* Cirinian Valley *
<Jandor mate, you awake?>
Jandor felt sluggish but also light, as if he were floating. As he slowly opened his eyes, he realized why everything seemed to be shaking.
A giga pog was carrying him under its arm. In the pog’s other arm was Lori, hanging completely limp, but after a moment he heard her voice in his head again.
<Don’t make a lot of movement mate. We don’t want ‘em knowing we’re awake.>
Jandor understood and let himself go limp. He had no idea how to communicate with Lori, and still had many questions, but he decided to forgo them since it was clear they were all in danger.
They’d been captured by the creatures of the Book of War. The last thing he remembered was being in a cabin at the northern encampment. They’d been trapped inside by some type of barrier and then knocked out. It was clearly a premeditated trap, but why? More importantly, how would they get out of this mess? He didn’t know where they were or how many creatures they were facing. This wasn’t just a case of brute forcing his way out, not when he had so little information.
As he was trying to figure out his next move, Daniel’s voice rang in his head. <Jandor, Lori told me you were awake. I know you can’t communicate mentantly, so just listen. The pog that’s carrying me also has our weapons. In a few seconds, I’m going to summon my chakram and use it to break free. I’ll grab your weapons too. Once you’re free, run to the forest, and we’ll regroup there.>
Jandor listened intently to the quick explanation. He hadn’t expected Daniel to take charge and come up with their escape plan, but he realized that this actually made sense. Daniel was a mentant and could use the mentant realm. Though all of this was still new to Jandor, he understood that Daniel could get a clear sense of their surroundings even with his eyes closed. This meant he had a much better idea of everything that was going on and could use that information to figure out what to do.
It was a simple plan, but Jandor saw that as a good thing. Hopefully, it meant that their situation wasn’t dire, and they had a good chance of escaping by just running. Besides, even if he wanted to argue, he couldn’t, so he just decided to trust that Daniel knew what he was doing.
Opening his eyes again, Jandor saw the ground moving beneath him as the pog trotted forward at a quick pace. There was a giant bear-like creature in front of him but nothing else. He moved his head slightly back and forth to see that Daniel was being carried by the giga pog next to them. Jandor braced himself to jump from his captor’s arms. He had no idea what was behind him, so it seemed like the best option was to land in front of the pogs.
Daniel started the countdown in his head.
As he lurched out of the pog’s grip and hit the ground with a sloppy tuck and roll, Jandor heard the familiar whizzing sound of the chakram and a squeal from one of the creatures behind him.
“Jandor, Lori!” Daniel shouted now that there was no point in being covert.
Jandor turned to the voice and saw his staff and sword flying directly toward him, wrapped in a blue aura. Daniel had used his mentus to throw the weapons. Jandor caught them both before ducking to avoid the swing of an ax aimed right at his head. He quickly used the strap to sling the staff on his back, then he unsheathed his sword and took stock of his surroundings. There were far more enemies than he expected.
“What’s going on?” a female voice from behind him shouted.
A sideways glance revealed a soldier riding the giant bear creature, but Jandor didn’t have time to worry about her. He quickly put his sword up to block the axe that was being swung at him again.
“Jandor, we gotta move!” Lori called. She had her claymore once more and was at his side in an instant. She swatted the heavy axe away, giving Jandor the opportunity to jab the pog with his sword.
It wasn’t enough to kill the huge creature, but it went staggering backward, green pus-like blood spurting from the fresh wound.
Heeding Lori’s advice, Jandor made a mad dash for the nearby woods following Daniel.
“Get them!” the female soldier shouted.
Jandor could hear the thunderous sound of monsters chasing after them. He had no idea if they would make it to the forest before they caught up, and even if they did, that didn’t guarantee their escape. Just as he was about to turn around to hold off the creatures and buy his friends a chance to escape, he heard the clang of metal against metal just behind him.
One of the pogs had caught up to them and Lori was locked in combat once again.
“Lori!” Jandor shouted.
“Keep going, I’ll hold this lot off for a bit,” she called as she blocked a spiked mace with her claymore.
Jandor didn’t hesitate to turn and head back to help her, even as the massive bear-creature joined the fray.
“Oi, I thought I told you to keep goin’,” Lori snapped as the two started fighting in sync again.
“Yeah I know, but you’d have come back too if I said that,” he said as he used his sword to fend off the deathclaw’s massive paw before it could strike Lori. “Hopefully, Daniel can get far enough from here to use his chakram, and we can get out of —”
But the bear monster was far more powerful than he anticipated. He managed to counter it’s strike just barely, but the beast reared upward on its hind legs and swatted at him again, its long claws grazing Jandor’s exposed arm.
Lori saw the strike. “You okay?”
“Don’t worry, it’s just a scratch,” Jandor said as he leapt back, but suddenly, he felt his entire body lock up and he sank to his knees as he lost control of his extremities. “What…?”
Lori looked back, even as she parried the pog’s attacks. “Jandor, what’s happenin’?”
“It’s too late for him now,” came a taunting female voice. “The deathclaw’s special ability is that its claws carry a lethal toxin. Just one small cut and you’ll be dead in seconds.”
The female soldier strolled casually into the fray, and Lori immediately recognized her. It was Addilyn Foy, the skilled swordswoman she’d fought earlier at the translift cave. She watched with an almost detached interest as Lori tried to fend off both the giga pog and the deathclaw.
“I was supposed to bring you back alive, but I think Captain Calendon will be just as pleased with your corpses,” she said with a slight smirk.
“Still letting these critters do the fightin for ya’,” Lori called, grinning darkly despite the desperate situation.
Addilyn drew her sword, clearly goaded, but just as she moved in to join the fight, the blazing fast chakram decapitated the pog, and an arrow struck the deathclaw in its shoulder.
“Lori, get back!” someone called from behind her.
Lori looked back to see a pack of large wolves with silver fur charging toward them. Several of them launched themselves at the deathclaw while others attacked the surrounding pogs. The distraction was enough for Lori to get away and grab Jandor. She used mentus to enhance her strength so she could drag his limp form toward the woods as quickly as possible. Addilyn tried to pursue but was bowled over as a wolf pounced on her, pinning her in place.
Stephanie and Wheaton came running up to Lori to help her with Jandor, and Wheaton quickly tipped the contents of a small silver vile down his throat.
“Is he gonna be all right?” Lori asked in a panicked tone.
“I’m not sure,” Wheaton said. “I gave him the strongest all-purpose antidote I had in my possession. Hopefully, it will stabilize him until we can figure out how to fully heal him. Right now, we just need to get out of this battle.”
Lori chanced a quick glance backward. The deathclaw had been caught off guard by the wolves’ attack but it quickly rallied. Two wolves lie dead and the other three were now on the defense, trying to avoid its lethal claws. The remaining wolves were too busy holding back the pogs to assist.
“I think that’s gonna be easier said than done,” Lori lamented.
“Don’t worry, we have a plan,” Wheaton assured her.
Just as they reached the edge of the woods, several more arrows shot out from the treetops where Kynobi and a few others were stationed. These arrows weren’t aimed at any of the creatures though. Each arrow had a bright red bag attached to it and they all burst open simultaneously when they hit the ground, releasing a huge cloud of amenus powder onto the battlefield. With Addilyn and her monsters now disoriented, the rescue party, along with the remaining wolves, escaped deep into the forest.
Jandor woke with a start. The last thing he remembered was the deathclaw attacking him and Lori trying to get him to safety. He also thought he heard Stephanie but wasn’t sure if that was a dream or not. He was now lying on something soft and warm, staring up at the ceiling of a cave. He sat up slowly, but the pain he’d expected wasn’t there. As far as he could tell, he was completely healed.
Looking around, he saw that he was in some sort of large tunnel, lying on a blanket made of something similar to wool. The surroundings were somewhat illuminated by small, mentant-blue flames that dotted the base of the outer walls every few feet. He could hear hushed voices talking in the distance but couldn’t see anyone.
“Hello?” he called out tentatively.
“Jandor, you’re awake.” Stephanie’s beaming face came into view as she walked closer. Behind her were Wheaton and Daniel.
Jandor stood. “What happened? I remember someone giving me some medicine, but after that—”
“That was me,” Wheaton revealed. His expression was a mix of relief and confusion. “However, it shouldn’t have worked that effectively. You were on death’s door, but then you started to recover rapidly. I thought it would take a lot more to bring you back, but once we saw you were healing on your own, we just let you rest.”
“And that girly said the deathclaw poison was supposed to be quick and lethal,” Lori added as she walked up. “The fact that you didn’t immediately die is already crazy, but now you’re up and about like nothing happened. What’re ya made of, mate?”
“I don’t understand.” Jandor looked to Daniel, hoping for an explanation.
“This is the second time you’ve healed abnormally quick,” Daniel pointed out. “Your adimus immune system is crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve heard guardians can heal really fast, but you’re just a regular mentant, like me. Actually, you’re technically a non.”
“A non?” Jandor scratched his head awkwardly upon hearing a new term.
“It’s the adimus rank of someone who doesn’t really use any mentus,” Daniel explained. “It’s not that you can’t learn, but you just got here, so your adimus immune system should be weaker, not super strong. It’s just odd.”
“Well, it saved your life, so like they say: don’t mock heaven’s favor,” Lori added cheerfully.
“I agree with that reasoning,” Wheaton agreed with a soft smile. “Besides, there are more important things to concern ourselves with.”
Jandor nodded. “Right, I feel like I missed a lot. Where are we?”
Kynobi joined the group now. “This is one of the underground tunnels that are prevalent in the valley. They were made by mountain moles long ago and there are several entrances in the mountains and forests. We should be relatively safe for now. There are many things we need to catch you up on.”
Kynobi led them all to where Lenora, Gavin, and a few other leaders from the northern encampment were sitting. Daniel moved all the mentus flames so that they lined the walls on either side of the group. With everyone there, Kynobi and Stephanie relayed the important elements of their meeting with Silvet.
“This is huge!” Lori said excitedly after they finished their tale. “If animals can kill those critters than we got our own army to standup against them. No wonder that Davron’s been after you nature types so hard.”
“It’s not that simple,” Lenora said. “Sending animals to fight on our behalf is a frightening prospect.”
“I know none of us like the idea of using animals to fight,” Kynobi sighed, “but after speaking with Silvet, I’ve come to realize that just as we work hard to protect the animals in our care, they too wish to protect us. Right now, they are the only ones that can purge the valley of these monsters.”
“But where does it stop?” Lenora challenged. “If we ask our animals to protect the valley, does that mean we should also have them fight in the war? How do we determine how and when we intervene?” We’ve already lost many animals just in these two brief battles.”
“Yeah, well war’s messy, missy,” Lori said dismissively. “You gonna have to expect some losses, but this can change everything and give us a chance to win. It’s not like Jandor and his mates can take on a whole army by themselves. They need help. and you can give it to them.”
“Still, this goes against everything we stand for,” Lenora said, “and there’s a reason why the Order of Nature doesn’t get involved in wars.”
“Well, unfortunately right now you don’t have a choice,” Jandor said suddenly. He was not seated like the others. As was his custom, he preferred to pace during meetings. He’d been listening to the back and forth but finally decided to intervene.
Lenora looked up at him stunned. “Of course we have a choice; we—”
“The moment you killed those monsters in the northern encampment, that was it,” Jandor said gravely.
Stephanie gasped at this revelation. “Oh no…”
There was silence for several seconds as the three chiefs contemplated Jandor’s words, knowing he was right.
Gavin raised his hand timidly. “I don’t understand.”
“The rock has already started rolling down the mountain,” Wheaton said metaphorically. “It won’t be long before Calendon or that lieutenant discover that the creatures in the northern encampment have been destroyed, and then they’ll know that we know.”
“They came here for a reason, to suppress the order before we could raise an army of animals against them,” Kynobi explained further. “The only reason they didn’t kill us is because they must have known we didn’t know the truth. Once they realize that we know animals can destroy those creatures, they’ll not only kill us all, but every animal in the valley for good measure. If we don’t act now, they will massacre us all. Plus, they have access to the other preserves as well.”
“This is all my fault.” Stephanie was shaking her head and crying. “I’m so sorry.”
Lenora patted her arm. “No, you were trying to help. I was far too harsh on you earlier. If I were in the same position, I daresay I may have made the same decision.”
Kynobi nodded in agreement. “Lenora, you’re right that we cannot have our animals enter a full-scale war. At the very least, we would need the entire council of chiefs to come together to make such a momentous decision. But right now, we must drive this threat from our valley. Once we destroy those monsters and chase out Calendon and his soldiers, we can bring everyone to the valley and isolate ourselves if needed.”
Lenora let out a resigned sigh. “True, we won’t know peace if that army remains here, and Calendon is a cruel man. He won’t hesitate to raze the valley if he views us as a threat.”
“So then, we’re going to fight?” Gavin asked softly.
Wheaton turned to the others from the northern encampment. “What we are about to do goes against our very core tenants, so I completely understand any hesitation. If any of you do not wish to participate, then we will not force you.”
Some of them fidgeted uncomfortably, but no one said anything.
Having finally composed herself, Stephanie spoke again. “So, what do we do?”
“First we need to know how many monsters we’re facing,” Jandor said.
A tough looking, pale-skinned woman with deep-purple hair spoke up. “Sir, if I may. I managed to get some information out of the soldier they left at the north camp.”
Jandor turned to the unfamiliar face, but Kynobi spared him from having to ask her name. “This is April, a member of our security team.” He turned to her. “What were you able to get from him?”
“He told me there are approximately three hundred creatures, mostly pogs, but only a handful of soldiers to lead them. Also, to what you said before, about them knowing that animals can defeat those creatures, I don’t think it’s true, well at least not completely.”
Jandor raised an eyebrow at this. “What do you mean?”
“Well, he seemed genuinely surprised and scared. He kept asking me how we did it,” she revealed.
Wheaton pondered this. “If April’s suspicion is correct, then that probably means that only Calendon knows the truth. That could be good for us. If the other soldiers find out that they are not being protected by invincible monsters, they may easily give up the fight.”
“Still, three hundred of those creatures. That’s far too many to ward off with just our animals,” Lenora said. “The casualties would be unbearably high if we tried to take them on all at once.”
“I have an idea,” April said. “After parsing what the soldier told me, I believe less than half of their forces are at the main encampment. First, that lieutenant had around fifty creatures, and she left twenty of them at the north camp, which we already defeated. Also, Calendon sent five platoons throughout the valley to round up the remaining members of the order who weren’t at the main encampment. Each one has twenty to thirty pogs and is led by one of his soldiers.”
Lenora nodded at this. “That’s right, and they each took a chief with them too.”
“So, if we can take out these small groups first, then that will give us a better chance when we go up against the main force,” Jandor concluded. “We’ll need to do that as quickly as possible though. At some point, Calendon is going to find out we escaped.”
“I estimate it will take that lieutenant of Calendon’s another three hours to make it back to the camp at the speed they travel,” April said.
“That means we need to be prepared to attack the main encampment in three hours,” Jandor said. “Will that be enough time to take out all of the smaller groups? Do we even know where they are?”
“I do,” Lenora revealed. “I was able to summon Umbra’s pack. They have been keeping watch over the groups. It appears the chiefs are stalling for time, which has been our general strategy from the very beginning. The problem is that they are all over the valley. We won’t have time to get to them all in just a few hours.”
“Ideally, we’d want to attack them all at the same time, that way no one has a chance to raise an alarm or get suspicious about people not returning,” Jandor added. “Right now, we have the element of surprise; we want to keep that.”
“Too right,” Lori agreed. “Best way to do that is to get whatever animals ya’ll got close to those groups to strike all at once.”
“Still, how are we going to coordinate hundreds of animals across the valley?” one of the other leaders from the northern encampment finally spoke up. He looked younger than Gavin, with black bangs that almost covered his eyes. Like most of the others from the northern encampment, he seemed almost too intimidated to talk in the meeting.
Wheaton recognized his nervousness and gave him a warm smile. “Our young Simon has a point. For this to work, we’ll need a way to summon and coordinate creatures in various parts of the valley. Even if we can send animals out from here, we have no way to pass messages off to other animals further away.”
As summoners, they could convey their desires to animals through music, but it was more of an impression than actual communication. If they had a bond with a specific animal, a summoner could speak directly to them using the mentant realm, and that animal could relay messages to others within the same species, but anything else was beyond the capabilities of the animals and the skills of a summoner. This meant that it would be extremely difficult to coordinate multiple animal species across the entire valley.
For a moment everyone went silent as they pondered this conundrum.
“I believe Silvet can help us with this,” Kynobi said finally.
“Are you sure we should involve her?” Stephanie asked tentatively. She was still a bit unnerved by her last conversation with the tigrex. “Her species is so rare. Do we want to risk losing her?”
“Her ability to communicate and command all within her domain will be invaluable if we wish to reclaim the valley. I also believe she can coordinate the animals in a way that can minimize casualties,” Kynobi said. “I can send Junjun to relay our plans to her.”
As a tigrex, Silvet was the ruler of all land animals. This meant that all summoners could speak with her directly, and in turn, Silvet could communicate with all species of animals. This gift, combined with her incredible speed, would allow her to quickly spread a message to all of the animals in the valley.
Jandor could only follow along in part, but he didn’t let that deter him. “Then all that’s left is to make sure we have enough animals to fight the monsters at the main encampment.”
“We also need to figure out what to do about the hostages,” Daniel added. “It’s possible Calendon will try to use them against us during an attack. We have to get them to safety first.”
“If we can get a message to Windborn, then I think he’ll be able to handle keeping the hostages safe,” Kynobi said. “We just need a way to coordinate with him.”
Lenora turned to Gavin. “Do you still have the melivian I sent to you?”
Gavin dug through his robe pockets frantically before pulling out a small quartz rock and handing it to Lenora.
She smiled. “Leave contacting Windborn to me.”
Lenora and Kynobi stood to take care of their designated tasks. Soon the others dispersed to start preparations for the battle to come. The mood among the group was anxious but hopeful. As Stephanie left to check on Lunox and the argent wolf pack, Jandor took a seat next to Daniel.
“That was a good escape plan you had back there,” Jandor said.
Daniel looked slightly confused at the spontaneous praise. “Uh, thanks, though I’m not sure it would’ve worked if Stephane and the others didn’t show up.”
“Yeah, but you’ve really gotten good at thinking on your feet. You’ve bailed us out a few times now. I kind of just run headfirst into things and try to brute force my way through problems, like earlier with Stephanie,” Jandor said with an embarrassed chuckle. “I don’t blame you for being angry or frustrated with me.”
“Yeah, it’s a bit annoying,” Daniel agreed with a slight grin, “but I get it. If it had been Terri down there with those pogs, I’d have run in without thinking too.” He frowned at this. “That’s the difference though: you’d do it for anyone. I wish I could be like that. You never hesitate. You always try to do what’s right no matter what.”
“I try to…but wanting to do what’s right and actually being able to do it…” Jandor shook his head. “I think I’ve gotten too used to having a bunch of people back me up and figuring out the details as I go, but I can’t keep doing that, especially now.”
“Well, I’m not saying you should just run in without a plan, but you still have people to back you up.”
Jandor smiled at this. “Well, maybe I should be the one backing you up.”
Daniel finally turned to face him, a perplexed look on his face. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you’ve been here longer. You understand this world better than me, and you’ve got a pretty good head on your shoulders.”
Daniel shook his head. “I appreciate it, but honestly, I don’t want to be in charge. I had to do that for years with just me and Terri and that was hard enough. I definitely couldn’t handle something like this. I don’t know how you do it.”
“The key is to have really good people on your team.” Jandor stood. “Thanks for being one of those people, and thanks for backing me up, even when I do something stupid.”
Daniel stood as well. “No problem.”
The two shook hands, seeming to come to an agreement in that moment. For the first time, Daniel could tell that Jandor saw him as an equal, and for his part, he was finally able to let go of his misgivings and accept Jandor’s leadership. He knew they wouldn’t always agree, but he also knew that Jandor valued his insight and trusted his judgement.
Kynobi returned just as the handshake ended. “Junjun reached Silvet, and she’s started the coordination of all the animals in the valley,” he reported.
Jandor nodded at this. “Great, now let’s get ready to purge these monsters from your home.”