* Lumarian Mountains *
Alice woke up to the sensation of her stomach growling in protest. She hadn’t eaten since the previous day’s lunch and had only carried enough food supplies in her robe for that one meal, thinking that the trio would return home by dinner. Now all that remained were the emergency rations that she kept in her robe at all times: dried meat, and water from a canteen. Though not lavish, it was enough to fill her up.
After eating her fill, Alice moved her injured arm gingerly. It ached, but she could tell the bones had knitted themselves back together. Her leg seemed mostly mended as well. Still, she wasn’t completely healed and her adimus was nearly depleted since most of her energy went into her adimus immune system, the mechanism of the adimus that hyper-stimulated healing at the cost of adimus energy. In this state she was far weaker than normal.
Just as Alice was thinking about leaving the barricaded cave she was hiding in, she suddenly heard voices nearby. It was two people talking, one male, one female, and they weren’t too far from the concealed cave.
“We should head back; if we go now, we’ll be back in Gilmore by setting sun and get dinner,” the male voice said.
“Is that all you can think of?” his female companion asked in exasperation.
“What? Haven’t eaten since breakfast and we’ve been out here all day lookin’ for some guardian that’s probably dead. Don’t know why we even have to do this. Could’ve just let the pogs handle it.”
“Such a whiney little frag, no wonder your town was always getting attacked.” she laughed.
“If you call me frag one more time, I’m gonna shove this sword down your throat.”
Alice peaked out of one of the small air holes she made to see the two soldiers passing by, completely oblivious to her presence. Not only was there quartz interference, she was also masking her adimus signature as much as possible. They continued down a mountain pass heading westward.
Alice considered what she’d overheard. It sounded like Davron’s forces were stationed in Gilmore. If Sherrilynn and Mrs. Guardman were still alive, they’d be there. Even though she wasn’t fully healed, she knew that she couldn’t wait any longer.
After she was certain that the two soldiers were out of mentus range, Alice stood, only slightly unsteady on her still healing leg, and used mandamus to carefully extract herself from the cave.
Even though she was still low on adimus energy, using it to unseal the cave took a negligible amount and soon she was stepping out into the large forest beyond the cave. Though the mountain range was full of quartz, Alice was still able to use the mentant realm to somewhat get her bearings. As she was trying to determine the best route to Gilmore, she heard a rhythmic thumping sound nearby. Acting purely on instinct she jumped backward just as a giga pog came running at her, swinging a huge axe. If she’d moved a second later, the axe might have taken her head off.
Alice internally chastised herself for being so engrossed in her own thoughts that she wasn’t aware of her surroundings. Now she’d been spotted.
Despite her weakened condition, Alice managed to duck and dodge the frenzied attacks with practiced ease. She didn’t bother trying to attack since she had no weapon, and even if she did, it would be of no use against her opponent. Instead, she focused on avoiding the axe and keeping an eye on her surroundings.
Just as she suspected, the pog wasn’t alone, another one was racing toward the battle and Alice knew she needed to get away. Dodging a single pog was one thing, but multiple would be far more difficult in her weakened state. She looked around desperately and quickly found her escape route.
“Mittius Mandamus Terra!” she commanded, and the ground in front of her jutted upward, forcing the pog backward several paces, which was just enough to give Alice the space she needed to escape.
Before the second, sword-wielding pog could reach her, she crouched down and leapt as high as she could. Even with an injured leg, Alice’s standing leap, enhanced with mentus, was higher than a two-story house, but still not quite high enough. “Mittius Mandamus Wind!”
An updraft carried her the rest of the way and she landed with a grunt on a mountain ledge far above the pogs. Safely out of their reach, she ran along the path that wrapped around the mountain, which would take her west toward Gilmore. Soon the pogs were completely out of sight.
Just when she was internally praising herself for her quick thinking, she heard something that made her heart sink.
“There she is!” It was the voice of the male soldier she’d heard earlier. One quick look down was enough to confirm that the two scouts had spotted her on the ledge.
Without preamble, the blonde-haired woman shot a blast of blue mentus fire upward. Alice barely had to move to dodge the flame which flew past her and soared high into the air.
Thinking quickly, Alice jumped down to the mountain pass, landing in between the two startled soldiers.
Before they could react, she put a hand on both their shoulders. “Mittius Resepco Sleep.”
A pulse of energy left her and went into the two soldiers, and they immediately dropped to the ground. Though the ‘resepco’ trigger in mandamus was often used as a healing or restorative trigger, at its core it was about giving energy to someone or something else. She could use that energy to heal but it could also be used in other ways that bypassed a person’s natural resistance; in this case to ‘force’ a type of restorative sleep onto her unsuspecting targets. They would wake up in a few hours feeling well rested. The tradeoff was that Alice was already low on adimus energy and giving some away was ill-advised, but she felt it was the quickest way to incapacitate the soldiers without injuring or killing them.
As she jumped back up to the high mountain path, she noticed that the blue mentus flame was still hanging in the air, though it was quickly dissipating since the woman who had been controlling it was now fast asleep.
“Curse the rocks,” Alice muttered to herself, realizing that it was meant to be some sort of signal.
Hoping that the fire went out before anyone could see it, Alice took off down the path, still exhausted but forcing herself to move as fast as she could since she knew there were still pogs nearby. She needed to reach Gilmore before Davron sent more monsters and soldiers after her.
* Gilmore *
“Sir, they’ve found the guardian,” Jansdimion said as he burst through the double doors of Davron’s private suite at the top of Gilmore’s central tower. “A signal flair went up, and the englers are on their way to intercept her.”
Gamdon was right on his heals. “It seems she’s still quite far from the city, which means she may not even know that we are based here.”
The two were excited about the good news but Davron had no response. He was standing at one of the large windows, staring at the city, as if lost in thought.
“Sir,” Gamdon approached him hesitantly. “Is there something the matter?”
“It seems we may be too late.” Davron said finally as he turned to face them.
“Sir?” Gamdon eyed him cautiously. He could see a drained look in his leader’s eyes, and he couldn’t tell if it was from the constant summoning of monsters or just general fatigue, anxiety, and stress. It was clear though that Davron was exhausted. How long had it been since he actually slept?
Davron started to pace. “As you know, I have a spy in the Fantasmal Government. According to them, they’ve already figured out that guardian is missing.”
“We knew it would not take long,” Jansdimion said. “Do they know that she’s here in the mountains?”
Davron nodded. “Yes, and it seems they know that we’re out here, though I’m not sure they know exactly where we are.”
“The spy didn’t say?” Jansdimion asked.
“No,” Davron’s eyes grew dark, “but they’re holding back; I can tell.”
“Why?” Gamdon asked.
“It seems that my spy is somewhat of a pacifist.” Davron chuckled. “I suspected it from the start, but now I’m quite certain. They don’t want war or to get their hands dirty, which is how we came to this tenuous agreement of espionage in the first place. So, they don’t want me to kill the guardian. As long as I leave her alive, then I’ll receive the information I need to stop Fantasma’s army from coming after us.”
“Coming after us?” Jansdimion repeated in shock.
“Yes, they sounded quite certain that the information was worth far more than the life of one guardian,” Davron said.
“Sir, with all due respect, you cannot trust this so-called spy,” Gamdon said sharply. “Whoever this person is, they are not loyal to you or your cause. There’s no reason to go this far just to get what may very well be false information.”
“I agree, I think I’ve gotten all the usefulness I can out of them. The deal I struck was always a gamble,” Davron said pensively. “No matter, if Fantasma is coming after us, then we already have the advantage.”
“There’s no way they can send a full army this deep into the mountains, so all we have to do is send out more monsters to thwart any groups or scouts that get near the city,” Jansdimion offered. “There are dozens of dead mountain towns, it’ll take days, if not weeks, to search them all. We’ll be long gone by then.”
“That’s true,” Davron agreed, “but there’s still a chance that they know we’re in Gilmore. Do whatever it takes to make sure our home remains secure for as long as possible. Our plans depend on it.”
Jansdimion gave a respectful nod, and then immediately headed out of the tower room. Gamdon, however, stayed at Davron’s side, still eyeing his leader with concern.
“It appears that you and this spy have something in common,” he said finally.
Davron turned at this, a confused look on his face. “And what’s that?”
“I know that you do not relish war, sir. Deep down, you wish there could be another way to change the world for the better. Perhaps you see a bit of your own ideals in this pacifist spy you recruited.”
Davron smirked at this. “Sometimes I think you know me far better than Jansdimion.”
“Jansdimion is just young, he has not had the years of experience reading people that I have.”
“Indeed.” Davron turned to the window again, “You’re right, in one sense, I can understand the desire not to want more war, but I evolved from that naive thinking long ago. I will do whatever it takes to grasp the reigns of leadership of this broken world. I will not waste the opportunity I’ve been given by the Book of War. The world will be bathed in blood one last time, but from the ashes of this great war, we will finally know true peace. That is my resolve, Gamdon.”
The quickener nodded solemnly. “It is not just your resolve, sir. Jansdimion and I will follow you down this road, no matter how bloody it becomes. Remember that you have allies that are willing to fight, and die, for this cause, so please, don’t try to do everything yourself. You can rely on us.”
Davron stared down at the city below. From the top of the tower, he could see the hustle and bustle of people and monsters alike, all working tirelessly toward his vision. He smiled as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
“Indeed, Fantasma is not the only one with loyal followers. I have quite a few of my own.”
* Fantasmal Mountain *
“Okay, something’s definitely going on,” Tabatha said to her elf companion as several fatigue-wearing soldiers hurried past where they were seated just outside a small café. “That’s like the third group of soldiers we’ve seen in the last few minutes. Do you know what’s happening?”
Lily shook her head. “No clue, everyone’s been on high alert since the Book of War was confirmed, maybe another town’s been attacked.”
Tabatha nodded slowly. “Guess it’s not just small obscure towns anymore.”
“Things do seem to be escalating quickly.” Lily took a sip of her tea.
They were at the same café they patronne the previous evening, which wasn’t too far from a translift that led to the fort. The two friends had already finished lunch and were sitting and chatting until Lily’s break was over.
“I hate that you’re stuck at work,” Tabatha said sulkily. “It’s been so boring today.”
Lily smiled. “Sorry, I know I haven’t been able to hang out as much, but I have a lot to catch up on. You should explore the city; there’s plenty to do.”
“I know, I just feel so trapped, that’s all. Yeah, this place is big, but not being able to leave, not knowing what’s going on, it’s making me nervous. I haven’t seen Mrs. Guardman or Henry, and now Ace is gone. Are you sure you haven’t heard where he went?”
Lily shook her head. “I asked around, but nobody knows. He could be out fighting. Didn’t he do that yesterday with Elders Jorbedus and Ernwood?”
“Yeah, I guess.” Tabatha shrugged. “I know you hate it when I say this but—”
Lily forestalled her. “Tabatha, trust me; there’s nothing nefarious going on, I promise.”
“I know you think I’m being paranoid. It’s just…it’s hard to trust people, but hey, I guess I have to trust you since elves can’t lie.” Tabatha gave her a small smile.
Lily put a hand on Tabatha’s and gave it a squeeze. “Everything’s going to be fine.”
Tabatha was about to respond when something distracted her. “Hey, isn’t that Karmandrian?”
Lily turned in the direction she was looking. Karmandrian was half-walking, half-running, directly toward them.
“There you are,” he said as he reached the table. “You’re impossible to find mentantly, even with your marker. How are you doing that?”
Tabatha rolled her eyes at this. “Why are you looking for me, and where’s Ace? Have you seen him?”
Karmandrian raised an eyebrow at the question and then remembered. “Oh that’s right, he never told you.”
“Told me what?” Tabatha said, her tone dangerously sharp.
“We went to the northern Lumarian Mountains to search for Alice and the two that went with her, including your Mrs. Guardman. They hadn’t returned this morning.”
“What!” Tabatha shot out of her seat.
“We learned that they’re being held in Gilmore, but not only that, Davron’s entire army is hiding out there. So now we’re preparing our forces to storm Gilmore,” Karmandrian said.
Tabatha’s head was swimming. “I don’t…how…wait, so where’s Ace then? Is he at Gilmore?”
“It’s likely. He and Pathos went to find Alice. She was injured fighting Davron’s forces. Once they recover her, then they’ll head to Gilmore.”
“This is insane.” Tabatha shook her head, eyes wide with fright. “This is absolutely insane. I need to help him.”
Lily gently took Tabatha’s hand to comfort her. “Tabatha, it’s going to be okay. You said it yourself, there’s no army bigger than the Fantasmal Forces. I’m sure your friends will be fine.”
“Wait a minute.” Tabatha came out of her musings. “How are you getting an army deep into the Lumarian Mountains; one of those massive translifts in the fort?”
“How do you…” Karmandrian forestalled his own question, realizing it didn’t matter. “No, Ace and Pathos are going to commandeer a quickener cave that’s right outside the city and we’ll bring our army in through there. They’re going to use dozens of quickeners to make it go quickly. We just have to wait to hear from them.”
“So, there’s a quickener cave near the city…” Tabatha thought about this for a moment before coming to a decision. “I want to go.”
“What!” Lily and Karmandrian said at the same time.
“I can’t just sit here and let him get killed,” Tabatha said resolutely. “I’m going.”
“With all due respect,” Karmandrian said hesitantly, “we can’t bring a civilian to a warzone.”
“I know that’s not true,” Tabatha said sternly. “You took Ace fighting with you yesterday.”
“That’s different. His connection to the seal allows him to destroy the creatures of the Book of War, plus he’s proven himself an accomplished fighter.”
Tabatha smirked. “I may not look it, but I’m a pretty decent fighter too. I’ve had years to learn.”
“But the fact still remains, you’re a civilian, and unlike Ace, you don’t have the seal.”
“Neither do you, or anyone else in Fantasma’s little army. I don’t see the point.”
“Well, I’m a guardian,” Karmandrian said pompously.
“And I’m a melder.” Tabatha stepped forward, her aura almost palpable.
Karmandrian actually took a step back at this. “You’re a…”
“That’s right.” Tabatha nodded knowingly, a snide grin on her face.
His reaction was exactly what she expected. Melders were exceptionally rare, and most people feared them because they didn’t understand their abilities.
Karmandrian had lost much of his bravado but tried to rally. “Still, this isn’t a decision I can make. It’s not like Riverbed yesterday; this is fully under the jurisdiction of the Fantasmal Forces.”
“Then take me to whoever’s in charge,” Tabatha demanded.
Isabelle had switched from her blue robe, which she wore while doing her civilian work, back into her black and purple fatigues. She was in a large open area in the fort, addressing a group of several dozen quickeners. They were all in fatigues and standing at attention as she explained their mission.
“I’m going to pass around this quickener marker.” she held up a small purple card, about the size of a credit card. “I want all of you to connect to it.”
A quickener stepped forward and took the marker, tapping her staff to it before handing it to the next person in line.
“Once Martinson is summoned by Elder Ernwood,” she gestured to the civilian, blue-robed quickener standing to her right, “he’ll transport to the quickener cave and hang the marker. In a minute, each of you will go to your assigned transport rooms and meet with the platoon you’ll be transporting. You need to go ahead and link them to your staff now so you can be ready to go in a moment’s notice. When we get the go-ahead signal, everyone needs to move as quickly as possible. We don’t have nearly enough quickener caves in the fort, so some of you will be assigned to caves in the civilian transport corridor. Get your assignments from your team leads. Dismissed!”
As the quickeners all filed out, two people walked up to Isabelle. “Well, looks like you’re heading into a full-on war.”
Isabelle turned to the voice. “Tabatha? What are you doing down here? Elder Jorbedus, you should know better. We can’t have uninvolved civilians in the fort during active battle preparations.”
Karmandrian held up his hands defensively. “She demanded to see General Rockwall; she wants to go to Gilmore.”
“What? That’s a surprise,” Isabelle said. “I thought you were completely opposed to getting involved in this war.”
“Well, you guys have gone and gotten Mrs. Guardman captured, and Ace is about to get in way over his head, so I thought I better do something.”
“Really? And what exactly can you do?” Isabelle said as she appraised Tabatha.
“You’re not going to get much trying to scan me mentantly,” Tabatha said, guessing what she was doing.
“It appears that Tabatha’s odd mentus quirks are due to the fact that she’s…a melder,” Karmandrian added.
Isabelle flinched. “What? That’s not possible. There hasn’t been a melder in…centuries?”
“Well the way everyone panics when they meet one, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were dozens of melders and they just don’t say anything,” Tabatha said dismissively. “Anyway, I can handle myself, so I’m going to Gilmore. Just tell me who I need to talk to.”
Isabelle thought for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision. “I’ll need to notify General Rockwall, but I think it will be fine.”
“Really?” Karmandrian blurted, not expecting this response.
Isabelle nodded. “Yes, we’ll have a full logistics team based inside the quickener cave. You can be a part of that,” she told Tabatha. “Just know that if you’re coming, you have to follow orders, we can’t have you running around out there on your own. You need to stay with me in logistics. Is that clear?”
Tabatha thought about this. “Fine, but I want to know what’s going on in Gilmore. Mrs. Guardman and Ace are going to be there. If it looks like something’s about to happen to them, I’m going to help.”
Isabelle rolled her eyes. “I can already tell I’m going to regret this. Well, it’s fine, I’d rather have you somewhere I can see you than you trying to sneak your way into Gilmore and causing chaos.”
Tabatha smirked. “See, now you guys are getting it. Anyway, I’m going to go change into something a little more battle appropriate,” she said, indicating the blue sleeveless top and black leggings she was wearing.
“Fine, meet me in the transportation corridor in thirty minutes,” Isabelle said.
Tabatha walked off, leaving Karmandrian and Isabelle alone.
“That girl,” Isabelle said with a sigh. “I can’t believe she’s a melder of all things. Doesn’t that make her as powerful as a guardian?”
“Almost,” Karmandrian said. “From what I understand, it’s not that melders can use mandamus, but it’s something similar. They can manipulate the energy in anything, even people. I’ve heard that it’s a frightening ability, but because they’re so rare, we know little about them, only anecdotes about past melders. I would never want to go up against one. I heard they can even seal mandamus. On the plus side, she’ll definitely be a powerful ally, though there’s no telling how her abilities would affect the creatures of the Book of War.”
“That’s the problem though, I don’t think she wants to be our ally,” Isabelle said pensively. “Well, I don’t think she wants to be our enemy either. Actually, I don’t think she knows what she wants.”