That hilltop looked amazingly far away and the harder he chugged and churned his legs the further his goal seemed to fly away, his lungs fiery and fading, and possibly, it was all just too much for one man, even if that man was the legendary Pugilist. The idiots, he snorted, no one seemed to realize that pugilist was pretty much a derogatory term that just meant boxer, or give a beating. And the fact was, he had never been that good a boxer. Even his trainer, his main guy, Ernie always said that Stacey was just too plain nice to get away with punching people and think he had any business doing such a thing. And this? He could never do this—he had never been the best distance runner, and now, oh how he had run. Yes, he had done what might seem impossible, running an entire day, and then an entire night, without rest, without food, and with water too scarce, but now, when he had almost achieved his goal, now came the hard part. He was now supposed to start punching people. Cracking heads. The hard part was not even achieving any hilltop, but violence, always violence on just the other side. Men would have their violence, first in Heaven, and then on Earth, and now in High Vale. He gasped, and strained, and pushed himself harder, but his legs were slowing down, like machine parts ungreased far too long. He heard metal upon metal, and screams. Just a little farther! He would never make it. He glanced up and his vision seemed to waver.
He must be hallucinating, for there before him, panting, stood a monster of a wolf. At first he thought it was a horse, because no wolf was that size—no wolf but one, that he had ever known of, and yes, blinking his eyes, it seemed to be Wolf the wolf, his companion and friend, except that this vision was distorted, because Wolf the wolf seemed to be missing half his head, or this was a nightmare version of his friend, more than half of him glaring skull. And as he watched, the beast collapsed, seemingly crumbling, going to pieces.
“Hurry, Master!” the hoarse voice of Wolf the wolf called. “Hurry, my Friend!”
“Hurrying,” Stacey murmured, and surprisingly, he found himself crawling, crawling up hill, creeping on hands and knees, with his tongue hanging out. His tongue was swollen and cracked. To come this far, and then to fail. Oh yes, it was just like him. Why oh why did uphill have to be just so—well, uphill. It made things rather difficult, climbing eternally upward, as gravity kept on insisting in dragging you back the other way. And the dust. The sun. It was all too much. But it was the kind of thing that life had insisted on throwing at him, for his entire...life. Why should this be any different? His life after his life, the world after his world.
And then he was there, with Wolf the wolf. The large animal licked him across the face as Stacey fell, his head thumping against the giant wolf’s chest—only things did not seem right, for Wolf the wolf was all skin and bones, almost literally. Glaring bones stuck up out of glistening muscle, and fur was peeled away, and Wolf the wolf was a pile of dying tissues and open wounds, blood, guts. And there was the sweet-spicy stink of rot, and infection, and death.
“Forgive me. Should not, oh should not have left you, my dear, dear Friend,” Wolf the wolf whimpered, sounding like a dog with its tail caught in a door. The animal sounded more out of it than Stacey’s half-dead lethargy. “I do not have much time, forgive me for apologizing so dimly, but I will be gone in just a moment.”
Head swimming, Stacey was not sure if he were dreaming all of this. Several times since coming to High Vale, he had slipped into a Dream Place, a very real location, except that right now the sun was far too bright for this to be that place, the Deep Place. The sun was too strong, and it was killing them, but at least they could die together, they would perish as one, Wolf the wolf, and Wolf the man, united again.
“The night of the Dragon Warriors, I sensed them, just outside of the Dulance Preserve, and I went to investigate, and they captured me, the Men from Mars. They found a backdoor through the Honey Moon. I slew many, that I swear. But High Vale has been incorporating them as an NPC type, and spawns them, very different from the originals, and I sense they are ripe for rebellion. There are many. Rebellious. Stupid. But...ah, something, Stacey. Something. Find the highwayman called Dasher. But I fade, Wolf the man, I must now leave you.”
Stacey stared at his friend. They could go, together, into that Far Country. Or some representation of it, whatever. Yes, it felt proper.
“Do not grieve me, Man, for you have no moisture to spare for tears. I feel we shall meet again, Wolf the man, Stacey. But you must draw closer, Wolf the man,” Wolf the wolf whimpered, voice so soft now that Stacey could barely hear his friend above the sounds of battle.
Stacey struggled. He thrashed. Like a worm, he inched a little closer, trying to stare into Wolf the wolf’s one good eye. The other eye was a glaring socket of skull. And yet there was still so much life, so much personality remaining in that dear face. They had such a short time together, and now that time was ending.
“Fare thee well, Stacey,” Wolf the wolf said.
“Don’t leave me,” Wolf the man said, voice cracking. He had given it all, and this last good-bye was too much, it would finally gather him into the whirlpool of death, and take him, finally. “I’ll go with you...I’ll go with you.”
“Nay, Friend. Not this day. Now, thou must fight. I have one last gift for thee, which I have saved until this moment. Place thy mouth upon my mouth, Friend, and kiss me.”
Stretching his neck, Stacey kissed Wolf upon the very end of his snout, and the wolf’s great fangs pulled Stacey’s jaw down, and Wolf the wolf...breathed.
A great wind blew across Stacey, forcing his eyes closed, and his lungs filled with the wind, to near bursting. Stacey hiccupped and coughed, spasming, trembling, and the light, great and beautiful, shone brighter, the wind increased like the gale of a storm, and Stacey shook, and was cast back, and he rolled away from his friend as the wind failed, and died.
Stacey sat up in the bright, hot sun. Wolf the wolf, his friend, was gone. Only bones, pelt, and a shell devoid of personality remained.
“I cannot grieve you now, not yet,” Wolf the man said, reaching and touching one of the great paws. “But I will remember you. You live on inside me now, my Friend.”
He meant that, literally. He could almost feel Wolf running through his chest.
And he leapt to his feet. He almost giggled, despite the tears flooding his eyes, for he was full of—life. He nearly screamed, such was the magnification of soul within him. Life burst from him in a rainbow halo he could actually see with his eyes. He felt pulled aloft with invisible wires, and he leapt over the remains of Wolf the wolf, and now he danced up the slope—this easy, easy incline! What had he been thinking? The hill that had seemed like a great cliff only moments before now seemed slicker than downhill! He fairly fell up the hill, his toes barely managing to keep up with his torso, which practically flew forward to its destiny.
“I am coming, Lady Maulgraul!” he cried as he crested the hill, and there before him was a small valley, and there in the wagon ruts was the great carriage itself, and before it was a large collection of huge men, instantly recognizable as Viking raiders, and there about them were the slain remains of the Dragon Warriors. The Dragon Warriors, not too long ago, were his foes, and he had fought them—but the sight of their hacked bodies filled Stacey with anger.
His chest expanded in fury as he came washing down this other side of the hill, and he raced into the valley, toward his new foe, these Vikings in their horned helmets. Without thought he spun his shillelagh above his head in his left fist, the black stick spinning almost with a life all its own.
The great men about the war carriage—they seemed to be stacking wood beneath the carriage—so they had not gotten to her yet! Maully was safe, locked inside the armored vehicle—the huge men turned at Stacey’s charge, and these guys knew what they were about, they knew surprise, and they formed into a battle wedge—that quickly—these fierce men lifting axes and swords and spears, even a few archers were now ranging out, nocking arrows.
Oh these guys, these men of fierce muscle and violent eyes—oh yes, these men of wars were his. Yes, oh yes. He was going to knock some head together, oh yes indeedy do.
Stacey came down from the hilltop like a marauding Grizzly bear, reared up and savagely hungry. The first man that swung a sword—Stacey had no time for fighting one man. He almost lovingly tapped the man, twice, the first time his shillelagh danced under the sword, lifted it up, and carried through, directly punching the screaming Viking in the face, the knobbed end of the stick punching him so hard it lifted him off his feet, and the second tap came just as Stacey raced past the man, catching him upon the back of the head. The truth was, Stacey hardly noticed the man as a foe, it was just a little tap-tap encounter, that was all, Stacey hardly noticed the Viking as he tumbled up off his feet and spun backward in the air, the momentum of their meeting throwing the man in a complete backflip, dumping him face-down in the rocky soil.
And the next two encounters were similar, just a neat little tap-tap in passing—one guy flew limply to the right, the other tumbled limply to the left.
But these guys were not shy, you could certainly acknowledge that about them, they didn’t hang about waiting to deal with him, playing all coy—no, they came forward as a disciplined wedge.
And Stacey slammed directly into this wedge, and if anyone lounged about in bleacher seats, munching popcorn and hotdogs, chugging beer after beer—any such imaginary spectator would have blinked in confusion as to what they were actually witnessing—because Stacey charged right up the tip of the wedge, his boots slamming the lead Viking in devastating strikes, as Stacey ran over him and leapt upon the horned helmets, his shillelagh flashing down left and right, blocking spear thrusts, neatly turning aside sword slashes, and in a few moments he had slammed the knob of his shillelagh into face after face, crumpling helmets in downward bonging crashes. He dashed over ten men and flipped to the rear of the wedge, five men turning to face him as his boots touched upon the ground, but he hardly paused as he leapt forward, punching the men in their great guts, slamming his shillelagh up under chins, all the while kicking out and taking man after man behind the knee, but even as he tore into them, a wolf into a pack of rats, they struck at Stacey, they leapt forward, they swung ax and sword and they roared as they came at him. Oh they wanted him, that they did, they lusted to tear him and crush him and sever his limbs.
A big beautiful guy, the largest brute present (all flowing blond tresses and intricately wound braids), pushed through the wedge, swinging a war hammer, and he roared in a delighted smile, crashing through his own men, knocking man after man aside—pretty much aiding Stacey, at least for the moment. Because he wanted to smash Stacey down into an accordion of crushed flesh and bones. He swung the two-hundred pound metal hammer as if he wanted to ring the bell at the county fair, prove he was the strongest superhero in residence.
Stacey sidestepped the first hammer strike, and he rapped the humongous man upon the hand that swung the hammer. The giant Viking ignored the rap upon the knuckles and swung the hammer down a second time, and Stacey sidestepped and rapped the man upon the other hand. And the man dropped the hammer, he just let it go, and he held up his hands to stare at his crushed fingers.
The bad thing was—the really nasty thing—was that the hammer landed on Stacey’s foot. With a yelp, Stacey tried to slide his booted foot out from under the massive chunk of metal, but he was pinned, and fast. So he reached down and seized the hammer by its jutting metal handle, metal wrapped in leather thongs, and he lifted the hammer up in his right hand, and swung the war hammer up above his head—a violent snatch and lift with one hand, two hundred pounds, and Stacey hardly considered his own feat, as he stood with the hammer above his head.
The Vikings stopped. It was almost funny, how quickly they all lurched into silence, all roars gone, and they stared at him, gawking wide-eyed, mouths hanging slack.
“Why are you just standing there!” Stacey roared, shaking the war hammer at the men. Several of the men, at least four of them, fell in their traces, they just dropped, slumping left and right, forward and backward. Others began backing away. They great big blond just gaped.
“Well come on Thor! What? Do you need your hammer?” Stacey snarled, and he threw the hammer at the big man. It punched him in the chest and although he attempted to catch it, he was driven backward and went down, tripping over one of his own crumpled men.
To his credit, the big blond was up in an instant. And he wielded the hammer much more easily than Stacey, he swung it about the way Stacey handled his shillelagh.
“I am the Mighty Thor!” the big blond shrieked, his pale face going lividly red.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, and I’m the Amazing Spider-Man,” Stacey snarled. He felt enraged beyond belief.
Stacey dashed forward and leapt up onto the blond’s chest and snatched his helmet right off his head, then pushed himself backward in a neat flip. Thor stood blinking.
Then the big Viking snatched at the helmet in Stacey’s hands. Stacey flung the helmet up high, over the warrior’s head, and when the big man turned to follow its flight, Stacey dashed about and behind the man to catch the helmet as it came down. Another Viking standing there also tried to catch the helmet, but Stacey punched him in the chest with his shoulder, tumbling the man over.
Stacey lifted up the helmet.
Thor and the other Vikings stared at him.
Stacey shook Thor’s helmet.
“I’ve got your hat.”
“Give me mine hat!” Thor shouted, and then blinked. “I mean—give me mine helmet. That’s mine helmet.”
Stacey laughed. It really sounded like the big guy was doing a bad impression of the Swedish Chef, making his demands in a comical sing-song voice. Vikings weren’t Swedish, were they? Come on, all the best Vikings were Danish, that was pretty much a rule, wasn’t it? You couldn’t live right above Germany all those years and not have some of the war rub off on you, I mean that was pretty much a given! Didn’t the Swedes sell cheese to the Danes?
Thor snapped out a punch, and he caught Stacey right in the left eye. It was not a very good punch. The big man did it without thinking, because Stacey had pissed him off. But even though it was not a proper punch, the guy really was huge, and the fist nearly took Stacey’s head off. Stacey shook his head, blinking. Again with his left eye! What the hell was his problem? His eye and half his head was swelling up already.
Thor again tried to snatch his helmet out of Stacey’s right hand.
“I am the Mighty Thor!” the Mighty Thor thundered.
“You’re going to be mighty sore!” Stacey yelled in his face, and Thor stepped back, disconcerted.
“Stop teasing me!” the Mighty Thor thundered.
Stacey rolled his eyes. These guys deserved this.
He stepped forward and clunked the big guy in the forehead, squarely, knobbing him a good one. And the Mighty Thor crumpled backward, like a tree falling. The ground actually shook, such was his stature and weight. He must be seven feet tall and almost as broad, all three hundred and fifty pounds of him.
And then Stacey staggered like a drunk man. What had just happened? Something. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, and then he glanced down and observed the arrow tumbling away from his cloak. Damn it! Someone had just plunked him a good one, and apparently his serpent cloak was arrow proof, because he was not pierced. And his foot, his damned foot, feeling was finally swelling back in, and it hurt, that hammer was heavy! But he staggered around the group of men, and they just stood watching him. Then he tripped over a rock and almost went down, but caught himself, and took a few limping steps backward, and then abruptly vanished from the world.
The Vikings gasped. The strange man had just suddenly winked out of existence!
“He vanished!” a Viking sing-songed.
“That was the Pugilist!” another cried.
“No, no, I heard him, he said he was the Amazing Spider-Man,” a short Viking contributed.
“Um, you know, I think he was being...sarcastic,” a tall, elder Viking said, who was standing many paces removed from the crumpled wedge. This tall elder leaned upon his great spear which stood several feet higher than his own high-up-to-here head.
“No, no, I’ve heard of Spider-Man, he can supposedly shoot webs out of his mouth!”
“No, that was definitely the Pugilist! He beat the Mighty Thor!”
“You better not let the Mighty Thor hear you say that!”
“I think the Mighty Thor is taking a mighty nap,” someone laughed, and then they all roared with laughter.
“A Mighty Beauty Sleep!” another one joked, and the burly men roared again.
And then the strange man was back among them, knocking heads, right in the middle of their laughter. He knocked five of them down, hardly striking them, just little knocks from the flashing black stick—such an insignificant weapon, against their steel! What were the gods thinking?
“I beat your best...Sore!” the strange man shouted, posing on a wide, flat rock. He had his black stick back behind his head, resting across his shoulders, his arms hanging lazily over the stick.
And he did something odd. He belched, long and loud. They all knew that distinct music—a beer burp! Where had the strange man gotten beer, and why wasn’t he sharing?
“You sure haven’t done much to impress me with your fighting! What happened, you get lazy after killing farmers and women, and children?”
“Thou didst not beat me,” the Mighty Thor roared, pushing himself half off the ground. “And cease making sport of mine name!”
“You expect me to accept that...you...are Thor, the God of Thunder?”
“I never claimed godhood,” the Mighty Thor said, almost reasonably, pushing himself off the ground and rising up, swaying in place, half crouched, big hands on big knees, and then stood, and thrust a mighty arm at the strange man upon the flat rock, pointing his finger.
“I am still here! Thou didst not beat me. I am Thor, that is mine name. And I am a better man than thee!”
“You want to try Round Two?” the strange man said, swinging the shillelagh in intricate patterns.
“Come, if thou are really the Pugilist, face me, hand to hand,” the big blond said, in his deep but strangely sing-song accent. He lazily tossed aside his massive hammer. The ground actually quivered.
Stacey slammed his shillelagh against the rock. It stood straight when he removed his hand. He stepped down from the rock, and went to stand in front of the Mighty Thor.
“Thor,” the elder Viking said. “Look about thee. No man could do this, none other than our legend of the Pugilist. This man does not lie to us. Come, let us eat meat, and drink mead, and share tales. Let us eat meat.”
“You said meat twice,” Stacey said, glancing at the elder Viking, but he kept his peripheral vision trained on Thor—he absolutely knew the big man would sucker punch him, and when the punch came, Stacey slipped it easily.
“We really like meat,” the elder Viking said.
Stacey shrugged out of his great cloak. He fully expected Thor to attempt a second sucker-punch, but to his credit the big man waited, almost patiently. He was pawing the ground with his steel-toed boots.
Vikings were coming up the slope, some of them almost as large as the Mighty Thor. Apparently, the bigger men took longer getting up this inclince. In the distance, several longboats were visible on a wide river.
“I will fight thee, Pretender,” the Mighty Thor roared, and threw the strongest punch of his life.
Stacey neatly sidestepped the punch, and the Mighty Thor produced a beautiful end-over-end somersault in the air—a thing of beauty. Even a quarter-sized gymnast would have been impressed. The Mighty Thor lay blinking for several moments, the wind knocked out of him.
“You just playing, Thor?” Stacey laugh, and ooh, there it was—damn it all, but he actually felt sorry for the big guy. What he was doing here wasn’t very nice, making fun of the big, proud warrior, but still, he was ready when Thor tried to grab his leg. Wouldn’t do to let the Mighty Thor catch hold of him, he’d rip Stacey’s leg off like a turkey drumstick.
Many of the assembling Vikings laughed, these new arrivals assumed this was some part of the show, Viking games. Or did they call them reindeer games? That was really cool when the Mighty Thor threw that punch and went end over end in the air—no one had ever seen anything like it—nor had they ever seen anything or anyone like the man in the odd clothing. He was a striking figure, and they all recognized him as the Pugilist, as easily as another people in another world would instantly recognize George Washington, or Benjamin Franklin, or possibly Daniel Boone.
The Mighty Thor lumbered to his feet and roared, bending double, his face going dark red, working himself into a mighty berserker rage. He roared, putting his entire soul into the trumpeting wail of fury. He actually ripped out hunks of his glorious blond hair. And he launched himself snarling at Stacey, swiping and punching and throwing monster strike after monster strike. But none of the barrage landed, not a single blow.
“Are you getting thore, Thor?” Stacey laughed, unable to resist the continuing taunt. Damn it, but he was going to have to teach this stupid—mofo—a lesson, and a good one at that.
“Stop teasing me!” the Mighty Thor roared. He tried to stomp Stacey.
Stacey kicked him in his big knee while the warrior’s other leg was over-extended, and the Mighty Thor collapsed, crashing into the rocks.
Okay, come and get me. Let’s see whatya got, Big Boy. How you like me now.
Thor got up and came for him and Stacey opened his arms for a big ole hug, and the Mighty Thor seized Stacey in a bear hug to end all ursine embraces, and the Mighty Thor was truly a mighty man. Stacey went loose in the wrestling hold, and then tensed, driving his knees up into Thor’s middle, and rocked back and head-butted the giant squarely in the face, and when Thor’s arms opened and Stacey fell the length of that mighty body, he instantly rebounded and released a few jabs into each of Thor’s eyes, and then produced his very best punch, a short, chopping blow which he landed like a cruise missile right on the tip of Thor’s chinny-chin-chin, and Thor toppled. Oh yeah, he was out. Nighty-night Thor.
Stacey staggered back to his cloak, dusted it off, and shrugged back into its embrace (hey, there would be arrows, of that he was certain), and then strolled casually back to his shillelagh. He jumped onto the rock platform, and finally turned to face the Vikings. He glanced to where he had tripped through that freaky portal, where he had that refreshing beer. But he saw no one in that vicinity. During the fight he had thought he had caught a glimpse or two of one or more of the men, but now was reassured that the strange men from another world were not here—because he did not wish them to share in the terrible thing he was about to do.
“Come on!” Stacey shouted. “Is this your best?”
The Vikings came forward, almost rumbling, and those gathered closest, these attacked first, and Stacey clubbed them over, one by one, and each fell in a tangle of limbs and weapons. One, two-three, four-five, six and a seven, neat as you please, like shooting over tin ducks at a carnival. He put down about ten of them before things changed again.
Because a strange procession came forward, Vikings whipping prisoners, tugging them nastily by ropes looped too tightly about scrawny necks. The elder Viking signaled for a halt in the attack. Stacey peered at the strange men bound with ropes and leather thongs. There must be twenty of them. Some were wounded. All of them were bloodied, and battered.
“What would you have us do with these?” the elder called to Stacey.
Stacey stared at the prisoners, a very strange lot. They were beaten, and cowed, but many still glared defiantly about them. They were very small men, especially compared to the hulking Vikings. But Stacey did not know them, looking from face to face, although there was certainly something familiar about them. They were dressed in rough leathers, dark hoods, kind of stereotypical bad guys, but the thing was, their faces were...bizarre, kind of melted, and whitely pale, and they had ruffled feathers on their heads, and these did not seem to be hats, or adornment. The feathers seemed to grow out of their heads like hair. Some had bright red parrot feathers, others dark hawk feathers, and some were multicolored—Stacey had to admit it, the whole feather thing, though weird, was kind of cool.
“Why are you asking me? I don’t know them,” Stacey said, staring with curiosity at the prisoners.
“They claim that they came to seize you, Pugilist,” the elder Viking said. He really was old in Viking circles, because the next Viking closest in age was probably thirty years of age, tops. This older guy looked to be in his sixties. “I will allow you to decide their fate.”
Something about the feathered men, what was it? Then he remembered, that day, long ago, in the alley. The strange attackers, yes, these prisoners were similar to those—not exactly, if Stacey remembered correctly, those guys were dressed like gymnasts, whereas these guys were Fantasy thief types, all Lincoln green and browns and blacks.
“Do you believe in mercy?” Stacey queried, his voice loud so that all the Vikings, and the prisoners, might hear him, even the Vikings further down the valley paused to listen.
“No, we do not,” the elder Viking said, just as loudly. This leader of Vikings knew how to project his voice.
“Should I have mercy upon...you?” Stacey called.
The Vikings laughed. The nerve of it. One guy, showing mercy—to hundreds? They liked him, he had balls, he could be one of them—but oh yeah, they were going to kill him, all the same, and they were going to enjoy the whole exercise. Because more and more Vikings were gathering, all of them perfectly rested, and each man eager to spill some blood. They were going to open up this Pugilist and spread his guts over the ground.
“We ask no mercy from you—nor desire it. You will die. We will kill you. No mercy. Never mercy. It’s sort of our motto.”
Stacey nodded his head and stared at the ground.
“This is your last chance. If you drop your weapons, I will let you live. Free your prisoners, and head for your boats, and you will live to pillage and plunder and rape and burn, another day, far from me and my people. But if you persist, I will then say two words, and all here will die.”
“Two words!” a Viking cried, laughing.
“Two words!” another cried, and then they all took up the chant, even the arriving Vikings, as more and more gathered, they all shook their weapons and cried: Two words! Two words! Two words!
Stacey glanced at the elder Viking. The man grinned and shrugged his shoulders, still in the same posture, leaning against his tall spear, his arms folded around the spear and across his broad chest.
“I will say two words, and you will meet your nightmare! Shall it be upon your heads?” Stacey hollered.
The Vikings continued their taunting chant: Two words! Two words! Two words!
“It is upon our heads!” the elder leader cried.
Stacey shook his head, and smiled.
The Vikings quieted. Even the continuing stream of the large men fell quiet, desiring to hear what two words the Pugilist would utter. And then, oh yes, the killing, ah yes, the killing!
Stacey looked out over the many heads, perhaps more than a hundred, and still streaming up from the boats in clumps of twos and threes and fours. He gave one last glance to the elder.
The elder Viking smiled, and nodded his head. Let’s hear it, his expression taunted.
“Oros!” Stacey shouted, the word exploding into the air. He looked to the leader. The man was no longer smiling. In fact, he had gone from pale to gray.
Stacey shouted the second word: “Borealis!”
For the moment, all was the same. Nothing changed. The Vikings were silent. A hawk high in the air cried out, eager to come down and sample some of the meat on offer. The Vikings stared at him, but their smiles slipped from their faces. Their jaws dropped low. But the leader, the elder Viking, he was stumbling backward, quietly, taking quick backward steps. Whoa boy, look at him go, now he was outright pell-mell scrambling away, casting aside his spear.
Oros Borealis. Stacey had hoped to never meet the behemoth again. The vast serpent god of High Vale. The last time they had met, it had been...close. He still had nightmares about that meeting. And Stacey had sensed then that the titanic nightmare had barely suppressed its need and habit to gobble Stacey down in one bite and swallow. Oros Borealis, it’s where the shillelagh and cloak had come from, vomited up from the belly of the beast, a gift because Stacey had battled the vast serpent to a draw. These thorny fingerless gloves, these boots, his vest and daggers. All a gift from the creature that instilled sheer terror with its very presence, regardless of all the wonderful presents.
The Vikings began to murmur.
“Run!” Stacey roared. “Run now and its probably too late, but run!”
“That’s a lot more than two words,” one of the Vikings joked, but none of his fellows laughed.
Because there was a slight tremble in the ground. Several Vikings turned and pell-mell ran for the hills, others went back the way they came toward their longboats, and some fell to their knees. Stacey saw the leader of the Vikings now running full out away, not down the valley toward the river and the boats, but heading off at an angle—Stacey thought it was a pretty good strategy, but he doubted it would do much good, not in the end. But sadly, Stacey wished him well. He liked how the older warrior had entreated the Mighty Thor to set aside their weapons and to share a feast (although Stacey didn’t doubt that he would have still died at the end of the feast—hell, he didn’t remember that much about Vikings, but Stacey could have realistically ended up being the feast, in this world).
The ground shook. Just a slight trembler, but it was definitely the beginning of the end.
Many of the Vikings were now casting their weapons aside and a few of them were falling to their knees, bowing their heads. Stacey doubted that any of this fleeing and praying and whining and entreating would do much good for them, for their fate was sealed. Probation was closed. Judgment Day was even at the gate. It was inevitable. He knew it when he crested the hill and saw the Vikings, he knew it with certainty, that every single one of them would be dead, at his hand. Or at least, upon his two words.
One guy actually came charging at Stacey, his ax up, but when he saw the grave look on Stacey’s face he halted dead in his tracks, and for all Stacey knew, the man might have actually died right then and there, for he fell over to the side, his eyes rolled up into the top of his head. If that were the case, then he was a lucky man, this hapless Viking, because it was just about at that moment that the horror erupted.
The ground split apart in a savage earthquake and many Vikings flew up into the sky, hundreds of feet, while many others tumbled immediately into the depths of the crevasse, but up from those depths came the serpent that was more than one hundred feet in length, with its great hooded head, its spindly batwings spread, glittering with the jewel fire of all imaginable colors, Oros Borealis rose, shimmering with eerie light, and as if answer to the arrival of doom clouds suddenly spread across the sun, Oros Borealis ascended, taller and taller, fifty feet above the split ground, with human legs already kicking from the monster’s mouth. Legs that were quickly slurped down, like a child intent upon spaghetti.
The Wyrm Oros Borealis rose from the depths, savagely biting and swallowing men whole. Stacey was shocked at the sight, for he had never witnessed the powerful creature in action, not like this—not like this. Men shrieked as the mouth came down upon them, and they vanished other than their boots, and these too vanished into the gaping hungry maw of the abyss.
The Abyss was here, present, and it was angry. And it was ravenous for Vikings. And it consumed them, one after the other, its vast body uncoiling and roiling upon the rocks, smashing men in is violently wild undulations of esctasy, the Wyrm Oros Borealis was freed and rained down terror. The Vikings wailed and wept, a few bravely stood to fight the monster, casting what looked to be the toys of children upon the serpent, but they were consumed all the same. Waving swords, they were swallowed. Throwing spears, they were gulped. Like a fast-food junkie, the great serpent went for great quantity of meal, not quality. He didn’t need candlelight or champagne. He desired the super-sized portions, and as many and as quickly as possible.
And the Mighty Thor rose to meet the giant that dwarfed his own massive proportions, and the Mighty Thor, sans helmet, swung his two-hundred pound hammer, and he actually struck the vast serpent, and then he too—screaming in terror—was gulped down in three jerking spasms of frenzied gluttony. Stacey knew that this was not the Norse God consumed by the High Vale god, but merely a large and brave man named Thor—maybe the Vikings named all their biggest and brightest with this name, but the terror on Thor’s face as he met his fate in the face of the Abyss was all too human.
“Never have I been called to such a feast!” Oros Borealis thundered, and his voice truly was thunder, shaking the very ground.
Stacey looked and saw that three of the longboats were pulling out into the middle of the wide river, perhaps heading for the sea, but he doubted they would make it, for the vast serpent was already halfway to the river, and all Vikings were cleared, from here to there, either crushed beneath the undulating coils, or swallowed whole, and in some instances bitten clean in half, the pieces falling away from either side of the wyrm’s jaws, limbs still wriggling, eyes rolling. Even at this distance, the serpent looked like a trick of perspective, or a child’s playset gone horribly wrong. One severed body crawled desperately away, but Oros Borealis plucked the dismembered human like a tasty morsel. At one one point Stacey witnessed three burly Vikings heading down the maw of the Abyss, simultaneously, devoured in moments.
Stacey felt ill, through and through. The new energy that Wolf the wolf had gifted him, it seemed to sour inside him, because couldn’t he have found another way? Might not he have haggled with the Viking chieftain, wheeled and dealed? Worked something out for them all? Couldn’t they all have walked away from this, winners?
Not in Viking Town. They guys either killed, or got killed. There was no mercy, no dealing.
Of course, there were ten dead Dragon Warriors, hacked and bludgeoned beyond recognition, and the Vikings were preparing to roast the carriage with fire, when Stacey came doing his ballet shuffle into their midst, twirling his shillelagh, kicking ass and taking names. No, these were not nice guys. They deserved—well, perhaps not this, exactly, but still, they really did deserve something truly horrible, like gout, and a beer gut, and teenage children to mock them when they bragged about their plundering, their raping, their majestic pillaging. Yeah, that might have been a better, more compensative end to such braggarts and blackguards (those two worms rhyme, despite their spelling, Stacey thought, and grinned). Hell, why not blaggards? He sighed. It worked. Why not.
You sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind, or however that went. These guys were in the maelstrom now. And Stacey wondered, since this was High Vale, would these Vikings be reborn, naked, in High Vale—ready Player One? Or would they just respawn, perhaps tomorrow, hoisting their tankards and seizing wenches by the waist? Or were they gone, forever, simple NPCs racking up points, ding ding ding.
But that Mighty Thor, the guy had an ego on him, that was blatantly obvious, probably as big as his biceps. Very proud dude. The way he had swung his mighty hammer against the serpent god, you had to admire that, didn’t you? It was terrifically majestic, that it was.
Out there now, one of dragon boats flipped up together like one of those movie clappers, only the boat then dove into the river, men catapulting, rag-dolling through the air, and Oros Borealis plucked several of them out of the air before they ever got close to the water. His body bucked up from beneath another longboat, cracking it in half. From this distance, it looked like some silly Japanese movie from the 1960s, and any second Godzilla would come roiling up out of the water to challenge the wyrm, only not even Godzilla would stand a chance against this vicious god of High Vale. Well, perhaps if he tiptoed up and fried the serpent with his fire breath, that might work. But then Stacey witnessed a very similar gout of flame that he was just imagining, come vomiting up from the belly of Oros Borealis—Stacey had no idea the serpent had such a trick up his sleeve.
For the first time since coming over that hill, Stacey glanced back at the carriage, only fifty feet away. Was she in there, his Maully? He had lived an entire life with this woman, from childhood to death, and beyond, as his beloved wife haunted his tomb—but all of that had happened in one night. What did they call it, Six and Varra? A soul mesh. It wasn’t real, was it?
In every fiber of his being, it certainly seemed real. For every memory he had of slaving in various jobs in his own reality, he had an equal portion of memories living here in High Vale, fighting warriors, and gladiators, and making love to Maully.
It was why he had come running after her when she fled in the night, after taking what she required from him. Why had she fled? He never stopped to ask why. He had merely set off in pursuit, following his beloved. He could not be separated from her, not by dark forest, descending spider, sexy panther woman, or Viking horde. He had come all this way, and now she was there, just there, safe in the armored carriage.
But what if she wasn’t there?
Stacey glanced back and saw that Oros Borealis was flying back, high enough in the sky that his vast body, although trolling just above the ground like a fishing net, was clearly hundreds of feet up in air. He hadn’t witnessed the serpent in flight prior to this moment, and it was awesome. It looked as if it could knock a Boeing 777 out of the air, although the immense beatings of its batwings stretching out a hundred feet on either side moved the massive creature along very slowly, like a dirigible.
Then Stacey noticed the group of prisoners, kneeling, still bound, their captors gone or dismembered every one. For some reason the serpent had not killed the robbers and thieves.
Stacey leapt from his flat rock and strolled to the prisoners.
“Pugilist,” one of the robbers said, smirking. “Are you going to slit our throats?”
Stacey twirled his shillelagh near the thug’s face. That’s what was different, these guys had actual noses, some of them quite large, and all of them bloodied. Apparently they were no match for the Vikings in the department of fisticuffs. Oh yeah, and they had lips, and eyebrows (feathers for eyebrows, what an idea).
“Does the Pugilist slit throats?” Stacey said, speaking casually. These were bad guys too, maybe not as bad as the Vikings, but he imagined pretty close. These guys probably mugged solitary travelers, while the Vikings liked to take down a whole village.
The man did not bat an eye, but glared at Stacey. He shook his head, grinning.
“No, Sire, I think yer more likely to bash in me brains with that there stick of yourn.”
Stacey blinked, considering the words. The roguish accent was so thick, Stacey was not sure exactly what the punk had actually said. Something about brains and urine. A stick of urine? Something must be lost in the translation.
Let’s see what they do, Stacey mused, not at all reluctant to bonk a few more idiots on the head. He whipped one of his daggers out from beneath his arm and cut the thongs binding the first rogue’s hands together, then he went down the line and loosened them all, slicing through both ropes and thongs. He stepped back as the little men climbed to their feet, shaking out their arms and legs.
Nope, not a one of them said a thank you, or even smiled at Stacey. If he sneezed, he doubted they would bless him, either. They did give him dark looks, and they muttered to each other, probably wondering if they still might be able to take him, you know, all against one, and one against all, and all that roguish crap. Indeed, there were twenty of them, and one of him. But he chuckled, because while they might look stupid, none of them looked quite that stupid. They had seem him among their betters, taking out Viking after Viking. He could tip these would-be thugs like dominos, and hardly need a napkin to wipe the corners of his mouth, they’d be that easy. It might almost be fun.
“Do any of you know Dasher?” Stacey asked, he seemed to remember Wolf the wolf mentioning that name. Dash? Prancer? Comet, Cupid, or Vixen?
They muttered and one of them looked like he was about to speak.
But now Oros Borealis was settling down into a pile of massive coils, only ten yards away. As he remembered, the vast serpent made him feel the size of a mouse.
“Nice to see thee again, Pugilist,” Wyrm Oros Borealis hissed.
“Well met,” Stacey said, remembering to keep his voice and body firm. He always sensed that you just did not wish to show weakness before the monster.
“Well summoned, thou dost mean,” Wyrm Oros Borealis hissed, and it almost sounded like he giggled amidst the hissing.
“Just speak to me, man to man, Oros Borealis. No need to sound fancy. But I didn’t summon you. You are not a demon to be summoned,” Stacey said, and noticed that the twenty thieves were groveling and weeping, grinding their hands against their ears.
“God to man,” Oros Borealis hissed. “And no demon might be summoned. There are no demons in this world—those pathetic pretenders are in your world, or the world that once was. When your world shattered like glass, so did the demons. That world is no more, Pugilist. I did not wish to tell you on the day we met.”
“What do you know of my world?” Stacey demanded, because he had just spent a few moments in a world very much like the one in which he used to live, although he realized even now that both worlds were just simulations, as was this High Vale. Still, simulated or not, beer was pretty good.
“I do sense another world, close by,” Wyrm Oros Borealis hissed, and Stacey was certain he saw the serpent glance to the place where Stacey had tripped through into another world, a world with beer.
“You are bleeding, Oros Borealis,” Stacey said, noticing the crack on the serpent’s lower jaw—that was the Mighty Thor, who struck the serpent with the hammer.
“One of your little enemies was rather energetic,” Oros Borealis hissed. “I feel him kicking, even now, in my belly. Kick and clawing and screaming, but alive, each and every one of them, in my belly.”
“If I get any sense from the Mighty Thor, he’s going to give you indigestion,” Stacey said, grinning at the serpent.
“Gas, more likely, and I do not wish to be near you when that first trumpet blows,” Oros Borealis hissed, and again there seemed to be a deep chuckle in that hiss. “If you struck a flint this whole hill valley might disappear in a towering cloud.”
“What about these guy?” Stacey queried, nodding to the twenty thieves.
“They are your friends, perhaps not as yet, they are too stupid to know it, but soon. Go on, little mice, scurry away before I change my mind,” Wyrm Oros Borealis hissed like thunder, and the twenty thieves were up and running, and they did look like little brown mice scurrying away from the serpent.
“Thank you, Oros Borealis,” Stacey said, bowing deeply.
“It was nothing. Actually, it was fun. I’m not supposed to ever do it again, but for you, Pugilist, White Knight, I just might, if you summon me nicely, as you did today. I suppose now you must go to that woman, your...wife?”
“Yes, the Lady Maulgraul, my Maully. Do you know her?”
“Oh, we’ve met. I would be careful around her, Pugilist. As long as you meet her requirements, she might prove actually quite amusing. But if you stray out of her intentions, you had best watch your back. If she were a god, she would be me, and if I were a human, I would be her. So be careful. Never trust her. Sometimes when the White Knight rescues the Fair Maiden, she gives him a good one, right in the back, if she can find a sufficient opening in his armor.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Stacey replied, realizing that the great serpent had just informed Stacey that neither of them was to be trusted, woman or snake.
“Fare thee well, Pugilist,” hissed Wyrm Oros Borealis, and he slithered almost quietly back into the crevasse, and again the ground shook, and the rent in the fabric of the world drew back together, leaving a jagged scar about the land. Stacey tracked the impression of the scar, which pointed almost exactly to there the portal was located. At least where he thought it must be located.
He must remember this place, just in case. Perhaps, one day, he might need to pass that way again, and snag another bottle of beer.
But for now, he turned wearily toward the carriage, and headed to meet his wife, Lady Maulgraul, his beloved Maully.
He strode to just before the double doors on the side of the carriage, and knocked with the knob of his shillelagh.
“Maully,” he called, “it’s me, Stacey. Open the doors!”
And the doors erupted outward, as if rocketing from springs, and struck him full on, catching him in the face and chest and groin, driving him backward, and he tumbled, going end over end, tumbling to the lip of the land, where the valley snaked down below, and he tumbled down this fall, unconscious, sliding and rolling and tumbling, bouncing and crashing faster and faster, until he dropped into a streambed below, and lay unmoving.
“Idiot,” someone said from inside the carriage.
© 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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