Ku had just explained to Laura that the girl inside the fire was not her, but merely looked like her. It was, in fact, another girl entirely. The elder couldn’t say who exactly she was, but he felt very strongly that Benny had been in contact with her recently. Laura still felt a sense of disorientation when she thought about the time jump. It was only a trick of her mind, of course, a sensation caused by the warping of time caused by the between world, Brynj. According to Ku, Benny had been near this girl, and thus near the Unborn Son, whatever that was, about a week ago. Laura’s mind had had extreme difficulty wrapping around this, as she had just sent him on his way a day or two before. But, as Ku had explained, the between world caused many strange things, not the least of which was the difference in the flow of time. As soon as Benny had left Hayvan and re emerged in the Unalla Woods, his time had instantly began to move along a faster track, while the time Laura experienced while she and Fusa looked for Ku On Hu had remained the way she had always known it.
Thinking about it caused her a headache, so she tried to focus on the details about the girl in the flames. Ku had no explanation for why she looked so similar to Laura, besides that one person often looked like another without there being any mystical reason for it. That was just how nature worked. Ku sensed that the girl had tried to cause Benny harm, but had failed (much to Laura’s delight, for she had been worried about the boy ever since he left via her father’s Lana Sativa plant.) Laura had asked what type of harm she tried to impose, but Ku could not say. All he could say was that a great presence had saved him, and that the boy was with a very skilled companion, whoever it was.
When the old man told Laura about the ‘skilled companion,’ Laura had sensed something within Ku that she couldn’t quite identify. Some sort of recognition, or perhaps even hopefulness. But when she asked him about it, he only smiled and said that if any of his suspicions were correct, he would meet a great person soon. Who, he would not say, and this caused her such irritation that at first she had stormed off, only daring to venture about twenty feet away from their camp.
Now they were on the move again, with everything they owned packed into one overstuffed bag which Fusa carried over his shoulder. Laura wanted to know desperately about who Benny was traveling with, but no matter how much she tried to delve into Ku’s mind, she only heard some kind of cheery tune whistled within his thoughts, and when she would look at him during those times, trying to find something even just written in his body language, he would turn towards her with a sly grin and begin whistling the very tune she had heard in his thoughts. He’s mocking me, I know it, she thought. He knows I’m trying to pick his thoughts and so he goes blank and whistles, then when I look at him he starts whistling the annoying song in order to say ‘I know you’re trying to get in there.’
It was infuriating, but she knew that he had his reasons for not saying, and so she must respect his desire not to speak about it.
When Laura had first been shown the girl who was supposedly infested by the Unborn Son, it had been night time. She had gone to sleep, or rather tried to, with her mind filled with thoughts of twins and disembodied spirits and her creator, her best friend, her soul mate, Benny Jorgens. When she had finally dozed off, she wasn’t riddled with any of the odd dreams which had been troubling her, and she awoke to another one of those perfect Inner days, where the weather never changed and it was Summer-Spring forever. They had struck camp as the sun rose over the first peaks of the forest covered mountains which surrounded them. After a few hours of traveling, they now found themselves at another decent clearing amongst the trees, and they were all resting and eating some of the meat which Ku had prepared the night before. It really had grown to the size of a large turkey, just like he had promised, and the taste was delicious in Laura’s mouth, even the next day.
The trees around them seemed to be thinner in this clearing, and Laura wondered if they were coming to the end of the Unalla Woods already. Father always told me they were much larger than this, she thought suspiciously. We have only traveled a few miles, at the max. Of course, it wouldn’t be the first lie he ever told me.
While Fusa and Ku argued about whether or not Fusa should continue smoking, now that father and son had been united (Double and Double, Laura reminded herself,) Laura began examining the trees around her. She didn’t know what she was looking for, at first, but she soon realized she was looking for some form of life. There had been fairly little, that she had seen, which was also contrary to everything her father had ever told her. But apparently the thing which Ku had roasted, the strange meat that grew as it was cooked, had been a small cat like animal which he had caught just after they crossed over into the Inner, so she knew there had to be life around, even if she couldn’t see it. So she set about the clearing, chewing on her portion of the meat, looking up at the tree tops.
She came to one tree that seemed strangely out of place. Most of the trees in the Unalla Woods had needles, but this one had leaves. Growing up in Hayvan she had very little experience of real trees, besides willows, but the bits of knowledge which she shared with Benny from his childhood, when the two of them had been in each other’s heads almost constantly, she recognized this tree as an oak.
The wind in the tops of the trees began to pick up, and for some reason Laura began to feel colder. That’s odd, she thought. The weather never changes in the Inner.
Looking up towards the distant top of the strange, out of place oak tree, she could make out some sort of movement. Suddenly, the movement spread to the pine tree next to it, and then the next, and so on until a wind seemed to be flowing around the clearing in a steady circle, rustling the branches faster and faster, as if the clearing were caught in the middle of a cyclone. She watched as the current of wind would start from the giant oak tree, then move around the entire clearing in a speedy yet graceful wave.
It was only when the strong wind began to move its way down the trees, spiraling towards her slowly, going farther down with each circle, that Laura began to feel afraid. What was going on, that would cause such strange wind?
She turned back in the direction of Fusa and Ku on the far side of the clearing, thinking she would shout to them to get their attention, but they were already on their feet, watching the swirling wind in the treetops. Fusa was pointing and saying something to Ku, but the wind was drowning out their voices. She began to run in their direction, but Fusa suddenly put out both of his hands in a stopping gesture, and she was pretty certain he had mouthed the word ‘Stop!’ but she couldn’t be sure. Ku had his hands raised above his head, as if in prayer, and Laura could faintly make out a faint white light surrounding his hands. Fusa was no good at telepathy, and so she tried again to move closer toward him in an effort to hear him better.
Before she knew what was happening, she felt sharp daggers tear into her shoulders. She cried out in pain and snapped her head to the side to see what had her. She saw scaly, cracked skin surrounding long claws that looked to be talons, each one about four inches long and curved inward to grab prey like her. As quickly as the talons dug in, she was being lifted off the ground, and below her the grass was swaying to the wind thrown off by the beating of the wings of whatever the thing was which had her.
She tried to lift her arms to beat at the bird, or whatever the damned thing was, but found her arms limp and lifeless, the nerves presumably cut off by the claws which seemed to be digging further and further into her shoulders. Below her, Fusa and Ku were moving farther and farther away, but now Fusa had moved directly below her, into the center of the clearing. She tried with all her might to reach out to Ku with her mind, but she was only getting a hazy humming sound, and somehow she knew that while in the trance state, she would never be able to reach him.
She stared at him, anyways, though, as the birdlike creature carried her farther and farther away. She could see everything, all of the Unalla Woods, and even the plain which bordered it on one side, but she paid no attention to the beautiful landscape. She was focused only on Ku, or rather the speck of darkness in the middle of the tiny circle of lighter color which was all she could make out of them now. The creature had taken her several hundred feet into the air, perhaps even a thousand, she couldn’t really tell. Blood was flowing around the talons, and she felt it running down her arms. Apparently not all of the feeling was gone from them, just the ability to use them.
From the speck far below her, Laura saw a brief flash, and then something was heading toward them, growing fast even though they were still moving upward at an alarming pace. It was white, and Laura was pretty sure that she could see it shining, somehow, like a big silvery cloud hurling toward them. She flinched and closed her eyes, expecting to be hit by whatever the thing was, but she only felt a cool breeze around her, followed by a sickening screech from the creature and searing pain as the talons were ripped from her shoulders.
Then she was falling. Falling so fast she felt sure that she would be sick. The tiny spot which the clearing had become was now growing fast, the entire world seeming to hurtle towards her. But it didn’t last long. There came another screech and the creature grabbed her again, mid-fall. This time it only managed to get one of its talons around one of her ankles as she tumbled through the air. She looked up and saw the ugliest creature she had ever seen. Its wings were like those of a bat, but they were blood red and inside them the veins seemed to move around like tiny snakes as the thing flapped its wings.
It had the body of a man, only its skin was a dark green, almost black, spotted all over with purple blotches, as if the thing had been bruised all over its body. It was clutching her with it’s foot, and Laura could see that its arms formed the top part of its wings, so it could not grab her with its hands without losing its flight. As she dangled there, looking up at the terrible monster which had somehow evaded her senses in the clearing, the thing looked down at her and grinned. It was the most terrible thing Laura had ever seen, and she let out an ear piercing scream. The creature didn’t like the noise, and its grin instantly became a grimace and it began shaking her, as if to make her stop.
Laura watched its face as it saw another of the white clouds coming. But this time, it wasn’t going to allow Ku’s cloud thing to catch it easily. It darted to the side and began to dive, going so fast that it actually dragged Laura behind it as it fell. Looking up, she could see the cloud following close behind, giving off a faint humming as it hurled toward them. Even though the creature was pulling her toward the ground extremely quickly, the cloud was still catching up. Laura tried to help the cloud move faster, but wasn’t sure if she actually helped at all. But even if she didn’t, the cloud struck the creature just as it was about to swoop down on Fusa in an attempt to grab a second helping of prey.
Fusa was no field mouse, though. He was a skilled warrior, and he was ready. The cloud burst around the creature, once again feeling like cool mist to Laura, but to the creature it was apparently torture. It screamed and folded its wings in around itself, as if for protection, and Laura became afraid they would smash into Fusa. However, when they were right over the top of him, Laura felt the talons release her and she began to fall slowly through the air, almost floating. Looking down as she fell, Laura saw Fusa step to the side and do some fancy move, grabbing the creature and spinning it in a circle before expelling it at a nearby tree. It was the big oak tree from which Laura had initially heard the rustling.
There was an explosion as the creature hit the tree, and dust, leaves, bark, all exploded outward from the tree. Laura landed nimbly in the center of the clearing, and instantly ran over to Ku On Hu. He wrapped his arms around her, and she put her face into his shoulder and instantly began crying.
“Come, child,” the old man said to her, patting her hair affectionately. Across the clearing, amidst the cloud of smoke and dust, loud yells and curses were erupting from Fusa while the creature was giving off more of its piercing screeches. “Let us move away from this. It is not safe until Fusa has dealt with the Crog, and we must take shelter in case the creature comes flying for another attack.”
Ku led her into the trees, and up a slight embankment, until they emerged above the clearing, about a hundred feet away from the scene of the commotion. Laura could still hear Fusa cursing the creature, calling it a ‘damned piss ant hobgoblin,’ and it was a relief to know that the terrible creature had not taken him yet.
“Is there anything we can do?” Laura asked Ku.
“No, my child,” he answered. “Those little puffy things I sent toward the creature have greatly immobilized it, but not entirely. I am of no use now, with so much of my energy spent on those two, and you would not know how to even begin. Though I’m certain you would make a valiant effort, nonetheless,” he added quickly, noticing the hurt look on her face. “With those injuries to your arms, however, I think its best that we both just stay back and don’t risk an attempt.”
She looked back toward the dust cloud, and saw what remained of the giant oak tree begin to fall slowly toward the clearing.
“I don’t understand that tree,” Laura said.
“It is an extension of the creature,” Ku replied gravely. “If Fusa or I had paid enough attention, we would have saw you looking at it and been able to save you before it could hurt you. It lures the prey in with some sort of oddity. In the ocean, it might be a giant random bubble; on a cold and windy mountain, perhaps it would be a patch of warm beach; in this case, it chose a more obscure allure. I believe it somehow sensed that you were making observations about the landscape, and so it set up that strange tree, hoping to grab your attention. Fusa tried to tell you to stop, for the creatures can only see a short distance, and if you had staid still you would not have been easy to spot. They wait for motion, and then pounce.”
“I’m sorry,” Laura replied, tears of shame coming to her eyes. “I didn’t see anything besides the wind, and I didn’t even feel it, like I thought I would if there was something there.”
“Do not fret, young one,” Ku said, the same hint of affection in his voice that he always adopted when trying to sooth her. “It is a common mistake. There are strange creatures of a number unimaginable, and most of them will not show themselves until it is too late.”
“AAAAAARRRRGGGHHHH!!!” Fusa screamed from inside the cloud of debris, which still had not settled. “Let go of my arm, cocksucker!”
The creature replied with a loud screech, louder than any of the others so far, and then it erupted from the cloud to go sprawling on the ground, apparently thrown by Fusa.
“My double has never quite mastered the art of watching his tongue around a lady,” Ku said. “Easier said than done, while in combat, I know, but he could still use a few more…choice terms. He sounds like a damned sailor.”
Ku lit up a cigarette and began smoking it contentedly, watching as his son emerged from the cloud of dust and pounced on the creature. The Crog, as Ku had named it to Laura, was about the size of two full grown men standing on top of each other, but Fusa still seemed to be overpowering it. There was a deafening riiiiiiiiip as Fusa tore one of the thing’s arms off, tearing the membrane that formed the wing right in half. Ku showed no signs of fearing for his son’s life, so Laura tried to calm her own anxiety and accept that this was just a show of Fusa’s skills.
But the pain was back in her shoulders, and she once again became aware of the fact that the thing had severely damaged her arms when it grabbed her. She tried again to lift one of them, but could not succeed in moving it at all, not even her fingers. Laura turned to Ku and found that he was already preparing some sort of swab, while the cigarette dangled from between his lips. He had a small piece of cotton, and was taking some sort of small plants from the ground and squeezing them between his fingers until they released a thick, white substance onto the cotton.
“This is going to sting,” the old man said, putting it on the shoulder closest to him, “A lot.”
At first she thought Ku was exaggerating, but then the substance began to enter her bloodstream through the wound and every scratch and cut on her body began to scream with pain. She cried out and laid flat on her back. She screamed so loud as the pain coursed through both of her shoulders, that even Fusa’s obscene outbursts could no longer be heard. Even the screech of the Crog was faint in her ears.
It was like fire coursing through her veins, turning to lava in the places where she was injured. She was trying to get herself to say Make it stop, but the only noise that was managing to come out was a scream. There were cuts she didn’t even know she had, scratches from walking through the underbrush, and bruises that she had long since forgotten. One by one, though, they each began to cool down. The fire receded from her veins, and the lava seemed to dry up. When it was entirely gone from her, she felt a slight throbbing in the places where the Crog’s talons had bit into her shoulders.
It was much better than the pain, however, and she sat back up and thanked Ku, but not before apologizing for acting like such a baby.
“You get embarrassed too easily,” Ku said sternly. “You must learn to be hard as stone, like when you shot Natas, if you plan to survive what is ahead. If you get abashed and allow your head to fill with blood every time you make a mistake, then the enemy will waste no time at all exploiting that…flaw.”
Laura had heard the word he meant to use, a faint whisper within his thoughts. He had meant to say that weakness, but had changed his mind and said flaw instead.
I’m not weak, she told herself. I’ll prove it to him, one day. To him, and to Fusa, and to Benny. Most of all, I’ll prove it to the Madman.
Ku was smiling, even though he had turned back to watch the fight again. His cigarette was now dangerously low, and he flicked it away.
“AAAH, you piece of shit, get off me. Get off me! Gods damn you to the hell you came from, you stupid, Croggy piece of crap.”
Laura giggled, feeling some of Ku’s humor rolling off of him as she listened to Fusa. The creature had pinned him to the ground with its one remaining arm, but Fusa quickly retaliated by busting one of the joints that divided the Crog’s arm. It let out a wail, and shrank back. Fusa was instantly on his feet, and he picked up the other arm and used it as a club to bash the creature, over and over again until it was within the cloud of dust again. The creature could just barely be seen within the cloud, attempting to right itself, but having a rough time with the loss of one arm and the sudden handicap of the other.
This gave Fusa the opening he had been struggling towards. He put his hands together and began to mutter under his breath. Laura felt pretty sure she knew what was coming, but watched intently none the less. To her surprise, Fusa began waving his arms around in a fluid, almost dance like motion. It was rather beautiful, and he seemed to building up his energy. Laura felt as if she could almost see his energy flowing and gathering around him, as the creature struggled and writhed on the ground in the settling dust.
Then, just as Laura had expected, Fusa jumped high into the air, far higher than she would have ever thought possible anywhere besides within the Inner, and came hurtling down with sickening speed, slamming his fists and feet into the ground by the dust with a thunderous crash. All of the dust lit up, and Laura was temporarily blinded by the flash. The screech that came from the creature was unlike any noise she had ever heard, at one moment deeply throaty and at the other tinny and guttural, louder than any of the howls she had heard from it before.
It was the trick Fusa had used to get rid of the blood when they had killed the first couple of guards in the LeVille Mansion, except he had used the powder from the shattered tree instead of his little vial of banishing powder. This time, it wasn’t blood that was banished. It was the creature.
When the blinding light faded away, nothing remained of the giant oak tree, and the only sign of the creature was the arm Fusa had torn off, which lay forgotten near the edge of the clearing. Laura and Ku both gave a loud cheer of congratulations for Fusa, and Laura instantly began running down the embankment to speak with him.
“Damn ugly whore almost broke my nose,” Fusa said when she reached him.
“Ah, so it was a female, was it?” Ku asked, coming up a few seconds behind Laura.
“Hard to tell, since they all have junk between their legs,” Fusa replied. “But yes, I am fairly certain.”
“Ill news,” Ku replied. “That means we must have stumbled near a nest, and were scheduled to be her baby’s next meal.”
“Well then let us hope the babe is young, and will not yet be able to comprehend what the loss of its mother means,” Fusa said. “Or else we may find ourselves face to face with him, seeking revenge. Let me tell you, Miss Laura, there is nothing in these woods quite as ferocious and determined as a tiny little Crog who has lost its mother, and who has identified the killer. Revenge drives them like nothing else in the world.”
“Come,” Ku said. “We must strike camp and move away from this place, in case the little one comes looking.”
With that, Fusa grabbed the arm he had torn off, the flap of wing swaying in the breeze, and threw it into the fire. By the time the entire thing had been consumed by the flames, they had already stricken their camp and were heading away from the clearing, and towards Benny once again.
Laura could have sworn that she could feel something watching her as they traveled out of the clearing and back into the wood. She decided it was just the nerves of hearing the stories of the little baby, perhaps even a delusion caused by the slight stirrings of guilt she had felt when it was told to her that it was a mother.
Better than being baby Crog food, she thought.
Behind them, right as they entered the woods and crept away from the camp, a tiny red creature wandered into the clearing, following the smell of burning flesh as the arm of its mother withered away in the flames.
The hall was dark and dank, filled with a thousand spiders and air that smelled of mold and a wide variety of other, unknown and ancient smells. In the shadow of a long abandoned doorway, a man stood waiting impatiently, listening to the drips of water echoing around the halls, smoking a large cigar.
He was tapping his foot impatiently, as if he were being held up at great expense to his plans for the day. A thick black cloak covered his shoulders and face, just in case there were any unwanted visitors in the abandoned hallway. Better to be safe.
He checked his watch, and then two minutes later when his guest had still not shown up, he checked his watch once again. Then a few minutes later he checked again. And again. And again until almost an hour had passed since he had first arrived at this place.
It was supposed to be the meeting place. The man with the cloak was growing impatient because he was supposed to be receiving a large payment that day. So far the person who was supposed to pay up had not bothered to show. With every passing moment, the man grew more irritated and began puffing his cigar faster.
Finally, faint footsteps could be heard echoing down the hall.
“The weather is nice down here,” the man with the cloak and cigar said. It was the code they had agreed upon.
“Whether or not the weather is nice, I don’t know, but I know I like it,” came the reply, also the words they had agreed upon long in advance.
The first man, the one with the cigar, shivered as the other approached him. He tossed his cigar into the blackness and waited for the newcomer to draw near to him.
“I thought you were standing me up,” the man with the cloak said.
The other man, the one with the dark hair and the thick sunglasses, replied in a cool and collected voice, “I had matters to attend to, and even now I only have a few hours down here, so let’s make this quick.”
“I delivered my part of the bargain, so now I would like compensation,” the man with the cigar and the raspy voice said. “Only what we agreed upon, I don’t ask anymore than that. But certainly no less.”
“You didn’t manage to keep to the entire bargain, it would seem,” the newcomer said. Even though the hallway was dark as soot, the man still wore his sunglasses.
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean, Arthur,” came the reply. “Part of the deal was that I would get the echani who has been stalking me for years. Then low and behold, right before the event, another one of those damned things shows up, and I’m thinking to myself ‘what a wonderful day this has turned out to be.’ And now I find out that I didn’t get just one of them. I got none of them!”
The man crashed his fist against the wall, and bits of pebble flew to the ground.
“B-but I tried,” the first man said. “You know I tried. I caught the one and bound him like you said, and the other miraculously disappeared.”
“Really?” the man with the glasses asked. “It would appear that your Sativa plant is the one which the boy used to escape. And then, hours later, I get half blinded by your god damned daughter and the great Ku On Hu escapes me once again. Shortly after that, they are all gone. Your girl, the only two echani that have the balls to show themselves, and the bastard offspring of the elder echani… all miraculously vanished. It seems rather implausible to me.”
Though it was dark, the man with the cloak could tell that the other wore a smug look on his face. “You can’t be serious,” he stammered out. “We had a deal, I did everything I could, you got your sacrifices, now give me my wife!”
“I don’t feel like I have gotten very much out of this deal, LeVille,” the man with the glasses said. “In fact, I feel like the eye I lost was worth much more than the fifty or sixty souls you allowed me to take. Do you know how many Feerel that will make me? Perhaps a dozen. And I am quite sure that when the time comes to use them, they will die rather quickly, just like the ones I had posted around the Great Cell. With both of my eyes, I was able to control multitudes.”
“I’m sorry for your injury, truly I am,” Arthur LeVille replied, “but that has nothing to do with our bargain, Vonwell. Now I want what I was promised.”
“Oh, I think it has everything to do with our bargain. Your little bastard of a daughter was studying under an echani for years, and you didn’t have the sense to notice it? You didn’t stop it from happening?”
“How could I when you didn’t reveal to me that Ku was an echani until the day before you planned to take everyone?” LeVille replied. “I thought he was a mystic old cook, eccentric but harmless. Him and his family treated Laura well, so I allowed her to continue visiting. If he was teaching her things, she never told me that.”
“Because Ku On Hu is not a stupid person,” said Natas. “He probably told the girl that anything he showed her had to remain a secret, long before showing her anything at all. But you bound him poorly in the Great Cell. He was basically playing possum, for Christ’s sake, just waiting for the help to show up, as he knew was inevitable. And now that you have mentioned the family of the Elder, I have one more little question to put to you.”
Arthur LeVille gulped, sucking in some of the sweet dank air.
“The bitch,” Natas said. “This wife of the double. Veela, I believe her name was. I did not here report of her when my servant was examining the bodies.”
LeVille looked honestly stunned this time.
“Sir, I promise you,” he spat out in haste, “I had every exit sealed, I destroyed my Lana plant after finding out it had been used, and I wasn’t aware of the plant the echani and his double used to get away. But no reports whatsoever came back to me about the wife, sir, I promise. I thought for sure she died with the others, for no one left after Ku On Hu, and no one had gone anywhere before him accept for the Benny fellow.”
“That fellow was the third echani, and you allowed him to slip away. This Veela girl is one of the few remaining Vanjii survivors who doesn’t roll around with that fat oaf in his ridiculous excuse for a home. That’s three strikes in one day, LeVille.”
Arthur LeVille was trying to spit out some sort of reply, but nothing was coming out accept a rasping noise.
“I’ve had enough of your insolence, and I am in too big of a hurry to get back to the Upper Realms to stand here listening to your excuses. Chi!”
Out of the shadows behind the Madman, a girl walked out of the shadows. She had long straight hair, and a soft face that would have looked innocent had it not been for the malevolent stare and the hungry grin which played across her face.
“I have learned to bring my friend here with me into the Inner,” Natas stated with a satisfied smile. “Isn’t it delightful? Just watch how strong she is.”
The girl made a sudden motion and grabbed LeVille around the neck. Before he could even take in a breath, the girl lifted him off the ground, supported only by his neck.
“Her favorite thing to do is suffocate people,” Natas said coolly. “You might even call her a strangulation expert.”
LeVille continued to twist and kick as the blood flow was cut off from his face. His skin was turning a sickly purple color, and his eyes were bulging in their sockets. The girl who held him up began to laugh as those bulging eyes slowly rolled back into the back of the man’s head. His tongue began to loll as his throat swelled, and soon his heart sped up one last time and then stopped forever.
“Put him with the rest,” Natas commanded. “Then meet me back in Minde. We have a game to play.”
The girl laughed and began dragging the body of Arthur LeVille down the hall behind her master.
Laura was at a loss to explain to herself what was going on. They had left Hayvan, fleeing the poisonous cloud which had been consuming the town, and when they had arrived on the other side of the between world, she had fallen quickly into a heavy sleep. Suddenly, after what seemed like the longest nap ever, she had been jolted awake by a sudden, searing pain in her chest, right below the heart.
Ku had told her it had something to do with Benny, or more accurately, Benny’s physical body in the upper realms. He had felt it himself, as mind and matter of the echani had grown so intwined over the years of incarnation, excarnation, and reincarnation, that even across the cosmic dimensions of the human mind, pain could be shared among them.
Ever since awaking, Laura had been afflicted by a terrible tightness of the chest, though it was more uncomfortable than painful. Fusa had lain her near their fire, and was babying her like a giant mother while Ku On Hu did some sort of ceremony, which from what Laura could tell didn’t consist of much more than sitting still with his eyes closed, mumbling incoherently under his breath.
She tried her best to allow the cool night air to refresh her consciousness, but try as she might, things swam in and out of focus and she had very little way of keeping track of time passing. Fusa insisted that it was best for her to keep warm by the fire, and so the cool air was only on the rare occasion of a breeze. Now and then she could perceive the transition between Fusa and Ku as they took turns dabbing water on her face.
She had dreams of torrents of blood raining down from the hills and mountains, consuming a valley in which her double, Benny, rode tied to a cart, helpless against the flood of blood. In her dream she viewed everything from a bird’s eye perspective, and she tried to move closer to Benny to save him. As she approached the bottom of the valley, and the blood rushed down the hills, the cart below Benny grew and grew while Benny stayed the same size, until Laura had to swoop back up for fear of her life.
During one of her more lucid periods, she grabbed Ku’s arm and asked him why she was seeing these strange visions. She had never dreamed before, and when she had, it had always been about mundane things Benny was doing, or echoes of Benny’s dreams. Ku explained to her that something had happened to Benny’s body, and that it had been severe enough to reverberate even through the strange, time-warping effects of crossing over into the Inner.
He said that Benny was most likely experiencing something very similar to what she herself was feeling at that moment, and Ku even said that he had confirmed Benny’s location and assured her that even when she passed out, they still traveled. It seemed as if the old man was extremely eager to keep her from thinking of herself as a burden on them or on the success of their goals.
But when things finally began to regain focus, she was glad to find that she had only been delusional for a little under three hours, and that the extreme stretching of time she had experienced was merely a side effect of the feelings being transmitted across Brynj.
Apparently the wise old man had seen things similar to this, and he called it the Double Pain Syndrome, in which the Inner double would enter a state of shock after something traumatizing had happened to the Upper double. He knew she would become worried if she had thought that they were no longer moving toward Benny, and so he had kept her believing that days were passing as well as miles.
In reality, though, they were still in the same campsite that had been set up as soon as they had crossed over from Hayvan. She had asked for help in being propped up against a tall tree, so that she could look into the fire as she ate the soft mushy stuff they had prepared for her meal. She hated the look of it, with its lumps and odd coloring, but it smelled wonderful, and to her astonishment, tasted even better than it smelled.
Looking deep into the fire pit, watching the embers glow white hot before turning to ash and condensing at the bottom, while new embers fell from the logs to repeat the cycle. She was thinking about her father, even though she had come to the conclusion that she hated him and never would have wanted to see him again, anyways, even if he had somehow survived the mad man Natas’s genocide.
Thinking about it more, she came to the conclusion that the man whose name she had adopted was probably still alive somewhere, and had probably been privy to the entire extermination scheme. She had never known many friends, being the sheltered ‘daughter’ of the most Elite citizen of her home, and in fact the only people she had been close to were right here with her. But she still couldn’t help feeling a sense of guilt and loss. Guilt at not having been able to do anything for the people she had seen struggling towards her through the green mist, and loss at the place which had been home to her since she had appeared, full grown, in the willow garden in Hayvan.
She also thought about Benny as she stared into the flames. She wondered just how well he was coping, whether or not he had met anyone or if he was traveling alone and miserable, coming to the ends of the meager supplies she had been able to send along with him. She hoped the latter wasn’t the case, and she knew that she would be able to feel it if any real harm had befallen him, but ever since finally being able to talk to him in person, to hold his hand in her own and see him in a way other than the perspective of her imagination, she felt lost without him.
The strange onset of delusion and pain when Benny’s physical body had undergone some sort of trauma, caused by her deep connection with every part of the boy who had created her, she had slowly begun to realize through the dense fog of her pain that the one thing she wanted to do before dying was help him win his body back. His freedom. Then she would die when Benny died, the way she felt it should be, and her life would be complete.
By the time she was able to piece her thoughts together in a coherent fashion, she understood on some level that she had been created for this. Somehow the cosmos had known that Benny would undergo such a trial, and she was to help in some way. Laura didn’t have a grasp on just how she was going to achieve this, but deep inside she knew it was the truth.
Ku On Hu, her mentor, the only person she acknowledged as a father figure now, came and sat beside her with his legs crossed. It never ceased to astonish Laura that the old man could move about so well, as if age meant nothing to him, and tasks like sitting cross-legged which would cause pain to the typical elder in Hayvan seemed like the most natural thing in the world to Ku. She watched him watching the flames for a moment before asking him the thing which had been nagging her.
“Did my father conspire with Natas to do that to all those people at home? Because he thought he would kill Benny?” As the word home came off her tongue, she felt a pang of nostalgia. She would probably never be able to return there again.
Ku looked momentarily sad, but then he smiled and turned to look at her. “The man named LeVille who was the recent leader of that town did indeed do as you say,” he replied slowly. “But you asked if your father took part in this thing. To that I say only this: if that man were related to you in any way, through blood or through life’s energy, he would never have allowed a man such as Natas to work his slimy fingers into the reigns of control which allowed such devastating preparation. For what we saw back there was no spur of the moment thing. The mechanisms of that conspiracy had been being lain for quite some time before our Benny showed up on the scene.”
So then it isn’t my fault, she thought incredulously, feeling as if a great weight had been lifted from her chest.
“I thought that maybe I had somehow caused it,” she confided.
“Why would you think such a thing, my girl?” Ku asked with heavy concern in his voice.
“I thought that it was just part of Natas’ attempt to kill Benny,” she said. “I thought they had all died just because Natas wanted to kill the person that I brought to our town.”
To Laura’s surprise, Ku began to laugh his wheezy, raspy laugh, lighting a cigarette as the fit passed. “My young Laura,” he said, still smiling, the cigarette dangling between his lips, “you underestimate the precision with which the Madman has calculated the workings of the minds of men. Everything he does has been long planned out, no matter how chaotic or spontaneous it may seem. Those people were marked to die, a part of his lifelong quest to create the army of Feeren with which to take over Valence and ultimately, I suspect, destroy the pillar of Brynj which keeps this world and the higher strata in such perfect harmony. No, Benny had nothing to do with that, though I do bet that Natas figured he would take you out in the process of it. That would make things much easier for him when it comes time to face Benny once again. I am most certain that he knew you had helped Benny escape, and in fact he was probably happy about it. You said yourself that you had overheard him discussing the complications of Benny’s arrival at Hayvan. He didn’t want another of us echani around, because even without training, in the event of imminent death, Benny would have been able to tap into some of his vast amounts of power and cause a lot of problems for Natas, even if he didn’t stop him.
“But that does not mean you should feel bad about helping Benny, either, just because it is something Natas wanted. Getting Benny out of the way was a smart thing, and the histories will thank you for it much later.”
“Why couldn’t you do anything to help them all?” Laura asked, and immediately regretted it when she saw the deep look of pain come over the sweet old man’s face, filling him with an intense enough sense of shame that he turned away from her.
“I wanted to, child,” he said. “Gods, please believe me that I did. Unfortunately, when I was a little younger, more fresh to the Inner and its wonders, I loved to create grandiose objects, monuments of wonder. The Great Cell was my crowning victory, the thing that won me the respect of the Council and all of the Inner. Having to break from my own cell was nothing I ever planned on, and though I may have been able to continue on with you and Fusa, my mind was drained, my energy depleted, and I could not have done anything beside stall us more, which would have only led to our deaths, as well as those we witnessed and heard in Hayvan.”
“I’m sorry,” Laura said, her cheeks becoming hot as she began to blush. “It was rude, I shouldn’t have asked-“
“It is quite alright, young daughter,” he said, his smile and warmth returning to his wrinkled old face once again. “When we are in doubt, we must ask, must we not?”
Laura nodded and returned her gaze to the flame. Across the clearing, it appeared that Fusa had taken up whatever it was that Ku had been doing. It was the first night since entering the Inner, and Laura relished in the wonder that was the weather. Night or day, the temperature remained relatively the same. There were no seasons in the Inner, so every day was a pleasant, mild summer type day, and the evenings felt just the same.
The smell of the fire was wonderful, because Ku had placed some sort of meat over the fire that grew as it cooked. It had started out the size of a fist, and Laura had expressed her doubts about it being able to feed them all, but now it was the size of a small ham and would be the size of a large turkey by the time it was done, Ku had said. Supposedly the meat never went bad after being cooked, and so they would have cold rations for at least a few days after it was done.
It seemed as though in the few hours she had been incoherent with pain, they had accumulated everything they might need for their trip. They had entered the Inner with virtually nothing but the pack Fusa had prepared before he and Laura had set out to find Ku. Even though it was magically proportioned to fit extra stuff inside, Laura had still been fairly certain that whatever was in there would run out pretty quickly. But when she had awoken, their camp had looked fully stocked, or at least close to it. Even though she had believed it before, now she was coming to know that these two men really could do just about anything they wanted once they combined their wills toward something.
Listening to the sound of the crackling and the hum of Fusa’s chants, Laura drifted further into a sense of peace. Even if something terrible was happening to Benny’s body, they were now on their way to actually helping Benny himself. The thought filled her with enough joy that she could almost forget about the travesty back in Hayvan. She just kept telling herself that she had never really known many people anyways, and the most important ones to her had survived, so she should be happy.
It just seemed to eat at her inside that they had been unable to help them. They had had to flee for their lives, leaving all the innocent men, women, and children behind to die in the fog.
But once the Madman is stopped, she thought, there won’t be all of this bloodshed. We can fix whatever has gone wrong with the Council because of him, and things will go back to normal.
They were big things to hope for, she knew, and she was aware that the odds were stacked against them. But she had always loved the stories from her childhood where the good guy won, so she kept the hope burning in her heart, feeding it like the air fed the fire she was watching.
All of a sudden she noticed that the fire was looking back at her. Or rather, a face had now appeared amidst the flames and embers and seemed to be staring back at her. Fusa stood just beyond the flames, facing them, his eyes still closed and the constant murmur still coming quietly from his mouth. As she watched the face, it seemed to materialize more fully, and Laura instantly noticed that it wasn’t actually staring at her. In fact, the face seemed to have no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever, not even eyes. Where they should have been there was only a dip in the facial skin, and the nostrils and mouth were both absent as well. It was as if the skin had grown over a skull, without forming eyelids or any of the other normal features of a face.
She looked over at Ku On Hu to see if he was seeing the face as well, but his eyes were closed. However, he said quietly, “The Unborn Son.”
Laura turned her gaze back to the fire, and the picture there began to change. The face twisted away and began to form into the shape of a man’s body. He was fat and sat on what appeared to be pillows, and leaning forward a little to focus better, Laura could finally make out enough detail to see that the fat man was smoking a pipe.
“He infests another,” Ku said. “But not this one, Fusa, not this one.”
Ku was giving commentary to the projection in the fire, it seemed. Laura listened and watched closely. The flames once again swirled away and reformed into the shape of a girl. A beautiful girl. “Yes, this is the one,” Ku said.
Just like the other images, this one took a few moments to come fully into detail, but when it did, Laura was speechless.
The girl in the fire was her.
Benny had only caught fleeting glimpses of the darkness from the area where Natas had started his terrible reign within the Inner. Once he thought the tall mountain had regained its appearance of a building, but it was only a shimmer of light coming off the snow, making the mountain dance in the sunlight.
It seemed like they had traveled for a lot longer than normal that day, and he was beginning to develop a dull ache in his chest. Whistling at Brun in his mind (a skill Benny had been avidly trying to perfect,) Benny stopped and leaned against a tree to catch his breath, hoping the stitch in his chest would subside.
Brun had been levitating through the forest, showing off, in Benny’s opinion, and Benny had needed to run to keep pace. Since he was also charged with carrying all of their supplies strictly with the power of his thoughts, his concentration was somewhat scattered and he often found himself holding his breath as he concentrated on the objects floating beside him, trying to make sure all of them passed through the trees without touching them. Brun insisted that this would teach him to respond quickly to a changing environment, when he would need to be able to adjust the momentum of objects he was levitating at the drop of a hat. To Benny it just felt tedious, and with Brun whizzing along through the trees at a much faster pace than Benny could run, it had not taken very long to become exhausted.
Brun allowed him respite, for once. Usually the tiny man seemed to push Benny to the brink of his patience, until he was ready to quit whether his little teacher allowed it or not. This time, however, he had seemed to actually be keen to the idea of stopping for a moment.
“We have made good distance,” Brun said. It was the morning after Benny had been shown the Mad Keep, where he had supposedly been taken to have his life force stripped from his body. He could still remember the faintly familiar darkness swirling around the gargantuan black building, with a million windows covering its dark façade, taller than any sky scraper Benny had ever seen, and indeed almost a contender for even the largest mountain he had seen.
“Are you sure?” Benny asked. “This whole damned forest looks exactly the same in all directions, and that ugly mountain of a building doesn’t seem to be approaching us at all. If I were the one doing the judging, I would probably venture so far as to say we hadn’t made any progress at all.”
“And that is why you are still a dead man walking,” Brun said, pulling out some meat and dried vegetables from his personal pack. At least he carries that for himself, Benny thought.
“Oh, whatever,” Benny grumbled. “Stiff.” He wasn’t particularly in the mood for Brun’s insulting style of training, especially after he had spent the entire morning ‘training’ by transporting their luggage. Even if he wasn’t lifting the objects with his arms, the exertion of it left very little energy for the rest of his body, so even just running through the woods had been increasingly difficult.
The ache in his chest was irritating, and he tried breathing deep with his head between his legs as he sat in the shade of a tree, but it didn’t seem to be doing much good. His thoughts drifted off to Laura more and more for some reason, and for a moment he almost forgot about his chest. But it was brief.
Brun was watching him from across the clearing, puffing on his little pipe. He didn’t seem to have much of an expression, except his normal wild eyed stare from that one eye, the eye which seemed to be the focal point of the tiny man’s abilities.
“I don’t know what it is,” Benny said, knowing the little man was probably looking into his thoughts, perhaps even feeling the pain for himself. “It started back there and I thought that it would get better if we stopped for air. But Jesus Christ, I think its getting worse.”
“Have you tried the Lana?” Brun asked. He continued to stare at Benny. From across the clearing, through the shade which half concealed him, Brun’s large blue eye glowed faintly, and the other looked like no more than a black bead in the dim light.
“No,” Benny replied, looking around the camp for his pack. Suddenly, part of one of Brun’s lessons from their long week together, the one about seeing with your mind before ever even attempting to see with your eyes. In the Inner, he said, the mind was the much more accurate tool of perception, and the eyes could scarcely be trusted, especially if you were one from the Upper Realms. So he had been taught to spend an hour each night envisioning a color for everything, different hues for different categories of items, and to try to see the objects imbued with those colors.
He had chosen light bluish green for the Lana plant, but at first when he unfocused his eyes and began feeling the slight hum in his head which always seemed to accompany this visualization process, the items piled together at the far side of the camp looked more like a peacock, a jumbled rainbow of colors all heaped together, and the thought of picking out one very specific hue seemed almost impossible at first glance.
But Benny had been warned of cases like this by Brun. The world was full of different types of matter, and when you had color coded damn near all of them, ‘seeing colors’ as Brun called it could be very disorienting and at times confusing. But he had been ensured that with practice, it would be like looking at the world in any other way, just an everyday occurrence with few of the disorienting effects he was still experiencing.
He focused his mind on the thought of the very specific shade of green he had chosen for the Lana. He saw a color similar, but his mind vaguely registered that no, this was not the Lana plant, this was the meat. Another close hue was actually the pipe, which meant he was close. Then he spotted it. It was just a tiny sliver of green showing between a purple and a red, and he instantly knew that this was the one he was looking for.
He allowed the colors to fade, but kept his eyes trained on the spot where the greenish blue he had been looking for had shown forth. He stared at it for almost a minute, and he almost gave up, thinking that the distance was too great to move it and bring it up out of the ramshackle pile of stuff on the other side of the clearing. But then he remembered Brun telling him that distance and height only gave the illusion of making it more difficult. In actuality, his telekinetic abilities would be just as strong anywhere that he focused them, whether the object be a mile, two miles, or a hundred miles. That was when the pile shifted and the bag burst from the pile of supplies and hovered across the clearing to Benny. He reached out with his right hand and grabbed it. The pain in his chest did not seem to be getting any better, but he was managing to deal with it. In fact, he noted, while he had been concentrating on locating the blue green hue within the spectrum of colors which made up the pile of their luggage, he had ceased to notice the pain because his mind had been so wrapped up in what he was focused on.
He now took out a little chunk of the Lana plant and smelled it. He still couldn’t get over the aroma. The stuff he had tried in Minde on the Day the Shit Hit the Fan (Benny had decided to call it this for lack of a better title,) had been good, but it would have paled in comparison to the purplish Lana plant. The little amethyst looking crystal which covered its surface smelled almost of strawberries, mixed with a thick skunky fragrance which was so subtle that it could barely be associated with a skunk at all. Benny rubbed his chest where the pain was and sucked in the sweet smell of the plant.
Looking back up at Brun, Benny found the little warrior apparently asleep. His one large eye was still open, of course, for he never slept without his magical vision. He told Benny one day that he could go to sleep and allow his mind and visual faculties to shut down, but the eye worked almost like what Benny thought of as a security camera, monitoring the things around the small man while he slept and alerting him to anything which would warrant waking up.
Benny had been thinking about the jerky type stuff which was somewhere in the small pile of supplies, but he hadn’t tried to make it move at all. Suddenly, the small sack which contained the meat bumped into his head with a soft thud, and he decided he would eat and drink before smoking his Lana. They had heard a stream while still trekking through the woods, and Benny decided he would leave Brun sleeping in the clearing and head down to the water to refill the small skin which had been provided for him by Beaner along with the Hide Pack.
Brun had stressed the importance of staying together in the dangerous wood, but Benny figured the stream to be only about twenty or thirty yards from their makeshift camp. He would be gone for only a few minutes, and besides, Brun was perfectly capable of defending himself. Besides that, Benny himself was beginning to feel a bit more confident about his abilities to defend his own life, as well. As more and more of his abilities revealed themselves, he slowly became less frightened of this endless Unalla Wood, and the prospect of facing Natas no longer seemed like a dreaded challenge. It now seemed more like a welcomed challenge.
As he set off down the small bank in the direction that he last remembered hearing the running water, he allowed himself to begin to see the colors again. The trees were a bright luminescent green, a color he had chosen for the simple fact that it would make any other changes in color all the more obvious, therefore giving himself a better likelihood of spotting any approaching predators. For the last few days, however, the worst things they had needed to deal with were the lightning snakes. They would coil themselves up and thereby complete an electrical circuit within their bodies, much like the Tiger Maggots Benny had attempted to use to make fire when he first crossed over into the Inner.
But the snakes were nowhere near as docile. They didn’t just glow and get hot like the tiger maggots. No, these little ferocious snakes stayed coiled up, building electric energy within their bodies to such a point that their eyes glowed blue, and then as soon as you noticed those tiny blue eyes, it was too late unless you knew how to defend yourself. At that point they would spring forth, releasing their energy so that their entire body shown forth with that eerie blue light which was so much like the light Benny would see in Brun’s eye when he was working some wonderful feat.
But despite the shock Benny had received when first caught off guard by those sneaky little snakes, they were relatively easy foe. Benny was beginning to savor challenges, mostly due to the elation he would feel when successful. Brun’s extreme tactics might be tiresome, but Benny did not doubt in any way whatsoever the effectiveness of that tiny man’s methods anymore. He had come to finally accept Brun as a teacher, instead of a burden which had been forced upon him by a cruel universe.
Finally, pushing through one last dense set of bushes, Benny located the clear stream they had heard from the clearing. It almost seemed to beckon at him, it looked so cool and refreshing. He had intended to only go down there long enough to get some water, and to breathe by the cool mists thrown off by the quickly moving stream, hopefully easing the stitch in his chest.
Benny had done some pretty strenuous things, including smacking a girl in the face with a two hundred pound log, but none of it had caused him this much pain. His best guess was that he had forgotten to breathe while levitating their luggage, like Brun had told him to be sure to do. One day I’ll listen to that little bugger, Benny thought, reaching his hand into the creek and scooping up some of the pleasantly cool water.
As he drank from his bare hands, Benny felt some small relief, but only to his parched throat, and not to his chest, which now positively seemed to be on fire. He began to realize that something else had to be wrong. He was out of shape, but not that out of shape, and even so, within the Inner he had been able to keep himself fairly free of overall exhaustion. When he slept, it was either extremely peaceful, almost blissfully dreamless sleep, or he was riddled with vague dreams of the thing which possessed his body in the Upper Realms, but he always, always awoke feeling refreshed.
As the last of the water went down his throat, Benny tried to take in a breath and found that he could not breathe. He pulled in air as hard as he could, but it did no good. It was like a fifty pound weight was pushing on his chest in the place where he felt the pain, just below his heart. It certainly wasn’t a stitch, he realized with dismay.
He began scrambling back up the bank toward the clearing where he had left Brun, at the same time attempting feebly to call out to him. But there was no sound coming from his mouth, due to the fact that he had no air on which to carry his words. The pain he had foolishly mistaken for a stitch was now too intense to bear. The fifty pound weight had become a two hundred pound weight, and the only sound escaping his throat was a terrible rasping noise as he attempted again and again to suck in air.
Brun, he thought desperately. Brun, I need you!
The only sound he heard was the faint rustling of the wind through the trees and the steadily flowing water from the stream. As he climbed toward the top of the little bank which led from their clearing down to the stream, Benny began to lose his strength as his muscles and organs became starved for air. The ‘stitch’ now felt like a knife in his chest. His brain was losing oxygen as well, and suddenly he couldn’t even remember the name he had been calling for help. Something with a B, like his own name, he felt sure, but his oxygen deprived brain couldn’t place any more detail.
His limbs had long since begun to feel heavy and tired, and the only muscle which did seem to be functioning at full force was his heart, which beat faster than Benny would have thought possible, thudding against his chest but missing a beat every now and then, pumping the stale blood to every part of his body.
One moment he was looking at the ground as his hands struggled from root to log to rock, trying to find any way at all to get back to his teacher, whatever his name had been, and the next moment the ground was being replaced with the trees and then the sky as he fell backwards.
His head hit a thick root with a sickening thud, but the bank was too steep for the log to stop his fall as he tumbled down the steep incline. The sky became the river, but it was upside down, until he hit a log, which hurt considerably more than the root. The force caused him to spin to the side, and he felt a severe shock as his arm twisted beneath him, catching his fall. Suddenly he was surrounded by cold, and only vaguely could he discern that he had fallen all the way down the bank and into the river.
Whoever you are, I need you, Benny thought, the despair welling up inside so heavily that he felt he could almost die of fear. His heart was now beating so fast that it felt more like the damned thing was vibrating in his chest, instead of beating steadily. The cold water flooded around his face as his fall came to that sudden, wet stop.
For the briefest of moments, the cold rejuvenated his thought process and he mustered all the will he could manage, yelling as loud as he could in his mind, BRUN! BRUN, TO ME! In the last moment before losing his thoughts again, Benny managed a long, deep whistle within his head.
He thought he could faintly hear some sort of response, but there was always the possibility that it was just an echo of his thought, reverberating inside his mind, which now could have very well been a big empty chamber, for all Benny knew.
As his brain used up the last of his oxygen, the world began to fade to black, and his thoughts ceased to come whatsoever. I promised myself I wouldn’t pass out again on this journey, he managed to remember. But sure enough, the darkness was creeping in from all sides, and he felt his consciousness slipping away.
He’s surrounded by darkness. He thinks he sees light above him, but he isn’t sure. The wind in his hair is incredible, and he becomes only slightly aware that he is traveling at great speed through the darkness.
In the gloom, off to his left, Benny can sense something large and terrible, and looking in that direction he sees that it is a cliff covered by holes. Some of the holes somehow seem more dark than the others, and a few seem to be moving, but how this can be, Benny does not know.
Suddenly he is moving away from the large and terrible, hole-covered cliff, and the sky above is filling with the red light he first spotted while emerging from the abyss. At first, he can’t believe his eyes, but as the light of the sky fills the world, a rosy glow is cast upon the Pillar.
This must be Brynj, he thinks. I’ve been here before. But this is something new.
As he continues to back away, the pillar hardly seems to change at all, it’s so big. He only knows he is indeed moving away from because the holes were getting smaller.
Suddenly he finds himself a long distance from the supposed cliff, and he realizes that it is no cliff at all. It is a giant column, a sort of Pillar emerging from the depths and disappearing overhead. He can finally make out the holes, now that the light is closer, and inside them he sees terrible black creatures, sliming the walls with their acidic spit, causing hissing noises to erupt from the pillar.
He is still moving up, toward the redness of the sky. Benny knows that this all must be a dream, but he cannot remember the events leading up to it, or what he is doing here in this between world.
Suddenly the Abyss below is not as frightening as the Red Abyss above, and the pillar is quickly becoming no more than a faint line, stretching from one abyss to the other.
Before he can think too deeply about these strange events, his eyes close and open on a new scene. His vision is now filled with a blue sky, and Benny can faintly hear someone speaking in the background, as well as the white noise caused by some sort of crowd.
“Arise!” he hears, and in the right of his vision, Benny sees the body of his old sheriff sit up and grab some sort of crude weapon which had been flung in their direction. It looked like a spear, but Benny could easily tell that it was only a broom handle with the end sharpened. As Benny watches, the large man throws the spear back to wherever it came from.
His own body begins to ease its way up, and he can feel the gunshot wound in his chest healing up. This is another mystery to him, as he didn’t know he had been shot. But somehow, instinctively, he knows that his body has been shot and is healing. However, he also cannot look directly in front of himself, for the vision in the middle of his eyes has ceased to work, leaving only the peripheral.
He feels someone watching him, knowingly. The thing which has his body can sense him, can feel him creeping around in its head. It’s just like when he saw the thing kill his mother. It somehow knows that he is there.
Get the hell out of here, comes a throaty female voice, growling into his thoughts. This is mine now.
Somehow Benny manages to force himself to say, No, it isn’t, and I am coming for you. Then his vision recedes and sweet, dreamless sleep sets in.
None of the Hallers expected what the meeting outside City Hall was going to be about, but no one could say they didn’t try to be prepared for anything. The Orphans had managed to secure the ‘honor’ of being the guard directly inside the door, with very little opposition to the idea from the elders. It seemed, in fact, that Ron Parsons was rather keen on the idea.
Reflecting on the meeting Alfonse had arranged with the supposed leader of the Hallers, it occurred to him that Ron may have thought of this as a prime opportunity to get rid of the Orphans. After the meeting, in the half hour the Orphans used to gather themselves inside the entrance hall, Al had learned that Ron had arranged to line up all the armed guards behind the Orphans, in case anyone broke through. Then the guards could shoot the few who did manage to break through. A growing sense of doubt had begun in Al’s mind, though, and the thought of a dozen teenagers with crude spears facing an unknown number of adults did not seem very promising.
He couldn’t reveal any of this doubt to the other Orphans, of course. He wasn’t sure if he was right or not, but Al suspected that he was about as close to a father figure these kids had left. He watched as they put on the old army helmets which had been on display somewhere within City Hall. They wouldn’t serve much protection, he knew, and there were only five helmets, so he and the other elder children had opted to give them to the young ones, who were feeling even more nervous than Alphonse.
Two of the more brave young ones, Lindsey the big girl who had bloodied the nose of a boy for making fun of a friend from her distant past, and a relatively small boy named Tyler Jeffrey who was experienced with martial arts, especially with a staff, had also volunteered to opt out of the helmets. Tyler had told Al that he was confident about the day, and that he didn’t feel he needed the extra security of the helmet, and so the decision had been easy. The four elders, Alphonse, Marilee, Wick, and Jared had given up their claims to the helmets, Lindsey and Tyler also, while the remaining three girls and two boys strapped on the Vietnam Era helmets.
A few years prior, the mayor had commissioned an exhibit in City Hall that would commemorate those citizens of Minde who had served their country. It was intended to boost the morale of the town, showing them that people from the town could one day amount to something if they really tried, but in actuality no one had paid much attention to the exhibit. Until today. The first question Al had brought up was whether or not they could use the automatic weapon which was in the case.
Rob had said no.
The reason was that it was just a display model, and the mechanics of the gun no longer functioned. But he had quickly volunteered the helmets, saying he was sorry there wasn’t more he could offer. That is when he had said he would have the remaining guards who actually had firearms stand behind the Orphans as a sort of secondary defense.
In the time since that meeting, Al had done nothing but fume over this. Instead of asking the guards to stand amongst the children and help in the event of a fight, the coward had casually volunteered a second option in the event that the brave kids fail. It was enfuriating.
It seemed that all of the Orphans were dressed, and Tyler had given them all a brief training session on combat with melee weapons. His expertise wasn’t the spear, of course, but Al figured it was better to have some sort of relative knowledge given to the Orphans before asking them to risk their lives.
God I hope there isn’t really going to be an attack, he thought. He had never actually believed that a break in was imminent from the Crazies, and the defense of the door was purely intended to be a ploy to win back some shred of respect from the townspeople after the shame brought on their heads by their parents. Now, looking at them all with their spears, awaiting instructions, the younger ones barely peeping out from below their helmets, he felt the fear of a father sending his children to war.
There was no doubt about the size of the crowd outside of City Hall. What had begun as a mere murmur of voices from the other side of the door had now grown to a rumbling of yells and loud talking, and occasionally a scream could be heard in the distance. One of the scouts from the second floor of City Hall said that the people didn’t seem to be getting along, and were fighting. He had volunteered the guess that perhaps they were all waiting for something, and were getting irritable and antsy with anticipation.
Either way, Al knew it was time when he saw the line of somber guards file into the entrance hall. Everyone else had been cleared out, including Mary Jorgens and the poker players. This was in case twelve children and four or five armed security guards couldn’t hold back the throng of invading people from the outside. Looking at the guards with their hands on their hip holsters, eyes wide and foreheads sweaty, Al felt disgusted at their blatant lack of courage. It was one thing for Robert Parsons to fail to exercise his assumed authority to mount a proper defense for City Hall, but it was an entirely different thing for these grown men, who only took Parsons’ orders because he claimed to know how to lead them to freedom, were standing there at the back of the hall looking like frightened children themselves.
He moved to the front of his fellow Orphans and raised a hand to draw their attention to him. “Brothers and sisters,” he began. “I thank you on behalf of everyone in City Hall for volunteering to make this bold stand in defense of people you don’t even know.”
Marilee and Wick gave a brief cheer at this, and the children all seemed momentarily proud to be a part of that momentous occasion. Some of those who were closer in their ties patted each other on the back, and assured each other that they were doing the right thing.
“I wish we could have had more time to prepare,” Al continued. “But this has all happened very suddenly, and we have at least done the best we can. Did you all learn at least something about how to handle your weapons?”
Several of them nodded, but Al was slightly dismayed at the large amount of the Orphans who didn’t seem to take any comfort from the brief lesson. Tyler himself looked taught like a bowstring, ready to be released and send forth the death blow. No lack of fight in that one, he thought.
“It is not much, but it is better than what we had two hours ago. Let me briefly go over our strategy, in the event of a break in. As we discussed, we will be in two lines. Tyler has volunteered to be in the front line, as has Lindsey. I will be there as well as Wick and Jared. We will form a semi circle around the door. As you can see, its not a very large entrance, and only three people at the max could fit through at any one time. Five of us will be there to meet them if they try.”
Tyler was enthusiastic about this, and there were a few dark chuckles from amongst some of the more light hearted ones. The others merely looked on, stone faced, seeming resigned to their fate. Except Marilee, Al was glad to see. She made no comment, but did not show any signs of despair. In fact, her eyes almost seemed to glitter as much as Tyler Jeffrey’s did at the thought of a fight. Part of Alphonse wondered just how many kids in Minde were like this, seemingly innocent but ready for a fight.
“The other seven will form a larger semi circle around us,” he continued, imagining the two lines in his head. “If someone gets past our spears and goes through that door, he will likely be tangoing with one of us, so it will be the second line’s duty to get the intruder while he is distracted by the front line. You are the real offense, members of the second line. We in the front merely push them back, but we need you to be waiting to stab between us and get at them. We hold them, you stab them. Make sense?”
Marilee and the others nodded, but Alphonse sensed that some of the others were daunted at the idea of having to stab a man, especially one who was preoccupied with someone else. Doesn’t matter, he thought. They will figure it out or die. We’re all probably going to die here, so it’s up to them to learn.
He had never killed anyone either. But he had been on many hunting trips with his parents, and he knew that if he kept the situation in perspective, killing someone in defense would be just as easy as shooting a deer for food and sport. Perhaps it would even be easier.
He moved to his spot, directly in front of where the double doors of the main entrance would part if they would open. He knew that he had claimed this dangerous position the day he had started acting as their leader. He remembered that day, which seemed longer ago than it really was. Day before yesterday, he thought. Christ, what happened to this place?
He saw Wick take the position to his right, and looked up at his friend. He was one of the few people inside City Hall who Alphonse had known before the shit hit the fan. Being part of the wealthy LeBray family meant seclusion from the lower class of children, but somehow the Cunninghams had started dealing with Al’s father, and the two had been friends since childhood. Wick was almost a foot taller than him, and twice as beefy. It was definitely a comfort having him there on the frontline. It was even more comforting knowing that his friend could have gone the other way, and stayed on the outside with his deadbeat father, but he had snuck off with Alphonse instead, to take refuge at City Hall when they heard others were doing the same.
To his left stood Jared Black. Alphonse didn’t really know what to think of him, but they had allowed him into their ‘elite’ council of elder children due to his age of fourteen and his stature, which was almost as large as Wick Cunningham. He was quiet, but seemed brave and dependent. Al had gotten very little of his story, but one thing he did pick up was that he was not an Orphan by way of his parents having taken part in the slaughter of Jerry Patterson, but was in fact the son of a man the cop had shot just before being overwhelmed by the angry mob. He certainly held no allegiance to the Crazies, but Al wondered if he didn’t keep the thought inside that they had all massacred the cop because he had shot his father in cold blood.
But he put such thoughts from his mind. Jared was a level headed boy who knew that things on the outside had escalated far beyond what was necessary. The tension and fear which had permeated the townspeople ever since the strange events surrounding the disappearance of Benny Jorgens had simply gotten to the breaking point. When those people saw their only remaining defense, a young, green cop with an authority complex, killing one of their citizens in cold blood, Al figured they just snapped under the pressure of feeling like there was no safe place left in their little town.
After that everything had been down hill, Alphonse remembered all too clearly. The fear from before the killing had been tremendous, but afterwards it had doubled and people didn’t even leave their homes, except the ones who knew that the law was gone in Minde and that looting was suddenly lucrative and easy. People needed food but no one was in business, so the only way to get it was to break in. After that had started, there was no stopping the people from taking whatever they wanted.
The one thing Al couldn’t explain was the sudden violence. Benny Jorgens had somehow recovered and was on some sort of killing rampage, according to reports from his mother and the scouts on the second floor who could still look out the windows. On top of that, one or two lone crazies would always come with a crow bar or some other tool and try to break into City Hall, and the only way to get them away so the damage to the boarding could be repaired was to have one of the guards fire a round at the top of the window, where it would hopefully cause the intruder a scare but ultimately not harm him.
Now there seemed to be a whole crowd of them, but the second floor scouts were having trouble looking out without being shot at or having something thrown through the window. Apparently even the gun store had not been secure enough to keep them out.
Al gripped his spear and stared at the door in front of him, trying to quell the fear that the people out there would just start firing at the door. He felt, however, that they were holding back for something. Something was making them hold back there desire to attack. Al didn’t know what these people thought the Hallers had done, but over the past couple of days they had displayed nothing but hostility.
Suddenly there was a loud screech, followed by a click. Al looked over at Wick, who whispered, “It sounded like feedback. Like from a microphone.”
That didn’t seem to make sense. No one from the second floor had reported any sound equipment. But they could have put the speakers close to the building, which would put them out of sight of the second floor because the first floor jutted out another ten feet below the second level, and by the close proximity from which the squeal had emitted, it seemed they were definitely close.
His suspicion was shortly confirmed when a smooth voice began speaking through the speakers, which were loud and clear, almost as if they were right outside the door. Al shuddered at the thought of some of those wild people moving amplifiers into place just a few feet away, with little more than a piece of wood separating them from him.
The voice which came over the loudspeaker was not one Al recognized. “Hello, people of City Hall,” the voice said. It was smooth and well paced, as if this were a carefully planned speech. “There are people out here who do not appreciate the fact that you have spurned your neighbors, and taken refuge with almost a third of all the food which was available to the town.”
There was a loud roar of agreement from the crowd. Al tightened his grip on his spear. Wick to his right was pale, but still did not look scared. Glancing at his knuckles, Al saw that they were white from clutching the sharpened broom handle as tight as he could.
“These people have done nothing to you,” the voice continued, and the crowd continued to echo approval of what the anonymous voice was saying. “In fact, some of them helped eliminate a man who would have ruined this town even deeper than you have with your fear. With your distrust. With your hate.”
The emphasis on the last word was augmented by an even louder cheer than before. Al turned around and quickly asked Marilee, “Do you recognize that voice?”
“No,” she said. “But I don’t like it.”
She was sweating slightly, and her knuckles appeared to be just as white as Wick’s, but she looked steadily ahead, without lowering her spear or cowering away.
“You have nothing to fear from us, who have had to steal and loot because you won’t come to your jobs and serve us. Money is no longer something we can use, yet you expect your neighbors and faithful friends to fight for scraps like dogs.”
Al didn’t like the preachy way this guy spoke, or the way he seemed to be whipping up the crowd with his little sermon.
“You must pay for this indignity.”
Loudest cheer yet.
“But,” the voice continued calmly, “I am a fair man and these are fair people. We will give you an equal chance to redeem yourselves. Your door is going to open now, but I don’t want you to be afraid. I have asked some of my more…faithful followers to make sure no one approaches your precious City Hall as long as I keep talking.”
The people to either side of Alphonse began shuffling nervously, and Wick reached forward to check the lock. His subtle nod told Al that the lock was good, and the only way someone could get through would be to break through.
“I know you’re standing there, right behind the door,” the smooth voice said. “Don’t leave, but you might step back, if you please.”
A loud click suddenly sounded from inside the door, and even though Wick had just checked the lock, Alphonse signaled for everyone to move back. After a few moments of anticipation, with only the murmur of the crowd filling the silence, the door began to swing steadily inward.
One of the younger children behind him began to pray in a hushed whisper.
As the door cleared his line of vision, Al instantly saw that he was correct about the speakers. They were directly in front of the door, one to either side, creating a passage way to the big flight of steps in front of City Hall. The body which had lain there was no longer present, and just beyond the lawn, there stood about a hundred people with rigid faces, all in a line, blocking the way for the other townspeople.
Alphonse could clearly see that the people who stood in the front had no expressions on their faces, as if emotionless. How could things get this way? He found himself wondering again. Behind the expressionless drones the rest of the population of Minde waited restlessly, barely held in check by the people at the front.
It appeared as though much of the town still had their emotions, unlike the line of people keeping them in check. Some looked angry, some looked scared, and to Al’s dismay, most of them looked, above all, hungry.
There was a loud roar as the people of Minde caught sight of the Orphans, standing in the doorway clutching their makeshift spears and their shanty helmets.
The person who was speaking over the loudspeaker was nowhere in sight.
Al heard a shuffling from behind and glanced back to see the guards all pulling their guns out of their hip holsters. At least the cowards know when to be ready, he thought bitterly, once again feeling that they should be the ones in front with their guns.
“The people you see before you are starving,” that smooth voice said over the speakers. “Not the fine folks at the front of course. They no longer feel the need for food, or any other indulgence. We had a meeting, these nice people and I. Not everyone in town was present, I was sad to see, but it was a great turn out. I think I made a lot of friends that night.”
The restless people mulling behind the cold-faced men and women at the front did not seem to understand entirely the jokes of the man, and many of them were looking just as questioningly at each other as many of the Orphans were. Al got the sense that a large majority of the people he once knew as neighbors were still untouched by this lunatic, whoever he was.
“Anyways, we came to an agreement,” the voice continued. Al continued to look for where the man was speaking from, but was having no luck locating him. “They agreed to do whatever I say, and I promised them eternal salvation when this is all done.”
So he really is a preacher, Al thought. But how could so many of these people be tricked into being his puppets simply by the age old Christian promise of eternal salvation of the soul?
Apparently the man knew they would suspect something like this, for he quickly covered that point. “I mean the real kind,” the voice said. “I will demonstrate. Benny, my boy, won’t you step forward so the children of City Hall can see you.”
There was a gasp from amongst the Orphans as the white haired Benny Jorgens stepped around the speakers and into their direct line of vision. Many of them had never gotten the chance to actually see what had become of the boy until then, and it was more shocking than any of them had imagined.
He was wearing filthy bloodstained clothes, and his eyes were filled with a hatred which had never been seen on the face of simple Benny Jorgens before by anyone in Minde. Except those who had fallen under his hands, who would never be able to report what they had seen. Al himself felt terrified. He had only met the common boy once, but he had heard much about him. He had always been accepted, if not well liked, and he seemed to be the sort of person who never attracted nasty rumors about himself. Now he was covered in dried blood, his hair was white, and he looked ready to spar with anyone who dared approach.
“This magnificent boy is my tool,” came the booming voice over the speakers. “He will do as I tell him.”
Suddenly a gun slid from out of sight onto the pavement directly in front of Benny. As he looked down at the gun and began bending over to pick it up, Alphonse and the other Orphans shuffled nervously. They were all thinking the same thing: Did we bring spears to a gunfight?
“Benny, shoot yourself in the heart.”
At this, the Orphans gasped again, and Alphonse noticed that many of the people standing behind the protective drones reacted the same way. What the fuck? Alphonse thought. This guy is a madman!
Al hoped that Benny wouldn’t do something so foolish as take his own life in front of hundreds of people and a number of children, but much to his despair the boy lifted the gun to his chest, turned it towards his heart, and pulled the trigger.
There was a chorus of screaming from the people, and Al heard a helmet behind him drop as one of his fellow Orphans lost his nerve and ran back to the safety of the meeting hall where the other Hallers were gathered, probably hearing every word of this mad man’s speech.
Benny’s body fell backward in a limp heap, hitting the pavement with a sickening thud. Many of the people who still seemed to have some shred of sanity were already disbursing from the crowd, heading back to their homes or wherever they had come from. Alphonse was beginning to suspect that many of the rumors he and the other innocents of City Hall had been fed were fabrications; there seemed to be only one true Crazy in Minde, followed by some fanatical group who seemed brainwashed by the man somehow.
Everyone else in the town, Al realized, were just scared, confused, and hungry.
“Don’t worry folks,” the voice said. “He’ll be quite alright.”
Alphonse detected a smug note in the crazy bastards voice, and it drove him insane. He wished he could see the man.
“Dean, you’re a strong fellow. Would you please place Mr. Harrison here next to our volunteer Benny?”
A large man dispatched himself from the line of people blocking the rest of the town, and he walked quickly forward. He disappeared briefly behind one of the walls of speakers and emerged with the limp body of Johnny Harrison.
The crowd let out a loud collective gasp as they saw the body of their sheriff for the first time since he had disappeared. He was definitely dead.
“This man requested sexual favors of Benny Jorgens as a bribe to overlook certain drug charges he was threatening the boy with,” the voice went on coolly. Al thought this was a lie, and looking over at Wick, he sensed that his friend felt the same.
The man who the voice had identified as Dean set the body carefully down next the bleeding body of Benny Jorgens. Then he resumed his place in the line where he had left, never once changing the expression on his face.
“God has given me many gifts,” the voice said, and there was a collective gasp as a pale, skinny young man in a black suit emerged from the crowd and began walking towards the bodies. As he moved forward, Alphonse registered the fact that this was the first time the people in the guarding line at the front of the crowd had shown any interest in anything at all. Every single one of their dazed, far-gone eyes were turned in his direction, following his path towards Benny and Johnny Harrison, the man everyone thought was dead or in captivity since his disappearance at such a crucial time in their town.
Al felt a chill run down his spine as he watched the man slowly and fluidly take a position over the two bodies with his hands spread out in front of him. There was no microphone that Al could see, so he guessed the man must be using a wireless mic, hidden somewhere within his coat.
He sure knows how to create an effect, Al thought as the man with straight dark hair turned his thick glasses in the direction of the Orphans. Suddenly Alphonse got the urge to chuck his spear at the man, now that he was within sight.
“I wouldn’t do that,” the man’s voice boomed through the speakers. There was a slight feedback, since the man was now only feet from where the hall of speakers started in front of City Hall.
Al knew he was talking to him, but by then the anger had already taken over his arms. They lifted the spear over his head, and his body hurled it with more accuracy and strength than even he would have suspected of himself.
The aim was good, but no one expected what would happen next. Through the speakers, the word “Arise!” echoed through the streets, and quicker than anyone saw, Harrison was sitting up, and he nimbly caught the crude spear in one hand, turned it, and pitched it back in their direction with more force than Al had even used. Alphonse ducked, but the spear still nicked the skin on his neck, and he heard a loud metallic clank from behind him, followed by a cry from someone and gasps from the other Orphans.
Pain shot down his neck as the spear grazed him, but he quickly recovered and turned around to see that the spear had struck one of the younger children. Luckily, this particular girl had been one of the five wearing one of the old army helmets, and the only damage was a slight scrape where the metal had dented in and scratched the girls scalp. Marilee had taken the dented helmet off, and was in the process of working with Lindsey, the big girl, to move her out of the entrance hall. To Al’s despair, two of the armed security guards had already deserted. He cursed under his breath and turned back toward the man.
“No one attack,” he warned the Orphans, wiping away the blood which was now quickly flowing down his neck from where the point of the wood had cleared away a chunk of skin.
“I warned you,” boomed the voice. Al looked forward at the man in the glasses with the dark suit, and loathing filled his heart. This man was pointlessly wrecking everything.
“What do you want with us?” Al asked, feeling naked without his spear.
“You attempted to kill these people out here,” the man said, as the crowd continued to gape and gasp as they watched Johnny Harrison rise to his feet. “I have come to save them, and help them try to do the same to you.”
Al was speechless at this. They had never tried to kill anyone, save for his own attempt on the life of the man standing in front of him. Harrison now stood silently beside him, the same absentminded look on his face as all of those standing in front of the crowds of Minde. Another pawn, Al thought grimly.
“Stand up, Benny,” the man said. “Let these people see that death only comes to those whom I let it come to.”
The crowd gasped and began to move back as the bloody body of Benny Jorgens slowly sat up and began to lurch to a standing position.
“I propose to you all, a game,” the man said. “And the stakes couldn’t be higher.”
Al couldn’t tell for sure, but he sensed that the man was smiling smugly. He had never felt so much hate for one person after only having been aware of them for less than ten minutes. He did this, he thought. He’s responsible for all of this.
The thought caused Al to wish inside that if he could only kill one man in his life, that it would be this one.
He forced himself to raise his voice and speak to the man across the twenty feet that separated them. “What sort of game do you propose?” he asked, just barely managing to conceal the quiver in his voice.
“It’s simple, really,” the man said. This time Al could see for sure that the man was grinning, perfectly white teach showing from between his pale lips. “There will be two teams. These that you see here are the more…faithful members of your town, who have chosen to swear their allegiance to me and my cause.”
Doubt that, Alphonse thought. He wasn’t sure if this man was a hypnotist or some sort of brain surgeon, but the catatonic state of those people with their vacant stairs did not seem to be a sign that these people had volunteered their wills.
“The rest of you will have the advantage of numbers,” he said. The crowded street was beginning to shuffle uncomfortably. “This is my gift of mercy to you all. If you defeat my team and I, as one united town against my modest army here, then you will have your peace restored and the whole experience will once again bring unity back to this broken town.”
Suddenly Al realized why the townspeople in the street were all becoming uncomfortable. They had all come here to see this man speak, expecting him to be their savior and talk sense into the eccentric people of town hall; instead they had found out the level of this mysterious man’s insanity. He was proposing some sort of game where he was pitted against them. At the very least, Al figured they had imagined they would be on his side of anything, and he on theirs.
This display had been set up for one very specific reason, Al concluded. The crazy man in front of him, the one Al was coming to refer to as the Crazy, had convened this meeting to reveal to the town of Minde that he was the one responsible for all the strange things which had befallen their town. He was the one who had kidnapped Johnny Harrison, or whatever it was that he had done. He was the one who had caused the mysterious change in the once sweet and sincere Benny Jorgens.
He had broken them, and now he was proposing a fucked up way to fix them. Al simply could not stop wondering what in the hell would possess someone to do something like this, and even more ponderous, how could someone even do this, without having some unheard of powers of manipulation.
True evil, Al thought, and shivered.
“What are the rules of this game, madman?” Al forced himself to shout across the distance.
As he was called ‘madman,’ the dark haired man registered some sense of satisfied recognition that Al didn’t understand.
“The rules are simple,” the man said, spreading his hands out in front of him. “Don’t die, and don’t kill each other. Kill my people.”
What the hell? Al thought.
“But we grew up with those people,” Alphonse said. “Why on earth would we want to harm them?” Al saw an old friend of his father’s standing with the expressionless pawns at the front line. “Jim Barrow, you came to my house every weekend for a barbecue until all of this happened. Surely you haven’t pledged any allegiance to this lunatic?”
He watched Jim and waited. The man with the dark hair even turned his grinning, smug face in the direction of Jim Barrow as if to see if the man had anything to say. Al was beginning to think there would be no response, but then Jim turned his eyes slowly on Al, and with a slow and steady movement of his arm, he raised his middle finger at the boy standing at the front of the Orphans.
Suddenly the man in the black clothes and dark sunglasses was laughing hysterically. “Looks like he doesn’t like you anymore, LeBray,” he said, smiling in his infuriating way. “They no longer care about their hometowns or origins or any of those pleasant memories you may have of them. I made sure of that. So you have your game. Kill my people before they kill all of you. But I wouldn’t try to kill these two.”
He gestured at the white haired Benny Jorgens and the massive, reanimated body of their former sheriff, Johnny Harrison.
“Big Boy is strong and little Ben…well… he’s a special one, to say the least.”
“We did nothing to you,” Al said quietly.
“I am not here for retribution, Alphonse LeBray,” the man with the smooth voice said. “I am here because of what you have all done to yourselves. I am the dry wind, here to animate your stagnant mists, so that life can spring anew.”
“I still don’t understand why you’re doing this to us,” Alphonse said. There were even murmurs of agreement from the crowd on the street, behind the drones.
“You would never do something like this, you say to yourselves,” the man said. “Surely no one would. And that is why I am necessary. Here, and everywhere else. That which I should do, I do not do. The thing which I am not supposed to do… well… that, I do.”
The man smiled again.
“My people, my team, whatever you want to refer to it as, will withdraw for one hour. At the end of that time the game will begin, and if you have not figured out who to trust by then, you will figure out what sloth, carelessness, and schism can do to a town.”
“What if we do nothing?” Al asked.
“Then you will die. Big Boy! Demonstrate.”
Johnny Harrison began moving in the direction of the drones. The crowd behind them backed off, and Al noticed that none of them seemed to have expected this new ‘game.’ They were caught as much off guard as he was.
As he approached one of the drones, someone Al didn’t recognize, the expressionless person remained immobile. He didn’t look at Johnny, or acknowledge his approach in any other way. The oversized cop grabbed the small anonymous man and picked him up, lifting him into a horizontal position over his head. Still the man showed no emotion, and people began pleading and trying to encourage the man to defend himself.
When the man continued to do nothing, the man in the glasses said, “He does nothing to protect himself, even though he knows destruction is imminent.”
Al turned around and addressed Marilee in a hushed whisper.
“Take the younger ones back inside,” he said. “They’re not needed here right now, and they don’t need to see this.”
As he was turned in that direction, he noticed with a quick glance that there were no longer any of the armed guards who had stood at the back. The cowards had all retreated.
Marilee began telling the young ones what to do, turning them away from the scene, and Al turned back around to see the inevitable fate of the motionless drone.
Just as he focused on Johnny Harrison, the man in the dark glasses put his fingers to his mouth and let out a long and loud whistle. When it died down, Johnny Harrison brought the man down on his knee, and the loud, collective scream of the crowd wasn’t even enough to deafen the sound of the man’s spine breaking against Johnny Harrison’s unrelenting leg.
All of a sudden everything in Al’s vision went black. He reached out to the side of himself and found Wick’s arm, and heard him whisper, “You too, huh? I can’t see a thing.”
The crowd began screaming, and Al could only hope that the screams were from shock at finding themselves blind as well. If they weren’t all experiencing the same thing as he was, then he didn’t want to know what could make all those people let out such blood curdling screams all at the same time.
“Alphonse!” Marilee said from the back of the entrance hall, her voice floating up to him. “The doors are locked! And its dark back here all of a sudden. Did you close the entrance?”
“Everyone, stay close together,” Al said. He didn’t have time to think about the locked doors. His earlier suspicion had been confirmed. They were all experiencing this sudden black blindness.
But just as quickly as it had crept into his vision, the darkness began to creep back out and the screams of the crowd died down into nervous chatter as some of them began talking to each other, comforting each other in some places and still quibbling in others.
As Al looked around, he didn’t see any of the faceless drones. The rows of speakers had been removed silently from just feet in front of where he stood, and even the blood of Benny Jorgens was no longer drying on the cement.
The man in black had disappeared without a trace, taking his pawns with him.
But the façade of City Hall wasn’t entirely without traces of what had occurred there. Looking up, Alphonse saw a terrible reminder of the Crazy Man’s abstract advice to them all.
There, hanging above the street from the top of flagpole was the body of the unnamed pawn, his back broken hideously in on itself, with his dead eyes staring out over the people of the city who had gathered to witness this spectacle of death.
If we do nothing, if we don’t actively defend ourselves, we die, Alphonse thought, looking up at the dead man, from his pointless defensive position between Jared Black and Wick Cunningham.
So be it.
(Author's Note: I would like to thank anyone who has taken the time to read to this point. It's been a long way, and I know not everyone has enjoyed it, so if you even read this...my tremendous amount of thanks go out to you. -Sam)
“We cannot go out there,” Ku said suddenly. He had been reaching out to open the door at the end of their long trek upwards from the dungeons of the mansion. Laura had thought she would hear the murmur of the town, still panicking about the power outage and murmuring in the darkness. But as they came to the end of the long hall which Ku had identified as being the way out of the mansion, there was nothing but the gentle pulsing sound of the air circulators.
That’s odd, Laura thought. The circulators weren’t running when I left. The power was out.
That’s when she noticed the faint, hazy green mist that was seeping through the bottom of the door. Ku put out his arm to stop them and Fusa instinctively pulled Laura backwards, away from the strange green fog. “Its poison,” the old man said. “Go back. There is nothing left for us out there.”
With that he turned and began motioning for them to go. Laura looked back one last time before they turned the corner, and already the end of the hall by the door was almost completely filled with the green mist.
“What does this mean?” she asked as they half jogged down the hall.
“It means everyone is dead, child,” Fusa replied from behind Laura. “Natas has poisoned the air they breathe. Could you not feel it?”
Laura was silent as she realized with a hint of shame that she had felt nothing, besides noticing that the air circulators were running again. She felt herself blush as she thought about the fact that she had even felt some optimism, hoping the circulators were a sign that the power had been restored.
“It is okay, Miss Laura,” Ku said from just in front of her. She had long ago noticed that they often did this when they walked with her, placing her in the middle and walking on either side of her like barriers. She was beginning to feel short of breath, yet the old man in front of her seemed entirely untouched by fatigue in any way. She hoped one day she could be like him.
“Not everyone can feel the souls of others, like Fusa and I,” he continued. “But tactless as he may be, my son is right. I don’t know what purpose Natas has for all this murder, but no one in that once peaceful village now survives. I can only imagine what this means for the doubles of those citizens, who continue their existence up top. Dreamlessness. It is a shame. They won’t last long either, and then he will have even more death on his hands.”
As they rounded another corner, Laura suddenly realized where Ku was leading them. It made perfect sense, of course. She had helped Benny escape using her father’s Lana Sativa plant, and that’s what they were going to use to get out as well. Given it was still there, of course. Surely Natas would have figured out how she helped Benny escape and disposed of the plant.
But as they hurried down the long row of storage sheds, they passed the one which would hold the answer to her question, and after a few more doors had gone by, Ku stopped at one of them and pulled out a key from somewhere within his robe. The lock turned easily and the door swung open, revealing the nearly empty room beyond.
At first Laura couldn’t believe what she was seeing. It was a plant like her father’s, but instead of being wilted and small, this one was as tall as Fusa and radiantly bushy, its color vibrant and its branches swaying slightly as if to an invisible wind. The smell in the room was a dank, yet somehow pleasant aroma.
As they approached, Ku commanded them to grab hands. He didn’t actually speak the words, but within the room their thoughts all seemed to be linked together subtly. Laura felt her mind becoming slightly off balance, and her thoughts refused to focus into clarity. She vaguely registered that they had left the door open, and she looked back over her shoulder, intending to use telekinesis to close it. Just before it swung shut, she saw the green fog begin to creep around the corner. She quickly slammed it shut and turned back to the plant. They were within a foot of it, and suddenly she was being jerked forward.
She saw the world-between-worlds, Brynj, with its massive pillar stretching from the darkness of the subconscious world up into the light of the conscious realm. Laura was enjoying the view, still feeling slightly euphoric from the atmosphere of the plant, but she was curious as to why Ku had not propelled them all the way on through. They were lingering.
She soon got her answer, however, as the dark line far off in the horizon, stretching from abyss to sky, began to move closer. It was a strange sensation, as there was no physical feature to gage movement by, and thus the pillar seemed to move toward them when in all actuality they were moving closer to it. Laura felt her movement slow as they drew closer.
It was the first time she had ever been close to the Pillar in her entire life. Hayvan rested just below the Upper Realms, but not actually within the Inner, so she had gotten many opportunities to cross the abyss with her father, but she had never gotten to experience what it was like to approach the Pillar that held the two worlds apart.
From such a distance, the Pillar had looked thin and slender, but the closer they got the more Laura could grasp the sheer magnitude of the Pillar’s girth. It had to be at least two miles in diameter, and it was punctured all the way around by small holes that wound up its surface as far as her eye could manage to see.
As they drew closer still, Laura saw that the holes were no small things either. They were more like gigantic caves, and there seemed to be things inside it. Whatever they were, they were black and they seemed to be spreading some sort of dark puss-like substance over the rock. Where the slime touched the stone, a faint mist was rising and even though Laura could hear nothing, she imagined that the substance was giving off a hissing noise as it melted the rock (for that is indeed what it appeared to be doing.) Inside her head, she heard Ku say, It is as I suspected. He is trying to bring down the Pillar of Brynj. I am not entirely sure why, however. I have many suspicions, though.
With that, they rushed away from the Pillar of Brynj and left the between world, emerging at the place where Hayvan was connected with the Inner. It was the tall stone cliff Benny had awakened in front of with a bird pecking his head, and Laura could just dimly feel the remnants of Benny’s essence lingering in the material that made up the ground, but it was obvious that he had been gone for quite a while.
It was then that the weariness hit Laura. Within the halls of the LeVille Mansion, it was extremely difficult to gage the passage of time. But with the original attempt, Laura’s brief stop to go through puberty, the confrontation with Natas, the breaking of the binding sigil, and the even longer journey back toward the surface from the veritable underworld that was the dungeons of her family’s Mansion, Laura had spent nearly forty eight hours almost entirely on the move. Adding to that was the day leading up to Benny’s arrival and the subsequent hurry to get him out of Hayvan. Surely Natas had intended for Benny and her to be a part of the genocide which had just taken place there, but between Laura’s cleverness, Fusa and Ku’s brilliant leadership, and Benny’s natural knack of questioning very little but acting immediately, they had all managed to escape unharmed.
Natas was not going to like that, she reflected with a smile as she sat with her back against the cliff, watching Ku and Fusa brush the dirt and leaves off of their clothes. They both wore a plain sort of robe, made out of some form of linen and held together by a red sash. The fall had hit them harder than Laura, and they had considerably more debris to wipe from their clothes than she did.
The weariness which had been building up over the last few days, the burden of all the new information she was being forced to retain within her constantly growing brain, began to take over her mind, and Laura felt herself drifting off to sleep. She was used to having to try to keep herself awake by now though, so she jerked herself upright and was surprised to find Fusa and Ku staring at her, both of them with a slight smile on their faces.
“You have faced much, young daughter,” the old man said, and Laura was overwhelmed with the love she felt for his kind face. “Your body has gone through a great change in a very short time, and now you need rest. Close your eyes, child, and take some rest.”
She felt a blanket being draped over her. She looked up through her heavy eyelids and saw Fusa draping it over her. Laura went to sleep with the image of Fusa in her mind, and the words Young Daughter in her ears.
Brun had finally pointed out to Benny how precarious the situation with Beaner was. They had crested the top of a hill around the middle of the fifth day, two days after their encounter with Chase Morgana and Marcus Vonwell, and off in the distance Benny could barely make out the shape of the giant City-cart lumbering across the plains that bordered the great forest they were traveling through. Brun told Benny that Marcus Vonwell, the strategic planner of the group they had encountered, had probably assumed that it would be safer to confront the mighty warrior Brun in the sheltered forest, while he was alone with a new protégé, completely without his leader or his Clan. Brun knew that he himself was powerful, and the Clan as a whole with its protective, mobile fortress was strong in its defenses, but when you separated the two, neither looked so strong. Brun was a small man, able to use his mind to defeat his opponents when he was covered and able to concentrate, but without large numbers to guard him, he was very much at a disadvantage. He was a dwarf of a man, after all.
Benny shared Brun’s notion that someone must have betrayed their location as well as the times that they would be away from the rest of the clan, and the two were similarly in agreement that the most likely culprit was Brun’s sister. Or rather, what she had become.
Benny sympathized heavily with the story of Brun’s sister, for he too had been through a similar experience. He still hated knowing that his body could be doing any number of foul things in the Upper Realms, without him there to oversee. It had finally become commonplace, however, for him to think of himself not as a person, but as a force that existed on multiple levels. This, he knew, was the reason he was able to exist within the Inner; in the Upper Realms, his life force merely inhabited the body, but was not trapped there. It existed outside the body, while still being able to go into the body. So when his physical vessel had been taken over, his consciousness was left in there like a prisoner until Benny willed himself into the Inner. His life force now resided within the Inner, while some alien life force controlled his body in the Upper Realms.
There had been more dreams, and in them Benny had to watch as his own hands mutilated people, dragged them through the streets, and for some reason began lying them side by side amongst the trees on Bonhelm Hill.
But he hardly had time to think about those dreams, as Brun had kept him busy both physically and mentally the entire time they had been traveling together, for the most part. Now, as they sat staring out over the plains on the edge of the forest, Benny became startlingly aware that while they had been fighting the ‘Dynamic Duo,’ as Benny called them, the mobile village of the Vanjii tribe had been only a few miles away. It was satisfying to think that they had probably made an attack on the unguarded village almost impossible for the injured pair of fighters, and if Brun was correct about Marcus and Chase needing to take time to recuperate, then there was more time than either of them would have originally thought.
“We’ll need to keep them on their toes,” Brun said. “They thought taking us unawares in the open would be strategically beneficial for them, but really all they have done is cost themselves valuable attack time and alerted us to their rough position. We know that after our fight with them, we moved between them and the rest of the Clan. If they plan any direct assault on the village, they will have to either go through or around us, and neither option would be good for them. If they try to go around us, they will have to either move out into the open plain or move deeper into the forest. If they enter the plain, they know we will attack; if they try to move into the forest, it will slow their path too much and they will not be able to get around us, much less far enough ahead to be able to mount any real attack.”
“But wouldn’t it have been better to just chase after them in the forest when they first confronted us, instead of waiting for them to attempt to make another move?”
“No, no, young Master,” Brun replied calmly. “That would have been more along the lines of what they wanted to begin with. They wanted to catch us without the power of numbers, and sure enough they did, but I do not think they expected you to be advancing so far already. In the last week, you have learned a lot more than even I expected. I helped Beaner develop his powers long ago, even though he had figured out a lot on his own, but even he did not learn as fast as you. I can feel the doubt inside you, Benny from Away. You think that there is too much to do and not enough time. But you must realize that even though Natas is working with haste in the upper realms, he can never move fast enough if you keep up along the same path you are on now. We have seen in your dreams that he has already made a lot of progress in degrading the morality of your home town. But his progress was enhanced by the fact that many of the people in your town were weak of character to begin with. Aimless, stuck in a rut, whatever they would choose to describe themselves, they needed someone to show them something new. It was all too easy for him to start a little chaos and wait for the poor people of that town to need some sort of divine intervention. Then he answers the call. It’s very simple. Create a problem, wait for a reaction from the people, and then present the solution to them. The people think you are being generous, when really you are getting exactly what you wanted. His progress is great, yes, but not unheard of. It has only taken him forty eight hours to take that town from what you left to what you see in your visions. In Hayvan, where your double resides, perhaps three or four days have gone by, and here we have experienced just over a week since you turned up in the Inner, if my calculations based on your story are correct.
“I believe that whatever we saw your body doing,” Brun continued, “is the beginning of what Natas has planned for your town, and from the looks, it is some sort of dark magic that I wish not to speak of. But it will take at least two more Upper Realm days to fully achieve what he wants, which is the death of everyone in your town.”
“Why would he want that?” Benny asked. He had been asked to swallow a lot of things in what seemed, at least for him, like a single week. Now it was casually being told to him that everyone in his home town, all the people he knew, Geoff Wishenhower, his friend Jerry Carson, who he hadn’t seen since taking his first hit of pot… his mother; they were all on the hit list of a guy who Benny didn’t even truly understand his own connection with. If everything he’d been told so far was true, then he had always been one of the people charged with correcting things when this madman got loose. That was the reason he had been so specifically targeted, but nothing could explain the brutality being shown toward the people he loved the most.
“It is a long story,” Brun said. “And an interesting one at that. But also one for later. If my assumptions were correct about the flow of time, then we still have about a week here before his plans begin to come to fruition on the surface. For now, we need to focus on his plans down here. He has been an ambassador to Hayvan for a long time, and he has never really shown any inclination to attack it, but I fear that may have changed. You showing up there surely set off alarm bells for him, but he could not confront you in front of so many of the people he had fooled into believing he was this Vonwell character. I fear if he had any plans for that town, any plans similar to the fate your own home now faces, then he would have surely started them by now. As you see, he is also trying to get our Village. We can do nothing about your town in the Upper Realms, for now, nor can we do anything to help those poor souls in Hayvan; but we can save this one clan of people, and I promise you, Benny from Away, if you help me do this, if you open your mind and allow yourself to become what I need you to become in two short days, my people will help you save your loved ones. Keep in mind, however, that it highly depends on the ones you love surviving what Natas has in store for them. If they are alive, we will help you get them.”
“Suppose I wanted to ditch you now,” Benny said, looking out at the slow moving, village sized cart, pulled by its large group of children, “what then?”
Brun merely laughed.
“Then I think you would have a hard time even finding where to go, much less be able to get there in proper time,” he replied.
Benny knew this was true, of course. He didn’t know why he had asked, really, besides that he was feeling a little bit like none of this was his choice. Everything was his responsibility, and yet he had never wanted any of it. How could he always be expected to save the day when nothing more exciting or mystical ever happened in Minde than a group of kids playing Magic, the Gathering. Where he had grown up, people didn’t think about psychic abilities or the multiple dimensions of the human consciousness. They thought about how to feed their families and what they could do to break up the monotony on days of rest. But not too much, of course; people in Minde loved the fact that things never changed in that town.
Benny shuddered at the thought of how much things must be different up there. His own body was running rampant through the town, killing everyone in sight, for all Benny knew, and the strange series of events that all seemed to start with his first puff of marijuana had ultimately led to panic and discord throughout every square mile of his home town.
“Turn your thoughts from home, for now,” Brun said, turning his large magical eye in the direction of the cart. “I think the person you could benefit from the most is my sister. So for now I need you to pretend that nothing of importance is happening in the Upper Realms, and that your only goal at this point in time is to save that Clan, disillusion Beaner, root out whatever is lodged in my sister’s mind, and defeat Natas down here. Once that is done, we will show you how to achieve your goals.”
“I’m still not even totally sure where I need to go,” Benny said. He knew he must sound extremely pessimistic, but in all honesty he did not care. Fifteen year old boys simply were not supposed to be going through stuff like this, he thought. But, just as he knew would be the case, he had slowly grown to see that the burden was more or less his alone, and if he ever wanted to be happy in life again he would have to at least try to stop the man who he had originally referred to as the Blind Freak atop Bonhelm hill. The events leading up to his body’s takeover by Natas that day were hazy, but Benny could remember the man outright telling him that he would be under his control if Benny were to see his eyes. If only I had believed him, Benny thought solemnly.
“Calm your mind, Master Benny,” Brun said quietly. “Natas is almost always successful in his attempts at manipulation and control because he has had thousands of years to practice in the Inner, and centuries to bring those skills with him to the Upper Realms. It is no wonder at all that you, an unprepared adolescent boy at the time, were so easily brought under his will. Look at my sister. She had the strongest mind I had ever hoped to meet, and yet somehow she let her defenses down long enough to allow him or one of his henchmen to seep into her mind. Considering that he has had to be in Hayvan recently and has been seen on other errands for the corrupted Council of Valence, I do not believe that he would have had the time nor the mental capacity to do so many things all at once. It seems more likely that he has someone else working the controls inside my sister’s mind.”
Benny could think of no one who would fit the bill, but he also realized that he hardly knew anything about the Inner or any of the people within it. ”Any hunches?” he asked, absentmindedly levitating a rock up from the ground. He watched as it floated higher and higher.
“I have my suspicions,” Brun said. “I have given you clues as well, things you might have noticed if you had been paying attention.”
Suddenly Benny felt his control over the rock sever, and it came hurtling downwards at an alarming speed, connecting squarely with Benny’s forehead before tumbling to the ground.
“Hey!” Benny yelled, clutching his newly goose-egged head. “You did that, didn’t you? What the hell was that for?”
“You are supposed to train when we are training,” Brun said with a hint of ferocity in his normal eye and his magical eye gleaming slightly, “and when I am teaching, you are supposed to listen.”
Benny realized that an answer probably wasn’t what the little man was wanting at this moment, so he merely continued to rub his sore head and turned his attention back to the plains with the slowly lumbering village/child-drawn cart.
Apparently his assumption was wrong though, for Brun did not continue ‘teaching.’ Instead he just sat there, staring at Benny with his giant blue eye pulsing slightly with his heart beat. “What?” Benny asked after he could take the stare no longer.
“Well?” Brun replied. “Do you not have any guesses?”
“How could I have any guesses? I don’t know anyone down here.”
“I am not asking for names, Benny. Think back. There was someone I mentioned that fits the scenario, and is even more likely after we faced both Chase Morgana and Marcus Vonwell here in the forest. Think.”
Benny turned his mind back over the last few days, trying to remember every conversation they’d had. But all that was coming to him were several instances of passing out, being injured by Brun’s ferocious training style, but their long conversations at the ends of the days while smoking the Lana plant were more difficult to remember as Benny had not been trying to retain everything they said. “I’m sorry, Brun,” Benny said. “There isn’t a whole lot coming to me in the clues department.”
Brun made a disgusted noise in the back of his throat and turned away. He continued without looking at Benny, which Benny figured was probably some sign of scorn or disappointment. “When I explained to you about my sister and how I thought the things she showed us in Beaner’s tent were false,” the little warrior said slowly, “I told you that I only figured we were being followed by three people. Three.”
Suddenly it dawned on Benny. “The person you expected to see with Chase and Marcus? That’s who you think is controlling your sister?”
“How else would they even be able to track us? As long as I was there, I had nearly flawless cloaking spells and enchantments to keep people from even seeing us as we passed within yards of them, and yet somehow they were able to find us. It makes sense if she was regularly transmitting our location the whole time. I never suspected it would be this person. I admit, I am ashamed for not feeling it sooner and taking action. They did so well at subverting my sister’s mind slowly, over a long course of time, that I could only suspect things. She felt different, and that’s all I could say. Once she showed us that false vision and tried to set us up for an easy kill at the hands of Chase and Marcus, there was no doubt in my mind anymore.”
“So who is this mysterious third person?” Benny asked. He hated how Brun would tap dance around the point until Benny wanted to strangle him. He knew, of course, that it would never be a good idea to attack Brun, as small as he might be.
“There is no name for him,” Brun replied, his eyes suddenly seeming distant, as if he were seeing some place far off, perhaps in the distant past.
“Surely you call him something,” Benny said.
“We only ever call him the Unborn Son,” Brun said. “Those of us who know about his existence, that is.”
Benny felt as if Brun was about to launch into one of his long, overly deep explanations, and sure enough, the little man did not disappoint.
“You asked me before if Marcus Vonwell is related to Natas, an obvious question due to the name, and I chose not to tell you then because it did not have any bearing on the matter which was at hand. Now that we are close to the time when we must face them again, I shall tell you what I know about the Three Children.”
“Yes. That is what they are referred to down here by us mystics, who watch the world and see the terrible things. You must understand, before I continue, that most of the people down here are for the most part dim. They go about their lives, tend to their own parts of the Inner, and try not to focus on anything besides what is best for themselves. So back to the name Vonwell. Most people think of Marcus as the son of Ardemeus Vonwell, the pseudonym Natas uses for his political schemes. To the laymen of the Inner, Marcus Vonwell is a loyal soldier to the Council of Valence, and they think that makes him some sort of hero. But the council has been subverted. I don’t know who Natas has inside the council, but somehow he has secured himself unlimited access to the Inner and basically found ways to be granted Council approval on the most heinous of acts.
“Therefore Marcus Vonwell is no more than a soldier of a corrupt ruling elite, if he even serves the Council at all. But, as for the question of whether or not Marcus is related to Natas, I will say that he is only as related to the Madman as you are to this Laura you’ve spoken of.”
“So Marcus is Natas’ double, then,” Benny said. As far as he could tell, that’s what Brun was saying.
“Once again, Master Benny,” Brun replied, “I can only say that you are half correct. But, remember that Natas tricked his original double into being trapped in the Upper Realms, and the double eventually died. But this went entirely against the laws of the universe, as did your own birth without a double. Your imbalance was fixed by creating Laura for yourself, a companion in the mind. Natas did not need a partner, nor did he want one. He tried to fight the natural law, and he sought out and murdered the new doubles every time they would manifest, but they would always come back. Eventually he resorted to his black magic, and what happened was he created something which was of the Inner, but not. It existed here, yes, but it was not physical. It could pervade life forms, almost as if attempting constantly to manifest as a double for Natas, but the universe had made it an ethereal body, thus taking it outside the power of the Madman to destroy it. This was the Unborn Son, and after centuries of trying to incarnate to balance the dual nature of Natas, once it was finally in a state where no harm could be done to it, the ethereal son worshipped Natas as a Father God, and swore to do all that he commanded.
“Hopefully you understand enough about the personality of Natas to know how lucrative such a set up would have seemed, and to know that he would never stop there. The idea of doubles appealed to him all of a sudden, but the laws of the universe are set up in precise alignment, and no one had ever heard of creating more than one double. A triple and a quadruple was just completely absurd, as far as most smart thinking people were concerned. But he had to try. And he succeeded. Not only did he create the Unborn Son, his next creation was Marcus. Around that time, he somehow managed to dupe the Council of Valence into believing that he was this man called Vonwell. Most people didn’t see it, wouldn’t believe that upstanding Ardemeus Vonwell was one and the same as the Old Madman, Natas, but those of us who had been watching, expecting Natas to resurface at some point after his terrible rebellion, it was clear as day. That’s when people like the Vanjii tribe began to speak out about Vonwell, but the Council was so firmly wrapped around his finger and blinded by his false light by that time, that the only thing our tribe succeeded in achieving was to evoke the wrath of the Council of Valence. Since then our people have been on the run, hunted like dogs. Natas knows what my sister and I are capable of, and he knows that Beaner is really from the Upper Realms, and therefore more likely to be able to use those certain… peculiarities the Inner presents in the way of physics. In other words, it was not safe for him to have us around anymore. We were talking , we were attempting to rally support for our cause, and it was all too easy for Natas to convince the Council of Valence that we were no more than common Rebels who wanted to disrupt the peace which the Council is supposedly charged with keeping.
“That is why we built that giant, cumbersome thing you see down there,” Brun said, pointing at the cart, which had barely seemed to move at all. “Just so you know, you can only see it because I am allowing you to. Even from such a distance, I have been able to keep much of my enchantments strong, largely due to the preparations I made before leaving.”
“Is that why you said you might be tired the night before we left?”
“Yes,” Brun replied. “But when you wandered off into the night, I had to stop short. So unfortunately there are no actual physical barriers around the Village. It wasn’t so bad though, as the physical charms would have been the one’s which drained me, and as you saw, I ended up needing my strength.”
“Thank you, again,” Benny said. He still remembered the darkness creeping around him, and the cold red eyes floating amidst the dark mist. “I’m glad you were able to sense something. Up in my world, facing something like that in the middle of the night, no one would have felt something strange and come to my aid. I was glad you were there.”
“Well, really it was nothing,” Brun said, ever humble. “I had actually been partially monitoring my sister’s brainwave activity, and I happened to notice she was sending you some sort of thoughts. Then when I tried to enter your mind to see what she was showing you, you were already outside, running off into the woods. So I went, saved you, and then took you a safe distance into the trees, where my sister couldn’t lure you toward any danger. I had to return to get all of our stuff, you see.”
Benny had never actually thought about it when he had awoken from his faint, but now that he looked back on it, Brun had already pretty much set up an entire camp before Benny came to. Surely he would not have been able to do such a thing if he had been physically drained from important mental activities.
“So then it’s completely vulnerable,” Benny said. “Besides the ways you cloak it from sight, there is nothing actually protecting it. If Marcus and that lady already know the location at all times because they are somehow linked to this so called Unborn son, then what’s stopping them from attacking it right now?”
“Beaner,” Brun replied. “He is fat, yes, and he is easily swayed, for certain, but he loves his people with his entire being. He left everything behind in the Upper Realms, and has found comfort in these people who have grown to worship him. He is powerful because he understands the laws of this realm. Remember, most people born down here don’t know the abilities possible here, and even if they did it is much more difficult for them to bend the space of this realm because they form part of it. Beaner, and yourself, and Natas, all of you come from the Upper Realms, and therefore exist here only as forces. You are entities, capable of bending the physics of this dimension because you are not physically part of the Inner. Some of us are born with special abilities that seem super natural to those down here, but surely even you see by now that nothing I do is outside your abilities. Even in the Upper Realms, people are born knowing the fallibility of their physical laws, and they seem to break from normal physics to the point that people think it’s something special. In truth, however, it is not supernatural, it is just natural. If someone were to attack our village outright, they would find out what several centuries of Inner time can teach a man from the Upper Realms who holds loyalty to no one but his Clan.
“No, I think the plan was sabotage,” Brun continued, his tone becoming somber. “My sister is powerful, as I told you. The thing inside her is not quite as powerful, and it can’t utilize her abilities to their full potential, but it has managed to achieve one great feat which at first surprised even me.”
“And what is that?”
“You cannot see it now, young Master Benny, but I can. This eye has been a blessing ever since I first thought I was cursed with it, and in the direction our cart is traveling I see a great darkness on the horizon. But it is a hazy darkness, as if someone or something is cloaking that darkness in much the same way that I have been cloaking the Clan. That is why you cannot see it, and I believe those young, loyal children at the yoke don’t see it either. Beaner surely believes that the direction told to him by my sister is the most clear path to migrate, but really I fear that for quite some time now we have been drawing closer and closer to that large and terrible portion of the Inner which has been corrupted and taken over by Natas.”
Benny couldn’t see the darkness Brun spoke of, but he was beginning to understand that Brun had not only thought accepting this mission was necessary in order to stall Marcus and Chase, he had also used it as a chance to confirm many of the suspicions he had been harboring about his sister. Benny remembered the increased cheeriness of the little man after they were far enough that he could voice his opinions openly, with his voice instead of his mind, no longer having to fear intrusion from whatever was inside the body of his sister. Now, Brun was supposedly seeing for his self that his entire clan and the man who led them were being tricked and led into a trap. Benny wished he could see the darkness Brun spoke of, but all he saw on the horizon in front of the cart was the clear blue sky, dotted here and there with some light clouds. The mountains looked green and harmless, with only one of them being tall enough to even have signs of snow on it.
“Close your eyes, Master,” Brun said quietly.
Even though he wasn’t sure what Brun was getting at, Benny closed his eyes and listened to the faint rustle of the wind through the trees, waiting for further instruction.
“Remember the darkness of Natas,” Brun said, almost whispering. “Feel the way you were torn from your body, recall to your mind the feelings of torment that surrounded you in the place where you went to be separated from all command over your physical body in the Upper Realms.”
Benny remembered the pale eyes of Natas, with their faint red streaks and tiny pupils. He remembered the sounds of screams, and dampness all around him.
“Try to recreate that moment,” Brun continued, still talking in his quietest voice, presumably so as to not throw off Benny’s concentration. “Feel everything in your thoughts as if you were feeling it with your body.”
Suddenly the smell of gasoline came to Benny’s nostrils, and it seemed to him that it was a very weak smell drifting on the breeze. As he attempted to feel the damp cell and the cold chains, to hear the muffled screams through the walls, the smell increased. It was definitely coming from upwind, though, he thought, and was not part of his memory. He remembered that there had been the smell of gas, but the smell at the moment had grown too strong to merely be from memory.
“Do you smell that?” he inquired of Brun, keeping his eyes shut in case the exercise wasn’t over.
“Try to remember the darkness that surrounded you, for it was not physical darkness, but spiritual darkness heaped upon you by the Madman in order to keep you docile until he was ready to perform the operation which would strip you of your ability to move in the Upper Realms.”
Benny recalled the stifling blackness with all too much clarity, even though light was still seeping through his eyelids.
“Keep that darkness in your mind, Benny, and open your eyes.”
Benny did as he was told, and instantly on the horizon he saw the terrible darkness Brun had spoken of. The clouds for miles on the horizon in front of the Village were black, and indeed the air coming from that direction smelled of some acrid mix of gasoline and some other scent Benny couldn’t quite place a finger on.
Scanning the darkened horizon with a little more scrutiny than before, Benny realized that the mountain which had appeared tall enough to be capped with snow was in fact some sort of building. How this was possible, Benny didn’t know. He understood how the laws of gravity could be manipulated there in the Inner, but surely even then it would be difficult to build something the size of a tall mountain.
“What on Earth is that” Benny asked, awestruck.
“That, Master Benny,” Brun replied, “is the Mad Keep, the fortress of Natas.”
City Hall in the town of Minde seemed to be the only sane place left. At least that’s how it felt to the people who were taking refuge there. No one knew for sure what was going on outside. At first the people had come there for a sense of unity in their fragmented town, but now masses of raiding parties went around the streets, gathering all manner of objects. Ever since one of the people who had been sent out to survey the situation had turned up dead on the steps of town hall (where his body remained, as no one was brave enough to venture out after the corpse,) the hundred or so people inside the building had grown more and more insecure. They had long since boarded up the windows, and there was no sign of the outside world except the occasional crazy beating on a door, yelling obscenities.
Somehow, word had gotten around that a mob of the townspeople had brutalized Jerry Patterson, who was the acting sheriff at the time. No one except those who were present at the Great Shavo Restaurant knew exactly what happened or who was involved, but slowly a few definite names had arisen. To those in City Hall, though, it didn’t matter that all of the accused had been close friends all their lives, or that some of them were even family members. No one knew that Jerry Patterson had committed murder right there in the middle of town, in the glow of the flames from a fire caused by his own stupidity.
Now this San fellow had come to town, and no one inside City Hall knew what to expect from him. He had arranged two public meetings since his original gathering at the Masonic Lodge, and the last of them had been staged right on the steps of City Hall so that everyone inside could hear the cheers and excited roars from the population of people who remained out on the streets. The people inside (known as ‘Hallers’ to the people on the outside, who were in turn known as ‘Crazies’ by the hallers,) had no idea what this blind preacher of propaganda wanted with them, but it was obvious that he was using powerful and persuasive speeches to sway the minds of those who remained on the outside. It was as if he was trying to pit them against the Hallers.
The man on the inside who had attempted to take authority was Ron Parsons, an able minded enough gentlemen who had once served as the mayor of Minde in the nineties. The problem with Ron was that he really didn’t’ have much of a backbone, and in matters that really affected the well being of those taking refuge under his keep, he deferred to someone else and usually the decision would end up being made by a number of younger folks who come to an agreement, then give him the verdict to deliver to the group. He was timid, nervous, and had a loud speaking voice but tended to taper off at the ends of his sentences, which often left people towards the back confused and irritated.
On the occasion of San’s speech on the front steps of the Hall, several people had been gathered in the main entrance hall playing cards when they began to hear the murmur of a large crowd outside the boarded up windows and door. Parsons was informed that a large group of people seemed to be waiting outside the doors, and instantly his pessimistic cowardliness began to show. The first thing he proposed was that an assault was being planned, and that the group of people outside the door were in fact probably waiting to bash in the door and storm City Hall. Many of the other elders and adults of the town found this most irresponsible to voice in the open, in front of children and teenagers who had nothing better to do than gossip while confined in the walls of the Hall. Before other people got to voice an opinion on the matter, word had already spread amongst the youth that an attack was imminent. This caused a panic, of course, amongst some of the younger and more feeble children. But there were also those children who saw it as an opportunity to show their worth to the adults of the town. Most who held this mentality were The Orphans, a group of teens who had allied after their family members were identified as participants in the Patterson fiasco.
These kids had left their homes, most of them after having heard firsthand the accounts of that terrible night from their parents. Considering how much Minde teenagers seemed to rebel against their parents anyways, it was really not such a surprise that more than a dozen had left home to seek refuge with the other sane people at City Hall. The unfortunate result, however, was that they formed what could best be described as a gang.
They went everywhere together, used their numbers to secure an abandoned office as their personal quarters, bullied the younger kids, and there was a suspicion going around the Hall that they were responsible for some of the food that had come up missing recently. All in all, they were just mischievous teenagers, frustrated at their lots in life and trying to re-find a sense of family. But most of the adults did not see them that way, and so on the day of San’s speech, when everyone still thought they were going to be ambushed, it was The Orphans who came forward first to offer their services as the Front Line, just inside the door with weapons, waiting to attack anyone who came through the door.
The leader of the Orphans was a boy named Alfonse LeBray, the only child in a wealthy family which was believed to own almost half of the town (the building of City Hall was funded by Al’s grandfather, Theodore LeBray,) a fact that Alfonse loved to brag about all too much. He was much more humble than the rest of his family had ever been, though. He acted as if he should be the leader of the group, but in all other respects he treated the other Orphans as equals, kids who had been cast into the same terrible state as he. In many ways, Al led the Orphans much like San led the Crazies, except he had earned his leadership through sheer force of charm and intelligence. No one disputed that he should be the leader of the group, the representative to the adults who controlled all of the supplies and anything else needed on the inside.
Alfonse knew, of course, that no one in his group had stolen from the cellar where all the Hallers had gathered what they could bring with them of canned goods and dried food. After all, they had to live on the stuff too, and stealing it would only lead to confiscation and eventually punishment, which would no doubt consist of going without food for at least a day. On the day voices had been reported outside the Hall, he had decided that this was the only opportunity to show the other Hallers just how loyal the Orphans were, and how they could be a valuable contributing factor to the survival of the people inside the City Hall.
“I know this is scary for some of you,” he was saying to the Orphans in their little office hideout. They had closed and locked the door for privacy, as they were holding what they considered to be like a council meeting. The four oldest of the Orphans, Alphonse LeBray, Marilee Sabien, Martin “wick” Cunningham, and Jared Black gathered
in a corner and discussed what they had heard about the door. When they had all reached a unanimous decision, then they would all go forward and represent the collective opinion of the ‘elders’ to the other eight or so teenagers who crowded into the office.
Marilee, who was actually the oldest of the group by an entire year, began the discussion. “We know that many of you want to prove your worth to the rest of the town,” she said. “I know that many of you must feel like we do, that we are outsiders here, loved by no one, and that the other Hallers would rather us just leave. But we have decided to stay, and we are happy, are we not?”
A few scattered murmurs of agreement came from the small group of teens.
“But we now ask of you something that we could never demand,” she continued coolly. She was the speaker. Al had a clever mind, and did most of the thinking, but he always left it up to Marilee to deliver the speeches. She was beautiful and charismatic, and the Orphans always seemed most keen to listen to her. From behind and to the left, Alphonse smiled slightly at his speaker’s tact in words. She always knew how to make something sound as if it would be the most honorable thing in the world to do.
“There seems to be a mass of people gathering outside our door,” she went on. “No one knows yet what they want, but considering the hostility they’ve shown us and the violence they’ve displayed toward our scouts, it would be a pretty safe bet to assume they’re planning something involving breaking into City Hall.”
Many of the Orphans began muttering amongst themselves, proposing different motives to each other for why the crowd would be there. They were quickly silenced, though, by Alfonse raising his hand to call them to order. “People,” he said, “we could sit here and speculate all day long but there is a point to be made here. That point is we must defend the door. I know some of you have never even been in a fist fight, and therefore the idea of battle might frighten you, but it is the only way to restore our honor. With that being said, I must ask all of you who are willing to arm yourself and report to the entrance hall for the defense of this Hall.”
The teens had slowly began to murmur again, and when Al stopped speaking the tone rose and the chatter became an almost deafening racket. The only difference was that now the kids were fighting over whether or not it was reasonable to risk their lives for people who barely trusted them and thought they were all thieves. It was obviously split fairly evenly. Half would gladly fight, and half would just as gladly stay out of it, and a few even suggested the atrocious idea of locking themselves in the office and allowing the other Hallers to defend themselves.
None of the elders were going to go for that. This time it was ‘Wick’ Cunningham who spoke on behalf of the leaders. “Hey!” he yelled, clapping his hands once loudly to draw their attention back to the front of the room. “All of us know that no one here stole any food from the cellar, much less the amount they are accusing us of. We know that we are respectable people, just like them, and we know we care for their safety. But they do not know this. We’ve tried every simple way to win their support that we can, but you all see the way they look at us in the Meetings. They begrudgingly allow us to stay. The only way for us to really prove ourselves is at hand, and we must offer ourselves to defend that door. Just the fact that we try will win loads of support from some of the people, if not all of them. We will be worthy refugees after that, instead of just the twisted offspring of our murderous parents. We didn’t kill Patterson, we didn’t kidnap the sheriff or any of the other things the Crazies did in their attempt to bring anarchy to our town. We had no connection to all of that besides our blood, and I don’t know about you but I am sick of everyone here thinking I am a bad person just because my father helped in the murder of that cop. We can earn our equality, people.”
“We shouldn’t have to earn it,” a boy in the back said.
“That is true,” Marilee popped in. Al had been feeling that they were losing control of the interest of the Orphans, and he was glad to see her step back up to the plate. Maybe she could ‘bring them home.’ “But sometimes people get put into unfair situations, and its only those who try in spite of the unfairness who actually succeed in finding better lives. We do not expect all of you to fight. But some of us will, even if its only the four who stand before you all. Just know this: we will be earning the respect of the other Hallers, and only those who earn will be able to bask in that. So if only half of you Orphans go to the defense of your Hall, then only half shall gain respect. The other half will have to find a new place to sleep, because the Office will no longer be open to them. They will no longer be a part of the Orphans. Allowing them to stay in our group would just be allowing freeloaders to bask in the respect that they were too cowardly to earn.”
Silence. Al suppressed his physical smile, but inside he was grinning like a fool. Good old Marilee, she always knew how to lay on the thickest of guilt trips. Alfonse didn’t know quite how she always found the right words, but either way, to Marilee speaking had been reduced to an art and refined to a science.
“Then what are we waiting for?” asked a tall, thick girl in the back. She couldn’t have been much more than sixteen but to Alfonse she looked like someone he would never want to meet in a fight. Perfect for a soldier. “I found where they keep a supply of spare broom handles. You know, for the janitors. I think if we use the rough stone floor of the Cellar Landing, we could probably sharpen them up.”
All of a sudden she realized that everyone was watching her, and in fact for most of them it was the first time they had heard her speak and so they wore a face of shock. She flushed red and lowered her eyes. “Its something a friend and I used to do as kids. Sharpen broken broom handles into spears and play fight.”
“But would they be good enough?” the boy in the back from earlier asked.
“Well,” the big girl continued. “Once we were playing and he tripped and the sharpened handle went through his shoulder. That’s why we had to stop playing together, and he got made fun of after they amputated his arm so they moved away.”
It seemed many of the boys had suddenly become interested in the newly gory tale, and even some of the girls were looking on with concerned faces.
“The spear had been sharp enough to sever an important artery, and they would have been able to fix it but the soft wood had splintered inside the wound, basically ravaging all of the veins there. They tried to fix it, but in the end the arm had to come off because the broom handle had been so dirty that infection had set in.”
She was still looking at her hands, and the flush of her face had been replaced by a pallor, and the nervous shake in her voice had become a suppressed sob, until she couldn’t speak without swallowing in the middle of her words. Two girls got up from their seats and went to comfort her.
“So that’s what happened to one armed Pete,” the boy from the back said with a sneer. What happened next Alfonse didn’t see coming. The large, sobbing girl burst from the arms of her comforters and launched herself at the boy. She landed on top of him and they both sprawled out of the chair onto the floor. The boy was in the middle of asking what the hell all this was about when the big girl’s fist, oversized for a girl of her age, came down on his face and smashed his nose.
“IT’S PEOPLE LIKE YOU THAT MADE HIM HAVE TO GO AWAY, SO YOU JUST SHUT THE HELL UP!”
“His name was Peter, not One Armed Pete!” the girl yelled, pounding his face once more before Alfonse and Wick made it over to pull her off.
“Whoa, whoa, hold on!” Alfonse yelled, his arms around her waste in a futile effort to pull her off. Luckily Wick was much bigger than he, and between the two they got her off of the boy and back into the arms of her girlfriends (who seemed to be very much in favor of the beating the boy had just received.)
“What the fuck, man?” the boy said, looking at Alfonse and clutching his bloody nose. “Punish that bitch!”
“I am not a ruler,” Al said. “Nor am I a marshal or any other sort of disciplinarian figure. You provoked her, and so I can’t say anything. Except perhaps that next time you should think before you speak ill of the maimed, especially when in the company of someone who obviously cared about the person.”
“Bull shit,” the boy said, wiping blood on his sleeve. “That bitch is crazy, and you people are too if you think you can defend this place with sticks.”
“We don’t even know if we’ll have to yet,” Wick said. “But its noble to offer to try and that is the only point we’ve been making. You don’t have to join us. But you have already been told the consequences.”
The boy snorted, or rather he tried to unsuccessfully with all the blood in his nose, and retorted, “Oh woe be to the person who doesn’t get to be cramped up with a bunch of babies and wannabe-officials. Screw this place. While you’re all getting slaughtered I’ll be laughing in the safety of the kitchen, giggling about the stupid children spilling their blood on the porch. This right here is all the blood I plan to spill on behalf of you lunatics, or on behalf of anyone else.”
With that he took his hand, now covered in blood from his broken nose, and smeared it across the wall. “Enjoy your deaths,” he said, and then walked out, slamming the door behind him. There was momentary silence as the remaining Orphans mulled over what the rude boy had said. While you’re all getting slaughtered… I’ll be laughing. Everyone of course knew that death was a possibility, but the difference between every other Orphan and the one who had just stormed out was that he was the only person who didn’t realize that they were probably going to die there anyways. The others had realized that it was better to try to survive than to just sit there and wait for the imminent doom.
“Well,” Alfonse said. “Anyone else of the same opinion as that boy?”
“Michael was always a brash and unreasonable guy,” said the blonde boy who had been seated next to the rude one, Michael. “He’s my brother, so I know. We’re probably better off without him. I think what she said is probably our only shot. There are hardly any weapons in here besides the ones being held by the security guards, so sharpened broom sticks actually sounds a hell of a lot better than trying to use any of the other stuff at our disposal.”
“He makes a point,” said Alfonse. “We need to have something. If anyone breaks through, it is likely that they will be older and probably bigger than us. We have no chance at defense hand to hand. But I also don’t think we should just make spears. You….um…”
“Lindsey,” the big girl said. “Don’t worry, I’m used to people forgetting my name.”
“Well, Lindsey, I will try my best not to forget again. In the meantime, I need you to take all the girls down to the store room you found and gather eleven broomsticks. Also keep your eyes peeled for anything small but heavy, like a metal paperweight or anything of that sort.”
“Okay,” the girl said. She wiped her nose on her sleeve, drawing a grimace from the two girls comforting her, and stood up. “Come on, ladies. Lets go.”
Obviously the snot-sleeve thing wasn’t too gross, for the girls once again took on their adoring stare and tagged after Lindsey, and the other girl who had been sitting on the other side of the room got up to go with them. All of them seemed to be older than her, but Lindsey had them beat by about a foot and a half. Alfonse watched them go and went to lock the door behind them.
“Now,” he said to the boys who remained. “Are we sure there isn’t anyone else who would like to leave now?”
Everyone looked around at each other, but none of them made any motion to leave or said anything about wanting to drop out. Good, Alfonse thought. He had expected at least half of his followers to leave him upon hearing what he wanted them to do. Instead I only lost one, and he was probably the weakest link anyways.
Al smiled at his group of young men and Marilee.
One is better than six.
Laura had learned and seen some pretty interesting things over the long years growing up in Hayvan, but never had she seen anything like the breaking of the binding sigil. At first, for about a minute, it seemed to Laura that nothing was changing. The symbol was still glowing red, the walls were still solid and no doors had mysteriously opened. But then the color on the back of Laura’s eyelids became more violet than red, and when she peeked through squinted eyes, she could just barely see the blue light seeping out of hers, Ku’s, and Fusa’s fingers, mixing with the red lines of the diagram and overwhelming it. As her thoughts drifted away from the long conversations with Benny, she noticed the blue light coming from her own fingers would start to dwindle, and only when she focused her mind on those happy memories would the light begin to creep back in. She began to realize how their efforts worked on the sigil. It was filled with the deep evil and hatred of Vonwell, and by using their own spiritual energy, imbued with positive thoughts and emotions, they acted as a repellant to the ‘darkness’ spoken of in the engraving around the seal. The evil apparently manifested as red light, and the positive, hopeful emotions manifested as blue.
It was difficult to keep from looking, but whenever she opened her eyes she would get caught up in the mechanics of both the binding spell and also the process they were employing to break it, thus causing her concentration to lapse and her own contribution to the blue light to diminish. Laura found herself in a personal struggle of self control, trying to keep her eyes closed but being overwhelmed with curiosity to the point that her eyes seemed forced open. On the third instance of caving to temptation, she decided she would try to find a way to keep her thoughts focused and appropriately positive, while somehow allowing her visual faculties to perceive the process for later recollection.
She took a deep breath and opened her eyes. The light inside the sigil was now too bright to look at, but all around it the blue was creeping out, first revealing hidden red lines, then turning them into blue lines. As she watched she became aware of a rhythm, but at first tried not to focus on it too much so that her thoughts did not become too distracted. One way she kept her positivity flowing forward was to think about just how beautiful the blue color was. As it pulsed out, it would find invisible binding lines and turn them a crimson purple color, recede, and then pulse out again, turning the lines into the luminescent blue of positive emotion. Each time this pulsing repeated, out then back in then out again, it would spread out farther and farther. Laura allowed herself to be filled with the wonder of their collective power.
Squinting so she could look back toward the sigil, through the light she could see that her own light was still going strong, perhaps even brighter than that of the other two. Laura looked over at Fusa and found him completely absorbed in thought, mouth hanging open and eyes closed. He looked almost asleep on his feet. Then she turned toward Ku and was not surprised to see him peeking at her through his right eye. He grinned and made a slight tsk! tsk! noise at her before jerking his head back slightly, as if to draw her attention to something behind him.
If you won’t close your eyes and concentrate, at least see the wonder of this terrible room, came Ku’s young, manly thought-voice in her head. Apparently he was recovering after having gotten out of his bindings.
She turned her head a little more to the right so she could look over her shoulder and at first she was confused but then she became fascinated. All around the room, on the ceiling, on the walls, on every inch of the floor, there were those lines, crisscrossing in bizarre yet perfectly executed patterns. At various points on the walls and floor there were more drawings like the binding sigil, but they were much larger and seemed to be composed entirely of lines all around the room. There was only a small amount of red left now, at the far end of the room where Natas had left. Turning back toward her hands and the binding sigil, she found that her eyes had adjusted to the light enough to see that every single line in the room, all several thousands of them, radiated outward from the circular binding sigil. The way they had placed their hands, all of the taking up part around it until they had it entirely surrounded, allowed them to not only fill the sigil with positive energy, but also every single line flowing out from it, and thus every line in the room. In a strange way, Laura could feel the connection between herself and the room, and occasionally she would get a flash in her mind of a man screaming amongst the glowing red lines, clutching his head and curling into a ball on the floor. He was young, but something about him looked familiar.
Before she could pursue the thought anymore though, the light from behind seemed to swell. Laura started to turn to see what was happening, but she got a sharp negative in her head from Ku. So instead she finally closed her eyes and focused once again on Benny and all the things she was going to tell him eventually, all the days just like long ago when they had talked for hours and hours.
A hissing noise started behind them, quiet at first but growing gradually louder. Laura wanted to put her hands up to her ears, but she knew that this would disrupt her connection with the sigil and the lines, so instead she decided to hum as loud as she could to hopefully counteract the hissing. Just as she’d begun to hum her favorite childhood nursery song, there was a loud pop from behind and Laura jumped. Luckily her hands didn’t move much from their places, but once again she was in the state of wanting to see what was going on back there.
This one didn’t startle her quite as much, but it was louder and hurt her ears more.
One from the left, one from the right.
The last one was from above, and it caused the whole room to shake and sounded to Laura like some sort of cannon blast. She opened her eyes and saw the last of the blue light creeping out of the sigil and into the lines. Then it went black and within seconds the wall no longer showed signs of having any marks at all, except for the engraving As long as his darkness fills me, none shall leave. It looked odd and out of place now, just a ring of words between their hands, dead and devoid of all light.
Ku was the first to move his hands, of course, for he was the only one who knew when the process was complete. “Shame, really,” he said with one of his slight chuckles. “This room has served to protect the Inner from many a diseased man, and I never thought I would be the one to break from it. I designed it, after all.”
“What?” Laura asked incredulously. “You helped make this place?”
“Well, of course. I helped rebuild this town after the terrible battle that threatened to overcome the Inner, and there were more than one person guilty of heinous crimes at that terrible era in time. The miracle of this room was that it could be activated to hold several inmates at one time, without any of them being aware of the other prisoners. It could also work as a sensory depravation cell, a hallucinatory torture chamber, and a large number of other clever ideas of mine. But the most important part was that it was bound by the power of good, and no evil person put here could ever leave without truly repenting in their souls and being granted access to lower level security holdings by the Overseers. That is, until we caught the Madman.”
“What happened?” Laura asked. She was about to tell Ku about the man she had seen in her visions when Ku held up his hand to silence her.
“Not now, child,” he said. “That is a tale for later, perhaps. Right now we should be happy that we succeeded in breaking the seal!”
At that moment they both realized that Fusa was still standing with his hands on the wall, seemingly half asleep. Laura just barely had time to register Ku’s hand moving to his mouth before she could put her own hands over her ears, a split second before the most earsplitting whistle imaginable rang through the air. Fusa started and jolted out of his semi-trance, quickly dropping his hands and taking in his surroundings. Laura looked around the room too and was astonished to find that all of the larger sigils were now gaping holes in the walls, and the lines that still showed were only faintly blue. The rest had faded away like the binding sigil, leaving not even the smallest trace that they had been there. Bits of rubble littered the room from corner to corner, except the side where they had stood, for there was only the small sigil and not the larger ones.
“You see,” Ku began, “what we did was pretty much overload those large sigils I pointed out to you, Laura. They took all the energy from the lines and amplified them, sealing all the walls, but when the Madman changed their polarities all those years ago, they became red and no longer reacted to the commands of the Overseers, nor did it respond to the good of things. It became a tool for his sinister purposes alone. He should have known that I could break free, but I suspect he didn’t expect you two to best him. The plan was to lure you here, and I regretfully confess that I could have broke free much earlier.”
An indignant snort from Fusa, as if he had already suspected as much and found it typical of his father.
“But I needed someone here to fight for me,” he said. “I could not risk an escape attempt with him at full power, and inside this room I was powerless to bring him down. You see, I was one of the main people who first imprisoned the man who had been calling himself Sanrunai, that same man who called himself Vonwell not so long ago, that atrocious Natas. He always hated me for it. After centuries of eluding captors, he was finally caught and he was helpless in this room. After the terrible day of his impossible escape, I am quite sure it was always his plan to throw me in here and subject me to as much terrible activity as he could. I should have sounded the warning alarms when he first appeared in Hayvan, but I was curious. As much as the man looked like Natas and felt like Natas, he claimed to have the Royal Authority of the Council of Valence, and that didn’t seem to add up to me. How could Natas be in such a position of power? So I allowed things to continue, watching as he grew closer to your father. Foolish old man, I was.”
Laura could feel him become more sullen and down on himself as he talked, as if this had been his fault, but she knew it had not been. The council of Valence ruled all things political within the Inner, and they were charged with keeping order between the different sections, the billions created by the minds of living men in the Upper Realms. If they had been somehow fooled into believing that this man was really someone called Ardemeus Vonwell, then they were the foolish ones who should blame themselves. Once their approval and immunity to the law was granted, no one could question the grantee. It seemed to Laura that Ku had done the prudent thing by watching and waiting, instead of voicing charges which were sure to be shot down in any court of law. The only thing she really wondered about was how Natas could have taken such a construction as Ku’s cell and turned it to his own purposes. But then again, she figured, he could probably take any number of things and turn it to his own will.
“Don’t worry, Ku,” she said. “I don’t think you did anything wrong. The fact that you stayed here knowing you were under the shadow of the devil himself is brave and honorable enough.”
The old sage looked at her and smiled. Then Laura could tell he finally truly noticed how much she had grown. “You never stop being beautiful, do ya?” he said with a smile. Then he turned and headed toward the hole in the far wall, the wall through which Natas had passed when he came to confront them face to face. “Through here,” he said.
Fusa grabbed his supply bag, pulled out a couple of smokes for him and his father, and then proceeded with Laura through the hole. They immerged into a wide hall, with pillars that ran down the sides. It was surprising to Laura just how much their seemed to be of the mansion that she had never seen. She thought of an iceberg, with just barely any showing above the surface and the majority hidden beneath the waves.
“We’ve got a ways to go,” Ku said as they caught up to him. “Leaving the mansion will be the easy part. Once we get out, we must catch up to the third echani.”
“We’re going to find Benny?” Laura asked excitedly. She felt light headed at the thought of actually seeing him again after everything that had happened to her, and probably to him to.
“Yes,” the old man replied. “If he can stay alive long enough for us to get to him.”
The people of Hayvan didn’t see it coming. The vents that ensured oxygen got from the trees to the town had been under maintenance for weeks, under the orders of Ardemeus Vonwell. Supposedly the Council of Valence had granted him the funds for the refurbishing, for they believed the old system to be showing signs of beginning to malfunction. So for about sixteen days people could look up and see scaffolding high above their heads, with men walking to and fro, repairing the supposed damage.
After the black out, of course, everyone wondered what would happen to their air supply. The mystical trees in the back of the LeVille mansion supplied plenty of oxygen, of course, but without the air ducts the oxygen didn’t disperse very fast, and people on the borders could easily suffocate before the power came back on. Many people had started small makeshift bonfires on the streets to provide light, and at intervals all around the city groups could be found gathered together, sharing some common light source and overall trying to keep each other calm.
The first sign of something wrong came when the purple light from behind the Mansion faded to black. Then a gentle whirring sound had begun, sounding much like the air circulators, but since there were no other signs of power and definitely no sign of the oxygen producing trees, everyone quickly realized that either it wasn’t the circulators or they were circulating stale air. Either way, it seemed to most people that it was a cause for alarm. Some number of people had suggested seeking refuge in the Willow Forest, where they technically weren’t underground and where there should theoretically akways be oxygen. This was quickly shot down, however, by the obvious observation that the Willow Forest was an illusion created by the trees into an empty non-space, and there was now no longer any sign that the trees were even active anymore. Therefore it would only be foolish to risk everyone’s lives by going out into that place. They might just find the opposite of existence and go mad.
They didn’t have long to think on this, however. From the farthest corner of Hayvan, an earsplitting scream rang out. It was soon followed by yet another scream, and then several more from around the same area. Then the screams stopped entirely for about five seconds. Everyone closer to the mansion listened, peering around into the darkness expectantly. Soon the screams started again, only this time it was closer.
A group were sitting right outside the gates of Einsqua Circle, enjoying a nice fire when the screams first started. The second set seemed to be extremely close, perhaps only a few blocks. Looking in that direction, some of the group began to notice flashes and what looked like smoke. Then there was an explosion directly in front of them, about thirty yards away. There had been a group there, but then they appeared to see something coming their way and they had begun screaming. As they ran from their campfire, around the corner slowly crept a green fog. As it touched the flames, it combusted and made a brief explosion, expelling the fog away from the blast only long enough for more to follow it down the street. A teenage boy had been sleeping against the corner of a store near the fire, and the explosion woke him. He saw the green cloud and the bodies littering the road with the fog, and tried to make a run for it. But the fog seemed to be coming faster now, and it quickly surrounded him. He fell to the ground, instantly choking on the green air. The people of the group closest to the mansion watched as his body convulsed in on itself, breaking his spine before racking him forward, the spasm being so violent that he bloodied his face on his knees. After that the boy went silent and laid still.
That’s when the shock broke and that last small group began beating frantically on the gates of the LeVille mansion, screaming “Help us! Please! There’s nowhere to go!”
A calm, silky voice came on the intercom. Very few of that last group recognized that voice, but the ones who did instantly understood the meaning of all of the construction on the air circulators as soon as they heard the voice of Ardemeus Vonwell.
“Goodnight, sheltered children of Hayvan. Your sacrifice is much appreciated.”
It had been an entire day since Benny and Brun’s confrontation with the henchman and woman of Natas, and blissfully Brun had allowed Benny a break from training exercises. They merely traveled along through the forest, discussing mundane things for once. But eventually talk would always come back to the concepts of the Inner. Benny was finding that there was a lot to comprehend when trying to adjust to the duality of worlds, but slowly things were beginning to make sense. The way he understood it, the existence of man was split into two levels, the Upper where Benny had grown up, the physical or conscious world, and the Innner, that subconscious level that exists within all minds and all spirits. When he had inquired as to what happens to the internal ‘double’ when the Upper human dies, Brun had said that the double simply starts its life over again as its body is renewed in the Upper Realms. Benny thought of it as reincarnation, but Brun had not recognized the word as being a valid definition of the process.
Apparently, at some remote and distant time, there had been three echani who had been created by the universe to create the race that would inhabit the Inner, and to create their two separate levels of existence so as to also populate Earth in the Upper Realms. At first, the doubles had always been as twins. They had communicated much as Benny communicated with Laura when he had still been within his own physical body. Supposedly the doubles had even been able to switch places if they wanted to, with the Inner person taking over the physical body and the Upper person remaining within the Inner or so called dream world. Mostly, however, the Upper double would simply visit the Inner during the dream state if they chose to.
But a travesty had occurred. The sorcerer who would one day become Natas had committed great crimes with his double while visiting the Inner realms. The echani had noticed his slow perversion of spirit throughout the ages of his incarnation, and they had expected it when he finally became immoral enough to break the peace. They had punished him by restricting his Inner double solely to his own lot of the Inner (something which at the time was unnecessary; people lived as neighbors above and below, and respected the privacy of others, therefore making restriction unneeded.) They also forbade the Upper double from ever visiting the Inner ever again, even in the next three physical incarnations, until his spirit had shown signs of true repentance and change.
But the young sorcerer was impatient. Through years of training, he re established contact with his Inner twin once again, and arranged a bargain. He promised that if the Inner double switched places with him long enough for him to gain the power he sought within the Inner, he would make a physical body for him on the surface that he could use at will, and he also promised to break the binding placed by the echani so the Inner double could go wherever he pleased.
This all of course sounded very pleasing to the Inner Natas, who quickly agreed and took over the physical body. At first no one noticed the switch, not below and certainly not above. But then something started happening. People would turn up missing, and their lots would become part of Natas’ land. When the echani went there, expecting to find the Inner double, they were confronted by Natas and barred from access by several strange spells which he had apparently brought with him from the Upper Realms. No one could enter that dark land. After a short time, he had consumed almost fifteen inner lots, and in the Upper Realms the Inner double was using the body to dispose of the twins.
When their twins had been disposed of, the Inner double demanded to be compensated and to return from the physical world to freedom. But the sorcerer had never planned on making good, and through some manner which even the echani had never understood, Natas killed the Inner double and regained control of both his physical body and his augmented lot of the Inner.
A war was fought, and in the Inner it went on for thousands of years. In the Upper Realms this was only a few centuries, but it reflected the turmoil going on inside the minds of men. Through some clever manipulation of the laws of the universe, Natas had found a way to never have to restart his cycle as others did. His Inner twin was dead, and the Inner twin was the thing that was supposed to continue the life force, entering the physical world and receding, then repeating. This caused lapses in memory on both levels, but Natas had cut this part out. He was able to become virtually immortal, living mostly within the Inner and refreshing his Upper body. When it began to decay, he would find a new suitable body.
Because of his blatant use of the trust of others, restrictions had to be placed on all beings. Travel between lots of the Inner was no longer permitted, and barriers had to be placed between the Upper and Inner realms so as to quell Natas. Somewhere around the eighteenth century, these restrictions finally paid off and Natas was stopped from returning to the Upper realms. Feeling trapped, he had made several bold and wreckless attempts on the newly formed Council of Valence, resulting in his capture by the echani Ku On Hu. The upper realms began to return to a state of peace.
But then Natas got free. No one really knew all the details of what happened next, but the result was well known. Natas ravaged as much of the Inner as he could as a sort of vengeance for his incarceration. In the upper realms this was the early twentieth century, and once again the turmoil began to seep through to the Upper Realms.
The echani, together with the Council of Valence, realized that things were spiraling out of their control. Natas was seemingly unstoppable after his escape, and now that people were scared, he was gaining followers who would rather serve than die. The three architects of the Two Realms, the echani, decided it was necessary to incarnate in the Upper Realms before the inevitable return of Natas. They knew his plan was to regain access to the Upper Realms, and from their once again attempt his conquest of both of the realms. They wanted to be there to stop him when he came.
It was all incredible to Benny, who was supposed to be one of those three Higher Beings. He could remember no such things, and even though he understood that this was normal, especially for someone his age, it still frustrated him and brought his confidence down. If only he could remember something from the time when he was a master of this Inner place, then everything would seem a lot easier.
But he had settled for simply practicing anything he could. The thing that came easiest to him so far was levitation. He had a suspicion that he had not thrown the giant log by sheer strength, but from a combination of strength and telekinesis guided by his will. So every time they had stopped moving to take a break, Benny would take a rock and hold it in his palms, focusing on trying to make it lift. The first few attempts had been fruitless, but finally he had gotten the small pebble to float about three inches above his hand, turning lazily in the air for about a minute before his concentration broke and it tumbled to the ground.
Now Benny found himself sitting beside Brun at the top of a tall cliff. He had chosen a slightly larger stone this time, and once it was successfully hovering a few inches above his fingertips, he slowly began willing it out away from him. It was an odd sensation, like trying to push it away while also trying to give it enough lift to stay in the air.
“As the stone floats out,” Brun said, watching the pebble, “the increased distance between the ground and the rock will seem to increase. But this is an illusion…”
Benny felt what he was meaning, like the rock was becoming more heavy as it drifted out into the open air over the valley below. It was now about five feet in front of him, almost clear of the rocks below their feet.
“The pull of the earth is always the same, and you must realize that in this world it does not matter to you. You have a mind, and therefore can affect the physics of this world. The stone can not. Without you, it would fall. You keep it up. You are the most important component to that stone’s remaining on this cliff. Breathe, Benny from Away.”
Benny had been holding his breath, concentrating as hard as possible on keeping the stone aloft. As it had drifted farther out, clear of the rocks, Benny had become aware that he was levitating a rock some five hundred feet above the ground, and the weight had seemed to increase tenfold. His head was beginning to strain with the ache when Brun told him to breathe, and he knew if he inhaled to quickly he would get a head rush and drop the rock. He tried to focus on what Brun had said about the rock needing him, aobut him being what kept the rock up and free from the effects of gravity. Slowly he pulled in his first breath, clutching to the thought that the rock was like this world which he had supposedly helped organize in the farthest reaches of history. He was supposed to be one of those original three who structured the manifested universe and maintained its order, and the rock was like that universe. Without him, it would fall to the depths, instead of remaining on the cliff where it belonged.
The first breath complete, he slowly exhaled, being sure to give himself enough time to avoid any head rushes.
“Very good, Master Benny,” Brun said. “Now bring it back home. Return the stone to its rightful place of rest.”
Benny began reversing his thoughts, willing the rock back toward him, pulling it slowly back away from the long drop. Benny saw the rock beginning to dip while it was still about ten feet away, and he caught himself holding his breath again. He consciously forced himself to start breathing slowly again, taking deep full breaths and focusing on the rock. It leveled back out and glided toward him.
Suddenly, when it was about five feet away, it darted toward Benny like a bullet. He raised his hand in front of his face and gasped, expecting to get smacked with the rock at least on the hand, but after a moment of no impact he moved his hand and saw the rock floating just inches in front of his forehead.
“Very, very good,” Brun said. Benny recognized the note in his voice. It was the note that said Benny had done something Brun had not expected him to be able to do.
“All I did was stop the rock,” Benny said. “I don’t know why it came at me to begin with… Maybe I was too excited that it was almost back?”
“No,” Brun replied. “I tried to hit you with the rock, and you managed to regain telekinetic control and stop it instead. Now, this could be in part because moving things with my mind was never my strongest point, but I think all in all it was because you have mastered the basic fundamentals of this world, namely that as long as you keep your connection to this place clearly in mind, no one can take control away from you. Your kind share ownership of massive amounts of the Inner because you constructed it. You don’t remember this, perfectly fine, but it is still true and therefore you have an internal knowledge, hidden deep within the recesses of your soul’s secret memory, which allows you to be a virtual god here. Most people of the Inner would have a hefty bruise between their eyes from that one.”
Brun smiled and flicked the rock toward Benny. Benny once again stopped it in mid air, laughed, and sent the rock sailing out off the cliff, into the forest below. As the abilities he was supposedly imbued with began to show themselves, he felt more and more confident that perhaps he could indeed take his body back, help Brun save his sister, and somehow put things as close to normal as was within his abilities. He truthfully didn’t care if Natas was killed or not, as long as he could return to some semblance of a normal life.
There was, however, that part inside which told him things could never be normal as long as The Madman roamed. Even if things seemed to go back to peace, it would only be a matter of time before Natas would find some new scheme for stirring up trouble. So the inevitable eventually sank in and Benny no longer resisted it.
He, or someone with his aid, would one day have to kill Natas.
Mary Jorgens had not spoken to anyone since she had turned up at city hall. She had been badly shaken, and she spent her days staring at a wall in blank silence. When she had first shown up, she had been hysterical and raving about her son killing her husband. No one knew if this was true or not, of course, but it corroborated with the stories of earlier witnesses who had claimed to see Benny Jorgens committing murders around the town. Also, the boy’s father had not yet shown up at City Hall, and the two people stationed at the strategic peepholes around the hall had so far reported no sightings of him. So as far as anyone knew, she was telling the truth and Benny Jorgens had truly gone off the deep end.
Most people just thought it was from whatever traumatic experience it had been that turned his hair white. Surely something so horrible as to change the pigment in your hair could cause enough mental scarring to lead one to kill, right? But Mary made no comments and offered no opinions to the gossip. It was really no wonder to the people who knew her and who believed the story; if it was true, Mary had lost her son to madness and her husband to that mad son. Her entire family in Minde was now dead. She had relocated from across the country, and now that anarchy had sealed its clutches all around the exterior of City Hall, it did not seem that she had much of a future to look forward to.
Indeed, every one of the Hallers had decided she would never speak again. Most of them had tried to offer their condolences, but they all just walked away feeling as if they didn’t know if she even heard what they had to say. It appeared that no one could get inside her wall and get her to open up again. But then, on the most unusual day so far for the Hallers, Mary had responded to the sound of the crowd gathered outside the doors of City Hall.
She had been about ten feet from the door, staring across the entrance hall toward the twenty or so people who had formed into two circles for poker. But her monotonous stream of internal lamentation was broken by the sound her son’s voice. She had jumped up and walked over to the large wooden door, pressing her ear to it to hear what was going on. This was, in fact, how the other Hallers had been alerted to the presence of the gathering crowd. No one had heard anything until one of the poker players noticed her with her ear pressed against the door.
After hearing the voice of her only born for no more than five seconds, Mary didn’t hear it again. All she could hear was the bustling of the crowd gathering on the street at the foot of the City Hall lawn. There was a man who was acting as tournament director for the people playing poker, and since he was not involved directly in the card game, he went over to see what Mary was listening to. He hadn’t even approached the door fully when he heard the murmuring of the crowd. “What is it, Mary?” he asked. His name was George and he had run a weakly funded card room in the middle of town, but his gambling persona did not keep him from being loved by many of the townspeople. There were even some of the ‘crazies’ who had wished he would stay on the outside, so that poker could continue. As it was he wanted nothing to do with the rebellious murderers roaming the streets, so he had grabbed all of his fancy chip-sets and playing cards, stuffed them in an oversized trunk, and come to City Hall.
George didn’t really expect Mary to reply, as she had not spoken since she had shown up at the Hall. Much to his surprise, however, she replied in a quiet, but firm, voice. “It’s my son,” she said, still staring at the door as if she could see through it. “Or rather, it’s what is left of my son.”
She suddenly turned to look at him with an intense look in her eye. “Please,” she pleaded, grabbing the front of his shirt and pulling herself closer to him. “You have to believe me. Something has taken over my son, and it’s out there right now. He’s capable of so much more than my son was. I know it can’t be him in there. Something has him, and its…evil. Please… no one will believe me so you have to warn the others. If it wants to get in here, it will get in here. His strength… its…”
She suddenly became choked up and George instinctively put an arm around her, disregarding the stares of the players a few yards away. He knew they couldn’t hear them, the acoustics in the entrance hall being absolutely atrocious, so their curious stares didn’t really bother him that much. This episode of Mary’s obviously had something to do with the murder of her husband, and he couldn’t deny even to himself that there did indeed seem to be a massive crowd directly outside the doors of City Hall, so he was determined to calm her down and hear what all she had to say. Even if it did sound insane.
After a few moments her sobs subsided, and with her face against his chest she muttered one sentence that would cause George to sound the alarm to the others and bring the crowd to the attention of the rest of the Hallers.
“It caved my husband’s throat with one hand, and somehow I know, I just know that it is coming to kill all of us; the women, the men, and I see no reason to think the children will be spared.”
The thought of George’s daughter Emily came into his mind, and with that he let go of Mary and went off in the direction of the main hall to spread the news. This is what set into motion the chain of events which would cause the disturbance in the small town of Minde to become an all out war.