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.