* Munio Mountain *
Fargo Wheaton looked around the spacious cavern, his aged green eyes scanning the quartz rock and mentant-blue torchlights absentmindedly as he thought about the predicament that he and his companions were in. Though he had been chief of Munio Mountain for over fifty years and faced many incidents, nothing had prepared him for the sudden attack by vicious pig-faced monsters in his beloved mountain home. Now they were trapped, and for the first time in many years, he was at a loss for what to do.
There were around thirty people with him in the chamber, all loyal and brave staff members who had risked their lives to help evacuate their comrades and the animals they watched over. The rest of the staff, over seven hundred in total, had either escaped or been killed by the mysterious monsters that invaded their mountain home only a few hours ago. Now he and the small remnant that remained found themselves trapped. They’d sealed themselves in a large cave, normally used to hold animals that needed to be segregated from the general population. Though they were safe for now, Wheaton knew they needed to figure out some way to escape. He wracked his mind, trying to find a solution to their plight.
His thoughts were abruptly interrupted by a loud, ground-shaking boom. Something hard had slammed into the outer wall. He turned to three companions who sitting just behind him, talking in low murmurs. They were his three top advisors: Issari Gibson, head of mountain security; Osgood Burke, head healer; and Christina Meriwether, head summoner.
Gibson seemed to anticipate Wheaton’s question. “They’re trying to force their way in, but don’t worry, we’ll be safe for a while at least, the walls are thick and lined with quartz.”
“This is all my doing,’ Wheaton said softly. “I’ve conscripted us to an early and gruesome death.”
Gibson gave him a quizzical look. “How do you figure that, old man? I’m the one who suggested running in here.”
Wheaton shook his head. “That’s not what I mean, and you’ve done a fine job as our protector. It was my foolish notion to stay here and try to evacuate the animals. I shouldn’t have let it get to this. So many lives lost.” He sighed.
Christina brushed back her long raven hair before placing a hand on Wheaton’s shoulder. “We stayed because we have a duty of care to our animals. We all know that. None of us would have left, even if you told us.”
Burke nodded in agreement. “We all took Lumio’s Oath. We all knew what had to be done today. Their sacrifices weren’t in vain. I have to believe that.”
“You’re right. I just wish I knew why this was happening,” Wheaton said. “What are those monsters and why are they so relentlessly attacking us and our animals?”
As if to punctuate his question, there was another loud thud. This time, rocks showered down on the scared captives.
Gibson stood to address the small group. “Don’t worry, they can bang all they want, there’s no way they’re getting in here,” he assured with some bravado. “We’re perfectly safe.”
“Safe?” came a sharp voice from the opposite side of the wall, followed by hollow laughter. “If lies are your comfort while you wait for your inevitable demise, then so be it.”
Gibson’s hand automatically went to the sword at his belt. “Who’s there?”
“Vincent Calendon, captain in service to Lord Davron,” came the answer.
“Lord Davron?” Gibson repeated. “I can’t say I’ve heard of him. Lord of what?”
“This world!” Calendon said with even more laughter. “A new world that he is molding. A world without the squabbling wars of small towns fighting for scarce resources. All will submit to Lord Davron. Those who do so willingly will see prosperity, but those who stand in his way will be eliminated.” There was a loud bang to accompany his declaration.
Gibson was about to respond but Wheaton stood now. “If it is a world of peace your Lord Davron wants, then the Order of Nature does not object. Please, leave us and our animals alone. We have no desire to fight, and we have nothing to do with the war between Riverbed and Murrilogic. In fact, we do all we can to stay out of it.”
Calendon laughed again. “Exactly! You stayed here in your mountain and did nothing to aid those who suffered under your shadow. You allowed this war to happen for decades just like Sunnin and the Fantasmal Government, content to let your fellow man drown in sorrow and pain. Well, no more! Those who want to live in this world are now required to participate in shaping it for the better. Those who choose not to, those who—like the Order of Nature—choose to sit on the sidelines while their neighbors slaughter themselves, they will not be allowed to live in this new world. Your time has come.”
“You’re a madman and so is your so-called ‘Lord’ Davron,” Gibson shouted. “You plan to bring peace by slaughtering hundreds of innocent people?”
“There are none innocent who do nothing in the face of suffering,” Calendon said, and again his words were punctuated with a resounding boom.
Many screamed as more rocks showered down upon the occupants of the cave, but despite a large chunk of the ceiling landing near Gibson, he did not flinch. His mind was fixed on the unseen antagonist on the other side of the wall. “If that’s how you feel, then when I get out of here, I’ll show you exactly what I do to those who cause my friends to suffer,” he vowed as he gripped the hilt of his blade.
“Okay, we found them, so now what?” Terri asked as she and the others peered around a corner several feet from the chamber that Wheaton and the others were trapped in.
They’d witnessed the entire conversation between Calendon and Gibson including the giga pogs taking turns slamming into the sealed door, causing the entire cavern to shake.
“There’s about a dozen of those pig thingies,” Lori said as the group slipped into a nearby alcoves so as to not be overheard.
“And some of them are the big ones,” Sarah observed.
Jandor started to unsheathe his sword. “We can take them,” he said with confidence. “We’ll just rush them.”
“Are you crazy!” Daniel hissed. “There’s no way, especially in such a confined space.”
There was another loud boom as the pogs took turns slamming into the rock wall.
“While I like the idea of a mad-dash hack and slash, Dan’s gotta right point,” Lori said. “I mean, under normal circumstances, I think me and you could take twelve easy, but I can’t kill those things and range weapons are gonna be a big ol’ problem.” She gestured to Daniel’s chakram.
This seemed to give Daniel an idea. “That’s it! If we can get Calendon to back down then we won’t even have to fight the pogs. He’ll just call them off.”
Jandor nodded slowly. “That sounds right, but how will we get him to do that?”
Daniel stood and the mentant-blue barrier wrapped around his right hand as he detached the chakram from his belt.
“What’re ya doin’ mate? You can’t use that in here. No tellin’ what’ll happen if it starts bouncing around off them walls.”
Daniel didn’t seem to hear her. He stepped boldly around the corner, chakram in hand. As he approached, several pogs noticed him.
“Seal bearer!” one grunted.
“He’s going to get himself killed,” Jandor said, preparing to rush around the corner to join his friend.
Terri held him back. “Wait; he knows what he’s doing.”
One of the pogs raced forward to attack but Daniel was faster. He threw the chakram and the deadly blade sliced through the mid-section of the unsuspecting pog, dispatching it almost instantly before it ricocheted off the wall, soared over the heads of several other pogs, grazed a hanging stalactite, and headed straight toward the unsuspecting Calendon who stumbled backward fearfully toward the wall. Before he could move from its path, the chakram halted less than an inch from his throat, effectively pinning him to the wall. Daniel had complete mental control of the weapon and had planned its path perfectly.
More pogs rushed forward but Daniel held out an arm and the chakram moved forward, nicking Calendon’s throat.
“Stop!” Calendon screamed in a high pitch voice, his green eyes wide with fright.
The pogs obeyed instantly.
Daniel nodded. “Smart man.”
Despite his predicament, Calendon managed a smirk. “Still, we’re at a stalemate. You’re all alone. What’s to stop my creatures from killing you, even if you do kill me?”
“We are,” Jandor said as he and the others strolled around the corner with weapons drawn. Jandor made a point of showing the mark of the seal on the back of his hand. “We’ve already defeated the monsters blocking the mountain entrance. We can easily take these on.” He made a gamble that Calendon would not know that half of their party didn’t have the seal, making them seem like more of an actual threat. Even Sarah had a small knife and tried to look menacing.
Calendon had a calculating look on his face but seemed to know he was out matched. “Well, well, well; seal bearers. I’ve heard of you; Fantasma’s little pet project. Fine, I know when I’m outmatched.”
Daniel didn’t relax. “Then tell your pogs to retreat completely before I get tired of holding my chakram back.” As if to emphasize his point he let the still-spinning blade graze Calendon’s neck again.
“Pogs, fall back!” Calendon barked. “We’re finished here.”
The pogs slipped back down the corridor until they were lost to the shadows. Daniel tracked them mentantly until he saw them exit through the nearby door that led to the hollowed-out interior of the mountain. Only then did he recall the blade back to him.
“You can have what’s left of them; I’ve done what I came here to do.” The silver-haired captain called as he ran off, holding a hand to his neck to stop the small trickle of blood.
Sarah ran to the sealed entrance, running her hand along the wall to find the embedded mentus trigger. “Guys it’s me. I’m opening the door!” she called.
Lori was still gazing at where Calendon had retreated. “I dunno; maybe we should’ve finished him off. He can still cause a mess of trouble.”
Daniel returned the chakram to his belt. “You’re probably right, but…” He lowered his eyes.
“There’s a difference between killing those monsters and killing a human,” Terri finished for him. “We can’t just kill indiscriminately.”
“There’s nothing indiscrim’ant about it, healer girl.” Lori snapped. “You nature-types just don’t understand war. Sometimes you gotta do the thing even if the thing’s dirty. Jandor, you get what I’m sayin’, right?”
Both Terri and Lori turned to him expectantly.
“I do,” Jandor sheathed his sword. “I get what both of you are saying.”
Before either could press him further, Sarah found the embedded mentus for the door and closed her eyes to focus on it. She then pulled out her flaymin and started to play a quick melody. Immediately the door slid open.
Burke was the first to step out and Sarah rushed to hug him. “I’m so glad you’re safe,” she said in a muffled voice, her head buried in Burke’s robe.
Burke stroked her chestnut hair. “I thought you were dead.” There were tears in his green eyes. He looked around at the others. “Who are these people? Where did they come from? How did you get past all those monsters?”
“I’ll explain later; we need to get out of here.” She stepped out of the warm embrace, but he kept hold of her hand. Her smooth, pale, ivory skin made for a perfect contrast when enveloped by his large, rough, dark-brown hand.
“Those things are still in the preserve. We can’t risk trying to go out there again.” Gibson said as he herded the group out into the corridor, his hand still tightly gripping his sword hilt.
“Then we’ll use the north exit,” Wheaton said. “It’s unlikely Calendon and his creatures will be back there, it’s hidden and sealed.”
“Chief, I promised this lot I’d take them to Cirinian using the translift.” Sarah gestured to Jandor and his friends. “If it weren’t for them, I’d have never been able to rescue you.”
“It’s urgent that we get there,” Jandor added.
Wheaton stepped forward and gave them an appraising look, his gaze lingering on the mark that still shone prominently on the back of Jandor’s hand. “Normally we do not allow outsiders into Cirinian,” he said, “but we owe you a debt, and it’s clear you are trustworthy.” He turned to the others. “Gibson, take everyone to the north exit; I’ll take Sarah and her friends to the translift.”
“But sir,” Gibson interrupted.
“I’ll be fine Gibson, but I need to make sure that the rest of the staff evacuates safely. Once you’re out, you know where to go.”
Gibson nodded. “I’ll make sure everyone gets out safe, but you be careful, old man.” He gave Wheaton a wry smile.
The two groups parted in opposite directions, Gibson leading the remaining staff down a long corridor that would wind its way to the north exit, leaving Wheaton to guide his much smaller group to a stairwell.
Burke decided to forgo going with the rest of the staff to stay with Sarah. “I don’t understand, how did you defeat those monsters?” he asked as the two walked hand in hand up the stairs behind Wheaton.
“I don’t really understand it myself, Oz,” Sarah said in a hushed tone. “Lori says those creatures are from the Book of War, but what’s even stranger, those two guys, Jandor and Daniel, they have the ability to kill them.”
“That’s a lot to parse,” Burke said skeptically. “The Book of War? It can’t be…”
“I know, I know, but how else do you explain it, Oz? This thing is real.”
“Indeed, it is,” Wheaton said from ahead of them, revealing that he’d been eavesdropping. “The mark on that young man’s hand, it is the mark of supernal power sealed inside of him. When I saw it, I knew we were dealing with a force beyond mortal logic. These creatures herald another Great War, one far more terrifying than the first.”
Both Burk and Sarah fell into contemplative silence.
Daniel and Jandor walked at the rear of the group, keeping an eye out for enemies. Daniel scanned the mentant realm as much as he could but found his mentant sense restricted the deeper they went into the mountain due to the quartz rock prevalent throughout.
“I owe you an apology,” Jandor said as they reached the top of the stone stairs and started down a wide, torch-lit corridor.
Daniel had closed his eyes briefly to scan the mentant realm, but they snapped open at this sudden pronouncement from his companion. “Uh…okay. For what?”
“For how I’ve been treating you.” Jandor clarified. “For thinking you were a coward.”
“Oh,” Daniel said stiffly. “So, I finally impressed you with how I handled my chakram. I told you I’m a skilled mentant.”
“No,” Jandor said. “I’m impressed with how you handled the situation. You devised a plan, and you kept your cool. Lori’s right, you could’ve killed Calendon. You made a tough decision, but you didn’t hesitate. I understand now; you’ve had to make those kind of decisions for years, making tough choices to keep you and Terri safe.”
The sudden, unsolicited praise left Daniel momentarily speechless. Of course, he wanted Jandor to understand and acknowledge what he went through for the past six years, but he hadn’t expected the recent encounter to trigger this realization.
After several seconds, Daniel gave a mumbled, “Thanks,” before changing the subject. “We need to be careful though, there could be more monsters in these tunnels. It’s hard for me to scan the caves. I keep thinking I sense something, but then it’s gone.”
“Well let’s just hope we can get out of here before anything else comes after us,” Jandor said as he pulled the staff from his back, preparing for confrontation just in case.
“Here we are,” Wheaton said as they reached a spot in the corridor that was marked only by one of the many mentant blue torches. He put his hand on the wall. “The translift chamber is sealed by adimus signature. It’s a security precaution so only high-ranking members of staff can open it,” he explained.
The wall slid open revealing a large chamber with several manmade, quartz-rock polls that ran from ceiling to floor. They all proceeded inside.
Jandor looked around with great interest. “So, what is this place? How does it work?”
“Remember Henry’s basement?” Daniel said. “It’s just like that. Our parents had a makeshift translift; basically, it allows you to travel to a predefined point. Only with that one, they activated it with Henry’s staff and a slab of quartz on the floor. In regular translifts, they use these quartz polls. This one allows for multiple destinations in one room.”
Wheaton found the poll he was looking for and pulled a thin quartz rod from his green robe. “Burke, please seal the chamber. We don’t want anyone to find this after we leave.”
Burke headed for the door with Sarah in tow but when he reached the threshold he seemed to stumble slightly. Sarah screamed, and everyone turned. Burke staggered backward, clutching his stomach as blood trickled through his fingers. Before anyone could react, Calendon appeared in the doorway, holding a bloodstained sword. He grabbed a stunned Sarah by the arm, holding the blade to her neck. A half-dozen pogs poured into the room behind him and in a matter of seconds they surrounded the small group.
“I had no idea the order had a translift network. This will make invading Cirinian a lot easier,” Calendon said as he frog-marched Sarah in front of him. “Don’t even think about it,” he added with a sneer to Daniel, who was reaching for the chakram at his waist. “My blade can kill her before you can throw yours.”
“Release her,” came a gruff voice from behind Calendon as the long silver blade of a sword slid beside his own neck.
It was Gibson, standing in the threshold of the cave, just behind Calendon.
For a split second, Calendon froze, and then several things happened all at once. He shoved Sarah forward, causing her to stumble and fall near Burke. He then turned and parried Gibson sword and they started to duel. At the same time, the pogs rushed forward, following the captain’s lead. Daniel, Lori, and Jandor were quick to respond while Terri yanked Wheaton out of the way, pulling him to where Burke and Sarah were sprawled on the floor.
The sound of battle rang throughout the translift chamber. Metal clashed against metal and the pogs roared with rage as they wielded their huge mace weapons indiscriminately.
“I told ya you should’ve killed that idiot when ya had the chance!” Lori shouted as she pushed back one of the large pogs with her claymore.
Daniel chose not to answer, instead focusing on keeping the pogs at bay with a mentus based barrier so they could escape. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Terri helping to move the wounded Burke out of harm’s way.
“Are you okay, Oz?” Sarah asked as she and Terri lifted him to his feet. He was still clutching his wound.
“I’ll be fine,” he said, though he was still bleeding heavily. “Nothing I can’t mend up. I’m a healer after all.”
“Well let’s get out of here first, then I’ll help,” Terri said quickly as they moved along the wall, trying to avoid the fight between Gibson and Calendon which was becoming more and more heated.
Calendon jabbed wildly at Gibson who was able to parry most of the frenzied attacks, but he had to constantly stay on the defense as the two danced around the cave each trying to find an advantage over the other.
The pogs were attacking with a similar wild vigor, swinging their huge weapons at anything in their paths. Jandor avoided one of the large maces and it slammed into a quartz poll behind him. The poll lurched out of place, taking a chunk of the ceiling with it before crashing into another of the tall quartz polls. This caused a cascade effect and the entire cavern started to become unstable as jagged rocks began falling everywhere.
The scene was all too familiar to Jandor. He cut down the pog before grabbing Lori by her free arm to pull her away from combat with another monster. “We need to get out of here, now!”
Daniel recognized the danger signs as well. He summoned his chakram back to him after taking out another pog, clearing a path to the door for all three of them.
Terri, Burke, Sarah and Wheaton were already in the corridor outside the translift chamber when they heard the telltale signs of an impending cave in.
“We’ve got to get them out of there!” Terri jumped up, leaving Burke to hold the compress she’d put on his wound, but Wheaton stayed her.
Jandor, Daniel and Lori came hurtling out but when Jandor realized Gibson wasn’t with them he turned back quickly and saw him sprawled on the ground, his leg pinned by a rock and Calendon standing over him looking triumphant and ready to strike again.
“No!” Jandor shouted as he ran back inside. He felt the staff in his hand pulse with warm energy and knew what he needed to do.
Holding it forward, he focused on the staff and a blast of blue energy shot forward, striking the unsuspecting Calendon and knocking him to the back of the cave.
Jandor helped Gibson to his feet but the remaining pogs were converging on him to block their path again. He couldn’t use his weapon effectively while holding the injured warrior. The chakram sliced through the one that was closest to them.
“Hurry!” Daniel shouted.
Jandor needed no second bidding. He dragged Gibson to the door and just as they made it over the threshold, Gibson put his hand on the rock wall, and it slammed shut.
“We don’t want those pig things following us,” Gibson said in a strained voice as Jandor lowered him to the ground.
Terri went over to examine him. “Wait, what about Calendon? He’s still in there too.”
“Serves him right, I say,” Lori scoffed as she slid the Claymore into the sheath on her back. “Got what was coming to him.”
Terri glared at her, horror struck. “But—”
Jandor cut her off. “We can’t risk opening that door again. Those pogs could come after us and we have two injured people to worry about. We have to let it go.”
“What about the translift?” Daniel asked before Terri could retort.
“Unfortunately, the damage caused to the translift will render it completely unusable,” Burke said as he raised himself with some help from Sarah. “Which is good, because that means those creatures won’t be able to transport to Cirinian, but then, neither can we.”
Jandor slammed his fist on the wall but any noise it made was drowned out by the sound of rocks falling inside the sealed cave behind them. “We were so close; now what do we do?”
“There’s another way,’ Wheaton said calmly. “We need to go to the top of the mountain. Let’s hurry before anything else comes after us.”
He adjusted his robe and headed down the long corridor toward another flight of stairs. The rest of the group followed, Burke and Gibson being helped along by the others.
Thirty minutes later the small group reached a large flat ledge near the top of the mountain, facing north.
Terri gave a gasp of awe as she surveyed the scene that stretched out before them. The crystal blue sea spanned all the way to the horizon. Beneath them was a small sliver of shoreline between the sea and the base of the mountain. “It’s beautiful.”
Jandor had to shield his eyes from the late afternoon sun as they stepped onto the ledge. “So now what?”
Wheaton pulled out a flute from one of his inner robe pockets and put it to his lips. A haunting melody rang out over the sea as he played.
Jandor looked extremely confused when nothing seemed to happen after several seconds. “I don’t get it.”
“Be patient, let the wind carry the song to them. They will come,” Wheaton assured.
But before Wheaton could answer, a loud guttural roar echoed from behind them followed immediately by a scream as a pog came hurtling from the depths of the mountain, landed on Sarah, and pinned her to the ground near the edge of the ledge.
Jandor and Lori rushed forward but they seemed wary of attacking outright and causing both enemy and friend to topple off the ledge. Then, out of nowhere, Palmont, the large red-winged eagle, flew in like a feathery arrow. It clawed and pecked at the pog, until green, pus-like blood could be seen oozing from the tiny cuts.
The pog momentarily forgot Sarah as it attempted to swat the eagle away, but the bird soared out of reach. The distraction was just enough for Sarah to crawl away from the beast. Lori rushed in and pulled her away from the edge. Once they were clear, Daniel unleashed the deadly chakram, slicing through the neck of the distracted pog. It disappeared in an instant.
Wheaton stared in shock. “Those monsters just disappear?”
“Yeah, it takes some getting used to,” Sarah said as she scrambled to her feet.
“Are you okay?” Lori asked as she checked Sarah for injuries. “Those things seem to love attackin’ ya.”
“I’m fine,” Sarah said as she dusted herself off. “Don’t worry, I’m tougher than I look.”
“So is that bird of yours,” Jandor said with a tone of admiration. “That pog didn’t know what hit it.”
“Palmont’s role may be guide but he definitely has some fight in him.” Sarah held out an arm and the eagle landed on it. She stroked the white feathers on its head. “I was going to leave him behind, but I think he may have been attracted here by your song,” she added to Wheaton.
“Perhaps, though I see my intended targets are nearing.” Wheaton pointed west
Everyone turned to see four large, white birds speeding toward them. They were so big and fast that they could have been mistaken for small airplanes.
“What kind of birds are those?” Jandor asked in awe.
“They are the phara, rulers of the sky,” Wheaton said, a hint of pride in his voice. “They’re the largest and fastest birds in the world. Before the age of quickening, they were even used by the Fantasma for long journeys. Now they are protected by the Order of Nature from those who would try to hunt them into extinction merely for sport and trophy.”
As the snow-white birds approached, it became clear that all four of them could not fit on the ledge. Apparently sensing this, three of them soared even higher to find resting spots near the peak of the mountain, the fourth landed on the ledge in front of them and lowered its head to Wheaton, almost as if bowing to him.
Wheaton stroked the large beak. “No, it is I who am honored. Thank you for coming,” Wheaton said in answer to the bird’s silent communication. He turned to the others. “They will take us to Cirinian. Two each, and you’ll need mentus to shield from the wind as we fly,” he explained.
Daniel looked uncertain. “Are you sure this is safe?”
Jandor, however, seemed excited. “Come on Daniel, you heard him. Even Fantasma used these things; they’re bound to be all right. Only thing is, I don’t know any mentus.”
Lori stepped up next to him. “No worries, mate, I’ll ride with ya and keep ya safe,” she said in a teasing tone, giving him a hearty clap on the back.
Two at a time, the passengers climbed onto the back of the large birds which flew down in turn to pick up their passengers. Wheaton rode with Gibson, Sarah with Burke, Lori with Jandor, and Daniel with Terri. A blue, semi-transparent, dome-shaped aura surrounded each set of passengers to protect them from the wind as they flew.
“All right my friends, to Cirinian!” Wheaton shouted.
At these words, the four phara birds shot off like bullets into the horizon.