* Fantasmal Mountain *
“I think he hates me,” Sharanel said.
The words spilled out of her after several long minutes of internal debate during which she played and replayed the events of the last few hours.
Fantasma’s entire company had left the cavern where they found the rift and traveled back through the mountainous terrain to Fenallday. During the long, tiring trek, Henry had not spoken to her. He barely spoke to anyone except Mrs. Guardman. He just walked in agitated silence, holding the broken pieces of his staff almost like he was cradling a baby. It was clear what he was thinking: he’d lost the only chance to find his friends.
Sharanel tried repeatedly to tell him that it was okay, that once they got back to the mountain someone could repair the staff, but Henry never responded to her. His expression was a mixture of consternation and anger, and after several futile attempts to engage with him, Sharanel gave up, her mood dampened by his silent rebuff. She didn’t even know why it bothered her so much that his anger might have been directed at her, but it did.
It wasn’t her fault that the staff was broken; it wasn’t the fall that caused it to break. It was Henry’s botched attempt at quickening and the unstable energy of the rift that caused the staff to shatter. She told him this, but he wouldn’t listen. They just ended up shouting at each other. He was impossible to reason with. He didn’t understand quickening at all and every time she tried to explain something, it was like he shut down. He didn’t want to hear her “crazy mumbo jumbo” as he called it; he just wanted his friends back.
Sharanel knew that, from Henry’s point of view, this all started when she convinced him to quicken his friend’s to Mendala. But what choice did she have? She was trying to save them all. She had to act; Fantasma was depending on her. She was the Fantasmal Quickener, and she had a job to do. Henry didn’t understand the weight that this put on her. How could he? Even though they were the same age, they were worlds apart.
She tried to rise above the argument and his silence during the trek. Once they reached Fenallday, she quickened them all back to Fantasmal Mountain. Fantasma instructed her to take Henry and Veda Guardman to one of the mountain’s quavers, who repaired quickener staffs. He and Honsmordin had to prepare to receive the Sisterhood of Ester to the mountain and tell them about the unfortunate loss of the Sun Stone. While she didn’t envy the task facing Fantasma, Sharanel didn’t relish being with the brooding Henry either.
He was still not speaking as they made their way to one of the conference rooms spread throughout that section of the massive mountain. Sharanel asked one of the assistants to summon a quaver she was familiar with, and they were waiting for him to arrive.
Henry made a point of sitting across the room from Sharanel and Mrs. Guardman, the pieces of his staff laid out on a small oak table, and a somber expression on his face. It was during those long minutes of waiting that Sharanel was able to really examine the past few hours and come to her conclusion: Henry hated her. A verdict she spoke only loud enough for Mrs. Guardman to hear.
“I don’t think that’s true at all,” Mrs. Guardman answered almost immediately. She put a comforting hand on Sharanel’s knee and gave it a pat.
It was such a motherly thing to do, and this was one of the reasons why Sharanel had grown so fond of the woman in such a short time. Having lost both her parents at a very young age, Sharanel was starved for maternal affection which Mrs. Guardman seemed to give freely.
During the trip back to Fenallday, she talked at length with Veda Guardman. She had a very nurturing approach to the way she dealt with people, and it was hard not to treat her with the respect one would treat their own mother. Mrs. Guardman was kind and warm when she talked to Sharanel, peppering her with questions, not about the planet, or where they were, or what was going on, but ones designed to get to know her:
“So, what do you do?”
“Oh, that’s interesting, do you like your job?”
“Do you get to see your family often?”
Sharanel felt like she was at a dinner being interviewed by her date’s parents, and for one scary moment she thought that perhaps Mrs. Guardman was indeed sizing her up as an appropriate match for Henry—Had she heard about the kiss?—but that feeling quickly subsided when Mrs. Guardman started questioning Alice, Sherrilynn, and even Honsmordin with the same style of inquiries. It quickly became clear that this was just the way the matriarchal figure acted with everyone, even those clearly her senior. Sharanel noted, with a slight chuckle, that even Sorinson and Rockwall acted unusually deferential to her. She just seemed to have that effect on people.
Because of this maternal nature, it was only natural that she would try to comfort Sharanel, despite them being little more than strangers.
Mrs. Guardman gave the young quickener a knowing smile, as if she was aware of everything Sharanel had processed to come to her conclusion. “He’s just scared. I think he feels the weight of the world on his shoulders right now,” she explained further, her voice quiet so that Henry would not hear their conversation. “You must know how that feels. You’ve got a pretty important job from what you’ve told me.”
And there it was: that simple motherly wisdom that seemed to always make things clear. It was an easy comparison, but it made sense. Of course he was scared; of course he felt pressure. How would she feel if she was in his position?
“Yeah, I guess,” Sharanel agreed.
“You should try to talk to him again,” Mrs. Guardman suggested with a yawn. “I think he’s gotten past his anger. He could use someone who can relate to what he’s going through.”
Sharanel nodded and stood, smoothing down her robe before walking tentatively over to Henry and plopping down next to him on the wide bench he was sitting on.
She took it as a good sign that he didn’t move away, even though she’d misjudged her landing and was pressed a bit closer to him than she’d have liked.
“Lomax will be here soon. I know he’ll be able to fix your staff,” she said quietly.
Henry sighed. He didn’t turn to look at her, but this may have been because she was so close. He didn’t know what to say to Sharanel. He wasn’t angry, as Mrs. Guardman had surmised; he was more anxious.
“How can you be so sure?” he said, deciding to voice his fears. “Even if they can glue it back together, what if it doesn’t work anymore. I don’t even know how it worked to begin with.”
Sharanel scooted over so she could turn and face Henry properly. “Quickener staffs break all the time,” she said, though this was a slight exaggeration. “I’ve broken mine before, but I got it fixed the next day and it was good as new.”
Henry actually seemed relieved by this revelation. “Really? How did you break yours?”
Sharanel blushed at this. “I was really ambitious when I was younger, always trying to prove how clever I was. I was working on an experiment, a really dangerous one actually, without any supervision or help because I wanted to prove my theory. I was so dumb; I could’ve killed myself now that I think about it. Anyway, my staff snapped in half, kind of similar to what happened with yours.”
Henry was about to ask what experiment she was trying to do, but just then, a tall, tan-skinned man, wearing a blue robe similar to Sharanel’s, entered the room. He first looked to Mrs. Guardman, who was dozing a bit in her chair, then he saw Sharanel and Henry seated on the large bench on the opposite wall.
“Chief Quicksilver, how can I be of service,” he said cordially. “It sounded urgent.”
“Chief?” Henry repeated looking at her in confusion.
Sharanel seemed flustered for a moment before answering, trying to be professional. “It is, Lomax. We have a bit of an emergency on our hands.”
She explained what happened to Henry’s staff, giving the important details while leaving out the particulars of the mission that they were on as well as Henry’s unusual origins.
Lomax started studying the staff even as Sharanel talked, a troubled look on his face. “You said this staff was near a rift?”
“Yes, a very powerful one, we think,” Sharanel said.
“That explains what I’m seeing,” he said as he held up one of the staff pieces. He was examining it in the mentant realm which allowed him to see far more than his physical eyes.
“What?” Henry asked both concerned and confused.
“It’s like your staff’s been poisoned.” Lomax put the staff piece down. “Yes, I guess that’s the best analogy.”
“Poisoned?” Sharanel repeated in a tone of disbelief.
“Rift energy has seeped into a lot of the quartz, specifically the tuner,” Lomax explained pointing to certain sections of the staff. “Even if I put it back together, the staff won’t be able to function properly; in fact, it would probably shatter again. I think it would be best if I made you another.”
Henry looked shocked at the suggestion. “Another?”
“We need this staff,” Sharanel said, cutting across him. “There are very important people connected to this staff who we need to locate. Isn’t there some way?”
Lomax shook his head. “I’m sorry but rift energy is beyond my expertise. I don’t know anyone who could fix this, and besides, there’s a good chance the core has been contaminated as well, so the staff memory could also be corrupted.”
Sharanel felt numb and her response was almost automatic. “Okay, well thanks for coming.”
“No problem, Chief. Sorry I couldn’t give you better news.” He left the room.
Henry was gripping the edge of the oak table to keep himself from trembling. That was it. The little bit of hope he’d been clinging to vanished. He felt sick to his stomach and the rage that had subsided was now a rekindled fire inside of him.
“You said they could fix it, that it would all be okay,” he said in a soft but clearly angry voice.
Sharanel felt despair welling up inside of her. “Henry, I’m sorry.”
“I knew it. It’s exactly what I said would happen,” Henry snapped, his voice louder and harsher now. “I don’t know why I even trusted you. You don’t know what you’re doing any more than me, do you ‘Chief?’” he added in a mocking tone.
“What?” Sharanel looked as if he just cursed at her. “This isn’t my fault! How dare you even say that. You’re the one that botched a simple transport, not me. I’m a highly skilled quickener trained under Professor Landerpool. You’re just a rube who can barely hold his staff upright.”
“If you’re so good, then why couldn’t you do all this quickening stuff yourself?” Henry countered.
“Because I don’t—”
“Chief Quicksilver,” came a tentative voice from the doorway.
Both of them turned to see a young woman entering the room. She was slightly shorter than Sharanel, with porcelain skin, sharp facial features, vivid green eyes, and thin, golden hair landing just above her shoulders. She was an elf, though her short, pointed ears were hidden by her hair, so Henry was none the wiser. She wore a white robe with a purple belt and several symbols on the front which indicated she was one of the many assistants who served the mountain’s senior staff.
“What? Oh…” Sharanel was momentarily thrown off by the new arrival but composed herself quickly. “Yes Lily?”
Lily seemed highly aware that she had interrupted a heated debate but tried to remain professional. “Chief Pornabus sent me to take the guests to their rooms, that is, when you’re finished here of course.”
“Yes, definitely,” Henry said quickly. He grabbed the pieces of his staff and pushed past Sharanel to the threshold of the conference room. “Mrs. Guardman, wake up; they’ve got rooms for us.”
Mrs. Guardman’s head shot up and it was only then that she realized she’d been dozing. “Oh? What about the staff though? I thought we were getting that fixed first.”
She looked back and forth between Henry, who was stiff and stony-faced, and Sharanel, who looked as if she was fighting back tears, and it became clear that she’d missed something important. Before she could inquire further, Sharanel found her voice.
“We’ve had a setback, ma’am, but don’t worry; I’m certain that Fantasma will have another way to find the rest of your group.” She forced a calm smile on her face. “You really should get some rest; you look exhausted.”
“Yes, I’m sure the chief here has it all under control,” Henry said with ill-disguised sarcasm.
Mrs. Guardman gave Henry a look that suggested she wasn’t pleased with his rude behavior, but she decided to make allowances for it since all their nerves were on edge. Instead, she walked over to Sharanel, put a hand on her shoulder and gave her an encouraging smile. “I’m sure you have things well in hand. Just please wake me the moment you have any sort of breakthrough or news.”
Sharanel nodded and smiled more sincerely. “I will ma’am.” She turned to the elf assistant. “Lily, take our guests to their quarters; I’m going to go see Fantasma.”
Lily nodded and guided Henry and Mrs. Guardman down the wide hallway. Sharanel watched Henry’s retreating figure with a complicated expression on her face as she recalled what Thomas said about him.
“The greatest quickener?” she said with a scoff. “What were you thinking, Tommy?” She shook her head sadly before heading off in the opposite direction.
Fantasma sat at a round table made of polished stone in one of the smaller conference rooms in that part of the mountain. He’d chosen the room specifically because he felt the roundness of the table would help reinforce that both parties had equal status. He didn’t want his guests to feel defensive, especially since he knew the conversation would already be heated.
Also present at the table were Honsmordin, Franklin, Karmandrian, and Sherrilynn. When Sister Heather arrived at the meeting, she brought with her two other blonde-haired women who Sherrilynn immediately recognized: Sister Jasmine and Sister Patrice.
Sherrilynn knew that they were highly integral in the relief and aid work of the Sunnin Social System, so she assumed that the sisterhood mistakenly thought that they were being summoned to the mountain to talk about efforts to aid the cities that had been recently attacked.
She discreetly shared this information with Franklin, who was next to her, and he nodded, but he already knew this and felt there was more to it than Sherrilynn knew. He noticed Heather’s reaction to seeing Sherrilynn at the table; it was a mix of shock and disdain cleverly hidden by a well-practiced smile. This confirmed his suspicions, which he passed onto Fantasma through the mentant realm so as not to be overheard.
<She’s not aware that the Sun Stone has been removed from the mountain. She thinks she’s here to be bullied into handing it over. She’ll start by trying to control the conversation and force you to be the enemy. The women she brought with her are influential and well respected in the sisterhood. She hopes to catch you in an abuse of your power so that action can poison the other sisters against the Fantasmal Government. Be wary of her, sir.>
Fantasma was a bit stunned to hear this from Franklin but did not dismiss his warning. He decided to tread lightly and knew the others would follow his lead.
He stood as the delegation from the sisterhood approached the table, and the others followed suit. “Sister Heather, I appreciate you coming here on such short notice. Please understand, I wouldn’t have called upon you had this not been an urgent matter.”
Heather nodded and took the seat at the table across from Fantasma as everyone sat. “I suspected as much. I’ve already had a visit from Franklin this morning. I’m guessing you want to coordinate efforts in aiding the towns that have been affected by these recent attacks?” she said in a falsely chipper voice. “I can only imagine that’s why Sherrilynn’s here, as she’s been crucial in those efforts. We definitely wouldn’t turn away some extra protection from the Fantasmal Government, especially after finding out about these monsters from the Book of War.” She smiled broadly as if her last statement was a veiled attempt at a coy request
Fantasma smiled as well, though his was more sincere. Heather was not unlike many politicians that he met with, and he knew how to deal with this type, but he was surprised that she behaved in this manner. “The Fantasmal Government is more than ready to give you any level of protection you deem necessary.” He turned to Honsmordin. “Work with Sunnin to determine their needs and then coordinate with Sorinson and Rockwall,” he told his chief of staff before turning back to Heather. “I know that nothing I say would prevent you from going out and trying to help wherever you can, but I’ve tangled with these creatures myself just now, and they are highly dangerous. I don’t want your people to be in harm’s way,” he said seriously. “I must admit I thought it would take more convincing, as I know that normally Sunnin doesn’t like to appear to be working with the Fantasmal Government. I’m glad you see that these are extraordinary times. Please, use as much protection as you need.”
Jasmine and Patrice looked shocked at Fantasma’s comments, clearly not expecting him to be so generous. Heather also seemed taken aback, expecting him to say something different.
“Well, thank you,” she said. “I can tell this must be a serious matter.”
“More than you can possibly imagine,” Fantasma nodded solemnly, “but I called you here for a different reason, though not unrelated.”
“Oh?” Heather’s eyes lit up.
Fantasma could tell that she was eager to engage in a fight. It was written all over her face. She wanted him to make an unreasonable request, to bait him into an argument about the Sun Stone, to flex her so-called muscles as the head of the Sunnin Social System and show off in front of her colleagues.
He would not allow such an exchange to happen; it was childish. He decided that the best way to defuse this before it even started was to subvert her expectations.
“I’ve called you here because a grave travesty has been committed against Sunnin, and I seek to both apologize and make amends.”
In an instant Honsmordin and Franklin knew what Fantasma was about to do. They both adjusted their faces accordingly, and Franklin sent another message through the mentant realm, this time to Sherrilynn who, though not as adept at communicating clandestinely through the realm, could hear him loud and clear in her mind.
<Do not argue; do not say a word in defense. Trust the Fantasma.>
Sherrilynn nodded, but her face registered confusion even as Fantasma continued.
“Your Sister Sherrilynn stole the Sun Stone from Sunnin Mountain,” Fantasma said, and his voice had a note of stern accusation.
All three guests had stunned and confused looks on their faces and Sherrilynn began to squirm but said nothing, heeding Franklin’s words.
“I’m sorry, I believe you must be mistaken, the Sun Stone—” Heather started, but Fantasma held up a hand.
“She replaced your stone with a replica and took it from the mountain after hearing the request made by Chief Stokenshire and Elder Jorbedus. She naively believed she was doing the right thing, but fortunately Franklin knew that such a thing could cause trouble and brought this to my attention.”
Heather looked dumbfounded even as Fantasma continued.
“However, before I could return the stone to you, a rather curious thing happened. The stone’s power stabilized the rift that we were studying and allowed us to travel through it and find the Daughter of the Sun on another world. It was as if the stone wanted us to find her,” he added, not resisting a bit of dramatic flair.
Jasmine and Patrice both gasped. Heather’s fists were balled so tightly that her knuckles were stark white.
“You found the Daughter of the Sun,” she said in a soft, almost defeated tone.
“Indeed,” Fantasma said, watching her deflate. “But before I could bring her and the stone safely back to Sunnin Mountain, the creatures of the Book of War attacked us, along with their new demented master, a mind mage by the name of Davron.”
“Davron?” Heather looked confused.
“Yes, and we barely escaped with our lives. Unfortunately, both the Daughter of the Sun and the Sun Stone were lost.”
“What!” Heather seemed to come alive. “You lost the Sun Stone!”
“And the Daughter of the Sun,” Fantasma reiterated. “The stone was stolen by Davron, while the Daughter of the Sun herself is somewhere here on Mendala, though we’re not sure where. I have quickeners in the process of recovering her.”
Heather seemed to regain some of her former bravado. “So, this is why you brought me here: to tell me that you and your incompetent people have lost the Sun Stone after stealing it. This is an outrage!” She shot out of her seat, and her companions looked alarmed.
“I completely agree,” Fantasma said, his voice still calm, “and I can assure you I have as many of my people as possible scouring the area where we found the rift. We’re doing everything we can to seek out Davron and recover the Sun Stone.”
“That is completely unacceptable!” Heather continued to rage. “How dare you drag me down here and drop this on me after the fact, as if it wasn’t your plan to take the Sun Stone by force anyway.”
“Sister Heather, calm down,” Jasmine implored, trying to pull her back into her seat.
“I will not calm down!” Heather barked. “And you!” She pointed a shaky finger at Sherrilynn, who recoiled. “You disloyal wench. Not only did you disobey me, but you turned against your sisters and your cause. You’re banished from the sisterhood. I’ll make sure you’re punished for this.” She turned to the others. “I want her charged and jailed!”
“I understand completely,” Fantasma said somberly. “Sister Sherrilynn’s actions were certainly not condoned by my administration. We will keep her in our custody and deal with her accordingly.”
Heather looked back and forth between the stunned Sherrilynn and the calm Fantasma and seemed to realize what was going on, and this only enraged her further. “You think I’m stupid? I know what kind of game you’re playing. You think because you’re the Fantasma that you can just do whatever you want? Do you think I haven’t dealt with a dozen smug, pompous little men just like you?”
“Heather!” Patrice hissed imploringly, tugging at Heather’s robe sleeve. “Please; you’re addressing the Fantasma.”
“I don’t care!” She snatched her arm away and pointed aggressively at the opposite side of the table. “I’ll bring you all before the Epouranal Council. We’ll see how calm you are then.”
Fantasma sighed as if capitulating. “And that, of course, is your right. In three months, when the council meets again, you’re welcome to plead your case, assuming of course that’s what the Daughter of the Sun desires when she resumes her post,” he reminded her. “Until then, I’m still committed to finding the Sun Stone and returning both it and the Daughter of the Sun to Sunnin Mountain. Again, I’m truly sorry that this happened, and it’s my goal to rectify this problem.” He stood and reached across the table to shake Heather’s hand, but she turned and stormed out.
Jasmine and Patrice stood, both looking embarrassed, and they shook Fantasma’s hand in Heather’s stead.
“I’m sorry for her behavior,” Patrice said in a hushed voice. “It’s amazing that you’ve found the Daughter of the Sun and will be bringing her back after all these years. The news is dampened by the loss of the Sun Stone, but we have every faith that you will recover them both soon.”
“I hope you’re still sincere in your offer of protection, despite this unpleasantness,” Jasmine added hopefully.
“Absolutely,” Fantasma assured. “The Fantasmal Forces and Guardian Council are at your disposal to help protect your people in any relief efforts.”
“In fact, allow me to walk you out, and we can start discussing your needs.” Honsmordin walked around the table and guided the women from the conference room.
Karmandrian waited until they were out of earshot before letting out a whistle. “Wow, that woman is crazy.”
“Sir, you handled that expertly.” Franklin beamed.
Fantasma allowed himself a smile, though his expression was a bit troubled. “She’s definitely a piece of work: more concerned about the stone than the fact that the Daughter of the Sun has been found.”
“It’s all about power with her,” Franklin said. He looked down at Sherrilynn who was still visibly shaken. “Are you okay? I know that must have been rough for you.” He put a hand on her shoulder.
Sherrilynn nodded slowly in response. “I’ve never seen her act that way before. It just goes against everything we stand for.” She seemed to come to herself after a moment. “So, what does this mean for me? Am I going to jail?”
Fantasma gave her a warm smile. “Hardly, though you’ll need to stay under the custody of the Fantasmal Government until this blows over. For political reasons, it can’t appear that I’ve let you skirt the law. Stick with either Franklin, Karmandrian, or one of the other guardians, especially if you leave the mountain. Understood?”
Sherrilynn nodded eagerly, feeling she’d gotten off easy. “Absolutely sir. Thank you.”
Fantasma nodded. “Don’t thank me, thank Chief Stokenshire. Despite things not going quite as planned, I have to admit you were right about everything,” he said to Franklin.
“I appreciate the latitude, sir; I know this put you in a precarious position,” Franklin said.
Fantasma waved away the concern. “I’ve dealt with her kind before. I’m more worried about you. I’m sure she’ll be angling to have you thrown off the board.”
Franklin chuckled. “She can’t,” he assured, “especially not after that display. Even if she could get the board to vote me off, she knows one of my relatives would take my place. A Stokenshire must always sit on the board.”
Just then, Sharanel entered and Fantasma beckoned her forward. “Well hopefully this will be all over soon. Sharanel, how long until the staff is repaired?”
“There’s a problem.” Sharanel quickly relayed what Lomax told her about Henry’s staff.
“That’s most unfortunate.” Fantasma sighed. “This is a setback we can’t afford. We need to recover those kids, especially the Daughter of the Sun. We can’t risk Davron finding her first. We’ll have to start searching the entire southern Lumarian mountain range.”
“There are just so many places to look, and the quartz will just make it even harder,” Sharanel mused. “There’s got to be a better way.”
“Without the young quickener and his staff, we’re at very few options,” Fantasma said.
Franklin had been in deep thought until that moment. “I think there may yet still be a way.” He gestured for Sharanel to follow him. “Come with me.”
Sharanel gave Fantasma a confused look but obediently followed the chief librarian out of the conference room.
“I wonder what he’s figured out,” Karmandrian said as he watched them leave.
Fantasma smiled. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to never underestimate a Stokenshire.”