* Cirinian Valley *
It was just before midday when Jandor, Daniel, Lori, and Wheaton emerged from the woods at the location of the northern encampment, which was comprised of several dozen small wooden buildings. Even though hundreds of people were stationed there, it was strangely quiet.
“Do you think they already evacuated?” Jandor asked. “Maybe they found out about the monsters.”
“No, there’re people here,” Daniel confirmed after a few brief seconds with his eyes closed.
Wheaton took the lead as they headed into the encampment. Immediately, someone came running up to them. He was a young, fair-skinned boy with short blonde hair.
Wheaton beamed at him. “Ah, young Gavin, it’s good to see you. I’d heard you’d been doing leadership training here. It’s good to see you’re well.”
Gavin had a confused look on his face. “Why are you here? We thought you’d be confined in the main encampment with the others.”
“So, I take it that means you know what’s going on then,” Wheaton said. “No, we weren’t in the encampment when it was attacked. We came straight here.”
Gavin eyed Jandor and the others. “So, are these three people with you the ones that can defeat the monsters?”
“Well actually it’s just—”
Lori cut Jandor off. “So, if ya’ll already heard about them critters, what’re ya still doin’ here? You plannin’ to fight?”
“No, we just…” Gavin looked nervous. “We were just told to stay put until they sent instructions, but now that you’re here, does that mean you’re fighting?”
“That has yet to be determined,” Wheaton said. “First, we should meet with all of the leaders and discuss our options. Can you gather everyone for us?”
Gavin nodded. “Yes sir, I’ll take you to a cabin and then I’ll go get the others.”
“Also Chief Kynobi and—”
“So how many folk are here with you?” Lori interrupted Wheaton this time as she looked around the seemingly empty encampment. “Do ya have any security folks here?”
“Uh, yes, just a few though. Obviously, they’re no match for a huge army of indestructible creatures,” Gavin said with a nervous chuckle.
He led the way to one of the wooden buildings and pushed open the door to reveal a small room furnished with only a table and a few chairs. Wheaton and the other’s filed inside.
“I’ll go get the others. Uh, perhaps you should come with me Chief Wheaton. They might be less reluctant if it’s you telling them.”
Wheaton eyed Gavin curiously but then saw the fear in his green eyes. He gave the boy a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “I’m sure it’ll be fine; now hurry, we don’t have a lot of time.”
“Yes sir,” Gavin gave a bow before closing the door behind him.
“Everyone’s real anxious,” Daniel said as she took a seat.
Jandor sat as well. “Yeah, everything’s a little too quiet. They must be really scared.”
“That ain’t it mate,” Lori said, looking around furtively. “They’re hidin’ somethin’.”
“I assume that’s why you were keeping us from revealing too much information then?” Wheaton asked with a knowing look.
“Too right; ya catch on quick, Chief. Can’t be too careful.” Lori closed her eyes for several seconds but then shook her head. “Dan, is it just me, or is this whole place blocked mentantly?”
Daniel narrowed his eyes, focusing on the mentant realm. “She’s right.”
Wheaton went to the door and tried to pull it open. “It’s sealed.”
Jandor jumped up. “Move, I’ll ram it open.”
Wheaton stepped aside as Jandor took a running start and slammed into the door only to be bounced back as if some invisible force rebuffed him.
“It’s a mentant seal Jandor, that won’t work.” Daniel closed his eyes and tried to use mentus to undo their imprisonment.
“Do ya smell that?” Lori said.
Wheaton sniffed the air. “Wait a minute…” He started rummaging through the pockets of his robe, muttering frantically.
“What’s happening?” Jandor asked.
“This lot’s turned on us, that’s what,” Lori said angrily.
“I can’t focus,” Daniel said as a wave of dizziness washed over him. He felt suddenly drained and dropped to his knees.
Jandor began to feel tired too and leaned on his staff to stay standing while Lori clutched the wall.
“It’ll be okay. Quick, eat these.” Wheaton pushed a small red gummy into each of their hands before popping one into his own mouth.
The others ate what he offered without question before collapsing to the ground and falling into a deep sleep.
“We’re close,” Kynobi said as he and Stephanie approached a particularly dense patch of forest.
Junjun was sitting on a high tree branch looking down at them. Kynobi held out his hand and the squirrel immediately ran down the tree trunk and jumped onto his palm.
“You’ve never met Silvet have you?” he asked as he pocketed his squirrel companion.
“No, I didn’t even know a tigrex lived in the valley,” Stephanie admitted. “I’ve never seen one before. I’ve heard stories about them though. The tigrexes are the rulers of all land animals, right?”
Kynobi nodded. “Yes, just as the phara rules the sky and the zulphin rules the seas, the tigrex has complete dominion over all land animals.”
“Is it true that they can talk? You mentioned earlier we’d be able to talk to Silvet.”
“Not quite,” Kynobi said. “Summoners can communicate mentantly with tigrexes, phara, and zulphins, It’s partially because of our summoner mentus, but also because of their position as rulers of their respective animal domains.”
“I don’t understand. How is that special? I can do that with Lunox.” Stephanie stroked the silver wolf as she said this.
“Lunox is your companion, so because of your bond you can somewhat communicate with him, but it’s more like you get an impression of what he is trying to tell you, it’s not actually words. When Silvet speaks, it will sound just like another person communicating in the mentant realm. Also, unlike other animals, you do not need music or the bond of companionship, you can simply talk freely with her.”
“Wow, I never knew that.”
“Well, there is still much about summoner lore that you have yet to learn, much of which we wouldn’t even start teaching you until you were in training to become a chief.”
This intrigued Stephanie. “Summoner lore?”
Kynobi smiled. “All in due time.”
“Does that mean you think I might be a chief one day?”
“I think you have all the makings of a fine leader in the order, given time. However, you’ve never given the impression that you desire more responsibility.”
Stephanie frowned at this. “Well, I try to do my part. I hope I don’t come off as lazy.”
“Quite the contrary.” Kynobi chuckled. “You may not know this, but the reason we transferred you from Munio to Cirinian is because we saw great potential in you. As I said: I think you have all the makings of a good leader, but it’s not something we want to force upon you. We figured, in due time, you might manifest a desire for more. Of course, now you may be leaving us.”
Stephanie went quiet at this. Although she was happy when Jandor brought news that there was a chance they could go home, she felt conflicted. She had no desire to fight against the creatures of the Book of War, but she also didn’t want to leave. She’d found a home in the Order of Nature and felt her calling was to be a summoner. She didn’t want to give that up. Just as she was about to vocalize her thoughts and concerns to Kynobi, he stopped walking.
“We’re here,” he said softly.
Stephanie looked around. The forest was so thick that the treetops blotted out the sun, making it hard for her to see anything, but her other senses, heightened by her connection with Lunox, told her that something was nearby.
<It is an honor that you have sought me out, Kynobi, chief of the Order of Nature. How may I be of service to you? Do you wish for me to appraise this one?>
The voice rang in Stephanie’s head. It was a soft female voice though it had a hint of a purr in it. Finally, she saw the source of the mentant communication. Sitting on a fallen tree trunk was a large cat with sleek black fir and yellow eyes. At first, it appeared that its color was solid, but she could see the faintest trace of dark grey stripes.
Lunox laid on the ground beside Stephanie as if in respect to the animal queen before it. Stephanie was still trying to process the fact that the tigrex truly could communicate with them mentantly when Kynobi answered.
“No, we have come seeking knowledge that only you might have, due to your long life.”
<Then I shall do my best to answer whatever questions you have.>
“Are you familiar with the Book of War?”
<Yes, it is said that it was a supernal artifact that was tainted by a corrupt spirit.>
Kynobi seemed to take this at face value. “Nearly thirteen hundred years ago, it was unsealed and used against this world, and now it has returned with a new master.”
<This is unfortunate; it surely means that another Great War will consume the world.>
“It appears that is the case. I am right that you were alive during the time of the last Great War?”
<Indeed. Though it was brief, the destruction was immense since the spirit of the Book was restored to full power by linking to supernal power.>
“You seem to know a lot about what happened,” Stephanie interrupted. “Does that mean you participated in the Great War?”
<No, my knowledge comes from the collective insight of the animals who witnessed what happened.>
“As ruler of all land animals, the tigrex can communicate with any animal within its domain in much the same way we can with our companions,” Kynobi explained to Stephanie before addressing Silvet again. “What we want to know is: what was the role of the Order of Nature during the Great War?”
<I am not aware that the Order of Nature had any role at all. Cirinian was not a battle ground.>
“Then why is Davron attacking us?” Stephanie blurted. “Why is he after the Order?”
The tigrex did not immediately respond. Instead, Lunox stood and approached her. The two animals seemed to communicate silently for several seconds.
<I see. So, the creatures of the Book of War are attacking the valley,> Silvet said finally.
“Yes, and the man who now controls them seems unusually focused on the Order of Nature,” Kynobi said, his voice still calm. “Do you know why this might be?”
<Perhaps it is because summoners are far more prevalent now than they were thirteen hundred years ago, and the master of the Book of War fears what you’re capable of. After all, summoners are the only ones who exercise full dominion over the animals of this world. If you asked us to serve you in this war, we would willingly heed your request.>
“What?” Stephanie was clearly confused. “But we would never do that. Why would we force animals to fight those monsters?”
Lunox turned and looked back at Stephanie as if answering her question.
Stephanie stroked his fur affectionately. “I know you would, Lunox, and I’m grateful that you protect me, but there’s a difference between that and sending you off to fight those things.”
<You misunderstand. Because mankind is not able to kill or even do harm to the creatures that spawn from the Book of War, that means that we animals are the only ones left that can. As such, it is likely that the current wielder of the book fears summoners, who have the ability to command animals to fight for them.>
Stephanie looked up. “What?”
Kynobi held up a hand to stay her. “Silvet, do you mean to say that animals can kill the creatures of the Book of War?”
<Of course,> Silvet’s tone, though still deferential, sounded as if she thought this was obvious. <There’s no reason why we wouldn’t be able to.>
“I’m confused,” Stephanie said. “If animals can kill the creatures of the Book of War, then why don’t they fight them?”
<Were you not the one that just said you would never force animals to fight them?>
“Well yeah,” Stephanie faltered at this. “I just mean: why haven’t animals banded together on their own to fight those monsters?”
<Unless attacked directly, animals have no reason to fight or kill the creatures of the Book of War. Only at the behest of mankind would we fight, and only summoners have the ability to give such an order.>
“So, the only way you’ll fight is if we make you?” Stephanie’s voice cracked as she said this. “But we can’t do that; it goes against everything the order stands for.”
<Then why would we go against your will?>
Stephanie was about to retort, but Kynobi forestalled her again. “Silvet, I have one more question. Why is it that animals can kill the creatures of the Book of War?”
<It is my understanding, at least from what our ancestors told us, that only mankind was tainted by the events surrounding the creation of the Book of War.>
“Tainted?” Kynobi mused. “Perhaps I need to change my question. Why is it that mankind cannot kill the creatures of the Book of War?”
<I am not aware of the full history surrounding the Book of War, as it was many thousands of years ago. All I know is that the creation of the Book of War was a direct consequence of the caretakers of mankind breaking the rules that govern the foundations of this world. It was that disobedience that cursed mankind, thus preventing them from being able to destroy the result of that disobedience: the Book of War and its creatures.>
Kynobi felt a shiver go down his spine as he listened to this revelation. “So, you mean mankind did something to cause the creation of the Book of War, and it’s because of this that we aren’t able to kill these creatures. What then of the rogue spirit that is said to be trapped in the book and the source of its power?”
<As I said, I am not aware of the full story, so I cannot tell you how this rogue spirit and mankind’s disobedience are connected. I’m sorry that I do not have more information.>
“But we can kill the creatures,” Stephanie blurted, “I mean, ‘we’ as in me and my friends; we have that seal thing. Why can we kill the creatures, but others can’t.”
“I’m no scholar,” Kynobi said, “but the mark that appears on your hands seems to contain some form of supernal energy. I would imagine that is the reason why you’re able to kill the creatures when no one else can. If what Silvet has told us is true, your link to a source of heavenly power overrides the curse that is apparently on all of mankind.”
“I think I remember that dog saying something about that.” Stephanie stared at the back of her hand, even though the mark wasn’t visible.
<Is there anything else you wish to ask me?> Silvet asked.
Kynobi thought for a moment. “As Stephanie said, the Order of Nature exists to preserve wildlife and protect the animals under our care, so it goes against the very core of our values to order animals to fight, and potentially die, in a war against those creatures. Of course, there are many animals like Lunox who willingly serve the role of protector to their human companions, but that is a far cry from sending animals off to war. As a member of one of the three species that rule over all of animal-kind, how do you think the animals under your domain would feel if we were to order them to fight?”
Silvet took a moment before answering. <All animals serve different purposes in the world of mankind: some for food, some for labor, some as companions, and so on. If any man asks an animal to serve its purpose, then it will willingly do so. But beyond this, you are summoners, so you know more than others the exact nature of all the animals in your purview. So even if you ask something of us that is outside of the norm, we will trust your judgement and defer to your dominion.>
Stephanie looked like she was about to respond, but Kynobi spoke first. “Thank you, Silvet.” He gave a small bow. “Your wisdom has been invaluable.”
<As always, it is an honor to serve. If you have need of me, do not hesitate to call.> The large black cat stood and stretched before bounding deeper into the woods.
Kynobi turned to Stephanie. He could tell that she still felt confused and uncertain. “I know you still have many questions, but for now, we have the answers we came for. We must meet with the others and tell them what we’ve uncovered.”
Stephanie nodded, still dumbstruck at all she’d learned, but she obediently followed Kynobi as he led the way to the northern encampment.
Gavin stood nervously at the edge of the northern encampment as a group of monsters approached from the west. Addilyn was in the lead, riding a large black bearlike creature called a deathclaw. Behind her, a male soldier rode on the shoulder of a giga pogs. Gavin visibly gulped as creatures stopped in front of him. One of the pogs drop a haggard looking Lenora to the ground.
Addilyn slid gracefully off the deathclaw, her brown hair fluttering as she landed. “I am Addilyn Foy, lieutenant in the service of Lord Davron’s army under the command of Captain Calendon.”
“Um, I’m Gavin Waterdell,’ Gavin said hesitantly.
Lenora scrambled to her feet. “Gavin,” she panted, “did you get my message?”
“Yes,” Gavin nodded nervously. “We did as you said and used dormion powder but—”
“Good,” Lenora turned to Addilyn. “They should be asleep for at least eight hours.”
“Where are they?” Addilyn asked curtly.
“Uh, we put them in there,” Gavin pointed to one of the cabins.
Addilyn gave a nod to the pog who had dropped Lenora and it stomped over to the cabin, ripped the door off and plowed its way in. Its massive body was far too large for the door frame and the small building creaked in protest as part of the wall was destroyed. Within a few seconds it emerged carrying the limp bodies of Jandor, Daniel, and Lori, along with the trio’s weapons.
“Where is the other one?” Addilyn said as she eyed the captives.
“The…other one?” Gavin’s face registered confusion as he wondered if Addilyn wanted Chief Wheaton, who was still knocked out and had been moved to a separate cabin.
“There was another one, a female summoner. Are you hiding her because she’s one of your own?” Addilyn demanded.
“No, no ma’am,” Gavin said. “There was no female summoner with them.”
Though he said this with complete sincerity, Addilyn was still not convinced. “Search this place.”
Four pogs rushed forward and started going through the remaining cabins, smashing several doors as they searched. After a few minutes they returned, empty handed.
“There is no other seal bearer nearby,” the pogs reported.
Addilyn confronted Lenora and Gavin, “Where is she? Do you really want these pogs to kill everyone here because you’re hiding her?”
Gavin cowered. “I don’t know.”
Lenora maintained her composure. Though she was just as afraid, Addilyn had a much less intimidating aura than Calendon. “Lieutenant, we’ve done everything you’ve asked. What would we gain from lying?”
Addilyn considered this. “Fine, it’s true that you have not lied so far, and I don’t see the point in killing you all for no reason.”
Lenora let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you.”
Addilyn climbed back onto the deathclaw before addressing the soldier she’d brought with her. “Sergeant Bannon, take four giga pogs plus twenty regular pogs and station yourself here. Make sure the pogs are well hidden. If the other seal bearer arrives, capture her, and send her back to the main encampment.”
The blonde-haired soldier saluted smartly. “Yes ma’am.”
Addilyn turned to Lenora. “Lord Davron has ordered us to be merciful to you, but if any of you attempt to defy us, I promise you, Calendon won’t hesitate to raze this entire valley to the ground. He is far less lenient than me. Remember that.”
With those parting words, Addilyn turned the deathclaw around and left with the bulk of her platoon.
“You have been very quiet since we left Silvet,” Kynobi said. After a half-hour of walking, they were nearing the edge of the forest, though they would be coming out about twenty minutes west of the northern encampment.
Stephanie had a troubled look on her face. “It just bothers me.”
“Yes, I would imagine that Silvet’s story was a lot to take in.”
“No, not that. It wasn’t what she said, it was the way she spoke to us.”
“How do you mean?”
Stephanie tried to put her torrent of thoughts into words. “It was very…submissive, almost like she was our servant. It’s weird. She’s one of the rulers of all land animals, but she kept saying she would do whatever we asked. I wasn’t expecting that.”
Kynobi nodded. “What you have to understand is that as summoners, we control animals in a way that goes far beyond what others can do. As Silvet pointed out, mankind has always used animals as we please for food, labor, transportation, and more. We raise, tame, and train animals to suit our needs, but summoners are different. Thanks to the abilities granted to us by our unique mentus, we are able to exercise a higher and more pure level of authority over animals. It's because of this that they are naturally subservient to us as the ones who hold dominion over them. Unlike the rest of mankind, animals obey us because of who we are, not because of how we train or tame them.”
“But we don’t control animals,” Stephanie protested. “We don’t order them around like slaves.”
“No, not like slaves,” Kynobi agreed. “One of the purposes of the Order of Nature is to train summoners to wield their power responsibly and with compassion. We strive to strike a careful balance between us and nature. We respect the animals that serve us and never abuse our authority. However, it would be disingenuous to say that we do not exercise control over our animal companions. They serve us because it is their role to do so. It’s our responsibility to be kind and compassionate to the animals in our care.”
Stephanie took all of this in. ‘I guess I just never saw it that way. I consider Lunox to be a trusted friend and companion, not my servant,” she said as she stroked the wolf’s silver mane.
“There’s no reason why he can’t be both,” Kynobi countered. “You seem to hold the mistaken belief that the role of servant is somehow bad or lowly. This is not the case. To serve is a great honor. That’s what we do after all.”
“Have you forgotten Lumio’s Oath? We serve as the caretakers of nature. That is our role, and we’re proud of it. Some of the greatest people in our world dedicate their lives to service: the epouranals, the Sisterhood of Ester, the guardians. In fact, the word Fantasma actually means “Greatest Servant.” The highest position in all the lands has a title designed to always remind the one who holds it that their role is to serve.”
Stephanie went quiet, not knowing how to respond to this. After several seconds, she finally spoke. “So does that mean we’re going to make animals fight those monsters then?”
“I don’t know the answer to that,” Kynobi said. “Right now, we must tell the other chiefs what we’ve learned. This is not something that we can take lightly. We are responsible for the animals in our care, so we must exercise prudence in the decisions we make.”
“Well, I hope that—” Stephanie froze as an overwhelming sense of wariness hit her.
She was immediately on edge as if ready to fight or flee at a moment’s notice. She held a hand out to stay Kynobi before she even knew what was happening. She quickly realized that all of this was coming from her link to Lunox.
“What is it?” Kynobi asked quietly.
“I’m not sure. I just know that something’s out there.” Stephanie nodded toward the edge of the forest which was several strides away.
Kynobi closed his eyes. They were close enough that he could scan the plains beyond the forest in the mentant realm. “There’s a group of monsters nearby. That must be what Lunox is sensing.”
“Oh no, we need to hurry before they make it to the encampment.”
Kynobi shook his head. “No, they’re headed west.”
“Wait, so does that mean they’ve already been to the encampment and left? I don’t understand. Did Jandor somehow drive them off?”
“I don’t think that’s the case.” Kynobi stuck a hand in his robe pocket and pulled out the small brown squirrel, Junjun. It immediately leapt off his hand and darted east as fast as it could. “I’ve sent Junjun to scout ahead and see what’s going on. For now, we should go a little bit deeper into the forest to ensure those monsters cannot sense us and then make our way to the northern encampment as quickly as possible.”
Stephanie nodded in agreement and the two pushed their way further into the woods, moving as quickly and stealthily as possible.
It took about twenty minutes for the pair to reach the area of forest just south of the northern encampment.
“I think this is as close as we dare to get,” Kynobi said. “According to Junjun, monsters are hiding in the camp. We don’t want them to sense us. It seems there are a little over twenty of the pig creatures.”
Stephanie looked down at the back of her hand. They were still deep enough in the woods that the mark of the seal had not appeared. “What about Jandor and the others, have you been able to find out if they’re still there.”
Kynobi shook his head. “He’s looked through the windows of each cabin but hasn’t seen them. It’s entirely possible that the monster army took them away. Perhaps they turned themselves in rather than let those creatures harm anyone else.”
“Maybe,” Stephanie mused, “but that means it’s just us. What are we going to do now?”
At this, the silver wolf by her side growled menacingly.
“No way,” Stephanie responded sharply. “There are over twenty of those things in there; you can’t try to fight them.”
Kynobi smiled at this exchange. “You cannot blame Lunox; the argent wolves tend to be very territorial. I’m sure he’s not pleased that these monsters have invaded the valley.”
Stephanie knelt to face Lunox, apparently having a silent conversation with the wolf. It was several seconds before she spoke again. “You know: Lunox is part of a pack that lives in the mountains north of here. There are nineteen of them in all.”
Her tone was quiet and somber, and Kynobi could tell what she was thinking. “And if you wanted to, you could summon them, and they would come to your aid.”
Stephanie nodded slowly. “It’s what Lunox is telling me to do. He wants me to summon his pack to fight the monsters.”
Kynobi thought about this and after a while he spoke again. “You know, I’ve often found it interesting that you have such a high affinity with wolves.”
Stephanie looked up at this. “Why?”
“Well, we tend to have affinity with animals that share a lot of our traits. To the uninitiated, one might think that wolves value strength and aggression, but that is not the case. The real defining characteristic of wolves is their fierce loyalty and devotion to their family and pack, and it appears that they bond with summoners who share that trait.”
Stephanie nodded slowly, not really understanding what Kynobi was trying to say.
“Lunox knows how much you care about the people in this valley and your friends; they’re your pack, so to speak.” Kynobi chuckled. “I believe that’s why he wants to fight on your behalf.”
“But those monsters are horrible,” Stephanie lamented. “What if they kill them?”
“That is a very real possibility,” Kynobi agreed. “I can’t tell you what the right decision is. I can’t even help in this as my affinity is with smaller creatures that serve as guides or scouts, and they would be useless against those monsters. Only you can decide if this is something you want to do.”
Stephanie started to tear up. “I don’t want to lose you,” she said quietly to her wolf companion.
Lunox nuzzled her cheek as if to comfort her.
Stephanie pulled away, an almost shocked look on her face. “Wait…that’s right,” she said as if a revelation had suddenly hit her.
Kynobi gave Stephanie a quizzical look as she stood tall, wiping the tears away. “It seems you have made a decision.”
Stephanie nodded. “I think I have a plan, but for it to work, we need to get to a place where my music can carry over a long distance. If we cross over to the mountains and get to a low ledge, I think it’ll reach a wide enough area of the mountains, plains, and woods near the encampment.”
Kynobi nodded. “I’ll send Junjun to scout a route that will give us a wide enough berth that those monsters won’t spot us. Give me a few minutes and then we can go.”
Stephanie pulled out her flute and held it tightly, hoping her plan would work.