!?” Brandon crawled over and grabbed onto his friend. “That pain’s catching up to you, isn’t it!?”
“No…” Charlotte shook her head, walking past Winona and glaring down toward the end of the mine. “It’s a reaction from our Authority being meddled with! Something’s coming… from that area…!?”
“I’m… gonna assume that the reaction hurts like hell for him cause his body’s all messed up? Wait, what’s this ‘Authority’ thing you mentioned?” Brandon looked nervously up at the two women.
“I’ll tell you later, Brandon,” Winona tapped her foot on the ground. “I can feel it too… What is that…?”
Charlotte grabbed hold of her cloak. “Winona, thank you for making this for me. I’m okay now, so if you don’t mind, I’m gonna use the phantons you put into this thing…!”
“Huh? H-How?” Winona turned to see the sand cloak light up, transforming swiftly into her blue armor.
“Well, like that. Cool…! I can change the structure of something phantonic, even if you used actual earth to create it?”
“I-I don’t know if that’s what just happened…?” Winona grew flustered. “I-I’m not sure if Ouderkirks are capable of something of that nature, although I can’t be sure—and not to undermine you, o-of course!”
“Winona…” Charlotte glanced at her. “Are you able to fight in your condition? Adam can’t, and Brandon’s leg—along with his inexperience with his Concept—make it difficult for him to help.”
“You know I have a Concept now!? How the hell do you know—did you see me pull off that cool move!?”
“This Authority…” Charlotte looked down at Adam. “It’s… interesting, to say the least. I want to learn more about it. But, for now…!” She returned focus to Winona, waiting for an answer.
“I’ll… I’ll still fight!” Winona assured her, swinging her arms around excitedly. “Even if it’s support, I’ll help you out!”
“Good…” Charlotte breathed in slowly, exhaling as she formed a blade in her hand. “Cause after everything that’s happened down here, I have no clue what’s going to happen next!”