01 02 03 04 05 06 07
08 09 10 11 12 13 14
15 16 17 18 19 20 21
22 23 24 25 26 27 28
29 30 31 32 33 34 35
36 37 38 39 40 41 42
43 44 45 46 47 48 49
08 09 10 11 12 13 14
15 16 17 18 19 20 21
22 23 24 25 26 27 28
29 30 31 32 33 34 35
36 37 38 39 40 41 42
43 44 45 46 47 48 49
Six stood on the great porch, and looked out over his land, holding a tiny porcelain tea cup and saucer up near his face, scenting the delicate and yet earthy bouquet of his imported Oolong tea—and no, thank you very much for asking, but Oolong was not indigenous to High Vale, in short, it did not belong here, but he liked Oolong, it filled him with feeling, and memory, and so he had completed all the necessary paperwork to have it regularly imported via the proper channels. Yes, High Vale had the best coffee, grown right here, pest free, with or without caffeine depending on the strain of the plant, all natural, and yes, it was delightful. And all manner of teas. But Six was not a coffee drinker. And he liked his tea, and out of all the varieties Oolong was his choice. Of course, he never drank the stuff when anyone else was around, and certainly not from these tiny teacups. The fact was, this was Six’s life—he was not roleplaying, or living out a fantasy. He was here based on hard choices and tougher planning. This was his life. High Vale was all his life. And Oolong was just a little something he had brought along from his former life.
Today, Six and his graybeard council were almost finished in drawing up the agreements with the Dragon Warriors. The salvation had come more than seven days ago, and here they still were, talking, talking, talking. And yelling, lots of that. The people of the Dragon Warriors seemed to love talking and arguing and gossiping almost as much as they did pillaging and raping and murdering. What a people. And Six wouldn’t have it any other way. The day after the aborted slaughterhouse, the Dragon Warriors had sent one of their many warring prince chieftains, and three of their own graybeards (who would think they could have anyone old enough to grow a gray beard, what with all their early deaths, and their particular delight in early deaths). Six had a sneaking suspicion that the grayness of their beards might just involve both paint and bleach.
But the oddest thing was, all of them showed him—Lord Meren Dulance—respect. Yes, the old R-E-S-P-E-C-T (Six could only make this music cultural reference of antiquity due to Jack’s constant playing of what he called his Smartphone, a constant barrage of awful-sounding grinding noises that Jack called his favoritest music of all time, all hits, all the time!) (still, he had to admit, the R-E-S-P-E-C-T song was kind of catchy, and Six wouldn’t mind hearing more of that Aretha Franklin, she sounded hot, and wild!) (he might have to add a similar mermaid down in his cove, the one hidden behind the waterfall at the normal pool) (yes, he had installed his mermaid add-on, after a lot of soul searching, and guilt, but come on, mermaids were hard habits to break, only, of course, there was a certain degree of translation, and these were not the tame mermaids of his Inner Sanctum).
But what he was thinking about was that the Dragon Warriors—notorious backstabbers and oathbreakers and sneak attackers on allies—they respected him, because he was a friend of the Pugilist. The Pugilist had said now they were friends of Lord Meren Dulance, and all his people. Apparently, there really was a legend about a Pugilist, a mighty warrior, who could best in single combat any man or monster. A mighty warrior that would save the Dragon Warriors and release them, whatever that meant. And it turned out that Stacey fit the advance fliers. He met all the hairy hype, and then some.
He had to admit it, uncomfortable as it made him, but Stacey kind of freaked out Six, if truth be told. Six was not certain if Stacey was even a man, truly, seeming more likely an NPC boss than anything made of flesh and blood and bone. Oh Six knew Stacey could bleed, and die—he had front-row seats to those realities.
Old Ben had assured him that Stacey and Jack were his answer, the fix for his own problems, but that Six would be doing him a favor as well, by sheltering the fugitives. Fugitive was the term that Old Ben applied. Fugitive from what, that’s what scared Six.
Because of Stacey, Six’s slice of High Vale was now a protected spot in the High Vale multiverse, even after his ten years of paid firewall went down and the Great House became an NPC open area. Now, the reality was that invaders and questers would have to deal with the fierce Dragon Warriors if they wanted to mine Six’s world for its treasures, and folk...and wife.
Poor Varra had taken to her bed, and sent for her sister. The woman feared she was dying and believed only her family medicines would cure her ailments. So several days ago, Six had sent out ten riders, with more than twenty Dragon Warriors in attendance for protection, to bring the sister to his wife. She should arrive any day, if they had no problems getting through the dragons, and the wyverns, and the scorpions, and of course the spiders...and all the assorted NPC creeps in High Vale, let alone the RPG idiots that enjoyed attacking convoys for—treasure. The idiots and their treasure, gold nuggets, jewels the size of your fist, and especially women. Oh Six understood, for he had been a gamer, himself, and he had done his share of raping, and plundering, even some pillaging with various gamer parties. Yes, as silly as it was, he had a trophy room that literally bulged with loot (he would need to expand that room, to make it more aesthetic, because the exaggerated bulge of the walls did seem a tad cartoonish). It was all wonderful, because it was a game. Only now, of course, it was no longer a game, but his life.
Six sipped and finished his Oolong and then waved away the cup and saucer. Only they did not vanish, put plunked to the wooden deck and shattered. Damn it, he had broken more crockery that way! He had to constantly remind himself that this was not his Inner Sanctum, and those rules and habitual actions did not apply here in what was now his real world.
In time, in time. Finally, he owned some time. In the real world he had departed, it had probably only been a few moments since the EMTs had carted away his remains, and when a few days had ticked away in that former world (that place already seemed like a dark dream), he would have enjoyed months here, as he had set his firewall of High Vale to maximum speed. When his ten years finally elapsed in the outer world (perhaps that was the best way for him to imagine it), he would have lived to more than a hundred years of age, and here in High Vale, he could still be realistically healthy, and hale—prepared to deal with the opening of his lands to the greater High Vale multiverse. Oh, he would be ready, yes indeedy-do. No questers would come sneaking up on this deck. His deck. Because this was certainly no hollow deck.
Already, he had plans for a guard barracks down by the river, as well as the construction of a tunnel from the Great House back into his narrow valley where he would construct a bastion keep. He already had sent word to the dwarves (in their underground kingdom) of his proposed construction plans. He would never be caught napping, never again.
He would need to hammer out some firm agreements with the people in the trees above him. They were an introverted people, but decent. To date, they displayed no interest in communicating with Six, or his low peoples—what the tree folk called them—but he had suspected they would have their own legends of the Pugilist.
For all Six knew, there had always been these legends of a mighty Pugilist, and Old Ben had just played to that programming. Or, as Six believed, Old Ben had actually rewritten portions of High Vale to accept the legend. That possibly, prior to Stacey’s arrival, there had been no such legends, nary a hint of a two-fisted hero with a shillelagh. But what kind of power did the old man possess, to change a world on a whim? A world as vast as High Vale. Such a man was a good man to know, that was certain.
Six strode into his Great House and walked the corridors, climbed the stairs to the third floor, tracing his hands along the polished wooden rails, enjoying every moment and touch in this place, and quietly entered Varra’s bedchamber. Her pale golden hair was sprayed out alongside her in a remarkable Rapunzel cascade. She lay quietly and still upon her bed, her long hands folded upon her breast. He crept to her bed and stood watching her. She was a vision of loveliness, like an enchanted princess from the fairytales of antiquity.
He gently sat upon the bed and moved close to her, and smoothed her hair. It felt like silk beneath his fingers. He traced the back of his finger along the flawless skin of her cheekbone, tracing down to her delicate jaw. As if in a dream he moved the back of his hand down her long, perfect throat. He stared at her little chin with its dimple and he just wanted to bite her, but he gently took her chin in his fingers and held her for a moment, moving his thumb delicately in the fleshy cleft in her chin, just swooning with all the love he felt for her, his Varra.
Her almond eyes opened and she saw him, and she smiled sleepily.
“Husband,” she breathed.
“Wife,” he returned, staring into her golden eyes flecked with striations of sky blue.
“My sister?” she queried.
“Do not worry, Beloved, she shall be here,” he assured her, making certain he used no contractions in his speech, as she never understood what he was saying when he forgot and slipped into the cruder communication.
“Please?” she breathed, her eyes half closed.
“Yes, Beloved?” he whispered leaning close, his body quivering—she always had this effect on him. He felt like a sex-maniac, but could not control the trembling of his hands.
“Make...love...to me?” she breathed.
If he tried, very carefully, and constantly reminded himself to be gentle, and slow, he would still...destroy her. He ached with love for her, with true lust, overwhelming desire, but even when she was young and strong, with no trace of illness, his gentlest lovemaking...injured her. It was like a St. Bernard dog attempting to mate with a sleek greyhound. It could be done, but there would always be pain involved. And he loathed causing her any discomfort.
He leaned and kissed her, deeply, and when he stood away from the bed she was again in deepest slumber, for all the world looking a statue of herself.
He paced in the room, trembling, breathing raggedly. He loved her, so much.
Then he hurried from the room, now practically shaking, his body alive and electric with desire, his breeches straining to contain him, and he was running, weeping, practically falling down the stairs, through the halls, out onto the grounds of his manor, running, almost screaming, pelting, hands balled into fists. He ran, all-out, to the pool, stripped his clothing and dove into the deep pool, and swam for the waterfall, reminding himself not to breath beneath the waters, because this was not his Inner Sanctum, this was High Vale, a dangerous place, and what lived on the other side of the waterfall was not a safe digital plaything, but a very dangerous creature, deadly, alive, vibrant and intoxicating, and he half-hoped she might finally kill him, this time.
Joshua stood up on his great hind legs, and lifted Stacey in his arms (arms? or forelegs? not even Joshua could tell, not exactly, but at least he did have hands, somehow in the center of his fat paws). Michael scrambled up the thorny spikes on Joshua’s back and perched on what seemed almost a platform between the great ram horns. Michael giggled, loudly, shooting what looked like fireflies from his mouth, beating out a rhythm with his sticks on Joshua’s horns.
“Sorry,” Michael chittered, “I can’t stop being happy, and I hate it!”
“It’s okay,” Joshua snuffled, “I’m so glad to see you happy, Michael.”
Seven mounted Dancer, who had come immediately when she whistled, and Jack easily leapt up behind her. Seven lifted Stacey’s shillelagh above her head like a baton.
“Let see how fast you are, Great Dog!” Seven shouted.
Jack thought that was a little rude, but Joshua whuffed a great bellow of laughter, and they all recognized Joshua’s irrepressible bellow of mirth.
“I’d race you, but I don’t know the way,” Joshua whuffed, drooling.
“To the Manor, as fast as your hooves—” Seven began, but the horse bolted into motion, the said hooves throwing up clods of dirt. Seven and Jack almost plummeted off the horse, but Seven leaned forward, and Jack grasped her waist, and they were both of them good riders, and Dancer was fast, and surprisingly, Joshua loped along just behind them, hardly breaking into a run. The pace of the horse seemed easy for the big dog on his hind legs, and Jack figured that on all fours he could easily pass the horse and leave them behind.
On the hills just above the river, great swaths of wildflowers bloomed, different varieties of flowers in varied hues of orange, a tiny flower that seemed to burst in bright pumpkin orange, and larger flowers that looked a bit like roses, in pale orange, and scattered amidst them were tiny stalks with star-shaped petals in shimmering blue—if you stared at the flowers a few moments, you would wonder as the light blue flowers went deep blue, almost to black-blue, and then popped into whispery cloudy cyan, and in no particular pattern, so that the vast fields of these flowers that grew wild (in another world they would be considered weeds) in flashing contrast, rippling movements of color, quavering in blue-orange fantasy that made you think of a sunset occurring organically upon the soil.
Jack winced, thinking of how the money grubbers would take something like this and turn it into organic billboards, growing vastly, flashing slogans, or even two-tone pictures for feminine hygiene products (which made him consider, wondering if such things were a necessary evil in High Vale). He still didn’t know much about this world, but he liked everything, even all the dangerous stuff.
Bright bumblebees the size of your fist bobbed about in the air, alighting from flower to flower. Above these colorful hills began the pastures of the thickest, greenest grass that grew no taller than three inches, and interspersed in the rolling green carpet were winks of shocking white, glistening clover blooms in big circular patches.
In groups of ten to twenty, grazed herds of bison—much smaller than the most common buffalo—these were dark shaggy beasts standing no taller than a pony, but incredibly muscular, and dangerous looking with their almost comical horns, which turned up on either side like the crescent moon. They almost looked like hairy bulls, but their overall impression was peace, and gentleness.
A butterfly the size of a child’s kite fluttered near their passage, its wings striated with iridescent pinks and deep mauves that almost burned the optic nerve, and its wings were so translucent as to be too fragile for flight, and yet it floated and soared more majestically than any butterfly from the real world.
“As beautiful as these things are, the buffalos, the bees, the butterflies, I bet you anything that every single creature we’re seeing—bites, and bites hard,” Seven called over her shoulder to Jack.
“Yeah! Isn’t it great?” he called back, laughing, all of her tangle of hair blowing in his eyes and mouth.
A few cottages were spread through clumps of smaller trees, but they did not witness any signs of life—probably a result of the raid last week, there were a lot of reported deaths among the common folk.
Jack constantly returned his gaze to Joshua, thundering alongside them now. The big man had those same weird legs in the back, like the crooden warrior, goat legs that bent the wrong way, only terminating in paws instead of hooves. Legs which were perfect for tireless running, apparently. For the very human Joshua that Jack had met only last week, was not a man built for running. It had been hard enough for him to get his vast weight up out of a chair, let alone sprint for miles without rest. Why had Michael and Joshua translated so bizarrely into High Vale?
Michael, who could easily outrace them all in his Tasmanian Devil twirl of sparkle and winking light, instead chose to ride up high on the platform of horn behind Joshua’s head, a little meerkat of a man, smaller even than a Tolkien hobbit. And he laughed and chittered and howled in delight, easily grasping the horns for balance. He seemed to be an amalgamation of someone’s idea of a pixie, a meerkat, and a flying squirrel, with just a pinch of Peter Pan for good measure.
Yet Stacey and Jack pretty much looked like they always looked, only perhaps a trifle better looking, with all the muscle and fiber and stuff. Jack looked now a few years older than seventeen years of age, and Stacey certainly looked much younger than thirty-five years of age. Now, they were practically the same age, meeting somewhere in the middle, Stacey now a solid twenty-eight years of age, and Jack an easy twenty-one.
None of them had made any choices, not like in a video game. They didn’t mix and match on a paperdoll, selecting their appearance and attributes. No, none of them had any idea where they were going, or why, or how. And apparently from what Six said, when they were going. Because High Vale was a virtual world created more than two hundred years after the Year 2016. And yet the program had kept Stacey’s build and appearance, only buffing him up, and slimming him down. Whereas Jack was identical to who he was before, except with a more developed runner’s body, and yet he had started out with a runner’s body. Of course, Stacey had also started out with muscular body, an athlete, a professional boxer gone to seed.
But now that he thought of it, Jack figured the choices made on Michael were not so bizarre. He had been a small man before, naturally small, and made smaller yet by something that had happened to his legs when he was a child, kind of like Toulouse Lautrec, that painter guy who hung out with can-can girls. Michael had previously had two walking canes, and now he had magical drumsticks. Previously debilitated, he was no magically mobile. It was almost like he was being repaid and rewarded for all the heavy burdens he had carried in his former life. He had previously worn large round glasses, and now there were markings in his—fur—that suggested eyeglasses. The Michael that Jack had met in the truck, he could only be described as melancholy, and now he was a being of constant delight, giggling and smiling and laughing, and just non-stop twinkling. He literally smiled, it seemed a permanent fixture on his little meerkat face.
And Joshua, the bearded jolly giant, now he was man’s best friend, slobbering and smiling and grinning. Jack didn’t like to think it, but Joshua did remind him somewhat of Sulley, from the Pixar movie Monsters, Inc. Both were adorably cuddly, except that Sulley didn’t seem to drool, not like Joshua, and that was probably going to be a problem. And Sulley was quite a lot more...human, than Joshua, if that were possible.
High Vale had turned Michael’s melancholy into bliss, but it had not seemingly transformed Joshua in that way, he was like Stacey and Jack on the inside, unchanged, the same on the inside as he was before.
Six was the man he was before, at least in the game—Jack had no idea what he looked like in the real world, but Six had explained that he had come here first as a player, and had carefully selected all his attributes, including his appearance. Jack figured he liked looking kind of like a Viking lord gone a little soft, rough, and somewhat mean-looking. His meaty face was scarred with many jagged disfigurements, scars from his forehead all the way down to his throat.
With Seven, Six had explained, hers was a different case. She was a gold-pass visitor here, and she could choose to change her looks, but apparently had not.
Seven certainly didn’t look like a ghost, that was sure true. She was more alive and vibrant than any woman Jack had met in his life. In her sexy, skintight buckskins, she looked like a fantasy Calamity Jane (but Jack had studied up on the Wild West, and knew what Calamity Jane looked like, and thankfully Seven in no way resembled the reality of the legendary Jane).
“Do you need to rest?” Seven called, and Jack understood she was not talking to him. The horse, Dancer, neighed, and picked up its speed, thundering in a full run. The horses here, although they could not speak, at least not in people-talk—understood everything.
Jack wished he was riding Blackstar, the horse that Six had gifted him, but Stacey had wanted to do a run down to the river and do some katas, and teach Jack a little boxing. Unfortunately, Jack was not the boxer type, and he knew he’d never be any good at it, although he wouldn’t admit this to Stacey. He just didn’t want to disappoint the guy.
Of course, Jack certainly didn’t mind riding behind Seven, his lifelong Ghost Lady, and with her very round rear-end bouncing against him like this, it was going to be a very embarrassing moment when it was time to dismount, as these breeches didn’t leave much to the imagination.
As the land rose they could just now see the Great House jutting out from the mountain. As big as a monstrosity as the building actually was, from down here, climbing, it looked like a child’s toy left out in the trees. For the trees rose to impossible heights—these were trees as tall as sequoias, the larger ones as big around as the Great House, though they looked more like giant pines, only much heavier-branched.
Jack picked out several caves in the cliffs at the base of the mountain, and he chuckled, thinking of the trolls and other mythical creatures that certainly lived in those gaping holes. Ah, High Vale, you had to love it, it was like a dream come true. Throughout his whole life he had dreamed of finding himself in a place like this. Oh, to go to Middle Earth, Narnia, or Fillory!
He planned to go camping. He planned to go on quests, now that he was here, he wanted to do everything. If this was his life, he wanted to go for it. Everything. Live it, everything, breathe it, everything!
Nearing the crest of the plateau where an actual cobbled road existed, they were able to witness the arrival of a massive carriage pulling up to the manor, pulled by several thick animals that looked like rhinoceroses, only with many more horns, from the snout ridging all the way along the backs. What must be ten to twelve men accompanied the carriage, on both horses and small wild-looking shaggy ponies.
“Must be Varra’s sister,” Jack called.
Seven shouted something and they picked up speed again, thundering along the cobblestones. Though it looked like Joshua might now be struggling somewhat, running upright as he was and carrying both Stacey in his arms and Michael behind his head, the massive ram-dog maintained the pace. As they drew near the men about the carriage began yelling and forming up defensively. Jack waved at them, making a half-hearted attempt to assure the men they were not attacking, but thankfully here came Six, striding down the steps from the Great House, looking fresh-scrubbed and adjusting his clothes as if he had just emerged from his bath. He issued commands and strode down amidst the men, who began to dismount from their steeds, but refused to turn away from the approaching odd-looking party.
“What in the world!” Six called as Dancer came to an abrupt halt and both Seven and Jack leapt in a neat dismount as one, like conjoined twins, moving in perfect harmony, sticking their landings.
Seven and Jack gawked at Six a moment, for it looked like he had been through some great, vicious battle, as his right eye was blackened and half shut, and there were scratches on his face and throat, and it was obvious he was limping, favoring his right side.
“Stacey’s been poisoned by a scorpion sting,” Seven said, cutting through all the explanations that Jack was just starting to construct, if only in his head.
Six went white and he stood, stunned.
“But there’s no cure for that,” he muttered, looking at Stacey’s pale face.
Joshua offered his burden, extending his shaggy arms. Six signaled with a curt gesture and several men rushed forward, several of these noticeably Dragon Warriors—all the men gathered about the carriage looked as if they’d been through a recent bad time, a decidedly bad time, some of them still splattered with blood. The men gathered Stacey into their arms, and it was obvious that the Dragon Warriors were the two men being most careful, most delicate, handling Stacey as if he were a precious statue that might go all to pieces at any moment.
“It happened just before I got there,” Seven said, holding Dancer’s reigns and gentling her hand down the horse’s sleek head. “A scorpion about the size of a big dog.”
“And these?” Six glanced at the towering dog-ram, who remained upright on two legs and stood a towering nine feet or more in height. The little meerkat creature peered down between the giant creature’s horns.
“These are our friends, that we’ve been searching for,” Seven replied.
“Really? Joshua and Michael?”
The conversation and introductions halted as the carriage door opened, and a being slowly emerged, with cascades of black hair that spilled out of the carriage like some being all on its own, but the vision continued and a woman looking impossibly tall came from the carriage, and two men aided her in descending, although it appeared that she required no help.
Because if this was the sister of the Lady Varra, she was the opposite in looks and stature. Certainly over six feet in height, with jet black hair that hung down to her feet, she looked Asian, somewhat, and angry, and she was glaring at Six. Hell, this could be the very Queen of the Dragon Warriors!
“Oaf!” she snapped, glowering at Six, her brother-in-law.
“Hello Lady Maulgraul,” Six said, and Seven feared the man would lapse into the incessant stuttering he suffered when she first met him. He was obviously quite nervous in the presence of this...woman. Because the woman looked scary. Beautiful, yes, but scary beautiful, with severe almond eyes that seemed far too large for her pale face—Seven thought she looked like an insect, maybe a praying mantis, only not quite as friendly.
“Take him up to his room, Jack you show them the way,” Six commanded, turning away from the severe woman, and there was a certain look in his eyes as he issued the orders to Jack, and Jack nodded his head and raced to take Stacey’s hand as four burly men, two of them Dragon Warriors, began carrying the unconscious man. Obviously, Six did not wish the Lady Maulgraul (what kind of name was that?) to have anything to do with Stacey.
“Wait!” the Lady Maulgraul commanded, and Jack glanced up and saw the transformation of her face, and it was really eerie, she all at once went from looking terrifyingly severe, to the utterly utmost feminine of all creatures he had ever seen. Sweetness spread across the alien beauty of her face as her full lips smiled, revealing a detonation of light in the glow of movie star teeth. All the anger melted from her face, as she stood staring at Stacey. She stood, very upright, in what appeared to be a riding gown, or some kind of getup that rich people wore who were out on safari, all satins and silks, somewhat feminine, but mostly costly, and gorgeous, kind of unisex, but there certainly was no disguising her gender, as her figure was generously drawn even beneath clothes that were intentionally not sexy in any way.
“Oh boy,” Jack sighed, and caught Seven’s quick glance at him.
“This is...him,” Lady Maulgraul whispered, drawing close—it looked like she was floating, so smoothly did she move. “Such a child, oh such a child.”
Jack blinked and thought for a moment she was saying that Stacey was sweet, like a child, but something about the way one of her long hands covered her belly...and after a very pregnant pause, so to speak, suddenly her words took on a vastly different connotation. Watch out, this was a woman who went after what she wanted, and nothing had better get in her way, unless being obliterated was the desired objective.
She placed an incredibly long-fingered hand on Stacey’s face, or she almost did, but Seven put out a hand and blocked the intended touch.
“Please...do not...touch him,” she said, softly, but distinctly, but there was absolutely no pleading in her voice. No, she almost snarled.
Jack winced, and prepared to move between them, such was the flash of indignation that appeared in Lady Maulgraul’s expression. All sweetness and kindness had instantly vanished.
“Don’t...ever...touch me,” she whispered, looking down on Seven.
Seven nodded, half-bowing. “It’s a deal. You don’t touch him—I don’t touch you,” she said, and almost made it sound courtly, hardly a threat at all.
“I cannot understand what this boy is saying—cannot you manage your servants, Oaf?” the Lady Maulgraul growled at Six.
Seven was a woman of about average height, about five foot six, whereas the Lady Maulgraul must stand at about six feet two, if not taller, but quite a lot taller than Jack (who had, the last time he checked, seemingly hit his maximum at five foot ten). Jack worried the taller woman would swat the smaller woman like a fly. Probably with Kung Fu, or the High Vale equivalent.
Six coughed, and put out an arm, and without acknowledging him, not looking away from Seven, the tall, alien beauty seized Six’s proffered arm and whirled away. And even though they could distinctly see her feet moving, it appeared she was floating, moving across the grounds at Six’s side, and even while floating up the steps, seemed to defy gravity. And the crazy thing was, she looked taller than Six, who was at least six feet four inches.
“This looks like trouble,” Jack muttered, standing between Seven and Joshua, with Michael looking down.
“I think she’s very pretty,” Joshua said, panting heavily from his long run.
Seven glowered up at the giant dog-ram, and for a terrible moment Jack was certain she was going to snarl: “Bad dog!” But the moment passed, and nobody got scolded.
“She better watch herself,” Seven muttered under her breath, “the big, bad...”
Jack found himself greatly relieved when she bit off the last word.
Stacey found himself in the Dream Place, and his body and thoughts were sluggish, as if this time he were actually dreaming, but he knew he wasn’t—oh, he was here all right, in a very real place, although at the moment he could not bring to mind any other time he was ever here, in this place. But it appeared to be an old school room, perhaps a gymnasium, and there were lots of people milling about, and it only took a few seconds to realize that most of the people were stumbling, staggering, pretty much zombies, except that they were asleep rather than dead. Nobody made eye contact. There were a few couples of people, somnolent pairs, leaning toward each other, muttering. Stacey moved up close to two of these, to confirm that they were actually discussing something.
“...my mother always did that, my mother, why did she do that,” a man mumbled.
The other half of the pair was speaking at the same time: “...they don’t care, no matter how I care for them, they don’t care, my kids, I had them, I’m their mother, for heaven’s sake, my kids...”
They were not talking to each other, and yet they were on similar themes, but one from the child’s point of view, while the other from the mother’s. Strangers connecting in the Dream Place.
Looking about, it seemed a lot of small, ragged groups formed with this impetus, like drawing like, birds of a dream feather flocking together. The muttering of all the people was eerily similar to a zombie movie, only the denizens were not moaning, at least most of them were not. Stacey saw lumps of people slumbering peacefully, but stirring, making motions with their arms and legs. Other sleepers, lying full-out on the ground, mumbled and talked. A world of sleepwalkers and sleeptalkers.
Then Stacey heard something utterly bizarre, a male voice singing. A boomingly deep operatic voice, singing, or at least vocalizing—Stacey couldn’t make out any words, or if there were words in that singing, they could not be separated, or clearly understood. But Stacey did recognize the intention of the singing, it was to soothe, and calm.
Stacey moved against a wall, between two dreamers who were not speaking. He stood there, waiting. As far as he could tell, he was by far the most conscious person in the great hall, but he felt groggy, he was awake, yes, but he could not think clearly, like a man who is just about to pass out after drinking one too many whiskies.
Finally, the singer came into the hall from a side corridor. He was a large man, apparently black, or at least very dark-skinned, shining, and beautiful. His body seemed to be nude, except a halo of light surrounded him, the brightest part of the glittering glow was raised perhaps seven inches out from his body, and it shimmered, a robe of many colors, and that made Stacey think of something else, sparkles and light and haloes, but he could not focus his mind long enough to make sense of whatever he was thinking, or trying to follow with his thoughts. The singer strode through the room, moving effortlessly from sleeper to sleeper, singing in that rich baritone voice that sometimes rolled incredibly down into basso profundo, and sometimes came lilting up into a rich tenor. The strange singer, bald, and covered with winking lights, spent only a second or two at each person he passed, and every now and then he would stroke the sleeper’s hair, or half hug the slumped dreamer.
The singer was moving closer and closer to him, and Stacey hoped the singer would just go past, just keep moving, but when they were about ten feet apart the singer’s attention latched onto Stacey, and his face came alive with a vibrant joy, and he came forward, never ceasing in his singing, smiling all the while, and it seemed that Stacey was viewing pure goodness, and he kept having to turn his attention away, as the light hurt his eyes. The singer moved up close and seized Stacey’s arms in a gentle embrace, and he lowered his body, bringing his head far down to where he could look into Stacey’s eyes, and their gazes met and locked for a moment, and then the singer laughed a bit in his song, and then slowly released Stacey, but kept glancing back at him as he moved off amidst the sleepers and dreamers. He must be about eight feet in height, to have to crouch down so low to meet me eye to eye.
Stacey, watching the singer, glanced to the side, as he sensed that someone had intentionally moved in between him and the sleeper that leaned against the wall. Stacey looked, and it was a small monk, in a black robe, standing perhaps a foot removed from him.
“Who was that?” Stacey queried, his voice sounding garbled, with an underwater quality, muffled, and strange.
“Him? Nobody, just a charity worker,” the monk said in a deep voice, his face drawn back inside his large hood, so that Stacey could not make out his face. But Stacey knew exactly who it was.
“You’re the Businessman,” Stacey said, feeling drunken, and exhausted. He yawned.
“Very good, Colton. Yes, you are perceptive,” the shape in the black robe spoke. “You confused him, just now, as he realized you were awake, and you are not supposed to be awake here. Nobody ever is, except for the very worst dreamers, of course. This is where you pick up a lot of ideas for the stories you write—or the stories you used to write, before you left the world.”
“Left the world,” Stacey repeated.
“Tell me, Colton, where did the old fool move you, anyway? I know he did. Where are you, Stacey?”
Stacey looked at the monk and felt perhaps he should get into a defensive stance, although if this turned into a fight it would be one of those slow-motion affairs, where you tried to punch someone, and your hand crept forward while your opponent watched your progress with amusement, and maybe took a moment to file his fingernails. But he knew he better not answer certain questions.
The monk leaned closer.
“You are not good for Jack, Colton, do you understand? I am all for chaos, but you bring too much with you. It would be best for all if you just went through with it, and died. Do not take me wrong. I do not dislike you. In fact, I will admit it in this place, and only in this place, right here and right now while no one else is listening, but I admire you, truly I do. If I could pick and choose who should survive, who should move forward, I do believe you would be my first choice. No, of course, you would be my second choice, but only if there was a way to separate you from Jack. But you always find a way to bump into each other, don’t you? No matter how we run these things, no matter how we stack the odds against you, time after time, it turns up Jack and it turns up Stacey.”
“I don’t seem to have much choice...you know, in these things, whatever they are,” Stacey murmured, wondering if he was dreaming all this. “The puppets. Puppets.”
“You are not dreaming this, Colton. And yes, you do have choices, at least in some things. Here, I want to give you a few gifts. Don’t worry, you do not have to worry about me, at least not right now. This is not a trick. Here, what do you think of that?”
Stacey looked and he was amazed to find his black shillelagh in his hand, right there in his left hand. It felt good. Suddenly, he didn’t feel naked.
“I don’t know why, Colton, but that seems proper in your hands. But where did you get the stick, originally. Tell me where you are, Colton!”
Stacey looked at the shillelagh, how in the world did it get here? Into this...whatever this was?
“The snake coughed it up,” Stacey said, knowing at the moment he said it that he shouldn’t have said it. Oh well. Big mouth.
“And what about this, Colton?”
Stacey saw that now his snakeskin MMA gloves were on his hands, feeling perfect, and warm, and comforting.
“Yes, a snake, always the snake, you cannot trust them, the reptiles, but I do not think that you do trust them. But how about your...bracer?”
And the armored bracer from the crooden was upon his right arm.
“What in the heck is a crooden, Colton? Oh, and let’s not forget about your...shall we say, comfort?”
Stacey’s stiffened snakeskin pouch was in his hands.
“Oh, wow, thanks a million. Want one?” Stacey offered, producing two cigars.
“Certainly. Of course. Thank you, Colton.”
They lit up their cigars and the smoke seemed far too thick, billowing like smokestacks in the already dim lighting of the gymnasium. Almost immediately, sleepers and dreamers began to mumble and cough in their sleep. The smoke troubled them.
“You have not been too helpful, Colton,” the monk said. “But I wanted to sufficiently arm you for when you find yourself in this place, for others will be searching for you. You do tend to stick out. I want to at least provide you with a fighting chance, at all times.”
“Cool,” Stacey said, nodding his head, puffing his cigar.
“But I wish to make this very clear, right up front, and right now, Colton,” the monk said, seizing Stacey’s arm. The grasp of bony fingers was very cold.
Stacey couldn’t help himself, he thought of the Spirit of Future Christmas, from the Dickens. He grinned and stared down his cigar at the monk who was nothing but dark shadow.
“I am going to kill you. Please understand that. I will take no pleasure in the slaying, but it will be done, when I find you. I will reach out with my umbrella, and you will fall. That is a prophecy that will not fail. Trust in it.”
“Thanks for the heads-up,” Stacey said, but the monk was already gone. The other sleeper was there, staring dazedly.
“Mom, is that you?” the sleeper mumbled.
Stacey twirled his shillelagh, and was pleased that it moved at normal speed, even here, in the deep.
© 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).
Douglas Christian Larsen FREE Short Fiction
Read FREE Sample Chapters of the Douglas Christian Larsen Novel:
Read FREE Sample Chapters of the Rodolphus Novels:
related terms, ideas, works:
ancestor simulation, digital ark, salvation of humanity,
vestigial surreality, manda project, rocket to saturn,
the singularity, the butterfly effect, simulated reality, matrix,
virtual reality, otherland, the matrix, 1q84, haruki murakami,
hard-boiled wonderland and the end of the world, dreaming,
the dream place, waking from a dream, ready player one,
hologram, holodeck, saturn, saturnalia, cycles of time,
simulacron-3, daniel f. galouye, counterfeit world,
tad williams, science fantasy, science fiction,
Victor Frankenstein, Nikola Tesla, genius
do we live in a computer simulation?
Victor Frankenstein, Nikola Tesla, genius
do we live in a computer simulation?
mystery, thriller, horror, techno thriller,
signs and wonders, vestigial surreality,
william gibson, neal stephenson, serial,
cyberpunk, dystopian future, apocalypse,
scifi, mmorpg, online video game world,
end times, apocalypse, armageddon,
digital universe, hologram universe,
sunday sci-fi fantasy serial fiction,
virtual reality, augmented reality
the unknown writer blog
the unknown writer blog
are we living in a simulation?
puppets, puppetry, punch
Elon Musk, Tesla, VR