* Cirinian Valley *
Despite being worn out from the previous day’s adventures, Jandor still woke up early in the morning, just before sunrise. This was his habit; he always woke early every day to exercise and train, and this didn’t change even on the foreign world of Mendala.
He quickly got dressed in his black pants and quarter-sleeved white shirt. Then he grabbed his staff and sword and slipped out of the council building to find a place to practice. Though the grounds were quiet, he soon realized that he wasn’t the only one awake. Just outside of the encampment, he saw Lori, also clad in the same outfit she had on the previous day: black shorts and a matching sleeveless top. She was aggressively swinging her claymore. Sweat was pouring down her brow and she was completely engrossed in her own training session.
Jandor took a moment to admire the strength and stamina that it took for the deceptively petite woman to wield the overlarge blade. She not only swung the sword with ease, but her movements were quick and nimble.
“Oi, you just gonna stand there an’ watch, or are ya gonna spar with me?” Lori called without even turning to look at him, making it evident that she already knew he was there.
Jandor gave a shrug as he walked forward. “I didn’t want to interrupt.”
“I could use a sparring partner. Don’t worry, I’ll go easy on you,” she said with a taunting tone.
Jandor tossed his sword away, deciding to use his staff instead. “No need,” he said with a slight smirk. “It’s no fun if you don’t go all out.”
“All right mate, just be glad we got healers close by.” Lori took a stance and then shot forward at incredible speed, swinging down hard.
Jandor reacted quickly, holding the staff up with both hands as he took the brunt of the attack head on. Lori was stunned that her blade didn’t even nick the surprisingly sturdy wood. In the moment she took to marvel at this, Jandor forced the staff upward, causing her to go off-balance. As she adjusted her stance to swing her massive sword sideways, he deftly spun his staff, knocking the sword aside and using the butt of the staff to hit her in the chin.
With that, the battle was on. Lori refused to be outdone, rather than letting her swings become frantic, she fought with practiced precision, both parrying the staff and getting in good swings of her own. Jandor, for his part, had gotten used to fighting blade-wielding enemies with the large bo staff. Though Lori was far more skilled than the monsters, she was still easy to read. He could tell her mastery of the weapon was on par with Longhall, but she seemed to have a bit more speed and agility to her. Still, Jandor was holding his own and soon was even gaining ground over the warrior blacksmith.
Lori eyed him curiously as the two fought, the battle becoming more heated. She could tell his speed and strength had grown significantly since the previous day. She soon had to push herself to her limits just to keep up with him until finally he managed to use his staff to swat the claymore from her hands.
“Oi, I don’t remember ya fighting like this yesterday. A gal could get used to this,” she said with a chuckle as she went to retrieve her sword.
Jandor slung the staff behind him, and it latched onto his back as the sash appeared around his body to secure the weapon in place until he needed it again. “I don’t know what it is lately. My body has been feeling different over the past few days and it’s really affected my strength and reflexes.”
“Maybe it’s all that monster fightin’ you’ve been doin’,” Lori said as she gave her sword an experimental swing.
“Maybe,” Jandor said.
Like Lori, he wondered if it had something to do with the creatures of the Book of War, or rather the mark on his hand that allowed him to defeat them, but he’d dismissed that. Daniel had the same mark and he never mentioned it making him feel different. He then wondered if the mysterious staff somehow heightened his abilities. Deciding to test this theory, he walked over and picked up his sword.
“Want to go again? This time I’ll use my sword,” he offered.
“Well how can I say no to that.” Lori grinned.
Soon the two were locked in battle again. Although his sword was smaller than Lori’s claymore, he was still able to easily fend her off, forcing her to put even more effort into trying to best her sparring partner. It was clear she was outmatched, but far from being annoyed, Lori reveled in fighting someone who gave her a real challenge, and the two continued their training for an hour.
Neither were showing any signs of tiring when Daniel, Wheaton, and Kynobi arrived on the scene. Each were clad in a robe: Daniel in his normal blue robe and white belt and the two Order of Nature chiefs in green robes and silver belts.
“You two look like you’re having fun,” Daniel commented as they approached.
“Hey, what are you up to?” Jandor asked as he sheathed his sword.
“Kynobi and Wheaton are heading off to the translift caves.” Daniel said as he pointed toward the mountains west of the encampment.
“We’re going to go to each of the preserves to warn them about the monster threat,” Wheaton added.
“I tagged along because Kynobi said that Stephanie should be returning soon. I thought I’d greet her at the translift caves.”
Jandor brightened. “That’s great; I’ll come with you.” He was eager to reunite with another of his friends.
Lori put the large sword into its scabbard and strapped it to her back, clearly intending to tag along as well.
“Where’s Terri?” Jandor asked as the group started toward the mountains.
A slight shadow passed over Daniel’s face, but he quickly rallied. “She’s eating breakfast; she said she’d catch up later if Stephanie hadn’t arrived by the time she was done.”
Jandor noticed his friend tense slightly at the mention of his sister but decided not to pry further. Terri said their relationship was complicated, and he wanted to respect their privacy.
He decided to change the subject. “So, how many preserves do you have around the world?” He asked Kynobi.
“Three, not including Cirinian. You’ve already been to Munio, there’s one in the Zinidenian Islands, and one in the mountains just above the Crystal Sands.”
Jandor nodded though he had no idea where either of those places were.
“We feel relatively certain that neither one of those can be attacked. Like Cirinian, they have natural fortifications that make it almost impossible for anyone to get to them easily,” Kynobi explained further. “Munio was the most susceptible to attack since it’s the only preserve open to the public. That’s probably why they targeted it.”
“That and being so close to Murrilogic,” Lori added. “I’ve heard those critters seem to only be attacking small towns, ‘least that’s what my uncle told me.”
“Possibly,” Wheaton nodded, “but it seemed more like a calculated attack; though I’m not sure why.”
“All the more reason why we need to coordinate with the other areas,” Kynobi said. “We can’t be too cautious, especially since we don’t know everything that those monsters are capable of.”
They were approaching the mountain range that ran along the western edge of the valley. Kynobi led them to a prominent gap in the rockface. Beyond this was a wide mountain pass that led down to a large area where several caverns were located, including the one that the Order of Nature used to hold their multiple translifts.
Daniel stopped in his tracks. “Guys, we have a problem.” He was staring at the back of his hand.
Though it was the middle of the night in Gavden Woods, a lone woman traversed the dense forest, hardly making a sound. Her skin had a light tan hue and her long golden-brown hair seemed to shine in the light of the yellow and red moons that hung on opposites sides of the sky.
Despite the late hour, Stephanie Jameson was wide awake. This was because, even though she was all the way on the western most part of the western continent of Sunntondra, her internal clock was still on Cirinian time, and it was early morning there.
Gavden woods was one of the many areas around the world that the Order of Nature watched over. Not only was it one of the few places that rockwood trees grew, but there were also many rare animal species that lived there. This meant that they would send scouts out to survey the woods once every few months.
Stephanie enjoyed these types of assignments and would routinely take up any task that allowed her to wander through woods or mountains. It was her favorite thing to do, a carryover from her old life when she lived in Greengale.
Unlike when she went hiking back on Earth, she didn’t carry a backpack of supplies with her. Instead, she wore a green robe over her khaki-colored shorts and simple green t-shirt. The robe, with its many internal pockets was more than enough to hold what she needed for the brief trip. Like all robes, the ustus-lined pockets could hold far more than their size would suggest, and the wearer would never feel the weight of the objects, no matter how large or unwieldy. As such, Stephanie could travel very lightly, which is what she preferred. She’d spent two days in the woods with just the supplies she carried on her.
Gavden Woods was very peaceful, another reason why she took as many opportunities as she could to visit it. It was rare that anyone traveled to the area; although this time she did run into a quaver who was harvesting rockwood. They’d only spoken briefly but it was clear he was being conservative with what he was taking and obeying the strict guidelines for harvesting rockwood.
With her survey complete, it was now time to head back to Cirinian Valley. The summoner weaved her way expertly through the trees even in the middle of the night. At her heels was a silver wolf. His name was Lunox, and he was Stephanie’s companion, an animal she’d formed a lifetime bond with. Lunox was an argent wolf, a species known for their large size and incredible speed. He served as her protector and typically traveled with her everywhere.
It wasn’t long before the duo reached a cave in the middle of the forest that led underground. She stooped slightly to enter but it soon opened up into a larger chamber. Pulling a silver flute out of her inner robe pocket she played a quick melody, and suddenly a wall at the back of the chamber shifted out of the way to reveal a hidden path. Only summoner instruments could open the way to the second chamber which was a translift cave. The wall slid back into place after Lunox passed over the threshold.
Tucking her flute away, Stephanie pulled out a small quartz rod and tapped the single poll that ran from floor to ceiling in the cave. Instantly, she and Lunox were transported to an even larger translift cave with multiple polls. With that, she was back in Cirinian, in one of the many large translift caves that were used to reach their preserves and the areas around the world that they monitored.
Her excitement at being back home faded almost instantly as a wave of unease passed over her. Something was wrong. Even though the chamber they were in was empty, Stephanie became aware of several dozen presences in the surrounding caverns. This revelation had nothing to do with accessing the mentant realm. Lunox, her wolf companion, was warning her through the mental link they shared. His senses were far more attuned to the environment than hers, and a feeling of unease washed over her making it clear they were in danger.
It was then that Stephanie noticed it, something she hadn’t seen in years, but she’d never forget. There was a glowing gold symbol on the back of her hand. It could only mean one thing: the nightmarish creatures of the Book of War were nearby. Lunox was crouched as if ready to attack.
Because there was so much quartz in the system of chambers and tunnels that made up the translift network, it was difficult for Stephanie to see anything in the mentant realm beyond the chamber she was in. With no other options, she concentrated on the link she shared with Lunox until she could feel her own senses becoming sharper, then she slowly made her way to the mouth of the translift chamber.
With her now-enhanced hearing and vision, she could make out two people near the entrance of the cave and hear their conversation.
“Everything is in place, Lieutenant,” a blonde-haired man in leather armor said to his female superior with a quick salute.
“Good, I’m going off to join the captain; they should be at the main encampment soon. You have more than enough pogs here to make sure they can’t escape,” the female soldier responded.
Stephanie was just trying to figure out the best way to sneak out of the cave when she heard a deep growl behind her. She turned, intending to tell Lunox to stay quiet, but instead she saw a group of pogs behind her. The wolf had already jumped to attack one, barking to alert Stephanie of danger. Without thinking, she managed to dodge the swing of the pog’s large axe, but she ended up falling backward in the process.
Stephanie scrambled to her feet just as she heard noises behind her. “What’s going on in there?”
She was surrounded. Pulling a small knife out of her inner robe pocket, she prepared to make a run for it.
“How did pogs get here?” Daniel said in a harsh whisper.
He was behind a clump of thick bushes and small trees at the top of the path that led to the translift cave. From there, he and the others could easily see down into the large grassy hollow where over a dozen pogs were milling about. Two soldiers were at the entrance of the cave talking, but they couldn’t hear them because they were too far away.
“They must have used the Munio translift,” Wheaton concluded as they watched the two soldiers enter the cave. “Perhaps it wasn’t as damaged as I thought, and they were able to make it through into the valley.”
“This is bad; we need to go down there and stop them,” Jandor said, clearly ready to charge in.
“What? No!” Daniel almost shouted. “There’s no telling what we’d be jumping into. There could be more pogs inside the cave and there’s only the two of us who can kill those things. Plus, you know how difficult it is for me to fight in tight spaces. The best thing to do is go back and warn the encampment. They can evacuate, and we can plan a strategy once we have more information.
“We don’t have time for that,” Jandor said. “If those things really are coming from Munio, we need to cut them off now before even more come.” He turned to Lori for support.
Before she could offer an opinion, the two soldiers emerged from the cave holding a struggling captive with them.
“That’s Stephanie!” Jandor barked. They were tying her hands and feet together, intent on restraining her completely. “We’ve got to save her.”
“No,” Daniel insisted, even more vehemently. “Right now, she’s just a hostage but if we attack, they might kill her. We’ve got the advantage. They don’t know we’ve seen them. Let’s go back, tell the others, and—”
“There’s no time for that. We’re going now!” Jandor jumped up and went running down the path. Lori didn’t hesitate to follow, all thoughts of discussion abandoned.
Daniel sighed and turned to his remaining two companions. “Stay here; if something happens to us, run back to the encampment and tell the others,” he said before jumping up and running after the two headstrong warriors.
Before Jandor could even make it to the first pog, the spinning blade of Daniel’s chakram had neatly sliced off its head, and within seconds, it disappeared. Jandor unsheathed his sword and dove into battle.
Despite the overwhelming odds, Jandor was fighting with a maddening zeal with Lori at his side. Even though the elf warrior couldn’t truly harm the pogs, she was able to provide support for Jandor, fending off attacks from his blind side as he relentlessly plowed through his enemies. After multiple battles with the pogs over the past few days, Jandor seemed to have honed a combat style that worked best against them. He knew their weak spots, how they used their various weapons, and had adjusted to their speed. In addition, it became clear how much his own abilities had been enhanced, and Lori had to work hard to keep pace with him.
Daniel was several feet back still on the path, which meant that he had a higher vantage point and could snipe pogs from above. What he wasn’t expecting was for one of the soldiers to hurl a spear at him, its speed and trajectory reinforced with mentus. By the time he saw it coming, he could only hastily construct a mentus shield to keep from being skewered, but the force of the blow from the spear hitting him still knocked him off his feet and he came tumbling down the sloping path, head over heels.
“Daniel!” Jandor shouted when he realized his dazed friend was now being surrounded by pogs. He’d been fighting his way over to Stephanie but quickly changed direction to help his fallen comrade, not realizing that he’d left Lori defenseless in the process.
With their entire formation undone, all three of them were now overwhelmed by enemies as more pogs came running out of the cave’s interior. Unable to use his chakram at short range, Daniel pulled a long dagger from inside his robe and struggled to his feet, only to immediately have to dodge the spiked club of one of the pogs surrounding him. Jandor was fighting three pogs just to reach him, and Lori had her back to the mountain cliff as she clashed swords with the female soldier. Soon, two pogs joined in to support her.
“What’s wrong girly, can’t fight me without your monsters backing ya up?” Lori taunted as she pushed her opponent away.
“Like I’d let some half-breed get the better of me,” the soldier countered as she aimed a kick at Lori, knocking her hard into the rockface.
Dazed, Lori was only barely able to hold off the pogs.
Things were looking bleak, and Daniel was hoping that Wheaton and Kynobi had already fled to get help. Though the town was thirty minutes away, it seemed that was their only hope. Then suddenly, a large silver wolf leapt out of the cave, knocking the female soldier sideways before landing on the back of one of the pogs that had been attacking Lori. The wolf had several shallow cuts, but it was fighting viciously all the same.
With her way clear, Lori raced over to Stephanie, batting aside the soldier that was guarding her with her giant sword. He hit the ground hard and was knocked out.
“I gotcha,” Lori said as she quickly undid Stephanie’s bonds and yanked her to her feet. “Can ya run?”
“Yeah,” Stephanie looked around. How were they going to get out of there? Even now, the pogs were regrouping and the female soldier was staring down at them from the path as if to make sure they didn’t escape.
With a flash of blue light and a guttural roar from Jandor, the three pogs that were attacking him went flying. He was holding the large bo staff now and was panting heavily. At the same time, Lunox was growling ferociously as he had another pog pinned to the ground. Daniel had managed to scamper away from his attackers and now all of them were gathered together, with pogs behind them coming out of the cave, and pogs regrouping in front of them.
“I don’t know how you seal bearers got here,” the woman called to them, “but you’re completely surrounded and outnumbered. Give up, and we’ll bring you to Davron in one piece at least, or you can die here.”
Jandor swore under his breath, and he looked like he was about to go charging again but Stephanie grabbed his arm suddenly. She’d seen something he hadn’t. A small red bag was flying through the air, high over the female soldier barring their path. Stephanie knew exactly what it was and what it meant.
“Everyone grab hands!” she ordered. “Lunox!”
The silver wolf jumped to Stephanie’s side just as the red bag landed right in front of them. A white powder exploded from inside, far more than the bag should have been able to hold, and soon the entire area was covered in a dense white fog.
“Whoa, what’d ya do?” Lori asked looking around confused.
“Just stick close to Lunox and he’ll lead us out.” Stephanie pulled her and Jandor along after the silver wolf with Daniel in the rear holding Lori’s free hand.