Evening was on, and the two moons were crossing in the sky, forming what looked like a great eye, with the smaller moon—the green moon—the pupil, its gaze searing down upon High Vale, constantly searching. The phenomenon lasted about one hour, every night, and it was considered the time of the night-portion of the day when criminals had best be on their best behavior, committing no crimes, and it was believed that even monsters remained in their caves, or beneath the waves. Strangely enough, that hour of every night was called The Children’s Hour, and parents were expected to pay closest attention to everything their children had to say, and many families gathered in the moonlight, to plumb their children for information, and ethereal wisdom. Some families considered this the story hour, when children should tell the tales, and parents had better listen closely to the underlying portents in the stories. In some families, the children ordered the parents about, issuing chores, or placing one or the other of their parents on time out. Parents held their infants tightly, and stood beneath the celestial eye of moons.
Jack, and most of the household of the Great House, stood out on the rear deck, watching the moons. Jack thought he would never tire of the wonders of this world. He always loved his own moon, from what he now thought of as the Old World, and found that white orb of reflected light to be magical. But these moons, one of deep blue, one of pale green, these were a magical light show you could depend on, every night. Watching them was like watching fireworks on the Fourth of July, when he was a little boy. He was brimming with wonder, and delight. He loved that time, just around dusk, when the big blue moon appeared in the sky, he couldn’t get enough of that slow entrance, the moon looking bloated, too big for a moon. Then, he loved, almost as much, when the green moon came racing from the other side of the sky, you could actually track the movement if you stared at the moon for a few minutes.
Fireflies bobbed and winked, especially flittering through the trees, seeming to fly mostly at about four to ten feet in height, blinking for short periods in pale amber light. Another, thinner layer of fireflies flew higher, from about twelve feet up to thirty feet in the air, and these were more steady, holding their light bursts longer, and these were twinkling white lights. Occasionally an amber firefly went up higher and a smaller, white light would flash down, faster, and there would be a tangle of light, with a sudden violet flash, and Jack wondered (hoped) if two fireflies were mating, making the love connection, but feared one breed of firefly might actually be eating another breed of firefly.
High above in the trees, steady lights twinkled, and occasional snatches of music drifted down from the tree homes. Jack wanted to ascend the trees and visit the upper homes, but Six said they were not allowed up there.
Jack set aside his tankard of stout as Michael came across the deck, with a tangle of his own sparkles about him. Instinctively, Jack opened his arms as Michael made the expected leap, and he caught the little meerkat-man in his arms, and hugged him close. Michael cooed and snuggled against Jack’s neck, patting Jack’s head with his warm paw-hands. He was very light in Jack’s arms, and very comforting.
“Any word on Stacey?” Jack whispered.
“Sleep. Deep sleep, but sleep, resting,” Michael chittered. “I think he wakes in the morning. Seven is with him. She stays. She watches.”
Jack was present as three different healers had visited and spent time with Stacey. One was an herbalist, and this healer packed Stacey’s recumbent body with various herbs, garlic and ginger, and some Jack had never heard of, and had said prayers, laying hands upon Stacey’s head, and then informed Six that no patient had ever survived a giant scorpion sting. The next healer, this one more a traditional doctor, in a black suit (believe it or nto), actually hefting the proverbial “little black bag,” who had taken blood samples, and prescribed a variety of pills, and drafts, and then informed Six that no patient had ever survived a giant scorpion sting. The third healer, a wizard, an ancient woman with long white hair and the expected tall hat, had made magical passes with her elongated hands, muttering, and aimed her wooden staff at the sleeping man and shot blue jolts of light into Stacey, and then informed Six that nobody had ever survived a giant scorpion sting. All three healers had promised to visit the patient in the morning, but nonetheless expected him to “pass” sometime during the night.
Of course, none of the healers had ever had a patient like Stacey Colton.
Jack was startled when a vast shape came up over the deck railing, but chuckled as he recognized Joshua—or at least just his big dog head sprouting enormous ram horns—the giant man must be stretching up ten feet in height to be placing his head on the rail. Big hands grasping the wood rails, he huffed great bellows of breath, and Jack scratched his head in the furry patch between the horns.
“Hello Jack,” Joshua rumbled, keeping his great and deep voice as soft as possible, but still turning heads at his basso profundo tones. “Hello Michael.”
“I think you can come up here, Joshua,” Jack said, glancing about, spotting Six seated back against the house, surrounded by greybeards, his counselors and advisors, and several of the visiting Dragon Warrior ambassadors.
“Six said he might break the deck,” Michael chittered.
“I’m fine, down here,” Joshua rumbled. “It’s cozy. I have blankets under the deck, and a bowl of chili, and a bowl of stout.”
“When everyone heads to bed, I’ll come out—meet me at the front door. You can sleep in my room tonight, if you want,” Jack assured him. “Bring your blankets.”
“Okay, thank you Jack, I will try not to slobber,” Joshua promised.
“I am so glad you guys finally showed up, we’ve all been so worried about you. The last I saw you was when the sky was crashing down,” Jack said. “We didn’t know if you’d made it through the portal.”
Earlier they had told their High Vale stories, laughing that none of them had spent their required time in the belly of the beast. Michael had led the god-snake on a merry chase, climbing the fruit tree, actually taking bites out of several of the sacred fruits as the snake roared about, striking and missing, doing his flying-squirrel trick, launching from the fruit tree, confusing the snake with his twirling lights, until he had lost the serpent in the trees, a similar tale to Jack’s great race before the monster. Jack had even confessed, for the first time, how he had inadvertently vomited on the false god’s head (he only admitted this to Michael and Joshua, telling them when everyone else was absorbed in other things and duties). Michael had chittered and giggled, and Joshua had bellowed his laughter.
Joshua had been caught immediately, of course, a second sacred fruit still in his guilty paw. The snake had bit him, caught him in its coils, and squeezed most of the life—and fruit—out of him. But when the serpent went to swallow him, the creature could not get the big ram horns past its jaws no matter how it approached the horns, and it had then attempted to swallow him from the other end, but again, the ram horns had foiled its meal, and finally, in disgust, it had spat him out and slithered away, cursing and muttering, claiming that Joshua was beneath its basest food. Joshua proudly exhibited the huge fang marks on one of his vast buttocks, telling them that the bite took a full week to heal.
So the four of them, Jack and Stacey, and Michael and Joshua, had done something that Six informed them no others had accomplished, they had not gone IBB, spending time in the belly of the beast, a High Vale ritual. What was weird, Six informed them, was that you were usually born naked here, looking like your usual self, and that it was only after you were expelled from the serpent’s nether region, that you received your High Vale look, and attributes, and much depended on your struggle with the serpent. Brave people were reborn heroic, and terrified, blubbering people were reborn as lesser folk. But Jack had outrun the serpent, and Stacey had impossibly beaten it in single combat—or at least fought it to a draw. While the very beings that both Joshua and Michael were born into had enabled them to escape the terrible fate that most suffered.
“It sure could squeeze,” Joshua informed them, very seriously, busting everyone into laughter.
In Stacey’s room Seven sat near him on his small bed, smoothing back his hair from his sweaty brow. He alternated between severe hour-long fever chills, and then hour-long copious fever sweats. And Seven poured water into his mouth, and aided him in swallowing. He must have already sweat ten glasses of water. When he cycled into his chills, Seven joined him beneath the blankets, stripped down to only her long sleep shirt, and cuddled close to his body, attempting to hold him still, but his whole body vibrated with the chills. She pulled the many blankets up over him, but his teeth chattered and his breathing went rigid, emitting puffs of steam from his gasping mouth.
He muttered about monks and sleepers, and many times he thrashed as if he were fighting foes. He called out warnings to Jack, and many times he called for her, calling for Seven, and sometimes Sandy.
“Shhhh,” she soothed, stroking his hair, “I’m here, I’m here.”
The healers were quacks, and she kept brushing away cloves of garlic from beneath her hips as she stretched out against Stacey, and once, producing a fat hand of ginger root, she screamed as she examined it in the candle flame, thinking it the hand of a baby, or some other mumbo jumbo. Still, she did not discard the ginger, nor the onions, garlic, and other tubers and bulbs, mushrooms, and grasses. She packed these about Stacey, on the other side, distinctly away from her own body. She was certainly going to smell in the morning.
Deep into the night Six poked his nose into the room to check on Stacey.
“Could you bring a pitcher of iced green tea?” Seven asked him.
“Would Oolong be okay?” he checked. “We don’t have green tea. I can get some, but it won’t get here until morning.”
“Oolong is fine, I just want to get something else into him, with the water,” she said. “Maybe cut up some ginger, and let that float in the tea.”
“Oolong tea, with ginger—how about honey?”
When the round pig chef showed up with the pitcher of icy tea, Seven nearly leapt from the bed. She had only met the chef a couple of times, and his bulky pink shape appearing in the candle light nearly gave her a heart attack.
The chef, Olaff, bustled a few moments, pouring a tall glass and setting it near the bed on the small nightstand, and then he stood, tsking, grunting, looking at Stacey and Seven. He said something, and she was not sure she had heard him correctly. She hoped she had misheard him.
“What did you say?”
“No sex,” he oinked. She had heard him correctly.
“Get out of here, you pig,” she snapped.
He laughed and hurried from the room.
She glowered at the door, and then snorted laughter. Sex, the idea.
Stacey was well into a chill cycle, and so she ignored the tea for now, other than taking a small sip herself—it was good, refreshing. It reminded her of how Jack took his coffee.
She cuddled in close to the sleeping man, her arms about him, one up under his neck, the other across his waist, holding him close, and she placed her head upon his chest, and listened to his heartbeat, which seemed far away.
Seven moved in the darkness. She seemed muddled, and couldn’t quite remember what she had just been thinking. She wasn’t exactly sure where she was, but everything seemed gray, and blurry. Had she dozed? She was wearing her sweats, and her little fluffy footsie socks, and it was chilly...in this place. She huddled and breathed and steam came from her mouth. That was weird. She puffed out a few more clouds of vapor. She looked about, and it was a long hallway, in darkness, but somehow she could still see. There were shapes, mounds, lying about on the floor, against walls. She couldn’t be sure, but the mounds seemed to be people, sleeping, stirring slightly.
She moved through the corridor, stepping well away from each mound she came upon. They were people, she saw their sleeping faces, as if lit from within, and she kept moving, she had to get out of here. This was a bad place, of bad things, where things you could not see moved, just out of sight.
There was a sense of dread, everywhere, palpable, like a weight pushing down upon her. It was fear, and anxiety, and it was incredibly heavy. The hallway creaked, as if it were ancient, and crumbling, and might come down upon her at any moment. She heard a noise, back from where she came, and it sounded as if someone were following her.
Seven pictured bulbous white eyes, melted faces missing distinguishing features, she remembered small, muscular men, with feathers on their heads, grabbing at her, dragging her.
She hurried in the same direction she had first moved, away from the sounds behind her. Her heart clamored in her breast, and she breathed too hard. She told herself to be quiet, to hurry, fast, just keep going, don’t let them catch up with you, but she couldn’t stop breathing through her mouth. She was gasping. The sounds of her mouth frightened her even more, as if they were apart from her, a separate being.
And the feeling swelled in her chest, up from her belly, bloating into her throat—it was a scream forming, and if she was not careful, it would bubble up out of her mouth. She would begin screaming, and she would not be able to contain it, or silence it, and she would never stop screaming.
She saw a light glowing from a doorway up ahead and she hurried toward it. A blue light. She got to the doorway and peered in. It looked like an ancient examination room, with an antiquated hospital bed, more table than bed, with a metal tray near covered with strange metal instruments. The whole room glowed blue, though there was no discernible light source. Metal stirrups jutted up at the end of the bed. The whole room filled her with dread. She hurried past the doorway.
Something crunched beneath her feet. Something was scattered about the floor, it looked like thousands of shells, or macaroni, but whatever it was, it was unpleasant beneath her feet, but she forced herself to keep walking, moving through, and the density of the crunching things beneath her socks increased. She winced. The things seemed to be moving beneath her feet.
She yelped and began to run, only her running was too slow, like in a dream—this must be a dream, but this knowledge in no way minimized her swelling terror. Because this was not a dream, she could tell that wherever she was, whatever strange dark deep place this was, she was here. She was not dreaming she was here.
As she moved along the hallway it seemed to expand outward, the walls receding from her touch, the crunchiness beneath her feet now seemed more like sand than moving bugs, and then she seemed to be outside with a distorted sky above her, the stars were moving, spiraling. It reminded her of the famous Vincent van Gogh painting. She paused, clutching her hands together at her breast and stared at the sky. A vault of stars, with moving lights, deep far-away purples, and distant blues, and fiery winks of red. Was she still inside some kind of enormous chamber, a dome full of lights? And then she saw the bloated blue moon moving across the sky, and looking, she saw the other moon, the smaller green moon, and they were coming together, moving too fast, and as she watched the two moons joined and made an eye suspended at the top of the dome, and it looked like a very real eye, an eye watching, glancing about like a human eye, searching below.
The dread filled her again and she huddled down, certain that the eye was seeking her.
“Girl,” a voice crooned, near, startling her.
She huddled farther down, crouching, and she dimly picked out a dark shaped against the background of stars. Someone was standing there, only a few feet removed. A dark shape in a large cowl.
“Do not be afraid,” the voice soothed. “I intend you no harm.”
“Who are you?” she whispered, her eyes rolling. She was shaking, her teeth chattering.
“Where are you, right now? Where are you hiding, girl?” the deep voice said, conversationally. It sounded familiar, but she could not place the voice with a face.
“Where am I? I don’t know, I don’t know where this is,” she whispered.
“No. Where are you? You are not in your chamber at Vestigial Surreality, only your husk is there. And you are not in your Inner Sanctum. Where are you?”
The dread did not dissipate, it only increased. She knew she should not tell this shape anything. For it did intend her harm. She glanced up at the two moons forming the eye. The eye was still looking, everywhere, searching.
“Where is Jack? And Colton? Where are they, right now?”
High Vale. She almost said it. But instead she huddled in her crouch, hugging her knees, closing her eyes tightly. Maybe it would all just go away.
“High Vale? The virtual world? The gamer world?”
She did not allow herself to think. This was bad. This was a bad place. And the shape, it was a bad person.
“You poke your nose into places it does not belong,” the dark shape said. “Other eyes are seeking you, and will find you, and soon.”
“Get away from her,” another voice said, and she recognized it. Stacey?
“Colton,” the voice of the dark shape said. “Again. I don’t know how you keep finding your way here. This is a dangerous place for you, and for the girl.”
And the heaviness lifted. Seven glanced up, heart fluttering. The dark shape was gone, only the strange, twisting sky was there, and when she glanced to the other side she saw him coming, and he was lifting her up, his hands strong upon her arms, and she nearly laughed or screamed as she looked at him, and could see him, as if he glowed with a light all his own. He was wearing a big, dark hood, and the shillelagh was in his left hand, she felt the black stick against her arm.
“Seven?” he said, holding her, his arms going about her.
“Stacey?” she said, not believing it. He had found her.
“It’s really you,” he breathed, and then his mouth was on hers, he was kissing her, and it felt so real, it was the most real thing in this place, his mouth, and he kissed her, and she seized him and pulled him tightly to her, and he was kissing her eyes, and cheeks, and even her nose, and again his mouth, upon her mouth, and she clutched at the reality, the sweet, sweet reality. She felt that they were giving each other breath, down here, in the deep, or sharing the same breath, like divers in the ocean, keeping each other alive.
“You need to wake up. I will hold onto you,” he said.
“I can’t, I don’t know where I am,” she muttered, feeling cold, but his body felt so warm against her. “Let me stay here, with you. I don’t want to leave you.”
“I will follow you up. Hurry, I won’t let go. Wake up, Seven,” he whispered in her ear. “Wake up, now.”
She opened her eyes and felt the bed beneath her. She was holding Stacey’s warm body, and light seeped into the room. It was morning. She glanced and saw the candle standing dark, its wick snuffed and cold. And she looked up to Stacey, and his eyes were open, and he was smiling at her.
“It’s you,” he said, his voice croaking.
“It’s me,” she breathed, and then she was kissing him, forgetting that this was not a dream. And then she paused, her eyes close to his, her lips barely brushing his. “It’s you.”
“It’s me,” he croaked.
She leaned over him and took the glass of Oolong tea from the night table. It was still cold, though all the ice had melted. The sides of the glass were wet with condensation. She lifted his head and helped him drink. First, he sipped, and then he gulped, and when she began to tip the glass away, he moved his hand upon her hand, and gulped more until the glass was empty.
“I may not have gotten out of there, this time,” he murmured into her hair, and she snuggled in close to him.
“Out of where?” she said, thinking he meant his illness.
“The Dream Place, in The Deep, it seemed like I was starting to become a part of it,” he murmured, drowsily. She could tell he was going to fall asleep again.
“Go ahead, go to sleep,” she whispered.
“No, I want to get up. I need to feel the sunshine. And coffee, please, I need coffee,” he said, and began an attempted struggle up out of the bed.
But she hushed him, then aided him, got him seated, and helped him dress in fresh, nondescript clothes—baggy sleep clothes—setting aside all his armor. He wanted his cloak, because he was cold, so she shrugged him into that voluminous garment. He brought along his shillelagh, mostly to lean part of his weight upon it, because Seven, though very strong, was much smaller than him.
Seven blushed to think that he had been laid out nude, all last night, beneath the sheets and blankets, and that she had been with him, all through the night.
“You should see how they launder the clothes in this house, it is hilarious. Like the toilets. The tree sap actually cleans the clothes, while feeding the tree, it’s hard to stop giggling, when you think about it,” she told him, as she helped him into his boots, and then taking his arm over her shoulders she led him out into the hall, and then out onto the deck where some morning sunlight was just warming the boards. “Apparently, this whole house is made out of one vast tree, and it’s all alive, the boards and floors and ceilings.”
She got a blanket wrapped about him, and then went in search of coffee.
Stacey lazed in the deck chair, his hood pushed back to catch the sun, the sunlight kissing his brow, and he felt wonderful—weak, yes, but utterly wonderful—he was reminded of swimming in the sacred pool after his battle with the serpent. He felt like that now. Invigorated, but exhausted. He only distantly remembered the ghastly scorpion, and strangely, he remembered Jack, spread-eagled on the ground, smoke rising from his mouth—what in the world was that all about? And wasn’t there something else, a little man, and a big dog? It eluded him, for the moment.
He glanced up and several floors above he glimpsed a strange face peering down on him, a woman with strange lines to her face, with eyes that seemed too big, and too dark, with black hair spilling around her shoulders and bosom. She stood staring down at him.
And then Seven was returned, with his coffee in a large, steaming mug. She sat on the arm of the chair, her arm companionably across his shoulders, holding her own, smaller mug up to her face. For right now, she was content to sample the scent of the heady brew, her nose close to the coffee, taking deep breaths, and sighing.
“Six doesn’t have some strange ex-wife locked away in the attic, does he?” he asked, between great gulps of the strong coffee.
“What?” she asked, smiling. Wasn’t that a reference to one of the Bronte sisters?
“Up there, looking down, strange woman with black hair and too-big eyes—like the eyes in those children paintings, you know, the ones with the big eyes?”
Seven glanced up but didn’t see anyone at any of the windows. She did notice a curtain moving up there, on the third floor, or fourth floor—how many levels did this monstrosity of a house have, anyway?
“I think I know who you’re talking about, you’ll want to watch out for her,” Seven said, grimly, staring into her coffee. “Jack thinks she’s going to be trouble. It’s the sister. Varra’s sister.”
The trouble was, Seven thought, the Dragon Queen reminded her of women from her own time and world, the Jackians. The Jackian priestesses, like her own mother. Those women would stop at nothing to obtain just the right seed, and the way the Dragon Queen had clutched at her belly—it made Seven sick. She wouldn’t be letting that...she-devil...anywhere near Stacey, or Jack, for that matter.
The kind of thing the Dragon Queen wanted to do with Stacey, well, that just wasn’t done in Seven’s world. There would be nothing clinical or scientific about what she was probably planning. There would be no microscopes or chemicals on glass slides. No, it would all be savage, and bestial, rutting and grunting and sighing, and messy.
Still, when she was near Stacey, Seven couldn’t help but feel somewhat savage, and a little...filthy—it was this world, designed to bring out the lower desires and lusts. It was disgusting, the ideas that popped up in her head whenever she was near Stacey (or even when completely removed from him, and only thinking about him). Vestigial places on her body seemed to come alive and, and...thrum. He was the only man she had ever kissed, shockingly enough, because other than pecks of affection, kissing was something from the antiquated days. You just didn’t do that, it was filthy, a human mouth pressed to a human mouth, it was like the animals, although she couldn’t think of any animals that practiced it, other than maybe monkeys, but that said a lot, didn’t it? Did monkeys kiss? Apes? Maybe not. It was a filthy practice, from a filthy world, from a filthy time that was now gone—save for in savage worlds such as this.
She remembered, vaguely, kissing Stacey, and he kissing her, but that wasn’t right, was it? Swirling stars, and an eye in the sky, and standing close, embracing, in the darkness. Was that a dream? Crunching beneath her feet, and shapes, sleeping. It was disturbing, those images, and she didn’t want to think about it, because she felt dread, like someone was searching for her—or they were searching for Stacey. Or Jack. All of them.
Many floors above Varra sat before her vanity and watched her sister in the great oval mirror. The black-haired woman brushed Varra’s tumble of golden-white hair.
“I do not know how you can live like this, Varrashallaine, it is a rustic nightmare,” Maulgraul said, shaking her head. “You should have five times the servants, no wonder you waste away in this tree.”
“Hush, Mauly, this is my world now, this is my home,” Varra replied, smiling at her sister. “And I feel worlds better, now, with you here. I wish you could stay, live here with me—that would be wonderful.”
“You belong in the palaces, not here. I doubt I would survive more than a week in this stable; however, I brought you three cases of the White Champagne, so you will have your vitality, for several years—that is, if the Oaf does not quaff it all as he did your last store,” Mauly sneered.
“He understands, now, and only sips from my glass—you know it aids us, in being together,” Varra said, stretching her arms, yawning. “Oh, I feel as if I am waking from a dream.”
“I should think you are waking from a dream to this nightmare,” Mauly said, setting aside the brush. “But tell me of this Pugilist, for he, at least is one pleasant diversion in this awful hovel.”
“Oh, but is not he beautiful?” Varra gushed, holding her hands up to her lips, blushing furiously. “Lord Dulance brought him here to save us, and he did, and not only that, but now we have the Dragon Warriors as allies.”
“Yes, he is beautiful...for a savage, most unlike our elegant men. But is he truly the man of legend, the Pugilist?”
“I do not know, but Lord Dulance believes him to be, for he has bested giants, and wrestled the snake, and was not swallowed. And you only have to look at him, but once, to see that he is different than other men.”
“You must aid me, Varra, in bringing him to the palaces of Drauggaria. We must bring him to meet Father, and our brothers.”
“I do not think Lord Dulance will travel again to our homelands. Strangely, he is anchored here, and will not leave this valley.”
The Lady Maulgraul smiled, and went again to the window, peering down at the man below, and the obstacle sitting near him. Given a choice, she knew the woman the man of legend would choose.
© 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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