Chapter 34 -Searching for Mr Finch

Ben, Andy, Angelica and Sinton, while invisible, searched through the corridors, rooms, and larger chambers. Mr Finch was nowhere to be found.

‘Let’s get back to the cells!’ said Andy. ‘Maybe he’s there now.’

They made their way to the prison part, but still no Mr Finch.

‘I know where he could be. In the kitchen for teaching. They sometimes let him out to help with the cooking.’ Food preparations occurred all day, even night, according to Angelica.

When they arrived at the kitchen area, they discovered a few Yowie females standing at a stone bench top, cutting, and preparing. Others added herbs, and other ingredients into a large cooking spot on directions from a large Yowie male, who used implements looking like oversized museum pieces.

‘He’s not here,’ whispered Angelica.

Andy shook his head. ‘I think we have to forget about Mr Finch. What do you say, Ben? We’ve got to get back to the others.’

Ben felt a twinge of something he could not define. ‘Okay then. I suppose we can’t do anything about it.’

‘You know, the others are not safe where they are. We’ve got to get back,’ said Andy.

Ben was disappointed. Before they left, he grabbed some hard berries from a basket, and shoved them into his overfull pockets.

As they hurried along, and went up some stone stairs, it had to happen.

A couple of the big round berries fell out of his pockets to roll down the steps.

Ben was quick to let go of Sinton, and raced down to catch the fruits. At the same time a hostile walked out of a door at the bottom. Two more were on their way down from an upper level.

A shocked Ben, now visible, was stuck between three hostile Yowies. It was the same as being stuck between three crocodiles, and a water way. Not much chance to get away.

They had him cornered, and made an easy grab. He screamed, shoved and pushed, but to no avail. He showed the others with his eyes, and a quick hand sign, what he wanted them to do.

Andy was torn. Unsure of how Angelica was to react, if something worse happened, he had to decide fast. Leave at once was his only option.

———-

The hostiles carried Ben away, as if he was a troublesome toddler. He was taken to a prison cell, which was a courtyard with four walls, and no ceiling. He was too upset to notice how they managed to open the cell, seemingly without a door. Did they carry him through the wall? Or what happened?

Left there on his own, he felt not only scared, but defeated. He had thought it was to be easy. Why had it not worked out better? Would the others plan to rescue him, or would he be left there forever, as the new teacher? With no backpack, and no Silver Stick, he knew there was no way out. The walls were much too high, and no door to be seen. Thoughts rushed continuously through his head. He had claimed he was more than able to use the Silver Stick, but still managed to leave it behind. If only he had taken his backpack before they left. Why didn’t he? He needed the Silver Stick. That was the only means of escape. How could he have forgotten to bring it?

He managed to calm down. The issue with no door wasn’t strange to him. After all his experiences, he wasn’t even surprised. That kind of magic seemed to be the norm in their land. But with every wall too high with nothing to climb on, he sighed, and sat down to think.

After some long minutes, he went up to search for odd stones. Would there be any kind of mechanism to open, and close somewhere? He felt for lose stones, but found nothing. With renewed despair, the only thing to do was to lie down on the bed, which was the usual bunches of dried leaves and sticks. Then he lay there staring up at nothing.

———-

Andy felt guilty when forced to leave Ben behind. Nothing else he could do. He had to get back to the others fast to plan the next step. Every moment spent at the Kernel was too long, and too dangerous.

Andy, Angelica and Sinton hurried along the corridors to get back to where the rest were hiding.

Arriving at the large rock, another shock awaited.

‘Oh, no! That’s all we need!’ Andy felt overwhelmed by hopelessness.

Angelica looked at him. ‘Are you sure it was here? Nah, they’re caught! I knew it! We can’t get out. What did I tell you?’

Andy pondered what to do. ‘I think we have to wait right here. They should be back soon.’

‘No, they must’ve been caught. I knew it. We can’t get out. What did I tell you?’

The wait went on for many minutes. Angelica became restless. ‘We’ve got to do something. No use sitting here.’

Andy made a sign to hold onto Sinton before he whispered. ‘Somebody’s coming.’

Bill was first around the block. ‘They’re not here yet.’

Andy and Angelica let go of Sinton.

‘Okay, so you are back!’ said Jerry. ‘We had to relocate briefly when we heard some stomping close by. B-But where’s Ben?’

Andy rubbed his hands together in a nervous manner. ‘Guys, I’ve got bad news! Ben’s captured! Couldn’t do anything to help him without the risk of not getting back here ourselves, and then you wouldn’t have known what had happened. Sorry for failing so miserably. I just remembered. I don’t think he brought his backpack where he had the Silver Stick. Have you seen the backpack?’

‘I have it here,’ said Jerry. He held onto two; his own brought back by Ben and Ben’s own. He looked inside. The Silver Stick was there.

‘As I feared, he can’t escape on his own,’ said Andy. ‘We have to do a rescue somehow.’

Olivia was stunned. She started snivelling. ‘Why … eh … didn’t he take it … if it’s that good?’ She composed herself, and used her hands to wipe her nose and face. ‘How can we get it to him, if we can’t get in there?’

‘Mum, try not to worry,’ said Charlie with Bragdon next to her.

‘Don’t worry! We’ll find him,’ said Angelica.

‘Another thing is; we couldn’t find Bart,’ said Andy.

‘Maybe we can’t do much about Bart,’ said Jerry. ‘I mean if nobody knows where he is, and if Angie couldn’t find him, I think that’s it. But how can we get to Ben? Time is of the essence. What do we do? Could the Silver Stick really help him?’

‘Yeah, dad, he absolutely needs it. That’s his only chance,’ said Jack. He knows exactly what to do with it.’

Jerry smiled. He wondered what had brought it on. Jack had called him ‘dad’ for the first time. ‘Okay son, so how do we get it to him then?’

They went through different scenarios. In the end it was decided that Sinton was the only one who could safely get back into the hostile nest.

‘If you go back there Sinton, you can find out where they’re holding Ben,’ said Andy. ‘Then we’ll plan from there.’

All agreed it was the most sensible thing.

Then Whistler made a remark. He wanted to go with Sinton. He was the one with a bow and arrows, and knew how to use them.

‘Okay, we’ll try what you’re saying,’ said Jerry. ‘I’m not all that comfortable, but we’ll try your way first.’

‘I must go too,’ said Jack. ‘We’ll bring the Silver Stick. I know how it works.’

Before there were any objections, the three disappeared out of sight.

The first part went smoothly. Sinton took Jack and Whistler to the stairs where Ben had been caught.

Whistler didn’t say much, Sinton couldn’t talk, and Jack had nobody to ask questions.

After searching the area, Jack found what he thought must be a clue. A sign on a wall with an arrow, and the words: ‘Outdoor Cell’.

‘Could be somewhere over that way then,’ whispered Jack, pointing.

They ended up in front of another part of the wall. There were no visible signs of an outdoor cell more than another sign on this wall.

‘What to do now?’ said Jack. ‘Let me think for a moment! Well, if it’s a cell it must be a door somewhere to the outside.’

Jack, with the others in tow, scanned through columns, and stone overhangs. Halfway hidden was an opening with stone steps going upwards.

He dragged them forward. ‘Got to get up there. Come on!’

The stairs were narrow and dark. At the top, they opened a door, and were out in the open. Only meters away, they found a large opening in the ground.

Jack moved forward to take a look down, while holding onto Sinton. There was nothing to see more than a large square hole with another wall built inside this opening, but with space, like a walk way, between the walls. This arrangement made it into an opening inside another opening, but too far away for them to take a look.

Jack thought it was a clever way to make a prison cell. A hole inside another hole. ‘If that’s a cell over in that other hole, he could be down there somewhere. But we can’t call out in case the hostiles hear us.’

Whistler had an idea. He gave out his usual tweet, and a trill.

Ben, in his open cell, looked up, expecting to see a bird at the top of his wall, but saw nothing. He let out a quick whistle.

Without a word Whistler fastened the Silver Stick to an arrow. The shot made it across the gap, and over the next wall.

Ben ducked, as the package fell down on top of him. ‘Brilliant!’ He had already seen the silvery crystal tied to the arrow. After some fiddling around, he managed to unfasten the string. He stood up, and quickly drew a new door. This time it was easy as pie. The wall cracked, and ripped without delay. He had become faster, and more proficient with its workings.

Elated, he carefully took a few steps out. No one was around. He went to the corner, turned, and came to a new corner. When he came to another corner, he patted his forehead to try, and get his brain cells working. Somehow it seemed to do the trick, but unfortunately not the way he wanted. Instead his mind steered into endless labyrinths, bizarre puzzles, and inescapable jail cells. Scared and frustrated, he was unsure of what to do next. With no inkling on where he was, he worried about finding his way out before the ones trying to rescue him had enough of waiting.

For a moment he tried to get the feeling he sometimes gets. As if on cue, he made his way to the door, he had just made, to see if it was still there. He found it, and decided to make another door on the opposite wall. Bang, crack, and rip! And he was out into a corridor.

———-

In the meantime, the others hurried down the stairs to make it before Ben was to appear. If Ben used the Silver Stick, they had no way of knowing where he were to come out. They followed the wall back, and forth, searching for him.

Jack became worried, and whispered. ‘Why does it take so long? Didn’t he get the Silver Stick? What do we do now?’

When Ben stepped out of the wall from the newly made door, Jack let go of Sinton, and Whistler. They were visible for one moment to show Ben.

Jack waved him over.

‘Hey, Ben, you took your time. Seems like DEFCON 1 out here. Better stay safe, and not seen. Grab hold!’

‘Thanks heaps, guys! Knew you could do it. Better leave now before they find out I’m gone.’

Jack felt relieved. Ben was safe, but they had to move without delay. He was sure of the way, and made them sneak invisibly along the walls.

Back at the big rock, all were relieved to find out the rescue had been successful.

‘Now, after all this, I reckon we need proper plans,’ said Jack.

Ben thought differently. ‘Who needs plans? We’ve got to go before they grab us. That’s the plan.’

Ben was right. There was no time for mucking around, and no use for intricate plans, which possibly never worked. Just leave there, and then.

There was no time to get ready. They made up the invisible line in an instant. Now there were three more people to take care of before trying their best to escape from the prison fortress without getting caught.

Scrambling on through the prison part, they heard the shouting hostiles from a distance. Upon entering the castle area, they felt slightly safer.

Jack had to let go for a couple of seconds to show them when he mouthed the words: ‘DEFCON 1, and no one’s around! Why aren’t they in this area?’

They shushed him.

‘Remember! No talking,’ said Ben with his finger across his mouth. He was confident of knowing the way, and took them through more corridors. The further they went, the duskier it became. He felt in a good mood. Everything was going great. ‘Not too far left now, and we’re out of here.’

They reached the red portal without trouble, and continued through the tunnel under the Ciyon Sea. The same way, as they had entered. On Ben’s advice, they had to refrain from using any torches. Everything went fine until they were closer to the last door, which was the exit to the outside, and the mainland.

That’s when sudden alarming noises came from behind.

‘Must be on our trail.’ Bill tried to make them move faster by pushing on from behind.

‘Go! Go!’ called Jack.

‘Come on! Move it!’ said Jerry.

‘Okay, okay,’ said Ben, before he had the strangest feeling. He turned around.

Somebody panted and puffed, while getting closer. ‘Wait … huh … for me!’

‘I think it’s Mr Finch,’ said Ben, spying through the gloom.

‘Take it easy, Bart! We’ll wait,’ called Olivia.

When the old man had caught up, he was completely out of breath.

‘Maybe you shouldn’t be running at your age,’ said Jerry, grabbing hold of his arm.

‘Mr Finch, were you followed?’ said Jack. ‘Did you see any hostiles?’

‘Huh … no … huh … no,’ said Bart, trying to recover.

‘We tried to find you, but couldn’t,’ said Jerry. ‘How did you figure out where we were?’

‘Huh … heard that … huh … the patrol … huh … is looking … for you … huh … and since Bragdon was … huh … thrown out we’ve known … huh … about the back door exit … only one place … huh … I could think of.’

‘Calm down, Bart,’ said Olivia. ‘Have a little rest, while we fill you in on what’s happened.’

For a few minutes, they stood close to the door, but delayed leaving. Mr Finch calmed down, met all, and was pumped with details. He was most surprised about the ape-like zilch.

‘Aye, like beating them … huh … at their own game so to speak,’ said Bart. ‘Braw we can be invisible too.’

As soon as he started to breathe normally, they decided it was time to proceed.

First they went through how they were to leave without being seen.

‘Mr Finch, we just have to be invisible when we get out,’ said Ben. ‘Just hold onto the next person. All us us need to do this, just in case.’ He also went through the emergency amount of tugging to communicate without talking.

The door Ben had made previously with the Silver Stick was gone. Now it was back to the original door with a heavy bar on the inside.

Jack and Andy lifted it off without a sound.

Ben, holding onto Sinton, pushed the door open, only a sliver, and without a sound. Only enough to have a peek.

He was faced with a platoon of hostile hunters who saw the door open, but nothing else.

‘ATTACK!’ screamed the leader. ‘GET THE ZILCH!’

As the uniformed Yowies, holding clubs and spears, lunged, Ben shoved the door shut with the immediate help of Jack and Andy, who threw the bar on in seconds.

‘Oh, no,’ cried Bill. ‘This is no good!’

‘Yeah, what do we do now? And, more importantly, how can we stop them coming in?’ said Jerry. ‘Just a matter of time before they break the door.’

Ben took out the Binehogen keystone from his backpack. ‘Let’s see what this little baby can do! Grandpa, you always said it was magic.’

‘NO! Don’t do anything that we might regret. We don’t know the full power of that stone yet,’ yelled Bill. ‘Put it away for goodness sake!’

‘Grandpa’s right. We’ve got to be careful with that thing,’ said Olivia. ‘We’ve heard a lot about it. Seems like it can make you disappear and … and … well, it’s not that safe.’

‘Well, we do want to disappear,’ said Ben.

Howie had not said much during the whole escapade. From beginning to end, he, as the newcomer, had only watched proceedings. Now he tried to be heard.

‘What is it? What are you trying to say, Howie?’ said Jerry.

‘I know about the Binehogen. It listens to wishes. Quandamus said if I think about it really hard, I can be transported, but only in the same world, and if I hold onto it. I think he might have said ‘country’. Can we try it? But I think we have to be careful, so we don’t end up in the wrong place. He told me that I can wish, but I can only wish, if there’s no other way, and he said I should use it sparingly, or it can be as dangerous as thunder and lightning. Its powers are almighty, and almost as controlling, as the sun in the sky.’

‘And who is this … eh … Quan … eh … what?’ said Ben.

‘Quandamus was the Holder before I became the new one,’ said Howie. ‘He told me.’

Outside the door was a constant rattling, and hammering. The door shook violently every time an axe hacked into the wood.

Jerry looked at Ben. ‘I’m totally lost here, but we’ve got to do something fast. Should we try what Howie said?’

‘Couldn’t we just wish we were on top of the Nullarbor?’ said Ben.

‘I don’t think that would work,’ said Howie. ‘Quandamus said it only works if there’s no other way, and not from one world to another. You told me earlier about some portal we have to find to leave this land. Could we not go there?’

‘We’ll have to do the wishing,’ said Olivia. ‘If we can’t get out this way, and can’t go back, there’s no other way to get out of danger. So, we’ve got that part right. We’ve got to try it. There’s nothing else.’

‘Come on, come on!’ said Jack. ‘We’ve got to do it right. All hold onto the next person, and then we’ve got to do some very strong wishful thinking. Ben, you hold the Binehogen, so everything is connected.’

‘You’re forgetting one thing,’ said Bill. ‘We can’t aim for the Phosphene. We’ve got to aim for Ambrosius’ cave. He needs to tell us more about it. None of us knows where the Phosphene is located.’

‘But many of us haven’t been to his cave home either,’ said Jerry. ‘We don’t know what it looks like. Olivia and I were never there. Bragdon hasn’t been there, and I don’t think Howie and Sinton have been there either. Oh, and you, Angie, I suppose you haven’t seen it. Maybe it doesn’t work if all of us can’t see it in our minds.’

‘We’ve just got to try, dad,’ said Ben. ‘Nothing else we can do.’

‘It’s only grandpa, Andy, Charlie, Ben and me who’ve seen the cave,’ said Jack. ‘The others haven’t. So Ben, it means that you’ve got to do your little stunt. Try and transfer some thoughts over to the others!’

‘I don’t do stunts,’ said Ben. ‘And I don’t know how to transfer thoughts. How can I do that? I don’t have a clue how to do it.’

The banging on the door went on more frantically. Every blow made Ben more nervous.

‘Hurry! That’s our only chance of getting out of here,’ said Andy. ‘It’s the first step towards getting out of this hell hole. Can you at least try, Ben?’

Ben nodded. He was hesitant, but saw no other way. The forceful hammering on the door continued. He knew of the possibility that they had strong metal tools, and other weapons to destroy it. Any minute the door would splinter, and break. It was now, or never. Nobody else could do what he could. He was the one who was able to see things in fiery flames. So what did they have to lose? Captured by the hostiles, and imprisoned forever, or try the wishful thinking?

Something was hitting harder, and more violently, on the wooden door. The banging, and scratching was multiplied by the sounds of stomping, and shouting down the other end of the tunnel.

‘Ben! Come on! Do it!’ whispered Jack.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 33 – Inside The Hostile Nest

Ben was excited. Without thinking, he was letting go of the others. He pointed, and shook his head vigorously, while whispering. ‘It’s not him! It’s not him!’

‘What?’ Jack mouthed without uttering a sound, as he let go as well.

All of a sudden everybody were in full view. This was more than dangerous even if they were away up on the balcony. A catastrophic event could occur any moment.

Ben pointed with a shaky finger. ‘That’s not Ambrosius! That man has hair, and he has that-that fancy ring. Did you see it?’

‘Of course it’s Ambrosius,’ said Jack. ‘We can all see that it’s him. He’s a crook of the worst kind, or maggot, or spy, if nothing else.’

‘No, no, no! I tell you! It’s not him!’ said Ben. ‘Don’t you remember what he said?’

‘Okay, okay, take it easy,’ said Bill. ‘I think we’d better get away from here fast, so we can talk.’

Standing on the balcony they were dangerously exposed, and quickly grabbed onto the next person. The invisible line was accomplished. All were gone instantly.

Just as they were back down the hall, a new commotion occurred. Three men came marching in. Earl Vanning, also known as Snake Harmer, was first. He was followed by the blind man, Eagleperch, who walked with unseeing eyes, but striding confidently through the chamber without holding onto a cane, or another person. Last was Ironforce. He had no trouble keeping up with the others.

After the usual ceremonies in front of the Hogen, Earl Vanning asked to be heard.

‘Your Majesty, my most respected Hogen, we have come to humbly ask for forgiveness. We were outsmarted by the green-eyed one, plain and simple. He and his brother escaped. We haven’t seen them since they came by my store. It was decided we had to come here to learn if there had been any new developments. As you know, I do not read flames very well, but we all have other abilities.’

He waited for an answer. They were interrupted when another familiar group came rushing in.

‘We put in map room! Gone! Gone! ‘ said Kenairies with flailing arms. ‘Silver Stick gone!’

‘WHAT?!!!’ screamed the man with the Davey Crocket hat. ‘You mean to say that they’ve got the Binehogen AND the Silver Stick? It should never have happened. You had the Silver Stick on loan. Get them back! NOW! I don’t care how, but get them back, or nobody will ever get out of Panghellan.’

The mighty Hogen stood up, and let out the fiercest growl. ‘COLONEL WUBICUS! GET THEM NOW!’

‘I think we’ve heard enough,’ whispered Bill. ‘This is absolutely disastrous! We have to get away.’

They took off along the side by following Ben’s directions. He had the map, and also used his memory, as they weaved in and out of the atrium they had come through before, and then passing along narrow corridors with closed doors.

All of a sudden Ben knew they were lost. He stopped. ‘I-I don’t know … how to … ‘

Jack whispered. ‘Don’t stop here! Too dangerous! Don’t you know where to go next? Can’t you get the feeling you sometimes get? Try Ben! Try!’

Ben concentrated hard. ‘I-I think we’re in a different corridor than before. But let’s try the first door. See what we get.’

Surprisingly, the door opened without a hitch. The inside was full of sticks in bundles, smaller rocks and boulders.

‘No one’s here,’ said Ben. ‘We have to be careful in case someone is around, but we need to have a talk.’

‘Bragdon, you said something in there,’ said Jack. ‘Did you see your mother and father?’

‘Mudder an’ fudder. Mighty angry,’ said Bragdon.

‘Do you understand what it means?’ said Bill. ‘Your mother and father are these kids’ mother and father. It means we’re your family. So that means, I’m your grandfather. Do you know what a grandfather is?’

‘You boy.’

‘Yes, right now I am. It’s only because I’ve been in that stinking water hole, the Amossian. I’m sure I’ll turn back into an oldie soon enough. Come here, and give your grandpa a hug, boy!’

Bragdon stared at Bill, but dared not move.

Bill stepped forward to hug him, while Bragdon squirmed.

‘I can’t believe you’re my brother,’ said Ben, laughing. ‘I’ve got a kid brother.’ He gave Bragdon a quick hug.

‘I think it’s incredible they had a baby in this horrible place. I can’t believe it.’ Charlie’s bottom lip quivered. Tears welled up in her eyes when she hugged Bragdon before Jack had a chance.

When everyone had taken their turn, it was back to the seriousness of the situation.

‘We need a plan on what to do next,’ said Andy.

‘First I need to tell you something,’ said Ben. ‘Do you remember the time when Ambrosius said something like ‘I am but one of a pair, or two in a pod, or something? Couldn’t that mean he’s got a twin brother? Makes sense to me. Wubicus could be a twin. He’s the one writing the poems.’

‘A twin?’ said Jack. ‘So you mean that Wubicus is his twin? Why didn’t he just say he had a twin?’

‘Well, you know how he talked,’ said Andy. ‘Sometimes it was weird, and he rambled from one thing to another. I think it could be true what you’re saying, Ben.’

‘I know it’s not Ambrosius,’ said Ben. ‘They’re not the same people. Wubicus must be his twin.’

‘Okay, if that’s so, we can still trust Ambrosius to help us when we get back there,’ said Bill, while walking around on the spot to contemplate. ‘That takes a big load off my chest. The important thing now is that before anything else we’ve got to find those we came for. We’ve got to check every room, and then the cells, one by one.’

Time was passing fast. It was decided to move on with the rescue attempt, and to check more doors. They were lined up with Sinton in the middle and ready. Slowly, and carefully, they moved out of the room. Two more doors were opened with nothing of importance. After opening the next door, they were faced by a wide rock formation covering most of the entry.

As they sneaked around the obstacle, they were faced with the worst. A strong jolt went through the line.

They were invisible, but stood face to face with a room full of squinting hostiles.

All were grown up Yowies. Every single one was in uniform, sitting at whimsical desks. When a few raised their heads, and looked towards the doorway, Ben was but an inch from screaming.

Then he saw the human standing at the other end, seemingly holding a lesson about the British Isles.

When Ben heard a Yowie calling the man by name, he was bewildered. ‘Co-could that be Mr. Finch?’ he whispered.

Everyone in the room looked up at the same time.

Four tugs by Ben, and the invisible line hurried out of the room.

‘Who were you talking about in there?’ said Bill.

Ben had to let go of Sinton for a second. He shook his head, and mouthed the words. ‘I thought he was dead.’

‘Who? Who do you mean?’ said Bill.

Before Ben replied, he held onto Sinton again just in case. ‘Don’t you remember I told you about Mr Finch. He lived with Kenairies, and the Rainlanders a long time ago. I thought he was gone, as in dead. I think it must be him because someone in there called him ‘Finch’, and he did have a Scottish accent.’

‘I don’t know what you’re on about,’ said Bill. ‘But we need to move on to find the ones we came for. We can always get back here later.’

Before they had a chance to act, the door opened.

One of the hostile students came out, sniffing the air. ‘Something smells at the Kernel,’ he said in a devious way, while squinting suspiciously.’ He scrunched his nose to sniff again.

The tugs went from person to person. Without a sound, they slowly made their way onward through the empty, gloomy corridor. When Ben turned to look back, the Yowie was still there, turning each way before stopping to stare in their direction. He turned, and disappeared into the room.

Safe enough, they went on to the next door. Ben was the first to look in. He was shocked. His emotions came bubbling up, and were close to boiling over. With eyes flooding, he was forced to wipe his nose on the hem of his t-shirt. He knew it was impossible to stand there snivelling, but found it hard to keep calm. The only thing on his mind was to run up, and get hugged.

He watched his mum sitting behind a large slab of stone. His dad stood close by, adding pictures to an archaic paperbark board, held together with plaited strings. They were cut-outs from wood, bark and leaves.

Ben was in strife, but had to control himself. There was a time and place for a reunion, but this wasn’t the right moment.

The unseen line walked up closer to Olivia. She looked down on her desk, which was a slab of stone with a curious piece of a gnarly ladder fashioned like an uneven rainbow above her head. That’s when Ben took action. He was fast to put the note, turning visible when it left his hand, in front of her. Close to touching his mum, he knew he had to restrain himself.

She looked at the piece of paper, unfolded it, and turned it over a couple of times, while her students were busy working with their heads down. She searched the room with her eyes to find out where it had come from. Then motioned inconspicuously for her husband to come over.

Jerry understood. He looked at the note without a word. Doubtful, he pulled at his long beard. They gazed into each other’s eyes, nodding so slowly and slightly, it was hardly noticeable. Olivia folded the note a couple of times to make it smaller, and secretively put it in her mouth.

They were interrupted by the stomping of feet outside in the hallway. Wubicus, in his mantle, and fur hat, burst into the room with uniformed hostiles at his side.

Olivia looked scared. She chewed faster.

Jerry stared defiantly at the hostile intruders.

Ben, with Sinton and the rest holding onto him, was quick. He grabbed his mum’s arm, and pulled his dad’s hand over to hold his mum’s.

‘Don’t let go!’ whispered Ben. ‘Whatever you do, don’t let go!’

They were gone in an instant.

‘WHAT? WHAT HAPPENED? WHERE DID THOSE TWO GO?’ screamed Wubicus. ‘I should have known it! Must be a zilch helping the brothers! Don’t let any of them get away! Find the Binehogen! And the Silver Stick! NOW!

In the hullabaloo that followed, nobody heard, or saw, as the invisible group fumbled to escape through the door, which had been left open by Wubicus, and his men.

Outside, and at the end of the long corridor, they heard Wubicus still screaming from the inside of the teaching area. ‘WHERE ARE THEY? DON’T LET THEM GET AWAY! GUARD THE DOOR!’

They knew they had to keep quiet until a safe place was found. Hurrying along, feeling safe enough, a couple of whispers on the way were unavoidable.

Ben checked the map. He wasn’t sure where they were, but steered them through corridors all the way to an outside area.

Behind a large stone block located at the end of a dim half-enclosed walkway, he made them stop. He looked around to see if all was clear. ‘I think we can talk here. You can let go now.’

Olivia smiled with tears streaming. Jerry shook his head. ‘Can’t believe it!’ he said again and again. There were hugs, and kisses in between hushed talking.

When Olivia and Jerry saw Bill, they were staggered to find out he had shrunk. He went on to explain about the Amossian waters before he realised the seriousness of the situation. ‘We’ve got to be as quiet as possible. We don’t know who’s around.’

‘Yes, yes, that goes without saying,’ said Jerry.

‘My dream has come true!’ said Olivia. ‘Here we are with all our children, Jerry. Isn’t it wonderful?’

‘We’ve actually dreamed about this day since we got here,’ said Jerry. ‘We thought it might never happen. Okay, so, you’ve met Bragdon. When they took him away, we were devastated. Olivia, my poor wife, had a trying time. Me too, of course. What would become of our little boy? It was pure, and utter luck that we had some good old friends on the outside of this godforsaken place. I find it hard to believe Bragdon’s managed so well. We didn’t know much about him more than that we sometimes could see a glimpse of him through one of the walls when he came with supplies.’

‘He couldn’t get in. Well, he was never allowed, and we were imprisoned. It was the worst that could ever happen,’ said Olivia in tears with her arms around Bragdon, who stood in front of her.

Ben felt a twinge of jealousy. What about him? He had wanted his parents back for the longest time. He had hardly remembered what they looked like. He felt like some alien from another planet.

‘We can’t forget about Whistler, Sinton and Howie,’ said Bill. ‘We stumbled upon Whistler, and he’s helping us escape. Without Sinton, this wouldn’t have been possible at all. And Howie. He’s the holder of the Binehogen.’

‘Which we’re allowed to borrow,’ said Ben.

For a few minutes they talked about the keystone, its importance, and what it could do and how. With its help, they were going to leave the underground cave world.

‘Did you ever try to escape?’ said Andy. ‘I mean, even if you didn’t have the Binehogen.’

‘Yes, of course, mate, but it never worked,’ said Jerry. ‘It’s impossible to escape. Even if you get out of this prison, you also need to deal with the prickle mesh. It’s almost easier to think it’s better on the inside than on the outside. To escape, you need some of their clever magical science.’ He emphasised the word science with hand signals. ‘In one way I think they know so much more than we do. Still they want us to teach them everything we can. To tell you the truth, I don’t think we’ve got that much more to teach. I’m a bit scared of what they’ll do with all their knowledge. What if they want to live on top?’

‘Every time we tried to break out, we got into worse strife than before,’ said Olivia. ‘As Jerry said, it’s impossible to get out unless you’ve got help. I don’t understand how you got in here apart from that they couldn’t see you. I’m worried about how we’re to get away from here.’

‘Don’t you worry about that!’ said Bill. ‘Ben’s got something incredible to help us.’

‘Oh, Ben, I can’t believe it’s you,’ said Jerry. ‘You’ve grown so much. And so have Jack and Charlie. So, Ben, what is it that you have?’

Olivia had let go of Bragdon to stand with her arms around Ben. He had to slither away to be able to talk.

‘First you’ve got to tell me who you talked to in there. It’s not Ambrosius now, is it?’ said Ben.

‘No, it’s Wubicus, his twin brother. He’s the evil one,’ said Jerry.

‘I knew it! Anyway, I’ve got this thing to open doors. Some sort of magic.’

Olivia was alarmed. ‘Have you stolen it from the Grims?’

‘Not really, but it belongs to someone down here.’

‘I’m dying to ask you something,’ said Andy. ‘Did you ever meet a girl in here? Her name’s Angelica. We found your backpack together, but then she disappeared inside the cave.’

‘We have heard that story many times,’ said Jerry.

‘Angie works in the nursery on the second floor inside of what they call the castle.’ said Olivia with a smile.

‘You’ve made me very happy. I’ve got to get in there, and find her.’

‘In a minute, mate,’ said Bill.

‘I didn’t know I had another brother,’ said Ben with Bragdon by his side.

‘Luckily, everything went fine despite the awful conditions. I had a midwife with tender claws. Wow! I can’t believe this. It’s absolutely fantastic. We’re going home, and not a day too soon.’

‘I don’t know how we’re going to survive the spinners, and the prickle mesh,’ said Jerry. ‘It’s supposed to be impossible to get through that way. Well, you did it, but would you do it again? That’s the only way we can possibly escape. The trade route is out. It’s too open.’

‘Me know way,’ said Bragdon proudly.

‘We just have to get to the raft, and then were set,’ said Ben.

‘That’s terrific! Ah, well, you must know since you had to fend for yourself, I suppose,’ said Jerry.

‘Tell me again what happened to you, dad,’ said Olivia. ‘I can’t get used to you as a child. I’ve also heard incredible stories about the Amossian, but never thought it would work. Maybe we should have a swim before going home. I could do with some rejuvenation. On the other hand, I don’t think we can afford to do any detours. We’ve got to get out of here as fast as we can.’

Bill described his ordeal in the pond. ‘No one’s having a swim in the Amossian. I don’t even know if, and how I can get back to normal. Not that I want to get old again. The worst is that sometimes I talk like a kid, and sometimes I talk like an old pensioner. To tell you the blooming truth, I don’t know who, or what I am any longer.’

Ben had listened, but now he was eager to say something. ‘I’ve thought about Mr Finch. I think we should ask him to come with us. Are there any others in there?’

‘But then we’ll have to go back in,’ said Jack. ‘Is that wise?’

‘Me and Sinton can do it,’ said Ben. ‘It’s better if it’s less of us. You can wait here, and look after mum and dad, and the others. Whistler will protect you. If you hide behind this block, I don’t think they’ll find you, but no talking. Not even a whisper.’

‘I can hardly believe your confidence Ben,’ said Jerry. ‘I must say it’s not wise to go back in there. Much too dangerous, if you ask me. I know Bart would want to leave. We’ve talked about it many times. He wants to see Scotland one more time. I think I should go with Sinton. You should stay here.’

‘I’ll do it,’ said Andy. ‘I’ve got to look for Angelica.’

‘No, I’ll have to go,’ said Ben.

‘I don’t like for you to go,’ said Jerry. ‘It’s better that I go with Andy. There’s no one else than Bart and Angelica left. I’ll come with you Andy.’

‘No, dad, I have to go. You don’t know how the Silver Stick works,’ said Ben. ‘And I know the maps much better than anybody else.’

Decisions were made. The most sensible would be for Ben and Andy to go with the help of Sinton. After directions on where to find Angelica and Mr Finch, they left.

Ben, Andy and Sinton were invisible, as they hurried along. They made it to the area where they had been before.

The chaos with the hunt for the intruders seemed in full swing. Orders were shouted, and clattering on the stone floors echoed through the corridors.

The invisible group charged to the room where Bartholomew Finch was last seen.

He was not there.

‘We’ll try all the places mum and dad mentioned,’ said Ben. ‘Maybe they’re in the dungeons.’

They made their way through to the cell area. Every single one was empty, but with signs of recent occupation. One of them caught Ben’s attention. He had noticed the tiniest photo on the wall.

‘In here,’ he whispered to Andy, while walking straight up to the photo. It was an old one of Jack, Charlie and himself.

He stared at it, while he thought about his parents, and their lives as prisoners.

‘So, that’s what kept them going all those years,’ whispered Andy behind Ben. ‘Not a lot as in size, but the longing to get home must’ve been so much bigger.’

Ben packed a few things into his dad’s old scungy looking backpack. ‘Okay, now we’ve got to find them.’

‘We should check in the nursery. If she’s working, she should be there,’ said Andy.

On the way they found a number of doors, but had no time to check the insides. At the end of a passageway, they stumbled onto a stairwell, hanging swaying from the ceiling. The fancy ladder was built of the usual knobbly branches, and rope.

‘If we walk up to the next level, the nursery is at this end,’ said Ben, pointing at the map.

When they reached what seemed closer to be the right point, they stopped to listen. A persistent howling came from further ahead. As they moved along the dim hallway, the awful sound became stronger.

‘What IS that? It sounds like a torture chamber,’ said Andy. ‘What are they doing in there?’

‘I-I think we should turn back,’ said Ben. ‘I don’t know if I want to see what’s going on.’

‘You’re probably right, mate. But, I’ve got to get closer in case Angelica’s around here somewhere. Do you want to wait with Sinton in this spot, and I’ll go on by myself?’

‘No, I don’t think we should split because then they could see the one not holding onto Sinton. Can we just leave if it’s something really bad?’

They had made it to a door. The sounds had died off. ‘Okay, we’ll take a quick look to see if she’s in there,’ said Andy.

All three were invisible when they peeked inside a shadowy gloom. Ben was first in line. He took a few steps inside followed by the other two. When their eyes had adjusted to the darkness, they discovered a maze of branches and sticks.

Ben searched through the closest twigs. ‘Look at this little one! Must be a baby.’

‘Oh, gosh, when your mum said it was a nursery, she probably didn’t mean it was for the sick, unless these babes are sick.’

Something further away moved around like a dog in its basket trying to find the right spot. It stood up with a large hide over the shoulders, and tousled hair standing on end.

Andy went a few steps closer. ‘Is that you?’

‘Who’s there?’

Andy had already let go of Sinton, and raced forward. He was visible, as he hugged his fur covered girlfriend. ‘Angie, I can’t believe it! We’ve come to rescue you. We’re going home.’

‘Andy, oh, Andy! I can’t believe it either. How did you get here? And how did you find me?’

‘I know it’s incredible. But we can’t talk here. You should hang on to me, and not let go for any reason. We’ve got some magic thing, and we’re invisible if you hang onto me at all times. We’ve got to go now. Not a sound, okay.’

Angelica was motionless. ‘But I can’t go without Pluxy.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I can’t go without him. He’s an orphan.’

‘What do you mean? Isn’t he a Yowie?’

‘Yes, poor Pluxy.’

‘No, Angie, you can’t take him. Are you mad?’

‘I have to take him.’

‘No, you can’t! Definitely not! We can’t steal a Yowie. They’ll look after him here.’

‘But I’ve looked after him all this time. He likes me. He won’t …’

‘No, Angie, listen to me! You can’t take him! We have to leave now, but first we have to find Mr Finch. Angie, look here. This is Ben.’

Ben shook hands with Angelica before he realised that he too had let go of Sinton.

‘Where’s Sinton?’ Ben searched with his hands, while trying to see through the gloom in case Sinton was visible.

‘What if we can’t find him again?’ said Andy.

Angelica screamed.

‘Oh, there he is!’ said Andy. ‘Angie, he’s an apelike zilch. Don’t worry! He’s harmless. But he can’t talk.’

‘He doesn’t look that harmless to me,’ said Angelica. ‘What’s that sticking out of his mouth?’

‘Where did you find that?’ said Ben, thinking of a frog’s leg.

‘Sinton has a crucial gift, and can help us get out of here,’ said Andy.

‘No, he can’t,’ said Angelica. ‘Nobody can. We can’t get past all the guards. And we can’t go through the prickle mesh. And I’m not getting even close to those hornlike spinners. I hate them!’

‘It’ll be fine,’ said Andy. ‘Look at this first!’

Andy held onto Sinton. He disappeared for a few seconds before he was visible again.

This made Angelica feel better. ‘But I’ve got to bring Pluxy. They gave him to me. I can’t abandon him.’

‘What do you mean ‘gave him to you’? And what if he cries?’ said Andy. He was far from convinced. ‘He’s too young. If we’re to get out of here, he can’t make a sound.’

‘He never cries,’ said Angelica.

‘Angelica, look at me. You can’t take him. He’s a Yowie. This is where he belongs. How would you look after him if we get home? He can’t go to day care. The other kids would be terrified, or they’d think he’s a cute little monkey, and how would you explain it to the child care assistants? No, it’s just not on.’

Angelica had to give up. She carefully placed Pluxy in one of the nests. He was still asleep.

She stopped at the doorway, and turned. ‘Bye, little Pluxy … love you, darling.’

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

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.

Chapter 31 – Grim Islands

That night they camped with Bragdon at the foot of Lemirius Rock. He was the sole custodian of a cave overhang where he had the necessary items for his survival. There were animal hides, and baskets, some with edible stuff, which he had no trouble sharing. Simple decorations brightened up the place. Ben couldn’t help, but wonder how he knew how to decorate when he had never seen a normal home.

‘He doesn’t have much, but it’s nice, it is,’ whispered Ben.

‘One thing’s for sure,’ said Bill. ‘He lives frugally in a harsh landscape.’

———-


As they woke the next morning, Bragdon was already on the go, wandering up and down the trail.

‘Muss go … mighty trouble … stuff water … no good … come now?’

Everybody looked at Bill. They were used to the fact that Bill looked like a child, but acted, and talked like an adult.

‘I don’t know why you all stare at me, but I do think it’s about time we hit the salt pan. Where’s that ship of yours?’

Bragdon took them through the forest, to the shoreline where he pointed.

‘We’re not going on that thing, are we?’ said Bill.

‘Where’s the Mackle Ship?’ said Ben.

‘Is Mackle Ship!’ said Bragdon.

‘It’s not a ship, boy!’ screamed Bill. ‘Are we to raft across an unpredictable piece of water on a few planks?’

‘Is that really the Mackle Ship?’ said Ben.

Bragdon nodded. ‘Is Mackle Ship.’

Bill shook his head. ‘But that’s not a ship!’

‘If he can, we can,’ said Ben.

‘Ben’s right,’ said Jack.

Ben felt happy, but was slightly apprehensive, as he spied out to sea where a thick haze lingered across the water. His immediate thoughts were on what lay ahead. He was interrupted by the movements of boarding. The others had already placed themselves with all their gear between baskets with supplies. Ben took a seat close to Bragdon.

The sail, which looked like a thinner animal hide, was up. Andy, Jack and Whistler pushed off. With the help of oars they left the shore.

Further out, as the wind ripped, and flapped through the sail, Bragdon sat on his knees, wriggling the rudder through the muddy water. He knew what to do, and seemed to know the direction.

‘I hate to think what we’d have to do if the water mark had been lower,’ said Bill.

Andy couldn’t agree more. ‘In that case, we would’ve had to walk through the mud, and just about slide the raft across. We’re probably lucky, the flood water came through when it did, and before we got here. At least there’s enough water left.’

‘So, that’s why it cannot sink,’ said Ben. ‘Remember when Ambrosius talked about the ship and the Ciyon Sea? He said it couldn’t sink.’

Ben wanted to have a go at steering. Bragdon pointed out obstacles to avoid, a boulder here, and a wooden stump there. At crucial points, he made a sign to Ben, and took over.

The wind died off. The going slowed down. Bill became impatient, and had a hissy fit.

‘This is plain stupid, Bragdon! Just about as fruitless as a boiled potato. With this turtle-pace, we might have to spend next Christmas on this salt pan.’

‘Hey, come on, grandpa, it’s not his fault. I’m sure we’re there soon,’ said Ben.

They had been on the raft for most part of the day, sailing faster when the wind intensified, and moving along more slowly, by using the oars, in between.

The usual evening light seemed to come closer. All were dead tired. Irritation simmered on top.

Then it happened. The haze was gone. Bragdon became excited, and waved. ‘Look!’

The foreboding coastline had become visible.

Bragdon steered them closer. The raft passed the smaller isles of hardened clay with thick, stubby vegetation. He pointed out the wild-growing prickle mesh, while he took them in, and out through narrow channels.

As they went on, danger became closer than before. Bragdon made signs, which could only mean no talking. He steered the raft into a tiny cove covered in a muddle of growth. Agitated, he pointed, while whispering. ‘Grims … go water!’

‘Are we that close? So, you think it’s necessary, do you?’ said Bill. ‘It’s kind of late. Would they be out looking at this time of day?’

‘Muss go water,’ said Bragdon.

One by one, they slunk off the raft.

‘Far out! It hurts like hell,’ said Bill when the salt water hit every scratch.

Charlie frowned. ‘I can’t stand it. Why do we have to do this?’

‘You want the Grims to find you?’ said Jack.

‘I need some cream to put on after this. Can’t believe I didn’t bring any.’

‘Ouch! Yeeh!’ cried Ben. ‘Do we have to stay in here long?’

‘Till closer,’ said Bragdon. ‘Them look … uh … eyes. He pointed to his eyes, having them half-closed. ‘See no good.’ He nodded before he went on with wide open eyes. ‘Now can see.’

They understood from his actions, and sign language, to pulling the raft along to reach land. Closer, Bragdon spied for the right place. Then he jumped off to tie the raft to a spindly branch hanging out over the water’s edge.

The group crawled out of the water, and onto land resembling a mangrove swamp. The area had like a mesh canopy, bursting with twigs and leaves, as far as they could see. Under this roof, and between tree trunks with strangling tentacles, grew long, slender branches in straight lines. All trees and branches formed a colossal arrangement of geometric patterns, growing both vertically, and horizontally. Through the gloom, millions of spiky thorns hung threatening not only from the top, but also pointing out along the sides.

‘I can’t believe this place,’ said Andy. ‘How’re we going to get through that?’

‘That’s as inviting as a river full of saltwater crocs,’ said Bill. ‘You mean we’ve got to get in there?’

‘The whole thing reminds me of a home made oil refinery,’ said Andy. ‘Well, there are no home made oil refineries, but you know what I mean.’

‘I think it looks like a humongous spike mat, or something that’s been turned upside down with a thousand nails hanging down,’ said Ben.

‘Did they build this?’ said Jack.

‘It must be some sort of fortification,’ said Andy. ‘How it was done, I’ve no idea.’

‘It can’t grow like that. It’s not natural,’ said Charlie.

‘Well, is anything natural down here?’ said Jack. He whispered to Ben. ‘Is Sinton around? We haven’t seen him since yesterday. Hope we haven’t lost him.’

‘Oh, yeah, he’s around, but he probably doesn’t want to show himself to Bragdon yet.’

Ben turned to the raft. He quietly counted how many would fit. If they found both pairs of parents, it would be four more people. ‘Jack, do you think it works with four more on the raft? I mean five with Angelica.’

‘Nothing to it,’ said Jack. ‘By then we have dumped the sea gherkins, and the other goods right here. If we need more room than that, we’ll have to figure out something else.’

‘Yeah, I agree,’ said Bill. ‘Hey, I feel as pickled as one of those.’

‘Up … an up,’ said Bragdon, pointing way ahead.

All looked at him.

‘What do you mean?’ said Ben.

‘Muss go … first muss … like so.’ Bragdon scooped his hands full of smelly mud, which he started to smear across his face and arms.

‘What’s that for?’ said Ben.

‘Is that really necessary? We’re not like a commando unit now, are we,’ said Jack.

‘Mighty do … no bite.’

‘So you mean that the spinners don’t like the smell, do you?’ said Andy. ‘How did you know all that?’

‘Papa Scaramoss.’

Bill was eager to smear his face, arms and legs. He took off his t-shirt. ‘Ben, can you do my back, please? Hey, Bragdon, do you think we can make it in there before it’s too late? I wouldn’t like to go through that jungle of spikes, and spinners in the middle of night even if it’s not pitch black.’

‘No dark … go … soon.’

They watched as Bragdon took off his clothes with his back turned. He dabbed more of the gunk onto his small body, as much as he could.

Bill helped with the middle of his back. ‘I can’t believe that we’ve got to go to so much trouble. But, if necessary, I’m all for it.’

All were covered from head to foot. Charlie had preferred careful dabbing, almost as if cleaning off nail polish. Even if she did go to more trouble, she ended up the same. Her long tresses became mud stained, and she made faces of great suffering.

While the gooey stuff dried, they had a break. Bragdon handed out sea gherkins to those interested. He also offered edible fruits, and eggs from one of the other baskets. Then he pulled out some leafy stems from a small bag hanging at his side, and handed them one each.

‘Eat … no sick … mud bad …,’ said Bragdon.

‘WHAT?!’ Bill was aghast. ‘You mean to say that we can get poisoned by muddy bacteria creeping into our sores. Is that what you’re saying? Does it really help with this little flower thingie against dangerous germs?’

Bragdon looked scared.

Ben had seen his reaction. ‘Don’t worry! He talks like an old person even if he looks like a child. That’s why he sounds angry, but he’s not.’

Charlie started to shake uncontrollably, but no tears came this time.

‘Come on, sweet pea, it’s not that bad,’ said Bill. ‘The quicker we go on, the quicker we’ll be on our way back to Perth.’

‘You’re right,’ said Andy. ‘Nothing else we can do.’ His eyes scanned the prickle mesh as he chewed on the bitter plant. ‘But it’s scary. I had no idea it could be so dense in there.’

‘It’s worse than a mumbo jumbo, and thick as a broom head,’ said Bill. ‘Are you sure you know the way in that chaos, Bragdon?’

‘Door … not know … open.’

‘I think we’ll have to worry about that when we get there,’ said Andy. ‘First we’ll have to go through that damned mess.’

Bill nodded. ‘It sure doesn’t look welcoming. How many arrows do you have there, Whistler?’

‘This many. Whistler held up his fingers on both hands, minus one thumb.

Charlie was quick to respond. ‘Andy and me have some too.’

Andy had been thinking. ‘Yes, at least we’re a bit prepared. Say we can get through this, well, if Bragdon knows the way into the fortress, what do we do, and where do we go from there? Does anyone have any suggestions on how to save them? We don’t even have a plan yet.’

Ben grabbed his backpack. ‘I’ve got the map. Bragdon, since you’ve been in there, you must know if this map is right. What do you think?’

Bragdon had a confused look on his face. He had never seen a map before, and had no inkling if the details were right, or not. He followed the lines with his finger.

‘Ah, well, we’ve got to trust it, I think,’ said Bill. ‘What else can we do?’

Bill and Andy looked at the layout with Howie taking an interest.

Sinton had still not shown himself.

‘I think we’ve got to think about the first thing to do when we get to that door,’ said Bill.

‘I’m worried if we can’t get through,’ said Andy. ‘If it’s locked, we’ve had it. Maybe they have guards on both sides. So, how do you suggest we get past them?’

‘I think we can get in,’ said Ben. ‘But I don’t know what to do if they’ve got hostiles posted there.’

He felt a tug on his t-shirt.

Sinton stood silently waiting.

Bragdon had startled, and moved fast to stand behind Bill.

‘Oh, that’s only Sinton,’ said Jack. ‘Don’t worry! He’s okay.’

‘Have you never seen an ape-like zilch?’ said Ben.

‘NO!’

Quickly, as if his life depended on it, Ben ran through about zilches, and how they came to be the way they were.

As soon as he was finished, Sinton pointed to make Ben understand what he wanted.

Ben threw his arms in the air. ‘I don’t have my notebook any more. I don’t know what we can write on.’

‘Don’t worry, I’ve got one,’ said Charlie, rummaging around in her backpack.

As soon as it was found, Sinton was quick to grab both book and pencil.

He wrote fast.

I know what we can do. Touch my arm first, and you will see what I mean.

Ben laid his hand on Sinton’s shoulder.

‘What happened now?’ said Bill, looking around him.

Jack snorted. ‘Where did they go?’

‘What’s with this place?’ said Andy. ‘Nothing’s ever as it seems.’

Charlie looked on the verge of falling to pieces.

As sudden as Ben and Sinton had disappeared, they were back.

Sinton continued his writing.

Hold on to me to be invisible. We should use this to get into the prison fortress. Nobody will know we are there unless we talk.

‘It’s too simple,’ said Bill. ‘Well, it’s not that simple, but it won’t work.’

‘What if it does work?’ said Andy. ‘If we’re invisible, we could easily walk around in there without them knowing. But what do you propose we do with all our gear?’

‘We can’t leave it here in case they’ll find it,’ said Bill. ‘Then we’re sold, completely, and utterly.’

Bragdon pointed away from where they were. ‘Ship hide there … go pricklies … here.’

‘Can we take all our stuff over there? You mean on the raft?’ said Bill.

‘How do we get back here then?’ said Jack.

‘Suppose we have to crawl through,’ said Ben. ‘Nothing else we can do. First we’ve got to try something. Put your hands on Sinton all of you, and we’ll see what happens before we do anything else.’

Everyone grabbed onto Sinton. As the last hand was upon him, he was gone, and so was everyone else.

‘It’s bloody fantastic!’ said Andy. ‘I can’t see anybody, can you?’

‘No, I don’t see anything. Awesome!’ said Jack.

‘Okay, we should try something else now. Everyone let go of Sinton. Hold onto the next person. I mean like one of those conga lines. I’ll hold onto him first. Everybody stand behind me!’

This way worked too.

‘We’ve got to write a note for mum and dad,’ said Ben. ‘If we find them, and we can’t talk to them, say, if there are hostiles around. At least they’ll know what’s going on.’

‘Would they really believe we’re invisible? What if they’ve never heard of zilches?’ said Charlie. ‘I don’t think they’re very common down here.’

‘We’ve got to explain about it in the note somehow,’ said Jack.

Okay, the note has to be right,’ said Bill. ‘We don’t want to spook them.’

Ben was ready with Charlie’s notebook. ‘Tell me what to write!’

Thinking aloud and contemplating all issues, Bill spoke. ‘Okay, let’s see! We’ll start with ‘Dear Pumpkin and Jerry’. That way they’ll know for sure it’s us, and that something out of the ordinary’s going on.’

Bill continued, walking on the spot. ‘Write like this Ben! Don’t get alarmed! Whatever you do, please stay calm. Your family is here to rescue you. We can’t go into details now, but will explain later. You only need to know we found out you’re held prisoners. When you’ve read the note, destroy it. Just so you know, we’re all here: Jack, Charlie, Ben and me, your dad, and we’ve also have help from Andy Crest, and a zilch-man called William Sinton, plus two younger guys, Whistler and Bragdon. Ben is writing the note to you.

Just so you know, William Sinton can do some extraordinary things to make both him, and us invisible. You can’t see us. Bragdon is a young boy who brings food to the Kernel from the north. His parents are stuck in the prison too, and if Angelica Hawk is in there, you must find her, and Bragdon’s parents, so that all of you can come with us. We’re not able to take any more people, as we only have one raft for the rescue. If there are more prisoners, we’ll have to organise something else. A warning! Under no circumstances can the Grims find the note. Destroy it at once! It would be best if you eat it. And wait for our sign before you do anything. We will let you know when the time is right.’

‘Well, that should do it, I think,’ said Andy.

‘Let me see, Ben! Okay, looks fine,’ said Bill. ‘We’ll head off now. Put the note in your pocket! Have it ready at a moment’s notice.’

They boarded the raft again with all belongings before steering out with the pole to make their way into a better disguised cove. They disembarked, and left their gear well hidden at a point much higher up than the waterline.

‘No way I can leave my backpack here,’ said Ben. ‘I’ll need it later. I’ve got things in there. Have to take it with me.’

‘Come on Ben! Leave it here for when we get back,’ said Bill. He changed his mind when he saw Ben’s face. ‘Okay, if you’re so sure, you better bring it. We’ll leave everything else for when we return.’

Charlie bent down to look under the mess of gnarled tree branches. ‘Those sharp-looking thorns are everywhere here too. How big are the spinners?’

Bragdon showed his outstretched hands before pointing into the maze.

‘Big like crabs then,’ said Jack.

‘How do you know your way in that mess?’ said Ben.

‘Know way … back,’ said Bragdon, and showed the way in. The others followed, crawling in a line over the muddy ground between growing pipelines of gnarled branches to reach the spot where they had first embarked.

The going was tough. What everybody feared happened. Shirts and trousers were ripped, but worse was the piercing wherever skin was exposed.

Ben felt utter hopelessness. ‘This is terrible! We’ve got to go back.’

‘We can’t go back,’ said Jack. ‘Whatever happens here, we just have to continue.’

Charlie wailed and carried on. ‘If it’s not the wicked thorns, it’s the evil spinners and they suck blood.’

‘You want to save your parents, and the others, or not?’ said Bill. He had a line of blood running down his cheek, and made a quick swipe. He managed to smear it across.

The distance was short to get back to the first spot where the main trail was located, but dusk was approaching. Too much time had been spent already.

With scratched, and bloodied bodies, they stood around contemplating the next phase.

‘I know it’s hopeless, but we just have to go on,’ said Jack.

‘No other way,’ said Andy.

‘We should go the closest way. I don’t want to be side-tracked in there,’ said Bill.

‘Know way,’ said Bragdon. ‘Papa Scaramoss ….’

Ben saw tears in Bragdon’s eyes, and was lost for words. He felt an overwhelming sympathy for the boy.

‘Let’s crawl through the bloody grater again,’ said Bill. ‘Everyone ready?’

All nodded. Even Sinton.

Bragdon crouched down to enter by crawling into the cramped tunnel inside the gnarled branches intertwined with greenery. He turned and waved them on.

A few meters in everything worsened. The branches grew denser, and the spikes were longer. There was no way to avoid being scratched.

‘Ouch!’ cried Ben. ‘They hurt! They really do!’

Charlie let out an ear piercing scream. ‘WHAT’S THAT NOISE?’

‘THEY’RE COMING!’ Jack was on his stomach. ‘I can’t reach … uh … my pocket. Get some food … fast … anyone …’

‘They’re squealing like pigs,’ cried Ben, trying to fish something out.

Charlie tried to turn around, but was too limited. ‘Throw more … uh … MORE JACK! They’re moving too fast.’

Bill managed to get out a handful of bush tomatoes. He threw them in one hit, while Andy hurled pieces of crisp bread in their direction. ‘You’ve got some gherkins, Bragdon? Throw them, but save some for when we go back, or we won’t make it home.’

‘I can’t hold them back. Aren’t we there yet? Bragdon, where are you?’ cried Ben. He had thrown four sultanas, which were like trying to appease attacking tigers with four meatballs.

The squealing stopped, but was followed by the strangest sounds, almost like slurping. That was their cue. All crawled at breakneck speed up a rise. At the top, they stopped. Through a clutter of spiky wooden branches, they watched the view far down below.

‘Did we leave them behind?’ said Andy.

‘Spinners … down … ‘ said Bragdon. ‘Look! See Kernel!’ He pointed to what could be seen in the distance through the wide prison-like bars.

‘Yeah, I can see it,’ said Jack. ‘But … but … how do we get over there with all that water in between?’

‘Not another puddle,’ cried Bill.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 30 – The Mackle Ship

They stood on top of a hill searching the area in the distance.

‘Could that be Lemirius Rock?’ said Jack, squinting.

Something red had sprung up in a hazy shimmer in the vicinity of a large expanse of water.

‘Must be,’ said Ben.

‘Didn’t Ambrosius tell us that the hellish prickle mesh covers the whole area around the inland sea? I mean on this side, as well as on the Kernel, and Grim Islands,’ said Andy.

Ben held the map he had found in Sinton’s stolen book ‘Words of Wubicus’. ‘If you look on this, something’s marked out here. These two lines could mean a tunnel. What else could it be? It goes through and …’

‘It’s not a tunnel,’ said Jack. ‘The old man didn’t put that in the notebook.’

Sinton pointed to the ground. He wrote the word ‘tunnel’, and then drew a triangle, with a round spot in each corner, all done in the sand.

‘I think we’ve got to believe him,’ said Bill. ‘A tunnel it is.’

‘A tunnel might help,’ said Andy. ‘Right now, I prefer a tunnel instead of having to deal with the hornlike spinners, and the horrible prickle mesh.’

‘Yeah, but what does that triangle mean?’ said Charlie.

That’s when Bill stumbled on a piece of wood jutting out of the ground.

Ben picked it up, and cleaned it off. ‘Looks like the same triangle as what Sinton showed us.’

They searched the area for more possible clues.

Charlie found an arrow on another piece of wood, which pointed towards a tree trunk. ‘Must be something with that tree.’

Ben raced over to look. He was the first to peek down inside a gap where the tree had continued to grow after having been hollowed out. ‘Hey, guys! Steps inside!’

‘Who wants to go first?’ said Jack.

‘I’ll do it,’ said Andy.

He had to bend down to make his way through, and then disappeared. ‘Seems okay! Come on down!’

All gathered at the bottom before taking off in a line.

The ground was covered with millions of the tiniest seashells. Every step made a crunching sound. When the tunnel branched off into three, they chose what they thought was the safest option, and stayed in what looked to be the main one.

The walk through went smoothly. At the end, they stepped out on a crest. They were so much closer to the red rock, which was clearly visible behind the trees.

‘Do you see what I see?’ said Bill. ‘Is that a little girl down there?’

‘What’s she doing on her own? Or, maybe others are close by,’ said Andy.

‘She can’t be very old,’ said Bill.

As soon as they made it down the crest, they noticed the girl looked more like a boy with long blond hair pulled up in a pony tail. He sat crouching on a whimsy-looking raft, anchored to a tree at the shoreline. He fiddled with some baskets by moving them around, seemingly checking the contents.

They watched as he put something in his mouth.

‘What’s he doing?’ whispered Jack.

‘He’s eating.’ Bill had mouthed the words. ‘I wouldn’t mind a bite myself. Maybe we could ask him for something.’

They whispered what they had to say, careful not to be heard in case the boy became frightened.

‘We need to find out about Bragdon,’ said Ben.

‘We can’t forget about the hostiles,’ said Andy. ‘What if it’s a trap?’

‘We have to take our chances,’ said Bill. ‘Actually, it would be stupid to frighten the poor lad. Charlie, you should go over there, and meet him first. You’ll be less frightening for a child than a bunch of men. We’ll walk over when we know it’s okay.’

Ben had something to say. ‘Yeah, grandpa, that sounds pretty decent, but you look like a kid, so you should go with Charlie.’

‘So, we’ll stay here in the bushes until we know when we can make ourselves known,’ said Jack.

Charlie grabbed Bill’s hand, and walked silently through the bushes, trying not to frighten the boy. When closer, she called out to him. ‘Hello, can I talk to you?’

The boy looked up, confused, and wary. He searched the area in all directions.

‘Is it okay if I come over. Just want to talk.’

At first he hesitated, but then he nodded.

After a few minutes chatting, and telling the boy about the others, Charlie thought it safe, and waved them over.

‘Should be safe. I don’t think there’s anyone else around,’ whispered Jack.

‘HELLO,’ called Ben, waving his arm. ‘Let’s go over there now!’

A few moments later, the group stood in front of the young boy.

‘Hi there,’ said Jack. ‘Do you happen to know where Bragdon is?’

The boy’s eyes wandered from one to the other without saying a word. He showed his discomfort by moving his head from side to side, searching and looking.

‘Would you know where to find him?’ said Bill. ‘He’s supposed to run a ferry to the islands.’

The boy had a worried look. His eyes stayed on Ben longer than the rest. ‘You green-eyed one?’

Ben was astounded. ‘What do you know about that?’

‘Is legend,’ said the boy.

Everyone mumbled about the unfathomable cave world, seeing things in fires, prophesies, and now legends.

‘I know,’ said the boy, staring at Ben. ‘Legend writted.’

‘You’ve heard about Ben,’ said Jack. ‘But you haven’t heard about Bragdon?’

‘Bragdon no legend,’ said the boy.

‘But you know something about him, don’t you?’ said Bill.

‘Why want … know?’

‘We need to know because we need him to take us to the Kernel on Grim Island. We’re here to rescue these young people’s parents,’ Bill pointed to Jack, Charlie and Ben.

‘Do you know anything about the backwater undersurges?’ said Andy.

‘Backwater gone … mighty hard … prickliest everywhere ‘n spinners … me bring stuff prison … me not allow prison … mighty danger … mighty hard.’

‘So, it’s not just a salt pan right now,’ said Bill. ‘If you can go on that raft I mean. It must be enough water.’

‘We need to get there without the Grims finding out,’ said Andy. ‘We’ve heard from Agrimona that Bragdon would be the one to help us.’

With the mention of Agrimona, they watched his excitement.

‘My Agrimona Gramma. You talk Agrimona … me Bragdon … not tell … not tell Agrimona say … you from udder land?’ He pointed to them, and above his head.

‘Yeah, we’re from the top,’ said Ben. ‘So-so … you’re Bragdon?’

‘Me like top.’ He had a smile on his face when he said it. ‘No go Kernel … mighty danger. Me take things prison … close Kernel … must stay water … not good … water burn … bad ones … oh … no … bad ones no see you … happen, take all prison … remember mudder and fudder … old papa Scaramoss … frens … know much … Grims no want papa Scaramoss no more … he help … Gramma Agrimona help … Bragdon no have frens.’

‘Phew! It’s a bit hard to understand you, boy,’ said Bill. ‘Aren’t you a bit young to run a big ferry across the water? What’s it called again?’

‘It’s the Mackle Ship, grandpa,’ said Ben.

‘Yeah, that’s right. Where is that ship, and when do you go there next?’ said Bill. ‘You think we can come with you?’

‘Go Kernel ‘morrow,’ said Bragdon. ‘Hungry? Want eat?’

‘What is it?’ said Jack.

‘Looks like some sort of sea gherkins,’ said Andy.

‘Huh … I don’t know. How do you eat them?’ said Bill.

Bragdon grabbed one from a basket, and bit off one end.

‘Yuck!’ screamed Ben, when watching the slimy mush running down Bragdon’s chin.

Before Bragdon took another bite, he offered some from the baskets.

Howie was quick to accept. Whistler was eager too, and started to eat. Charlie had to turn away.

‘I-I don’t think I’m that hungry.’ Ben watched Sinton, visible for a brief moment, as he sat down behind some bushes eating a sea gherkin.

‘I’ll check what we have left,’ said Jack, knowing there was hardly anything at all.

‘Thanks mate, but we’re not used to the stuff down here yet,’ said Bill. ‘Agrimona stuffed some things in my backpack for us. Let’s see if we can dig up something less mushy like an old eel with some moss berries!’

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 29 – Marra Mamba

First there was a tad bit of red showing. With more exposed, Ben noticed the many bands of colours. By then, he became impatient. ‘What’s that hidden in there?’ He tried to help, but Howie refused to let him.

When Bill saw the mass of colours shining through the muddled net of stitches, his breathing became faster. He mumbled, while holding onto his forehead. Thoughts, and feelings from a time long gone, shot through his mind like projectiles. Not being able to stand still, he leaned back, and forth, and from side to side. When he was on the verge of grabbing the vest to get it done faster, Howie pushed his hands away.

With every stitch Howie pulled, more became visible. As the full spectrum of bright pink, and red to burgundy tones, tiny black bands of iron, a bit of yellow, green and blue, and even specks of a golden hue, appeared, Bill stared at Ben. ‘That’s my Marra Mamba! Get Andy quick!’

‘Wow! You mean the one you found up north?’ Ben was eager to look more closely. He had to feel the stone. Was it possible that it was the one he had heard so much about? The one his grandpa had found years ago before a Yowie had snatched it away.

When the last stitch was unravelled, and Howie held it in his hand, Bill was sure.

‘So what is it?’ said Jack.

Howie stood there with the stone in his hand. ‘It’s called Binehogen.’

‘Crikey!’ Bill had to sit down. ‘Did you really say ‘Binehogen’? I think … you mean … could it? I remember when I found it. Far out! This is a miracle, if ever there was one. Had no idea my stone is the actual Binehogen.’

‘It doesn’t look like a key,’ said Charlie. ‘But who knows?’

Bill’s excitement took a new turn. ‘My Marra Mamba! On to the Kernel … I can’t believe it. We’re going home!’

‘Slow down,’ said Jack. ‘We’ve got a lot ahead of us before we can go home. Well, that is, if it IS the real keystone. We don’t even know what to do with it, do we?’

Ben faced Howie. He looked him intently in the eyes. ‘You’ve got to let us borrow it, Howie. You just gotta. It’s okay. We’ll give it back later. My grandpa just said it was his Marra Mamba. You see, he found it a very long time ago, but didn’t get to keep it. We know it’s yours, and we won’t take it from you. You can be sure of that.’

‘I’ll let you have it for a while,’ said Howie. ‘I don’t like it here. I want to go home with you. But I need it back later. Have to keep it safe. I was chosen as the Holder.’

‘Sure you can come with us,’ said Bill. ‘If you help us, we help you. No worries mate. I’ll even help you find your parents. ‘

At that moment, Bill tumbled to the floor screaming.

‘Calm down!’ said Jack. ‘He’s okay.’

Nobody had fetched Andy, but the tumult had woken him up. He came out of the bedroom in a dazed state. ‘What … what’s going on here?’

‘This guy here is going to help us,’ said Jack. ‘His name is William Sinton. He’s not normally like this, but he was in the bad waters Agrimona talked about. It changes a person into an ape-like zilch. See, that’s exactly what happened to him. It’s nearly the same, as what happened to you, grandpa.’

‘Now I’m happy. No offense meant, but I wouldn’t have liked to be a zilch,’ said Bill. ‘Not that it’s anything wrong with that. On the other hand, it’s probably, as bad as being a kid again.’

‘We call him Sinton,’ said Ben. ‘He can’t talk much, but he can write, and the beaut thing is that he can make himself invisible whenever he wants to. We can use it when we try to get into the prison. He’s given us maps over the inside.’

‘Sorry, Sinton,’ said Bill. ‘You look a bit like … hey, Ben … what’s the name of those things again?

‘You mean a hobbit?’ said Ben.

‘Or a bit like those little cavemen they found on Flores Island close to Indonesia,’ said Andy.

‘That’s right. Sorry, Sinton, you should be in movies,’ said Bill. ‘Oh, gosh, nothing surprises me any more in this place.’

‘Grandpa, Ben is very clever. I don’t know how he does it, but he can see things in the flames, the same as Ambrosius,’ said Jack.

‘Okay, just so you all know it. I don’t know why I can. It just happens when I look at the flames. I’ve seen things before they happened, and I know for a fact that we’ll find mum and dad.’ Ben looked at Andy, and nodded. ‘Yep, we’ll find Angelica too. I’m afraid it’s going to be a bit hard, and I don’t know how it’s going to happen. But it will.’

There was another thing, which worried Ben deeply, but he didn’t have the heart to tell them. He had grave doubts about Ambrosius. Was he as honest as he pretended? Ben had seen him in the flames. He stood close to a fancy-looking silver-haired Yowie. They were in an unfamiliar place, inside an enormous chamber, decorated with an abundance of coloured gemstones. He had no idea what Ambrosius was doing there. Another worrying thought was this; if Ambrosius saw the future in the flames, it was more than likely he would have seen the exact point in time when Ben had found the important keystone. What if he sent out a message through the ether, and what if it was picked up by all those who would kill for the stone? What if the Warpers with no names found out? If they were hunted now, it would become worse, so much worse.

Ben knew right there, and then, he would have to outsmart all beings in the cave world to be able to save his family, and friends. As soon as everything was taken care of, they would be able to leave the underground world forever, and when they were back in Perth, his life would be different, so much different. Now he knew that Jack had changed. Jack believed in him now. He had the brother he had always wanted.

———-

The next morning, after an interesting dinner with many stories told the night before, they helped Agrimona with the clearing of some earlier rock falls.

After breakfast, they gathered in a group on the platform ready to leave. There were excitement, but also foreboding. They were to face more unknown hurdles.

A strong surge outwards came from the hole marked with L.R. Dust swirled around like a mini willy-willy.

Bill looked at his watch, which hung loosely on his arm. ‘Is Lemirius Rock ready for take-off?’

Agrimona licked her filthy index finger, and held it up in the air. ‘No, not exactly right yet. Listen, before we go any further, you need to pay for the extra passenger!’

‘But … we don’t have any more currency,’ said Bill.

‘I cannot let one more pass through,’ said Agrimona, stubbornly.

Howie opened his backpack, and pulled out the small wheel. ‘I don’t have anything else, but if I can go for free, you can have this.’

‘What? That’s bartering. I can’t believe my flaming mind, but one more wheel is something I desperately need. My cart can be built in a jiffy. Yes, you can go for the wheel. But you should wait. We don’t want any accidents. If the force isn’t strong enough, nobody is getting anywhere. You might end up somewhere … well … who knows exactly where?’

‘And you’re sure that it’s perfectly safe if it’s a strong one?’ said Jack. ‘And that you know when it’s exactly right?’

‘And that we get to where we want?’ said Bill. ‘I’m scared.’

Agrimona giggled. ‘Oh, yes, perfectly safe, and very sure I am. As a matter of fact, this time of year they’re perfect.’

‘So, what time of year is it?’ said Jack. ‘Winter, spring …?’

‘Same as on top, you silly boy,’ said Agrimona, laughing.

‘How windy is it in there?’ said Charlie. ‘Should I tie up my hair?’

‘Well, good point, my dear. If your hair flies around, it might get caught on the tree roots.’

‘Tree roots?’ said Bill. ‘It doesn’t sound too good. More like pretty dangerous, if you ask me.’

‘What if we get hit by them?’ said Andy.

‘Not that strong, mind you. They’re thin, wet and weak, not thick, dry and hard. It’s more like it’s easy to get a bit tangled in the mess, while surging through. Here’s a warning for you though. Whatever you do, do not stand up!’

‘That sounds dramatic,’ said Bill. ‘No, we won’t stand up, that’s for sure, but what did you say we do with the mats. Just leave them at the station when we get there?’

‘Who cares? They’re never used again.’

‘Do we need an anchor, or something?’ said Ben.

‘Not if you want to go to the end, you don’t. Oh, here it comes! I can hear the strong whining. All this howling in the hollows always gets to me. This is the one coming now. You can all sit together. Put the mats in first, and hold on to them, and one another. The push will come any minute now.’ She pointed to Andy, who was on his knees. ‘You better sit down.’

‘Goodbye then, and thank you,’ said Bill before he quickly threw out a rope. ‘Hold onto this, guys! Keep backpacks, and sleeping bags on you. Secure bows and arrows too.’

‘Be sure to pass by if you should come back this way,’ said Agrimona.

They took their places by sitting down on the mats to wait. Thinking of Sinton, Ben patted the space in front.

The sounds became stronger. The screaming from the inner parts of the tunnel was like angry howls from a hundred jet engines.

‘Lots of howling, hey Howie?’ said Ben, turning around to face him.

Howie looked nervous. ‘I-I don’t like it. I-I did this in a tunnel before.’

Andy was in front. The others sat in a row behind him. Each one held onto the backpack, hanging on the back of the person in front. With the same hand, they had to hold onto the rope. The other hand had to hold onto the mat.

‘Don’t let go of the rope!’ called Jack. ‘Whatever you do, don’t let go of anything!’

‘Oh, my goodness, here we go!’ cried Bill. ‘It’s louder. Getting closer. Can’t believe we’re doing this.’

Ben tried to yell louder than the overpowering noise, but it came out like a whisper. Nobody was likely to hear him.

A monstrous thrust of wind enveloped them into a cloud of cool darkness where an enormous swishing-sloshing sound echoed through their ears. They surged onward with incredible speed, and were hit by jumbled messes of tree roots racing past. A few seconds later they were almost weightless, swallowed by the strong air blast, still holding onto the rope. Like a ribbon of feathers, they surged through the void with the crying of the wind overpowering every frightened scream.

They were catapulted through the horizontal blow hole towards the light at the end. The exit came fast, but unexpected.

One after the other tumbled out into the open.

‘You beauty!’ yelled Andy, who was the first to stand up.

Charlie stayed on the ground with tears streaming. ‘I hate it! I so hate it!’

‘That was awesome!’ said Jack, on shaky legs. ‘The worst ride I’ve ever had.’

‘Cool! But remind me never to do that again,’ said Ben. ‘Can’t believe we did it. Howie, are you okay?’

Howie lay curled up in a ball. He looked up and nodded.

‘What about you Sinton? Are you with us?’ Ben looked around to find him. ‘Can you make yourself visible for one moment, so we know you’re here?’

Sinton showed himself, and held up both his thumbs.

Then all eyes turned to Bill, who patted his chest, and gasped for air.

‘What’s wrong?’ said Ben.

Jack rushed forward. ‘Is it your heart?’

‘No, I’m fine … eh … I’m fine. Felt like I was going to have a blooming heart attack in there. No, everything’s hunky dory, and if I’m like a kid again, my ticker should be sort of renewed. Ah, well … maybe. But, I don’t like what I see here. Turn around, guys!’

Bill pointed at the surrounding wall where darkened hills of wilted seaweed hindered the view of what lay ahead. The air reeked of salt, and the rotting process.

‘How’re we going to get through that stink?’ said Jack. ‘It’s at least two meters high. No way we can do it.’

‘Well, we can’t turn back, and there’s no other way out of here, so we’ll have to plod along somehow,’ said Bill.

Ben found a stick in a pile of used mats. ‘You know what the best thing is? If the hostiles, and the Warpers can’t get inside the Boab, they can’t follow us. It would take so much longer to walk to this place. We would be safe for some time, don’t you think?’

All agreed, but there was no way of knowing for sure.

Ben stirred the massive pile with the stick. A swarm of insects took flight. Not deterred, he climbed into the mess, but cried out when he sank to his thighs.

‘I don’t think we can wade through that,’ said Bill. ‘It’s a monster of a snag. Hope it’s not another trap.’

Ben jumped out fast when he heard those words.

‘Nobody told us it’s like the bottom of a stagnant lake,’ said Jack. ‘Swampy and slimy, and for all we know, it could even have a sinking bottom.’

‘If we go by the maps and descriptions, it won’t be any other way,’ said Bill.

‘Okay, so either we go on, or we’re stuck here, buried in a pocket of dead seaweed,’ said Andy.

Charlie looked up from her sobbing, and snuffling. ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ She buried her head in her hands.

Whistler looked forlorn. He had no idea what to do more than trying to pat Charlie on her arm.

With no other option, and after some urgent persuasion, Charlie seemed able to continue.

One after the other climbed into the dead seaweed, struggling upwards through the pile by pushing, and shoving.

Unfortunately, it didn’t stop when they were on top. They had to make their way up, and down, more ridges. If the terrain was congested by dead plant material, and ever confusing before, it became so much worse.

They stood on the crest of what seemed to be the last ridge, and faced a cliff wall with a cave entrance at the bottom.

‘What? Does this mean we have go through another cave?’ said Bill.

‘Seems to be no other way,’ said Andy. ‘Seaweed ridges all around us.’

‘Unless we head back,’ said Jack.

‘No point in heading back,’ said Ben. ‘Blow holes don’t seem to blow in the opposite direction.’ He slid down and trudged off the few steps to the entry. The others followed. When he peeked inside, he was shocked.

Andy sneaked past him. ‘The worst shell-encrusted cave structure I’ve ever seen.’

‘So, we all have to be extra careful. We don’t want to cut ourselves,’ said Ben.

‘Let’s hurry through, and we’ll be out in no time,’ said Bill.

‘I just hope the tunnel leads through somehow, and not into more caves and tunnels,’ said Ben.

The going went slow with ducking, and swerving, as well as wading through tiny streams of water coming out from the subterranean system. They clambered over sharp edges on rocks, and broken shell encrusted ridges. Cuts and rips on arms and legs were unavoidable. Struggling through the darkness, only lit up by their torches, there were sudden piercing cries when somebody was hit by another sharp point.

When Ben saw the light at the end, he knew they were close. Just as they were leaving the tunnel, they looked at each other.

‘Wow! Look at you,’ said Charlie to Ben. He had, like all of them, scratches to every exposed part of his body.

‘Hey, we’re all the same,’ said Andy. ‘Nothing we can do. Give you a hundred bucks for a shower though.’

‘Strewth! I’ve had enough of this. We should get a move on,’ said Jack.

‘Yeah, I want to get out of this place altogether,’ said Ben. ‘Never to be seen again.’

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Just to show you what the Binehogen may look like. A bit like a mix of these gemstones, if also almost in the shape of a small cross bow. These are some of my own pieces of North Western Australian Marra Mamba, Tiger Iron and Tiger Eye. If you want to see some really good examples of Marra Mamba go to this link.

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 28 – The Cellar Vein

Ben went back inside.

‘Hey, Jack, I think we should take a look at what’s down in the cellar. Behind all those doors could be something really interesting, don’t you think?’

Jack’s eyes opened, drowsily, before he yawned. ‘You go … if you find that so exciting. Come and get me if you find … hmm … whatever.’

Ben looked over at his grandpa. His small body was leaning back with the head tilted. The snoring was at full blast.

Sinton had become visible. He had found a spot on the floor where he lay curled up.

‘Jack, just make sure you tell grandpa about Sinton. If he wakes up, and finds him, he might die of a heart attack. Even if his body is like a kid, we don’t know how it affects him. Don’t forget to tell the others too.’

There was no reply.

‘Ah, well, it looks like I’m going by myself.’

Ben went back out on the landing. He stared into the dusky light below. He thought about the strange remnant of a continent where every single thing was out of kilter. It was a primitive world, but it seemed to function even if there was no power, no phones, no computers, and no modern materials. All things were made of stone, plants, seaweed, leather, fur, or wood. It was a strange world where nothing was simple. The strangest thing was that nobody, in the world above, knew about beings living in a land underneath their feet. For a moment he fantasised about if somebody dug a deep enough hole, they might stumble on a layer of Yowies, either friendly, or hostile. On the other hand, they might not. No mining company had ever come across them. They had never shown this on TV news, or through the daily papers. By the looks of it, it had never happened. Another thing was that nobody seemed able to return if they accidentally entered Panghellan. It was easy to get in, but impossible to get out. It couldn’t be done without the keystone.

He thought about the prediction. Why was he supposed to find it? He had no idea, but knew he had to make it happen. They would never be able to leave, if it wasn’t found. The trouble was that it could be anywhere. The others had no understanding of the time it took to search, and that the search had to be done, and he was the one to do it. He was the green-eyed one destined to find the Binehogen.

He hesitated slightly, but took the steps down before he stood in the tunnel where they had come through before. He chose the next one after their bathroom. The door was painted in an ocher colour. Bare, crooked branches, and twigs poked out from the wall around it. He was wary, but something inside his inner self wanted him to proceed.

He grabbed the knobbly, twisted handle, and smiled when it opened. Pointing inside in the swirling dust with his torch, which had new batteries, he saw nothing at first. As soon as his eyes were used to the conditions, and most of the dust had settled, he stared into another passageway. He waited, while thinking if he should continue, or not.

He made a decision, and left the door wide open before he started down the dark corridor. He was taken aback by the many doors at the sides. Eager to find out what secrets awaited, he tried the first, which had a latch. He tinkered with it, got it open, and put his head inside. The smell of road kill on a hot day put him off. He slammed the door shut, hoping it wasn’t Agrimona’s pantry, and headed for the next one. A key hung from a warped wooden hook on the wall. He reached up to grab it, and put it in the keyhole. The door opened like a well-oiled machine. He stepped into a dust-smelling chamber filled with knotted, gnarled, and twisted wooden pieces thrown together in huge, messy piles.

‘Like gigantic birds nests! This must be the supplies for making all the furniture stuff.’

He pulled the door closed, locked, and put the key back before he went to the next. Just as he was to try the door handle, he heard a faint knocking sound. It came from further down the tunnel.

He listened. After five knocks, it became silent. He decided on the spot to find out where it came from, and walked off towards it.

He passed more doors. He heard it again, and waited at each one. When he arrived at one with a spear gate in front, a prison cell came to mind. He stood still, while listening, when another knock startled him.

Breathing faster, he waited, contemplating what to do.

‘Is anyone there?’ he called out.

Nobody answered.

He tried to get in by rattling the gate, then studied the door frame behind it. There were no handles on either side, and no keys. He realised it would be impossible to open.

When he heard the next knock, he had an idea, and raced back upstairs.

‘Jack, you’ve got to come! Somebody’s knocking in the cellar, and it looks like a prison down there.’

‘It’s no prison here mate. Why would it be a prison where the old woman rents out shacks? It’s doesn’t make sense. Leave me alone, I want to sleep!’

‘NO! You’ve got to come! I want to check who’s in there.’

Jack rolled over, away from him.

Ben grabbed his backpack on the way out. ‘Okay then, suit yourself, but I’m going down again.’

Back at the door, he took another good look around the frame, but couldn’t find a way to open.

‘Who are you?’ Ben called out, as he stood outside the railing with his ear, as close as possible. When there was no response, he decided to take action. He flung off his backpack, opened a pocket, and grabbed the silver veined crystal.

With two quick upward motions, he managed to raise the gate a tiny bit from the floor. He flicked it again. It went up further. One more time, and he could get in through the space underneath.

When the spear gate fell down behind him, and he was caged in with his face pressed close to the wooden door, he was not the least worried. With the Silver Stick in his hand, he knew there was no way he could fail.

The soft knocks were there again, but weaker. Another one was followed by a few moments of nothing, before a barely audible scratch.

‘Who … is it?’ called Ben.

He heard nothing from inside. No knocking, and no scratching.

‘Whoever you are, I don’t know how this door’s opened, but I’ll get you out, as soon as I can. If you can hear me, knock twice.’

He heard a thud. Soon after came another.

Ben stood in the space between the door, and the spear gate with his nose plastered to the door. He reached over the door frame, and ran his fingers on the outside edge. He found no handle, no keyhole, no switches, and no latches, but somehow it was firmly stuck. He thought about what Jack would have said: ‘It must be some sort of mechanism.’ But if there was, Ben wasn’t the one to find it. There was only one thing to do. He had to use the emergency equipment again.

He pointed with the crystal, and made an upward swing. No movement, so he tried one more time. Again there was nothing. Then he remembered another way it had been used in Baffling. Kenairies had done it. Maybe he could too, unless a special skill was needed.

He pointed awkwardly, in the small space, before he managed to draw an invisible line inside the door frame straight on the wood.

Nothing happened.

He thought about how it possibly could be done better, and pointed harder. As he waited, thinking about what to try next, there was a sudden crack. He had expected it to happen, but was still filled with astonishment when a thin line spread inside the frame. A moment later, the line changed, and turned into a fully-fledged door.

He pushed hard, and was surprised when it opened. He peeked into the darkness, but saw nothing.

‘Hello? Is anyone here?’

As soon as he stepped over the threshold, and moved away a couple of paces, he turned fast, expecting the opening to be gone.

But it was still there.

Then he saw something else, while squinting through the gloom. Beside the door was a furry ball, only slightly larger than a sack of potatoes.

Suddenly, he was more scared than he had ever been, but took one step closer to bend down. With the uppermost tips of his fingers, he touched the lump lightly.

Something stirred.

He felt like running, but something told him to stay. He stood still not knowing what to think. When the lump started moaning, he was hit by the strangest feeling.

He hesitated in the longest before he pointed the torch to search through the folds with his free hand. He carefully pulled away a loose piece, and happened to look into a pair of dark eyes in a downy face.

Stunned beyond comprehension, a chunk formed in his throat. ‘Did-did that crazy woman lock you up?’

A weak voice came out of the folds. ‘Uh … tired …’

‘Hang on a sec! I’ll get you something to drink.’

Ben searched his backpack, and found the water bottle. He lifted the head to force some water through the lips.

A few small sips had passed into the mouth when the lump stared into Ben’s face.

Ben stared back. ‘YOU! I’ve seen you before.’

‘Uh … not … seen you.’

‘But I’ve seen you. What are you doing here? How long have you been locked up? I’m Ben Starling. Who are you?’

‘I’m Howie.’ He had a few more sips, before struggling to sit up.

Ben gave him a moment to regain more strength. ‘Are you okay? Tell me more, as soon as you can.’

‘I’m … uh … from Wundowie, … I’ve been walking … sliding … uh … been thrown around … in tunnels by screaming wind. Ended up here. You’re … not the same as me. Are you a human? Where am I?’

Ben tried, in a few short sentences, to explain what he had learned about the ancient cave world, and the land of Panghellan.

‘Tried to find my family. Don’t know where they are,’ said Howie.

‘I’ve got to ask you something,’ said Ben. ‘I can’t see much here in the dark. Are you by any chance a Yowie?’

‘Sort of, I think.’

‘How come you talk so good?’ Ben was surprised why he talked with an Australian accent.

‘Don’t know.’

‘Okay then, but there’s something else I’ve got to ask,’ said Ben. ‘Do you have a kind of stone in your backpack?’

‘How … did you know that?’

‘Because it’s been in a fire that I’m supposed to find it, but I first had to find you. So, do you have it?’

‘What fire? Don’t know what you’re talking about … saw bush fire before I fell down a hole.’

Ben went on to tell about his own parents imprisoned on a hard to reach island. He went into the tale about a stone, and that all he wanted was to save his mum and dad, and then leave the crazy world of Panghellan for good. ‘To get out, we need a special stone to open a kind of portal at the Phosphene, wherever that is. I don’t know much more right now. Can you show it to me? I’ve always wanted to know what it looks like.’

Howie opened his backpack. In slow motion, he pulled out fiber containers, plaited strings, wooden pieces, gum nuts, a kangaroo warning sign, a boomerang, and a small wheel.

‘What’s the wheel for?’ said Ben.

‘Don’t know. Found it.’ Then he pulled out a greenish rock, almost the size of his hand.

‘What? Is that it? Looks like it could be, maybe fluorite, but It doesn’t look like any key. I don’t think it could be the right one. I’d say it’s an absolute bummer. I was so sure, but it’s just like a beaut looking stone.’

Howie put it back with his belongings.

Ben was disappointed. ‘It’s strange. I did see in a fire that you had it, even if I didn’t see exactly what it looked like. Hey, do you want to come upstairs? I think they’ll want to meet you. And we’ll give you something to eat too. Are you hungry?’

Howie nodded. ‘What is this place?’

‘It’s a sort of a station for travel, if you know what that is. Down under you’ve got friendly Yowies, but also bad ones, and some hostile hunters. It’s a weird place with traps, and strange goings on, and if you say that you’re coming from the top, I don’t think you’re going to like it much here. Another thing is that you might not find your family in this place.’

‘I must find them,’ said Howie.

‘We’ve got to tell the others. They’ll go bonkers when they see you. Oh, another thing; upstairs there’s something you probably haven’t seen before. It’s an ape-like zilch, but he’s not bad. He just looks a bit scary. He’s going to help us.’

Ben remembered the images he had seen in the flames at different times, and could hardly wait to lay his hands on Howie’s backpack. Just to check inside. He had the strongest feeling that the stone would be in there, but Howie had been careful not to turn it completely upside down. In fact, he was positively certain that Howie had the stone. The flames of the fire had not revealed the exact location, not yet, but he knew he must be right. He had come to understand that the flames never lied. It was only a matter of finding the stone, and when he did, he had to persuade Howie to let him borrow it. As soon as he had it in his possession, they would be able to do the rescue, and then leave the underground cave world forever.

Ben made a sign, and hurried up the stairs with Howie struggling behind.

‘WAKE UP GUYS! I’ve got someone here to see you,’ shouted Ben.

Jack turned, and saw a hairy face of a young boy. ‘What the …? Another kind of zilch, or … what is it?’

Bill stirred. He looked up, drowsily, and stretched on the uncomfortable armchair.

‘It’s not a zilch. It’s Howie. He’s a kind of Yowie from Wundowie. I found him in the cellar,’ said Ben.

‘What do you mean? Found him in the cellar?’ said Jack.

Bill scratched his head. ‘What? Are there … eh … people, or what, down there?’

Ben had to go through the story how he had found Howie. ‘Do we have something to eat? I think he’s hungry.’

While throwing glances at Howie, Bill slid out of bed to search the backpacks. They had almost nothing, but Bill offered him the last two bush tomatoes.

‘You’re not going to eat?’ said Howie.

‘We don’t have any more,’ said Bill. ‘You can take them. We’ll get some food later on anyway. I’ll ask if you can be fed too.’

Howie devoured the tiny morsels, while Ben explained in more detail about the hostile hunters with their smelly berets, the peaceful collectors, and what he called the Warpers with their dangerous abilities. He came to the part about his parents trapped in a prison on an island with not only hostiles, but thorny spikes, and evil creatures, more thirsty for blood than leeches.

It was sudden. Bill fell to his knees with tears streaming down his cheeks. ‘This is so frustrating! I don’t know what to do. I was the one to look after you. And now look at me, I’ve failed miserably. I’m like a six-year old, and we don’t know what’s around the corner. We’ve got to find that damned keystone, but have no idea where to look. That stone is the only way to get out of this unearthly mystifying place, and we’ve got to get into that scungy prison to find the kids’ parents too.’ He snivelled, and tried to wipe away the snot with his hands. ‘Far out! I feel like giving up. It’s absolutely the worst mess ever. If only I could wake up, and find that all this is a nightmare.’

Charlie made a sign for him to sit on her lap. She hugged him, and dried his tears. ‘Come on, grandpa! It’s not that bad. I’m sure Ben finds it when the time is right.’

‘I promise we’ll find it. In time too. I have a feeling …,’ said Ben.

Howie felt guilty when he watched the strong emotions. He sat quiet for a moment, and then made a move. He lifted off his scruffy animal hide of a vest. He touched the bulky criss-crossing web of stringy material formed like a hidden pocket at the bottom, and started to unravel the stitches.

‘What’s that you’ve got there?’ said Ben.

‘It’s … eh … something,’ said Howie.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 27 – The Milk-like Eye Patch

Agrimona folded away bunches of webbed tresses, and twirled roots hanging down, to get to the cupboard. She got hold of a stone rod, which looked like a pestle, before she grabbed a bowl with a thick white liquid, resembling thick cream more than milk. Leaning back, she poured the white substance, as a covering over one of her eyes. Amazingly, it stayed on as if glued.

Mumbling some incomprehensible words, she stood up to point the rod, and then stir the pond water. When finished, she quickly flung away the gooey patch back into the bowl where it returned to liquid.

‘What are you doing?’ said Ben.

She was unresponsive, staring into the pond. Half a minute went past in silence, and without movement.

‘What do you see?’ said Jack, impatiently.

Agrimona’s mouth drooped.

‘So … what?’ said Ben.

Bill shook his head. ‘I don’t see a thing.’

‘Well, it’s enough if I do. I see the hunting patrol. They’re at the fork … on the path … they’re arguing … some seem to want to take the left one. It does not bode well.’

‘But what does it mean?’ said Ben.

‘As I said; it does not bode well.’

‘A-are they on their way here?’ said Ben. ‘What about Charlie, and Whistler, and Andy? What do we do?’

Bill pulled his finger out of his nose. ‘I really think we should leave. We don’t know where they are right now, or if we can believe any of this. It’s a bit out of the daily grind for us. I just hope they’re not on the same track, as that other horrible band, or the monsters.’

‘What … eh … monsters are we talking about?’ said Agrimona.

‘I mean those huge hungry-looking larger-than-life lizard-crocodile thingies. They were terrifyingly scary. Do you have lots of them down here?’

Ben became alarmed. ‘What are they?’

‘Oh, you mean them. They’re mostly in the unused caves, living in the depths. You won’t see them.’ She waved her hand, as if there wasn’t a care in the world.

‘For your information, I did see one!’ said Bill. ‘And he was a gigantic monster, especially when he stood up. How do you know they’ll stay down there? Mine walked across my stuff. If I’d been right there, I think he would’ve taken me for breakfast. I don’t think they’re that hunky dory to tell you the truth.’

‘Bill, oh, Bill, you exaggerate quite a bit. I rather see one of those than a hostile any day,’ said Agrimona. ‘The huge ones aren’t fast for one thing. Now let me see if I can find out some more about your granddaughter, and your friends.’ She made the magic procedure one more time before studying the pond water.

‘Well, well, well, now I do see a young man, and a young boy … holding onto a young girl … oh, no, they’re running … approaching now … ‘

‘It’s them! You’ve got to make the door. Make it quick,’ said Ben. ‘So they can get in, but not the others.’

‘Oh, no, no, don’t! They can’t see that they’re followed … she stumbles … oh, no … up again … faster … NO … FASTER! They’re turning their heads to look behind … they’re aware of the hostiles, but still can’t see them …’

Agrimona mumbled some incomprehensible words, stirring the water with the stone rod. ‘Done,’ she said.

Bill scratched his head. ‘You mean that’s all?’

‘What?’ said Ben. ‘Did you make the door?’

She nodded. ‘I opened it. And I removed it too.’

Bill glanced at Jack and Ben.

‘Listen! My methods are sincere, very sincere! For your information, they’re already inside. I felt the trembling, as they came through. Safe for now, but we should greet them. Hurry to the entry!’

‘But can’t the baddies get in now?’ said Bill.

Agrimona sneered. ‘You haven’t understood anything, have you?’

‘Well, it’s kind of hard to believe this hocus-pocus,’ said Jack.

Ben thought he knew better. ‘Just some kind of weird magic is all I can say.’

She nodded. ‘Believe it. My milk-like eye patch has not been wrong yet. Not ever.’

The group hurried back towards the entry. As they reached the area with the platforms, and the station house, the others had arrived, and stood waiting at the bottom with their backs turned.

Ben was ahead, and called out to Charlie. ‘Hey!’

She turned. Her eyes filled with tears. ‘Oh, Ben, I was so scared I’d never see you again. I know they were chasing us, and …’ Her eyes found Bill.

Bill smiled. ‘Yep, sweet pea, it’s me alright.’

‘What’s wrong?’

‘No time for worries. But you should know that Ben’s been right all along. This cave world is more dangerous than a nesting site chock-a-block full of vipers.’ Bill went into an explanation about craters, ponds, and the shrinking water where it apparently had happened.

Charlie looked confused, but then the hugging, and kissing started. Her grandpa’s predicament was briefly forgotten.

Everyone explained in short words what had happened to them. Bill went on to tell Charlie, Andy and Whistler that Agrimona had seen the ones right behind them, but they were saved with the help of her outstanding magic.

Charlie was bewildered. ‘Magic, or not, are you sure they can’t get in? Are you really sure?’

Ben wondered how safe it could be. ‘Does the magic last?’

Agrimona frowned. ‘Not to worry. They can’t enter unless I let them. That’s how it’s always been. The only thing we need to worry about now is the time. A quarter past six to be exact.’

Shocked, all turned to look at an ancient station clock on the wall.

‘Is that thing even working?’ said Andy.

‘Of course, it’s working,’ said Agrimona.

‘We should be alright for a while then,’ said Bill, but he had trouble comprehending.

‘I can’t for my life understand what it is with a quarter past six,’ said Jack. ‘We hear it all the time.’

‘You ask about a quarter past six?’ said Agrimona. ‘Some say it’s quarter past six at all times. I’d say that’s only when the extraordinary magic down here is lost for fifteen whole mind boggling minutes. Sometimes they’re the longest minutes in history. As you can understand, anything can happen.’

Ben’s ears began to ring. ‘What do you mean? The ones chasing us pretend that it’s a quarter past six all the time. Why do they do that? And Earl …’

‘NO!’ screamed Jack. ‘Don’t say his name!’

‘I-I forgot,’ said Ben. ‘It’s this guy, and he says the time’s always a quarter past six.’

‘That’s wishful thinking by the brutes, my boy,’ said Agrimona. ‘That’s the only thing I can think of, but the magic here doesn’t work that way. It has to be the absolute right time for the cycle to break.’

‘We need to get away from here before something worse happens. What do you say, grandpa?’ Jack turned to Agrimona. ‘How much is a ticket to Lemirius Rock? Can you also tell us more about the blowholes, especially how they work, and the safety?’

‘Yeah, are they really supposed to be okay?’ said Ben.

‘Five each, and, of course, they’re safe,’ said Agrimona. ‘Well, as safe as anything in this land.’

‘That doesn’t really convince me,’ said Andy.

Ben fished out the leather bag with pebbles from his backpack, and started counting with Whistler hanging over his shoulder.

Jack whispered in Ben’s ear. ‘Do we have enough?’ He turned to Agrimona. ‘What about half price for the youngest?’

‘There’s no such thing as half price in Panghellan,’ said Agrimona. ‘They either pay full, or they can go through the snake hole. It takes much longer … unless … well … you know.’

Ben and Bill stood with their mouths open.

‘I’m-I’m not going through any snake hole,’ said Ben.

‘We weren’t told about any snake holes in the blowholes,’ said Charlie.

‘It’s bad enough with the blowies,’ said Bill. ‘Not to worry, guys. I’ll pay full price for all of us.’ He took out his wallet from his backpack, and pulled out a ten, and a twenty dollar note.

Agrimona glared at Bill. ‘NO! You can’t pay with worthless paper! I need currency.’

Bill had trouble understanding. ‘What are you talking about? It is currency.’

‘Grandpa, they don’t use Aussie money down here,’ said Ben. ‘You’ve got to pay with pebbles.’ He showed the small white stones he held in both hands.

‘WHAT? You mean you pay with those. Are you nuts?’ said Bill. ‘Wait a second! I think I’ve got some. I found them close to the pond. I might have some on me.’

‘Yeah, but were they white?’ said Jack.

Bill couldn’t find them.

Ben gave Agrimona all he had left, which was twenty-two stones.

‘Can we owe you the rest if you give us something to eat before we leave, please Agrimona?’ said Jack. ‘I think I can speak for everyone when I say that we’re very hungry.’

‘Yeah, I’m sorry I don’t seem to have your currency. But I’m dying for something to eat,’ said Andy.

‘How do you all propose to pay then? You don’t have enough for the fare, or the food, and I don’t know if you ever come back here. Well, you can’t go return for one thing. Only creep around aimlessly through the prickle mesh, and try to find your way through, either this year, or the next, depending on the backwater undersurges. That scourge comes when you least expect it.’

‘I think we’ll have to get back somehow. Ben is the one who’s going to find the Binehogen. If we get out of here, we’ll take you with us. How about that? You want to go home?’ Bill nudged her with his elbow.

‘Home? Oh, no, it sounds like an impossible idea. I can never get used to the hurly-burly up above again. Tell you what though! If you stay until tomorrow, you could work it off before you leave.’

‘What do you want us to do?’ said Jack.

‘Just help me fix some stairs. I’ve got a room in my cellar here, but it’s so blimey difficult to get down to my own bathroom for the moment. It needs some cleaning up of rock falls, and the like. And the young lady can brush my hair. Haven’t done that for years. How about it, my dear? Would you happen to have a hair brush, or should we use my home-made one?’

Charlie nodded. ‘We can use yours.’

‘Looks like we have to stay until tomorrow then. Tell us more about how to travel through the blowholes, and we’ll do the work for you,’ said Bill. ‘I might be small, but I’m still pretty strong.’ He showed his muscles in a body-builder stance.

Ben had trouble to keep from laughing.

‘I’ll let you use one of my shacks overnight then,’ said Agrimona.

‘Shacks? You’ve got shacks?’ said Jack. ‘You mean ‘real shacks’? I can’t believe it. Where are they?’

‘Have you never heard about shack hire, pal?’

‘Yeah, ‘course I have. I just haven’t seen any down here,’ said Jack.

‘My shacks aren’t just ordinary shacks. Did you happen to see the big bottle trees on your way in? Or did you arrive blind-folded?’

‘Far out! You mean they’re the shacks? How?’ said Jack. ‘Are they furnished … with some sort of beds?’

‘There’s a tunnel system connecting all underneath. Some of the tree shacks have beds, but probably not the ones you’re used to. Just because we don’t have what you’ve got above, doesn’t mean we’re entirely uncivilised. Sometimes we hear things, and try to adapt,’ said Agrimona. ‘I’ll take you over there now, and I’ll show you the vein too.’

‘Vein?’ Bill was puzzled, and made a face, thinking about varicose veins. ‘I don’t need to see any vein.’

‘Okay, you don’t have to, but I will tell you that the northern vein is connected to a few places up the top in your world, is also linked to the passageways, and cellars under the shacks. If you enter our land here through the vein, there’s no return, always one-way traffic. ‘

Agrimona showed the way to one of the larger holes in the wall. She climbed through and took them into a tunnel. At the end, a rocky stairway led upwards. Before they took to the stairs, she showed them six doors at the bottom, all elaborately decorated.

She opened a chocolate brown door filled with knobbly bits in swirly patterns, and motioned for them to enter. ‘Badda-badda-bum! Here’s your bathroom! I’m afraid you’ll have to share.’

All looked in, and saw a large, steamy chamber with boulders on the floor, and holes in the walls where steaming water came out in a steady flow.

Agrimona pointed, proudly. ‘You have here a hot spring, an artesian, and over there, in the corner, is a cold flushing system. Everything needed in an ablution block. There’s no contamination, as everything flushes to a lower level, and most probably will be sifted, filtered, and diluted for another million years. I believe I’ve got the most modern system in these lands to date.’

‘It’s almost like a bathroom,’ said Ben.

‘It IS a bathroom, boy,’ said Agrimona.

‘Yeah, but how can it be like this?’ said Jack.

‘Ambrosius had a good set-up too,’ said Andy.

‘Who built it, is what I’d like to know?’ said Bill.

‘Built?’ said Agrimona. ‘In Panghellan you don’t need to build. It’s all here, one way or another. Well, maybe sometimes, it needs a bit of adjustment, or adding on at times, but that’s all. You can try the bathroom later. For now, I want to show you the upstairs.’

They continued up the broken, uneven steps.

Agrimona opened a door at the top. ‘Here’s your shack! This is one of the larger ones with two bedrooms. Should be enough. Make yourselves comfortable. I’ll leave you to it, and will call you later for supper. When you hear a tingeling in the air, you’ll know it’s time to eat. Cooked, or raw?’

Jack stared at her. ”Scuse me?’

‘I’m asking if you prefer cooked or raw?’ said Agrimona.

‘Cooked, or raw, what?’ said Jack.

‘I don’t know yet,’ said Agrimona. ‘Depends on what I can find. Maybe some raw moss berries in a salad of raw eels.’

‘You wouldn’t have smoked eel, would you?’ said Jack.

Agrimona sighed, and laughed. ‘No way, I have. It’s a darned good idea for some other time though.’

‘I-I think I’ll have cooked then,’ said Jack. ‘What about you guys?’

All preferred their food, whatever it was, to be cooked to be on the safe side.

Ben had been thinking. ‘Before you leave, please tell us what’s going to happen at a quarter past six? You said that the magic doesn’t work at that time. So, if the magic doesn’t work, can they get in?’

‘Well, when the door’s gone, it won’t appear, so in that respect you’re safe, unless they try to enter some other way.’

‘What … eh … way would that be?’ said Jack. He did his usual thing, and started to roll the hem of his t-shirt up towards his chest.

‘I wouldn’t fret too much about that. I don’t think they’ve ever seen the door. They ought to be utterly confused when there’s no entry to be found. I don’t think we’ll have to worry, but I will check my milk-like eye patch again to make sure.’

She left by waddling off.

Bill turned to the others. ‘Anyone feel like a nap? We can do the work tomorrow before we leave. How hard can it be? Just carry a few rocks, hey. And at dinner time, we can go through in more detail what’s happened to us. As long as the old woman says it’s safe here, we’ve got to trust her.’

Bill was in dire need of a rest. He had not slept since he came to the station the day before. The weird goings-on, Agrimona, and her eye-patch, the strangeness of the blowhole station, as well as him having shrunk were taking its pesky toll. The world under the Nullarbor was definitely a world of its own. He had become young and small, but felt the irritation bubbling close to the surface.

‘I’ll take the other bedroom,’ said Andy before he disappeared.

‘Can we just check out some things first before we sleep?’ said Ben.

‘Have a sleep, Ben! You need it,’ said Bill. ‘Trust me on that. Look at Charlie on that bird’s nest of a sofa! It doesn’t look that comfortable, but she’s already gone. And, by the looks of it, Whistler’s looking after her in his sleep.’

Everyone was settled. Everyone except Ben. He was not the least sleepy. After he had seen the rope curtains, the chandeliers made of stony crystals, the flimsy furniture put together with gnarled tree branches, and stringy vines, he checked the primitive cupboards, and the bedding.

The beds were made of sticks and stones with furry blankets on top. A pleasant smell of hay made him feel like he was in a barn. When he discovered the dry grasses, and mosses in between the layers of hides, he knew why.

He had seen enough of the rooms, and with no windows he was unable to look at any possible view. Instead he went out on the landing where he studied the steps leading down. Something beckoned him to investigate. What harm could it be to take a quick look?

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 26 – Boab Plute

The unlikely trio of two boys, one shorter, and one taller, together with a monkey-like figure struggled through the untamed terrain. They were tired and hungry, but hopeful to meet up with the others soon.

Just as dusk was falling, they discovered the many trees lingering in the distance.

‘Must be here then. Or what do you think?’ said Jack.

‘Yeah, they’re like gigantic onions on a chess-board,’ said Ben. ‘Hey, do you see what I see?’

‘So what do you see?’

Ben pointed. ‘Look there! The biggest one, over there in the middle, seems to be three of them growing together.’

‘How do you know that?’

‘Because I can see the trunks.’

The massive tree stood out from the rest with its enormous bulbous bottom in three parts, almost like they were glued together. Thicker arm-like branches pointed upwards at the top, sandwiched between countless thinner ones.

‘Yeah, yeah, I see that now,’ said Jack. ‘Hope we can get something to eat. Is that a door?’

Ben was surprised. ‘You mean a door on a tree?’

‘Yeah, on the one smack bang in the middle,’ said Jack. ‘That tree’s almost big enough to live in. Remember the Derby Prison Tree? Only, this one is so much bigger since it’s like you said, three of them together. What the …? Is that guard dogs?’

‘Must be tied to something, or they would’ve come running, barking like mad,’ said Ben.

‘Something isn’t right. It’s something weird about them. Maybe they’re attack dogs. Hard to see in this light.’

Ben giggled. ‘I think they look like Chihuahuas.’

Closer up, Jack was taken aback. ‘What the …? Look at that, Ben, they’re massive crabs! Look at their eyes! Like bloody periscopes! We’ve got to get in there before something happens.’

‘I’m not getting any closer. I don’t care if we don’t see that Angry Mona. I don’t think I like her anyway.’

‘She’s not ‘Angry Mona’. It’s Agrimona. The others could be here already. Sinton, you better stay invisible until we know what’s going on here.’

Ben was overcome by feelings of dread. ‘I just thought about something. Those crabs might be poisonous. What if they snap off a foot, or a leg?’

‘They’re not poisonous,’ said Jack. ‘Panghellan doesn’t have poisonous things.’

‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,’ said Ben. ‘You always come up with the strangest theories. I’ll tell you, you could get gangrene if something’s cut off apart from that you might bleed to death.’

Jack sniggered. ‘I knew you’d say that. Ambrosius told us there’s nothing to poison us to death in this land.’

‘No, that was only things to EAT! Look at them! They’ve got pincers the size of sledgehammers. They use them to break things … and bones. They’re vicious machines, and you know how fast normal crabs can run. These ones, they’re so much bigger, and would be so much faster.’

They were wary of the humongous crabs, and kept their eyes on where they were at all times. As they reached the door, and were ready to knock, it opened.

Out popped a hideous head of an old woman. The face was wrinkled like an old scrunched up apple with bushy grey hair hanging down from one point on top.
She croaked: ‘We have been expecting you. Welcome to Boab Plute!’

Jack pointed to the jumpy creatures. ‘Can you get those away from us first, please? I don’t like the look of them.’

‘Get into your hollows you wicked things!’ She hit a crab on the shell with a stick, and then another one, and another. Kicking and spurting sand, they receded into gaps in the ground.

Suddenly, a young boy walked out the door.

Ben was shocked. ‘WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO HIM?’

‘Haven’t done nothing,’ said the woman.

‘Crikey, Ben, I’ve been waiting so long. I thought you’d never get here. Where were you? Look what I found! Beaut little pebbles in a pond, heaps of them. You should’ve been there. Look here, I found this piece of smoky quarts too! Nice quality. I had a swim, and I can tell you, I nearly drowned in that pond. It was so scary.’

‘What’s wrong with him?’ said Jack. ‘Why is he so small? He talks like a little kid.’

‘Don’t know, but Agrimona said it must be the water from one of Amossian’s tributaries.’

‘Amossian is bad,’ said Agrimona. ‘There’s magic, and then there’s cursed magic.’

‘What does it do?’ said Jack. ‘Apart from the most obvious.’

‘Obviously, it’s renewing. Yes, extremely renewing, but if you stay in too long, you DIE, boy. Your grandpa stayed in long enough to become a child. Any longer, and he wouldn’t have made it. He wouldn’t even be born. Not worth it, definitely not. The water is treacherous, makes you sleepy, and before you know it … it’s too late. I’ve been in a couple of times. Only under the strictest guard, of course.’

‘No use for me. I can’t wait to get my license,’ said Ben.

‘So, how do you turn back to the same person you were?’ said Jack. ‘What can he do? I mean, there must be something he can do.’

‘It takes time. Time will eventually heal, unless he goes in again. I don’t know anything else about it.’

Bill seemed less concerned. ‘It’s okay. We’ll worry about that later. I don’t like it, but I’m kind of used to it already. Sometimes I talk like a kid. Sometimes more like an oldie. I don’t know what I am. So, where were you guys?’

‘You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. But, just as you know, grandpa, Yowies are real,’ said Ben.

‘I knew it! Did you see some?’

‘Better than that,’ said Jack. ‘But we’ll go through it a bit later. Did you tell Agrimona why we’re here?’

‘Yes, I know why you’ve come, and I know you want the Binehogen. Have to tell you that I don’t know much about that stone. Why is it all of you want it so much? It’s just a bunch of trouble, that is. And, whatever you do, don’t trust anyone down here when it comes to that one.’

‘Yeah, I’ve come to understand that much,’ said Jack. ‘So what do we do now? Our grandpa’s like a little kid. Maybe it’s better if you Ben, and grandpa stay here, and wait for the others. I suppose they’re not here yet, are they?’

‘Nope,’ said Bill, jumping up and down on the spot.

Jack looked bewildered at his grandpa who acted like he had no care in the world. ‘I could easily continue on my own. Can you just stand still for a minute? Anyway, you two can’t do much to break them out of prison.’

‘Huh? What do you honestly think you can do, that I can’t? I’m not staying here, Jack. I’m not. What about you, grandpa? You’re coming?’

‘’Course I’m coming. But first we’ve got to wait for Charlie and Andy,’ said Bill. ‘Oh, yes, and Whistler too. We’ll have to stay put a bit longer before we’re heading off to the islands.’

Agrimona scratched herself around the eyes, shook her head, and waved her arms. ‘You youngsters don’t know what you’re talking about! How’re you going to get even close to the Kernel?’

‘Calm down, Agrimona!’ said Bill. ‘I know we’ll have to make plans before everything else.’

‘Well, I’ve never met your parents, but I’ve heard about them from Bill here, and I can tell you, it’s not, as easy as it seems. First of all, if word leaks out inside the Kernel, you’ll have a whole bunch of prisoners on your hands to take care of. I’ve got no idea how many will be in there right this minute, but everyone will surely want to leave that appalling hellhole of a place, every single one of them. For all we know, they would be queuing all the way to the Phosphene Portal. Secondly, if THEY hear about it, you can rest assure that every single Grim, and Warper will know you’re on your way. Thirdly, you don’t just sail into the Grim Islands, and walk into that fortress unless you’re absolutely harebrained. I suppose you’re not. Huh … I could be wrong.’

‘We’re going to get help. We’ve been told that Scaramoss is the one to take us,’ said Jack. ‘He’s supposed to know the way.’

‘Well, well, well, you haven’t heard the latest then. Scaramoss is dead. SO DEAD! Bragdon has taken over the run. He’s only a boy though. His parents were locked up years ago. Born at the Kernel on Grim, the hostiles didn’t have any use for a baby, and threw him out … yes … almost with the bathwater. Pity, he was only a toddler at the time. I’ve heard that the parents could do nothing. Word got smuggled in, and out, and Scaramoss took care of the poor mite. He, himself, had already been discarded, as a teacher. However, Old Mossie was too old, and found a wee one too hard to handle. Well, he wasn’t used to the needs of a child. So, when he had enough, he brought the lad to me. I looked after him until he didn’t want any more looking after. That’s when he went back to Old Mossie, and learnt what he could until Mossie was gone. Not everyone down here lives for centuries. Oh, yes, Bragdon manages himself now. He’s got his own business running the Mackle Ship on the clay pan salt lake sea. It’s been disastrous for the poor thing. But he’s making it, I know he is.’

Ben was overwhelmed. He thought his life was tough. What sort of life did that kid get?

The conversation was in full swing, but he just had to ask. ‘What exactly is a Mackle Ship?’

‘From a distance, it’s supposed to look blurred, almost like two. That’s all I know,’ said Agrimona. ‘I’ve never been close to the Ciyon Sea, and never laid eyes on the Mackle Ship either.’

‘We’ve got to look for him when we get there,’ said Jack. ‘Do you think he’d be around the rock? I think it’s called Lemirius Rock?’

‘He’ll be somewhere around there when he’s back,’ said Agrimona. ‘From what I’ve been told, he always is. He transports supplies from the north to the islands.’

‘From the north?’ said Jack. ‘What can you get from there?’

‘The northerners grow produce that can only be grown up there. It’s up river, and a tad bit warmer. They’ve got edible plant stuff, sea gherkins, kelp, seaweed, bush grapes, bush plums, and stuff. Nothing like that can be found around the Ciyon Sea, and the Hogen desires his little goodies. Never enough for the masses, only kelp for their uniforms, mind you. Sometimes Bragdon goes to Ludvigstown. Others trade with Robin Feathers, and some even go, as far as all the way to Polly Piper.’

They were astounded.

‘But … but … I had no idea there were so many places,’ said Jack. ‘Are there people there?’

‘Remember Jack? The maps?’ said Ben.

‘People abound in the strangest places,’ said Agrimona. ‘They’re all spread out.’

‘We’ll have to wait for the others before we do anything,’ said Bill.

‘What about the hostiles? Are we safe here? Do they know about this place?’ said Ben. ‘They could come here, couldn’t they? Aren’t you scared of them?’

‘Nope, not at all scared. Oh, let me correct that. I’m terrified, but not to worry, I’ve got the best warning system, which I will show you in a minute. If I see them coming, I just remove the door, and it’s no way in. We better go now. I need to check the latest news.’

‘Ouch!’ Jack jumped when one of the crabs brushed past his leg.

‘SKEDADDLE! You putrid thing,’ she screamed. ‘Come inside by all means! I’ll show you the advance warning system. We can also talk without interruptions.’

She motioned for them to enter.

‘What sort of system do you think it is?’ whispered Ben. ‘It’s no power down here.’

‘I wouldn’t have a clue. Must be some sort of mechanism.’ Jack’s laugh was a muffled giggle.

Bill had a shrewd look on his face. ‘I know what it is. She saw you coming. But I’m not telling. You’ve got to see for yourselves.’

They walked over the threshold with Bill skipping across, and found themselves on a small landing. From there, uneven wooden steps led down to an enormous hall where the ground was covered in red sediment, compacted to become rock hard. Various structures, some resembling platforms, were built out of thick logs. A fancy, but primitive hut with pillars made of twisted tree trunks, and a lichen-covered roof, was placed in the middle. Intricate signs were everywhere, and side walls had openings of different sizes. Symbols had been added either on the left or right of the holes. Some had marks with a tick, others with a cross. A few had a couple of letters.

‘It actually looks a bit like a train station,’ said Ben. ‘Could those letters … the L and R, be for Lemirius Rock?’

‘Yes, you’re so right there, my boy. It’s Lemirius Rock,’ said Agrimona, and nodded.

‘What sort of a train station is it? There wouldn’t be any trains now, would it?’ said Jack.

Agrimona made a move to grab onto Jack. ‘Don’t stand in the air blast young man, or you’ll end up somewhere in the Lemilot Mountain Range quicker than I can say Bafflebuff! And I can assure you that you don’t want to dip even your toes in the Ceranian. If you’ve heard bad stuff about the Amossian, you should know that the Ceranian is worse, so much worse. Watch out! That blower’s direction is out of the ordinary.’

Jack had already leapt to the side when he felt the strong pull. No way did he want to get sucked away without knowing more about the destination. ‘So what does the Ceranian do?’

‘You shrink, boy. You also turn into some kind of monster. I’ve only seen the apelike zilch once. I can tell you, it’s not a pretty sight. You don’t want to end up like that. And you definitely don’t want to mess with one of those. Oh, and they can make themselves invisible too. At will, mind you.’

She waddled away over the platform. ‘We’ll head off to my abode now. You better watch out for holes on the way. What am I saying? There will be no real blowers until later. Maybe not until tomorrow. Which one did you want to catch? Head straight onto Lemirius Rock? Or a stopover along the way? I’ve heard that the giant eels have come into season in the river pools at Robin Feathers. No trouble catching them. They almost crawl up into your lap. If you want to stop there, you’ve got to throw out an anchor at the first intersection.’

‘I think we should go straight to Lemirius Rock,’ said Jack. ‘One thing’s for sure, if we can’t get Scaramoss to help us, we’ve got to find that boy you mentioned. We need him to take us to the islands, and the Kernel.’

‘You’re sure you want to?’ said Agrimona. ‘You’ll face the gravest trouble to return here. That is; if you’re not captured. And you’ll have to take the long way around on the way back. I can assure you that it’ll be one monstrous efforty hardship to get passed the prickle mesh, but the horn-like spinners are so much worse than the mesh on any day. They abound in the prickle bother like flies around cattle, and will try to bite every sweet-bloodied living thing.’

‘Nothing else we can do. But they might not be that bad, and we’ve come this far to find our parents,’ said Jack. ‘I just hope they’re alive, and still there.’

‘What about the hornlike spinners?’ said Ben. ‘You know what they look like? Are they big? Spiders with … horns? Or-or, what are they?’

‘Yes, big alright, and the horns are sharp. It’s probably better to get pricked by the prickle mesh than those creatures. We, people, get sick from their poison. I would advise to give them something to eat before they start their nibbling on you. That way they’ll be full of activity, while you move on. You have to crawl some of the way to escape the thorns. It’s the only way possible according to what I’ve heard. Only, crawl fast if you want to leave the hornlike spinners behind. If I were you, I would be worried about all this. And, you better watch out for the slinkier fronds too! They look fine, but grab onto those unawares, and you might regret it. Yes, easy to get tangled in a serious stranglehold if you do.’

‘So much bad stuff,’ said Ben.

‘That’s nothing compared to the troublesome Grims. If you’re caught, you’ll surely end up in prison, with all the others, for your natural life, which can be extremely long down here, especially if they bring you to an Amossian tributary for a bit of a renewal now and then. If that happens you won’t be able to save anybody at all, not even yourselves. Rest assured though, while you’re here with me, the hostiles aren’t coming past my crabs. They’re better than the most vicious guard dogs. Not that there are many dogs down here. However, uninvited riffraff can’t get past the front door ‘cause I can remove it any time I want. Yes, I will remove it soon, so nobody can get in. That should keep you safe for the time being.’

‘But if you remove it, the others won’t find it,’ said Ben. ‘We’ve got to wait for them to get in here before you do that. Please help us.’

‘Nothing in it for me, but I will put my special hex on it, and make sure that those three can get through, but no others. The Warpers have been around inside here before, searching high, and low for the Binehogen. There will be more trouble if the Grims, the hostile hunters, arrive. But they never seem to take the left fork to come this way.’

Agrimona took them through enclosed walkways adorned by the usual crystallised formations, and tassels of waving spider webs. They went through forest-like structures of flow stones, shawls and pillars with stalactites clinging like icy pencils to the ceilings. They ended up in front of a man-made portal, richly decorated with rough carvings, and painted scrolls.

Ben was the first to read the sign. ‘Siesta Inn! It sounds like a hotel, or something. What is it?’

Agrimona opened the door. ‘Not many visitors, but now and again there’s a rush. We’ve got thirteen rooms, if I count the closet hole under the stairwell. It’s only been used once, and that by a small man, in a straw hat, looking like a Chinese leprechaun. This was when I had a full house. Must’ve been … huh … maybe fifty years, or so ago.’

‘That would’ve been something to see,’ said Bill. ‘I mean a Chinese leprechaun. Not every day you see one of those, is it?’

‘Oh, yes, he was quite a character with a bright green suit, as if he was Irish. After some time in the hollows, his clothes were stained with brown and black.’

‘A bit like camouflage gear, maybe,’ said Bill, giggling.

Agrimona ushered them into an enormous ballroom sized area glistening with calcite. Around the walls hung wide shawls, resembling frozen waves, while a few areas of the floor had the thinnest stalagmites stretching upwards like strands of dry spaghetti. Behind flow stones, forming translucent curtains, and drapes, stood pendulums, and columns.

Ben became excited. ‘Look at that wall! Those look like a whole bunch of bearded walruses sitting up there!’

At one end of the room, a spiral staircase made with railings of crooked tree branches devoid of bark, stood leaning into a large gap up the wall.

Ben was doubly excited when he saw them leading down through a floor opening as well. He made Jack aware of what he had seen.

He was interrupted in his thoughts when Agrimona, in a fit of laughter, opened a door behind the massive stone counter. ‘My rakish chapel, or in other words, my headquarters.’

Everyone expected it to resemble a workplace, but what they found was a room full of wooden garden rakes lining the walls. Partly hidden behind tree roots and chunks of spider webs stood a small cupboard. Most intriguing was a pencil thin light beam shining from above to light up a tiny pond.

‘Is this supposed to be an office?’ said Ben.

Agrimona nodded, still giggling. ‘Okey, dokey, a kind of office, it is.’

Ben had trouble understanding. ‘What do you do with all those rakes? If it’s an office, I mean?’

She turned serious. ‘The rakes are for protection, my boy. Nothing can get through, no thoughts, and no hostiles. See, you don’t want them to read my sightings, do you? Now, let’s see what my milk-like eye patch is going to tell us.’

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 25 – Back at the Camp

Andy, Charlie and Whistler hung around the camp. They waited by keeping the campfire going, but had stopped searching for Bill, Jack and Ben, who had all disappeared.

Days went by slowly, but surely. Charlie and Andy learned more from Whistler, and his own story every day.

Whistler had a couple of stringy sinews tucked away in a small bag. He went off to search for suitable wood to make arrows, and a couple of more bows for which the sinews were needed. They had to protect themselves against possible hostilities. Andy willingly stayed at the camp with Charlie in case somebody was to turn up.

Their situation became bleaker by the day. Andy became more than restless. He was eager to continue on to Boab Plute. His girlfriend Angelica was constantly on his mind. It was hard not knowing her whereabouts. Would he ever find her? Would all of them ever be able to leave the madness of the cave world behind? He needed to do something to find her, instead of waiting around doing almost nothing. But he knew it was impossible to leave, as long as Charlie was adamant to stay. There was no way he could leave her to fend for herself with only a teenager to protect her.

Andy tried to reassure her, as she sat staring into space with constant tears in her eyes, while Whistler sat beside her, holding her hand. They waited, but nobody turned up.

Charlie’s thoughts circled around her family, the same as every day. Why did everyone have to disappear? Why had none of them come back? Would she ever see any of them ever again?

She was interrupted by Andy.

‘Charlie, I know you want to stay here, but it just doesn’t work. It’s been too many days since they all vanished. But, you know what? For all we know they might already be at Boab Plute. They could be sitting there waiting for us as we speak. I think we should be on our way. We should aim for our goal. That was the original plan. They ought to know how to find it. Either on their own, or all together. The thing is, we just can’t stay here forever.’

‘I know, Andy, but it’s so hard to leave. This is where they were last seen. If they come back here, and we’re gone … not so good.’ Charlie studied her stubby nails on one hand. ‘I’m most concerned about Ben. He’s too young, and always worries about every little thing. I don’t think he understands much about what’s going on in this world. If he’s completely lost, what will happen to him? And if he comes back to this campsite on his own after we’ve left, it could be, yes, it could be catastrophic.’

Whistler finished a quiver to which he added some arrows. He looked at Andy. ‘You know way?’

Andy nodded. He had a vague memory of Ambrosius telling them that all trails lead through the Alkasar Forest. If they only found one, they would be on their way. He went through how to find the place, even if there was no compass, and no map. This was wise in case something was to happen to him. Then Charlie and Whistler could follow the plan to try, and find the others.

‘We’ve got to do something, Charlie. Nobody knows what’s going on here. Not me, not your grandpa, not Whistler, and definitely not Jack and Ben. I think we should pack up, and leave now.’

‘I’m already packed,’ said Charlie. ‘I’ll write a note for them in case they come back here.’

She reluctantly pulled out a page from her notebook, and wrote a few words before Andy was to help her by tying it to a tree branch.

‘There’s nothing to tie with,’ said Andy.

‘Wait a minute! I have the perfect thing.’ Charlie dug into a pocket on her backpack. She pulled out a red flowery covered elastic band for her hair. ‘If they see this, I think they’ll know it’s from me.’

‘Let’s try it! Andy hesitated in the longest to put it up in case it was to end up in the wrong hands, but knew there was no other way for Charlie to move on.

‘Okay, that should do it.’

Charlie was hesitant, and still far from convinced about leaving.

‘Don’t forget they could all be at Agrimona’s place when we get there!’

She showed a weak smile, and nodded.

Whistler helped to gather the rest of their belongings. Andy offered to carry Charlie’s pack since his was gone. They slung their bows and arrows, and all the extras, over their shoulders.

After turning around for one last look, they stumbled onward into the immediate group of trees to find one of the trails leading through, and then out of, the depressing, unpredictable Alkasar Forest.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

%d bloggers like this: