* Cirinian Valley *
“Can I join you?”
Terri glanced from the window she was staring out of to see Sarah looking at her nervously.
“Yeah, sure,” she said before turning back to the window.
Sarah sat across from her. “I thought you’d want to know that it sounds like your friends are in the northern encampment.”
This grabbed Terri’s attention and she immediately turned to Sarah, clearly desperate to hear more. “How do you know?”
“I overheard some soldiers while I was cleaning up from lunch. Calendon sent troops there.”
Terri seemed ready to cry. “I hate sitting here. I feel so powerless. There’s got to be something I can do to get out of here—”
Sarah put a hand on hers. “Even if you were able to sneak out, what could you do? You’d never make it to the camp before Calendon’s forces, and you can’t fight those monsters.”
Terri pulled her hand away. “I can’t do nothing. My friends are in trouble. I just got my brother back and Danny…” She faltered, clearly overwhelmed with emotions.
“You really care about him,” Sarah said with a small smile.
“We had a fight this morning,” Terri admitted.
“A fight? About what?”
“It’s complicated.” Terri sighed. “All of us come from a town really far away and now that my brother’s back, we can finally go home, but Danny doesn’t want to. He wants to stay in Riverbed and he wants me to stay with him.”
“But you don’t want to?”
“I…I don’t know. When we first got separated from my brother and everyone else, I only had Danny. It was basically just me and him for years. He took care of me; he took care of everything. At first, it was great, and it felt right, but after a while I started to feel like I was using him. It felt like the only reason I wanted to be with him was because he was all I had.”
“So, he loves you, but you’re not sure if you really love him?” Sarah summarized.
Terri held her head in distress. “That’s why I want to go home; I don’t want to depend on Danny. Then, maybe I can figure out how I really feel instead of constantly going back and forth. It’s just so unfair to him.”
“And that’s what you fought about?”
“Yeah,” Terri nodded sadly. “I tried to explain it to him, but we just ended up fighting and I said some awful things to him.”
“I don’t want that to be the last conversation we had,” Terri added. “No matter what, I do care about him, and that’s what I should’ve told him.”
“Well, you’ll get a chance to,” Sarah said confidently.
“I wish I could be as positive as you.” Terri shook her head. “I want to have hope but—”
“It’s not just hope; I’m certain of it,” Sarah reiterated. “Chiefs Wheaton and Kynobi are both gone. I have a feeling they’re with your friends, how else would they even know to go to the northern encampment?”
“I guess, but what does that mean?”
“If they’re with them, then everything will work out.”
“I don’t understand,” Terri admitted.
“Oh, I guess it’s because you’re not a member of the order,” Sarah said. “I forget not all healers are members. Anyway, if you spend enough time around them, you come to realize that the chiefs of the order have a special type of wisdom. It seems almost spiritual, kind of like the epouranals, but not as grand. Maybe it just comes from having a deeper connection to nature. I don’t really know how to explain it, but I’m sure the reason Windborn and the others are acting so calm is because they are secretly planning something.”
Terri shrugged. “I guess I don’t see it. It seems like they’re just doing whatever it takes to survive, even if that means betraying my friends.”
“He’s not though,” Sarah insisted. “Windborn even said that he believes Jandor and the others will find a way to defeat Calendon. He’s just trying to stall until the time is right.”
“Well, I don’t know what they think Jandor can do against an army of hundreds of monsters. If that’s what they’re waiting for, then we’re all doomed.”
“I don’t think we are. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I believe that we’ll get out of this.” Again, Sarah took Terri’s hand, and this time Terri didn’t pull back. “Have faith in your brother and the blessing he’s been given.”
“I guess…well if anyone can pull off the impossible, it’s my brother. Plus, he has Danny with him.” This made Terri smile slightly.
“And they have two chiefs with them too. Like I said, everything will work out. Windborn and the other chiefs are more clever than you think. I’m sure they are all helping in their own way.”
“I hope you’re right.”
Terri still didn’t have the level of conviction that Sarah seemed to show in the Order of Nature’s council of chiefs, but it was reassuring to know that they had confidence in Jandor and Daniel. It sounded like they weren’t planning to sacrifice her friends for the sake of their own survival, but it made her wonder what their true intentions were. Was Windborn really biding his time, waiting for the pieces of some complex plan to fall into place, or was it all just the wishful thinking of a desperate man trying to keep everyone alive?
She turned back to the window as if the answer would somehow show itself in the grassy fields beyond.
Calendon stared out the window of Chief Windborn’s office. It faced north, offering an unobstructed view of the plains. He was waiting for Addilyn and the force he sent with her to return. None of the battalions he’d sent out hours ago had come back but this did not bother him. Not only was Cirinian Valley large, but he suspected that the Order of Nature would do their best to try and delay his efforts, hide some of their members, or resist him in some other way. Perhaps they were even plotting some grand plan to rebuff his forces.
Take all the time you need. It’ll make crushing you that much easier. He smiled at the thought.
Calendon truly hoped the Order was foolish enough to fight him. In truth, he’d been very lax at keeping track of them in order to provide just that opportunity. Davron ordered him to subjugate the valley and not to kill unnecessarily, but if they rebelled, it would give Calendon the excuse he needed to wipe the entire Order of Nature off the map.
“Was there anything else you wanted from me, Captain Calendon?” An aged voice behind him interrupted his musings.
Chief Windborn was waiting patiently after giving his report, but finally spoke when it appeared that Calendon was lost in his own thoughts.
Calendon sighed in response. He hadn’t heard anything Windborn said about the current state of the encampment. He didn’t really care. Subjugating the order had been far easier than he expected, and now he was restless and impatient. As if to give his hands something to do, he tossed around a small red pouch he’d recently found in Windborn’s desk.
“I would be careful with that if I were you, sir,” Windborn warned, though his tone was still calm and deferential.
“Why, what is this thing?” Calendon asked disinterestedly. If it was something Windborn valued, maybe smashing it would make him feel better.
“That bag contains amenus powder. It’s quite the tricky substance; releasing it into the air completely disorients all but animals. We use it to ward off poachers.”
Calendon grunted, clearly unsatisfied with the explanation, but pocketed the amenus all the same, not wanting to release the enigmatic powder.
“Well, I will take my leave then,” Windborn said after several more seconds of awkward silence.
Calendon suddenly turned to face the chief. “Do you know why I so readily took the mission to attack Munio Mountain and suppress the order?”
Windborn was not expecting the question, so he gave an honest answer. “I assumed you were just following the orders given to you.”
Calendon laughed. “Oh, indeed I was, but this…this was providence; this was the heavens answering my heart’s desire. I’ve wanted nothing more than for you people to answer for your indifference and passivity.”
“I’m not sure what you are referring to,” Windborn said, again honestly.
This seemed to frustrate Calendon. How could he get his revenge if the people he was retaliating against didn’t even know their crimes? There was no fulfillment in this type of retribution.
“I’m from Portson,” he said as if those words alone should explain everything.
Windborn put a hand to his chin, thinking. “I believe that is one of the towns near Munio Mountain.”
“It was one of the towns near Munio Mountain!” Calendon corrected vehemently as he slammed a fist on the desk in front of him.
Windborn raised an eyebrow but otherwise showed no response. He thought for a few moments longer before speaking again. “Ah yes, if I recall, it was destroyed a little over a year ago, caught up in the discord between Murrilogic and Riverbed.”
“So now you recall,” Calendon said mockingly. All the rage he’d been holding in was spilling over as they talked. “And do you happen to recall how you responded when refugees from Portson came to the mountain begging for your help?”
“I was not in Munio at the time,” Windborn said, “so I only know what was in the report from Chief Wheaton. There was a battle between Riverbed and Murrilogic and somehow Portson was drawn into it as well. It was a particularly nasty one that lasted for several days, so Wheaton sealed the preserve for a time. I also remember reading that some people came to the mountain for sanctuary, but they had to be turned away.”
Something about Windborn’s calm recollection of events caused Calendon to snap. He came around the desk and grabbed the aged man by the robe, shaking him. “Some people were turned away! Is that what you call it? You left the people of Portson to die in a war they weren’t even a part of. You closed up your mountain and hid away inside and did nothing to help anyone.”
Windborn didn’t try to stop Calendon from shaking him. Despite his apparent age, he seemed to hold up well against the captain’s abusive behavior and bouts of rage.
“Again, I was not personally there, but your assertion does line up with the report I read,” he said after Calendon released him. “I won’t deny that it does seem callous that Munio didn’t help Portson, but as I’m sure you know, it’s because they weren’t allowed to. If I had been there, I would have made the same decision that Wheaton did. If you’re from Portson, I don’t blame you for being angry.”
“Angry? Angry!” Calendon’s green eyes bulged with rage. “Anger doesn’t begin to cover it, old man. I had friends and family die in Portson, all because those idiots in Murrilogic thought we aided Riverbed in their attack. They hired a mandant to set our city on fire in the middle of the night and then attacked us. We had nothing to do with their stupid squabbles with Riverbed and had no way to fend them off. That’s why our people ran to Munio. All we asked for was asylum and instead you turned us away.”
Windborn’s calm demeanor never cracked. “I’m truly sorry. Unfortunately, we’re bound by the Worldwide Noncombatant Treaty. We cannot intervene in matters of war, or we lose our status.”
“We weren’t part of the war!” Calendon barked and he looked like he might strike Windborn.
“Even so, we’re forbidden by global law from taking in refugees no matter the circumstances.” Windborn shook his head solemnly. “If I may ask captain: why didn’t you seek help from Sunnin? Their immunity from global law allows them the ability to act in such a situation.”
“As if we could reach Sunnin in time!” Calendon raged. “There are no quickeners anywhere in the Cascadian River region because of Riverbed and Murrilogic’s constant fighting. We were right at your doorstep; all you had to do was let us in. Instead, you watched as my town burned to the ground, and people died trying to flee.” His face was red and there were tears in his eyes.
Windborn stood quietly, knowing that saying anything, even expressing remorse, would sound hollow.
“But now,” Calendon continued darkly, “now you get to watch your friends and family suffer. You get to watch your home be destroyed by the people you turned away. I handpicked the soldiers I brought here. They’re survivors from Portson. They finally get to air their grievances with the Order of Nature, the hypocrites too busy caring for animals to worry about their fellow man.”
“I can see how this could be viewed as recompense for the injustice you and your friends feel,” Windborn agreed.
Calendon waved away his words angrily. “This is what I hate about you order chiefs. You’re all the same. You act like nothing phases you, like you’re so far beyond us mere mortals just because you can speak to animals.”
“I assure you, that is not the case,” Windborn said. “I simply know that nothing I say can ease your pain. All I can do is acknowledge our culpability and move on from there. At least for now, it appears that no one has been killed, and for that I am grateful. Despite what you may think, we value all life, both man and animal.”
Calendon grunted in frustration. He gained absolutely no satisfaction from talking to Windborn. The head chief was unflappable, and it infuriated him.
“Well, you better hope that none of your people try anything,” he said finally. “Because I only need the slightest excuse to slaughter you all. Until you know the suffering that me and my friends and family went through, I can never be truly satisfied. So please, do give me a reason.”
“Do you really need a reason?” Wheaton asked suddenly.
“What?” Calendon gave him a sharp look.
“Not that I wish it, but it seems to me that with the monsters you have under your control, you could easily wipe out everyone in this valley. I heard that you did just that in Munio. Yet here you show restraint, albeit grudgingly.”
“As much as I’d love to exterminate you all here and now, Lord Davron decided to give you the opportunity to surrender, and I cannot go against his plans. If I disobey his orders, these creatures will turn on me in an instant. So for now, I can only hope that your people are foolish enough to try and go against me. What do you think, Windborn? Is that why it’s taking so long for my troops to return. Are your people planning to rise up against us? Tell me I have something to look forward to.” Calendon had a hungry, almost predatory look in his eyes.
Windborn merely smiled. “You have accused us of being many things captain, but I think even you would agree that we are not fools. We will do what it takes to survive.”
Calendon tried to read his benign smile but gleaned nothing from it. Frustrated, he turned to the window again. “Get out of here; I’m sick of you.”
Windborn gave a slight bow before exiting his own office and closing the door behind him. As he strolled down the hall, deep in thought, he felt a familiar presence. He turned to the window to find a small grey fox sitting on the sill. It had a pouch around its neck and was staring pointedly at him.
Windborn quickly scanned the surrounding area mentantly, but no one was around. He went to the window and opened it. “Well, Lenora, what news do you have for me,” he said as he pulled a small melivian quartz rock from the pouch.
He retrieved a quartz rod from his robe and tapped the melivian. It was the same stone that Lenora had sent to the northern encampment, but it had been repurposed to send Windborn a message. After listening to it, he tapped the stone again, quickly recorded his reply and dropped the rock back into the pouch around the fox’s neck.
“Well captain, it appears you will get your wish after all,” Windborn said quietly to himself as he continued down the hall, “but as I said: we are no fools.”
“Hurry up!” A pale-skinned soldier shouted as he shook his sword at the three women in front of him. “I thought you said that we’d reach this camp twenty minutes ago.”
“Well, it’s tougher traveling with this many, especially since you’re not familiar with trekking through the mountains,” came the neutral and calm response from the oldest of the women the soldier was berating. She had silver hair which matched the belt that tied her robe, marking her as one of the chiefs of the order.
He grunted at the implication that he was somehow less agile than them.
<How long must we tolerate this quartz-brained dudder, Chief Mayweather?> a blonde-haired woman said through covert telepathic communication.
<Our goal is to delay them as much as possible and prevent any loss of life. I believe that Chief Windborn is only indulging this army until another opportunity presents itself. We simply must be patient.>
Pamela Mayweather was one of the chiefs tasked with going out into the valley and collecting any members of the order not in the main encampment. She was in the mountains to the southwest of the valley collecting healers and summoners who were doing research. She was accompanied by one of Calendon’s soldiers, a young, short-tempered man named Killsworth, and the twenty pogs under his command. Also with Mayweather was her leopard companion, Yellin, a large cat with black fur and yellow spots. So far, she had only come across two members of the order, Laura Cath and Genny Bean, both summoners.
While outwardly they appeared to be leading them to a camp where other members were, the trio were just stalling for time, with no real goal in mind other than to fray the nerves of their captors. This worked well on Killsworth, but the pogs were another story. They seemed neither frustrated nor encumbered by the lengthy trip.
<I don’t understand how you can be so calm,> the blonde-haired Genny continued telepathically even as Killsworth glared at them as if he thought they might be plotting something. <At some point we’ll have to actually do something.>
<And at some point, we will,> Mayweather conceded, <when the time is right.>
<How will we know when that is?> Genny pressed.
<We shall know; just have faith. The heavens themselves guard our endeavors. Do you think that Lumio would leave us without protection?>
Genny sighed at this but before she could answer, she felt something sharp jab into her back.
“I know you three are mentally talkin’ up there. Don’t think I can’t tell you’re plotting something. If you don’t lead me to that camp soon, then I’ll have one of my pogs here tear ya’ll limb from limb. I have orders from Captain Calendon that if you try anything, I can kill ya.” Killsworth boasted as he poked Genny in the back with his sword.
Genny froze but Mayweather turned to face the soldier, a kind expression radiating in her deep-blue eyes. “And what could we possibly try against you and those pog monsters?” she asked matter-of-factly.
Killsworth seemed to be at a loss. “I don’t know, but I can tell you’re plotting something.”
“We are simply concerned that we won’t be able to find our companions quickly enough and discussing the best way to accomplish our goal without getting anyone hurt. After all, these mountains are full of quartz, and we only have a general idea of where they’re camped.”
“Enough of your excuses. If we don’t find the rest of them soon, I’ll send the pogs out to kill everyone they find in the area.” Killsworth threatened.
At this, Yellin turned and made a threatening hissing sound which caused Killsworth to jump back in alarm.
Embarrassed that he showed fear, he brandished his sword wildly. “And keep that cat of yours under control or I’ll slice its head off.”
Killsworth was beginning to regret allowing Mayweather to bring the leopard. The chief had expertly tricked him into it by appealing to his ego, saying that she’d leave Yellin behind if he was too afraid.
Mayweather stroked Yellin’s fur placidly. “Quiet Yellin; we do not wish to incur this young man’s wrath.”
But Yellin did not back down, despite his human companion’s words.
“Uh, Chief,” Laura said timidly as she looked up.
Both Mayweather and Killsworth followed Laura’s gaze.
Surrounding them, on various ledges and cliffs, were dozens of leopards with the same fur and spots as Yellin, all staring down at them, hissing.
The sight caused Mayweather to lose her calm composure for the first time. “What in Lumio’s name…”
“What is this?” Killsworth said looking around frantically. “What’s going on with these cats?”
“Did you do this?” Genny muttered to Mayweather, completely forgetting to converse telepathically.
“How could I?” Mayweather said. “Yellin is a leno leopard; he has no pack on which I could have him call upon.”
Like the rest of their species, leno leopards were solitary creatures. They never traveled in packs. To see so many at once was unheard of.
Yellin looked up at Mayweather as if trying to communicate something through their shared bond.
“The queen said what?” Mayweather asked in surprise.
“The queen?” Laura repeated confused.
“Whatever you’re doing, you better stop now!” Killsworth said in a panic as the leopards started to descend slowly as if stalking prey. Though they were physically smaller than the pogs, there were more than double of them in number.
Mayweather was ignoring all around her as she seemed to have a silent conversation with Yellin. Finally, she nodded, a somber look on her face. “I understand. If that is your wish, and the wish of your brethren, then I will not object. We are in your care; do what you must.”
Killsworth looked confused at her statement but rallied almost immediately. “Fine, since you’re so eager to die: pogs, kill these creatures and the summoners.”
The pogs behind him had a hint of hesitation but each of them readied their weapons to prepare for battle. Mayweather inconspicuously pulled a small red pouch from her robe pocket as Killsworth was focused on the incoming leopards. Without preamble, she threw it in the midst of the pogs and a white powder exploded from the bag, ingulfing the entire area. At that same moment, the leopards pounced.
Unbeknownst to Mayweather and her companions, a similar situation was unfolding not too far away in the southern part of the valley’s forest where Chief Trent Lionheart had been sent with another of Calendon’s soldiers and a group of pogs.
Twelve brown bears had appeared and started attacking the monsters. Right as the battle began, Lionheart pulled his comrade, a young man named Remus, up a tree. He then used amenus powder to give the bears the advantage they needed, just as Mayweather had done.
Thirty minutes later, as the amenus powder dispersed, they saw eleven of the bears dispatching the few remaining pogs, while the twelfth pinned the soldier to a tree. She was whimpering in terror.
“I don’t understand,” Remus said.
“It would appear that animals can destroy the creatures of the Book of War,” Lionheart explained calmly. “This is an unexpected turn.”
After the last pog disappeared, the chief jumped nimbly down from the tree and landed next to one of the bears. He stroked its brown fur which was only slightly darker than Lionheart’s own complexion. “Thank you for coming, Maya.”
“But that’s impossible, isn’t it?” Remus followed the chief’s lead and jumped from the tree. “Where did all of these bears come from? Did you summon them?”
“No, Maya only has two cubs and none of these are hers. This was not my doing. It seems that a coordinated effort is happening around the valley.”
“I still don’t understand.”
Lionheart ignored his confused friend and walked over to the terrified soldier still being pinned to the tree by one of the bears. “Tell me, Lidia,” he said calmly. “Is this why your Captain Calendon raided our valley?”
“What? I don’t know what you’re talking about. How did you do that?” she whimpered. “The pogs…where did the pogs go? What’s going on?”
“I see. It appears that we may have the advantage then,” he said more to himself than her.
“What are you going to do to me? Are you going to kill me?” Lidia asked, still panicked.
Lionheart chuckled. “There will be no need for that.”
He pulled a blue pouch from his robe and untied the string that was binding it shut before holding it under her nose. Within a few seconds, she’d fallen asleep.
“Well, that’s one issue taken care of,” Lionheart said as he tucked the pouch away again.
“Chief, what’s going on?” Remus asked desperately.
Lionheart walked back to the bear he called Maya. This specific animal was one of his companions and had led the group. “It would appear that Silvet has dispatched animals around the valley with specific instructions to destroy the creatures of the Book of War and send a message to us from Chief Kynobi.”
“Who is Silvet?” Remus asked.
“The tigrex that lives in the valley. As the ruler of all land animals, she can communicate with any of them in a way similar to how we do with our companions.”
“Wait, a tigrex, but—”
Lionheart held up a hand. “I’m afraid further questions will have to wait. I need to hear the remainder of the message that the bears have relayed to Maya.”
Remus let his question die in his throat and waited for his chief to commune with his companion. Even without his mandolin, Lionheart could easily communicate with the large brown bear.
“I see,” Lionheart finally said with a nod. “We must head to the abandoned southern cabins then.”
“What? I thought we had to find the healers that were gathering herbs first?” Remus said.
“I will leave that to you,” Lionheart said. “You will need to find them and tell them what’s going on.”
“How will I do that?”
As if in response to this question, a small bluebird flew down to Lionheart’s shoulder. “Fleeter will guide you. He’s already found them. I was just leading Lidia in circles for as long as possible. It appears I was right to do so. The heavens have answered our prayers; we now have a way to rid our valley of these demonic creatures.”
“I’m still very confused,” Remus admitted.
Lionheart put a hand on his shoulder. “I know, but you must trust me. Now come, help me get Lidia on Maya’s back.”
The two placed the unconscious soldier on the bear and Lionheart climbed up behind her. “Once you find the others, head to the cabins south of here; a few people are already there waiting. We’ll send word when it’s safe to return to the main encampment.” Lionheart said.
Remus nodded. “Yes sir.”
As Lionheart rode off with the group of bears, similar battles were happening around the valley as large groups of animals banded together and defeated the pogs and soldiers roaming about. Just like Mayweather and Lionheart, the other chiefs quickly understood what was happening and what needed to be done to help take their valley back.