* Gilmore *
A timid knock on the door alerted Veda Guardman and Sherrilynn to Helena’s arrival. Mrs. Guardman gave her companion a silent nod and then stood as she said “Come in.”
The door cracked open and a young, blonde-haired guard stuck his head in as if examining the room to ensure its safety before entering.
“We’re both fully dressed, Jacob,” Mrs. Guardman chuckled as she finished securing her black microbraids into a bun on top of her head.
Mrs. Guardman had found that the wardrobe was stocked with a few sets of clothing in various sizes, and both she and Sherrilynn had changed into new clothes provided by their captors. Sherrilynn was wearing a pair of thin black pants that were similar to leggings, with a flowy, blue, short-sleeved shirt that went down to just above her knees. Mrs. Guardman had on something similar but still wore the white robe that had been given to her the previous day over her clothing.
The young guard gave an awkward chuckle as he opened the door wider to let in Helena, who was wearing the same sky-blue, sleeveless ustus dress she’d worn the previous day. She was pushing a metal trolly laden with food. Her pink hair was in a tight ponytail this morning with her bangs bouncing just above her blue eyes as she walked.
“I trust you slept well. I made hotcakes for breakfast; I think you’ll like them,” she said cheerily. It was clear the awkwardness she’d felt the previous day about taking care of prisoners had vanished, mostly because of how kind Mrs. Guardman had treated her.
Jacob went to close the door, but Mrs. Guardman called out to him in a reproving voice that only a mother could use. “Jacob, I thought I told you that I expected you to eat with us this morning.”
“Oh, but,” Jacob sputtered, “I’m supposed to stand watch outside ma’am, otherwise there’ll be no one to open the door once Helena is finished. It can’t be opened from the inside.”
“Well then leave the door cracked,” Mrs. Guardman said, beckoning him inside more fervently. “That way it’s not a problem.”
“Uh, I’m really not supposed to,” he said nervously. It seemed he was torn between not wanting to shirk his duties and not wanting to disappoint the matriarchal figure in front of him.
Mrs. Guardman’s face went from reproach to a soft smile. “Jacob, do you really think that we would attempt something as foolish as trying to escape with you in here with us?” she asked with a chuckle. “Now come along; it looks like Helena has brought more than enough food, and I’d love to get to know you since we’re going to be here for a while.”
Jacob hesitated just a moment more before giving in. “Oh, all right then. It does smell good, and I haven’t had breakfast yet.” He stepped inside, making sure the door would stay cracked. He then rushed over to the table, eager to eat his fill. There were just enough chairs for the four of them.
As Helena pulled out four plates from the bottom of the cart and started setting thick fluffy hotcakes on them, Mrs. Guardman’s gaze momentarily went to the door. Though she couldn’t see him, she knew that Illusion was waiting behind a nearby couch. After a moment, the small black dog appeared and quickly pushed his way through the crack in the door. At this, Mrs. Guardman smiled and turned back to Jacob, who had his back to the door. “Now, how old are you?”
Illusion easily made his way down the huge tower without incident. Because the building was off limits to most people, there was hardly anyone in the corridor or spiral staircase that ran up the center of the building. He made sure to conceal himself mentantly as much as he could and hid himself whenever he sensed someone approaching. Fortunately, since no one was actively seeking out intruders, he was able to move with relative ease. Soon, he was out in the bustling city, the early morning sun just peaking over the mountain range. Though there were many people around, no one took notice of what seemed to be a stray dog.
Just as he was debating on whether to search for Alice or head to Zohare, he suddenly heard voices nearby. It was two soldiers talking, one male, one female, and they were coming up the path behind him. Illusion quickly darted behind a large boulder and waited for them to pass.
“I thought they sent pogs out to search last night,” the male soldier said.
“They did,” his female companion confirmed, “but they didn’t find her body. Word is, Lord Davron doesn’t want to take the chance that she’s still alive and lead the Fantasmal Government straight to Gilmore.”
“But what are we gonna do if we find her? It’s not like we can take on a guardian, not even an injured one.”
“No, all we have to do is send up a flare. The creatures will take care of her.”
“More pogs? I dunno if that’ll work. I heard there were some guardians in Murrilogic that took out a group of twenty pogs all by themselves.”
“What?” The female voice said in awe. “That’s impossible. Nothing can kill those things.”
“Yeah, I know, but my friend James—he was with the troops that went to Estern yesterday–he said there was a group of three guardians in Riverbed that pushed back the entire battalion, and they were killing the pogs easily. Everyone’s talking about it. Sounds like they were the same ones that were in Murrilogic. What if the guardians figured out some way to kill ‘em?”
“Well, even if they did, it won’t matter. They’re not sending pogs after the guardian. It’s the englers.”
“Whoa.” It was the man’s turn to be in awe. “Those things are seriously bad news.”
“Yeah, I bet one could hold its own against a guardian, and they deployed all five of them.”
“Well, I still hope we’re not the ones to find her. Let some other patrol run into her. I don’t want to face off against a guardian even if the englers are the ones who’ll be fighting her. I know they’re fast, but it’ll take a while for them to get to us.”
She laughed at this. “Why’d you even join the army, you quartz-brained frag?”
Illusion watched as the two soldiers continued down the path without noticing him. The story about guardians being able to kill the creatures of the Book of War intrigued him, and he suspected that the reality was that one of the teens was involved, perhaps Wayne since he came from a line of talented mandants. Still, this was less important than his current mission. Seeing that Davron’s army was actively looking for Alice, he decided it was best that he search for her too. He only hoped that her disappearance would prompt someone in Fantasmal Mountain to do the same.
* Fantasmal Mountain *
Pathos opened his door, still a bit groggy, to find Ace standing there, dressed in a mentant-blue robe and looking as if he were expecting the guardian to already be up and ready to go.
“What? What’s going on?” he asked blearily.
“I thought you’d be up already; it’s well past rise of sun,” Ace said looking slightly confused.
Pathos opened the door wide to let Ace in. “It’s been a long few days, so Karmandrian and I were given the day to rest for the most part.”
“Well good, that means you’ve got some free time. I need your help. Mrs. Guardman still isn’t back.”
This seemed to wake Pathos up completely. “What? They should’ve gotten back last night. Even if they stopped somewhere for food or to rest, I can’t imagine them not returning to the mountain.”
“Exactly, and with everything that’s happened, I don’t think we can leave it to chance. I want to go after them.”
It was clear that Ace was a bit frantic. He hadn’t slept well the previous night thinking about the fate of his friends. As much as he wanted to hold onto hope that they were still alive, he knew it wasn’t likely, and now there was a chance Mrs. Guardman could be in danger. He wouldn’t just sit back and wait. He needed to do something.
Pathos seemed to be of the same mind. “I agree. I’ll get Karman too, I’m sure he’ll want to come. Just give me some time to get ready. Let’s meet in the transportation corridor in one hour.”
Ace nodded and left.
An hour later, Ace was already standing at the bottom of the stairs that led to the transportation corridor when Karmandrian and Pathos arrived, both clad in their guardian robes.
“Where is your friend” Pathos asked.
“I didn’t get her,” Ace said. “She’s been…a little out of it ever since she got here. I’m just afraid she’d freak out if she knew that we still didn’t know where Mrs. Guardman was. I just don’t want to worry her.”
“I think you’ll find that not telling her will worry her just as much, but I’ll leave such decisions in your hands,” Pathos said as the trio started down the wide hall.
“So how exactly are we going to find Alice and the others?” Karmandrian asked with a yawn. It was clear he still hadn’t fully woken up.
“Well, I confirmed with Elder Sorinson that they were headed to some mines near Gilmore,” Pathos said. “That’s deep in the northern Lumarian Mountains where a ton of dead towns are. The only way we’re going to get to it is by going to Zohare and then taking the path southeast into the mountains.”
“Well at least we can quicken directly to the outpost in Zohare,” Karmandrian said as he started reading the signs above each of the doors on either side of the walkway.
The transportation corridor had two types of rooms. There were translift caves, which contained large multipoint translifts that led to specific places, and then there were quickener caves. These rooms were lined with the very rare traveler quartz, which allowed people to quicken in and out of the mountain despite the quartz interference.
The room that led to Zohare was a quickener cave. As they approached it, the guard, seeing that they were guardians, immediately opened the door. “The quickeners on duty are Martinson and Andrews, sir,” he said as the trio walked in.
The only thing inside the room was a quartz marker hanging from the ceiling by a string. Quickeners used quartz markers as anchors, and they could quicken to any marker their staff was connected to. A person could summon a quickener connected to the marker by touching it and calling their name, similar to how someone could call a quickener connected to them personally.
“I really don’t want to spend my whole morning wandering around the mountains. Maybe if we’re lucky, we’ll run into them along the way,” Karmandrian said as he shut the door behind them.
“Assuming they’re not lost,” Ace said. “I’ve been to that area once before. With all the dead towns and winding paths, it would be easy for them, or us, to get turned around out there, especially with all the quartz interference blocking the mentant realm.”
“Don’t worry.” Pathos clapped a comforting hand on his shoulder. “No matter what, we’ll find them. Besides, Alice is a guardian, so I’m sure wherever they are, they’re safe.”
Ace smiled at this. “With everything that’s happened the last few days, I think I’m just anxious, but you’re right: if Alice is with her, I’m sure Mrs. Guardman is fine.”
Seeing that his companion seemed reassured, Pathos grabbed the marker so he could summon one of the quickeners. “All right, let’s get going.”
Lily looked up from her desk as she sensed a familiar presence approaching. “Hey Isabelle, what brings you up to admin?”
The elf quickener took a seat next to Lily’s desk, a grim look on her face. “I heard about what happened with the governance translift last night.”
Lily lowered her voice. “Is the military looking in on it now?”
“No, that falls under mountain security. Even still, if it was some kind of attack—”
“So, you think it was an attack too?” Lily asked. “That’s the rumors I’ve been hearing, but…who? How?”
Isabelle shrugged. “I was actually hoping you’d know more about it.”
“No, I’m as in the dark as you are. I only heard that it was some sort of mentus overload, but they were looking into every possibility. That’s the official word, but everyone’s speculating. Nothing like this has ever happened in the mountain, at least that I know of.” She lowered her voice conspiratorially. “A few people who know about the Book of War think that it might have something to do with this.”
Though Fantasma wanted as few people as possible to know about the return of the Book of War, word was slowly spreading throughout the mountain as more people became involved with the situation.
“What?” Isabelle looked surprised. “How could the two things even be related?”
“Well think about it: the ancient powerful Book of War is confirmed to be back, and now suddenly Fantasmal Mountain is under attack. How could they not be related? The chances of either happening by themselves is already unbelievable, but both happening at the same time?”
“Hmph, well if that Davron is fool enough to attack Fantasmal Mountain directly, then his days are numbered. It’ll take far more than some mere monsters to bring down this fortress,” Isabelle said confidently.
Lily sighed. “I hope you’re right.”
“Speaking of the Book of War; I asked General Rockwall about what Tabatha told us last night, you know, about the seal and being able to kill the monsters of the Book of War. He didn’t know what I was talking about.”
“What? Do you think Tabatha was lying or mistaken?”
Isabelle shook her head. “No, not at all. When Rockwall didn’t seem to know what I was talking about, I asked Chief Pornabus. He looked shocked that I knew, but he confirmed it. Tabatha’s friends can actually kill the creatures of the Book of War. He said it’s not public knowledge though, so don’t tell anyone else.”
“I don’t understand. If there are people with the power to kill those creatures, you’d think everyone would know about it. That’s huge news.” Lily seemed to recall something. “Actually, I remember yesterday when Tabatha was here, her friend Ace said something to Elders Jorbedus and Urnwood about ‘the mark of the seal.’ I just didn’t know what he meant at the time.”
“So that means the guardians know about it then?” Isabelle surmised.
“Possibly,” Lily said, “but it’s just as possible it’s only those two because they were the ones who found Ace and Tabatha.”
“It’s clear Fantasma wants to keep this a secret,” Isabelle concluded. “He doesn’t want anyone to know that the otherworlders have the power to kill the creatures of the Book of War.”
“Well, it’s obvious isn’t it,” came a familiar voice from behind the two.
Both Isabelle and Lily jumped; neither had noticed Tabatha’s arrival. As was often the case, Tabatha was nearly impossible to track mentantly, which meant that she could easily sneak up on the unwary, even when she didn’t intend to. Tabatha leaned on Lily’s desk, arms crossed, a slight smirk on her face.
“What do you mean by ‘it’s obvious?” Isabelle asked skeptically.
“Have either of you ever really studied the Great War, like what actually happened?”
“Just that it was over a thousand years ago and started by a mind mage named Multus. Creatures from the Book of War attacked all over the world,” Lily said.
“And then the Twelve Warriors killed Multus and destroyed the book,” Isabelle added. “Well everyone thought they did. They died in the process, so no one really knew for sure.”
“And who were the Twelve Warriors?” Tabatha asked, clearly leading somewhere.
“They were legendary heroes.” Lily said. “They went around the world fighting all sorts of evils.”
“Were they?” Tabatha chuckled. “Because I’ve actually researched it; The Twelve Warriors are never mentioned anywhere in Mendalian history except for the Great War.”
“Well, it was over a thousand years ago,” Lily said.
“The Fantasma at the time is the one who declared them the Twelve Warriors. Before that, they weren’t heroes at all. The best I can tell, they were all just friends of Ruth Lowens. The Fantasma sent them on a secret mission to get the Sun Stone, which was stolen by Multus before the Great War started. Why did he send them and only them with the Daughter of the Sun? Why not guardians or his army? Why was it just twelve regular people?”
“What are you getting at?” Isabelle asked sharply.
“My friends are the descendants of the Twelve Warriors,” Tabatha revealed. “I heard the story of what happened. The seal on the Book of War was broken in the Great War, and the only way to reseal it was for twelve people to offer their lives by binding with the broken seal. It had to be exactly twelve.”
“What?” Lily looked stunned.
“That’s why my friends can kill those creatures. That seal is in them; it got passed down to them. Do you understand now?” Tabatha looked back and forth between the two of them but only saw shock and confusion. “The Fantasma back then sent the twelve because he knew he needed them to seal the book. He sacrificed them. Now, all these years later, the current Fantasma is going to do the same to my friends to seal the book permanently. They’re the only ones that can do it. He’s keeping their power a secret because he doesn’t want everyone to know that he’s basically going to send my friends to slaughter all to stop the Book of War, and in the end, they’ll just make up another story about legendary heroes who bravely defeated Davron.”
“No…no that’s not what’s happening.” Isabelle stood, shaking her head. “The Fantasma would never do that.”
“Tabatha,” Lily said in a voice much calmer than the quickener, “if that were the case, why is Fantasma working so hard to help you and your friends get back home?”
“It’s going to happen just like it did with the so-called Twelve Warriors,” Tabatha said knowingly. “I’m sure the Fantasma at the time didn’t order them to go. No, he manipulated them. They were friends of Ruth, the Sun Stone had been stolen, Jasmine Lowens was dead, and Ruth was in line to be the next Daughter of the Sun. Of course they’d agree to help, right? The same thing will happen with my friends. They’ll feel like they’re supposed to help, and if someone doesn’t stop them, they’ll just march off happily to their deaths, finishing what their ancestors started.”
There was a long silence before Lily spoke again. “Well, hopefully you’re wrong,” she said, “but even if your friends do decide to take on the Book of War, then I don’t believe they’ll die; after all, their ancestors didn’t, right?”
Tabatha shrugged. “They shouldn’t have to fight for this rotten world.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Isabelle said, clearly offended.
“I’ve lived here five years,” Tabatha said. “I’ve seen what kind of world Mendala is: constant wars, slavery, people living in poverty and destitution. I’m not saying our home world is perfect, but at least we don’t have to fight crazy monsters to save it.”
“Five years?” Isabelle repeated. “How?”
Tabatha chuckled. “Wow, they really don’t tell you guys anything.” She turned to Lily. “Look, I don’t want to fight about this. I only came down here to see if you wanted to grab some breakfast with me. I can’t find Ace, and I didn’t want to eat alone.”
Lily smiled at her and stood. “Sure, I can do that. Isabelle, do you want to join us?”
Isabelle came out of her musings. “I would, but I’m still covering for Chief Quicksilver and have a ton to do. I’ve got to go. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Well, she probably hates me now,” Tabatha chuckled agaub as she watched Isabelle head toward the translifts.
Lily shook her head. “I don’t think she does, and just for the record, neither do I. I get it; you’re just worried about your friends, and you want to keep them safe.”
Tabatha sighed. “It’s not just that. I know that if this keeps going the way it is now, they’ll be sacrificed for the sake of this world’s peace. I don’t want them to choose that path. I’ll do everything I can to stop them, because if I don’t…they will die.”