* Fantasmal Mountain *
“I’ve got to admit, Teedmount is amazing,” Tabatha said as she stared up at the star-filled sky above the city.
Despite being inside of Fantasmal Mountain, the city of Teedmount had its own artificial sky, which mirrored the sky outside, even mimicking the temperature and weather. It was an impressive feat of mentant engineering, even for the normally disinterested Tabatha.
“See, I told you you’d like it down here. Much better than the regular tour of the top of the mountain,” Lily said before shoveling a spoonful of fruit-flavored ice cream into her mouth.
The two were at a small café on the eastern edge of the city, sitting outside at a stone table, enjoying the warn night air. The small elf was no longer in her white robe and wore only the loose-fitting green t-shirt and black shorts that had been underneath. The clothing, along with her elfish features, enhanced her already childlike appearance.
Tabatha, for her part, was still in her blue sleeveless shirt and leggings but had also shed her robe. “Well, that’s true, but I still wish we could’ve seen some top-secret stuff. This is Fantasmal Mountain; I thought it was supposed to be the most powerful place in the world, but it’s all offices and suites and stuff, nothing special.”
“Well, it’s not like I have access to any secure areas.” Lily chuckled. “My job is pretty boring. Speaking of such, I’ll probably have a mountain of paperwork tomorrow.”
“I’m really sorry. I hope I didn’t get you in any trouble by keeping you out almost all day.”
“It’s no problem. My main assignment right now is to take care of our otherworldly visitors,” Lily said with a wink.
Tabatha smirked at this. The two had spent most of the day touring the mountain and getting to know each other. During that time, they’d become fast friends. In the almost seven hours they’d spent together, they visited various parts of the governance, walked around the Fantasmal Libraries, and explored Teedmount.
Throughout the tour, the two talked extensively. Tabatha found it nice to speak freely to someone who didn’t know her, and she was able to get a lot of things off her chest. Lily, for her part, was a good listener and sympathized with Tabatha’s plight of being brought to another world against her will and having to live years there without knowing if she’d ever get back home.
Lily also opened up about the difficulty of choosing to leave her home in the Kingdom of Ellenon, where the vast majority of elves lived, because she wanted to explore the outside world. Because of this, she would never be allowed back in the kingdom or be able to see her family again. The young elf had been working in the Fantasmal Government for five years now, but she had very few friends. The friendship she gained in the off-worlder had been an unexpected surprise.
Tabatha finished her dessert before responding. “I’m sure one day you’ll be doing something more than paperwork. Maybe you’ll even become chief of staff, then you’ll have access to all of the top-secret doomsday weapons and everything.”
“Highly doubtful.” Lily giggled again. “For one thing, I’m not a mind mage. I definitely don’t have the talent and only mind mages can be chief of staff. My aim is to either become one of the hospitality leads or work in library research under Chief Stokenshire; I really love researching history and artifacts. Honestly though, just being able to work in the mountain is a great honor. They don’t just let anyone work here, but I’m pretty sure my being an elf had a lot to do with it.”
“What? Is that some sort of affirmative action program for elves?”
Lily laughed. “Elves are just seen as more trustworthy since we are supposed to be extra sensitive to malicious intent. It’s a bit of a stereotype honestly.”
“What, so you can tell if someone’s lying or something like that?”
“No, it’s more like we can sense when someone has impure motives or is being truly malicious. It’s like an extra mentus sense that all elves have. So, because of that, people think that elves are less likely to be deceitful. I guess the thought is: if you grow up in an environment where people could tell you’re being dishonest, you’re more likely to be truthful, but it’s a bit overblown.” Lily rolled her eyes. “It’s not like we’ve got some sort of lie detection skill. It has to be something really impure or malicious for most elves to sense anything.”
“Wow, that’s…wow.” Tabatha said, clearly pensive.
“I’d heard that Fantasmal Mountain tended to hire elves if they applied, so I was counting on that when I left home. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I didn’t get a job here. I’m not all that talented,” Lily admitted. “I just really wanted to see the world, and this is honestly the best job for that. I get to go all sorts of places.” She smiled but there was a hint of sadness in her green eyes.
Tabatha didn’t miss this. “It still sucks that you can never go back home. That’s such a dumb rule.”
“No, it’s just how our people are. We’re given three years to travel the outside world and decide whether we want to return home. I made my decision, and I don’t regret it…for the most part.” Lily pulled a small silver chain from under her shirt, a blue quartz rock charm was at the end of it. She stared at it wistfully.
Tabatha understood the meaning of this. “I’m guessing there was someone you were really close to?”
“Yeah…I mean…kind of…I guess.” Lily sighed. “In the end, we just realized we wanted two different things. He wanted to stay, and I just couldn’t.”
“For him to give you a bonding stone though, it must have been really serious between you two. I bet it was a hard choice, especially since you still have it.” Tabatha tugged at the silver chain around her own neck and revealed a deep red quartz rock charm at the end. She held it up as if in solidarity.
“Did you have to leave someone behind too?” Lily asked.
Tabatha nodded. “He was the first person to ever be kind to me in this world. He helped me figure out how to control my powers, and he really took care of me.” She tucked the stone back under her shirt.
Lily nodded as she did the same. “I understand. Are you sad you’ll never see him again after you go back to your own world?”
Tabatha thought about this, but before she could answer, someone interrupted their conversation. “Hey Lily, who’s your friend?”
They were both jarred by the voice and looked up to see a tall elf with light tan skin and short blonde hair approaching them. Unlike Lily, her long tapered ears and sharp facial features did not give her a childlike air. The woman still looked youthful but radiated an air of maturity. She carried a quickener staff almost as tall as she was.
“Oh, hi Isabelle.” Lily beckoned the quickener elf to join them at the stone table in the last remaining seat. “This is one of the off-worlders, Tabatha Wright.”
“Really,” Isabelle’s green eyes grew wide with intrigue. “I heard about them, of course, but this is my first time meeting one.”
Tabatha raised an eyebrow feeling like some sort of circus animal. She turned to Lily. “Uh, I thought you said people weren’t supposed to know about us?”
“Isabelle is the head quickener of the Fantasmal Forces, so she already knows.” Lily turned back to Isabelle. “I heard you were taking over for Chief Quicksilver today. How are you managing?”
“With all the troop deployments and Fantasma going around to different countries, it’s been a lot, but fortunately there are a lot of reliable quickeners to help, so it’s mostly been coordinating.”
Tabatha seemed to realize something in that moment. “Wait, so you work for the Fantasmal Forces? That means you know all of the cool military stuff in the mountain, right?” She gave the quickener an eager look.
Isabelle looked confused. “I suppose; why?”
“Tabatha’s convinced that we have some top-secret weapons hidden in the mountain,” Lily explained with another giggle.
Isabelle put a hand to her chin, thinking. “Well, the mountain does have its secrets, but that’s just it: they’re secrets. No one besides the Fantasma and his chief officers know the full power of this place, but there are a few rumors that are probably true.”
“Really, like what?” Tabatha leaned in closer.
“Well, of course there’s the obvious one: Echo Cavern. That’s been in some of the legends, and I’m pretty sure it’s real. It’s just that it hasn’t been needed in thousands of years since the very first few Fantasmas.”
“Echo Cavern?” Tabatha repeated confused.
“Oh yeah,” Lily said. “It’s supposed to be the hollowed-out space at the very peak of the mountain, a special place where the Fantasma can use mentus or mandamus and affect anywhere in the world.”
“Yeah, apparently it doesn’t even matter if there’s a quartz barrier,” Isabelle added with a nod. “I also heard that it magnifies adimus abilities too.”
“Whoa, see I knew it.” Tabatha’s small fist hit the table. “I knew this place was some all-powerful weapon. With something like that, the Fantasma could probably level an entire city with his mandamus, maybe even a whole country. He could kill anyone, anywhere.”
“Hold on,” Isabelle said. “Just because the power exists, doesn’t mean the Fantasma uses it. Like I said: the whole reason Echo Cavern is considered a legend is because it hasn’t been used in recent history. Besides, most of the mountain’s secrets are just used to defend or protect the people inside. The mountain has an ancient defense system built into the core itself.”
“The mountain has a core? Is that anything like a city core?” Tabatha asked. “I heard some larger cities have cores. Aren’t they like huge quartz rocks buried under the city with high level embedded mentus?”
Isabelle nodded. “Exactly. A city or mountain having a core is rare of course, but Fantasmal Mountain has one of the most intricate and complex cores in existence. If it ever comes under a real attack, the Fantasma can use it to do all sorts of things.”
“Like?” Tabatha pressed.
Isabelle shrugged. “No clue. Again, only the Fantasma and his chief officers have access to the mountain’s core defense system, but like I said: it’s function is to protect.”
Tabatha was undeterred. “Okay, but still, the Fantasmal Forces is the largest army in the world, right? What does he do with all that? There’s no point in having an army if you’re never fighting.”
“Well right now, we’re trying to defend against the creatures of the Book of War,” Isabelle pointed out. “Beyond that though, they’re only deployed on specific occasions. Most of the time, it’s just used as a deterrent.”
“Deterrent?” Tabatha scoffed. “What are you deterring? Countries fight all the time. If the Fantasmal Forces aren’t stopping them, then what’s the point.”
Lily put a hand on Tabatha’s, interrupting before Isabelle could answer. “You know, sometimes I feel like you really don’t trust the Fantasmal Government. You always sound like you’re looking for something, like there’s a dark secret we’re hiding.”
“Well, yeah, kind of,” Tabatha admitted. “Place this big, huge government bureaucracy, giant army; nothing this big can be squeaky clean.”
“Well, that’s probably true, there are always a few cracked rocks anywhere you go,” Isabelle admitted, “but the Fantasma is chosen by the Epouranal Council, and their purpose is to serve the world and its peoples. Everything in this mountain is a reflection of that purpose, even the army.” Isabelle stood. “I tell you what; let me show you.”
Tabatha looked up. “Show me what?”
“I’m guessing the underground military complex wasn’t part of your standard mountain tour, right? I’ll take you there and you can see for yourself what we do.”
“Well, I won’t say no to a backstage pass,” Tabatha said excitedly.
“Are you sure that’s okay?” Lily asked concerned.
“Sure, it’s fine as long as you two stick with me. Come on, there’s an access point about ten minutes from here.”
The two stood, abandoning the last dregs of their ice cream to follow Isabelle.
Fantasmal Mountain had seven distinct sectors. The top three, the residency, the governance, and the libraries, were designed like a large building with numerous floors containing suites, offices, conference rooms and more. Translifts allowed people to move from floor to floor similar to an elevator. Combined, these three sectors took up half of the mountain. The fourth sector was the city of Teedmount. It sat in the lower half of the mountain, which was completely hollowed out, allowing for tall buildings and the illusion of a sky above the city. Tabatha’s tour had taken her to all four of the above ground sections, but Lily did not have access to the sectors beneath the mountain.
From bottom to top, the three underground sectors were the subterrane, storehouse, and fort. The subterrane functioned as the mountain’s basement where such things as waste management, environmental controls and other mountain functions were regulated and maintained. The storehouse was a massive warehouse space that housed all manner of items, foods, and supplies, including vaults containing rare items, and special greenhouses with their own sealed environments that could mimic any weather condition. Then there was the underground military sector known as the fort which was a sprawling campus that was the central base of the Fantasmal Forces.
As Tabatha entered the fort for the first time with Lily and Isabelle, she was reminded of the military bases she’d seen in media back on her home world. There were barracks, training grounds, dining facilities, jails, and a myriad of other buildings for various uses. The entire area was built in a large hollowed out space similar to the city above it, but unlike Teedmount, it did not have its own sky. Instead, Tabatha could clearly see the rock ceiling high above the grounds.
“This place is massive,” she said in awe.
“It has to be in order to house nearly 200,000 people,” Isabelle commented.
Tabatha swore under her breath, still stunned. Though Teedmount’s population was almost triple that, it was still an impressive number for a military force in Mendala, and she knew this wasn’t the total manpower of the Fantasmal Forces.
Even though it was evening, the campus was full of life with many people rushing around. It was evident that everyone was on high alert and preparing for the ongoing threat posed by the creatures of the Book of War. However, no one seemed to notice or question the presence of the two civilians being led around by Isabelle.
As they walked, Isabelle explained the different branches of the military, pointing to the buildings that supported them. Beyond the main forces, there was the Oceanic Protectorate, which policed the oceans and protected merchant and passenger vessels from pirates. There was also a special division known as the Fantasmal Knights who specialized in exploration and monster fighting, though before the Book of War, monsters were rare.
“We also have special logistical, medical and engineering corps that help clean-up war torn areas left without a functioning government,” Isabelle added as they walked.
Tabatha nodded, though her attention was split. She was listening to Isabelle but was constantly distracted by other things she saw, like the vehicles that were moving around the base. They were similar to cars, though they were more like large, automated wagons that they used to move around supplies. There were also many unidentified mentus-based devices that she assumed must be special weapons of some kind.
Then there were the uniforms that most of the soldiers were wearing. Unlike the blue robe Isabelle currently wore, most of the people that walked by were in loose fitting fatigues with a swirling pattern of dark purple and black. Even at a glance, Tabatha could tell that the clothing was at least ninety percent ustus, the quartz-based fabric that was unique because it could never be soiled, ripped, or stained. Ustus was also very breathable and great for extreme temperatures, allowing it to be worn in both hot and cold climates. The higher the percentage of ustus in clothing, the more versatile it was, but due to its expense, it was not uncommon for most people to only own one garment made primarily of ustus, and that was usually their robe.
Seeing how well equipped the Fantasmal Forces were, it was clear to Tabatha that they could overwhelm any enemy. It was no wonder that it had been thousands of years since anyone had overtly challenged the Fantasma. As she was marveling at this, something else caught her eye. “Isabelle, what’s that over there?” She pointed to a large set of double doors. Above it was a sign that read “Lumarian Translift Sector 1.” It was being guarded by two soldiers.
Isabell turned to where she was pointing. “It’s part of the military translift network.”
“You guys even have your own translift network?” Tabatha said half in awe, half in exasperation.
“Well, quickeners can only move up to twenty people at a time,” Isabelle reasoned. “We need a way to deploy large quantities of troops. We could obviously use multiple quickeners but that’s not always practical. Those translifts are huge. They can move hundreds of people at a time to strategic points all around the world.”
“And I’m guessing this is another thing that only the Fantasmal Forces has,” Tabatha said.
“I think so,” Isabelle said pensively. “I’ve heard that there used to be one or two other translift networks similar to ours, but that was long ago.”
“So, Fantasma can just deploy his super powerful army anywhere in the world and no one can stop him.”
“Well, it’s not like we just attack countries at random,” Isabelle said defensively.
“Okay, maybe not, but look at this place, all these people, all this…just all of it. If Fantasma has this huge army and all these resources at his disposal, why does he even need us?”
Isabelle gave her a confused look. “What do you mean?”
“You know, because Jandor and Ace and the others can kill the creatures of the Book of War. Even if you can’t kill the creatures, you still have all of this. You don’t need my friends—"
“Hold it.” Isabelle had a shocked look on her face. “What do you mean they can kill the creatures of the Book of War? How is that even possible?”
It was Tabatha’s turn to look confused. “Because of the mark on their hands, something to do with the seal. I don’t know; I wasn’t paying that much attention. How come you don’t know?” She turned to Lily who also looked completely dumbfounded. “Wait, neither of you know? They never told you? Why do you think we’re on this planet to begin with? That’s why Fantasma brought us here, so we can fight in this war against Davron.”
Both Isabelle and Lily were momentarily stupefied. It was clear neither of them knew what she was talking about.
Isabelle was the first to regain her voice. “I’ve not heard anything about this. From what I understand, the Fantasma went to the otherworld to find the Daughter of the Sun. You and your friends arrived here due to a quickener accident and we’re trying to recover everyone to hopefully get you back home.”
Lily nodded at this.
Tabatha scoffed. “Well maybe they aren’t telling you everything then.” She started forward.
Lily rushed to catch up with her. “Tabatha, I know how much you want to go home, and I’m sure that the Fantasma will do everything in his power to send you and your friends back.”
“Well, I don’t have the stupid mark thing, so I guess I don’t have to worry about it either way,” Tabatha shrugged, “but it’s not like I want my friends to die in this war,” she added softly. “If Ace and the others would just stop trying to play hero and go home then no one else will have to die.”
“I’m sure they’ll be fine. There’s no way Fantasma would make your friends fight if they don’t want to,” Lily said, putting an arm around her.
Tabatha gave a noncommittal shrug but didn’t argue. She finally turned back to Isabelle. “Thanks for the tour. Is it okay if we cut things short? I feel like lying down.”
Isabelle nodded, still looking pensive, and led them back the way they came.
After saying goodnight to Lily and Isabelle, Tabatha made her way back to her suite. Once she appeared in the translift on the floor where her room was, she saw Ace sitting outside her door, clearly waiting for her.
“Oh, there you are.” Ace stood when he saw her. “I’ve been looking all over for you, but everywhere I went, it was like I just missed you. I even went to the staff offices to see if they could trace your marker but—”
“Wait, I have a marker?” Tabatha said in confusion.
“The guest pass,” Ace clarified. “It’s a quartz marker that allows them to track you in the mountain, but even with the marker, you’re difficult to track mentantly. Actually, your adimus signature is very hard to read even when I’m standing right here with you. Is that a melder thing?”
“Something like that,” Tabatha said vaguely. “What’s funny is I can sense you from far away, even through quartz barriers, because you’re always carrying that seal thing. Its energy is really unique.”
“Yeah, it even made you pass out. Another melder thing?”
Tabatha shrugged. “I guess; certain types of energy just mess with me, but I’m used to it now. Anyway, what’s up? You said you were looking for me. If it’s to talk about before; listen, I’m sorry I snapped at you. I just—”
“No, it’s not about that. I wanted to tell you the good news. They’ve found Bernie, Alyson, and Becky.”
“Really! Where?” Tabatha looked stunned.
Ace quickly explained everything that Hamen shared with him previously. “It sounds like Bernie and Alyson did well even though they were on Mendala for years,” he concluded.
“Just great,” Tabatha huffed. “More people who want to stay in this crap world. So where are they now?”
“Well, I think they’re still at Weather Mountain. Hamen said that he would be bringing them here, but it seems like they’ve been held up. I’m sure they’ll be here soon.”
“Ugh, this sucks; I swear.” Tabatha turned back to the translift.
“Where are you going?” Ace asked as he followed her.
“I’m sick of waiting for these idiots to bring our friends to us. If Becky and the others are in Weather Mountain, I say, let’s go to them.” Tabatha said as they both stepped into the translift.
“Well, I don’t think it’s going to be that easy—” Ace started but he was cut off when Tabatha tapped one of the translift polls with her quartz rod.
Tabatha was so used to traveling around the mountain by now that she felt quite at ease as she and Ace were whisked off to the massive transportation corridor. She quickly walked down the wide stairway and started looking for the right door. “Ah, here we go. This one says it goes to Weather Mountain.” She tried to push through the large stone door, but it didn’t budge.
“Oi,” a guard called, “what are you doing?”
Tabatha turned to face the purple-robed mandant. “I want to go to Weather Mountain. Why won’t this thing open?”
“It’s sealed,” the guard said. “That’s the governance translift. You can’t use it unless you’re a guardian, work for the governance, or have a travel permit.”
Tabatha leaned against the door, a defiant look on her face. “This is ridiculous. You guys have too many rules around here. I’m just trying to get to my friends. Don’t you know who we are?”
Ace stepped between the two of them before Tabatha could reveal that they were off-worlders, a fact that very few people knew. “Listen, my friend is just a little wound up but I’m sure we can get one of the guardians or staff that were assigned to us to take us to Weather Mountain. We’ll go find them.”
Tabatha punched the quartz door in frustration. “Forget it.” She turned on her heels and headed back to the large staircase. “I’m going back to my room. Let me know when the others get here; if they ever do, that is.”
Ace put a hand on her shoulder to stop her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“These people are trying to keep us apart; I can tell,” Tabatha whispered darkly. “Something about this whole thing is wrong; you’ll see.” She stormed off.
“Tabatha,” Ace called, but he knew it was pointless. Her temper had seemed a lot more volatile, and he wondered, not for the first time, what happened to her in the five years she’d been on Mendala.