Benny’s consciousness submerged back into the Inner version of his body, and even though his hands instantly began throbbing, he still felt elated at what he had just seen. It had bothered him ever since the very beginning that no one seemed to know how Natas went back and forth between the Inner and Upper Realms, or what happened to his body when he did so. As far as Benny had known, he had only been able to enter the Inner because his body was taken over by someone else, and out of necessity to survive he had been forced to enter the Inner to get his body back. But somehow Natas had been going back and forth, something he realized when he first saw Natas playing the part of Vonwell in Hayvan. Then, just recently after being vacated from Hayvan by his double, Laura, he had heard Beaner’s story of entering the Inner and his suspicion that his physical body was in a comatose state, at least as far as the people of the Upper Realms were concerned.
Now those suspicions had been confirmed by what Benny saw. After seizing control of his body (which felt amazing in its own right, like when he had been a little boy wrenching his stolen bicycle out of the hands of the thief who stole it,) he had been able to lock his eyes into place on what the creature that was controlling his body had been looking at. There, he saw Natas in his physical form for the first time since awaking on top of Bonhelm hill.
The bastard had been lying on some weird Satanic pentagram, from what Benny could surmise in the few seconds before giving up control. It made perfect sense for how the one he and other children had referred to as the Man was going back and forth between the Inner and Upper Realms. It also provided Benny with an almost juicy plan for how to destroy the man once he regained control.
Brun was not nearly as excited though, and looked more troubled than anything else. When Benny asked what the big deal was, the little man with his magical eye merely shook his head and changed the subject.
“We are close to the place where we have to come out of the forest and try to stop the Tribe,” he said. “You must put aside thoughts of your upper vengeance and keep your mind focused on the now.”
“I don’t understand you,” Benny said. “One minute you show excitement about what I’m doing and the progress I’m making, and the next you think I should give up what I’m working at and focus on something new.”
“Your success with transferring yourself back into your body is terrific, yes,” Brun replied, “but as things stand right now, it is not beneficial and will do you no good until you achieve other goals first. Now, either follow my instructions and succeed in your overall goal, or go it alone and find yourself surely failing. The choice is yours, as it seems to have been several times along our little journey.”
“Alright, alright,” Benny said. “Don’t have a miniature cow.”
Brun didn’t find the quip funny. The night was slowly becoming dawn, and Benny could only see one star left in the sky. It was red, and had a smaller purple star next to it. The purple one was fading first, leaving only the red one. As the sky paled to blue, the red star was the last one remaining.
Looking up at it made Benny think of the days past when he had watched the night skies with his mother in the Upper Realms. He had been much closer to her than to his father, and he hoped with all of his heart that she had not reached the same fate as his father. He still remembered the vivid dream that Brun had recreated for him, since he couldn’t remember at the time; seeing his father gripped between his fingers, life draining from his face. It was a horrible memory, yet somehow Benny had been able to stay disconnected from it like he would have if it had been a simple bad dream.
But the worry for his mother was a different story altogether. He had kept himself quiet about the subject so that Brun didn’t scold him for dwelling on things that he couldn’t possibly change the outcome of, but whenever he saw the stars in the night sky of the Inner, so bright and beautiful in the perfectly clear air, he thought about her and his heart ached more than it had even when his body in the Upper Realms had been injured.
Benny watched as the last star, the red one, faded into the blue of the morning sky. The landscape that had been dark when Brun called a halt the night before was now visible, and Benny was once again amazed by the beauty of the plains running alongside the Unalla Woods. He still didn’t fully understand if he was in the part of the Inner that belonged specifically to him or not, but he knew that he loved it almost as much as he had loved his quaint home town.
They were on the top of a small rise which was free of trees, and below them, in the direction of the plains, only the sparsest of trees remained before disappearing entirely as the forest gave way to the plains. The light of the sunrise was beginning to color the yellow plains with a red light, making the land as far as Benny could see appear as if on fire. The slight waving of the grass added to the impression, and the vast plain of flames was only broken where the giant wheel tracks of the Village of the Vanjii tribe cut through the tall grass.
Brun had only allowed a stop because the gargantuan cart had stopped for the night, drawing in its children and latching shut the giant door at its rear. Benny had been oblivious that they were anywhere near it, of course, as there was no moonlight to see by and the stars, though bright, were not nearly strong enough for his eyes to cut through the gloom. He had been able, however, to see the few torches that went up around the edge of the cart, and even though Brun said they were almost a mile away from where the ‘Village’ had settled down, it still amazed Benny how big the thing was. At least twenty flickering lights went up, all along the edge of the cart, acting as lookout lights for the people of the Village who volunteered to stay up as the night watch.
Now, as the light of day fell upon the massive entity on wheels, Benny watched with Brun from their high vantage point as the large, rope drawn door at the back was slowly lowered and children began pouring out, moving to the front of the cart to take their positions at the yoke. Some were still finishing bits of breakfast, others were laughing and wrestling as they walked to the front of the cart, apparently eager to get out some of their built up energy in some other way than just pulling the cart.
“Should be any minute,” Brun said quietly, actually startling Benny enough to cause him to jump after such a long period of silence.
Benny turned and tried to do something Brun had taught him. Look into my mind for the answers sometimes, instead of just asking me, the little man had said the night before. Benny had been trying ever since, but could only hear a faint buzzing sound in his head that drove him mad. Even now, clear headed and invigorated with excitement to supposedly be so close to confronting the man he despised so much, Benny could not break into the tiny man’s mind.
Finally he gave up, and seeing no sign of anything on Brun’s face (for he had the epitome of what one might call a ‘poker face,’) Benny asked, “What should be any minute.”
“Just watch,” the little man said.
Benny turned his gaze back to the Village. The children continued to file out of the back of the cart in what seemed like an endless stream, and yet there was no sign of anything suspicious.
Suddenly the stream of children heading to the front of the cart was broken momentarily as one of the children ran forward, out of the line, and toward the woods. In fact, the small speck that was the child seemed to be running directly toward where he and Brun sat watching. Several of the other children broke from their treck toward the front of the massive cart and started to chase after the child.
Through the morning air, a horn sounded, low and pulsing. One of the people chasing the child was almost within reach of the child, was even reaching out to grab, but before the pursuer could get a hold on the runaways clothes or hair, Benny saw the signature flash of blue from the corner of his eye as Brun did something with his strange eye. The child who was running disappeared just as two of the pursuers tried to dive, missing by mere moments.
The next thing Benny knew, there was a small boy standing in front of them. The horn continued to bleat endlessly, blasting over the plains and through the sparse trees that bordered them. Benny could just barely make out the heads of the pursuers looking around, and several taller people had now emerged from the cart and were looking around.
The boy who had appeared in front of them was completely ordinary, as far as Benny could tell, with deep blue eyes and black hair. He was shirtless (and expressionless, Benny noted,) with roughly cut trousers that ended just below the knee. His skin was a creamy tan that reminded Benny of coffee after mixing in milk. He was short, but still about a head taller than Brun.
“Master Brun,” the boy said in a dry tone as he took in the two of them. “Stranger from the Upper Realms.” He gave Benny a curt nod, and then approached Brun.
“Our time is short, so I will be brief,” Brun said to the boy.
The boy simply stared at him, and Benny assumed that some sort of telepathic exchange was going on between them, but try as he might, he could not breach that conversation.
“You can trust him,” Brun said to the boy. “And I understand your concern, but they will not find you quite yet, I promise you. Please, for the sake of Benny here, speak out loud.”
“His Grace does not know whether to trust you or not anymore,” the boy said.
“What? I’ve never been disloyal.”
“Miss Lauren has been saying things about you, like that you are trying to lead him into danger.”
Brun’s eye flashed with anger, and even Benny could hear the frustration emanating from his teacher’s mind.
“You don’t even see what is right in front of you, do you?” Brun asked the boy, his normal eye squinting.
“I do,” the boy replied. “You have trained me better than any of the other Gifted Children, though, Master. I see the Keep, as plain as you do. The others do not.”
Benny was keenly aware that he still couldn’t see it either without going through lengthy visualization processes that were overall just a waste of time to see a few crummy outcroppings of small twisted buildings and the darkened sky.
“You must tell them,” Brun insisted.
“I have tried, master. They will not hear. They even said that you were probably controlling my speech, which I knew to be untrue, but you know what it is like to attempt talking sense to the Vanjii. We are stubborn people in our beliefs.”
Brun looked defeated.
“He sent me away, and allowed my sister to corrupt his thoughts while I was gone. Is that why I couldn’t communicate with Beaner?”
“I believe so, Master. I have to guard my thoughts around your sister, as you instructed me, but I have sensed her putting several blocks on his mental communication capabilities. I believe that even if he once trusted you implicitly, as he did when you were sent away I believe, now you would have much trouble getting anything through to him. He has been smitten by love, so the children say.”
“There is no other way, then. I must go talk to him myself.”
“I would not do that, Master Brun.”
“And why the hell not?”
“Because, you are no longer a free person to the Vanjii and His Grace,” the boy replied, his tone suddenly becoming solemn. “Convinced that Lauren was telling the truth, Grace has ordered any man who sees you to seize you and kill you. After all, in his eyes and warped mind, you have committed the unforgivable sin of attempting to lead his people into destruction.”
“What sort of lie did she tell?” Brun asked, almost seeming to wilt in front of Benny’s eyes. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Even if he was only about three foot six inches, Brun had proven himself the strongest person Benny had ever met, and here he was almost crying at the news of a single young boy.
The boy continued in his same dry tone.
“She said that you had manipulated her into showing him false images of a large army at our rear, when really there were but two. She said that you used this as a ruse to get the great echani away from the Clan, in order to leave us unprotected. She convinced him that you abandoned us and were planning to sell us out to the enemy, taking our only two hopes at defense, besides His Grace himself, away in order to make the slaughter all the more easy.”
Benny could feel the waves of anger literally spilling off of Brun, and looking around he could see the branches of the trees bristling in a psychical breeze. Calm down, Benny willed at him. Apparently he heard, for the waves of anger ceased, but it was still clear from the shaking in Brun that he was restraining his emotions with a great amount of effort.
“I assume you do not believe this?” Brun asked the boy. “You know it’s not true, right Jimmy?”
“I don’t believe a single word of it,” the boy replied. “Through training and exercises, I have spent a lot of time within your mind and you within mine, and I know when I am being manipulated. I have not been, this past week or so, and yet I independently came to the conclusion that we are heading into a trap. I have felt your compassion for your people, and felt the deeply guarded animosity within your so-called sister. There is no betrayal here, master.”
“Then you must help us,” Brun said, his tone suddenly rising with anticipation. “We are going to go back with you, but I need you to help me cloak myself. The others like you will be looking for any sign of people returning with you, and in particular for my mental signature. I can do a limited amount of cloaking, but I still would feel more comfortable if you helped. You too, Benny.”
“Me?” Benny asked incredulously. “What the heck good would I do? Cloaking isn’t exactly something we’ve covered just yet.”
“You will do enough,” Brun said. “Trust me.”
“I will help you,” the boy said. “But conditionally.”
Brun hesitated. “What’s the condition?”
“After we route out whatever is within your sister, I want to leave with you. You don’t have to take me forever, I have learned enough, I feel, but I would like to leave His Grace and all of those people. My family members have restarted their existence somewhere else in the Inner, as you know, and that leaves me an orphan. Even if I were to find them, they would not remember me. So if I help you, I want you to promise that I will be freed as soon as you do whatever you need to do.”
“Jimmy…” Brun was clearly struggling with something within his tiny mind, but Benny was still being blocked out. “If Beaner doesn’t want to listen to what I have to say, there will be bloodshed. I don’t want you to get hurt when I try to leave. It’s better that no one know you helped us.”
Below on the plains, there were people moving like ants away from the Village in all directions, and the occasional flash reminded Benny of the parts in spy movies where someone noticed that they were being watched through telescopes or binoculars. The sun was behind Benny and Brun, so he was pretty sure that that was exactly what he was seeing.
“I have told you my conditions,” the boy called Jimmy said. “You have always taught me to not offer ultimatums, but in this case I have to. I am miserable. You’ve seen how they treat me. I am just a tool to His Grace. I was the one to feel the presence of the echani, this… kid you call Benny. Did I get even the smallest of thanks? No.”
Benny suddenly remembered the boy who had run into the smoking room of Beaner’s, whispered into his ear, and then run out to fetch Lauren after stealing a wide eyed glance at Benny. He also got a flash of memory involving something Beaner said when Benny asked how they had known he was in the woods. One of our more…gifted children sensed you. Something like that.
Brun looked at the ground with his normal eye while the oversized blue one stared at the boy. It seemed to size him up, looking from head to toe. Perhaps Brun was searching for some sign of falsity, or maybe it was just what the eye did when Brun was focusing on something else. Either way, Brun looked back up and said, “Well, I guess there is no other way.”
For the first time since appearing on the hill, Jimmy’s face lit up (or at least took on some sense of joy, which was ‘lighting up’ compared to the stone cold visage which had been there before.) “I promise you, master, I will not fail you. Speaking to His Grace is what you seek, and that is what you shall get.”
“Benny,” Brun snapped to get Benny’s attention. He was still watching the people below moving outward from the cart, presumably looking for Jimmy. When Benny looked at Brun, the midget warrior continued, “We cannot take everything. Pack only the hidepack, and put everything within it that you hold most dear and wish to take with you. Nothing else. The rest of our camp must be left here. Hopefully we can return for it before going on to the Keep, but for now we need only necessities.”
Ten minutes later, they were standing on either side of Jimmy with their quaint packs on their backs. Brun’s was considerably smaller than Benny’s, of course, but Benny was still pretty sure the small man had packed twice as much into his own.
“You know the drill, Jimmy,” Brun said. Both of his eyes were fixed on the Village below, motionless on the plains as the people looked all around the cart for the boy. Already a few were approaching the outskirts of the forest, and Benny was uncomfortably aware of just how barren the hill top was.
Then came a sensation that Benny was all too familiar with. He felt jerked forward at a sickening rate, but by now he had grown accustomed to it, and when they landed on the plains below, with tan people from the Village on every side of them, he didn’t fall or even feel faint. He made solid contact and then gasped as he saw the people of the giant mobile Village instantly spot them and head toward them.
Benny had been right about the spy glasses. Several of the people near the cart were looking up toward the mountains, into the forest, and a few were even looking in the opposite direction, across the plains.
Stay calm, Brun said into Benny’s thoughts. They cannot see us, unless one of us blunders and allows them.
Benny tried to keep this in mind as two men came up on the boy with some sort of spears in their hands, pointing them at him and speaking in their strange guttural tongue. As one of them got close enough for Benny to see the color of his eyes (brownish gold,) he felt Brun’s hand on his wrist, pulling him down into a crouch. At first it startled him, but when he looked down and couldn’t see any hand, he realized that it was Brun and submitted, going to his knees just in time to avoid the arm of the closest man as it darted out and grabbed Jimmy.
“Fer Malla se can?” the man spat out, anger written clearly across his face.
“Fer Malla se can?” the second man asked, a little more violently, grabbing the boy’s other arm and shaking him while holding the point of his spear only inches from Jimmy’s face.
“Es unca me salla, se ka,” Jimmy replied, once again with his rock solid face firmly in place. His voice was smooth and cool. “Fulla,” Jimmy added. The two men looked at each other, snorted, and then seized Jimmy. One man grabbed the left arm while the man closest to Benny grabbed the right.
Follow, came the instruction in Benny’s mind. As they walked forward, Benny heard the horns stop. As he watched the people all around the cart slowly drawing back in as they saw Jimmy firmly in custody, Benny noticed for the first time that the grass of the plains was almost as tall as he was. The only reason he could see the upper bodies of all of the Vanjii tribesmen above the grass was because they were so tall. When he had first been a ‘guest’ in the Village, he had been too alarmed to really take into account the way the dark skinned people loomed over him. He had simply wanted to find out why they had brought him there, so he had paid no attention to details.
Now, though, watching as the two men in front of him carried Jimmy between them, he noticed just how far above the ground the boy’s feet were dangling. Each of the Vanjii men who held him must have been at least six foot five, and for a comparatively short person like Benny (who stood a whopping five feet, seven inches,) they seemed to tower above him.
Even before they reached the giant cart that served as the Village of the Vanjii tribe, there were men climbing into the lowered door at the back of the cart. Benny noticed that there were no women climbing aboard. Apparently the situation had been serious enough that the women either weren’t trusted with the task, or else were kept inside because the men feared they might get hurt.
Benny risked a quick glance over his shoulder before they began boarding the Village, in an attempt to see if their things were still visible on the top of the hill. He was surprised to see that the hilltop was almost two miles away, judging by the space between them, and there was no sign of their stuff.
But there was someone up there. Three someones, in fact.
He was about to call Brun’s attention to it before it was their turn to climb the door/ramp at the back of the cart, but he was cut short when he saw a small Vanjii man rushing up, spear pointed in front of him. At first Benny thought the man was running at him, but as the man approached, he could see the wild look in the man’s eyes. Those crazy eyes weren’t fixed on him, either; they were fixed on Jimmy.
Benny stepped aside to avoid the spear, and the man thrust it forward at Jimmy’s vulnerable back. Luckily, though, a man’s fist reached out and grabbed the spear handle just before the tip could reach Jimmy. Benny looked up to see the colorfully painted face of Beaner, and using his grip on the spear, the massive leader of the Vanjii pulled the smaller man close to him and head butted him directly between the eyes. There was a loud crack as the two skulls connected, and the attacker with the spear began to stumble backward with a dizzy look on his face.
Did you see that coming? Brun asked in his head.
Just barely. It wasn’t enough time to get your attention though. I didn’t want to get stabbed, either.
I meant Beaner, came the reply. I hadn’t felt him at all. Somehow, he was hiding just beyond the cart and neither of us felt him at all.
There’s someone near our stuff, Benny told Brun as he remembered. I just saw them up there.
They have been just behind us and catching up for days now, Brun said. But there is no time for that. That man you just saw try to attack Jimmy is probably but one of many who feel that the boy, you, and I are all traitors. Keep your guard up. And for Christos’ sake, remember what I’ve taught you and protect the boy!
They had to walk quickly to keep up with Jimmy’s captors, who had heard the commotion, realized what was happening, and began to hurry the boy inside. Apparently, Brun and Beaner weren’t the only one’s within the Vanjii tribe who attributed great amounts of importance upon the boy.
Benny caught one last glimpse of the scene behind them. Beaner had been brought a large club, and he was poised over the man with the club raised high. He didn’t say a word before swinging it down. Brun pulled him inside the large doorway and out of the line of vision just as there was a loud cracking noise, followed by two quick, gushy smacks, a noise that reminded Benny of his mother tenderizing meat. The image that accompanied this in his head was much worse than hamburger being beaten by a metal mallet, though.
The air inside the Village was cool, and everything was just as dim as Benny remembered it from the first time he had been forced to visit. This time when he felt the overwhelming sense of foreboding, he knew it was the spirit of the Unborn Son inside the body of Brun’s sister. If the Lauren that Brun had grown up with was still in that body, she certainly wasn’t in control anymore.
One thing was largely different than the last time Benny had seen the village, though. This time, almost no one was standing still and the raucous caused by all of the people moving around, shouting, and bumping into each other was much more deafening than the silence that Benny had first been greeted by when he last graced the Village.
Stick very close. Last thing we need is someone to bump up against us. After this, there will be no more communication between you and I. Lauren’s quarters are directly opposite those of Beaner, and we can’t risk her sensing us anymore than she probably already has. I will be wherever Jimmy is, so don’t get panicked, and please try to control your thoughts. Blank as the plains, Benny, blank as the plains.
Benny began doing his best to keep all thoughts from his head, but he found it extremely difficult, so instead he contented himself with merely allowing his mind to make a steady and unbroken hmmmmmmmmmm.
Behind them, Benny could hear the crowd quieting down as Beaner hurried in behind them. His breathing was loud and labored, broken by the occasional wheezing cough. They finally reached the back of the Village, where Beaner’s private quarters were. The two men hauled Jimmy off to the side and waited for Beaner to approach.
Benny pushed himself up against a nearby wall and watched what was going on, waiting for the opportunity to slip in behind Beaner, Jimmy, and his captors. Beaner handed his club, bloody and dripping, off to a random serving girl before speaking to the two men who had caught Jimmy in the Vanjii language. Benny didn’t even try to understand what they were saying, but soon enough Beaner looked at Jimmy and said, in plain English, “Was that fun, you little shit?”
Jimmy maintained his solid poker face.
“Eh whatever. Lil piss ant,” Beaner grumbled, pulling his own keys out and unlocking the door to his quarters. Apparently the fat leader didn’t allow even his most trusted servants into his quarters while he was away.
Once the door was unlocked, Beaner grabbed the boy with his bloody left hand and sent the two men away. Benny noted the sour look that passed between the two, as if they had expected to be gifted for their service.
As Beaner brought the boy into the room, Benny slipped in just before the door shut, and felt Brun brush by his leg as the little man did the same.
“You speak English, I know you do,” Beaner said to the boy. When Jimmy didn’t reply, Beaner smacked him across the face. “DON’T YOU?”
Through bloodied lips, Jimmy said, “Yes, Your Grace.” The boy didn’t work very hard to cover up the loathing in his voice has he said the title.
“Then we need to have a little one on one discussion, you and I.”
“Three on one,” Brun said out loud.
Benny felt a strange tingling all throughout his body and before he knew what was happening, there stood Brun at his hip, and his own hands were visible once again.
If Benny had seen the look on Beaner’s face anywhere else, he probably would have laughed out loud. ‘Priceless,’ was the word that came to mind as the fat man stumbled back slowly with his mouth hanging open, eyes wide with surprise. But the comical moment was brief, and he quickly recovered and replaced the look with one of fury.
“How dare you come back here,” the man boomed.
“You shame yourself,” was all Brun said in reply, and Benny saw in his peripheral that the large blue eye flashed menacingly.
Beaner acted as though he hadn’t heard. “And you bring this green boy back with you, on top of what you’ve already done,” he continued. Jimmy stepped away from Beaner and stood behind Benny and Brun. “Don’t you understand, you traitor?”
“I understand perfectly well,” Brun said. “It appears as if you are the one here who isn’t understanding.”
“The boy is more connected to Natas than even Chase Morgana!” Beaner thundered. “He will surely bring the wrath of the Madman on the entire Vanjii tribe.”
“I repeat, you shame yourself. When I left you were still thinking like a sane man, albeit an intoxicated sane man, but still sane. Now you sound like a blubbering idiot, even to the one who has heard you in your most ridiculous phases.”
“Don’t speak to me like that,” Beaner said, his entire body shaking with rage. “I saved you just like I saved all of these people, and you damned well know it.”
“We could have saved ourselves,” Brun said. Jimmy had circled around Beaner, and so Benny followed. Beaner lashed out at Brun, but Brun swung around. Before any of them could anticipate it, the big man’s arm swept around and caught all three of them right in the chest. Benny felt wood break behind him as they broke through the wall of the Village.