“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.