* Lumarian Mountains *
Mrs. Guardman and her companions had been in the mountains for over four hours. It seemed that Sherrilynn didn’t remember the directions as well as she professed. In addition, the path was overgrown in some parts to the point of making it difficult to traverse. Despite this, the three women were in high spirits. They stopped briefly to eat but otherwise continued with very few breaks until finally it seemed they were getting closer to their destination.
“This was a lot easier when I was a kid,” Sherrilynn lamented with a chuckle as they reached a crossroads in the dirt path. “We’re getting close to Gilmore though. It’s about thirty more minutes south, but we can take this path down to where the mines are.” Sherrilynn pointed to a path that led east.
“Are you sure, because you’ve already taken us down the wrong way twice,” Alice said teasingly.
“I’m positive,” Sherrilynn said. “It’s been a while, but I still know these mountains. I grew up in Zohare and as a kid me and my friends would explore out here all the time.” Sherrilynn took the path headed east and the others followed.
“You sound like my kids.” Mrs. Guardman smiled reminiscently. “Jandor, Becky, Alyson, even my son, always exploring the woods around our town. He must have gotten it from his dad because I surely wasn’t built for this.”
The rocky terrain was a bit more than the forty-five-year-old woman was used to walking, but the trek was made easier because of the turgus shoes she’d been given at Fantasmal Mountain. Though they were made of a stiff material, she found that once on, it was like walking on air. Likewise, the new clothes she was wearing, a pair of lose-fitting, dark green pants and a white, short-sleeved, button-up top, were extremely comfortable and light. They had even given her a white robe which she now wore over her clothes. It was tied shut with a purple belt and fit perfectly, as if it were tailored just for her. There was also a strange, purple, circular symbol on the front just below her left shoulder and she spent several minutes prodding and examining it.
Alice, who had noticed this behavior, decided to answer her silent question. “It’s the symbol for a Fantasmal Advisor,” she said. “See the mountain in the center; that represents Fantasmal Mountain, and then these smaller symbols above it denote your position.”
“Ah,” Mrs. Guardman gave an appreciative smile for the explanation, “Is it some sort of language?” The symbols reminded her of logograms like those used in Chinese or Japanese writing systems.
“Yes, it’s Cartog. It’s one of the few ancient symbol languages still used in modern times,” Alice explained. “It’s mostly for ceremonial and government use.”
Sherrilynn rolled her eyes. “Or when people want to be extra fancy.”
Alice chuckled. “Or that.”
“So why am I a Fantasmal Advisor?” Mrs. Guardman asked, still prodding the purple symbol curiously.
“It was Elder Sorinson’s idea. People will ask you less questions that way,” Alice said. “Very few know that you come from another world and Fantasma doesn’t want the truth about the rift spread around. This way, anyone in the mountain, or anywhere really, will just respect you without question.”
“That’s neat; why couldn’t I get one of those?” Sherrilynn asked in a higher pitched voice than she intended.
“Because we don’t hand out the advisor title to criminal delinquents,” Alice quipped, and they all laughed. “In all seriousness though, the advisor title is very high ranked, so be careful what you do while you wear that robe since you technically represent the Fantasma. You must have really impressed Sorinson for him to give you that.”
“Oh, that is serious.” Mrs. Guardman nodded. “I’ll definitely be careful.”
Illusion, who’d been quiet this whole time, suddenly darted ahead on the path. “I sense something.”
Alice’s demeanor immediately shifted. “What? Where?”
“I can’t tell. The quartz interference in these mountains is very high, but I could have sworn I sensed someone or something in the mentant realm.”
“Could it just be someone else hiking out here?” Mrs. Guardman offered.
“I was originally created with the mentus of a seal bearer, so I can sense when the Book of War or it’s creatures are near,” Illusion revealed. “I can’t be certain, but I believe that’s what I felt just now.”
“This entire area is filled with nothing but dead towns like Gilmore. Why would anyone be out here, especially those monsters?” Sherrilynn turned to Alice. “I thought you said they were attacking small towns that are in conflicts or wars.”
Alice had a pensive look on her face. She was still scanning the mentant realm. “Whatever it was, I don’t sense it now, but we can’t be too careful. Mittius Mentenus Obfuscate.”
Nothing seemed to happen.
“What was that for?” Sherrilynn asked looking around.
“It’s a mandamus command that will help cloak us both physically and mentantly. Not only are our adimus signatures masked, but we’ll blend into our surroundings for anyone not specifically looking for us. It’s a really draining command, especially for multiple people, but I’d rather be cautious, just in case. That combined with all this quartz interference should be more than enough. I’m not sure what to do about Illusion though. You’re not real, just mentus.”
“It’s fine; I can do something similar with my own abilities,” Illusion confirmed.
Alyson nodded as she sensed Illusion’s presence in the mentant realm fade slightly. “That’s good; also, I think we should only talk through the mentant realm from now on.”
“I’ve never been good at speaking covertly in the mentant realm,” Sherrilynn admitted.
“And I don’t know how,” Mrs. Guardman added.
Alice smiled indulgently. <Okay well I’ll do most of the talking then, you guys just nod if you can hear me,> she said mentantly.
Mrs. Guardman looked a bit shocked, but nodded, as did Sherrilynn.
<I’ll keep on alert for any creatures,> Illusion responded, also through the mentant realm.
Everyone nodded at this, and Alice made a gesture to Sherrilynn that she should lead the way as they started down the path again.
Fortunately, the group met no one along the short path down to the mines. Once inside, it took another thirty minutes for them to go deep enough to find what they were looking for. Even though the mine was filled with quartz, there was only a small section that was zenith.
“It’s not what I expected,” Veda Guardman said with a hint of awe as she held up the piece of jagged quartz rock. Unlike the rest of the quartz, which had a purple tint, the zenith had a faint red glow to it. “Will it be enough?” she asked as she turned it over in her hand.
“More than enough, I’m sure,” Alice assured. “We just need to find a mentant tailor to make the hat once we get back to the mountain. We should head out; I’d like to make it back to Zohare before dark.”
Mrs. Guardman pocketed the quartz. “Right, of course. Thank you so much for all of this.”
They slowly made their way up the steep tunnel that led out of the zenith quartz mine, Alice leading the way, a bright ball of light hovering above her head.
As they reached the mouth of the cave Alice hesitated, holding up a hand. <Wait a minute, I hear something,> she told the others mentantly.
With a wave of her hand the orb of light that had been hovering above them extinguished. The others waited as Alice crept closer to the mine’s entrance. Though her mentant sense was limited due to the quartz, Alice’s other senses were extremely keen thanks to her guardian abilities. She could clearly hear two people talking near the cave entrance.
“Should we head back then, it’s almost dinner and I don’t want to search through every single mine shaft looking for them,” said a male voice. “Besides the intel could be wrong, we haven’t sensed anyone in the area.”
“I wouldn’t go sayin’ that too loudly,” his female companion said. “Word is the info came by way of Lady Ellonous. Do you want to go telling Lord Davron his wife was mistaken?”
“Well…we’ll just say they must have left before we could find them. Seems true enough. Come on; dinner, and then we can come back. It’s not like there aren’t others looking.”
She scoffed. “You’re such a whiny frag. We’ll do one more patrol then head back to town.”
Alice strained her ears until she could no longer hear the sounds of footsteps before turning back to her friends. “It sounds like they’re searching for someone. I’m not sure, but I think they might be looking for us. They mentioned Davron.”
“Davron? Isn’t that the name of the man with the Book of War? What do we do?” Sherrilynn asked nervously.
“They’re taking the path back west,” Alice said. “There’s another path that goes up the mountain side. I say we go that way. If we get to a high enough ledge, I may be able to scan the mentant realm and figure out the safest way back to Zohare. Remember, stay quiet. We don’t know if anyone else is looking. Mittius Mentenus Obfuscate.”
Illusion took the lead, his small black head peaking around the corner. <It’s clear as far as I can tell,> the dog called mentantly.
With some trepidation, the group started up the steep path heading deeper into the mountains north of Gilmore. They walked for almost thirty minutes, climbing higher and higher. Alice continuously scanned the mentant realm but could barely sense beyond her immediate area due to quartz interference from the tall rockfaces that surrounded them on both sides.
Just as they were about to reach a high ledge, Alice rounded a sharp corner and collided into something large. Before she could process what happened a blade flew past her ear catching a few strands of blonde hair as it passed. She stumbled, only barely catching herself as four pogs lumbered around the corner, each holding a different weapon. One immediately threw a spear at Alice, but she instinctively jumped backward, almost colliding into Sherrilynn, and the spear lodged itself into the ground at her feet.
“Mittius Mentenus Safe,” she shouted.
A wall of green energy appeared between her and the oncoming pogs. They started beating on it, and Alice knew the hastily constructed barrier would only hold for a few seconds.
“Run!” she shouted. “I’ll hold them off.” She snatched up the spear, “Mittius Converto Spear,” and at her command it transformed into a makeshift sword.
Sherrilynn hesitated for only a second before grabbing Mrs. Guardman by the arm and pulling her back down the path.
“Illusion!” Mrs. Guardman yelled as the small black dog bounded off in the opposite direction to join Alice as she squared off against the pogs.
“I’ll help hold them off,” the dog growled. “Don’t worry about me.”
Mrs. Guardman could hardly protest as she was dragged off by Sherrilynn out of sight.
Alice was eyeing her opponents warily and they seemed to also be sizing her up. “Not that I mind the help, but I doubt you can do anything against these monsters,” she said through gritted teeth.
Illusion growled menacingly. “I am the mentus of a seal bearer, and I’ve fought these things before.” His body began to contort, growing longer, fur changing from black to sleek silver, teeth becoming larger and more pronounced until what was once a small, black border terrier was now a large, silver, yellow-eyed wolf.
The green safe shield dissipated, and this new Illusion leapt forward with a ferocious growl and snapped its razor-sharp teeth at the nearest pog drawing green pus-like blood. The pog yelped and batted the wolf away.
Alice quickly understood that somehow Illusion could harm the creatures and she rushed to join the fight, parrying the mace of a second pog with her new sword as Illusion went in for another attack.
Further down the path, Veda Guardman was desperately trying not to trip as Sherrilynn dragged her along. She felt a bit of déjà vu from the last time she encountered the fearsome pogs.
“Where are we going?” she panted.
“We’ve got to get to the mine, if we hide inside then maybe—” Sherrilynn rounded a corner and ran smack into the arms of a large, solidly built man wearing black and green fatigues. She gave a muffled yelp as she was grabbed forcefully by the arm.
“Well then, looks like we won’t be going back empty handed after all,” the man said as he twisted Sherrilynn’s arm behind her back. “Good thing we had pogs searching the area too.”
His companion, a female soldier wearing similar fatigues, grabbed Mrs. Guardman before she could try to escape. “Don’t move,” she barked as she drew a long dagger. “You’re coming with us.”
The man managed to subdue the struggling Sherrilynn, forcing her to the ground and tying her hands behind her back. “What do we do with them?”
“We have our orders,” the woman said. “The civilians are not to be hurt, especially not this one, it seems,” she said with a nod to Mrs. Guardman, “but the guardian must die. We can’t have word getting back to the Fantasma.”
“Hey, you two,” the man shouted to two pogs who came lumbering up behind them. “Go up and help the others deal with that guardian.”
The pogs obediently rushed up the path.
“No, no!” Mrs. Guardman screamed. “Don’t hurt her!”
She made a valiant effort to escape her captor, but the woman pulled a small, onion-like object from her pocket and pressed it against Mrs. Guardman’s nose. Within a few seconds, she passed out.
With help from Alice, Illusion was able to defeat two of the pogs. They repelled the remaining two further up the steep mountain path until it opened up to a large ledge that overlooked a dense forest to the east.
Taking advantage of her new surroundings, Alice acted quickly. “Mittius Mandamus Wind.”
One of the pogs was catapulted off the mountain by a gust of wind so powerful that it was sent flying until it was little more than a dot in the horizon.
The other pog managed to avoid the blast of wind and came at the guardian swinging its mace wildly. Illusion pounced on it, throwing it off balance, but the pog grabbed the silver wolf roughly by the scruff of its neck. Alice rushed forward to help.
“Behind you!” Illusion yelped just before the pog slammed him into the rockface.
Alice had no time to react. Something sharp pierced her in the side. It was another long spear. Two more pogs had reached the ledge and were upon her before she knew it. Gripping the sword tightly with one hand and clutching her side with the other, she turned to face her newest opponents.
She was able to dodge another jab from the spear but was dealt a heavy blow from the mace of the pog that she’d forgotten was still behind her. Illusion was on the ground at its feet, unable to move.
The force of the strike sent Alice staggering and her vision blurred, leaving her momentarily dazed and winded. The mace-wielding pog swung at Alice again and this time the blow sent her toppling over the high mountain ledge into the forests below.
Veda Guardman woke with a lurch. It took her a moment to realize why her body was on high-alert, and then she remembered everything that happened. Her head was pounding, and the bright light in the room she was in wasn’t helping. She looked around, bleary-eyed, as she tried to adjust to her new surroundings. She was lying on a king sized, canopy bed with deep purple sheets and matching curtains that were fastened to the four posts. Beyond the bed, she could see a small table that held a tray laden with fruit and bread. There was a large dresser against the wall to her right and next to it was an open door that led to what appeared to be a bathroom. Furthest from her was a small sitting area with two comfortable-looking armchairs and a couch. Lying on the couch, still unconscious, was Sherrilynn.
Mrs. Guardman leapt off the bed the moment she saw her companion, a move she quickly regretted as it only caused her head to throb more. “Sherrilynn,” she said in a hushed tone as she gently shook her.
Sherrilynn gave a groan as her eyes fluttered opened. “My head is killing me.” She sat up slowly. “Where are we?”
“I don’t know.” Mrs. Guardman scanned the room once again. “Could we be back in Fantasmal Mountain? This looks similar to one of the suites.”
A door opened and two people entered from the hall beyond. One was an older man with fair skin and long, silvery-grey hair. He wore a blue robe with a purple belt and held a quickener staff. His companion was a nervous looking young woman around Sherrilynn’s age. She too was fair skinned but had long, wavy, dark-pink hair, and bright blue eyes. She wore a blue, knee-length, sleeveless dress and held a pitcher.
“Hello, I see that you’re awake. I am Gamdon Barkwick, chief quickener in service to Lord Davron,” the man said cordially before gesturing to his companion. “This is my granddaughter Isabelle.” The girl gave a nervous wave.
“Davron? What’s going on? Where’s Alice?” Mrs. Guardman said franticly.
“If you are referring to the guardian, I regret to inform you that she’s dead. You two were captured and brought here.” Gamdon kept his tone level, but his words hit like a lead weight.
Mrs. Guardman sank to the couch in shock. “No…”
Sherrilynn wrapped an arm around her. “So, what’s going to happen to us? Are you going to kill us too?”
“You have my word, and the word of Lord Davron, that you will not be harmed in any way unless you try to escape.”
“Escape?” Mrs. Guardman repeated. “Where exactly are we?”
“At our base in Gilmore,” Gamdon said. “You are to remain here as our prisoners for the foreseeable future, at least until we leave. However, we have provided you these comfortable lodgings and you will be well fed. There are books and a melnet,” he pointed to a bookshelf on the far wall, “and I have recruited Helena here to tend to your needs. She will visit three times a day with food and fulfill any request within reason.”
Mrs. Guardman raised an eyebrow. “Why are you treating us so well?”
“You would be Veda Guardman, correct?” Gamdon said stepping forward. “You may not remember me, but we met briefly in the underground chamber that held the Book of War on your world.”
She gasped. “That’s right, you were with Davron. Fantasma did…something to you. I remember. But that still doesn’t explain why—”
“Lord Davron is not a monster. He knows that you and your companion are not a threat, and he has his own reasons for affording you this courtesy. Yes, we could have stuck you in a regular prison cell with little food and no comforts. Is that what you would prefer?” Gamdon asked.
Mrs. Guardman didn’t have an answer for this. She still felt there was something she wasn’t being told, but she also saw no reason to press her luck. For now, they were at least relatively safe.
Gamdon smiled. “That’s what I thought. Helena, the pitcher.” Helena gave a start and put the metal pitcher on the table next to the tray of food as Gamdon continued his explanation. “We took the liberty of bringing you some food and the drink Helena has prepared is a special herbal tea that should alleviate the nasty headaches I’m sure you’re both feeling right now.”
At that moment, a tall, lanky, blonde-haired man wearing black and green fatigues entered the room. “Chief Barkwick, an issue has arisen with the forces in Riverbed.”
Gamdon raised an eyebrow. “Aren’t those Calendon’s troops?” he muttered.
As he pulled the man into a hushed conference in the corner, Helena handed Sherrilynn and Mrs. Guardman each a glass of amber liquid.
“There’s plenty of food,” she said sweetly, “and the room is outfitted with everything else you could need. There are also fresh towels and cloths in the bathroom.”
“Tell them I’ll be there shortly.” Gamdon said. The man gave a swift salute and rushed out of the room.
Gamdon walked back to where the two prisoners were seated. “I must take my leave, but Helena will be around to check on you every few hours. Now, I give you this one warning. You cannot leave this room. Once I leave, I will be locking this door with a special mentant seal, if you try to open it, the guards will be alerted. For reference, you’re on the tenth floor of a heavily fortified building, so it will be quite hard for you to make it any distance even if you did try to escape. As long as you do what I’ve asked, I swear on my name and rank that no harm will come to you. The two of you will remain in relative comfort until we make arrangements to leave this town, so please honor the generosity we’ve bestowed upon you. Is that clear, Ms. Guardman?”
“Mrs. Guardman,” she corrected automatically before sighing, “and yes, it’s very clear. Thank you for your hospitality.”
Gamdon gave a slight bow and left the room with Helena in tow.
“What do we do now,” Sherrilynn asked as soon as the door was closed.
Mrs. Guardman stood and started to pace. “I don’t think we do anything. He’s right of course. It’s not like you or I have any of the extraordinary skills that Alice possessed. We’re no match for those creatures or even regular soldiers. To attempt anything would be suicidal.” She sat again and sipped the tea. It did taste refreshing and after a few more sips she felt her headache waning. “I don’t know why, but for whatever reason, Davron has decided to be kind to us.’
“Kind to you,” Sherrilynn corrected. “It’s something to do with you. He knew who you were and even seemed keen to be respectful to you.”
Mrs. Guardman nodded. “I wonder why.”
“Well, I’ve only known you for a little while ma’am, but you seem to have that effect on everyone,” Sherrilynn said pointedly.
Mrs. Guardman chuckled. “Perhaps it’s the robe.” Her smile fell as she thought of Alice, who’d told her what the robe’s symbols meant only hours prior.
“Or maybe someone here knows you.” Sherrilynn perked up, “Maybe we even have an ally in here, someone who could help us escape.”
“I don’t know,” Mrs. Guardman said pensively. “It seems unlikely that there’s someone who could manipulate this situation without Davron knowing it; after all, the order came from him.” She gave another deep sigh. “Well, if there is someone pulling the strings, then hopefully that means that a rescue is soon to come. For now, all we can do is wait.”