* Cirinian Valley *
“Where are we?” Jandor asked. The group had finally stopped running several minutes after clearing the white fog that had allowed them to escape. They pushed their way through a thicket of bushes into a small clearing and tried to get their bearings.
Stephanie looked around. “Not too far from the translift caves, just further south and a bit deeper into the mountains. This path will curve east eventually, and we’ll be able to make it back to the encampment. We’re just going the long way around.” She leaned down and stroked the silver wolf’s mane. “Thanks Lunox; we wouldn’t have made it out of there without you.”
The wolf had guided them on this more indirect path since the main route had been blocked by both pogs and the female soldier.
“So, what happened?” Lori asked, still confused.
“Someone helped us by throwing a bag of amenus powder.” Stephanie explained. “It’s something healers can make. It’s not only physically disorienting but also blocks sound and limits vision in the mentant realm. Only animals can navigate within the fog without issue, that’s why I had us hold hands and follow Lunox here.”
“It must have been Kynobi or Wheaton that did that,” Daniel mused. “Hopefully, they got out of there safe. We need to hurry and get back to the encampment before those pogs decide to attack.”
Stephanie stood tall and turned to face Jandor properly for the first time, a wide smile on her face. “I’m so glad you’re here. I knew it the moment I saw those pogs. I knew it meant that somehow you had to be here.” She threw her arms around him and soon she was in tears.
Jandor hugged her back before patting her head gingerly, slightly stunned by how emotional she was. “I’m glad you’re okay.”
Stephanie finally let go, her green eyes still wet with tears as she turned to Daniel. “How did you guys get here?”
Daniel shook his head. “We’ll explain on the way.”
“Daniel’s right, we need to go,” Jandor agreed. “Stephanie, lead the way back to the encampment. There’s no telling when those pogs will attack again.”
“Right,” Stephanie nodded. “Let’s go.”
They traveled for several minutes, moving as quickly as possible along the makeshift path. Stephanie and her wolf companion took the lead and Daniel caught them up on all that happened as they walked.
Fifteen minutes later, they finally reached a cliff where they could clearly see the encampment. Though they were high up, there was a steep path that could lead them down to the valley floor.
“Oh no,” Daniel said as he looked out to where the encampment was. From their high vantage point there was no mistaking the huge army of monsters that had surrounded the entire area. It was clearly hundreds of them, far more than the small compliment that had been left guarding the cave.
Jandor was so stunned, all he could manage to say was, “How?”
“Those slimy buggers,” Lori said. “They must’ve had all bloomin’ night to bring over them monsters and hide ‘em in the mountains, outside mentant range. Then they launched this here sneak attack early mornin’. They got the whole blasted place surrounded.”
Jandor seemed to rally all at once. “We’ve got to get down there.”
“No!” Daniel shouted, physically putting himself in Jandor’s path, arms spread wide to stop him. “We can’t go down there. There’s like three hundred pogs. We’ll be killed.”
“Terri’s down there!” Jandor bellowed.
“I know!” Daniel shot back. “And if you’d listened to me, we could’ve evacuated people before that army got there. This is your fault because you keep running off without a plan. You almost got us all killed back there, and now you’re trying to do it again!”
“Well what other choice do we have? Are you saying we should just abandon them, that we just run away?”
Daniel swore loudly in frustration. “Fight or flee aren’t the only options, Jandor! We need a plan!’
“Okay then, what’s the plan?” Jandor asked impatiently.
“Guys!” Lori shouted over them. “Someone’s coming.” She unsheathed her sword.
Daniel managed to calm himself long enough to scan the mentant realm. Lori was right, someone was coming up the path behind them, but it was hard to discern who or what it was due to the quartz interference. Everyone pulled out their weapons, anticipating a fight.
Kynobi and Wheaton pushed their way through the bushes and onto the cliff. “I’m glad you were able to escape safely,” Wheaton said by way of greeting.
“Thanks to your timely help,” Stephanie hugged them both.
“We were headed back to the encampment to warn the others when we realized we were too late. Once we sensed that huge army, we decided to head into the mountains to track you down,” Kynobi explained.
“Yes, we were just discussing what we should do now,” Jandor said, his tone still agitated as he turned to Daniel, ready to resume the argument.
“Look, I don’t know; we need time to think, but running down there swinging your sword around isn’t going to work against an army of hundreds of pogs,” Daniel said.
“Fine, but we can’t just sit and do nothing,” Jandor countered.
Daniel pointed to the surrounded encampment. “I don’t know what’s going on down there, but they seem to be in some sort of holding pattern. It doesn’t look like they’re just killing everyone like they did in Munio but if we try to attack, that could change. I’m not saying we do nothing, but we need more information, so for now, we wait.”
Jandor seemed to have no retort for this, though he still looked frustrated.
Kynobi put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Daniel is right. We are not in a position to reclaim our valley at present, but in due time, we shall find a way. Though we don’t know exactly what’s going on in the encampment, things seem calm for now, and I’m sure Chief Windborn will ensure everyone’s safety. For now, perhaps we should head to the northern encampment,” Kynobi offered.
“Northern encampment?” Jandor repeated, slightly confused.
“Yes, it’s in the northeast corner of the valley,” Kynobi clarified. “It’s smaller than the main encampment, only about five hundred people, but a large amount of our youth are there since we send them to train with several veterans this time of year. I doubt they had time to send any sort of message before being captured and we don’t have anything we can use to send a note, do we?” He looked around at the others, but the dejected stares seemed to give the answer. Even if they summoned a bird to fly to the northern encampment, they’d need a note to send, or it would be futile. Summoners could only communicate mentantly with animals that were their companions.
“Well then let’s go,” Jandor said, immediately spurred to action. “We’ve got to get there before they send those monsters, and if they have any fighters, maybe we can figure out a plan to rescue the others.”
Daniel sighed in exasperation, but seeing no better option, he didn’t argue. “So how do we get to the northern encampment?”
Kynobi pondered this for a moment. “We should probably go through the woods to avoid being spotted,” he said referring to the huge forest just east of the main encampment that took up the majority of the valley. “If we circle around to enter the forest further south of the encampment, we shouldn’t be seen.”
“But won’t that take longer? What if they’ve already sent troops there?” Jandor said impatiently.
Kynobi shook his head. “Even with that slight detour, we’ll be able to reach the Northern encampment as quickly as if we were going through the plains, possibly faster,” he assured. “It’s a several hour trip regardless, but the quartz deposits buried beneath the woods will keep us hidden mentantly. It’s the best choice.”
“Then let’s do it,” Jandor decided. “We have plenty of time to figure out a plan along the way,” he added with a poignant look at Daniel who rolled his eyes as they all fell in step behind Wheaton and Kynobi.
“I hope Jandor and Danny are okay,” Terri said wistfully.
It had been a surreal event. She was eating breakfast with Sarah and Burk in the council hall commons, and then without warning, hundreds of pogs had descended on the camp. It was a fast and efficient raid. The few members of the security force had been quickly cut down, and the commander of the invading army, Captain Calendon, had demanded their surrender. Within minutes, pogs were gathering people into the largest rooms in the building, including the commons, which was now being guarded by two of the large beasts. They were now anxiously waiting to find out what their fate would be.
“Well, you said Daniel left a while ago right?” Burk said. “So maybe he wasn’t even caught up in all this.”
“And Jandor could be being held in another room,” Sarah offered.
Terri shook her head. “I know Jandor; he’d have fought. Even if it was a losing battle, he wouldn’t have gone down without a fight, but there’s just so many of those pogs. They might have killed him, especially since he has the mark.” She was nearing tears.
“We don’t know that anyone’s dead,” Burk said. “The fight was over so quickly, it’s possible they just took prisoners. Hopefully, we’ll know something soon.”
As if in response to this, the double doors of the commons burst open and two people entered, flanked by pogs.
“Chief Windborn!” someone shouted.
Several people, including Terri, Sarah, and Burk, jumped up from the tables to meet Windborn and another female chief as they entered the room looking haggard but no worse for wear.
“Are you okay?”
“How did those monsters get in the valley?”
“What’s going to happen to us?”
Windborn raised his hand and the myriad of questions stopped. “As many of you already know, the creatures that invaded Cirinian Valley are indeed monsters from the Book of War. The man that led them here, Captain Calendon, has done so on the orders of the one known as Lord Davron. Calendon says that if we want to continue to live in peace, then the entire Order of Nature must submit to the total and absolute rule of Lord Davron.”
“Submit to his rule?” someone shouted. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
There was an outcry at this as several other people asked questions or voiced their dissent, but Windborn held up his hands again, and soon silence returned.
“What this means,” he continued in a weary voice, “is that Davron’s army will occupy the valley. We will not be able to travel freely for a while, but we will not be harmed. We may be asked to provide healers and supplies to aid in the war effort, and after the war is over, we will, more or less, be allowed to operate as normal. Those are Lord Davron’s terms and we have agreed to them.”
“What!” Terri shouted. “Why would the Order agree to serve Davron!”
“What choice did we have?” the blonde female chief said. “If we didn’t agree to all of these terms, then they would have slaughtered us all.”
“Lenora is right,” Windborn said. “There were no other options available, and to be honest, we are lucky that we were even offered a peaceful surrender. At least this way, the Order of Nature can continue to survive. Even if it is less than ideal, we aren’t being conscripted to fight or being hunted down and slaughtered. With all of this considered, I believe this is a reasonable offer, and I cannot stress this enough: it was the only offer.”
“So now what?” Burk wrapped an arm around Sarah who was quietly sobbing.
“For now, Calendon’s forces will be rounding up all of our members who are out in the valley and bringing them here. Some of the chiefs are traveling with them to ensure a peaceful surrender. After everyone is accounted for, we will be allowed some limited movement. Also, all summoners are required to turn in their instruments for the time being. It’s just temporary,” Wheaton added loudly as several people were already objecting. “They will be kept safe along with all of our other supplies.”
“So basically, we’re under military rule?” Burk summarized glibly.
“It’s uncomfortable, but again, if we do what is asked of us, things will get better, and we’ll be able to function normally.” Lenora said. “We have no reason to oppose Lord Davron or get any further involved in whatever war he plans to rage.”
Terri glared at her, clearly not pleased with the positive spin Lenora was putting on the Order’s forced occupation.
“For now, I need a few healers to tend to those who were wounded,” Windborn said. “Fortunately, no one was killed during the invasion.”
Terri was about to volunteer. The news that no one had been killed was a relief and she hoped that she’d be able to find Jandor and Daniel among the wounded. But before she could move, the doors to the commons opened again and two more people walked in; Calendon and his lieutenant Addilyn, who had just arrived from the translift caves.
“Captain Calendon,” Windborn said deferentially as he turned to face the new arrivals. “I was just explaining the arrangement that you so graciously offered us.”
It was clear that Windborn was trying to be as polite as possible, but Calendon still sneered at him. Suddenly Windborn dropped to his knees. Calendon’s overwhelming mentus energy had forced him downward. “Where are they?” he growled.
Lenora ran to Windborn’s side. “What are you doing?”
“Where…are…who?” Windborn managed to gasp.
“Let him go!” Terri rushed up to Calendon, though she had nothing to intimidate him with other than her scowl.
Surprisingly, Calendon did release Windborn, but more out of shock. “You’re one of them!” He grabbed her by the hand and examined it closely. “No, you don’t have the mark, but you were with them, back in Munio. Where are your companions?”
“Don’t touch me!” Terri snatched her hand away.
“She wasn’t with the ones who attacked the cave,” Addilyn revealed. “There were three of them, plus a female summoner who arrived buy translift.”
“Stephanie?” Terri said softly, but no one heard her.
“You didn’t tell me you were hiding seal bearers here.” Calendon scowled at Windborn who was rising to his feet again. “Did you think I wouldn’t find out? Was this your plan all along: send your seal bearers to defeat my forces at the translift and go seek help?”
“On the contrary,” Windborn said, his voice surprisingly level, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. The people you are referring to were visitors from Munio Mountain; I assumed they had been captured along with everyone else. As for the summoner who arrived by translift, she could be anyone.”
Calendon glared at him suspiciously, but Windborn’s amber eyes held no trace of deception. “Well then, if that’s the case, you won’t mind telling me where they are,” he said in a deathly quiet tone.
“There is absolutely no way I could know,” Windborn said calmly. “I’m only just now finding out that they are not here. As I told you before, our members move freely throughout the valley, so they could be anywhere and with anyone.”
“If the Order of Nature is harboring seal bearers, then there can be no peace!” Calendon raged, spital flying from his mouth. “I will have my creatures burn this whole valley to the ground to find them. I will slaughter all of your people for hiding them.”
Lenora stepped forward, her demeanor calm. “There is a way to find out where they are,” she offered quickly. Again, Terri scowled at her, but she ignored it. “If you allow me my instrument, I can summon my shadow fox companion and his pack. They’re scouts and experts at tracking. They can find out where they went and then tell me.”
Calendon turned to her, eying her appraisingly. “And how do I know you won’t use this opportunity to betray us?”
“I…” Lenora faltered. “I don’t want to see my people hurt. All I want is for everyone to get out of this safely. If you promise not to kill them, then I don’t have a problem helping you find them.”
Calendon smirked. “Fine, you can summon your shadow foxes. If you can deliver the seal bearers to me, then I won’t kill them, as long as they don’t resist, but they will be turned over to Lord Davron.”
Lenora nodded. “I understand, sir.”
“You have one hour to find them. If you don’t, then you’ll be responsible for the slaughter of all your people. Betray me, and you’ll be the first to die. You’ll be coming with me so I can keep an eye on you,” Calendon decided.
Lenora nodded solemnly, trying to maintain her calm visage. “Very well, sir.”
Terri was unable to hold her tongue any longer. “How can you do this? You’re not just sacrificing my brother, but Stephanie too!”
Lenora’s expression tensed. “I’m doing what I have to do to keep as many people safe as possible.”
“As expected of the cowardly Order of Nature. You’ll even turn on your allies if it benefits you and your status quo,” Calendon said contemptuously. “Well, you’ve at least made the right choice this time: sacrifice the few for the sake of the many. Now come along, you have work to do.” He grabbed Lenora by the arm and pulled her away, Addilyn following behind as they left the commons.
Terri immediately turned on Windborn. “How could you let this happen?”
“Terri, it’s not Chief Windborn’s fault,” Sarah said soothingly. “What choice did he have? There’s no way we could fight all of those creatures, even if your friends were here.”
Terri was close to tears. “Danny and Jandor saved your lives, and this is how you’re repaying them?”
“Terri—" Sarah put a hand on her shoulder, but Terri shook it off.
“I can’t believe you people!” She stormed off, intent on being as far away from them as possible.
Sarah moved to go after Terri, but Windborn stayed her. “Let her be. She has every right to be angry,” he said in his same level tone. “This is indeed a terrible betrayal, regardless of our reasons.”
“Sir, if you believe that, then why didn’t you try and stop Lenora?” Burk asked, confused.
“Because she is doing what she believes is best,” Windborn said. “Despite how I might personally feel, for now, appeasing Calendon is the only way to ensure the survival of the over two thousand men, women, and children who live in this valley. We have no means of fighting these creatures, so any outward defiance would mean our immediate death. Until Jandor and his companions can come up with a means of helping us, my goal is to avoid any unnecessary bloodshed.”
“Wait, do you mean that you think they will save us?” Burk asked in a hushed tone, not wanting to be overheard by the pogs still guarding the doors.
“I believe that if there is any possibility of salvation, it will come from the ones that were chosen by the Almighty to bear the mark of the seal,” Windborn answered sagely. “Lenora is thinking the same way. Her actions may seem callous, but she’s doing what she can to placate Calendon until we can find a way out of this, while also helping to lay the groundwork to covertly resist this forced occupation.”
“She is? How can you tell?” Sarah asked.
“Lenora said she was summoning her shadow fox companion, Umbra, who is the head of a pack of ten,” Windborn revealed. “Umbra is a scout which means Lenora can link her senses with him even at long distances. If she summons Umbra’s whole pack, she’ll be able to form a temporary link with all of them and send them anywhere. She’ll be able to have eyes all over the valley, which will surely come in handy”
“I swear you chiefs have some special foresight,” Burk said with a hint of awe.
Sarah nodded in agreement. “Yeah, I thought it was just Chief Wheaton, but I guess not.”
Windborn smiled slightly at this. “Well, we must all do our part and not lose faith. Now come. As I said, we must gather some healers to tend to the wounded, but there is much more we have to do as well.” He led Sarah, Burk, and the remaining chiefs back to address the crowd of anxious people who were still gathered and waiting to hear more from their leader about their current predicament.