Chapter 15 – Baffling

Ben had chosen a different spot to the one Andy had picked to be the bush toilet. Instead of sitting on the horizontal tree branch, he had dug a small hole before crouching on the ground. When finished he scraped sandy dirt into the hole before he rubbed more on his hands for a quick clean. He stood up, took a swig of water from his bottle, and poured a tiny amount on his hands. As he was about to swing his backpack onto his shoulders, he had a shock.

The surroundings had changed without him noticing how, and when it happened. Now the trees were much closer, and grew tighter together. He turned his head, back and forth. Again and again. There was no way to see through the masses of leaves. He tried to move in between the tree trunks, but every space was too narrow. Nothing gave way. Stricken by an awful feeling, he called out for help, but his voice broke. The call came out as a whisper. His next call was stronger. He waited and listened. The only sounds were the humming of insects, and the loudest hoot from an eerie-sounding bird.

After another try to make himself heard, there was still no reply. He knew then it was up to him, and him alone, to find his way. Nobody was anywhere near to hear him. He struggled with the closest tree branches. He tried to push them apart to press himself through, but they acted like steel rods. Peeking in between, he found nothing familiar behind them, only more tightly growing trees.

He stood still, and saw how buds on trees turned to leaves in seconds, and small shoots popped out of the ground to end up as saplings before becoming fully grown trees. Everything happened so fast, and before he had time to blink. Seconds later they were tall as flagpoles. When masses of stringy tendrils, and vines stretched upwards, and sideways to knot their way into the enclosing framework, he was close to a titanic panic.

His fear was broken by crackling, rustling, and a cacophony of hoots, and peeps, followed by a shrill whistling sound.

‘Don’t do that Jack! I’m scared as it is.’

But there was no answer.

He tried again to bend the enclosing framework, but a sturdy tree branch moved as if to stop him, while vines and creepers circled his legs. Next came a big crashing sound, like something heavy moved through the bush on the other side. By now he was frightened out of his wits.

He screamed the loudest he could, before he understood that whatever was out there could be hostile. Shivers ran down his spine, and he felt an urgent need to pee. While he stood there to do what he had to do, he anxiously turned his head back and forth.

When done, he knew it was now or never. He pulled, shoved, and kicked at the trunks and branches. Nothing gave way. There were just too many tightly growing trees, too many climbers, too many vines, and too many layers. An icy chunk formed in his stomach. The plants had continuously strengthened the framework to make it into a cage-like prison. There was no way out.

He called out again, while snivelling, and wiping his face. ‘Why don’t you hear me? I can’t get out! Help me!’

Suddenly, a most horrifying roar came from outside the cage. He was at once blasted back into earlier thoughts about extinct animals like giant marsupial lions on the prowl. Fearing for his life, he stood absolutely still.

When no more lions’ snarls were heard, he decided it was time for another try. He took a couple of tiny steps, but another growl made him stop. If the wall had not been there, the animal would have been close enough to touch. Stricken by renewed fear, he staggered on the spot, and trashed wildly with his arms to get away from swaying vines. All to no avail, as new ones kept surging through to snare him. Something thumped his leg. Angrily, he pushed away a hard persistent tree root, which had curled in from underneath. It bounced back like a tensed rubber band. Trying to ward off everything by jumping, ducking and swivelling on the spot, he worked himself into a frenzy.

Suddenly, like an arrow shot from a bow, a liana hit him smack bang in the face. Another coiled around his left ankle to hold him in a vice like grip. The more he struggled, the harder it pressed, and the less he was able to move. He surprised himself when he remembered his pocket knife, and awkwardly fished it out of his pocket. After he had made some restrained slicing motions, he was able to cut off the persistent liana. The good feeling disappeared when two more budding shoots popped out too close to his face. The new tentacles twirled in front, and wavered, and wriggled every time he hit at them. They wrapped around his left arm, and before he knew what was happening, they had tied themselves into a secure knot.

He waved frantically with his free arm, the one holding the knife, and managed to cut off the thinner ones right in his face. He screamed again the loudest he could, but was horrified when he realised the wild animal must have heard him.

Then it hit him. What if he slowed down? Not moving at all. Maybe the plants would wither away, the same as when he had fallen into the disguised trap in the ground.

Gathering some willpower, he never knew he had, he closed his eyes. He tried to think about agate thunder eggs, which his grandpa had cut open to reveal the most amazing colours banded with lines of tiny crystals. The positive thoughts were come and gone in a flash. There were more rustling, and crackling. He opened his eyes. The sounds came from outside the cage.

He stood in a twisted mess of growth not knowing what to do. With not much possibility of moving in the confined space, he managed only one step, but the restricted movement made him stumble. His right foot was stuck under a looped tree root. He lost his balance, and fell to the ground where he hit his head on a dead tree stump.

On the other side of the puzzling enclosure were two strange-looking creatures with long arms, and humped shoulders. They had deep set eyes, chins jutting forward, and bodies covered in orange-brown hair partly covered by primitive clothing.

They moved around, and shook the cage of plaited greenery before sitting down on top of a fallen tree log by crossing their legs. Both began to make hand signs, while whistling. The discussion with clawed hands became faster. There were loud growls, a few grunts, and some long mutterings.

As if on cue, they slid off the trunk, and lumbered over to the cage-like structure. They brushed away some of the tangled mess before the taller one held out a crystal wand to make some flicking motions. The wall of plants began to fold away. A few moments later the structure had disappeared, only to leave a mass of wilted plant material on the ground. In the middle was a motionless body.

When they discovered the liana around the arm of the human, it was loosened, and so was the tree root, firmly coiled around the foot. The shorter of the two beings moved its hands over the limbs, but found no reaction. He fiddled with the shoe laces, and managed to untie both sneakers, and pulled them, and the socks off before scraping the soles of the feet with his curled fingernail.

The taller grabbed hold of a sweeping branch, and heaved himself up into a tree. He grabbed a vine, and gnawed it off with his teeth, as easily as eating corn on a cob, while he already held another vine in his curled hand ready to chew. He purposely fell to the ground, made a quick somersault, and ended up in a nest of ants where he scooped up a handful. He shoved them into his mouth, licked his lips, and made sounds as if he enjoyed the quick snack.

The shorter of the two produced a primitive cutting tool out of the folds of his clothing. He cut down a few thin branches from one of the smaller trees, and tied them together by using vines. He fastened the piece to the leg of the wounded before turning over the limp body.

‘Oh, … ouch … ouch!’ mumbled Ben. When he opened his eyes, he saw a hairy being towering like a dark shadow above his face. The unexpected sight shocked him into action. He tried to get up, but when he discovered two big hairy feet pointing up in the air with no body, he stopped to stare. The two feet disappeared down a hole inside a tree trunk. Thinking it was a nightmare, he closed his eyes.

When he opened them, he discovered two clawed hands stretching out of the hole to search the air much too close to him. At the same time, something pressed hard on his back. He tried to roll away, but was stuck in an iron-like grip. In a weakened confused state, terrifying thoughts bounced around in his head.

All of a sudden he was flung forward. He tumbled head first into the hole inside the tree trunk. This was the second time he lost consciousness.

The creatures dragged the body through a secret passageway. Out of the hollows, they put the body on some grassy clumps on the swampy ground before signing to one another. Out came two stone axes, which were used to chop off tree branches before being stripped of unnecessary growth.

They pulled down a handful of lianas, which they chewed off, one after the other. The taller one held three pieces together. The shorter one plaited. When finished, they quickly built a frame consisting of stripped poles tied together with the rope they had made.

Ben’s limp body was transferred to the simple contraption together with two backpacks. The creatures took off carrying him through the bush.

A short time later the group arrived at a small clearing where they left the homemade stretcher in the vicinity of a massive Boab tree. The unexpected event caused a stir. Curious beings surged from all directions. All wanted to touch the body with careful claw-like fingers. The younger ones hovered like bees over a honeypot.

The ones who had brought the body started to tell their story with hand signals. They elaborated by grunting, and mumbling to make clear how they had stumbled on a group of humans before following them through the forest. When they came to the part about their clever cage-like trap, there was a rustle, and a few grunts coming from behind. All eyes turned towards the grassy knoll, as a large body crawled out from an opening. When standing up, he was much taller than the rest.

‘Good … must take to Ingenrod,’ he said.

The body was carried fast to a cave opening close by. A long haired, ancient-looking creature with one eye popped its head out through the entrance.

‘Hurt his foot,’ said the impressively tall one. ‘You must heal?’

Ingenrod pointed to bring the body inside before limping out, holding onto an ornately decorated walking stick.

Ben’s body was laid to rest on a pile of soft grass mixed with plant material. A flat rock was placed under his head.

Ingenrod rummaged around outside. She took some plants out of a pouch before adding them to an indent in the outside cliff wall. With a twig, she pulled away a stone from the bottom. Boiling water seeped in from an underground hot stream. After she had plugged the hole, and dropped a few sprigs of aromatic healing herbs, she added a mummified amphibian to the liquid.

After a few minutes of strange rituals and mumbling, she scooped up the brew into a bowl, and brought it inside.

Ben was nudged, and handed the warm concoction. Surprised and thankful, he gulped down every drop. A vague memory about how lucky he was to have been found flashed through his aching head. Despite resting on a foul smelling bed, which was not all that comfortable, it took him less than a minute to fall asleep.

———-

He woke up by relentless rumbling, sudden rustlings, and rapid chattering. ‘Ouch, my head! Is that monkeys? What are you guys doing out there?’

Nobody answered.

He looked around, and discovered he was inside a cave with no inkling on how he had ended up there. He felt confused, uncomfortable, and scared. When he turned to the side, a whiff of something disgusting hit his nostrils. Warily, he moved his hands to feel around the bedding. The sticks and grasses made him even more confused.

For a few moments he stayed where he was, while memories slowly made their way back. He remembered the underground world under the Nullarbor. They had searched for Jack before fuzzy images of a psycho forest entered his mind. The last fading memory was when he had been caged in by freakish plants with no way out, and nobody coming to his rescue.

‘Is anyone there? Where are you?’

Tears welled up. He lay there snivelling, wiping his face. Where were they?

Suspicious, and on his guard, he studied the gloomy room. An odd-looking hairy mask decorated one of the walls. Other strange home-made items made of wood, or straw, were placed on the floor. He wondered who lived there. He looked back at the mask, but discovered it was gone. Now it was a window without a glass pane.

Sounds of approaching footsteps made him ill at ease. His eyes turned to the doorway. Two short hairy beings appeared in the opening. Another, slightly taller, one-eyed older creature with long, golden hair streaked with silver, came up behind them. It grunted, and made signs to the younger ones. They left.

He was paralysed by fear, and cowered in the corner of his bedding. The creature muttered when walking around with its claw-like hands stretched out in front. It sniffed the air, and came closer. When the long bony fingers touched his arms, and felt for his hands, he gasped, but dared not move. It continued searching, and found Ben’s foot. A weird plant-like dressing had been tied around his ankle. He had no idea how and when it got there.

The creature peeled off one leaf after the other from the dressing before putting them straight into its mouth, chewing them with gusto. It seemed to offer one to Ben, who shook his head, and kept his mouth firmly shut. The being persisted, but Ben turned his head each time. No way was he going to eat a bandage.

After the last had been taken off, and disappeared, he discovered the sickening blue-green colour of his ankle. He hoped the dark stripe was due to the leaves, or else it was dead serious.

The ancient-looking one made a sign, human like. He understood. Too scared not to obey, he moved up from his resting place, and leaned on the foot. It was sore, the same as his head and body, but he took a few careful steps.

One of the smaller beings returned with a large leaf in the shape of a bowl, and handed it to him. He took one look, and because he was thirsty, he drank it all. The ancient one signed, took hold of his shoulders, and steered him to the cave entrance. Ben limped on, holding onto his forehead.

At the doorway, his eyes were hit by the brighter light outside. He had to rub them before he looked again. What he came to see filled him with renewed fear. That was until he realised his grandpa had been right all along. He wished he was there to see the truth. They were tangible, and there were dozens of them. He, Ben Starling, was the one who could show the world the perfect evidence that Yowies were real.

They looked like humans, only so much hairier. From what he had seen so far, they acted human-like too. They had taken care of him with a bed, something to drink, and nursed his foot. He had read about Neanderthals. Could these ones be the missing link?

Then the most horrifying feeling washed over him. Were they the ones they had to fear the most? Were they the hostiles? Could they speak? Would he understand them?

‘How … how did I end up here? Am I a prisoner?’

Ben’s words had an immediate effect. The large group backed off, while all eyes stayed glued on him.

‘I-I think I had a camera. I know I did. Where is it? And I want my backpack and my stuff. What have you done with it? And where’s my mum and dad?’

Nothing happened. Not a sound from the crowd, only the staring eyes.

Ben took a few steps back to stand at a safer distance. He calmed down to ponder the situation, and looked at the one he thought must be the boss.

The impressively tall Yowie, with the longest reddish hair, was dressed in a leather skirt, coloured parrot feathers, and an ancient tropical helmet. With a bunch of normal household keys hanging on a string around his neck, he looked more comical than hostile.

Ben was an inch from smiling. He had gone from being utterly fearful to something close to being amused. That was until he looked at their eyes. They were small and round. And they squinted. Although, he was not sure if that was enough to classify them as hostiles.

He continued to stare, especially at their clothes, or the little they wore. Animal hides, and plant material had been sewn, or tied together into vests and skirts. Some of them had their hair plaited both on bodies, and heads, adorned with nuts, feathers, fern leaves, or grasses. To top it off, they wore beaded necklaces made out of shells, seeds or root pieces, sometimes with a bony piece as a focal point. One had a red plastic clothes peg around his neck.

Ben stood there waiting, but had no idea what he was waiting for. He looked towards the many cave openings. Then his eyes wandered to something out of the ordinary. It was most peculiar. If he had seen it on the Nullarbor, it would have been out of the question. Since he could only believe he was under the Nullarbor, it was even worse. And because the nature around him seemed to be a lush rain forest, it was much more than strange.

A majestic Boab tree, lumpy and bulbous, with its enormous bottom, and long slender branches sticking up at the top grew in the middle of the village. He was reminded of their neighbour at home, Mrs. Chiavelli, as she looked when hanging up her washing.

The silence broke by the tall one. ‘You ‘rived in Baffling! Well come!’

Ben laughed hysterically. ‘I’m Ben Starling ha, ha. Am I in the Grim Islands at the Kernel?’

The tall one shook his head. ‘No, here in Baffling. Me Kenairies.’ He patted his chest, and walked up to grab hold of Ben’s arm.

Ben broke free by moving away a few steps, but looked him bravely in the eyes. ‘You-you mean canaries? Flying? Birds?’

He hit his chest. ‘No, me Kenairies. Spells like so K E N A I R I E S.’ He had spelt his name, but also taken a step closer. When he took one more, Ben moved another few steps away. Kenairies followed, and snatched Ben’s arm again.

‘No, don’t do that! I’ve got to sit down. I don’t feel that good. Can’t you see that my foot is sore, and my head … ouch …?’

Kenairies gave out a thundering laugh, but persisted in pulling Ben like he was dragging a stubborn mule.

Ben tried to wrangle free. ‘Leave me alone! Hey, what kind of creeps are you? Don’t you get it? Let me go! I’ve had enough of this.’

Members of the tribe came up from behind, and pushed on. Ben’s heart raced faster – BOOM-BOOM, BOOM-BOOM, BOOM-BOOM. He realised it was no longer a game. This was life or death. He kicked, and punched, as hard as he could.

They laughed, and slapped their legs.

Ben’s mind screamed; ESCAPE-LEAVE-FAST! The words bleeped through his brain like bytes through cyberspace. RUN-RUN! But where to? With no idea where he was, he had not the faintest idea where to go.

When he discovered two of them, further away, digging in the dirt, he made a quick decision. He was not to be an easy target. If it was sudden, there was a chance.
Before he could activate his plans, he watched, as the very tall one signed to the diggers. One of them pulled off large sheets of paperbark from the ground. Smoke poured out. When this had lifted, Ben discovered the stones underneath. Something must be simmering in the dirt. Whatever it was, didn’t matter. He would eat anything, whatever they had. Even an old, parched, blackened goanna covered in sand, as long as it was well done.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 14 – Lost

Bill and Andy figured it was to be easy. Just walk on, locate the trail, and continue towards their first goal.

The group took off in the same line as before with Bill last. The terrain changed constantly, as they ventured deeper into the mysterious forest. Limestone boulders hindered their way in places, and they were forced to climb over. Their bodies became snagged by moving tendrils, and twisting vines. With every step they took, it grew murkier.

The trail ended in a darkened area where levels of trees grew in abundance, seemingly on top of one another. Flimsy layers of webbed roots supported by soil pockets grew not far above their heads. With the heavy undergrowth, the area seemed close to being impenetrable.

‘Put your headlamps on,’ said Bill. Everyone fumbled in backpacks to get them out.

‘This looks worse than what we saw earlier. How can it be like this?’ said Jack. ‘It’s not even normal.’

‘Have you seen anything remotely normal anywhere around here?’ said Bill.

‘It’s like we’re walking inside a large root ball of a plant,’ said Ben. ‘Smells yucky.’

‘Something must be rotting. I hate this dumb forest,’ said Jack.

‘Calm down!’ said Bill. ‘We have to make the best of it, but let me tell you something! When I was just a nipper, my father used to tell me stories about the Sargasso Sea where eels go to breed. That area is thick with seaweed. This darned forest seems to be the same, like a bowl of spaghetti. It’s almost like it won’t let us through.’

‘Where’s the trail gone?’ said Andy.

They found it between two trees, which grew with only a narrow space in between. After walking through, the terrain changed. There were less trees, less mosses and less vines and creepers.

‘We have to find water soon, said Bill. ‘As soon as you see a pond with clear water, we’ve got to fill the bottles.’

———-

One day later, the sparser, drier terrain was gone. They were back to wet and swampy with strange-looking trees. Another day of wandering, and they realised the area looked the same as before. Still thick and gloomy.

‘Where are we?’ said Bill. ‘Are we walking around in circles? Take that tree over there! I’m sure I saw that trunk with that big burly growth on it yesterday. Looks like a super-giant clam. And isn’t that the widest trunk you’ve ever seen?’

‘I’m … confused,’ said Andy, with his headlamp on. ‘I don’t think we’re getting anywhere.’ He fumbled in his pocket to get hold of his compass. He had used it to keep west, but it had acted up. He stared at the needle spinning violently, out of control. He shook the compass. And shook it again. Then he knocked furiously on the plastic covering, but the needle kept rotating faster than a spin-dryer.

Jack had his light on as well. He watched with growing angst, shaking his head. Wild thoughts raced through his head. The forest was just too dark, too weird and too dangerous. He fumbled to get hold of his compass, but was horror-struck when the needle swayed around, only to stop less than a second at every point.

‘What? Can’t you get a bearing either?’ said Bill, looking at his own.

Jack’s mind was in turmoil. What if their compasses were wrecked by some mysterious force? How would they be able to find their way when they had no inkling of directions?

‘We’ve got to keep west before we hit north,’ said Andy. ‘But, it’s hard without a reliable compass in this organic labyrinth.’

‘Mine doesn’t work either. This place gives me the pits.’ Jack trashed the air with his arms. ‘We need to get out of here, but how? How do we get out? We can’t!’

Andy tried to calm him down. ‘Okay, okay, don’t lose it mate! We’ll figure out something if this continues.’

Jack was frustrated. He shoved the compass back into his pocket. If it was useless, it would be impossible to choose the right direction. But his grandpa had said many times he could find his way without help by following the sun. The problem was that there was no sun down under. Whatever there was to light up the place, it wasn’t the sun they knew from above. He calmed down enough to make a suggestion. ‘We should try and get back to the small pond. You know the one where we filled the bottles last time. It was more open around there. Maybe the compasses don’t work here where it’s so thick. If we could get back there, it might help. Which … eh … way was it?’

Bill turned around, looking in all directions. ‘No idea. But no need to worry. We need a rest. We’ll set up camp, and eat some of those berries. How many packets of dried food have we got left, Andy?’

‘I think there’s at least a dozen plus all the stuff from Ambrosius. We’ve also got rice and some oats.’

‘Well, maybe I’ll do a shocker stew,’ said Bill. ‘I’ve got some dried fruits. We need a good meal, and a good night’s sleep to get out of this mess. I think I’ve even got some peanuts left. I’ll throw them in too.’

———-

After a meal, sitting around a fire, followed by a restful night’s sleep, they were ready to move on.

‘What do you think about heading that way?’ said Bill, pointing. ‘Maybe we came from over there.’

‘Yeah, let’s see if we can find that pond,’ said Andy.

They walked off, and stumbled onto a narrow trail, which looked much the same as the one they found before.

Hours later, Bill, who was last in line, called out. ‘Hey, where’s Jack? Anyone seen him? He was in front of me seconds ago. Any of you see where he went?’

Ben looked over his shoulders. ‘Nah, haven’t seen him for a while.’

‘Didn’t you see when he left the track Bill?’ said Andy. ‘You were behind him.’

‘Nope, he was here. Then all of a sudden, he wasn’t. It’s like he disappeared into thin air,’ said Bill.

Charlie cupped her hands around her mouth, and gave out the loudest holler she could muster.

All waited for a reply. There was nothing. Only the whirring sound of insects.

One after the other called out. But with no response.

‘I don’t think he can hear us,’ said Bill. ‘What if we turn in for the night right here? It’s never going to be dark as night, but I want to close my eyes, and have a rest. I reckon Jack must be close. Ah, my legs are aching.’ He turned to Andy. ‘Why don’t you find a good spot with a bit of shelter, mate?’

‘What about over there?’ said Andy, swinging off his backpack. ‘That rock hangs out a bit, and the tree should give us some protection as well. There’s a tiny pond there too. Not the pond we wanted, but I’ll check if the water’s okay.’

‘Sounds alright,’ said Bill. ‘The rock looks fair dinkum, but in case it isn’t, we’re better off crashing under that tree. I’m not a stickler for punishment. I mean if it decides to crumble away like some overcooked apple pie. Well, in this place anything’s possible.’

They went about to set up camp, while keeping a lookout for Jack. Bill circled the surroundings a few times, but found no sign of him. He came back, and sat down. ‘I can’t for my life understand where he’s gone.’

A sudden whistling, and a rustling from the bushes made everyone jump.

‘Here’s the lad now!’ said Bill.

‘No … eh …no, it’s not him,’ said Charlie.

‘Who is it?’ said Ben, trying to see through the leafy mess.

A youngster stepped out of the bushes ahead, and came walking towards them.
He hesitated, and waited a few moments before continuing, all the while searching the area with his eyes.

‘Hi there!’ called Bill. ‘Come over here!’

‘I wonder who it is,’ said Andy. ‘He’s the first human we’ve seen after we met Ambrosius.’

The stranger looked no older than a teenager. He wore not much more than a leathery loincloth. He had plaits of rope around one shoulder, and a bow with arrows hanging across his chest. His long, straw coloured hair was tied in a ponytail, which seemed to reach far down his back.

Bill introduced everybody. ‘And what’s your name, mate?’

‘Name?’ he said. His brown eyes landed on Charlie. He stretched out his hand, but she misunderstood the gesture, and tried to catch it. When it landed softly on her hair, she was surprised. He touched her long blond mane, while staring into her eyes.

‘Don’t you have a real name?’ said Bill, who had noticed the lightning strike between the two.

‘Some say I am whistler.’ His eyes went back to Charlie. He smiled, and she smiled back.

‘I think we’ll call you Whistler then.’ Bill went on to tell him their story. ‘So, Whistler, how did you end up in this godforsaken place? Do you have a family … eh … like a mother and father?’

‘I don’t remember mother. Father dead. I’ve been north, stayed in Robin Feathers. They teach more.’

‘What’s Robin Feathers?’ said Andy.

‘Robin Feathers is place in north.’

‘So, where are you headed now?’ said Bill.

‘I walk, and hunt, and keep from others.’

‘Can you shoot with that bow and arrow?’ said Ben.

Whistler nodded.

‘Can you show me?’ said Ben.

Whistler made a move to get the weapon ready.

‘No, not right now,’ said Bill. ‘Maybe we can do that later. It could be handy for all of us to learn. Maybe you can teach us how to make our own bows and arrows. We might need them if we’re faced with the hostiles. Hey, what if you come with us? We’ve got to break some people out of prison in the Grim Islands? Ever been there?’

‘There is not safe,’ said Whistler.

Bill told about the folks in prison, and the impending rescue. Whistler looked stunned, but was easily persuaded to help.

‘For goodness sake, I almost forgot about Jack,’ said Bill. ‘I’ll have to take another look. Want to come with me, Whistler? Maybe you can find his tracks, so we know where he went.’

Bill and Whistler walked off to try and find some signs where Jack had gone, while Ben parked himself under a tree, gazing towards nothing. He missed Jack, and refused to talk. Before the fire burnt full speed, he was sound asleep.

Charlie pulled out her polka-dot bag, dabbed some lip-gloss on her mouth before brushing her hair passionately.

Andy tried to make a whistle out of a stick. He gave up when it didn’t work. He didn’t have the right wood, and couldn’t get the bark to loosen in one piece.

———-

During the next two days, while waiting for Jack, Whistler had shown the others how to make bows and arrows. All had their own now. They trained on hitting a mark on a tree, and started to get better, but still needed more practice.

In the morning on the third day, Bill had a talk to Charlie and Ben. ‘Look kids, it’s nothing we can do. We’ve searched as much as we can. I don’t think Jack could’ve gone that far. I hate to say this, but if we want to get out of here alive, we’ve got to concentrate on what we’re here for. We’ve got to find the stone key, so we can leave this mess. Yeah, I know, we’ve got to find your parents too. Jack knows the direction to Boab Plute. He’s seen the maps, and he’s got his compass, whether it works or not. And he’s excellent at orienteering. I think he’ll find us, one way or another. You know it’s high time to leave.’

Charlie and Ben refused. They sat stubbornly, staring at the fire with arms around their knees, thinking about Jack.

‘We leave tomorrow whether you like it or not,’ said Bill.

———-

The next morning, Andy was the first to wake up. He ran around here and there, searching for something. ‘Has anyone seen my backpack?’

Bill yawned. ‘… Where did you put it last night, mate?’

‘Just here, beside me,’ said Andy.

‘What about the hostiles?’ said Ben.

‘Maybe you left the pack somewhere else’, said Bill. ‘Maybe behind a bush or something.’

Andy threw the only things he had left, the sleeping bag, and a spray jacket, on the ground. ‘No, I had the backpack right here, very close. And now my compass’ is gone plus my stuff. Somebody, whoever, must’ve sneaked up on us, while we slept. It could be the hostiles, or it could be the other gang. No, on second thoughts, the hostiles would’ve have captured us for sure. I hate this. Whoever stole my backpack has my compass.’

‘Calm down, mate,’ said Bill. ‘It must be here somewhere.’

‘I hope you’ve got your compass under control,’ said Andy. ‘Don’t leave it out of sight, whatever you do! Our lives might depend on it.’

Bill stumbled up to get on his feet, and grabbed his backpack. He rummaged around in the largest pocket, but didn’t find it. He checked every other pocket. It was not there. Next, he unpacked everything, and laid out every single thing on his sleeping bag before turning the pack upside down. He shook it to let the smallest odds and ends fall out, but there was no compass.

‘Where is it, grandpa?’ asked Charlie. ‘Don’t you remember where you put it?’

‘That’s right! I remember I had it on me yesterday.’ He grabbed his khaki pants, and went through the pockets, one after the other.

Not there either.

‘Ugh! This is all we need,’ said Andy.

Bill and Andy looked at Whistler, but knew it was no way it could be him. He had no room for a backpack, not even a compass, which he probably had no idea how to use.

‘If you promise not to get mad, I’ll tell you something,’ said Ben.

‘What’s there to tell?’ said Bill. ‘What have you done? Spit it out, mate!’

‘Haven’t done anything,’ said Ben. ‘But just so you know it, I’ve got a compass.’ He pulled it out from his pocket.

‘Oh, Ben, it’s the best news we’ve had for a long time,’ said Andy.

‘I didn’t know you had one,’ said Bill.

‘It’s actually Jack’s. I was going to tell you … earlier … but I reckoned you’d be angry. I think he must’ve left it out just before he disappeared. You know, that place where we checked and the compasses worked. We sat down to eat something and then … ‘

‘But … how’s he going to find his way without it?’ said Bill. ‘Maybe that’s why he’s lost. You should’ve given it to him right there and then. So, why didn’t you?’

‘I was going to. I don’t know what happened. I saw it, and was going to give it back, but put it in my pocket. All of a sudden we left. And then I forgot about it. Don’t you think he’ll be okay? He can find his way, can’t he?’

Ben handed the compass to his grandpa.

‘No, you keep it for now,’ said Bill. ‘We’ve both lost ours, so you better hang on to it. I don’t know what to do, but we can’t sit around here doing nothing until oblivion hits. And I don’t like that we’re getting so much behind. We’ve got to move on. It’s not your fault that Jack disappeared. It’s this darned place. It wouldn’t surprise me if we run into him along the track. We just have to find the old track first. And he knows where we’re headed. So, what do you say? Should we wrap up right now?’

‘Are you crazy? We can’t leave if he’s not here,’ said Ben.

‘I don’t know how you could even think about it. It’s not on,’ said Charlie, sitting closer to Whistler than anybody else.

‘He’ll follow us,’ said Andy. ‘He’s shown that he can take care of himself. Just give him some credit.’

‘We’re here on a mission, kids, and that is to find your mum and dad, as long as we know where they might be,’ said Bill. ‘If they’re deemed useless by the squinting mob, and set free all of a sudden, it’s possible we might never find them. What if they wander away further up north, or east? We might never see them again. This place is so much bigger than anyone can imagine. We’ve also got to take into consideration that the underwater back surge can hit at any time.’

‘Backwater undersurge,’ said Ben.

‘Okay, okay, whatever, but the longer it takes for us to get to those islands, the bigger the chance of disaster, either the backwater, or they’ll be gone, and lost. Forever. If this whole thing is the size of Australia above, or even bigger, we would never be able to cover the whole lot.’

Bill saw their faces. ‘No, no, no! We’re definitely not going to abandon Jack. I promise you that before we leave this flaming place with all these creepy goings-on, I’ll find him even if I have to crawl on my bare knees through every hole and tunnel from one end to the other. Hey, you know that he knows the places we’ve got to search for, as well as we do. So, for now, we just got to move on. You know what we’ll do. We’ll put up signs along the way. I’m sure he’ll follow us, and we’ll be together again soon.’

‘No, Bill, we can’t put any signs up,’ said Andy. ‘Others might find them.’

‘Crikey! What was I thinking?’ said Bill. ‘You’re right. That’s out of the question. Don’t worry guys! Everything will be fine, I’m sure. Let’s move on!’

They packed up, and were ready, when Ben had a sudden urge to do his number two business. ‘Okay then, but you’ve got to promise, we’ll search for him on the way. Be back in a minute. Got to dump before we leave.’ With his backpack on, he hurried off through the trees.

They stood around ready and waiting for Ben to return.

‘Takes a bit long,’ said Bill. ‘I have to sit down.’

Charlie called out, but there was no answer.

‘We’ll give him another couple of minutes,’ said Bill.

‘No, something’s wrong,’ said Charlie. ‘It shouldn’t take this long. What if he’s got himself into another trap? Maybe that’s why we can’t hear him.’

‘No, let’s not even go there,’ said Bill. ‘I’m sure he’ll hear us.’

Charlie called on top of her lungs. Andy and Bill shouted louder, while Whistler tried some of his high-pitched bird sounds.

‘Stay here, Charlie, in case he turns up,’ said Bill. ‘Whistler, you take that side. Andy, you do the other. I’ll go this way. He can’t have gone that far.’

Charlie had tears in her eyes. ‘You’ve got to stay close, grandpa. You’ve got to hear me if I call you. I don’t want to be left here on my own if nobody’s coming back.’

She sat down on the ground, looked at her nails, and waited. Bored, and worried, she counted as she brushed her hair one hundred times. She used her eye pencil, and a bit of mascara on her eyes, and more lip-gloss. Once in a while she called out. Replies came from different directions.

They were back within fifteen minutes.

‘Didn’t you find anything?’ said Charlie.

‘I think he’s just playing around. Maybe a bit of hide-and-seek,’ said Andy.

‘No, he wouldn’t. Something isn’t right,’ she continued. ‘I can feel it right in my bones, apart from the fact that he would be too scared on his own. You know, grandpa, how he’s always been a worrier. He worries about everything, Andy.’ She started crying, wiped her mascara coloured tears, and ended up with a stained face.

‘I don’t like this. Something could’ve happened to both of them,’ said Bill. ‘This place is not what it seems. Something’s going on here, and it’s too damned hard to explain. If we can’t find them, and if they can’t find us, what do we do? Wait a minute! Could they’ve been captured?’

‘If they were captured, why weren’t we captured?’ said Andy. ‘No, I think it’s something else. Maybe they’re simply lost.’

‘While you two wait here, I’ll do another search. Andy and Whistler, please look after Charlie for me. I’ll take my backpack just in case.’ He winked at Andy.

‘Why do you need your backpack, Grandpa? Do you think you’ll get lost? Be careful! I don’t want you gone too.’

‘I’ll hold the fort, but get back soon,’ said Andy.

Whistler took a seat beside Charlie. As Bill left, he watched, as they sat whispering together. He even heard a giggle from Charlie.

Bill took the same direction, as Ben before he disappeared. It seemed to be the most sensible choice. He was dead tired, but if he was to find them, he had to force himself to forget about aching limbs.

He walked through the heavy undergrowth, and passed the tree trunk set up as a bush toilet. As he expected, there were no signs of Ben.

Low growing bushes soon turned into dense forest. He broke, or twisted the resilient branches, and twigs, to make way.

The vegetation changed again. It became more open. When he discovered a tree covered ridge through the sparse trunks, he hurried on. At the crest, he saw an expanse of water shimmering between a myriad of fluttering leaves. He ran down, and continued through a glen before ending up at a much lower rise situated above a pond of clear water. Sweaty and dirty, he felt tempted to freshen up. He knew it would be done in minutes. They had not had any decent wash for days and he, for one, had no wish to smell like an old rag.

‘Hey, come over here!’ he called out. ‘It’s great here! Want a swim guys?’

He called out again, not even reflecting over if the others would be able to hear him. When nobody replied, he put the backpack on the ground. He decided he couldn’t wait for them to turn up. He undressed to his jocks before sliding down the steep clay bank into the water.

‘It’s just the right temperature … yeah … must be another one of those artesian basins.’ He talked to himself, while swimming in circles around the small area, feeling the bottom now and then.

He wondered where they were, and yelled again, but had no response.

After a few more minutes of soaking, he felt so much fresher. Invigorated and playful, he pretended to be a seal. When he was too tired of that game, he became a duck. He dived to the bottom where he found some smooth-looking river stones. He picked up a few, threw them in, and dived in again, and again, to find them. He had not had that much fun for ages, and found it hard to stop.

During his playing around, the light changed. It was the same as every day at a certain point. ‘Must be late. I’ve got to go back. They must wonder where I am.’

He scrambled a few steps on the way to the top, only to slip down like a drunken sailor through the oily mud. He tried again, and it was as fun as playing on a slippery slide. Again, he took another aim for the top. He wanted to get up faster, but slid down before he knew what had happened. After his third attempt, he began to worry. The clay bank was as slippery as an algae-covered rock out of salt water.

He was surrounded by steep clay banks. Not knowing what to do, he sat down at the bottom. He remembered a story he once read about a crocodile attack. What if he tried to do what that man had done to save himself?

He started on another attempt up the muddy slope, but now he fanned his fingers to get a better grip. Nothing went as anticipated. He was back at the starting point before he was half way. Exhausted, he cleaned off the dirt, and stayed resting on his back in the shallows. A few minutes later, he was sound asleep.

During the dusky night, he slid further into the water without noticing. He woke up in a panic when the water seeped into his nostrils. In a frantic mode, he clawed his way up, but his jocks kept gliding off. After a few tries, he was covered in gunk, and angrily left the jocks stuck to the mud bank.

With silent tears streaming down his cheeks, he remained sitting in the shallows, thinking about what else he could do. Another idea sprang to mind. He stood up, and wiped his face with his hands.

He remembered to have seen some murky pieces of wood sticking up at the other edge of the pond, and managed to pull out four. With his bare hands, he pushed the first one into the clay, as hard as possible. The next one was more difficult to force in, as he was standing with one foot on the battered wooden piece, while hanging onto the slippery clay slope. With a lot of effort, he managed to do the same with all four pieces. Despite the worst of odds, he reached the crest.

He stood up, utterly drained, and was at a complete loss when looking at his body. From top to toe, he was covered in gooey black mud.

Angry and frustrated, he fell to his knees. He punched the ground with his fists, and started crying.

After some weeping, and carrying on, he thought long and hard. Maybe it was the water. Or, it could be the mud. Or, was it something else entirely? Something had happened during the night. He knew there was nothing he could do. Ben had been right. They were in a mighty dangerous place. The supernatural power was just about everywhere, and could strike at any time. Nobody had full understanding of its effects.

His mind was in a spin, but he knew it was imperative to reach the others fast. He knew he had to warn them, but first he had to get dressed. He wiped his face from a few more tears, but unknowingly streaked it with more dirt. He dared not get back into the water to clean himself. Instead he opened his backpack to pull out a new pair of jocks from the bottom, and put them on. He had to let them drop to the ground, and then used his knife to slice into the sides. He tried them again, and with the cut pieces, he tied knots to have them stay on. Next it was time for the trousers. They were much too long. He folded them, over and over, but they became too bulky to wear. He took them off, and sliced into the fabric to tear off what was necessary. Next he pulled the shirt over his head. The first he noticed were the sleeves. Folding, folding, folding. He had to do it too many times, and decided to make small cuts. Then he ripped off pieces from the sleeves like he was pulling pages from a notepad.

When he stepped into his new short-like pants, he could not contain himself. Tears kept running, while he laughed hysterically. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand, and imagined only too well what he would look like. The pants were more like a skirt than a pair of shorts. He tried the leather belt. Too long. Only one way to fix that. He tied an awkward knot. He shoved his red cap on after tightening as much as possible in the neck, and grabbed the backpack. Dragging it across the ground, he found it had become enormous since he had shrunk.

He opened the backpack, and searched through the contents. Every item was thrown on the ground. He felt his teeth. They were stuck. At least something was positive. The glue for his dentures was the first to be ditched. Then the knee pads, the Chinese lantern, and the medicine kit. ‘Don’t need it!’ he cried angrily.

After repacking, he heaved it onto his back, but was disappointed. It felt as big as he was. He walked around to see if he would be able to carry such a heavy load. But, no, it was too cumbersome. He knew he wouldn’t get far, but there was no way he would leave more behind.

Even so, he started again. He threw more stuff on the ground. It was time to be absolutely merciless. What use was anything if he couldn’t carry his own pack? If he could drag along less, it would help his dire situation. Frustrated, he already had enough of being small. He felt vulnerable, and could not wait to get to the others. His eyes flooded when he came to think that Ben was probably the only one who could help. Who else was there, but him? He knew almost as much about magic stuff as he did. He doubted that Andy knew much at all, and to talk to Jack was impossible apart from Charlie. She would become too emotional.

He was alerted by a sudden loud crunching from behind. His immediate thought was if the boys had sneaked up on him, but when he heard a strange sound like heavy snorting, he went cold with fear.

There was not enough time for running. With a thumping heart, he took careful aim for the closest tree trunk, a few steps away. As the sounds of crunching and snorting came closer, he stood peeking behind the tree. When an uncanny kind of reptilian, as large as an oversized saltwater crocodile, stepped awkwardly towards his belongings, he had the fright of his life.

He couldn’t stay standing there. Desperate to get off the ground, he clawed at the tree. With insurmountable effort, and as quiet as possible, he climbed up to sit on the closest branch, sturdy enough to hold his weight. His heart was beating faster, as he watched the creature move through his stuff, and stepping over his backpack.

The animal stood still for a few moments, while sniffing the air with a snake-like tongue flicking in and out of its mouth. Suddenly, it heaved itself upward to stand almost upright on its hind legs.

Bill felt the sweat pouring down his back. He tried not to breathe. His eyes moved, but nothing else.

The beast went down on all fours. A moment later it was gone.

New questions filled Bill’s head. Thinking of Ambrosius, why had he not mentioned the humongous reptiles, which were able to stand up? The old man had thrown around warnings left, right and center. Warnings about all sorts of waters, but not much about giant animals. Was it because Ambrosius had forgotten? Or was it because he had not thought of the importance for them to know? What if Ben and the others stumbled upon those monsters? And what other nasty surprises were there in this land?

He stayed safely up the tree until every sound had died down. Only then did he slither down the tree trunk before he tiptoed to his backpack to find his compass. That’s when it hit him like a lightning strike on a clear blue sky. He had lost it, and had to walk on without it. He began to scream and curse. More than a minute went by before he came to his senses. Dead tired, he knew he had to take some kind of action. He needed to move on. What if he could use his sixth sense to find the right direction?

He hitched up the backpack and walked off, only to run back. The lantern had been with him for a long time. He refused to leave the old thing behind.

Taking aim for a tangled mess of creepers, he chose the opposite direction to the monstrous animal.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 13 – Trapped

Andy signalled to the others to stay put, but to eye the surroundings. He said nothing until sure there were no more sounds. ‘You heard it too, didn’t you? Oh, boy, when I get nervous, I get so bloody hungry.’

‘Yeah, could’ve been a branch, or something,’ said Bill. ‘Maybe it collapsed, and crashed down. The crickets, or sand gropers, or whatever it is, make such a racket it’s hard to tell.’

‘Or did somebody … or something step on a branch … by mistake?’ said Jack.

‘Somebody … or … something’s watching us,’ whispered Ben. ‘I’d say it could be the canaries?’

‘What? Did you say canaries? Are you bonkers?’ said Jack. ‘No wild canaries in Australia. Even if there were, they would be tiny. Canaries couldn’t break the smallest twig.’

‘Jack, this isn’t Australia, as we know it,’ said Ben. ‘Not by a long shot.’

Bill shushed them.

All stood still, wary, and waiting for something else to happen. With no more unexpected sounds, Andy was the first to move. He slid off his backpack. In one of the pockets on the outside, he found an opened packet of crisp bread. He grabbed a piece, and held it with his teeth, while showing the packet to the others. Nobody wanted anything. Not even Jack.

‘Blah, tastes like sawdust.’ He was forced to rinse it down with a swig from his water bottle. When finished, he made a quick swipe over his mouth.

Something caught his eye. He crouched down to study the ground. With a worried look, he waved the others over.

‘Barefoot?’ asked Jack. ‘Who’s walking barefoot in this kind of forest?’

‘Look at the size of them!’ said Ben.

Charlie tried with her foot, which disappeared inside the so much larger foot print.

‘Wouldn’t be many big-footed humans erring around down here with, or without shoes,’ said Bill.

‘It-it could be the hostile hunting patrol,’ said Ben, fishing out his camera from a pocket in his backpack. ‘I’ll just take a couple of photos.’

‘If it’s the hostiles, we’ve got to think about what to do,’ said Andy. ‘So what do we do?’

‘What can we do?’ said Bill. ‘We don’t know what we’re up against. We’ve got too much to worry about – the hostile patrol, the other gang, and who knows what else. If we don’t watch our step, we’re doomed, and if we end up under lock and key down here, we’ll never get out. The others won’t either. I want to head home when we’re done here, sit by the fire with a nice cuppa, or a cold beer, and reflect on this whole episode, as a fanciful dream. Or maybe nightmare describes it better. Any plans we make now have to be thought out carefully, or this whole thing could be as futile, as a bit of dilly-dallying through a theme park.’

‘Might be the canaries,’ said Ben. ‘Maybe they’re a bit like giant wombats; extinct on top, but not down here. Come to think of it, why wouldn’t there be giant ones in this place?’

‘Ha, ha, ha!’ Jack laughed his head off. ‘Are you for real? Budgies, I could maybe agree on, but there wouldn’t be any canaries. Not in this place. No giant animals either whether they’re extinct, or not.’

‘Not so loud,’ whispered Ben. ‘Didn’t you hear Ambrosius when he said something about them? Don’t you remember? None of you asked how big they are. I think it’s something to worry about. I mean a lot to worry about.’

‘Are you sure he said ‘canaries’?’ said Charlie, pulling nervously at her chin.

‘Yeah, and I’m surprised nobody else heard him.’ As usual, the others failed to take notice of what Ben thought.

‘It’s important to be ready if it comes to the crunch,’ said Andy. ‘To be prepared is crucial.’

‘If we’re attacked, we just have to fight our way through,’ said Jack. ‘I don’t think we can be prepared when we don’t know what we’re up against.’

‘Okay, listen now!’ said Bill. ‘Let’s play it by ear! We’re headed towards Boab Plute,’ said Bill. ‘Everyone’s seen the maps. Do you all know the way? If something happens, nobody knows what, we’ll meet there. I’ll do everything to try, and protect you here and now, but we’re not sure of anything. Boab Plute is a safe place according to Ambrosius. In the meantime, we’ve got to talk more sparingly. Yep, talk in smaller letters. Andy, you take the lead, the kids will follow. I’ll be last.’

The trail was surrounded by golden tree trunks, and overgrown with leafy creepers, climbers, and large tufts of grasses. Every now and then they had to stop to find out if they were still on the track.

Unexpectedly, the undergrowth changed. The ground became swampy with mosses and puddles. They had trouble crisscrossing their way through the dense trees, and sharp-edged fronds, which moved whimsically towards them.

Andy used his pocket knife to try and keep them at bay. ‘It’s useless. Who would’ve thought it would be so thick, and even wet here? He didn’t say anything about that, did he? It’s almost like the plants won’t let us through.’

‘No, he never told us,’ said Ben. ‘And he forgot to mention that everything’s supernatural too.’

‘Bugs! Can’t you just get it through your dumb head? I don’t know how many times I’ve got to tell you. No such thing as supernatural, or even magic for that matter, and star gates or worm holes are not real either. This is just a kind of forest, maybe one on top of the other, but that’s all. For some reason the forests down here seem to grow in layers.’

‘I can’t believe it,’ said Ben. ‘Jack, oh, Jack, have you ever heard about underground forests growing in layers, one on top of another? Have you ever heard such a ridiculous thing before in your whole life? Nah, I didn’t think so.’

‘Well, it’s a forest whether we like it or not. Whether it’s above ground, or underground, or one on top of the other, may be just another kettle of fish,’ said Bill. ‘Anyway, as soon as we’re through this jungle of creepers, we should see the next puddle-lake before we find the much bigger puddle, or was that a kind of crater, or lake? I’m not sure now. I wonder how far it is to the inland sea from there. Did he say it was called the Westolian Sea?’

‘Jeepers, creepers, we don’t want to hit those rivulets, but I think they were more to the east,’ said Andy. ‘That’s the route the hunting patrol usually takes.’

‘I’ve just thought about something,’ said Ben. ‘Why was it that he could climb the cliff wall so fast? It wasn’t natural either. He was like a monkey. If he’s so old, how come he’s able to do that? Something doesn’t add up.’

‘Nah, nah, nah … that’s a bit far-fetched,’ said Bill. ‘I’m not a spring chicken, and I was as good as him. Forget about that, Ben. Ambrosius is probably the only one we can trust down here. Anyway, didn’t he say something about a friendly tribe? They’re supposed to be the fair dinkum ones in some kind of rain forest, but what? A rain forest down here? I doubt it. Well, it’s thick, I know, but it doesn’t look like any rain forest, does it? These are not the sort of plants that grow in a jungle. But, if we run into those guys, they might give us a hand. Just check out first if they squint or not, because we don’t want to walk straight into the bosom of the enemy. How long does it take to get there? Where did he say they were exactly?’

‘He didn’t say where,’ said Jack. ‘I think we should’ve asked more questions.’

‘It’s like he talked in riddles,’ said Charlie. ‘It was hard to understand sometimes.’

Bill stopped to kick a small wooden stub with a growing furry ball of roots at the top. ‘I can’t work out this place. If it wasn’t for what we’re here for, I’d sooner be out of here, if you know what I mean. Then again, we can’t slip out even if we wanted to. We’ve got to find the key first. Why is it that we don’t even know where to look for it? I hate to say this, but none of us knows what it looks like either. You’re right Jack. We should’ve asked more questions. A lot more questions.’

‘He didn’t seem to know that much,’ said Charlie.

‘I think he knows a lot, but for some reason he had trouble explaining,’ said Andy. ‘Or maybe he had forgotten some of it.’

Bill shrugged. ‘I know what you’re saying, mate.’ He wiped away the tiny beads of moisture from his brow. He felt old. It was one thing to hike in a National Park. This was something totally different.

They struggled on through the thick growing bushes before climbing over a tree covered rise. Downhill, on the other side, the vegetation grew greener and lusher.

Andy was first. He tried to speed up the pace, but stopped all of a sudden, and turned his head in all directions. ‘Are we still on the track?’

‘I can see it,’ said Jack. ‘Less mossy right here.’

‘Where I grew up, in Tassie, it was thick, and dark, as a broom head,’ said Bill. He made a signal to move on.

‘This is definitely getting worse. I don’t like it,’ said Charlie. ‘Why did we end up here? I can hardly remember how it happened.’

‘Watch out!’ Bill grabbed unto Ben’s backpack, but only got hold of a piece of string, which slipped through his fingers.

Ben had already discovered what was there. He tried to skip to the side, while also grasping onto a tree branch, which snapped right off. He fell through a bunch of leaves and creepers into a hole.

Jack looked down. ‘What the …?’

Ben screamed. ‘DO SOMETHING!’

Bill looked around at the others. ‘Gotta get him up! Who’s got the rope?’

Without a word, and not overly worried, Jack stretched the bundle to Andy, who started to unravel it, while at the same time looking into the pit. ‘What’s that? I’ll be damned. It looks like they’re moving.’

‘What do you mean?’ Charlie had muffled her question by holding her hand on top of her mouth.

Ben turned, and began to wail.

‘It’s okay, mate, we’ll get you out,’ said Bill.

‘Look at all those creepers!’ said Andy. ‘They’re growing, and pretty fast too.’

‘Plants can’t grow that fast,’ said Jack. ‘There’s no way.’

Ben whimpered and cried out. ‘Help me! They’re clinging onto me. Do something!’

‘Look!’ Andy pointed to a crawling snake-like tentacle, which seemed to be heading into the pit. ‘Here Ben! Catch the rope!’

‘It might be something wrong with those leafy things,’ said Bill. ‘You’re okay mate? Do they burn, or sting, or something?’

Ben wriggled. ‘No, but it feels like I’m sinking.’

Bill went pale. ‘Blimey! Must be quicksand! Don’t move! We’ve got to get him out – NOW!’

‘So, what’s happening?’ said Jack, stepping up closer.

The bottom of the hole started to heave. Large stones popped up through the sand around Ben before rolling into a pile at the foot end. They began to grind against one another. Lianas, creepers and vines were drawn towards them like scrap metal to a magnet, only to be sucked down into what had become a humongous grating hole.

‘I’ll get you out, Ben!’ shouted Andy, before plunging in. At once, the twisting tentacles coiled rapidly not only around his legs, but also his arms. He kept hitting at them with his knife, and managed to cut off a few. But more kept moving in from every direction, slithering around like dancing cobras. A long slender creeper twirled fast around Ben’s chest, and then tried to coil itself around his neck.

Andy loosened its grip by slicing off the top. He was aghast when he saw how it forked into two budding shoots, twisting, and swaying like searching for somewhere to land.

He moved fast to tie the rope hastily around Ben’s waist. But the freakish, fast-growing plants refused to give up. Some were swallowed by the all devouring grinding mouth, while others managed to grip onto available legs and arms inside the hole.

Noises from within the ground became louder.

Ben screamed, and turned his head. When he saw the mincing hole growing larger, he gave out another piercing cry.

‘Help him!’ screamed Charlie. ‘Don’t just stand there Jack! He’s your brother for heaven’s sake.’

Andy kept fighting with Bill trying to direct. Charlie was biting her nails, and a pale-faced Jack hung onto a tree trunk at the top, as if he was drowning.

Bill had been ready to jump in since the whole thing began, but Charlie had restrained him. ‘It’s no room for you in there, grandpa. Andy’s doing it.’

But Bill was still out of his wits. He paced around, while staring into the pit. When he discovered Ben’s body go limp, his face turned ashen, and he wrangled himself free. ‘Let me go, Charlie! I’ve got to help him.’

‘No, grandpa, you shouldn’t have to do it. Andy is in there. There’s no room for you too. Jack should have been the one to help Ben. Jack, do something! If you don’t, I will.’

‘It’s no room for more of us in there,’ said Jack, casually. ‘You said so yourself.’

Andy struggled on. He sorted through the plant material by cutting the twirling tentacles, which multiplied too fast. As soon as some were cut off, more kept coming.

Ben was still on his back, struggling with the plants, whimpering like a hurt puppy. His eyes were open, flickering from side to side.

‘What’s wrong, mate?’ Andy worked furiously, while wiping the sweat off his face. The rescue attempt seemed futile. Nothing worked long enough for them to escape. New plants appeared, as if out of nowhere, and another lot were pulled towards the grinding hole.

Ben whispered. ‘Do-do you see what’s happening? The more we struggle, the worse it gets. Just stop for a second!’

Andy was hesitant, but let his arms drop. As he stood still, the vines slowed to a shudder. No new shoots appeared. Everything seemed to rest, almost like they were wilting.

‘How did you know that?’ whispered Jack.

‘I didn’t,’ said Ben, in a barely audible voice. ‘I just had a feeling. I think we’ve got to move away, but we’ll have to do it carefully, bit by bit.’

Andy lifted the limp greenery aside with care, while he mouthed. ‘Just slide away very, very slowly.’

Ben made a calculated move to slip out by rolling on to his side. He was out of immediate grasp.

Bill pulled the rope, while whispering. ‘Jack, help me get him out!’

With not much effort, Ben was out of the pit.

Bill welcomed him into outstretched arms.

‘It looks like you’ve had it,’ said Jack.

Ben shivered. ‘No thanks to you. I would’ve rescued you. What were you so scared of?’

‘Scared? Me? You must be kidding,’ said Jack. ‘I was just about to jump in when you stopped your panicking.’

‘Try to be more quiet, guys! Think about the plants!’ said Bill. ‘Jack, help me with Andy!’

Bill threw the rope down. Andy tied it around his waist, and with Bill and Jack’s help, he reached the top.

Standing around the hole, everyone tried to calm down.

‘Weird,’ said Ben. ‘Is this the strangest place in the world, or what?’

There was agreement from all, except Jack. ‘Nothing to it. No star gate, and nothing magic either. Just so you know it.’

Nobody answered. The savage incident had made them numb. They remained in silence, while looking down into the hole. What was left of the plant life lay dead at the bottom, and the stones with the grinding mouth had sunk into the dirt.

‘Amazing that it helped when you stopped fighting them,’ said Bill, after some contemplating. ‘I don’t know where you got it from. You were in such a state. I must say, it was good thinking. You’re one clever guy, Ben.’

‘All right, I’ll tell you. Firstly, just so you all know it, those plants were not the stinging ones like in Multus Arbor at Bafflebuff Puddle, but we can’t take that for granted everywhere. Secondly, it looks like none of you might have understood fully yet, but this land is different to what we’re used to. It has supernatural knobs on somehow. I know most of you guys might not believe in those things, but something weird is going on. I’ve known since we went through that star gate, or wormhole, to end up here. For your information, the magic, or whatever it is, can be good, or it can be bad. One thing’s for sure; we’ve got to be suspicious of everything.’

Jack laughed. ‘Bugs, you’re just about as crazy as a dunny rat. They were just tough vines, nothing magical at all.’

‘I wouldn’t be so sure of myself if I were you,’ said Bill. ‘This isn’t a fair dinkum world here. I think we’ve all seen that it’s far from it. We’ve got to be extra cautious. I don’t think we can walk high enough on our toes.’

‘You’ve hit it right on the nail, Ben,’ said Andy. ‘I don’t understand this place. It’s weird alright. Nothing’s even a bit normal. Nobody knows what we’re up against.’

Jack shook his head. ‘You’re such a dumb bunch,’ he muttered.

After a well-deserved break, eating and drinking, Charlie asked if somebody had a small pair of scissors.

‘You must be kidding,’ said Jack. ‘’Course, we don’t. Only a nerd would bring useless things like that on a cave expedition. It’s enough with a pocket knife, isn’t it? Well, unless we should’ve brought machetes, or chainsaws to get through this forest.’

‘Nah, it’s never enough with just a knife,’ said Ben. ‘I’ve got nail clippers in my backpack.’

‘Thanks, Ben. You’ve made my day. And you’re not a nerd.’

After her nails had been done over twice, the group was ready to move on.

Andy walked around the area searching for the trail. ‘I can’t find it,’ he said. ‘I’m sure it’s here, but I can’t see it.’

‘Let’s go that way!’ said Bill, looking up from his compass and pointing.

‘I don’t know how the trail could’ve disappeared,’ said Andy. You’re saying we should go in that direction. Yeah, okay, let’s do it!’

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 12 – Alkasar Forest

‘For goodness’ sake,’ said Bill. ‘We need to stop and think. What’s down there? What about safety?’

Ben doubled over and retched. The horrific odour had been too much. After he had somewhat recovered, he became excited. ‘Did-did you see what happened, Jack? Did you? Did you see?’

Ambrosius waited patiently for everything to settle down.

‘So, how does it actually work?’ said Jack. ‘I suppose it must be some form of mechanism.’

Ambrosius frowned. ‘Mechanism? Mechanisms here, like above, they are not.’

‘Well, we can’t worry too much about how, and why right now,’ said Bill. ‘We’ve got to be on our way, if we’re going to make it before the rains, and floods, and whatever comes our way. But I would like to know if it’s really safe in there. Couldn’t it flood? What about the backwater you mentioned. How long is that passage before we get out in the open?’

‘Well, I for one would like to know if it ends at some kind of gate,’ said Andy. ‘This whole thing’s getting worse by the minute. No, correct that; by the second. We’re not going down to another layer now, are we? I kind of want to stay on top of this.’

‘A graveyard thoroughfare to the greater parts of Panghellan, it is. Not far from Eldris Gate, you will end.’

Ben peeked through the opening. ‘Is it really a graveyard? Down that hole? How come you can have a whole graveyard in a cave?’

‘So you mean a fair dinkum graveyard?’ said Bill. ‘As in dead people? Buried somewhere here? I didn’t think it would be that many. Well, I mean in any one place?’

‘People? Oh, no!’ said Ambrosius.

Bill was confused. ‘So, what are they?’

Ambrosius never replied, but made another elaborate hand gesture for them to enter.

Andy stood first in line, but was shaking his head. ‘I don’t like that haunting kind of light.’

‘And the smell is just awful,’ said Charlie. She doubled her scarf around her neck, so she could pull it up to cover her nose. ‘Isn’t there any other way we can go?’

Jack had lost all enthusiasm. ‘Yuck! It’s dripping wet in there.’

‘Old smells linger. Walk through Eldris Gate. Then bad odour is no more.’

The tunnel sloped steeply downwards, and was far from inviting. Nobody wanted to be the first to enter.

‘Okay then, I’ll go first,’ said Bill, and started off. ‘Careful! Kind of slippery.’

One by one, the others followed by taking small steps.

The dank air oozed of death, and a solid murmur of water was almost overpowered by crashing waves.

‘Is that an ocean?’ said Ben, but nobody took notice.

When all were at the bottom, Ambrosius showed the way onto a narrow bridge structure made of slimy, rotting tree trunks.

Ben worried about the gaping holes in between. ‘C-Could that be the backwater down there?’

Nobody answered.

‘Hey, anyone, I asked if that could be the backwater.’

‘No need to fret,’ said Ambrosius. ‘When backwater surges from depths to flow forward, know you will surely.’

‘It doesn’t sound comforting if you ask me,’ said Bill, jumping on the bridgework. The wood swayed, and creaked. ‘You mean this is supposed to be safe?’

‘Safe it is. For hundreds of years, people have trampled here. Nothing safer than that,’ said Ambrosius, waving all to move on.

‘I don’t think it’s safe,’ said Ben. ‘It’s obviously ready to fall to pieces.’

The others followed Ambrosius with no hesitation. Ben was last. He stumbled on, but had trouble understanding why everyone was so gullible to believe everything the old man said.

The track on the bridge continued to slope downwards through bends and nooks. Scattered along the way were dead seaweed in clumps, which made the bridge even more treacherous and slippery.

Ben’s mind raced into overdrive. If the wood was okay after hundreds of years, flash floods were not. His thoughts went into chaos with water gushes, and tunnels inside caves turning into underground lake systems. With no boat, and no scuba gear, what chances were there of getting out before they drowned.

‘Isn’t there any other way?’ said Ben, fearing the worst. He also knew it was no use complaining. Nobody seemed to take notice of him.

Sliding and trudging, careful not to step wrongly, all moved forward. Ben was still last in line.

They came to what seemed to be the end and walked through a whirlpool of milky mist. The bridge had finished, but a narrow track led onward into an enormous field with bony structures. All stood up like giant half-round hurdles, gleaming in the eerie light. Many had leathery wet chunks hanging like towels on clothes lines.

Ambrosius made a sign for them to follow across. ‘Appear in the underground chamber, they do. Gather for last moments. Connected to the ocean above, it may be. How? I do not profess to know. How far away is an ocean?’

‘Is that right?’ said Andy. ‘Maybe we could swim from under here and out. But, as you said, it would be too risky even if it’s somehow connected to our ocean on top. Lots of underground caves just at the shoreline down south. Or, it could be that the water leads into some sort of underground ocean, which can only be found down here. We’ve got enormous aquifers with fresh water, so why not some with seawater. What if they’re connected to those water craters you mentioned earlier? I suppose you don’t know how deep they are, and if they hold a substantial amount of water in there.’

‘Not altogether known, it is,’ said Ambrosius.

‘Would be suicidal to try it. Nobody, but whales, could hold air that long,’ said Bill.

Ambrosius talked with his hands moving. ‘No water way is to be trusted. Binehogen, only way out, it is.’ He pointed to Ben. ‘Right time, and the green-eyed one will know. Over there! Channel chutes, as this, connected to deepest part, it may be. Scavengers lingers in chute. For picking, they may be ready.’

Ben was curious and squeezed through the others to take a look. ‘I wondered how you were able to catch them. Hey, I just saw one! It crawled in under that rock?’

‘If those cray-looking giants come in here ready to be grabbed, it wouldn’t surprise me if other things congregate as well. But I suppose we couldn’t have a juicy steak coming out of that water hole now, could we, Ben?’

‘Or a hamburger with the lot,’ said Ben, and even Jack laughed.

Ambrosius seemed impatient. ‘Walk on is a must.’

The trail continued through to another chamber where they passed more of the usual cave decor, as in highly structured crystal formations with thinly veiled drapes of limestone. Every formation had been shaped by the constant dripping during many thousands, or even millions, of years. In some places the stalactites stood like thick icicle bars, formed by nature into closed cages.

Howling sounds, and misty outbursts came from the many crevices. At intervals, Ambrosius skipped to the side to avoid getting wet. Despite trying to duck and skip, the others were soaked when reaching the exit.

‘Seems like a trick to avoid the spurts of water,’ said Andy, wiping the wet hair out of the way. ‘Glad to be out of there.’

‘But we’re still inside some kind of cave,’ said Ben, drying his face with both hands.

‘Just wring out what you can,’ said Bill. ‘I think we need to warm up after this. We’ll stop soon, and make a fire, if we can just find some wood.’

‘No need to dry by fire.’ Ambrosius steered them towards another enclosed passage only meters away. ‘Soon, enter through gate, you will, into a warm circle of light. Then follow track into forest. Walk east of Noldorian Puddle, west of Amossian Crater, last north, then west of Westolian Sea, or above. Be on right trail, the rest may fall in place. Fine you ought to be.’

They were out in the open after leaving caves and tunnels behind. The darkness turned into eerie moon light before a storm.

They struggled on through ridges of pinkish beach sand. Hard going upwards, but easier down.

‘Aren’t we there yet?’ said Ben, but nobody listened.

‘I must say it was an out of the ordinary place for a whale cemetery,’ said Bill. ‘Anyway, shouldn’t the gate be close now?’

‘Head towards light,’ said Ambrosius. ‘Over there!’

He took them up and down through a few more sand dunes. At the top of what he said was the last one, a small lit up area shivered in the distance like a mirage.

Ambrosius made a sweeping, waving motion with his arm. ‘The Eldris Gate!’

‘If this is not an ocean, why is it so much seaweed growing right here?’ said Ben, still thinking about flooding.

‘Keeping seaweed alive does the ever changing tide. I bid you farewell here. Walk into the light. Oh, I remember. Upon arriving at Ciyon Sea, old Scaramoss guides to the islands. The route by ferry he knows better than the rest.’

‘Scaramoss? Who’s that?’ said Bill.

‘Not a hostile squinter or Warper. Find him on last stretch, you will. On his ferry, you may travel.’

‘So you mean to say there are other people down here? How did they end up in this forsaken place?’ said Bill. ‘I mean when it’s so hard to get in and out. An ounce more fat on our bodies, and we wouldn’t have fitted through that eye thingy. And tell me again about that ferry. Is it really safe enough to travel on? I suppose there must be a lake, or a river, or something. Or, do you actually mean that the Ciyon Sea is like an ocean? Crikey, this is so bloody crazy.’

‘On water the ferry may float, to make it sink you cannot,’ said Ambrosius with a smirk.

Ben thought about the possibilities of a non-sinking form of boat. ‘How come it won’t sink? I mean it must be able to some time. What if there’s a storm, or something? Or, maybe that backwater surge. Couldn’t it sink then?’

Ambrosius shook his head. ‘On Ciyon Sea, impossible to sink. Although, faced with backwater undersurge, grave dilemma, it may be. Arrive on island, before it comes, you must.’

‘So, when is that backwater undersurge due then?’ said Andy.

‘Comes when it comes. Always has. When water accumulates, an oversurge of water mass may happen before an undersurge will come to pass.’

All looked bewildered.

Ambrosius took off his woven hold-all, and began to hand out berries. ‘Make weary heads sleepy. Best to restore. For your travel; bush tomatoes, and pickled thalami. Add to soup or stew, easy meal fast. Most on offer in these lands, edible it is.’

He transferred the bits and pieces from his pack to a couple of their backpacks.

‘So, you’re saying these are safe, do you?’ asked Andy. ‘Isn’t anything poisonous down here?’

‘Nothing will poison to loss of life. Although, orange berries will make weary wanderers sleepy.’

‘Sounds pretty good then,’ said Bill, still thinking, and trying to understand about the strangeness of where they were.

They thanked Ambrosius, and said their good-byes.

The old man started down the hill. The rest walked in opposite direction towards the brightness.

‘We’ll just walk a bit further before we take a break, and make ourselves a fire,’ said Bill. ‘Or what do you say, Andy?’

Suddenly, they heard the voice of Ambrosius calling out. ‘Beware … hostiles … in blowholes … sinkholes …plentiful of seaweed … Amossian … renewal … do … not … lions … tigers … and pouches …’

‘What?’ called Jack. ‘Where … ?’

‘…. are in rain … they like … trills and traps … trust no …’

‘What did he call out?’ said Bill. ‘Did you hear it?’

‘I think he said something about traps,’ said Jack.

‘No, he was on about the blowholes,’ said Andy. ‘Beware of those blowholes, I think he meant.’

‘No, they set traps, but I don’t know who’s doing what,’ said Ben.

‘He said something about lions and tigers,’ said Charlie. ‘Why did he say that?’

‘Don’t worry, no such animals here!’ Bill laughed, before turning serious. ‘We’re on our own in this depressing hellhole. We’ve got to find our own way now. At least we’ve got a map, which is good. Or, maybe I should say maps. It seems to be quite a few of them. So, where is that gate?’

‘Can we make that fire soon?’ said Ben.

‘As soon as we find some wood, we’ll do it. We need a few sticks to start with,’ said Bill.

Andy had been quiet, but now he added his thoughts. ‘I came to think of something. It might not be a physical gate.’

‘Never gave it a thought, but you might be right,’ said Bill.

Ben was quick to add his thinking. ‘It could actually be a kind of star gate.’

Jack scoffed at Ben. ‘No such thing, Dumbo.’

‘A star gate?’ said Bill. ‘Don’t know what that is, but Andy may be right. It could be something we can’t see. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit.’

They walked faster, all eager to reach the blinding light for their own reasons. Andy hoped Angelica would be out there somewhere with the Starlings. He was eager to find her, but knew there would be many unknown hurdles along the way. How many was hard to tell. Sometimes the old man had mumbled, and even said, he was unable to remember. To move further into unfamiliar territory with no way of knowing what lurked around them was exciting, but scary.

Bill’s thoughts were along similar lines. What about all the different places described by an old man who seemed to have lost parts of his memory? Bill knew they were to face unknown dangers, but could they be sure what Ambrosius had told them everything there was to know. He had gone through what could harm them, but he was forgetful. One thing was for sure. Bill felt responsible for all, but the land under the Nullarbor was unknown territory to make it more than difficult. His task was to bring them to the Kernel of Grim, and the prison fortress, then try and save his daughter, his son-in-law and Andy’s girlfriend, and ultimately, if not before, they had to find the mythical stone key. As if that was not enough, they also had to escape from the clutches of hostile hunters, and mind reading scumbags. How it was to be done, he had no idea. How was he to know when nobody even knew where the key was, or what it looked like. The comforting thought was that Ambrosius had told them Ben would know when the time was right. But how comforting could that be? Why would a young boy know where the stone was, or what it looked like, when not even Ambrosius knew? To make it even worse, it seemed to have been lost on top. How to find it if they weren’t able to leave the underground world to search? Bill hoped everything would become clearer, as they moved on. One thing was for sure, he had already decided if he was to escape the craziness of it all, he would never set foot in a cave again.

Jack’s mind was in turmoil. He was scared, irritated and furious. Ben was always on his nerves, and always acted like he knew best when it was obvious he knew nothing. However, some of the latest happenings had him confused. Was the cave world under the Nullarbor a place of total madness, or could it hold something super natural about it like Ben said? He wanted to believe it was plain stupid, or wishful thinking by a crackpot. Jack knew there was no magic, only illusions, but …

Charlie glanced at her nails. They were worse than before. No way could she sit down to clean them, file them, moisturise and paint them. What did it matter anyway in the scheme of things? She doubted she would be home before her best friend’s birthday on Saturday anyway. Tears formed in her eyes, and she began to snivel. Maybe she would never see her friends again.

Ben was no different. His thoughts went back and forth. First to the strange beings, the Yowies, which were supposed to be a friendly mob, then over to the hostile hunters from the Grim Islands, which they had to keep well away from before he remembered the humans with names you were not allowed to mention. Thinking about it, while they walked on, he realised that every single one would do their utmost to get hold of the keystone. That frightened him. It was like a curse to know he was the one supposed to find it. At the same time, if he did find it, he would be in the gravest danger, and possibly the others too. But how was it possible to find it when he had no idea what to search for, or where to look? And what was that thing about canaries? Nobody had asked Ambrosius. If the old man had warned about them, there must be something they should know. Maybe they were some kind of enormous birds flying underground, almost like giant bats in caves. What if they were carnivores? Wasn’t anybody worried about man-eating canaries?

Ben turned around to look at the old man one more time. ‘Oops! He’s gone!’

‘Ah, well, he must’ve walked faster than us,’ said Bill. ‘It’s not far left now, mate, only twenty yards or so. I can’t wait to get into the light, and something more normal than this twilight world.’

‘Stop for one moment!’ said Andy.

Bill stopped to stare at him.

‘I just wanted you to see when we’re about to walk through the gate,’ said Andy.

‘But there is no gate here,’ said Bill.

‘Yeah, exactly!’ said Andy, ‘It’s a plain old fictional gate!’

Everybody laughed. The mood had turned jolly. They took a few more steps, but had to squint, as they entered a brightly illuminated area.

‘Wow! I can’t understand how it can be like this here,’ said Andy, shielding his eyes. ‘With no sun, and no obvious light source, it should’ve been almost as black as night, and it’s not even dusky.’

‘Heck,’ said Bill. ‘This is not a rational place. Maybe it’s an opening above somewhere to let the sun in right here, even if we can’t see it. Or, it could be some sort of scientific explanation we don’t have a clue about. The air makes you wonder too. It’s hot like a pot of boiling candy. And we’re under ground for goodness sake. How about you kids? No need for a fire, hey? I’m dry already.’

‘I don’t get it,’ said Andy, cautiously. ‘It’s not even remotely normal.’

When their eyes had adjusted, they discovered the dark wall of trees in front, and close to where they stood.

‘That must be the forest he talked about,’ said Bill. ‘Funny, but I didn’t notice it before. Well, we’ll have to continue on, get through it all, and be on our way. I don’t think we need to warm up, not yet. I’d like to make tracks. We don’t know how long it’s going to take us to get to those islands.’

‘Yeah, okay,’ said Jack. ‘But we’ll have to eat soon.’

They walked into the treed area, and were engulfed by tightly growing trunks. Instantly, it became murky even if golden light filtered through the branches.

Ben turned around. ‘I-I think we should turn back.’

‘No, we’ve got to move on,’ said Bill. ‘We’ll get used to the murkiness soon enough. That brightly lit area was too good to be true. Okay, guys, we’ve got to find the track he talked about.’

‘Look on the ground, Bill!’ said Andy. ‘It’s a track there even if it’s faint. It must be some animal track. Not that many humans down here. Hey, listen, there’s no wind, not even a rustle through the leaves, yet something twitters and cackles. And what’s all the hooting about? Could it be owls down here?’

‘I can hear zillions of insects,’ said Charlie. ‘All this buzzing is going to give me a headache.’

‘I don’t know how we can go from one place to such a different one with just a few steps,’ said Jack. ‘Something’s not right here. I smell a rat.’

Andy drew in the aroma wafting around the big-leafed eucalyptus trees. ‘No ratty smell here mate. Reminds me of home. Just like the Aussie bush in summer.’

Bill raised his eyebrows. ‘Oh, no, don’t let that fool you! It’s definitely not the bush we know. We’re in some weird place. Take a look at those trees for starters! It looks like they’re growing roots in the crowns for goodness’ sake.’

‘Yeah, I think Ambrosius told us something about trees upon trees. It looks like another forest grows on top of this one,’ said Jack.

‘He did say there were forests upon forests,’ said Ben.

‘Well, it could be that for some reason other trees grow on top of the ones we see,’ said Andy. ‘How’s that possible? I wouldn’t know. Strange, but that’s probably why it’s so dark here too.’ He fished out his compass to have a look. ‘We’ll have to continue west before we head north. Where’s that track now? Oh, yeah, there it is. When we get to the crater he mentioned, we’ll have to go northwest. That’s what he said.’

Jack and Bill agreed.

‘We should find it soon, or … what do you think?’ said Ben. ‘He never said …’

All stopped dead in their tracks without saying another word.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 11 – Graveyard

They sat on the boulders close to the kitchen area, watching as Ambrosius flitted about preparing a meal. He stirred in the potted indent before he went on to search the shelves. Charlie and Ben tried to help, but were waved away.

A few minutes later, Ambrosius sat down to explain more on how to proceed. ‘Upon reaching the plain with Boab trees, first stop after Westolian Sea, transport is to be found. Quicker, simpler to traverse than on foot.’

‘That doesn’t sound too bad,’ said Bill. ‘At least something’s in our favour. Maybe we can get faster to those mountains. Would it be by horse and cart then? Do you have horses down here?’

Ambrosius shook his head. ‘Horses? No. Never have I seen a horse. A small pony I had. Albeit, mini Molly is gone.’

‘Ah, well, doesn’t matter. Anything is good enough,’ said Bill. ‘Sorry ’bout your mini Molly. You must have been attached to her.’

‘Would’ve been fun,’ said Ben. ‘Was it small like a dog?’

‘Most likely,’ said Bill.

Ambrosius had already gone back to the cooking area, and stood with this back turned. He added a variety of plants, and leaves to the potted indent before he went back to the table.

‘Travel on usual means, possible it is not. Albeit, a colossal amount of blowholes developed long ago in these lands. Winds and water pressures are more than powerful. Enter a geared up blowhole, be catapulted to next station. Takes place in moments.’

Charlie held up her hands. ‘What? You mean real blowholes? Sorry, it’s too much out of my world. No way am I going through any blowholes. Haven’t you heard about people disappearing in holes like that? For your information, people can get sucked down all the way to the bottom of the Indian Ocean. Excuse me, but count me out of blowholes.’

Ben thought along the same lines. Ever since he was told about someone who disappeared inside a blowhole, while sightseeing in the south-west, never to be seen again, he was extremely wary. He had no plans on getting even close. It was too easy to imagine the lonesome death stuck inside a cramped black hole, hearing the sloshing of the water with no way to get out. A fate worse than anything he could ever imagine. But he was not done on the subject of blowholes. ‘There’s water in them. You said so yourself, Mr Ambrosius. I think you can actually drown in there.’

‘No water found in holes at Boab Plute Station. Too far from ocean. Water has no reach, not all way, unless …

‘What do you mean ‘unless’? said Ben.

‘Pressured air through may be powerful. Horizontal, although seldom vertical. A powerful push follows … safe it is, unless …’

Ben never understood his mentioning of the word ‘unless’, but he already knew that Ambrosius never answered. ‘Okay then, but the tunnel to Multus Arbor had a jet stream of water spurting out at full speed. Couldn’t that happen … I mean … in the blowholes?’ said Ben. ‘What about that backwater thing?’

‘Not the same. Backwater under surges, flow in blowholes, they never.’

‘How can you be so sure about everything?’ asked Andy. ‘Have you ever been in there yourself? In the blowholes I mean.’

‘Know this! In blowholes, both near and far, I have travelled safely. Although, beware of abounding waters. From seawater, saltiest water, sweet water, brackish water, sour water, to one remarkable water mass, held in Amossian Crater with tributaries, waiting for the unwary, unsuspecting, or careless. Young again may not be to one and sundries alike. Now must leave this twilight zone. Through the graveyard. The Eldris Gate, the starting point, it is. After, on your own you will be.’

‘Did you say ‘graveyard’?’ said Bill. ‘How can that be? Down here?’

Ambrosius nodded.

‘So, you mean that it could be other people trapped down here as well,’ said Bill. ‘And so many that you need a cemetery? How come we haven’t met anybody yet?’

‘Some, held prisoners, they are. Others, keep away. Establishments are found in places. No significant numbers, although, nevertheless, people here, there and everywhere. A provision store with limited supplies, traded or bought, set up it was short distance after first fork. Many a track in Alkasar lead to Boab Plute.’

‘Okay, if I understand this right, there could be heaps of caves under us as well,’ said Andy. ‘Are there different regions, or maybe levels, or how do you best describe it?’

‘Comprehensively constructed is our stratum, or cave layers. No way of knowing how many. Forces of nature created Panghellan. Passed have many millions of years with no exploring or documenting. Those above us have no inkling because of constrictions to leave.’

‘It’s just as incredible as setting foot on the moon,’ said Andy. ‘I find it hard to believe that I’m here in this weird place. But I am getting more and more worried. We don’t know much about the dangers. What is it exactly we have to be most wary of? You mentioned something about different kinds of water. How’s that playing out? I don’t understand.’

‘Plentiful of dangers await unwary. Take careful steps to avoid all. Where water roams, dangers lurk. No water, more dangers lurk. Too many instabilities to specify the most horrendous.’

Nothing the old man told them made new revelations any easier to muster. For a while, both Bill and Andy were lost in thoughts.

An aromatic soup had simmered in the bowl indent, and the air filled with the smell of indescribable aromas.

‘Many a lonely year I have spent, seldom with such a multitude of company. Although, through images in the burning flames, prepare I was able to.’

Ambrosius went on with setting out food items on the big wooden slab. The smaller boulders with arm and back rests, made of knobbly tree branches, polished to a mirror-like sheen, stood ready from the previous meal. Two more seats were added by Ambrosius. He pushed and shoved to get them into place with everyone’s help.

Charlie and Ben, who had given up their seats for their grandpa and Andy, had slumped on the floor. They stood up, and volunteered to carry dishes, and more utensils to the table. The light berries were there together with see-through wild grapes, the lightest bush plums, pearl-like seaweed fruits, and small bunches of crunchy water lily leaves. A large platter with a peeled scavenger stood in the middle.

‘Is that some kind of chook with no drumsticks?’ said Bill.

‘No, grandpa, this one comes from the bottom of the sea. Kind of a scavenger,’ said Ben.

Ambrosius interrupted. ‘Please partake of my humble offerings.’

The platters and bowls with foods went around the table. All were in a good mood, talking and laughing.

Jack, Charlie and Ben sat slightly away from the others.

‘It’s something that I don’t get,’ whispered Ben.

‘What?’ said Jack.

‘I can’t stop wondering how he got that table up here.’

‘Nobody knows, Bugs. Maybe through another of your magic wormholes. You could ask him.’

‘I’m not asking. Things aren’t exactly normal around this place. Haven’t you seen that yet? What’s wrong with you, Jack?’

‘There’s no such thing as star gates and wormholes,’ whispered Jack, giggling.

Ben twirled a finger around his ear. ‘How dumb are you? How would you even know anything about it?’

The others never noticed Ben ducking, as Jack swept his hand too close to his head.

During the meal, Bill and Andy asked more questions. Both were deeply concerned about the mission ahead. The land under the Nullarbor had unexpected dangers, and they needed to prepare.

Ambrosius continued with explanations in his own way of talking. ‘To wander through unpredictable wilderness with forests upon forests, wrought with hardship, it is. At coastline, pass you must through a maze of spiky mesh with dreadful hornlike spinners. To travel across to the islands, suitable assistance by ferry may be found. Although beware! Contingencies of hornlike spinners, more dreadful across Ciyon Sea, they are.’

‘Everything sounds hellish,’ said Andy, shaking his head from side to side. ‘What do those hornlike spinners do?’

‘Nibble and spike the unwary, they do. Better make fast way through,’

Bill was in deep thoughts. How on earth were they to make it? Nothing was like the familiar Australian bush.

The meal was over. Scraps on plates, and in serving bowls, were gone. It was time to relax. After clearing away, they left for the resting chamber. All were leaning back when Ambrosius left the chamber to take care of something.

‘Hey, Andy, what do you say about leaving?’ said Bill.

‘You mean right now? Yeah, I’d say why not? We could cover some ground instead of sleeping,’ said Andy. ‘I’m not that tired.’

‘It’s around midday according to my watch,’ said Bill.

‘You’re right,’ said Andy after a quick glance at his.

Ambrosius came back, and they advised him of their plans. He looked at the wall. ‘My timekeeper is … quarter past six … sure you are to leave this hour?’

‘Well, it’s only twenty past twelve,’ said Bill, as he sneaked a peek at his own watch. ‘We’re better off going straight away. As they say, there’s no time like the present. We want to thank you for your hospitality, and for taking care of the kids. You’ve been incredibly helpful.’

As they prepared to leave, Jack went to organise the backpacks at the cave entry, while Ambrosius looked on.

‘No need to lower hold-alls. Descend the safer back way, we must. A map in the sand, I will provide. My inner abode, the route will bypass.’

‘Is there nothing you can draw on up here?’ said Bill, thinking about the writing implements in the cubicle.

‘I know,’ said Ben. ‘I’ve got something.’ He went to find his backpack, and came back to pull out a notebook together with the latest pencil, which had the lead inside a clear plastic covering.

He handed both to Ambrosius who looked at the pencil, as if it had fallen from the sky. He took it, and proceeded to draw figures, lines and circles on a page. ‘Almost like magic it writes.’

They watched, as the scribbling turned into a map. With not enough room on the page, he started on a new one. Before they realised, he had used eight pages. He drew arrows pointing up and down, or from one side to the other. In the end, the contents on the pages looked like a cryptic game. One page stood out. With a multitude of lines crisscrossing all over with smaller arrows, they seemed to mark out directions. Everything was completed with place names in an old-fashioned style of writing.

When finished, he started talking faster, while pointing. ‘Rivulets crisscross the plateau here, or hereabouts. Reach fork on first trail, travel west, safest option. Hostiles search east. Through Alkasar Forest, all trails lead. Beware of harm from Kenairies and rainforest trillers … bursting with threats. Hear growling sounds from near, or far. Harmless? Never. Growling hear, growling fear. Reach Westolian Sea … a myriad of bridges, continue to Boab Plute, away in distant haze of green. To Plute, most tracks lead. Pass inland sea, swamps surround, sometimes flooded. Tread carefully, find right tunnel at south-west point. A shortcut to Boab Plute, it is. Water may come, flows in gushes. Happens after fog-rain, or flood. Hibernating serpents, do not bother! More to annoy are leeching creatures, Lampukis. Half an arm’s length … phew … horrendous!’

‘No! Stop there for a second! Did you say leeches? Do they suck blood?’ said Bill.

Charlie sat with her mouth wide open.

‘I-I don’t like leeches,’ said Ben. ‘They’re the pits.’

‘Aren’t there any other way we can travel?’ said Bill. ‘Or traverse, if you will.’

Ambrosius shook his head. ‘A need to avoid. Oh, err into the Lemilot Mountain Range, not wise. Unbeknownst to all unwary, the trail leads willfully into Ceranian Water. Keep well away! Aim north to Boab Plute. Old Agrimona, trust her, with her critters, she keeps station. Right blow hole, she knows, to end up close to Lemirius Rock. Wander east after arriving to travel through Prickle Mesh Haimalyas, and Grim Islands with the innermost island, the Kernel. Across the Ciyon Sea, you must travel. Only possible by ferry from Lemirius Rock. Maybe my memory fails. Waited far too long in this place, I have.’

‘Mr Ambrosius, you said we shouldn’t walk east. That’s where those hostiles are going,’ said Ben. ‘Maybe you meant west.’

‘Far north, then east you must go,’ said Ambrosius, impatiently. ‘First head towards west, then north, and last east. Hence with good fortune no crossing paths with hostiles will occur.’

Ben had followed his directions in his mind, but realised there were discrepancies. ‘Excuse me, but I think you must have mixed up a few of the names on the maps. When you described the way earlier to us, they weren’t like that. They were in a different order.’

‘I think it’s too hard to believe all this, that’s what it is,’ said Bill. ‘What are you actually saying, Ambrosius? Should we first head west towards the Westolian Sea, and then try to find the Boab Plute? Is that where we should go north, or catch the blowholes and later head east? Couldn’t you just come with us? It would be so much simpler if you could show the way.’

‘Cannot be done,’ said Ambrosius, abruptly. ‘Far too many years have I stayed in Terra Rowillian. To wander through perilous lands … no … no … no … another pea in the pod is not to my liking. Not west, but north, west, and then north-east is the direction. The maps have been drawn. Now through the graveyard. After, on your own, you must be. Gather your hold-alls! Head to the Eldris Gate to bid our farewells, we will.’

‘Lucky we went back to the car to pick up your sleeping gear before we got here, kids,’ said Bill. ‘By the looks of it, we might need them.’

‘Sleeping was the last thing on our minds,’ said Jack. ‘I mean, who would’ve known we’d be camping under the Nullarbor.’

‘Excuse me, Mr Ambrosius,’ said Ben. ‘Can you please write down the names of those Warpers. And can you explain to grandpa and Andy about them before we leave?’

Ambrosius wrote down the names of Snake Harmer, Eagleperch and Ironforce on a page in the notebook, while Bill and Andy looked on confused.

Bill shook his head again, and again, as he read the words. Just as he was to open his mouth, Ambrosius interrupted him.

‘Shush! Never ever utter such names aloud. If so, know your whereabouts, they will.’ He pointed to the different names. ‘To this band brother belongs a mastery mind. A way to listen in at long distances, he has. Able to see your location, will this one. Use means to control your mind, and persuade by thoughts, is the fortune of the other. Be aware at all times. Utter their names, you must never. Deprive you of Binehogen is their aim.’

‘Is nothing normal down here?’ said Bill, shaking his head, then sighing loud and long, before clutching his head. ‘Weird magic and thought control? This is worse than Big Brother!’ He slumped down on a boulder, and remained sitting, shaking his head, while staring into space.

Andy closed his eyes, wishing he was in a different place. ‘Bill, don’t forget the flaming pictures in fires!’

Bill composed himself, and looked up at Ambrosius. ‘So, you mean to say that we’ve got to think about these guys as well? We have to keep out of their reach, so to speak. Is there no end to all the trouble down here?’

‘From now on I think we need to be suspicious of everything,’ said Andy. ‘Just about everything.’

Ambrosius nodded. ‘Rightly so, my friend.’

All were ready. Their host motioned for them to follow. They passed through arch-like openings to the innermost parts of the cave where they climbed the small stepping stones formed naturally in the wall. At the top, they entered the area where Ambrosius had told he took his rests.

The room was dusky and musky with mineral deposits streaking the moist walls. There was not much in the way of furniture, only what looked to be a bed at the furthest back. The head board was a complicated mess of larger bones, and the bed part consisted of boulders of similar heights. Hides were strewn across to make up the necessary bedding.

Ambrosius went straight to the wall across the room. The others were curious and followed. Down at floor level, beside the bed, was a clearly visible square of withered wood. He fell to his knees with joints creaking.

While the others were occupied, Ben leaned over to Charlie, and whispered. ‘What a slimy looking bed!’

‘It looks like a bedroom of a rich and famous caveman,’ she said in a low voice.

‘Phew! It stinks in here,’ whispered Jack. ‘Do you think he ever takes showers in his fancy bathroom?’

All stood around and watched as Ambrosius grabbed a chunky ring-handle fastened to the wooden square. He turned the ring, and lifted of the wooden square.

A gap, large enough to slip through, opened up.

Andy stood close and had a coughing fit. ‘Huh … huh … yuck …’ He grabbed hold of his nose. ‘What … huh … do you have in there? Rotting seaweed, or … is it rotting bodies? Not that I know that smell though. What is it?’

Bill held onto his nose. ‘So, what’s buried down there? If we go by the smell, maybe it’s not even buried.’

Jack stood close. He bent down to check what was there.

‘To enter is not wise!’ screamed Ambrosius. ‘May be your last fall!’

‘Only taking a look,’ said Jack, meekly.

The old man stretched inside to the left.

Ben stepped up closer. ‘This is so cool.’

When Ambrosius brought out an ancient looking key, long and rusty, with an octagonal locking part, Ben was captivated to the hilt. ‘So where does that go?’

‘Over here!’ The old man strode fast around the bed, and across the room, before falling to his knees again. He struggled with a decent sized limestone block, and managed on his own to move it slightly to the side.

A small octagonal shaped hole appeared behind it.

Ambrosius tried the key, while Ben’s hands worked themselves closer to the keyhole. He was on the verge of helping to turn the key when Ambrosius waved the extra hands away.

The key fitted perfectly. The rock wall rolled away like a sliding door without any of the usual rails or bars. A gaping black hole led into what was clearly not a wardrobe, not even a hidden part of the room.

The powerful odour of rotting flesh mixed with salt and seaweed became overbearing.

‘Blimey, what do you keep in there?’ said Bill.

Ambrosius made a swirling hand gesture, and pointed into the foul smelling darkness.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 10 – Cave Dwelling

Part of the Panghellan Lands

Jack feared for his life. Terrified, he snatched around the vines, and creepers to find something stronger. Another tree root hid behind the greenery. With a firm hold by using two hands, he managed to drag himself upwards, while the awkward tree branch still hung at his side. In a few daring moments, he had progressed closer to the top.

Ambrosius, hanging out of the opening, called down. ‘See Jack, I offer my hand. Take it!’

Jack glanced upwards, fumbling with his hand, as far up as possible. The distance was short, but Ambrosius’ gnarled hand was out of reach.

‘Just a bit further!’ called Ben.

Then, a sudden crack.

Jack had to act fast. He blindly grabbed the first thing he found, which was a ledge above his head. Hanging on with all fingers, and with feet scrambling for something to rest on, he prayed he would make it. His body twisted, and scraped against the harsh rocks, while stones and pebbles sprayed to the ground.

With new spots for his feet, he used his right hand to reach up further. Straining one more time, he inched up closer to the cave opening.

Finally, Ambrosius managed to clasp Jack’s hand. He was dragged inside the cave. ‘Close it was Jack! Although, your brother climbed well.’

Charlie stared at Jack. ‘Your pants! Oh, no, you’re bleeding!’

Jack looked at his scraped hands, and down his pants, torn to shreds over the knees. ‘Maybe I have to cut them off. I mean the pants.’

Ambrosius reached into a small bag hanging inside the folds of the hide he wore. ‘No need to fret. My healing herbs are here to treat all wounds.’

He went on to show a small parcel tied with a plaited piece of handmade string. Inside was a chunk of chopped, slimy, wet leaves in a sickly yellow-green colour. He tried to spread the gooey mush through the holes onto Jack’s leg, and showed him how to rub more into his hands.

‘Nah, it won’t do,’ said Jack. ‘It’s too difficult. They’re broken anyway. Maybe I’ll tear them off, and make them into shorts.’ He did in a flash by using his pocket knife, and his knees were quickly smeared with the healing goo.

‘In the morn’ fine you will be. Now come forth.’ Ambrosius took them through a corridor with a few openings at the sides.

‘It’s like an apartment in a high-rise building,’ whispered Charlie.

Jack glanced at her.

‘From inside, I mean,’ said Charlie.

Ben studied the walls and ceiling. He reckoned it was a cool place with the many holes to catch some of the eerie light from outside. There were also stalactites, and large sparkling crystals hanging from above to bathe the surroundings in a diffuse shimmer.

Ambrosius indicated a shallow recess where plants grew long, and slender with the help of the natural twilight coming through the openings. ‘Emergency supplies. Crisp are the lily leaves this time of year. Although green, they are never.’

‘But how come it’s still so much light?’ said Ben.

‘Crystal ceilings and phosphorous walls,’ said Ambrosius, walking on. He took them to a chamber where the walls were decorated with straw-like tapestries, and the floor was covered in animal hides. Some parts had crudely woven grass mats. Placed around the chamber were chunky pieces of useful furniture in the form of thick limestone blocks, propped up by smaller boulders. Each piece was made more comfortable by a covering of animal hides. ‘Show the rest of my dwelling, I will now.’

He showed the way through another corridor. At the end, they entered what resembled a kitchen where water trickled out from a small opening in the rock wall. The water went into an indent, almost like a bowl, which seemed naturally shaped in the stone bench top. Odd looking wooden vessels, and bowls in different shapes and sizes littered the rock shelves.

‘I can’t believe this,’ said Jack. ‘It’s almost like a cave home in White Cliffs. We were there once. Remember Charlie?’

‘Yeah, I remember. Is your water okay?’ said Charlie. ‘I’m so thirsty.’

Ambrosius nodded. ‘Sweet it is. A choice may be made.’ He went over to show the mechanism to uncover the holes to open and close the flow of hot or cold water.

Charlie scooped up the cool liquid with her hands. ‘Mm … ah, it’s so good!’

‘I can’t believe you can get water up this high,’ said Ben. ‘Do you have a pump or something?’

‘Pump? What is … pump? Fine water it is from eternal streams,’ said Ambrosius. He proudly showed them a closer look at the indent with a hole in the rounded bottom, and pointed to the wall. ‘Boiling water flows up by way of earthly pressure. Never have I run out. Overflow goes down there. Cook foods may be done any time. Roots and fruits are my main stay. Oh, an ablution room I have too. I will show how it works.’

Ambrosius took them into another passage, steamier than the kitchen. At the back was a small alcove. ‘Wash room,’ he said, proudly, as he pulled a plaited fiber curtain to the side. Bundles of herbs and seaweed hung from bony hooks. A stone bench, and an empty woven basket were placed on the floor. Hot and cold water came out in heavier spurts from the other side of the wall.

‘Forgot to close off water.’ He fumbled with the mechanisms, and the water stopped running.

‘You live like The Flintstones,’ said Charlie. ‘But in a modern kind of stone age time.’

Ambrosius looked bewildered. ‘Stones made of flint? No flint. Limestone and granite it is.’

‘Stones made of flint?’ said Charlie. ‘What are you talking about, Mr Ambrosius? Haven’t you heard about The Flintstones? If you don’t know anything about them, you might not have seen a TV either. When did you say you ended up down here, Sir?’

‘I do not profess to remember. No rising or setting of a celestial sun in this land. To see the true sun again, will I ever?’

‘So you mean, you don’t even know how old you are,’ said Jack. ‘It’s a bit strange, isn’t it?’

‘My mother was born Lucy Dunns. Extensive knowledge, I have partaken from her, until she departed. To live longer than on top is likely,’ said Ambrosius. ‘To bathe in Amossian Crater, albeit sparingly, is good remedy for old age.’

‘I bet people want to stay in that crater forever then,’ said Jack. ‘On the other hand, maybe not.’

‘Where does the water go from here?’ said Ben. ‘I can see you’ve got holes in the floor too. How on earth did you build this, Mr Ambrosius?’

‘Formed by nature, I believe. And here is where one goes when needed.’

The larger hole in the wall, with a narrow bench in front, had water running through and down another opening on the bottom.

‘It’s so cool. Totally out of this world,’ said Jack. ‘It looks almost like home. Can you sit on it? Could I try it later?’

‘I suppose it filters through somewhere for thousands of years before it becomes clean again,’ said Ben.

‘Of course, it does,’ said Jack.

Ambrosius nodded. ‘Fine to do. Mechanisms at bench is open always. On guard, we must be. You must be hungry. Want to take part of my food?’

Jack, Charlie and Ben were starving. They looked forward to a decent meal and nodded.

On the way back to the kitchen, they passed a recess with feathery writing implements. There were also pieces of smooth leather, a bunch of bird plumage, and what looked to be pages, half-finished. Some were bound together.

‘Do you make your own books?’ said Ben.

‘A writer of poems and chronicles, I must be. Record history is imperative. May be done with simple tools. Then to bind them into handiwork, never easy. Now we move on.’

Back in the kitchen area, Ambrosius grabbed a handful of something from a basket on one of the shelves. He handed them a small light coloured fruit each.

‘To keep going. Like manna from heaven when tired. We move on.’

He pushed them onward through a third corridor where they entered a new area. ‘Wait here.’ He pointed to a chiselled clock face hanging on the wall. ‘We have passed tea time. Nonetheless, a soup with roots, and lemon myrtle may be on the boil in a twinkle. Today, I must add a scavenger. No better fill to reset the bells. Guests I have not had for the longest time. How long? I do not profess to remember.’

‘Scavenger?’ said Jack. ‘Did you say ‘scavenger’? I hope you don’t mean anything like a Tasmanian devil on the boil because that’s not something we would like to eat.’ He held up the berry close to his eyes, and looked at it. ‘But this doesn’t look too bad to start with.’

The berry was the size of a small apricot, and seemed like nothing he had seen before. The outside was similar to frosted cracked glass.

As Ambrosius was on his way out, he never replied.

Jack, Charlie and Ben were alone. They began to sort out an assortment of animal hides on the floor to try and make the rest more comfortable.

‘Do you think he’s ever washed them?’ said Charlie, bending down towards them. ‘Phew! Maybe not for a hundred years.’

‘Where would he wash them?’ said Jack, examining the decorations on the walls. ‘He probably doesn’t have a washing machine unless it’s another hole in the wall. Look at that bookshelf, guys! Not something you could flat box in a hurry.’

The large wall system was made up of twigs, and smaller pieces of wood. Some were thick, others thin, while some were crooked, and others straight. All tied together to form an abundance of shelf space.

Charlie showed no interest. She was busy fiddling with her nails. She tried to sand them against the closest rock. ‘Why didn’t I pack at least one emery board?’ she muttered.

Ben studied the homemade colossus of shelves. ‘Heaps of books. I wonder if he’s made them himself. They’ve got those fancy, feather tassels. Hey, can you see something weird about it, Jack?’

‘Yeah, it’s weird alright.’

‘No, not the shelves, I mean the books,’ said Ben.

Jack made a face meant for his brother. ‘You haven’t even looked at them. So, how do you know?’

Ben stood up, walked over, and started to play around with the tassels on some of them before he pointed to an empty spot. ‘Can’t you see that one’s missing? It’s one empty space in the whole thing. Isn’t that a bit strange?’

‘Stop messing around with his things!’ said Charlie. ‘He might not like it.’

‘Maybe he’s left the book somewhere else around here,’ said Jack. ‘He might be reading it for all we know.’

‘I don’t think so,’ said Ben.

‘Why do you think you know everything?’ said Jack, walking along to try and work out the book titles. When he realised it was too quiet behind him, he turned his head. ‘No, don’t do it!’ he whispered.

Charlie and Ben swallowed the last of their fruits.

‘Maybe you shouldn’t have been so quick to do that. We don’t know anything about those berries. I don’t trust him completely.’

‘Stop worrying!’ said Charlie. ‘He’s not a bad guy. He just looks bad.’

Jack shoved his berry in a pocket just as there was a sound from the passageway.

All looked towards the entry, as Ambrosius walked in. ‘Time to reset the bells!’

‘What?’ said Jack.

Ambrosius smiled. ‘Food is on the table!’

They followed him to a dining nook outside the kitchen, where a big chunk of wood, acting as a table top, had been laid out with the strangest, and most primitive objects to serve as bowls and platters. Containers filled with the palest, almost see-through plant food, stood on the table. In the middle was a large candle-holder with thick uneven candles.

He hurried off and was back with a piece of glowing wood to light the candles.

‘I didn’t know you’ve got candles here. What are they made of?’ said Jack.

‘An oily, waxy substance,’ said Ambrosius. ‘Worked on a recipe, I did for many years. Not to perfection. Although, something better than nothing.’

Ben peeked into one of the bowls. ‘That one looks like an alien. Check it out, Jack. It’s almost like a massive prawn.’

‘Scavengers scatter at bottom of the ocean. Sometimes large as roosters. For many to feast on, one is ample. Oh, no! The pickled thalami!’

He hurried out of the dining nook, and then hovered over the bench top in the kitchen.

‘Pickled salami?’ said Ben to the others. ‘I love it, unless it’s the hottest one. I’ll have a look.’

All three left the table, and went over to the kitchen.

‘What’s the deal with the salami?’ said Jack.

‘Thalamis are scavengers pickled in juices from the sour soap lily.’ He grabbed a tray, and carried it to the dining nook.

The others stayed, nosing around, to see what else was there.

Jack went over to the cooking-spot, and looked down. ‘SPAGHETTI!’

Both looked at Jack, who stood with his back towards them.

‘Run?’ said Ben, looking at Charlie.

Jack turned around. ‘No! I didn’t mean that. He’s cooking spaghetti. I was surprised, that’s all.’

As soon as they were back to sit down, Ambrosius left for the kitchen again. He came back with a steaming platter.

‘I love spaghetti, or is this more like spinach fettuccine?’ said Jack. ‘I didn’t know you had spinach down here.’

‘New growth of seaweed waters the senses,’ said Ambrosius.

Ben wasn’t so sure, and made a disgusted sign with two of his fingers in his mouth, while their host had his back turned.

‘I’m sorry, but do you have something, maybe, a bit more normal?’ said Charlie.

‘This is the fare,’ he replied, while holding out the flat of his hands, as if to say there is nothing else.

When everything was placed on the table, apprehensions were blown away, and they were eager to explore. The evening turned into an unusual feast on the many exotic dishes. All talked, told stories, and laughed. Ben was game enough to try a small piece of the pickled thalami. ‘It’s a bit like sweet and sour Chinese food,’ he said.

After some initial hesitation by Jack, the spaghetti-looking seaweed was a success. ‘Only the tomato sauce is missing,’ he said.

‘You and your tomato sauce,’ said Charlie, before licking her fingers. She brought out the scroggin mix, and offered the plastic bag to Ambrosius. He put his scrawny fingers in, and scooped out a handful of the sticky mixture.

‘Likeable to the highest degree.’ He munched away loudly, and then wanted more.

Charlie smiled. ‘We’ve never had such likeable things to eat either.’ She had nibbled on the food constantly, but had noticed most were still crispy. ‘You can keep what’s left there, Mr Ambrosius. We’ve got so much from you anyway. I couldn’t eat another thing.’

‘Hey, Mr Ambrosius, how about a cup of tea?’ said Ben.

Ambrosius, on his way to the kitchen, stopped in his tracks, turned around and looked dumbfounded.

‘What’re you talking about?’ said Jack.

‘I just wondered if Mr Ambrosius would like tea,’ said Ben.

‘I doubt he’s got tea down here,’ said Charlie. ‘No shops, well, you know.’

‘But I’ve got some. As long as I save for mum to have later, I could make some now.’

He went to find the small wrapped up parcel in his backpack, and came back with two teabags. ‘If the soup’s gone, I could make it in that spot.’

Ambrosius rubbed his hands together. ‘Tea, I’ve never had. Only heard rumours before.’ He took a few steps to the cooking spot. He let it rinse out with hot water, plugged the bottom, and refilled it. When finished, he switched on the plugging mechanism to the hole in the wall.

Ben added the teabags to brew.

When done, they went back to where Jack and Charlie were waiting.

Ambrosius drank the tea from a wooden bowl, and seemed to savour every drop, while looking gratefully at Ben. ‘Better than hot water, if I may say.”

Jack shook his head in annoyance, hardly noticeable, but Charlie smiled.

Straight after the meal, the unexpected tea, and the clearing of dishes, the Starlings retired to the resting chamber.

Ben was the first to lean over his backpack. His eyes were closing constantly, and his head went sideways before he slid down.

The next time Jack looked over at Ben, he was sound asleep. He turned to Charlie, and discovered she too was gone.

Ambrosius came back from the inner parts of the cave.

‘Why are they asleep?’ said Jack. ‘I don’t think it’s natural. What about the berries you gave us? What were they? You said something weird about them.’

‘Stamina is restored by orange berries. Not tired? First watch, you may take.’

‘But those berries didn’t look like any oranges to me,’ said Jack.

‘Although rumoured to have taste of oranges,’ said Ambrosius, patiently. ‘When ready, time for your watch. Nobody knows when others may be through. Wary of hostiles, we all have to be.’

Jack thought there was something odd about the scrawny old man, but there was no time to dwell on it. Instead he went to the exit, and took his post.

As the cave was high up, he had a good view. He saw the strange puddle in the far distance. His eyes wandered further across the top of the stunted trees. The invisible Eye Socket, where they were bound to enter, was there somewhere.

He wriggled to make himself more comfortable on the foul-smelling hide. There was a sort of stillness in the air, almost like the calm before a storm. The same as when they had first entered the cave world. He wondered about birds. Where were they? Or, were there none down under? And where was that ocean with the scavengers? He had not seen any other waterway than the puddle-lake with its weird creatures.

Jack dozed off, only to wake up with a startle. He had no idea how long he had been out. According to his watch, a new day had started long ago. He peered out of the cave opening, but saw nothing unusual.

‘Mr Ambrosius? You awake?’ He called softly back into the cave. When there was no answer, he walked over to the old man’s sleeping chamber to call from the bottom of the stairs. But there was no reply.

He went back, looked out, saw nothing unusual, and sat down to wait. While he contemplated what to do, a rustle came from below. His thoughts were of immediate danger. What was he supposed to do? Ambrosius had not advised what action to take in an emergency.

There were no more sounds, or movements, and he could relax.

A moment later he came to realise there would be no one to warn his grandpa and Andy, when they came through. They had no idea what was at stake. What if the mean creatures were there ready, and waiting for somebody to pounce on? His grandpa had no inkling about the dangers facing them in an unknown land. A gut-wrenching feeling of doom set in, and Jack’s heart began to pound. Unsure of what to do, he scrutinised the distance. He looked without knowing exactly where to search. When there was a flash of something, he had to concentrate harder on that particular spot.

A glimpse of movement, and he focused on what looked to be three people on foot at the shore of the puddle-lake. Could that be grandpa, Andy and maybe Ambrosius? Had the old man left to meet up with them?

Something red moved. Did his grandpa wear his favourite head gear, the red cap?
Just as Jack waved, his eyes caught sight of a shocking development in the vicinity of the Eye Socket. What he feared the most seemed to occur right before his eyes. No way could he work out how many, but the pinpricks, which had a reddish gleam, moved fast. Were the hostile hunters closing in?

Jack tried to make Ambrosius aware of impending danger by waving his arms, but realised he was powerless. The cave entrance, where he stood flailing, was in darkness, which meant that it could not be seen from such a distance. He felt like shouting out, but knew it would be in vain. There was no way they would hear him, unless there was an echo. But if there was, the hostiles were likely to hear it too.

Pacing at the opening, he had an idea, and raced inside. He ran around the chambers and halls in search of a rope. When he found bundles hanging on a back wall, he grabbed the closest before he hurried back to the opening to search for something like a hook.

There were none to be found. How did Ambrosius do it when pulling up the backpacks? He felt useless, and had to give up. He looked out again. Now the three of them were wading through the puddle. He saw them striding in one direction before they went in another.

The longest time seemed to pass.

Jack became frantic with worry, and started to roll up his t-shirt. Up and down it went. He did not stop until the group had arrived down below.

‘I saw them! I saw the hostiles! They’re bound to come out of the tunnel any minute. I think they might know about that way. You’ve got to get up here fast.’

‘No worries mate,’ called Bill, waving.

Jack tried to listen in as Ambrosius explained how to climb.

Bill was first. He was too slow. Every step up seemed to be an enormous effort. Pieces broke off. He fiddled with the outcrops too long, and hardly made progress.

‘C’mon, c’mon,’ muttered Jack, beside himself. He searched the surroundings for new developments, while at the same time checking his grandpa hanging onto the wall.

Ambrosius circled the ground at the bottom of the cave. He became impatient, and jumped up on the wall to push Bill from underneath, as much as humanly possible, while he, himself, had to hang on.

Bill made it to the top with Ambrosius close behind. Jack held out his hand to swing them inside, one after the other.

After some quick hugging, Jack was told off in the strongest terms.

‘YOU ARE GROUNDED, JACK! What were you thinking? You hardly have your license. Well, it’s only lukewarm, isn’t it? And did you forget about the cardinal rule, the extra special rule, to tell people where you’re headed? Especially when caving! That is; before you go ahead and do it. Not with a note in the bread bin after the fact. It’s ridiculous! You, of all people, should’ve known this after what happened to your mum and Jerry.’

He was silenced by Ambrosius who pointed towards the distance, and to the ground. ‘Later! Later!’

Bill and Jack waited in silence, while Ambrosius had his way of attaching the rope before he let the other end drop to the ground below. They watched as Andy fastened the backpacks, which were hauled up, one at a time. Then a bundle of sleeping bags. After he had swept the area, he tied the tree branch to his side to start up the wall. Young and fit, he was up in no time without a single pebble falling down.

‘No words until hostiles have passed,’ said Ambrosius. ‘Never before have I seen them come this way. Sound may travel. Quiet, we must be.’

‘I’ve got to wake up Charlie and Ben,’ said Jack, and left for the resting chamber.

Once there, he put his hand on top of Charlie’s mouth.

She tried to bite him.

‘Ouch! Don’t do that! Grandpa’s here. He’s here with Andy. The hostiles are closing in, and pretty fast. We’ve got to put a lid on it.’

Charlie was half asleep and yawned. ‘A … lid … on … scavengers … what are you … on about?’

Ben sat up and rubbed his eyes. ‘What …?’

‘Wake up, Bugs! Your favourite person is here.’

Ben woke at once, and hurried to the entry, while Charlie, yawning, came sauntering behind with tousled hair.

Bill smiled broadly, while he hugged them, but then his forehead wrinkled, and he turned dead serious.

‘You’re a crazy lot, you three! Where’s your sense of responsibility, Jack? Haven’t I told you so many times about caves and dangers?’

He looked sternly at his grandchildren, from one to the next.

‘And you shouldn’t have shot through without talking to me. I knew what you were up to all right. Yeah, before I found the note. This guy isn’t a total dimwit. Felicia was gone, and so was my gear. I knew before I had toast for breakfast. Had to call Andy, so we could leave early. Ah, well, at least you’re all okay.’

‘Sorry, grandpa, you didn’t want us to come, but we made a decision to go whether you liked it or not. We had to find out about mum and Jerry, and … and that’s why we had to take your car too. You know I can drive. Yeah, I know we shouldn’t have gone, but that’s the way it was. And Bugs insisted on coming. I’m actually sorry. I know we shouldn’t have done it.’

Andy stood waiting at the side. Now it was his turn. He whispered his hello, and shook their hands.

There was an interruption, as Ambrosius moved from the opening, and came towards them. ‘To stay safe, quiet is a must.’ He moved back to the opening, ducking in and out with his head, pointing and shushing.

When the coast was clear, he started to talk. ‘Hostiles passed not far away. I must tell you Jack. I watched the fire. The flames showed two men coming through. Time was short. Had to hurry to the Eye Socket with a warning.’

Bill’s forehead wrinkled. ‘What fire? What fire are we talking about here? I never saw a fire.’

Ambrosius stared at him. ‘There was no time to fall into the hands of the hostiles.’

‘Mr Ambrosius here can see the future in fires,’ said Jack.

The old man nodded before he went on about the ancient continent under the Nullarbor. At times Bill and Andy looked bewildered, and Jack was forced to add details. It had become clear to him that Ambrosius was forgetful, and accidentally, or not, had skipped the most important parts.

‘It’s one hell of a story, I’d say,’ said Bill when it all seemed to have come to an end. ‘Well, if we’re to find your mum and dad, you’ll have to let us grown-ups do the searching.’

Jack was taken aback. ‘What do you mean?’

‘This is what I mean, Jack! The three of you just have to go back to the campsite above. No buts about it. You did a pretty good job of camouflaging my old Felicia to the hilt, so you should be safe right there, or inside the cave entrance. Andy brought a rope ladder, and it’s hanging down now, so it should be easy as pie to get out. If it looks like you’re running out of tucker, or water, you’ll have to drive back to the nearest service station, or go home. No, better still, you’ll have to stay put above ground. You’re not allowed to drive, not any more for now. For heaven’s sake! Whatever you do, don’t let anybody know what’s down here! I can’t for my life believe it myself. Can you imagine what would happen if this leaked out?’

‘It’s just not possible,’ said Jack. ‘You haven’t understood anything. We can’t get out! There’s no way out of here. We’re stuck, grandpa! You’ve got to tell them, Mr Ambrosius. Tell them what you told us!’

‘No buts mate. You’ll have to do as I say. It’s much too dangerous here, and mind boggling to the extreme. Well, if your parents are prisoners, which they are according to our friend here, we can’t risk it. You don’t want to get imprisoned underground as well by those mean humbugs, do you? And I always thought Yowies were timid, and curious, and not dangerous at all. No, it’s far better if Andy and I go on from here, and you kids leave this place. This isn’t just a hunky dory adventure park.’

‘Mr Bill, hear my words you must. To get back through the Eye Socket cannot happen. Not from this side. There is no way out. Not without the Binehogen keystone.’

‘Grandpa, you’ve got to listen. There’s no way out of here. Not now. Not ever. Well, not until we’ve found it. The keystone, I mean,’ said Ben.

‘Did you look at the wall behind you after you got out?’ said Jack. ‘We’ve searched that wall many times, and there’s no opening from this side. We’re stuck here. We’re definitely stuck.’

‘We’re stuck? Is that fair dinkum? We can’t get back? Are you absolutely sure about that, Ambrosius? And whatever is that keystone about? You’ve got to excuse an old fellow, but I’ve never heard about keys made of stone. How can that be? And what exactly does it look like?’

‘A powerful key to force the field it is. Never have I set eyes on it, and therefore not the right one to ask. The Binehogen flashed before my eyes once, although, in a haze.’

‘So, how’re we supposed to find it when not even you know what it looks like,’ said Andy. ‘It doesn’t make sense. We don’t know that stone from a bar of soap. It’s impossible, if you ask me. Almost like a needle in a haystack, and if there’s a whole country, like you say, under the Nullarbor, I’d call it an enormous haystack.’

‘You need not fret. The green-eyed one will find it, as foretold by the flames. Rest assured on this. Albeit, before you leave, you need a rest. A tiresome journey is ahead. Utmost strength is needed. Upon arising, you must walk in opposite direction to the hostiles. To cross paths with your foes, wise it is never.’

‘How do you know which direction they’re taking?’ asked Andy. ‘Can you see that in the flames as well?’

‘At the first fork, hostiles head north-east on route to the Grim Islands before returning to the Eye Socket. To not cross paths, you must aim for the north-west trail through Alkasar Forest.’

Ambrosius began to explain in more detail how they were to locate the way towards the Prickle Mesh Haimalyas mountain range. ‘Pass through Alkasar Forest. Keep together. Proceed on the trail towards north-west, albeit, east of Noldorian Puddle, west of Amossian Crater. The puddle is dead, not so the crater. Crisscross the plateau with rivulets. North-east is used by hostiles through the mountain range. Better travel west of Westolian Sea. Step wrongly on treacherous ground, you must not. If by accident, strong currents may lead far down below. Beware of mud pools, swamps, bogs, sink holes, all treacherous. To bathe in clearest water – you must never. Rains and floods may come when least expected. Oh, and backwater under surges may be deceitful.’

Bill wiped his forehead. ‘We definitely don’t have an easy task in front of us.’

‘I need to ask you something, Ambrosius,’ said Andy. He had anxiously waited for the right moment. ‘You’ve said there were two starlings coming through, and I suppose they could be their parents. What about a good-looking young chick? Do you know anything about her, anything at all?’

‘A chicken? Soared through did two starlings. In more recent time, a hawk,’ said Ambrosius.

‘Did you say ‘hawk’? That’s her surname. Do-do you think that’s Angelica? You didn’t mention her being stuck in that prison. If you left that place, well, maybe some time ago, you wouldn’t have seen her there, would you? But there’s something I don’t understand. Why aren’t you still there if they imprison everybody they can lay their hands on?’

‘A young hawk it was. Maybe a raven. Not sure now. Appeared through the Eye Socket, but not the same time as the starlings. Met a black-haired woman in the woods. Never saw her in the flames. Screaming in terror, she did. To find a way out was on her mind. Albeit, she refused to listen to my words. To let her know the perils in this land, I could not. She ran off yelling on top of her lungs. Ock-yay, ock-yay. To stop her was impossible.’

‘That’s her!’ said Andy. ‘Must be her. She must be terrified of this cave world. I wonder where she’s now.’

‘Maybe a prisoner, unless she roams … like a lost soul in these lands. Kept away from my flames she has.’

‘Ambrosius, coming back to what Andy just asked; why is it that you aren’t imprisoned any longer?’ said Bill.

‘I spent many a year in the prison fortress. When knowledge is emptied, humans are bound to leave, although to leave these lands is never possible. Not without the Binehogen. Not knowing if minds change, best it is to keep out of sight. Once, made a promise to my friends, I did. To aid young starlings if they were to enter. Such promise may never be broken. Hmm … warn those coming through has been my lot.’

Ambrosius motioned for them to follow him inside. ‘Now, I bid you welcome to my abode. Bring hold-alls and rolls.’

He took them to the resting chamber.

‘I wonder where Angelica is now. I must find her,’ said Andy with hands clasped tightly close to his mouth, as if praying.

Bill was thoughtful. ‘For all we know, she might be held captive as well. I think we need more directions on how to find them. Ambrosius, you mentioned the Himalayas. I understand as much as it cannot have anything to do with the real Himalayas. So what is it? Could it really be a high mountain range down here? And I suppose we’ve got to take the youngsters with us. There’s just no other way.’

‘Not like Himalayas on top. These are Haimalyas. Not the same spelling, and not the same pronunciation. Like a ridge they are. Not the same at all. Remember! When the Binehogen is retrieved, and parents rescued, return here you must. Escort you to the Phosphene and the portal I must.’

Ambrosius faced Ben. ‘He with the greenest eyes will find it.’

Bill sighed deeply. ‘Oh, boy, how will Ben ever find that keystone when none of us even knows what it looks like?’

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 9 – Bafflebuff Puddle

Jack, Charlie and Ben stared into the opening.

‘No way! That hole is too small!’ said Jack. ‘Not even Ben fits in. What’s down there anyway?’

‘I’m not doing it,’ said Charlie. ‘Snakes at the bottom? Not going in.’

‘A shortcut. As such never recognised, not to my knowledge. Although with adequate room for all. No need for concern. Hmm, time is of essence. We must leave before hostiles arrive.’

Ambrosius dropped his walking stick into the hole. With his arms up in the air, he slithered down.

Jack turned to Charlie. ‘So, what do you think we should do now? You want to follow him? Maybe we’ll end up in a bottomless hole, or a snake pit. Or, it could be another layer altogether.’ Jack’s words were not helpful. Ben’s imagination already ran wild.

‘I don’t think I like it,’ said Charlie.

‘I KNOW I don’t like it,’ said Ben.

‘Okay, you either stop your nonsense now, or I will go on myself without you two,’ said Jack. ‘Start by putting on your headlamps! I’ll go down, and check it out. If everything’s okay, I’ll come back, and get you. If, for some reason, I don’t show up, you’ll have to think about what to do. In that case I can’t help you.’

‘Stop saying things like that,’ said Charlie. ‘You know I’m scared as it is.’

‘I’m just telling you what might happen. Are we clear on this now?’ Jack waited for their nods, and then did a quick salute, threw his arms above his head, and slipped down the hole.

Ben looked at his watch at the precise time Jack disappeared. Sixty seconds went past with not a sound.

‘I don’t know if mine works?’ said Ben, trying to switch on the headlamp. It flickered a few times, but he managed to get it going. He grabbed his torch, and put on his backpack.

Charlie fiddled with her lights to get ready.

Ben was nervous. Another minute passed, while he circled the gap, looking down expecting Jack to turn up. Panic started to set in, while he went through different scenarios until only one scenario remained. If Jack wasn’t coming back, they had to follow. Nowhere else to go if they didn’t want to cross paths with the hostiles.

‘What do you think?’ said Ben. ‘He said if he didn’t come back, something could’ve happened. He could be dead for all we know.’

‘No, don’t!’ said Charlie.

‘But how do you know? Everything is so creepy.’

She took a step closer to Ben. Before he knew what was to happen, she had pushed him straight in. He went ballistic, as he tumbled down with Charlie ending up close behind.

Ben brushed himself off. ‘ARE YOU CRAZY? What did you do that for? You’re just as dumb as Jack. I can’t believe you did that.’

‘I’m sorry, it was the only way. You know with your phobias, you’d never do it. Not in a million years. Or … not until limestone seeps out of your ears.’

Ben lost it when she giggled.

‘DON’T EVER DO THAT AGAIN!’ he screamed at her. ‘And for your information, I don’t have any phobias. Not any more.’

‘Oh, you don’t? That’s a new one. I’m sorry. Couldn’t help myself.’

‘If you haven’t noticed, I’ve changed.’ He turned his head, but what he discovered scared him. ‘We’ve got to get out, Charlie! It’s … too tight! We’ve got to get out!’

‘Yes, Ben, I heard you the first time. Don’t worry! It’s not that bad. But don’t forget to duck. Try to walk between all those hanging down. They can be sharp.’

She pushed Ben’s back to make him move. He took a few wriggly steps on the rocky ground. Without further thinking, they made their way through formations of stalagmites, stalactites, and big wide shawls, all gleaming in the eerie light.

When he had momentarily stopped, she pushed him forward again, but he complained loudly. ‘STOP IT! Where’s Jack? He told us he’d come back, but he didn’t. Why is it that we can never trust him? I don’t like it in here. It’s too dark … and-and what’s that noise? Sounds like wolves? Or could be dingoes. Can you hear it? It comes from those holes on the left, I think. Or, could it be the water? Hear it?’

“It’s the wind,” said Charlie, close on his heels. “Maybe it’s a wind tunnel.”

‘No, it’s something else. Don’t you remember what the old guy said? Hear the wind and fear the water, or something like that. And-and … what about that backwater thing?’

‘No, don’t worry about it. It’s only whistling air. See the light over there?’ Charlie had grabbed his neck from behind. ‘It’s down there. See! We’re heading to that pinprick of a hole. Must be the exit.’

‘NO! I don’t like it. We’re getting in too deep. Where’s it going? No, it can’t be right.’ Ben stumbled on a loose piece of rock and lost his balance. ‘Ouch! My toe!’

‘Not so fast!’ said Charlie. ‘You don’t want to break something down here. That could be disastrous, and the last thing you do.’

Ben felt sick. He tried to walk faster. He needed to get out of there any way he could. Panic stricken, he stumbled on, hurrying towards the light.

Then he heard it. It came from the innermost depths, a thunderous roar like a massive steam train at full speed. He stretched up to peek into the nearest hole. When he heard the powerful sloshing sound coming from within, he ducked just in time. The gushing torrent of water cascaded out of the hole in a horizontal beam above his head spraying everything in its way before some of it reached the opposite side to surge into a larger hole.

‘I CAN’T BELIEVE IT! Did you see that? Do you think that was the backwater?’

Charlie looked at him. ‘It-it was so strong. I hate to think what it could’ve done, if it came right at you.’

‘It did hit me.’ His clothes were soaked, and water dripped from his face and hair. After a quick wipe on the front of his t-shirt, he ran the last distance.

They reached the point at the end, and were out in the open. Further away stood Ambrosius and Jack with their backs turned.

‘HEY, JACK! Why didn’t you come back?’ called Ben. ‘You said you would. Why is it that we can never trust you?’

‘I was going to, but then I saw this.’ He made a sweeping motion with his arm. ‘Take a look at those trees! They look like they’ve been pushed into the ground, but upside down. I wonder what sort of power could do that. Looks like they were planted in rows like that.

Jack had turned to Ambrosius who shook his head. “No, planted, they were not. Growing this way is not unusual around here.’

‘Why do they have those things sticking out?’ said Charlie. ‘It looks like they’re moving, like they’re searching for something. And what about those frondy things sticking up from the ground?’

‘This is Multus Arbor,’ said Ambrosius. He was careful not to disturb the springy tentacles and probing fronds, as they moved on through the rows. ‘Plentiful of trees, although beware, trees like above they are not. Steer away from moving parts!’

Jack looked at Ben. ‘Have you had a swim?’

Ben told about the beam of water. ‘We could’ve drowned in there. Why didn’t you tell us about it, Mr Ambrosius?’

‘Warned I have about sounds when water is to well through. Hear the whine, the howling, and fear the water. Back water under surges are deceptive, but seldom powerful enough to drown, although injuries may occur.’

Jack laughed. ‘Maybe some of us didn’t understand the full meaning of it. Well, it didn’t come when we went through.’

‘Lucky you!’ said Ben.

Jack frowned. ‘C’mon! Forget about it! And let’s get going!’

The sandy ground was scattered with chunky droves of wet plant material. They followed Ambrosius, as he showed the way by weaving through the rows of tree trunks down the slope. He took care not to end up too close to the slithering fronds, and swaying tentacles.

Jack took a few careful steps to catch up to the old man in front. ‘Sir, please tell us what’s with the trees? Why can’t we touch them? You said earlier they’re not like anything on top.’

‘Dwell on it, I did not. Related to sea creatures with long tentacles from the ocean above, they are. May cause excruciating pain with their deadly sting.’

Jack was aghast. ‘No kidding! Must be something like the Irukandji jellyfish up north then. Down here? Strange! Be careful, guys! Don’t touch them, whatever you do!’

Ben had heard enough. He refused to think more about what they were up against, and became distracted when he saw a dull sparkle through the trees. ‘Hey, there’s water! Is that a lake?’

‘Not a lake,’ said Ambrosius. ‘Bafflebuff Puddle it is called.’

Jack looked at Charlie, and laughed. ‘Are you kidding, Sir? That’s not a puddle. We call them lakes.’

Ambrosius looked smug.

They passed the last trunks, and bunches of seaweed, and then continued by zigzagging through greenish-black low-growing bushes spread out to form what looked like a bumpy carpet. Here and there were pools of water, the size of large serving plates, either round or oval.

‘I’ve never seen so much seaweed, and stuff in one place,’ said Ben.

‘Seaweed’s in the sea, Bugs,’ said Jack. ‘Sea and weed, get it?’

‘A kind of seaweed it is,’ said Ambrosius. ‘Plants and creatures from the deepest ocean live in pockets down here.’

Ben shook his head. ‘Next time you open your mouth, check first, Jack. You don’t know everything about this land.’

‘And you think you do?’ said Jack, turning away in a huff.

Stumbling on between the small tuft-like bushes, and in and out of pools, they ended up at the shoreline.

Ambrosius indicated a point across the water. ‘Travel we must to the spot over there. Remember, this is a treacherous waterway. You must do as I say. Safe you are not until we reach my abode close to the top.’

‘How can we get up there?’ Charlie looked ahead towards the high, steep wall in the hazy distance.’

‘Do you mean we have to climb up?’ said Jack.

‘I know I can’t,’ said Ben. ‘I’ve never climbed anything higher than Jacob’s ladder in Kings Park, and that’s got steps, more than two hundred, I think. I bet the wall over there doesn’t have proper steps. It’s not exactly like a stepladder, is it?’

‘You just have to do what Mr Ambrosius says,’ said Jack. ‘You don’t want to wait around here for the hostiles, or the other scary bunch, do you?’

‘How do we get over to that side?’ said Charlie. ‘Where’s the boat?’

‘No boat is needed,’ said Ambrosius, shaking his head.

By now, Ben had gone from inquisitive thoughts to being more worried than he had let on. ‘Y-You mean we have to swim? Couldn’t we just walk by following the shore?’

‘Not possible to walk. Takes too long.’ said Ambrosius.

Charlie was not sure she understood. ‘If there’s no boat, how do we get over this lake? Do you actually mean that we have to swim? No, you can’t mean that, can you? What about stingers in the water?’

Ambrosius smirked. ‘No need to fear. No stinging tentacles in Bafflebuff.’

‘What about jelly fish then? Isn’t that the same thing?’ said Jack.

‘No stingers, nor jelly fish in Bafflebuff.’

‘I hope you’re right about that, Sir. So, what do you suggest we do with our gear? Can we hide it somewhere? And by the way, Bugs here might not be able to swim that far.’

‘I can swim. I just don’t like the look of it. It’s too dark and oily-looking.’

‘Walk across is easy way,’ said Ambrosius, smirking. ‘No need for hiding hold-alls.’

‘Are you saying that we should walk on top of the water, carrying all our stuff?’ said Jack, smiling.

‘Not everything is what it seems in Panghellan,’ said Ambrosius with a stern look, before sweeping away footprints.

‘Do you really think they won’t find us now?’ said Jack. ‘Do the squinting hostiles really see that badly?’

‘To our advantage, they do not see very well in this light. Never have the hostiles ventured across to find my abode at Terra Rowillian. Not to my knowledge. Nevertheless, careful we must be not to leave tracks.’

Ben had become deeply troubled. ‘Isn’t it deeper out there in the middle?’ Every new revelation made him more terrified than before.

‘To wade through is the only route. A normal waterway, it is not. Walk behind to avoid all springs. Where the holes in the bottom will lead, is not known.’

‘Did you say ‘holes’? As in real holes, Sir?’ said Jack. ‘How big are they? I don’t want to step into one of those, and disappear into some other crazy layer under here. You’ve got to make sure we don’t hit those springs. Do you know where they are?

‘Fear not, I will lead you through.’

‘Okay then, you two have to follow straight behind me,’ said Jack. ‘If I disappear, you’d better save yourselves fast.’

Charlie and Ben stood with open mouths, trying to comprehend the new situation.

‘We should never have come here!’ said Charlie. ‘Not without grandpa. Why did we ever listen to you?’

Jack shrugged. ‘Well, it’s too late now, isn’t it?’

The old man made a sign for them to walk into the water.

Ben took off his sneakers without saying a word. He tied them together, and hung them around his neck. When finished, Charlie and Jack had done the same.

Next they waded out.

‘Dusk is fast approaching. Must to be on our way,’ said Ambrosius, before sweeping away all tracks. Then he dragged the tree branch all the way out in the water before he tied it to his side.

Ben tried to work out what he meant. It was the same shadowy light as before. Dusk seemed to be around all the time.

The old man pointed as a slight wave rushed towards the creamy white shoreline.

‘Notice the chalk line ripple. That is way to measure the backwater. Beware! The ripple shows the next backwater under surge, unless ….’

By now all three were used to the old man’s way of leaving something out. Nobody understood if it was something good or bad. None volunteered to ask what he meant.

Ambrosius frowned, and shook his head. He waded into the thick water without explaining.

As soon as someone moved slightly, a wavy pattern wrinkled the surface before turning into a smooth nothing.

‘So-so you think it’s safe?’ said Jack.

‘No apparent flooding.’ The old man waved them on before taking the lead.

‘It’s like walking through cool cooking oil. Not that I know what that feels like. I thought the bottom would be swampy, but it’s kind of funny to walk on the pebbles.’

‘Pebbles they are not, but plentiful they are this time of year,’ said Ambrosius. ‘They move any time they want. ‘

‘If not pebbles, what are they?’ said Jack.

Ben cried out. ‘Something bit me!’

‘I’ve had a gut full! I want so much to go home! I hate this place!’ Charlie yelled between her clenched teeth, while moving her feet.

Ambrosius voice was stern. ‘Quiet! Bite they do not. Offer a slight nip they may, although never dangerous.’

Ben lifted his foot out of the water to check for blood. ‘It wasn’t just a nip! It was a nasty bite! And I don’t want any offerings, thank you very much.’

‘But it’s not bleeding,’ said Jack.

Charlie ran on the spot, while carrying on. ‘It bit me too! And it hurts! I so hate it here.’

Ambrosius smirked. ‘A small nibble, or a pinch.’

‘WHAT? This is getting worse. Why didn’t you tell us before we went in?’ said Jack. ‘I want to know about all the stuff in this place, and I want to know now. I won’t take another step until you tell us.’

‘Entered to walk on top of crab-sized water dwelling insects with sharp claw-like incisors? Think not! Now hurry we must! Light is changing. Walk fast! Dangers will keep away.’

Jack muttered. ‘Is nothing ever normal down here.’

Ben and Charlie stared at each other. They were still moving on the spot. Ben was wary. He looked behind, sideways, and back and forth, expecting the worst.

They were way off shore when he discovered a large inward spiral, swirling only meters behind.

Scared and furious, he screamed.

‘Beware!’ Ambrosius roared. ‘Too close to whirlpools, the pull … too strong. Resist, or sink may happen. Move fast! Follow!’

Charlie, with tears streaming, cried loudly. ‘And we can’t go home! It’s horrible, and so much your fault, Jack! Why did I ever listen to you?’

‘We’re in the middle of a lake, or puddle, whatever, with forces that can pull us under,’ said Jack. ‘Stop complaining! It’s nothing we can do, but move on to get out of here.’

Ambrosius rushed onward with sweeping strides. He stopped at intervals, stood still a few seconds to stir up the bottom with his walking stick, looking and muttering, before continuing in another direction.

Charlie had a strange feeling and turned. When she saw the swirling motion, she gave out a piercing scream.

‘CROC!’ roared Jack.

Charlie scrambled to move faster.

Ben cried out, and tried to run.

Ambrosius whirled on with his stick. ‘Faster, faster!’

Somehow they made it to the opposite side, and stepped out of the water onto a strip of sand right in front of a steep cliff.

‘Was that a crocodile, Mr Ambrosius?’ said Jack.

‘May be so,’ he replied.

They stood in silence, trying not to think about what lurked in the depths. Maybe they had luck on their side now. Maybe not always.

‘Hurry to my abode,’ said Ambrosius.

Ben eyed the sheer wall by following all the way to its peak. Seeds had germinated in pockets, and plants tangled with miniature fruit-bearing trees, and thick lianas.’

‘It reminds me of some kind of monument with an overhanging jungle like in South America,’ said Jack.

‘Why is it one white spot on every orange?’ said Ben.

‘Oranges they are not,’ said Ambrosius. ‘Whiteface mandarins related they may be to mandarins in your land. My home behind a tree is almost at the top.’

‘But how can we get up there when we don’t have any climbing equipment?’ said Jack.

‘We’d be out of our minds to try it,’ said Ben.

‘So tell me, where are we supposed to put our feet?’ said Charlie. ‘I can’t see any steps. If I have to hang on to that wall with my bare hands, it’s going to ruin my nails, I know it. They’re almost totally wrecked already.’

‘How do we get our gear up?’ Jack shook his head. ‘We can’t climb with backpacks on.’

‘To fall into hands of hostiles, may not be to your liking. A prisoner’s life in a cramped cell, damp and cold, never easy. Watch how I climb! Smallest step-like intrusions are on the wall. The youngest will follow. Last one will be you Jack. Up there, I will lower a rope to fasten your belongings to pull the hold-alls up here. Do not forget to sweep before your climb! Must not forget.’

The old man pulled himself upward by placing his bare feet on the small outcrops. He grabbed onto branches of weak-looking greenery, which seemed to hold his weight. In no time, he had reached the point high up where the home tree was located. He grasped it, and swung himself inside behind it before he waved down.

‘I don’t know if I can do it,’ said Ben. ‘Something is not right. Why do think he’s so good at climbing, if he’s that old and frail, like he says?’

‘Bugs, that’s his home. If he was living in a city, it would be like walking up the stairs to his apartment. Nothing to it,’ said Jack.

‘Would have been easier if he had a lift,’ said Ben.

Ambrosius made a signal for the next to proceed.

‘You go first, Charlie, and then the green-eyed one’s next,’ said Jack, giggling. ‘I’ll be down here until both of you have made it up.’

Ben glared at him.

Charlie put on her sneakers and tied her shoe laces. ‘I don’t like it.’ She glanced at her hands, and touched the nails with her thumbs. ‘They’re absolutely disgusting.’

‘Nails, or no nails, just get a move on. Be careful!’

Charlie started off in a foul mood. She thought about Jack’s hateful feelings for Ben. Why did he always treat Ben like he did? Her younger brother had not done anything to deserve such treatment. But what could she do about it? Nothing had helped so far. She tried to concentrate on the task at hand. She knew she had to get to the top, and she had to hurry.

After a few meters up, she was stuck. Fumbling around, above her head, she found more rocks jutting out from the jagged wall. She was hanging on with one hand and only her fingers on the other when one of the pieces crumbled into rubble. Quickly, she grabbed the closest vine, while small pebbles sprayed to the ground. She was stiff with fear, and kept staring at the wall.

‘You can do it, Charlie!’ called Jack from below.

She looked down, and tried a pathetic smile. She was sure nobody saw the silent tears running down her cheeks. Even if they did, she could do nothing to stop. Struggling upward, meter by meter, holding onto a thick vine, she hoped, and prayed, it would hold her weight. Half-way, she knew the worst would be to look down.

A sudden loud snap made her freeze. The vine she hung onto seemed to be breaking. Frantic for something else to grab, she threw her hand around another rope-like creeper.

‘C’mon, Charlie! You’re nearly there,’ Jack called again from the ground.

‘Just take it easy!’ said Ben, thinking about that he was next.

Charlie hung onto the cliff wall for dear life, contemplating what to do next, but knew there was only one thing to do, and that was to move on.

Slowly she progressed up. Closer to the cave opening, Ambrosius stretched out his hand, and pulled her to safety. Inside, the first thing she did, was to look at her nails. She was shocked. They had been manicured for hours before the trip, and now they were in absolute tatters. On shaky legs, she stretched out through the opening to wave down.

Ben knew what was to come and wanted to disappear.

‘Okay, Bugs, you climb right after Charlie. As soon as you’re up there, I’ll hook up the backpacks. There’s nothing to it.’

Ben was worried. As long as he could remember, he had been frightened of heights. It all started a few years ago in Kings Park when they had visited the famous outlook. Grandpa, Jack and Charlie had admired the scenic view of the city skyline, while he stood far away from the railing, worried sick about earthquakes, mudslides, or the ground giving way for some reason. He was not game enough to mention any of it. No one would have listened, or cared. Probably not even his grandpa. Surely, every single one would have laughed at him. He knew it was just one of those phobias people sometimes have. He imagined Jack saying: ‘Why don’t you grow out if it, Bugs? Do some training! Stand on the pergola roof for a while, and you’ll get used to heights.’ Then he would roll around on the ground in hysterics.

Ben thought about how on earth he would be able to climb a steep cliff wall without any decent form of security. He had a sudden thought, and fumbled in his pocket where he found the small stone. It had caught his eye, as he took off his sneakers at the puddle-lake. He knew if the pebble could have talked, it would have screamed at him to pick it up. There was something interesting about the stone. It was not the stripy patterned Marra Mamba crossbow rock, which he was always on the look-out for after he had heard his grandpa’s story, but he knew it must be special in some other way. This stone was almost the size of the flat of his hand, and slightly oval. It was silky smooth with a brilliant white colour. Strangely enough, it always felt warm. There was only one fault, which was not really a fault in his eyes. A thin black line ran across, but it only made it even more intriguing. He had put it in his pocket before anybody noticed.

Now he held it in his hand without taking it out. He was not going to show it. He knew what Jack would have said. ‘Look at that weird one! His name is Benny Bug Byte, Bugs for short, and can you believe it? He’s a total nut case who believes in magic stones.’

Ben knew better than Jack. He had come to understand that they were in a place, which was far from normal. The first wall they had gone through was some kind of Star Gate, or Wormhole, maybe to another dimension. The next wall had some strange magical mechanism, which was released when he wriggled out the big white marble-looking stone where Jack had fallen down. They had also managed to crawl through the hole, which the old man called the Eye Socket. It had somehow closed after they were through, not to be visible from this side. And, as if that was not enough, the stunted trees growing upside down, which could sting and possibly kill you, were stranger than any rain forest jungle tree, and the lake had something very odd about it with whirlpools, and sucking natural springs in the bottom with the weirdest creatures. So, why would the white pebble not be magic?

He closed his eyes hard and begged.

Please help me climb, even better than Jack. I want to get to the top without feeling sick because I want him to see that I can do it. Better than him, or anyone else. I’m not a weirdo like Jack always says.

‘C’mon! Get a move on! We haven’t got all day. We’ve got to get up there before the baddies arrive. Or, do you want to stay down here, while I go first?’

Ben made a face aimed at Jack, and then followed the wall to the top with his eyes. He took a deep breath, spat in his hands, and rubbed them together, before grabbing onto a piece of rock sticking out from the wall. He had a shock when the piece gave way and fell off.

He got hold of another chunky bit. Just as he had seen the old man, and Charlie do. Nothing broke off, and the first steps up were easy. Moving his feet slowly, a few centimeters at a time, he decided not to look down, not even once, just continue until he reached the top. If he fell, he knew that every bone in his body would break, and there would be no ambulances, or paramedics around.

He inched himself upwards by holding onto the wall, or pulling a vine. He was not sure how it came about, but he made it all the way to the cave entrance, and fast too.

Ambrosius smiled, grabbed his arm, and dragged him inside.

Ben dangled dangerously through the opening to look down. For some reason,
the height had no effect. He was elated, and whispered, as he held the stone tightly. My magic stone, you’re the best! I knew you could do it. Thanks heaps.

He was pulled in by Ambrosius. ‘Not advisable to hang out as a perilous kite on thinnest string. Too dangerous.’

Ben drew back, as told, but sneaked another peek, as Ambrosius hauled up the backpacks, one after the other.

Finally, it was Jack’s turn. He swept the ground with the branch, as Ambrosius had instructed him, and when finished, he tied it to the side of his body.

Nervous and weary, he grabbed hold of what he could find on the wall. He started up by moving one foot after the other. All was going well, but the tree branch was in the way, and he had trouble hanging onto the wall. He, who had always thought himself to be an expert climber, now realised it was far more difficult than he had ever imagined.

A couple of meters up, with one hand around a vine, and the other on the wall, he fumbled for something further up to hold onto, but lost his grip when a big chunk fell off. A smattering noise like gun fire erupted, as it went to pieces, hitting the wall on the way down.

Ambrosius shook his head and called out. ‘More careful you must be, or make it you will not.’

Jack felt inadequate. He had climbed far worse, but mostly concrete walls for training, and never without any kind of equipment.

He struggled upward at a snail’s pace. One foot to a new spot, then the other. Then it happened. Another stepping stone broke off, and he lost his footing. Frantic, he flipped like a fish out of water, while barely holding onto a thick tree root seemingly growing out of the rocky wall.

His feet circled around and found a narrow overhang. He pressed his toes into the cramped spot, but the respite was short. More portions of the wall disintegrated. He struggled to get a safer grip, while trying to move one of his feet to a higher position, but the smaller piece where he had come to rest his foot crumbled away like toast. He scraped his knuckles in his search for more protruding bits, while clumsily trying to find new support for his feet. Nothing had gone as expected. He was disappointed, and swore an angry tirade at the wall.

Ben, halfway out of the opening, but behind Ambrosius, was in turmoil. ‘Jack, it’s something there! Use your left foot! Just reach a bit higher. You can do it.’

Jack slithered around, moving back and forth, without getting anywhere. With one hand, he grabbed hold of something twirling above his head. Relief turned to the most blood-curdling thoughts when a frightening crack pierced his mind.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 8 – Terra Rowillian

A dark shape had twisted out from behind the boulders.

‘What did I tell you?’ said Ben, stepping to the side despite not feeling the least worried.

At once the hunched figure wriggled forward to stand in front.

Ben looked intently at the old man with a gaunt weather-beaten appearance. He was draped in a well-worn kangaroo hide. Around his neck hung an old-fashioned thread-bare cravat, which had lost most of its colour. It was like he tried to be stylish, but everything only added to the sordid impression. With scrawny legs, bony knees and bare feet, he stood silently waiting, while holding onto a cane in the shape of an enormous bow.

Ben looked at Jack and Charlie, and then back at the man who stared distantly into their eyes, one after the other. Then he pointed with a hook-like finger onto Ben’s chest. ‘Through he has come. He will find it. He with the greenest eyes. Sourced this in the flames I did, so long ago.’

Jack was bewildered. ‘Who-Who are you? What are you talking about?’

‘You may enter this world, albeit, leave you may never. Ock-yay, ock-yay … not until it is found.’

‘What do you mean?’ said Jack.

‘I want so much to go home right now,’ cried Charlie.

‘Are you a Yowie?’ Ben regretted his question, as soon as he had said it. The man was bald, and obviously not the normal hairy being from his grandpa’s stories, even if the rancid odour around him was almost more than he could bear.

‘Oh no, a Yowie I am not, although this land belongs to such ancient beings.’

‘Excuse me? What exactly do you mean? This is just a cave, isn’t it?’ said Jack.

‘For many this may seemingly be a cave below the land mass above, although we are in a parallel world with a size, and depth, not altogether known. An expectation it is for the ancient land of Panghellan to conform to the vastness above. Explored to the farthest end has never been done, not to my knowledge … hmm … in the flames I watched three starlings.’

‘Starlings? What do you mean? I’m Jack Starling, and this is my sister, Charlie. And this here is Ben. We’re here for our parents. They’re supposed to have been in this cave, but that was years ago. Nobody has seen them since. You said you saw starlings pass. What exactly did you mean by that?’

‘Ock-yay, ock-yay, the longest time has passed. Now here he is the green-eyed one, as foretold by the flames. Aware I was of your coming.’

‘Did that happen with our parents as well?’ said Ben. ‘Did you see them in the flames? Are you saying you’re the one who met them in the cave, and then took them through to this place. To here?’

‘No, I met them at a fair distance from here, in the Grim Islands to be precise, where they were held hostage, and therefore no warning were forthcoming as they entered.’

‘Hostage? Jack was shocked to the core, and so were the others.

‘Imprisoned humans must work for the hostiles, as every trapped human is in these lands. I too have endured this hardship. The Starlings, I have not seen for the longest time. Only for the shortest before I was discarded like a rotten remnant from a laden table at the Kernel. Here he is now the green-eyed one. To enter this land is without effort, but to leave is hopeless. No matter your strength, it can never be done. Not without the Binehogen.’

‘Enter … land … what do you mean, Sir?’ said Jack. ‘Everything sounds so weird. Why can’t we leave? Can’t we just go back to where we came from? It can’t be that hard to crawl through the hole where we came out, then go through the tunnel to the other wall inside the cave, the same way as how we ended up here.’

‘Oh, no, you have no inkling. You ask of a way out? The Eye Socket, where you entered, has no opening from this side. This land may be likened to one colossal muddled labyrinth with tunnels and caves, and no visible exit. After you enter Panghellan, no exit may be found. Hard to understand it may be. We are in a land seemingly without a beginning, or an end.’

‘I don’t know what you’re on about, Sir,’ said Jack. ‘Everything is confusing. First of all; how can there be a whole country under the Nullarbor? And why is it so easy to get in, but not to get out? It just doesn’t make sense. Another thing is … what was it you said before? Did you actually mean that you have met our parents? And what’s that ‘bine’ something about?’

‘The Binehogen is a keystone. Kept it was by the Hogen of Grim from earliest times. With the all important keystone, the hostile Grims steered all comings and goings. The fate of humans erring into this land was to be locked up. At one time, and regrettably so, the Binehogen with its Holder vanished in your land, never to be seen again. This I gathered from the flames. Never have I laid eyes on the genuine Binehogen, and therefore it is hard for me to enlighten you to its form, colour and achievements. This must be disturbing news. Oh, I must tell you who I am; Ambrosius, a friend of the Starlings. I’ve come to your aid.’

‘So what are you saying exactly, Mr Ambrosius?’ said Charlie. ‘Do you mean to say our parents aren’t dead?’

‘In all likelihood, they are not.’

‘That’s the best news we’ve had,’ said Charlie. ‘But how do we find them? The sooner the better is what I think. I-I hate to say it, but I don’t like this place very much.’

Ben took a step up to grab her arm. ‘We’ll find them. I’ve got a feeling. I …’

Jack interrupted, and went on to tell the story about how a man and his girlfriend had found the cave with the backpack, and the letter in the notebook.

‘Back pack?’ said Ambrosius.

They showed their own and he seemed to catch on. ‘Ah, a hold-all is what you mean. A long time has passed since I first saw starlings enter through the fiery flames. I was imprisoned, and could not come forth with warning at the time. Today I am able to give you warning, and here you are now. The green-eyed one has come. The search for the Binehogen may begin.’

‘I don’t get it,’ said Jack. ‘How can we search for the Binehogen? You said earlier that it wasn’t lost down here.’

Ambrosius nodded. ‘Lost in your land it was.’

‘So how on earth can we look for it when you’re saying we can’t leave this place? Excuse me, I just don’t get it.’

Ambrosius sat down on a boulder. ‘There is no way of knowing how, and where the keystone is to be found. The search as such will encompass the greatest hardship. Dangers abound when traversing through forests upon forests, waterlogged lands with swamps, tunnels and caves. To make way through the horrendous Prickle Mesh Haimalyas is laborious, and fraught with more perils. You will find the mesh thornier on the islands. Much thornier than on this side of the Ciyon Sea.’

‘What does the Himalayas have to do with it? We’re not even close,’ said Jack.

‘HAI … MA … LYAS is the name.’ Ambrosius pronounced every syllable before spelling to make sure they understood.

‘So what’s that then?’ Jack stared at the eccentric-looking man, and shook his head, not knowing what to think, or what to do. ‘This is so weird, so incredibly weird.’

Charlie stood at the side completely bewildered.

Ben felt ill all of a sudden. ‘I think we should try to get out of here. I-I don’t like this place … I can’t breathe … I feel sick.’ He walked back to the spot where he thought they had entered, and fell down on all fours.

Charlie thought he was about to throw up, but it became evident what he was doing when he crawled along the wall.

Jack became frustrated, waved his arms, and turned his head back and forth, while walking over to the wall. He bent down in places. ‘Nah, I can’t find it either. It must be camouflaged so well.’

Ambrosius shook his head and sighed. ‘No way out may be found. Not here. Not now. Not ever. We must hurry now before the squinting hostiles come into view at precisely this point. If having watched the flames of fires, they may know of your whereabouts. Leave we must! Capture humans venturing out of the Eye Socket is their aim. Only seldom will a human enter.’

‘What? I don’t get what you’re saying. What’s an Eye Socket? And who are those squinters and hostiles you’re talking about? It sounds like they’re totally unfriendly.’

‘Ock-yay, ock-yay, humans may enter through the Eye Socket. The hostile patrol appears at this point to capture humans, although seldom a human may enter. On the Kernel, in the Grim Islands, the Starlings are held hostage to teach their knowledge. For you to search, and set them free, may be a momentous task, and a treacherous undertaking whereby you may suffer distress. The grimmest misery will be at the shores of the Ciyon Sea, and on the islands where you need to traverse through the horrendous prickle mesh with its vicious creatures. Most disastrous may be if your parents are forced out ahead of your rescue attempt. Nothing is known when such may take place.

The three of them had their separate feelings of despair and hopelessness, but there were also glimpses of hope. To leave the cave world was paramount. They must find the Binehogen keystone, and they had to rescue their parents. Nothing else would do.

‘Tell us more, please,’ said Jack. ‘We need to know everything we’re up against.’ Charlie and Ben agreed by nodding.

Ambrosius went on to repeat some of what he had already told. ‘The Grims are never friendly. They will keep humans in their prison fortress. Enter the conclave, and there will be no escape. Know the squinting Grims are ever so watchful, and therefore there is a need for you to be more than watchful. To end up in their clutches will not be to your liking. Summa summarum; the need is to find your parents. The keystone must also be found. Never get captured – with or without the Binehogen! If captured humans are deemed worthless, they will be forced to roam free. With no way of escape from Panghellan, freedom may never mean free in its entirety. So how many years of wisdom will be forthcoming before one’s mind is emptied? That is not so clear. What if already the Starlings are on borrowed time?’

‘But, if they have to leave, where would they go?’ said Jack. ‘If this landmass is the same size as the one above, they might end up in North Queensland for all we know.’

‘Oh, no, then we’ll never find them,’ said Charlie.

Ben was more optimistic. ‘I have a feeling, we will.’

Jack and Charlie pretended not to hear.

‘When cast out, every human may roam these lands forever. A fate for some,’ the old man continued. ‘With no way back to your world, and with limited understanding of the dangers, and peculiarities, their circumstances may be less than desirable. To find the course through countless traps, and evil clutches, is hard for the most knowledgeable of wanderers.’

‘But if we can find the Binehogen, we could rescue them,’ said Ben. ‘Couldn’t we?’

‘You can’t find it,’ said Jack. ‘Nobody can. It’s not down here.’

‘You should not fret. As foretold in the flames the green-eyed one will find it.’

‘How is that even possible? I think you give him too much credit, Sir.’ Jack did not understand the old man.

‘How, when and where, are not forthcoming. Only that it is bound to happen.’

‘Do you know anything else about the Binehogen? What does it look like?’ said Ben.

‘The Binehogen is endowed with a powerful magnetic field. When in your possession, it will be possible to open a portal to the world above. Such time will be the most threatening time. All beings in this land will move ferociously to lay their hands on the keystone. The rescue must be brisk, and when joined with your parents, to flee the fastest way is of utmost importance. Many perilous occurrences in this land may happen when holding onto the Binehogen. No way of knowing when or what.’

‘What about you then, Sir? Are you coming with us?’ said Jack. ‘I mean to the top?’

‘Too late it is for my weakened bones. The strangeness of this world is what I know, and no desire I have to leave. My lot is to stay. I have taken it upon myself to warn the unwary.’

‘Okay, then, but just tell me one more thing,’ said Jack. ‘Why is it really that our parents are in prison? I mean, if they’re still alive. They can’t imprison people just because they want to learn something. That’s plain crazy.’

Ben tugged at Jack’s arm. ‘Are they alive?’

‘Stop it! I’ve got to think.’ Jack pushed Ben violently to the side, but Ben wasn’t slow to hit back.

‘No, no, no!’ Ambrosius frowned. ‘To do what is required, nothing else than unity will do.’

Jack and Ben stared at each other with sullen faces.

‘Oh, why did we ever come here?’ said Charlie. ‘This place gives me the creeps.’

‘You must heed my words. The ominous Grims always seek knowledge, utmost knowledge. Their thirst for wisdom is not unlike how others require food and drink. To advance their species, and to become superior is their goal, and for their leader, the Hogen of Grim to master fully, the Binehogen is sorely needed. With the keystone in their possession, they may intermingle anew with humans in your land. This has occurred since ancient times when continents, and living beings came to be. When they held possession, they were able to come and go as pleased.’

‘So, you mean Yowies have been up there?’ said Ben, pointing above his head. ‘I knew it! Grandpa was right!’

Jack stared at Ambrosius. ‘Tell us more about the Hogen, please!’

‘The Hogen has been the ruler for the longest time, and always been eager to mix with the world above to gain more knowledge. Albeit, all Grims are hostile, hunting for humans to keep in their quest to learn. Without the Binehogen, every single one of them are forced to remain down in these hollows.’

‘So, Mr Ambrosius, where do you suggest we look for the stone? Do you know anything else about how we’re supposed to find it? How can we even start searching for our parents when we don’t know anything about this place?’ Jack wiped his hands repeatedly on the front of his t-shirt. He started to roll the hem at the bottom up towards his chest to show a bare stomach. This was something he did when he was in distress. And he was in grave distress when he realised they had no option to leave. The options they had seemed almost impossible. They had to find the Binehogen, and then rescue their parents before all were able to leave. Two momentous tasks ahead. Thinking again about the dark and dangerous cave world made him sick. He took a few steps, but his legs went shaky.

‘Certain abilities belong to the Binehogen. The legend tells it went astray in the shifting sands near the southern ocean in the land above. I have noticed letters in the flames A, U, E, C, and L. However, I have no way of knowing what the letters mean.’

Ben had hard to contain himself. ‘I know! It sounds like Eucla. It’s a small place up the top. Is the keystone around there then?’

‘How would Mr Ambrosius know that?’ said Jack. ‘There’s no way to search there anyway. Apart from how would you ever be able to find it in all that sand. Eucla is full of it.’

Ambrosius seemed to contemplate what else to tell. ‘From the flames, I discovered how the Holder of the keystone never returned to these lands. Therefore there is no way of knowing exactly where it is hidden. Images have floated by through the fire, however, never a full picture. I watched the keystone shifting hands, as the older Holder handed the stone to the new, although the images were a blur. Then, in the flames, the green-eyed one appeared with the new Holder. Future happenings are not entirely clear. However, when found, the force field needs to be broken. The portal at the Phosphene must be cleared for the force to come into motion. After this procedure, all else will follow. Remember this! At all times, keep away from those intending to lay their hands on the keystone. If you have listened to my words, you must be aware of its power and paramount importance. To leave these lands is never possible, not without the aid of the keystone.’

‘So when Ben has found the keystone, and we have rescued our parents, we have to find the portal if we ever want to get out of here?’ said Jack. ‘How do we do all this when everything is so dangerous?’

‘Dangers abound near and far. Keep away from those intent on stealing the keystone! Listen to my words! You ought to be aware of its power, and paramount importance. According to the flames, the green-eyed one is obliged to find it. With his gifts, he has the knowledge. Keep away from Kenairies, the hostiles, and the Warper Brothers! Crucial it is to stay away from every Warper.’

‘What are you saying? Is there no end to what we have to worry about?’ said Charlie.

The old man bent down, scraped away some of the dry top layer, and started to write with his finger in the wetter sand. ‘Whatever you do, do not read them aloud! Never speak their names!’

Jack, Charlie and Ben read the words in silence.

Snake Harmer
Eagleperch
Ironforce


‘Remember not to utter their names. They will search high and low, and will do what needs to be done to take possession. From the time they were promised treasures by the Hogen, motivations became worse, so much worse. Albeit, the ultimate goal is to hold the keystone in hand. That is their aspiration. The Warpers are endowed with unnatural abilities, and therefore you must avoid them at all costs. For many years, the goal of every Warper has always been to find the Binehogen.’

‘Tell me more about that one?’ said Jack, and pointed to the words of ‘Snake Harmer’.

‘To speak his name on purpose, or by mistake, must never be done. Say it once, and he will know your whereabouts no matter where you hide. Say it after your retrieval of the Binehogen, and he will recover it from your possession in a twinkling of an eye. If so occurs, you may never leave these lands. Oh, cunning as a snake, and known by that name, and to know this is to be forewarned.’

‘Okay, we get it. What about that one?’ Jack pointed to the next name, which was ‘Eagleperch’.

‘Can’t say his name, so … sounds like a huge bird sitting on something. Does he have strong eyes to see long distances? Can he … see us … always then?’ said Ben.

‘Perhaps not see with eyes. Mind control may be part of his forte. Mention his name, and he will perceive every truth or lie, and will know your whereabouts at once. Albeit, struggle he will to control the strongest mind.’

‘And what does that one do?’ Jack pointed to the word of ‘Ironforce’.

‘The fast one-legged man imposes his will on the unwary. To resist is as difficult as finding your way out of a thousand sandstorms. Make sure you never utter their names, if you meet them happenstance.’

‘Okay, we won’t say their names. I think we understand more about this land now. But there’s something I don’t know, and that’s why you’re saying Ben has come here to find that stone. He doesn’t really know anything about it. So how can he possibly find it?’

‘This I have told. Through the flames of fires the future, I may glean. The pictures come in partitions, but not always in order. Albeit, clear it is; the Binehogen will be found by the green-eyed one. That is … hmm … unless … oh, no, you can trust me on this to the fullest.’

‘It’s dead.’ Charlie had tried to distract herself with music. Now she stuffed the iPod and headphones into the pocket of her backpack, before fumbling to find her tiny jar of lip gloss. She smeared a big blob on her lips. ‘I don’t know why it gets so dry here when it’s no sun, and it’s as damp as the bottom of the sea.’

‘There’s also something else I think you should know,’ said Jack. ‘Our grandpa, and the other guy, could end up here fairly soon. We’ll have to wait for them before we do anything else.’

‘The flames have shown they will enter, only this is an unsafe area to wait. I have a protected abode with a look-out where we may watch the proceedings.’

‘Okay then, we’ll go with you to that place. I wouldn’t like to be here if those hostiles arrive. Later, will you tell us the way to that prison you talked about? I mean, when our grandpa gets here. And more, please, about how everything works in this place. It’s kind of hard to understand. Okay, I know if we want to get out of here, we’ll have to find that key before the ones with no names find it. So where could it be? Maybe we can find it on the way to those islands. Where do you reckon we should start looking? Wait a minute! It could be that mum and Jerry know more about this than we do. They might have heard something about it, if they’ve been here that long.’

‘Are you sure they’re alive?’ Ben looked at Jack with tear-muddled eyes.

‘How would I know?’ said Jack. ‘Stop being such a wimp!’

Ambrosius looked from Jack to Charlie, and then over to Ben. ‘You will be on your own. Possible to render my assistance along the course, it is not. My body is old and frail, and the journey through treacherous lands with trees upon trees, forests upon forests, through waterways, rivulets, tunnels and cave systems, may be too strenuous. The slimy swamp fog surrounds weary wanderers, and will soak through every scrap of clothing. You do look dumbfounded. Hard it may be to comprehend such immense hardship. The backwater under surges are horrendous, often occurring unexpected to engulf tunnels and channels. When weary wanderers hear the warning sound – the whine of the wind, they must seek higher ground. The backwater under surges often occur unexpected. Beware of bogs, swamps and sinkholes, craters, dead or alive, and open, and not so open terrain. The howling! Oh, and the howling! Such soul destroying sound will pierce the sweetest! Upon reaching the Ciyon Sea, you must undertake the ferry crossing to enter the Grim Islands. You need to find the Malison’s Inlet, which is the closest back way, not used by the hostiles. Beware! On embarking at the island, the prickle mesh and the hornlike spinners are ever so menacing.’

‘How are we supposed to get through that?’ said Charlie. ‘I wasn’t prepared for all this. I don’t think I can do it.’

‘We can’t worry about that right now,’ said Jack. ‘We’ll take one step at a time. Grandpa will know what to do.’

Ambrosius looked at Ben, and seemed to think for a moment before he continued.

‘Boab … Plute,’ he said slowly, while seemingly contemplating what else to tell them. ‘I … eh … have to explain about the station. You need to crisscross the plain through the Boab trees to find the largest tree.’ He scanned the area around them. ‘Not to mention the critters, ock-yay, ock-yay. I need to elaborate further later. Oh, a map is essential. Now, hurry we must to the hiding spot.’

‘Excuse me, but could you please tell us what those hostiles look like before we leave here?’ said Jack. ‘Just so we know what to look out for?’

‘To distinguish between good and evil may be hard. That is unless you notice their deeds. Albeit, the hostile hunters are born with a squint. Oh, yes, the hair on their bodies, together with the Rainlander tribe in the rain forest, are redder than others. This is what I have come to know. The hostile hunting patrol also wear uniforms.’

Ben was eager to know more. ‘Uniforms? What colour?’

‘Colour? Not so much in way of colour. More in the way of how they are created out of brownish black seaweed, and coloured feathers. Oh, yes, they wear those smelly berets, same as the Warpers wear at times.’

‘Smelly berets? Yuck! What do they look like?’ said Ben.

‘Fashioned from the fur of those horrendous sounding creatures, they are.’

Ben’s mind worked fast. ‘What? You mean something like Tasmanian devils?’

‘Hmm … ‘devils’ is not the right word. Black with a few white spots, and an unbearable odour. Maybe for good, when able to smell them before they are seen.’

‘You’re saying they make clothes out of seaweed, and wear berets made from dead animals?’ said Jack.

‘May seem so,’ said Ambrosius.

‘Excuse me, what colour are the feathers?’ said Ben.

‘All sorts. No determined colour plan. Not to my knowledge.’

‘Everything is so strange. I thought this was just a normal cave,’ said Ben.

‘It is almost unfathomable to explain every single peculiarity. We stand here in the twilight world of this particular spot, where we are neither here, nor there. The bluish-grey light is not unlike the colour of the blooms of the Agapanthus at dusk, or maybe the murky moonlight before a storm. You will see this light all the way to the Eldris Gate, which leads into the greater land of Panghellan. Through there, and it will be noticeably lighter and brighter.’

‘This is just about awesome!’ said Jack. ‘There’s a whole country under the Nullarbor and nobody knows about it. I think it’s totally out of this world. I want to go back, and tell everyone what’s down here.’

‘The Panghellan lands have been in existence since time began. Land forms floated apart to form new oceans, and new continents, some with ancient lands, and ancient beings. However, you must heed a bleak warning. Never can you be complacent. Be wary at all times. Keep away from the Grims, the Warpers, and all others seeking the powers of the Binehogen.’

Jack bit his lip. ‘Wha-what others?’ He started to roll up his t-shirt again. “Is there no end to it?’

‘The longest search has been in slow motion. However, through the flames some have already caught glimpses of what is to transpire. Even roaming ones with no way out. Word spreads in these parts. Many may be aware of your arrival. The Warpers may have started the hunt by searching high and low. Remember, no one is to be trusted. Many will deceive, murder and plunder. For now, we must hurry.’

‘Okay, we’ll have to trust you on that. Oh, another thing; how’re we supposed to know the difference between the good ones, and the bad ones when we don’t have a clue? It’s alright to say they squint, but we haven’t seen any of them yet. Can you give us a minute first, please, Mr Ambrosius?’ said Jack.

The old man turned around and moved away a few steps.

‘I want to go home, Jack,’ whispered Ben. ‘If they’re after me, I don’t know what to do. I hate those murdering hostiles, and hunters, and whoever else. And why does he call me the green-eyed one? It sounds like I’m some kind of monster. This place is the pits. I have a creepy feeling from all this. I’m scared. I want to get out of here now.’

‘Maybe we’re better off trying to get back and let grandpa deal with all this,’ said Charlie.

‘Come on!’ said Jack, talking in a low voice. ‘If they’re after you Bugs, they’d be after all of us. It’s nothing we can do about it. We’ve got to find that key, and we’ve got to find them. But something else. Don’t you reckon it’s something weird about this guy, and his story about the Warpers, and that everyone’s going to hunt us down? Isn’t that a bit farfetched? Anyway, what do we do? I think we’ll have to wait until grandpa comes. That means we’ve got to trust the guy for now. If something worse happens, or if you notice something strange, we’ll take some other action. As if nothing’s strange here already, but you know what I mean, anything weirder, and we’ll make a run for it.’

‘We could have a code or something,’ said Charlie.

‘Okay then, if I call out the word … uh … let’s say ‘bolognaise’, we’ll start running like hell, and try to get back here,’ said Jack.

‘Why does it have to be such a complicated one? I want something easier,’ said Charlie. ‘I like ‘soup’?’

‘No, I don’t want ‘soup’. What about ‘spaghetti’?’ said Jack.

Charlie had to agree, but Ben muttered something unintelligible.

‘What was that?’ said Jack.

‘Uh … nothing, but, Jack, what if he’s some kind of maniac?’ said Ben. ‘He could be plain crazy. The way he’s dressed, and with that egg head, he looks like a lunatic. I don’t think I like him.’

‘Nobody likes him,’ said Jack. ‘He’s not exactly your favourite type of uncle.’

‘Well, he seems kind of helpful, I think,’ said Charlie.

‘All right, what choice do we have?’ said Ben. ‘We can’t do anything else. No coppers that I can see. And we’re three against one. But just so you know it; the guy could be the one I saw, as a blur, in the cave earlier. It went so fast, and I didn’t really see him that well. But why would he be there, if you can’t get through from this side?’

‘How would anybody get in there? It’s no entry back from here. Or call it exit for that matter. We’ve seen it ourselves,’ whispered Jack. ‘Hey, Bugs, you were scared stiff, and it can play tricks on your mind, if you have a wild imagination.’

‘I didn’t imagine anything,’ said Ben.

Jack sighed before he went on. ‘He told us there’s no way to get through from this side. We never found the hole where we came out. Do you know what I think it is? You’ve inherited too much of grandpa’s imagination. And you know what? The guy’s ancient and looks pretty weak. I could easily floor him.’

Jack motioned to Ambrosius to come closer.

‘We’re going to come with you to the hiding place, Sir.’

The old man pointed towards the distance. ‘We must hurry along.’

‘Mr Ambrosius,’ said Ben, ‘I saw someone on the other side inside the cave. Who do you think it was? I mean, if we can’t get through from here, how come somebody was in there?’

‘Are you sure it was no shadow? Maybe a glowing orb. It is not possible to pass through from this side … unless … now hurry we must.’

‘Unless what?’ said Ben.

Ambrosius shook his hand, and refrained from answering. He bent down to scratch the dirt. Under a layer of sand was a wilted tree branch.

‘Mr Ambrosius, you said ‘unless’,’ said Ben. ‘What did you mean by that?’

‘I did? About what?’

Ben looked at Jack and Charlie. They were shaking their heads, hardly noticeable. Ben had to leave it.

‘Is that for snakes?’ said Charlie, shuddering at the thought.

Ambrosius handed his walking stick to Jack. ‘No snakes are breeding right here.’ He made a quick wave. ‘Our aim is for the rock wall over there.’

The three of them looked at one another.

Ben strained his eyes to see what the old man had seen in the distance. ‘Where? I don’t see any wall.’

‘The haze around Terra Rowillian stretches far and beyond. Not always will you see what is in front. Although closer up, you will surely notice. Now you must walk in one line to make less of our inevitable footprints. He swept the ground hastily to clear away all marks, and then walked backwards behind them, while holding the branch to do the sweeping, and stirring motions on the ground.

They walked across the sand dunes before Ambrosius took them up through crowds of limestone boulders, and then into the space between three of them.

All stood in the sand staring into a gap.

Ambrosius pointed down. ‘You must enter. Right there.’

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 7 – Flipped

The silence was deafening. Charlie called again. With no response, she rushed over to where she had last seen him. She walked along the wall, while trying to move some of the loose entangled roots out of the way.

Jack came down fast, and then walked over to Charlie. ‘What’s going on?’

‘Oh, I don’t know. He was here just a moment ago. Now he’s gone. Did you see where he went?’

‘I think he’s just playing around. He probably found a good hiding spot somewhere. You know how he is. C’MON BUGS, NO TIME FOR JOKING! Don’t do this! It’s not even funny. Tell us where you are!’ He swept the light beam up and down.

‘No, Jack! Something’s wrong! I know it. You’ve got to do something.’

Jack sat down on a narrow rock ledge.

‘That’s not what I meant. Don’t sit there! You’ve got to help me find him! He-he’s gone! Could he had wandered off? He could be stuck in a tunnel, or maybe he’s fallen down somewhere. He must be so scared, the poor thing.’

Jack sat with his head bowed, resting on his hands. ‘Phew! I’m getting a bit tired of him. But don’t worry, he’ll come back when he’s had enough. He won’t last long on his own. I bet it’s too dark for him wherever he is.’

‘Stop being so horrible, Jack! He was right here in this spot, and now he’s not. Don’t you know which way he went?’

‘No, I looked at the wall, as you do when climbing. I already told you I didn’t watch him.’

‘I don’t know why, but I have a feeling we have to write a note for the others. If we search for him, maybe we all get lost. Grab my backpack! It’s over there. Look for a notebook in the outside pocket! Get it and write something for grandpa! If they get here and the three of us are gone, they wouldn’t have a clue what’s happened. Maybe that’s how mum and Jerry went through, without a trace.’

‘Okay, okay,’ said Jack. He had the backpack and poked around trying to find something to write on. ‘Where is it? It’s not … eh … Hang on a minute! I’ve found the book … eh … can’t find the pencil.’

‘Come on, Jack, in the polka-dot! I’ll go back over there. Maybe I can find something in the meantime.’

Jack found a bag with a zip, and rummaged through all sorts of things like a jar of lip gloss, a roll of sticky tape, a few miniature soaps, two wooden sticks, another small jar and a stubby pencil.

‘Okay, got it!’ He had found the ballpoint pen and started writing.

Hi grandpa,
Ben has disappeared. We have no idea how it happened. Could he have found the place where mum and Jerry went? But we don’t know where it is. Even Andy’s girlfriend must have gone that way. Before Ben was gone, he stood at the wall with all the roots. Underneath them, the sides look almost like they’ve been cut with an angle grinder. We have no clue what’s going on here.


He was stuck for words and looked up. ‘Charlie? What else do you think … I should … what … where are you? Huh … Charlie … huh …?’

When he realised he was on his own, he screamed. “WHERE ARE YOU? If you don’t show yourselves this minute, you’ve had it. I don’t like your games.’


Ben knew he had ended up in a different part of the cave, but had no understanding of how he ended up there. One second he had been with Jack and Charlie. He had seen them and heard them. The next moment, he was alone inside an odd-looking chamber, locked in by four walls with no doors or openings. The three walls in front were illuminated by his torch. They shimmered like the rainbow colours of white opal. He turned his head to look at the wall behind him. It was different. How was it possible to flip through a rock-hard wall, and then end up in this place? The walls around him looked soft like clay.

When he heard a sudden grunting noise, and not knowing where it came from, he had to think fast. He had entered through the wall in some mysterious way, so there must be a way out. He looked from one wall to the next, and pushed on the closest. It was kind of soft, but nothing happened. Nothing opened up. He went through the other harder walls and hit each one, again and again, but no sign of being able to escape. He sighed and looked at his sore knuckles.

With no visible point of entry, nor exit, he could feel the usual panic setting in. He circled around, right and left, twirling and stumbling. He clambered onto the wall behind him, trying to somehow climb out of there, but again without getting anywhere. He scratched, kicked and slapped with all his might, but there was no way out. He was stuck, and couldn’t leave however hard he tried.

A gruff snort came from somewhere, but he had no inkling from where. An image of a wild boar flashed through his mind. He went cold with fear, and screamed for the others. They weren’t there, but something else was around. Somewhere close.

Seconds later, what he had thought of as a wild boar ran on two legs before disappearing in a blaze of faded colours. It was almost like the fastest blur he had ever seen. Flabbergasted, he watched, as it raced into a tunnel, which had appeared out of nothing. He realised the cave was far from normal with its unusual properties.

‘HELP ME! Where are you guys? Someone! LET ME OUT!’ He knew he was imprisoned, and yelled and carried on, again hitting the walls. Shaking his head in bewilderment, he slumped down on the dirt floor, and closed his eyes. Despair had started to set in.

Nobody was around, but he whispered: ‘How can I warn them if I can’t get out? How did I get here? I don’t know what to do. HELP!’ He shouted in utter bewilderment before slumping down. He closed his eyes and tried to relax.

When there was a sudden flow of air, he opened his eyes. ‘What? How did you get here?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Charlie. ‘I only know that something is weird with that wall. Is this how everyone came through to this place? Nothing opens, but somehow you pass through. Is that how it works? I don’t know. I didn’t feel it was tight like mum said, but she might have had it wrong.’

‘I know nothing else. But we have a big problem Charlie. We’re stuck. What do we do? There’s no way out.’


On the other side, Jack was in turmoil and wondered what had happened. His sister and brother were gone. They had disappeared with no traces. He had no idea what had happened.

He tried to stand up, but was engulfed by dizziness, and forced to sit down. The buzzing in his ears sounded like a danger alarm going out of control. Seconds later, he tried to rise again, but his legs felt like jelly.

The only thing he could do was to stay where he was, while every limestone formation around him seemed to rotate faster and faster. At the same time, extreme fear weaved through his mind. Where were they? Would he ever see them again? How could they have disappeared with no evidence of where they had gone?

He stretched for his water bottle and gulped down its contents. The cool liquid made him come to his senses. He knew what he had to do. It was the only thing possible, but it was also the right thing. He quickly finished off writing the message, and put the notebook in a prominent spot. His grandpa and Andy couldn’t miss it. If they were all gone, his grandpa had a right to know what had happened.

He stood up to try his legs and walked a few steps before he grabbed hold of the three back packs. He put his on the back, and the others on one shoulder each. So far, so good, he wasn’t overcome by weakness. He came to think of the note written by his mum. Maybe it was impossible to pass through with as many as three backpacks. His mum and Jerry had only taken one. He hesitated for one moment, but had to try. He knew they needed them.

Jack went back to where he thought Charlie had been before it happened, and put his hands on the wall. He moved some roots to see what was underneath. There was nothing unusual at all.

He tried to work out if there was some kind of mechanism to open up an entry, or maybe an exit, somewhere. Maybe it was touched by mistake. He kept the backpacks on, while he wandered along the wall. He found no marks, or nothing else, to show how the others had left.

Next he wanted to try something new and placed his back against the wall and pressed, but was disappointed. He tried another spot. Nothing there either. Slowly, he went bit by bit, but it was like any other wall.

When it happened, he was unprepared.


‘About time, Jack. I thought you’d never get here,’ said Charlie. ‘Can you believe this? Have you ever seen anything like it? Even the ceiling is incredible, don’t you think? And look at the powerful light. How can that be when it’s no lights in here? I can’t see any, not even built in. Maybe it’s lit up by the tiny crystals on the walls. Do you think they could do that? You’re always saying you don’t believe in supernatural stuff. I don’t care what you think, and I don’t know what this is, but, I can tell you that normal, oh, no, there’s no way it could be normal.’

‘Mum and Jerry must have gotten through to this side … whatever it is,’ said Jack. ‘I-I’ve got to admit there’s something very strange about this whole thing. I don’t know what happened. Could it be some sort of a logical explanation? Or maybe it’s a scientific reason.’

‘Do you think this could be the other side, Jack?’ said Ben. ‘Maybe it’s the Yowie side. It might be true, you know. Maybe it’s another world in here that nobody knows about. It could be that we went through a kind of Star Gate, or even a wormhole to another dimension.’

‘What are you talking about? Star Gate? Eh … wormhole what? Yowies, no way! You must be kidding. Yowies are only in grandpa’s imagination. So, you want to believe in fairy tales and other dimensions? Don’t! I can tell you there’s nothing like Yowies and those sorts of things. Not even magic. Forget about all that stuff! This is something radically different.’

‘You still don’t get it, do you? We came through a wall. Right through a real bloody wall! How does that work, Jack! Grandpa told me about Yowies and strange happenings. For your information he did meet one ages ago. And they’re tangible, if you know what I mean. For your information, I’ve just seen one. I heard a noise and saw something running away really fast.’

‘You haven’t! I don’t believe any of it. Weren’t you absolutely petrified here on your own? Let’s have a look in your pants!’ Jack pointed behind Ben. ‘Hey, what’s over there?’

Ben turned in a blink of an eye, thinking it was what he had seen in a flash when alone.

‘Looks like another tunnel,’ said Jack.

‘I-I don’t think so,’ said Ben, when Jack walked towards the opening. ‘It might not be safe because it might not even be real. It’s something magic about the whole thing, if it’s really there.’

‘Don’t be so chicken! You were alone and scared out of your wits. No wonder you saw things,’ said Jack.

‘No, I’m telling you something’s weird about it. And I wasn’t that scared. I-I think it could’ve been a Yowie I saw. Don’t you reckon we should try and get back somehow and wait for grandpa?’

‘But we don’t know how,’ said Charlie.

‘No, we might as well carry on until they arrive,’ said Jack. ‘I want to follow the tunnel, and see what’s there. If you want to stay here Bugs, by all means, you can do that. We can always get back here, catch up with you, and then try the so called worm hole to get back if you like.’

‘No, I’m coming with you. I’m not staying here by myself.’

Jack entered with Charlie and Ben in tow. He pointed to a disturbed pile of large bones. ‘Check it out!’

‘What animal? They look really big, so, what is it?’ said Charlie.

‘Big skull,’ said Ben. ‘Might be a giant wombat. What if we meet one in here? Were they herbivores? Or this one could’ve been a carnivore, or omnivore. I really think we have to find a way to get back.’

‘No, don’t be so thick,’ said Jack. ‘It doesn’t matter whether they eat boys, or grass, or both. They’re extinct. Extinct, as in not around. Get it? Duh?’ He hit Ben playfully in the head with the flat of his hand.

‘Ouch! What was that for?’

‘A joke Bug Byte, a joke,’ said Jack, laughing. ‘But face it! You don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘Stop being so childish, Jack!’ said Charlie. ‘But Ben, there won’t be any huge wombats here. Normal ones, yeah, maybe, but giant ones, no, you know they’re not around. They haven’t been for the longest time. Maybe they lived here when Australia was part of Gondwanaland.’

‘Yeah, Ben, Charlie’s close, for once. They’re not here now, definitely not. I’ve had it with you. Cut it out, or you can go back, and wait for us at the entry.’

‘I’m not going back on my own,’ said Ben. ‘You can’t force me. And how do you know there isn’t just one of those wombats left. It could be as big as a car. On TV they showed big bones in some cave under the Nullarbor. Maybe they still live down here and nobody knows they’re around.’

‘Okay then, come with us, but stop the whingeing. I’ve had a gut full. Hey, I wonder why it’s so light in here,’ said Jack.

‘Yeah, where does it come from?’ said Charlie. ‘Since we’re in a cave, I mean.’

‘I wouldn’t know. It’s not even remotely normal. Maybe it’s another magic trick. Just ask Bugs.’

They walked on and came to a new, but smaller tunnel opening. Ben was the first to peek inside. ‘Sounds like streaming water in there, like kind of far away, or deep down.’

‘Water, or not, we haven’t got all day.’ Jack shoved Ben out of the way, and went through on a naturally made walkway. ‘A bit of water is nothing to worry about. We can walk on this rock path. See, Bugs, the water’s far down below. You don’t even get your toes wet. C’mon!’

Oddly shaped limestone formations enclosed the track to make it into another tunnel, formed inside. An abundance of translucent stalactites hung from the ceiling, and the skimpy concave walls were dotted with holes in different sizes.

Ben giggled. ‘It’s a bit like walking through a cheese. You know those ones with lots of holes. Phew! Stinks in here! Like an old cheese, or a bit like an old tent.’

‘I can’t believe how much darker it’s in here,’ said Jack.

‘I don’t like the water,’ said Ben. ‘If it starts raining, we might get flooded. Too easy to drown.’

‘What’s the likelihood of a bit of rain? It’s summer. It won’t happen,’ said Jack.

Ben knew what it meant when floodwaters entered caves, but was forced to throw away all concerns.

They walked on in silence, and ended up in front of a rock wall.

‘So what’s this? It looks built. How can that be?’ Jack started to prod. He touched stones here and there. ‘Before we head back, let’s see if we can find any more passages into any other chambers. I want to know what I’m talking about when the others roll up.’

Ben felt less enthusiastic. ‘I still think we should go back.’

‘I’m scared,’ said Charlie. ‘What if we never find a way out?’

Jack was disappointed. ‘If it stops here, I suppose we’ve got to head back. Must be another way they went.’

‘Why don’t you climb up and check if there’s something further up?’ said Charlie. ‘Maybe we can pass over it. You’re the one pretending to be a mountain climber, so it shouldn’t be too hard. On the other hand, the walls you have climbed were fake walls, and they’re not exactly the same now, are they?’

‘You’re just envious that you can’t do it. Not with those nails. Yuck, what’s that smell? Can you smell it? It smells like something’s dead in here? If it’s not an animal, I’d say it could be a corpse.’

‘Yeah, I smell it too,’ said Charlie. ‘But, it can’t be a dead person down here, can it, Jack?’

‘Well, somebody could’ve beaten us to this cave, couldn’t they? Hope it’s not Andy’s girlfriend. She disappeared in here somewhere.’

‘It’s human,’ said Ben. ‘I know.’

‘Why do you always think you know everything when you don’t? You wouldn’t even know what a dead human smells like.’

‘I’m not talking about dead ones,’ said Ben. ‘The human could be alive, couldn’t he?’

Charlie burst out laughing. ‘Oh, Ben, trust you. Must be all those beans and egg sandwiches we had. You know what that smells like.’

That revelation made Jack annoyed. ‘You! Get out of the way!’ He grabbed hold of some rock protrusions on the wall, put his feet in some empty spaces, and managed to climb a few steps up. ‘I won’t go all the way. I will try to get a bit further, but have to be careful. No use having an accident, or break a leg, in here, and be left to rot for a thousand years, which makes me think that if we find more bones, they could be mum’s and Jerry’s. Nobody knows how far they ended up when they were here. Anything could’ve happened.’

Ben was shocked. The thought had never entered his mind. What if they stumbled upon their parents’ remains.

‘At least you had a dad,’ said Jack. ‘I only had Jerry.’

‘But he was your dad too,’ said Ben.

‘Jerry was definitely our dad too,’ said Charlie. ‘Don’t worry about that!’

‘Whatever!’ said Jack, and worked himself upwards, grunting and carrying on.

Ben flopped at the bottom. While he waited, he pointed the torch on the rocks, and in between the small crevices. An odd-looking white stone stood out between the more duller ones. It shone like polished marble. He wanted it badly and went up on his knees to muck around with it. He fiddled some more, and before he knew it, he had jerked it loose. It dropped on the floor with a thud, and was immediately followed by a squeaky, crunching sound, which reverberated through the tunnel.

Charlie turned around fast. ‘What’s that?’

At the same time, Jack lost his footing, and tumbled down like a sack of potatoes.

‘Ouch, what happened? What happened to the wall? Why did the whole thing move?’

‘I-I just touched it,’ said Ben. ‘And then it opened down here. See that!’

‘Everything’s weird in this place,’ said Charlie. ‘I’m-I’m not staying. We have to leave this place now. The sooner, the better.’

Jack brushed himself off before sweeping Ben to the side in one swift moment. ‘Let’s have a look!’ He peered through the opening. ‘Okay, so this is just another way of getting out. But it looks different here … not like where we entered the cave in the first place. Has the weather changed or something? Maybe it’s a storm brewing, and the light, it’s some kind of … light? Not like daylight … it’s more like nothing I’ve seen before. Hey, it could almost be night when the moon’s full, or maybe the tail of a cyclone. It’s strange – it’s like dusk or dawn, or maybe like a rainy day with lots of thunder and lightning. And sand, heaps of sand. Come to think of it, that sky isn’t like a sky … if you know what I mean.’

‘No, we don’t know what you mean. Your voice sounds muddled,’ said Charlie. ‘Why don’t you crawl through? We’ll follow you. I’ve had enough. I want out of here.’

Jack went through, followed by Ben and the backpacks. Charlie was last. She hesitated to put her fingers anywhere. ‘Oh, no, my nails will break.’

Jack shook his head and pulled her through by the hands.

All three stood in the open with a few large boulders further to one side, and plain beach sand in front as far as their eyes could see. The area, which had no plant life, also seemed devoid of wind and sound.

‘If I didn’t know better, I’d say we’re on the moon. This is not where we entered the cave, and not like the Nullarbor, not by a long shot.’ Jack looked at his watch. ‘And it can’t be evening already. Strange, I can’t even see the smallest tree, no bushes, no nothing, only some limestone rocks over to the right, and all that sand. Where IS this?’

‘And what about the light?’ said Charlie. ‘Has the weather changed this much?’

‘No,’ said Ben. ‘It’s not the weather. Can’t you see that we’re under the Nullarbor?’

‘What did you just say?’ said Jack.

‘It makes sense. We went down, and down, through the tunnel on that walkway, so we must be … under,’ said Ben.

‘It’s almost light here,’ said Charlie. ‘If we’re underground in a cave, where does it come from? It was so much darker where we first entered.’

‘I don’t understand it,’ said Jack. ‘How can we be under the Nullarbor? It’s just not possible. This isn’t a cave. We can all see that it’s much bigger than a cave. We’re out in the open, but I’ve got to admit that it’s a strange sort of glow. I don’t exactly know where this is. Hmm, it’s weird alright!’

Ben looked back and forth. ‘I don’t like this place. It’s like somebody’s watching us.’

Jack laughed, shaking his head. ‘Have you seen anybody around? No, Bugs, we came through an empty cave, almost totally unexplored, if you ask me. Ah, well, you said you saw a shape or something, which might have been an enormous shadow of your incredible imagination. I don’t know what this is, but there’s not a soul around. Okay, see those small rocks over there? We’ll sit down there and take a break. Then we’ll head back inside and wait for the others.’

As they were to leave for the rocks to have a break, Jack turned around. ‘We’ll have to make sure we know where we came out first.’

Charlie pointed. ‘Somewhere around there.’

Jack went the few steps back, and bent down to search. ‘You’re right, we did get out right here, but there’s nothing, no hole, no opening at all. Not even the smallest one that I can see. Hey, what’s that?’ He picked up something from the ground. ‘Lip balm?’

‘And it looks like some sort of nest under there,’ said Ben. ‘I think I can see something black. What? It looks like a hair brush.’

‘It says ‘CHERRY’ on the lip balm,’ said Charlie.

‘Do you think it could be mum’s? In the notebook, she wrote …’ said Ben.

‘She always bought cherry flavour,’ said Charlie.

‘But, in the note she said she was going to put stuff where the entry was,’ said Ben.
‘This is the wrong side. I bet it’s some kind of wormhole.’

‘You know what this is?’ said Jack. ‘Must be some sort of animal finding stuff to hide in its nest. There’s a bird, which does the same. Remember? The bower bird? It collects small pieces of blue stuff. Hey, what’s with you now, Bugs?’

‘Somebody is watching us,’ whispered Ben, while his eyes spun wildly from side to side.

‘Don’t be such a wuss!’

‘I’m telling you. Somebody’s here.’

‘So, who is it then? Woo-ooh, is it the bogy man? Get real will you!’ Jack stood still for a moment thinking about what to do next when a sudden movement made him jump.

‘What the …?’ he burst out.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

© Copyright by Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

Chapter 6 – Down and Under

Ben woke at sunrise and stretched lazily before he turned his head. The fire was dead, and millions of insects were on the move. He felt itchy instantly.

Jack yawned, while crawling out of his sleeping bag. ‘So why didn’t you look after it?’

‘Do you want the good news, or the bad news first?’ said Ben.

Jack was in the foulest mood, and not in the least interested. ‘I knew I couldn’t trust you to do one simple thing. Just one simple thing.’

‘How was I supposed to do that? I slept the same as you. Why wouldn’t I?’

Jack sneered at Ben. ‘I shouldn’t have brought you here. You’re as useless as a dunny rat.’

‘Shut up and let me sleep,’ grumbled Charlie.

Jack pulled down the piece covering her face. ‘Get up!’


After a simple breakfast of seeds and nuts, Jack was the first to look down. ‘I don’t know. It’s kind of deep. Maybe we should wait for grandpa.’

‘So, does that mean we can’t go down there?’ said Ben, hoping for something incredible, and against all odds.

‘Nah, on second thoughts, it should be okay. We’ve got the rope. I can pull us up if needed. But you’ve got to admit that it looks a bit spooky. Are you sure you want to come with us, Bug Byte?’

‘I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I’m coming. I’m not staying up here out in nowhere by myself. And the fact is you need me.’

Jack laughed. ‘Whatever do we need you for? What do you think you can do that I can’t?’ He reached for a length of rope and tied a loop around the tow bar on the car, parked not too far from the opening. ‘I didn’t bring my own climbing gear, but we can still manage. Before we came, I thought we could more or less walk into the cave. Didn’t Andy tell grandpa it was nothing to it? Okay, this should hold our weights. We’ll do it one at a time. You’re first Charlie. I’ll hold on to it from this end. Have you done any abseiling lately?’

‘What? No way, I’m going down there first. We don’t even know what’s in there. And I can’t do it with my nails. They’ll get torn. That’s all I need. I’ve grown them for so long. I need them for Saturday.’

‘Whatever do you need them for? Stop worrying about nails. That’s the least of our worries.’ Jack looked over to Ben. ‘Okay, you’ll have to go first then.’

‘Me? But-but … I … hey, why don’t you do it first? You could show us how to do it.’

‘What’s this? Chicken are we? Still at kindy, Bugs? No? So, why play kiddie stuff then? Before we left you were both so tough. No way, you were going to miss this. I knew it! I should’ve gone by myself.’

‘You could’ve, if you didn’t need us,’ said Ben.

‘Huh! I’ll go first then, but I might slide down, and break a leg, and then we can’t get out of here. None of you’s can drive. It’s not that high. I’d say close to less than three meters to the bottom.’

‘Okay, okay, I’ll go,’ said Charlie. ‘But you’ve got to pull me up as soon as I tell you, straight up, and no mucking around. Are you sure you can do that? Did you bring gloves?’

Jack laughed. ‘Nah, I didn’t think we were going to a colder climate. Did you bring beanies and scarves? Well, you have your scarf on, but it’s not going to be cold inside the cave. Okay, I’ll let the backpacks down when you’re in. You know, Charlie, we’ve done all this before when we went caving with mum and Jerry. Put on your headlamp first and you’ll be fine!’

Jack tied the rope around her waist and showed how she had to hold onto the rope when finding her way down. When ready, he started to lower her over the edge, while she anxiously looked down.

An unexpected cacophony of eerie peeps came from below. A big black cloud of flapping engulfed her.

She screamed.

‘Shut up!’ called Jack, as the myriad of wings swept over the top. ‘They’re birds! Just tiny little birds!’

Ben, on his stomach close to the opening, was not so sure. He kept his face hidden and fought with flailing arms to get rid of the last flapping horrors.

‘No, they’re blood suckers. I saw them. That’s what they are!’ Ben was adamant.

‘C’mon, they’re not bats! They’re swallows, or maybe sparrows, and totally harmless,’ said Jack. ‘I saw them.’

Charlie had her face bent to the side to let the last of the living horrors soar up and out.

‘Okay, okay, I can do this,’ she said. ‘Nothing to it, but for your information: They were bats! I was closest and I definitely saw them too. Their wings were wide like bat wings. Whatever, but I’m glad they’re gone. She tried to reassure herself, but failed. ‘I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to go now.’

‘Yes, you do,’ said Jack. ‘Just move it. You know, it doesn’t really look like a genuine sinkhole. You can use the limestone rock wall, and pretend you’re getting down a ladder.’

Charlie stared down the hole, but didn’t move.

Jack sighed. ‘Time for action. Get a move on!’

‘Okay, okay, but you must pull me up as soon as I tell you.’

She continued, with feeling around with her feet, searching for natural indents and outcrops, while trying to distinguish what was there at the bottom.

She missed a step. ‘Hey, don’t do that!’

‘What? Didn’t do anything,’ said Jack.

‘I think you did, but stop whatever it was.’ One of her feet circled around trying to find a new spot. She found one, and made it all the way to a naturally made platform. With her headlamp on, and torch in her hand, she peered through the darkness.

‘I’m okay, guys. You can let the backpacks down. Just throw them.’

‘Can you see anything unusual down there?’ called Jack. ‘Any snakes?’

‘What! Snakes!? I forgot about snakes. D-do you really think there are snakes here?’

‘Could be, I suppose. Just stay where you are, and don’t walk off on your own. Watch out for the gear!’

Jack let the first two backpacks fall, one after the other. When the third hit the ground, there was a sound, as if something broke. ‘Hey, Charlie, what was that?’

From the bottom, they heard her calling up. ‘I don’t know what, but it sounded like glass to me.’

A shrill sound rang through the chamber.

Ben felt uncomfortable. He already knew it must have been the alarm clock.

Jack looked at him. ‘Okay, so out with it, Bug Byte. What did you take with you? Did you really bring an alarm clock? Was it grandpa’s old one with the glass face? Don’t you know we’’re bound to wake up as soon as the sun pops up? That’s how it works in the bush. No blinds here mate. I hope you haven’t packed any other useless stuff.’

‘But you and Charlie are like dead in the morning. I thought we should wake up early. What’s wrong with that?’

‘Your turn,’ said Jack, gruffly.

Ben felt nauseous. Why had he insisted on coming? He liked what he saw, but hated the actual part of entering a cave, and then staying. It was dark, it was dangerous, and it was too easy to imagine what it would be like to be entombed, never to see daylight again.

Jack pulled up the rope, and tied it hastily around Ben’s waist by pulling and shoving.

‘Go!’ he ordered.

Ben hesitated, but crawled awkwardly over the edge, while trying to find a spot to land his feet. He fumbled his way downwards, when all of a sudden, he hung kicking in mid-air.

‘Do something, Jack! I can’t reach!’

Jack started to sing. ‘Like a hot dog, flying for the very first time.’

Ben felt embarrassed, and tried his best to swerve to the side.

Jack laughed hysterically. ‘Just swivel some more, and that should do it. Hey, you could join a circus … ha … ha … ha … They might pay you peanuts, but you could get famous. The great Benny Bug Byte – the living snagger pendulum. Or, maybe you want to be a cannon ball shot from a cannon. How’s that for fun?’

‘I HEARD YOU! From all the way down here. You’re the meanest of the mean, Jack. Is it so hard to be like a normal brother? You are his brother after all.’

Jack snorted. ‘Brother? I thought I was his full-time baby-sitter.’

‘Ben, try to move to the side,’ called Charlie. ‘There’s a small outcrop there. A bit more should do it.’

Ben tried to hit the right spot, but his feet trashed the air without finding new footholds. He was close to tears, but there was no way he was giving up, even if he wanted to. Abseiling into a black hole was definitely not the same as hanging on a rope from a tree in your garden. He searched the dimness below, and found he was more than half-way. Facing the wall, he tried a weak smile, more for his own benefit than anybody else’s.

He managed okay, by finding new spots, and descended further to where Charlie stood waiting.

She gave him a hug. ‘Good on you, mate. I knew you could do it.’

Now it was Jack’s turn. He was supposed to be the expert. Everything seemed to be going fine until he came crashing through the air, while still holding onto a piece of rope. He ended up on his back, motionless, with eyes closed.

Ben looked at Charlie and then back at Jack’s lifeless body.

‘Are-are you okay?’ said Ben with a quiver in his voice.

Jack looked up. ‘Yeah, I’m fine, no thanks to you.’ He stood up and brushed the dirt off his pants. Then he saw the frayed ends of the rope, which had snapped. ‘Obviously not Australian made.’

At that moment, Jack realised it would be impossible to get back up, and out of the cave. He also knew it was not the right time to let the others know. Charlie’s fragile mind worried him the most. He knew she would easily became hysterical, and he certainly didn’t want to deal with Ben’s paranoia.

Charlie stood against the wall with her eyes closed.

‘Don’t worry, Charlie!’ said Ben. ‘I know we’ll get out of here somehow. Trust me. I’ve got a feeling …’

‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,’ said Jack. ‘You could never get us out of here whatever plans you come up with. Oh, no, not you Bug Byte, but when grandpa and Andy roll up, they’ll know what to do. They’ve got all the gear for it. And if they won’t show, we’ll have to live down here.’

Ben glanced at him.

‘Yeah, that’s right. And don’t you start crying!’

‘I’m not,’ said Ben, and turned away.

‘Well, it was close, wasn’t it? So, they might be here by tomorrow, if we’re lucky. We don’t have our sleeping bags with us, but it’s not that cold. Okay, let’s think now. We’ve got enough food, and we’ve also got our water bottles. If we’re desperate for more, there’s supposed to be a pond in here somewhere. I think that was in mum’s note. Remember? Rainwater’s okay, but if it’s brackish, or salty, which is more than likely on the Nullarbor, we’re in great trouble. It’ll be the last thing you do if you drink that. In the meantime, let’s try and find the entrance, the one mum and Jerry went through. It’d be cool if we know where it is before grandpa gets here.’

‘What do we do with this?’ said Ben, pointing to the glass pieces.

‘We’ll put them over there and pick them up later. Never leave anything behind. Not even biodegradable stuff, which this, of course, isn’t. Okay, if we’re to do this right, we’ve got to stick close together. Nobody wanders off. Did you get that? By the way, I’m the oldest, so I’ll be the leader.’

‘I bet,’ said Charlie. ‘But if you’re the leader, you’ve got to get us out of here too. Just in case we’ve ended up in the wrong cave and they won’t show. Can you promise to get us out of here, Jack, can you?’

‘No, can’t do. Have you thought about that this might be our grave site? A few thousand years from now, somebody might stumble on our calcified bones and put us in a museum.’

‘Don’t talk like that!’ said Charlie. ‘You know I hate it.’

Ben chuckled nervously. ‘I’m not going to be a museum piece. Must be some way of getting out. It’s just a matter of finding it.’

‘And you think YOU can?’ said Jack. ‘Huh? What planet are you on?’

‘Maybe not the same as you,’ said Ben.

Jack sneered. ‘Nah, didn’t think so.’ He pointed his torch into the monstrous cave belly. ‘I think we should do a bit of exploring, but first we’ve got to get past those old rock falls over there. Don’t you reckon it’s kind of mind boggling? I mean, those stones could have ended up here millions of years ago?’

‘Or, they could’ve come down here with some rain, maybe recently,’ said Ben, staring into the darkness. ‘Either way, they’re still old like most stones. I’ve thought about something. How do we know this is the right cave? Grandpa might never find us.’

‘No, that’s right. He might not,’ said Jack.

‘You’re not helping,’ said Charlie with tears welling up in her eyes. ‘We might’ve done something wrong coming here on our own. We should’ve talked to him.’ She sniffled and had to search her pocket for a tissue to blow her nose. ‘What about if he’s had a heart attack or something? What if he threw away the note before reading it? Then nobody knows we’re down here. I think we should get out now. Before it’s too late.’

Jack shrugged. ‘Get a grip, Charlie! It’s too late already. C’mon, we’ve got to explore more than this.’

Charlie tried to act calmly, but snivelled on. ‘I’m serious, Jack. I don’t know if I want to. It’s just too dark in here. We need to call grandpa.’

‘What? I know we have a satellite phone, but from what I’ve heard they don’t work underground. Not our mobiles either. Hey, come on, you get used to it! Right now it’s nothing else we can do. We might as well move on. Or, what do you say, Bug Byte? Too scared?’

Ben shook his head. ‘Okay, I’ll go with you, but if I see something weird, I’m heading back here to wait for them.’

‘Don’t worry! In that case I’ll come with you,’ said Charlie.

Jack took a few steps on the pathway leading further down into the dark hole. The others followed with lit torches, admiring the fantastic rock formations on the way.

‘The ones hanging down are stalactites and the ones pointing up are stalagmites, in case you don’t know,’ said Jack.

‘I knew that,’ said Charlie.

‘Me too,’ said Ben, shining his torch high up to see the wonders of nature better.

The path led down into another large chamber.

‘Wow! Such a high ceiling here too!’ said Jack. ‘Look at all the things here and learn … you’ve got the smallest straws over there, huge pillars in the middle … Oh, and look at the wide shawls hanging down. Even pendulums and columns. Well, I think this cave’s got everything anyone could wish for.’

‘That shawl over there is like a waterfall, but with no water, of course,’ said Ben. He had forgotten the seriousness of the situation they were in. Even if only temporarily.

‘Amazing,’ said Charlie, dreamily. It had slipped her mind where she was for one moment.

At the far back, a rock overhang had needle-like formations rising like straws from the top. Once upon a time roaring water masses had formed the strangest limestone figures on the slanting walls, while complex deposits had formed rim stone pools at the bottom. A small puddle shone like a mirror in the subdued light.

Jack swept his torch around. ‘Hey, look at that! Have you ever seen anything like this? It’s a typical example of a cave, which could be transformed into something for tourists if electric lights and proper steps were installed. I know that won’t happen. It’s too remote here. Nobody would come. Oh, boy, I can’t wait to explore this place.’

‘Me too.’ Ben tried to sound excited, but secretly wished he was back out in the open to take part of the sunshine.

Jack was optimistic. ‘Listen here now! It’s got to be a systematic search. You take the wall right there with that other fancy-looking shawl, Bug Byte, if you’re not too scared to duck behind it. I mean the huge one over there. You, Charlie, go to the right. And look behind all those stalactites. Oh, yeah, behind the bigger stalagmites too. You never know what’s hiding there. We can’t leave any options behind. They said in the note they were going through some sort of passage. Must be a tunnel somewhere. I’ll do the left side. You already have your headlamps on. They’re pretty strong and should lighten up wherever you look. And you have your hand torches.’

‘I’m all for it, Jack. I’ll go on my own to the right then,’ said Ben.

‘No, you’re in the middle, Bugs. I said ‘right there’, not to the right. Listen carefully next time!’

‘Okay, okay, he goes in the middle, I’m to the right and you’re on the left. Just don’t make it so complicated,’ said Charlie.

‘You’ve got to follow instructions. We can’t have any misunderstandings. It could mean life or death. Cave exploring is serious business. Okay, so we begin in this chamber and then we’ll start on any tunnels branching off. You’ve got to look in every corner and turn every stone. You know what I mean. If there’s any form of entrance into something else, it must be here somewhere. And if you find something, which you think belonged to mum, call out, so we can all hear. Nobody goes off into another tunnel without telling. And don’t crawl into any confined spaces. If we have to do that, we’ll do it together when the others roll up. Basically, we just want to find out what’s here. Okay, let’s get going!’

They searched every nook, every cranny and around even the smallest outcrops. There was nothing, except for a few animal bones and a broken off stalagmite.

‘Can we have some lunch now? I’m starving. For the first time in my life, I could eat a calf,’ said Ben.

‘You mean a cow?’ said Jack.

‘No, I can only eat a calf, but I know you could eat a cow,’ said Ben.

‘Being funny are we, Bugs? Have you got the sandwiches from yesterday, Charlie? I mean the ones with the sweating cheese and wilted lettuce. Yum,’ said Jack. He looked at his watch under the torch light. ‘It’s strange, but when you’re in a dark cave, you forget about time. That’s why I forgot about food. Well, since breakfast anyway.’

‘A bit unusual,’ said Charlie.

Ben placed his torch on a rock shelf, pointing out to lighten up the opposite wall. ‘Looks almost like an ancient rock painting with all those scribbles.’

‘I think it looks almost like roots coming through from above,’ said Charlie.

Just as Ben took his first bite, he saw something out of the corner of his eye. ‘What was that? Did anyone see? Was it a rat?’

Charlie flew up, screaming her head off, while running on the spot, not prepared to leave her feet on the ground for longer than necessary. ‘I hate rats. If it’s rats here, I’m not staying.’

‘It can’t be a rat,’ said Jack. ‘Okay, maybe a type of kangaroo rat. It could’ve fallen down somewhere.’

‘Could have been a potoroo,’ said Ben.

‘No way, they’re way over east! I would like to know how it got here in that case. Whatever it was, it could be some sort of connection point to the outside. But I know it wasn’t a potoroo. Maybe a quoll.’

‘Whatever!’ Ben had given up. Jack always thought he knew best, but Ben knew that quolls were not usually found on the Nullarbor. He took his drink and was about to walk off eating his sandwich.

‘We don’t know where it went,’ said Charlie, whimpering.

‘You see where it went?’ Jack had turned to Ben.

‘In there. Under that rock. I think.’ Ben pointed.

Jack bent down. ‘I can’t see anything, not even a hole there. I think we can forget about the rat.’

They walked around exploring with sandwiches and drinks in their hands, but there was no trace of any tunnel or passageway.

‘I want to do another search,’ said Jack, after lunch.

‘For the rat?’ said Charlie.

‘Duh! No, for the way mum and Jerry went, of course. I think if we stay in the main chamber right here, there’s no way we can get lost. Seems like no tunnels are branching off.’

Charlie had already gone one way with her torch.

Jack went the other.

Ben was bored, but wary of the dark. He stayed where he was. For some reason his LED headlamp had malfunctioned, and he only had his hand torch on. ‘Come on, Jack, there’s nothing here! Let’s go back! There’s more light at the cave opening. We can climb up. I know we can. We haven’t even tried yet. When are you going to give up? I want to leave this black conundrum.’

‘Conundrum?’ called Jack. ‘Is that what you said? You don’t even know the meaning of the word.

‘It’s a puzzle for your information,’ Ben called back as he studied the wall by walking back and forth.

‘Well, whatever it is, it’s a strange word for you. Anyway, I saw something over here, up on this wall. I’m taking a look. It could be a hole, unless it’s just a shadow, but I want to check it out, if I can get up there.’ Jack started by climbing up on the protrusions lining the wall.

‘Guys, this wall here looks like it’s been cut through somehow,’ said Ben. ‘Looks like the stones have been moved. Doesn’t look entirely normal for all I know.’

Charlie had her light towards Ben and saw how his fingers ran across the stones behind the veil of roots. She turned her torch away to find out what Jack was up to. He had made small progress. Then back to the other side where Ben stood with his back close to the wall. She had no idea why he didn’t move. She flicked her torch light back on Jack, and watched as he gripped onto a ledge. He was getting closer to the area where there seemed to be a hole. Quickly, she moved her light in Ben’s direction.

The wall was there, but nothing else.

‘BEN! Where are you?’

She called his name again.

No one answered.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

The Nullarbor Plain’s ancient forests revealed

Potoroo

Quoll

© Copyright by Lena Nilsson. All rights reserved.

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