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They worked in the sunshine, which wonder of wonders, in this place did not cause any form of skin cancer, or leathery aging of the skin. In this place. High Vale. They were about two hundred yards removed from the great house, down below the pastures, close to the river, moving upon the short grasses, Wolf flowing in slow motions, Jack doing his best to mimic every nuance of every move. Jack kept snorting, and shaking his head. They were bare chested, exercising in their breeches and boots.
“Can we stop with the kappas, already? Please, I hate the kappas,” Jack whined.
“Kata! Would you please stop goofing off? You asked me to teach you this stuff,” Wolf said, calmly, maintaining his motion, smoothly working through the kata.
“Yeah, but I wanted to learn how to fight, not dance,” Jack sniffed, finally throwing down his arms and stalking away from the older man. “Plus I’m sweating like a pig.”
“Don’t let the chef hear you say that!”
Wolf completed the simple kata, and bowed to an unseen sensei.
“Come on, Jack, show me a simple defensive stance, just the basics,” Wolf said, at the edge of his patience. But he had not lost his temper with the kid, not yet. He did not really have to remind himself that Jack was a kid, and that kids were kids, but he did have to remind himself that Jack did not pick this stuff up, not very fast at all. In fact, he had not managed to retain anything Wolf had already shown him.
Jack sighed and put his fists up. Wolf shook his head.
“Will you please make a little effort?”
Jack sighed again, and he bent his knees, just a little, and he finally put down his chin so that it was near his chest, but as always he had just about everything else wrong.
“Thumbs out, Jack. If you punch someone like that you’ll bust your thumbs. Never tuck your thumbs, and keep your fists loose, like you’re holding a butterfly and don’t want to crush it. Put your left fist out, a little farther; remember that’s your tapper. Pull your right fist a little closer to your jaw, no, not against your jaw, just up close, not that close, okay not that far—Jack, will you at least pretend to be making an effort?”
Jack sighed, again, and this was a really big sigh, like the worst actor in an amateur theater troupe, loud, exaggerated, and drawn out, projecting in order for the cheap seats to hear.
“Maybe you should just keep doing all the derring-do, cuz I suck at this stuff, Stacey. Fisticuffs. Sheesh.”
“If I’m there, I will, but I might not always be there, you know that,” Wolf said, now sighing as well.
“You’re gonna be there, just get used to it. Sheesh, it’s not like I’m going to let you go anywhere,” Jack said, rolling his eyes and dropping to the grass, stripping off his boots and stretching out.
Wolf folded up as he plunked to the grass, and stripped off his own boots, and leaned back onto his elbows, enjoying the sunshine. In this place, he felt more like a plant than an animal, and he loved the caress of the sun. The sun seemed about ten percent bigger than they were used to—compared to, well, normal times—and it felt more regularly warm, and did not singe the eyes when you looked up at it.
“You know what you remind me of?” Jack asked, perking up now that Wolf had switched out of teacher mode.
“What, a slob? A bum? A skeleton with lazy bones, just-a sleepin’ in the sun?”
“No, you remind me of one of those big dinosaurs, the ones that look kind of like the T-Rex, only they are obviously vegetarian, and gentle? You just knew, as a kid, that those guys could mix it up with the T-Rex and the other nasty carnivores—carni-saurs? Carnosaurs? Carnosaureses? Whatever you call the bad-guy dinosaurs.”
“I guess there was no big surprise there, that we are both vegetarians, we always kind of know each other, don’t we? Something that shines in the eyes. Although carnivores can’t really tell, at least not at first. But we see it.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ve noticed that! What would you call it—wimpiness?” Jack laughed.
“Maybe,” Wolf grinned, chuckling. “But I would probably call it more gentleness. We recognize a certain...gentleness, all vegetarians do, or maybe a certain cleanness.”
“Nah, we’re wimps, let’s face it. It’s always why we have to kind of keep it a...secret, from literally everyone. When they find out, at first they think we’re weird, and then wimpy, and then they start making their jokes, right? We’re actually worse than nerds. Well, I guess it’s more accurate to say that we are nerds, just vegetarian nerds.”
“Yeah, I guess, I don’t usually announce it, not like the vegans do.”
“Yeah, yeah, those guys—they always proclaim it! Back, filthy mortals, step aside, please do not brush against me with your filthy, germy, carnivore-germy lower-form beings!”
“Vegans are religious,” Wolf said, closing his eyes, lolling in the sunshine. “Vegetarians are usually...spiritual, something like that.”
“And carnivores are like the loudly religious, ah meat! I need my meat, you can’t beat my meat!” Jack chortled.
“They put bacon in everything, literally everything,” Wolf agreed, shaking his head. “Once a woman brought muffins to work, and she had bits of bacon actually cooked inside—muffins! And salads. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if they came out with a bacon milkshake! Bacon ice cream.”
“It’s so completely gross,” Jack snorted. “I would always see some extremely beautiful girl, at lunch, and I would be thinking, how in the world can anyone be so...gorgeous? And then I’d see her biting into a burger, with bacon poking out, and then her magic aura would wink out. I’d imagine what her breath would smell like, you know? If I kissed her, all that meat, that blood smell—it’s almost as bad as imagining her on the toilet. Sheesh.”
“Best not to imagine such things,” Wolf chuckled.
“Have you ever?” Jack said, leaning forward.
“Imagined such things?”
“No, have you ever kissed a meat-eater?”
“Oh yeah, of course. In fact, all my girlfriends were meat-eaters, and you could tell. There’s a strong scent to them, sure. It’s not bad, not exactly. But it’s meaty. Kind of like musk. It probably makes them seem a little more...exciting. Not so nice, you know. The bad girl, a little smelly, you can even pick out the smell under all their perfumes. I guess it seems a little dirty.”
Jack burst into laughter.
“You’ve had a lot of smelly girlfriends?”
“After I turned about, oh, seventeen I guess—your age—I always had a girlfriend, of varying seriousness, but never any that were all that—satisfying, the relationships.”
“Just the sex?” Jack said, trying to keep a level of seriousness to his tone, but unable to hide his perkiness.
“I guess that was the usual reason, the sex, and the companionship. But I guess I never met that one, you know? The magical one. I was never looking for conquests. I wanted her, my fantaise artiste, my dream artist, a mysteriously deep woman. But I guess I always attracted the wrong type. It was mostly my fault, I guess, because I give off the wrong signal. They always see me as the bad boy, and a certain kind of girl likes the bad boy, usually the wrong type. All my girlfriends were extremely aggressive, and that’s who I usually ended up with. My Mom would always tell me to go for the shy girls, the quiet girls, the nice girls.”
“See?” Jack laughed. “The vegetarian dinosaur syndrome! You look like a T-Rex, but really you’re one of those big plant eaters! They think they’re getting one of those big bloody meat-rippers, and here’s you, nibbling away at the green! All nice. All gentle. Boy, they must have been disappointed when they found out the truth!”
Wolf laughed. “I think you’ve got it. I’ve never thought of it that way, but that’s pretty close to the heart of the matter.”
“Describe her,” Jack commanded.
“A reader, that would have been nice, not even one of my girlfriends read (or maybe they just couldn’t read), they thought books were the stupidest things, and here that’s what I was always doing, writing. So what are they ultimately going to think of this nerd, at his computer, always writing? I’ve always imagined cuddling up and reading with a woman, either from the same book, sipping coffee, our feet tangled together, or each of us reading our own books, me a thick, fat Brandon Sanderson fantasy, and her a slim, elegant Jhumpa Lahiri; I wouldn’t mind chick lit, in fact I actually like chick lit.”
“Jhumpa Lahiri, very good writer. Probably a great writer, kind of contemporary Jane Austen.”
“Oh man, Stacey, no way, I can’t read Jane Austen. I can’t believe you like Austen!”
“Well, maybe when you’re a little older. She’s the best, and the Bronte sisters.”
“Really? Jane Airhead?”
“Oh hey, Jack, come on, I love Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights more than any other book, and her sister Charlotte’s Jane Eyre is close. But again, maybe when you’re older.”
“I hope not,” Jack said, shaking his head. “But I have thought about reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Now that sounds like a rip-roaring tale I could get into it.”
“It’s really funny, I mean laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s not funny unless you’re a big, big fan of the original Pride and Prejudice. But if you’re too big a fan, you’ll hate it.”
“Okay, so you want a lady artist, that reads, is a vegetarian, and what—blonde?”
“Oh no, I’ve always liked the brunettes, with lots of hair.”
“Myself, I’ve always kind of liked blondes, and sometimes redheads, or strawberry blondes.”
“Really, I like that too. There’s something about a redhead. Ooh, and Asians. Black girls. Tall Scandinavian babes with white hair. Cowgirls are hot. But really, maybe just the right blonde, with deep brown eyes.”
“I like blue eyes.”
“Maybe the right blue eyes, sure. But blue eyes have always seemed like vanilla to me, everywhere and the same. But yeah, you get the right pair of blue eyes, and wow.”
Jack sighed. “So you’re pretty much saying you like any type of woman? Looks-wise. Can’t pin it down more than a girl with multicolored hair that reads and guzzles coffee? Loud belches, would that help?”
“Tight, faded jeans, that’s probably my downfall, I can hardly resist a woman in tight jeans. Especially when there’s holes in the knees! But, Jane Seymour, the actress? Ah, in all her phases, she’s like the moon. The young Jane, the middle-aged Jane, I don’t know which Jane I like the best, but I’d probably melt away to nothingness if I met her in real life, or someone like her. Lady Jane. She’ll be hot in her eighties. Or Sandra Bullock, there’s something about her that just catches at my heart.”
“Yeah, I like Sandra Bullock, too. While You Were Sleeping.”
“Don’t move, just be very, very still,” Wolf said, his tone not changing.
“What is it?” Jack whispered, freezing, eyes going huge.
“Just don’t move, unless I tell you to run, and then do that, very fast,” Wolf said, easing to his feet, his shillelagh appearing in his hand. He moved with exaggerated slowness, almost like he was doing his kata again.
A scorpion, the size of a German Shepard came scuttling along the bank of the river, it’s big claws clacketing as it moved back and forth, apparently searching. The creature was a decent twenty yards from them, and Wolf doubted it could see all that well. Hopefully, it would just continue on its chitinous way. Just keep clacking, you bug you.
“Oh no way,” Jack said, peeking around Wolf’s legs, who had moved to place himself between Jack and the scorpion.
“Why do they have to throw in something like this?” Wolf said, sounding more than a little put out. Here they were, just a chattering away, enjoying the sunshine and the grass, in an utterly beautiful world, and now here came the nightmare that walks by day.
“Guess they like to keep things interesting,” Jack whispered, scrambling to his feet.
“I told you not to move,” Wolf snapped, because the scorpion abruptly scuttled forward ten feet, in their direction.
Jack began hopping about, trying to pull on his boots.
“Would you just please stop waving your body around like a red flag?” Wolf sighed, exasperated. “Do you have any horns you can blow?”
Because now the scorpion was charging them.
Wolf stood, barefoot, slightly crouching, the black shillelagh up and motionless.
“Wouldn’t this be just about the best time to run?” Jack stuttered, scrambling back and forth behind Wolf, looking for something, anything—sure, he had this dagger, and it was nice and everything, but it felt woefully insufficient at the charge of a rampaging giant scorpion.
“Stop moving,” Wolf commanded in his low growl.
Jack finally froze, peeking over Wolf’s shoulder. And when Jack stopped moving, the scorpion abruptly halted, its tail up and threatening, its claws both open for maximum crunching power. Hell, those clompers could probably severe a leg, at the thigh! But Wolf concentrated on the uplifted tail, and watched queasily as a viscous dark drip swelled at the tip of the nasty looking stinger.
“Oh now that’s just lovely,” Wolf whispered. The scorpion shifted on its six legs, reacting to the whisper. He wished he had his MMA gloves and armored arm bracer, but they were lying in the grass, near his boots, shirt, and vest.
“Do you speak?” Wolf said, addressing the scorpion, in what sounded to Jack as a remarkably calm thing and way to say to a scorpion, and perfectly reasonable, considering that this was High Vale.
The scorpion jerked at the words, and scrambled a few feet to the side, but kept its alien head aimed at them—its stinger, as well.
“Worth a try, everything else seems to be so talkative,” Jack muttered. Then he looked to a strand of trees perhaps fifty feet away, because something sparkly caught his attention. For just a moment, it looked like a stream of fireflies swished through the foliage, high in the trees. Fireflies, in full daylight?
“Maybe I can just scare it away,” Wolf began to say, but before he even got to the word scare the scorpion pounced at him, the tail descending, the pincers pinching.
Wolf moved backward, deflecting the stinger strike with the shillelagh. His back punched into Jack and nearly knocked him off his feet, and Wolf suffered a bad few moments where he almost tripped over the boy and went down. But he deflected the first stringer lash—it felt like batting away a lashing steel chain, and then expertly slammed the black fighting club into a pincer, and the impact was so powerful he almost lost his grasp on the shillelagh.
Jack danced back and when Wolf moved to the side and he had a clear view of the attacking scorpion, Jack hurled his dagger with all his might. It was a perfect throw. It was an expert throw, as if he had been throwing daggers all his life. But the weapon banged off the scorpion’s carapace and didn’t leave a scratch. The insect—the arachnid—the monster turned toward Jack, its claws going wide.
Wolf dashed about the creature while Jack froze in place, and he leapt and caught the tail just beneath the stinger. He tried to snap the tail, exerting all his mighty strength, but it was like attempting to snap a cable. The scorpion scrambled, whipping its tail, and Wolf lifted off his feet and flew a good six feet to the side, but he maintained his hold on the deadly whip. He threw his body backward, jerking on the tail, applying all his weight.
The scorpion came about at him, very fast, and grasping the tail, not letting go—he was hurled in the other direction.
Whatever he did, he was not letting go his hold on this crazy whip—he felt like Baloo the Bear unable to release the tiger tail. He hollered and groaned as the tail thrashed him back and forth, at least thankfully in the opposite direction from which the scorpion scuttled—his arms felt jerked out of the sockets. It came at him from the left, and he was yanked to the right, away from the grasping claws. The thing was actually defeating its own attacks. The clasping claws sounded like steel bear traps snapping shut. Wolf flew the other way. This thing, this bug, half his size, was whipping him about like the most hated doll in the world.
“Stupid bug!” Wolf howled, and he took the tail and cranked on it, snapping it tight and throwing his weight into a full swing, and managed to lift the monster off its feet and hurl it about like the hammer throw, but it proved to be a wimpy throw, at least in its result, for the giant bug only flew about five feet, and tumbled in a roll, its body thrashing all the way over to slam down on its back, its legs kicking wildly in the air for a moment, and then it stretched over itself and came up facing away from them, then scrambled back, its tail waving like a battle flag.
Damn, but his shillelagh was in the grass, and for a few moments Wolf couldn’t spot the weapon, and he needed it. Perhaps he’d been foolish to drop the club to seize the tail.
“Here it is!” Jack shouted, snatching up the shillelagh, but his body seized in an electric jolt, and he jerked rigid, dropping the club, collapsing into a loose-limbed heap, falling back on the grass with his mouth slack, a thin wisp of smoke rising from his mouth.
“Jack!” Wolf roared, and the scorpion scuttled toward him, but it was obviously shifting its gaze (did the thing even have eyes?) between them, deciding whether to go after the unconscious lump of meat, or take out the big conscious lump of meat?
Wolf rushed and dove toward Jack, coming up with the shillelagh in his hands as the scorpion scuttled forward, striking its stinger down. Wolf deflected the strike and then slammed his club into the closest claw, which clamped down, and as the scorpion turned again to bring the other claw to attack Wolf was thrown over onto his back—the shillelagh ripped from his hand, but he scrambled and made it halfway to his feet when the scorpion tail struck again, and Wolf jerked to the side, but the strike was so close that the passing tail actually punched him in the head, knocking him back into the ground. Flashes of light filled his vision, but he forced himself to roll, away from Jack, kicking out his feet, scrambling, and he felt the stinger punch the ground by his head. Instinctively he seized the tail again, in both hands, and the scorpion jerked him up off his feet and his body followed the tail and flew over the creature’s chittering body, he watched it pass beneath him and then he came down hard, on his left arm, and the wind rushed from his body, but he rolled, and was able to rise.
The scorpion was motionless, between Wolf and Jack. Again, it seemed to be choosing between them.
“Here! Over here, you stupid bug!” Wolf roared, stamping his feet and waving his right arm. His left arm dangled at his side.
The scorpion scooted about, facing him.
Jack appeared to be rousing, coughing. Thank God, just as long as the kid’s movements didn’t draw back the attention of the monster.
“Come on! Come on!” Wolf thundered at the top of his lungs, and the scorpion tracked him, followed him as he took several steps backward, attempting to draw it away from the youth in the grass. The scorpion scuttled forward, in pursuit, but then it paused again, and half-turned back toward Jack. Comically, it waved Wolf’s shillelagh in its claw, almost as if it were taunting him. Ha ha, I’ve got your disco stick, big man!
How do you fight this thing? If he had one of his daggers that were nestled in his vest, he could throw for that meaty looking thing that passed for a face—what an ugly thing! Goodness, but it was ugly.
Then an arrow whumped right into that face that Wolf was studying, neat as that, the arrow sprouted, almost magically, and the scorpion chittered, and died. It looked like it was deflating, all the air leaking at once from his chitinous body.
Wolf looked and there stood Seven, Jack’s bow in her left hand, still lifted, even now nocking another arrow.
“Seven!” Jack cried, sitting up in the grass, still looking woozy.
“Thank God!” Wolf cried, crumpling onto his butt, even now unsure of just how battered his body actually was. He had been jerked, thumped, slammed, flipped, thrown, and dashed, several times, and that punch from the passing tail had been harder than anything he’d absorbed in the ring, it had been like getting punched again by the crooden giant. All this, form a lightweight bug no bigger than Danny Devito.
“No, you can thank me, this time,” Seven said, joking, and in her tight glistening buckskins she rushed forward to Jack and knelt by his side. “Did it sting you?”
“Probably, I don’t know—I don’t think so, I mean I’m still alive, I think,” Jack babbled, grinning hugely at his Ghost Lady.
“Six sent me,” she said, placing the bow on the grass near Jack, and removing the quiver of arrows, placing them within his reach. “He said you forgot this, and that you really shouldn’t be close to the river without your bow, because, you know, there are scorpions prowling around the river!”
Jack laughed. “Oh yeah, that.”
Wolf managed to get to his feet, but swayed, his head, spinning. His left arm dangled, but it didn’t feel broken. He went to the scorpion and seized his shillelagh, but couldn’t manage to pry the club free from the claw. Even in death, the dog-sized scorpion was stronger than him. He cranked the walking stick, back and forth, like a pry bar, leaning his weight against the wood, and finally managed to get the claw open about an inch. He plunked down, weary, in the grass, one foot propped up on the claw.
“Are you okay, Stacey?” Seven called, coming to him. “Did you get stung?”
“No, just punched, and basically manhandled,” he muttered, head down, gasping for breath.
“That’s a good thing, because I don’t know what will happen if you die here,” she said, softly, kneeling by him. She smoothed her hand along the muscles of his left arm. “I don’t know what would happen to me, if you died,” she whispered.
“I’m okay, just winded,” he said.
“It’s not broken, is it?”
“No, I don’t think so, just shocked, or sprained. I’m at least getting some feeling back in it, and it doesn’t hurt, not quite yet,” he said, closing his eyes, lulled by the caress of her hand. “That feels good.”
She pushed her fingers into his mane and pushed his hair back out of his face, then she kept on, putting her fingers through his hair, and he sighed.
“You have to be careful, Stacey,” she said, staring at his chest and muscled torso as she gentled his brow. It was like soothing a horse.
“Good thing you came along,” he murmured. “I was out of ideas.”
“Always getting into trouble, Stacey, Stacey, Stacey. Stacey the black sheep, Stacey the bad boy,” she crooned. She sat down beside him and pulled him over, placing his head in her lap. “Just rest a while. I’m here. I’m here.”
“Oh, I love that,” he said, feeling dreamy, “I love your fingers through my hair.”
“I know,” she said, continuing her fingers moving and pulling and smoothing, combing. “Me too.”
And Wolf began snoring.
“What a time to take a nap,” Jack said, kneeling near Seven, taking Wolf’s right hand in both his hands. He glanced up at the nearby trees, because again he saw what he thought must be movement, a cloud of fireflies, something high up, something sparkly, but then he told himself he must be imagining things, because it kind of looked like Tinkerbell flittering through the leaves. But his eyes were drawn back to the river, and the thing.
“He just needs to rest, a bit,” Seven said, softly.
“No, I mean—that,” Jack said, indicating with his head, away down the riverbank. She glanced up.
Another scorpion came wandering along, its pincers opening and closing, and while the first scorpion, the now-dead arachnid, was terrifying at the size of a large dog, this one coming was closer to the size of a bull. Its tail alone must be twenty feet long.
“Oh boy, that one might take a bit more than an arrow,” she said, lightly slapping Wolf’s face.
“Whatever you do, just don’t move, boy have I learned that lesson well,” he whispered, near her ear. He inhaled deeply. She smelled wonderful. “You’re a vegetarian, aren’t you?”
“Isn’t everyone?” she whispered in return. “Where I come from, it would be a miracle to find meat, let alone think of eating it. But that’s right, I keep forgetting, in your time everyone was barbarian. I keep forgetting, you both seem so real.”
“I think if we don’t move, like Stacey said, maybe it will just keep going down the river,” Jack whispered.
“What are you doing in my hair?” she whispered.
“Just smelling you,” Jack whispered.
“Well stop it, it’s distracting,” she whispered.
“You like Stacey, don’t you?” he whispered.
“I don’t know what I feel about him,” she whispered, and her fingers stopped moving through the sleeping man’s hair. “There’s something about him. He just makes me crazy. Usually, I just want to kill him. But other times, there’s something magical about him.”
“I don’t blame you,” Jack whispered, “Even I think he’s incredibly hot, and he’s my father.”
She snorted. “You think he’s your...? No, Jack, he’s—”
“Is that your horse?” Jack said, loudly.
“Is what my horse?” she whispered, looking at him.
Jack seized her jaw in his hand and turned her head so that she was looking in the same direction he was looking. And she saw that Dancer, her beautiful dappled horse, was clumping down the embankment, probably looking for her.
They looked back toward the truly monstrous scorpion, and, of course, drawn by the horse, the monster was charging toward them—greedily, hungrily—because, after all, there was just so much meat waiting here, so much meat, and so little time for a giant scorpion to rend and tear.
© 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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