The book is finally complete. It turned out to be 1,139 pages long, with 205.629 words. Long time coming, but Small Town Ravaging is finally finished. Now on to editing and preparation for publishing.
Chapter Eighteen

     Alphonse was watching the strangest thing he had ever seen. Someone, presumably one of the true ‘crazies,’ was dragging two bodies down the road below him. He and his ragtag group of followers had taken refuge in a church, and he was watching the strange scene from the bell tower, where he thought he would be the hardest to spot. It was more strange, Al thought, that he could just barely see the shapes of other crazies doing the same thing on other streets. All around the town, it seemed, people were dragging bodies through the streets.

     Maybe it was the odd orientation of the streets and buildings of Minde, all arranged to face Bonhelm Hill and all streets leading to the circular avenue that ran all around the town, but it seemed to Alphonse that all the bodies were being dragged towards that hill at the center of town. Indeed, looking towards it from the east side of the bell tower, he could see the even more strange sight of a short dark line of what could only be the bodies of deceased townspeople, all lined up in a perfect row at the bottom of the hill, just above the tree line. As he watched from his high perch, he saw more and more figures emerge from the trees, dragging bodies behind them and lining them up beside the others.

     From the west, gunshots could be heard almost continuously. From the direction of Geoff’s old store, to the north, there would be nothing but silence for long periods of time and then a single shotgun blast would explode through the warm evening air. In Al’s mind, he saw the old toothless store owner holed up somewhere secure, picking off anyone who dared venture near his precious store. The old coot had always been extremely protective, and it was common knowledge within Minde that Geoff Wisenhower stored several weapons behind his little counter, not all of them legal.

     Alphonse tried to remain confident, but really Wick and Jared had taken over the role of leadership. By himself, he could scarcely come up with any justifiable plan of action, but the other two could graciously step in, pretend to collaborate with him, and override any of his folly filled plans with something more cunning. That’s how they ended up at the church. It was no idea of Alphonse’s, for he had pretty much given up confidence in his decision making abilities ever since the fiasco with the theatre.

     So many people, I led into a trap, he thought from the bell tower as he watched the scene unfolding in the twilight gloom all around the town. He wished he could tell if any of the people being dragged through the streets were people he had attempted to lead, only to bring them right into the clutches of danger, but it was growing too dark and his eyes would fill with tears of shame whenever he thought he began to recognize someone.

     Some great leader you turned out to be, he said to himself. Even now, you can’t shoot any of these people because you can’t tell which are friend and which are foe. A good leader would not take so much time to decide. Your job is to shoot anyone who comes within ten feet of this building, but here you stand, watching as countless bodies are dragged by equally countless crazies right in front of you.

     Once again, Al found himself trying to suppress the nagging, critical voice within himself. It was merely his guilty conscience talking, he knew, scolding him for assuming the role of leader when he knew himself to be incapable of filling such shoes, but he still couldn’t help the feeling that it was someone else entirely, making fun of him in order to get a rise.

     His thoughts were cut short as he noticed a shadow. It was not one of the typical shadows of the crazies, who walked along slowly, scanning left to right, constantly searching for new prey. This shadow was the shadow of an extremely confident sneak-artist, Al could tell. It darted behind a dumpster, crouched down, waited almost an entire minute, and then darted out to their side of the street.

     Shoot him, fool! The voice inside goaded, but something about this shadow had caught Al’s attention. It seemed to pack a long gun on its back, and moved with such grace that Al could tell without a doubt that this was not one of the people under the control of the man who called himself ‘San.’ No, this one moved much too stealthily and with too much grace. The only thing that even betrayed the fact that the shadow was a man was a deep, chesty cough that the man seemed to attempt to repress as best as he could.

     He watched as the man crept closer and closer to the door of the church. He then knocked four times, as light as possible, light enough that Al could just barely make out the sound. From such a high point on top of the church, Al couldn’t tell what the person inside the door said in response to the knocking, but the harsh whisper of the man was loud and clear.

     “Open the stinkin’ door, for crying out loud,” the man whispered. “I’m not going to kill ya, for Christ’s sake. If anything, you need my help just as much as I need your help, so stop wasting my time before one of those damnable people start shooting at me again.”

     There was a long pause, the silence only broken by the gunfire in the distance and the muffled sound of the man trying to stifle his cough. He must be sick, Al thought. But for some reason, he didn’t think the man was a threat. He believed that the man truly was only seeking shelter, and was perhaps even more skilled with whatever weapon was on his back than any of Al’s crew was with their weapons.

     Finally, there came a click and a creak as the oversized door to the church was swung open, followed by another creak and a slam. As soon as the door was shut, Alphonse saw a slowly moving dark shape emerge from the alley where the man had been only moments before. It lumbered out into the street and stood there, seeming to look back and forth as if in search of the noise.

     Al watched as another appeared from somewhere near the church, and was horrified to see that the second shape was carrying what could only be a rocket launcher or a bazooka. He ducked down and waited until he heard footsteps wandering off into the darkness. He didn’t want to take the risk of one of them seeing him and attempting to fire whatever the large gun was at him.

     The sun was almost entirely down now, and looking at his digital watch, Al saw that the ‘Game’ had been going on for nearly six hours. He decided it was time to take refuge in the church with the others, and so he unlatched the trap door in the floor of the bell tower and made his way down the short ladder into the darkness below.

     This is going to be a long night, he thought. Good thing Marilee had the foresight enough to check all our guns in the gun shop and grab extra ammo.

     The church was now warmer than when he had left it earlier. They had all agreed to leave any lights off, but everyone had agreed that the drafty old church needed some heating if they were going to make it through the night. Even though it was only the beginning of the autumn season, the wide halls and stained glass windows made drafts and cold air the norm within the church.

     He reached the bottom of the ladder and climbed off onto the landing at the top of the stairs, he heard the raised whispers of his group echoing up out of the darkness.

     “I don’t care,” Jared was saying. “He’s a stranger, and doesn’t belong here. How can we possibly know if he’s really one of them or not? He might kill us in our sleep.”

     “That’s very unlikely,” Wick retorted. “We all saw the way those people act; slow, dim in the eyes, and hardly able to even speak, much less beg for sanctuary.”

     “Well then how did he know we were here?”

     “Because I saw you,” came the man’s voice, followed by a stifled burst of coughing. Apparently Wick and Jared had been talking about the newcomer as if he wasn’t even in the room.

     “From where?” Jared asked, always the skeptic.

     “From right under your snotty little noses,” the man said. His voice wasn’t all that gruff, but it definitely had a slight rasp to it as the cough took its toll on him. “I’ve been hiding out across the street, in a dumpster. The smell keeps them from smelling me, and I am pretty sure that they don’t have enough wits to really sense me in any other way. I’ve been watching them for a lot longer than you folks have.”

     “But they have only been on the loose for the past five or six hours,” Jared retorted. “It seems to me that you lie more than you speak sensibly.”

     “And it seems to me that you need to shut your mouth unless you know what you’re talking about, boy,” the man spat back. “San may have only released them upon you folk when the bell struck five, but the rest of us who haven’t been holed up like cowards have been dealing with these lazy excuses of life for over seventy two hours now. I was there when it happened.”

     Alphonse emerged from the shadowy flight of stairs, where he had held back to listen objectively, and walked over toward the small cluster of candles that served as the only light they felt safe enough to keep going.

     “Please, Jared,” Al said. “I for one want to hear what this man has to say, and if he can really help us in any way at all, even if he only helps by giving us information, then you need to start treating him like a guest instead of like an intruder.”

     Jared mumbled something under his breath, something like he is an intruder, but Al didn’t feel like calling the boy on it. It’s been a long enough day, he thought. No need to fuel his temper.

     “Ah,” the man said through the gloom. “You must be the LeBray boy who fancied he could kill the lunatic with a sharpened broom handle?”

     Alphonse was glad that the light was dim, or else everyone would have been able to see his cheeks become red as the embarrassment overtook him. That was an instant of the terrible day that he had hoped would be forgotten.

     “I am,” he managed to reply, trying his best to sound dignified. “And if put in the same situation again I would try it.”

     “And you would fail once again,” the man said. “I have not figured out what he is, but this San… I heard all of his early speeches, his sermons, if you will… and everything I can gleam of the man seems to point to him being some fantastically talented hypnotist. Destructive, frightful yes, but fantastic at what he does nonetheless. I was there the day he took these pawns. He had been spreading hate towards you Hallers, blaming all of these problems on the people of City Hall, until he had pretty much whipped up all the riff-raff in town into a frenzy. The younger hoodlums who had begun to raid and pillage the town now began to terrorize you folk. And that’s when he had the meeting at the Lodge.”

     Alphonse looked over at Wick questioningly, but he was staring just as intently, legs folded beneath him, eyes fixed on the newcomer. The man shivered, looking as though the memory filled him with a great chill.

     “It was the second day after his arrival, and the first day that Benny Jorgens began his killing rampage. He told his closest followers to gather everyone in town who was faithful to the anti-Haller cause and bring them to Masonic Lodge three thirteen. I was there, but not as a faithful supporter, I promise.”

     Jared snorted.

     “I was a non believer, and yet I had become fascinated with the man. I couldn’t accept the idea that all of the disappearances were just natural occurrences, or chance happenings where one or two of our townspeople snapped, nor could I give up the thought that somehow San himself had played a part in it. I mean, right when our town was falling to pieces after Harrison disappeared, Benny Jorgens showed up ruined, one kid turned up missing, another turned up dead, and the interim sheriff killed himself and his wife after the death of their son, this guy just wanders out of nowhere and expects us to believe that he had no part in it? The thing that kept me enthralled was just how many people were falling for his ruse, hook, line, and sinker.

     “Anyways, I showed up at the Lodge to hear the speech, expecting it to me yet another of his preachy sermons, but this time it was different. He seemed to have a different goal. Now he wanted us to see that we had lost all hope, and needed him to save us. Well, I just couldn’t stomach that either. So I got up and walked out. I knew he wouldn’t dare do anything to me with so many people ripe for the molding, all in the same crowded room. That would be risking the loss of several of his pieces. I remember, once I was leaving through the door, I heard him ask them if they wanted to see what fear and hatred could do to a man. I didn’t turn back, but as soon as the crowd gave a collective affirmative, I am guessing he showed them his eyes, like several of them had been asking for.

     “Now, this is where my story gets a little speculative, so just bear with me.”

     Marilee was watching the man, eyebrows creased, focusing on everything he said. Jared was scowling at his feet, warming his hands over a vent in the floor, his downcast face only barely visible in the dim light. Looking towards Jynx, the newest member, but certainly no less valuable, Al saw that he was dozing in a corner, well away from any windows (the boy was courageous in certain ways, but cowardly in even more.)

     “At the moment that I suppose San showed his eyes to the people,” the man continued, “the murmur and the gossip within the crowd just went absolutely silent. There were no startled gasps that one might expect to hear from a crowd being shown blind, mutilated eyes. There was no thanks to the man for opening up to them. There was nothing. My guess ever since that moment has been that he did… something… to the them at that point. Like I said, I don’t know exactly what it was, but judging by the dead silence and the way I saw the people file out of there, in a perfect line behind that insane bastard, I assume he performed some kind of mind control.”

     The man raised his hands in front of himself in a defensive gesture as Jared started to retaliate at this ludicrous story of events. “I know, I know,” he said. “It sounds crazy. And it is. But I am telling you, its true. I holed myself up in an abandoned two story house just up the street from the lodge, and I watched it all. I was there to hear the man’s last speech to them, I didn’t look back and heard as they went dead silent. I waited around, thinking he would say something more to them, anything, but there was nothing else. I left, I waited, and I saw them emerge, marching more perfectly than any army ever did, with dead eyes. Then they all disappeared until his speech in front of City Hall. I watched that, as well, and saw them acting as his little swat team, holding the crowd at bay. Some of the people who were left on the outside were still being driven by their hate, the hate that he had stirred within them all, but they all realized by the end of it that he was no friend of theirs.

     “This is my main hypothesis: I believe that Benny Jorgens is not directly under his control, but Harrison and all of those drones certainly are. You can tell the difference by how fast or slow they move, as you well know. My idea is that San is somehow controlling them all individually, and the strain of doing this is what makes them so slow. He doesn’t have the mental capacity to make them all move fast. It’s too much of an impossibility. So he controls them all in a very basic fashion. This is why they can’t smell very well, and the main things they rely on to track their prey is sound and sight. That is how I have so easily avoided them. But as each one of them dies, the others will be easier to control, you see? I cannot stress this enough: if you don’t want to have a powerful group of those things to contend with, find any way possible to restrain them without killing them.”

     He paused then, maybe for effect, maybe to let the words sink in. Al didn’t know. But he mulled over what the man said anyways. It made sense. Al had decided long ago that the people were under his control, but he hadn’t thought of this as an explanation for how slow the people moved. If anything, he had been more optimistic, hoping it was a sign that the people were still inside, trying to fight the man’s powers off.

     “How close have you been to them?” Al asked.

     “What?” the man replied. “What the hell kind of a question is that? I’ve tried to stay as far away from them as possible. They’re like homing missiles; you get spotted by one of them, they are relentless in the hunt. Even now, there are at least six circling this place. I’m sure you saw them from the bell tower, no?”

     “How did you know I was up there?” Al asked. He thought for sure he had been quiet and stealthy while keeping watch.

     “I was in the military, and I won’t tell you which branch, so don’t ask, but suffice it to say that knowing things… well that is what I was trained for.”

     “Anyways,” Alphonse said, “the reason I asked how close you’ve gotten is that I have some suspicions of my own about them, and one of them includes the idea that they might be starving, just like most of the townspeople I saw. I would be hard pressed to convince myself that this San fellow has been keeping them well nourished. I’m just wondering if you have seen any signs of this. Sunken eyes, lack of body fat, anything that might confirm this?”

     “Well,” the man said, thinking it over, “I don’t know for sure, but I suppose a lot of them did look a tad bit on the skinny side. But I don’t understand what relevance this would be of to anyone.”

     “I’m pretty sure there is a way to combine our separate observations,” Alphonse replied coolly. Looking over at Marilee, he saw the fierce glitter in her eye that always meant she had caught on, the look that told him she was on the same wavelength as he.

     “Meaning…what, exactly?” the man inquired.

     “If we can spread the word to keep away from them, or restrain them if confrontation is inevitable, then we can starve them before they can kill us all,” Marilee said. However, as was the case whenever she got excited about something, she said it all in a terrible rush, blurring all the words together for anyone who hadn’t practiced hearing her fervent rushes of thoughts.

     The man only looked thoughtful and made a hmmm sound, staring at the ground as he thought it over.

     “That’s pretty much right, yes,” Al said. “But I would take it a bit farther. I propose arranging a raid on whatever remains in town, be it the Shavo’s freezers, the stores, even abandoned houses. I must admit, under the circumstances I would even support raiding the houses of the deceased. We must gather everything there is to gather from town and bring it here. If we can find a way to advertise that we have all the food, the people who are left out there will have to come here, and then we can warn them about killing them, while also keeping everyone together. We can utilize our advantage in numbers if everyone is disjointed. I tried gathering them together once, but I failed.”

     “I heard about that,” the man said solemnly.

     Something about the fact that he had heard it from someone else, someone who could have only talked about the situation critically, made Alphonse mad. “Who are you, anyways?” he finally asked. “And how did you hear about it?”

     “My name is Peter,” he replied. “That’s all the more you need to know about me. But I also came to tell you, there are more people out there. Some are in the most amazing places of hiding, some are right out in the open, like snakes waiting to attack, but they all understand the situation. Since first walking out the door of the meeting at the Masonic Lodge, I have been spreading the word. It may have only been a few days, but I reached as many people as was possible in that time. Its not much of an army, but it’s an army, and they’re waiting to join forces with you and anyone else you might be able to muster up. But please, don’t misunderstand my warnings. Sometimes it will be necessary to kill in order to stay alive; San was at least in part demonstrating the truth when he demonstrated the outcome you would face if you did nothing. But he was also, in part, bluffing. He wanted us to do something, though I don’t know why. Bastard has to be getting something out of all of this chaos, something more than just a sick satisfaction, I’m sure. But he won’t get anything if we don’t kill any of them, and there might be some way that we can restore them to their bodies if we can destroy him without killing more people.”

     “That sounds a little too optimistic to me,” Jared said.

     “And you sound like a little baby, to me,” Peter said. It was obvious that he was growing frustrated with Jared Black, but there wasn’t much Al could do to stop the situation, so he kept his tongue.

     “Hey, I’m not the one spreading fairy tales at a time of crisis,” Jared said. “If I see one of those fucking things, I don’t care if it’s my own sister, I’m going to hack her head off.”

     “Then you’d try to face the next one and find it just the smallest bit stronger,” the man retorted. “After five or six of them you would find yourself overwhelmed by faster, stronger, more alert foes.”

     “You don’t know that,” Jared said. “Sorry that I don’t take guess work as a means of survival when someone is coming at me with a weapon in their hand.”

     “You’re a damn stubborn boy,” Peter said quietly. “But maybe one day that will prove useful. When this is all done, if you haven’t gotten yourself killed, and if you have nothing left in this awful place, apply for the US military. We could use a few more bull heads.”

     Jared snorted but ceased his argument, deciding instead to take out his frustration on his machete, sharpening it with a whetstone furiously, sending sparks flying. Unfortunately, Al could see that this had a worse affect on Peter than any of the boy’s arguments. He looked in the direction of the sound, then his eyes darted to the window, wide as quarters, and back to the blade, throwing off sparks.

     “You fool,” Peter hissed. His voice had suddenly become very sharp, and he darted forward and attempted to grab the blade from Jared. “You trying to get us all killed, you little son of a bitchd?”

     Jared had a strong grip on the blade, and wasn’t about to give up his only weapon. “Get off of me!” he shouted as Peter knocked him onto his back.

     “Shhhh!” came Marilee’s sharp hiss.

     “Fool!” Peter whispered once more, pinning Jared to the ground. Jared Black was stubborn, but he certainly wasn’t stupid. He ceased his squirming and listened with the rest of them.

     Through the silence of the church, slow footsteps could be heard outside the door. After a few moments it became clear that it wasn’t just one person, but several. Al suddenly got a vivid memory of the shadow below him as he had watched from the bell tower, with its large gun like a bazooka or rocket launcher. His stomach lurched.

     “I don’t think we should be in here,” he said quietly. “Someone wake up Jynx. We need to move, and move now, before its too late.”

     “Surely we can hold off a few of them, can’t we?” Jared asked. This time it was Peter’s chance to snort.

     “More foolish than I thought, that one,” he mumbled.

     “I hadn’t had a chance to tell you guys yet,” Alphonse admitted. “I didn’t know if it would be important if we kept quiet, but I saw something out there.”

     “What is it, Alphonse?” Marilee asked. In the light of the few candles they left burning, Al realized how beautiful she looked, even when concerned and frightened. “What did you see?”

     God, I hope I can protect her, he thought.

     “I’m not sure,” he said quietly. There came a hard thump against the door, followed by another in quick succession. “One of the…people walking down below me, he or she—“

     “It,” Peter interjected.

     “--it had something large in its hands. Like a large gun. I couldn’t tell what it was, but I could have sworn it was a rocket launcher. Something along those lines. I don’t know. But I don’t think we want to be in here if that particular one hasn’t left the area yet.”

     Slam! Slam!

     Now there seemed to be several of them, outside the door, pounding on it with something. One of the windows nearest Jynx exploded inward as someone smashed it with a rock, and he jumped to his feet instantly, scanning the area around him like a drunk scared out of his drunken nap.

     “Wha was that? Wha was that?” he asked, looking around, frightened. He saw them all gathering up their things and realization seemed to dawn on his innocently stupid face.

     “We have to go, Jynx,” Wick said from the other side of the room. He was halfway out a door leading to a hall in the back of the foyer, waiting for the others. “Grab your shit, mate.”

     “Oh, right,” Jynx replied groggily. Al knew he had killed at least one person during the course of their tumultuous evening, and had been badly shaken by having to do so, but he had proven himself excessively sneaky and an invaluable driver.

     The other’s had grabbed the small amount of possessions they had and were now waiting by the door for Jynx to get all of his things. For some reason, he had felt the need to pick up every little thing he spotted over the course of the past few hours, and for yet another reason unknown to Al, had spread them around himself before sleeping. Old teddy bear, a classic revolver with no sign of any bullets, his small handgun he had chosen from the remains of the gun shop, an alarm clock. Alphonse’s best guess was that Jynx thought he was going to return the items to their owners when all of this was over.

     He had finally crammed the last of his things into a backpack, and the rest of the group moved through the back door into the hall, away from the rows of pews and the loud thumping on the main double doors that opened directly into the foyer.

     Through the stained glass that had been broken through the rock, Al saw something slowly move its way in and point in their direction.

     “Coming!” Jynx said. Al tried to talk, to warn the young fool, but it was too late.

     Flames erupted from the broken window, fanning out. Jynx had the smallest of moments to notice the light, hear the whooshing noise, and begin to turn, but there was nothing he could do to protect himself. The flames engulfed him and as he turned back toward Alphonse, who was still in the door along with Peter, they were able to see that the half of his face that had been turned toward the broken window was already charred off, and his clothes were burning.

     The boy let out an ear piercing scream as the flesh melted from his skull, exposing his teeth, making a terrible grin.

     Peter was pulling on Al’s arm, but he couldn’t allow himself to be pulled away. His mind wanted to help, his body seemed to know that helping would mean death, and the conflict between the two had caused him to rigorously grip the door frame. The newcomer Peter was shouting something in his ear, but Al could not hear him.

     His mind had gone blank as he watched the dim but likeable boy who called himself Jynx fell to the floor, skin dripping from the muscles in his face, the eyeball on the left side of his face nothing more than a burst container of jelly like an overheated egg. The boy fell on a pew, which was already burning, and then Alphonse looked past him and saw the body of a man crawling through the window with the long thing he had seen from the roof, a small flame flickering on the end.

     This finally broke his catharsis, and he allowed Peter to pull him through the doorway and slam the door shut. Just as it was swinging shut, Alphonse caught one last glimpse of the now lifeless body of Jynx, and saw the man turn his torch in their direction. There was a flare of light, and then the door slammed shut, pulled by the powerful arms of Peter.

     They ran down the hall and emerged into the cool night air, facing two of the crazies. Wick and Marilee had already smacked one over the head with a rock from the garden which surrounded the back of the church, and the other was coming up behind the first. Alphonse was too dazed to see where Peter pulled it from, but somehow a rope appeared in the man’s hand and he went straight at the second of the crazies. He waited for the slow moving, lifeless man to raise his weapon before dodging beneath his arm and wrapping the rope around his neck from behind. In just two steps, Jared Black was there, and he pulled the crazie’s feet out from under him, causing the man to lose his grip on the gun he was carrying.

     In just a few short moments, the man was disarmed, gasping for air, and bound by rope.

     Marilee and Wick were doing something to theirs, but Al couldn’t see what through the dark night. Whatever it was, Peter must have deemed it acceptable because he shouted, “Let’s move!” and ran off into the night, closely followed by Jared, then Wick and Marilee.

     Alphonse thought about what San had said.

     Do nothing, and die.

     He forced himself to run after the others, before they got too far away to see where they were heading. He soon found himself running alongside, Marilee, who had hung back slightly.

     “What happened back there,” she asked, apparently not winded by the jog. “Where is Jynx?”

     “Jynx is dead.”


“Things seem to be going well,” the thing inside Benny Jorgens’ body said.

     “Fairly,” replied Natas. “But too slow, if you ask me. There should be more dead by now. I’m on strict deadlines, as you well know.”

     “Well, some would call it fast.”

     “Not I.”

     “Not I, says Sanrunai,” the thing mocked, laughing.

     “Must you always try to push my buttons?”

     “Why not? You kill me, then you need me, bring me back, and it all starts over again. Despite what you may think, I don’t exactly want to be in this damned place.”

     “You’d rather be back where you were? I would have thought limbo had grown rather boring for a restless creature such as yourself.”

     “I hardly know I’m there. To me it seems like you always bring me back so fast that I never even get a chance to relax before I’m being dragged back into this hell.”

     “The time when you can be free to roam whatever realm you choose is at hand, I promise you.”

     “It’s a shame, you know. In this pitiful excuse for a body, I can’t even enjoy some of your more… pleasurable skills. Unless you’ve suddenly turned queer.”

     Benny’s white haired body grinned, and the constant consumption of blood from its victims had nearly stained his teeth red. Natas cringed.

     “God damn it, Chi, why can’t you refrain from that ridiculous habit?” Natas asked. “Your breath smells like shit.”

     “A murderer such as yourself hasn’t yet learned to relish in the joy of blood?”

     “I am not a murderer,” Chi replied. “You do that for me. I’ve never killed a person in my life. Unless you count the frustrating recurrences of my double.”

     There was a book in the lap of the body of Benny Jorgens. The thing inside him was reading it avidly, searching—apparently—for stories of itself. Suddenly it cackled and looked at Natas.

     “Listen to this one, Sanrunai,” it said.

     “I told you to stop calling me that,” Natas replied from the stage, where he was currently drawing something in chalk on the smooth wood that made up the stage floor.

     “Oh, cool it,” the thing replied. “Seriously, you gotta hear this. ‘One tale tells of three travelers who stopped at an inn to seek shelter. The innkeeper didn’t have any available rooms, but the weather was terrible and so the people asked for any little room the man  could spare. So he put them in a shed out back of the inn, where unbeknownst to the travelers, the man’s daughter had been placed that very day after dying from a strange illness. One of the travelers instantly got a sense of foreboding, and could not sleep. The other two fell soundly into slumber, while the other staid up all night. Somewhere around midnight, the traveler who stayed awake saw the veil at the back of the shed slowly move to the side, pulled by the hand of the corpse. It sat up, its eyes glowing green…’ man, San—I mean Natas—I wish I really did have glowing green eyes. How cool would that be?”

     “I think you’re allowing the body of that child to affect your mind, Chi,” Natas replied. “You’re acting more like a child than the boy himself did.”

     Chi tittered and went back to reading. Natas dropped his chalk, leapt from the stage, and grabbed the book out of the thing’s hand, tossing it off into the mezzanine.

     He grabbed the white hair on the body of Benny’s scalp, yanked him to his feet, and kicked him in the butt forcefully in the direction of the door.

     “Maybe you’ve forgotten,” Natas said, “but this is no fucking joke, so unless you want to repeat this gods-damned process over and over and over again, I suggest you get the hell out there and start doing what I brought you here to do.”

     Still laughing, despite the chunk of hair that had dislodged itself when Natas yanked him out of his seat, Chi headed toward the door without another word about his legendary tales from the past.

     When the body of Benny Jorgens and its parasitic inhabitant left the building, Natas returned to the stage to lie down on the diagram he had drawn. It was an inverted pentagram, with a specific rune from the elder futhark on each point. A saying ran around the edge of the circle, also written in runes.

     In the spaces between each of the points, Natas had drawn detailed alchemical symbols. He laid down on it, except not in the direction one might expect. Instead of placing his limbs on each of the points of the star, with his head completing on the top point, Natas put his feet between the spaces, so that his legs rested on the alchemical symbols. The upper point (which was actually the lower point on his inverted star,)jutted out from between his legs, symbolically representing the phallus. He lined his hands up with the remaining two points, so that his body formed an ‘X’ over the design.

     His formation was complete, a bodily depiction that he was entering the lower realms. The Head point of the star was his phallus, the Leg points were lined up with his hands, and his legs went into the open space between the arm points, to symbolize his lack of physical existence and lack of need of physical legs. Within the Inner, he would be walking on spiritual legs alone.

     He began to chant, low at first but growing louder as he progressed through the speech he had first discovered in the thirteenth century of the Upper Realms’ Common Era. Louder, and louder still his voice grew, until suddenly it stopped.

     His breathing caught in his chest and slowed almost to a complete stop, along with his heart beat. Below his specially tailored, thick sunglasses, the eyes of ‘Madman,’ as people loved to call him (including himself,) drifted shut.

     His consciousness was gone from the Upper Realms.

     Just then, the thing that was called Chi walked back into the room. The night air swirled in behind him. “Hey, Sanny, I need my—“ it began, but stopped short when it realized that Natas was lying on the stage.

     Slowly, it approached the stage and peered across at the near-lifeless body of Natas. “Hello,” Chi said with surprise thick in his voice. “What have we here?”

     It jumped up onto the proscenium and inched it’s way closer to the man who kept it perpetually in a state of limbo, constantly dragging him back into the hell of physical existence.

     “I could kill you,” Chi said. “I surely could. And wouldn’t that be fun, you—“

     All of a sudden, the thing stopped its wicked grin and emitted a rasping noise, and found that it could no longer move. “Got…you…now, bitch!” Benny’s body said.

     “Fuck if you do, little boy,” it said back to itself.

     Chi was trying to force it’s gaze away from the comatose body of Natas, but for once the boy inside had a good grip on the body.

     “I’m coming for you,” Benny said once again to the creature inhabiting his body.

     Then the hold was gone, and Chi fell to the stage, gasping for air.

     “FUCK!” it screamed, slamming its fist against the floor. “FUCK, FUCK, FUCK!” More slamming of the fist, one for every ‘fuck.’

     “He saw,” it muttered to itself. “That little bastard saw.”

Chapter Seventeen

     Brun found Benny floating in the water, and levitated him out just moments before the boy surely would have drowned. He now stood looking at the unconscious lad who he had been charged with training, and the feelings rolling off of Benny were so great that when Brun saw colors, the reddish color which had long been associated within Brun’s thoughts with dread and fear was two inches thick around the boy, consuming his entire aura.

     Brun felt what the boy felt, saw what he was seeing in his mind, and knew that the boy was with the creature who was inhabiting his body. He’s in the Upper Realms, right now, he thought. Watching.

     Brun began to merge his thoughts with those of the boy, who was experiencing massive amounts of pain in the Upper Realms and was incapacitated by it within the Inner.

     He’s looking through his own eyes again, he narrated to himself. He is feeling as the creature waits, watching some road. Then there is a noise, and the spirit uses Benny’s body to jump in front of something. It’s a… a…

     Finally the merger between minds brought the proper words and understanding to Brun.

     It’s a motorized vehicle. A… Jeep. The Jeep hits Benny’s physical body. All he can see is spinning, all he can feel is pain in his legs, but it is quickly receding.

     Within the Inner, Benny jerked and moaned. Brun closed his good eye, leaving the magical eye open. Always open.

     He feels the monster’s incredible strength, coursing through his own body. He is angry. He wants his body back for himself. He wants the damage to stop, before he only has a crippled body left to come home to. More watching, this time as his body stands to its feet. I can feel him trying, with every ounce of will he thinks he can muster, to take control. The jeep has come to a stop, and the body begins to move towards it fast.

     There are flashes, but the weapon of death is not a match for this one. He sees everything about the attack before it even begins, and almost nothing can touch him, even the deadly, quick metal bees (Brun’s mind could not think of a better way to describe them, and the consciousness of Benny was too enrapt with the effort of trying to seize control to provide a better term.)

     He feels it as the breaks to his bones from the impact with the Jeep heal up, even as the creature runs on them. The realization sets in that as long as this thing inhabits his body, nothing can hurt him for very long. He is close to the Jeep now, and just as he feels the creature getting ready to spring, there is another blast. The creature is caught off guard by the wide splay of the buckshot, but of course it does not kill him. But… Yes! The thing inside Benny’s body has lost some of its grip on the boy, and the consciousness has seeped through. I feel Benny fighting, restraining the creature, holding the limbs of his physical body still.

     I see the boy in the driver’s seat of the Jeep staring, dumbfounded, and am not surprised when the big one in the back shouts ‘Go, you god damned fool! How long do you think he’s just going to stand there?’

     The vehicle speeds off, and I feel Benny gradually relinquishing control of his body once again. There is a deep sense of satisfaction, even though the moment of control was only brief.

     I did it, I hear Benny think. I helped them, just a little.

     Yes you did, Benny. I hear a strange, gruff female voice begin to speak. You will regret that, you piece of shit boy.

     Fuck you, Benny replies. This is my body, and I certainly intend to get it back. No piece of shit girl is going to hold it from me.

     The view follows the Jeep into the distance while the pieces of buckshot continue to find their way out of him, and then Benny’s body is running down an alley.

     We’ll see about that.

     I feel the pain as Benny’s body runs head first into a wall, guided by the monster within him. The life force of Benny is receding again, back into the Inner.

     Brun opened his normal eye, and there lay Benny, eyes open and breathing hard.

     “You did well, Master Benny,” Brun said with a crooked smile. “Better than a lot of people would have done.”

     “Thanks,” Benny said, rubbing his head. “But after hitting that wall I couldn’t keep my hold there. I just…let go.”

     “As you should have,” Brun said. “But I know one way to cure a mediocre headache like that.”

     Brun was still slightly connected to Benny, and he could feel the weak headache. It wasn’t much, and there was one sure fire way to make it go away for the boy while within the Inner.

     With a flick of the hand, his own personal hide-pack came whizzing across the clearing and into his outstretched hand.

     He pulled out the Lana plant.


     A few hits was all it took Benny this time. He sat staring at a tree, the headache beginning to recede. Brun was using some of the dehydrated meat from the Rokmon bird he had caught at the beginning of their journey to make a sort of soup.

     He took in the sweet smell, thinking about the thing inside his body in the Upper Realms. It was definitely a girl, he thought. But I don’t know if that will make it easier or not.

     He decided to ask Brun about it, and the man replied while cutting what looked like carrots (but which Brun himself insisted were called Tarrocs,) and dropping them into a small pot boiling over the fire. “It’s quite clear to me now, after hearing that deteriorating female voice, that Natas is using the same spirit he used when trying to attack Neonokin. It’s a rather flimsy partnership, I have to say, and I am quite surprised that they have worked together so many times when the two of them always seem to fail as a team. But it is the same old story that has gotten him banned from the Upper Realms before.

     “There is a murder. The madman evokes a spirit into the body, and the body is used like a puppet to achieve his means.”

     “But I wasn’t killed,” Benny said.

     “Correct,” Brun replied. “That is the only reason you still have hope. All the other bodies were dead in past attempts, and the flesh became corrupted and diseased extremely quickly. This gave them equally limited time to achieve the means of Natas.

     “However, you are not like the other humans,” Brun said. “You have been informed that you are one of the three echani, and just as you are special within the Inner, you are also special in the Upper Realms. Your body is no human body, and your mind is no average human mind. You remember what Beaner told you about how you are the co-creator, owner, whatever you wish to call it, of small parts of everyone’s individual slices of the Inner?”

     Benny shook his head. He remembered the conversation, all right.

     “That made it easier for Natas, because he has amassed such a large amount of area, that awful dark place I showed you known here as the Mad Keep, though hardly any are able to pinpoint its location, that he is connected to you in those subtle ways. Ever since breaking the laws set up by you and the other two all those millennia ago, Natas has been… how can I phrase this… connected to everyone alive in the Upper Realms. You and the others are connected to everyone because you were the instruments by which the human mind was dualized, and since he is connected to you, he is therefore also connected to them.”

     Makes sense, Benny thought.

     “He has used this to his advantage, as well as your young age in the Upper Realms. You are the newest, you see, the last to reincarnate in the Upper Realms in order to stop him. Every time he has tried, another of you has manifested. First there was the Old One, who has not been seen for ages, and some believe that he died while banishing Natas from the Upper Realms, and there was Neonokin, who began life not long before you and ended it only four or five of your Upper years ago. She too has not been seen since her last effort to stop Natas, but she was such a powerful figure that no one in the Inner believes that she is really gone. She began life as Susan Swanson, and disappeared as Neonokin, the powerful warrior woman who wore a necklace in the shape of an eye. The legends have it that Osiris himself gave her his eye, in order to watch over all she did as well as convey his wisdom to her through it.”

     “Then I came along?” Benny asked. Myth after Legend after Fairy Tale, he thought bitterly. It’s like I’m some kind of damn messiah to this guy.

     “Then you came along,” Brun agreed curtly, and Benny got the sudden suspicion that he had not been alone in his thoughts. “Natas had somehow found a way to manifest on top of that hill in the middle of your town, this is true, but that was the only place in the entire world that he was achieving this. I did not want you to feel overly burdened with guilt, and so I kept it from you, but with your continued denial of what you are, my hand is forced. You unleashed that monster on your world. You were the only echani who was able to be taken over, and even though you were the youngest with respect to when he began his attempts, it is no excuse. The Old One was born knowing what he was, but that does not mean Natas made himself easily known when he first tried to goad the boy into murdering the person whose corpse the madman planned to use the way he is using yours. Don’t you get it? You are alive, your body will not decompose as long as your life force lives on within the Inner, no matter what harm befalls your physical body, and you fell for the simple test of irritation.”

     When Benny began to look indignant and attempted to retaliate, Brun cut him off. “All he had to do in order to set his plans in motion was somehow lure you to that hill, and get you to ask for him to open his eyes. Hell, the damned man couldn’t even force his will upon you. He has to be asked to show his eyes, and yet somehow you fell for it. Obviously you asked him, or you wouldn’t be in this position.”

     Benny could think of nothing he could say to justify it. He had dwelt on the words he had said to that man on Bonhelm Hill ever since this particular gob of shit had hit the proverbial fan. “Like I could have known what it would lead to,” he said dejectedly.

     “He told you!” Brun shouted in reply. “I have relived the memory over and over again within your thoughts, and he told you implicitly that if you saw his eyes you would be under his control.”

     “How was I supposed to know that he was telling the truth, when nothing like that ever happened in real life, as far as I knew until a week ago?” Benny asked, once again trying to defend himself and yet failing miserably.

     “Four days ago,” Brun corrected, pointing out the already painful realization of how much devastation had been wrought upon his hometown in such a small amount of time. “And you couldn’t have known, but you could have used the skills endowed upon you to restrain yourself from getting irritated and telling him you wanted to see the very things he warned you about. My point is simply that you were at the prime age to be taken over, and part of the responsibility lies on your shoulders. The entire thing was not your fault, of course it wasn’t, but that does not mean none of it was your fault, either.

     “All I want is for you to realize what has happened,” the small man continued, visibly bringing himself back into a relatively calm state. “Realize, see how you and you alone can help, and own it. Completely own it. Take responsibility like Susan Swanson did, and instead of trying to fight what you are, become what you have always been meant to be.”

     There was silence for quite a while after that, as Benny stewed over possible snide responses. In the end he held his tongue, though, and began to see the truth in the words. The other echani were supposedly missing, or dead for all anyone knew, and he was the last. He was the ‘plan C,’ the end all plan that people saved for when even their back up plan failed, and he was the one who would have to bring an end to Natas.

     “I’m sorry,” Benny said quietly. “I just don’t have any better way of dealing with this situation than making light of it.”

     “There is almost always a better way to do something, young Master Benny. It’s just about whether or not you feel like looking for it.”

     “Alright, you win,” Benny finally blurted out.

     “I do not wish to win, Benny,” Brun said, for once dropping the title of Master. “I want to help you win.”

     Benny stared into the fire, puffed his Lana, and said nothing.


Laura’s feet were killing her. Her face had been hurting considerably for a moment, but that pain had faded away and now she was concentrating on the throbbing from the soles beneath her. She had been barefooted when she helped her double escape, and even when she had gone out to seek the aid of Fusa and Ku (only to find that Ku was missing,) she had still not put anything onto her feet. All through the passages and sublevel prison of the LeVille Mansion, she had not felt much of anything besides the adrenaline coursing through her veins.

     The intervening time had been so fraught with chaos and excitement that she still did not realize that she had worn blisters in the bottom of her feet, which had not burst and were quickly filling with pus and dirt, until they had arrived at a place with loose pebbles. That was when her sores became so irritated that she was forced to take notice.

As they traveled, she had kept her eye out for trees with wide leaves that she could use for making wraps for them, but they continued to pass only the trees with pointy needles. She was beginning to despair.

     It killed her even more to realize that both Fusa and Ku were barefooted, and neither of them seemed to be experiencing any agony whatsoever. It was frustrating. She was the youngest, the one who was supposed to be most full of vitality, and yet she was the only one who seemed to be acting like a grumpy old woman. She hadn’t whined out loud yet, but inside she was reeling.

     They had traveled for more than five miles since the run in with the Crog, and Laura was only distracted from her pain by a constant sense of being watched. She looked over her shoulder every five minutes, but nothing ever seemed to be there. She would try to reach out with her mind, but would find nothing but trees. Around mile three she had given up trying to locate where the feeling was coming from, and settled into a slow trot behind the other two, listening to their stories and talks of strategy. The main focus seemed to be on whether or not Benny had been captured by the man they had seen in the flames, and whether the so called ‘Unborn Son’ had been there to secure the captivity of the third echani. Fusa insisted that it was impossible to know, for the Son would never allow them to see true images, but Ku countered this assumption by stating that he had been receiving thoughts from the second echani, the one called Neonokin, which clearly showed that the boy was alive. Fusa would refute this, as well, saying that Neonokin was long gone, and no one had heard from her for ages, indicating that she had probably died. Ku would merely laugh and tell his double/son just how stupid he was. “What could you possibly know about it, stupid boy?” he asked the first time Fusa stated his doubts. “Just because you have no conception of her existence, that does not mean she isn’t still intimately linked to me. I know she is not dead, and I know that Benny is not captured for the same reason. Besides, Neonokin has been monitoring the boy, and I know that he is doing just fine. You will see, insolent boy. You will see.”

     Laura didn’t have an opinion either way. All she knew was that she would be gone if Benny was dead, and she would probably feel any harm which might have befallen him. Ever since the terrible experience with the extreme chest pain, nothing new had surfaced besides the relatively brief flair of pain in her face.

      She had never done a lot of traveling, and being raised in a family such as she had been, Laura had never known what it meant to walk for miles, let alone ever imagined the pain that would accompany it. Her legs hurt, her feet hurt, and even her head hurt from the constant glare of the sunny Inner days on the half dead needles that were strewn all throughout the forest.

     Finally, after the sixth mile (which had taken nearly six hours, as the rough terrain of the mountainous forest made moving even a single mile most difficult,) when Laura had just begun to suspect that these two men would never tire out, they finally called for a rest for the night. Thus, their second day of travel came to an end. Laura could subtly feel Benny getting closer again, just as she had felt the reverse when she had sent him away for his own good. She had ceased to grow, and she suspected that she had now completed her strange growth spurt, caused by Benny’s arrival below the Upper Realms.

     She helped Ku and Fusa set up camp and laid herself down on some leaves, looking up at the stars. There was no moon within the Inner like the one Benny had described to her from the Upper Realms, but nonetheless the sky fascinated her. It was something she had never experienced in Hayvan. Growing up in a cavernous cave filled in with buildings, streets, and her father’s mansion had given her a profound appreciation for the blue sky of the day and the star riddled sky of the Inner. Hayvan was situated in such a manner that visiting the actual Inner had been a rare thing. Her eyes hurt during the day, and saw everything during the night, being accustomed to the dim, fake daylight of her home.

     The smell of Ku’s cooking was delicious, but she barely paid it any mind as she thought about the stars above her. The man she had once called her father, Arthur LeVille, had once told her during a trip to the Inner that each star was a human, and that they glowed in the sky because they were the physical embodiment of what it meant to be alive in the Upper Realms. He said the Inner was like the dark night sky, and the points of light were like the flares of illuminated thought within a human. Each one was supposedly the gateway to the particular human, and he said that if she were to travel to every different person’s own allotted space of the Inner, she would see a different star being the brightest in each one. That was supposedly the star that represented the human who ‘owned’ that part of the Inner.

     Looking in the direction they were heading, Laura noticed a blood red star, with a dimmer purple star closely neighboring it. She had never noticed it on any of the other few trips into the Inner with LeVille, but that only meant that she was unable to take in every single star, which was not surprising to her.

     I wonder which one is Benny’s and mine, she thought. She knew her feelings for him were childish, but she still couldn’t help holding some hope that what she had said to Natas would turn out to be true. I can win him by myself. He will love me, one day, just like I love him.

     Gazing at the stars was pleasant, but intuition told Laura that they didn’t really have the significance her father had originally described to her. She knew from her lessons with Ku that the Pillar of Brynj, the unfathomably long and thick pillar that she had witnessed being eaten away by the acidic creatures while she, Ku, and Fusa had been passing through the between world, was actually the bridge of all human consciousness to their parts of the Inner. It was one of the great wonders of the human mind, keeping everything perfectly separated while also allowing dreams and subconscious thinking to function.

     Yet, for some reason, the Madman, Ardemeus Vonwell, who she had grown up around and had trusted, who had recently been revealed to her as the Dark Man of Legend, Natas, was attempting to create those giant Feerel in order to bring the Pillar down. Laura shuddered at the thought of what this would mean to mankind. Insanity, she felt sure.

Benny will stop it from happening, she thought, ever full of confidence for her double. Even if he doesn’t know exactly what he’s capable of, he will one day soon, and he won’t let it happen.

     Feeling the slight breeze on her face, Laura pondered what could be going on up above. Something had happened to Benny’s body again, she felt sure, because she had experienced the pain in her face. But it had been extremely brief, so she didn’t think it was a permanently damaging occurrence, whatever it had been.

     Soon she found herself dozing off, despite her hunger for whatever it was that Ku was cooking over the fire. He would wake her, she knew, so she allowed the exhaustion to overtake her. When she dreamt, she dreamt of what Benny was dreaming. It was like looking through a window into a narrow, dark passage that had another window on the opposite wall. She looked through the first window (her dream,) and back out the other window (Benny’s dream) into the world beyond. In this instance, she saw the Upper Realms and the things happening to Benny’s body.

     The view was from high up, as if looking down from the top of a building. Below, a small family was walking along with rifles in their hands. Even the small boy of no more than ten had a small .22 in his hands. They were walking cautiously, their backs to the building on the far side. As Laura continued to watch (helpless to do otherwise,) the view seemed to blur as Benny’s body leapt from the building and fell toward the family. None of them seemed to notice the boy flying at them until it was too late.

     Laura actually felt it as the legs of Benny’s physical body in the Upper Realms took the fall, instantly recoiling as the thing controlling the body lunged at the people. The father and the mother both raised their guns, but strong, abnormally powerful hands reached out and grabbed both of them, pushing them apart just before they fired. The twin blast was almost simultaneous, and Laura felt as the bullets moved through the air by Benny’s head.

     But then the vision moved so fast that even Laura couldn’t fully tell what was going on. All she knew was that at one moment the hands were forcing the guns apart, and the next there was the taste of blood and another taste that she assumed must be human flesh.

     Then the vision was centering on the child, clutching his gun without even the slightest appearance of knowing how to use it.

     You won’t get away with this for much longer, the voice of her double suddenly said. It was distorted and echoed so much that she could only barely understand it, but it was definitely her double.

     Benny! She tried shouting in the dream. Its me!

     I really am coming for you, and soon you will not be able to stop me from sabotaging every single attempt you make at death.

     Laura could feel as the body gave a malicious grin, and was forced to watch as the boy cringed in fear, tried to pull the trigger of his gun only to find that it was jammed, and then died as the hands of her double’s physical body squeezed its windpipe, lifting the child off of the ground.

     She could tell that the creature inside Benny was enjoying this, and it wasn’t even applying its full strength, in order to watch the boy die slowly of lack of air as opposed to dying almost instantly from a collapsed windpipe and loss of blood. He’s making Benny see this, she thought, wishing she could try but finding herself with no body but the grinning life form that Benny’s body had become. I don’t want to see this anymore.

     Laura? Benny’s voice enquired.

     Before she could respond, she was rushing backward, pulled out of the terrible vision by some unseen force, and slowly she began to hear another, more distant voice taking up the call.

     “Laura?” the new voice came, extremely muffled.

     “Laura?” it came again, this time a little more clear.

     “Laura? Wake up!”

     She opened her eyes and found her brow covered in sweat and the back of her clothes drenched. She was looking up at the concerned old face of Ku, his worry lines clearly showing the age he seldom seemed to display. She turned to the side and wretched

     “Did you see any of that?” she asked, gasping for breath. With the sweat covering her body, the night air seemed a lot more cold than it had been when she fell asleep.

     “Of course I did,” the old man said. “I saw all of it. I think you would do best to forget about it, Miss Laura.”

     “But I heard Benny!” she said, trying to sit up but finding herself pulled back down by Fusa, who she had not known was behind her.

     “Rest,” Fusa’s deep voice boomed. “You are always in too much of a rush to do things, young child. You may not be aware, but as your double strained his mind attempting to stop the beast who has taken over his body, some of his exhaustion moved to you as well. Get up now, and you will just pass out and be back to watching those bloody visions. That is, unless this boy Benny has awoken here in the Inner as well.”

     “You heard him, yes,” Ku said. “And I believe at the very end he heard you too. Luckily for us, the being cohabitating inside his body did not. We don’t want Natas or any of his little minions to know that we are getting close enough to Benny that you can communicate with him. That would give them too much information about our location, and I have spent too long and too much energy trying to ensure that Natas hardly even thinks I’m alive anymore to have it ruined because you wanted to talk to Benny. So please, child, don’t try to contact him again if you have one of those dreams.”

     Laura found herself once again in the same position she had been in before allowing herself to doze off: lying on her back, looking up at the stars, thinking about Benny. Now that she saw what was going on up there with his body, she felt the urgency more than she had this entire time. Even when she had rushed to get Benny out of her father’s mansion, she had not felt so panicked. She had known that terrible things were happening to the physical body of her double, but she had not been aware that it was going around ravaging families.

     Finally, after what seemed like an hour at least, Fusa told her she could sit up. She tried to imagine what it must be like for Benny, wherever he was within the Inner, to wake up after straining his mind to reach up into the Upper Realms and cause some sort of change in the body he had lost. It certainly couldn’t be a very pleasurable experience, she felt sure.

     As she sat eating the porridge like substance Ku had produced, Laura pondered on why Benny had been unable to affect any change whatsoever. Surely, he must be able to do something to the creature, especially if he was dreaming of it every night. Up until then, the time tracks on which she and Benny ran had been too far distant for them to both be sleeping at the same time, but having gotten so close to Benny (apparently they were only about ten or fifteen miles from him and would catch up soon, according to Ku,) she was now sleeping at the same time as him. Now that she saw what Benny must have been dreaming about every night since she sent him into the Inner, Laura felt a pang of pity. Maybe he has already done it, she thought, and so the second attempt was harder because he has considerably less strength remaining after his first success.

     She allowed herself to be encouraged by this thought, but nonetheless she stayed awake the rest of the night, feeling fully reinvigorated by the sweet smelling stuff Ku had cooked.

     The next day they set out, at a faster pace than normal. Whenever they would crest a hill, Ku would gather her and Fusa into his arms and do one of his many fascinating tricks, in this case causing them all to skip across the intervening valleys to another hill on the far side. They would only do this every two hours or so, though, for he claimed that it was a very draining process to bend the space of the Inner enough to cause the jump.

     After the third time (when the sun was once again beginning to set, casting a deep red glow over the land,) they found themselves on a hill which spoke to Laura’s very core. She could feel Benny all around, in the trees, in the grass, and even in the air. When she linked with the trees the way she had with her gun during their confrontation with Natas, she could feel the picture they tried to paint in her mind. Plants had a funny way of thinking, in her opinion. They didn’t see, but sensed everything around them, enough that they could even transmit to her basic shapes. They showed her a blurry, black and white outline of a boy and someone extremely small with him. The silhouette of the bigger one, who she figured to be Benny, was sitting on the ground, and a small, pebble sized shadow was floating up and away from him. Suddenly she saw the pebble (or at least the small shadow she assumed to be a pebble) hurtle back at the boy, slamming him in the head. He sat rubbing it. There was no noise to accompany these images, but Laura got the feeling that the smaller man-shadow was scolding him for something.

     They were here, she thought, instantly filling with excitement when the image the tree showed her was done. She thanked the tree in her mind, and even took a small amount of the meat Ku had cooked at their first camp and buried it underneath one of the roots. In that way she hoped to properly thank the tree, and when she buried it, she buried it snug up against the root so that it could begin consuming it instantly.

     She couldn’t say for sure, but it seemed like the tree was grateful for being thanked in such a way. Ku had allowed them to stop there, so that Laura could try to learn anything she could from the trees, stones, and ground where her double had sat only a day or two before her.

     “You have a great gift, Young Miss Laura,” Ku said, watching her as she unlinked from the tree. “There are not many people who can communicate with inanimate objects in the way you can.”

     “Really?” Laura asked. “I thought it was something both of you would surely be able to do.”

     “When I first began teaching you how to move things, I told you to picture yourself as the object, get inside it, but I never suspected you would actually be able to put parts of your soul inside things, thereby being able to speak with objects that would otherwise go unheard.”

     Laura didn’t deal well with compliments, but she did her best to accept them without refuting what he was saying or blushing too hard. It was just that she hadn’t thought of it as something special. She had been able to do it since the first object she had ever moved, just not to the degree she was coming to by the time they reached the hill. “Thank you, Ku,” she said. “But really… all I do is become one with them, like you taught me to, and its up to the object to decide if it wants to reveal its secrets or not. Like my gun…” she took it out of the strap and held it on her lap. Ku seemed to recoil slightly, but she pretended not to notice. Fusa hadn’t liked the gun either. “It’s cold and silent, barely communicating with me at all. When I first got it, I could link with it, but get no memories or feelings from its past. Its just… lifeless… but I have felt rocks here in the Inner tell me their secrets, watched stories from trees, and pretty much everything I have tried to link with has given me some sort of feelings. But not my gun. Not since I used it to shoot Natas.”

     “No doubt it knows that it was made for only one purpose,” Ku replied, “and is therefore not very keen on talking.”

          “I guess,” Laura replied. She put the gun back into its makeshift holster and moved away from Ku, enjoying talking to the trees and seeing their stories of Benny. One was a massive tree with large needles almost as long as her fingers, and it told her that its roots were connected to a large amount of other trees in the woods they were in (or rather, it gave her a very specific visual description, in which the picture started with the tree and then proceeded to illustrate the roots growing outward, connecting from tree to tree.) By the end, she assumed that almost a quarter of the woods had to be in some sort of link with this one tree. Indeed, upon climbing it, she found that from its higher branches, she could see no tree in all of the Unalla Woods that was anywhere near as tall.

     That’s when she saw something else, as well. About a mile to their right, the woods ended abruptly and became a long plain, stretching off into the distance. Looking back in the direction they had come, Laura saw that it had bordered the woods the entire time they had been traveling. Way off in the distance, she could just barely make out the greenish cliffs where Ku’s powerful plant had dumped them into the Inner.

     She turned back to the direction in which they were traveling, and noticed yet another strange thing off in the distance. It was too small to really make out what it was, but it was throwing up dust as it traveled along the plain, just outside the edge of the woods. Stretching back toward her from the strange dust-throwing object was a line, and after a moments study she concluded that it was tracks in the dusty ground of the plain.

     So whatever the thing was, it was extremely heavy. Also, its wheels were far enough apart that where the tracks came closest to Laura’s location, she could distinctly tell that they were formed by something with an axle, for it was actually two lines running parallel to each other through the plain, not just one.

     A cart? She wondered. It would have to be massive.

     Suddenly the image from one of her dreams came back to her, of Benny standing tied to the center of a giant cart, riding through a valley as blood flowed down the mountains, threatening to kill him. A gust of wind struck the top of the massive tree just then, and caused her to sway dangerously. On the breeze she could distinctly make out the faint smell of gasoline, like that which was used in Hayvan for generators (but sparingly, and with tight regulations, or else the people of that large cavern would have surely suffocated themselves.)

     Looking in the direction the distant, dust puffing thing was moving, she saw the mountains shimmering. At first she mistook it for a heat wave, but then she remembered that the Inner didn’t work that way. After having that thought, it also struck her as awfully peculiar that the mountains were topped with snow.

     But then the shimmer receded, and she saw only mountains. Still, she couldn’t quite accept the snow. She decided to call Ku.

     KU! She thought forcefully in her mind. Come up here, if you can.

     “Of course I can,” came the old, cheery voice, directly behind her head. She swung around in surprise and almost fell off the tree, but luckily she caught hold of one of the branches before that could happen. Sure enough, there was Ku, floating beside her.

     ”Hey, cool trick,” she said. “Later I want you to teach me that. But for now, look there.”

     She pointed diagonally out across the plain, first at the distant object that she thought was a giant cart. “And there, those strange mountains.”

     “Hmmm,” was the only response she got for several minutes. Then he opened his mouth to speak, and Laura waited patiently, only to see the old man close his mouth again and Hmmm at her once more.

     “Isn’t it odd?” she asked finally, unable to take the silence anymore. “The mountains have snow, and the tracks indicate a cart or some other sort of vehicle, but in order to make tracks that visible from here, it would have to be gargantuan.”

     “What makes you think that’s so strange?” Ku asked, still looking in the direction of the mountains.

     “Which part?” she asked, unable to mask her frustration. She didn’t feel like they had time for riddles. Laura didn’t dream very often of anything other than events relating to Benny’s life, but the one about the cart and the valley of blood had for sure been some sort of omen, she thought, and the idea was reinforced tenfold now that their seemed to be a massive cart traveling away from them.

     “Either part,” Ku replied, his eyes distant. She could tell by the glazed over, distant look and the sudden monotone of his voice that he was barely with her right then. He was somewhere else. Perhaps scaling the mountains in his head, she thought irritably.

     “Well the weather should be the same everywhere, even on the mountains, and so the snow doesn’t make sense. And I’ve never heard of any giant carts before, especially when one considers how big a creature would have to be to haul such a thing.”

     “This is the Inner,” Ku replied. She hated it when he did this. It was rare, but he had done it before. One moment he would be his happy self, then she would say something that would get his attention and he would suddenly be in a completely different world. He would begin talking in sentences of no more than three or four words, and his eyes would be clouded and distant-looking. Somehow he always managed to pay attention to what she was saying, but it made her feel as if he wasn’t putting forth very much effort to make sensible replies.

     “So?” she retorted. “I know that anything can happen here, but the biggest thing we’ve seen so far was that crog, and I highly doubt whoever is in that cart has one of them pulling it.”

     That’s when his vitality seemed to return to his eyes. He blinked once or twice before looking around, finding her, and smiling his wrinkly, warm smile. “Yes, young daughter,” he said. “You are quite correct. They are not being pulled by a crog. No, those people are being pulled by their children.”

     “What?” she exclaimed, incredulous. “Seriously? They’re using children to pull that thing?”

     “Yes and no,” Ku said. “The children are pulling it, yes, and it is a massive cart, yes, but the children are not slaves. They do it of their own volition.”

     “Well, that’s one answer,” she said. “What about the mountains?”

     “They are not mountains,” Ku said, and began descending slowly to the ground.

     Laura began scrambling down the branches, trying to keep up as he slowly drifted downwards. “I don’t understand you sometimes, Ku On Hu,” she said. “They’re clearly mountains.”

     “Are they?” he asked, with a tired smile. “Can you really be sure of what you saw?”

     She remembered the shimmer that looked like the air moving from heat.

     “Was it a mirage, then?” she asked, jumping from the branch she was on, grabbing another, and dangling there while her feat searched for the next branch.

     “I suppose you could call it that,” Ku said. “Its strange. I didn’t think we would find the Madman with land so close to Hayvan and the edge. I guess I spent more time in Hayvan than I thought.”

     “You’ve been there ever since I can remember,” Laura said.

     “Yes, and since you can remember all the way back to the day after you began forming, this means I was there for well over five years. Within the Inner, that’s tantamount to about seven or eight years. Still, I didn’t think he would gain ground so quickly.”

     “I don’t understand,” Laura said, finally dropping from the lowest branch onto the soft forest floor.

     “Fusa,” Ku shouted over to his son, who was sitting with his back to a tree, smoking one of Ku’s cigarettes. “Get that damned thing out of your mouth and come over here.”

     Fusa grinned, took one last puff of the cigarette, and got up. “What is it, father?” he asked, half sarcastically.

     “The Unborn Son is guiding the man we saw to the Mad Keep.”

     Laura had never heard of the ‘Mad Keep,’ but by the sudden drain of color from Fusa’s face, she gathered that it wasn’t a place she wanted to go. She had never seen the large man look frightened about anything, but there he stood, pale with fear. He even gulped, and it would have been comical under any other circumstances. “Shit,” was all the reply Fusa gave.

     “So… what’s the Mad Keep?” Laura asked, once again feeling as if she was missing something that she was supposed to have gotten.

     “The mountains you saw were not mountains, like I said,” Ku replied. “They were buildings, disguised as mountains by the powerful sorcery of Natas. You know the legends, no?”


     “Then you understand that his goal has always been to take the entire Inner into his possession, so as to have absolute power and control in both realms of human existence. For time out of mind, we echani have worked to keep this from happening, and after the Council of Valence was formed, we used their aid as well. Lately it had seemed as if we were succeeding, especially when I saw that he had changed tactics to trying to destroy the separation between worlds, but after seeing that the Mad Keep has grown in size so quickly, it seems more likely to me that the Council has ceased whatever aid they were offering us. Probably because they thought we were all dead. Stupid old men. They knew the prophecies, and they knew there would be a third. Even if I had died, and Neonokin had perished as people believe, there still would have been a coming third whom they were honor bound to help.”

     “The Mad Keep is the massive part of the Inner held by the Madman,” Fusa clarified for her, seeing the blank look on her face.

     “Thanks,” Laura replied. She didn’t have much to say in response, for the Mad Keep was yet another part of the old legends of which she had never truly believed. One thing she did wonder about was how it could have grown in such a fashion. To be the size of a mountain… well that just seem preposterous.

     “Its not so strange,” Ku said. “To the Upper Realms, he may have only plagued their history on and off for a few hundred years, but within the Inner, it has been a battle for millennia. Natas will not waste anything, including servants. Anything killed, he transforms. Anything destroyed, he rebuilds using the materials of that which was demolished. He has had many, many people to do his work for him, and in no time at all he can make buildings the size of peaks. That ‘mountain’ you saw is really the stronghold of the Keep, and even that is much farther off than the borders of the keep. You saw the cart, no?”

     Of course Laura had. She nodded.

     “That is where the Unborn Son currently holds sway over the girl we saw in the flames,” Ku continued ominously.

     The girl who looks like me, Laura thought with the smallest of shivers.

     “Our Benny was within feet of this creature, but as you can see, the Son exercises considerable restraint on behalf of Natas. I sense that there was some sort of plan laid, in order to lure Benny into the Keep, where his abilities to manipulate the Inner would be greatly diminished.”

     “But what about all the children you said were pulling the cart thing?” Laura asked, feeling a swell of compassion for the children she had never even met or seen. She was thinking about the Feerel, and how they were created.

     “An added bonus, in Natas’ eyes,” Ku said. “No doubt he wishes to use them. Nothing wasted, as I said before.”

     “Feerel,” Fusa said, confirming the fears Laura felt.

     “We can’t let them go in there!” Laura exclaimed. She had seen the waste of life that the Feerel were, had felt how easy it was to destroy them. “You said he doesn’t waste, but the Feerel rip easier than paper! That would be the biggest waste of all, in my opinion.”

     “The alternative use for them is much worse,” Ku said, his tone dropping almost to a whisper. “I will not speak of it. I promise you, my child, we will do anything we can. But they are so close, I do not know if we can reach them in time. Besides that, I feel great danger on the wind. Whether it is danger for us, or danger for Benny, I cannot say. Neonokin has her eye on him, though, I promise you that.”

     Hopefully she has two eyes on him, Laura thought fiercely. Or I will make the people’s beliefs come true myself.

     Ku was watching her and smiling, probably knowing her thoughts as he always did, no matter how hard she tried to hide them. For once, though, she thought she caught a bit of his thoughts, unguarded, accidentally allowed into her stream of consciousness. It confused her more than it illuminated anything, though.

     Only one, very special eye, was what she heard. Then he noticed her watching him queerly, and instantly began finding something else to do.

     Strange, she thought. I guess if the stories of Neonokin’s awesome powers are true, one eye will have to do.

Chapter Sixteen

     Alphonse LeBray was almost as scared as the children who had only moments before been willing to risk their lives to win the respect of the Hallers. He couldn’t let the other children see this, of course, for he was their leader, their proud encourager, their father figure. But he had never expected that Ron Parsons, the man who called himself ‘leader’ on the inside of City Hall, would bar the doors to the Orphans as well.

     Moments after the speech of the psycho with the sunglasses, they had attempted to retreat to discuss what they had seen and heard with the other Hallers, but they had found the door locked. He had gone around the building, checking through windows, but it seemed that everyone inside had packed up and gone down to the cellars. Al didn’t know if they had heard the speech of the preacher or not, but he suspected that they probably had. Why else would they run and hide with their tails between their legs? he thought, bitter once again.

     There was no use trying to bust through the windows anymore. The Hallers had figured out that it would be safer to bar the windows, long before Alphonse and his Orphans decided to take their town.

     One hour.

     His stomach got butterflies every time he thought about it. What were they going to do? They had come to the entrance hall of City Hall valiantly, had stood there while the Crazy preached and murdered right before their eyes, and yet now they were being locked out to die like insects by the people they had attempted to protect. It was sick punishment, in his opinion, and he wanted answers. It pained him, however, to know that he needed to focus on the madman out there, not the one locked safely within City Hall. One was a craven, no doubt about it, but the other… well the other was just plain deceitful.

     The only thing which had given Al any hope was the few stragglers (about ten in all) who had stayed behind after the speech. They told him that the man had descended from Bonhelm hill, like in the old children’s tales the wives of Minde would tell the kids, and had rallied as many of the townspeople to his side as was possible. One younger child claimed to have met him, and said he went by the name San.

     The original people who had taken him in, and bought his stories about being poor and homeless, had only been seen on that day, standing at the front of the crowd, doing the bidding of San. Until then, everyone else in town had wondered if they decided to join the Hallers after all.

 The person who was telling Al most of this as they circled the building, looking for skipped-over ways of getting inside City Hall, was a boy of about eighteen. He was older than Alphonse, but not so much older that he forgot his courtesy while around the grandson of the greatest benefactor the town had ever known. Al had never been good at listening or paying attention, so hearing all the details the man told him became impossible, to the point where he found himself paying only the slightest amount of attention.

     Marilee told him that the buildings up and down the main road all had people looking out of them, but no one seemed willing to engage. He thanked her and sent her to fetch some sort of latter or something he could use to climb, and threw in at the last moment, “And try to find some wire cutters, as well.” He had noticed a vent with the cover popped off, and wanted to investigate.

     “What’s your name again?” Al suddenly asked the man who was jabbering at him about the dark haired man.

     “Its William, but my friends just call my Jynx,” he replied. “I’m sorry if I’m bothering you, it’s just that there hasn’t been a lot of people to talk to this last week. First with the disappearances, then with the deaths, now with the outright murders. Until today, the only people who were willing to come out of them houses had been them looters, and the gangs, and the hoodlums with their stolen weapons. Please, LeBray, you must understand that not all of us is like that. There’re still some of us outside, who ain’t so bad. We’re hungry, yes, but we didn’t kill nobody and we ain’t gonna kill nobody now, either.”

     “Well, Jynx,” Alphonse said, wiping sweat from his eyes. “We only have less than an hour to find a way to defend ourselves against this man…uh… San, was it?”

     “Yes sir,” the older boy who’s friends called him Jynx replied.

     “Yes, right. Well, I don’t know about you, but I have chosen to heed his warning. Defend ourselves, or die. Are you any good at being stealthy?”

     The boy looked slightly nervous at first, but then he seemed to come to a decision and his face lit up slightly. “I believe I just might be, sir,” he replied with a grin. “Its something I ain’t never told no one before, but I used to sneak in and out o’ places when my family was having a bad time. Got me lots of good stuff on those trips, I did. Never once got myself caughten, neither. I suppose now there ain’t no one to arrest me, so why hide it? What did you have in mind?”

     “I need you to sneak into to City Hall through that vent,” he said, pointing up to a vent which was pretty high up, but on the backside of the building and well out of sight of any windows. “Once inside, I need you to get something and bring it back out with you, okay?”

     The boy was grinning just as hard as ever, with one of his front teeth missing. He’ll stand out like a sore thumb, Alphonse thought, but I guess he will have to do. He certainly doesn’t seem to want to go back to the rest of the town.

     “What did you have in mind?” Jynx asked.

     As Al watched Marilee return from a back alley with a long, extendable latter, he began to tell the boy exactly what he wanted.


     Mary Jorgens saw the boy with the tattered clothes, and no one else. That was because she was the only person who had downright refused to hide in the cellar with the rest of them. She had not agreed with the plan of Parsons, and she was still trying to figure out a way to get herself out. They had barred all the doors to the entrance hall after all the guards had safely retreated, leaving the poor Orphans to fend for themselves.

     Mary wasn’t sure if they had been able to hear the entirety of the speech from down in the cellar, but she had sure heard it. The big voice had said there would be a game, and somehow her son was involved with it. She knew for sure in her heart that Benny was no longer the boy she had raised, but she also refused to believe that he wasn’t still in there somewhere, and it hurt her to the core when she heard the man order whatever was controlling him to shoot the body of her son.

     She hoped with all her might that if Benny was within that body somewhere, he hadn’t been able to feel that pain. But the thing that killed my husband, she thought, I hope he felt every burning second of it.

     By the time ten minutes had passed since the end of the speech, Mary had searched every way she could think of to get out, but every window was thickly boarded, the doors were locked with padlocks put across the bolts, and only Parsons had the keys. She tried getting up to the second floor, hoping that perhaps one of the lookout windows had been left open enough for her to squeeze her petite body through, but even the doors at the top of the stairs were blocked by a gate that was normally reserved for when the building was in lock down.

     She had begun to give up hope when she heard thumping from above her. She had followed the noise as long as she could, until another gate stopped her, but watching down the hall, she finally saw the boy crawl past one of the vents.

     “Hey!” she whispered fiercely, hoping the boy would be able to hear her. He looked in her direction with the most startled look she had ever seen on a boy. Apparently, he hadn’t anticipated anyone being in the ground floor of City Hall.

     He spared only the quickest of terrified glances, though, and then he was crawling off at a fast pace. She rattled the gate in frustration, wishing that she was strong enough to just rip the damned thing out of its hinges. She wanted to get out of that dreadful building. The ‘Hallers,’ as they called themselves, were going to die. The man had said so in his speech. Do nothing, don’t defend yourselves, and you die. She did not want to be a part of it in any way, shape, or form.

     She sat down by the gate, waiting for the boy to return (hopefully,) and thought about her son. She was more worried about him than she had ever been in his entire life. Ever since he had been old enough to walk and talk, he had been very independent. They had allowed him to stay home alone for the first time (with the doors locked, of course,) when he was only six years old. She and her husband had been getting ready to go to a lunch gathering with some of their church friends, and they had asked him which babysitter was his favorite.

     He had said he didn’t need a babysitter, and begged for them to let him watch himself. Finally, he had been the one to suggest locking the doors and only opening them to a special knock that they prearranged. When they came home, nothing was on fire, the house was as clean as they had left it, and the boy was sitting watching TV contentedly as if being alone had not been a terrible thing. Later Benny had confided in her, though, and told her that he had been pretty scared until he got the television working. At that point he had been more content, and she had hugged him and told him he didn’t have to ever stay home alone again if he didn’t want to.

     She smiled to herself, remembering the way the boy had pulled away and said, “I was scared, Momma, but not that scared. I don’t want a babysitter ever again! They’re mean!”

     So instead of never staying home alone again, the reverse had happened, and they had never had to pay a babysitter for the rest of his childhood.

     The smile quickly vanished, however, as the cold realization that the same boy had cracked the windpipe of his own father, her lover, and had insulted them both by saying how ugly of a son they had produced together. It wasn’t him, she told herself, not for the first time. It was that man. Somehow. I don’t know how, but he did this to my boy. Somehow. Somehow.

     She wished her husband was there. He hadn’t been the strongest man, or the most intelligent, but he had been hers, and now he was gone forever, ripped away by whatever it was that had possessed her son. She had known, deep inside, that even when he first returned to them with his milky white hair and his vacant eyes, her son was not in there. But she refused to believe that he was gone forever. He would come back to her, someday.

     She was broken from her thoughts by a thud from just out of sight, on the other side of the fencing that blocked the hall. Just ahead, the hall was joined by another hall, making a ‘T’ intersection, and it was from there that she heard the noise. The only thing she could think of that would cause that noise was the boy she had seen, emerging from his vent.

     She heard faint footsteps, as if he were trying to sneak down the hall, away from her. “Hey!” she hissed, trying to keep her voice down. She didn’t know what the boy was up to, but if he could help her out of that death trap, then she didn’t want to be the one to blow his cover. “I need your help! Please!”

     The footsteps stopped, and even though she wasn’t sure if he had stopped to listen to her or had stopped in order to cease being heard, she decided to continue trying to get his attention.

     “I’m not going to tell on you!” she whispered, desperate for something to win the boys trust at least enough for him to talk to her. “I just want to get out of here! I can help you with whatever you’re doing, I’ve been here for a couple of days now. Just please, get me out.”

     She heard the footsteps begin to move towards her, and then a small boy, about nineteen or so by the looks of his facial hair, peered timidly around the corner, a pair of old wire cutters in his hand. His look was one of suspicion, and Mary could easily tell that the boy did not want to trust her right away and was perhaps suspecting a trap.

     “Why should I help you?” the boy asked. “How do I know there ain’t someone standin’ right there around the corner, waitin’ to lock me up? I’m on a mission.”

     He doesn’t want to trust me, but he sure is willing enough to give away his plans, she thought with a slight feeling of gratitude. Perhaps the universe didn’t have it out for her. Apparently, a dull-witted boy had been sent in, and if she played her cards right, she would have no trouble at all getting him to help her get out.

     “This isn’t a trap,” she said, trying to adopt one of her most soothing tones. “All the rest of the people are downstairs, boarded and chained up, as if that will protect them. I just want to get out of here. Please, just help me get out. I don’t want to die here.”

     After a moment of silence from the boy, she rephrased her latter statement.

     “Please don’t let me die here.”

     That got him. She could tell that as the boy stood there, looking at her, down the hall, then at her again, he was dealing with guilt. It was a perfect tool with her son when he was small, and apparently it worked on the more feeble minded as well. He seems childish enough, she thought. Even if he has facial hair.

     “I’ll help ya under one condition,” he said, still eying her wearily.

     “What is that?” she asked, still trying to sound pleasant so as to not scare the boy away. So close.

     “I need to find me a gun, and its ‘posed to be in here someplace, but I can’t find it nowhere. You help me find it, and then…only then… well, then I’ll help you too.”

     If the fence hadn’t been there, she would have jumped on the boy and kissed him with delight. The gun! She thought. They left it when they all hid! So simple.

     “I can do that!” she said, perhaps a little too loud, for the boy quickly sshhhh-ed her.

      “Be quiet!” he reminded her, his harsh whisper only barely more quiet than Mary’s exclamation. “I don’t wanna get caught!”

     “Sorry, sorry,” Mary said, lowering her voice back to a whisper. The boy seemed to be thinking about the choice he was faced with, looking at the ground as he considered the pros and cons.

     “Alright,” he finally said after what seemed like a dreadfully long moment. “But don’t go gettin’ me into no trouble.”

     With that said, the boy crept forward and promptly snipped the chain which kept the gate barred.

     “The names Jynx,” the boy said, pulling it open. “You can call me Jynx, or Jynxy, or William, whichever you like best.”

     Despite his seemingly low intelligence quotient, Mary decided she liked this Jynx boy. He was smiley, innocent, and jolly for someone who had been on the outside during all the chaos. The only sign that he had been on the outside was his weary air.

     She shook his hand briefly and said “Nice to meet you, Jynx. My name is Mary J—“

     She suddenly realized that it was probably best not to say her last name. This boy was cautious and probably a bit on the suspicious side when it came to people from City Hall.

     Barely missing a beat, she corrected herself and said “Jensen. My name is Mary Jensen.”

     “Well, nice to meet you,” the boy who called himself Jynx said. “So about this gun?”


     Alphonse was growing impatient. The boy, William, or Jynx, or whatever his name was, had been gone for nearly ten minutes. He was starting to think that the boy had lost his way, perhaps incapable of remembering the directions Al had given him.

     But then there was a creak as the grate covering the large vent slid open and Jynx climbed out of it, a fully automatic weapon dangling from his hand. The surprise came, however, when Mary Jorgens crawled out behind him, and began scurrying down the latter after Jynx.

     As the older boy brought the gun over to Alphonse, he lowered his voice and asked Jynx, “What is she doing here?”

     Jynx explained to Alphonse about how he had met her inside, and she had helped him find the gun. I knew he wouldn’t be able to remember the directions, Al thought while listening to the tale.

     But, the gun was in hand and Al could see no reason to further reprimand the boy after he had risked his hide to sneak in and get it.

     “Thank you, Jynx. You’ve done us well.”

     Even Alphonse had to admit that he had believed everyone to be downstairs in the cellars, so the appearance of Mary Jorgens was a bit of a surprise.

     Watching the lady finish her climb and begin speaking to some of the elders, Alphonse realized that they must have been coming close to the deadline. He checked his watch and found that a half an hour had already passed, and they were all now left with a little less than thirty minutes.

     I hope the time was worth this machine, he thought. Or else I’ve just made the worst mistake I could have made as the leader.

     Most of the Orphans and the people who had decided to join them were all sitting in the shade of a willow tree that grew on the back lawn of City Hall. Al walked over and informed them that half of their time was now spent, and that they needed to begin moving on.

     “There’s no place left for us here,” Al said. “They have barred the doors, a sure sign that we are not welcome. I’d just like to say to all of you who were so brave as to offer to stand in defense, thank you. If the people of City Hall don’t appreciate what you have all done, at least know that I do. But as you are all aware, they have seen fit to cast us out. It seems that all of us, even most of the people of our town, have been duped. Yes, our fear caused the schism which has torn us apart, but not one of us caused these things. I don’t know about you guys, but I have known Johnny Harrison my entire life, and the things we heard about him today simply do not ring true.”

     Wick agreed with him, and a few others nodded and whispered their agreement as well.

     “I also know that Benny Jorgens would never do anything like the brutal murders we have all been hearing of,” he continued, glad that for once he had their attention without having to resort to Marilee’s skills. “That man we saw…no, that thing that spoke to us from the steps of our haven, as if from an evil pulpit, has admitted to these crimes, even though he used pretty language in an attempt to distract. I cannot explain any better than you folks how he has managed to do this, but it seems pretty clear to all of us that Benny Jorgens and Johnny Harrison have been hypnotized by this man, somehow, as well as those that we saw blocking the people of our town.

     “He gave us one hour. We cannot sit around and wait for the inevitable, he made that quite clear. But I also implore you all, do not think of everyone in the town as being on his side. The thing which Jorgens has turned into is wild like an animal, impulsive, and clearly nothing like what we saw just weeks ago. Johnny Harrison seems…bigger, I guess is the only way I can describe him. As for the people that he has somehow bought over to his side, all I can say is that you should be able to tell them apart from your neighbors because they are only intent on whatever the man tells them to do, with blank stares and faces devoid of emotion. Just this morning, we thought that everyone on the outside was crazy, that they all wanted us dead, but this is not true. We must cast aside our fear and try to unite once again. We have twenty minutes left to become a team, to gather as many more people from town and goad them out of their homes to help us fight.

     “You, fellow Orphans, have done a great service in my name already,” he said, switching his tone to a more somber tint. “I ask for this one last thing. Go, find people to fight with us, and for the love of your lives be back here before five o’ clock. When the bell tower begins to toll at five o clock, if you are not here, then you’re on your own. We will be moving by then, and this fine gun you see before us will be unavailable to those who straggle.”

     He could tell that not everyone was comfortable with this, but there was no helping it. He had told them the facts as bluntly as possible, in the hopes that it would sink in, and their nervous shuffles only served to tell him that it had. He still didn’t know for sure if the gun worked, but he had gotten the impression earlier in the day that Mr. Parsons had been lying to him, and the gun was indeed still functional. He needed ammunition to check that theory though, and the gun store was on the other side of town.

     The Orphans were dispersing, and as Al sped away from city hall, transported by Jynx in a shanty old Jeep, he was pleased to see that Marilee had already recruited some people. It was only five or six, and among them was a young boy who looked no more than two, but that was better than leaving the people in their homes. Al wasn’t quite sure what the so called ‘Game’ would be like, but he felt pretty sure that if they could secure the gun shop, the man who called himself San would quickly find that they had more advantages than just sheer numbers.

     He had asked Marilee and Wick, as well as the other elders, to find as many people with access to cars as possible, and to use them to transport everyone to a theatre that bordered the gun shop. He looked behind him and saw a small red car following them with two men and someone else in the back. Al couldn’t tell if the person in the back was a man or a woman, but he supposed that it didn’t really matter.

     By the time he reached the shop on the other side of town about five minutes later (Jynx was dim but he was a good driver, and with the lack of traffic he had been able to cruise through town at near freeway speeds,) there was a small line of cars behind him. One by one, Wick, then Marilee, Jared, and several of the other Orphans had piled out of various cars and gathered on the road between the gun shop and the theatre on the other side of the street.

     When Alphonse did a quick estimate of how many people were there, his conclusion was that roughly fifty or sixty people were all crowded into that space. Looking around, he saw a lot of fright. The people were scared, and he could not blame them. He was scared too. Marilee approached him as he was looking at his watch.

     “How much time?” she asked quietly.

     “Ten minutes,” he said, his heart beating faster at the thought. His attempt to assassinate the San fellow earlier in the day had failed, but inside he knew without a doubt that in the evening, he would have to kill or be killed. He felt ready, and he sure hoped the others were.

     He stepped up onto one of the stairs leading to the gun shop, and whistled to get their attention. Every head turned toward him, and every voice stopped talking in order to hear what he had to say. Good lord, he thought, realizing that once again he had allowed himself to fall into the position of leader. It’s me against that lunatic. How the hell am I going to do this?

     “It’s almost time, people,” he said, using the best authoritative voice he could muster, speaking slowly so as to make sure he said the right things. “It appears that the looters only took what they needed, or rather what they thought they needed, and there is still plenty left for us to take. Many of you have never used a gun before. I must admit that I have only fired one a few times in my entire life, and it was usually at an animal or a paper target. But today we must put aside our fear of killing and realize that if we don’t kill them first, they will kill us without hesitation. I presume all of you were at the speech given by this man, this San?”

     Not everyone nodded, but none of them said that they hadn’t been there, so he took it as a yes.

     “Good. Then you know that the people who have gone over to his side will not hesitate to kill you. Neighbor or not, they are his now and will do as he tells them. All I am telling you to do is defend yourself. Kill them before they can kill you. I don’t know if he has given any of them guns, but it would seem foolish to me to assume that he has not. But there can’t be very many, so we will be grabbing what we can. You have five minutes to get whatever you feel comfortable wielding, and then get over to the theatre as fast as you can. When the bell begins to toll, San’s terrible game will have begun. Good luck to you all. Hopefully God or the gods will be watching us today, because we are about to do battle with the devil.”

     With that he retreated into the gun shop and found the bullets he was looking for. Rounds to an automatic AK-47. His plan was to man the big window directly above the front entrance to the theatre and shoot down anyone who approaches. Hopefully the people would not be moving fast, because he could only carry a limited amount of shells, and they would run out fast if he was not careful about his aim. Tyler, the small boy with the martial arts training, was eying a sniper rifle with a scope on it, with a carbon fiber butt, polished to a beautiful sheen. Al watched as he made up his mind, smiled, and began stuffing shells into a bag he had found somewhere. Why didn’t I think to grab a bag? He thought.

      He settled for a paper bag from behind the counter, and stuffed as cases of cartridges that he could fit into it. He didn’t know just how many rounds he had, but he figured it would be enough to cut down a hundred people.

     When he got to the theatre, Marilee and Wick were already waiting for him, and Jared Black showed up just moments after Al. Wick was holding a shot gun, with more shells crammed into his pockets and belt than Alphonse would have ever thought possible. His pants were literally bulging with shot gun shells, almost to the point of being comical.

     Marilee had chosen a sniper rifle quite similar to the boy Tyler, and Jared had the most unusual weapon of all. It was a long, shiny, brand new machete, its blade so sharp you could cut yourself without even applying any pressure to it. Silent, just like Jared, Al thought, smiling despite the stressful situation.

     The two or three families who had brought their own guns were huddled together in the reception lobby of the theatre, waiting for Alphonse. Perhaps they figured the door to the main part of the theatre would be locked, but that was not the case. It only locked from the inside, so people who had not paid could not get in. There were no side doors, and backstage was only accessible by entering through the stage. Al remembered being in a play there, and the frustration he had felt at having to show up two hours early so the audience wouldn’t see any of the actors as they attempted to get backstage.

     He pushed open the door and peered in cautiously. The house lights were on dimly, but it was dark enough that Al couldn’t see through the gloom. Behind him, he heard the nervous chatter and the pattering of footsteps as people hurried back from the gun shop. He walked a few paces into the theatre.

     Is that someone on the stage?

     It didn’t seem possible, since the only key to the theatre had been entrusted to Jynx. The boy had proven most resourceful, despite his apparent dimness of intellect, and it had been at his suggestion that Al had agreed to come to the theatre to make a new haven, to replace the shelter they had believed was there’s at City Hall. Jynx was the custodian of the theatre, the only job he had ever had since the age of fifteen.

     As he crept further into the gloom, Alphonse realized that he was right about there being someone on the stage. However, person was sitting cross legged with their head down, so it was impossible to tell who it was. The person, be it girl or boy, had his or her hair in a tight pony tail.

     Suddenly a slight commotion broke out behind him, and through the partially ajar door he could hear people trying to get someone to calm down.

     “But we shouldn’t be here—“

     The voice of Mary Jorgens was muffled, and Alphonse couldn’t hear all of what she was saying. But either Wick or Jared were keeping her from entering the dark room, saying that Al was checking it out first.

     “I can feel him—“

     Al moved closer to the place where the small panel that would turn the house lights on should have been. Somewhere on the right hand wall, he remembered Jynx telling him.

     “Must believe—“

     Feeling with his hand, he finally reached the small plastic button, smaller than a penny.

     “He’s in there—“

     Me? Alphonse thought, hitting the button. Of course I’m in here. What is that lady babbling about now? I knew we should have left her behind.

     “-MY SON!”

     The house lights began to rise slowly, filling the room with light. As the light began to show off the backs of over a hundred heads, Alphonse realized what the babbling woman had been trying to get in to warn him about.

     Outside, the bell began to toll the time across the town. Bong! Bong! Bong! Bong! Bong!

     As the last of the tolls rang through the air, the man sitting on the stage lifted his head and put on thick, dark sunglasses. At the same time, a hundred men and women rose in unison, and without a pause began vacating their seats in an orderly march.

     No fucking way, Alphonse thought, panicking. He stumbled backwards and burst through the door, shouting, “Get the hell out of here! They’re all in there. Go! Go!”

     Mary Jorgens started to shout something about how she had tried to warn him, but Alphonse didn’t hear. The people he had led into a trap were making too much of a racket screaming and running over each other in their attempt to get out for Al to hear anything she said. He bowled past her and into the street, holding his gun and attempting to stuff a cartridge in it, one handed.

     Blind fear had seized him, and he had to force himself to stop and remember that he had assumed the role of leader. He stopped and turned around, and saw the last few of his people run out. One man had been trampled, and he lay on the steps bleeding. Al ran over to see if he was okay, but just then the first of the people began filing out of the main theatre area and into the small reception hall.

     He looked up and over the dying man just in time to see Jared black spring from the shadows and drive his blade into the throat of the first person, attempting to hack the head clean off but succeeding only in opening a deep, ugly gash in the throat that instantly sprayed blood on the boy as he wrenched the machete free and attempted to go for the next few people. The noise the first person made as he fell was the worst thing Alphonse had ever heard, a sort of muted gargle as his lungs filled up with blood, and beside him, Marilee let out a piercing scream.

     As Alphonse watched, frozen with a new panic he had not expected before all this had begun, when it had seemed so easy to imagine killing in the name of survival, Jared swung at another person but quickly found out that the people were not as slow as they had all originally hoped they would be. The second person (a girl) ducked and his blade narrowly missed the man behind her, but as soon as the blade was clear of them, they jumped on Jared before he could attempt a back slash.   

     I have to do what I told these people I would do, he thought. That was enough. He felt the freeze of his body lift like a veil, and just as he saw the girl who had pinned Jared to the floor pull out a long, shining hunting knife, he lifted his gun and was glad to find that Rob Parsons had lied to him after all.

     The explosion of bullets from the gun was like nothing he had ever experienced, and the girl who held the knife was jerked to the side as three bullets separated the top of her skull from the rest of her face. The entire upper part of her head seemed to lift up like a flap, sending blood and small bits of brain matter flying back at the people who were still filing through the door. Jared was only momentarily caught off guard, and then he punched the man who had ganged up with the girl to pin him down. The man only seemed to barely register the blow, and Alphonse saw the brass knuckles on his right hand as he raised an arm to return the punch. Just then there was a gunshot from Al’s right, and the man’s shirt instantly turned red with blood.

     Alphonse jerked his head around to see who had fired, and to his amazement, there stood Marilee with the scope still to her eye. Her rifle was bolt action, and as she sent the first shell flying, she adjusted her aim ever so slightly and pulled the trigger again.

     The man’s neck exploded in a shower of dark red blood, covering Jared with it. As the man slumped off of him, Jared rushed to his feet and ran to Al and Marilee, machete clutched firmly in his right hand. He gave them the briefest of thankful looks before they rushed him off to where Wick was waiting with Jynx in the rusty old Jeep, and they all hopped in, speeding after the other people who were making their own getaways in the cars they had all arrived in, hoping to secure weapons and find themselves a haven to hold, a fortress.

     Instead they had found a trap.

     “I didn’t know nothin’ about them bein’ there, I swear it,” Jynx said, frightened, swerving around every corner as he drove seventy miles per hour through town. “I thought it would be good. Please believe me, please, oh man, please—“

     He was beginning to blubber, tears spilling down his cheeks as he pleaded with them to believe him. Luckily Marilee was in the passenger seat, and she slapped him forcefully, causing the car to veer and tilt dangerously, until Jynx got it back under control.

     “If we didn’t trust you, or thought you had led us into a trap intentionally, we wouldn’t be riding in this damned car with you,” she said firmly, yet with a subtle sincerity that amazed Al. She always knew the perfect tone, and sure enough, this time it worked as well, for the boy gave a sheepish smile, as if he knew he were being foolish, and then looked forward again.

     Just then, they passed The Great Shavo Restaurant, the face of it blackened from soot and most of its front wall demolished by patrol car #68, still sticking out from where it had collided. It was the first time Al had seen the damage, and by the way Marilee threw up over the side of the Jeep and the other two elder Orphans turned away, Al guessed that it was the same for them. Only Jynx, who had been on the outside the past couple of days, looked at the wreckage directly and gave a quiet tsk.

     It would have been a lot easier to look, Al felt relatively sure, if the body of Mrs. Shavo, blackened to a crisp, exposed skull grinning from the smashed hood of the car, wasn’t still lying there, her eyes pecked out by the swarm of birds which were still attempting to consume the last bits of burnt flesh. They scattered as the Jeep screamed by, and Al didn’t have to look back to know that they resumed their place as soon as they passed.

     “Where are we going?” Wick asked Jynx, shouting to be heard over the engine of the open-air jeep. The boy seemed to hear,but as he was about to reply, he suddenly began to swerve as something came from an alleyway off the side of the road and stood right in from of them.

     It was Benny Jorgens, and they ran him down. Unfortunately, it appeared to Al that the man in the dark suit had been right: Benny was stronger than his normal self had been, and the effect of the impact from the car was minimal. Jynx slammed on the breaks, and they watched as the ruined Benny Jorgens went rolling across the cement. He thudded to a halt against the curb, and instantly began climbing to his feet. He was fast, Alphonse noticed. He didn’t take long at all to recover from the collision, and he was running at them.

     Alphonse and Wick both had the same idea, and from the back of the car they raised their weapons. They both waited for him to get close enough to the jeep so they could have a clear shot, without having to shoot over the heads of Marilee and Jynx, but it was Al who fired first, letting out a short burst. The boy dodged sideways the moment before the gunfire, as if he had known exactly when it would happen. Wick waited another moment, correcting his aim to follow the white haired boy, and a second later he pulled the trigger of his shot gun, spraying buck shot in the direction of Benny.

     What happened next was enough to frighten even stone faced Jared Black. Several bits of buck shot lodged themselves in Benny’s face, but as he was jerked backwards, no blood came out. A second later, the small bits of metal seemed to ooze back out of the boys skin, dropping onto the cement.

     Al observed it all, and swore to commit it to memory. As the buck shot was seeping its way back out of Benny’s skin, the boy seemed to be dazed and momentarily paralyzed.

     “Go, you god damned fool,” Jared shouted from the back of the Jeep, behind Al and Wick. “How long you think he’s going to just stand there? Good lord, Alphonse, where the hell did you pick up this dimwit?” he added as they finally sped away from the white haired, deadly Benny Jorgens.

     Al ignored Jared, and looking back at Benny, the boy was already on his feet and staring after them. Then he darted into a side alley and out of sight.

     What a fiasco, Alphonse thought. I wonder just how many people I led into death back there.

     There were certainly no cars following them, and over the roar of the old jeep, just barely audible in the distance, Alphonse could hear the steady pattering of gun fire.