* Cirinian Valley *
Jandor and his companions trekked through the woods with Wheaton and Kynobi leading the way. Though there was no premade path, Kynobi seemed to know exactly which way to go to avoid forging through dense underbrush. Stephanie and Jandor walked side-by-side behind the two order chiefs with Daniel and Lori bringing up the rear. The group had been mostly quiet for the last hour, but Jandor finally broached a subject that had been on his mind for a while.
“Stephanie,” he said in a soft voice, “how long have you been on Mendala?”
Stephanie came out of her own quiet musings. “Seven years, a little longer than Daniel and Terri.”
“So, what happened? Did you try and find the others?” He already told Stephanie previously how he arrived on Mendala two days prior.
Stephanie’s demeaner darkened. “I ended up in a town called Potsmark, it’s in the country of Marshroot on the western continent. Some people found me unconscious in a partially destroyed mine and I woke up in a tent setup by Sunnin relief workers who were aiding the wounded after a battle. The mine had been blown up by a tactical strike and I was the only survivor, or at least that’s what they thought. I guess I was transported there after the explosion. Fortunately, they found my flute too. They assumed I was a summoner, but I didn’t know what that was back then.
“After they healed me and made sure I was okay, I was basically left on my own in the middle of a warzone. Marshroot was going through a very chaotic civil war and it was pretty much hell. Potsmark was completely decimated, so I couldn’t stay there, and I had no idea where to go. I thought the others were dead since they said no one else survived the destruction of the mine. I was able to join up with a group of refugees and walk to another town called Hillstone, but it was just as bad there. I had no money, no one to really help me, and no idea where I could even go; it was so scary. Mentus and mandamus sound really cool until you see how it can be used to kill people. I honestly thought I was going to die.”
She took a moment to calm herself; even telling the story made her heart race. “One day I learned that there was a quickener transporting people to Ramilda but for a steep price, of course. I didn’t have any money, but he was willing to barter. All I had was my smartphone and my flute, and I really didn’t want to give that up; it was my mom’s. Fortunately, he said he’d take the smartphone. He didn’t know what it was, but he was convinced some mentant engineering place in Acumen would pay a lot of money for it.
Once I made it to Ramilda, I was safe from war, but I still didn’t have any money or any place to go. Then someone told me about Munio Mountain, which wasn’t far from the city. They thought I was a summoner because of the flute, and I was just desperate to find someplace that I could stay. The Order of Nature sounded nice, and I thought since everyone kept thinking I was a summoner, maybe they’d take me in.
“So, I ended up walking to Munio Mountain. When I got there, I told them that I wanted to be a summoner and I showed them the flute. They verified that it was a summoner instrument and asked me to play to see if I had the summoner rank. Well, it turned out that I did, so they let me stay and learn. Honestly, I didn’t really want to be a summoner; I had no idea what a summoner really did. I just wanted someplace safe to stay. Everyone I talked to said that the Order of Nature stayed out of all wars, and that sounded good to me. After being there for a while and learning more about the order, I realized it was the perfect home for me.
“It was almost three years later that Daniel and Terri found me. They’d been looking all over and ran into the same quickener I’d hired to take me to Ramilda, and they figured out I must have been in Munio Mountain, so they came looking for me. Ironically, I wasn’t that far from where they lived, I just didn’t know since I never left the mountain except to go to other preserves by translift. They told me what happened with them and that they ended up in a different place and at different times, and they thought others might be showing up all around the world. They wanted me to travel with them. At first, I said no, but Terri finally convinced me.”
Jandor had stayed quiet up until this point. “Why did you say no at first?”
She heard the hint of accusation in his voice. “I was scared. I didn’t want to end up stuck in another war-torn city or worse. I didn’t even go to the city that was close to the mountain because I heard they were fighting with another town, though it wasn’t nearly as bad as what went on in Marshroot.”
Jandor seemed to be mulling her words over and didn’t respond.
“Anyway, I went with them for about a year and…I hated it,” she said sadly. “A lot of the places we went, they were awful. I swear sometimes I still have nightmares about it. Buildings on fire, children dead in the streets, people starving. The amount of war that goes on in this world, you can’t imagine it. There are only a few places that are really stable: huge cities, or the nations that have massive armies to protect themselves. Everywhere else is just awful. A war could break out at any moment, and what’s worse, after the battles they just rebuild and keep going like nothing happened. It’s like war is an everyday part of their lives. I couldn’t take it any more after a while, and I was glad when Daniel and Terri decided to give up. I went back to the Order of Nature, and I haven’t left since.”
Jandor could hear the bitterness in her voice. “So does that mean you don’t want to come with us?”
Stephanie was silent for a minute. “It’s not that; I’m really glad you’re here, especially with all that’s going on, but the only thing I want right now is to get these monsters out of the valley. If they destroy this place—”
“We’re not going to let that happen,” Jandor said. “We’ll figure something out.”
Stephanie nodded and gave him a half-hearted smile before moving to walk with Kynobi.
Jandor thought about her words for a while. He could tell that Stephanie had been severely traumatized by her time on Mendala, but he struggled to understand what she saw. So far, everyone he encountered talked about the constant wars on Mendala, but because he’d only been in this new world for a few days, he hadn’t seen it for himself. Realizing he needed more context, Jandor decided to talk to another one of his companions. He looked behind him and saw Lori staring off in the distance.
“Something up?” he asked as he moved closer to her.
“Huh?” She seemed to snap back to reality. “It felt like something was watchin’ us, but I don’t sense nothin’. None of those critters around anyway. Guess I’ve just got m’guard up.”
“Well, I wanted to ask you something. It’s hard to explain but I’m not really familiar with a lot of things that go on in the world,” Jandor started. He never told Lori they were from another planet and had no idea if she would even believe him if he did.
“Seems like you and yer mates used to live somewhere real secluded, right? Maybe one of those secret monasteries I’m always hearing tales about?” she chuckled.
“No, but definitely far away from everything,” Jandor said vaguely. “I’m just curious, is Mendala—I mean, is the world really that bad, like full of wars and endless fighting? Everyone keeps telling me, but I’ve never seen it, other than Davron’s army.”
Lori put a hand to her chin pensively. “I guess it depends on the place. Take where I’m from: Ramilda’s a large, independent city and a trading hub. It’s pretty stable, plus it’s got its own city core. No one’s going up against that place. Hasn’t been a war in over two millennia, but all the smaller towns, they pop up and down every few centuries or so. People fightin’ for resources mostly, or towns just feuding over whatnot, or people just wantin’ a bit o’ power. It’s not unusual.”
“But if people are at war that often, how does anyone live?”
Lori looked a bit confused at the question. “Not sure how ya mean. If yer house get’s smashed, ya rebuild it, If yer town gets destroyed, ya move or ya make a new town.”
Jandor thought about this but had no response, though it did raise another question in his mind. “So, how about the Order of Nature? Everyone says that they stay out of wars, so is this the first time anyone’s attacked them?”
“Well yeah ‘cause they’re protected by the High Treaty,” Lori said.
“The Worldwide Noncombatant Treaty. Ya know, it’s one of the things every recognized town and country has to agree to in order to be on good terms with the Fantasmal Government. You can’t attack warrior guilds, the order, the Sunnin folk, and a few other places, can’t remember them all, but if ya do, everyone rains inferno down on ya. Nobody gonna risk that, well at least nobody up until this Davron fool and his crazy army. And really, who wants to kill a bunch of nature folk anyway? They ain’t do nothin’ to no one.”
“So why is Davron going after them then?” Jandor asked. “He really seems to be after the order.”
“That’s a good question.” Lori nodded. “Up until now, the stories I heard, those critters were only going after small towns or places up in the mountains, things like that. This is the first time they’ve targeted something bigger from what I know. Honestly mate, it don’t make sense.”
Seeing that Lori didn’t have the answer, Jandor posed his question to the others. “Kynobi, Wheaton, do you know why Davron is after you guys? This is the second time he’s attacked you; there has to be a reason.”
The two chiefs paused and after a moment Wheaton answered. “When Calendon came to the mountain, he said that we were being punished for standing by and letting wars happen. Honestly, he sounded mad. We weren’t even given a chance to surrender to save our lives.”
“Well then, why aren’t they killing everyone here like they did at Munio?” Daniel asked, joining the conversation now. “It looks like the main encampment surrendered like you tried to do in Munio, so what’s the difference?”
Wheaton turned to Kynobi, hoping for an answer, but Kynobi shrugged. “I have no idea. How does one guess the motives of a madman?”
Daniel thought about this. “Well, maybe they’re after something, like something only the Order of Nature has.”
“Like a weapon?” Jandor offered.
“I can’t imagine the order having any secret weapon that someone would want,” Daniel said, “but maybe some sort of…ancient knowledge. The order has been around for a few thousand years, right? Wasn’t it founded by the Daughter of the Sun?”
Stephanie nodded. “Yes, though we’re completely independent from the Sunnin Social System. The Daughter of the Sun not only founded the order but negotiated the rights to the Cirinian Valley as well.”
“So maybe that’s it,” Jandor said. “Didn’t Davron come to Earth because of Ashley?”
“Yeah, and I remember reading about the Great War,” Daniel said. “That was the last time the Book of War was used, and apparently that guy killed the Daughter of the Sun. No one knows exactly how or why it happened. Some think he killed her as a means to get the Book of War; others think she was trying to stop him and died in the process.”
“So, there’s something there, right?” Jandor said hopefully. “Maybe something to do with the Daughter of the Sun and the Order of Nature and the Book of War.”
“But as far as I know, the Order of Nature didn’t participate in the Great War at all.” Stephanie said. “So, what’s the connection?”
Wheaton finally interjected again. “The Great War was over a thousand years ago. Little is known about it, and a lot has been lost to history. I think if we want to discover the truth, we need to talk to someone who was actually alive at the time.”
“But like ya said, it was over a thousand years ago. Who we gonna talk to?” Lori scoffed. “Not even epouranals live that long.”
“True,” Wheaton said, “but there are a few animal species that have very long lifespans, and one such animal lives in these very woods, a tigrex by the name of Silvet. She’s over fourteen hundred years old. Perhaps she can shed some light on this.”
“An animal?” Jandor said skeptically. “But how would that help? Even if it’s super old, it’s not like we can talk to it.”
Wheaton chuckled at this. “Actually, we can. Normally summoners can only speak with animals they have a bond with as companions, but the tigrex race is very unique. It’s a long shot, but she may be able to tell us something.”
“Well, is this tigrex thing close?” Jandor asked.
“I’m not sure,” Kynobi said. “Perhaps we can find out where she is currently.”
He reached into his inner robe pocket and to Jandor’s surprise, pulled out a small, brown bushy-tailed squirrel. The squirrel stretched and yawned in a very human like way before looking up at Kynobi with expectant eyes. The two seemed to have a silent conversation before the squirrel made a tiny squeaking sound, jumped out of Kynobi’s hand, and dashed up a nearby tree and out of sight.
“Okay, what did you just do?” Jandor asked with a slight grin.
“Junjun is one of my companions; he’s a scout. He knows this forest well. When he finds Silvet, he will let me know.” Kynobi said matter-of-factly. “We should continue to the northern encampment for now.”
Everyone started to follow Kynobi again, except Lori who was staring off into the distance, clearly distracted by something.
Jandor put a hand on her shoulder. “What is it?” he asked.
“I dunno, mate. I could swear somethin’s out there but there’s not a lick of nothin’ in the mentant realm.”
“Daniel, you’re really good with this mentus stuff, right?” Jandor asked. “Do you sense anything?”
Daniel closed his eyes and did a quick scan. “No, there’s no one else around, no monsters, nothing, unless you count animals. Maybe someone’s trying to use mentus to search for us?” he offered.
“They’ll have a hard time if they try,” Kynobi assured. “There are large quartz deposits throughout the woods which makes it hard to search for anything mentantly. We should be safe.”
“Well, we should still keep our guard up just in case,” Jandor said. “Let’s hurry. The sooner we get to that northern encampment, the quicker we can mount a defense against those monsters.”
Lori gave one final look over her shoulder before following the rest of them along the makeshift path. She didn’t notice the small gray fox silently staring at her from several feet away between two large trees.
“I’ve found them, sir,” Lenora said hesitantly.
She was seated between two giga pogs just across from Calendon, who was behind the small wooden desk in Chief Windborn’s office.
Calendon leaned forward, his expression one of elated anticipation. “You’ve found the seal bearers. Well, that was just in time. Where are they?”
“They’re in the woods, headed north.”
Calendon gave her a searching look. “How do you know this for sure?”
She met his gaze without flinching. “One of my shadow foxes found them. They’re scouts, so they can share their vision over long distances. What he sees, I see.”
“And do you know where they’re headed,” Calendon demanded, “or will I be forced to raze the entire forest to capture them?”
Lenora hesitated for a moment before answering. “It appears they’re going to the northern encampment.”
“Ah, they’re seeking help from one of the smaller camps. Well then, we’ll just have to destroy it,” Calendon mused with a small smile.
“What why?” Lenora shouted without thinking but then immediately went meek under Calendon’s glare. “You said you wouldn’t hurt anyone,” she added in a calmer tone.
“If those seal bearers are headed to this northern encampment, they’ll clearly try to stand against us there. I’ll have no choice but to kill them and all who stand with them.” He sounded almost gleeful at the prospect.
“There’s no reason to think that will be the case. I’m sure our people will surrender peacefully. No one in the order will resist,” Lenora pleaded.
“Those seal bearers already caused problems in Munio; it’s clear they want a fight, and I cannot be held responsible for the collateral damage they cause with their heroics.”
The door opened behind Lenora and Addilyn entered, responding to Calendon’s mentant call. “You summoned me, sir?”
“Who’s headed to the northern encampment?” he asked.
“No one yet,” Addilyn answered immediately. “We didn’t have enough troops to send to every part of the valley.” Her tone sounded both defensive and slightly annoyed as if she was anticipating a reprimand. Calendon’s insistence on only bringing soldiers that he knew from Portson had severely limited their forces.
Calendon ignored his lieutenant’s disgruntled tone. “Fine; I want you to take a full platoon of monsters directly to the northern encampment. That’s where the seal bearers are headed. I want them eliminated, along with anyone who tries to help them.”
“Captain Calendon please!” Lenora tried to stand but one of the pogs held her in place. “I can send a message to the encampment with my shadow fox. I’ll tell them that the seal bearers are on the way and not to join them,” she said desperately. “I’ll have the leaders capture them to make sure they’re not a hinderance to you.”
Calendon turned at this. “Oh really, and you think they can do this?”
“Yes....” Lenora was a bit hesitant. “If they can capture the seal bearers, no one has to die, right? You can just take them when you get there.”
Calendon reached into his robe pocket and pulled out a small quartz rock and rod. “Here, record the message and send it along. If they manage to subdue the seal bearers before Addilyn arrives, then yes, I will honor my word; no one need die.”
The quartz Calendon handed her was melivian, a special type of quartz that could store information using mentus. This small rock already had embedded mentus that would allow her to record a brief visual message that could be played back by anyone.
Lenora tapped the rod against the quartz to activate it and recorded her message under Calendon’s watchful gaze. Right as she finished, a small grey fox appeared at her feet as if out of nowhere. Lenora had already used her special bond with the shadow fox to call it back to her. She put the melivian in the small pouch around the fox’s neck and then it dashed off between Addilyn’s legs and out the open door.
“Very good,” Calendon said with an approving nod. “Now, we’ll just see if your comrades heed your words. In the meantime, Addilyn, prepare a platoon. I want you to deploy as quickly as possible, and take Bannon with you, since we’re short on troops,” he added with a huff. “We don’t need him guarding those caves; the pogs can handle that on their own. If all goes well at this north camp, you can leave Bannon and some of the creatures there to lock it down. Also, take this one with you.” He gestured lazily at Lenora.
Before Lenora could respond, one of the pogs scooped her up like luggage. She gave a squeak of protest but did not fight back.
“If there’s any trouble, make sure she watches you kill everyone in the camp before you do her in,” Calendon added with a sneer.
“Yes sir.” Abagail gave a salute and left the room with the two giga pogs in tow, Lenora under one of their arms.
“Oh, this is unexpected,” Kynobi said as he came to a halt. He seemed to be focusing on something off in the distance. “Junjun has found Silvet. Apparently, she’s not far from here.”
“Really? Great!” Jandor said excitedly.
It had only taken the squirrel twenty minutes to report back to Kynobi mentantly using the special bond he had with the scout.
“It would be a detour though,” Kynobi said. “Going now means a delay reaching the encampment, and we have no idea if any monsters are headed there.”
Jandor thought about this for a moment before turning to Daniel. “What do you think about all this?”
Daniel was taken aback that Jandor asked his opinion. “We don’t even know if this tigrex will have any information. I think it’s more important to get to the encampment. We might be able to evacuate people before it’s too late.”
“We could split up,” Wheaton offered. “I should be able to guide us the rest of the way to the encampment; Kynobi can find Silvet and speak with her.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to go off on your own,” Jandor said. “What if those monsters show up. We can’t be too careful. Maybe Daniel or I should—”
“I’ll go,” Stephanie offered, cutting Jandor off.
Jandor gave her an appraising look. “Are you sure?”
“If Calendon sends monsters to the encampment, then they’re going to need both you and Daniel to hold them off. That’s where you’re needed most. Kynobi and I can handle ourselves in these woods,” Stephanie assured. “Worst case, if a few of those pogs try to come after us, we should be able to get away easily. Don’t forget, I’ve got the mark too, plus I’ll have Lunox with me.” She indicated the silver wolf at her side.
“I guess that makes sense. Go find that tigrex thing and then meet up with us as quick as possible,” Jandor said.
Stephanie gave a playful salute. “You got it, boss.”
“Take this,” Daniel pulled a dagger from his inner robe pocket and handed it to Stephanie, “just in case.”
Stephanie accepted the dagger and then started off with Kynobi, heading further west as the rest of the group continued north.