* The Lost Cave *
Everyone was gathered around the still body of Tabatha.
“What did you say that for?” Ace shouted at the dog.
“How could I know that she’d faint.” Illusion gave a cowering whimper as he backed away.
Fantasma stepped forward. “Please, if you allow me, I can help.”
The crowd parted except for Ace who was sitting on the ground cradling Tabatha’s limp body. “What are you going to do?” he asked skeptically.
“Just as I was able to activate your adimus so that we could communicate, I can use mandamus to hyper-stimulate the adimus immune system and revive her.”
“I really wish I knew what that meant,” Ace said, “but if it’ll help her, then please.”
Fantasma knelt and put a hand on her forehead. “Mittius Resepco Tabatha.”
Tabatha groaned as her eyes fluttered open. “What happened?”
“You fainted,” Ace said. “Are you okay? Can you stand?”
Tabatha hesitated for a moment before attempting to rise. Ace helped her up and soon she was back on her feet, but still a bit unsteady. “I just feel like I’m suffocating. It’s this cave. Doesn’t anyone else feel it?”
Everyone gave her blank stares.
“Chief-Fantasma-man, I think it’s the rift,” Thomas said suddenly. “It looks like it’s gettin’ all in her and messin’ with her insides.”
Fantasma eyed him curiously. “How is that possible?”
Thomas shrugged. “I dunno. Never seen nothin’ like it.”
“Perhaps you should take your friend further away from this cave,” Fantasma suggested to Ace. “She might feel better.”
“Fine, I don’t want to be here anyway,” Tabatha said, giving a sour look to the others. “It’s not like this has anything to do with me anyway. I’m not the daughter of the whatever.”
“I’ll walk you back to where that transporter is,” Ace offered. “Maybe we can get you back to Henry’s basement.” He wrapped an arm around her waist to help her along, his other hand still clutching the large stone tablet.
“I think the thing about her dad hit her hard,” Terri said as soon as Ace and Tabatha were gone.
Jandor turned back to where Illusion stood next to Mrs. Guardman. “You said Tabatha’s dad caused the accident, but was it on purpose?”
“No,” Mrs. Guardman said quickly. “Well, not really. It was an accident; it’s complicated. It was the book that…” her voice trailed off. She was staring at Jandor with a look of fear in her eyes.
“What?” Jandor prompted, looking confused.
“Your hand,” she pointed.
Jandor looked down and saw that a glowing golden symbol had appeared on the back of his right hand. It was a circle surrounding a cross with several other small symbols around the edge.
“I don’t understand?” he said as he examined it closer.
Stephanie shrieked. “It’s on my hand too!”
Others noticed the same glowing symbol on the back of their hands. Each of the teens had it, except Ashley, Terri, and Henry.
“It’s the mark of the seal,” Illusion said, turning to look up at Fantasma, “The Book of War is near.”
“Chief-Fantasma-man, someone’s coming through the rift!” Thomas announced almost at the same time.
“What?” Fantasma looked around.
There was a flash of yellow light and two men, flanked by two large pig-faced creatures, appeared in the exact same location that Fantasma and his companions arrived. Both men wore blue robes, one holding a glowing scepter, the other a curved staff. The pig creatures that flanked them were large, muscular beasts wearing leather armor. One held a spiked mace, the other had a sword strapped to its back.
There were several whimpers and yelps from the group of teens as the newcomers seemed to assess the situation.
“What are those things?” Sharanel whispered, staring in awe at the monsters.
Thomas was next to her, “Can’t ya sense it in the realm, Shara?” he said in a low voice. “Call themselves pogs. Listen, get to the back. I gotta bad feelin’ about this, or rather Seraphina gave me the bad feelin’ about this.”
“What?” Sharanel said confused.
“Just go,” Thomas snapped in a manner that was completely unlike him.
Sharanel didn’t argue. She pushed her way to the back of the crowd and ended up next to Henry. When their eyes met again, she smiled awkwardly. “Um, sorry for staring at you earlier. It’s just weird meeting a quickener from another world.” She looked back at the monsters and her smile quickly faded as she remembered the danger they were in. “Do you think you can get us out of here if things get bad? It seemed like you might have dimensional sense.”
Henry gave her a confused look. He saw that she was holding a staff that looked like his and wondered if this meant something. He was about to ask, but then his attention was brought back to the situation at hand when the man with the scepter took a confident step forward and began to speak.
“Well now, what do we have here?” He looked around at the tunnels, half of which were sealed with large rocks, the others looking as if they’d been recently excavated. Then he looked to the group of nervous teens standing behind Fantasma before turning to the two creatures that flanked him. “Make sure no one leaves.”
The pig-faced beasts moved quickly to block the paths of the two open tunnels closest to the group.
“I take it these aren’t friends of yours,” Jandor said in a whisper to Fantasma as tension seemed to solidify between the two groups.
“This man is very dangerous,” Fantasma warned, a stoic expression on his face. “I’ll handle this; do not intervene.” He stepped forward, adjusting his robe. “I am the Fantasma,” he announced, his words ringing throughout the cavern. “Who are you, and how did you get past my people?”
“I am Lord Davron, and I believe you know how I was able to circumvent your forces.” He gestured to the creatures that Thomas had identified as pogs.
“What did you do to them?” Fantasma’s tone sounded threatening.
Davron waved away his posturing dismissively. “Your people are safe, and I haven’t come here to start a fight. I’ve come here to request an audience with the Daughter of the Sun. That’s why you’re here right?”
“What business have you with the Daughter of the Sun?” Fantasma demanded, completely taken aback.
“So, she is here,” Davron countered, again unfazed.
Fantasma seemed slightly flustered but regained his composure. “If she is, you’ll never have a chance to find out. Mittius Mentenus Bind.”
An amber aura wrapped around Davron and Gamdon and the two of them seemed to grow weaker. Davron started clutching his scepter with both hands. Gamdon dropped to his knees, his quickener staff clattering to the ground beside him.
Jandor stepped up to Fantasma. “Are you doing something to them?”
“I’m not going to kill them.” Fantasma assured in a whisper. “I’m just trying to incapacitate them. It’s clear he has the Book of War. He needs to be stopped.”
But even as Gamdon collapsed unconscious, Davron stood tall again, a smile on his face as the amber aura dissipated. “Now, that’s not how you treat a guest, Fantasma.”
Fantasma gave him a shrewd, calculating look. “What evil work is this?”
“Evil? This from the man who attacks unprovoked?” He gestured to his fallen comrade. “You know nothing of me or the power I wield. I’m no mere mind mage, and the Book of War is far more than what an ignorant fool like you could possibly imagine.” He stepped forward until he was only inches from Fantasma. “You may be able to bind my quickener, you might even be able to slow down my creatures, but you have no power over me.”
Fantasma glared down at him. “You’re insane. That book has clearly corrupted you, as it’s done everyone who’s held it.”
Davron stepped back, arms wide. “Well, they do say unchecked power breeds tyrants, don’t they?” He glared back at Fantasma. “Isn’t that what you and your kind have had for millennia. The Fantasmas have enjoyed absolute power, completely unchecked by anyone, claiming to have righteous authority granted by God while millions of people suffer under your reign.”
“Do you know what he’s talking about?” Jandor asked Mrs. Guardman, hoping that her limited knowledge of Mendala would give her some insight.
Mrs. Guardman shook her head, looking both entranced and confused by the scene in front of them. “No, Sam only told me a little. This is way beyond me.”
“How dare you!” Fantasma was clearly losing his composure now. “You judge me as your army of monsters wreaks havoc across the world.”
“I’m merely doing the work necessary to clean up the chaos you let run rampant. Before there can be new, the old must be destroyed. You’ll see soon what I’ve been able to accomplish.” His voice became louder. “Where the Fantasmal Government has failed, Lord Davron will succeed. The world will be united under my banner using the Book of War which you fear so much.”
Fantasma shook his head. “You’re a mad man.”
Davron smirked. “All change seems mad at the time. Fortunately, history is written by the victors.”
“Trust me Davron, you won’t even register as a blip in history. I may not be able to affect you, but your quickener is down.” He gestured to Gamdon who was sprawled on the ground, the amber aura wrapped around his still body. “You’ll never leave this place. I’ll bury you here before I let you return to Mendala.”
“Well then, let’s even things out, shall we.” He started to scan the group behind Fantasma.
Sharanel whimpered. She was still standing next to Henry and tried to make herself even less noticeable by hiding behind him.
“What’s wrong?” Henry asked as she clutched his arm.
<Shara, stay low,> came the mentally projected voice of Thomas in Sharanel’s head.
Thomas made a show of shuffling as if nervous, but it was just to make himself more prominent in the group.
Davron didn’t miss the movement. He pointed his scepter at Thomas and in the blink of an eye, one of the pogs rushed forward, it’s movements so quick, Fantasma had no time to react. The pog grabbed Thomas by the neck and slammed him to the ground. Many people in the group cringed or yelped in surprise.
“Hey!” Jandor shouted, his instincts compelling him to help, but Fantasma held out an arm to stop him.
“Don’t worry, chief-Fantasma-man, I’m okay. Gonna be murder on my back later though.” Thomas gave a pained chuckled as the pog pressed down harder on his neck to silence him.
“There, we’re even.” Davron said succinctly. “Now, we can continue to play this pointless game, or you can let me do what I came here to do, and then I’ll leave.”
“And what’s that,” Fantasma said through gritted teeth.
“I told you,” Davron strolled past Jandor and Fantasma. “I’m here to gain audience with the long-lost Daughter of the Sun, perhaps the only member of world leadership not corrupted by the poison of government. I heard she was here on this world, most likely blissfully unaware of how her home has collapsed without her there to stem the tide of incompetence and corruption prevalent throughout the Fantasmal Government.”
Fantasma growled, but he knew that one false move could cost Thomas his life. He felt stuck. He had no idea how much power Davron truly had. It seemed letting the situation play out was the best option at the moment. There were too many civilians to risk all-out battle with the deranged man.
Jandor seemed to be of the same mind. He could sense Fantasma’s hesitance and knew that they were all in over their heads.
The group behind Jandor and Fantasma took a collective step back as Davron approached. It was clear that everyone was afraid.
Davron held up his hands. “Please do not let these theatrics between Fantasma and myself cause you to fear me. I am not here to hurt anyone.”
“I think he’d disagree,” Becky said boldly as she pointed to Thomas and the creature standing menacingly over him.
“Sometimes it’s necessary to show you have power so that people will listen,” Davron said with a dismissive air.
He snapped his fingers and the pog released Thomas’s neck, but it was still poised above him so that the quickener couldn’t move.
“See, unlike Fantasma, I know how to show restraint,” he said as his brown eyes scanned the group in front of him. “Now, which of you lovely ladies is the Daughter of the Sun.”
“It’s me,” Becky said immediately, stepping forward to address him again. “I’m the one you’re looking for.”
“That’s admirable dear,” Davron said in a patronizing tone, “but I’ve taken the liberty of learning a few facts about the Daughter of the Sun. She’ll be fair-skinned, with blonde hair and blue eyes, just like her ancestor.”
Becky grimaced in frustration. With her light-beige skin, hazel eyes, and short brown hair, she was immediately out of the running. Davron continued to scan the group of teens as he paced in front of them. There were only two girls who fit his description: Ashley, who was looking increasingly nervous, and Alyson, who steeled herself, her expression as hard as Becky’s. She was ready to step forward and protect her friend, but before she could do this, Davron was distracted when he saw something so unexpected, it took his mind temporarily off the search for the Daughter of the Sun.
“What is this?” He stopped in front of Stephanie and grabbed her arm to get a closer look at the golden symbol on the back of her hand.
“Hey!” Stephanie snatched her arm back. “Hands off, creep.”
Davron wasn’t paying attention though. He was surveying the group of teens, almost all of whom had the same mark, and it looked familiar. “Where do I know this from?” he said more to himself than anyone in particular.
The pog that stood over Thomas spoke, it’s voice deep and gruff. “It is the mark of the seal. They carry the power to bind!”
“The power to…” Davron seemed to come to some sort of realization. He turned to where Fantasma was standing. “So, this is why you came here? It was never about the Daughter of the Sun. You came here to recruit an army…an army of children!” He started to laugh maniacally.
Jandor gave Fantasma a confused look. “An army? What’s he talking about?”
Fantasma looked equally confused but before he could answer, Davron spoke again, still chuckling.
“So, this is your plan, raise an army of children to stop me?” He started to pace and there was a haughty jaunt to his step. “But then why should I be surprised that you would recruit children to fight your battles. After all, you cultivate your guardians from as young as twelve. Easier to manipulate their loyalty when they’re young.”
“I do no such thing!” Fantasma sputtered angrily.
But Davron was no longer listening. “I’m sure you thought you’d have time, maybe years to ‘grow them up’ into proper fighters, didn’t you? Well, I don’t know how you managed to imbibe them with the seal, but I’m putting an end to your little plans now.”
He stuck his hand inside his robe. He didn’t need to open the Book of War to access the creatures he wanted. He’d summoned them countless times before. Immediately more of the pogs appeared until there were almost a dozen forming a circle around them. A few of the teens screamed at these sudden new arrivals.
“So Davron, now you show your true colors,” Fantasma said with vindication in his voice. “All that sanctimonious talk about trying to change the world was just a façade. You’re no better than any tyrant.”
“Tyrant!” Davron practically barked. “Says the man who can crush any town, any kingdom under the weight of his words alone but yet also has in his command the most powerful army in the world. If I’m a tyrant, then what does that make you?”
“The only army I see here is yours,” Fantasma countered, gesturing to the silent creatures who stood at the ready, each carrying a different weapon. “And even with all this, I will still defeat you.”
“So arrogant.” Davron scoffed. “So certain that you’re just when you couldn’t be further from it. You and your kind have lost the right to hold the moral high ground and if bloodshed is the only way to end your reign, then so be it.”
Fantasma folded his arms in front of him. “You can’t kill me, and you know it.”
“No, but I can—how did you put it—bury you down here; you and your would-be army of children. It wasn’t what I wanted, but you leave me no choice.”
Davron snapped his fingers again and the pog standing above Thomas raised his sword in an instant and stabbed the quickener in the chest.
Thomas yelped and then went limp. There were gasps of horror. Sharanel tried to run forward but Henry caught her. She was beside herself with shock and rage.
“Thomas! Thomas!” she screamed. “No! Let me go! Let me go!”
“You monster!” Fantasma shouted.
“This is your doing, Fantasma! You involved these children, now watch as they all die.” Davron signaled to his creatures, and they all started forward.
“Wait!” Ashley extracted herself from Wayne’s hold and ran to the center of the room between Fantasma and Davron. “Stop! I’m the Daughter of the Sun.”
“Ash, no!” Wayne called.
But she couldn’t hear him over the pounding of her own heart. “It’s me. You said you wanted me, right? I’ll do whatever you want. Just don’t hurt my friends.”
Davron held up a hand and the creatures immediately stopped moving. He stared at her for a moment as if sizing her up, and then he smiled. “It is you,” he said finally, apparently convinced. “All right then, Daughter of the Sun, you have a deal. If you come with me, I’ll spare the others, as long as they don’t interfere.” He extended a hand to Ashley.
“No, you can’t take her!” Wayne ran forward with no real plan other than to protect his friend.
He was caught up quickly by one of the pogs who held him by the neck.
“Wayne!” Ashley screamed.
Davron stepped forward, intent on pulling her away, and the rest of the pogs moved to stop anyone else from intervening.
“Mittius Mandamus Wind!”
The strange yet authoritative words came from Fantasma. At the same time, the air thinned momentarily just before a powerful gust of wind came out of nowhere, throwing Davron backwards into the cave wall, leaving him dazed.
Fantasma knelt to pick up a rock before heading toward the pog holding Wayne. “Let him go!”
Another pog came out of nowhere, striking Fantasma hard in the side with a spiked mace. He was knocked sideways into the stone wall, but surprisingly seemed unharmed. The pog moved to attack again but this time Fantasma blocked the mace with a huge stone sword that had morphed from the rock he was previously holding. Even as he fought the pog, others were closing in to attack both him and the teens.
Seeing that the situation was rapidly deteriorating, Jandor rushed forward and slammed the length of his staff into the pog holding Wayne. It squealed and dropped Wayne who gasped and sputtered as he struggled to his feet.
The pog pulled a sword from the sheath on its back and swung down hard at Jandor but he held the staff over his head to block it, and surprisingly, the staff held against the force of the blade, leaving the two in a perilous deadlock. As Jandor tried to gain the upper hand, the staff, which seemed to be fortified with more than just wood, began to glow a faint blue. For a moment it seemed like Jandor would prevail until another pog moved to attack him from behind with a short spear.
“Jandor!” Becky screamed even as she ran forward to join the fray. Though she knew nothing about the cream-colored, staff-like weapon, she stabbed the spear-wielding pog with the three wing-shaped blades at the end, piercing through the leather armor. It squealed in pain as thick green blood poured out of the wound.
Elated that the weapon worked, she stabbed the stunned pog again, this time in the chest, and as the blade sank in, the creature thrashed and squealed and then without warning, disappeared, leaving behind nothing but a puddle of green blood.
Everyone froze. Even the fight between the pogs and Fantasma was momentarily paused.
Davron was pulling himself from the ground as it happened. “The power to bind,” he muttered as he started to realize what that truly meant. “Don’t just stand there; kill them! Kill them all!” he yelled, a slight panic in his voice.
“Enough!” Fantasma shouted as a blast of energy knocked back the pogs that were trying to surround him. He swung the stone sword high before slamming it into the ground. “Mittius Mandamus Terra!”
The sword melted into the cave floor. At the same time, stone shackles shot up from the ground next to each of the pig-faced creatures, clamping around their cloven feet and thick legs to hold them firmly in place. The pogs squealed in anger but could no longer move. Jandor used the distraction to jump back from the one he had been fighting.
Fantasma had a wild, almost dark look on his face. “Did you really think this little side show would pose a challenge to me? You may have bested my guardians, you may have the Book of War, but I am the Fantasma, servant of the Almighty,” he boasted as he walked confidently toward Davron. “My power is unrivaled. You were not the first to challenge Fantasmal rule and you won’t be the last, but just like the armies of Cardos who defied Jeremiah Fantas, I will see you kneel before me and repent.”
The two were inches apart and Fantasma towered over Davron, a palpable aura radiating from him.
Davron did not look afraid, but he had also lost the smug swagger he’d arrived with. Instead, a mutinous, almost calculating expression was on his face as he looked up at Fantasma.
“Fine then,” he said as he lowered his gaze from Fantasma’s piercing stare, “you shall see me kneel.”
As Davron slowly lowered to his knees, Fantasma gave a satisfied smile. He’d bested this upstart, made him realize the error of his ways, and proved that even the creatures of the Book of War could not stand against the might of the Fantasma.
Davron knelt to one knee, his head down, one hand on the ground, the other holding his scepter. “Enjoy this small victory, Fantasma,” he muttered, “for it will be the last one you ever have.”
Fantasma sensed it in the mentant realm only moments before it manifested. The cave began to rumble, and rocks started to cascade from the ceiling even as the stone shackles crumbled from the pogs’ feet. Davron had used his own mentus to trigger a cave-in.
Fantasma pulled Davron up by his robe, shaking him wildly. “You fool, what have you done!”
Davron’s smug smile had returned. “Just doing what I promised: burying you down here.”
“You’re a mad man,” Fantasma growled.
Someone screamed behind him. He turned to see the others scatter as the unrestrained pogs closed in on them. Jandor was trying to fight some off as best he could, but there were too many. Most of the teens had taken off down one of the various unblocked tunnels in fright as the pogs chased after them.
“Now Fantasma, what will it be, deal with me, or help your precious children?” Davron asked.
“You better pray I stop this, or you’ll die down here too,’ Fantasma snarled before chucking Davron like a ragdoll. His body hit the rock wall hard and slid to the ground, limp.
Satisfied that his enemy had been rendered unconscious, Fantasma rushed off to stop the pogs and the chaos of the cave-in.