_  Chapter Twenty 

            Laura was ecstatic when they came upon the hill with all of Benny’s stuff. It was clear that someone else was with him, and by talking to the trees she gathered that it was the little man she had seen while on the hillside where she had climbed the tall tree and first spotted the giant cart off in the distance. Now, as she stood upon the bald hilltop where (she felt sure,) Benny had been only moments before, she excitedly scanned the plains for some sign of him. But instead of seeing Benny and his unknown partner wandering across the plains, she now got to see the sheer magnitude of the large cart she had spotted from the tree top.

     It’s huge, she thought.

     “Magnificent, isn’t it?” Ku asked her. Fusa was rummaging through what could only be the remnants of what Benny had been carrying with them. “It was built at the beginning of a war waged by the Madman against the now elusive Vanjii tribe. Those few people you see down there, scurrying into the back of the cart, those are all that remain of a once prosperous tribe. They dared to speak out to the Council about Natas’ true identity, and most of them were slaughtered. That is when the large man we saw in the fire came to their aid and became their ruler. Or at least that’s how the story goes. This was quite a long time ago, you must understand. No one who now lives actually saw this man work his way into their confidence, but he came sure enough, and has been protecting them ever since. Inbreeding and strict birth control laws have kept them alive all this time. I have oft wondered what they must look like, after all these years. Families that were kept strictly apart within their tribes must now have joined, and when a people inbreed for several hundreds of years, there is bound to be genetic…problems.”

     “Maybe they look just the way they did before,” Laura said, thinking of the people of Hayvan who must have surely been thought of as ‘inbreeders’ as well. After all, most of the families there were ages old as well, and as far as Laura had known they were all perfectly normal.

     “Perhaps,” Ku replied. “But it is unlikely. Even from this distance, I can tell that they are not what they used to be. They were once short, and now they are at least as tall as Fusa. Also, they were generally cave dwellers, with deathly pale skin. You may think that my eyesight has deteriorated, but to be honest, I can see them quite well and their skin is no longer white. Quite the opposite, in fact.”

     Laura watched, deep in thought, as the last few of the Vanjii tribe climbed into the cart. The ramp they had climbed began to draw inwards, pulled up on ropes by some unseen mechanism. As soon as the door shut, giving out a boom loud enough that Laura could hear even from their distance, a horn let out one long, unbroken wail into the clear morning air. Instantly, the cart began moving forward, and this time Laura could actually see the massive amount of children Ku had spoken of.

     “Is that where Benny is?” Laura asked, suddenly becoming apprehensive that her double was once again moving away from her after being so close. I can’t lose him again, she thought to herself in despair.

     “It is, indeed, Miss Laura,” Ku said. “But this man who leads them, I do not know his name, and I know even less about him. He has done very well in keeping what remains of the Vanjii people both on the move and very secluded. I have heard stories of the battles with innumerable foes that have been won under his guide, and I fear that he may be even more unpredictable than we know. Especially if he is in any way under the influence of the Son.”

     “So we’re not going to go get him?” Laura asked, her dismay reaching a crescendo.

     Ku smiled and pulled out a cigarette. “I do not believe that he is under any duress, as of yet, my child. He has gone aboard willingly, though even from this short distance I cannot gain access into his thoughts. This one who is with him, the one who gives me only static when I try to get inside his mind, has trained Benny well. But as to your question, we cannot just barge in and demand the release of your double. If this leader of the Vanjii has indeed become aware of the boy and his trainer, then we will surely hear about it quite soon. I would guess that the man would throw them off.”

     “Why?” Laura asked. Over by the small pile of traveling goods, Fusa had found something worthwhile, it seemed, for he was beaming and staring down at the small parcel in his hand. He didn’t seem too interested in sharing whatever it was that he had discovered, though.

     “Why?” Ku echoed. “To answer that, I must ask you to keep in mind that I have my own amount of power, as well. Even though this leader man has somehow blocked me out, with the aid of the Son, I would presume, the rest of his tribe are not quite so talented. Some of them are, yes, but most of them are not. The men have learned nothing but fighting, the women hardly anything but cooking, and only the brightest of the children have been trained to hone the powers of their minds. Therefore, I can pick up the gossip of the Vanjii tribe, and it seems that the Unborn Son has spread some rather malicious rumors about Benny and his companion… his companion…”

     As he spoke, Laura saw his eyes get that fuzzy, glossed over look that he always got when using his mental abilities.

     “…his companion, Brun,” Ku said. “Yes, of course. That’s right. I should have known. I suppose I did know. I had just not heard the name in so long, it must have slipped my mind.” He chuckled. “Damn fool getting old.”

     “You’ve always been old,” Fusa said from his station by the loot. He actually laughed, for once, much to Laura’s surprise. He was smoking, as well.

     Laura couldn’t quite explain what happened next. One minute, Ku was looking out over the plains at the cart full of the Vanjii people, and then he seemed to sniff the air, the vacant look left his eyes, and he rounded on his son with a bitter savagery. “You god damned fool!” he shouted. He ran over to where Fusa was sitting, smoking, and ripped the cigarette from his mouth. “What are you thinking, smoking the Lana plant? Do you have a death wish?”

     Fusa watched as his little smoke got smashed into the ground by Ku. “What the hell, old man?” he asked, jumping to his feet.

     “You better sit your ass down, boy, unless you think you have some skill that I don’t,” Ku responded coolly, and the larger man quickly sat back down. The look on Fusa’s face could almost be described as hangdog, and Laura would have smiled if she hadn’t been so confused.

     The Lana plant? She wondered.

     “It was just a couple hits,” Fusa muttered, defeated.

     “Just a few hits?” Ku thundered. “You of all people should know the implications of using the Lana.”

     Fusa grumbled incoherently.

     “It is an inhibitor to people like us,” Ku said, his tone steadily dropping to that of a parent who isn’t angry but is just disappointed. “To someone who has learned to manipulate the laws of the Inner’s physics, it will prey upon your abilities until you need the damned plant to do anything. You know this.”

     “I know,” Fusa admitted.

     “Then why?” Ku asked quietly.

     “Because,” Fusa replied, clearly downtrodden. “I have nothing left. My wife might be dead, the place you forced me to keep as my home for all these years is decimated, and I know that soon you are going to force me to leave you.”

     The last part seemed to hit Ku On Hu like a strong gust of wind, and Laura could feel the strong emotions coming off of her old mentor. Instead of retorting, telling Fusa he was wrong, Ku merely stood there.

     “Oh don’t act so surprised, father,” Ku said. “You knew from the very beginning that I had precognitive tendencies.”

     “But it is only something I thought might become a necessity,” Ku said, visibly shocked. “I hadn’t even decided yet, and somehow you knew.”

     “Just forget I said anything,” Fusa said, rubbing at his eyes. They were red, and Laura couldn’t quite tell from her distance whether or not it was from crying. “And give me one of your damned cigarettes.”

     Ku still seemed shocked, but after a moment of watching his double, who he had grown close enough to that he considered him like a son, he pulled out another cigarette and said, “Well, even though I still don’t like you smoking all my cigarettes, it’s better than having you sit there smoking that wretched plant.”

     Laura was even more confused than she had been when the altercation began, but she didn’t ask any questions. Instead she set to walking around the clearing, soaking in the feeling of her own double, who’s essence was still so fresh that she felt almost as if she were with him again. As she skimmed around the trees, she thought about what had just happened. Back in Hayvan, the Lana Sativa plant had been the thing that helped them escape, the thing that helped them cross the Between World of Brynj into the Inner.

     No one in Hayvan had ever smoked the Lana plant, at least not that she knew of. In fact, she had never even thought of it as something that could be smoked. Perhaps it was just because of the rigid code of ethics the people there had enforced about the ventilation, feeling that smoking was something which polluted the air everyone breathed. But clearly something was wrong enough about the Lana plant that even Ku, who had shamelessly smoked in Hayvan for as long as Laura could remember, despised it. But he had not shown any qualm with growing it in his little storage space, just down the hall from her father’s own Lana Sativa plant, nor in using it to cross into the Inner.

     There had to be other ways into the Inner, she thought, but when she thought about it more she realized that since the very beginning her father had only used this means to reach it, and even Ku had taken them straight to his own, more extravagant plant in order to gain entry.

     For some reason the whole thing just baffled the shit out of her. She felt that there was something crucial there, though, something to do with the bits of energy left over from Benny.

     He was carrying it with him, she thought. Benny and the man or boy or whatever it is that he’s with. They had it, and were using it.

     Even the place where Benny had slept held traces of something unfamiliar within him. Laura became increasingly more positive that this unfamiliar something must have been the feelings within Benny caused by the Lana plant.

     If it’s so bad, why did he keep using it? She thought. Ku said that somehow Neonokin was keeping an eye on him, and if that is true than why didn’t she stop him?

     It occurred to her that perhaps Neonokin was keeping an eye on him from a distance, and thus couldn’t do anything to stop him, but that just didn’t seem quite right either. Surely if the great ‘Sage Lady’ could watch her double, and if she was as powerful as the legends said, then she should have some way to contact him.

     It was all just too confusing for her. If Benny was using the Lana plant, and the man training him was using it as well (which she felt, for some reason unknown to her, was pretty likely,) then what could be so wrong with it? Was Ku maybe mistaken? That, too, seemed highly unlikely in her own opinion. If she were asked who could be turned to for the answer to almost any question, and who could give the right answer, she would say Ku without hesitation.

     Having made a complete circle of the bald hill, she found herself back at the camp. The two men were sitting there, smoking cigarettes together and laughing as if nothing had happened. Fusa’s eyes still seemed red, but he definitely was not crying.

     While the two men were laughing and looking out at the massive cart on the plains below, on a whim she grabbed some of the Lana from the bag which most heavily felt of Benny’s essence. It was nothing like what she was expecting. All of the Lana plants she had seen in Hayvan had been mostly leafy plants, with a few flowering buds but nothing that really stuck out more than the brightly colored leaves. The stuff in Benny’s bag was different. It was sticky and entirely in bud form, with little purple crystals covering every surface. She could smell the sweet aroma, and was almost tempted to try it herself if it weren’t for the wrath she feared from Ku.

     She stuffed some of the stuff into her cleavage, where hopefully it would stay secure. Even as she straightened up, she couldn’t rightfully tell herself why she was taking some of it. But she knew it was something that Benny had used, and perhaps he would need it sometime.

     The air was doing it’s usual, staying the same temperature, but the sun was fully up now and it cast a slight amount of warmth on Laura’s skin. The cart was still moving away slowly, kicking up dust in its trail. There were now people moving along the top of it, probably doing guard work. Once again, Laura was reminded of her dream, where Benny was trapped on the top of a cart that got bigger and bigger as she moved toward it. She could see the blood pouring down the mountains, threatening to drown her beloved double.

     She snapped out of her daydream as a large hole blasted through the side of the cart, and two figures went spilling across the plains, tumbling and rolling until they came to a halt several yards from the mobile building. As the dust from the plains where the two figures landed began to clear, Laura could just barely make out that the two had already gotten to their feet. A loud drum began beating its rhythm through the morning air was a large man jumped out of the hole and the cart came to a creaking halt. Looking at the two figures in the slowly clearing dust cloud, Laura saw that one was about average height, while the other was comparatively shorter.

     Oh no, she thought. Benny!

 

**

 

     Benny coughed dust out of his lungs as the air cleared around him. He lurched himself to his feet with the aid of Brun, who had already recovered and was watching in the direction of the cart warily. There was no sign of Jimmy from the direction of the Village, but through the thick cloud of dust, the massive outline of Beaner was all too clear.

     Benny still couldn’t believe the change that had overcome the man. The first time Benny met the gigantic man who had used his mind to enter the Inner, he had been an honored guest, and had left with nearly a hero status. Now he and Brun were being treated as if they were there to murder the entire Vanjii tribe.

     “What happened?” he coughed out at Brun as he put himself in the best defensive stance he could manage. It wasn’t much, since he felt as if he had injured his ankle when Beaner kicked them through the wall.

     He did not like what we had to say, Brun said into his mind. We have been challenged.

     “He could have just said, ‘thems be foitin words,’ and asked us to step outside,” Benny said, using his best Australian accent.

     No time for being a smart ass, Brun said as a heavy drumbeat echoed through the dust. He can’t see us through the cloud, but he will soon. Be ready. The guards at the top have already figured out what’s going on and are signaling the warriors.

     Almost as if on cue, part of the cloud was blown away by a passing gust of warm air, and as soon as Beaner saw them, he made his move. The tall grass of the plains seemed to part in front of him as the large man levitated off the ground and sped toward them. Brun acted before Benny really even comprehended that Beaner had initiated an attack. There came the usual flash of blue light, and several blades of the pale grass tore loose from the ground and wrapped themselves around Beaner’s thick neck. The man stopped his charge momentarily and thought with the grass as it wrapped itself tighter around his throat.

     Benny took the opportunity of the momentary distraction to grab a rock off the ground, and doing his best to focus his mind on the rock in such a quick instant, he flung it forward and watched as it sailed forth and struck the man squarely between the eyes.

     There was a roar and a crash as the large man lost his concentration and crashed backwards. Brun was on him like a lion going for the kill of an injured antelope. He blurred forward and struck the man with his foot as he glided past, then retreated back to where Benny was.

     Fall back! The little man shouted into Benny’s head as Beaner struggled to recover from his double blows. Benny retreated about ten yards to where Brun stood waiting. Looking back at Beaner, Benny saw that he had gotten most of the constricting grass off of his neck, and was fighting his way back to his feet. Just then, however, a spear came flying through the hole in the side of Beaner’s quarters, heading directly for him.

     Somehow Beaner felt it coming, or heard it. He whirled the moment before the spear hit him and flung it aside, cutting the back of his hand as the blade cut through his flesh before flipping end over end off into the grass. Two more spears came zinging out of the hole, but they were not heading for Beaner. Instead, they came to Benny and Brun, slowing as they approached the two.

     Benny grabbed his own, thankful to have something physical in his hands. It made him feel a lot less vulnerable. Looking toward the cart, he saw that Jimmy was the one who had sent the spears to them. But then he was gone, and only when Benny heard the rustling in the grass to the right of himself did he notice that the young boy was now beside them.

     “Nice trick,” Benny said. The boy only smiled, never taking his eyes off of Beaner.

     Wait for him to charge, Brun said, and Benny assumed that the command was being heard by Jimmy as well, who was clearly more skilled at just about everything Benny had learned. When he does, split. Benny, come to my left flank. Jimmy, stay where you are. I will get above him, and you two need to come from the sides while he is focused on me. In his mind, I am the biggest traitor, therefore he will be more focused on me.

     Benny moved to the left side of Brun, ready to follow orders. This plan failed to hold up, though, as all three of them watched as a group of warrior Vanjii began pouring down the ramp at the back, which had lowered with a crash instead of it’s usual slow descent.

     “Shit,” Benny muttered. The mass of people coming from the giant cart was daunting, but fearing that he might seem a coward, Benny thought quickly and decided on something he could do. During some of his down time, when he wasn’t trying to take a nap so as to taunt the creature inside his Upper body, he had began to practice what Brun had called elemental sorcery. He wasn’t very good, but he thought maybe he could use it to their advantage, at least for a moment.

     Taking the hint from Brun, Benny did his best to get his mind into the telepathic communication frame, and he said, Both of you get down. I have an idea.

     Neither of them responded, and with a bit of a blush, Benny looked at them and realized that they were choosing not to acknowledge the stupidity of what he had just said. They were both already out of sight, because neither of them were really even as tall as the grass.

     Never mind.

     He took a deep breath and focused on the wind, which was moving slowly but surely across the plains. He closed his eyes, but tried to keep the picture of the Village and the swarms of Vanjii warriors clearly in mind. Beaner had been distracted well enough by Jimmy’s fierce blow with the spear, and had retreated to await the aid of his warriors. Benny pictured him exactly where he had been, and tried to imagine where all of the warriors would have spread to by now.

     Then he put the final component into the picture in his head. He imagined the swaying of the grass increasing in a certain spot, moving away from where they actually stood. He saw in his mind’s eye as the spot moved away to the left, toward the Village. Benny could feel his head beginning to throb slightly from the strain of it.

     But then, much to his satisfaction, he heard the wind pick up around them. It was only slight in the first few seconds, but then it grew louder and harsher against his face. He put his hands forward in front of him and felt as thewind moved away, in the direction he had imagined just seconds before in his head.

     There came loud shouts, and the sound of stamping feet from the warriors seemed to move to the left. Upon opening his eyes, Benny found that the warriors had indeed taken the bait. Through the breaks in the waving bits of grass, Benny could see them moving to guard the children, who began screaming as they saw the rustling grass moving toward them.

     “BACK INSIDE!” Beaner yelled at them all. When some of the younger warriors began moving toward the ramp, Beaner grabbed them and yelled, “Not you, ya god damned fools. I meant the children. CHILDREN! INSIDE! NOW!”

     We need higher ground, Brun said. Good work, Benny, but it won’t fool them for very long. This should help.

     Benny looked at Brun, and found the man’s eye glowing bright, and looking back in the direction of the children, he saw the ground begin to rise up. There was a loud tumultuous amount of clicking and clacking as the children freed themselves from their harnesses and began running back toward the safety of the cart. As he continued to watch, the dirt rose up from under the grass and formed what looked like a man.

     A mud man! Benny thought. He never ceased to be amazed at some of the spectacular things Brun was capable of. The mud man swiped at some of the children, but Benny saw that it was intentionally high and meant as purely a bluff to get the children to run, in case any of them were feeling brave and ready to fight.

     None of them were, but plenty of the warriors were. Two jumped on the mud man’s back as a third began poking it from the front. Now! Brun said. Retreat! There is a slight rise behind us. Get there.

     Benny turned around and saw the small hill behind them. It was more like a mound than a hill, but higher ground was higher ground. At least no one would be able to sneak up on them. Together, all three of them made there way toward the hill in a group, with Benny crouched low and the other two merely keeping their heads down.

     Back toward the Village, roars could be heard as the mud man flung some of the warriors to the ground. They simply didn’t seem to get it. Their spears and knives could do nothing to harm a man made of mud, and yet they kept attacking, as if it would do some good. It was all the better for Brun, Benny, and Jimmy, for it gave them the distraction needed to climb the hill.

     Looking toward the cart, Benny could see that Beaner was now nowhere to be found. Maybe he had climbed back into the Village to tend to his wound. Now, though, there were almost fifty tan skinned men that had piled out of the back of the cart, and seeing them, Jimmy said, “They will not be distracted by your mud tricks much longer, Master. Look. Even now, two of them have broken away and are moving towards us. More will spot them and follow very soon.”

     They dug in their heels and raised the spears Jimmy had brought, while Jimmy only put up his hands in what reminded Benny of the stances karate competitors assumed when waiting for a fight to begin. Defensive, and ready to strike. But Benny was feeling something from the two men that he had not felt from the other attackers. While he was busy trying to figure out what it was, Jimmy was gathering some sort of faintly glowing, luminescent energy around his hands. As he moved his hands around each other in small circles, the energy appeared out of nowhere, faintly glowing yellow while never quite becoming solid.

     Wait, Jimmy, Brun said suddenly.

     What do you mean, wait? Jimmy asked as the two man reached the mound and began ascending. They’re almost here. I am preparing, like you trained me.

     I would not ask you to use that attack just yet, Brun said. And these two mean us no harm. Do you not feel it?

     Suddenly Jimmy dropped his hands and resumed a more casual pose. He stilled watched the two climbing toward them warily, but the fight had apparently left him.

     “Peace! Peace!” the two men were shouting at the top of their voices as they approached the three at the summit of the mound. Apparently they knew some English, and Benny figured this wasn’t totally uncommon, considering Brun and Jimmy both knew the common tongue.

     When they finally arrived where the three of them were standing, watching the chaos they had successfully created below, Benny saw that the two men were considerably old. They were wheezing and coughing by the time they had successfully climbed the mound, and Benny had to stifle a laugh. The two men with their comical white beards and bald heads were just too much to bear, almost, especially with their asthmatic breathing.

     “What brings you here?” Brun said out loud. These two aren’t receptive to the mind speech, Brun informed Benny.

     “Great Warrior,” the tallest one said breathlessly, though he looked smaller due to the fact that he was doubled over, trying to catch his breath. “We come to you with news!”

     “There are others!” the second, shorter one said. Both men appeared to be the same age, though it was difficult to tell. “Others like us, willing to join your cause! We have seen the poison that sister of yours has been filling His Grace’s head with, and we want no more part of it. Many of us were just waiting for your return, and here you are! Word has already begun to spread. Though they must keep it extremely low key, for fear of being branded traitors. Grace’s justice has been considerably less than merciful, as of late.”

     “How many?”

     “At least fifty, Great Warrior,” the first one said. “Almost all of the women, several of the children, and I know of two other of the Gifted Youth who have seen the lies in His Grace’s mind. They know you are an honest, faithful member of the tribe. Lauren, the evil sorceress, is not!”

     “Trouble,” Jimmy said as Brun’s concentration on the mud man was diminished enough that the fake creature fell to the ground in a heap of rubble and mud. A cry went up from the warriors, who no doubt thought that they had vanquished their foe.

     “Thank you, fathers,” Brun said. “But you cannot fight with us here. You are too old and frail, and we wish you no harm. If you would help us, retreat to the forest and make a shelter for us that we may use when this ridiculousness is settled.”

     The two elder men looked at each other uncertainly, but in the end decided to head his orders, and together they rushed off for the cover of the forest.

     By that point several of the warriors had scanned the surrounding area for the trio of traitors, and one of them finally spotted them crouched in the grass atop the mound. As quick as that, all fifty or so of the men below were rushing toward their position.

     I don’t know how long we can do this, Brun said. Even now, they are forming attack formations.

     Benny could easily see the truth in Brun’s statement. The men below were moving toward them, and they had grouped themselves into a line. As Benny watched, the men toward either end of the line began moving forward at a quicker rate than those at the center, and within a few seconds, they had formed a semi circle.

     They intend to surround us? Benny asked, and for once was surprised to find that willing the thought into the minds of the other two was much easier than normal.

     It is so, Brun replied.

     The men in the middle of the semi circle reached the bottom of the mound and were now only about fifty or sixty feet away. However, they halted there as the others toward the ends spread out and began moving around them. Instinctively, Benny faced the opposite direction of Brun, keeping an eye on the men below. Jimmy faced the forest, while Brun kept his eyes in the direction of the Village.

     Help me Benny, Brun said. You too, Jimmy.

     Before Benny could ask what he was supposed to help with, an image flashed in his head of pillars of stone and dirt, raised around the top of the mound like spikes. Without hesitating, he began focusing on the ground around him, almost demanding in his mind that the ground rise up. Slowly, the ground began to rumble and shift all around them. The rumbling grew louder, and Benny watched in amazement as his demand was met. The earth began to rise up, rocks breaking through the grass and poking toward the sky as columns of dirt pushed them higher and higher. The men below seemed a tad confused, but hardly as amazed as Benny. No doubt they had seen all sorts of strange ‘magic’ while with Brun and Beaner in the past.

     As the pillars stopped at about a height of twenty feet, looming over the heads of the cornered trio, Brun said, Now hold it like a fortress. No one gets through, hear me?

     I hear you, Benny thought.

     I hear you, came Jimmy’s response. No one gets through.

     Keep me safe, Brun said, moving between the backs of the two young boys. My thoughts will not be here for the next few minutes.

     Benny felt his heart racing, the bitter taste of adrenaline heavy in his mouth as the men on his side finally met each other, completing the circle, and the rush to the top of the mound began.

     Here they come, he thought to himself. My training led to this day. Let’s see how I did.

 


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