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10. The Wondrous Weirdness 

The vines maneuvered the throne close to the organic cage, and the creature in the suit of armor leaned forward. It was then that something broke inside Benjamin. The thing that broke may have been his calm, that elusive thing he’d been struggling to keep in check; it may have been his reasoning. He felt something break, that’s all he was sure of—a part of him that had once been whole and supportive was now feeble and useless.

      The vertically erect vines around him seemed ignorant of his presence, like dumb, blind animals, shifting about slightly like seaweed. The knight in armor seated before him, just on the freedom side of the lilting cell bars, did not spark the least bit of fear in Benjamin. He wondered at this release from the eggshell of anxiety, from the pie crust of nightmare that had come to life around him, and he figured it might be the result of some deep-seated death wish, an “I give up” complex brought about by his utterly absurd surroundings. He couldn’t keep the laughter down, even though he suspected it might be a better idea to confront the enthroned knight straight faced; would have been less awkward that way, for both parties. “Was I supposed to wear my Batman costume?” he asked. “I didn’t know it was going to be that kind of party.”

      The knight tilted its cumbersome helm to the side. Now that it was closer, Benjamin could see that only a few sections of the armor were well cared for, while most of it was dirty, caked with mud at the overlays, and rusted in spots. With the faceplate lowered, nothing could be seen of the creature’s head within the helm. Could have just as well been empty as occupied. Wouldn’t have surprised Benjamin, the way his day was going.

      William stepped closer to the vines, which had begun whipping their upper, gangling lengths, excited by the close proximity of their armored master. “Benjamin,” William said. “Don’t move. We’ll get you out of there.”

      Hobbs, farther back, had her arms crossed over her sequined chest, and she barked a staccato chortle. Her eyes rolled skyward. “So here’s where our Artful Dodger landed himself. Leave him be, William. Don’t waste any more time on that little pickpocket.”

      Benjamin wondered if she’d read the wrong police report column, if she’d somehow mixed him up with someone else. “I’ve never—,” he began.

      “But Star,” William interrupted, keeping his eyes trained on Benjamin, “he’s got every right to survive this as we do. And he’s right there in the middle of all those overgrown weeds.” He’d held a pleading glint in his eyes and that melted away, replaced by awe. “Right in the middle of them,” he said softly, thoughtfully. “Why aren’t they—?”

      “Quiet,” Hobbs demanded. She rushed to William and tugged at his arm, trying to pry him away from Benjamin and the excited plant life. “Don’t be a fool. Come and stand by me. The frivolities have frightened away your faithful companions.”

      “My faithful…” William looked questioningly at Hobbs, and then he glanced up and down the street. “The dogs. Damn their hides.”

      “I need you near, William,” Hobbs said, and Benjamin noted what a manipulative craftsman she was. He watched her eyebrow do that trick again as she looked in through the jostling vines at him. She was up to something, he wagered.

      “Odd,” a soft, tinny voice said, startling Benjamin. He turned to find the knight looking in on him as if Benjamin were a monkey in a cage. For some reason the knight seemed to consider him odd. This utterance snapped all restraining remnants of control Benjamin had managed to hold in his cramping grasp. He would not have this freak in a tin can call him odd.

      He focused on a particularly fat vine rising up directly between him and the throne. He looked up its length. Its callused tip was gliding in curlicues through the warming air above. Benjamin shoved the fat vine aside. Where boy and plant touched, electric sparks flew. The fibrous flesh of the vine skittered and jerked away from the blue sparks as if repulsed. Didn’t make much sense, but there was little time to contemplate the vines’ reaction to its own electrical talents. Benjamin cleared the thicket of encircling vines and stepped up to the base of the throne. He brushed his palms alternately with his fingers, wanting the tingling sensation gone. He looked up past the armored feet and legs of the enthroned creature, looked up into the faceplate. The knight leaned over creakingly, angling over Benjamin, and with a clank of metal on metal, placed its elbows on its knees.

      “What’d you say, Lance-a-Not?” Benjamin said.

      Its gauntleted hands came up and lifted the faceplate. Inside the helm, caught in a reflected beam of morning light, was more metal—a frame or support system for the bands of flesh and bare muscle, the stuff that remained of a mutilated head that bulged from the seams of its restrictive cage like a piece of fruit that had been left to mature and rot inside an undersized cube of wire mesh. The orbit of the right eye glinted dull white, pocked bone, and housed deep within the socket was something with tiny flashing blips, LEDs, and a faint hint of arcing electrical current. The other eye was missing, masked over with taut flesh that was off-colored, mismatched, and this patch of flesh wrapped from the left cheekbone, chipped and flesh-free, up around the dome of the skull on the right, like a bandana. A nose of sorts occupied the middle of the face, but in reverse, the nostrils protruding like tiny trumpets, the rest of the nose a concavity of pockmarked skin from bridge to septum. The knight’s lips seemed the only fully realized feature, but they were someone else’s lips, looking cartoonish, overly plump and crimson. The chin and jaw were of mechanical construct with organic overlays, the lips held in place with crafty wirework. A framework of steel, or perhaps silver, supported the entire structure of the face, etched here and there with symbols, ventilated along its metal-plate cheeks. The symbols on the framework reminded Benjamin of what he was nearly sure he’d seen etched on the shovel-shaped heads of the centipedes in Hobbs’s garden.

      Benjamin was not as horrified as he knew he should be gazing up at this altered human face, and this semi-calm allowed him to take in the detail: the lack of jawbone, the organic inner workings of a human mouth, intact and held in place by a mishmash of metal thread work. The same was true of the throat—intact and organic—but exposed to the elements, held together by malleable metal strips and wires. The monkey-rigged skull was too small for its outer helm. It hovered near the top of the interior, the electronic eye just peeking out from under the brim of the uplifted faceplate. The lower space within the helm was mostly empty, except for half a dozen metal support rods, bisected with intricate hinges, bolted firmly to the metal plating that banded the back of the skull. As the freakish head was too small for the helm, the metal-rod neck was too long in comparison with the skull, the organic workings of the throat stretched taut, the pale spine at the rear of the helm pulled erect.

      As Benjamin stared, the electronics in the cavernous eye socket moved, gears rotated unseen lenses, hot arcs of energy sparked, and all the while, the nostril flutes wiggled about like some insect curious about something it’d bumped into. The plump lips parted, and Benjamin glimpsed the shadowed insides of the mouth, glistening with lubricant, glinting with intricate clockworks, and he saw a blackened brute of a tongue. The teeth of the monster were cracked and brown, but they were real teeth, and the black gums were restrained within fine metallic netting. Benjamin wondered whose mouth the monster had stolen. It was the freshest feature in evidence, and it, of all the things on exhibit, certainly did not belong. And then the mouth began to speak, its feminine trill startling Benjamin, and it said, “My name is Ibucus, child. Not Lancelot.”

      Benjamin was fascinated as he watched the stretched throat muscles do their thing, watched the metal rods move the skull this way and that within the confines of the helm, tilting the grotesque face inquiringly, and then righting it. Then the rods pivoted and the bulbous hinges levered the head forward. The knight’s head emerged from the helm, crossed over into the full light of morning, and Benjamin saw that the cap of the skull was intact, reinforced with metal plates in places, and blotched with patches of human skin which sprouted multicolored tufts of hair, different lengths, curly and straight. The head moved forward as far as the rods would allow, pulling the spine and throat taut as a piano string, until the ruined face was an inch from Benjamin’s. He could feel his calm melting, and he felt cheated to find it’d only been temporary, but feeding off a mote of stubbornness he found nestled in his breast, he refused to back away.

      The cartoon lips opened, spiraling a stink up Benjamin’s nose, making him close off his throat as he convulsed in a near gag fit. And the monster said, “Why haven’t you been eaten, you little dust bunny?”

      Benjamin couldn’t speak. He was holding his breath. His bones were quaking. He stared at a tuft of ash-blonde hair affixed to the right temple of the knight’s reinforced skull.

      The thing that called itself Ibucus retreated, and Benjamin turned his head and gulped down untainted air. Ibucus slammed the suit of armor back against the throne with a clang. He gazed up at the frolicking vine tips that were tracing intricate designs above Benjamin, and then asked those vines, “Why haven’t you gobbled up the dust bunny?”

      Benjamin looked at the upturned ruin of the knight’s skull, could see up past the framework of the jaw, past the organic workings of the mouth, up into the dark cavity at the top of the skull. He caught a glimpse of the pale, coralloid underside of the brain, saw electric pulses move along that meat, like lightning along the underside of dark clouds. Whatever impulses animated the creature sitting in the throne, Benjamin knew the strings of the puppet were handled by the piece of meat nestled snug and cozy in the skull. If Benjamin had a sharp stick at hand, he could skewer that brain like a turd.

      The great throne, like a head on its neck of twining vines, turned from him, aiming its pilot’s focus toward the old couple. Benjamin swallowed a glandular gush of saliva; the stink of the monster had stuck to the roof of his mouth, and it was about to make him sick. He swallowed again, realizing he couldn’t keep the stuff from climbing up his throat this time.

      While he emptied his stomach, which was nearly empty to start with, splashing his boots with stringy yellow bile, he thought he heard footsteps somewhere behind him. Lifting his head, he saw William in conference with Hobbs, so it’d been neither of them that had made that noise behind him. He turned his head slowly, trying to see who had. He saw movement deep in the interior of Dodd’s Bar. Some other sorry bastard had survived. Can’t be another monster. Please don’t let it be another monster. Couldn’t take that.

      Benjamin looked to the street. With nothing crowding in on him—no sky-jutting vine cage, no curious monster gaze—he viewed his surroundings unfettered. All around him, littering the street, lay the messy remains of dead people. Bits and pieces of people he’d sat with at the diner. Crumpled piles of people that had once hidden Easter eggs at the annual Bingly Lion’s Club hunt. Benjamin had known these people. This slaughter scattered around him, this stink that lazily drifted past, was something he’d known. He turned his gaze on the throne head resting upon the vine neck—the dragon that had risen and slaughtered his town. The knight had lowered its faceplate, and it was demanding, in its birdsong trill, answers to particular questions concerning the unscathed boy. The vines supporting the throne were wavering, twisting this way and that, as if uncertain of their master’s wishes.

      This time, instead of footsteps, he heard the slightest rustle of clothing behind him, coming from the tavern. He slowly turned his head, not wanting to attract any attention to himself, and looked to the ruined front of Dodd’s Bar. Brazenly perched atop the vine-tossed car was Gilman Turnkey. He was stretched and straining to see the contents of the open trunk.

      Benjamin pieced together what must have happened, could see it in his movie screen mind in slow-mo replay: After realizing the screaming kitten clinging to his leg was definitely not a good thing, feeling the ground quake beneath him, Gilman must have jumped to the trunk of the car, perhaps even climbed to the roof, and when the vines had lifted the car and thrown it aside, Gilman had held tight and ridden it in through the busted front window, and then tumbled into the interior of the bar. He was protected from the vines as long as he remained inside Dodd’s Bar. Benjamin wanted to wave at him, motion him back from the window, but he knew he shouldn’t call attention to himself. If the knight looked Benjamin’s way, he’d see Gilman beyond him.

      He watched as Gilman stretched his body across the cracked rear window of the car, trying to reach around into the open trunk. Benjamin recognized the car now. It was the long-nosed Pontiac he’d seen drive into town with a buck strapped to its hood a few years back. Gilman had found the stash of hunting gear hidden in the truck of Dodd’s car.

      Gilman’s arm was outside the protection of the tavern’s spelled walls, and it looked to Benjamin like he couldn’t quite reach what he wanted in the trunk. A distraction was needed. Benjamin had to do something pronto, seeing as how Gilman seemed to have no intention of being patient.

      Benjamin rushed to the front of the throne, which was turned away from Dodd’s, and he grabbed at the armored legs of the knight, pulled at them, pummeled them with his fists, his mind racing at insults, something, anything he could scream at the enthroned creature to keep its attention fixed on him. He froze as a sound clip looped through his brain, something the knight had said. He stood silent a moment, amazed he hadn’t realized the importance of it before now. The vines that were wrapped around the knight’s legs were gently pushing at Benjamin, raising sparks, concerned with the violence Benjamin had threatened against their master.

      “Ibucus Scalabrini?” Benjamin said, gawking up at the knight’s faceplate, which had been lowered, mercifully shielding the monster’s patchwork face.

      William trotted up and placed his hand on Benjamin’s good shoulder, sternly advising, “Best you keep quiet just now, Benjamin.”

      Benjamin shook him off, and he slapped at the vines that were prodding him, sending up a great flurry of blue sparks. “Are you crazy?” he shouted up at the knight. Nice line of reasoning, he told himself. He was asking a half-robot, half-human knight in sullied armor that believed itself a man—a particular man that Benjamin knew damn well was dead—if it was mentally competent. “What am I saying? Of course you’re crazy. Ibucus Scalabrini is dead.”

      The enthroned knight leaned in close and took Benjamin by the shoulders, tearing the shirtsleeve and then the gauze bandage from his stitched shoulder, making Benjamin’s knees rubbery with a body blast of pain. Benjamin was powerless in the knight’s pinching grip, and he marveled at the monster’s strength.

      “He’s been marked,” Ibucus said, his trill reverberating in the helm. He was staring at Benjamin’s stitches, the electric eye flashing through the slits in the faceguard. “Marked by a remarkably desperate witch-whore. That’s why my darlings would not gobble him up.”

      Hobbs cleared her throat, and she started to verbally backhand the witch-whore insult, but William was blubbering his own surprise as he gazed at the revealed stitch work on Benjamin’s shoulder.

      “Of course,” William mumbled. “But Star,”—he turned to Hobbs—“why stitch magicks on him if you want him dead?”

      Benjamin wondered what Gilman was doing. He hoped he was taking advantage of this brilliant distraction. He looked down at his shoulder. The stitches seemed normal as far as he could tell. What the hell were they talking about? Marked? The stitches were a bit more scabbed over then he remembered from his inspection prior to the bandage being taped in place. Looked like Hobbs had used some sort of silver thread to sew up the wound. As Benjamin flicked dried blood from the stitches, he could see that they had grown. The long central stitch had sprouted smaller stitchings near the bottom, like tentacles. He shivered as he equated this with the vines, and then he realized he was looking at the stitches upside down. Hobbs had stitched a leafless tree, its basic line and shape, into his shoulder, and it was growing branches. Benjamin traced one of the tiny branches with his finger. Dried blood fell away, and he could see a silver scar beneath the silver thread.

      Marked. Branded, more like, he told himself. And apparently, this design that Hobbs had sewn into his shoulder was keeping those vines from draining him like a zit.

      Hobbs was quietly telling William she’d never wanted Benjamin dead. Benjamin turned to her, positioning his back to Dodd’s Bar, not trusting himself to keep his eyes off the bar front. Hobbs was up close to William, keeping her voice low, completely disregarding the creature in the throne. She said, “Never said that. Your old ears must be picking up some other broadcast.”

      “But you told me you’d given him something to...what was it you said?” William seemed to be overacting, hamming it up, distracting the enthroned knight with whatever tomfoolery he stumbled across. Either that or the old drunk was genuinely confused, and in order for events to continue, he needed to navigate this speed bump in life’s parking lot. Benjamin decided it was the former. He was more comfortable with that. “Something to kill the boy,” William continued. “That’s what you told me. You gave him… kill the boy in him.” It looked to Benjamin as if William had just realized the answer to one of life’s big questions, his whiskered face aglow with discovery.

      “That’s what I said, old man,” Hobbs admitted, her lowered brow urging William to stop chasing reason, to quiet down. Her eyes shifted to the car that hung in the broken framework of Dodd’s bar front. She opened her mouth to speak but then tugged William into a crouch as if someone had yelled duck!

      Benjamin whipped around, knowing damn well he sure as shit hadn’t heard anyone yell, and a barrage of buckshot zoomed past him, one tiny pellet bouncing off the jean fabric stretched over the silver lighter in his front pocket. Amazed that he could pinpoint this fractional occurrence, sagely noting that big happenings are made up of tiny events, he wondered if he was going to explode in a brilliant nova. Most of the buckshot embedded itself in the vine meat under the throne, and Benjamin heard a few clicks as pellets ricocheted off the knight’s armor.

      Gilman was attacking, and Benjamin was not impressed. He began back stepping, certain a second shotgun blast was about to take him out. The chrome bumper of Dodd’s car sparkled painfully into Benjamin’s eyes as the rising sun inched into a new position behind him. Perched on the roof of the car was a lone shotgun, its trigger wrapped in twine that trailed off into the interior of the bar. The shotgun was weighed down with blankets, a tire iron, a tire jack, and some old Outdoorsman magazines. The barrel of the shotgun, knocked out of position by the blast, smoked from its recent emission. Benjamin caught sight of the meandering string of twine trailing back out through the busted window and across the concrete sidewalk. He followed it with his eyes and was half turned around, when in the street, from the other side of the upshot of vines that supported the throne, came the sputtering cough of a reluctant gas engine.

      Benjamin twirled around, dizzy with all these redirectings of his focus, and could just make out Gilman standing on the opposite side of the glut of vines, a chainsaw in his hands, yanking at the starter cord a second time. The small motor turned over, a great puff of exhaust surrounded Gilman, and the long-bladed, jagged-toothed blade blurred up to slicing speed.

      Benjamin stumbled toward Dodd’s car, wanting to get the shotgun from the roof, wanting to help bring down the beastly vegetation if he could. He glanced over at the old couple, saw William helping Hobbs to her feet, his gaze fixed on something across the street. Benjamin turned, his feet slowing to a standstill, and saw a kitten determinedly jerking the Yorkshire around the corner of the Grange Hall, as other kittens worked at opening its stomach like a freshly baked pie.

      The cluster of vines that had imprisoned him earlier dove at William now, attacking him from above, swooping down and swinging in at him from the sides. He pushed Hobbs from him and parried the vines’ thrusting attacks with his walking staff. Benjamin figured that William would be exempt from these attacks if he hadn’t given Benjamin the symbol-etched magic box. The box would be snug in its cubbyhole in the walking staff, and a billowy spell of protection would have kept William, and probably anyone standing next to him, safe from harm as long as he had that staff in hand. Now that magic box was uselessly stuck in the floorboards of Dodd’s Bar. William had given him one hell of a gift, and Benjamin had thrown it away by coming out here to investigate.

      He refocused and watched Gilman dig into the vines under the throne with the chainsaw blade, splaying vine meat, wet and tinged pink with blood, to the street. He waved the blade in great sweeping arcs, dribbling plant juice all over himself, painting the storefronts pink with it. Benjamin could see the vines peel off from the bulky trunk under the throne and gracefully maneuver their taloned tips, converging on Gilman, preparing to burrow. Kittens were sprinting under Gilman’s feet and jumping at his dancing legs, trying to attach themselves to the big man as they screamed, adding their beaconing screech to the fray. The kittens were gathering around William, too. And the bucking bronco knight was holding tightly to the throne as the supporting vines thrashed under the attack of the chainsaw.

      Benjamin stood at the edge of these battles, weaponless and of no help to anyone. The realization of the wondrous weirdness that not a single creature was attacking him had frozen him to the spot with awe. He was waiting for an enemy to notice him, and he had to kick himself mentally to churn out of this muddy rut and do something, do anything. He staggered once more toward the car hanging in the ruined bar front.

      Behind him, he heard the chainsaw clear a vine’s mucousy girth, and he heard Gilman shout his triumph and then grind his blade into another vine. To his right, Benjamin saw that William had fought his way to the base of the throne, his blade out, and he was hacking at the supporting vines like string cheese, all the while snapping kitten spines with his stomping feet. Benjamin scanned the nightmare for Hobbs, wondering if she was helping or hindering the men, if she was in some sort of trouble, or if she was dead. Hobbs was nowhere to be seen. She must have sprouted wings and—

      Benjamin ran into Ibucus without any warning of impact, without a whisper of a clue that the monster had vacated the throne and maneuvered himself between Benjamin and Dodd’s car. He hadn’t even known the twisted knight could stand up on his own, let alone perform wondrous acts of aerobatics. Benjamin hit the body armor and rebounded at double speed, landing on his back, the air punched out of him, pinpoints of light spiraling in front of his eyes. Benjamin looked up the length of the thing standing over him, focused on the helm, which, in his dizzy state, seemed very far away. The faceplate had been lifted up, and Ibucus was gazing down on Benjamin, the dark orbit emitting a poker stare, the cartoon lips curled in a smile.

      “You want to play at heroics, sand flea?” The monster seemed calm. With a gauntlet, he reached down to the street and grabbed up a body that had been ravaged by the vines earlier. In his metal-glove grasp he had the right arm of Julie Frembly, the mother of one of the cheerleaders at Eureka Joint Union High School and a member (ten years running) of the Piper County volunteer fire department. A good chunk of her upper torso was attached to the grappled arm, as well as the sagging, full-cheeked head. One eye was open, and Benjamin figured she was trying to signal him, winking at him, imploring him to at least try and do something to stop all the mayhem.

      Ibucus spoke up, breaking Benjamin’s stare with Mrs. Frembly.

      “Let’s give you a fully realized villain, shall we?” Ibucus said. “Bring in the bad guy, so to speak? Parade out the ugly concubine?” Ibucus parted his lips, exposing his rotten teeth. He pulled Frembly up to his opened mouth and bit delicately into her bare underarm, one glove holding her wrist up above him, his other arm cradling what was left of her upper torso like a dance partner. Blood sprayed from Julie Frembly, misting the slight morning breeze that had just wafted by, and Ibucus daintily giggled as he chewed, meat dangling from his burlesque lips. He swallowed his mouthful, the action of the throat muscles and the descent of the morsel fully visible to anyone who happened to be watching. “Goodness,” he trilled, “that is juicy.”

      Benjamin tried to breathe. He knew he was in trouble if he didn’t breathe. He wasn’t sure what would happen if he threw up when the wind was knocked out of him; never had the opportunity to try it before. He rolled over, pulling his arms and legs underneath him. He remained curled up as he swallowed mouthful after mouthful of metallic-tasting saliva. As he got to his feet, he felt them steady beneath him, and his breath wheezily returned; he’d swallowed away the urge to vomit. Pretty impressive, he thought. These were minor accomplishments, he knew, but they were things a monster hunter had to master if he wanted to wrestle with the big boys.

      He looked over at Ibucus. The knight had been holding the torso of Julie Frembly at lip level, her head drooping groundward, apparently waiting for Benjamin to refocus on him before continuing with his villainous skit. The cartoon lips, parted dumbly, smeared with blood, came together with a flesh on flesh slap, and he smiled at Benjamin.

      “Good for you, mote,” he said. “Stiff upper lip and all.” He stepped up close to Benjamin, dropping the dead woman’s remains to the street, done with her. He fingered up the faceplate, which had snuck down a couple inches, and he said, “We’re myth in these parts, correct? We are...what is it you call me and my kin?”

      Benjamin stared at the piecemeal façade inside the helm. It hadn’t dawned on him earlier that he’d confronted one of the monsters he’d been searching for all these years. He supposed that, sans the suit of armor, Ibucus would very much look the part, but the shiny accoutrement had thrown Benjamin, and he hadn’t drawn a line connecting the two. He’d been caught off guard; he had to fumble his frayed thoughts and get them in order if he wanted to save appearances. He told Ibucus, “We call you Brinikin,” but he was thinking, This freak is no Brinikin. The nomenclature of the two clans fit nicely together, two puzzle pieces that meshed tight and snug, sure, but how could an entire family turn monster? The vineyard was the location from where the monsters supposedly crept—Benjamin himself had grown fond of calling the vineyard “the nest”—but Brinikin certainly weren’t human, and they couldn’t have ever been human. Not possible. However, Brinikin did, for the most part, according to the witness accounts, walk upright on two legs, and they did have mouths and arms and—

      “Damn it,” Benjamin grabbed his head. He’d been shaking his head as he’d tossed these thoughts about. He knew there was no making sense of this, no time for that luxury right now. He had other concerns. His seventeen-year-old mouth, however, a part of him that had never learned when to call it quits, began blabbering: “You’re no Brinikin. You’re some puppet in a suit of armor. You’re some Halloween movie gone wrong. You’re not bad enough to be Brinikin. And you’re not Ibucus Scalabrini, either. Hasn’t been any Ibucus Scalabrini for a long, long time, man. You’re some robot, puppet freak. No way you’re even half—”

      Ibucus reached out—Benjamin heard the ring of metal on metal as some part of the armor grazed some other part, but he sure hadn’t seen any movement—and Benjamin’s throat was vised tightly in the gauntlet.

      “I am caretaker,” Ibucus said, his voice singsonging with the airy sensitivity of a banished prince. “And I am Brinikin, dear, dear boy. I can assure you that. I am King of the Brinikin.”

      With the air vacant from his lungs—he had not seen that quicksilver reach of the knight’s, and Benjamin made a quick Note of Fact in the notebook he kept in his head: This bastard is fast—and with the metal glove squeezing off any chance of sucking in air, Benjamin felt the shakes of an extreme panic attack coming on. He could feel gravity pulling on his body, and he knew Ibucus had lifted him up, felt his boots dangling in the sweet morning air. Beyond the helm of the self-proclaimed King of the Brinikin, Benjamin caught teary-eyed glimpses of Gilman and William as they hacked chunks from the frenzied vines, each of the men far too busy with his own survival to pay any attention to Benjamin August Weller and his trifling fracas. He was pretty sure his head was about to pop off, so he scribbled one last quick Note of Fact: Learn how to break a chokehold some time before yesterday.