How The Radwanska (Almost) Stole the World: The Lost Chapters -- The Traveler Returns
A solitary figure trudges across the snowy landscape, dutifully dragging along a katana sword behind them. The steel blade leaves a slender track mark along the surface which runs parallel to the line of footprints that extend back for miles into the distant horizon. The trek has been an arduous one. Finally, something catches the traveler's attention a short distance ahead.
With excited steps, the individual rushes to the top of a small ridge, running along it and only stopping once they reach a vantage point from which the land below can be fully surveyed. Finally. The destination has been reached.
The traveler, with every inch of their body -- except for a small opening between the layers that reveals their tired, but still lively, eyes -- covered for protection against the elements, lifts the sword until it stands straight next to their right hip. The individual leans on it for a few moments, long enough to catch a breath. One final push remains.
The blade is covered with dried blood all the way down to the handle. Getting down on hands and knees, the traveler lays the sword flat on its side on the icy ground. Handfuls of snow are scooped out and rubbed up and down along the steel in an attempt to remove as much of the blood as possible. Once the snow has melted on the blade, the individual tucks it under their arm before the liquid can turn to ice in the bitter cold. They wipe the sword on the fabric in the armpit of their coat until some of the blade's shine begins to return. After several procedures, the results are deemed satisfactory.
Standing tall once again, the traveler looks over the terrain below one final time, takes a deep breath, then embarks on a path down the other side of the ridge. In the distance looms the vision of the Gronau Arctic Outpost, a collection of lights and metal-roofed, one story buildings that popped up long ago in the middle of nowhere. A speck of civilization set against a bleak, barren background, even when viewed from such a distance.
It's obvious that it is teeming with activity. After all, Gronau is an oasis for life. And in both the past and the future, also death. If everything is as it is supposed to be, the same will not hold true in the present.
Once in the crowded center of Gronau, which fortunately seems exceedingly peaceful, the traveler stops outside one particular entertainment establishment. Lively music and cheers can be heard through the thin metal walls. The individual pulls out a folded piece of paper from a coat pocket and opens it. It reads simply, "Gronau Arctic Outpost. Leif's." A quick glance at the sign hanging above the door identifies that this is the correct place. The individual peels away the scarves covering their face and moves to go inside the building, but a burly guard at the door holds out a large forearm that blocks the path.
"We don't allow weapons here," he says, gesturing to the sword the traveler is holding toward the ground.
Just then, the door swings open and a young blond woman emerges. As soon as she sets foot outside she recognizes the sword-carrying traveler. The blond woman smiles.
"Oh, I've been waiting for you." She checks her watch. "You got here quickly... much faster than any of the other times. I'll take that as a sign of success. A little optimism never hurts, right?" She waves to follow her and quickly starts off.
The guard holds up his arm, "But Miss-"
"It's all right, Carlo. There's no danger here." She beams. "This is my friend." She gently removes the sword from the traveler's hand. "We've got a special delivery to make... and some good news to deliver. Hopefully." She begins to walk away, then stops. "Oh, tell Leif that I quit. And this time I mean it."
"What? You can't quit -- you've always been here."
The blond laughs. "Actually, in some ways, I've never been here. And, in others, I've never left." She waves to him. "Tell your parents 'goodbye' for me."
A short time later, the blond pulls her woolen hooded jacket up around her face and jumps into the driver's seat of a large vehicle positioned on the edge of the outpost. She carefully lays the sword down across the back seat, while her friend sits next to her. As the engine revs, the slightly perplexed traveler peeks into the back, where something appears to be moving underneath a large blanket.
"Don't worry. That little guy has been with me for a long time now. I keep meaning to part ways... but I just can't seem to get rid of him. He's pretty harmless... no one ever really notices him anymore."
With a jerk, the vehicle pulls out and within seconds slips from the icy confines of Gronau.
"Only one road in. Only one road out," the blond says as she looks over at her friend. "If only everything was so easy, huh?" She smiles. "Like I need to tell you that. You should take a nap. You deserve the rest."
Days later, the vehicle pulls up outside the gates of a lovely community. The blond stops everything and listens, without making a sound. The peace is like music to her ears. She looks over to her passenger, who is still sound asleep. She gently nudges her.
"Wake up. We're here."
The traveler sits up, looking around through sleepy eyes. It's sunny and the sky is blue, as the snowy landscape has been replaced by green grass and trees. Everywhere.
"Everything looks good. I think it worked. Congratulations."
The traveler smiles.
"You should walk in first. Everyone will be happy to see you."
The traveler jumps up and begins to walk toward the faint sounds of shouting children that can be heard a short walk away, then stops and quickly turns back toward the vehicle. The blond is standing there with the sword in hand, holding it out to be taken.
"You wouldn't want to forget this."
As the blond watches as her friend takes the sword and heads off toward the community, she has a delighted smile on her face. Sensing a bit of movement behind her from inside the vehicle, she glaces back over her shoulder. "Let's give her a few minutes on her own... this should be nice."
On the outskirts of the community, the traveler walks alone along the path, her hair flowing in the slight breeze. She carries the sword on her shoulder. As she gets closer to town, and walks past the "Welcome to Backspinville" sign, citizens begin to notice her. They are immediately cheered by the sight of her. Some race off to tell the others, while still more run to her and walk along with her, shoulder to shoulder, toward the rest.
By the time they've reached the town square, she's leading a huge parade of people. Far behind her, the blond follows along on the same path, smiling as she witnesses her friend's homecoming reception. As the group reaches the town's center, the chant begins.
"An-na! An-na! An-na!"
Just then, the door of the meeting hall opens... and Anna emerges. At first, she's confused by all the commotion, then she sees the person who has led the group here.
"QC!," Anna yells. She opens her arms and her longtime friend runs to her and jumps into them, flinging her arms around The Citizen while she's still holding the sword in her right hand. "I knew you could do it. I always trusted you," Anna says at a level that is audible to QC.
After they separate, QC holds out the sword and presents it to Anna. The crowd cheers. The leader of The Cause is visibly touched by the gesture.
"Nightingale," she says as she takes her beloved sword in her hand, and experiences a familiar rush as she grips the handle for the first time in what feels like a lifetime. She pushes aside her short coat, revealing the empty scabbard attached to her side. She slides the sword into it... and suddenly she is complete once again.
From the back of the crowd, someone sees the blond as she approaches along the path toward town. "Caro!," one yells. "And she's got her 'roo!," screams another.
Everyone is exhilarated, and a new chant begins.
"Q-C! Q-C! Q-C!"
Suddenly, QC raises her hand to get them to stop. It's obvious that she wants to say something. Once they are all quiet, she clears her throat.
"You can call me Jelena."
Her words create an instant of shocked silence from everyone. After being used to the crazy, chaotic rantings of "ol' QC," they're not quite sure how to react.
"Well, either that or JJ," she adds with a cheeky smile.
Somehow, while they are taken aback by them, the words make everyone smile once again. They don't question QC's transformation, and they all cheer. "J-J! J-J! J-J!" Even Anna joins in.
JJ then turns to her friend. "Where's Aga?," she asks.
Anna can't hear her over the crowd at first.
"Where's Aga?," she repeats. "We need to keep an eye on her until we know for sure," JJ says, looking around but not seeing the Pole anywhere.
Suddenly, she seems to get dizzy. JJ wobbles, then stumbles, causing the crowd to gasp... and then she collapses into Anna's arms.
When we last saw QC, she was twenty years in the past at the fabled Christmas complex at the North Pole, having traveled there as an "accidental companion" to Anna and Vika when she rushed head-long into the time-traveling stream just as The Cause HQ was destroyed by Radwanskian forces. With her friends imprisoned by the sadistic Current Sloane in The Rad's underground concentration camp along with Future Sloane and scores of barely-surviving elves, QC, time traveling device in hand, had made her way outside just as The Radwanska prepared to embark on a important De-Gifting Day excursion...
Outside, QC rises from the ground. She looks back and admires the snow angel she's created, then rolls up her sleeve and checks her watch. She likes what she sees, then makes a point to walk along the outer wall of the complex, silently and carefully. Edging past a wall with a large open window, she hears a voice in the distance, around the far corner.
Slowly, QC peeks around the wall. She sees a large stable across a small, oft-traveled pathway. She smiles as, over the top of the fence, she sees the antlers of eight tiny reindeer. Just outside the stable entrance is a miniature sleigh parked at the beginning of a long runway. The sleigh is empty. Just then, Current Sloane comes into view. She's talking with someone, or something, that is just out of view. She's very chirpy.
"I think this is going to be the best De-Gifting Day ever!" She begins to lead the reindeer to the sleigh, strapping Dasher into his customary position in the lineup, then looks back over her shoulder and smiles. "I've got a surprise for you when we get back. I think you'll be very pleased."
QC leans back around the corner, then hears a small voice through the open window behind her. Cautiously, she peeks up over the window sill, not sure what horror she might find there.
But when she sees what's inside, her face lightens and her insides warm. It's a little old lady. Sitting in a rocking chair where she has a nice view of the starlit landscape, she's wrapped in a shawl, and her long silver hair practically glows as it catches the light of a small lamp setting on an end table behind her. The woman smiles warmly. Hers is the first harmless, welcoming face QC seen since she arrived, and she's immediately drawn to her.
"I thought you'd never get here, dear," she says, barely above a whisper. "But you do love to make your snow angels, don't you?" She chuckles. "Come, come," she urges QC, reaching out a bony, shaky hand to her. "Come inside out of the cold." Without a word, QC gets a foothold on the outside wall of the room and pulls herself through the open window.
A short while later, a polite-looking QC sits alone at the table next to the chair where the old woman had been sitting. After a few moments, the woman slowly makes her way back to the room. She sets a coffee mug on the table in front of QC. "Here's some hot cocoa for you," she says, then cleverly spins the mug in it's place so that it stops spinning with its handle pointing directly at QC's right hand. It delights her.
The old woman smiles. "I guess I've still got the magic." As QC sips the cocoa, the woman sits down. "Drink up now, you've got a very long night ahead of you." QC does as she's told. "So, my dear. Do you understand now?" QC nods her head. "Good. I'm glad we had a chance to talk."
QC looks around the room as she drinks. She notices a wrapped present propped up against the wall in the corner. The tag reads, "To: QC." She excitedly looks back and forth between the woman and the gift.
"You can open that when you get back. It'll be here waiting for you." She looks at the clock on the wall. "Isn't it about time to go? You wouldn't want to be late." QC checks her watch, and realizes that the woman is correct.
QC stands up, then gives the old woman a warm embrace and a peck on the cheek. She climbs back out the window and gives her a slight wave goodbye, which the woman returns. Once QC is out of sight, having returned to the corner of the building, the expression on the woman's face is an odd combination of worry and self-satisfaction.
Outside, QC watches as Current Sloane, wearing Anna's fedora (the sight of it makes QC squint with something that resembles dissatisfaction on her face), finishes up her preparation of the reindeer. Viewed from behind, the back of a very large... thing... can be seen sitting in the sleigh.
The Rad is once again wearing red.
CS takes the reigns and moves them so that the bells that are attached all start to jingle. Slowly, the sleigh begins to slide down the runway as the reindeer begin to move forward in unison.
"On, Dancer! On, Dash- ," CS begins, then abruptly stops herself. "Oh, you know the drill! Just get your furry butts moving or we'll be having something other than roasted elf for the 'De-Gifting Day' feast tonight!"
Inside the room, the old woman holds her breath. Outside, QC emerges from around the corner and begins to sprint after the sleigh. Gradually, it begins to pick up more and more speed, but QC remains just far enough behind to not be seen around the high backrest on the end of the contraption. Finally, the sleigh starts to rise from the runway. QC races faster after it. As it reaches eye level, then higher, QC's legs bring her directly underneath the sleigh. Once it's within easy reach, QC reaches out and grabs the sleigh's rails with both hands.
Suddenly, with the power of all eight reindeer, the sleigh's trajectory takes a sharp incline. It rises. And rises. And rises. As it does, across the face of the moon streaks its familiar silhouette... with the unique shape of QC's body dangling from the bottom.
As she sits alone in the room, the woman finally exhales.
"Time waits for no one," she says. "Well, almost no one."
Slowly, her mouth curves into a mischievous grin.
In the current timeline, back in Backspinville...
As Jelena rests on a sofa with a cold towel on her forehead, the town leaders gather around inside the meeting hall. Anna and Caro look across the room at their friend.
"She'll be okay," Caro says. "She's just exhausted. She came a long way... but she showed up just where she was supposed to." She smiles ever so slightly, waiting for her sideways revelation to be recognized.
Anna looks over at her, wondering if she just revealed what it seems she did. "It was you? You were the one who slipped the note to me when I was being held prisoner at the Abbey?"
"You're 'Citizen Anna.' I knew that's all it would take."
"You brought me my sword, too." She remembers. "The Siblings got what was coming to them."
"And that was the first step to getting us here. One of many. The Rad wasn't expecting it, so It got desperate and tried to get too powerful too quickly. It stopped being careful. Once I gave you all the information you'd need, I went back to Gronau. It was the only place I knew that The Rad wouldn't find me. It was sort of a Minion in a haystack of Minions situation. I just waited for JJ to arrive. She did. Quite often, actually. But this time, I knew everything had worked out. I brought her straight here."
"So you were a Minion?" Anna isn't sure whether to be happy or strike her friend down with her newly-returned katana.
Caro looks down at Nightingale as it hangs from Anna's hip, and is relieved that her hand isn't reaching for it. "I am SO glad you used the past tense there. And, actually, I believe the correct term would be UNDERCOVER Minion."
"So you were with The Rad the whole time?"
"Ever since I told everyone about my 'roo. Those scratches I talked about from the attack in Australia? They weren't from the little guy, they were from The Rad. My 'roo led me straight to It. Apparently, 'roos always head to where a deal can be made for a better life, and I couldn't help but follow. And considering my career situation at the time, it was a legit course of action. I mean, why WOULDN'T I be willing to make a deal with the de-... err, The Rad?"
"But you didn't? Make a deal."
"Well, obviously I knew something more was going on. The Rad had been setting things up for years, and It was close to tying everything together. I believe you guys ultimately called it The Plan. So I played along."
"And It didn't question your allegiance?"
"At first. It took quite a few sessions with my 'mystery coach,' but I gradually gained Its trust. Once I agreed to Its conditions to prove my loyalty, It let me in on every decision."
"Well, let's just say I picked up another sport, only one that uses a smaller ball. Once I realized what was at stake, well, you do what you have to do... and eventually I got to wear heels again. I got to go on a few 'De-Gifting' trips into the past, too... until Current Sloane showed up and became the new melon of The Rad's eye. Anyway, what I saw was how I knew how to end this thing before it even began. The Rad always went back to the beginning to get more power."
Anna looks to Jelena, who is slowly beginning to regain consciousness. "'The end is the beginning, and the beginning is the end,'" Anna says to Caro, remembering the words that QC repeated over and over again both before, during and after The Radwanska's many Scourge offensives that wiped out the forces and headquarters of The Cause before the time travel technology was utilized in a last ditch attempt to save the world from The Rad's evil malevolence.
"Why didn't you just do something about it yourself? We wouldn't have had to go through all we did."
"As long as It had the ability to begin things all over again, the war would have never ended. You saw first hand what It did. I couldn't take The Rad down alone. And it had to be a definitive defeat, or as close to that as we could get."
"What does that mean?"
Caro looks to Jelena, who has opened her eyes and is smiling as she looks over at her and Anna. "Maybe JJ should explain. After all, she's the reason we're all here. She saw it all. Many times, in fact."
"You didn't think it all worked out on the first try, did you?" Caro laughs. "JJ has been traipsing through times for years. We've even made it back here on a few occasions, but something always happened and we had to begin all over again. It took this long to get things right. That's why there are pieces of QC strewn throughout the ages. I think that's why she's always been the way she is. I guess we all sort of knew it wasn't 'natural.' The QC we've known has always been an addled version of the original, I guess."
"But she sounded fine earlier. Not like QC... but Jelena."
"Yeah, I know. That sort of surprised me, too. She didn't say a word all the way here. She just slept."
"Maybe it has something to do with why it worked this time."
Caro smiles. "That's the story I'm sticking with, too. I'm on an optimism kick, mostly because I'm really tired of the alternative."
Anna looks through the window. The town seems fine. No signs of Minion forces darkening the sky. "It feels like The Rad is dead." She sees Caro's reaction appears to hedge. "What?"
She shrugs. "Compromises sometimes must be made. But only JJ knows where the bodies are buried... or not buried."
To be continued...