Chapter 32 – The Kernel Fortress

A misty cloud hovered over the Kernel Island, enclosed by water and islets. In its midst stood a remarkable haphazard stone structure walled in by high barricades with turrets, and spirals reaching upwards through a mass of foliage, which also covered a stack of balconies. What from a distance looked like windows were dark holes partly overgrown by strangling figs.

‘Looks creepy alright,’ said Ben. ‘But I knew it would look like this. Yep, I’ve seen it in a fire.’

This was no longer a bombshell. Most of them had come to know, Ben had acquired abilities nobody else had.

‘So Bragdon, how do we get past all that water,’ said Bill. ‘We don’t have the raft now.’

‘Me no come,’ said Bragdon. ‘Go udder way. Bring food Hogen. You find tunnel … door … me out long time. Papa Scaramoss.’

‘So you mean that you have to take the food to Hogen, and there’s supposed to be a tunnel with a door where you came out with Papa Scaramoss a long time ago?’ said Bill.

Bragdon nodded.

Ben was concerned. He put his finger on the map. ‘The tunnel inside is marked here. If we enter through some door, we should find the cells with the people around there, but I think we’ve got to come clean with you. Something you all should know.’

Everyone turned to look at Ben.

‘What do you mean exactly?’ said Bill. ‘Spit it out, mate!’

‘We’ve got something that can get us in there if the door is locked,’ said Ben. ‘It’s kind of like a can opener. Not really, but kind of.’

‘Can opener? What are you on about?’ said Bill, always sounding like the adult he was, even if he looked like a young boy. ‘If you’re thinking about the Binehogen, it might not be able to open any access to the fortress, or the cells. With that you can only open the exit point out of these lands, which is located in a totally different place. It’s not here, not even close.’

‘Grandpa, you don’t understand.’ Ben opened his backpack. ‘We haven’t told anyone yet, but this here’s the Silver Stick. I can draw a door with it anywhere I want. And it will open. It’s the honest truth.’

‘Get out of here!’ said Charlie. ‘A stone can’t open a door. It’s not even a key. I don’t believe it.’

‘Where did you get it from?’ said Bill.

‘A lend-me-down from a Yowie boy with the name of Grain,’ said Ben. ‘I know I have to give it back later. And I know it works because I’ve used it. We did, Jack and me. Tell them Jack!’

‘From a boy? So, it’s just a toy,’ said Bill.

‘No, not a toy. It works,’ said Jack. ‘Nearly as good as Binehogen.’

‘We’ll try it later then, but I wouldn’t give it much hope. Of course, we could use it as a kind of back-up, I suppose.’ Bill didn’t want to hurt their feelings.

‘I’ll show you later,’ said Ben. ‘I’m worried about one thing. I don’t think Bragdon should leave us. He’ll have to come. Bragdon, if we can save your parents, we can’t wait around here for you to come back after you’ve done the delivery. It might be too late.’

‘But what happens if he doesn’t show up in time with the goods? Wouldn’t they be suspicious, and come looking for him?’ said Bill.

‘Yeah, you’re right. We’ve got to think of something,’ said Ben. ‘So what can we do? Any suggestions? Anyone?’

‘The wind … mighty Basco … come … me no go Hogen.’

‘Tabasco? How hot is that wind?’ said Bill.

Andy thought for a twinkling of a moment. ‘I think he said ‘Basco’. Tell us more about the Basco first. So what is it?’

‘No wind … is Basco,’ said Bragdon.

‘So, if the wind doesn’t blow, you can’t be there in time,’ said Andy. ‘Is that what you mean? So, then you can come with us. They might think it’s the Basco holding you up. The only problem I have now is, if I can’t find Angelica in there. In that case, I won’t come back with you guys. I’ll stay, and hide around here to plan what to do. You know, I’ve got to find her.’

‘Nah! There’s no way you can stay anywhere near here!’ said Bill.

‘Oh, no, don’t get me wrong! I’m not staying anywhere near that prison if they can see me. I will come back with you to the mainland, but then I must search high and low, with or without anyone, or anything to help. Yeah, Ben, I know you said we’ll find her, but …’

‘We’ll have to trust what Ben said earlier. You’ll find her,’ said Bill. ‘If not, we’ll decide later what to do. I think we’ve got to stick together for now. There’s only one Binehogen. Without it, you can’t get out of these boondocks. No use parting ways until we’ve done what we came for. We need to get going now. Show us the way to the tunnel, Bragdon!’

‘Not another tunnel,’ mumbled Howie.

They had to crawl through more of the pipelines. After the hurdle, they entered the last part of an entangling mess before reaching a sandy patch in front of a wall. Steps led up to an almost hidden doorway.

Bill raced off, wanting to be first. He took one step up before he stopped to stare. He spat in his hands, and rubbed it on the second step. When a layer of dirt was wiped away, he saw a glimpse of what was underneath. ‘Have a look at that, guys!’

Ben threw himself down, spitting, and rubbing with the hem of his t-shirt. ‘Is it some kind of Marra Mamba, grandpa?’

‘Nah, it’s red tiger iron! But why use it to make steps? It doesn’t make sense. It’s too good for that.’ Bill emptied his water bottle over the stones. ‘Hey, look at this, guys. If only we could take this lot with us home. Every step is a collector’s item. I could sell that, maybe on auction. People love that stuff.’

They made it up the steps to a landing where an intricate framework of crooked tree branches tied together with rough rope partly covered an entrance in between vines and creepers. Folding some of the foliage away, they discovered a heavy wooden door hung with medieval-looking, oversized iron hinges.

‘First time I’ve seen metal in this place,’ said Ben. ‘You think they can make metal stuff?’

‘It wouldn’t surprise me one iota,’ said Bill.

‘Watch out!’ screamed Ben. ‘Ah, it ran off, but it was a huge spider. Did you see?’

‘Nah, but take another look at that door. It looks a bit flimsy with all those sticks around it, but then again, you can never be sure in this place,’ said Bill.

He grabbed the handle.

Nothing happened.

Ben decided to stand ready. He pulled out the Silver Stick.

Bill tried the door again, but with no shaking, or pulling in case the noise were to alert possible guards.

The door stayed shut.

Ben, self-assured, took over. He decided on the outside door frame, and quickly drew an upright outline of a rectangle. As soon as the line was completed, the surrounding stones, and sticks cracked. A new door had formed in an instant.

‘You beauty!’ said Jack. He flung it open to stare down into the dim light of a subterranean passageway.

‘Shush, mate! No talking! We’ve got to check if someone’s around first,’ whispered Andy.

They entered with caution, listening and watching for possible movements from the shadows.

‘I’d say no one’s here,’ said Ben.

‘Yuck, this place makes me nervous,’ said Bill. ‘It’s been like that since day one. Okay, we’ll have to do this right.’

Ben took charge. ‘Everybody must hold on to the next person. I’ll go first. Sinton follows behind me by holding on, then Jack and the rest of you. I’ll read the map, as we move along. No talking. If somebody wants to say something, give a tug on the next person, so we can stand in a ring away from the hostiles. It should be okay if they aren’t too close. Right?’

‘Let’s make something clear first!’ said Bill. ‘Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like Ben has a sort of handle on the situation. He seems to know more than any of us. Well, he can read flames for one thing, but then he also gets some sort of feeling sometimes. Maybe we should let Ben be in charge. What do you guys say about that?’

‘Sounds okay to me,’ said Andy. ‘I’ll trust him.’

‘Ben is the one to do it,’ said Jack.

The rest agreed by nodding and mumbling.

‘It’s settled then. And no talking unless absolutely necessary,’ said Bill. ‘Ben, you take the lead.’

They strode off in an invisible line through the muted light. Always on guard, trying to be as quiet as possible. A sudden ambush was not out of the question.

The torches provided enough light to find their way through the usual crystal formations, and mineral streaked walls. A constant sound of dripping was heard through the stillness. The group stumbled on, forced to duck under rocky overhangs, many half-embedded with stalactites, flowing down as chunky icicles through the ages.

Water seeped through to form tiny streams, which collected into puddles. The further they went, the wetter, and muddier it became.

When they arrived at a natural rock pool with a tiny waterfall, Bragdon made them stop. Everyone let go to be visible.

‘Never seen anything like it in all my days,’ said Bill. ‘I’ve been in a lot of caves, mind you.’

‘Papa Scaramoss … drink here.’ He scooped up some of the pouring water, and waited for the others to do the same.

Next he proceeded to take off his vest. The others watched closely, and wondered what he was up to. After dipping his body in the small pond, he took off the rest of his clothing in a shy manner, before a violent rinsing of every article in the water. He rubbed arms, and legs to get rid of most of the mud.

Andy had a thought. ‘So, you think it’s necessary to wash off the dirt before we enter the prison?’

Bragdon nodded.

‘But isn’t it cold? I’ll do it with my clothes on,’ said Charlie. ‘Might as well.’

Ben thought aloud. ‘What about that backwater thingie? If it’s a spring, and a waterfall in here, doesn’t that mean water can get in from below? What if it starts flooding when we’re down here?’

Charlie stared at him. ‘Stop scaring me!’

‘I’m sure it could happen,’ said Ben.

‘Think positively now, kids,’ said Bill. ‘Nothing’s going to happen here. We’re going through this ordeal, and then we’re going home. Nobody or nothing’s going to stop us.’

———-

After a clean-up, and drying, as well as possible in the damp conditions, it was time to continue. Their footwear had been cleaned off, as well as possible. The clothes were still soggy, but had to be bearable. They held onto each other, clobbering on through the sludge. There were mutterings along the way about how cold it was with wet clothes.

‘Stop complaining! Nothing we can do,’ said Ben.

After some walking, Andy let go and became visible. He looked at his watch. ‘We’ve done this for hours. Shouldn’t we be in there soon, Bragdon?’

‘Stones,’ said Bragdon. ‘Stones in castle.’

Bill became alarmed, and let go. ‘Castle? What stones? What on earth do you mean? I thought we were going into the prison. I don’t think we should enter any castle. It would only complicate things.’

‘Muss go castle … go prison,’ said Bragdon.

‘What? We didn’t see any castle from the lookout,’ said Jack. ‘Everyone let go for a second, will you?’

They watched as Bragdon made hand signs to add to his few words of explanation.

‘You mean the building we saw from above is the actual castle?’ said Jack. ‘I thought it was the prison. I didn’t even know there was a castle. What about the map? Ben?’

Bragdon was confused. ‘Hogen in castle. We go prison. First castle.’

Ben looked at Jack, and then at the map. ‘Yeah, I see what he means. Why didn’t we see that before? It looks like the prison is connected to the castle.’

‘Okay, we’ll head for the castle first,’ said Bill. ‘Let’s get a move on. Everybody, hold on now, so they can’t see us.’

Ben was first to notice the stones on the ground. They were set in a pattern across the width of the tunnel, which straight after went into a sharp bend. Shortly after, the tunnel came to an abrupt finish.

Steps, roughly cut out of large limestone blocks, led upwards where a colossal blood red portal stood like an evil-boding sign at the top. The door was in the form of a massive slab of wood, decorated with chiselled cut-outs in a checkerboard pattern. Pictures of burning fires, clubs and spears were placed along the edge.

‘A warning sign,’ said Andy. ‘We’ll have to let go for a moment. It’s easier to talk when I can see you, guys.’

‘So, what if they’re warning us? We’re still going in,’ said Jack.

‘Hey, I’ll better check if the door’s unlocked first before you use that thingie,’ said Bill. He grabbed the handle. But the door didn’t open. ‘You better use the thingie, Ben.’

Ben was quick. He happily made the movements, and the new door opened. Peeking in, he whispered. ‘Shush now! Not a sound! Nobody’s around, but you never know.’

‘Hang on!’ said Andy. ‘It’s too easy to get in and out. What kind of warning is it, if we can just walk right in?’

‘Maybe it’s a trap?’ said Jack.

‘Trap, or no trap, we just have to move on,’ said Ben. ‘Hold on now!’

‘It feels sneaky in a way,’ said Andy. ‘It’s like we’re breaking in.’

‘Nobody seems to be around,’ said Bill. ‘First we’ve got to find the ones we’re looking for.’

‘No, first you need to listen to me,’ said Ben. ‘We got to know what to do if something happens. One tug is for emergency, and means GET AWAY FAST to the closest exit, or where we came from. Two tugs is for NO. Three tugs for YES, and four for LET’S GO FURTHER. Okay? And whatever you do, don’t let go of the next person.’

To make sure, he went through it again. Everyone seemed to understand.

With utmost trepidation, and on their guard, they held onto the next in line, as they went down a bleak corridor, drier and lighter than the tunnel left behind.

There was no obvious light source, and no candles, or flame torches. Instead there were natural types of chandeliers fashioned out of the usual glowing crystals. To aid with the lighting process, the walls were streaked with naturally glittering speckles.

After a short while, the bleak, and foreboding insides changed into magnificent opulence. Surprised and disbelieving, they walked past exquisite wall hangings made of shiny threads in the most beautiful patterns. They hung above pieces of the usual gnarled furniture, lining the walls. On the floor was a narrow carpet woven in original patterns and colours.

‘If it looks like this here, I wonder what it looks like in the Hogen’s part of the castle,’ whispered Ben.

‘No talking,’ said Bill.

They had gone through corridor after corridor of uninhabited quarters, and entered new parts, which seemed to be used more often. Here they found fancy, but primitive-looking doors on both sides. Some were open, and some were closed. As they passed, they looked into each one, but nobody was around.

When distant voices came from down the hall, a jerk went through the group.

‘Everyone okay?’ whispered Ben.

Three tugs followed.

Warily, they followed the sounds to the threshold of an opening. They looked into an empty chamber.

The walls were covered by maps, seemingly drawn on fine leather. They covered every available space. The largest had the whole of Australia with every capital city marked out. Sea shells in different shapes, and sizes, were used as markers, pushed into small pieces of clay by big iron nails. A large cone-shaped shell was situated in what could only be the Kimberley in the north west. Another was placed in the area of Blue Mountains in New South Wales. A larger one was precisely on the Nullarbor. Smaller snail-shaped markers were positioned at various other points.

Abrupt noises came from an opened side door. A bolt of fright went through the invisible group. Instinctively, they took a step back.

When four impressive Yowies entered, a powerful jolt went through the group, and they had to take another step back.

The four Yowies were dressed in what seemed to be seaweed uniforms, decorated with coloured bird feathers placed on their breasts like awarded medals.

Shocked at the sight, they moved two more steps back.

Ben was aghast. Maybe they were still too close. If the Yowies used magic, maybe they could see them. Or, if something happened to Sinton’s magic, and it was lost, they would be stuck right in their midst.

Morbidly entranced by the fearsome sight, nobody made a sign to leave.

Two of the Yowies sat down at an outmoded radio station from World War II, or earlier.

The others began to pedal two old generators.

‘The Kernel calling all stations … do you read me … acknowledge …’

Four tugs by Ben, and the team moved away, out into the corridor.

Safely away from immediate danger, Ben whispered. ‘Would they be able to radio somebody on top?’

‘Doubt it, mate.’ Andy talked with a low voice.

Suddenly there was strange humming coming from somewhere else.

‘Do you hear it?’ said Jack.

”We’ll have to see what’s going on,’ said Bill.

They decided to follow what now resembled mumbling, and went along the passageway, which continued into more corridors.

Ben was worried about finding their way out fast in an emergency, but quickly dismissed the thoughts by trying to imprint the way on his mind.

When the corridor led into an oversized atrium enclosed by four crystalised walls, all stopped at the threshold to listen.

‘We’re getting closer,’ whispered Ben.

They had a hushed talk, and went through their plans before wandering in between knobbly chocolate coloured tree trunks, creepers and vines.

At the other end was a narrow opening. To squeeze through, they had to walk sideways.
The confined path continued, but then led straight into an enormous hall.

Ben, first in line, was faced by a rolling ocean of movement. He felt like drowning. ‘Uh … uh … I need air.’

‘Take a few deep breaths,’ whispered Bill from behind.

The enormous chamber with a humongous floor area was full of Yowies, waving, bowing and chanting.

‘I-I think I’m okay now. I just felt a bit sick. Must’ve come in a back way.’ He clamped hard on Bill’s arm, as he noticed the colours on the walls, and floor. He knew his grandpa had seen it too.

‘Oh, my goodness!’ said Bill.

‘Shush! No talking,’ whispered Andy.

Half a minute later, Jack was unable to hold it in any longer. ‘Just about as awesome as awesome gets.’

Andy whispered about the unbelievable riches compared to the dark, and dull cave world in other places.

The larger parts of the walls were embedded with rough pieces of light apple green chrysoprase, and small quarts crystals, making the room glisten as if millions of silvery spider webs hung shivering in sunshine after rain.

The floor was tiled with smooth, polished red tiger iron mixed with olive green jasper pieces, and slivers of golden tiger eye. In some places the tiles had the dark grey lacy banded patterns of iron ore.

The chanting sounds increased to become stronger and more forceful. ‘HOGEN GRIM – HOGEN GRIM – HOGEN GRIM – HOGEN GRIM …’

Ben made all aware by whispering that they had to change position. He was alarmed by the menacing commotion, and wanted them to hurry towards the other end of the chamber by carefully following the side wall of the room. They made it without bumping into any of the hostiles.

Standing at the far end was a colossal chair on a large podium of white marble. The chair was made simply, but ornately, with polished honey coloured gnarled and crooked tree branches, which were twisted in scroll-like patterns. On this high seat, resembling a royal throne, sat an impressive Yowie dressed in what could only be described as his finery. A mantle of black fur with a few white spots was draped elegantly over his shoulders.

Ben couldn’t help himself. ‘Is THAT a Tasmanian devil?’

‘I think it could be the Hogen himself,’ whispered Bill.

‘We’re far from them, and it’s nobody right here, so I can whisper,’ said Ben. He had glanced at the map, and found a marked out passageway to the side. ‘It looks like if we take the stairs over there in the corner to the right, we’ll end up on, what looks to be, a balcony beside, and above them. We could watch the goings on without being too close. I think he’s waiting for something, and I want to see what it is.’

All tugged three times.

‘Okey, dokey,’ whispered Bill. ‘It’s probably better to see the spectacle from a safer distance.’

From the balcony, they could see the hall in all its glory, the walls with sparkling colours, as if they had some secret lightning system in place, the ceiling with hanging flow stones, and the floor with all the different coloured gemstones.

An impressive Yowie, holding a knobbly club, blazing in the bright light, had taken possession at the bottom of the podium.

‘What’s that made of? Could it be gold?’ whispered Ben.

The others shushed him fast.

A small group had gathered a few steps from the platform. The officiator holding the club hit it on the floor three times before calling out: ‘Next important errand for the Hogen!’

Yowies, some dressed in seaweed uniforms, others in primitive, but fanciful attires, came up, one by one, and explained their business.

The Hogen of Grim yawned. He failed to say much.

The requests kept coming. When the audience seemed all but finished, all heads turned as a blond barefoot woman raced in, followed by a bearded barefoot man.

‘Your Majesty, your esteemed blah, blah, Wubicus let it slip that our family is on their way to the Kernel and …’

‘Bow to the Hogen!’ screamed the guard.

‘So, what do you propose to do if I don’t?’ said the woman.

Ben felt strong emotions bubbling up inside him. ‘The-the-that’s mum! And I think that’s d-dad!’

‘Mudder an’ fudder,’ said Bragdon.

‘Yeah, but shush,’ said Jack. ‘You don’t want anybody to hear you. Hey, Bragdon, what did you just say?’

Bill whispered it was time to leave. ‘We’ve got to talk. Somewhere else, guys.’

From the bottom of the large chamber they heard the voices, and could see and hear what went on, as they hurried to get away.

‘You’ve done enough to us. It’s about time my husband, and I were allowed to leave, but coming back to our family, I warn you, do not imprison them! We’re all going to leave whether you like it or not.’

The Hogen awoke from his slumber. ‘Take them out!’

A guard was immediately at her side.

‘Don’t you dare touch me, you rotten thing! Jerry, come on, we’re leaving.’

Jerry turned around, muttering into his full beard. ‘Scumbags …’

‘How would you ever get out of here?’ said a voice from the shadows, as he came walking into the main arena.

‘What!?’ whispered Ben.

‘How did that lecherous old devil get here,’ said Bill, ‘and so fast too?’

‘Yeah … what’s he doing here?’ whispered Jack. ‘That rat bag!’

‘Shush,’ said Andy. ‘We’ve got to hear what he has to say.’

They listened to Ambrosius, who was dressed in a long luxurious cape, which touched the floor, as it swirled around him. A furry oversized hat with a bushy tail sat on his head.

‘He looks like a bloomin’ Davy Crockett,’ whispered Bill.

Ambrosius made some sweeping motions with his hand, and continued. ‘My esteemed Hogen, if it’s true what’s been revealed in the flames, the keystone is now in the possession of the green-eyed one.’ He turned towards the woman. ‘As soon as that boy of yours walks in here, we’ll get them all AND our Binehogen. I’m convinced you’re familiar with what the prickle mesh can do. If the boy believes it’s possible to escape through there, he’s surely mistaken. Not knowing the way through that labyrinth, all will get lost, or be cut to smithereens. And if not bloodied by the spikes, they may be eaten alive by the spinners. Now get back to your work! Your students want you to teach. Do the lessons before we put you to rot in a cell WITH NO door!’

During the interaction, Ben’s mind worked feverishly, while staring and listening. It was Ambrosius, but … but … it didn’t sound exactly like him. Ben looked long, and hard at his face. Was that whispers of hair under the hat?

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Published by Lena Nilsson

Swedish-Australian Critical Thinker, who loves to research, write and crochet in no particular order. 😁

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