* Lumarian Mountains *
“I’m so tired of walking through mountains,” Karmandrian whined. “Why do we even have quickeners if they can’t get to half the places in the world?”
Pathos laughed. “You’re incredibly spoiled, Karman. At least we’re guardians, it hardly fatigues us. Think how Ace must feel.”
The trio had already been walking for hours along a narrow dirt path that wound its way over hilly terrain and between steep cliffs.
“I’m fine actually,” Ace said as he walked ahead of the two guardians on the narrow path. “If you think this is bad, try traveling to Vinchu. You have to pass through the Lost Plains, then climb a steep cliff face before entering the freezing cold of the White Desert.”
“Daunting indeed,” Pathos said in clear admiration. “How long did it take you?”
“A few weeks. I got some help traveling across the plains, but the desert was brutal. Fortunately, if I ever have to go back, I’m pretty sure I could make it in less than a week now that I know some of the secret shortcuts.”
“I’m just saying, we could at least have gotten some horses,” Karmandrian said, apparently oblivious to the conversation.
“Horses wouldn’t have done us any good on this path,” Pathos said. “At least be glad it’s been quiet so far.”
“Don’t jinx it,” Ace said immediately.
Pathos gave him a curious look. “Don’t what?”
Ace chuckled. “Never mind, it’s a saying from my world. I guess it doesn’t quite translate.”
Pathos shrugged but then remembered something he wanted to ask. “Speaking of things from your world: is that robe of yours from there?”
“What? No, people don’t wear robes on my world like they do here.”
“That’s the same robe you wore yesterday, right? Only now, it’s blue,” Pathos said.
“And when we first met, you were wearing a white robe, but then when you came to help us fight, it was purple,” Karmandrian recalled.
Ace nodded in understanding. “It’s a special property of the robe, it changes colors based on how I adjust my adimus energy.”
“Adjust?” Pathos repeated. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t fully understand it myself, but by carrying the seal all this time, I’ve absorbed its energy and it messed with my adimus. Now I can manipulate it to allow different abilities. It’s complicated though. I only do it when I need a specific set of skills.”
“That’s incredible,” Pathos said. “So, it being blue now means…?”
“I need strong mentus to search the mentant realm because of all the quartz interference, so I adjusted my adimus, and that’s why my robe is mentant-blue.”
“And yesterday when we were fighting in Murrilogic and Riverbed, you were using mandamus, so that’s why it turned purple,” Karmandrian concluded.
“Exactly,” Ace nodded.
“But how is that different from just being a mandant?” Pathos asked.
“It’s more like a tradeoff. If I’m using mandamus, then my mentus is much weaker. I can also adjust my adimus to use quickener, environ, and channeler mentus too, but not all at once,” Ace explained. “Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of proficiency in those specialized mentus skills since I’ve only done a little training. Also, I can’t become a mind mage and I don’t have the adimus energy pool of a full mandant.”
“Still, that’s an incredible power,” Pathos said. “I’ve never heard of anyone able to do that.”
“Well, I—” Ace was about to explain further but then he sensed something in the mentant realm. “Wait, something’s coming, it’s headed right for us, and I don’t think it’s human.” He turned to Pathos with a grin. “See, you jinxed it.”
Pathos and Karmandrian soon realized what Ace was talking about. Even through the quartz interference in the mountains they could track the faint trace of something moving in the mentant realm, though it was hard to identify. It was almost as if the effects of some mentus command was headed toward them, but there was no sign of the person who triggered it.
Ace’s hand reflexively went to his hip where a short sword hung from his belt, but before he could make a move, a small black dog rounded the corner.
“Wait a minute,” Ace said quickly, “I know that dog. Illusion?”
The black border terrier scampered up to him. “Ace? Thank goodness you’re here! I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to find someone who could help.”
Pathos and Karmandrian looked confused.
“Ace, how is that mentus energy a talking dog?” Pathos was the first to find his voice.
Before Illusion could explain himself, as he often had to do, Ace answered. “You were created by a mentant monk, weren’t you?”
“Indeed,” Illusion said, a bit taken aback.
“But not one from Vinchu,” Ace continued. “This is another ancient technique, right? If I were to guess, I’d say the one taught at Creatu.”
Illusion gave a very human-like look of confusion. “You’re familiar with the monasteries?”
“I’ve had some time to learn,” Ace replied vaguely. “But what are you doing out here? Were you with Mrs. Guardman?”
“Yes.” Illusion sat and used his front paws to gesticulate as he explained the story of their journey up to the discovery by Davron’s monsters and Alice’s subsequent defeat.
“When I was next summoned by Mrs. Guardman, she and Sherrilynn were both being held prisoner by Davron in Gilmore. They’re being treated well and are in no danger. Mrs. Guardman sent me to try and find Alice or get help.”
Karmandrian clenched his fists angrily. “I don’t believe this is happening. Why are those monsters out here of all places?”
“It makes sense,” Pathos said pensively. No one comes to this area of the mountains; all the towns have been dead for centuries. It’s the perfect place to hide.”
“Wait, were you able to find Alice?” Karmandrian asked, his tone slightly panicked.
“I tried to track her but it’s too difficult to scan the mentant realm, so I spent a while searching around the area where I last saw her but had no success. That’s when I decided to take the path back to Zohare and get to the outpost so I could alert someone in the Fantasmal Government of our plight.”
“If Davron’s army is stationed in Gilmore, then we need to turn back right now,” Pathos said. “We have to tell the Fantasma.”
“But what about Alice?” Karmandrian countered vehemently.
Ace nodded, clearly sharing Karmandrian’s passion. “Exactly. We can’t just leave her out there. Plus, Mrs. Guardman and her friend are being held hostage.”
“If Alice is alive, then the best way to find her is to have a whole force out there looking for her, and there’s no way we can rescue the others if we’re facing potentially thousands of monsters,” Pathos reasoned. “Going back is our only option. We’ll need to mobilize our own army to take them on.”
Ace shook his head. “How would we bring a large army to Gilmore? These narrow mountain paths would be a nightmare for that many people. They’d definitely see us coming and that would give them an even greater advantage, not to mention putting the hostages’ lives at risk.”
“There is one option. Apparently, they have a large manmade quickener cave to the north of town,” Illusion revealed. “I heard about it from the soldiers while I was searching around Gilmore.”
“If we gain access to that quickener cave, we could summon a quickener from the mountain and then bring our forces in through there,” Pathos mused.
Ace nodded. “That’s an idea. Though I’d still want to try and sneak in and get Mrs. Guardman before any battles occur.”
“That’s a pretty bold strategy,” Karmandrian said. “A lot could go wrong.”
“And there’s also Alice to consider,” Pathos mused. “I want to believe she’s alive, but even if she is, I’m sure she was badly hurt. I wish we had a way to track her somehow.”
Ace brightened at this. “Illusion, can you take us to the place where she fell?”
Illusion nodded. “Yes, it’s near where the zenith quartz mine is located, not too far from here.”
“Good, let’s head there, I think I might have a way to find her,” Ace said excitedly to his two companions.
“Wait,” Pathos said hesitantly. “We need to be smart about this. We have to alert Sorinson and the Fantasma of what we know. If the plan is to use that quickener cave, we’ll need them to start preparing the troops and quickeners now. Plus, if we get caught or killed, at least they’ll know where Davron’s forces are.” He turned to his fellow guardian. “We should split up. Karmandrian, head back to Zohare. We’ll go find Alice and secure the quickener cave.”
“Wait, why am I going?” Karmandrian said stubbornly. “I don’t want to just leave Alice out there.”
“Because you’re faster than me,” Pathos said. “You can get back to Fantasmal Mountain quicker.”
Karmandrian nodded at this. Not only was his base speed faster, but he was able to increase it with mandamus for far longer than Pathos. “Okay, fine. Maybe going back will be better anyway. Hopefully, those monsters haven’t found Alice yet.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll get her,” Ace promised. “I’m certain I can find her.”
“Once we have access to the quickener cave, we can summon Martinson. That’ll give us the link we need to bring Fantasma’s army to Gilmore,” Pathos added.
Karmandrian nodded. “Just be careful, and if you can’t get to that quickener cave, then just forget it and head back. Maybe we can find another way. How long do you think you’ll need?”
Pathos thought about this. “Give us until the setting of sun reaches Gilmore. If we haven’t contacted Martinson by then, they should head through the mountains on foot. Attacking in the cover of night might be your best chance if you have to do that.”
Karmandrian clasped arms with his friend. “All right, be safe.”
He used mandamus to give himself an extra burst of speed and started back in the direction of Zohare.
Pathos turned back to Ace. “So, you have a way to find Alice?”
“Yes, but we need to get as close to where she fell first,” Ace said. “I’ll explain once we get there. Illusion, lead the way.”
They started quickly down the path with the small black dog in the lead.
An hour later, Pathos, Ace, and Illusion were standing on a high ledge on the mountain that held the zenith quartz mine. Ace was holding up a gold chain with a smooth, round, red stone pendent that was glowing faintly.
“That’s a bonding stone, isn’t it?” Pathos observed.
He’d been watching Ace silently for around five minutes before he finally decided to break the silence.
“Uh huh.” Ace was completely focused on the pendent, analyzing it in the mentant realm.
Pathos smirked, internally chastising himself for expecting any more of an answer from Ace. He tried again, his question more to the point. “Yesterday you mentioned that you knew Alice. How are you two acquainted?”
Ace lowered the necklace, a frown on his face. “The signal’s too faint from here. I think she might be in a cave or somewhere else that’s shielded by quartz. It would make sense if she was trying to hide. We need to go further east and then hopefully I can get a better read. It’ll take some time though.”
Illusion nodded. “I believe that if we follow this trail back down the mountain, we’ll find a path headed east.”
The black border terrier led the way, and Ace and Pathos followed. Pathos was about to question Ace again, but his companion spoke first.
“You know how I told you I was here for over forty years?”
“Indeed.” Pathos nodded.
“Well, like I said, I spent the first half of that time looking for my friends, but after I reached the Fantasma and it wasn’t the same person, it sort of broke me. For a while, I just wandered around the world with no real goal. I didn’t know what to do, and I was pretty miserable. I did that for about six or seven years. That’s when I met Alice. It was when she was on her way to Leviton to go—”
“Wait, you’re Cal?” Pathos said in shock, seeming to put the pieces together quickly.
Ace grinned sheepishly. “So, she talked about me?”
“Talked about you! That’s an understatement. You were all she ever talked about, even after you disappeared.” Pathos gave an impressed whistle. “But wait, why were you going by Cal?”
“Well, when I first came to Mendala, I didn’t know how it happened. My friends told me that someone was after us, someone with monsters. I didn’t really know about the Book of War or that I had been thrown back in the past, so I thought I needed to lay low in case someone was trying to hunt me down. I still wanted my friends to be able to find me in case they were looking for me, so instead of Ace, I went by ‘Alex Calvin.’” Pathos gave him a confused look so Ace elaborated. “My full name is Alex Calvin Eastman, but my friends all call me Ace, which would make sense if you knew English.”
Pathos nodded slowly then something seemed to click. “Wait, there was a famous hyperball field master named Alex Calvin years ago—oh that’s right. You said you played for the Otter Bay Team. You were with them when they won the world championship about twenty years ago. I remember that game; I was just a kid back then. It’s weird to think that you’re technically younger and older than me at the same time.”
Ace smirked at this. “Anyway, when I left the hyperball league, I changed my name to Cal so people wouldn’t immediately recognize me, and by then, I’d stopped believing my friends were somewhere out there looking for me. I went around doing odd jobs. Knowing mandamus meant my skills were always in demand, and since I never revealed I could use mandamus when I played hyperball, no one made the connection.”
“This is too amazing,” Pathos said excitedly. “So not only are you a famous hyperball player, you’re also the infamous Cal: Alice’s one true love. I can’t wait to tell Karman; he hated you!”
Ace looked shocked at this. “What?”
“Karmandrian had such a huge crush on Alice—actually, I think he may still—but Alice was only ever interested in you,” Pathos revealed. “Between Alice constantly praising you and Karman constantly muttering curses on you, I swear you were the topic of conversation far more that our guardian training. Alice always said you were the most skilled mandant she’d ever met and that even some guardians couldn’t hold a candle to you. She would always go to Leviton to get trained by you. We thought she was just exaggerating; making up an excuse to see you, but your mandamus skills are definitely near guardian level when you’re serious. So, you really did train her, didn’t you?”
Ace nodded. “I had no idea she talked about me that much. She never really mentioned anyone from guardian training. All I knew was that she had two suitemates that she often studied with but…”
“But what?” Pathos asked intrigued.
“Well, I’m guessing you guys were the two suitemates?” Ace said.
“Yes, we shared a three-bedroom suite throughout our entire twelve years of training. What did she say about us though?” Pathos pressed eagerly.
“Uh, I probably shouldn’t say.”
“It can’t be that bad.”
Ace touched his face nervously. “Well, she said you were both rubes she had to drag kicking and screaming.”
Pathos burst out laughing. “Is that all? She said that to our faces almost every day. Alice was always ten times the mandant we were, and she was so dedicated with all her other studies. We wouldn’t have survived without her, I guarantee.”
Ace gave a light chuckle at this. “That’s pretty surprising considering how she was when I first met her.”
Illusion led them to where the trail split in two directions, and the trio took the northeast path that wrapped around the mountain.
“Wait, what do you mean?” Pathos asked, immensely curious about Alice’s past.
“She definitely had a lot of drive and determination, that’s for sure, but she was really lacking in skill. For one thing, she used a lot of her own adimus energy in her standard mandamus commands. Actually, I’ve noticed that with a lot of mandants and guardians.”
“Well, you have to sometimes. That’s how you get more powerful effects,” Pathos said
“No, it’s not,” Ace disagreed. “Well, you can do it that way if you want, but you’re just wasting your own energy for no reason. I think it’s a carryover from how people learn mentus since you actually use your own mentus energy to do things, but with most standard mandamus, you don’t need much of your own energy to do big things.”
Pathos listened, only understanding in part. “Alice said you had some deep insight into mandamus that no one else had, but how did you learn? I was under the impression that your world knew nothing of the adimus.”
Ace faltered at this. He thought for several seconds as they continued walking along the downward sloping path. “Honestly, I think it was the seal that taught me.”
“I’ve been carrying it around for forty years, most of the time physically on me, and it’s revealed certain truths to me, little by little. It’s supernal in nature, so I think that even though it’s broken, it’s still connected to a higher power or knowledge, and the longer I carried it, the more insight I got into how certain things worked.”
“Between that and it giving you those strange adimus abilities, I’d say that seal has made you into quite the unique individual,” Pathos said in awe.
“Speaking of the seal,” Illusion said gruffly. “Ace, do you sense that?”
Ace looked down at his hand reflexively. The golden symbol had appeared, which could only mean the creatures of the Book of War were near, but he didn’t see anything, not even in the mentant realm. Still, his instincts told him they were in trouble. His robe instantly turned purple.
“Mittius Mentenus Safe,” he commanded, and a dome of green energy surrounded the trio just before a blast of fire came at them from above. Though the shield held, the fireball exploded on impact, causing the ground beneath them to shake dangerously.
Pathos looked up but saw nothing. He scanned the mentant realm but still could not sense their enemy. “What in Alaman’s name is going on?”
Before anyone could offer an answer, several dozen stone projectiles slammed against the safe shield from the front. Again, the impact was enough to threaten the integrity of the protective aura.
“The part of my mentus that’s connected to the seal tells me that creatures of the Book of War are near,” Illusion growled, “but I can’t sense them beyond that.”
More fire balls rained down from above as if the sky itself was attacking them.
“Could they be using the quartz in the mountain to shield themselves in the mentant realm?” Pathos asked.
Ace looked around frantically. “It’s unlikely, based on the trajectory of these attacks, we should’ve seen something, and there’s nowhere to hide around here. Whatever these things are, they’re way stronger than pogs.” Another volley of stone projectiles hit the shield. “I can’t hold this safe shield for much longer; we’ve got to do something.”
“Ace, I can smell something just ahead of us,” Illusion said. Even if he couldn’t sense it mentantly, the dog still had regular canine senses that allowed him to sniff out their opponent.
“It’s got to be invisible, that’s the only thing that makes sense,” Ace said.
“Even if it is, we should still be able to sense it mentantly,” Pathos countered.
“Not if it can hide its presence,” Ace said as he dismissed the safe shield. He ran forward, instinctively dodging a stone projectile aimed at his head. He reached out and felt something cloth-like. “Mittius Mentenus Reveal.”
A disembodied, floating black robe appeared before him. It was chest height and the only thing that could be seen in the shadowy confines of the hood was a pair of glowing red eyes. It stretched out its armless sleeves and Ace immediately understood what was about to happen. He threw himself against the side of the mountain just as another two stone projectiles shot out from where hands should have been.
“We can’t fight these things here, this path is too narrow,” Pathos called as he dodged another fireball from the second, still invisible enemy.
“Jump; there’s a wide ledge just below,” Ace said, thinking quickly.
Pathos scooped up Illusion and jumped without hesitation. It was a three-meter drop to the wide ledge below but that was nothing for the guardian. Ace didn’t follow. Instead, he ran up the path, away from the black-robed enemy and took a flying leap, correctly guessing where its companion was. He felt the smooth cloth of the robe as he grabbed wildly in midair.
“Mittius Mentenus Reveal.”
Another hooded, empty black robe appeared; arms outstretched. Ace had no chance to dodge as he was blasted with fire. He was just barely able to cover his face before the intense flames hit him, charring his arms, though his purple robe was surprisingly undamaged. He fell backwards, past the mountain path to the ledge below.
“Mittius Mandamus Wind.” Pathos slowed Ace’s descent so that he landed softly in front of him and then used mandamus to quickly heal his injuries.
As Ace scrambled to his feet, the black robed monsters started to float slowly down toward them, arms outstretched again.
Pathos raised another green aura to fend off the incoming attacks. “What are those things?”
Now that they were revealed, Ace could see them in the mentant realm. He focused on the dark miasmic aura that surrounded the creatures and soon the answer came. “They’re englers. They specialize in elemental-based attacks, and they’re invulnerable to physical harm.”
Pathos was also scanning the mentant realm. “Well, that’s every creature of the Book of War, isn’t it?”
“I don’t think that’s what it means.” Ace unsheathed his sword as the englers descended upon them. He once again took a running start and launched himself at one of the black robes, dodging two stone projectiles in midair. He slashed at the creature, but it was like his blade went through smoke.
“Mittius Mentenus Bind,” Pathos commanded just after Ace was clear of the monsters.
An amber aura wrapped around the englers, restricting their movement, and giving Ace a chance to regroup with his comrade.
“Okay, how do we defeat those things?” Pathos asked.
Ace shrugged. “I’m not sure. For now, can you just get rid of them?”
One of the englers managed to raise its arms, but Pathos was too quick for it. He used his mentus to increase his bind on the monsters, forcing them to the ground and preventing them from moving at all.
“I can try.” Pathos said as he stepped forward. “Mittius Maximus Wind.”
An explosive force of wind blasted the two englers off the ledge, sending them flying to the south and far out of sight.
“I think that worked,” Pathos said as he scanned the mentant realm, “By the way, how did you make those monsters appear?”
“I figured that the perception filter must have been caused by some sort of energy manipulation, so I used mandamus to understand and then undo it,” Ace explained.
Pathos was stunned. “You can do that?”
Ace gave him a confused look. “Of course. Didn’t they teach you that?”
“Well, yes,” Pathos confirmed, “but it’s really difficult to master. I only know a few guardians who’ve perfected that skill, and you’re not even a guardian.”
Ace shook his head. “True, but mandamus works the same for everyone if you know the principles; Guardians just have a lot more adimus energy to work with. Standard mandamus isn’t a problem for me, but I’m almost completely drained after using so many advanced commands since they require me to use my own adimus energy. Makes me wish we had a guardian seal bearer.”
Pathos brightened at this. “Maybe Fantasma could promote you—”
Ace forestalled him though. “He can’t. The seal changed my adimus too much. It would be impossible for Fantasma to give me the guardian boost. That’s one of the drawbacks.”
“You get more and more interesting the longer I know you.” Pathos chuckled but quickly became serious again. “Anyway, we better get moving. I have a feeling that it wasn’t a coincidence we ran into those monsters.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” Ace said gravely. “Those englers were far more powerful than your standard pog. I bet they’re looking for Alice just like we are, and we have no idea how many more of them there might be. We need to hurry.”
With Illusion in the lead, the trio continued east, Ace holding the bonding stone aloft as he tried to use it to locate Alice within the quartz laden mountain range.