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Small Town Ravaging (Blood and Smoke, #1)
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_  Chapter Twenty 

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

     It’s huge, she thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     The Lana plant? She wondered.

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

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

     Fusa grumbled incoherently.

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

     “I know,” Fusa admitted.

     “Then why?” Ku asked quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Oh no, she thought. Benny!




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Never mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Wait, Jimmy, Brun said suddenly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “How many?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     It is so, Brun replied.

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

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

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

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

     I hear you, Benny thought.

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

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

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

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

Chapter Nineteen

    Benny’s consciousness submerged back into the Inner version of his body, and even though his hands instantly began throbbing, he still felt elated at what he had just seen. It had bothered him ever since the very beginning that no one seemed to know how Natas went back and forth between the Inner and Upper Realms, or what happened to his body when he did so. As far as Benny had known, he had only been able to enter the Inner because his body was taken over by someone else, and out of necessity to survive he had been forced to enter the Inner to get his body back. But somehow Natas had been going back and forth, something he realized when he first saw Natas playing the part of Vonwell in Hayvan. Then, just recently after being vacated from Hayvan by his double, Laura, he had heard Beaner’s story of entering the Inner and his suspicion that his physical body was in a comatose state, at least as far as the people of the Upper Realms were concerned.

     Now those suspicions had been confirmed by what Benny saw. After seizing control of his body (which felt amazing in its own right, like when he had been a little boy wrenching his stolen bicycle out of the hands of the thief who stole it,) he had been able to lock his eyes into place on what the creature that was controlling his body had been looking at. There, he saw Natas in his physical form for the first time since awaking on top of Bonhelm hill.

     The bastard had been lying on some weird Satanic pentagram, from what Benny could surmise in the few seconds before giving up control. It made perfect sense for how the one he and other children had referred to as the Man was going back and forth between the Inner and Upper Realms. It also provided Benny with an almost juicy plan for how to destroy the man once he regained control.

     Brun was not nearly as excited though, and looked more troubled than anything else. When Benny asked what the big deal was, the little man with his magical eye merely shook his head and changed the subject.

     “We are close to the place where we have to come out of the forest and try to stop the Tribe,” he said. “You must put aside thoughts of your upper vengeance and keep your mind focused on the now.”

     “I don’t understand you,” Benny said. “One minute you show excitement about what I’m doing and the progress I’m making, and the next you think I should give up what I’m working at and focus on something new.”

     “Your success with transferring yourself back into your body is terrific, yes,” Brun replied, “but as things stand right now, it is not beneficial and will do you no good until you achieve other goals first. Now, either follow my instructions and succeed in your overall goal, or go it alone and find yourself surely failing. The choice is yours, as it seems to have been several times along our little journey.”

     “Alright, alright,” Benny said. “Don’t have a miniature cow.”

     Brun didn’t find the quip funny. The night was slowly becoming dawn, and Benny could only see one star left in the sky. It was red, and had a smaller purple star next to it. The purple one was fading first, leaving only the red one. As the sky paled to blue, the red star was the last one remaining.

     Looking up at it made Benny think of the days past when he had watched the night skies with his mother in the Upper Realms. He had been much closer to her than to his father, and he hoped with all of his heart that she had not reached the same fate as his father. He still remembered the vivid dream that Brun had recreated for him, since he couldn’t remember at the time; seeing his father gripped between his fingers, life draining from his face. It was a horrible memory, yet somehow Benny had been able to stay disconnected from it like he would have if it had been a simple bad dream.

     But the worry for his mother was a different story altogether. He had kept himself quiet about the subject so that Brun didn’t scold him for dwelling on things that he couldn’t possibly change the outcome of, but whenever he saw the stars in the night sky of the Inner, so bright and beautiful in the perfectly clear air, he thought about her and his heart ached more than it had even when his body in the Upper Realms had been injured.

     Benny watched as the last star, the red one, faded into the blue of the morning sky. The landscape that had been dark when Brun called a halt the night before was now visible, and Benny was once again amazed by the beauty of the plains running alongside the Unalla Woods. He still didn’t fully understand if he was in the part of the Inner that belonged specifically to him or not, but he knew that he loved it almost as much as he had loved his quaint home town.

     They were on the top of a small rise which was free of trees, and below them, in the direction of the plains, only the sparsest of trees remained before disappearing entirely as the forest gave way to the plains. The light of the sunrise was beginning to color the yellow plains with a red light, making the land as far as Benny could see appear as if on fire. The slight waving of the grass added to the impression, and the vast plain of flames was only broken where the giant wheel tracks of the Village of the Vanjii tribe cut through the tall grass.

     Brun had only allowed a stop because the gargantuan cart had stopped for the night, drawing in its children and latching shut the giant door at its rear. Benny had been oblivious that they were anywhere near it, of course, as there was no moonlight to see by and the stars, though bright, were not nearly strong enough for his eyes to cut through the gloom. He had been able, however, to see the few torches that went up around the edge of the cart, and even though Brun said they were almost a mile away from where the ‘Village’ had settled down, it still amazed Benny how big the thing was. At least twenty flickering lights went up, all along the edge of the cart, acting as lookout lights for the people of the Village who volunteered to stay up as the night watch.

     Now, as the light of day fell upon the massive entity on wheels, Benny watched with Brun from their high vantage point as the large, rope drawn door at the back was slowly lowered and children began pouring out, moving to the front of the cart to take their positions at the yoke. Some were still finishing bits of breakfast, others were laughing and wrestling as they walked to the front of the cart, apparently eager to get out some of their built up energy in some other way than just pulling the cart.

     “Should be any minute,” Brun said quietly, actually startling Benny enough to cause him to jump after such a long period of silence.

     Benny turned and tried to do something Brun had taught him. Look into my mind for the answers sometimes, instead of just asking me, the little man had said the night before. Benny had been trying ever since, but could only hear a faint buzzing sound in his head that drove him mad. Even now, clear headed and invigorated with excitement to supposedly be so close to confronting the man he despised so much, Benny could not break into the tiny man’s mind.

     Finally he gave up, and seeing no sign of anything on Brun’s face (for he had the epitome of what one might call a ‘poker face,’) Benny asked, “What should be any minute.”

     “Just watch,” the little man said.

     Benny turned his gaze back to the Village. The children continued to file out of the back of the cart in what seemed like an endless stream, and yet there was no sign of anything suspicious.

     Suddenly the stream of children heading to the front of the cart was broken momentarily as one of the children ran forward, out of the line, and toward the woods. In fact, the small speck that was the child seemed to be running directly toward where he and Brun sat watching. Several of the other children broke from their treck toward the front of the massive cart and started to chase after the child.

     Through the morning air, a horn sounded, low and pulsing. One of the people chasing the child was almost within reach of the child, was even reaching out to grab, but before the pursuer could get a hold on the runaways clothes or hair, Benny saw the signature flash of blue from the corner of his eye as Brun did something with his strange eye. The child who was running disappeared just as two of the pursuers tried to dive, missing by mere moments.

     The next thing Benny knew, there was a small boy standing in front of them. The horn continued to bleat endlessly, blasting over the plains and through the sparse trees that bordered them. Benny could just barely make out the heads of the pursuers looking around, and several taller people had now emerged from the cart and were looking around.

     The boy who had appeared in front of them was completely ordinary, as far as Benny could tell, with deep blue eyes and black hair. He was shirtless (and expressionless, Benny noted,) with roughly cut trousers that ended just below the knee. His skin was a creamy tan that reminded Benny of coffee after mixing in milk. He was short, but still about a head taller than Brun.

     “Master Brun,” the boy said in a dry tone as he took in the two of them. “Stranger from the Upper Realms.” He gave Benny a curt nod, and then approached Brun.

     “Our time is short, so I will be brief,” Brun said to the boy.

     The boy simply stared at him, and Benny assumed that some sort of telepathic exchange was going on between them, but try as he might, he could not breach that conversation.

     “You can trust him,” Brun said to the boy. “And I understand your concern, but they will not find you quite yet, I promise you. Please, for the sake of Benny here, speak out loud.”

     “His Grace does not know whether to trust you or not anymore,” the boy said.

     “What? I’ve never been disloyal.”

     “Miss Lauren has been saying things about you, like that you are trying to lead him into danger.”

     Brun’s eye flashed with anger, and even Benny could hear the frustration emanating from his teacher’s mind.

     “You don’t even see what is right in front of you, do you?” Brun asked the boy, his normal eye squinting.

     “I do,” the boy replied. “You have trained me better than any of the other Gifted Children, though, Master. I see the Keep, as plain as you do. The others do not.”

     Benny was keenly aware that he still couldn’t see it either without going through lengthy visualization processes that were overall just a waste of time to see a few crummy outcroppings of small twisted buildings and the darkened sky.

     “You must tell them,” Brun insisted.

     “I have tried, master. They will not hear. They even said that you were probably controlling my speech, which I knew to be untrue, but you know what it is like to attempt talking sense to the Vanjii. We are stubborn people in our beliefs.”

     Brun looked defeated.

     “He sent me away, and allowed my sister to corrupt his thoughts while I was gone. Is that why I couldn’t communicate with Beaner?”

     “I believe so, Master. I have to guard my thoughts around your sister, as you instructed me, but I have sensed her putting several blocks on his mental communication capabilities. I believe that even if he once trusted you implicitly, as he did when you were sent away I believe, now you would have much trouble getting anything through to him. He has been smitten by love, so the children say.”

     “There is no other way, then. I must go talk to him myself.”

     “I would not do that, Master Brun.”

     “And why the hell not?”

     “Because, you are no longer a free person to the Vanjii and His Grace,” the boy replied, his tone suddenly becoming solemn. “Convinced that Lauren was telling the truth, Grace has ordered any man who sees you to seize you and kill you. After all, in his eyes and warped mind, you have committed the unforgivable sin of attempting to lead his people into destruction.”

     “What sort of lie did she tell?” Brun asked, almost seeming to wilt in front of Benny’s eyes. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Even if he was only about three foot six inches, Brun had proven himself the strongest person Benny had ever met, and here he was almost crying at the news of a single young boy.

     The boy continued in his same dry tone.

     “She said that you had manipulated her into showing him false images of a large army at our rear, when really there were but two. She said that you used this as a ruse to get the great echani away from the Clan, in order to leave us unprotected. She convinced him that you abandoned us and were planning to sell us out to the enemy, taking our only two hopes at defense, besides His Grace himself, away in order to make the slaughter all the more easy.”

     Benny could feel the waves of anger literally spilling off of Brun, and looking around he could see the branches of the trees bristling in a psychical breeze. Calm down, Benny willed at him. Apparently he heard, for the waves of anger ceased, but it was still clear from the shaking in Brun that he was restraining his emotions with a great amount of effort.

     “I assume you do not believe this?” Brun asked the boy. “You know it’s not true, right Jimmy?”

     “I don’t believe a single word of it,” the boy replied. “Through training and exercises, I have spent a lot of time within your mind and you within mine, and I know when I am being manipulated. I have not been, this past week or so, and yet I independently came to the conclusion that we are heading into a trap. I have felt your compassion for your people, and felt the deeply guarded animosity within your so-called sister. There is no betrayal here, master.”

     “Then you must help us,” Brun said, his tone suddenly rising with anticipation. “We are going to go back with you, but I need you to help me cloak myself. The others like you will be looking for any sign of people returning with you, and in particular for my mental signature. I can do a limited amount of cloaking, but I still would feel more comfortable if you helped. You too, Benny.”

     “Me?” Benny asked incredulously. “What the heck good would I do? Cloaking isn’t exactly something we’ve covered just yet.”

     “You will do enough,” Brun said. “Trust me.”

     “I will help you,” the boy said. “But conditionally.”

     Brun hesitated. “What’s the condition?”

     “After we route out whatever is within your sister, I want to leave with you. You don’t have to take me forever, I have learned enough, I feel, but I would like to leave His Grace and all of those people. My family members have restarted their existence somewhere else in the Inner, as you know, and that leaves me an orphan. Even if I were to find them, they would not remember me. So if I help you, I want you to promise that I will be freed as soon as you do whatever you need to do.”

     “Jimmy…” Brun was clearly struggling with something within his tiny mind, but Benny was still being blocked out. “If Beaner doesn’t want to listen to what I have to say, there will be bloodshed. I don’t want you to get hurt when I try to leave. It’s better that no one know you helped us.”

     Below on the plains, there were people moving like ants away from the Village in all directions, and the occasional flash reminded Benny of the parts in spy movies where someone noticed that they were being watched through telescopes or binoculars. The sun was behind Benny and Brun, so he was pretty sure that that was exactly what he was seeing.

     “I have told you my conditions,” the boy called Jimmy said. “You have always taught me to not offer ultimatums, but in this case I have to. I am miserable. You’ve seen how they treat me. I am just a tool to His Grace. I was the one to feel the presence of the echani, this… kid you call Benny. Did I get even the smallest of thanks? No.”

     Benny suddenly remembered the boy who had run into the smoking room of Beaner’s, whispered into his ear, and then run out to fetch Lauren after stealing a wide eyed glance at Benny. He also got a flash of memory involving something Beaner said when Benny asked how they had known he was in the woods. One of our more…gifted children sensed you. Something like that.

     Brun looked at the ground with his normal eye while the oversized blue one stared at the boy. It seemed to size him up, looking from head to toe. Perhaps Brun was searching for some sign of falsity, or maybe it was just what the eye did when Brun was focusing on something else. Either way, Brun looked back up and said, “Well, I guess there is no other way.”

     For the first time since appearing on the hill, Jimmy’s face lit up (or at least took on some sense of joy, which was ‘lighting up’ compared to the stone cold visage which had been there before.) “I promise you, master, I will not fail you. Speaking to His Grace is what you seek, and that is what you shall get.”

     “Benny,” Brun snapped to get Benny’s attention. He was still watching the people below moving outward from the cart, presumably looking for Jimmy. When Benny looked at Brun, the midget warrior continued, “We cannot take everything. Pack only the hidepack, and put everything within it that you hold most dear and wish to take with you. Nothing else. The rest of our camp must be left here. Hopefully we can return for it before going on to the Keep, but for now we need only necessities.”

     Ten minutes later, they were standing on either side of Jimmy with their quaint packs on their backs. Brun’s was considerably smaller than Benny’s, of course, but Benny was still pretty sure the small man had packed twice as much into his own.

     “You know the drill, Jimmy,” Brun said. Both of his eyes were fixed on the Village below, motionless on the plains as the people looked all around the cart for the boy. Already a few were approaching the outskirts of the forest, and Benny was uncomfortably aware of just how barren the hill top was.

     Then came a sensation that Benny was all too familiar with. He felt jerked forward at a sickening rate, but by now he had grown accustomed to it, and when they landed on the plains below, with tan people from the Village on every side of them, he didn’t fall or even feel faint. He made solid contact and then gasped as he saw the people of the giant mobile Village instantly spot them and head toward them.

     Benny had been right about the spy glasses. Several of the people near the cart were looking up toward the mountains, into the forest, and a few were even looking in the opposite direction, across the plains.

                 Stay calm, Brun said into Benny’s thoughts. They cannot see us, unless one of us blunders and allows them.

     Benny tried to keep this in mind as two men came up on the boy with some sort of spears in their hands, pointing them at him and speaking in their strange guttural tongue. As one of them got close enough for Benny to see the color of his eyes (brownish gold,) he felt Brun’s hand on his wrist, pulling him down into a crouch. At first it startled him, but when he looked down and couldn’t see any hand, he realized that it was Brun and submitted, going to his knees just in time to avoid the arm of the closest man as it darted out and grabbed Jimmy.

     “Fer Malla se can?” the man spat out, anger written clearly across his face.

     “Fer Malla se can?” the second man asked, a little more violently, grabbing the boy’s other arm and shaking him while holding the point of his spear only inches from Jimmy’s face.

     “Es unca me salla, se ka,” Jimmy replied, once again with his rock solid face firmly in place. His voice was smooth and cool. “Fulla,” Jimmy added. The two men looked at each other, snorted, and then seized Jimmy. One man grabbed the left arm while the man closest to Benny grabbed the right.

     Follow, came the instruction in Benny’s mind. As they walked forward, Benny heard the horns stop. As he watched the people all around the cart slowly drawing back in as they saw Jimmy firmly in custody, Benny noticed for the first time that the grass of the plains was almost as tall as he was. The only reason he could see the upper bodies of all of the Vanjii tribesmen above the grass was because they were so tall. When he had first been a ‘guest’ in the Village, he had been too alarmed to really take into account the way the dark skinned people loomed over him. He had simply wanted to find out why they had brought him there, so he had paid no attention to details.

     Now, though, watching as the two men in front of him carried Jimmy between them, he noticed just how far above the ground the boy’s feet were dangling. Each of the Vanjii men who held him must have been at least six foot five, and for a comparatively short person like Benny (who stood a whopping five feet, seven inches,) they seemed to tower above him.

     Even before they reached the giant cart that served as the Village of the Vanjii tribe, there were men climbing into the lowered door at the back of the cart. Benny noticed that there were no women climbing aboard. Apparently the situation had been serious enough that the women either weren’t trusted with the task, or else were kept inside because the men feared they might get hurt.

     Benny risked a quick glance over his shoulder before they began boarding the Village, in an attempt to see if their things were still visible on the top of the hill. He was surprised to see that the hilltop was almost two miles away, judging by the space between them, and there was no sign of their stuff.

     But there was someone up there. Three someones, in fact.

     He was about to call Brun’s attention to it before it was their turn to climb the door/ramp at the back of the cart, but he was cut short when he saw a small Vanjii man rushing up, spear pointed in front of him. At first Benny thought the man was running at him, but as the man approached, he could see the wild look in the man’s eyes. Those crazy eyes weren’t fixed on him, either; they were fixed on Jimmy.

     Benny stepped aside to avoid the spear, and the man thrust it forward at Jimmy’s vulnerable back. Luckily, though, a man’s fist reached out and grabbed the spear handle just before the tip could reach Jimmy. Benny looked up to see the colorfully painted face of Beaner, and using his grip on the spear, the massive leader of the Vanjii pulled the smaller man close to him and head butted him directly between the eyes. There was a loud crack as the two skulls connected, and the attacker with the spear began to stumble backward with a dizzy look on his face.

     Did you see that coming? Brun asked in his head.

     Just barely. It wasn’t enough time to get your attention though. I didn’t want to get stabbed, either.

     I meant Beaner, came the reply. I hadn’t felt him at all. Somehow, he was hiding just beyond the cart and neither of us felt him at all.

     There’s someone near our stuff, Benny told Brun as he remembered. I just saw them up there.

     They have been just behind us and catching up for days now, Brun said. But there is no time for that. That man you just saw try to attack Jimmy is probably but one of many who feel that the boy, you, and I are all traitors. Keep your guard up. And for Christos’ sake, remember what I’ve taught you and protect the boy!

     They had to walk quickly to keep up with Jimmy’s captors, who had heard the commotion, realized what was happening, and began to hurry the boy inside. Apparently, Brun and Beaner weren’t the only one’s within the Vanjii tribe who attributed great amounts of importance upon the boy.

     Benny caught one last glimpse of the scene behind them. Beaner had been brought a large club, and he was poised over the man with the club raised high. He didn’t say a word before swinging it down. Brun pulled him inside the large doorway and out of the line of vision just as there was a loud cracking noise, followed by two quick, gushy smacks, a noise that reminded Benny of his mother tenderizing meat. The image that accompanied this in his head was much worse than hamburger being beaten by a metal mallet, though.

     The air inside the Village was cool, and everything was just as dim as Benny remembered it from the first time he had been forced to visit. This time when he felt the overwhelming sense of foreboding, he knew it was the spirit of the Unborn Son inside the body of Brun’s sister. If the Lauren that Brun had grown up with was still in that body, she certainly wasn’t in control anymore.

     One thing was largely different than the last time Benny had seen the village, though. This time, almost no one was standing still and the raucous caused by all of the people moving around, shouting, and bumping into each other was much more deafening than the silence that Benny had first been greeted by when he last graced the Village.

     Stick very close. Last thing we need is someone to bump up against us. After this, there will be no more communication between you and I. Lauren’s quarters are directly opposite those of Beaner, and we can’t risk her sensing us anymore than she probably already has. I will be wherever Jimmy is, so don’t get panicked, and please try to control your thoughts. Blank as the plains, Benny, blank as the plains.

     Benny began doing his best to keep all thoughts from his head, but he found it extremely difficult, so instead he contented himself with merely allowing his mind to make a steady and unbroken hmmmmmmmmmm.

     Behind them, Benny could hear the crowd quieting down as Beaner hurried in behind them. His breathing was loud and labored, broken by the occasional wheezing cough. They finally reached the back of the Village, where Beaner’s private quarters were. The two men hauled Jimmy off to the side and waited for Beaner to approach.

     Benny pushed himself up against a nearby wall and watched what was going on, waiting for the opportunity to slip in behind Beaner, Jimmy, and his captors. Beaner handed his club, bloody and dripping, off to a random serving girl before speaking to the two men who had caught Jimmy in the Vanjii language. Benny didn’t even try to understand what they were saying, but soon enough Beaner looked at Jimmy and said, in plain English, “Was that fun, you little shit?”

     Jimmy maintained his solid poker face.

     “Eh whatever. Lil piss ant,” Beaner grumbled, pulling his own keys out and unlocking the door to his quarters. Apparently the fat leader didn’t allow even his most trusted servants into his quarters while he was away.

     Once the door was unlocked, Beaner grabbed the boy with his bloody left hand and sent the two men away. Benny noted the sour look that passed between the two, as if they had expected to be gifted for their service.

     As Beaner brought the boy into the room, Benny slipped in just before the door shut, and felt Brun brush by his leg as the little man did the same.

     “You speak English, I know you do,” Beaner said to the boy. When Jimmy didn’t reply, Beaner smacked him across the face. “DON’T YOU?”

     Through bloodied lips, Jimmy said, “Yes, Your Grace.” The boy didn’t work very hard to cover up the loathing in his voice has he said the title.

     “Then we need to have a little one on one discussion, you and I.”

     “Three on one,” Brun said out loud.

     Benny felt a strange tingling all throughout his body and before he knew what was happening, there stood Brun at his hip, and his own hands were visible once again.

     If Benny had seen the look on Beaner’s face anywhere else, he probably would have laughed out loud. ‘Priceless,’ was the word that came to mind as the fat man stumbled back slowly with his mouth hanging open, eyes wide with surprise. But the comical moment was brief, and he quickly recovered and replaced the look with one of fury.

     “How dare you come back here,” the man boomed.

     “You shame yourself,” was all Brun said in reply, and Benny saw in his peripheral that the large blue eye flashed menacingly.

     Beaner acted as though he hadn’t heard. “And you bring this green boy back with you, on top of what you’ve already done,” he continued. Jimmy stepped away from Beaner and stood behind Benny and Brun. “Don’t you understand, you traitor?”

     “I understand perfectly well,” Brun said. “It appears as if you are the one here who isn’t understanding.”

     “The boy is more connected to Natas than even Chase Morgana!” Beaner thundered. “He will surely bring the wrath of the Madman on the entire Vanjii tribe.”

     “I repeat, you shame yourself. When I left you were still thinking like a sane man, albeit an intoxicated sane man, but still sane. Now you sound like a blubbering idiot, even to the one who has heard you in your most ridiculous phases.”

     “Don’t speak to me like that,” Beaner said, his entire body shaking with rage. “I saved you just like I saved all of these people, and you damned well know it.”

     “We could have saved ourselves,” Brun said. Jimmy had circled around Beaner, and so Benny followed. Beaner lashed out at Brun, but Brun swung around. Before any of them could anticipate it, the big man’s arm swept around and caught all three of them right in the chest. Benny felt wood break behind him as they broke through the wall of the Village.

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.