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.”
“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.”
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, 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ku had just explained to Laura that the girl inside the fire was not her, but merely looked like her. It was, in fact, another girl entirely. The elder couldn’t say who exactly she was, but he felt very strongly that Benny had been in contact with her recently. Laura still felt a sense of disorientation when she thought about the time jump. It was only a trick of her mind, of course, a sensation caused by the warping of time caused by the between world, Brynj. According to Ku, Benny had been near this girl, and thus near the Unborn Son, whatever that was, about a week ago. Laura’s mind had had extreme difficulty wrapping around this, as she had just sent him on his way a day or two before. But, as Ku had explained, the between world caused many strange things, not the least of which was the difference in the flow of time. As soon as Benny had left Hayvan and re emerged in the Unalla Woods, his time had instantly began to move along a faster track, while the time Laura experienced while she and Fusa looked for Ku On Hu had remained the way she had always known it.
Thinking about it caused her a headache, so she tried to focus on the details about the girl in the flames. Ku had no explanation for why she looked so similar to Laura, besides that one person often looked like another without there being any mystical reason for it. That was just how nature worked. Ku sensed that the girl had tried to cause Benny harm, but had failed (much to Laura’s delight, for she had been worried about the boy ever since he left via her father’s Lana Sativa plant.) Laura had asked what type of harm she tried to impose, but Ku could not say. All he could say was that a great presence had saved him, and that the boy was with a very skilled companion, whoever it was.
When the old man told Laura about the ‘skilled companion,’ Laura had sensed something within Ku that she couldn’t quite identify. Some sort of recognition, or perhaps even hopefulness. But when she asked him about it, he only smiled and said that if any of his suspicions were correct, he would meet a great person soon. Who, he would not say, and this caused her such irritation that at first she had stormed off, only daring to venture about twenty feet away from their camp.
Now they were on the move again, with everything they owned packed into one overstuffed bag which Fusa carried over his shoulder. Laura wanted to know desperately about who Benny was traveling with, but no matter how much she tried to delve into Ku’s mind, she only heard some kind of cheery tune whistled within his thoughts, and when she would look at him during those times, trying to find something even just written in his body language, he would turn towards her with a sly grin and begin whistling the very tune she had heard in his thoughts. He’s mocking me, I know it, she thought. He knows I’m trying to pick his thoughts and so he goes blank and whistles, then when I look at him he starts whistling the annoying song in order to say ‘I know you’re trying to get in there.’
It was infuriating, but she knew that he had his reasons for not saying, and so she must respect his desire not to speak about it.
When Laura had first been shown the girl who was supposedly infested by the Unborn Son, it had been night time. She had gone to sleep, or rather tried to, with her mind filled with thoughts of twins and disembodied spirits and her creator, her best friend, her soul mate, Benny Jorgens. When she had finally dozed off, she wasn’t riddled with any of the odd dreams which had been troubling her, and she awoke to another one of those perfect Inner days, where the weather never changed and it was Summer-Spring forever. They had struck camp as the sun rose over the first peaks of the forest covered mountains which surrounded them. After a few hours of traveling, they now found themselves at another decent clearing amongst the trees, and they were all resting and eating some of the meat which Ku had prepared the night before. It really had grown to the size of a large turkey, just like he had promised, and the taste was delicious in Laura’s mouth, even the next day.
The trees around them seemed to be thinner in this clearing, and Laura wondered if they were coming to the end of the Unalla Woods already. Father always told me they were much larger than this, she thought suspiciously. We have only traveled a few miles, at the max. Of course, it wouldn’t be the first lie he ever told me.
While Fusa and Ku argued about whether or not Fusa should continue smoking, now that father and son had been united (Double and Double, Laura reminded herself,) Laura began examining the trees around her. She didn’t know what she was looking for, at first, but she soon realized she was looking for some form of life. There had been fairly little, that she had seen, which was also contrary to everything her father had ever told her. But apparently the thing which Ku had roasted, the strange meat that grew as it was cooked, had been a small cat like animal which he had caught just after they crossed over into the Inner, so she knew there had to be life around, even if she couldn’t see it. So she set about the clearing, chewing on her portion of the meat, looking up at the tree tops.
She came to one tree that seemed strangely out of place. Most of the trees in the Unalla Woods had needles, but this one had leaves. Growing up in Hayvan she had very little experience of real trees, besides willows, but the bits of knowledge which she shared with Benny from his childhood, when the two of them had been in each other’s heads almost constantly, she recognized this tree as an oak.
The wind in the tops of the trees began to pick up, and for some reason Laura began to feel colder. That’s odd, she thought. The weather never changes in the Inner.
Looking up towards the distant top of the strange, out of place oak tree, she could make out some sort of movement. Suddenly, the movement spread to the pine tree next to it, and then the next, and so on until a wind seemed to be flowing around the clearing in a steady circle, rustling the branches faster and faster, as if the clearing were caught in the middle of a cyclone. She watched as the current of wind would start from the giant oak tree, then move around the entire clearing in a speedy yet graceful wave.
It was only when the strong wind began to move its way down the trees, spiraling towards her slowly, going farther down with each circle, that Laura began to feel afraid. What was going on, that would cause such strange wind?
She turned back in the direction of Fusa and Ku on the far side of the clearing, thinking she would shout to them to get their attention, but they were already on their feet, watching the swirling wind in the treetops. Fusa was pointing and saying something to Ku, but the wind was drowning out their voices. She began to run in their direction, but Fusa suddenly put out both of his hands in a stopping gesture, and she was pretty certain he had mouthed the word ‘Stop!’ but she couldn’t be sure. Ku had his hands raised above his head, as if in prayer, and Laura could faintly make out a faint white light surrounding his hands. Fusa was no good at telepathy, and so she tried again to move closer toward him in an effort to hear him better.
Before she knew what was happening, she felt sharp daggers tear into her shoulders. She cried out in pain and snapped her head to the side to see what had her. She saw scaly, cracked skin surrounding long claws that looked to be talons, each one about four inches long and curved inward to grab prey like her. As quickly as the talons dug in, she was being lifted off the ground, and below her the grass was swaying to the wind thrown off by the beating of the wings of whatever the thing was which had her.
She tried to lift her arms to beat at the bird, or whatever the damned thing was, but found her arms limp and lifeless, the nerves presumably cut off by the claws which seemed to be digging further and further into her shoulders. Below her, Fusa and Ku were moving farther and farther away, but now Fusa had moved directly below her, into the center of the clearing. She tried with all her might to reach out to Ku with her mind, but she was only getting a hazy humming sound, and somehow she knew that while in the trance state, she would never be able to reach him.
She stared at him, anyways, though, as the birdlike creature carried her farther and farther away. She could see everything, all of the Unalla Woods, and even the plain which bordered it on one side, but she paid no attention to the beautiful landscape. She was focused only on Ku, or rather the speck of darkness in the middle of the tiny circle of lighter color which was all she could make out of them now. The creature had taken her several hundred feet into the air, perhaps even a thousand, she couldn’t really tell. Blood was flowing around the talons, and she felt it running down her arms. Apparently not all of the feeling was gone from them, just the ability to use them.
From the speck far below her, Laura saw a brief flash, and then something was heading toward them, growing fast even though they were still moving upward at an alarming pace. It was white, and Laura was pretty sure that she could see it shining, somehow, like a big silvery cloud hurling toward them. She flinched and closed her eyes, expecting to be hit by whatever the thing was, but she only felt a cool breeze around her, followed by a sickening screech from the creature and searing pain as the talons were ripped from her shoulders.
Then she was falling. Falling so fast she felt sure that she would be sick. The tiny spot which the clearing had become was now growing fast, the entire world seeming to hurtle towards her. But it didn’t last long. There came another screech and the creature grabbed her again, mid-fall. This time it only managed to get one of its talons around one of her ankles as she tumbled through the air. She looked up and saw the ugliest creature she had ever seen. Its wings were like those of a bat, but they were blood red and inside them the veins seemed to move around like tiny snakes as the thing flapped its wings.
It had the body of a man, only its skin was a dark green, almost black, spotted all over with purple blotches, as if the thing had been bruised all over its body. It was clutching her with it’s foot, and Laura could see that its arms formed the top part of its wings, so it could not grab her with its hands without losing its flight. As she dangled there, looking up at the terrible monster which had somehow evaded her senses in the clearing, the thing looked down at her and grinned. It was the most terrible thing Laura had ever seen, and she let out an ear piercing scream. The creature didn’t like the noise, and its grin instantly became a grimace and it began shaking her, as if to make her stop.
Laura watched its face as it saw another of the white clouds coming. But this time, it wasn’t going to allow Ku’s cloud thing to catch it easily. It darted to the side and began to dive, going so fast that it actually dragged Laura behind it as it fell. Looking up, she could see the cloud following close behind, giving off a faint humming as it hurled toward them. Even though the creature was pulling her toward the ground extremely quickly, the cloud was still catching up. Laura tried to help the cloud move faster, but wasn’t sure if she actually helped at all. But even if she didn’t, the cloud struck the creature just as it was about to swoop down on Fusa in an attempt to grab a second helping of prey.
Fusa was no field mouse, though. He was a skilled warrior, and he was ready. The cloud burst around the creature, once again feeling like cool mist to Laura, but to the creature it was apparently torture. It screamed and folded its wings in around itself, as if for protection, and Laura became afraid they would smash into Fusa. However, when they were right over the top of him, Laura felt the talons release her and she began to fall slowly through the air, almost floating. Looking down as she fell, Laura saw Fusa step to the side and do some fancy move, grabbing the creature and spinning it in a circle before expelling it at a nearby tree. It was the big oak tree from which Laura had initially heard the rustling.
There was an explosion as the creature hit the tree, and dust, leaves, bark, all exploded outward from the tree. Laura landed nimbly in the center of the clearing, and instantly ran over to Ku On Hu. He wrapped his arms around her, and she put her face into his shoulder and instantly began crying.
“Come, child,” the old man said to her, patting her hair affectionately. Across the clearing, amidst the cloud of smoke and dust, loud yells and curses were erupting from Fusa while the creature was giving off more of its piercing screeches. “Let us move away from this. It is not safe until Fusa has dealt with the Crog, and we must take shelter in case the creature comes flying for another attack.”
Ku led her into the trees, and up a slight embankment, until they emerged above the clearing, about a hundred feet away from the scene of the commotion. Laura could still hear Fusa cursing the creature, calling it a ‘damned piss ant hobgoblin,’ and it was a relief to know that the terrible creature had not taken him yet.
“Is there anything we can do?” Laura asked Ku.
“No, my child,” he answered. “Those little puffy things I sent toward the creature have greatly immobilized it, but not entirely. I am of no use now, with so much of my energy spent on those two, and you would not know how to even begin. Though I’m certain you would make a valiant effort, nonetheless,” he added quickly, noticing the hurt look on her face. “With those injuries to your arms, however, I think its best that we both just stay back and don’t risk an attempt.”
She looked back toward the dust cloud, and saw what remained of the giant oak tree begin to fall slowly toward the clearing.
“I don’t understand that tree,” Laura said.
“It is an extension of the creature,” Ku replied gravely. “If Fusa or I had paid enough attention, we would have saw you looking at it and been able to save you before it could hurt you. It lures the prey in with some sort of oddity. In the ocean, it might be a giant random bubble; on a cold and windy mountain, perhaps it would be a patch of warm beach; in this case, it chose a more obscure allure. I believe it somehow sensed that you were making observations about the landscape, and so it set up that strange tree, hoping to grab your attention. Fusa tried to tell you to stop, for the creatures can only see a short distance, and if you had staid still you would not have been easy to spot. They wait for motion, and then pounce.”
“I’m sorry,” Laura replied, tears of shame coming to her eyes. “I didn’t see anything besides the wind, and I didn’t even feel it, like I thought I would if there was something there.”
“Do not fret, young one,” Ku said, the same hint of affection in his voice that he always adopted when trying to sooth her. “It is a common mistake. There are strange creatures of a number unimaginable, and most of them will not show themselves until it is too late.”
“AAAAAARRRRGGGHHHH!!!” Fusa screamed from inside the cloud of debris, which still had not settled. “Let go of my arm, cocksucker!”
The creature replied with a loud screech, louder than any of the others so far, and then it erupted from the cloud to go sprawling on the ground, apparently thrown by Fusa.
“My double has never quite mastered the art of watching his tongue around a lady,” Ku said. “Easier said than done, while in combat, I know, but he could still use a few more…choice terms. He sounds like a damned sailor.”
Ku lit up a cigarette and began smoking it contentedly, watching as his son emerged from the cloud of dust and pounced on the creature. The Crog, as Ku had named it to Laura, was about the size of two full grown men standing on top of each other, but Fusa still seemed to be overpowering it. There was a deafening riiiiiiiiip as Fusa tore one of the thing’s arms off, tearing the membrane that formed the wing right in half. Ku showed no signs of fearing for his son’s life, so Laura tried to calm her own anxiety and accept that this was just a show of Fusa’s skills.
But the pain was back in her shoulders, and she once again became aware of the fact that the thing had severely damaged her arms when it grabbed her. She tried again to lift one of them, but could not succeed in moving it at all, not even her fingers. Laura turned to Ku and found that he was already preparing some sort of swab, while the cigarette dangled from between his lips. He had a small piece of cotton, and was taking some sort of small plants from the ground and squeezing them between his fingers until they released a thick, white substance onto the cotton.
“This is going to sting,” the old man said, putting it on the shoulder closest to him, “A lot.”
At first she thought Ku was exaggerating, but then the substance began to enter her bloodstream through the wound and every scratch and cut on her body began to scream with pain. She cried out and laid flat on her back. She screamed so loud as the pain coursed through both of her shoulders, that even Fusa’s obscene outbursts could no longer be heard. Even the screech of the Crog was faint in her ears.
It was like fire coursing through her veins, turning to lava in the places where she was injured. She was trying to get herself to say Make it stop, but the only noise that was managing to come out was a scream. There were cuts she didn’t even know she had, scratches from walking through the underbrush, and bruises that she had long since forgotten. One by one, though, they each began to cool down. The fire receded from her veins, and the lava seemed to dry up. When it was entirely gone from her, she felt a slight throbbing in the places where the Crog’s talons had bit into her shoulders.
It was much better than the pain, however, and she sat back up and thanked Ku, but not before apologizing for acting like such a baby.
“You get embarrassed too easily,” Ku said sternly. “You must learn to be hard as stone, like when you shot Natas, if you plan to survive what is ahead. If you get abashed and allow your head to fill with blood every time you make a mistake, then the enemy will waste no time at all exploiting that…flaw.”
Laura had heard the word he meant to use, a faint whisper within his thoughts. He had meant to say that weakness, but had changed his mind and said flaw instead.
I’m not weak, she told herself. I’ll prove it to him, one day. To him, and to Fusa, and to Benny. Most of all, I’ll prove it to the Madman.
Ku was smiling, even though he had turned back to watch the fight again. His cigarette was now dangerously low, and he flicked it away.
“AAAH, you piece of shit, get off me. Get off me! Gods damn you to the hell you came from, you stupid, Croggy piece of crap.”
Laura giggled, feeling some of Ku’s humor rolling off of him as she listened to Fusa. The creature had pinned him to the ground with its one remaining arm, but Fusa quickly retaliated by busting one of the joints that divided the Crog’s arm. It let out a wail, and shrank back. Fusa was instantly on his feet, and he picked up the other arm and used it as a club to bash the creature, over and over again until it was within the cloud of dust again. The creature could just barely be seen within the cloud, attempting to right itself, but having a rough time with the loss of one arm and the sudden handicap of the other.
This gave Fusa the opening he had been struggling towards. He put his hands together and began to mutter under his breath. Laura felt pretty sure she knew what was coming, but watched intently none the less. To her surprise, Fusa began waving his arms around in a fluid, almost dance like motion. It was rather beautiful, and he seemed to building up his energy. Laura felt as if she could almost see his energy flowing and gathering around him, as the creature struggled and writhed on the ground in the settling dust.
Then, just as Laura had expected, Fusa jumped high into the air, far higher than she would have ever thought possible anywhere besides within the Inner, and came hurtling down with sickening speed, slamming his fists and feet into the ground by the dust with a thunderous crash. All of the dust lit up, and Laura was temporarily blinded by the flash. The screech that came from the creature was unlike any noise she had ever heard, at one moment deeply throaty and at the other tinny and guttural, louder than any of the howls she had heard from it before.
It was the trick Fusa had used to get rid of the blood when they had killed the first couple of guards in the LeVille Mansion, except he had used the powder from the shattered tree instead of his little vial of banishing powder. This time, it wasn’t blood that was banished. It was the creature.
When the blinding light faded away, nothing remained of the giant oak tree, and the only sign of the creature was the arm Fusa had torn off, which lay forgotten near the edge of the clearing. Laura and Ku both gave a loud cheer of congratulations for Fusa, and Laura instantly began running down the embankment to speak with him.
“Damn ugly whore almost broke my nose,” Fusa said when she reached him.
“Ah, so it was a female, was it?” Ku asked, coming up a few seconds behind Laura.
“Hard to tell, since they all have junk between their legs,” Fusa replied. “But yes, I am fairly certain.”
“Ill news,” Ku replied. “That means we must have stumbled near a nest, and were scheduled to be her baby’s next meal.”
“Well then let us hope the babe is young, and will not yet be able to comprehend what the loss of its mother means,” Fusa said. “Or else we may find ourselves face to face with him, seeking revenge. Let me tell you, Miss Laura, there is nothing in these woods quite as ferocious and determined as a tiny little Crog who has lost its mother, and who has identified the killer. Revenge drives them like nothing else in the world.”
“Come,” Ku said. “We must strike camp and move away from this place, in case the little one comes looking.”
With that, Fusa grabbed the arm he had torn off, the flap of wing swaying in the breeze, and threw it into the fire. By the time the entire thing had been consumed by the flames, they had already stricken their camp and were heading away from the clearing, and towards Benny once again.
Laura could have sworn that she could feel something watching her as they traveled out of the clearing and back into the wood. She decided it was just the nerves of hearing the stories of the little baby, perhaps even a delusion caused by the slight stirrings of guilt she had felt when it was told to her that it was a mother.
Better than being baby Crog food, she thought.
Behind them, right as they entered the woods and crept away from the camp, a tiny red creature wandered into the clearing, following the smell of burning flesh as the arm of its mother withered away in the flames.
The hall was dark and dank, filled with a thousand spiders and air that smelled of mold and a wide variety of other, unknown and ancient smells. In the shadow of a long abandoned doorway, a man stood waiting impatiently, listening to the drips of water echoing around the halls, smoking a large cigar.
He was tapping his foot impatiently, as if he were being held up at great expense to his plans for the day. A thick black cloak covered his shoulders and face, just in case there were any unwanted visitors in the abandoned hallway. Better to be safe.
He checked his watch, and then two minutes later when his guest had still not shown up, he checked his watch once again. Then a few minutes later he checked again. And again. And again until almost an hour had passed since he had first arrived at this place.
It was supposed to be the meeting place. The man with the cloak was growing impatient because he was supposed to be receiving a large payment that day. So far the person who was supposed to pay up had not bothered to show. With every passing moment, the man grew more irritated and began puffing his cigar faster.
Finally, faint footsteps could be heard echoing down the hall.
“The weather is nice down here,” the man with the cloak and cigar said. It was the code they had agreed upon.
“Whether or not the weather is nice, I don’t know, but I know I like it,” came the reply, also the words they had agreed upon long in advance.
The first man, the one with the cigar, shivered as the other approached him. He tossed his cigar into the blackness and waited for the newcomer to draw near to him.
“I thought you were standing me up,” the man with the cloak said.
The other man, the one with the dark hair and the thick sunglasses, replied in a cool and collected voice, “I had matters to attend to, and even now I only have a few hours down here, so let’s make this quick.”
“I delivered my part of the bargain, so now I would like compensation,” the man with the cigar and the raspy voice said. “Only what we agreed upon, I don’t ask anymore than that. But certainly no less.”
“You didn’t manage to keep to the entire bargain, it would seem,” the newcomer said. Even though the hallway was dark as soot, the man still wore his sunglasses.
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean, Arthur,” came the reply. “Part of the deal was that I would get the echani who has been stalking me for years. Then low and behold, right before the event, another one of those damned things shows up, and I’m thinking to myself ‘what a wonderful day this has turned out to be.’ And now I find out that I didn’t get just one of them. I got none of them!”
The man crashed his fist against the wall, and bits of pebble flew to the ground.
“B-but I tried,” the first man said. “You know I tried. I caught the one and bound him like you said, and the other miraculously disappeared.”
“Really?” the man with the glasses asked. “It would appear that your Sativa plant is the one which the boy used to escape. And then, hours later, I get half blinded by your god damned daughter and the great Ku On Hu escapes me once again. Shortly after that, they are all gone. Your girl, the only two echani that have the balls to show themselves, and the bastard offspring of the elder echani… all miraculously vanished. It seems rather implausible to me.”
Though it was dark, the man with the cloak could tell that the other wore a smug look on his face. “You can’t be serious,” he stammered out. “We had a deal, I did everything I could, you got your sacrifices, now give me my wife!”
“I don’t feel like I have gotten very much out of this deal, LeVille,” the man with the glasses said. “In fact, I feel like the eye I lost was worth much more than the fifty or sixty souls you allowed me to take. Do you know how many Feerel that will make me? Perhaps a dozen. And I am quite sure that when the time comes to use them, they will die rather quickly, just like the ones I had posted around the Great Cell. With both of my eyes, I was able to control multitudes.”
“I’m sorry for your injury, truly I am,” Arthur LeVille replied, “but that has nothing to do with our bargain, Vonwell. Now I want what I was promised.”
“Oh, I think it has everything to do with our bargain. Your little bastard of a daughter was studying under an echani for years, and you didn’t have the sense to notice it? You didn’t stop it from happening?”
“How could I when you didn’t reveal to me that Ku was an echani until the day before you planned to take everyone?” LeVille replied. “I thought he was a mystic old cook, eccentric but harmless. Him and his family treated Laura well, so I allowed her to continue visiting. If he was teaching her things, she never told me that.”
“Because Ku On Hu is not a stupid person,” said Natas. “He probably told the girl that anything he showed her had to remain a secret, long before showing her anything at all. But you bound him poorly in the Great Cell. He was basically playing possum, for Christ’s sake, just waiting for the help to show up, as he knew was inevitable. And now that you have mentioned the family of the Elder, I have one more little question to put to you.”
Arthur LeVille gulped, sucking in some of the sweet dank air.
“The bitch,” Natas said. “This wife of the double. Veela, I believe her name was. I did not here report of her when my servant was examining the bodies.”
LeVille looked honestly stunned this time.
“Sir, I promise you,” he spat out in haste, “I had every exit sealed, I destroyed my Lana plant after finding out it had been used, and I wasn’t aware of the plant the echani and his double used to get away. But no reports whatsoever came back to me about the wife, sir, I promise. I thought for sure she died with the others, for no one left after Ku On Hu, and no one had gone anywhere before him accept for the Benny fellow.”
“That fellow was the third echani, and you allowed him to slip away. This Veela girl is one of the few remaining Vanjii survivors who doesn’t roll around with that fat oaf in his ridiculous excuse for a home. That’s three strikes in one day, LeVille.”
Arthur LeVille was trying to spit out some sort of reply, but nothing was coming out accept a rasping noise.
“I’ve had enough of your insolence, and I am in too big of a hurry to get back to the Upper Realms to stand here listening to your excuses. Chi!”
Out of the shadows behind the Madman, a girl walked out of the shadows. She had long straight hair, and a soft face that would have looked innocent had it not been for the malevolent stare and the hungry grin which played across her face.
“I have learned to bring my friend here with me into the Inner,” Natas stated with a satisfied smile. “Isn’t it delightful? Just watch how strong she is.”
The girl made a sudden motion and grabbed LeVille around the neck. Before he could even take in a breath, the girl lifted him off the ground, supported only by his neck.
“Her favorite thing to do is suffocate people,” Natas said coolly. “You might even call her a strangulation expert.”
LeVille continued to twist and kick as the blood flow was cut off from his face. His skin was turning a sickly purple color, and his eyes were bulging in their sockets. The girl who held him up began to laugh as those bulging eyes slowly rolled back into the back of the man’s head. His tongue began to loll as his throat swelled, and soon his heart sped up one last time and then stopped forever.
“Put him with the rest,” Natas commanded. “Then meet me back in Minde. We have a game to play.”
The girl laughed and began dragging the body of Arthur LeVille down the hall behind her master.
Laura was at a loss to explain to herself what was going on. They had left Hayvan, fleeing the poisonous cloud which had been consuming the town, and when they had arrived on the other side of the between world, she had fallen quickly into a heavy sleep. Suddenly, after what seemed like the longest nap ever, she had been jolted awake by a sudden, searing pain in her chest, right below the heart.
Ku had told her it had something to do with Benny, or more accurately, Benny’s physical body in the upper realms. He had felt it himself, as mind and matter of the echani had grown so intwined over the years of incarnation, excarnation, and reincarnation, that even across the cosmic dimensions of the human mind, pain could be shared among them.
Ever since awaking, Laura had been afflicted by a terrible tightness of the chest, though it was more uncomfortable than painful. Fusa had lain her near their fire, and was babying her like a giant mother while Ku On Hu did some sort of ceremony, which from what Laura could tell didn’t consist of much more than sitting still with his eyes closed, mumbling incoherently under his breath.
She tried her best to allow the cool night air to refresh her consciousness, but try as she might, things swam in and out of focus and she had very little way of keeping track of time passing. Fusa insisted that it was best for her to keep warm by the fire, and so the cool air was only on the rare occasion of a breeze. Now and then she could perceive the transition between Fusa and Ku as they took turns dabbing water on her face.
She had dreams of torrents of blood raining down from the hills and mountains, consuming a valley in which her double, Benny, rode tied to a cart, helpless against the flood of blood. In her dream she viewed everything from a bird’s eye perspective, and she tried to move closer to Benny to save him. As she approached the bottom of the valley, and the blood rushed down the hills, the cart below Benny grew and grew while Benny stayed the same size, until Laura had to swoop back up for fear of her life.
During one of her more lucid periods, she grabbed Ku’s arm and asked him why she was seeing these strange visions. She had never dreamed before, and when she had, it had always been about mundane things Benny was doing, or echoes of Benny’s dreams. Ku explained to her that something had happened to Benny’s body, and that it had been severe enough to reverberate even through the strange, time-warping effects of crossing over into the Inner.
He said that Benny was most likely experiencing something very similar to what she herself was feeling at that moment, and Ku even said that he had confirmed Benny’s location and assured her that even when she passed out, they still traveled. It seemed as if the old man was extremely eager to keep her from thinking of herself as a burden on them or on the success of their goals.
But when things finally began to regain focus, she was glad to find that she had only been delusional for a little under three hours, and that the extreme stretching of time she had experienced was merely a side effect of the feelings being transmitted across Brynj.
Apparently the wise old man had seen things similar to this, and he called it the Double Pain Syndrome, in which the Inner double would enter a state of shock after something traumatizing had happened to the Upper double. He knew she would become worried if she had thought that they were no longer moving toward Benny, and so he had kept her believing that days were passing as well as miles.
In reality, though, they were still in the same campsite that had been set up as soon as they had crossed over from Hayvan. She had asked for help in being propped up against a tall tree, so that she could look into the fire as she ate the soft mushy stuff they had prepared for her meal. She hated the look of it, with its lumps and odd coloring, but it smelled wonderful, and to her astonishment, tasted even better than it smelled.
Looking deep into the fire pit, watching the embers glow white hot before turning to ash and condensing at the bottom, while new embers fell from the logs to repeat the cycle. She was thinking about her father, even though she had come to the conclusion that she hated him and never would have wanted to see him again, anyways, even if he had somehow survived the mad man Natas’s genocide.
Thinking about it more, she came to the conclusion that the man whose name she had adopted was probably still alive somewhere, and had probably been privy to the entire extermination scheme. She had never known many friends, being the sheltered ‘daughter’ of the most Elite citizen of her home, and in fact the only people she had been close to were right here with her. But she still couldn’t help feeling a sense of guilt and loss. Guilt at not having been able to do anything for the people she had seen struggling towards her through the green mist, and loss at the place which had been home to her since she had appeared, full grown, in the willow garden in Hayvan.
She also thought about Benny as she stared into the flames. She wondered just how well he was coping, whether or not he had met anyone or if he was traveling alone and miserable, coming to the ends of the meager supplies she had been able to send along with him. She hoped the latter wasn’t the case, and she knew that she would be able to feel it if any real harm had befallen him, but ever since finally being able to talk to him in person, to hold his hand in her own and see him in a way other than the perspective of her imagination, she felt lost without him.
The strange onset of delusion and pain when Benny’s physical body had undergone some sort of trauma, caused by her deep connection with every part of the boy who had created her, she had slowly begun to realize through the dense fog of her pain that the one thing she wanted to do before dying was help him win his body back. His freedom. Then she would die when Benny died, the way she felt it should be, and her life would be complete.
By the time she was able to piece her thoughts together in a coherent fashion, she understood on some level that she had been created for this. Somehow the cosmos had known that Benny would undergo such a trial, and she was to help in some way. Laura didn’t have a grasp on just how she was going to achieve this, but deep inside she knew it was the truth.
Ku On Hu, her mentor, the only person she acknowledged as a father figure now, came and sat beside her with his legs crossed. It never ceased to astonish Laura that the old man could move about so well, as if age meant nothing to him, and tasks like sitting cross-legged which would cause pain to the typical elder in Hayvan seemed like the most natural thing in the world to Ku. She watched him watching the flames for a moment before asking him the thing which had been nagging her.
“Did my father conspire with Natas to do that to all those people at home? Because he thought he would kill Benny?” As the word home came off her tongue, she felt a pang of nostalgia. She would probably never be able to return there again.
Ku looked momentarily sad, but then he smiled and turned to look at her. “The man named LeVille who was the recent leader of that town did indeed do as you say,” he replied slowly. “But you asked if your father took part in this thing. To that I say only this: if that man were related to you in any way, through blood or through life’s energy, he would never have allowed a man such as Natas to work his slimy fingers into the reigns of control which allowed such devastating preparation. For what we saw back there was no spur of the moment thing. The mechanisms of that conspiracy had been being lain for quite some time before our Benny showed up on the scene.”
So then it isn’t my fault, she thought incredulously, feeling as if a great weight had been lifted from her chest.
“I thought that maybe I had somehow caused it,” she confided.
“Why would you think such a thing, my girl?” Ku asked with heavy concern in his voice.
“I thought that it was just part of Natas’ attempt to kill Benny,” she said. “I thought they had all died just because Natas wanted to kill the person that I brought to our town.”
To Laura’s surprise, Ku began to laugh his wheezy, raspy laugh, lighting a cigarette as the fit passed. “My young Laura,” he said, still smiling, the cigarette dangling between his lips, “you underestimate the precision with which the Madman has calculated the workings of the minds of men. Everything he does has been long planned out, no matter how chaotic or spontaneous it may seem. Those people were marked to die, a part of his lifelong quest to create the army of Feeren with which to take over Valence and ultimately, I suspect, destroy the pillar of Brynj which keeps this world and the higher strata in such perfect harmony. No, Benny had nothing to do with that, though I do bet that Natas figured he would take you out in the process of it. That would make things much easier for him when it comes time to face Benny once again. I am most certain that he knew you had helped Benny escape, and in fact he was probably happy about it. You said yourself that you had overheard him discussing the complications of Benny’s arrival at Hayvan. He didn’t want another of us echani around, because even without training, in the event of imminent death, Benny would have been able to tap into some of his vast amounts of power and cause a lot of problems for Natas, even if he didn’t stop him.
“But that does not mean you should feel bad about helping Benny, either, just because it is something Natas wanted. Getting Benny out of the way was a smart thing, and the histories will thank you for it much later.”
“Why couldn’t you do anything to help them all?” Laura asked, and immediately regretted it when she saw the deep look of pain come over the sweet old man’s face, filling him with an intense enough sense of shame that he turned away from her.
“I wanted to, child,” he said. “Gods, please believe me that I did. Unfortunately, when I was a little younger, more fresh to the Inner and its wonders, I loved to create grandiose objects, monuments of wonder. The Great Cell was my crowning victory, the thing that won me the respect of the Council and all of the Inner. Having to break from my own cell was nothing I ever planned on, and though I may have been able to continue on with you and Fusa, my mind was drained, my energy depleted, and I could not have done anything beside stall us more, which would have only led to our deaths, as well as those we witnessed and heard in Hayvan.”
“I’m sorry,” Laura said, her cheeks becoming hot as she began to blush. “It was rude, I shouldn’t have asked-“
“It is quite alright, young daughter,” he said, his smile and warmth returning to his wrinkled old face once again. “When we are in doubt, we must ask, must we not?”
Laura nodded and returned her gaze to the flame. Across the clearing, it appeared that Fusa had taken up whatever it was that Ku had been doing. It was the first night since entering the Inner, and Laura relished in the wonder that was the weather. Night or day, the temperature remained relatively the same. There were no seasons in the Inner, so every day was a pleasant, mild summer type day, and the evenings felt just the same.
The smell of the fire was wonderful, because Ku had placed some sort of meat over the fire that grew as it cooked. It had started out the size of a fist, and Laura had expressed her doubts about it being able to feed them all, but now it was the size of a small ham and would be the size of a large turkey by the time it was done, Ku had said. Supposedly the meat never went bad after being cooked, and so they would have cold rations for at least a few days after it was done.
It seemed as though in the few hours she had been incoherent with pain, they had accumulated everything they might need for their trip. They had entered the Inner with virtually nothing but the pack Fusa had prepared before he and Laura had set out to find Ku. Even though it was magically proportioned to fit extra stuff inside, Laura had still been fairly certain that whatever was in there would run out pretty quickly. But when she had awoken, their camp had looked fully stocked, or at least close to it. Even though she had believed it before, now she was coming to know that these two men really could do just about anything they wanted once they combined their wills toward something.
Listening to the sound of the crackling and the hum of Fusa’s chants, Laura drifted further into a sense of peace. Even if something terrible was happening to Benny’s body, they were now on their way to actually helping Benny himself. The thought filled her with enough joy that she could almost forget about the travesty back in Hayvan. She just kept telling herself that she had never really known many people anyways, and the most important ones to her had survived, so she should be happy.
It just seemed to eat at her inside that they had been unable to help them. They had had to flee for their lives, leaving all the innocent men, women, and children behind to die in the fog.
But once the Madman is stopped, she thought, there won’t be all of this bloodshed. We can fix whatever has gone wrong with the Council because of him, and things will go back to normal.
They were big things to hope for, she knew, and she was aware that the odds were stacked against them. But she had always loved the stories from her childhood where the good guy won, so she kept the hope burning in her heart, feeding it like the air fed the fire she was watching.
All of a sudden she noticed that the fire was looking back at her. Or rather, a face had now appeared amidst the flames and embers and seemed to be staring back at her. Fusa stood just beyond the flames, facing them, his eyes still closed and the constant murmur still coming quietly from his mouth. As she watched the face, it seemed to materialize more fully, and Laura instantly noticed that it wasn’t actually staring at her. In fact, the face seemed to have no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever, not even eyes. Where they should have been there was only a dip in the facial skin, and the nostrils and mouth were both absent as well. It was as if the skin had grown over a skull, without forming eyelids or any of the other normal features of a face.
She looked over at Ku On Hu to see if he was seeing the face as well, but his eyes were closed. However, he said quietly, “The Unborn Son.”
Laura turned her gaze back to the fire, and the picture there began to change. The face twisted away and began to form into the shape of a man’s body. He was fat and sat on what appeared to be pillows, and leaning forward a little to focus better, Laura could finally make out enough detail to see that the fat man was smoking a pipe.
“He infests another,” Ku said. “But not this one, Fusa, not this one.”
Ku was giving commentary to the projection in the fire, it seemed. Laura listened and watched closely. The flames once again swirled away and reformed into the shape of a girl. A beautiful girl. “Yes, this is the one,” Ku said.
Just like the other images, this one took a few moments to come fully into detail, but when it did, Laura was speechless.
The girl in the fire was her.
Benny had only caught fleeting glimpses of the darkness from the area where Natas had started his terrible reign within the Inner. Once he thought the tall mountain had regained its appearance of a building, but it was only a shimmer of light coming off the snow, making the mountain dance in the sunlight.
It seemed like they had traveled for a lot longer than normal that day, and he was beginning to develop a dull ache in his chest. Whistling at Brun in his mind (a skill Benny had been avidly trying to perfect,) Benny stopped and leaned against a tree to catch his breath, hoping the stitch in his chest would subside.
Brun had been levitating through the forest, showing off, in Benny’s opinion, and Benny had needed to run to keep pace. Since he was also charged with carrying all of their supplies strictly with the power of his thoughts, his concentration was somewhat scattered and he often found himself holding his breath as he concentrated on the objects floating beside him, trying to make sure all of them passed through the trees without touching them. Brun insisted that this would teach him to respond quickly to a changing environment, when he would need to be able to adjust the momentum of objects he was levitating at the drop of a hat. To Benny it just felt tedious, and with Brun whizzing along through the trees at a much faster pace than Benny could run, it had not taken very long to become exhausted.
Brun allowed him respite, for once. Usually the tiny man seemed to push Benny to the brink of his patience, until he was ready to quit whether his little teacher allowed it or not. This time, however, he had seemed to actually be keen to the idea of stopping for a moment.
“We have made good distance,” Brun said. It was the morning after Benny had been shown the Mad Keep, where he had supposedly been taken to have his life force stripped from his body. He could still remember the faintly familiar darkness swirling around the gargantuan black building, with a million windows covering its dark façade, taller than any sky scraper Benny had ever seen, and indeed almost a contender for even the largest mountain he had seen.
“Are you sure?” Benny asked. “This whole damned forest looks exactly the same in all directions, and that ugly mountain of a building doesn’t seem to be approaching us at all. If I were the one doing the judging, I would probably venture so far as to say we hadn’t made any progress at all.”
“And that is why you are still a dead man walking,” Brun said, pulling out some meat and dried vegetables from his personal pack. At least he carries that for himself, Benny thought.
“Oh, whatever,” Benny grumbled. “Stiff.” He wasn’t particularly in the mood for Brun’s insulting style of training, especially after he had spent the entire morning ‘training’ by transporting their luggage. Even if he wasn’t lifting the objects with his arms, the exertion of it left very little energy for the rest of his body, so even just running through the woods had been increasingly difficult.
The ache in his chest was irritating, and he tried breathing deep with his head between his legs as he sat in the shade of a tree, but it didn’t seem to be doing much good. His thoughts drifted off to Laura more and more for some reason, and for a moment he almost forgot about his chest. But it was brief.
Brun was watching him from across the clearing, puffing on his little pipe. He didn’t seem to have much of an expression, except his normal wild eyed stare from that one eye, the eye which seemed to be the focal point of the tiny man’s abilities.
“I don’t know what it is,” Benny said, knowing the little man was probably looking into his thoughts, perhaps even feeling the pain for himself. “It started back there and I thought that it would get better if we stopped for air. But Jesus Christ, I think its getting worse.”
“Have you tried the Lana?” Brun asked. He continued to stare at Benny. From across the clearing, through the shade which half concealed him, Brun’s large blue eye glowed faintly, and the other looked like no more than a black bead in the dim light.
“No,” Benny replied, looking around the camp for his pack. Suddenly, part of one of Brun’s lessons from their long week together, the one about seeing with your mind before ever even attempting to see with your eyes. In the Inner, he said, the mind was the much more accurate tool of perception, and the eyes could scarcely be trusted, especially if you were one from the Upper Realms. So he had been taught to spend an hour each night envisioning a color for everything, different hues for different categories of items, and to try to see the objects imbued with those colors.
He had chosen light bluish green for the Lana plant, but at first when he unfocused his eyes and began feeling the slight hum in his head which always seemed to accompany this visualization process, the items piled together at the far side of the camp looked more like a peacock, a jumbled rainbow of colors all heaped together, and the thought of picking out one very specific hue seemed almost impossible at first glance.
But Benny had been warned of cases like this by Brun. The world was full of different types of matter, and when you had color coded damn near all of them, ‘seeing colors’ as Brun called it could be very disorienting and at times confusing. But he had been ensured that with practice, it would be like looking at the world in any other way, just an everyday occurrence with few of the disorienting effects he was still experiencing.
He focused his mind on the thought of the very specific shade of green he had chosen for the Lana. He saw a color similar, but his mind vaguely registered that no, this was not the Lana plant, this was the meat. Another close hue was actually the pipe, which meant he was close. Then he spotted it. It was just a tiny sliver of green showing between a purple and a red, and he instantly knew that this was the one he was looking for.
He allowed the colors to fade, but kept his eyes trained on the spot where the greenish blue he had been looking for had shown forth. He stared at it for almost a minute, and he almost gave up, thinking that the distance was too great to move it and bring it up out of the ramshackle pile of stuff on the other side of the clearing. But then he remembered Brun telling him that distance and height only gave the illusion of making it more difficult. In actuality, his telekinetic abilities would be just as strong anywhere that he focused them, whether the object be a mile, two miles, or a hundred miles. That was when the pile shifted and the bag burst from the pile of supplies and hovered across the clearing to Benny. He reached out with his right hand and grabbed it. The pain in his chest did not seem to be getting any better, but he was managing to deal with it. In fact, he noted, while he had been concentrating on locating the blue green hue within the spectrum of colors which made up the pile of their luggage, he had ceased to notice the pain because his mind had been so wrapped up in what he was focused on.
He now took out a little chunk of the Lana plant and smelled it. He still couldn’t get over the aroma. The stuff he had tried in Minde on the Day the Shit Hit the Fan (Benny had decided to call it this for lack of a better title,) had been good, but it would have paled in comparison to the purplish Lana plant. The little amethyst looking crystal which covered its surface smelled almost of strawberries, mixed with a thick skunky fragrance which was so subtle that it could barely be associated with a skunk at all. Benny rubbed his chest where the pain was and sucked in the sweet smell of the plant.
Looking back up at Brun, Benny found the little warrior apparently asleep. His one large eye was still open, of course, for he never slept without his magical vision. He told Benny one day that he could go to sleep and allow his mind and visual faculties to shut down, but the eye worked almost like what Benny thought of as a security camera, monitoring the things around the small man while he slept and alerting him to anything which would warrant waking up.
Benny had been thinking about the jerky type stuff which was somewhere in the small pile of supplies, but he hadn’t tried to make it move at all. Suddenly, the small sack which contained the meat bumped into his head with a soft thud, and he decided he would eat and drink before smoking his Lana. They had heard a stream while still trekking through the woods, and Benny decided he would leave Brun sleeping in the clearing and head down to the water to refill the small skin which had been provided for him by Beaner along with the Hide Pack.
Brun had stressed the importance of staying together in the dangerous wood, but Benny figured the stream to be only about twenty or thirty yards from their makeshift camp. He would be gone for only a few minutes, and besides, Brun was perfectly capable of defending himself. Besides that, Benny himself was beginning to feel a bit more confident about his abilities to defend his own life, as well. As more and more of his abilities revealed themselves, he slowly became less frightened of this endless Unalla Wood, and the prospect of facing Natas no longer seemed like a dreaded challenge. It now seemed more like a welcomed challenge.
As he set off down the small bank in the direction that he last remembered hearing the running water, he allowed himself to begin to see the colors again. The trees were a bright luminescent green, a color he had chosen for the simple fact that it would make any other changes in color all the more obvious, therefore giving himself a better likelihood of spotting any approaching predators. For the last few days, however, the worst things they had needed to deal with were the lightning snakes. They would coil themselves up and thereby complete an electrical circuit within their bodies, much like the Tiger Maggots Benny had attempted to use to make fire when he first crossed over into the Inner.
But the snakes were nowhere near as docile. They didn’t just glow and get hot like the tiger maggots. No, these little ferocious snakes stayed coiled up, building electric energy within their bodies to such a point that their eyes glowed blue, and then as soon as you noticed those tiny blue eyes, it was too late unless you knew how to defend yourself. At that point they would spring forth, releasing their energy so that their entire body shown forth with that eerie blue light which was so much like the light Benny would see in Brun’s eye when he was working some wonderful feat.
But despite the shock Benny had received when first caught off guard by those sneaky little snakes, they were relatively easy foe. Benny was beginning to savor challenges, mostly due to the elation he would feel when successful. Brun’s extreme tactics might be tiresome, but Benny did not doubt in any way whatsoever the effectiveness of that tiny man’s methods anymore. He had come to finally accept Brun as a teacher, instead of a burden which had been forced upon him by a cruel universe.
Finally, pushing through one last dense set of bushes, Benny located the clear stream they had heard from the clearing. It almost seemed to beckon at him, it looked so cool and refreshing. He had intended to only go down there long enough to get some water, and to breathe by the cool mists thrown off by the quickly moving stream, hopefully easing the stitch in his chest.
Benny had done some pretty strenuous things, including smacking a girl in the face with a two hundred pound log, but none of it had caused him this much pain. His best guess was that he had forgotten to breathe while levitating their luggage, like Brun had told him to be sure to do. One day I’ll listen to that little bugger, Benny thought, reaching his hand into the creek and scooping up some of the pleasantly cool water.
As he drank from his bare hands, Benny felt some small relief, but only to his parched throat, and not to his chest, which now positively seemed to be on fire. He began to realize that something else had to be wrong. He was out of shape, but not that out of shape, and even so, within the Inner he had been able to keep himself fairly free of overall exhaustion. When he slept, it was either extremely peaceful, almost blissfully dreamless sleep, or he was riddled with vague dreams of the thing which possessed his body in the Upper Realms, but he always, always awoke feeling refreshed.
As the last of the water went down his throat, Benny tried to take in a breath and found that he could not breathe. He pulled in air as hard as he could, but it did no good. It was like a fifty pound weight was pushing on his chest in the place where he felt the pain, just below his heart. It certainly wasn’t a stitch, he realized with dismay.
He began scrambling back up the bank toward the clearing where he had left Brun, at the same time attempting feebly to call out to him. But there was no sound coming from his mouth, due to the fact that he had no air on which to carry his words. The pain he had foolishly mistaken for a stitch was now too intense to bear. The fifty pound weight had become a two hundred pound weight, and the only sound escaping his throat was a terrible rasping noise as he attempted again and again to suck in air.
Brun, he thought desperately. Brun, I need you!
The only sound he heard was the faint rustling of the wind through the trees and the steadily flowing water from the stream. As he climbed toward the top of the little bank which led from their clearing down to the stream, Benny began to lose his strength as his muscles and organs became starved for air. The ‘stitch’ now felt like a knife in his chest. His brain was losing oxygen as well, and suddenly he couldn’t even remember the name he had been calling for help. Something with a B, like his own name, he felt sure, but his oxygen deprived brain couldn’t place any more detail.
His limbs had long since begun to feel heavy and tired, and the only muscle which did seem to be functioning at full force was his heart, which beat faster than Benny would have thought possible, thudding against his chest but missing a beat every now and then, pumping the stale blood to every part of his body.
One moment he was looking at the ground as his hands struggled from root to log to rock, trying to find any way at all to get back to his teacher, whatever his name had been, and the next moment the ground was being replaced with the trees and then the sky as he fell backwards.
His head hit a thick root with a sickening thud, but the bank was too steep for the log to stop his fall as he tumbled down the steep incline. The sky became the river, but it was upside down, until he hit a log, which hurt considerably more than the root. The force caused him to spin to the side, and he felt a severe shock as his arm twisted beneath him, catching his fall. Suddenly he was surrounded by cold, and only vaguely could he discern that he had fallen all the way down the bank and into the river.
Whoever you are, I need you, Benny thought, the despair welling up inside so heavily that he felt he could almost die of fear. His heart was now beating so fast that it felt more like the damned thing was vibrating in his chest, instead of beating steadily. The cold water flooded around his face as his fall came to that sudden, wet stop.
For the briefest of moments, the cold rejuvenated his thought process and he mustered all the will he could manage, yelling as loud as he could in his mind, BRUN! BRUN, TO ME! In the last moment before losing his thoughts again, Benny managed a long, deep whistle within his head.
He thought he could faintly hear some sort of response, but there was always the possibility that it was just an echo of his thought, reverberating inside his mind, which now could have very well been a big empty chamber, for all Benny knew.
As his brain used up the last of his oxygen, the world began to fade to black, and his thoughts ceased to come whatsoever. I promised myself I wouldn’t pass out again on this journey, he managed to remember. But sure enough, the darkness was creeping in from all sides, and he felt his consciousness slipping away.
He’s surrounded by darkness. He thinks he sees light above him, but he isn’t sure. The wind in his hair is incredible, and he becomes only slightly aware that he is traveling at great speed through the darkness.
In the gloom, off to his left, Benny can sense something large and terrible, and looking in that direction he sees that it is a cliff covered by holes. Some of the holes somehow seem more dark than the others, and a few seem to be moving, but how this can be, Benny does not know.
Suddenly he is moving away from the large and terrible, hole-covered cliff, and the sky above is filling with the red light he first spotted while emerging from the abyss. At first, he can’t believe his eyes, but as the light of the sky fills the world, a rosy glow is cast upon the Pillar.
This must be Brynj, he thinks. I’ve been here before. But this is something new.
As he continues to back away, the pillar hardly seems to change at all, it’s so big. He only knows he is indeed moving away from because the holes were getting smaller.
Suddenly he finds himself a long distance from the supposed cliff, and he realizes that it is no cliff at all. It is a giant column, a sort of Pillar emerging from the depths and disappearing overhead. He can finally make out the holes, now that the light is closer, and inside them he sees terrible black creatures, sliming the walls with their acidic spit, causing hissing noises to erupt from the pillar.
He is still moving up, toward the redness of the sky. Benny knows that this all must be a dream, but he cannot remember the events leading up to it, or what he is doing here in this between world.
Suddenly the Abyss below is not as frightening as the Red Abyss above, and the pillar is quickly becoming no more than a faint line, stretching from one abyss to the other.
Before he can think too deeply about these strange events, his eyes close and open on a new scene. His vision is now filled with a blue sky, and Benny can faintly hear someone speaking in the background, as well as the white noise caused by some sort of crowd.
“Arise!” he hears, and in the right of his vision, Benny sees the body of his old sheriff sit up and grab some sort of crude weapon which had been flung in their direction. It looked like a spear, but Benny could easily tell that it was only a broom handle with the end sharpened. As Benny watches, the large man throws the spear back to wherever it came from.
His own body begins to ease its way up, and he can feel the gunshot wound in his chest healing up. This is another mystery to him, as he didn’t know he had been shot. But somehow, instinctively, he knows that his body has been shot and is healing. However, he also cannot look directly in front of himself, for the vision in the middle of his eyes has ceased to work, leaving only the peripheral.
He feels someone watching him, knowingly. The thing which has his body can sense him, can feel him creeping around in its head. It’s just like when he saw the thing kill his mother. It somehow knows that he is there.
Get the hell out of here, comes a throaty female voice, growling into his thoughts. This is mine now.
Somehow Benny manages to force himself to say, No, it isn’t, and I am coming for you. Then his vision recedes and sweet, dreamless sleep sets in.
None of the Hallers expected what the meeting outside City Hall was going to be about, but no one could say they didn’t try to be prepared for anything. The Orphans had managed to secure the ‘honor’ of being the guard directly inside the door, with very little opposition to the idea from the elders. It seemed, in fact, that Ron Parsons was rather keen on the idea.
Reflecting on the meeting Alfonse had arranged with the supposed leader of the Hallers, it occurred to him that Ron may have thought of this as a prime opportunity to get rid of the Orphans. After the meeting, in the half hour the Orphans used to gather themselves inside the entrance hall, Al had learned that Ron had arranged to line up all the armed guards behind the Orphans, in case anyone broke through. Then the guards could shoot the few who did manage to break through. A growing sense of doubt had begun in Al’s mind, though, and the thought of a dozen teenagers with crude spears facing an unknown number of adults did not seem very promising.
He couldn’t reveal any of this doubt to the other Orphans, of course. He wasn’t sure if he was right or not, but Al suspected that he was about as close to a father figure these kids had left. He watched as they put on the old army helmets which had been on display somewhere within City Hall. They wouldn’t serve much protection, he knew, and there were only five helmets, so he and the other elder children had opted to give them to the young ones, who were feeling even more nervous than Alphonse.
Two of the more brave young ones, Lindsey the big girl who had bloodied the nose of a boy for making fun of a friend from her distant past, and a relatively small boy named Tyler Jeffrey who was experienced with martial arts, especially with a staff, had also volunteered to opt out of the helmets. Tyler had told Al that he was confident about the day, and that he didn’t feel he needed the extra security of the helmet, and so the decision had been easy. The four elders, Alphonse, Marilee, Wick, and Jared had given up their claims to the helmets, Lindsey and Tyler also, while the remaining three girls and two boys strapped on the Vietnam Era helmets.
A few years prior, the mayor had commissioned an exhibit in City Hall that would commemorate those citizens of Minde who had served their country. It was intended to boost the morale of the town, showing them that people from the town could one day amount to something if they really tried, but in actuality no one had paid much attention to the exhibit. Until today. The first question Al had brought up was whether or not they could use the automatic weapon which was in the case.
Rob had said no.
The reason was that it was just a display model, and the mechanics of the gun no longer functioned. But he had quickly volunteered the helmets, saying he was sorry there wasn’t more he could offer. That is when he had said he would have the remaining guards who actually had firearms stand behind the Orphans as a sort of secondary defense.
In the time since that meeting, Al had done nothing but fume over this. Instead of asking the guards to stand amongst the children and help in the event of a fight, the coward had casually volunteered a second option in the event that the brave kids fail. It was enfuriating.
It seemed that all of the Orphans were dressed, and Tyler had given them all a brief training session on combat with melee weapons. His expertise wasn’t the spear, of course, but Al figured it was better to have some sort of relative knowledge given to the Orphans before asking them to risk their lives.
God I hope there isn’t really going to be an attack, he thought. He had never actually believed that a break in was imminent from the Crazies, and the defense of the door was purely intended to be a ploy to win back some shred of respect from the townspeople after the shame brought on their heads by their parents. Now, looking at them all with their spears, awaiting instructions, the younger ones barely peeping out from below their helmets, he felt the fear of a father sending his children to war.
There was no doubt about the size of the crowd outside of City Hall. What had begun as a mere murmur of voices from the other side of the door had now grown to a rumbling of yells and loud talking, and occasionally a scream could be heard in the distance. One of the scouts from the second floor of City Hall said that the people didn’t seem to be getting along, and were fighting. He had volunteered the guess that perhaps they were all waiting for something, and were getting irritable and antsy with anticipation.
Either way, Al knew it was time when he saw the line of somber guards file into the entrance hall. Everyone else had been cleared out, including Mary Jorgens and the poker players. This was in case twelve children and four or five armed security guards couldn’t hold back the throng of invading people from the outside. Looking at the guards with their hands on their hip holsters, eyes wide and foreheads sweaty, Al felt disgusted at their blatant lack of courage. It was one thing for Robert Parsons to fail to exercise his assumed authority to mount a proper defense for City Hall, but it was an entirely different thing for these grown men, who only took Parsons’ orders because he claimed to know how to lead them to freedom, were standing there at the back of the hall looking like frightened children themselves.
He moved to the front of his fellow Orphans and raised a hand to draw their attention to him. “Brothers and sisters,” he began. “I thank you on behalf of everyone in City Hall for volunteering to make this bold stand in defense of people you don’t even know.”
Marilee and Wick gave a brief cheer at this, and the children all seemed momentarily proud to be a part of that momentous occasion. Some of those who were closer in their ties patted each other on the back, and assured each other that they were doing the right thing.
“I wish we could have had more time to prepare,” Al continued. “But this has all happened very suddenly, and we have at least done the best we can. Did you all learn at least something about how to handle your weapons?”
Several of them nodded, but Al was slightly dismayed at the large amount of the Orphans who didn’t seem to take any comfort from the brief lesson. Tyler himself looked taught like a bowstring, ready to be released and send forth the death blow. No lack of fight in that one, he thought.
“It is not much, but it is better than what we had two hours ago. Let me briefly go over our strategy, in the event of a break in. As we discussed, we will be in two lines. Tyler has volunteered to be in the front line, as has Lindsey. I will be there as well as Wick and Jared. We will form a semi circle around the door. As you can see, its not a very large entrance, and only three people at the max could fit through at any one time. Five of us will be there to meet them if they try.”
Tyler was enthusiastic about this, and there were a few dark chuckles from amongst some of the more light hearted ones. The others merely looked on, stone faced, seeming resigned to their fate. Except Marilee, Al was glad to see. She made no comment, but did not show any signs of despair. In fact, her eyes almost seemed to glitter as much as Tyler Jeffrey’s did at the thought of a fight. Part of Alphonse wondered just how many kids in Minde were like this, seemingly innocent but ready for a fight.
“The other seven will form a larger semi circle around us,” he continued, imagining the two lines in his head. “If someone gets past our spears and goes through that door, he will likely be tangoing with one of us, so it will be the second line’s duty to get the intruder while he is distracted by the front line. You are the real offense, members of the second line. We in the front merely push them back, but we need you to be waiting to stab between us and get at them. We hold them, you stab them. Make sense?”
Marilee and the others nodded, but Alphonse sensed that some of the others were daunted at the idea of having to stab a man, especially one who was preoccupied with someone else. Doesn’t matter, he thought. They will figure it out or die. We’re all probably going to die here, so it’s up to them to learn.
He had never killed anyone either. But he had been on many hunting trips with his parents, and he knew that if he kept the situation in perspective, killing someone in defense would be just as easy as shooting a deer for food and sport. Perhaps it would even be easier.
He moved to his spot, directly in front of where the double doors of the main entrance would part if they would open. He knew that he had claimed this dangerous position the day he had started acting as their leader. He remembered that day, which seemed longer ago than it really was. Day before yesterday, he thought. Christ, what happened to this place?
He saw Wick take the position to his right, and looked up at his friend. He was one of the few people inside City Hall who Alphonse had known before the shit hit the fan. Being part of the wealthy LeBray family meant seclusion from the lower class of children, but somehow the Cunninghams had started dealing with Al’s father, and the two had been friends since childhood. Wick was almost a foot taller than him, and twice as beefy. It was definitely a comfort having him there on the frontline. It was even more comforting knowing that his friend could have gone the other way, and stayed on the outside with his deadbeat father, but he had snuck off with Alphonse instead, to take refuge at City Hall when they heard others were doing the same.
To his left stood Jared Black. Alphonse didn’t really know what to think of him, but they had allowed him into their ‘elite’ council of elder children due to his age of fourteen and his stature, which was almost as large as Wick Cunningham. He was quiet, but seemed brave and dependent. Al had gotten very little of his story, but one thing he did pick up was that he was not an Orphan by way of his parents having taken part in the slaughter of Jerry Patterson, but was in fact the son of a man the cop had shot just before being overwhelmed by the angry mob. He certainly held no allegiance to the Crazies, but Al wondered if he didn’t keep the thought inside that they had all massacred the cop because he had shot his father in cold blood.
But he put such thoughts from his mind. Jared was a level headed boy who knew that things on the outside had escalated far beyond what was necessary. The tension and fear which had permeated the townspeople ever since the strange events surrounding the disappearance of Benny Jorgens had simply gotten to the breaking point. When those people saw their only remaining defense, a young, green cop with an authority complex, killing one of their citizens in cold blood, Al figured they just snapped under the pressure of feeling like there was no safe place left in their little town.
After that everything had been down hill, Alphonse remembered all too clearly. The fear from before the killing had been tremendous, but afterwards it had doubled and people didn’t even leave their homes, except the ones who knew that the law was gone in Minde and that looting was suddenly lucrative and easy. People needed food but no one was in business, so the only way to get it was to break in. After that had started, there was no stopping the people from taking whatever they wanted.
The one thing Al couldn’t explain was the sudden violence. Benny Jorgens had somehow recovered and was on some sort of killing rampage, according to reports from his mother and the scouts on the second floor who could still look out the windows. On top of that, one or two lone crazies would always come with a crow bar or some other tool and try to break into City Hall, and the only way to get them away so the damage to the boarding could be repaired was to have one of the guards fire a round at the top of the window, where it would hopefully cause the intruder a scare but ultimately not harm him.
Now there seemed to be a whole crowd of them, but the second floor scouts were having trouble looking out without being shot at or having something thrown through the window. Apparently even the gun store had not been secure enough to keep them out.
Al gripped his spear and stared at the door in front of him, trying to quell the fear that the people out there would just start firing at the door. He felt, however, that they were holding back for something. Something was making them hold back there desire to attack. Al didn’t know what these people thought the Hallers had done, but over the past couple of days they had displayed nothing but hostility.
Suddenly there was a loud screech, followed by a click. Al looked over at Wick, who whispered, “It sounded like feedback. Like from a microphone.”
That didn’t seem to make sense. No one from the second floor had reported any sound equipment. But they could have put the speakers close to the building, which would put them out of sight of the second floor because the first floor jutted out another ten feet below the second level, and by the close proximity from which the squeal had emitted, it seemed they were definitely close.
His suspicion was shortly confirmed when a smooth voice began speaking through the speakers, which were loud and clear, almost as if they were right outside the door. Al shuddered at the thought of some of those wild people moving amplifiers into place just a few feet away, with little more than a piece of wood separating them from him.
The voice which came over the loudspeaker was not one Al recognized. “Hello, people of City Hall,” the voice said. It was smooth and well paced, as if this were a carefully planned speech. “There are people out here who do not appreciate the fact that you have spurned your neighbors, and taken refuge with almost a third of all the food which was available to the town.”
There was a loud roar of agreement from the crowd. Al tightened his grip on his spear. Wick to his right was pale, but still did not look scared. Glancing at his knuckles, Al saw that they were white from clutching the sharpened broom handle as tight as he could.
“These people have done nothing to you,” the voice continued, and the crowd continued to echo approval of what the anonymous voice was saying. “In fact, some of them helped eliminate a man who would have ruined this town even deeper than you have with your fear. With your distrust. With your hate.”
The emphasis on the last word was augmented by an even louder cheer than before. Al turned around and quickly asked Marilee, “Do you recognize that voice?”
“No,” she said. “But I don’t like it.”
She was sweating slightly, and her knuckles appeared to be just as white as Wick’s, but she looked steadily ahead, without lowering her spear or cowering away.
“You have nothing to fear from us, who have had to steal and loot because you won’t come to your jobs and serve us. Money is no longer something we can use, yet you expect your neighbors and faithful friends to fight for scraps like dogs.”
Al didn’t like the preachy way this guy spoke, or the way he seemed to be whipping up the crowd with his little sermon.
“You must pay for this indignity.”
Loudest cheer yet.
“But,” the voice continued calmly, “I am a fair man and these are fair people. We will give you an equal chance to redeem yourselves. Your door is going to open now, but I don’t want you to be afraid. I have asked some of my more…faithful followers to make sure no one approaches your precious City Hall as long as I keep talking.”
The people to either side of Alphonse began shuffling nervously, and Wick reached forward to check the lock. His subtle nod told Al that the lock was good, and the only way someone could get through would be to break through.
“I know you’re standing there, right behind the door,” the smooth voice said. “Don’t leave, but you might step back, if you please.”
A loud click suddenly sounded from inside the door, and even though Wick had just checked the lock, Alphonse signaled for everyone to move back. After a few moments of anticipation, with only the murmur of the crowd filling the silence, the door began to swing steadily inward.
One of the younger children behind him began to pray in a hushed whisper.
As the door cleared his line of vision, Al instantly saw that he was correct about the speakers. They were directly in front of the door, one to either side, creating a passage way to the big flight of steps in front of City Hall. The body which had lain there was no longer present, and just beyond the lawn, there stood about a hundred people with rigid faces, all in a line, blocking the way for the other townspeople.
Alphonse could clearly see that the people who stood in the front had no expressions on their faces, as if emotionless. How could things get this way? He found himself wondering again. Behind the expressionless drones the rest of the population of Minde waited restlessly, barely held in check by the people at the front.
It appeared as though much of the town still had their emotions, unlike the line of people keeping them in check. Some looked angry, some looked scared, and to Al’s dismay, most of them looked, above all, hungry.
There was a loud roar as the people of Minde caught sight of the Orphans, standing in the doorway clutching their makeshift spears and their shanty helmets.
The person who was speaking over the loudspeaker was nowhere in sight.
Al heard a shuffling from behind and glanced back to see the guards all pulling their guns out of their hip holsters. At least the cowards know when to be ready, he thought bitterly, once again feeling that they should be the ones in front with their guns.
“The people you see before you are starving,” that smooth voice said over the speakers. “Not the fine folks at the front of course. They no longer feel the need for food, or any other indulgence. We had a meeting, these nice people and I. Not everyone in town was present, I was sad to see, but it was a great turn out. I think I made a lot of friends that night.”
The restless people mulling behind the cold-faced men and women at the front did not seem to understand entirely the jokes of the man, and many of them were looking just as questioningly at each other as many of the Orphans were. Al got the sense that a large majority of the people he once knew as neighbors were still untouched by this lunatic, whoever he was.
“Anyways, we came to an agreement,” the voice continued. Al continued to look for where the man was speaking from, but was having no luck locating him. “They agreed to do whatever I say, and I promised them eternal salvation when this is all done.”
So he really is a preacher, Al thought. But how could so many of these people be tricked into being his puppets simply by the age old Christian promise of eternal salvation of the soul?
Apparently the man knew they would suspect something like this, for he quickly covered that point. “I mean the real kind,” the voice said. “I will demonstrate. Benny, my boy, won’t you step forward so the children of City Hall can see you.”
There was a gasp from amongst the Orphans as the white haired Benny Jorgens stepped around the speakers and into their direct line of vision. Many of them had never gotten the chance to actually see what had become of the boy until then, and it was more shocking than any of them had imagined.
He was wearing filthy bloodstained clothes, and his eyes were filled with a hatred which had never been seen on the face of simple Benny Jorgens before by anyone in Minde. Except those who had fallen under his hands, who would never be able to report what they had seen. Al himself felt terrified. He had only met the common boy once, but he had heard much about him. He had always been accepted, if not well liked, and he seemed to be the sort of person who never attracted nasty rumors about himself. Now he was covered in dried blood, his hair was white, and he looked ready to spar with anyone who dared approach.
“This magnificent boy is my tool,” came the booming voice over the speakers. “He will do as I tell him.”
Suddenly a gun slid from out of sight onto the pavement directly in front of Benny. As he looked down at the gun and began bending over to pick it up, Alphonse and the other Orphans shuffled nervously. They were all thinking the same thing: Did we bring spears to a gunfight?
“Benny, shoot yourself in the heart.”
At this, the Orphans gasped again, and Alphonse noticed that many of the people standing behind the protective drones reacted the same way. What the fuck? Alphonse thought. This guy is a madman!
Al hoped that Benny wouldn’t do something so foolish as take his own life in front of hundreds of people and a number of children, but much to his despair the boy lifted the gun to his chest, turned it towards his heart, and pulled the trigger.
There was a chorus of screaming from the people, and Al heard a helmet behind him drop as one of his fellow Orphans lost his nerve and ran back to the safety of the meeting hall where the other Hallers were gathered, probably hearing every word of this mad man’s speech.
Benny’s body fell backward in a limp heap, hitting the pavement with a sickening thud. Many of the people who still seemed to have some shred of sanity were already disbursing from the crowd, heading back to their homes or wherever they had come from. Alphonse was beginning to suspect that many of the rumors he and the other innocents of City Hall had been fed were fabrications; there seemed to be only one true Crazy in Minde, followed by some fanatical group who seemed brainwashed by the man somehow.
Everyone else in the town, Al realized, were just scared, confused, and hungry.
“Don’t worry folks,” the voice said. “He’ll be quite alright.”
Alphonse detected a smug note in the crazy bastards voice, and it drove him insane. He wished he could see the man.
“Dean, you’re a strong fellow. Would you please place Mr. Harrison here next to our volunteer Benny?”
A large man dispatched himself from the line of people blocking the rest of the town, and he walked quickly forward. He disappeared briefly behind one of the walls of speakers and emerged with the limp body of Johnny Harrison.
The crowd let out a loud collective gasp as they saw the body of their sheriff for the first time since he had disappeared. He was definitely dead.
“This man requested sexual favors of Benny Jorgens as a bribe to overlook certain drug charges he was threatening the boy with,” the voice went on coolly. Al thought this was a lie, and looking over at Wick, he sensed that his friend felt the same.
The man who the voice had identified as Dean set the body carefully down next the bleeding body of Benny Jorgens. Then he resumed his place in the line where he had left, never once changing the expression on his face.
“God has given me many gifts,” the voice said, and there was a collective gasp as a pale, skinny young man in a black suit emerged from the crowd and began walking towards the bodies. As he moved forward, Alphonse registered the fact that this was the first time the people in the guarding line at the front of the crowd had shown any interest in anything at all. Every single one of their dazed, far-gone eyes were turned in his direction, following his path towards Benny and Johnny Harrison, the man everyone thought was dead or in captivity since his disappearance at such a crucial time in their town.
Al felt a chill run down his spine as he watched the man slowly and fluidly take a position over the two bodies with his hands spread out in front of him. There was no microphone that Al could see, so he guessed the man must be using a wireless mic, hidden somewhere within his coat.
He sure knows how to create an effect, Al thought as the man with straight dark hair turned his thick glasses in the direction of the Orphans. Suddenly Alphonse got the urge to chuck his spear at the man, now that he was within sight.
“I wouldn’t do that,” the man’s voice boomed through the speakers. There was a slight feedback, since the man was now only feet from where the hall of speakers started in front of City Hall.
Al knew he was talking to him, but by then the anger had already taken over his arms. They lifted the spear over his head, and his body hurled it with more accuracy and strength than even he would have suspected of himself.
The aim was good, but no one expected what would happen next. Through the speakers, the word “Arise!” echoed through the streets, and quicker than anyone saw, Harrison was sitting up, and he nimbly caught the crude spear in one hand, turned it, and pitched it back in their direction with more force than Al had even used. Alphonse ducked, but the spear still nicked the skin on his neck, and he heard a loud metallic clank from behind him, followed by a cry from someone and gasps from the other Orphans.
Pain shot down his neck as the spear grazed him, but he quickly recovered and turned around to see that the spear had struck one of the younger children. Luckily, this particular girl had been one of the five wearing one of the old army helmets, and the only damage was a slight scrape where the metal had dented in and scratched the girls scalp. Marilee had taken the dented helmet off, and was in the process of working with Lindsey, the big girl, to move her out of the entrance hall. To Al’s despair, two of the armed security guards had already deserted. He cursed under his breath and turned back toward the man.
“No one attack,” he warned the Orphans, wiping away the blood which was now quickly flowing down his neck from where the point of the wood had cleared away a chunk of skin.
“I warned you,” boomed the voice. Al looked forward at the man in the glasses with the dark suit, and loathing filled his heart. This man was pointlessly wrecking everything.
“What do you want with us?” Al asked, feeling naked without his spear.
“You attempted to kill these people out here,” the man said, as the crowd continued to gape and gasp as they watched Johnny Harrison rise to his feet. “I have come to save them, and help them try to do the same to you.”
Al was speechless at this. They had never tried to kill anyone, save for his own attempt on the life of the man standing in front of him. Harrison now stood silently beside him, the same absentminded look on his face as all of those standing in front of the crowds of Minde. Another pawn, Al thought grimly.
“Stand up, Benny,” the man said. “Let these people see that death only comes to those whom I let it come to.”
The crowd gasped and began to move back as the bloody body of Benny Jorgens slowly sat up and began to lurch to a standing position.
“I propose to you all, a game,” the man said. “And the stakes couldn’t be higher.”
Al couldn’t tell for sure, but he sensed that the man was smiling smugly. He had never felt so much hate for one person after only having been aware of them for less than ten minutes. He did this, he thought. He’s responsible for all of this.
The thought caused Al to wish inside that if he could only kill one man in his life, that it would be this one.
He forced himself to raise his voice and speak to the man across the twenty feet that separated them. “What sort of game do you propose?” he asked, just barely managing to conceal the quiver in his voice.
“It’s simple, really,” the man said. This time Al could see for sure that the man was grinning, perfectly white teach showing from between his pale lips. “There will be two teams. These that you see here are the more…faithful members of your town, who have chosen to swear their allegiance to me and my cause.”
Doubt that, Alphonse thought. He wasn’t sure if this man was a hypnotist or some sort of brain surgeon, but the catatonic state of those people with their vacant stairs did not seem to be a sign that these people had volunteered their wills.
“The rest of you will have the advantage of numbers,” he said. The crowded street was beginning to shuffle uncomfortably. “This is my gift of mercy to you all. If you defeat my team and I, as one united town against my modest army here, then you will have your peace restored and the whole experience will once again bring unity back to this broken town.”
Suddenly Al realized why the townspeople in the street were all becoming uncomfortable. They had all come here to see this man speak, expecting him to be their savior and talk sense into the eccentric people of town hall; instead they had found out the level of this mysterious man’s insanity. He was proposing some sort of game where he was pitted against them. At the very least, Al figured they had imagined they would be on his side of anything, and he on theirs.
This display had been set up for one very specific reason, Al concluded. The crazy man in front of him, the one Al was coming to refer to as the Crazy, had convened this meeting to reveal to the town of Minde that he was the one responsible for all the strange things which had befallen their town. He was the one who had kidnapped Johnny Harrison, or whatever it was that he had done. He was the one who had caused the mysterious change in the once sweet and sincere Benny Jorgens.
He had broken them, and now he was proposing a fucked up way to fix them. Al simply could not stop wondering what in the hell would possess someone to do something like this, and even more ponderous, how could someone even do this, without having some unheard of powers of manipulation.
True evil, Al thought, and shivered.
“What are the rules of this game, madman?” Al forced himself to shout across the distance.
As he was called ‘madman,’ the dark haired man registered some sense of satisfied recognition that Al didn’t understand.
“The rules are simple,” the man said, spreading his hands out in front of him. “Don’t die, and don’t kill each other. Kill my people.”
What the hell? Al thought.
“But we grew up with those people,” Alphonse said. “Why on earth would we want to harm them?” Al saw an old friend of his father’s standing with the expressionless pawns at the front line. “Jim Barrow, you came to my house every weekend for a barbecue until all of this happened. Surely you haven’t pledged any allegiance to this lunatic?”
He watched Jim and waited. The man with the dark hair even turned his grinning, smug face in the direction of Jim Barrow as if to see if the man had anything to say. Al was beginning to think there would be no response, but then Jim turned his eyes slowly on Al, and with a slow and steady movement of his arm, he raised his middle finger at the boy standing at the front of the Orphans.
Suddenly the man in the black clothes and dark sunglasses was laughing hysterically. “Looks like he doesn’t like you anymore, LeBray,” he said, smiling in his infuriating way. “They no longer care about their hometowns or origins or any of those pleasant memories you may have of them. I made sure of that. So you have your game. Kill my people before they kill all of you. But I wouldn’t try to kill these two.”
He gestured at the white haired Benny Jorgens and the massive, reanimated body of their former sheriff, Johnny Harrison.
“Big Boy is strong and little Ben…well… he’s a special one, to say the least.”
“We did nothing to you,” Al said quietly.
“I am not here for retribution, Alphonse LeBray,” the man with the smooth voice said. “I am here because of what you have all done to yourselves. I am the dry wind, here to animate your stagnant mists, so that life can spring anew.”
“I still don’t understand why you’re doing this to us,” Alphonse said. There were even murmurs of agreement from the crowd on the street, behind the drones.
“You would never do something like this, you say to yourselves,” the man said. “Surely no one would. And that is why I am necessary. Here, and everywhere else. That which I should do, I do not do. The thing which I am not supposed to do… well… that, I do.”
The man smiled again.
“My people, my team, whatever you want to refer to it as, will withdraw for one hour. At the end of that time the game will begin, and if you have not figured out who to trust by then, you will figure out what sloth, carelessness, and schism can do to a town.”
“What if we do nothing?” Al asked.
“Then you will die. Big Boy! Demonstrate.”
Johnny Harrison began moving in the direction of the drones. The crowd behind them backed off, and Al noticed that none of them seemed to have expected this new ‘game.’ They were caught as much off guard as he was.
As he approached one of the drones, someone Al didn’t recognize, the expressionless person remained immobile. He didn’t look at Johnny, or acknowledge his approach in any other way. The oversized cop grabbed the small anonymous man and picked him up, lifting him into a horizontal position over his head. Still the man showed no emotion, and people began pleading and trying to encourage the man to defend himself.
When the man continued to do nothing, the man in the glasses said, “He does nothing to protect himself, even though he knows destruction is imminent.”
Al turned around and addressed Marilee in a hushed whisper.
“Take the younger ones back inside,” he said. “They’re not needed here right now, and they don’t need to see this.”
As he was turned in that direction, he noticed with a quick glance that there were no longer any of the armed guards who had stood at the back. The cowards had all retreated.
Marilee began telling the young ones what to do, turning them away from the scene, and Al turned back around to see the inevitable fate of the motionless drone.
Just as he focused on Johnny Harrison, the man in the dark glasses put his fingers to his mouth and let out a long and loud whistle. When it died down, Johnny Harrison brought the man down on his knee, and the loud, collective scream of the crowd wasn’t even enough to deafen the sound of the man’s spine breaking against Johnny Harrison’s unrelenting leg.
All of a sudden everything in Al’s vision went black. He reached out to the side of himself and found Wick’s arm, and heard him whisper, “You too, huh? I can’t see a thing.”
The crowd began screaming, and Al could only hope that the screams were from shock at finding themselves blind as well. If they weren’t all experiencing the same thing as he was, then he didn’t want to know what could make all those people let out such blood curdling screams all at the same time.
“Alphonse!” Marilee said from the back of the entrance hall, her voice floating up to him. “The doors are locked! And its dark back here all of a sudden. Did you close the entrance?”
“Everyone, stay close together,” Al said. He didn’t have time to think about the locked doors. His earlier suspicion had been confirmed. They were all experiencing this sudden black blindness.
But just as quickly as it had crept into his vision, the darkness began to creep back out and the screams of the crowd died down into nervous chatter as some of them began talking to each other, comforting each other in some places and still quibbling in others.
As Al looked around, he didn’t see any of the faceless drones. The rows of speakers had been removed silently from just feet in front of where he stood, and even the blood of Benny Jorgens was no longer drying on the cement.
The man in black had disappeared without a trace, taking his pawns with him.
But the façade of City Hall wasn’t entirely without traces of what had occurred there. Looking up, Alphonse saw a terrible reminder of the Crazy Man’s abstract advice to them all.
There, hanging above the street from the top of flagpole was the body of the unnamed pawn, his back broken hideously in on itself, with his dead eyes staring out over the people of the city who had gathered to witness this spectacle of death.
If we do nothing, if we don’t actively defend ourselves, we die, Alphonse thought, looking up at the dead man, from his pointless defensive position between Jared Black and Wick Cunningham.
So be it.
(Author's Note: I would like to thank anyone who has taken the time to read to this point. It's been a long way, and I know not everyone has enjoyed it, so if you even read this...my tremendous amount of thanks go out to you. -Sam)
“We cannot go out there,” Ku said suddenly. He had been reaching out to open the door at the end of their long trek upwards from the dungeons of the mansion. Laura had thought she would hear the murmur of the town, still panicking about the power outage and murmuring in the darkness. But as they came to the end of the long hall which Ku had identified as being the way out of the mansion, there was nothing but the gentle pulsing sound of the air circulators.
That’s odd, Laura thought. The circulators weren’t running when I left. The power was out.
That’s when she noticed the faint, hazy green mist that was seeping through the bottom of the door. Ku put out his arm to stop them and Fusa instinctively pulled Laura backwards, away from the strange green fog. “Its poison,” the old man said. “Go back. There is nothing left for us out there.”
With that he turned and began motioning for them to go. Laura looked back one last time before they turned the corner, and already the end of the hall by the door was almost completely filled with the green mist.
“What does this mean?” she asked as they half jogged down the hall.
“It means everyone is dead, child,” Fusa replied from behind Laura. “Natas has poisoned the air they breathe. Could you not feel it?”
Laura was silent as she realized with a hint of shame that she had felt nothing, besides noticing that the air circulators were running again. She felt herself blush as she thought about the fact that she had even felt some optimism, hoping the circulators were a sign that the power had been restored.
“It is okay, Miss Laura,” Ku said from just in front of her. She had long ago noticed that they often did this when they walked with her, placing her in the middle and walking on either side of her like barriers. She was beginning to feel short of breath, yet the old man in front of her seemed entirely untouched by fatigue in any way. She hoped one day she could be like him.
“Not everyone can feel the souls of others, like Fusa and I,” he continued. “But tactless as he may be, my son is right. I don’t know what purpose Natas has for all this murder, but no one in that once peaceful village now survives. I can only imagine what this means for the doubles of those citizens, who continue their existence up top. Dreamlessness. It is a shame. They won’t last long either, and then he will have even more death on his hands.”
As they rounded another corner, Laura suddenly realized where Ku was leading them. It made perfect sense, of course. She had helped Benny escape using her father’s Lana Sativa plant, and that’s what they were going to use to get out as well. Given it was still there, of course. Surely Natas would have figured out how she helped Benny escape and disposed of the plant.
But as they hurried down the long row of storage sheds, they passed the one which would hold the answer to her question, and after a few more doors had gone by, Ku stopped at one of them and pulled out a key from somewhere within his robe. The lock turned easily and the door swung open, revealing the nearly empty room beyond.
At first Laura couldn’t believe what she was seeing. It was a plant like her father’s, but instead of being wilted and small, this one was as tall as Fusa and radiantly bushy, its color vibrant and its branches swaying slightly as if to an invisible wind. The smell in the room was a dank, yet somehow pleasant aroma.
As they approached, Ku commanded them to grab hands. He didn’t actually speak the words, but within the room their thoughts all seemed to be linked together subtly. Laura felt her mind becoming slightly off balance, and her thoughts refused to focus into clarity. She vaguely registered that they had left the door open, and she looked back over her shoulder, intending to use telekinesis to close it. Just before it swung shut, she saw the green fog begin to creep around the corner. She quickly slammed it shut and turned back to the plant. They were within a foot of it, and suddenly she was being jerked forward.
She saw the world-between-worlds, Brynj, with its massive pillar stretching from the darkness of the subconscious world up into the light of the conscious realm. Laura was enjoying the view, still feeling slightly euphoric from the atmosphere of the plant, but she was curious as to why Ku had not propelled them all the way on through. They were lingering.
She soon got her answer, however, as the dark line far off in the horizon, stretching from abyss to sky, began to move closer. It was a strange sensation, as there was no physical feature to gage movement by, and thus the pillar seemed to move toward them when in all actuality they were moving closer to it. Laura felt her movement slow as they drew closer.
It was the first time she had ever been close to the Pillar in her entire life. Hayvan rested just below the Upper Realms, but not actually within the Inner, so she had gotten many opportunities to cross the abyss with her father, but she had never gotten to experience what it was like to approach the Pillar that held the two worlds apart.
From such a distance, the Pillar had looked thin and slender, but the closer they got the more Laura could grasp the sheer magnitude of the Pillar’s girth. It had to be at least two miles in diameter, and it was punctured all the way around by small holes that wound up its surface as far as her eye could manage to see.
As they drew closer still, Laura saw that the holes were no small things either. They were more like gigantic caves, and there seemed to be things inside it. Whatever they were, they were black and they seemed to be spreading some sort of dark puss-like substance over the rock. Where the slime touched the stone, a faint mist was rising and even though Laura could hear nothing, she imagined that the substance was giving off a hissing noise as it melted the rock (for that is indeed what it appeared to be doing.) Inside her head, she heard Ku say, It is as I suspected. He is trying to bring down the Pillar of Brynj. I am not entirely sure why, however. I have many suspicions, though.
With that, they rushed away from the Pillar of Brynj and left the between world, emerging at the place where Hayvan was connected with the Inner. It was the tall stone cliff Benny had awakened in front of with a bird pecking his head, and Laura could just dimly feel the remnants of Benny’s essence lingering in the material that made up the ground, but it was obvious that he had been gone for quite a while.
It was then that the weariness hit Laura. Within the halls of the LeVille Mansion, it was extremely difficult to gage the passage of time. But with the original attempt, Laura’s brief stop to go through puberty, the confrontation with Natas, the breaking of the binding sigil, and the even longer journey back toward the surface from the veritable underworld that was the dungeons of her family’s Mansion, Laura had spent nearly forty eight hours almost entirely on the move. Adding to that was the day leading up to Benny’s arrival and the subsequent hurry to get him out of Hayvan. Surely Natas had intended for Benny and her to be a part of the genocide which had just taken place there, but between Laura’s cleverness, Fusa and Ku’s brilliant leadership, and Benny’s natural knack of questioning very little but acting immediately, they had all managed to escape unharmed.
Natas was not going to like that, she reflected with a smile as she sat with her back against the cliff, watching Ku and Fusa brush the dirt and leaves off of their clothes. They both wore a plain sort of robe, made out of some form of linen and held together by a red sash. The fall had hit them harder than Laura, and they had considerably more debris to wipe from their clothes than she did.
The weariness which had been building up over the last few days, the burden of all the new information she was being forced to retain within her constantly growing brain, began to take over her mind, and Laura felt herself drifting off to sleep. She was used to having to try to keep herself awake by now though, so she jerked herself upright and was surprised to find Fusa and Ku staring at her, both of them with a slight smile on their faces.
“You have faced much, young daughter,” the old man said, and Laura was overwhelmed with the love she felt for his kind face. “Your body has gone through a great change in a very short time, and now you need rest. Close your eyes, child, and take some rest.”
She felt a blanket being draped over her. She looked up through her heavy eyelids and saw Fusa draping it over her. Laura went to sleep with the image of Fusa in her mind, and the words Young Daughter in her ears.
Brun had finally pointed out to Benny how precarious the situation with Beaner was. They had crested the top of a hill around the middle of the fifth day, two days after their encounter with Chase Morgana and Marcus Vonwell, and off in the distance Benny could barely make out the shape of the giant City-cart lumbering across the plains that bordered the great forest they were traveling through. Brun told Benny that Marcus Vonwell, the strategic planner of the group they had encountered, had probably assumed that it would be safer to confront the mighty warrior Brun in the sheltered forest, while he was alone with a new protégé, completely without his leader or his Clan. Brun knew that he himself was powerful, and the Clan as a whole with its protective, mobile fortress was strong in its defenses, but when you separated the two, neither looked so strong. Brun was a small man, able to use his mind to defeat his opponents when he was covered and able to concentrate, but without large numbers to guard him, he was very much at a disadvantage. He was a dwarf of a man, after all.
Benny shared Brun’s notion that someone must have betrayed their location as well as the times that they would be away from the rest of the clan, and the two were similarly in agreement that the most likely culprit was Brun’s sister. Or rather, what she had become.
Benny sympathized heavily with the story of Brun’s sister, for he too had been through a similar experience. He still hated knowing that his body could be doing any number of foul things in the Upper Realms, without him there to oversee. It had finally become commonplace, however, for him to think of himself not as a person, but as a force that existed on multiple levels. This, he knew, was the reason he was able to exist within the Inner; in the Upper Realms, his life force merely inhabited the body, but was not trapped there. It existed outside the body, while still being able to go into the body. So when his physical vessel had been taken over, his consciousness was left in there like a prisoner until Benny willed himself into the Inner. His life force now resided within the Inner, while some alien life force controlled his body in the Upper Realms.
There had been more dreams, and in them Benny had to watch as his own hands mutilated people, dragged them through the streets, and for some reason began lying them side by side amongst the trees on Bonhelm Hill.
But he hardly had time to think about those dreams, as Brun had kept him busy both physically and mentally the entire time they had been traveling together, for the most part. Now, as they sat staring out over the plains on the edge of the forest, Benny became startlingly aware that while they had been fighting the ‘Dynamic Duo,’ as Benny called them, the mobile village of the Vanjii tribe had been only a few miles away. It was satisfying to think that they had probably made an attack on the unguarded village almost impossible for the injured pair of fighters, and if Brun was correct about Marcus and Chase needing to take time to recuperate, then there was more time than either of them would have originally thought.
“We’ll need to keep them on their toes,” Brun said. “They thought taking us unawares in the open would be strategically beneficial for them, but really all they have done is cost themselves valuable attack time and alerted us to their rough position. We know that after our fight with them, we moved between them and the rest of the Clan. If they plan any direct assault on the village, they will have to either go through or around us, and neither option would be good for them. If they try to go around us, they will have to either move out into the open plain or move deeper into the forest. If they enter the plain, they know we will attack; if they try to move into the forest, it will slow their path too much and they will not be able to get around us, much less far enough ahead to be able to mount any real attack.”
“But wouldn’t it have been better to just chase after them in the forest when they first confronted us, instead of waiting for them to attempt to make another move?”
“No, no, young Master,” Brun replied calmly. “That would have been more along the lines of what they wanted to begin with. They wanted to catch us without the power of numbers, and sure enough they did, but I do not think they expected you to be advancing so far already. In the last week, you have learned a lot more than even I expected. I helped Beaner develop his powers long ago, even though he had figured out a lot on his own, but even he did not learn as fast as you. I can feel the doubt inside you, Benny from Away. You think that there is too much to do and not enough time. But you must realize that even though Natas is working with haste in the upper realms, he can never move fast enough if you keep up along the same path you are on now. We have seen in your dreams that he has already made a lot of progress in degrading the morality of your home town. But his progress was enhanced by the fact that many of the people in your town were weak of character to begin with. Aimless, stuck in a rut, whatever they would choose to describe themselves, they needed someone to show them something new. It was all too easy for him to start a little chaos and wait for the poor people of that town to need some sort of divine intervention. Then he answers the call. It’s very simple. Create a problem, wait for a reaction from the people, and then present the solution to them. The people think you are being generous, when really you are getting exactly what you wanted. His progress is great, yes, but not unheard of. It has only taken him forty eight hours to take that town from what you left to what you see in your visions. In Hayvan, where your double resides, perhaps three or four days have gone by, and here we have experienced just over a week since you turned up in the Inner, if my calculations based on your story are correct.
“I believe that whatever we saw your body doing,” Brun continued, “is the beginning of what Natas has planned for your town, and from the looks, it is some sort of dark magic that I wish not to speak of. But it will take at least two more Upper Realm days to fully achieve what he wants, which is the death of everyone in your town.”
“Why would he want that?” Benny asked. He had been asked to swallow a lot of things in what seemed, at least for him, like a single week. Now it was casually being told to him that everyone in his home town, all the people he knew, Geoff Wishenhower, his friend Jerry Carson, who he hadn’t seen since taking his first hit of pot… his mother; they were all on the hit list of a guy who Benny didn’t even truly understand his own connection with. If everything he’d been told so far was true, then he had always been one of the people charged with correcting things when this madman got loose. That was the reason he had been so specifically targeted, but nothing could explain the brutality being shown toward the people he loved the most.
“It is a long story,” Brun said. “And an interesting one at that. But also one for later. If my assumptions were correct about the flow of time, then we still have about a week here before his plans begin to come to fruition on the surface. For now, we need to focus on his plans down here. He has been an ambassador to Hayvan for a long time, and he has never really shown any inclination to attack it, but I fear that may have changed. You showing up there surely set off alarm bells for him, but he could not confront you in front of so many of the people he had fooled into believing he was this Vonwell character. I fear if he had any plans for that town, any plans similar to the fate your own home now faces, then he would have surely started them by now. As you see, he is also trying to get our Village. We can do nothing about your town in the Upper Realms, for now, nor can we do anything to help those poor souls in Hayvan; but we can save this one clan of people, and I promise you, Benny from Away, if you help me do this, if you open your mind and allow yourself to become what I need you to become in two short days, my people will help you save your loved ones. Keep in mind, however, that it highly depends on the ones you love surviving what Natas has in store for them. If they are alive, we will help you get them.”
“Suppose I wanted to ditch you now,” Benny said, looking out at the slow moving, village sized cart, pulled by its large group of children, “what then?”
Brun merely laughed.
“Then I think you would have a hard time even finding where to go, much less be able to get there in proper time,” he replied.
Benny knew this was true, of course. He didn’t know why he had asked, really, besides that he was feeling a little bit like none of this was his choice. Everything was his responsibility, and yet he had never wanted any of it. How could he always be expected to save the day when nothing more exciting or mystical ever happened in Minde than a group of kids playing Magic, the Gathering. Where he had grown up, people didn’t think about psychic abilities or the multiple dimensions of the human consciousness. They thought about how to feed their families and what they could do to break up the monotony on days of rest. But not too much, of course; people in Minde loved the fact that things never changed in that town.
Benny shuddered at the thought of how much things must be different up there. His own body was running rampant through the town, killing everyone in sight, for all Benny knew, and the strange series of events that all seemed to start with his first puff of marijuana had ultimately led to panic and discord throughout every square mile of his home town.
“Turn your thoughts from home, for now,” Brun said, turning his large magical eye in the direction of the cart. “I think the person you could benefit from the most is my sister. So for now I need you to pretend that nothing of importance is happening in the Upper Realms, and that your only goal at this point in time is to save that Clan, disillusion Beaner, root out whatever is lodged in my sister’s mind, and defeat Natas down here. Once that is done, we will show you how to achieve your goals.”
“I’m still not even totally sure where I need to go,” Benny said. He knew he must sound extremely pessimistic, but in all honesty he did not care. Fifteen year old boys simply were not supposed to be going through stuff like this, he thought. But, just as he knew would be the case, he had slowly grown to see that the burden was more or less his alone, and if he ever wanted to be happy in life again he would have to at least try to stop the man who he had originally referred to as the Blind Freak atop Bonhelm hill. The events leading up to his body’s takeover by Natas that day were hazy, but Benny could remember the man outright telling him that he would be under his control if Benny were to see his eyes. If only I had believed him, Benny thought solemnly.
“Calm your mind, Master Benny,” Brun said quietly. “Natas is almost always successful in his attempts at manipulation and control because he has had thousands of years to practice in the Inner, and centuries to bring those skills with him to the Upper Realms. It is no wonder at all that you, an unprepared adolescent boy at the time, were so easily brought under his will. Look at my sister. She had the strongest mind I had ever hoped to meet, and yet somehow she let her defenses down long enough to allow him or one of his henchmen to seep into her mind. Considering that he has had to be in Hayvan recently and has been seen on other errands for the corrupted Council of Valence, I do not believe that he would have had the time nor the mental capacity to do so many things all at once. It seems more likely that he has someone else working the controls inside my sister’s mind.”
Benny could think of no one who would fit the bill, but he also realized that he hardly knew anything about the Inner or any of the people within it. ”Any hunches?” he asked, absentmindedly levitating a rock up from the ground. He watched as it floated higher and higher.
“I have my suspicions,” Brun said. “I have given you clues as well, things you might have noticed if you had been paying attention.”
Suddenly Benny felt his control over the rock sever, and it came hurtling downwards at an alarming speed, connecting squarely with Benny’s forehead before tumbling to the ground.
“Hey!” Benny yelled, clutching his newly goose-egged head. “You did that, didn’t you? What the hell was that for?”
“You are supposed to train when we are training,” Brun said with a hint of ferocity in his normal eye and his magical eye gleaming slightly, “and when I am teaching, you are supposed to listen.”
Benny realized that an answer probably wasn’t what the little man was wanting at this moment, so he merely continued to rub his sore head and turned his attention back to the plains with the slowly lumbering village/child-drawn cart.
Apparently his assumption was wrong though, for Brun did not continue ‘teaching.’ Instead he just sat there, staring at Benny with his giant blue eye pulsing slightly with his heart beat. “What?” Benny asked after he could take the stare no longer.
“Well?” Brun replied. “Do you not have any guesses?”
“How could I have any guesses? I don’t know anyone down here.”
“I am not asking for names, Benny. Think back. There was someone I mentioned that fits the scenario, and is even more likely after we faced both Chase Morgana and Marcus Vonwell here in the forest. Think.”
Benny turned his mind back over the last few days, trying to remember every conversation they’d had. But all that was coming to him were several instances of passing out, being injured by Brun’s ferocious training style, but their long conversations at the ends of the days while smoking the Lana plant were more difficult to remember as Benny had not been trying to retain everything they said. “I’m sorry, Brun,” Benny said. “There isn’t a whole lot coming to me in the clues department.”
Brun made a disgusted noise in the back of his throat and turned away. He continued without looking at Benny, which Benny figured was probably some sign of scorn or disappointment. “When I explained to you about my sister and how I thought the things she showed us in Beaner’s tent were false,” the little warrior said slowly, “I told you that I only figured we were being followed by three people. Three.”
Suddenly it dawned on Benny. “The person you expected to see with Chase and Marcus? That’s who you think is controlling your sister?”
“How else would they even be able to track us? As long as I was there, I had nearly flawless cloaking spells and enchantments to keep people from even seeing us as we passed within yards of them, and yet somehow they were able to find us. It makes sense if she was regularly transmitting our location the whole time. I never suspected it would be this person. I admit, I am ashamed for not feeling it sooner and taking action. They did so well at subverting my sister’s mind slowly, over a long course of time, that I could only suspect things. She felt different, and that’s all I could say. Once she showed us that false vision and tried to set us up for an easy kill at the hands of Chase and Marcus, there was no doubt in my mind anymore.”
“So who is this mysterious third person?” Benny asked. He hated how Brun would tap dance around the point until Benny wanted to strangle him. He knew, of course, that it would never be a good idea to attack Brun, as small as he might be.
“There is no name for him,” Brun replied, his eyes suddenly seeming distant, as if he were seeing some place far off, perhaps in the distant past.
“Surely you call him something,” Benny said.
“We only ever call him the Unborn Son,” Brun said. “Those of us who know about his existence, that is.”
Benny felt as if Brun was about to launch into one of his long, overly deep explanations, and sure enough, the little man did not disappoint.
“You asked me before if Marcus Vonwell is related to Natas, an obvious question due to the name, and I chose not to tell you then because it did not have any bearing on the matter which was at hand. Now that we are close to the time when we must face them again, I shall tell you what I know about the Three Children.”
“Yes. That is what they are referred to down here by us mystics, who watch the world and see the terrible things. You must understand, before I continue, that most of the people down here are for the most part dim. They go about their lives, tend to their own parts of the Inner, and try not to focus on anything besides what is best for themselves. So back to the name Vonwell. Most people think of Marcus as the son of Ardemeus Vonwell, the pseudonym Natas uses for his political schemes. To the laymen of the Inner, Marcus Vonwell is a loyal soldier to the Council of Valence, and they think that makes him some sort of hero. But the council has been subverted. I don’t know who Natas has inside the council, but somehow he has secured himself unlimited access to the Inner and basically found ways to be granted Council approval on the most heinous of acts.
“Therefore Marcus Vonwell is no more than a soldier of a corrupt ruling elite, if he even serves the Council at all. But, as for the question of whether or not Marcus is related to Natas, I will say that he is only as related to the Madman as you are to this Laura you’ve spoken of.”
“So Marcus is Natas’ double, then,” Benny said. As far as he could tell, that’s what Brun was saying.
“Once again, Master Benny,” Brun replied, “I can only say that you are half correct. But, remember that Natas tricked his original double into being trapped in the Upper Realms, and the double eventually died. But this went entirely against the laws of the universe, as did your own birth without a double. Your imbalance was fixed by creating Laura for yourself, a companion in the mind. Natas did not need a partner, nor did he want one. He tried to fight the natural law, and he sought out and murdered the new doubles every time they would manifest, but they would always come back. Eventually he resorted to his black magic, and what happened was he created something which was of the Inner, but not. It existed here, yes, but it was not physical. It could pervade life forms, almost as if attempting constantly to manifest as a double for Natas, but the universe had made it an ethereal body, thus taking it outside the power of the Madman to destroy it. This was the Unborn Son, and after centuries of trying to incarnate to balance the dual nature of Natas, once it was finally in a state where no harm could be done to it, the ethereal son worshipped Natas as a Father God, and swore to do all that he commanded.
“Hopefully you understand enough about the personality of Natas to know how lucrative such a set up would have seemed, and to know that he would never stop there. The idea of doubles appealed to him all of a sudden, but the laws of the universe are set up in precise alignment, and no one had ever heard of creating more than one double. A triple and a quadruple was just completely absurd, as far as most smart thinking people were concerned. But he had to try. And he succeeded. Not only did he create the Unborn Son, his next creation was Marcus. Around that time, he somehow managed to dupe the Council of Valence into believing that he was this man called Vonwell. Most people didn’t see it, wouldn’t believe that upstanding Ardemeus Vonwell was one and the same as the Old Madman, Natas, but those of us who had been watching, expecting Natas to resurface at some point after his terrible rebellion, it was clear as day. That’s when people like the Vanjii tribe began to speak out about Vonwell, but the Council was so firmly wrapped around his finger and blinded by his false light by that time, that the only thing our tribe succeeded in achieving was to evoke the wrath of the Council of Valence. Since then our people have been on the run, hunted like dogs. Natas knows what my sister and I are capable of, and he knows that Beaner is really from the Upper Realms, and therefore more likely to be able to use those certain… peculiarities the Inner presents in the way of physics. In other words, it was not safe for him to have us around anymore. We were talking , we were attempting to rally support for our cause, and it was all too easy for Natas to convince the Council of Valence that we were no more than common Rebels who wanted to disrupt the peace which the Council is supposedly charged with keeping.
“That is why we built that giant, cumbersome thing you see down there,” Brun said, pointing at the cart, which had barely seemed to move at all. “Just so you know, you can only see it because I am allowing you to. Even from such a distance, I have been able to keep much of my enchantments strong, largely due to the preparations I made before leaving.”
“Is that why you said you might be tired the night before we left?”
“Yes,” Brun replied. “But when you wandered off into the night, I had to stop short. So unfortunately there are no actual physical barriers around the Village. It wasn’t so bad though, as the physical charms would have been the one’s which drained me, and as you saw, I ended up needing my strength.”
“Thank you, again,” Benny said. He still remembered the darkness creeping around him, and the cold red eyes floating amidst the dark mist. “I’m glad you were able to sense something. Up in my world, facing something like that in the middle of the night, no one would have felt something strange and come to my aid. I was glad you were there.”
“Well, really it was nothing,” Brun said, ever humble. “I had actually been partially monitoring my sister’s brainwave activity, and I happened to notice she was sending you some sort of thoughts. Then when I tried to enter your mind to see what she was showing you, you were already outside, running off into the woods. So I went, saved you, and then took you a safe distance into the trees, where my sister couldn’t lure you toward any danger. I had to return to get all of our stuff, you see.”
Benny had never actually thought about it when he had awoken from his faint, but now that he looked back on it, Brun had already pretty much set up an entire camp before Benny came to. Surely he would not have been able to do such a thing if he had been physically drained from important mental activities.
“So then it’s completely vulnerable,” Benny said. “Besides the ways you cloak it from sight, there is nothing actually protecting it. If Marcus and that lady already know the location at all times because they are somehow linked to this so called Unborn son, then what’s stopping them from attacking it right now?”
“Beaner,” Brun replied. “He is fat, yes, and he is easily swayed, for certain, but he loves his people with his entire being. He left everything behind in the Upper Realms, and has found comfort in these people who have grown to worship him. He is powerful because he understands the laws of this realm. Remember, most people born down here don’t know the abilities possible here, and even if they did it is much more difficult for them to bend the space of this realm because they form part of it. Beaner, and yourself, and Natas, all of you come from the Upper Realms, and therefore exist here only as forces. You are entities, capable of bending the physics of this dimension because you are not physically part of the Inner. Some of us are born with special abilities that seem super natural to those down here, but surely even you see by now that nothing I do is outside your abilities. Even in the Upper Realms, people are born knowing the fallibility of their physical laws, and they seem to break from normal physics to the point that people think it’s something special. In truth, however, it is not supernatural, it is just natural. If someone were to attack our village outright, they would find out what several centuries of Inner time can teach a man from the Upper Realms who holds loyalty to no one but his Clan.
“No, I think the plan was sabotage,” Brun continued, his tone becoming somber. “My sister is powerful, as I told you. The thing inside her is not quite as powerful, and it can’t utilize her abilities to their full potential, but it has managed to achieve one great feat which at first surprised even me.”
“And what is that?”
“You cannot see it now, young Master Benny, but I can. This eye has been a blessing ever since I first thought I was cursed with it, and in the direction our cart is traveling I see a great darkness on the horizon. But it is a hazy darkness, as if someone or something is cloaking that darkness in much the same way that I have been cloaking the Clan. That is why you cannot see it, and I believe those young, loyal children at the yoke don’t see it either. Beaner surely believes that the direction told to him by my sister is the most clear path to migrate, but really I fear that for quite some time now we have been drawing closer and closer to that large and terrible portion of the Inner which has been corrupted and taken over by Natas.”
Benny couldn’t see the darkness Brun spoke of, but he was beginning to understand that Brun had not only thought accepting this mission was necessary in order to stall Marcus and Chase, he had also used it as a chance to confirm many of the suspicions he had been harboring about his sister. Benny remembered the increased cheeriness of the little man after they were far enough that he could voice his opinions openly, with his voice instead of his mind, no longer having to fear intrusion from whatever was inside the body of his sister. Now, Brun was supposedly seeing for his self that his entire clan and the man who led them were being tricked and led into a trap. Benny wished he could see the darkness Brun spoke of, but all he saw on the horizon in front of the cart was the clear blue sky, dotted here and there with some light clouds. The mountains looked green and harmless, with only one of them being tall enough to even have signs of snow on it.
“Close your eyes, Master,” Brun said quietly.
Even though he wasn’t sure what Brun was getting at, Benny closed his eyes and listened to the faint rustle of the wind through the trees, waiting for further instruction.
“Remember the darkness of Natas,” Brun said, almost whispering. “Feel the way you were torn from your body, recall to your mind the feelings of torment that surrounded you in the place where you went to be separated from all command over your physical body in the Upper Realms.”
Benny remembered the pale eyes of Natas, with their faint red streaks and tiny pupils. He remembered the sounds of screams, and dampness all around him.
“Try to recreate that moment,” Brun continued, still talking in his quietest voice, presumably so as to not throw off Benny’s concentration. “Feel everything in your thoughts as if you were feeling it with your body.”
Suddenly the smell of gasoline came to Benny’s nostrils, and it seemed to him that it was a very weak smell drifting on the breeze. As he attempted to feel the damp cell and the cold chains, to hear the muffled screams through the walls, the smell increased. It was definitely coming from upwind, though, he thought, and was not part of his memory. He remembered that there had been the smell of gas, but the smell at the moment had grown too strong to merely be from memory.
“Do you smell that?” he inquired of Brun, keeping his eyes shut in case the exercise wasn’t over.
“Try to remember the darkness that surrounded you, for it was not physical darkness, but spiritual darkness heaped upon you by the Madman in order to keep you docile until he was ready to perform the operation which would strip you of your ability to move in the Upper Realms.”
Benny recalled the stifling blackness with all too much clarity, even though light was still seeping through his eyelids.
“Keep that darkness in your mind, Benny, and open your eyes.”
Benny did as he was told, and instantly on the horizon he saw the terrible darkness Brun had spoken of. The clouds for miles on the horizon in front of the Village were black, and indeed the air coming from that direction smelled of some acrid mix of gasoline and some other scent Benny couldn’t quite place a finger on.
Scanning the darkened horizon with a little more scrutiny than before, Benny realized that the mountain which had appeared tall enough to be capped with snow was in fact some sort of building. How this was possible, Benny didn’t know. He understood how the laws of gravity could be manipulated there in the Inner, but surely even then it would be difficult to build something the size of a tall mountain.
“What on Earth is that” Benny asked, awestruck.
“That, Master Benny,” Brun replied, “is the Mad Keep, the fortress of Natas.”
City Hall in the town of Minde seemed to be the only sane place left. At least that’s how it felt to the people who were taking refuge there. No one knew for sure what was going on outside. At first the people had come there for a sense of unity in their fragmented town, but now masses of raiding parties went around the streets, gathering all manner of objects. Ever since one of the people who had been sent out to survey the situation had turned up dead on the steps of town hall (where his body remained, as no one was brave enough to venture out after the corpse,) the hundred or so people inside the building had grown more and more insecure. They had long since boarded up the windows, and there was no sign of the outside world except the occasional crazy beating on a door, yelling obscenities.
Somehow, word had gotten around that a mob of the townspeople had brutalized Jerry Patterson, who was the acting sheriff at the time. No one except those who were present at the Great Shavo Restaurant knew exactly what happened or who was involved, but slowly a few definite names had arisen. To those in City Hall, though, it didn’t matter that all of the accused had been close friends all their lives, or that some of them were even family members. No one knew that Jerry Patterson had committed murder right there in the middle of town, in the glow of the flames from a fire caused by his own stupidity.
Now this San fellow had come to town, and no one inside City Hall knew what to expect from him. He had arranged two public meetings since his original gathering at the Masonic Lodge, and the last of them had been staged right on the steps of City Hall so that everyone inside could hear the cheers and excited roars from the population of people who remained out on the streets. The people inside (known as ‘Hallers’ to the people on the outside, who were in turn known as ‘Crazies’ by the hallers,) had no idea what this blind preacher of propaganda wanted with them, but it was obvious that he was using powerful and persuasive speeches to sway the minds of those who remained on the outside. It was as if he was trying to pit them against the Hallers.
The man on the inside who had attempted to take authority was Ron Parsons, an able minded enough gentlemen who had once served as the mayor of Minde in the nineties. The problem with Ron was that he really didn’t’ have much of a backbone, and in matters that really affected the well being of those taking refuge under his keep, he deferred to someone else and usually the decision would end up being made by a number of younger folks who come to an agreement, then give him the verdict to deliver to the group. He was timid, nervous, and had a loud speaking voice but tended to taper off at the ends of his sentences, which often left people towards the back confused and irritated.
On the occasion of San’s speech on the front steps of the Hall, several people had been gathered in the main entrance hall playing cards when they began to hear the murmur of a large crowd outside the boarded up windows and door. Parsons was informed that a large group of people seemed to be waiting outside the doors, and instantly his pessimistic cowardliness began to show. The first thing he proposed was that an assault was being planned, and that the group of people outside the door were in fact probably waiting to bash in the door and storm City Hall. Many of the other elders and adults of the town found this most irresponsible to voice in the open, in front of children and teenagers who had nothing better to do than gossip while confined in the walls of the Hall. Before other people got to voice an opinion on the matter, word had already spread amongst the youth that an attack was imminent. This caused a panic, of course, amongst some of the younger and more feeble children. But there were also those children who saw it as an opportunity to show their worth to the adults of the town. Most who held this mentality were The Orphans, a group of teens who had allied after their family members were identified as participants in the Patterson fiasco.
These kids had left their homes, most of them after having heard firsthand the accounts of that terrible night from their parents. Considering how much Minde teenagers seemed to rebel against their parents anyways, it was really not such a surprise that more than a dozen had left home to seek refuge with the other sane people at City Hall. The unfortunate result, however, was that they formed what could best be described as a gang.
They went everywhere together, used their numbers to secure an abandoned office as their personal quarters, bullied the younger kids, and there was a suspicion going around the Hall that they were responsible for some of the food that had come up missing recently. All in all, they were just mischievous teenagers, frustrated at their lots in life and trying to re-find a sense of family. But most of the adults did not see them that way, and so on the day of San’s speech, when everyone still thought they were going to be ambushed, it was The Orphans who came forward first to offer their services as the Front Line, just inside the door with weapons, waiting to attack anyone who came through the door.
The leader of the Orphans was a boy named Alfonse LeBray, the only child in a wealthy family which was believed to own almost half of the town (the building of City Hall was funded by Al’s grandfather, Theodore LeBray,) a fact that Alfonse loved to brag about all too much. He was much more humble than the rest of his family had ever been, though. He acted as if he should be the leader of the group, but in all other respects he treated the other Orphans as equals, kids who had been cast into the same terrible state as he. In many ways, Al led the Orphans much like San led the Crazies, except he had earned his leadership through sheer force of charm and intelligence. No one disputed that he should be the leader of the group, the representative to the adults who controlled all of the supplies and anything else needed on the inside.
Alfonse knew, of course, that no one in his group had stolen from the cellar where all the Hallers had gathered what they could bring with them of canned goods and dried food. After all, they had to live on the stuff too, and stealing it would only lead to confiscation and eventually punishment, which would no doubt consist of going without food for at least a day. On the day voices had been reported outside the Hall, he had decided that this was the only opportunity to show the other Hallers just how loyal the Orphans were, and how they could be a valuable contributing factor to the survival of the people inside the City Hall.
“I know this is scary for some of you,” he was saying to the Orphans in their little office hideout. They had closed and locked the door for privacy, as they were holding what they considered to be like a council meeting. The four oldest of the Orphans, Alphonse LeBray, Marilee Sabien, Martin “wick” Cunningham, and Jared Black gathered
in a corner and discussed what they had heard about the door. When they had all reached a unanimous decision, then they would all go forward and represent the collective opinion of the ‘elders’ to the other eight or so teenagers who crowded into the office.
Marilee, who was actually the oldest of the group by an entire year, began the discussion. “We know that many of you want to prove your worth to the rest of the town,” she said. “I know that many of you must feel like we do, that we are outsiders here, loved by no one, and that the other Hallers would rather us just leave. But we have decided to stay, and we are happy, are we not?”
A few scattered murmurs of agreement came from the small group of teens.
“But we now ask of you something that we could never demand,” she continued coolly. She was the speaker. Al had a clever mind, and did most of the thinking, but he always left it up to Marilee to deliver the speeches. She was beautiful and charismatic, and the Orphans always seemed most keen to listen to her. From behind and to the left, Alphonse smiled slightly at his speaker’s tact in words. She always knew how to make something sound as if it would be the most honorable thing in the world to do.
“There seems to be a mass of people gathering outside our door,” she went on. “No one knows yet what they want, but considering the hostility they’ve shown us and the violence they’ve displayed toward our scouts, it would be a pretty safe bet to assume they’re planning something involving breaking into City Hall.”
Many of the Orphans began muttering amongst themselves, proposing different motives to each other for why the crowd would be there. They were quickly silenced, though, by Alfonse raising his hand to call them to order. “People,” he said, “we could sit here and speculate all day long but there is a point to be made here. That point is we must defend the door. I know some of you have never even been in a fist fight, and therefore the idea of battle might frighten you, but it is the only way to restore our honor. With that being said, I must ask all of you who are willing to arm yourself and report to the entrance hall for the defense of this Hall.”
The teens had slowly began to murmur again, and when Al stopped speaking the tone rose and the chatter became an almost deafening racket. The only difference was that now the kids were fighting over whether or not it was reasonable to risk their lives for people who barely trusted them and thought they were all thieves. It was obviously split fairly evenly. Half would gladly fight, and half would just as gladly stay out of it, and a few even suggested the atrocious idea of locking themselves in the office and allowing the other Hallers to defend themselves.
None of the elders were going to go for that. This time it was ‘Wick’ Cunningham who spoke on behalf of the leaders. “Hey!” he yelled, clapping his hands once loudly to draw their attention back to the front of the room. “All of us know that no one here stole any food from the cellar, much less the amount they are accusing us of. We know that we are respectable people, just like them, and we know we care for their safety. But they do not know this. We’ve tried every simple way to win their support that we can, but you all see the way they look at us in the Meetings. They begrudgingly allow us to stay. The only way for us to really prove ourselves is at hand, and we must offer ourselves to defend that door. Just the fact that we try will win loads of support from some of the people, if not all of them. We will be worthy refugees after that, instead of just the twisted offspring of our murderous parents. We didn’t kill Patterson, we didn’t kidnap the sheriff or any of the other things the Crazies did in their attempt to bring anarchy to our town. We had no connection to all of that besides our blood, and I don’t know about you but I am sick of everyone here thinking I am a bad person just because my father helped in the murder of that cop. We can earn our equality, people.”
“We shouldn’t have to earn it,” a boy in the back said.
“That is true,” Marilee popped in. Al had been feeling that they were losing control of the interest of the Orphans, and he was glad to see her step back up to the plate. Maybe she could ‘bring them home.’ “But sometimes people get put into unfair situations, and its only those who try in spite of the unfairness who actually succeed in finding better lives. We do not expect all of you to fight. But some of us will, even if its only the four who stand before you all. Just know this: we will be earning the respect of the other Hallers, and only those who earn will be able to bask in that. So if only half of you Orphans go to the defense of your Hall, then only half shall gain respect. The other half will have to find a new place to sleep, because the Office will no longer be open to them. They will no longer be a part of the Orphans. Allowing them to stay in our group would just be allowing freeloaders to bask in the respect that they were too cowardly to earn.”
Silence. Al suppressed his physical smile, but inside he was grinning like a fool. Good old Marilee, she always knew how to lay on the thickest of guilt trips. Alfonse didn’t know quite how she always found the right words, but either way, to Marilee speaking had been reduced to an art and refined to a science.
“Then what are we waiting for?” asked a tall, thick girl in the back. She couldn’t have been much more than sixteen but to Alfonse she looked like someone he would never want to meet in a fight. Perfect for a soldier. “I found where they keep a supply of spare broom handles. You know, for the janitors. I think if we use the rough stone floor of the Cellar Landing, we could probably sharpen them up.”
All of a sudden she realized that everyone was watching her, and in fact for most of them it was the first time they had heard her speak and so they wore a face of shock. She flushed red and lowered her eyes. “Its something a friend and I used to do as kids. Sharpen broken broom handles into spears and play fight.”
“But would they be good enough?” the boy in the back from earlier asked.
“Well,” the big girl continued. “Once we were playing and he tripped and the sharpened handle went through his shoulder. That’s why we had to stop playing together, and he got made fun of after they amputated his arm so they moved away.”
It seemed many of the boys had suddenly become interested in the newly gory tale, and even some of the girls were looking on with concerned faces.
“The spear had been sharp enough to sever an important artery, and they would have been able to fix it but the soft wood had splintered inside the wound, basically ravaging all of the veins there. They tried to fix it, but in the end the arm had to come off because the broom handle had been so dirty that infection had set in.”
She was still looking at her hands, and the flush of her face had been replaced by a pallor, and the nervous shake in her voice had become a suppressed sob, until she couldn’t speak without swallowing in the middle of her words. Two girls got up from their seats and went to comfort her.
“So that’s what happened to one armed Pete,” the boy from the back said with a sneer. What happened next Alfonse didn’t see coming. The large, sobbing girl burst from the arms of her comforters and launched herself at the boy. She landed on top of him and they both sprawled out of the chair onto the floor. The boy was in the middle of asking what the hell all this was about when the big girl’s fist, oversized for a girl of her age, came down on his face and smashed his nose.
“IT’S PEOPLE LIKE YOU THAT MADE HIM HAVE TO GO AWAY, SO YOU JUST SHUT THE HELL UP!”
“His name was Peter, not One Armed Pete!” the girl yelled, pounding his face once more before Alfonse and Wick made it over to pull her off.
“Whoa, whoa, hold on!” Alfonse yelled, his arms around her waste in a futile effort to pull her off. Luckily Wick was much bigger than he, and between the two they got her off of the boy and back into the arms of her girlfriends (who seemed to be very much in favor of the beating the boy had just received.)
“What the fuck, man?” the boy said, looking at Alfonse and clutching his bloody nose. “Punish that bitch!”
“I am not a ruler,” Al said. “Nor am I a marshal or any other sort of disciplinarian figure. You provoked her, and so I can’t say anything. Except perhaps that next time you should think before you speak ill of the maimed, especially when in the company of someone who obviously cared about the person.”
“Bull shit,” the boy said, wiping blood on his sleeve. “That bitch is crazy, and you people are too if you think you can defend this place with sticks.”
“We don’t even know if we’ll have to yet,” Wick said. “But its noble to offer to try and that is the only point we’ve been making. You don’t have to join us. But you have already been told the consequences.”
The boy snorted, or rather he tried to unsuccessfully with all the blood in his nose, and retorted, “Oh woe be to the person who doesn’t get to be cramped up with a bunch of babies and wannabe-officials. Screw this place. While you’re all getting slaughtered I’ll be laughing in the safety of the kitchen, giggling about the stupid children spilling their blood on the porch. This right here is all the blood I plan to spill on behalf of you lunatics, or on behalf of anyone else.”
With that he took his hand, now covered in blood from his broken nose, and smeared it across the wall. “Enjoy your deaths,” he said, and then walked out, slamming the door behind him. There was momentary silence as the remaining Orphans mulled over what the rude boy had said. While you’re all getting slaughtered… I’ll be laughing. Everyone of course knew that death was a possibility, but the difference between every other Orphan and the one who had just stormed out was that he was the only person who didn’t realize that they were probably going to die there anyways. The others had realized that it was better to try to survive than to just sit there and wait for the imminent doom.
“Well,” Alfonse said. “Anyone else of the same opinion as that boy?”
“Michael was always a brash and unreasonable guy,” said the blonde boy who had been seated next to the rude one, Michael. “He’s my brother, so I know. We’re probably better off without him. I think what she said is probably our only shot. There are hardly any weapons in here besides the ones being held by the security guards, so sharpened broom sticks actually sounds a hell of a lot better than trying to use any of the other stuff at our disposal.”
“He makes a point,” said Alfonse. “We need to have something. If anyone breaks through, it is likely that they will be older and probably bigger than us. We have no chance at defense hand to hand. But I also don’t think we should just make spears. You….um…”
“Lindsey,” the big girl said. “Don’t worry, I’m used to people forgetting my name.”
“Well, Lindsey, I will try my best not to forget again. In the meantime, I need you to take all the girls down to the store room you found and gather eleven broomsticks. Also keep your eyes peeled for anything small but heavy, like a metal paperweight or anything of that sort.”
“Okay,” the girl said. She wiped her nose on her sleeve, drawing a grimace from the two girls comforting her, and stood up. “Come on, ladies. Lets go.”
Obviously the snot-sleeve thing wasn’t too gross, for the girls once again took on their adoring stare and tagged after Lindsey, and the other girl who had been sitting on the other side of the room got up to go with them. All of them seemed to be older than her, but Lindsey had them beat by about a foot and a half. Alfonse watched them go and went to lock the door behind them.
“Now,” he said to the boys who remained. “Are we sure there isn’t anyone else who would like to leave now?”
Everyone looked around at each other, but none of them made any motion to leave or said anything about wanting to drop out. Good, Alfonse thought. He had expected at least half of his followers to leave him upon hearing what he wanted them to do. Instead I only lost one, and he was probably the weakest link anyways.
Al smiled at his group of young men and Marilee.
One is better than six.
Laura had learned and seen some pretty interesting things over the long years growing up in Hayvan, but never had she seen anything like the breaking of the binding sigil. At first, for about a minute, it seemed to Laura that nothing was changing. The symbol was still glowing red, the walls were still solid and no doors had mysteriously opened. But then the color on the back of Laura’s eyelids became more violet than red, and when she peeked through squinted eyes, she could just barely see the blue light seeping out of hers, Ku’s, and Fusa’s fingers, mixing with the red lines of the diagram and overwhelming it. As her thoughts drifted away from the long conversations with Benny, she noticed the blue light coming from her own fingers would start to dwindle, and only when she focused her mind on those happy memories would the light begin to creep back in. She began to realize how their efforts worked on the sigil. It was filled with the deep evil and hatred of Vonwell, and by using their own spiritual energy, imbued with positive thoughts and emotions, they acted as a repellant to the ‘darkness’ spoken of in the engraving around the seal. The evil apparently manifested as red light, and the positive, hopeful emotions manifested as blue.
It was difficult to keep from looking, but whenever she opened her eyes she would get caught up in the mechanics of both the binding spell and also the process they were employing to break it, thus causing her concentration to lapse and her own contribution to the blue light to diminish. Laura found herself in a personal struggle of self control, trying to keep her eyes closed but being overwhelmed with curiosity to the point that her eyes seemed forced open. On the third instance of caving to temptation, she decided she would try to find a way to keep her thoughts focused and appropriately positive, while somehow allowing her visual faculties to perceive the process for later recollection.
She took a deep breath and opened her eyes. The light inside the sigil was now too bright to look at, but all around it the blue was creeping out, first revealing hidden red lines, then turning them into blue lines. As she watched she became aware of a rhythm, but at first tried not to focus on it too much so that her thoughts did not become too distracted. One way she kept her positivity flowing forward was to think about just how beautiful the blue color was. As it pulsed out, it would find invisible binding lines and turn them a crimson purple color, recede, and then pulse out again, turning the lines into the luminescent blue of positive emotion. Each time this pulsing repeated, out then back in then out again, it would spread out farther and farther. Laura allowed herself to be filled with the wonder of their collective power.
Squinting so she could look back toward the sigil, through the light she could see that her own light was still going strong, perhaps even brighter than that of the other two. Laura looked over at Fusa and found him completely absorbed in thought, mouth hanging open and eyes closed. He looked almost asleep on his feet. Then she turned toward Ku and was not surprised to see him peeking at her through his right eye. He grinned and made a slight tsk! tsk! noise at her before jerking his head back slightly, as if to draw her attention to something behind him.
If you won’t close your eyes and concentrate, at least see the wonder of this terrible room, came Ku’s young, manly thought-voice in her head. Apparently he was recovering after having gotten out of his bindings.
She turned her head a little more to the right so she could look over her shoulder and at first she was confused but then she became fascinated. All around the room, on the ceiling, on the walls, on every inch of the floor, there were those lines, crisscrossing in bizarre yet perfectly executed patterns. At various points on the walls and floor there were more drawings like the binding sigil, but they were much larger and seemed to be composed entirely of lines all around the room. There was only a small amount of red left now, at the far end of the room where Natas had left. Turning back toward her hands and the binding sigil, she found that her eyes had adjusted to the light enough to see that every single line in the room, all several thousands of them, radiated outward from the circular binding sigil. The way they had placed their hands, all of the taking up part around it until they had it entirely surrounded, allowed them to not only fill the sigil with positive energy, but also every single line flowing out from it, and thus every line in the room. In a strange way, Laura could feel the connection between herself and the room, and occasionally she would get a flash in her mind of a man screaming amongst the glowing red lines, clutching his head and curling into a ball on the floor. He was young, but something about him looked familiar.
Before she could pursue the thought anymore though, the light from behind seemed to swell. Laura started to turn to see what was happening, but she got a sharp negative in her head from Ku. So instead she finally closed her eyes and focused once again on Benny and all the things she was going to tell him eventually, all the days just like long ago when they had talked for hours and hours.
A hissing noise started behind them, quiet at first but growing gradually louder. Laura wanted to put her hands up to her ears, but she knew that this would disrupt her connection with the sigil and the lines, so instead she decided to hum as loud as she could to hopefully counteract the hissing. Just as she’d begun to hum her favorite childhood nursery song, there was a loud pop from behind and Laura jumped. Luckily her hands didn’t move much from their places, but once again she was in the state of wanting to see what was going on back there.
This one didn’t startle her quite as much, but it was louder and hurt her ears more.
One from the left, one from the right.
The last one was from above, and it caused the whole room to shake and sounded to Laura like some sort of cannon blast. She opened her eyes and saw the last of the blue light creeping out of the sigil and into the lines. Then it went black and within seconds the wall no longer showed signs of having any marks at all, except for the engraving As long as his darkness fills me, none shall leave. It looked odd and out of place now, just a ring of words between their hands, dead and devoid of all light.
Ku was the first to move his hands, of course, for he was the only one who knew when the process was complete. “Shame, really,” he said with one of his slight chuckles. “This room has served to protect the Inner from many a diseased man, and I never thought I would be the one to break from it. I designed it, after all.”
“What?” Laura asked incredulously. “You helped make this place?”
“Well, of course. I helped rebuild this town after the terrible battle that threatened to overcome the Inner, and there were more than one person guilty of heinous crimes at that terrible era in time. The miracle of this room was that it could be activated to hold several inmates at one time, without any of them being aware of the other prisoners. It could also work as a sensory depravation cell, a hallucinatory torture chamber, and a large number of other clever ideas of mine. But the most important part was that it was bound by the power of good, and no evil person put here could ever leave without truly repenting in their souls and being granted access to lower level security holdings by the Overseers. That is, until we caught the Madman.”
“What happened?” Laura asked. She was about to tell Ku about the man she had seen in her visions when Ku held up his hand to silence her.
“Not now, child,” he said. “That is a tale for later, perhaps. Right now we should be happy that we succeeded in breaking the seal!”
At that moment they both realized that Fusa was still standing with his hands on the wall, seemingly half asleep. Laura just barely had time to register Ku’s hand moving to his mouth before she could put her own hands over her ears, a split second before the most earsplitting whistle imaginable rang through the air. Fusa started and jolted out of his semi-trance, quickly dropping his hands and taking in his surroundings. Laura looked around the room too and was astonished to find that all of the larger sigils were now gaping holes in the walls, and the lines that still showed were only faintly blue. The rest had faded away like the binding sigil, leaving not even the smallest trace that they had been there. Bits of rubble littered the room from corner to corner, except the side where they had stood, for there was only the small sigil and not the larger ones.
“You see,” Ku began, “what we did was pretty much overload those large sigils I pointed out to you, Laura. They took all the energy from the lines and amplified them, sealing all the walls, but when the Madman changed their polarities all those years ago, they became red and no longer reacted to the commands of the Overseers, nor did it respond to the good of things. It became a tool for his sinister purposes alone. He should have known that I could break free, but I suspect he didn’t expect you two to best him. The plan was to lure you here, and I regretfully confess that I could have broke free much earlier.”
An indignant snort from Fusa, as if he had already suspected as much and found it typical of his father.
“But I needed someone here to fight for me,” he said. “I could not risk an escape attempt with him at full power, and inside this room I was powerless to bring him down. You see, I was one of the main people who first imprisoned the man who had been calling himself Sanrunai, that same man who called himself Vonwell not so long ago, that atrocious Natas. He always hated me for it. After centuries of eluding captors, he was finally caught and he was helpless in this room. After the terrible day of his impossible escape, I am quite sure it was always his plan to throw me in here and subject me to as much terrible activity as he could. I should have sounded the warning alarms when he first appeared in Hayvan, but I was curious. As much as the man looked like Natas and felt like Natas, he claimed to have the Royal Authority of the Council of Valence, and that didn’t seem to add up to me. How could Natas be in such a position of power? So I allowed things to continue, watching as he grew closer to your father. Foolish old man, I was.”
Laura could feel him become more sullen and down on himself as he talked, as if this had been his fault, but she knew it had not been. The council of Valence ruled all things political within the Inner, and they were charged with keeping order between the different sections, the billions created by the minds of living men in the Upper Realms. If they had been somehow fooled into believing that this man was really someone called Ardemeus Vonwell, then they were the foolish ones who should blame themselves. Once their approval and immunity to the law was granted, no one could question the grantee. It seemed to Laura that Ku had done the prudent thing by watching and waiting, instead of voicing charges which were sure to be shot down in any court of law. The only thing she really wondered about was how Natas could have taken such a construction as Ku’s cell and turned it to his own purposes. But then again, she figured, he could probably take any number of things and turn it to his own will.
“Don’t worry, Ku,” she said. “I don’t think you did anything wrong. The fact that you stayed here knowing you were under the shadow of the devil himself is brave and honorable enough.”
The old sage looked at her and smiled. Then Laura could tell he finally truly noticed how much she had grown. “You never stop being beautiful, do ya?” he said with a smile. Then he turned and headed toward the hole in the far wall, the wall through which Natas had passed when he came to confront them face to face. “Through here,” he said.
Fusa grabbed his supply bag, pulled out a couple of smokes for him and his father, and then proceeded with Laura through the hole. They immerged into a wide hall, with pillars that ran down the sides. It was surprising to Laura just how much their seemed to be of the mansion that she had never seen. She thought of an iceberg, with just barely any showing above the surface and the majority hidden beneath the waves.
“We’ve got a ways to go,” Ku said as they caught up to him. “Leaving the mansion will be the easy part. Once we get out, we must catch up to the third echani.”
“We’re going to find Benny?” Laura asked excitedly. She felt light headed at the thought of actually seeing him again after everything that had happened to her, and probably to him to.
“Yes,” the old man replied. “If he can stay alive long enough for us to get to him.”
The people of Hayvan didn’t see it coming. The vents that ensured oxygen got from the trees to the town had been under maintenance for weeks, under the orders of Ardemeus Vonwell. Supposedly the Council of Valence had granted him the funds for the refurbishing, for they believed the old system to be showing signs of beginning to malfunction. So for about sixteen days people could look up and see scaffolding high above their heads, with men walking to and fro, repairing the supposed damage.
After the black out, of course, everyone wondered what would happen to their air supply. The mystical trees in the back of the LeVille mansion supplied plenty of oxygen, of course, but without the air ducts the oxygen didn’t disperse very fast, and people on the borders could easily suffocate before the power came back on. Many people had started small makeshift bonfires on the streets to provide light, and at intervals all around the city groups could be found gathered together, sharing some common light source and overall trying to keep each other calm.
The first sign of something wrong came when the purple light from behind the Mansion faded to black. Then a gentle whirring sound had begun, sounding much like the air circulators, but since there were no other signs of power and definitely no sign of the oxygen producing trees, everyone quickly realized that either it wasn’t the circulators or they were circulating stale air. Either way, it seemed to most people that it was a cause for alarm. Some number of people had suggested seeking refuge in the Willow Forest, where they technically weren’t underground and where there should theoretically akways be oxygen. This was quickly shot down, however, by the obvious observation that the Willow Forest was an illusion created by the trees into an empty non-space, and there was now no longer any sign that the trees were even active anymore. Therefore it would only be foolish to risk everyone’s lives by going out into that place. They might just find the opposite of existence and go mad.
They didn’t have long to think on this, however. From the farthest corner of Hayvan, an earsplitting scream rang out. It was soon followed by yet another scream, and then several more from around the same area. Then the screams stopped entirely for about five seconds. Everyone closer to the mansion listened, peering around into the darkness expectantly. Soon the screams started again, only this time it was closer.
A group were sitting right outside the gates of Einsqua Circle, enjoying a nice fire when the screams first started. The second set seemed to be extremely close, perhaps only a few blocks. Looking in that direction, some of the group began to notice flashes and what looked like smoke. Then there was an explosion directly in front of them, about thirty yards away. There had been a group there, but then they appeared to see something coming their way and they had begun screaming. As they ran from their campfire, around the corner slowly crept a green fog. As it touched the flames, it combusted and made a brief explosion, expelling the fog away from the blast only long enough for more to follow it down the street. A teenage boy had been sleeping against the corner of a store near the fire, and the explosion woke him. He saw the green cloud and the bodies littering the road with the fog, and tried to make a run for it. But the fog seemed to be coming faster now, and it quickly surrounded him. He fell to the ground, instantly choking on the green air. The people of the group closest to the mansion watched as his body convulsed in on itself, breaking his spine before racking him forward, the spasm being so violent that he bloodied his face on his knees. After that the boy went silent and laid still.
That’s when the shock broke and that last small group began beating frantically on the gates of the LeVille mansion, screaming “Help us! Please! There’s nowhere to go!”
A calm, silky voice came on the intercom. Very few of that last group recognized that voice, but the ones who did instantly understood the meaning of all of the construction on the air circulators as soon as they heard the voice of Ardemeus Vonwell.
“Goodnight, sheltered children of Hayvan. Your sacrifice is much appreciated.”
It had been an entire day since Benny and Brun’s confrontation with the henchman and woman of Natas, and blissfully Brun had allowed Benny a break from training exercises. They merely traveled along through the forest, discussing mundane things for once. But eventually talk would always come back to the concepts of the Inner. Benny was finding that there was a lot to comprehend when trying to adjust to the duality of worlds, but slowly things were beginning to make sense. The way he understood it, the existence of man was split into two levels, the Upper where Benny had grown up, the physical or conscious world, and the Innner, that subconscious level that exists within all minds and all spirits. When he had inquired as to what happens to the internal ‘double’ when the Upper human dies, Brun had said that the double simply starts its life over again as its body is renewed in the Upper Realms. Benny thought of it as reincarnation, but Brun had not recognized the word as being a valid definition of the process.
Apparently, at some remote and distant time, there had been three echani who had been created by the universe to create the race that would inhabit the Inner, and to create their two separate levels of existence so as to also populate Earth in the Upper Realms. At first, the doubles had always been as twins. They had communicated much as Benny communicated with Laura when he had still been within his own physical body. Supposedly the doubles had even been able to switch places if they wanted to, with the Inner person taking over the physical body and the Upper person remaining within the Inner or so called dream world. Mostly, however, the Upper double would simply visit the Inner during the dream state if they chose to.
But a travesty had occurred. The sorcerer who would one day become Natas had committed great crimes with his double while visiting the Inner realms. The echani had noticed his slow perversion of spirit throughout the ages of his incarnation, and they had expected it when he finally became immoral enough to break the peace. They had punished him by restricting his Inner double solely to his own lot of the Inner (something which at the time was unnecessary; people lived as neighbors above and below, and respected the privacy of others, therefore making restriction unneeded.) They also forbade the Upper double from ever visiting the Inner ever again, even in the next three physical incarnations, until his spirit had shown signs of true repentance and change.
But the young sorcerer was impatient. Through years of training, he re established contact with his Inner twin once again, and arranged a bargain. He promised that if the Inner double switched places with him long enough for him to gain the power he sought within the Inner, he would make a physical body for him on the surface that he could use at will, and he also promised to break the binding placed by the echani so the Inner double could go wherever he pleased.
This all of course sounded very pleasing to the Inner Natas, who quickly agreed and took over the physical body. At first no one noticed the switch, not below and certainly not above. But then something started happening. People would turn up missing, and their lots would become part of Natas’ land. When the echani went there, expecting to find the Inner double, they were confronted by Natas and barred from access by several strange spells which he had apparently brought with him from the Upper Realms. No one could enter that dark land. After a short time, he had consumed almost fifteen inner lots, and in the Upper Realms the Inner double was using the body to dispose of the twins.
When their twins had been disposed of, the Inner double demanded to be compensated and to return from the physical world to freedom. But the sorcerer had never planned on making good, and through some manner which even the echani had never understood, Natas killed the Inner double and regained control of both his physical body and his augmented lot of the Inner.
A war was fought, and in the Inner it went on for thousands of years. In the Upper Realms this was only a few centuries, but it reflected the turmoil going on inside the minds of men. Through some clever manipulation of the laws of the universe, Natas had found a way to never have to restart his cycle as others did. His Inner twin was dead, and the Inner twin was the thing that was supposed to continue the life force, entering the physical world and receding, then repeating. This caused lapses in memory on both levels, but Natas had cut this part out. He was able to become virtually immortal, living mostly within the Inner and refreshing his Upper body. When it began to decay, he would find a new suitable body.
Because of his blatant use of the trust of others, restrictions had to be placed on all beings. Travel between lots of the Inner was no longer permitted, and barriers had to be placed between the Upper and Inner realms so as to quell Natas. Somewhere around the eighteenth century, these restrictions finally paid off and Natas was stopped from returning to the Upper realms. Feeling trapped, he had made several bold and wreckless attempts on the newly formed Council of Valence, resulting in his capture by the echani Ku On Hu. The upper realms began to return to a state of peace.
But then Natas got free. No one really knew all the details of what happened next, but the result was well known. Natas ravaged as much of the Inner as he could as a sort of vengeance for his incarceration. In the upper realms this was the early twentieth century, and once again the turmoil began to seep through to the Upper Realms.
The echani, together with the Council of Valence, realized that things were spiraling out of their control. Natas was seemingly unstoppable after his escape, and now that people were scared, he was gaining followers who would rather serve than die. The three architects of the Two Realms, the echani, decided it was necessary to incarnate in the Upper Realms before the inevitable return of Natas. They knew his plan was to regain access to the Upper Realms, and from their once again attempt his conquest of both of the realms. They wanted to be there to stop him when he came.
It was all incredible to Benny, who was supposed to be one of those three Higher Beings. He could remember no such things, and even though he understood that this was normal, especially for someone his age, it still frustrated him and brought his confidence down. If only he could remember something from the time when he was a master of this Inner place, then everything would seem a lot easier.
But he had settled for simply practicing anything he could. The thing that came easiest to him so far was levitation. He had a suspicion that he had not thrown the giant log by sheer strength, but from a combination of strength and telekinesis guided by his will. So every time they had stopped moving to take a break, Benny would take a rock and hold it in his palms, focusing on trying to make it lift. The first few attempts had been fruitless, but finally he had gotten the small pebble to float about three inches above his hand, turning lazily in the air for about a minute before his concentration broke and it tumbled to the ground.
Now Benny found himself sitting beside Brun at the top of a tall cliff. He had chosen a slightly larger stone this time, and once it was successfully hovering a few inches above his fingertips, he slowly began willing it out away from him. It was an odd sensation, like trying to push it away while also trying to give it enough lift to stay in the air.
“As the stone floats out,” Brun said, watching the pebble, “the increased distance between the ground and the rock will seem to increase. But this is an illusion…”
Benny felt what he was meaning, like the rock was becoming more heavy as it drifted out into the open air over the valley below. It was now about five feet in front of him, almost clear of the rocks below their feet.
“The pull of the earth is always the same, and you must realize that in this world it does not matter to you. You have a mind, and therefore can affect the physics of this world. The stone can not. Without you, it would fall. You keep it up. You are the most important component to that stone’s remaining on this cliff. Breathe, Benny from Away.”
Benny had been holding his breath, concentrating as hard as possible on keeping the stone aloft. As it had drifted farther out, clear of the rocks, Benny had become aware that he was levitating a rock some five hundred feet above the ground, and the weight had seemed to increase tenfold. His head was beginning to strain with the ache when Brun told him to breathe, and he knew if he inhaled to quickly he would get a head rush and drop the rock. He tried to focus on what Brun had said about the rock needing him, aobut him being what kept the rock up and free from the effects of gravity. Slowly he pulled in his first breath, clutching to the thought that the rock was like this world which he had supposedly helped organize in the farthest reaches of history. He was supposed to be one of those original three who structured the manifested universe and maintained its order, and the rock was like that universe. Without him, it would fall to the depths, instead of remaining on the cliff where it belonged.
The first breath complete, he slowly exhaled, being sure to give himself enough time to avoid any head rushes.
“Very good, Master Benny,” Brun said. “Now bring it back home. Return the stone to its rightful place of rest.”
Benny began reversing his thoughts, willing the rock back toward him, pulling it slowly back away from the long drop. Benny saw the rock beginning to dip while it was still about ten feet away, and he caught himself holding his breath again. He consciously forced himself to start breathing slowly again, taking deep full breaths and focusing on the rock. It leveled back out and glided toward him.
Suddenly, when it was about five feet away, it darted toward Benny like a bullet. He raised his hand in front of his face and gasped, expecting to get smacked with the rock at least on the hand, but after a moment of no impact he moved his hand and saw the rock floating just inches in front of his forehead.
“Very, very good,” Brun said. Benny recognized the note in his voice. It was the note that said Benny had done something Brun had not expected him to be able to do.
“All I did was stop the rock,” Benny said. “I don’t know why it came at me to begin with… Maybe I was too excited that it was almost back?”
“No,” Brun replied. “I tried to hit you with the rock, and you managed to regain telekinetic control and stop it instead. Now, this could be in part because moving things with my mind was never my strongest point, but I think all in all it was because you have mastered the basic fundamentals of this world, namely that as long as you keep your connection to this place clearly in mind, no one can take control away from you. Your kind share ownership of massive amounts of the Inner because you constructed it. You don’t remember this, perfectly fine, but it is still true and therefore you have an internal knowledge, hidden deep within the recesses of your soul’s secret memory, which allows you to be a virtual god here. Most people of the Inner would have a hefty bruise between their eyes from that one.”
Brun smiled and flicked the rock toward Benny. Benny once again stopped it in mid air, laughed, and sent the rock sailing out off the cliff, into the forest below. As the abilities he was supposedly imbued with began to show themselves, he felt more and more confident that perhaps he could indeed take his body back, help Brun save his sister, and somehow put things as close to normal as was within his abilities. He truthfully didn’t care if Natas was killed or not, as long as he could return to some semblance of a normal life.
There was, however, that part inside which told him things could never be normal as long as The Madman roamed. Even if things seemed to go back to peace, it would only be a matter of time before Natas would find some new scheme for stirring up trouble. So the inevitable eventually sank in and Benny no longer resisted it.
He, or someone with his aid, would one day have to kill Natas.
Mary Jorgens had not spoken to anyone since she had turned up at city hall. She had been badly shaken, and she spent her days staring at a wall in blank silence. When she had first shown up, she had been hysterical and raving about her son killing her husband. No one knew if this was true or not, of course, but it corroborated with the stories of earlier witnesses who had claimed to see Benny Jorgens committing murders around the town. Also, the boy’s father had not yet shown up at City Hall, and the two people stationed at the strategic peepholes around the hall had so far reported no sightings of him. So as far as anyone knew, she was telling the truth and Benny Jorgens had truly gone off the deep end.
Most people just thought it was from whatever traumatic experience it had been that turned his hair white. Surely something so horrible as to change the pigment in your hair could cause enough mental scarring to lead one to kill, right? But Mary made no comments and offered no opinions to the gossip. It was really no wonder to the people who knew her and who believed the story; if it was true, Mary had lost her son to madness and her husband to that mad son. Her entire family in Minde was now dead. She had relocated from across the country, and now that anarchy had sealed its clutches all around the exterior of City Hall, it did not seem that she had much of a future to look forward to.
Indeed, every one of the Hallers had decided she would never speak again. Most of them had tried to offer their condolences, but they all just walked away feeling as if they didn’t know if she even heard what they had to say. It appeared that no one could get inside her wall and get her to open up again. But then, on the most unusual day so far for the Hallers, Mary had responded to the sound of the crowd gathered outside the doors of City Hall.
She had been about ten feet from the door, staring across the entrance hall toward the twenty or so people who had formed into two circles for poker. But her monotonous stream of internal lamentation was broken by the sound her son’s voice. She had jumped up and walked over to the large wooden door, pressing her ear to it to hear what was going on. This was, in fact, how the other Hallers had been alerted to the presence of the gathering crowd. No one had heard anything until one of the poker players noticed her with her ear pressed against the door.
After hearing the voice of her only born for no more than five seconds, Mary didn’t hear it again. All she could hear was the bustling of the crowd gathering on the street at the foot of the City Hall lawn. There was a man who was acting as tournament director for the people playing poker, and since he was not involved directly in the card game, he went over to see what Mary was listening to. He hadn’t even approached the door fully when he heard the murmuring of the crowd. “What is it, Mary?” he asked. His name was George and he had run a weakly funded card room in the middle of town, but his gambling persona did not keep him from being loved by many of the townspeople. There were even some of the ‘crazies’ who had wished he would stay on the outside, so that poker could continue. As it was he wanted nothing to do with the rebellious murderers roaming the streets, so he had grabbed all of his fancy chip-sets and playing cards, stuffed them in an oversized trunk, and come to City Hall.
George didn’t really expect Mary to reply, as she had not spoken since she had shown up at the Hall. Much to his surprise, however, she replied in a quiet, but firm, voice. “It’s my son,” she said, still staring at the door as if she could see through it. “Or rather, it’s what is left of my son.”
She suddenly turned to look at him with an intense look in her eye. “Please,” she pleaded, grabbing the front of his shirt and pulling herself closer to him. “You have to believe me. Something has taken over my son, and it’s out there right now. He’s capable of so much more than my son was. I know it can’t be him in there. Something has him, and its…evil. Please… no one will believe me so you have to warn the others. If it wants to get in here, it will get in here. His strength… its…”
She suddenly became choked up and George instinctively put an arm around her, disregarding the stares of the players a few yards away. He knew they couldn’t hear them, the acoustics in the entrance hall being absolutely atrocious, so their curious stares didn’t really bother him that much. This episode of Mary’s obviously had something to do with the murder of her husband, and he couldn’t deny even to himself that there did indeed seem to be a massive crowd directly outside the doors of City Hall, so he was determined to calm her down and hear what all she had to say. Even if it did sound insane.
After a few moments her sobs subsided, and with her face against his chest she muttered one sentence that would cause George to sound the alarm to the others and bring the crowd to the attention of the rest of the Hallers.
“It caved my husband’s throat with one hand, and somehow I know, I just know that it is coming to kill all of us; the women, the men, and I see no reason to think the children will be spared.”
The thought of George’s daughter Emily came into his mind, and with that he let go of Mary and went off in the direction of the main hall to spread the news. This is what set into motion the chain of events which would cause the disturbance in the small town of Minde to become an all out war.
(Author's Note: Harsh language.)
“I should’ve killed that fucking little brat when I had the chance,” Natas said to the white haired Benny now sitting in front of him. “I don’t know how they managed to pull that little stunt off, but they’re going to wish they hadn’t.”
“Awww, is poor little Sanrunai getting angry that he was beaten for once?” said the thing that was inhabiting Benny’s body.
“Don’t push me, Chi,” said the sorcerer. “You’re nothing but a spirit using that body and I can always always send you back where you came from.”
“Alright, alright, cool your jets. Its not like I was being serious. I’ve just never seen you get so worked up over something. And I’ve especially never seen you with blood pouring down your face. Its kind of hot.”
“Don’t say shit like that to me while you inhabit a man’s body.”
“Well, what are you going to do now? You’ve already got half this piss ant town in your grips, I’ve taken care of a number of them, and the rest are going to go down without much of a fight. Your plans are laid, so why be all downer Debbie over a little scratch?”
“Because now I can’t get him and her when they come to the Upper Realms. And trust me, I do think they’ll find a way. The little brat who shot me is probably close to escaping that cell with one of the echani, and then I’ll have two of those fucking things on my tail.”
“And what of the last one, Susan?”
“If my people did what they were supposed to, then she shouldn’t be bothering me. But I feel our time growing shorter, Chi, and we must act now. Begin phase two, and be quick about it.”
“Yes, sir,” the thing that looked like Benny said with a grin. “My pleasure.”
When the spirit left, Natas looked into his little fire and said, “Here it comes, you little bitch. You’re going to go down and so is everyone you love. I hope you suffer so I can enjoy it.”
He began laughing hysterically. His favorite part of the job was finally upon him.
Benny was getting a little weary of Brun’s over the top methods of training. There had never been a deep dark hole, there hadn’t been any pretty light other than Brun’s eye which he’d made glow to attract Benny, and there had never been a huge creature at the bottom of said hole either. The whole thing had been just an illusion from Brun, and in actuality Benny had sat at the bottom of the pool flailing like an idiot. Brun was in the process of explaining how and why Benny should have known that it was a fake.
“First of all,” the man said, “it was highly improbable that a hole such as that would have formed in such a place. There’s geologically no way it could have happened.”
Benny merely grumbled under his breath as he massaged the bump on his head, which was the only injury he had sustained.
“Second,” Brun continued, “how could such a monstrous creature such as that have wormed itself down there like that? Also, it would have been very anti survival of it to have done so, for surely the only food it would lure down there would be small fish which would be far from nourishing enough to a creature of such magnitude.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Benny muttered.
“Third, why would I have not sensed it and responded immediately, avoiding the whole scenario entirely?” Brun asked. “It makes no sense. I’d have been there long before you even suspected the creature, and certainly would never have let you go down into such an obvious trap. I am actually quite surprised at you.”
The small man then laughed heartily, making Benny’s already aching head pulse more. He just didn’t understand how the little bastard could find it so funny, and also he was getting quite annoyed at himself for passing out each time he’s faced with death. It made him feel truly weak, and definitely nothing like this great super man that he was supposedly ‘training’ to become.
“How am I supposed to get out of an illusion like that, then?” Benny asked. He was tired of being told what he’d done wrong and never what he could do better next time. It felt more like criticism than training.
“You must recognize the signs, see what is impossible but clearly before you, and once you’ve determined for sure that it is an illusion, you must search for the illusionist. In this case, I figured you would at least recognize the color of my eye. You’ve seen it so many times, I thought for sure it would be my dead giveaway.”
I knew I recognized that color from somewhere besides the damn discovery channel, Benny thought. Shit.
“I was taken by the good feeling, I guess,” Benny said, immediately realizing how stupid his own words sounded. “I was enjoying myself and wanted to see what was down there. I kind of always had a thing for caves and deep water… I don’t know.”
Benny knew he was grasping at straws and decided to revert back to simply sitting and rubbing his swollen head. Stupid training.
“Look,” Brun said. “You must not beat yourself up over your failures, either. Each one that you survive through brings some new bit of experience to your history, and what will make you special is not merely surviving, its learning to take what you learned in the trial and applying it to future trials. That is the key. You cannot merely fight and rush into the next fight. No matter how often you survive, you will not be learning anything and one day you will lose. You must take what I have told you and learn from it. Nothing more. Do not fret over how you failed or how you should’ve known it was me. It matters not. What does matter is what you learned. Understand?”
“I think so,” Benny said. He was pretty sure he understood, but his head hurt too much to really think. Brun had lit a fire and Benny sat by it with his little bag. He rummaged through it and found that Beaner had supplied him with a decent amount of what looked like jerky. He pulled out a strip of it and put it in his mouth. It was extremely juicy, and the flavor filled his mouth and even went into his nostrils a tiny bit. It tasted like the saltiest, most flavorful meat he had ever tried, even better than the giant bird Brun had killed. Not only that, it was filling as well. He only ate one strip and could already feel it filling his stomach. Benny was pretty sure most of the food he’d had while in the Inner was better than the Upper realm’s food. Most definitely.
Brun got into his own pack and pulled out a bundle wrapped in some sort of skin. He opened it up and pulled out some light colored meat. “I kept some from the Rokmon bird,” he said. “If you’d like some you are more than welcome. I have plenty for both of us. I think we could both eat our fill four times over, so this should be good sustenance for a few days. Here, try. It is even better when its dry.”
He handed a piece of it to Benny. It seemed to have been prepared in the exact same way as the jerky he was eating, and Benny suspected that maybe it was some meat curing secret that the Vanjii tribe held. Whatever their method was, it was damned good.
The bird meat was just as succulent as the other type, and Benny let the taste sit in his mouth for several seconds before even attempting to swallow any of it. Something that they did to the meat made it seem dry and yet moist all at once, like the outside had been cured to make a wrap to hold in the moisture. After the one piece from his own bag and the piece of the bird meat, Benny was pretty well full for the time being and instead began searching for his Lana stash.
He wasn’t sure quite how much he had smoked, but it didn’t seem to have even touched the surface. But with how many strange things he’d seen, Benny wouldn’t have been surprised if there was some sort of spell to make the bag last longer or be bigger inside than it looked outside. Who knew. All he knew was that he had plenty, and right now he wanted to smoke it.
He loaded up his little pipe with a far bigger bowl of the bright green plant than he’d ever really done before, and began puffing on it slowly. He offered it to Brun, but the small man seemed to be concentrating deeply for some reason upon the fire. So Benny sat and smoked his pipe, looking into the flames himself. He wanted desperately to know if Laura was okay. It had been almost a week and a half, maybe even two since he had first left Hayvan, and he was sure that if anything bad were going to happen it surely would have already, which left him not really knowing whether to be worried or to just deal with the fact that anything he had to worry about had already passed. He decided he’d ask Brun, just in case the little guy had anything that might appease his mind.
“She may very well still be in the thick of the danger,” Brun said in reply to Benny’s enquiry. “You see, Hayvan is so close to Brynj which is the between world, that time sort of leaks over into Hayvan. Just as time runs much slower up top, so it does in that town as well. They may have only been through a few hours in Hayvan since you left, and they may have gone through days. Chances are this Laura girl you speak of feels as if you only left a few hours ago, and is probably worried about you in the same way, because she probably doesn’t know if you’re well away from the danger or not. One thing I can tell you… I feel something strange from that place. It is far off from here, yes, but when you ask or talk about it, I feel as if something terrible may be about to happen there. It may well be several more of our perception of days before the hours pass there between now and the danger that awaits that city. But remember… Natas has a way of destroying towns that he sets his sights on, and he has been casing Hayvan for as long as I know. If he has chosen that now is the time to strike, it may be too late for your friend.”
Benny sat smoking in contemplation, not wanting to think about what fate may have befallen or be about to befall his double. Benny didn’t know about the life connection between himself and his double, and maybe if he had he would have not worried quite so much about her and worried a little more about himself, but he did not know and so he was worried down to his very bones. His friend forever, who he’d thought he’d lost and apparently had only lost contact with, might be dead or dying or about to be killed or any number of bad scenarios. He felt like crying, but his face just wouldn’t do the job for him.
“That is a good sign, Benny from Away,” said Brun suddenly, not looking up from the flames. “You would like to cry and know perhaps that it is a time where crying would be warranted, and yet your body and mind are stable enough to resist. Crying clouds the eyes and fogs the mind, much more than simply being sad. I am sad quite often, but I never cry because I need my mind sharp at all times. The thing is, Benny from Away, whether you believe it or not, your mind could be ten times as sharp as mine. It is a good sign, at least to me, that you can not find the ability to cry. I believe that right at this moment it would be in your best interest to keep your mind sharp, so for at least the next few moments, I think you should probably set aside the Lana and just think.”
Benny started to question, but decided he better start treating Brun like his teacher if he was going to learn anything. So he set aside the pipe and sat looking into the flames. The few hits he’d taken slowly snuck up on him, and he decided he’d just put the pipe away for now. He sat thinking about all the things he’d been told about how this place was the stuff of dreams, and how he could supposedly manipulate any matter he could see or visualize in this place. He didn’t quite understand all the mechanics of it or all the intricacies, but he knew what it had been like to dream lucidly when he was still in his body, when he could dream without getting horrible visions of whatever the thing in his body was doing at the moment.
Suddenly Benny got the urge, or rather the downright command of his body, to lay down. He did and right as he leaned back an arrow flew in front of his face. Brun was already on his feet and diving behind a tree trunk, just as something long and black flew past his face. Something landed in the fire and sparks flew everywhere. Benny didn’t have much time to think, so he just decided he’d follow Brun’s example and take cover. He jumped behind another fallen tree, just as one of the black things which had narrowly missed Brun flew by him, hitting the ground where he had just been with a big splat! The ground where the stuff hit (it was apparently some black goo that had been launched at them) the area where it landed began sizzling. Small tendrils of smoke or steam began rising from the black puddle, and as Benny watched the stuff, it slowly ate into the ground.
Stay as hidden as possible and keep your mind as clear as you can, came Brun’s voice into Benny’s head. I do not feel a psychic presence in either of them but they may be masking it well. So stay on your guard. You see a chance to attack in any way that is relatively safe to you, then take it.
I understand, Benny tried to send back to Brun. He wasn’t sure if the little man got it, but across the clearing Benny saw Brun retreat into his little hiding spot between the log and some bushes. Benny hunkered down and made himself as hidden as possible, and for a few moments there was only silence.
Then, slowly, a man emerged from the shadows. He was deathly pale, and Benny was reminded of the pale skin of Natas, but this man was certainly not Natas. He wore a black tank top and black pants, and his arms were covered top to bottom with tattoos of some sort. His hair looked to Benny to be a fiery red, and was cropped low to the man’s head like a military style crew cut. Over his back was a weapon Benny had never seen before. It looked like some sort of automatic, but as far as Benny could recollect, it was not any model that existed in the Upper Realms.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” the man hollered in a sing-song voice. “I wouldn’t have thought the great Warlord Brun Loncula would flee into the shadows like some sort of coward.”
Benny didn’t hear any response, but he could tell by the expression on the man’s face that Brun was probably speaking into his mind at the time. Benny always seemed to forget that Brun could choose exactly who he wanted to have hear him and who he didn’t want to have hear anything.
“Ah, come on, Bruney,” the man in the black tank top said. “Its not like you haven’t proven you can defeat me before. Why don’t you come out and let me give you a little rematch, see just how rusty you’ve gotten in the last ten years.”
More silence, presumably as Brun replied.
Suddenly the man laughed and pulled out his gun.
LAY FLAT!! Brun’s voice boomed into Benny’s head. For a moment his mind stalled, but he recognized the feeling of freezing up and consciously tried to break free of it. He laid down flat on his stomach, almost knocking the wind out of himself by flopping onto his front side rather harder than he had intended to. He didn’t have much time to think about the feeling, however, for the man sprayed bullets in a wide arc all the way around the clearing, and the bushes which had been at head-level with Benny exploded into several splinters and a blur of green matter. He muttered, “Shit!” under his breath and covered the back of his head. He looked up and saw something moving in the thicket in the area where the man had emerged, and even though he couldn’t see it, he knew somehow that someone was aiming something at him. Whoever was there in the bushes had either seen him move or heard him say shit, he didn’t know which. All he knew was that someone had seen him.
Not thinking about where he’d go, Benny rolled to his side and got to his feet as quickly as possible. A jet of the black fluid coated what remained of the decimated bush and instantly it began to sizzle, droop, and eventually become a pile of goo itself. He ran in the direction opposite their camp, seizing momentarily upon the impulse to lead the new assailant away from Brun. Benny had a feeling his little teacher had enough on his hands with the pale man with the gun, and didn’t need another opponent.
For about a hundred yards Benny couldn’t tell if his plan had worked, for he heard no rustling in the brush behind him or shouts from a pursuer, but then he began to hear rustling from above. He came to a stop and looked up just in time to see another one of the strange black globs fly past him and hit the ground in the spot where he would have been had he kept running. Suddenly something was falling through the trees toward him, something bigger than one of the masses of black goo. Benny rolled to the left and narrowly avoided being kicked from above by his unknown attacker. As the person landed with an impossibly hard thud, concaving the soft ground with the impact of the fall, Benny had only the briefest of seconds to register that it was a dark haired woman, with pale skin like the man. Only a moment after landing on the ground, she looked up and quickly flung her hand towards Benny. Finally, Benny saw where the black goo was coming from. It seemed to erupt from her finger tips, and she flung it with enough speed and precision that Benny was caught off guard. He tried to lean out of the way of the spray, but it was too late. A terrible burning erupted on the side of his head and quickly spread to his cheek and jaw.
He landed on his side, connecting with a stray log that dug into his ribs as he landed on it. He was pretty sure he was screaming, but the ringing from his left ear was too loud to make out anything else. Somehow he managed to open his eyes. The woman with the black hair was advancing on him, but extremel slowly, as if moving through water.
I can’t do this for much longer, Benny From Away, came Brun’s voice in Benny’s head. Even the ringing in Benny’s ear couldn’t stifle the little man’s powerful telepathy.
The woman was trying to raise her arm up for another attack, and Benny could just make out in the dim forest lighting the agony on her face as she strained against whatever force Brun was imposing upon her. This is it, Benny thought. He sat up and grabbed the log from underneath him. It seemed too big to lift, but if any of the things Brun and Beaner had told him were true, then he figured there must be a way. Grabbing the couple of branches on the side of the log, Benny closed his eyes and envisioned the log tearing through the woman, severing one half of her body from the other as he swung through it. He felt all the muscles in his body clench at once with the strain of lifting the log, but he clung to the image of victory despite the seeming impossibility of lifting the log, much less swinging it. As he opened his eyes again there was a strong feeling inside of urgency, probably emanating from Brun, and he saw that the woman almost had her fingers extended to a point of being able to launch another volley of goo at him. Suddenly he felt his muscles lock into place, and there was a subtle ripping noise as the log dislodged from the moss covered forest earth. He concentrated with all his might on directing the flow of strength from his legs up to his back, then out through his solar plexus to his arms. The log lifted from the ground and as it did, the built up strain of Benny’s muscles released in the direction of the woman, still straining to stand upright.
The sound of gunfire erupted from the sound of their camp, just as the log flew through the air in an arc toward the dark haired woman. Suddenly the hold on the woman was lifted, and she raised her arm in front of her and launched her attack at the log instead of at Benny. At first the log seemed to change its lobbing course, but it was too little too late. The log struck the woman on the shoulder and knocked her backward before tumbling off into the brush.
GET BACK HERE NOW! I NEED YOU! came the call in Benny’s head.
He instantly broke into a dash toward the camp, but was dismayed to find his muscles instantly beginning to cramp up after the exertion of throwing the log. This caused him to be able to achieve little more than a jog, but nonetheless he finally broke through the brush into the clearing with the scattered campfire.
As he sprung out into the open, he caught movement from his left and instinctively ducked. The tree next to him splintered as the automatic gun fired, missing Benny. When he looked up the man was gone, and Benny guessed that the shot had been meant as more of a distraction than anything. He quickly jogged to the far side of the clearing to where Brun had been hiding. He had forgotten about his head wound, and as he came to a stop on the far side, all the pain seemed to rush back in, along with the incessant ringing noise. I’ll probably never hear out of that ear again, Benny thought.
“They’re gone,” came Brun’s higher pitched physical voice. He seemed to be in the same spot Benny had left him, but by the way the bushes all around that area were ravaged and broken, Benny got a sinking feeling that perhaps this wasn’t a good thing. “But they will not stop following us. Come. Help me out of here.”
Benny went to the bush where the voice seemed to be coming from, and the first thing he saw was blood on the leaves. Then he saw a small hand reaching out to him, accompanied by the subtle telepathic command to pull him out, and not to worry about hurting him. With a tug which seemed far too simple in comparison to a two hundred pound log, Benny managed to pull the tiny man from his hiding spot in the brush. He laid Brun on his back near where the fire had been before the ambush, and began to assess the situation. But, as was usually the case, Brun had already observed much more than Benny.
“Your head,” Brun said feebly. “You’ve been wounded.”
He managed to lean up slightly, just enough to look closer at the side of Benny’s head, at the place where the dark haired woman had managed to strike him with whatever the acidic goo had been. “That’s the work of ‘Chase’ Morgana,” he said. “She is not human, but holds an attractive female body. Acid courses through her veins, and long ago she learned of a way to control the flow of it, to direct it. Once she became militarized, it of course became her most special weapon. Yes, I know all about those two.”
“I can’t hear out of my left ear,” Benny said.
“It will never completely heal,” Brun said. “But luckily she only got your ear, and not your entire damned head. You’d be little more than a fat covered skull with a plump human body by now. You will heal enough, young Master. I was watching through your eyes… Very nice work, young one.”
“Thank you,” Benny said. “But you’re wounded. We’ll have time for battle stories later.”
“Yes,” Brun said, closing the smaller of his two eyes. “I look forward to exchanging combat stories with you, Ben. You bear the wounds of Chase Morgana, I bear those inflicted by that slime ball of the Rebellion, the puppet of the puppet of the puppet masters, Monsieur Marcus Vonwell.”
“Vonwell?” Benny exclaimed. “You mean he’s a relation of Natas?”
“Yes and no,” Brun said. “Fetch me my bag. It seems to have missed the majority of the bullets from that mad shooter, so if we are in luck there will still be all the medicine we need to survive this without getting infected with some forest disease, or worse. We will talk more about our attackers later. They are the ones who have been following us, and there will be more. Even they themselves will return again. We may have bought some time. I created a psychic resonance within Marcus’ mind, sort of a telepathic feedback, and with your blow to Morgana’s head, I believe they will need to take at least a few days to recover. Its actually rather fortunate for us that they got their surprise attack out of the way early.”
At this Brun laughed heartily, and as Benny handed him the bag, it was not the medicine he pulled out first.
It was the Lana plant.
(Author's note: my website was reviewed by Web Fiction Guide, and they gave me three and a half stars out of five, and the biggest problem stated was the small font making it hard on the eyes. I have taken it into consideration, and this week I have attempted to correct that. I hope this is a little easier to read, and to all those who have made it this far, you have read 362 pages of the 600 I have written :) thank you tons.)
The cellar had become a dungeon, and on each side there were rows of barred cells, and when it came time to rest for a brief moment, Laura and Fusa went into one of the cleaner ones that had been abandoned. The first thing Laura noticed was that one corner in particular was darker than anywhere else in the cell, but it was on the far side of where they were sitting, so she decided as long as she faced it she’d be okay with not seeing the area there.
Fusa pulled out a canister and two small cups and began pouring some thick brown liquid into each of them. Laura had never seen the stuff before, but even from the distance she was at, she could tell that it smelled ten times better than it looked. Kinda like beef stew, she thought. He handed one of the small silver cups to her and began drinking from his own.
Laura looked down into the cup. Sure it smelled nice, but it just looked so disgusting.
“What is it?” she asked.
“It is a sustenance drink that my father used to make all the time,” Fusa replied. “Luckily there were still jars of it left. Its easy to transport and one small cup will keep you sustained for half a day, minimum.”
“Huh,” Laura said, still only half convinced. “Well, bottoms up then, I guess.”
She took in a breath and drank down the brown liquid in the cup. It tasted surprisingly good in her mouth, but it was nothing she could put her finger on. All she knew is that it tasted how a good dinner should smell: a combination of several flavors with neither overpowering the other, simply blending together into a perfect dinner smell. It was kind of thick, and she struggled a bit trying to make it all go down quickly, but as soon as it began trickling down her throat, she could feel her hunger going away. By the time all of the drink had been consumed, she felt downright full, as if the small cup of liquid had expanded into three bowls in her stomach.
“Well you’re right that it works,” Laura said and laughed. Fusa chuckled slightly, but obviously had his mind on other things.
Suddenly a raspy voice issued forth from the dark corner Laura had been fearing. “You’ll never save your father. He’s probably already dead.”
Both Laura and Fusa turned quickly, startled by the sudden new addition to their conversation. “How do you know about my father?” Fusa demanded. “And who are you? Why are you hiding in the shadows?”
“If you want me to answer questions, you have to pause in between asking them first,” the voice said, and was followed by a wheezing sound that Laura took as being the man’s attempt at laughter. “So I’ll answer them all at once. I know because I know everything that happens here. I am a prisoner of this prison. And I’m not showing myself because I can’t move my body.”
Fusa pulled out a small flame driven light from his bag and lit it. The light was just enough to light the cell, and there in the corner was chained what only vaguely resembled a man. His right leg was missing and both of his arms were chained up to the wall above his head, and judging by the size of them, it appeared that he hadn’t been fed in several days. His shirt was torn and below it Laura could see the man’s ribs, just barely concealed by the thin layer of flesh that went over them. Whoever was the prison-keep didn’t do a very good job at taking care of the prisoners.
On the man’s head was a strange mark that Laura had never seen before, and she made a point to ask Fusa later, if it didn’t come up before she got the chance. It was a circle with strange designs on the inside, and it appeared to have been burnt into the forehead of the prisoner. His head was hanging down on his chest, and it appeared that he no longer had the strength to even lift it as he spoke.
“You will die in here, just like me,” he continued. “I am sure that the door you entered through is no longer there, and it will take you years to find a way out of this maze. You probably aren’t even aware that you’ve already taken several turns, or which way you turned, are you?”
“We’ve been going straight the whole time,” Fusa said.
There was another burst of the wheezing, rasping laugh that slowly became a cough. “That is how the enchantment works, yes. You think you’ve gone straight but you have not. Not at all. And I don’t think you’ll be able to find your way to your father or back to the surface. No… You’re stuck here now too.”
He began laughing again.
“Shut your mouth, heretic,” Fusa said, getting to his feet.
“Ah, so you know what this mark means?”
“It means you blasphemed against our home, and were put in prison for it. You deserve to be here, and that’s why you will rot here and we shall not.”
“You don’t even know me, and yet you judge me? And what is the basis for your discrimination of me? It stems from you thinking I am talking bad about you, when really I am merely giving proper credit to the work of the mad designer of this place, commenting on how evil he can be. You judge me for talking about the thing which you hate so much? You don’t even know my story. You think this mark tells you everything.”
“No,” the man replied calmly. “It does not. That is what the Black Ones wanted, and it appears that they succeeded. I tried to stop the terrible LeVille who came before the current one from giving poisoned food to a school of children, one of which was my own. They called me a heretic and said I had interfered with the actions of the state. I was put in prison and from a later prisoner who has long since died, I heard that the children had gotten sick mysteriously and all had perished. That is when I decided that I didn’t care if I rotted in this place. I had nothing to go back to, and this mark on my head means I will never be trusted or respected again.”
“My grandfather poisoned children?” Laura asked incredulously. “But… he was so sweet before he died…”
“Oh he was a very charming and friendly man, to say the least,” the prisoner said. “So you are the newest LeVille, eh? Well… I can say that I never had an issue with him until I realized that he’d follow any order given, even one to poison children for the sake of saving the town money. I suppose it worked, and the economy balanced back out when the parents no longer needed to care for children, but look at the cost at which such a miracle came? So many young lives… I tried so hard to stop it…”
The man began weeping, and in the light Laura could see no tears. He must have been too dehydrated to be able to produce tears. Suddenly she was no longer afraid of him. The depth of her ‘family’s betrayal to their own people was becoming more apparent, and she wanted nothing more than to reverse it. “Is there any way I can get you out of these chains?” Laura said, moving towards the man to try to free him. But as she approached, Fusa stopped her hand. “Fusa, he’s innoc—“
“No,” the man said. “He is right, young miss. I cannot leave this place. If I even attempt to move myself or be moved, I will probably break. I am so frail that I cannot even risk moving for fear of rupturing blood vessels or breaking bones, but I now see a way to make amends for my terrible crime, and to end my life knowing that I did not come to this place for nothing. God wanted me to come here, and so I was sent after defying the state. Now I see my purpose, after all these years. I see how I can help you, and at least somewhat bring peace to my guilty mind.”
“But you’re not guilty!” Laura protested.
“Hush, sweet girl,” the man said gently. “I have not much time left, and so I need you to just accept it and listen so that I can go in peace. I have hung on all this time hoping I would have some reason for being here before I died, and now you have come to me. I know many things, and I know that you seek your father and ultimately to kill the dark one, the evil man, this Natas who calls himself so many things. And I know how you can kill him, and bring an end to his terrible and bloody legacy.”
“What do you know?” Fusa said, lighting a cigarette. Laura quickly grabbed it and put it out.
“Can’t you see he’s dying?” she hissed quietly.
“I know that he is aging, and he is growing weak,” the man said. “And he can no longer preserve his body without the death of others. This is why his reign of death has grown exponentially over the years. The more lives required to preserve his, the more lives he took. But to cut off his plans, to keep him from taking any lives, would surely lead to his death. Two more things before I go.
“First: his eyes are his power. Never let him show them to you, I beg you. Or else your fight will end very quickly and you will be no more than his new pawns. If you can somehow get rid of his eyes, stop their awful power, then you will take his awesome power of persuasion forever, and he will become a much smaller threat. But he will still be powerful. Mark that. He will still be powerful.
“Last thing: I was not lying about the hall you’ve been walking down. It winds continuously to the left, going deeper and deeper until you can not get out. However, there is a way around this that I have heard the guards speak of. Every fifteen steps, turn ninety degrees to your right and continue forward, repeating after fifteen more steps. This will keep you on a straight path, and eventually you should come to what they call the Great Cell. That is the closest this place has to maximum security, so be careful. Now, I have told you what I know that can help you, and it is up to you to use it. I felt the need to try to stop the poisoning, and failed. But I was sent here and now you’ve come, and I know that this was the reason I was persuaded by God to protest in the first place. Please… Use what I’ve told you…and….succeed.”
There was one last weak cough and the man was dead. One single tear betrayed Laura’s eyes, and she quickly wiped it away before Fusa could see.
“Come,” he said. “We now know our course, and we must make haste. I am beginning to fear for the surface.”
“Yes. If you did not catch why, then it would be a good lesson for you to think on it.”
Laura was confused but decided not to protest and to try to remember on her own. They grabbed their things, and with one last moment of silence for the deceased man who had probably saved them from being lost forever, they began the last leg of their trip to the Great Cell.
At least now they knew where they were going. But Laura still didn’t feel good about the situation at all.
Not one bit.
Brun had kicked Benny’s ass at combat training once again, and Benny was extremely sore. It didn’t help that they had been walking for about three miles before they even began ‘training’ and now they were back to walking again. If Brun had his way, they would’ve been running and bouncing up rocks and from tree branches. Lil bastard’s a damn monkey, Benny thought as he watched the little warrior swing from a branch and land upon a rock that was going to take Benny five minutes to clamber up, maybe even more with the condition of his muscles.
“What are you waiting for?” Brun asked from his vantage point on the rock.
“It might be easy for you, but I’m not used to this sort of thing,” Benny said, trying his best to not sound as winded as he felt. “I’m doing the best I can just to keep you in sight.”
“Its more like I’m doing the best I can just to stay in your sight,” Brun said before laughing childishly. He then turned and bounded down the other side of the rock, leaving Benny to struggle his way up the rock in silence.
He was beginning to think that this training wasn’t such a good thing after all. Maybe he would’ve been able to find Natas on his own, and figure out a way to get his body back on his own, without all of this painful and redundant training. Who am I kidding? He thought. I would’ve gotten to him and probably lost control of my mind to him too. Of course maybe that wouldn’t have been so bad, considering then I wouldn’t even really be aware that I wasn’t free anymore.
Would you stop your childish thinking and climb, for goodness’ sake, came Brun’s powerful mind voice, booming as always into Benny’s already sore head.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Benny grumbled beneath his breath. “Maybe I’d go faster if you’d let me rest every now and then.”
“When you learn that the body always has enough strength to do what you want it to, then you will see that the only thing which you need to do anything at any time is the proper motivation and the strength of will,” Brun said, popping up over the rock again. “When you feel tired, your mind will try to convince you that the body lacks the strength to continue, but this is simply the minds way of tricking you into giving it some rest. You must learn to dominate your own mind, so others can not, and so you can use it to control your body. You in particular, Benny from Away, have the ability to make your body do almost anything you want it to, but before this can be achieved, you must have control over that which controls the body. So for now, I will not let you rest, and since I have your pack, if you want to eat or drink or smoke when you take a break, you had better catch up and keep up with me, or else you will have nothing.”
Benny realized that Brun was fundamentally right, and he knew that his body could take another step and then another and another, and it could make one more lunge up the rock and then on the other side it could keep walking forward to wherever Brun happened to finally stop. He felt tired, and his mind kept telling him he would pass out soon if he didn’t take a break, but his legs did not feel like caving and his lungs were not on fire yet, so what indication was there that he couldn’t go on? Only his mind, insisting that he couldn’t. The truth of what Brun had said came into full sight in Benny’s mind, and with a smile he pushed forward up and over the rock.
Just as he got to the top, he saw a certain little man, naked and jumping off the rock. There was a splash from the other side and Benny rushed forward. There, spread out before him, was the freshest looking natural pool of water Benny had ever seen. He pulled his shirt up and over his head and dove in. As soon as he hit the water, all of his fatigue felt like it was gone. The heat had been getting to him so badly, that the cool pool was like a breath taking contrast, and he stayed under for a good six seconds before swimming toward the top.
As he broke the surface, Brun was treading water a few feet away and he said, “You see, Benny from Away? If you had allowed your mind to have its way, we would’ve rested back before that last small obstacle, and then when we began walking again we would’ve had to bypass this sweet spot. But since controlled your mind and allowed the strength of your body to carry you through to the end, the reward was much greater. It is that way in life, Benny, and its also that way in combat. I have seen many defeated simply because they refused to believe that they could go on, and therefore they couldn’t go on. Its as easy as that. So my lesson today, Benny, is always push toward the end, and at all costs, know that you have the strength and all you need is the will.”
“Of course,” Benny replied. “I would’ve just about cried if we had had to pass this up, so thank you for encouraging me to go on.”
“That is the task I have been appointed, is it not?” the small man asked cheerfully. “Now, what was my last Lesson, Benny from Away?”
Benny climbed up on a rock and stood in the sunlight, the light warm upon his shoulders. It was nice to be wet and feel the sun slowly drying him, to breathe the (spring?) air and to feel the warm breeze in his wet hair. It occurred to him that it had been fall the last time he’d been in control of his body, and he wondered if it still was up there. Surely it couldn’t be spring already in Minde, could it? Over here he knew he’d been around for about two weeks, but up on the Minde side, shouldn’t it have only been a few days? Week tops, he thought. But if that had been enough time for the Hell Benny saw in his vision to break loose, then maybe it didn’t matter that time ran slower in the upper realms, because it appeared that Natas also worked faster up there as well.
He took in a deep breath of the seemingly springtime air, and trying to use a somewhat serious voice, he replied, “That I must always have faith in the idea that everything can and will turn out in my favor, or the favor of which I seek the events to turn.”
“Good,” Brun said, diving back into the water. Apparently he’d only been checking to see if Benny remembered at all. Benny didn’t want to waste any of the time he had at this precious pool, so he dove back under the water and basked in the cool feel of the water around his face and body. It was so refreshing being in the water after all the walking in the relatively dry forest. There had been moisture, but no actual water. The one stream they had come to was extremely dirty, and they had followed it as far upstream as they could manage without getting off of their precisely timed route, but it had been persistently brown as far up as they traveled.
The water here was remarkably clear, and Benny could see that it was deep in several places. Somewhere down in one of the deeper spots he thought he saw Brun swimming around, but he couldn’t be sure. He swam down towards the place he thought he had seen him, and was almost taken off guard by the sudden change in temperature of the water. The deepest spot, where Benny thought Brun was, turned out to be more of a deep hole at the bottom of the pool, and as Benny began swimming into it, it became considerably darker and colder with every foot deeper that he went.
He wasn’t sure what it was, if it was Brun or something else, but something rubbed up against his back towards the surface. He turned and looked up and saw nothing. No Brun, no strange creature swimming around above him. Content that he must have just rubbed up against one of the roots that jutted out of the sides of the giant hole, Benny turned back around toward the blackness. Except this time there was a light. A fantastically pretty, bright blue light that bobbed up and down slightly, like a lantern in a dark forest. He began swimming towards it again. It was so bright and so pretty. He jus had to know what the source was. Something about that shade of blue seemed so familiar, but he couldn’t think of from where. All he could think about at that point was how pretty the object must be to give off such radiance, and that whatever it was would surely be a good prize indeed. Brun might even commend him for his find, cook up something extra nice to celebrate a rare find.
The light was finally close to hand, and Benny was beginning to see the bottom of the hole behind the light, reflecting that pretty blue back. The bottom seemed to be made out of some entirely different material, which looked shiny and smooth, with small cracks throughout. The light appeared to be just that…a light. He could not see a place where it was solid, it just all looked like light.
He was beginning to run out of air, but he hadn’t really ever smoked anything up until a few weeks prior, and so his lungs were still pretty fresh, and he knew he had at least another half a minute, and it would only take him ten or so to swim to the top. He continued to examine the light, but got tired of trying to float above it, so he used the wall to pull himself down to the bottom, so he could stand there eye level with the light. It just bobbed there, not seeming to want to do anything. Certainly didn’t seem like a fluorescent fish or anything like that…
Where had he seen that before.
He slowly began to realize that his feet were on yet another surface, some type of material that felt almost like round poles laid down in rows below his feet. He looked down and saw what they were, and wished he hadn’t. Suddenly the memory of where he had seen such a pretty blue light came back to his mind.
The Discovery Channel.
A certain show about fish of prey that use lights to attract smaller fish and then eat them as soon as they get close. He also became aware of the thin strand coming from the blue light and going down to the bottom. That shiny bottom of “different” material was actually skin, and the things that felt like bars under his feet were actually the large teeth of some…thing… that was hiding in this hole. He sprang off the teeth with all the force he could muster, kicking violently for the surface, and just before his feet left he felt the teeth separate below them. He looked down and there were the two biggest compact eyes Benny had ever seen, staring back at him and reflecting the light in them. Below was the teeth lined pit, dark and void, that was the creatures mouth.
For a brief moment, another tickle of recognition came to him, but this was not the time for contemplating where else he could have seen that blue. Right now he needed to swim and swim hard, especially if he wanted to get himself out of the stupid situation he had gotten himself into.
How could I be so stupid? He asked himself. The surface seemed to keep moving away from him, like in certain dreams he’d had before. He wished desperately that it would stop, allow him to break the surface and cry for the help of the small warrior man, because he saw absolutely no way out of this. Luckily the creature didn’t seem to fast, but Benny wasn’t exactly able to move fast either. For some reason the agitation with which he kicked his limbs was causing the opposite of what he wanted. He wanted to go up, but each paddle of the arm seemed to slow him down and sometimes even push him back towards the creature. He began to get the strong feeling that this was how it is to face death. To know that its coming for sure and in only a few short seconds. He began to hope that maybe he could pass out from oxygen deprivation before he’d have to feel the thing first bite through his legs and then sequentially farther up until he lost enough blood to finally die.
He looked down just in time to see the eerily slow moving creature begin to close its teeth around his foot. He yanked it up and just barely managed to raise it high enough to avoid losing it. But the creature didn’t recede after its bite. It just kept moving slowly forward, the sides of its enormous fish-like face rubbing smoothly against the sides of the hole.
I can’t win, Benny thought, as his struggling limbs used up the last of his oxygen supply. I’m going to die here because I was too stupid to sense a trap. This must be the way it is.
His vision began to go black and he stopped struggling. He felt the teeth slowly surround his torso, and as the sharp points began sinking through his skin, Benny got his wish and fainted.
Laura wasn’t exactly sure what was going on. Fusa was in chains against the wall, Ku On Hu was sitting, bound in some strange cloth with weird symbols embossed all over it, and by the look on his face, Laura could sense that they had either drugged him or were doing something to keep him thoroughly incoherent.
They had come up to the giant, strange cell door with its abstract pentagram carved in red on the front, the door with so much screaming from behind it. Before they had entered, Fusa had explained to Laura that the legend of the Great Cell had always been thought of as that and only that: a legend. He had never heard any really compelling evidence to support its true existence, but there it was staring back at them, and as they approached the markings on the door seemed to begin to glow, and Laura had been surprised suddenly by the door opening automatically and allowing them entrance.
When they had walked into the giant room, the first things they were greeted by were screams of pain and pleas for help from all sides, and along every room, there were cells with intricate designs on the front. Fusa had been in the process of explaining that he figured they were containment sigils, when darkness had fallen on the room and a loud raucous had ensued somewhere right in front of Laura. She heard Fusa hit the ground and then be flung against the wall, and the chains had seemed to drop from nowhere, down from the ceiling, and Laura then heard them pull tight against the wall and a muffled ‘unhh’ as the chains forced some of the air out of Fusa Gon Ku.
And then there had been silence. The lights had returned and all the cells were silent. Laura looked around hesitantly and saw that there were no longer any cells at all. It had all just been an illusion, perhaps an attempt at confusing them or catching them off guard, she wasn’t sure. All she knew was that all the walls on all sides were covered with more strange symbols, many of them resembling pentagrams but actually being far different and more intricate. If they hadn’t given off such an obvious air of threat, Laura might have found them very interesting and even a little pretty, but right now the glowing red symbols just seemed like menaces, staring at her from all sides, telling her she was trapped. Fusa was chained up, several across his chest and legs and what looked like a downright knot of chains around his wrists and forearms. Apparently whoever was doing this was not in the mood to see just how many more tricks this Fusa warrior had left up his sleeves.
Laura found that she was not just frozen by fear. She couldn’t move her body whatsoever. She looked toward Ku, and even though his eyes had always been little more than slits, and she couldn’t quite tell if they were open or not, she got a slight impression that he was looking at her, despite his lack of motion and appearance of sleep. She returned his gaze and tried desperately to reach out to him. When she was first becoming acquainted with Ku, she had first come to his attention by speaking into his thoughts and being receptive when he did it back, and it had actually been Ku On Hu who had first told Laura of her male Upper Double and taught her how she could talk to him if she was close enough to the border world, Brynj.
It had been weeks since she had been allowed to see Ku, and she mentally beat herself up for not realizing sooner that this alone was suspicious. However, she knew deep in her heart that two weeks would not be enough to break the connection which had been forged between the old man and herself. But right now her head just felt so groggy, and she could suddenly imagine how it must feel for poor Ku, wrapped up in paper with the binding sigils Fusa had been starting to mention when all of this had happened.
There isn’t much time, girl, came the soft and familiar old voice of Ku On Hu into the back of her mind. He definitely did not sound as clear and strong as he normally did, and for once the voice in her head actually sounded like she had remembered his actual speaking voice sounding, instead of the young and confident voice he had always adopted during their long mind conversations. He is coming and you must help if any of us are to survive, including yourself, and, I fear, even including your Benny boy from the Upper Realms. He MUST survive, Elle.
Elle…. She had almost forgotten that he called her that. Suddenly she felt very much like the little girl she had resembled up until recently, and she felt like crying very much but the tears just would not come.
What can I do? She asked Ku, pushing the thought at him like she had been trained. Even though she could barely see his eyes, Laura knew that they were lighting up at the sound of the girls sweet voice, and Ku seemed to push a feeling on her more than a thought. A feeling that he had been deeply concerned and was very relieved to see her but had no time to express it in words.
He will come, Laura, he will come and he will face you and he will try every means of making you ask to see his eyes. You must NOT give in. He is crafty and will try every sort of hypnotism, but he knows that he is weak. His only persuasive power is his eyes, and as part of a punishment long ago, the beast Natas was restricted to a point where he could only show his eyes and use them on others if they asked to see them. He has to be asked about them, to have express permission from the victim to show his eyes, in order for it to work.
But what can I DO? Laura asked again. I understand how to resist him, but what can I do to help this?
Let me finish child, the man said, and for a brief moment his voice took on some of its old power and Laura knew that it was because the old man was frustrated and needed her to shut up and pay special attention. You have a very unique mind, and he can not gain access to it. He must reveal his eyes to win your mind, or to even begin to read your thoughts, and you must resist. DO NOT LET HIM EVER FEEL YOU THINKING ABOUT THAT GUN AT YOUR HIP. You must be very brave, Young Elle, and I know it is wrong for you to have to be in such a position, but I have faith in you. He will try to convince you, and at one point you must ask him to see his eyes, but only after I’ve given you the word in your head, you hear?
Good. Now you must think and react quickly, young Elle. Begin your link with your gun and your bullets long before I give the word, and have your focus aimed squarely on his glasses the whole time. You must memorize where his face and eyes are in comparison to your own, for I need you to do a blind draw, trusting entirely in the bond between yourself and your weapon. Understand?
I think I’m beginning to.
As soon as he goes to take off his glasses, you must close your eyes right at the last moment and shoot for one of his eyes. It must be late enough, though, or you will hit the glasses, which are not by any means ordinary. They are special and I suspect that nothing could break through them. Something as valuable as those eyes is something to be protected dearly, especially if you’re a mad man bent on control.
I will do my best to keep a barrier around your mind and my own, the old man continued. This way he does not suspect what is coming. But do not try to pretend to be afraid. He knows you do not fear him. And he wants to see you dead very badly, so don’t be cocky either. Controlling is not the only thing this man is capable of. If he had a middle name I’m sure it would have something to do with destruction.
Laura suspected that this was supposed to be a subtle joke, but she could not bring herself to laugh. The coldness of the gun, link already in progress, was filling her body, and she felt the gun warming beside her as she poured her own essence into it.
Be glorious, pretty Elle, Ku said, and then Laura ceased to have the feeling of his eyes on her. He had gone back to his half dead look, and Laura was glad to see that at least part of the old man’s crippled state was an act. Damn Ku, always so admirable.
Suddenly the red lines of the diagrams all around the room began to waver and become unstable, and directly in front of her, the wall seemed to separate and melt off to the sides, leaving a gap the size of a door there. Through it walked her life long “family friend” Mr. Vonwell, who she now knew was the Mad Man of the Inner, Natas.
“Hello, Miss LeVille,” he said with a sneer. “I know that it was you spying on your father and I that night, and I know also that it was you who aided the boy in his escape.”
“That’s not and never was my name, nor was that monster ever my father,” she said coldly, wanting very badly to spit for dramatic effect but finding no saliva in her mouth.
“Oh is that so?” Vonwell said. She couldn’t see his eyes, but Laura got the impression he was looking her over. She covered her chest and felt her cheeks go red as she realized that she actually had breasts now… “You’ve grown, child. Well, well, the presence of that boy really did have quite the effect on you, didn’t it?”
He threw back his pale head and began laughing.
“What the hell’s so funny, mad man?” she asked, glaring at him.
“You, of course!” he said, still guffawing. “He might as well be your brother, and yet you’re in love with him. Actually…its more like he’s your real father, and you have inappropriate little girl feelings for papa! Oh, you are priceless, you silly girl.”
Laura realized that she must have breached her own security of mind, allowing some of her thoughts to slip through. She continued trying to remain blank except for the anger, actually trying to push it through so that he wouldn’t suspect that he was being blocked. She kept her eyes on his glasses, like she’d been told, and all the while she was forging her own spirit with the matter of the gun. Some part of her had finally realized that her telekinesis came from her ability to put part of her soul into objects, and to feel the bits of soul that have also come in contact with said objects.
She could feel it there, against her hip, warm.
She could feel the position of her neck, the exact direction towards which his face was.
She could feel her blood boiling as she craved to blow this man’s eye out the back of his skull.
“It was really quite silly sending your friend out into the Unalla woods,” he said. “So many of that forests creepers and crawlers are mine, doing my bidding, I’d be surprised if he’s still alive at all. He probably got about a mile before he was picked off by a Fog or something equally as pleasing.”
“You know that’s not true,” she said defiantly, still looking him right in the glasses. Just barely she could see herself reflected in them, even from the distance, and she was scared to see the bloody, dirty girl she saw there.
“I suppose it might not be. But what fun would it be if you thought you were a success, little girl?”
“Stop calling me that. I’m not a little girl.”
“Yes I can certainly see that!” he said with a smile, and laughed again. Laura could just barely feel his eyes on her breasts as he made the joke. Her clothes had grown far to small over the past day since Benny had arrived, and she felt ashamed at how much of her chest was visible now.
“You know, I can help you make him love you,” he said coolly, kneeling down to her level, but for some reason still staying a short distance away. “I can make you into the most desirable girl he’s ever dreamed of, you know. Then there will be no resisting you.”
“If I want him, I won’t need your help to get him, thanks,” she said. This time she really did spit in his face. He stood up and pulled off his glasses. At first she thought he was disobeying the rule Ku had spoken of, and she glanced at him briefly only to get a sharp hint of Wait thrown at her mind, but it seemed that either it was not possible or Natas was not planning to do so, because when he removed the glasses she looked back and found that his eyes were closed. He wiped the glasses off and then replaced them before wiping off his face. He didn’t exactly look angry, but one thing Laura had known about this man long before she knew of his danger was that he would remain calm on the surface, but his angry vibes would boom out from his body, and all her life she’d felt it but been told it was just her. Right now she felt that same feeling again, and knew that something about being spit on particularly angered this man.
“I don’t know why you’re being this way,” he said. “The boy is a threat to you and your town, so really I was trying to do you a favor. I’m not sure why you insist on being so stubborn, just like every other LeVille I’ve ever dealt with. One after the other on down the line, I’ve had them in my hand, as I’m sure you’re already more than well aware of. All of them eventually tried to resist me and found their ends. No place that I choose to have will remain outside my grasp.”
That’s when Laura realized another thing that could make this man angry. “You’ve never been able to have Hayvan, and you’ll never be able to,” she said, eyes still locked firmly on his glasses. “You’re too weak for such a majestic place to be yours.”
With lightning speed, he was down in her face with his hand around her jaw, bringing her face close to his own. She could just barely see the hint of his eyes behind the glasses, and she could subtly feel the pulling effect they caused, but apparently whoever had designed the glasses had done a pretty good job, for she was quickly able to shake it off. “You know nothing you pathetic little girl,” he spat, actually spraying Laura with spittle as he forced the words out of his mouth. She was genuinely afraid at this point, but knew that she had to keep up a strong front if any of this was going to be believable. Defying Vonwell, the Puppet Master as he had been called by some of the parents around Hayvan, was something that Laura had always done, and he’d be more suspicious if she didn’t be a smart ass than if she continued as she was.
“I know that if you could have this town you would have already,” she said. “And I know that you are weak for not possessing it. So much rich life, so many people you could have fun with, but you’re just to weak, aren’t you, Puppet Master?”
She could see that he was trembling just the slightest bit. His anger was certainly booming out now. She was surprised that he was keeping his composure at all. Still, she did not look away from his glasses, despite the ghostly white irises she saw vaguely behind the dark glass. The gun was now positively hot by her side, and she knew that she had poured as much of herself into it as was possible. Luckily he still didn’t seem to be aware of the gun. Or if he was he was doing a good job of not showing it.
Laura decided she’d keep piling on the coal to the fire. “Or is it maybe that you yourself are just a Puppet, and not the master at all?”
This one struck a nerve. He punched the ground by her legs and it splintered, separating some of the lines from the diagram. It automatically lost its light once the diagram was broken, and the circle that had been on the floor all around her faded to black. Part of the stone of which the ground was made flew up and hit her leg considerably harder than she would’ve liked, but she managed to stifle her cry in her throat long before it had any time to escape and betray her lack of courage.
“You would do best to shut your mouth, girl,” said Natas with the most bitter smile on his face that Laura imagined he was able to muster. “My affairs are none of your concern. Shortly this entire town will be gone, and the only reason you are not dead yet is because I need you.”
“Need me for what?” she asked.
“Nothing that I have to tell you, stupid little girl.” Lie. She could feel it. This man didn’t really have a plan for her. For once, she was pretty sure that this master of the mind had actually allowed his own mind defenses to lower momentarily.
Laura gathered her courage and pushed on. “Somehow I think I’m just like Hayvan,” she said. “You want to possess me, maybe even to destroy me, but for some reason you can’t.”
“Couldn’t,” he said. “Management is changing, bitch girl. Your father is no longer head of this Mansion and thus the LeVille line is broken, for I am the heir to his thrown, considering he didn’t produce a filthy runt of a son, like every other one before him. Now I can take Hayvan, since he is out of the way for good. Once I have Hayvan, the Council of Valence will grant me my freedom, and if they do not, I will use the souls of your dead townsfolk to storm Valence itself, and then I will have no chains to connect me to those feeble old men.”
“Y-you’ve been doing everything under the command of the Council of Valence?” she asked. This was a ridiculous statement. The Council was supposed to be the protector of the Inner, stationed right on the very edge of Brynj, just like Hayvan, and working as a fortress against invaders from the Upper. How could it be that any of his bloodshed had been ordered by the council? How could they be the puppet masters that she had just spoken of herself?
“Oh boo hoo, you all-too-smart girl,” he said, breaking out another one of his creep smiles. “They never wanted to be in this world, and they never needed to be here, but they were stuck and so the only way to effectively control the people here was to convince them that they needed protection. They’ve pretended to protect you all for quite some time now, and then I came along. They liked the thought of me.”
“And just what makes a blind freak of a man with unhealthily pale skin so special?” she asked, cracking her own sarcastic smile. “You’re just a two bit blind magician, to me.”
“I am not blind,” he said. “I can see perfectly well and my eyes are perfectly functioning just like yours. Would you like to see them? They are quite normal.”
The part of her which had grown up with this man and always wondered about his eyes almost convinced her body to shake its head yes, but somehow she managed to resist. “I think I’d probably vomit if I had to see more of your ugly face,” she said. She spit again, but this time he was prepared and with a flick the spit flew sideways and splattered on the wall, sizzling as it touched the red diagram.
“Don’t try that again or I will be forced to hurt you,” he said.
As if to show her a taste of what would come if she tried again, he snapped his fingers and there was instantly a burning sensation in the small of her back, like a bad itch that’s become a pin prick of pain. Then, just as quickly as it had begun, it was gone, leaving behind a mild tickling. She wanted to scratch it quite badly, but she knew that her hand had to be ready to move to her gun in the event of an emergency, so she put up with it.
Now was the time. He was getting angry and seemed to be getting to the point where he simply wanted to end this, just like Laura. She knew that it was now or never.
“I do want him to love me,” she said, allowing herself to look away just enough to make the comment believable. It wasn’t hard, because she secretly did want the boy to love her, but she did not want to force it upon him like Natas had suggested. “I just don’t see how you can help me with that, that’s all.”
“All it would take is for you to look deep into my eyes,” he said. “I could then help you become exactly what he wants, nothing more and nothing less.”
Laura had so many angry and vicious thoughts in her head in response, but she knew better than to let any of them come to full wording in her mind. She needed to keep the link between her and the weapon hot, ready to go, and to keep her thoughts on those glasses. She had decided that since she was a right handed shooter, it would be best to try to cross fire at hisright eye, because her hand seemed to naturally shoot slightly to her left each time and so this would be the easier target when trying to shoot on the sly and with speed. No room for error, as far as she could tell. It was either do the deed or make this man mad enough even to betray his own masters.
“Yes,” she said, trying to sound as forlorn about Benny as possible. “I want him but he doesn’t even see me as a possibility. Until just recently, I looked too young for him, and now that I’m finally the full beauty of my age, he’s gone and will never see me. I don’t even know where he went.”
“I know where he is,” Natas said coolly. “I always know where he is. He thinks he can escape me but its just a futile goal that I’m allowing him to keep sight of just for some kicks. I think it’ll be fun to see how far he can get in this hell hole of a world. I can show you to him, and give you everything you need to win him.”
“Would you use me as a tool to get him?”
“Why yes, of course. But then you’d be his love and even though you’d both be mine, you’d be together as well. I could make it forever, here in the Inner. You could be happy for all eternity, and he’d never question your love. Large payment and reward for simply helping me keep him in one spot. You’d get what you want, and I wouldn’t have to worry about another Echani coming to fuck up my plans anymore like the last two have tried.”
“It’s a small price to pay,” she said dreamily. “I want that, Mr. Vonwell. I want that very much. Show me your eyes, please, Mr. Vonwell!”
“Please,” Natas said, moving a hand up to his glasses. “Call me Natas.”
Slowly he lowered the glasses and Laura was just beginning to see the white and red of his eyes when Ku boomed into her head NOW ELLE!
She had began to feel the pull, even worse than when he’d been up close to her and she could see the eyes through the dark shades, but Ku was so loud in her head that it overpowered Natas and she quickly closed her eyes and called the gun to her already outstretched hand. In a split second, the gun had flown there, and just as she felt the trigger slide under her finger, she squeezed and heard the gun fire. The backs of her eyelids were momentarily lit up a bright orange, and then there was the worst and most piercing scream Laura had ever heard, like the banshees of old fairy tales.
For at least another five seconds, she sat there with her arm outstretched, trembling all over and expecting the worse. But no words of scolding came in Natas’s all too familiar voice, and no random stings of pain started anywhere on her body, and the only sound was her spit from earlier, which was still sizzling on the wall.
“He is gone now, my child,” came the warm and recognizably raspy voice of the sage Ku On Hu. When she heard it, it hit home just how long she had been apart from him. She had missed him so badly.
She lowered the gun and opened her eyes. The door through which Natas had come was no longer there, and there was nothing but wall and the red glowing markings. Her first instinct had been to drop the hot gun, but as she looked at it she remembered that part of her soul was now animating the thing temporarily, and it had apparently done its job to the best that it could be hoped to do. Somehow she felt that dropping it would be highly disrespectful to a thing that just saved her from an eternity of Puppet-hood. So she slowly lowered her violently trembling hand to the ground and set the gun there gently, trying her best to send her gratitude to it without allowing herself to let all the fear she had held at bay come flooding back.
But as soon as the gun touched the ground and her hand left it, the tears came and all of her emotions came back with it. That’s when she came to another revelation about her powers of connection… Not only did the object take on her spirit, she took on some of the traits of the object as well. She had been cold and ready to kill, like the gun; she had been locked into place and ready to go off, just like the gun; and most of all, she had been cold and completely free of regard to the life which she was trying to take. But now that the gun had left her hand, she began crying and shaking and could no longer resist the urge to lie down and curl into a fetal position.
Her dismay and bad emotion was augmented by frustration and anger as she realized that her dress had become to small to cover her properly while lying down, and since at heart she was a lady and two men were in the room, she could not just lie there like that. So she got up and the frustration filled her, making her lash out at the nearest wall. As she hit it, she tore open her knuckle and blood oozed out. But the thing that caught her attention more than the pain was the way the glowing diagram flickered when she had punched it. Her blood on the seal sizzled just like her spit had done, but to the touch the diagrams were not hot at all. To the contrary, they felt slightly colder than the stone on which they had been drawn, or etched, or whatever had been done to create them.
She decided right now she didn’t want to begin thinking again just yet. She wanted to be upset and cry. She lowered herself down the wall and wept.
“You did splendidly, my child,” Ku said.
“Obviously not,” she said. “His body isn’t here, which means he probably is still out there somewhere, only now he’s pissed off at me and wants me dead.”
“Elle, sweet girl, he wanted you dead since the day Sir LeVille claimed you as his own daughter. You see, Natas knew all along where you came from, and sought very much to destroy you. All in all this is the reason my family and I stayed here; to protect you.”
“But why? What have I ever done to deserve protecting?”
“It is not a matter of what you have done yet, Laura, it is a matter of what you shall do and what you are capable of doing. I don’t believe Natas himself wanted you for any particular reason, but I do however believe that the Council of Valence has been after you for quite some time. This is why Natas was stationed here, I am sure. For all these years, the Wise Ones of Valence have known that a girl would come to Hayvan, a girl who was born from a boy and who was neither Upper nor Inner. She would be purely a product of the third Echani, and the appearance of her would mark the appearance of that final Echani.
“I had come here on my own business, dragging my boy, and when we got here this last time, it was obvious that you were the girl. You didn’t age, a problem caused by the separation you and Benny experienced due to your ‘father’s meddling. Also you began to display certain powers similar to myself.”
“Wait…go back…” she said. “Benny and I were separated because of my father? I was told it was because he got too old and stopped believing in me…”
“No, no, my dear,” Ku said. “He never forgot and almost no day went by that he didn’t try to talk to you, and I know the same is true for you. It is a sad story to me, both of you sitting on the edges of two different worlds, so close yet so far away, unable to even be aware that the other is still there, on the other side, trying to communicate through the veil between worlds.”
That made her resentment of her good for nothing father grow even more. All that time she had cried and been devastated and he had pretended to care, when really he had been the cause all along. And now, to find out that Benny had never forgotten her, had never gone away… It was too much for her to absorb without loathing her wannabe father.
“Anyways,” she said, swallowing back any tears that may have threatened to spring out. “Back to my abilities.”
“I began to notice that you shared certain…gifts… with myself, and the only reason I could think to explain it is basically the same way I can explain the phenomena my son Fusa Gon Ku displays…”
“And what is that, father?” She looked at him expectantly, thinking he would tell her not to call him father or something along those lines, but apparently he didn’t mind, because he simply answered, without hesitation, as if her calling him father was perfectly normal and didn’t phase him one little bit.
“It is simple,” he said. “I am the first of the Echani, and Fusa is my offspring. His powers are limited but he has many of them, just like you. He is not echani but he is of an echani. So then you understand how you came by yours, yes?”
“Because Benny is an Echani and I’m his creation?”
Laura had never known the echani actually existed, but she had heard many stories of them. Supposedly the greatest had been Neonokin, who had stopped the evil wizard Sanrunai from destroying the Upper Realms. She had especially not ever suspected that one of them had been living in her own home, and she had barely believed that Benny was really one of them, and still found it hard to believe. The only reason she did believe is the fuss they had put up over him. Suddenly she remembered an interlude between her father and Natas while he had been known as Vonwell. It was the conversation that had made her feel the urge to rush Benny out of Hayvan. She remembered Natas saying “You promised me you wouldn’t let another one of those damned things interfere with my plans,” or something along those lines. He had then gone on to say that the echani must be taken care of immediately.
Fresh tears welled up as she realized that they probably hadn’t been talking about Benny at all. If she had only known the Ku was one of the echani she could have gone and warned him and he wouldn’t have been put through whatever he had been put through while down in that hell. From the looks of his skin, it appeared that he had at the very least been tortured, though why they would need to, Laura knew not.
“Forgive me, father, I didn’t know that you were one of them. I could have warned you in time if I had known. I heard Natas give the order to my father calling for them to imprison you.”
“Do not be fooled, my sweet child,” Ku replied kindly. “That man who paraded around saying he was Artemeus Vonwell knew very well that I knew who he was, and he knew who I was though he pretended not to. You see, natural good and natural evil have a way of calling to each other, and if you are truly a good person, Miss Laura, you will always know a bad person.”
Laura suddenly realized that in her selfish woe, she had forgotten to even unchain the two men. She got up and headed over to Ku first, since he was actually conscious. However the man stopped her with a short and harsh hiss, something he had taught her that meant “stand back.” She moved away from him and watched, curious as to what would come next. Ku was always full of fun little tricks.
The old man with his fu man chu closed his eyes and began chanting in the same way Fusa did when he was gathering great amounts of spiritual energy. The air in the room began to move around it, and since it was sealed off, it was more like a cyclone. Laura felt the hair whipping slightly against her face, and she could see the small amounts of thin white hair on the top of Ku’s head being blown back and forth. Fusa seemed like a rock, his short hair and tight clothes barely moving at all.
As Laura watched, the symbols on the cloth which bound Ku began to glow a bluish green, and increased in intensity for several seconds until Laura could no longer bear to look. She looked around the room and as the green light spread outward from the symbols on the binding cloth, it seemed to be picked up on the wind and traveled around the room, appearing to wipe away the symbols and runes that had been carved into the walls. The light from all around and the dusty wind combined to make it impossible for Laura to look. She buried her face in her arm and waited.
Eventually the wind stopped and she heard the dirt from the walls finish hitting the ground. She looked up and there, three or four feet away, stood Ku On Hu, the great master she remembered, standing so tall and brilliant for his age. Now that the cloth was no longer around his body, his face seemed to have its old vitality and he once again had the atmosphere she was used to: aged and wise but full of youth and ready to take life on to the very end.
He smiled at her and walked to Fusa and raised his hands out above his son. He was still smiling and stood with a cool confidence that Laura would have never thought a parent could maintain in such a position, with their child chained up below, apparently unconscious and possibly even dead. He closed his eyes, breathed in deep, and then gently said in a voice just barely loud enough that Laura could hear, “I am not dead and so you are not dead. Arise and be completely refreshed, a new man, ready to continue life by my side. Arise and be well, my son.”
The dirt around Fusa was moving gently, and Laura suspected that if she could see energy the way she could see her ‘connections’ then she’d probably see the energy circling Fusa, massaging him back to health, arousing his spirit from whatever deep place it was lost in. Slowly the man began to stir, first moaning and frowning as if in a bad dream, then relaxing and breathing normally. Finally he opened his eyes and seemed thoroughly confused at what he saw.
First he saw his father and relief hit his face first, but then it seemed to dawn on him that he didn’t know how things had gotten to this point, and he instantly looked around the room for Laura. She smiled, face covered in the black blood from the small creatures, and he then looked around the room, at the etchings on the walls which had long since ceased to glow red. All of a sudden he winced and closed his eyes, moving his hand to his temple to massage the pain that was apparently there.
“Shhh, my child,” Ku broke in. “You must not speak for a while. Just know that you did very well. You found me, but by the time you got here Natas had been informed long before of your approach and was waiting with an ambush. I believe his chains were meant to kill you, but I don’t think he has yet become aware of our bond. He still believes we are merely son and father, which is a good sign for us. We have covered our tracks well. Laura here was the one who won the battle though.”
“And the war?” Fusa asked in a whisper.
“Still far from being won, I am sad to report. I think miss Laura here may have hurt the man quite severely with her gun though. Look here.”
He began to move toward the wall through which Natas had made his entrance. As he moved out from between them, Laura and Fusa came into sight of each other and Fusa smiled at her. She couldn’t read his thoughts exactly, her specialty was telekinesis, not telepathy, but she was pretty sure he was trying to say with that smile: I’m glad you made it. Part of it seemed sad though, and she also kind of sensed that part of it was trying to say I’m sorry that I wasn’t there at the most crucial time I was needed.
She didn’t blame Fusa at all. When they had walked in, Laura hadn’t even known what was going on before Fusa was trapped, so how could she blame him? If she had seen it coming and felt that the man could have done something more to save himself and her then she might have had those sort of feelings, but to the best of her recollection there was nothing Fusa could have done. So she tried her best to return his smile with a smile that said I’m alright, and I don’t blame you. Thank you for everything.
They turned their attention back to Ku On Hu and found him examining the wall where the mysterious door had been. He was almost nose to the wall, squinting with intensity as he searched for…something. Laura couldn’t think of what he might be looking for, and judging by the look on Fusa’s face she guessed that he didn’t know either. Then the frail old man smiled his vibrant smile and pulled a small pair of tweezers out of his pocket.
“Well, miss Laura,” he said. “I don’t think he’s blind, but I think you succeeded in exactly what we had planned.”
He turned to her and brought the outstretched tweezers to her. She leaned in and examined the red thing that he held between it. It looked half white and half red, definitely covered in blood, and there was a small piece of what looked like some sort of human nerve tissue.
“What is it?” she asked.
“This, young miss Laura,” Ku replied with his full grin, “is the piece that you shot off of Mr. Natas’s eyeball.”
“Nice,” was all Fusa said.
“Sick,” was all Laura could think to reply.
Ku’s response was rather different. “This is the first wound anyone has inflicted upon Natas since Neonokin. Good shooting, tex.”
The old man then laughed uproariously and began scanning the walls. Before he moved too far, however, he pulled out a small vial and put the piece of the eyeball inside it. Then he set about his work, tracing the inscriptions on the walls and whistling while he worked, all the while smiling his big smile and occasionally laughing at some joke in his head. That was the good old Ku Laura was used to. He always seemed to be on his own little mission with his own thoughts, and they were always exceedingly pleasing thoughts, if his constant grin and occasional chuckles were any evidence.
Fusa clapped his hands as loud as he could, only once, just enough to get the attention of his father. The old man jumped slightly. Laura thought it was strange that after being brave through so much in his life, a simple little clap still startled him. “What, insolent boy?”
Fusa made a motion to his throat.
“Oh, lord child. Its up to you, ya know. I told you not to talk because you were basically dead for about ten minutes and your damned thick skull couldn’t take it. If you want to risk it and talk now, then talk.”
The old man irritably went back to his searching, and was quickly whistling and having just as much fun as normal.
“Wha—“ Fusa began to talk and then apparently was caught off guard by some fluid for he suddenly had to stop and cough briefly. “What are you doing?” he finally managed to ask his father.
Laura always marveled at how they loved each other so much but hid it well behind their façade of grumpy father and angry son. It always made her smile.
“I am trying to find a way out, my boy. If that is okay with you?” He looked at Fusa with a grin and resumed searching when Fusa rolled his eyes at him.
“Grumpy old coot anyways,” Fusa said, making his first attempt to stand up. “Should’ve left you down here to rot!”
His attempt failed, and he slid back down to his butt rather forcefully, and then winced at the pain in his head.
Ku cackled and said, almost ominously, “You and I both know rotting isn’t what would’ve happened to me down here.”
“Whatever,” Fusa said, still irritable.
“I thought I’d lost you,” Laura said from across the small room.
“I don’t die quite that easily,” Fusa said.
“And that’s because I don’t die easily,” Ku said before chuckling.
Fusa sneered in his father’s direction and turned back to Laura. “What does he mean by that?” Laura asked.
“He means that I cannot be killed as long as he is alive,” Fusa replied. “And if he were killed while away from me, I would die as well.”
“It is simple,” Ku said, still nose to the wall like a child on time-out. “He is not really my son, Laura. He is like you.”
“Yes,” Ku said. “I am the original Echani, Susan Delgado was the second, and Benny the third. Fusa is my creation the same way you are Benny’s. Understand?”
“I think so,” she replied, not really sure of her answer. “But I thought the second was Neo or whatever? Neo knockin’ or something…”
“Neonokin was not always Neonokin, you know,” the old man replied simply. He must have felt her confusion, for he continued, “She was once just a normal girl, like…well not like you, but you get my point. She knew not that she was anything special, but one day she took her own life and the ancient God Osiris told her of her abilities and of her duty to mankind and returned her to life, better than before. From then on she was Neonokin, the One New Great Relative, Sister to All as she was sometimes called. But inside she was always Susan Delgado.”
“What happened to her?” Laura asked.
“She chased after Natas while he was still calling himself Sanrunai, and she thought she had destroyed him but really she had not. She had merely banished him to the Inner, forcing him to stay out of the Upper Realms for what was believed to be eternity. But somehow he has gotten into the good graces of the Council of Valence again, and somehow either they have allowed him out or he has found a way on his own.
“Seeing how you and Benny were forced to stop talking, I am guessing that Vonwell used the Great Trees which work as Hayvan’s defense. That is the place where he would have been closest to Brynj and thus closest to the Upper Realms. This would be the reason your father stopped allowing you to go there so often. He knew that Natas was up to something, and it involved your Benny. Since your father has a deep seated dislike of your creator, I’m sure he was more than willing to aid in putting up blocks between you.”
“Benny said that he had been talking to me for several days in a park at his home,” she said. “I told him it wasn’t me and that’s the truth. But someone convinced him it was me. Do you think it was Von…I mean Natas?”
“It is quite likely,” Ku said, intrigued enough to turn away from the etchings. “That fills in some of the pieces I had been missing. If Benny felt he finally had you again, he would have tried very hard to make you as real as possible, but since it wasn’t you that he was talking to, his efforts went toward manifesting Natas instead. That must be precisely how Natas made his way to the Upper Realms. Poor Benny. The thing that has caused him so much turmoil already was brought on by his own desire to see and talk to you. He unleashed Natas upon his own world without even suspecting a thing.”
Laura looked at the ground. Poor Benny, indeed. How could her father have pretended to love her so much and then allow such things to happen? If Benny was killed, then she would be killed as well, so how could he love her and allow danger to come to her double? It made no sense, besides that maybe he never loved her one little bit. All the memories she had with her fake father meant nothing now. He was a traitor to her and nothing more.
While looking at the ground she happened to notice that her dress had become more of a mini skirt. She was rather pleased with the way her legs were turning out, and they reminded her of the legs of some of the waitresses in the LeVille private dining room. They were muscular and toned, but still had the pallor that accompanied all the people of Hayvan (except for Ku and Fusa, of course, who had naturally darker complexions.) However, her panties were biting into her rather harshly, and she was beginning to feel as if the dress was just barely concealing her. It had already torn at many of the seems, and the blood and dirt made her look rather like an impoverished prostitute.
She took comfort only from knowing that now maybe Benny wouldn’t be so awkward around her. She had felt it when he was with her, holding her hand. He had wanted a girl his age, but had only found a mature child. Now maybe she would be closer to what he wanted. Inside it made her burn that Natas had picked such a sensitive subject to prod her with. She really did want Benny, but she was sincere when she said that she wanted him to desire her of his own accord. She didn’t want there to be any forcing or manipulating involved.
If he loved her, she would love him back.
If he never loved her, then she would still love him and support him always. He was her creator, and he was the one friend she’d ever had besides Ku’s family.
The silence was suddenly broken by Ku jumping and saying “Ah ha!” extremely loud and chuckling. Both Laura and Fusa jumped at the sound and instantly turned to Ku for an answer. The old man was staring at a particular engraving, and from her distance it just looked like a circle to Laura. She got up, being as precautious as possible to not flash her panties at Fusa, and walked over to the old man. Before she even had a chance to register what the circle was, she noticed that she was looking down on Ku. She had never been even as tall as Ku, much less taller. That’s when she realized just how short the man was, and how short she herself had been. No wonder it had been awkward for Benny.
The circle the old man was examining was actually an inverted pentagram with several symbols Laura didn’t recognize running around the rim. In the dim lighting she could see that it was still just barely glowing, flickering occasionally, but it was certainly still going. “This is the seal on the room,” Ku said. “It was feeding off of Natas’s power and feeding the other engravings, which are also binding sigils. Now, to understand how this little guy works you must understand that these sigils cannot bind without drawing force from somewhere. My belief is that the majority of these sigils here in the room were drawing directly from this symbol which was drawing from Natas himself. Its rather clever, actually. He could never make so many sigils draw from him so instead he made them all draw from another sigil, which he then had feed off of himself. When he left, this main sigil ceased to be able to feed all of the others. But as you can see, it still has energy left in it and that is why we see no way out as of yet. However, you notice that it is flickering, no?”
Both Laura and Fusa nodded their heads.
“That is because Natas is a very gifted sorcerer, and he infused part of himself into this design. I hate admiring the work of a mad man, but he’s so efficient you can’t help but marvel at it. I can’t see him believing we’d do something like we did today, but I can see him taking precautions anyways, and that is precisely the point of him putting part of himself in here. However, now that we have injured him and he is no longer here for it to feed off of him, his small piece of soul is vulnerable and open to attack. The bind on this room was considerably strong with all those engravings feeding each other energy, but now there is only this one little circle. His Soul Circle, we shall call it. The advantage we have here is being pure of soul. All except Fusa here.”
He grinned sideways at Fusa who merely snorted and went back to staring at the pentagram. “You see these carvings?” Ku asked. “They are saying that as long as the Darkness of Natas fills this symbol, the room will never open. Here is our way out, I would say.”
“But how is the thing which binds us a good route of escape?” Laura inquired.
“Because it is worded wrong, and therefore he did the spell wrong. It says as long as his darkness fills me, none shall leave. The key there is the darkness. We have pure souls, and the thing about an evil soul is that it cannot stand to be near pure souls. They are opposed to each other, and just like light fills the dark and makes black into white, so we can fill the darkness of this sigil. We fill it with light, and his darkness will be driven out. Make sense?”
They both nodded again.
“Well then. Now to the deed. Both of you, gather around.”
Fusa got up and moved next to the other two.
Ku turned and smacked Fusa on the head with what looked to Laura like more than a love tap.
“What the hell was that for, father?” Fusa demanded, rubbing his head.
“I told you to never repeat my mistakes,” the old man said. “So I ask you what the hell have you been smoking for? And I’m assuming you didn’t get the cigarettes from anyone else, so you must be smoking mine.”
“Forgive me, father,” Fusa replied, showing the respect that always lingered beneath the surface of their silly fights. “I needed comfort, and your smell is all that could do it. I smoked because I needed to feel like you were near. Yes they were your cigarettes, and I apologize. I will pay you back for them.”
Ku reached out his withered hand and waited expectantly.
After a confused pause, Fusa said, “I don’t have the money with me now, fath—“
Another sharp crack to the head.
“I want one of my damn cigarettes, you fool!” the old man said.
“Oh!!” Fusa said, suddenly realizing what the expectant hand was for. He looked around the room and located his pack. It had fallen off when he’d been thrown into the wall. He rummaged in it for a second and found some of the smokes. He handed one to Ku On Hu.
“Thank you,” the old man said. He took one and snapped his fingers and the stick of tobacco instantly lit up. He inhaled the smoke and took his time breathing it out. “Excellent. Good thing you brought them with you. Been down here for over four hours now, and if I had to walk all the way back to the surface smelling smoke on your damn fool’s clothes I think I might have to kill you.”
Fusa laughed but for once the old man didn’t. He was too focused on his cigarette.
“Now then,” he finally continued. “Now that I have fixed the turmoil I was having inside, I shall tell you what our course of action is. Both of you, place a hand by the symbol. DO NOT PUT YOUR HAND DIRECTLY ON THE SIGIL!!!” he exclaimed as Laura almost placed her hand directly on it.
“Why not?” Laura asked.
“Boy you ask a lot of questions,” Ku said, giggling and rubbing her head like he always had. “If you place your hand on it, you will complete a circuit and all the energy from Natas which is held in this circle will instead go to you instead of dispersing into nowhere like we want it to. If that happened, he’d just have one more pawn to play with and we’d get nowhere in a hurry.”
“Sorry,” Laura said, placing her hand below the circle, next to Ku’s, which was already in position to the left of the drawing. Fusa placed his to the right and they stood there waiting.
“Now I need you both to think of something that makes you a better person,” Ku said. “Anything which makes you strive to be better than you are.”
Laura knew exactly what she’d use. The one person she’d always strived to be better for. She knew it was childish to feel the way she did, but her choice of visualization was Benny Jorgens, her creator. She held his image clear in her head and tried to think of all the reasons he made her want to be better.
She looked at Fusa and he had his eyes closed. She wondered what he was thinking about, and ended up deciding that it was probably either his wife Veela or his father. There’s no denying you love someone who you just ripped several small creatures in half to get to. She then turned her head to Ku and he winked at her. As usual she caught just the smallest hint of his thoughts.
Ku On Hu was thinking about his love of cigarettes.