* Weaver’s Road *
Half of the Warrior Guild forces stayed in Oversun to watch over the captured slavers until the rangers could come and collect them; the other half escorted the over forty children back to Weaver’s Road. It was a short trek to the nearby translifts which were located near the old mines. After transport, they were able to use the two waiting sand ferries to take them the rest of the way.
During the trip, Ashley and Wayne explained to Amber how they arrived on Mendala and how Wayne was able to find her. Then Derrick retold his story for the benefit of Wayne and Amber. By the time he was done, Amber was fast asleep, clearly exhausted after a long and emotional day.
It was very late when they finally arrived in Weaver’s Road. Panson agreed to lodge most of the displaced children in the guild for the night and also contact the Sunnin Social System for support in getting them back to their homes or into an orphanage. Nina, Tarak, Rachel, and Lizzy returned with Wayne and the others to Salov’s manor. Everyone was tired and all of the girls ended up going directly to bed as soon as they arrived.
“She’s exhausted after everything that happened today,” Tarak said quietly to Salov after putting Nina to bed in the same room she’d woken up in that morning. He shut the door quietly.
Salov nodded. “They all are. I’ve put her friend, Rachel, in the room down the hall. She was asleep before her head hit the pillow.”
Wayne was coming out of another room where Lizzy was also fast asleep. “Amber and Lizzy were sleeping before we even got here and Ash is knocked out too,” he whispered.
Salov gestured for the others to follow him downstairs to the kitchen where Derrick was sitting at a small table with a mug of hot tea. Tarak and Wayne joined him as Salov busied himself with making them both mugs of tea.
“Tomorrow me and the girls will take a sand ferry back to Portico,” Tarak said.
“After a hearty breakfast,” Salov added before handing him a mug. “I’m sure they’ll all be starving when they wake up.”
“I can’t thank you all enough for everything you’ve done,” Tarak said. “If not for you, we might never have saved Nina and Rachel.”
“It was mostly Salov,” Wayne said. “We were completely lost before meeting you. Not only did you help us find Amber, but you and your friends saved us in Oversun.”
Salov handed him a mug as well. “As I said: I’m more than happy to aid those in need. When I met you two on the road, I knew somehow that it was my duty to help you.” He gave them all a warm smile. “I’m going to turn in, but you three are welcome to stay up however long you like.”
“I’m still amazed at what we accomplished today.” Tarak said as Salov left the room. “Wayne, you never told me how you were able to free the children. How many guards were there?”
“A few, and I was barely able to get out alive. Something happened; my head started throbbing so badly that I could barely move. I’d have died if it wasn’t for Amber and your sister.”
“Like a migraine?” Derrick asked.
“I don’t know, but it definitely wasn’t a normal headache.”
“Perhaps the desert crystal drained your adimus too much?” Tarak offered.
Wayne shrugged. “Whatever it was, Nina did…something. She fixed my head. It was really weird, but I don’t remember everything.”
Tarak nodded. “Nina is special. It’s hard to explain, but basically, she’s gifted for her age.”
Wayne didn’t understand but decided not to press. “Well anyway, because of that, I lost my ability to use mandamus, so I was bluffing when those slavers were about to attack,” he revealed before turning to Derrick. “If you guys hadn’t shown up, it would’ve been over. I swear, everything just fell into place: you arriving in Weaver’s Road when you did, Ashley and Salov going to the guild, Panson knowing about that transporter. It’s amazing.”
“It’s fate,” Derrick said simply. “Everything happened the way it was supposed to.”
Wayne gave him a curious look. “How do you mean?”
Derrick elaborated. “I’ve spent the last year living with a holy prophet,” he said. “It’s hard to explain all the things he revealed to me, but let’s just say, I now believe we’re supposed to be here.”
Wayne shook his head. “I really hope that’s not true.”
“I felt the same way at first,” Derrick said, “but now…well I think we’ve been called.”
“Called?” Wayne repeated.
“You know, like when people say they are called by God?” Derrick explained.
Wayne chuckled. “Don’t you think that’s a bit much?”
“You laugh,” Tarak said, “but trust me when I tell you: it’s a real thing to be put on a path by the Almighty. The epouranal mages are proof of this.”
Wayne nodded slowly. “Well, I like to think we shape our own destiny. We get a choice. Otherwise, nothing we do matters.”
“Well, that’s the thing about being called,” Derrick smirked, “we get to decide whether or not we answer.”
* Leviton *
“So, tell me everything!” Wendy said excitedly as she ladled soup into Henry’s bowl.
Henry shrugged. “There’s not that much to tell,” he took several sips of the hearty soup as Wendy sat down next to him at the small kitchen table with a bowl of her own.
“Come on, you’ve been gone all day, and I’ve been stuck doing inventory.” Wendy shook him playfully. “I’ve been dying to hear details. So, what was it like?”
“You know: it was your standard movie training montage.” Henry chuckled. “All I needed was an eighties rock song playing in the background.”
Wendy gave him a confused look. “What?”
Henry laughed even more. “Sorry, Earth joke. Anyway, they taught me a lot about mentus, the mentant realm, and quickener theory. I understand the adimus and how to use mentus energy, so things make a lot more sense.”
“Did you get to quicken?” Wendy asked excitedly.
Henry tried not to look too pleased with himself. “Yeah, kind of.”
“Kind of? How do you ‘kind of’ quicken?”
“He means he used a practice staff and had some help,” Sharanel said from the threshold.
They both turned to see her enter. She was no longer wearing a robe over her dark-green dress, and her chestnut hair was free from its plat and cascaded down her shoulders.
Henry did a double-take. He’d never seen Sharanel without her robe, which gave her a uniform and formal look. Now, she looked like a normal schoolgirl, the dress coming just above her knees and framing her physique perfectly. The difference was night and day.
“Wendy, do you know when Lawrence will be home?” Sharanel asked as she took a seat at the table.
Wendy jumped up to retrieve another bowl for Sharanel and started ladling soup. “He said he’d be home before dinner. I’m sure he’ll be here soon; he may have just been held up.” She placed the bowl in front of her guest.
“Thanks, this smells great,” Sharanel said as she picked up a spoon. “I still feel sort of weird staying here. I was just going to rent a room in town.”
“Mr. Stokenshire insisted,” Wendy said as she took her seat. “Besides, it’ll be easier for you to continue Henry’s studies this evening.”
“I guess that makes sense.” She turned to Henry. “Why are you staring at me?”
“Huh?” Henry hadn’t taken in a word of the conversation. “What? Nothing. Anyway, you didn’t have to make it sound like my first quickening wasn’t an accomplishment,” he added, returning to the previous topic. “I worked really hard today.”
“It wasn’t your first,” Sharanel reminded him, “and everyone starts with a practice staff; it’s not a big deal. And yes, you did work hard; I’ll give you that.”
“Wow, a compliment.” Henry smirked. “I didn’t even know you were capable of those.”
“Don’t get too used to them,” Sharanel teased. “When we get done with dinner, we’ve got a ton of theory to review. Then we’ll find out if you were paying attention today,” she said as she pointed her spoon at him.
Henry rolled his eyes. “Great, another long night.”
“For all of us it seems.” Lawrence entered the kitchen looking exhausted but pleased as he put down the large rucksack he was carrying and made his way to the small kitchen table.
Wendy immediately jumped up to prepare a bowl of soup for him. “Was your mission successful?”
“Indeed; I now have the wood I need to repair Henry’s staff,” Lawrence said as he accepted the bowl. “You and I will need to do some of the prep work tonight. The wood will need to cure for at least ten hours. I want that done overnight so I can do the repair tomorrow.”
“Thank you so much for everything you’re doing,” Henry said. “I didn’t know it would take this much to repair my staff.”
“Well, I want to make sure that once it’s repaired, it’s completely restored. There’s no point in giving you a staff that could break again in a couple of months.”
Henry nodded. The comment made him think. Would he be using the staff after he got his friends home? Would he have need for it? He had no idea what his future held now that he knew the truth about his family’s lineage. There were so many unanswered questions. He spent the rest of dinner contemplating in silence as the others talked.
“Henry, are you even listening to me?” Sharanel shook his knee.
They were both sitting on the four-poster bed in his bedroom, surrounded by books, scrolls, and various tools. Without a practice staff, they couldn’t do any quickening training, so Sharanel was helping him become more adept with the mentant realm and using mentus. Even though there was a table in the room, the massive bed served far better for spreading out all of the materials they were using. They’d started studying right after dinner and had been going for a few hours, but Henry didn’t seem fully engaged and had lost focus multiple times.
“Huh, sorry; what did you say?” Henry said sheepishly.
“I was talking about staff tuning to do things like visual communication and creating quartz fields. Lawrence says your staff has these attributes, so you should learn them.”
“Uh, yeah,” Henry nodded vaguely.
Frustrated, Sharanel closed the book she was reading from. “You know, I don’t have to be here. If you’re not going to take this seriously, I can just go back to Fantasmal Mountain; there’s a lot of other important things I could be doing.”
“I’m sorry.” Henry sighed and flopped down onto the bed, his head landing on one of the pillows.
Sharanel frowned. “No, I’m sorry,” she said, “I know I’ve been working you hard. I get it if you’re tired; we can stop for the night.”
“No, it’s not that.” Henry turned his head to face her. “It’s this whole thing.”
“What do you mean?”
Henry sighed again. “Okay, so let’s say I get my staff tomorrow and I manage to do it: I bring all of my friends back together. Then what?”
“I don’t understand.”
“What happens next?” Henry turned his head to look at the purple canopy above. “You and Fantasma came to Earth for a reason, right? And then you found out my friends have that seal thing. What’s going to happen to us? What about that crazy Davron guy and the monsters and all of it?”
“I…I really don’t know,” she admitted. “I don’t know what it all means for you either. It’s something we’ll deal with after—”
“What if we want to go home?” Henry asked suddenly.
“What if I get my friends back and we all just want to go home? Even if everything goes well tomorrow, they’ll have been stuck here for two days. There’s no telling what’s happened to them, but I’m sure they’re scared and want to go home.”
“I get it; I really do.”
“So can we go home?” Henry asked, a bit more aggressively now.
In contrast, Sharanel’s tone became softer. “It’s not that simple. I’m not sure if we can even use the rift that brought you here, especially now that we don’t have the Sun Stone.”
“So, we’re really stuck here then.” Henry looked close to tears. “It’s all my fault. I shouldn’t have done it. I shouldn’t have brought them here. I should have never picked up that staff. I screwed everything up. What if those monsters got them? Some of my friends could be hurt or even dead because of me.”
Sharanel hesitated for a moment before gingerly lying next to Henry, smoothing down her dress as she too stared up at the canopy. It was a few moments before she finally spoke.
“I know this is really hard for you Henry, and I have no idea what will happen, but I believe you can get your friends back home. It might take some time, but I know you can do it.”
Henry turned to face her, stunned by her words. “Me?”
Sharanel smiled at him. “You are so talented; I wish you could see that. You’re a natural. You’ve done in one day what it takes normal people months to learn. You’re gifted. You may even be as good as me… one day, I mean.” She wrinkled her nose playfully. “Until then, I’ll be here with you every step of the way. You’ll get your friends back; I know you will. Then we’ll figure out a way to crack that rift and get all of you back home.”
Henry returned the smile. It was the first time he actually felt a sense of genuine friendship between the two of them, and in that moment, he didn’t feel so alone. He turned his head back to the canopy above before speaking again. “You know, this is the first thing I’ve ever been any good at.”
Sharanel followed his gaze, also looking up at the flowing fabric above them. “What do you mean?”
Henry shrugged. “Well, everyone we meet tells me how awesome you are. You’ve been quickening since you were twelve, you’re a prodigy, you’ve got some really important quickening job where everyone calls you chief.” He chuckled. “You told me that you’ve always known what you wanted to do. I’ve never had that.”
Sharanel blushed at the praise but didn’t know how to respond.
“It wasn’t like I did poorly in school or anything, I just didn’t have anything that made me special, something I was able to do better than anyone else, or even just do really good. I’m pretty average to be honest. This is the first time I’ve felt like I’m actually talented at something, and you’ve really helped me, even when I was being a jerk.” Henry turned to face her again. “Thank you.”
“Yeah, you were kind of a jerk,” Sharanel agreed readily, and they both chuckled,
“I’m really sorry about how I treated you,” Henry said. “I was stressed out about not being able to get my friends…and also, I know it’s dumb, but I was mad that you kissed me.”
Sharanel felt her face turn red when he mentioned the kiss, but her expression was one of confusion. “Mad? Why?”
“Well, it was my first kiss, and it didn’t mean anything. You just did it to distract me.” Henry shrugged again. “Like I said: it’s dumb.”
“No, it’s not dumb,” Sharanel said softly. “It was my first kiss too…”
She hadn’t thought about what it meant until Henry brought it up, but in that moment Sharanel realized she’d done something wildly inappropriate, all for the sake of getting the job done. If someone had done that to her, she would have been furious.
“I’m sorry,” she said finally, her voice almost a whisper.
Henry sat up. “It’s okay, really. You’ve helped me a lot, and I’m glad we’re friends now.”
“We’re friends?” Sharanel repeated, a little uncertain.
“Well…I hope so at least.” Henry wondered if he’d been too presumptuous. After all, Sharanel was the Fantasmal Quickener and seemed a lot more mature than her age would suggest. Perhaps she didn’t see the novice quickener as someone she could ever have anything in common with.
Sharanel thought about this. “I can’t remember the last time I had a friend my age,” she said wistfully. “I was raised in the mountain since I was five. Lots of people took care of me, and they all treated me like family, but because I was a prodigy, I was always in advanced classes and even skipped the last two years of primary school to start studying mentus and quickening early.”
“So, you didn’t spend a lot of time around kids your age,” Henry concluded.
Sharanel sat up. “No, not really.” It was as if she was just realizing this for the first time. She finally turned to him and smiled. “It’d be nice if we were friends; I’d like that. Well, I guess at least until you go back home.” Her smile faltered slightly.
Henry nodded slowly. It was several seconds before he spoke again.
“You know, even though I want to go home, I kind of wish I could stay and really become a quickener,” he admitted. He knew it was a selfish thought since he was the only one that could get his friends back to Earth.
Sharanel debated her next words before she replied. “You could if you wanted to.”
“You could stay and become a quickener, fully qualified. I’m sure Professor Landerpool would help you.”
“I can’t; I have to—”
“Henry, don’t be such a rube,” Sharanel said in a half-chiding, half-teasing tone. “Once we get that rift stable again, you’ll be able to go back and forth as much as you like. You can take your friends home and come back…if that’s what you want.”
Henry’s eyes widened in shock as he realized Sharanel was right.
“It’s just something to think about,” she added quickly.
“Yeah,” Henry said, a thoughtful smile on his face. “I’ll definitely think about it.”
* Fantasmal Mountain *
Tabatha threw open the door to a small lounge where several people were already gathered. It was clear things were hectic, and many people were talking in panicked whispers. She looked around frantically until she found Ace seated on a small white couch in the corner.
She ran up to him. “Ace, what’s going on? Lily said it was urgent, but she wouldn’t tell me anything.”
Ace stood and put his hands on her shoulders; his face was twisted in grief. “It’s Alyson and the others. They think they were killed in some sort of translift accident.”
“What!” Tabatha almost shrieked. “What kind of accident?”
“There was some kind of mentus energy surge in the governance translift,” Ace said. “It exploded when they tried to transport here.”
Tabatha could tell he’d been crying. His eyes were bloodshot, and it was clear he was only just barely keeping it together. “Ace, I’m…I’m so sorry. I know you and Alyson were really close.” She hugged him.
It was several moments before Ace spoke again. “They’re trying to figure out exactly what happened,” he said as they both sat on the small couch. He was wiping tears from his eyes. “It’s a real mess. The explosion tore apart a section of Weather Mountain. They’re trying to search for them, but…it’s not looking good”
“This is bad.” Tabatha said in a dark whisper. “Ace, we’ve got to get out of here. We’re not safe.”
“What do you mean?”
“Think about it: not only are Becky and the others dead, but we haven’t seen Mrs. Guardman or Henry since we got here. They could be dead too. All this could just be some sort of trap to get rid of us. Ever since we got here, I’ve felt like Fantasma and these guardians haven’t been telling us the whole truth. We can’t trust them. We just need to find the others ourselves and get back to Earth. I know a quickener who—”
Ace shook his head. “I can’t believe that. For one thing, I spent the day fighting with Karmandrian and Pathos. If they wanted to kill me, they could’ve done it anytime.”
“Maybe it’s because you’re doing what they want, fighting in their stupid war. Ever think about that?”
“It makes sense,” Tabatha insisted. “You know Mrs. Guardman wouldn’t want us fighting in this war, so they got rid of her to keep her from convincing us to leave. Henry was the one who quickened us here, so they had to get rid of him too, and I bet the others said they wanted to go home, so they killed them. They’re just getting rid of anyone who stands in their way. I could be next since I don’t even have that stupid seal.”
“Tabatha you’re being paranoid. If anything, Fantasma has been trying to keep us out of the war.”
“You were just like this when I told you our parents were keeping something from us. You never believed me; you always said it was in my head. It wasn’t then and neither is this,” Tabatha hissed. “When are you going to start trusting me? We can’t believe everything they’re telling us.”
“This isn’t the same. Think about what you’re saying; if they were trying to hurt us, that would mean Lily would have to be in on it too. Do you really believe that?”
Tabatha seemed to back down at this question. “Well, Lily isn’t high enough in this place to be in on whatever’s going on. They probably don’t really tell her anything,” she said finally, though she knew that her position had weakened a bit.
“These are good people, and they’re trying to help us,” Ace said calmly. “Just give them a chance; I know they’ll get to the bottom of this.”
“Whatever.” Tabatha stood, clearly frustrated. “You’re so busy being Fantasma’s little pet hero that you can’t see it. You need to realize that these people aren’t worth risking your life for.” She stormed out of the room.
Ace stood as well but he decided not to go after her. Instead, he walked to where Fantasma, Honsmordin, Sorinson, and Franklin were in a small conference.
“In my opinion, it can only mean we have a saboteur somewhere in the mountain,” Sorinson was saying as Ace approached.
“So, there’s no possibility this was an accident?” Ace asked as he joined the circle.
“That much energy couldn’t have been an accident,” Sorinson confirmed. “We’re talking mandant or mind mage level.”
“The problem is that it could have been anyone. Not only could it have been done at any time since it’s last use, which we think was Elder Hamen, but it could have been done from any point in the network. That means multiple locations,” Franklin said. “It may have just been set to trigger the next time someone used it.”
“Which would mean they’re ultimate goal was probably to hinder transport within the governance for some reason,” Honsmordin added.
“It seems like too big a coincidence that this happened right after we found out that my friends were in Weather Mountain,” Ace said, his conversation with Tabatha still fresh in his mind. “If you think this was sabotage, then they were specifically being targeted, right?”
Fantasma and Honsmordin exchanged the briefest of looks before Fantasma put a hand on Ace’s shoulder. “That’s what we intend to find out. Rest assured, we will get to the bottom of this. We aren’t giving up. As long as there is even the slightest possibility they’re still alive, we’re going to keep searching. In the meantime, you should get some rest.”
“Fantasma, I know you’re just trying to protect us, but I’m not dumb. It’s clear what you guys are thinking. If the mentant bomb was sabotage, then it’s possible someone in the mountain is working for Davron.”
Everyone was silent for a moment before Honsmordin spoke. “It’s one of many possibilities, but we won’t know the whole truth until we investigate further.”
“Well, if Henry succeeds, the rest of my friends will be brought here to Fantasmal Mountain, so if there’s a spy, you need to find out soon, because it seems pretty clear they’re coming after us.” Ace said gravely.
He left the small circle and headed for the door, his mind racing. Though he trusted Fantasma, he also knew he couldn’t let his guard down. It was clear something was going on in the mountain and Ace was determined not to lose any more of his friends.