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Jack crossed the grounds and easily leapt and caught the top branches of the protective hedge, and within seconds he had scampered and wriggled up and over the top, then maneuvered a few feet down through the thick branches to drop down the few remaining feet to the other side. He knew he was not supposed to cross the hedge, and he knew that he was not supposed to go out seeking adventure on his own. Yes, yes, Six had explained everything, more than once. Jack got it, he wasn’t stupid—okay, he wasn’t that stupid. If Jack wanted to go anywhere, two of the groundsmen would go with him, dudes employed to be...dudes. But that was not exactly Jack’s idea of an adventure, and today what he really wanted to do was get out of the house, get away from literally everyone, and think, and write, and think some more. And maybe write more, just jotting down his thoughts. And okay, yeah, maybe have a little bit of an adventure. He was not intentionally seeking disaster, or mayhem, but sometimes a guy had to get out, just to free up the thinking. Get some fresh air. And heck, this was High Vale.
He had his backpack on his back, packed with a few goodies liberated from the kitchen, his journals, his pens, and he didn’t really need anything else, did he—okay, except for his bow, his quiver full of arrows, and his assorted daggers. And his leather canteen, his bota.
It was early morning, the sun not yet up, and only a few birds were awake and singing their little hearts out. The whole world seemed hushed, the shadows very deep. It was chilly here, prior to the rising of the sun, and Jack was glad that he had borrowed one of the hunting cloaks, choosing one of the lighter items—it did not seem to be made of leather, as almost everything here seemed to be. No, it was dyed canvas, kind of a natural camo, dark and lighter browns, and dark and lighter greens, and heavily oiled, a little stinky, but he liked it because it had a big hood, and with it he would blend in the woods. And it sure was warmer than going it in just his breeches, shirt and vest, and boots.
He hurried through the cultivated grounds outside the hedge, which were only a bit wilder than the cultivated grounds inside the hedge. He ran in a slight crouch, rushing across the open spaces until he made it to the first of the great trees that surrounded the manor grounds. He did not want to trip any alarms or startle any watchmen. The plan was to do this whole thing quietly, slip in, and slip out, and nobody gets hurt. Except he was slipping out, and later back in, whatever, he just did not wish to do it as a tourist, but more like a ninja. He pulled his hood low over his Robin Hood hat and face, and chuckled a bit, imagining himself a ninja. Sure, on the adventurer scale, he was closer to hobbit than ninja.
Inside the forest, he loped into a swift, loose jog, reminding himself to be quiet, and vigilant. He did not wish to go it in his usual runner’s zone, because he would tune everything out, slide into a state of athletic meditation, and he could bumble straight into just about anything out here. No, he needed to stay out of the zone—move fast, gobble some distance, yes—but stay alert.
Of course, staying alert was different than reminding yourself to stay alert, because when you reminded yourself to stay alert you tended to think of the word alert—what a weird word it was—alert—be alert, because the country needs more lerts. And pretty soon you’d jogged a mile, laughing at your own stupid joke, and you had noticed nothing, because words could do that, especially words like alert. And Jack paused, leaning against a tree, probably a mile into his little jog, and he only now suddenly realized had been fully inside his own head, thinking his thoughts, playing with words, noticing nothing. He could barely remember anything he had passed. Trees, lots of trees, and some wicked looking bushes that he instinctively went far around. Some vigilance. Vigil, lance, it was like naming your lance Vigil. Knave, prepare for my lance, his name is Vigil. Or Virgil would be better, Virgilance—nah, people would think it was a typo. Probably better would be Vigil and Ants, which set you up for the standard Vigil Uncle, but Jack realized absolutely nobody would find that kind of thing amusing, except for him, and maybe Stacey.
Warm golden light filtered through the upper foliage of the trees, so the sun was up, but Jack doubted anyone in the manor would yet be up and at ’em. Or at him.
He was moving through a tight valley, that was closing down around him the farther he traveled, the land rising drastically and already the trees about him were not the giants that spread out in the valley below.
Up above him was a tall ridge, he’d actually have to do some climbing to reach it, and he noticed the lone tree jutting up out of this ridge. It was like the last of the big trees from below, only not quite so tall. It looked to be about a hundred feet tall, and fat all the way up, like an inverted Christmas tree, or the tallest bush in the world. The trunk, at its base, jutted up between three or four massive boulders, and the tree was truly massive in girth. From a mile away and below it, Jack judged the tree trunk the size of a house, probably seventy-five feet around, and twenty feet up before any branches began. The separate boulders, stacked and tumbled, were bigger than dump trucks, the really big wide-load kind.
He set off, climbing and crouched over, requiring handholds on slabs of rock and monstrous boulders. The forest continued around this rocky formation, so the normal-guy choice would have been to stick with the forest, it would be much easier going, but Jack liked the look of that tree emerging from the boulders. It was not the kind of thing he had ever seen before. Okay, it was a tourist attraction, and here he was, the Ugly American, struggling up with a sweaty red face, only lacking the gaudy Hawaiian shirt and Panama shorts, and maybe sandals, with tire treads for soles, yes here he was, coming up in the world to take selfies of himself with the Sentinel Tree. Jack the Tourist.
Jack paused near the top of the rocky ledge, and looked down to the forest from where he had emerged ten minutes ago. For a second he thought he saw movement, back in the shadows of the forest. What had made him pause was the sudden sensation that someone was watching him. Someone, or something. Wow, what a ninja he had proved himself. Probably someone had seen him climbing the hedge and was even now monitoring his progress, to ensure a giant spider didn’t wrap him up in webby lingerie. He returned his attention to the climb and scrabbled up the last ten feet, to sprawl on the ledge, full out on his back. He lay there several minutes, just soaking in the full sunshine. From below this climb did not appear that it would prove so strenuous, but he was covered in sweat and out of breath.
He sat up and dangled his legs over the edge of the rock. He pushed his Robin Hood hat back on his head (he hated to admit it, but he had come to love the stupid hat, it fit him perfectly, and kept the sun out of his eyes when he required it to do so). He dug in his backpack and produced his leather bota bag, or canteen, whatever they called these toughened leather bags here. He popped the top and shot a stream of still cool water into his mouth. He had filled the bag from the icy water tap in the kitchen. Next he produced one of the hard sourdough baguettes and ripped into it with his teeth. The bread was tough, and good, its crust thick, but the dough inside soft and somewhat sweet. He alternated between nips of bread and water, looking out over the lower valley. He produced his magical wine bottle and was not surprised to see that it was full—he had not sampled its contents since his first day here in High Vale, or was it his second day? He extracted the cork and tasted the wine. Just a taste. He did not wish to end up crying his eyes out up here on the ledge. He recorked the bottle and replaced it in his backpack.
This vantage point was up on a high hub amidst three small valleys, the larger valley opening below where the Great House was situated a couple of miles away, a medium-sized valley that ended in a massively deep bowl of green and rock (another great tourist attraction, perhaps for an adventure next week), and then this smallest valley with the sentinel tree just a few minutes away if he jogged. The view was vast, and complicated, and breathtaking, and Jack sat enjoying it all, finishing his small baguette. His eyes flicked often to that place in the forest where he might have glimpsed movement. But he never saw anything, or anyone.
He packed up, rolling his borrowed cloak into a small bundle, which he tied onto his handy dandy backpack, and then he was off, now loping into a nice run, the rocky ledge now almost flattening out into a pleasant slope. The rock to his right went up into a bizarre formation, towering, and would be a challenge for even the best rock climbers, requiring all their gear, and a hundred feet to his left there was now a nice cliff, falling away hundreds of feet to the forested valley on that side. His pace was hampered somewhat by steep rises in the rock, but these usually paid off in nice sloping runs on the other side, so he struggled up one side, and then dashed down the next, finding the whole run exhilarating and liberating. He loved to run, and now did so, going flat out. For some time he glanced up at the sentinel tree and it did not seem to be drawing any closer, though it did seem to be growing in size, and now he estimated it to be as tall as some of the great trees in the Great House valley below.
Jack approached a jutting bend in the rocky slope, and on a whim he leapt to the side, placing himself behind the twenty-foot high escarpment, and after a moment, slowing his breathing and settling his heartbeat, he glanced around the rocky barrier. He could see two hundred yards down the rocky slope, and watching, he ensured that nothing was following him. He waited at least two minutes, peeking about the rock every few seconds, keeping his movements all slow, contained, thinking, ninja, yeah Jack, ninja!
Far below, something flashed onto the path. Jack inhaled, barely peeking with one eye. It was large, the shape, and alive, and after a few moments Jack exhaled. It was a big goat, or mountain sheep, probably a ram. After a few moments, the animal impossibly mounted the bizarre rock formation, pelting up with what seemed supernatural grace.
Jack continued his easy lope toward the sentinel tree, concentrating on his feet, and running, and after a few moments he was jolted out of his zone as a rock the size of his head crashed on the ground, just a few feet in front of him. He cried out and leapt to the side, looking up. He didn’t see anyone above him. For a second he feared to see some kind of rock giant up there, up in the twisted rock formations, hurling down deadly rocks and boulders. But apparently it was just a rock that must have chosen that moment to come tumbling down. If Jack had been running just a tad faster, smacko! He would have been dead.
But that was life, wasn’t it? You couldn’t plan for these little dangers, nor prepare for them. It didn’t matter the world, sometimes life just upped and smacked you a good one, or came close to doing so, as in this case. It wouldn’t have helped, if he had two other paid goons with him, it would just have increased the likelihood that one of them would have received a braining. If there were a reason for such things, it must be to force you to stop, pause, and make you reflect. Jack stopped, for a few heart-pounding moments, and reflected, and thought. Chaos lashed out, but chaos missed. Then, shaking his head, grinning, he started his jog again with the tall tree centered as his target.
When he woke this morning, very early in the morning, Joshua’s big lumpy head had been there beside him on the bed, the wet nose up against the back of Jack’s head. That was tough, sneaking Joshua inside every night, because the big guy was just too big for any bedroom. Jack tried to keep Joshua’s head on the other bed, but in his sleep the dog-ram kept moving his big head over, to snuggle his wet nose against Jack’s back. Michael slept peacefully and cozily out of the way, coiled up upon himself on one pillow, and hardly stirred during the entire night, sleeping deeply. Michael was great, it was like having your own warm, living teddy bear, yes, it was really comforting to have Michael sleeping near. Of course, Joshua snored, and it sounded like a dragon suffering an asthma attack.
They’d had these sleeping arrangements for the past week, and Jack was not sleeping well, not well at all. It had been Jack’s idea to sneak Joshua in each night, because he knew that Joshua was extremely social, and didn’t like being alone, and Jack didn’t like the idea of Joshua sleeping outside, with all the things he knew lurked out there in the dark. He knew it would hurt Joshua’s feelings for him to come up with some other plans—perhaps get him into his own room—Joshua definitely had feelings, but come on, it wouldn’t be any more difficult sharing a bedchamber with a wild and angry bull, and Joshua was much larger than any bull. He probably wasn’t as heavy as a bull, but made up for this dereliction by being much, much louder. And so the plan was to get away today, and if possible, along with writing and thinking, he wanted to catch a nap without a massive nose slobbering against his back.
Finally, Jack saw that he was closer to the sentinel tree, and could now appreciate just how off he’d been earlier, observing the tree and its boulders from a distance. Because the three individual boulders, squared and solitary, were the size of castles, and the tree dwarfed these boulders. It looked as if the tree had burst its way up through the rocky ground, and literally shoved aside the titanic boulders as it grew. But even more, it reminded Jack of lighthouses he had seen, where the builders had somehow moved vast slabs of stone out into the very ocean, and then built their lighthouses upon these artificial foundations that jutted above the sea. It looked unnatural, and dangerous, a precarious way to roost a lighthouse to the very waves, and so too looked this set up, although the tree and its boulders had to be natural, Jack thought, because no force on Earth could move these castle-sized boulders. It was more appropriate to think of the boulders as mountains comprised of solitary stones. But it was odd that the three mountainous boulders looked identical, like bricks, as if a long time in the past there had been a great wall here of same-sized bricks, and this tree had forced its way up between the bricks. If there had been an orderly wall, nothing remained of it now but these three jostled bricks.
Jack slid the bow off his shoulder and hefted it in his left hand. He didn’t feel pressed to nock an arrow, but the intricately carved bow felt comforting in his hand, and it didn’t hurt to be ready, for whatever. There were banks of earth again all about him, with small trees, and mounds of stacked stones. Jack jogged at an easy pace, keeping his eyes in search mode, only glancing at the ground periodically as he moved forward. Although there was more than rock, this area seemed barren, and the mounds of piled stones looked like gravesites.
Funny, he thought, jogging with his bow in his hand, but this seems like another world. From below you couldn’t imagine this shelf of life spreading out hundreds of yards in several directions. Off in the distance he saw what appeared to be ruins, foundations, and the remains of chimneys. People lived up here, a long, long time ago.
Ten minutes later, sweating and out of breath, he made it to the base of the first of the mountainous “bricks.” He was thirsty again, and to tell the truth, somewhat hungry as well, but he wanted to find a path up to the tree before he rested again. He followed the base of the rock face and discovered an old path, well worn, but with gnarled vegetation pushing up through the hardened soil. From the looks of it, no one had been here in a long while.
Up close, his shoulder brushing the stone as he carefully placed each step, nothing seemed artificial. It all seemed natural and ancient. He finally came to a corner where two of the bricks touched high above him, the corners creating a stone ceiling seventy-seven feet up, and there going up between the bricks toward the tree (Jack couldn’t see the tree, in the shadow of the stone bricks) was a massive stairway carved out of what appeared to be another massive stone. The stairway was broad, probably fifty feet across, and sometime in a far-off past, one of the tree’s roots had burst up, cracking the stairway, so that the left half tilted off, and would be dangerous to climb, while the right side had fallen in on itself, and appeared crumbled and more worn than the left side, but still looked useable, if you were careful.
Jack mounted the right side of the stairway, keeping as close to the middle as possible, until he reached the ancient root that looped out of the stone stairway like a sea serpent. It was like a lump of fibrous old wood that had died a thousand years ago, and now stood humped and crumbling ten feet high. The stone about the ancient root looked exploded, and shattered, and sunken in all about the dead part of the tree.
Climbing the stairway, many of the steps crumbling away beneath his boots, he found himself disoriented, with the vast blocks above him set at drunken angles, and the steps themselves canted and tipped, it gave him a giddy, funhouse feel. Moments before, everything seemed natural, and now everything seemed unnatural. Now, well within the crevasse of stone, it was dark, and his imagination suggested looming shapes in the gloom, crazed figures rising up to peer at him. At one point, maybe one hundred steps up (Jack wasn’t counting), the stairway split into a wide fissure, and peering over the edge, Jack could only see what appeared to be a bottomless pit, and his belly felt queasy. He moved back toward the right side of the stairs, and another hundred steps up and there was hardly a crack in the stairway, although the steps still bent and rose and fell drunkenly. But the steps seemed less fragile here, high up above the explosion caused by the root of the tree.
Another hundred steps brought him to the edge of the ceiling created by the canted stone bricks, and he finally came within view of the sentinel tree itself. He came out of darkness into bright, warm sunlight, and the tree was there before him in all its hoary glory, with great cracked bark skin, in patterns thirty-two feet across, with mosaic border cracks sunk several feet in and several feet wide. Up close, the tree looming massive above him, it looked more like artwork than actual tree bark—he felt like a normal everyday ant approaching a normal everyday tree, and felt awed, overwhelmed, and a little sick, looking up at the tree rising above the blocks. Because now the blocks seemed tiny in comparison to the tree, and if he were able to stroll about the circumference of the tree, he would probably walk a full city block.
Just approaching this tree was a confusing tumble of reality, the perspective constantly shifting, the internal measurements flying off the charts, and everything you were figuring suddenly turned inside out.
He stood in a complicated ruin of ancient pillars, fallen, and a few partially standing. There had been some kind of building here, long ago. It was amazing. The whole scene reminded him of pictures of the Parthenon, only further dilapidated (and with no trace of sea, and of course, a giant tree dwarfing everything out in the center); hardly anything remaining to suggest what had originally stood here, long before that root had cracked the staircase.
But the most incredible aspect before him was that there was a massive doorway hollowed out of the trunk of the tree. The doorway must measure thirty-two feet high by seventy feet wide, and there had obviously been a double-door set therein, long ago, because a massive hinge hung at the far left side, with what looked like a tree trunk dangling from one last iron screw. The top of the hollow was blackened by fire, going up at least thirty feet. Looking over the edge Jack could only see tree trunk, going down, hundreds of feet, into deep darkness.
A bridge stretched across the chasm between the stone and the tree, probably fifty feet across the distance, and then abruptly ended in a ruin of stone and rough-splintered woodwork. There was a gap of about ten feet or more to the remaining portion of the bridge on the tree-side of the abyss, and there wasn’t much bridge at all on that side.
He walked out onto the bridge. This was no thin Indiana Jones suspension bridge, with creaking boards tied to fraying rope by string, this was some ancient ruin that had stood here unchanging for thousands of years. If he jumped up and down, the bridge would hardly notice his weight. The beams set into the stone framework were four feet wide, and probably four or more feet deep, and thirty feet across, and the stonework was probably the same stone in which the staircase was carved. Jack could drive a VW microbus onto this bridge and not worry about the weight even making the bridge creak, let alone collapse.
Still, he was a little bit terrified, strolling alone in this vast, silent stone hall, before this massive tree that would make the biggest sequoia seem a stalk of bamboo. He went to the very edge where the bridge had been shattered away. He stomped his boot. It was solid, no worries there. But that gap between him and the other side. Yeah, that was worrisome. Given a little time and effort, and he could slide a log out over that ten-foot gap (over a bottomless pit). But he had seen no such logs lying about as a handy solution to this predicament. This was not a puzzle in a game.
Jack grinned. Maybe it was, just that—a puzzle in a game. Although none of this seemed like that, as if he were playing a quest in an adventure game.
He stripped off his pack and swinging it underhand, he practiced a few times, and finally released the pack and was satisfied when it easily cleared the ten-foot gap and slid across the other side of the bridge, neatly, almost as if he were bowling. The backpack came to rest just on the other side of that part of the bridge—up close like this, he could determine that there was only about ten feet of bridge on that side of the gap, with the ten feet of empty space between it and Jack, on this side.
He paused for a moment, considering his bow, and quiver. He didn’t like the idea of tossing them across, but then again he was more attached to his backpack than his weapon, but the loss of either would be a tragedy. So he practiced a few times and then sent the bow across, to neatly slide into and stop against his backpack. Then he repeated the trick again with his quiver, and made another perfect toss. High dexterity guy, that’s me, Jack laughed.
Now unencumbered, he could make the leap, easily. That was his theory, anyway. He did things like this in the real world, all the time, including walking a distance of thirty feet at a double-decker shopping mall, tightrope walking the bannister with a twenty foot fall on one side (hey, George Alaska had dared him to make the walk, and Jack did it, hardly sparing a thought). He had considered taking up Parkour, but it had struck him as a little too hipster (was athletic hipster even a thing?).
Jack moved back thirty feet along the bridge, and looked at the gap. Okay, he better practice this a little bit, and so he made a loping dash toward the fall and drew up short, a few feet from the edge. Yes, he could certainly do this, no problem. He trotted back thirty feet, turned, took a few calming breaths, and then without second-guessing himself he charged at the gap, clearing his mind, picking up enough speed so that he could not change his mind, and when he got to the very edge he jumped, with all his might, soaring across the expanse, and came down lightly with a foot to spare.
He burst into laughter and then snagged his foot on his quiver and tumbled end over end, right over his bow and backpack, and then shakily, cursing himself an idiot, he shakily climbed to his feet and collected his things. Well, in reconsidering, it had probably only been a nine-foot leap. He piled his stuff well off the bridge and then strode back out onto this side of the bridge, looking over the edge, and seeing the vast distance beneath him, he suddenly vomited, surprising himself, and stood watching, hands on knees as his snack from earlier now plummeted the depths into darkness below. Again, he had vomited into the face of the abyss.
Stare at that stuff, Abyss. He stood, wiping his mouth. Then, to reassure himself that he was not a complete idiot, he jumped up and down several times, testing this side of the bridge.
Solid, as a rock. Yep, no danger here. In another thousand years a family of grizzly bears could have a cook-out right here, on this spot. Completely solid, yes sir! He turned his back on the Abyss.
As he strolled to collect his belongings, he heard a crumbling sound behind him, and whirled, his heart jolting in his breast. He watched, with wide eyes, as this side of the bridge fell away—just vanished, like a magic trick—crumbling almost silently into the Abyss. Jack gawked as the last bit of bridge on this side fell away. Then he heard the smack and crash of the stone and wood crashing together, erupting into the volume of an explosion, far away, the mass of bridgework thundering into the immense expanse of the sentinel tree, far below. The crashing and smashing seemed to go on and on, even as the sounds faded further and further into nothingness.
It sounded as if the Abyss were laughing back up at him.
Vomit on me? Little turd! I don’t forget, not ever.
Then, from high above, Jack heard the tinkle of laughter. He looked up, shading his eyes. He could see many knotholes that served as windows, or portals, and from one of these he saw locks of golden hair receding even as he glimpsed them.
There was a little girl up there, inside the tree!
He untied his cloak. He felt suddenly chilled. He didn’t know what was creepier, the Abyss chuckling up at him, or the little girl above, laughing down at him.
Oh well, soldier on, Laddie, Just soldier on.
Jack slipped into his backpack, and armed himself, nocking an arrow, and entered the Sentinel.
© 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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