The great serpent thrashed its head to the soil again, attempting to annihilate the profane creature that clung just beneath its jaws with a sickening determination to do the god harm. Again, the great serpent failed in its attempt at freedom. The vermin would not release its throttling grasp. Stupid mouse, no, plump rat! Ah, but even its foul touch was profane, the serpent could not stand being touched, and the vermin seemed to be locked in a death grip.
The main obstacle to the serpent’s freedom, aside from the profane creature itself, was the fact that it had pursued the infuriating creature around the sacred fruit tree, more than a few times, and thus could not bring its powerful constricting body to bear. In its efforts to free itself from the infuriating rodent, its entire body had come up thrashing about the sacred tree, and many coils were now tangled throughout the branches of the tree, and fruit was knocked free, smashed, and many of the sacred branches were snapped and damaged. If the serpent continued in the same fashion, it would destroy its own sacred vessel, the very instrument that produced its life-giving meat.
The great serpent went still. It was exhausted, as the parasitical creature clamped to its head was exerting amazing pressure, constricting, and the great serpent—a god—had never met such a foe.
Stacey did not know how much longer he could manage to cling to the monster. Despite the perfect condition and strength of his fantastic new body, this duel had been going on for far too long—he had expended too much energy in eluding the snake’s first violent attack—and he was battered and smashed, slammed both onto the soil (which at least was soft) and up against the slim, delicate tree. His body was wet with the smashed fruit scattered all about the snake and its coils, wet with fruit juice, and his own profuse sweat. For much of their frantic battle, the snake’s vast coils thrashed all about him, seeming to fill the sky with monstrous, sinuous cables of death.
Now the great serpent seemed to be tiring, its vast body tangled throughout the tree, and a few times it seemed to have him in its constricting coils, save for the fact that Stacey had its head seized in both his arms and legs.
He wanted to slam his thumb into the snake’s bulbous eyes, but was too afraid to loosen his grip to make even one or two offensive strikes. He had his legs wrapped around the snake’s body, his ankles locked together.
“Stupid snake,” Stacey gritted between his teeth, “I am going to pop...your...stinking...eyes!”
“How dare you threaten me,” the snake hissed in reply. “Never have I been so defiled by my meat. Damned rat! Rodent!”
Stacey was rocked to hear the thing speak. He understood it perfectly. Come on, this was just too ridiculous, it was absurd that he was lying here tangled up in a snake the size of sewer piping, and now the thing was speaking to him; more, the stupid thing was actually insulting him.
“Stop talking!” Stacey roared, infuriated. “Think I’m a...parseltongue?”
“Get off me! Release me!” the snake hissed, the sound grating and loud, irritating as fingernails on a chalkboard—if the fingernails happened to be twelve inches long!
The snake responded by slamming its head, and thus Stacey’s whole body, again and again up against the tree, and the tree was not soft.
Stacey grunted and dug deep his legs, flexing his muscles for all he was worth, scissor-locking the snake until it ceased its new violent thrashing.
The serpent went still again, save for its gasping breath, dazed, for in its attempt to smash the rat, it had more hurt itself than the clinging rodent. It could barely breathe, so strong were the creature’s legs tightened upon its throat. The great serpent was confounded, because no creature so insignificant should be able to apply such amazing strength.
Stacey released his flexing legs. His whole body seemed to be cramping up, and he doubted he would be able to apply any more bursts of strength. This last battle of strength pitted against strength was almost too much. He ought to just release the thing. Let it have him. He didn’t stand a chance against something as vast as the great serpent. It was too strong. It was too powerful.
No, no, NO! He would not give up. He would kill this thing before he ever surrendered to a slithering, hissing monster.
Stacey unclasped his right hand from his left wrist. He surged up and punched up and around with his left fist, striking the snake savagely in the eye. When the snake reacted, writhing, he immediately returned his lock upon its throat. That was close, for he almost couldn’t get his left hand returned in time, and the snake almost bucked him off.
That was it. Stacey had expended all his strength. He was wiped. His vision swam. He had failed. The next time the snake attempted to free itself, poor Stacey would peel away like a wet sock.
“Oh, you hurt me!” the snake gasped. It could not begin to understand the strength of this rat, its very meat, for the pitifully small thing, barely a snack, just would not give up, its strength seemed inexhaustible.
The great serpent coughed. It could barely catch breath, and now its eye throbbed. It clenched a scaly shield down over its wounded eye. What if it were blinded? Had the rat actually blinded its sacred eye? If it was not so tangled in and about its own sacred tree, the great serpent would retreat, it would just leave, because this was just not right, like suffering indigestion on the outside of its body! The snake would depart, right now, but the rat would not let it go. No, the foul rodent meant to kill its own god! This was not right!
“I’m about to hurt you again,” Stacey gritted, but it was an idle threat. He doubted he could even manage a soothing game of patty cake, let alone throw another monster punch. His arms felt like rubber. His legs felt like rubber. Stacey doubted he could even bring harsh language to bear on the vicious monster.
“I am a god!” the snake complained.
“Yeah? Well I’m Howdy Doody,” Stacey gritted through his clamped teeth.
The snake wheezed, its body spasming. For a moment, Stacey actually felt sorry for the thing, as it shuddered, and began to issue a sighing cry, a whimpering noise that sounded more like a puppy than a monster from nightmare.
“Please,” the snake hissed, now softly, “Release me, just let me go, and I promise, I will reward you.”
“Lying snake,” Stacey said.
“I do not lie,” the snake hissed. “I am a god, and this is not right. You have wounded me. I think you poked out my eye.”
“Oh shut up, what kind of god are you anyway?” Stacey said. The thing had no self-esteem. At worst, he had merely put a little dent in the eye. Poked out its eye—good night—what a big baby!
“I admit it, you have bested me, Howdy Doody. You are not my meat, I admit it,” the snake hissed, and it sounded like it was weeping.
“Don’t call me Howdy Doody,” Stacey snarled.
“But isn’t that your name?” the snake hissed, sounding almost reasonable.
“It is if you’re a god,” Stacey said, “but call me...Wolf.” He said it on a whim, as Wolf was the name he used for the years when he was a boxer, it also was his favorite nickname.
“Ah, Wolf, yesssssss,” the snake hissed. “See, this was all a mistake, for wolves do not partake of the sacred fruit. Wolves are not my meat. Never, I can promise you, have I ever harmed a wolf.”
“So you just want me to...let you go?” Stacey said, and he half-chuckled. “I’m going to let you go, and what, we are just going to shake hands?”
“If you wish, you can shake your hands, but I will show you my tongue, in peace. I promise you, and I do not lie.”
Stacey didn’t know if he liked the idea of the great snake showing him its tongue. That just didn’t seem right. Kind of unsavory. It sounded...wrong. But, if that were its thing, who was Stacey to judge?
“Okay, so, let’s say I release you, just let you go,” Stacey said.
“Yessss, yesssss,” the snake encouraged, drawing out its sibilant pleadings.
“You are going to reward me, and then we are going to part...as friends?”
“Yesssss, I promissssse!”
“Okay, I’m trusting you, here,” Stacey said, with some caution. “But if you show any sign of going back on your word...I will not be very happy.”
“I promise, we are in agreement, you can trust me, Wolf.”
“What is your name, snake?” Stacey demanded.
The great serpent remained silent.
“Tell me your name,” Stacey commanded.
“I am not supposed to tell you my name,” the snake hissed, so softly Stacey barely heard its words.
“Look, I told you my name, now tell me your name. If you want me to trust you,” Stacey said, still hugging the snake just below its great head. It was like holding onto the neck of a very long bull.
“I tell you my name out of my great respect for you, in trust,” the snake said.
“Well? You still haven’t told me your name,” Stacey said.
“I am Oros Borealis, Deity of High Vale, God of Violence and War,” the great serpent hissed, sounding very official, and very proud of itself.
Stacey coughed, and steadied his weary voice. “I, Wolf, Pugilist, accept your surrender, Oros Borealis, Deity of Violence and War.”
And Stacey unlocked his hands, but they remained frozen into clamped claws. He gritted his teeth and released the lock on his ankles.
The great snake jerked out of his embrace, and slowly, hesitantly, slithered slightly, creepingly away. It regarded him with its one huge eye (the other eye remained lidded beneath its scaly shield).
Stacey, on his side, the great weight of the snake’s head off his leg, remained prone, his whole body clumped together in the mother of all cramps. Dripping with sweat and crushed fruit, Stacey regarded the snake.
Something emerged slowly, sinuously from the snake’s mouth. The thing, bloated and yellow gold, seemed too fat and big around to be a tongue, but the thing came forward, and softly touched Stacey’s face.
“Ohhh,” Oros Borealis crooned, “Wolf, you look so...delicioussssss.”
Stacey lifted an eyebrow and gave the snake a hard look. “Mind your manners, Oros Borealis.”
“I keep my word,” Oros Borealis hissed. “I vow that I am your friend, Wolf, and shall come at your great need. You are not my meat, although you certainly are the most delectable morsel I have ever perceived. I honor thee.”
“Thanks,” Stacey said, finally able to unclench his hands. He felt utterly drained, and it was only by the concentration of his will that he was able to remain conscious.
“I allow you access to the Sacred Pool of the Sacred Tree, please, refresh yourself,” Oros Borealis hissed, and Stacey was able to push himself up on one elbow as he felt the ground move beneath him.
He watched, wonderstruck, as a great mouth appeared in the soil near the tree, the ground withdrawing like living flesh to reveal a glimmering water source. The pool opened further until it revealed itself in the shape of a great eye, thirty feet across from corner to corner, perhaps ten feet across at its middle. Stacey crawled to its edge.
“It won’t blink, will it?” Stacey said, glancing at the snake.
“Please,” Oros Borealis soothingly hissed, “enter the pool, and drink of its waters.”
The poor snake appeared as exhausted as Stacey. It sprawled limply, looking a deflated garden hose meant to water valleys.
Stacey went headfirst into the pool and found the water cool, scintillating. His toes could just touch the bottom, which felt mossy, spongey beneath his feet. He floated. It felt good, liquid energy. Stacey poured handfuls of water over his face, then submerged his head, opening his mouth, drinking.
It was the most amazing water he had ever tasted, or felt. His body and face tingled, as if an electric current ran throughout his being. He closed his eyes and lazed in the water, spinning, floating onto his back, looking up at the too-blue sky, the deepest blue he had ever seen.
Other than a run-in with a meat-voracious serpent, this place really could be heaven.
Stacey registered movement and glancing to the side witnessed the snake plunge its nose and mouth into the waters. He felt the water level drop in the eye pool as the great serpent sucked in water.
Stacey moved to the edge of the pool and drew himself easily from the water. He felt fully alive, washed clean, refreshed, not a sore place on his body. He felt even stronger than when he first awakened in this place, High Vale. Stacey strode in the grasses, luxuriating in the feel of the sunlight upon his naked body.
It was incredible, he should be suffering the most hilatious asthma attack, but his lungs felt open, and huge. He breathed without a hitch, without a touch of phlegm in his throat. He laughed out loud, boomingly large. Again he felt the need to cry out. Bring me giants!
He refrained. The last time he had shouted that challenge, well, just look at how the universe had answered him.
Oros Borealis watched him, lazing at the water’s edge, its one eye still lidded, looking swollen.
“Would you like me to look at your eye?” Stacey said.
“Please?” the snake god hissed.
Stacey strode to the serpent and dropped to one knee before its scaly lid. He gently pushed at the lid, but the snake kept it clenched shut.
“You need to open this, I’ll be careful,” Stacey said, feeling bad about damaging the creature.
Flinching, the snake slowly folded up the lid and Stacey peered close. It didn’t appear damaged. There was no great dent, as Stacey feared. But it did seem swollen, compared to the unhurt eye.
“Can you see?” he asked.
“Blurry,” the snake said.
“I’ll wash it. Let me put some water from the pool on it.”
Stacey put his hands together in a cup shape and scooped up as much water as he could, and then came dripping back to the snake and slowly poured the water over its eye. Funny, just before he came to this place, his own eye was swollen shut and bleeding.
“Oooh, that feels good, yessss, soothing,” the snake said, closing its good eye and sighing.
Stacey repeated the washing process, scooping up several cupped hands of water and applying the wash all over the great orb. Stacey retrieved a smashed piece of fruit that was mostly whole and knelt again at the snake’s eye.
“I’m going to rub some of the sacred fruit on your eye. It’s gotta have healing properties, in this place,” he said.
The snake did not complain or flinch away, but held still, as Stacey gently rubbed the fruit over the eye. As he watched, he seemed to notice the swelling decrease, if only marginally. Then he washed the eye again with handfuls of water.
“I think it’s going to be okay,” Stacey said, “you’re not going to be blind in that eye.”
“Thank you,” Oros Borealis hissed.
“Let me help you get unwound from the tree,” Stacey offered, and proceeded to guide the snake’s body out of branches. He couldn’t manage more than lifting the body an inch or so, but with his hands guiding the process, he managed to aid the serpent in unwinding from out of the tree, and then back again the opposite direction to free it from around the tree. Other than several branches, the tree appeared okay, it would survive.
As he aided the great serpent, Stacey glanced to the pool where the huge eye slowly closed its lid, leaving the ground again merely soil and grass.
“You are very kind,” Oros Borealis hissed.
“One reason I never was the best pugilist,” Stacey replied, grinning.
“Oh, but you are a pugilist among pugilists,” the snake said, doing its best to compliment him, but Stacey was more than sure the snake did not quite understand what it was saying in its nicety. Nonetheless, the thought was pleasing.
Stacey flexed and shook out his muscles. He felt fully enervated, not a shred of exhaustion remaining. The pool had restored him and then some.
“Thank you, Oros Borealis,” Stacey said, “that dip in the pool was a wonderful reward.”
“Oh, no, Wolf, that was not your reward, that was just a pleasant drink among friends. If you will step back, I will produce your reward,” the great serpent hissed.
Stacey complied, stepping back several paces from the serpent’s head, as Oros Borealis began to hitch, and cough. Stacey had no idea what was going on, but it certainly didn’t seem like anything that would lead to a reward, of any kind.
It was ironic, but here, with this massive serpent, Stacey felt safe. He trusted, yes, he actually trusted a snake. Back where he came from, when someone told you they were sorry, and that you could be friends when you let them up, as soon as they got to their feet they’d more than likely pull a razor on you. But not so here, the snake made an oath, and Stacey fully trusted that it would keep the oath. Since releasing his hold on the serpent, Stacey had not doubted the beast’s integrity, not even a little bit. Funny, ironic, how you could trust an alien serpent, in another world, whereas you couldn’t trust your own kind in your own place. He couldn’t count the sucker punches he’d received over the years, all because he was a man that organically trusted the word of others. It probably came down to the fact that what you were, you expected of others.
Something foamy looking began to appear from the snake’s mouth, fibrous, something that looked woven of hairs, bleached hairs, as its jaws unhinged, and the bulbous something emerged. Within moments, several feet of beige hairball in the shape of a distended egg hung from the serpent’s mouth, and it kept coming as the snake strangled and coughed.
Sheesh, Stacey thought, I certainly hope this isn’t some indigenous ritual, where I have to eat a snake’s half-digested hairball. He felt queasy. What if this was some person the snake had swallowed?
With a final cough, the snake spat the long, tubular mess onto the ground. Stacey sighed, at least it wasn’t writhing, as it did look something like a beige maggot, wet, glistening.
“This is for you,” Oros Borealis hissed, looking pooped, as if it had just given birth.
Yikes, what if that is the reward, some kind of baby pet snake? Or a whole bunch of writhing snakes? What was he supposed to do? Smile and drape the snakes around his neck and shoulders?
“Um, uh, thanks?” Stacey managed, although he didn’t mean to sound ungrateful.
“Open it, open it,” Oros Borealis hissed, sounding excited, like a parent who can’t wait for a child to open that perfect gift, the one that cost half a paycheck.
Stacey knelt in the grasses by the lump, and tentatively poked at it with his finger. Thankfully, the lump did not move, and it didn’t appear to be breathing.
“Here, here, let me help you,” Oros Borealis hissed, grinning at Stacey, producing a fang fully twelve inches long, and proceeded to draw the tip of the fang through the skin of the lump. It reminded Stacey of television programs where medical examiners sliced into cadavers.
“Okay, please, open it,” Oros Borealis hissed excitedly. Stacey could almost imagine it dancing about on imaginary legs, clapping imaginary hands.
Stacey grimaced, and seized either side of the incision in either hand, and drew them back away from each other, parting what still felt like sopping hairball fabric. The fleshy, gooey substance seemed to rend easily, separating into a gaping hole.
Something squarish was in there, very odd, and Stacey felt it with his hands, and lifted it out, and thankfully the thing came away mostly clean. It was a backpack, or messenger bag, all made out of snakeskin. Stacey had to admit, it was a beautiful piece of luggage.
“A backpack?” he asked, peeking at the snake.
“Yesss, yesss, but there’s more, lots more!” the snake laughed, at least it sounded like it was laughing, and gleefully too. “You are the first, Wolf, you are the first.”
The next thing in the hairball sack appeared to be a crumpled wad of clothing, and as Stacey drew it out, it resolved into a pair of leggings, and looking closely, Stacey appreciated the fact that the pants were made out of fine scales, of an iridescent brown, only as he turned it in his hands they flickered with light, now looking more dark purple, with glimmers of scarlet.
He was about to comment when he recognized something else in the hairball sack, it looked like a pair of cotton boxer-briefs, the kind of underwear he usually wore. He chuckled and pulled out the cotton shorts.
“Well, this is convenient,” he said, stepping into the shorts and pulling them up over his legs and hips. At least they didn’t have the faux-opening in the crotch that was pretty much useless. “My size and everything.” He pulled on the legging-things, and they were stretchy, but thankfully didn’t fit him like tights, and were thick, and comforting. They felt like leather, but what did you call snakeskin? Probably snakeskin.
“Yesss, yesss, but there’s even more!” Oros Borealis hissed.
Stacey produced a pair of snakeskin boots that matched the leggings, and he liked them immediately. They looked like something from the Tolkien calendars of his youth, painted by the Brothers Hildebrandt. Stacey slipped into them and pulled them up just under his knees where they folded in this cuffs. If needed he could probably wear them unfolded, all the way up to his crotch, but he felt that might appear a tad too S&M. The boots were tough, serviceable, not fashionwear.
Stacey found more cotton—he wanted to call it a shirt, but the thing definitely was kind of blousey, reminding him of the infamous Pirate Shirt episode of Seinfeld. Still, there was no denying, it was a very nice shirt. Stacey pulled it over his head, and of course, it fit him perfectly, well matched to his broad shoulders. He rolled the sleeves up to his elbows, and tucked the bottom into the breeches—yes, these were breeches, not leggings, not tights, thank goodness, he was much more comfortable wearing breeches!
The next item was a vest made out of the same skin as the breeches, thick and braced with what felt like boiled leather about the chest and shoulders. When Stacey wore the garment, he felt how heavy it was, and discovered daggers hidden inside the vest, on either side so that his underarms pressed against the hafts. He drew one of the daggers. It was a beautiful piece of weaponry, with a horn handle, and perfectly sharp double-edged blade. He tucked it back into its sheath in the vest.
All this was feeling disturbingly familiar to Stacey.
When you got your gear in a video game.
But still, he consoled himself with the fact that all of this felt as real as waking up in the morning, or hiking, or even breathing. Yes, there more than a few fantasy...tropes, abundant signs that this was some sort of game, where you beat the boss and win its treasure, tropes abundant, but hey, he didn’t have much choice. Plus, he had to admit to himself, this was bad-ass cool, he liked these clothes, these daggers, these boots. Heck, he was equipped for Middle-Earth.
“Keep going, keep going,” Oros Borealis hissed.
“There’s more?” Stacey said, now feeling somewhat delighted. Hey, he felt it, it was like being a kid on Christmas morning.
He pulled free what had to be the coolest cape—a traveling cloak! It was fitted to his shoulders, with a large hood, he experimented by pulling it low on his head, and yes, as he expected, he could almost completely obscure his face in its shadow. There were even inner sleeves so you could wear it like a coat. Yes. Yes! He used to have an oilskin duster, but this traveling cloak was far cooler. He did a quick check and it was equipped with pockets for all kinds of things. He removed the cloak, for now, and folded it and placed it on the messenger bag (he really shouldn’t think of the bag that way, it was almost as bad as a fanny pack!).
The bag seemed empty now, just blackness inside.
“Keep going, Wolf,” Oros Borealis hissed.
“I don’t suppose there are some cigars in there?” he said, joking, but his hand found a small leather pouch, hardened into a rectangular shape, and when he pulled the top half up and away from the body of the (leather box?) pouch, he found himself staring at a clump of seven dark sticks that could only be called cigars. They were rough, and irregularly shaped, but they were cigars!
“You gotta be kidding me,” he said, extracting one, looking it over, sniffing it. Whoa, it smelled spicy, but had that underlying stink of cigar tobacco. He should probably think aroma, and not stink, but let’s face it, cigars stank, pure and simple (not that there was anything pure or simple about stinking). Without thinking, he nipped the end of the cigar with his front teeth and spat the tip to the side, and set the cigar in his teeth.
“Pinch the end,” Oros Borealis hissed.
Stacey pinched the end of the cigar and it burst into flame. He moved his hand away from the flame, and then puffed, extinguishing the flame, and overjoyed by the billows of smoke that erupted from his lips. Oh, it was glorious!
“Do I know how to reward a conqueror?” Oros Borealis hissed.
Stacey checked, and sure enough, there was a pocket inside the vest conveniently shaped for the hard cigar pouch.
“I have to admit, I am very pleased,” Stacey said, chuckling, grinning around the cigar, as he merrily puffed. And the cigar tasted good, unlike any cigar he’d smoked before. These guys must have a direct line to Cuba. Or a fantasy Cuba, perhaps from the 1930s.
“One last thing,” Oros Borealis hissed.
Stacey peered into the bag, but he didn’t see anything. He felt around and found something hard. It felt like a pool cue, but if it was, it was the kind that disassembled, because whatever it was, it couldn’t be too long, as the bag was no more than four feet in length. Stacey produced the rod, and it was black, and about four feet long, with a knobbed end, and a few nubs up and down the sides which could only have once been sawed-off branches.
Stacey, removing his cigar from his teeth to examine the stick better, recognized it at once; it was a black shillelagh.
“That is of the Ironwood Tree, and it is unbreakable,” Oros Borealis hissed, and it really did sound like he was smiling.
Stacey immediately spun the shillelagh in his hand, spinning it in one hand and then transferring it to the other, making the black weapon spin so fast it looked like a propeller. He ended with the walking stick smashing butt-first into the ground, as if he were Mr. Peanut.
He chuckled. He had never touched a shillelagh in his life, and here now he had the skill that martial artists would literally kill themselves to achieve.
“There’s only one thing left,” Oros Borealis hissed, drawing suddenly into the air above Stacey, a great hood spreading out from his neck, a canopy of colors that winked in the sunlight.
Stacey looked up at the snake’s head twenty feet above him as it peered down at him, all spread out, a majestic winged serpent.
“What’s that?” Stacey inquired, hefting his shillelagh in both hands, but loosely, at about his waist.
“Now that I have rewarded you, and we both are whole, oh but now, Wolf, I really must...eat you,” hissed Oros Borealis, Deity of High Vale, God of Violence and War. He sounded and appeared like the Big Bad Wolf hovering over Little Red Riding Hood. “I am certain that you will prove ultimately satisfying, and blissfully delicious.”
© 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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