A scraping noise behind him drew his attention. In the dim light, he could see a skeletally thin apparition approaching him from down the tunnel. He froze, startled by the otherworldliness of the figure, bathed in the greenish fungal glow like some netherworld phantom. But as it approached, he recognized the gnarled and bony countenance. Sin'jari, the creature who had so stubbornly insisted on their deaths.
As the tribe's elder closed the space between them, Ben noticed the two brutish guards following Sin'jari. Buttugly fellows. Where most of the mimi'swee were small and sinewy, these two looked like scarred bulldogs, hunched and menacing. Sin'jari stepped before Ben, raising his staff to block the way forward, then barked something angrily to his flanking guards.
The two burly creatures advanced toward him.
Though physically drained, Ashley still found sleep escaping her. Her head pounded and a bruise on her hip throbbed. She found herself recalling Ben's arms as he held her, the scent of his hair, his fingers on her back and neck. She had gone too far the night before, in a moment of horrible weakness, and misled him badly as to her true feelings. She clutched the blanket around her shoulders, afraid of an even more frightening reality. Had she really misled him?
She glanced at the glowing dial of her watch. Two hours until the clock began ticking toward her death sentence. Too many worries battled within her, bottled up in her chest: What had happened to Jason? And Linda too, for that matter? What about Ben? Would he die trying to save her? Could he save her? And worst of all, if he should fail, would she then die never knowing what had happened to her son?
She clutched the blanket to her face, her tears finally overwhelming her control. Time was running out.
Ben took a step back from the lumbering creatures, who now leered at him in a threatening way. They were unarmed, but somehow Ben knew this was small comfort. He backed another step, debating what to do. He could try making a dash, but they would be at him like dingos on a wallaby. He'd best take his chances where he stood.
"Okay, you bastards," he grumbled, more to center himself than to intimidate his combatants. "Let's see how bloody easily those long necks of yours break."
Ben dug a heel into a rut in the floor to gain some leverage for a punch. He was readying himself when something suddenly grabbed his shoulder from behind. Wound tight, he instinctively swung a roundhouse blow toward the unseen attacker. He halted his punch just in time.
It was Mo'amba.
The old man released Ben's shoulder, staring for just a heartbeat at Ben's upraised fist. Mo'amba then glanced away to stare down the two guards, who were frozen where they stood. He barked something that made the pet dogs of Sin'jari bow their heads and slink back.
Their master, though, stood his ground, his staff still raised across the passage, barring the way forward. Sin'jari hissed something at Mo'amba. The old man merely shrugged, which caused Sin'jari to rattle his staff and quiver with rage.
Mo'amba tapped Ben on the shoulder and indicated he should follow. Acting as a guide, Mo'amba led the way back, away from Sin'jari. But the elder's howls echoed behind them as Ben followed Mo'amba.
After much twisting and turning, Ben found himself back in a familiar chamber. He glanced with a sigh at the red gourd-shaped mushrooms hanging from the pillars. Why do I always end up here?
As he followed Mo'amba deeper into the chamber, weaving among the mushrooms, he noticed something strange about the pillars of stone. The first time through here, with Ashley, he had been so fixated on the red fungal pods that he had assumed the pillars were just natural rocky colonnades, but now on closer inspection, he realized he was wrong. He traced a finger down the coarse, grooved surface of one of the pillars. Bloody hell, it was a petrified tree trunk. He glanced around him, his mouth agape. The whole chamber contained a grove of petrified trees.
A grunt of impatience drew his attention back to Mo'amba. He waved for Ben to sit at the edge of the circle of painted glyphs. Ben found a comfortable spot on the rocky floor, and the old man slowly sat across from him. Once settled, Ben knew what Mo'amba wanted. He closed his eyes and let his body relax, starting at his toes and working up from there. Still, his mind spun with so many thoughts and worries, he could not focus. He tried again to relax, but stray concerns kept him edgy.
Just before he was about to give up, a calming sense of tranquillity washed over him. He knew it was some sort of sending from Mo'amba and allowed the sense of peace to quiet his worried thoughts.
The blackness behind his eyelids blossomed into full color. Again, for just a moment, the image of his dead grandfather was superimposed over Mo'amba's face. The familiar visage further calmed his heart, like a favorite old song heard in the background.
Mo'amba's image solidified. "You must be more careful, Ben," he admonished. "Wandering alone in the village. There are still factions here that would see you fail or wish you dead. Sin'jari is not one to give up easily."
"How'd you know I was in trouble anyway?"
"It's the job of a heri'huti. To see what no one else sees."
"Thanks. I owe you. I was about to get my butt kicked."
"No. You were about to be killed. Those two are part of Sin'jari's clan. They are silaris, the poisoned ones."
A shiver passed through Ben, disturbing his mental connection like a pebble dropped in a still pond. "What about Ashley? When I leave tomorrow, will she be safe?"
"Yes. She is guarded by Tru'gula's men. He'll protect her. No one, not even Sin'jari, will bother his circle."
"Are you sure?"
"I'll watch over her myself. Trust us. We will guard your mate until you return."
"She's not my… oh, never mind, I don't even know what she is. Please… just keep her safe until I'm back. And I will be back."
"You will fail, Ben."
Ben, stunned, was sure he must have heard wrong. "What?"
"I can see down narrow paths of time. If you go as you are now, you'll fail."
"What does that mean?"
"You are heri'huti, but you don't believe it here." Mo'amba pointed to his naked chest. "You must accept your heritage or you and many others will perish."
"But I don't see how-"
Mo'amba's image swirled into the image of his dead grandfather. "Your mind's eye chose this memory to represent me when first I called you. Yet you rejected your grandfather's heritage. It shamed you. For you to succeed, you must learn to embrace your blood, cherish its memory as much as you cherish this image. Only then will you have a chance."
"How am I to succeed, then?"
The old man held both fists to his chest. "Listen to your blood."
"But what do you mean by-" The images dissolved away, leaving Ben in blackness. Only the words echoed back to him: Listen to your blood.
He blinked his eyes and stared at the mute figure of Mo'amba, so many questions still on his tongue. But Mo'amba pulled himself up with his staff.
"Wait!" Ben crossed to Mo'amba. "I need to know what you meant."
"Y-you," he garbled at Ben gutturally, "you sleep." He turned his back on Ben, obviously believing he had said enough.
Sleep? Ben wondered. Like that's bloody likely.
Ashley woke with a start, surprised she had fallen into real sleep. A female member of the tribe bowed her way into her chamber, laden with clattering platters of colorful fruit and some type of steaming meat. She shuffled to a flat stone about knee-high and spread out the meal.
Ashley's heart sank as she realized where she was. She wanted to retreat back to her dreamland. She had dreamt that she was back in her tiny trailer in the New Mexico desert. Jason and Ben were playing catch in the dusty yard, their feet trampling her feeble attempt at growing a succulent garden. She should have known it was a dream because all her garden grew were those weird red mushroom pods. The oddest part, though, was how easily she accepted Ben in a fathering light. She glanced at her belly. Ben as a father?
A gentle snoring drew her attention to the mound of pillows beside her. She sat up straighter as she recognized the tangle of blond hair peeking from under the blanket nearby. Ben! What was he doing here?
As she reached to nudge him, his snoring tumbled on a loud snort. He jerked awake, startling her. He rubbed at his eyes. "What time is it?"
She ignored his question. "How did you get past the guards?"
He pushed up on an elbow, his eyes bloodshot and a rusty stubble on his cheeks. "Even down here, it's who you know. Mo'amba bullied the guards into letting me pass. I just needed to know you were okay."
"Why didn't you wake me?"
"And ruin your beauty sleep? Not a chance!" Ben crinkled up his nose. "What's that smell?"
The sizzling meat on the platter had filled the cavern with smells that tantalized the tongue. Her stomach growled in anticipation. "Breakfast," she said hungrily.
He sat up in his pillows, finally noticing the naked server. "Not exactly a modest group, are they?" Ben slipped out of his covers and, with his back shyly turned to the server, slipped into his trousers.
Ashley also used the moment to get dressed.
Both of them descended on the meal like locusts. Finally, Ashley pushed her stone platter away from her. "Phew, I think I've had enough. For a last supper that wasn't too bad."
Her words seemed to have a devastating effect on Ben. "This won't be your last meal, Ash. I promise you. We are getting out of here!"
She smiled at him, realizing he had misinterpreted her words. "I meant this was your last supper here before you left. Not mine."
"Oh." Ben's face was sullen.
She laughed at his serious expression.
"I just thought-"
"I know." She took a deep breath, sobering herself. She reached a hand out and took his fingers in hers. "I know, Ben. It's sweet."
"Sweet?" Her word seemed to wound him. He glanced at her fingers entwined in his. He spoke without raising his eyes. "Ash, you've got to know how I feel about you. I want to be more than something sweet."