Last time we saw BEN… (click for recap)
Ben comes to his senses not knowing who he is in the middle of the Burning of West Six. As chaos and death reign around him, two figures emerge who seem to know him—Peter and Cassandra. Realizing Ben has been Burned, Cassandra flees to save herself, only to be Burned. Peter gets Ben out of West Six and back to the farm where they discover a burning transport. Mica and Aaron are gone, and Peter believes they are dead. Peter takes Ben to a hidden shelter under the barn with a strange device, a Blind capable of keeping Watchers out of their minds. As Peter tells Ben who he is, Ben believes him, although he still cannot remember who he really is…
Peter awoke the next morning with a fever, and his wound had turned red and swollen overnight. He lay on the cot for the next two days waiting for his fever to go down and for the infection to heal. They passed the time with eating and talking and silence. The talking was mostly Peter telling Ben stories about the Aldermans, while Ben listened for something, anything, to trigger his memories.
At the end of their third day under the barn, Peter’s fever broke. All of the little yellow pills he had been popping finally started helping. Peter slept deeply that night while Ben lay awake, still struggling to remember. He lay awake, staring at the photo of him and the people Peter called his family by the blue light of the Blind.
The next morning, Peter stretched and ate from their dwindling store of food. They were down to stale crackers, jerky, and a few jugs of water.
“I’m going hunting,” Peter said between bites of jerky.
“I don’t think you’re well enough,” Ben said. “I can go.”
“I’m fine. Besides, do you remember how to hunt?”
“I’m not the one who’s sick and shot.”
Peter waved him off. “I’ve had worse. Stay here this time,” he said and pointed an accusing stick of jerky at him. “Don’t go anywhere, hear me?”
“We’ve been here for three days: I want to get outside,” Ben said.
“I mean it. Soldiers do sweeps in case they missed anyone. Sometimes they come back and loot the place. It’s not safe yet.”
“And we will get out of here. Promise. And when we do, we’re getting out of this country forever.” But Peter’s eyes grew misty and fluttered with the threat of sadness, and Ben knew that he was thinking of the young women he couldn’t save: Anda, Mica, and Cassandra. A twinge of guilt shot through Ben. He knew that he should be sorry they were dead, but without any memories of them, they were only faces.
“Can’t I at least come hunting with you?” Ben asked.
“I can’t hunt if I’m trying to keep an eye on you. You’ll probably get lost or fall down a well or something. Besides, aren’t you sick of this yet?” he asked and eyed the jerky in his hand.
He was. As filling as the dried meat was, Ben was growing tired of it and crackers. “Fine. But when you get back, I am getting out of here for a while. I need some air.”
“We’ll see,” was all Peter said. With that, he eased on his gray jacket, wincing as his side stretched, and climbed up the ladder. He eased the trap door open, and pale morning light and fresh air filled up the little room.
“Back in a few hours,” Peter said as he climbed out and closed the door, shutting out the light.
Ben paced for a while. Tired of trying to remember, he picked up the deck of cards and tried to play the solitary game that Peter had shown him the day before. He soon stopped as he kept forgetting the rules. Eventually, he sat down and stared at the Blind. It’s light shifted and shimmered greenish-blue. He sat quietly, turning the lighter over and over in his hand, running his thumb over the smooth metal and the scrolled flowers on the side. Sleep started to flit across his eyes, and soon he settled down onto the cot and dozed off.
Ben opened his eyes, instantly wide awake. His heart raced, and he didn’t know why. Something had startled him out of his dark and empty dreams and had started his heart pumping.
For a moment, he wondered where he was, but then the few memories he had flooded back to him. The quietness screamed in his ears. He strained in the silence to understand his unease.
Shuffling above him. Maybe it was a mouse or a rabbit?
The sound continued around the barn above him. It came to rest on the trap door.
Maybe Peter was back and just being cautious? But Ben dismissed that idea when the presence above him did not move. It remained still, next to the trap door.
Ben’s blood surged when he made out the sound of old and wheezing gasps. His hair stood on end. Definitely not Peter. He wondered if it was a soldier or one of the spies, the Watchers, that Peter had warned him about. Ben looked around for a weapon. The best he could find was his crutch leaning against the wall. He eased himself up and slowly reached to grab it.
A burst of light flooded the dark room as the trap door flew open. Dirt and hay tumbled down from the brightness, and Ben lunged for his crutch. He fell off the cot and scrambled around, pointing the crutch like a weapon.
From where he sat on the ground, he could only see dirty leather boots in the patch of light above him.
For a moment, everything was still. Ben tried to decide if he should get closer to the trap door, or slink back into the shadows and make this stranger come down the ladder. He decided to move back and let the fight come to him. He might get in a few good hits as the stranger climbed down. He stood, balancing on one leg so he could use his crutch as a weapon, as the newcomer lowered himself to his belly and peered down into the little room.
The stranger was an old man, and he looked right at Ben and smiled. The smile was missing more than a few teeth and fringed with a dirty beard. Long, dingy hair fell around his face and shoulders.
“Eli!” the stranger said. “You’re back! Good, good, good. I was going to go looking for you, but I’m glad I don’t have to. Too much travel. These old bones won’t take it much longer.”
Ben examined the face above him. The lines on the man’s face were lighter where dirt and grime had not yet settled, and his light brown eyes, almost gold, shown bright and very clear.
“Don’t recognize me? I know it’s been a few years. I’ve gotten older—and you’ve gotten younger, ha! Funny how it works, isn’t it? But—no?”
“I don’t… I don’t know you,” Ben said.
The man’s face fell. “Eli? Don’t you remember me? Don’t you… it’s your old friend… we were friends, weren’t we? In the Rebellion and the Burning of Windrose City? I thought you’d made it out of the country. Down south?”
“I’m sorry… who are you?”
“No, don’t remember me? Oh… you’re not him, are you? You’re not Eli.”
Ben shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“Well… shit,” the old man said almost to himself. “Ah, well, at least you have a Blind. A weak one, hardly strong enough to stop a Watcher, definitely won’t stop anything else, but it’s a start. Do you even know how to work that thing? I bet you don’t even know how it works. Just found it and turned it on! Figured out it was good to keep the Watchers away, even if you don’t know how to work the damn thing.”
“Who are you?” Ben demanded, disconcerted that the man could tell that he had a Blind in the shelter. The Blind blinked and glowed blue-green in the far back corner, far away from the ladder.
“May I come down? Or would you like to come up? Either is fine with me.”
“No, I… who are you?” Ben asked again.
The man opened his mouth, paused, thinking, and then said, “All right, I’ll come down. Yes, inside the Blind is better. Just in case. You never know, do you?”
“How did… I mean, how did you know….”
The old man maneuvered himself around and, with creaking and crackling joints, descended the ladder, and pulled the hatch shut. Ben wondered if this man was dangerous, like the soldiers who had Burned him, but he looked more like the thin and glassy-eyed villagers than the soldiers.
“That’s better now, isn’t it?” the man said when he was on the ground. When he stood to his full height, he was taller and thinner than Ben had expected. Despite the man’s dirty white hair, his hands were not the hands of an old man, and his back was straight. Ben guessed him to be about fifty.
“Don’t come any closer,” Ben said, brandishing his crutch and hopping.
The man held up his hands in defense. “I’m not here to hurt you. Promise.” Scars crossed his palms, light patches of blurred and stretched skin. The man stood there with his hands up, watching him, waiting for something.
The strange man closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Ben felt something odd, like someone poking the back of his mind.
The village. Screaming, burning, chaos.
Running to the farm.
The burning transport out back.
And then it was gone.
“You… you’ve seen him…” the man said.
Ben opened his eyes to find the old man staring at him as if he had just seen a ghost.
“What was that? How did you know about the Blind?” Ben asked, shaking the memories from his mind. “Who the hell are you?”
The man sighed. “I know about the Blind because I can feel it. And my name is Seth, son of Jonah. And if you’re not Eli, who the hell are you?”
Ben considered the man’s reply for a moment. “My name is Ben. And what do you mean, you can feel it?” he asked, wondering about that thin, filmy sensation he had felt when Peter first turned on the Blind. Was that what the man meant when he said he could feel it? Could Ben feel it too?
“Ah. Ben,” Seth said with a sigh like he was giving up. But then his face changed. It lit up, his eyes widened and his mouth opened into a huge smile. “Oh, I know you! I should have realized—I see it now. Yes, well, you have changed. Ten years is a long time. No wonder I didn’t recognize you. Well, Ben, it is a pleasure. Do you have anything to eat, Ben, son of Eli?”
Ben looked to their box of food. They didn’t have much left.
“I’m afraid I’ve been traveling for… more days than I’d like.”
While Ben was wary of giving away the last of their food, the man’s gaunt cheeks and sunken eyes made him pause. “Well, I don’t turn hungry people away,” he said. He lowered his crutch and handed Seth the box of food.
“Ah! Yes, that’s good. Very good. Thank you.” Seth sat down on the cot and began to stuff the last of the beef jerky and stale crackers into his mouth.
“I haven’t eaten real food in days,” he said through a full mouth. “Been traveling. Ate nothing but bugs and berries for days.”
Ben sank to the cot opposite and watched as the man as he ate. Burns crisscrossed his arms. Red welts peeked out from under his collar, and purple bruises showed above his shoes. Ben handed him a canteen of water, and he downed the entire thing without coming up for air. When he had finished the crackers and jerky, he pushed the box away. It tumbled to the floor.
“Much better,” he said, wiping his dirty, dry, and cracked hands together. “Yes, much better. Now, would you like to talk?” Seth asked and scooted closer to the edge of the cot. He leaned forward and stared at Ben, his dirty face much closer than Ben would have liked. “I’m looking for someone,” Seth stated.
“Well, you’re not looking for me,” Ben leaned back to avoid the man’s breath. “This village got Burned a few days ago. Whoever you’re looking for isn’t here anymore, I’m sorry to tell you.”
“Ah! But you’re here! You don’t remember anything, do you? You’ve one of the Burned. And damaged,” he said, gesturing to Ben’s leg.
Ben squirmed, and his ears turned red. He shifted his leg and tightened his grip on his crutch.
“Yes, damaged and Burned. I felt the Burn in your mind. It’s rather empty up there right now, isn’t it? It’s like someone has locked all the doors, and you’re wandering around the hallways trying to get in, isn’t it?”
“I’m sorry, but I… I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ben lied.
Seth smiled at him, but his eyes were sad. “But you do have a few memories, don’t you? A few memories of… well, that’s all right. That’s all right. We’ll leave that for the time being. Now, can you tell me anything about the man who owned this farm?”
A chill swept down Ben’s spine, and a warning, like the ringing of a bell, sounded in his mind. “Why?”
“The man I am looking for lived here. The blue stars on the front door. The lab under the house. All those books! The Fox was here, and I have to find him.”
“The Fox? Who is that?” Ben asked. “Is that Eli?”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Seth said with an exasperated gesture. “Ah. But I forget myself, as have you. You’ve been very kind, giving me your food and water despite your condition, but now I need some answers. I need to make sure. I’ve failed so many times before.”
“I don’t have any answers. And I think it’s time for you to be on your way,” Ben said and started to stand.
“Peter saved you.”
Ben froze. “What?”
“He saved you. And now he’s keeping you safe. That was always his purpose. I’m glad that he finally got to do what he was born to. He didn’t understand…. what happened. And I’m sorry for that. He was always much stronger than me. I was never very strong, but I wish that I was.”
Fear spread over Ben like a mist. If this man knew Peter’s name, what else did he know? “I… I don’t….”
But Seth smiled, and the web of lines crinkled around his eyes. “He’s right. He doesn’t know it, but he is right. You are very much worth saving. Did he know the man who lived here? Did he know Eli?”
Ben held his crutch like a weapon, ready for… something. “How do you know Peter?”
Seth tapped his head. “I know far, far too much. I know about Peter. And I know about you. I know who you are.”
It wasn’t his words that made the hair on the back of Ben’s neck stand up: it was his tone, his watering eyes, and his knowing, crooked smile.
There was something strange and wild about this man, and it frightened Ben.
“What are you talking about?” Ben asked.
“She told me who you are. And that you’d be here. Well, she told me, but that was useless, really. I was stuck in a prison cell at the time. She found and told someone not in prison who could see her. So she told Simon, in code, of course, and he told the Unseen, and then they finally found a way to get me out. Despite all of that, I didn’t believe her. But she was right. She usually is. Very annoying that. I might be five minutes older, but she is always right. Not a fair trade, if you ask me.”
He rambled like he was talking to himself, but then his face fell, contorting into a silent scream of sadness, mouth open, eyes shut. “She was with Jonah, the Warrior Prophet, when he died. I am glad of that. No one should die alone.”
“Who do you think I am?” Ben asked, unable to follow the strange and rambling story from this strange and filthy man.
Seth raised his eyebrows as if it were obvious. “Perseus.”
Ben shook his head. “My name is Ben.”
Seth waved his statement away. “It doesn’t matter what you call yourself. What matters is that you are Perseus. She told me that you’d be here and that I should keep you safe.”
“And who told you?”
He waved Ben’s question aside again. “Doesn’t matter. Best you don’t know right now anyway. And now that I know you’re safe with Peter, I can go find the Fox. I had hoped that he would be here too, but it was a long shot. And when you see Peter, tell him…” he paused, his mouth trembled. “Tell him that I’m very sorry, will you? Tell him I’m sorry I couldn’t save him that day… or Astrid. Tell him I’m so… very sorry,” the man said, his eyes shining with tears.
Ben tensed, unsure how stable this man really was.
“Algol is falling. Perseus is coming. Cetus will die,” the old man said so softly that Ben almost didn’t hear him. Entranced by his strange words, Ben leaned forward to hear, but Seth sat still and silent.
Then he reached out and grasped the side of Ben’s face, gripping his head with his bony fingers. Ben cried out and tried to pull away, dropping his crutch, but Seth held him firmly and stared him down with fierce and wild eyes.
“Please, when you see Peter, please tell him that I love him. And give him this. Give him this.”
Seth’s eyes glowed blue-green. A memory engulfed Ben, shocking, like jumping into deep, dark, freezing water. He sank down, and down, and down into the memory until he thought his mind would implode…
Windrose City. Buildings of twisted metal and frosted glass. The sun reflected off millions of black shining windows. As he stared into a window, he saw Seth’s face instead of his own face reflected at him. The face staring at him was younger, cleaner, and sad.
He stood in an alley, hidden in shadows between columns and glass and stone. A parade was coming. Re-Incarnate Day. Banners and flags waved and snapped in the breeze, amber and gold and red. Crowds pushed forward and flooded the street to get a better look. The Eternals approached.
She sat on a slow moving transport, gliding down the street. She was strange and stunning. She was lifetimes and lineage of power and history and limitless memory. A red robe draped across her shoulders and ran like blood around her feet. Crimson ribbons snaked through her braid. A burnished crown crusted with jewels circled her head and blazed in the sunlight.
Beside her stood her Rufus, her most trusted commander. Her towering hero.
Soldiers, hundreds, thousands, marched in total harmony.
He knew he couldn’t hurt her, he wouldn’t even come close, but he would try. For his family, for his wife, and for his son, he would try. Now that she had taken everything from him, he had nothing. He wasn’t strong enough to go on, but he was strong enough for one last act. He would take one moment of action, and then it would be over.
He slid the slight blade out of his pocket and stepped into the sunlight. He started for the street, pushing through the crowds. But he saw a familiar face. There, on the other side of the street, stood Peter.
All around them, he could sense the Watchers. He could see them shining through people, searching for anyone who might be a threat, anyone who did not belong.
And Peter did not belong.
The Watchers would soon find Peter, and they would Burn him. They would Burn his son.
He couldn’t let that happen. Turns out he had one thing left to lose. Seth stepped out into the street, exposing himself to soldiers and Watchers.
But they won’t find Peter.
So he stepped out into the street, into the parade of perfection, and let his blade flash in the light.
Soldiers snatched at his arms and the knife. They dragged him through the street, and Seth let them present him to her. Her golden eyelids flicked at him in the noonday sun. But he wouldn’t let her find Peter. At least he was strong enough for that.
My Eternal Mother, I have come to be your prophet. I am the Unseen Prophet….
As the memory faded, Ben felt something tremble and quake in his head.
He felt the doors in the depths of his mind shake.
His father reading in the barn.
His mother standing on the back porch, the hammer in her hands. Singing.
Seth released him, scuttling back on the floor away from him. “So. That’s what you do. I didn’t know there were ones like you, but I had hoped.”
Then the locks in Ben’s mind burst, and the doors flung open. Memories and feelings and faces flooded his mind like cold water, suddenly submerging him. Everything kept pouring over him, washing away the sense of emptiness and replacing it with pain and fear and the memory of things lost.
His father in the garden, smiling.
Singing a song of water and sorrow and sea billows. His mother.
The stars. Perseus.
“Steady… steady…” Seth said. His voice sounded far away, as though Ben were drowning, and Seth was standing on land, watching him through the churning water. Ben cried out as the memories rushed through his mind.
It was too much. The flood in his mind was too much.
He caught sight of himself in the little mirror smudged with Peter’s blood. His eyes glowed deep blue, deep like a storming sky, dark like ink. He couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t move, he couldn’t speak. Ben felt like he would drown if it didn’t stop.
And then it did. It stopped all at once, and Ben was himself again, staring at Seth. He stared back into the man’s deep golden eyes, and for a brief moment, saw Peter looking back at him, smiling. Then the light turned hazy.
“You… you’re Peter’s….”
“Welcome back, Perseus.”
Ben collapsed onto the cot as if he had stood up too fast, and all the blood had rushed to his head. Stars spun and filled his vision.
“Ah, may I take this?”
He heard Seth speaking, but he seemed far away in the cloud of dark shining stars that swam in front of his eyes.
“I’d very much like to have a picture of him….”
And then Ben passed out…