* The Lost Plains *
“Alyson, it’s okay if we’re lost,” Becky said in a defeated and tired tone. She was watching her friend, who was standing resolute, eyes closed as if meditating.
Alyson waved a hand distractedly. “Shh.”
“It’s difficult to navigate the plains. Even guardians get lost,” Hamen offered, “and you are still a new weather master.”
“I’m trying to focus.” Alyson’s tone was agitated.
“Yeah, it’s pitch black, this haze stuff is getting thicker, and we’ve been wandering around for hours,” Bernie added.
“Guys!” Alyson snapped, her eyes opening. “If you’d shut up, I could focus on what I’m trying to do.”
The others fell silent.
Alyson shook her head. “There’s something not quite right,” she said, starting forward again. “I just need to follow this.”
Her companions fell in step behind her, not quite knowing what she was trying to follow but not wanting to get separated either. As Hamen previously warned, the Lost Plains were a flat, barren wasteland. There was nothing to break up the monotony of their surroundings: no trees, no grass, no animals. There didn’t even seem to be bugs. The lack of sunlight and the fog-like nature of the shimmer made it especially difficult to navigate. The guardian had summoned a hovering ball of mandamus light to help guide them, but it only helped a little.
“You know, I’ve really tried not to ask,” Becky said in a whisper to Hamen, “but since we’re probably going to be doing this for a while: what is this shimmer thing?” She pointed up to the misty night sky, shimmering from the light of the moon, though it was impossible to see the moon or any stars.
“North of here is a steep elevation that leads to an area known as the white desert. The raging wind that comes from the north whips up the dust and gravel from the quartz rock and it’s carried south to these plains. The quartz dust constantly floating in the air over the plains due to various crosswinds from the mountains and the sea create what’s called the shimmer. It blocks quickening and vision in the mentant realm, and it makes it impossible to see the sky.”
“I don’t understand,” Becky said. “You have weather masters. Why don’t you just stop this whole shimmer thing from happening?”
“Well first of all, it would take more than a weather master. It would take direct connection with the weather rod to force a change to the entire region, and that could be devastating to the environment.” Hamen said. “The purpose of the weather rod is not to make the weather do what we want out of convenience. Yes, they do stop drastic weather events from harming people, but it’s a delicate balance, and that’s what must be maintained. It’s a dangerous thing trying to harness nature,” he warned. “We do so with great care, and the Commander of Weather and her weather masters know this.”
Becky nodded silently. She was still very uncertain about this new world, as often Hamen’s reasoning made little sense to her, but this time the dwarf’s wisdom rang true.
“Guys are you seeing this?” Alyson asked running ahead.
“Seeing what?” Bernie looked to Hamen for confirmation.
“That’s impossible…” The guardian was clearly seeing whatever Alyson saw.
“Anyone want to clue in the regular folk?” Becky asked with a bite of impatience.
“I have a suspicion, but we’ll see once we reach the barrier,” Hamen said, beckoning them forward.
Becky followed at a trot, not wanting to lose the others. “Reach the barrier of what?”
But the answer came soon enough. One moment the haze of the shimmer was all around, the next it felt like the ground had shifted under her, and she was suddenly standing in a clear open field. She could see the starry sky above, and to her surprise, there were two moons: one, a pale yellow and the other a deep crimson.
“Great!” Becky said excitedly as Hamen extinguished the mandamus light. “We made it out of the Lost Plains.”
“No, I don’t think so; look.” Alyson pointed ahead of them. A great distance away, though clearly visible, they could see the shimmer. It surrounded the entire area, as if some sort of invisible force was preventing it from impeding on this large section of the plains.
“This is extremely powerful and high level mentus,” Hamen said as he looked around, clearly impressed. “I think I know where we are, but I never imagined we’d actually end up here.”
“There’s a town,” Alyson was already ahead of them, walking quickly toward a cluster of buildings off in the distance. “I don’t understand; I never knew there was a town in the Lost Plains.”
Hamen caught up to her, clapping a hand on her shoulder. “You are a brand-new weather master, so you have not had the benefit of being taught some of these secrets,” he said. “These are things we share only with the initiated.”
“Secrets?” Alyson repeated, intrigued.
“Oh great, more Mendalian lore,” Becky murmured.
“There are several hidden towns all over the world,” Hamen revealed. “These are areas that can only be reached by a select few, and they’re where the ancient sects of mentant monks live.”
“Indeed,” came an unfamiliar voice so close that they all jumped, even Hamen.
Standing in their midst, as if he’d been there the entire time, was an aged, olive-skinned man with bright brown eyes and long grey hair in a tight braid that ran down the length of his back. He was wearing a mentant blue robe with a silver belt, the sign of a mind mage, and his scepter was a long stout wooden walking stick with a green quartz crystal imbedded in the tip instead of the short rod that was more common for mind mages.
Becky swore loudly. “Where did you come from?”
“I’ve always been here, for this is my home. I am Chief Amos Rivers. Welcome to Hidden Valley.”
“It seems that you encountered the transport corridor that leads to our town,” Amos explained as he poured them all tea.
The group was sitting at a small kitchen table in the chief’s cottage home. During the short walk, they had quickly explained their journey and how they had ended up in the Lost Plains.
“Chief Rivers, I’m curious about something,” Hamen started.
“Please, just Amos.” He took a seat at the table, adjusting his blue robe.
“Well, you just called that mentant barrier we saw a transport corridor,” Hamen continued, “so, I’m correct that we were actually moved to this city? I could tell from the position of the stars that we’re much further east of Mandoria Mountain than we could have possibly walked, days even. Also, it appears the entire town is inside an extremely powerful mentus shield, and the clear sky above is some type of mentus screen allowing you to see through the shimmer above. How is all of this possible? This is beyond even guardian level mentus. I assume the town must have some sort of extremely powerful core.”
“Very astute. The phenomena you mention are all maintained by our town’s core, which was created thousands of years ago with the help of High Mage Lamar Varns. Because the mentus shield makes our town more elusive, even in the already hard to navigate Lost Plains, the core also has a function that can create a transport corridor if it detects people in the plains that need to come to our town. In the mentant realm, it looks like the edge of our barrier.”
“Um, people that need to come here? What does that mean?” Bernie asked.
Amos gave a small smile. “Even we do not know the inner workings of the mentus that High Mage Varns embedded in our town core. All I can say is people with certain qualities are always granted access to this town, no matter where they are in the plains.”
“That’s incredible. The ability to create something like a translift is extraordinary mentus on its own, but to go even further…” Hamen was in awe. “I’ve heard rumors that Hidden Valley was founded by an epouranal, but I never imagined that something like this was possible even for one of them. I can’t imagine the amount of mentus it must take for it to operate. How do you manage?”
Amos seemed amused by Hamen’s enthusiasm. “Surprisingly, it does not take too much direct mentus infusion, and usually that is done by the epouranal every few months or so.”
“Wait, so does that mean an epouranal is in residence here now?” Hamen asked.
“I don’t think I would categorize it as ‘in residence,’” Amos chuckled. “She tends to spend more time meditating in the plains than in town, but yes, if you are here long enough, you will indeed encounter High Mage Seraphina Goodall. The Alaman Epouranal Mages have often seen Hidden Valley as their home, ever since High Mage Varns. They also help maintain the core that protects and governs our town.”
“Well, I’m really glad we spotted that barrier,” Alyson said. “Without it, we could’ve been wandering the plains for a long time.”
“Quite true. Typically, only a select few can gain entrance. There are those considered trustworthy, such as weather masters and guardians, then there are those rare and gifted people who have the fortitude to learn the ways of our sect. Again, we have no idea how the town core identifies them. It’s just always been this way, and to be honest, once you have been around an epouranal mage long enough, you learn not to question certain things,” Amos chuckled again.
Becky scoffed into her tea.
It did not go unnoticed by the chief. “Do you not condone our practices, young lady?” he asked.
It took several seconds for Becky to realize she was the one being addressed. “Huh? What? No!” she said quickly. “I mean, no, I don’t not condone—I don’t really care actually.”
“Don’t mind her,” Bernie said apologetically. “It’s just been a long day.”
“Don’t apologize for me,” Becky snapped as she sat the mug down so roughly that tea spilled out. “Chief, uh, Amos, I’m sure Hidden Valley is a lovely place, and your monks are all great people. It’s just we have a mission. Our friends are missing, and I’d much rather be looking for them than stuck here. If I understand correctly, we were transported to somewhere in the middle of this valley, which means we’ve missed the translift that would get us out. It’s just a huge setback, and I’m trying to figure out how we’ll get back on track, unless you guys have some teleport trick to get us to Clandestine.”
Amos nodded. “I completely understand, and I believe we can help with that. There is a translift not too far from here that we can guide you to. It will transport you out of the valley and near Langwaver. Someone should be able to quicken you to your destination from there. However, perhaps you should rest here for the night. I believe I know the perfect place.”
Becky looked like she wanted to object but Hamen put a hand on her shoulder. “There is a time to push through and a time to be patient. I believe this is the latter. I admire your drive, but it’s okay to rest. Even if we were able to make it out of the plains tonight, we’d still have to wait until morning to get to Clandestine,” he pointed out.
Amos went to the front door and opened it. “True, you can start fresh at rise of sun tomorrow.
Becky nodded. “It does make sense.” She picked up her bacilla and rucksack and headed to the door. “So where are you taking us, a hotel?”
Amos chuckled as they stepped out onto the cobblestone path that wound its way between houses. “No, we do not get enough visits to warrant an inn. I’m taking you to one of our shared homes. There is only one person in residence there at the moment, so there is plenty of room. I have a feeling you’ll find him to be a more than acceptable host.”
Becky rolled her eyes at this, but it went unseen. “Why? Is he going to give us another history lesson?”
“Perhaps.” Amos walked up to a large dormitory-style building and rapped loudly on the front door. “I’ve often found that those who come to Hidden Valley do so for a very important reason. I believe that is the case for you as well.”
“Unless you’re hiding one of my friends here, I doubt it,” Becky said in a defeated tone.
It took a minute before the door swung open to reveal a lanky, pale-faced young man with messy black hair. “Amos? What’s going on?” he said groggily. He was wearing black and blue pajamas and had clearly been asleep.
“These people have just arrived, and I thought I should bring them here to rest.” Amos said, stepping aside to reveal his guests.
Becky’s mouth dropped. “No…no way…it can’t be.” She instinctively turned to Bernie and Alyson who both looked equally shocked.
Amos gave a knowing smile. “May I introduce Melvin Conners; though I daresay, it seems you already know him.”
Sleep was all but forgotten as the group gathered around a table in Melvin’s large kitchen and started to exchange stories. Bernie and Alyson went first, explaining all that had happened over the years, with Hamen filling in details when needed. Becky, however, was uncharacteristically quiet, her mind clearly someplace else.
“I can’t believe it; I just can’t believe it,” Bernie said excitedly. “If we hadn’t wound up all the way out at Mandoria Mountain and tried to cross the Lost Plains, we may have never found you. Becky, I guess you were right to push us to keep going.”
“Yeah,” Becky said, clearly not fully engaged.
“Becky, what’s wrong?” Alyson asked.
“It’s just…well it’s like Bernie said: a lot of things had to happen for us to get here. Alyson’s ceremony pushing back our departure time so that we used the translift just after it was broken, and then ending up at that mountain of all places. It’s almost like—”
“Fate, providence, divine intervention?” Hamen provided for her.
Becky wrinkled her nose. “I don’t like that. I don’t like the thought of some divine all-powerful being pushing us around like chess pieces.”
“Well consider this,” Bernie said. “You ultimately made the decision for us to stay at Weather Mountain. If you’d wanted to go earlier, we’d have left. You also decided we should leave Mandoria when we did. If we’d waited until morning, we might not have gotten turned around and ended up here. So maybe there is some sort of divine intervention, but you’re still in control.”
Becky nodded slowly. “Still, how did that old man know we knew Melvin? He clearly meant to lead us straight here.”
“I think I can field that one.” Melvin rubbed sleep from his hazel eyes. “Amos knows about me and where I came from. I’m sure he was able to figure out that you were linked to me once you told him who you were and why you were here. Not much gets by him.”
“So, you haven’t told us how you ended up here,” Bernie said. “According to Hamen, this place is nearly impossible to find. How long have you been here? You don’t look like you’ve changed a bit.”
“I’m not sure how to take that considering you two look like you went to a five-year long fitness camp.” Melvin chuckled as he gestured to Alyson and Bernie. “Anyway, I’ve been here three years.”
“And in all that time you haven’t left?” Becky asked, once again amazed at her friends’ lack of movement. “You know, I’ve been here two days and I’ve already found three of you. Did you guys ever think that maybe actually trying to find the others might have been a better idea than just sitting around doing nothing.”
“Becky, you need to get over it.” Alyson snapped. “It’s easy for you because you didn’t land in the past. We didn’t know what was going on or that there was even anyone else to find. Being stranded on a foreign world with very little help and few people you can trust is difficult. I couldn’t just leave Weather Mountain and run around blindly searching for the others.”
“Nor could Bernie simply leave Glorandor,” Hamen added in a much calmer tone. “There was a lot at stake, including his life. At the time, a wait-and-see approach seemed best.”
“Besides,” Melvin said. “They wouldn’t have found me. Like I said, I got here three years ago. They were here much longer than me and very few people even know this place exists.”
“Okay fine, but what about you,” Becky huffed. “Why did you just stay here?”
“Well, if you’d stop barking at me,” Melvin said calmly, “I’ll tell you.”
Becky was a little stunned by his demeanor, which was so unlike him. Melvin’s slim physique and messy black hair may have stayed the same, but his time on Mendala had definitely changed him.
“I woke up in a cave north of the plains,” Melvin started. “It was part of a sheer cliff that looked impossible to scale, so going south was my only option. I had no idea what the shimmer was or the fact that you could end up lost in it for days. I wandered around for about half a day before ending up here in Hidden Valley. When Amos found me, he immediately took me to see Seraphina, and she was the one who told me what happened.”
“Who?” Becky asked.
“Seraphina Goodall, the Alaman Epouranal Mage,” Hamen reminded her.
“Right, you’ve said her name before,” Becky recalled, “but I still don’t know exactly who that is. I’m assuming she’s really important though.”
“An epouranal mage is this world’s version of a spiritual leader,” Melvin explained. “They’re like prophets, ministers, and gurus all rolled into one. There are twelve of them, and each one is tied to a beast of the heavens, called an epourtherion, which is kind of like an angelic protector. Seraphina is linked to the one known as Alaman, so her official title is the Alaman Epouranal Mage.”
“Epouranal mages are the most highly respected and arguably most powerful people on the planet, with the possible exception of the Fantasma,” Hamen said reverently, “so please keep that in mind should we come across High Mage Goodall while we are here in Hidden Valley.”
“Hey,” Becky said indignantly, “I know how to behave around important people.”
Bernie chuckled, and Becky punched him in the arm.
“It’s not likely you’ll see her anyway,” Melvin said. “Seraphina has been in the plains meditating for the past two months. She’s usually gone for three to four months at a time.”
“Can we get back to the story?” Becky said impatiently.
“Certainly,” Melvin said. “Anyway, I was taken to Seraphina, and she told me exactly what happened. She knew who I was, where I came from, and that we had all ended up in different points in the past. She told me that I needed to stay in Hidden Valley and wait. Well, her exact words were: ‘If you go seeking your friends, you will never find them, but if you wait patiently, they will come to you.’”
“So, you just took her at face value?” Becky asked skeptically.
“It’s hard to explain but when Seraphina speaks, it’s like she’s reaching into your soul. I don’t know if all epouranals are like that, but she just has a deep spiritual way about her that’s very hard to deny face-to-face. Plus, she knew everything about what happened, so it wasn’t hard to take her advice on what to do next. Also, if I’m being honest, I didn’t really want to go wandering around on a strange planet all by myself.”
Becky shrugged. “I just don’t think I could wait. I can’t sit around and do nothing.”
“That’s probably why I was sent here instead of you,” Melvin said pointedly.
Becky was so stunned by this that she couldn’t think of a response, which allowed Melvin to continue.
“In any case, I’ve been here ever since. I was able to learn a lot from the monks who live here. They taught me mentus and how to read the shimmer, which surprisingly came naturally to me. I learned that my ancestor, the one who was sent to Earth from Mendala, was also a mentant monk, though he wasn’t from this sect. This place is very special and very spiritual. Every few months or so, someone new would find their way here. Sometimes they were seeking to learn the ways of the monks, sometimes they were people who were destined to see Seraphina, but there was always a reason. It wasn’t hard to believe that there was a reason I was here too. Also, I didn’t just sit around and do nothing. I devoted myself to learning as much as I could, so I’d be ready for the day someone came for me, even though I didn’t know exactly when that would be.”
“So, you’ve learned the ways of the monks then?” Hamen asked eagerly, “I’ve heard their mentus is very powerful, almost guardian level.”
“I’ve learned a little of the special mentus that’s taught here, but I’m nowhere near the level of the monks. For one thing, they’re all mind mages. I haven’t gotten that far yet. I’d probably need another three or four years to reach mind mage level and then another decade after that to reach the level of the monks. The things they can do are amazing.”
Becky yawned openly. “Well as interesting as I’m sure that is, we should probably get to bed. I want to get up early tomorrow morning so we can leave and head to Clandestine.”
Melvin looked slightly taken aback but nodded. “I’ll show you where the bathrooms and bedrooms are.”
“So, Melvin, how did you end up in such a big house,” Alyson asked as they left the kitchen and walked toward a stairwell that led to the second floor.
“Like I said: people periodically come to Hidden Valley, some are here for a few days, some a few months, some years. It’s a small town, and the population shifts regularly since only a small core of monks stays here permanently. Most of the buildings are designed for multiple residents. It just so happens I’m the only one in this building right now, but there were times when it was completely full.”
As they reached the second floor, Melvin started pointing to various doors. “There’s a bathroom on either side of the stairs, my room is at the far end, and there are six empty bedrooms right now, so just take your pick.”
Becky headed for the closest one. “All right guys, get some sleep. We’re heading out first thing in the morning. We’ve got to make up time.”
Hamen followed her into the room, closing the door behind him. “I’d like to talk to you,” he said calmly.
“What?” Becky said defensively, as if anticipating some sort of scolding or lecture. She plopped down on the bed, kicking off her shoes. The room was small and sparsely decorated. Besides the bed, there was a wardrobe and a small wooden desk in the corner.
Hamen pulled the seat from this desk and sat in it, facing her. His smile was gentle. “I just wanted to tell you that you don’t need to be so hard on yourself.”
“I…what?” Becky looked confused.
“You’re pushing yourself, and the others, really hard. I know this situation is difficult, especially for you because it’s still fresh. I can tell you put a lot of pressure on yourself to lead your friends and make sure they’re safe and protected, and you think it’s not enough. You feel like you’re letting them down somehow because you haven’t fixed things yet, but that’s not the case.”
“Everyone keeps acting like this is no big deal because they’ve been here for years,” Becky said, “but I can’t be the only one who just arrived. What if someone is out there wandering around, injured or in danger, or what if someone has been here for years but is in some kind of trouble? They could be locked up or being tortured or experimented on because they’re from another world. I can’t trust that everything’s going to be okay just because some divine prophet lady says it will. I’ve got to find the others as quickly as possible, and I can’t waste time stopping at every Mendalian landmark that comes along.”
“But don’t you see,” Hamen said, “you’re already succeeding. You’ve only been here two days and you’ve already found three of your friends, plus you’ve located at least four more at Fantasmal Mountain. This journey hasn’t been a waste. You’ve effectively accomplished half your goal already in a very short period of time.”
Becky nodded slowly, only just realizing the truth of what her companion was saying. She’d been so busy trying to accomplish her mission that she hadn’t really realized how far she’d come. “I guess you’re right.”
“Tomorrow, our trip to Clandestine may reveal even more information to help you find your friends. So, take heart; you’re doing everything you can to bring them together. You are succeeding.” Hamen stood, putting the chair back at the small desk.
Becky sighed. “You’re right. Thank you, Hamen. I think I’ve just been so eager for this all to be over, and it’s so weird seeing all of my friends acting like they want to stay here forever. I just don’t think I’d have been like that even if I was sent to the past.”
“Which is probably why you were the one sent to the present,” Hamen said pointedly, giving her a knowing look as he exited.
Becky grinned at this as she climbed into the small bed. Was it fate? Was it random? She didn’t know, but she realized it didn’t matter. Even if there was divine intervention, it could only take them so far. She had to be the catalyst to bring her friends together, and no matter what the outcome, in the end, they would make their own destiny.