Jack had an arrow nocked, his bow half drawn, but he trusted Six, and did not take action, but the smell of blood made him woozy, and he feared he might faint. Other than the perpetual television violence of his former life, he had experienced very little violence in the flesh, at least of any substance, until yesterday, or the day before, or whenever this part-nightmare, part-wonderland had begun, first in the alley behind the Coffee Dump, with the Martians, and then his run-in with the colossal snake, and finally, this brutal encounter with the giant.
It did not seem to matter, the surreal nature of each violent encounter, because they were real, visceral, palpable, and ugly. You did not care that Humpty Dumpty was an adorable fairytale being, when he appeared in your home, in the middle of the night, with a bloody ax in his adorable fairytale hands.
But there was nothing adorable about the giant before them, all nine feet of height, with its too vast skull, leering green eyes beneath a Neanderthal brow, a domed head the size of a small refrigerator, and that jutting lower jaw with too many, too big teeth, in a sneering smile. The thing had introduced itself by snapping the neck of the great white horse, the steed belonging to Lord Meren Dulance of High Vale.
Jack stood numbly, not moving, watching the towering brute as it ripped the beautiful white head off the dead horse. The giant lifted the head in his hands. As big as the horse had been—much larger than a Budweiser Clydesdale—the head looked small, like that of a miniature pony, clasped in the massive hands of the giant. The giant crammed his square, pink tongue into the gory hole of the horse’s neck, and sighed loudly, but its staring gaze of murder never departed from Jack and Six.
“Just stand still,” Six said, his left hand locked upon his sword scabbard, his right hand on the hilt of his great sword. “This is just a High Vale mugging, meant to terrorize us. If we leave the crooden giant alone, it shouldn’t come after us. If it does, don’t fight it, or wound it, but run. Get into the cottage, it’s a safe zone. Hell, all of this is a safe zone.”
Jack counted six fingers on the giant’s hands, but that wasn’t what was so strangely fascinating about the giant, because the six fingers matched the six hands, which matched the six muscular arms. This was some nightmarish interpretation of Kali, only decidedly too male, and without any touch of beauty. There was something almost insect-like to the nightmare being, for six appendages protruding from a VW-bug-sized torso just didn’t look human. Most everything else was apparently human to the giant, however, except for the hooves at the ends of its massive goat legs. It wore a filthy loincloth, but no other clothing.
If you counted the bizarre legs, it was more of a spider, with a total of eight appendages.
“I think I could put an arrow in each of its eyes, while it’s standing over there,” Jack said, voice quavering, “because whatever else happens, I just don’t want the thing standing over here.”
“Don’t do it, these things are incredibly fast. They are warriors, to the max, and I’ve heard tales of crooden taking out six fully armed knights. Not even a full party of adventurers led by a wizard with a healer want to go toe-to-toe with a crooden.”
“So what, we just stand here, after he killed your horse?” Jack said, feeling a rising anger that matched his terror. He was sick and tired of getting pushed around. He was sick and tired of running from big things.
“No, we don’t just stand here,” Six said, “we run, and we run like we’ve never run before.”
“You two alive,” the giant snorted, in an almost reasonable tone, sounding like a grizzly bear, holding the gory head in one hand, like an ice cream cone, still licking at it, “cuz I got treat. Delish. But run, I eat all.”
“That doesn’t sound too promising,” Jack whispered.
“Guess we’ve been talking too loudly,” Six whispered in return. “I didn’t think it could understand us.”
The giant grinned at them, with blood-stained teeth. The two rows of teeth were almost nicely laid out, as if the brute had worn braces when it was a brutish teenage six-armed giant. In fact, the giant’s smile reminded Jack of Julia Robert’s too big, too perfect teeth.
“Me understand. Crood like pretty talk. Crood like pretty fairies,” the giant said, but Jack didn’t know if it was talking directly to them, or to itself.
“We are not fairies, but men,” Six declared in a surprisingly confident shout.
“Men. Fairies. Same, Crood. Din’t tink wuz real,” Crood growl-laughed. The giant stood from its crouch to its full height.
Jack blinked, recalculating his earlier visual measurement, the giant’s head would probably go right up through a basketball net and wear the hoop as a crown.
“Tuh-Ten fuh-feet tuh-tall?” Jack stuttered.
“Yeah, this a big boy, even for crooden,” Six answered, drawing closer to Jack. The two men huddled together, trembling.
The crooden showed them the palms of five hands (one hand still held the gory head), and these looked like normal hands (other than the six fingers, and the incredible size) as if the monster were being utterly reasonable with them, and took two impossibly long strides toward Jack and Six on its weird backward goat legs. Jack thought that must be the strangest thing about the giant, its legs, which looked like human legs, only twisted, with the elbow in the rear—knees, whatever—however the logic of this twisting of animal and human worked, because it seemed to be albino-white human skin, terminating in human-looking ankles into what could be viewed as beautiful hooves, hooves the size of boulders, hooves that made loud clopping noises when they struck and shuddered the ground.
How in the world had the thing snuck up on them? One second everything was right with the world, everything was beautiful, they’d had such a lovely night in the little cottage, and the morning had begun so beautifully, and then without warning, the giant was there, and the horse was struggling in its grasp, but only for the briefest moment, and then the horse’s neck was twisted, and now they stood facing an approaching behemoth on boulder-sized hooves.
“No fraid,” the crooden growled. “Me nice, Crood nice.”
Suddenly Six grabbed his own crotch and squeezed.
“Whatever you do, don’t pee!” Six whisper-shouted to Jack. “The smell will drive it crazy.”
Jack clamped down, because it was close, when something like this monster strode toward you and the ground boomed beneath its hooves, you could easily lose control of your bladder.
The crooden boomed laughter.
“So funny,” Crood snickered. “Funny fairy. Go pee-pee, Crood no care. All good.”
“This is a safe zone, newby zone, you shouldn’t be here!” Six shouted, seizing Jack in a hug and moving them backward, away from the monster, toward the cottage. It was only two strides away from them. Two strides of those legs, and those hands would have them, and the men would tear as easily in those hands as had the neck of the majestic horse.
“Why fraid?” the crooden snickered, obviously enjoying their terror, crouching down, reaching out one arm across the distance, its finger pointing at them, as if it meant to tickle them. Its finger actually tickled the air, just five feet away from the two huddling men. “Crood play fairies. No fraid.”
Six clenched his eyes shut and squeezed Jack, but the younger man could not look away from the approaching doom, Jack could never close his eyes to whatever bad was coming. Then a black stick came crashing down on the wrist and the crooden stumbled up and away from them, and a figure in a black hooded cape stood between them and the monster.
“You’re just another bully, aren’t you?” the man in the black hood said, twirling a black club in his hand.
The crooden stared down with incredulous eyes, one of its hands cradling the wounded wrist. The giant’s too big, too perfect teeth jutted out in what appeared to be a smile of rage. The bulging eyes slitted.
The man in the hood turned and looked back at Jack.
“Stacey!” Jack cried, and then: “Watch out!”
Because even as Jack recognized Stacey’s smiling face, the crooden giant leapt forward, swinging one of its massive fists.
The man in the black hood reacted while turning back to the giant, swinging his black club up to block the approaching blow, and it was fast, everything was fast, but horribly, the fist connected with Stacey’s head, even as Stacey rolled with the blow and the black club seemed to absorb at least part of the force of the monster punch, but Stacey was lifted up and thrown, end over end, to crumple ten feet away on the ground, twisted and broken, face-down in the grass.
“Struck Crood! Fairy struck Crood!” the giant bellowed, its head opening up in a vast crack as its great mouth lifted to the sky. How could a mouth open so wide? The giant dropped the gory head and all its hands formed into fists that looked like knobbed wrecking balls. Except for the hand that Stacey had struck, which flopped impotently.
Jack, still hugging Six, looked from the giant to Stacey, and was amazed to see the man in the black hood pushing himself up from the ground, shrugging out of his hood and cloak, the left side of his face appearing torn and bloody. Stacey wasn’t dead! How was that even possible? He’d been thrown ten feet by that blow, and now he stood there, shaking his head, smiling, leaning upon his black walking stick.
“Ah, Pugilist,” Crood snarled, great lips drawn back in a rictus leer. “Fight Crood! Fight Pugilist!”
“You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve been sucker-punched,” Wolf said, shaking his head. His left eye was swollen shut, and the cheek below the eye hung in a bloody flap of ripped skin. “Ernie always said I was too cocky. When you look away from the bully, that’s when he strikes. I just never seem to learn, do I?”
The crooden took a half step forward, its massive hoof crushing the severed horse head.
“This is Stacey, your friend?” Six said, pushing away from Jack, drawing his sword.
“Yes, it’s Stacey,” Jack said, drawing his bow and sighting down the arrow at the giant’s teeth. Just open that mouth again, I dare you, crack it open like you did before, come on open that mouth, Jack mentally commanded, concentrating. Just one perfect shot. Come on, open wide, Humpty Dumpty.
“Stacey, you can’t fight it!” Six shouted. “Don’t try to fight it! You have to stay alive, I need you, that’s why you’re here! Don’t waste yourself on this crooden!”
“I am Wolf. Let me handle this bully,” Wolf said, his black stick suddenly up from the ground and twirling. He snapped his hand and the shillelagh danced away, skipping end-over-end toward the giant, who barely had time to glance down, and the black club bobbed up and punched squarely between the giant’s thighs, smacking into its great groin. The stick came skipping back end-over-end into Stacey Wolf’s hand.
The giant’s giant eyes bugged out.
“Ooiiip!” Crood croaked in an uncharacteristically high-pitched bleat.
Then Wolf strode forward, tall, his black shillelagh twirling. The giant flailed at Wolf in an ungainly punch, but Wolf ducked the blow and tapped the sweeping fist with his stick. There was a loud crack and the giant winced and stumbled backward.
“Hurt Crood! Hurt Crood!” the giant bellowed.
“That’s the idea,” Wolf said, in close now, doing a double crack on each of the giant’s ankles.
The giant roared, in pain, in frustration, but mostly in fury, its eyes livid, its great smile more prominent than ever, as it stumbled away from the comparatively small attacker’s onslaught. It was in pain, it was hurt, but the giant was certainly not retreating, as its fists aligned into a fighter’s stance, and the giant crouched and honed in upon Wolf.
“Crood...crush!” it sneered, and its smile now took on the form of enjoyment, as it poised on its own attack. It would make short work of this meddling fairy, and then it would enjoy pulling the creature to pieces—tiny, tasty pieces.
“Crood read too many Hulk comics,” Wolf laughed, beginning to dance, his boots trotting gracefully, waltzing to the left, and then tap-dance snapping to the right, but he stayed right there, in the giant’s kill zone, the black shillelagh twirling and spinning, the stick moving like a helicopter propeller blade, moving from left hand to right, from right hand to left hand. He looked powerful in his renaissance garb, breeches and vest glowing burgundy in the morning sunlight.
There was a loud crunching noise.
“Ooiiip!” Crood gasped, going very still. It stood there, like a statue, as if it were turned into stone, and briefly Jack thought of Tolkien’s Hobbit, and wondered if perhaps the rays of the morning sun had magically done its work. The giant’s eyes rolled and stared at Stacey Wolf, at Six, and then at Jack. Its eyes seemed to swell bigger, literally bulging out of the great egg of its head.
Then the giant turned his head, very slowly, and looked over his shoulder. The monster did an almost comical double-take, and then threw back his head and roared. Jack, sighting down the length of his arrow, cursed, because the giant’s head was turned in profile, and he just didn’t have the shot he most desired. He did not wish to waste a single arrow.
The giant’s six arms writhed in the air, fingers clasping, gripping at the air, and again Jack thought the giant looked like some bizarre insect, its arms looking like grasshopper legs, flexing. The giant spun about, and only then did they see the truly huge animal attached to the giant’s body, a great wolf, its teeth sunk deep into the giant’s meaty right buttock. The giant continued to turn, bellowing in fury, and the great wolf was lifted off its feet, spun about, swinging through the air.
Stacey Wolf dodged back as the wolf came around, and Jack was amazed to take in the wolf’s size, it was as big as a small horse! But still, in comparison to the giant, it looked like a poodle dangling from the giant’s butt.
“Damn it all!” shouted Six, “you’re just pissing it off!”
The giant crooden kept attempting to turn around, to get one of its many hands back to free itself from the wolf, but the big animal had its paws dug into the soil, and it was yanking backward, its jaws locked in flesh.
And then Stacey Wolf danced in and cracked it on one of its elbows. And the giant roared and came at Stacey, who danced to the side, cracking out again at another reaching hand.
There! Jack, concentrating, had his shot. The tip of his arrow was aligned with the giant’s open mouth, facing full on, and all he had to do was release the grip of his right hand, there, now, do it, do it! But then the moment passed and the giant went still again, his mouth closed, lips pulled over the vast teeth. Jack closed his eyes. You missed it. You had it right there, you could have shot him right through his open mouth, right up there into his brain, you had it and you blew it. Jack sighed. Why hadn’t he fired?
Then Stacey Wolf went right up the middle, right between the giant’s six arms, and he actually ran up the giant’s belly in a dazzling Parkour move, his boots striking the giant just above the waist, and with both arms he brought the black shillelagh down upon the giant’s forehead, just above and between its eyes.
Curr-ACK! It sounded like Mark McGwire hitting one far out of the park.
Stacey Wolf fell back, landing on his feet, dancing back away from the giant.
The crooden giant, vast even among crooden, stood still a few moments. Then its eyes came together, crossing, and then rolled up into its head, and the giant went over backward. There was a loud scrambling as the great wolf behind the giant released his hold, and danced away from the falling behemoth. The ground shook as the giant struck the soil.
Jack ran forward and seized Stacey in his arms, actually lifting the large man off his feet.
“It’s you!” Jack cried, holding onto Stacey, and weeping. “I thought you didn’t make it through.”
“I’m here, it’s me,” Stacey Wolf said, woozily, and then he saw the world spinning, and his own eyes rolled up into head, much the way the giant’s had a few seconds before, but Six was there, and they caught him, and lowered him to the grasses.
And then the giant wolf was there, licking Wolf the man’s face.
“Please stand back,” Wolf the wolf said between licks.
She stood at the railing of the observation deck, leaning on the cool aluminum bannister, sipping at her hot cocoa. She did not know what she was going to do. She didn’t know if she could go back to Vestigial Surreality, because she was right there, huddled beneath a blanket when they removed Toby Winnur from his chamber, and they tried to keep the mess of what had been him hidden from her, but she had seen, just enough. Poor Toby was gone, only vestiges of him were in that black body bag upon the stretcher. She had seen the outlines of what could have been interpreted as a hand, a human hand, in the remains of the flesh, or not flesh, but bubbles. What they carted out had not been human, not anymore. At least the bundle she had carried across the floor had been somewhat substantial, although foamy, and light. Molecularly, he had become something else. Toby Winnur, Number Six, had become slime.
That could still happen to Seven.
But what bothered Seven even more than the fact that Toby Winnur was gone—she had at least expected that—but what was worse than his inevitable death, was the fact that no one had come to question her. None of the EMTs had even glanced at her. None of the security men in their uniforms had come to talk to Seven. Worse, no one had tried to comfort her.
What kind of company handled things this way?
She had to go back, she knew that, regardless of her eventual fate, because she had to go to her Inner Sanctum. She couldn’t leave herself there. She understood Six, if only now, because Seven was truly Seven, only there, in that world.
Seven toyed with the locket beneath her shirt, tracing its heart shape with a finger. She sipped at her cocoa and frowned. There was something...?
Something bothered her. It was right there, on the edge of her mind, circling her, and if she could only reach out, and grasp it, but she couldn’t quite get a mental hand out there, far enough. But something was bothering her.
She clasped the chain around her neck and drew out the locket. She smiled at the silver charm, a heart, tracing the intricate carvings with her fingertip. She loved the feel of the cool silver, with the aged deep lines, the silver was polished bright by the constant movement beneath her clothes, but the grime of ages had worked its way into the etchings, the tracings, the veins. It calmed her to work the locket in her fingers.
But something troubled her. Something. What was it?
She studied the heirloom locket. What was the shape in the center? Funny, she thought there had been initials engraved deep, but no, it was a shape. It looked like a ball, a globe, with a circle going around it. Was it supposed to be a figurative representation of the world, spinning? Or, was that supposed to be an airplane flying around the Earth? No, it looked like a ring, kind of like an iconic depiction of the planet Saturn.
But it was so old, this locket, the engraving so worn down after time, that it was almost impossible to figure out what the engraving was supposed to be.
Her mother gave her this locket, and her mother before her, going all the way back to the ancestor, him, the mythical one, their patron saint, their beloved forefather. Supposedly this locket had belonged to Jack Messenger. She didn’t know if it were true, what her mother told her, because there were a lot of things about her mother that she couldn’t quite trust, but her mother supposedly knew Old Jack, the Patriarch, when he was more than two hundred twenty years old, when her mother was just a little girl.
Seven’s eyes filled with tears. She wondered where Six was, had he made it, as he planned, was some part of him even now alive, in some utopian world?
“Right on time,” a voice said at her elbow.
Seven turned and smiled at a little girl. A funny little girl, dressed in an old-fashioned frilly dress, all shades of pink, hair up with bunches of golden curls. Seven set her cup of cocoa on the railing and turned to face the little girl.
“Hello,” she said, smiling, wiping at her eyes.
She heard an alarm sound somewhere in the platform and noticed people rushing toward the back of the observation deck, and the ceiling suddenly closed in, sealing off the atmosphere. The air immediately felt warmer in the confines of the deck.
“I’m Manda,” the little girl said, putting out a hand to shake.
“I’m...” Seven began, taking the little hand in her own, and she hesitated, because she was almost going to introduce herself as Seven, it’s how she identified with herself, but this little girl—something about her, something familiar—she smiled and squeezed the girl’s hand, “I’m Sandy.”
“We had best catch a taxi,” Manda said, not releasing Seven’s hand, but transferring it to her other hand, and walking, pulling Seven along with her, so that they were strolling and holding hands.
Seven laughed, wow, what a little controller, but she had to admit, the little girl was charming. Seven thought she had caught sight of the little girl earlier, in the food court, as she was rising on the crystal escalator with her cocoa. She glanced back. Great, she left her beverage sitting back there on the railing, she almost paused, but the little girl drew her inexorably onward.
“Didn’t I see you earlier, with a handsome man?” Seven asked as they entered a stairwell and began the spiraling descent to the taxi platform.
“A very handsome man, oh yes,” Manda answered, smiling sadly, “but handsome is, as handsome does.”
Seven chuckled. She might have said, never trust a pretty face. And she thought of Stacey, and without thought her hand grasped at her locket, which she had tucked back into her shirt at the little girl’s approach. And there was that troubling...feeling, again, as if she had left the stove on, or the door unlocked. Something gamboled off in the darkness, playfully tickling at her conscious mind, like a moth batting at an electric light, so close it burned, but still, it couldn’t get in.
They were on the taxi level and the little girl hustled her over to an open portal, and that was weird, because you always had to wait in lines for a taxi, despite the seven portals. Even with seven portal on either side of the platform—fourteen portals in all—you still had to wait for a taxi, always. As they walked into the waiting taxi, Seven glanced along the portals and saw at least five people in each line.
“You’re not a queen, are you?” Seven asked, chuckling a bit as she seated herself close to the little girl.
“I used to think of myself as a princess, but I was only pretending,” Manda said, smiling at Seven.
“Dada is dada,” Seven whispered, troubled, her eyes widening.
“You remember me,” Manda said, nodding.
“That was you,” Seven breathed. “Dada is dada. Data is data.”
“Could be a coincidence?” Manda said, giggling. She was playing with something in her hands. Seven leaned in close as the taxi pulled away. Distantly she considered that she did not know where they were going, and they hadn’t said anything to the driver silhouette up front. She felt the craft lurch and her tummy dipped when the vehicle sped away from the platform.
“This is beautiful, an heirloom, your mother gave it to you?” Manda said, holding up her hand and dangling the chain, the heart-shaped locket swinging, a pendulum.
“How?” Seven breathes, her hand clasping at her heart, but wait, that was in the Inner Sanctum, not here, she distinctly remembers crafting the locket, placing the crystal cube—the size of a vitamin pill, yes she distinctly remembers—she places the crystal cube into the heart-shaped locket, a smooth locket without engraving—yet she distinctly remembers Mother, a High Jackian Priestess, giving her this locket, on her thirteenth birthday, a token from Old Jack himself, before he died at the age of two hundred thirty, she remembers all this.
“Keep it safe,” Manda says, handing the chain and locket to Seven. “Don’t pull it out in public like that. Trust Old Ben, though you never know what he will do next. And talk to Mr. Kronoss, don’t be afraid of him, but never, absolutely never trust him. Especially if you’re a pigeon!”
Seven placed the chain over her head and dropped the locket inside the top of her shirt. She did not wish to look at the little girl, not anymore, and she could barely breathe. She realized the taxi was stopped, settled, the door opening. As she went to flee the taxi the little girl, Manda, seized her arm.
“Tell me, Sandra Newbury, Seven,” Manda said, and despite herself, Seven looked into her eyes. “Are people worth it? Do you think people are evil, or good?”
“People?” Seven said, unable to look away from the blue eyes of the little girl.
“I know there are good ones, I especially like Jack, and Stacey too. In fact, I think Stacey is my favorite, of all the people that have ever lived. But mostly, aren’t people just...crazy, little universes inside coconut skulls, scrambled like eggs, always turning to evil?”
Seven tried to snatch her arm away but the little girl’s grip was a vise of steel. Coconuts. Eggs. Her own brain seemed scrambled. Images of snakes and Humpty Dumpty swirled about for a few moments, and she thought she must be suffering a stroke. She witnessed dead pigeons suddenly take flight. Angry eyes glanced at her from a cell phone video. She was behind Stacey, Jack’s hand on the big man’s spine, and the Martian were approaching. Old Ben stood in the corner, leafing through a book. And Saturn glowed behind her eyes.
“I can’t figure it out, truthfully,” Manda said. “I love people. And I hate them, desperately. Don’t you?”
“Yes,” Seven said, and when the hand released her, she shot from the back of the taxi onto a deserted sidewalk.
“Bye-bye!” Manda cried as the taxi doors shut and the craft lifted up into the sky
Seven turned and looked up at the vast building before her, the steps leading up to the rear entrance mere paces away. She saw the red glow of the giant VS logo, even though she couldn’t see the letters, which were too high up and just around the corner of the building The little girl, Manda, had dropped her right at the steps of Vestigial Surreality.
Slowly, she climbed the steps. She had two minds, for just these moments, she could cling tenuously to both of them, both of her minds, both of her collection of memories, for she remembers creating the locket and she remembered her mother’s gift. The same locket. Different lockets, of different worlds, of different realities.
And Seven remembers the little girl, Manda, too, for it was her own face, the face of Sandra Newbury, when she was seven years of age. Manda was a perfect reproduction of seven-year-old Sandy.
© Copyright 2016 Douglas Christian Larsen. Vestigial Surreality. All Rights Reserved by the Author, Douglas Christian Larsen. No part of this serial fiction may be reproduced (except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews) or transmitted by any means without the written permission of the publisher, Wolftales UNlimited, but please feel free to share the story with anyone, only not for sale or resale. This work is a work of fiction. People, places, events, and situations are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or historical events, is purely coincidental (wink, wink).
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