The great eye-shaped pool gleamed in the dark, glowing faintly, the waters sometimes rippling and occasionally splashing, burbling in the quiet of the night. Throughout the darkest portion of the dark hours a motley assortment of highwaymen attended the fire that glowed just stronger than coals near the pool, feeding slow logs to the blaze, turning the wood at regular intervals, ensuring the warming of the empty nest of furs close by, with towels and blankets stacked neatly, as close as possible to the fire lest Stacey and Emily emerge sometime in the night when no watchers were close at hand. When snow began wafting down in great feathers as the camp slept, several industrious highwaymen hurried out to form a neat wall of snow at the rear of the fur nest, and whip up a quick lean-to shelter to keep off most of the snow.
A few times Michael came and stood before the pool, staring down, immune to the cold in his fur coat. Steam rose from the pool and wafted about the meerkat man, and sometime after midnight even Michael retired. The hills turned white in the night.
Beneath the waters, deep, deep down, the sides of the earthen-walled tunnels opened up and the sides seemed to transform into glass as the waters glowed red, and deeper down the waters changed again, becoming luminescent blue. The waters calmed, going placid, with only occasional bubbles lifting and strangely taking shapes, elongating, and then heading down the wrong way, as if propelled by a life all their own.
Stacey breathed in the waters, rubbing at his face where the great scars on his forehead and eye and cheek tingled. At some point he had lost contact with Emily in the whirlpool and he had sought her as deep as he could go, deep where the colors faded into a dark ocean, surging with cold currents, and down at those depths where vast looming shapes passed by in the murk, he finally lost the ability to breathe in the water, and he had coughed, choking, and had to swim frantically to escape the currents which sucked him down.
Stacey understood that down there was the belly of High Vale, and he might never find his way back up into the throat if he allowed himself to be sucked too deep into the world’s innards. He would probably be spit out as something different, nothing going to waste. He struggled and kicked, breathless, lungs agonizing, until suddenly an updraft flung him upward, a regurgitation threw him higher until he was again surrounded by yellow light, where he bobbed and drifted, again breathing, his system clearing.
As he had become one with himself, earlier, the Stacey liberated from the other world had floated against his back, and they had dissolved, skin ballooning weirdly, stretching, and the backs of their skulls pressed together, and they swirled, bubbling furiously, until Stacey found himself alone again, stronger than he had ever been before, and for a while their thoughts had pooled side by side, distinctly separate, and they observed and experienced everything in their lives, sharing and unable or undesiring to hide the embarrassments and humiliations. They wanted it all out between them, everything, the worst of the worst. They knew each other, divided, but soon they knew everything only as one life, lives somehow similar in all regards, and yet always different, every aspect of their childhood through manhood resolving, accepting everything, rejecting nothing, and after a time they had been only one Stacey, adrift, but stronger now than at any other time in parallel lives, stronger now together, as one man.
It was not Stacey of High Vale that rose to the surface to invite Emily into the waters. It was not Stacey of the hellish world, or Stacey of the ambivalent world, not even the alien Stacey of the soul-mesh existence written in his core—Lady Maulgraul’s gift, and curse—but the new and combined Stacey Colton, Wolf, complete and whole and fully resolved. There were no longer two distinct thoughts in one skull, but one man with a core of knowledge unified, homogenized, and whole. Both wounded, broken, ground-down Staceys were repaired into one stronger Stacey.
When Emily descended with him and the waters roiled, this new Stacey was careful not to hold the automaton too closely, or the same thing would happen, they would incorporate and fuse, bonding into one hermaphroditic creature, but Emily had not understood this. Her thousands of years as an almost sexless automaton had deprived her of human feelings, human sensitivity, and she attacked him, starved and ravenous, her mouth leaching upon his, and they had struggled, surging and yearning, until a blast of bubbles had burst them apart, raw and abraded, bleeding in the healing waters.
Emily was whirled away, spinning downward, sucked down into the gullet of the world, spiraling out of control, screaming, reaching and searching for Stacey, she did not wish to lose him, for she had come into this world of High Vale to find him, accepting a traitorous service to the Lady Maulgraul, always with the intention of finding Stacey Colton, and saving him—liberating him from Maulgraul, who had always planned on discarding him when her needs were met, she would dispose of him, a soulless husk, only that had not happened, for Stacey had risen like the walking dead from his soul-mesh bed, he had done what no other man had managed, he had lived.
When Maulgraul had struck him again after his battle with the Vikings, Stacey had again accomplished the unexpected, against all odds he had survived, and Emily had deserted her foul employer, to be with Stacey, even if he did not survive his wounds. Even if he desired no part of her, for she fully understood that he, a man, might find her hideous, an automaton created for service in the Looking Glass. She took her chances. Emily had committed herself to him, forever, even when it seemed he might not survive. His fate would be her fate. If he died, she would join him in whatever darkness that came next.
And now she feared that in this separation from him, she might lose him. She frantically fought the currents. They sucked her deeper, and deeper. Down into the darkness. The cold darkness of freezing waters.
In the blackness she inadvertently sucked in the frigid waters. She convulsed. She screamed. She coughed, choking, breathing—for goodness sake, she had not breathed in three thousand years! And now she breathed in the icy waters, and she felt herself dissolving, and she shrieked against the unfairness of it. For the first time in any existence she had begun to feel whole, a real woman despite her automatonic composition.
She had felt more a woman than those years upon the moors, walking in the storms, daring the illness to enter her, or the lightning to strike her, or the very ground beneath her feet to yaw open and swallow her. For in that distant life she had always felt that a part of her was missing. She had never admitted to anyone, not even her sisters, but she had thought of herself as Heathcliff, bereft of the brighter Cathy portion, the better part of herself. The soul. Cathy and Heathcliff made one person, but Cathy had gamboled away, to Linton. She had yearned for her soulmate, but that man had never materialized in the world. She had focused her powerful mind upon him, willing him into existence, demanding that he be...real—but he had never appeared.
Her torment had only materialized in her writing. In life, she never admitted it. She never complained about that theft of half her soul, but she had railed against the sky, against God, against the storm. She was a livid storm, herself, and the clouds and skies moved away from her, aghast at her furious self-torment.
When the consumption finally destroyed the last vestiges of her life, she had welcomed the darkness. Until that wretch Mr. Dodgson had activated her template, setting her down in a desk before a vidscreen to monitor High Vale—a game world, for crying out loud! She could see it below her, she might even zoom in upon the people, it was her job to watch them, aid them at times. She had done that, serving, working, never sleeping, never requiring food or digestion, never relieving herself, her only respite from the endless service being the times she and Anne and Charlotte drew together, whispering, wondering if this new existence were hell, and that the three most creative Brontës were serving their time in the inferno, together, at least very least, together, even as they had been in life.
When the three sisters walked the barren surface of the Story Moon, they talked, and breathed new life into Gondal, reactivating that dream as even they were called up from the dead, distant past. At first Charlotte had snorted at their old dreams, their twisted world of knights and ladies, everything childishly bright, revenge and hate and jealousy and murder, everything foul, but everything alive, twistedly savage, but soon she too was aiding and abetting their vision, contributing. They brought out their pieces, their creations, and they competed, unknowingly creating something very much like Dungeons and Dragons.
She would choose this icy darkness over the sterile existence in the Looking Glass, where Mr. Dodgson deprived them of even paper and ink so that they might not exercise their creativity; no, he wanted all their creativity focused upon the game world. He wanted them focused on High Vale.
Over the years Charlotte grew angrier and angrier, as did Emily and Anne, but Charlotte became the firebrand, whispering to the other automatons, and soon they were all making demands, cursing Mr. Dodgson to his face, until that day they successfully launched that one sad, miniature revolution, inside the Story Moon, riding high up above High Vale.
Mr. Dodgson had adored that minor skirmish. He had enjoyed quashing them, wiping them out before him, knocking over their domino existences. But he had allowed some changes after their reboot, after that glorious time, through the ensuing years. The automatons began expressing themselves, wearing clothes, sporting fashion from every period, and the Brontë sisters were allowed to record their stories, but only in the database, using keyboards—they desperately yearned for the touch of nib to paper, black ink flowing, but they had complied, they had been good little automatons. And after a fashion, they were content, releasing their visions upon keyboards—Charlotte was the fastest typist, no surprise there, managing five hundred words per minutes, her fingers a blur in creation, never making a single mistake. Anne and Emily had never managed any speed more than two hundred words per minute. But they were writing again, creating again, and that had to be enough.
Until Maulgraul came calling. Emily had snapped up the tyrant’s offer, with relish. She didn’t even say good-bye to Anne. She stepped through the portal into Drauggaria, where the royal men sprawled like swollen, heaving eggs upon couches. Where the savage Dragon Warriors prowled, tattooed and despicable. Maulgraul had looked her up and down, and nodded.
“Robot girl, I think he will like you,” she said, and Emily knew where she was headed, and whom it was that she would ultimately meet.
But Emily was content. For she had seen Stacey, in High Vale. She had watched him on her vidscreen, and she had known.
When Maulgraul’s message popped up on her screen, offering her real service in a real world, Emily had said—yes. When the green portal appeared, Emily stepped through.
The most glorious thing was retrieving Stacey’s broken body from that ravine, and carrying him bodily, upward, to life. And he liked Wuthering Heights more than Jane Eyre, that was glory indeed.
“I offer you rebirth,” a voice reverberated through the deep.
Emily drifted in blackness.
“You must choose. Yea, or nay.”
Emily didn’t have to consider.
“Yea,” she bubbled.
Then she rushed upward through the void, spinning and turning in the abyss. She alternated between freezing shivers, and heated, boiling sweats. She rose. The waters struck her with force. She was pounded, crumpled, squeezed until she cried out in agony, but she rose. Lifting. Rushing upward so fast that she felt her blood compressed into her lower body—not blood! Blood? But she was an automaton. And she was breathing, the warm waters about her no longer hurting her lungs. Lungs? No, but she was an automaton! Breathing, blood, lungs, what was happening?
Warm orange light flooded her eyes, penetrating her closed eyelids. She hiccupped. She burped.
Odd, that, she had not hiccupped or burped in ages, not since she walked the Earth as a mortal woman.
Emily Brontë sneezed.
She opened her eyes and gazed about her. It didn’t look like water. She seemed to be floating in bright, yellow-orange air, in an endless chamber. She breathed and coughed, vomiting up frigid waters which streaked away from her body in blue tendrils, immediately sinking, appearing to swim away from her, and she took in huge lungfuls of the clean—water?
She was confused, unable to distinguish between air and water, life and death, reality and surreality.
Her skin pricked with gooseflesh. It was such an odd feeling, her hackles rising, she remembered it well, when she and her siblings sat about the fireplace telling ghost stories. She remembered the feeling vividly, but this was the first time she had felt it since her time in hell after her resurrected existence as an automaton in the Looking Glass.
For just a moment, she could feel Charlotte, somewhere, she felt her sister’s fear, and confusion. And she reached for Anne, but felt nothing. Or was there something, she sensed her little sister, the bird of the family, she could sense her, but there was something wrong. Her little sister was gone, but not quite gone. There was a flicker of her remaining.
Emily was troubled, but then she looked at her hands in the blurry light. What in the world? Even in the fuzziness of the water, and pulsing orange light, she could see that her hands had changed, and her arms. She was a being made of flesh. She looked down along her body, eyes shocked, and she half-laughed and half-cried as she looked at herself, and her body made of flesh. Gone was the shiny catsuit, and returned were all the myriad inconsistencies of a human body, because her breasts were not exactly the same size, but they were very much her breasts, heavy and floating out before her just as she remembered them from distant humanity. She looked down along her flat belly, down along her pelvis, and there were her long legs, just as she remembered, and she wiggled her toes, and it made her feel like laughing, insanely, but instead she pressed her hands into her mouth and she screamed.
I offer you rebirth, the booming, ominous voice had promised, and she had said yea, without thinking she had said yea, because did she really wish to be human again? She screamed into her fists and bit her knuckles, and you know what? It hurt! When was the last time she really, truly felt pain? She remembered coughing up blood through the shattered-glass panes of her chest, she remembered the ache of her swollen throat, and Charlotte standing close, watching with huge, haunted eyes, she remembered all that and even felt some of it now.
Emily also remembered the day-after-day monotony of being automaton, and the boredom, the sameness, the absence of sleep. The agonizing absence of dreams.
But hadn’t it all begun, this change, from her first setting foot in High Vale? She felt fear in Drauggaria. And lying next to wounded Stacey, she had felt a stirring deep in her loins, something she never imagined she would feel, ever again. And the...sleep, ah that had been wonderful, whenever she snuggled in close behind Stacey, her arm about him, her arm beneath his neck, oh, how she had sunk into sleep, drifted into the strangeness of dreams. She had even dreamed of Branwell, that had been so odd, for she never thought of her brother—Mr. Dodgson had been kind enough that he had not brought back her brother into the half-life, half-hell of...automatonity.
Could she deal with this? Being human again? Did she want this, everything it entailed? Humanity was messy, oh so messy, lugging about a sewage system in the guts. All the pain, all the uncertainty, did she truly want this?
Hell yes! She was alive. She breathed! She was...hungry. Her belly gurgled. She was hungry, ravenous, and thirsty. She experimented by gulping some of the lukewarm water into her mouth, and swallowing it. Yes, that felt good. Hell yes, oh hell yes, thank you!
She pushed her hands up to explore her hair—another shocker, she was bald! She had no hair, oh no, she thought, what would Stacey think? She explored and there was not a strand of hair, nowhere upon her body, not even eyebrows. Oh, what a foul trick for High Vale to play upon her, to bring her back, and yet make her a hideous, alien creature without hair.
She paused in her torment, listening, for it sounded as if she heard laughter, all about her, a deep, chuffing laughter, as if she heard it and felt the reverberations of the great laughing voice from inside its voice box. Yes, it was laughing at her, the world, but she felt and sensed no malice. It was laughing, and it was comforting, for the world of High Vale was amused at her vanity. Living again, for the first time in thousands of years, ages, and her first thought was to worry about how Stacey would look at her. Charlotte always told her that she was silly, and vain.
Thank you, she thought, oh but thank you, thank you so much, thank you and thank you again, and I thank thee for this life!
She caught sight of something moving in her peripheral vision and she screamed, pushing herself backward in the water, but then after a moment she saw it was Stacey, her Stacey, coming to her, swimming rapidly like some kind of fish, directly toward her, he had seen her and he was coming, he was arriving, he was manifesting before her, growing larger, materializing, he was coming to her and she didn’t even give a thought to her bald head but she moved toward him, or at least she attempted to swim toward him—she had never learned to swim, never! But then they were there, together, and his arms were about her, and he was pulling her to him, and they were laughing, shooting out a cascade of bubbles until there was no more breath left in them, but they were breathing, holding each other, and she was so excited to show him, to show him everything!
Here look, this is skin, do you see? Do you feel? And oh, but look Stacey, do you see? This is real, and so is this! And here, and here, and even here, do you see, do you understand?
I thought I lost you, he said, although it wasn’t sound that came to her, but some sort of understanding inside of her.
No, you did not lose me, for I have only just found you...thee, she thought, ablaze with delight and gratitude and peace—or not peace, not exactly, for this thrill flaring throughout her body, this could not be peace, could it? No, it was acceptance, and she hardly suffered a thought as his mouth came to hers and they joined.
They swirled in the waters, exploring each other, like dolphins, breathing close, and the exploration became grappling, as they churned the waters, and they knew each other, they became one as the water heated, and Emily thought she heard the world chuckling, or it could be Stacey, and in a dreamlike state they tumbled effortlessly in the orange light, and Stacey was strong, and she struggled against him and found that she was strong, too, and it was as if they fought a war, as if they fought to push their bodies closer and closer, and she wondered if ultimately they might emerge from the pool as one creature, one being, a Stacelily, or Emistace, and she laughed in what felt like air, only now the lights glowing about them were purple, deep purple, verging on blues, but their bodies glowed in tracings of delicate violet.
And as they moved together, no longer warring, but flowing, she knew things she had never known in life, but things she had dreamed, she found these now, discovering that her dreams, oh they were all real, and they were better than when she dreamed them, and she registered Stacey’s expressions as he searched and found his own dreams, the things he had always wanted, craved, and she understood that what they found together was real, and it made them one, bonding them, forging them, and although they became one, they were yet distinct from each other, one being surging with life, moving together, dreaming in wakefulness, swimming in thankfulness, exploding in gratitude, there would be no fetus in fetu with them, but only this blissful merging, this perpetual-motion surge to be one, separate but one, inside and outside.
Fire blossomed in the waters, first between them, and then within them, and then all about them, great roses bloomed up all around them.
It was always you, she said.
It was always you, he said.
They drifted together, drowsy, staring into each other’s eyes, smiling, at rest. He held her face in his hands, caressing her jaws, moving his fingers up around her eyes, and her soul purred as she reached and moved her fingers through his hair, and it was difficult to tell whether they were still submerged in water, for there were no more bubbles, there were no distortions, as they saw each other clearly and fully. They saw each other magnified, and clarified, and they knew each other, they recognized themselves in the mirror of their eyes, and Stacey, staring into her eyes, saw himself staring back, and then saw her mirrored in the mirror of his own eyes, and she saw herself staring back from his eyes, and deeper she saw him inside her eyes, and they both understood that they were seeing their own combined soul, for the first time, seeing their completed soul, shining and pure, oh it was true, one, it was not fairy tale, one, it was real.
He made love to her again, and then she made love to him, and then together they made love, and they realized that they were love, together, and would never be separated from that love, never again, it would always be present, in each of them separately, this new something, this love suffusing them, always, together. Their hands entwined, fingers interlocked, legs meshed about, they coiled like serpents, how as this even possible, they drifted, slowly upward, kissing tenderly between drifting slumbers, rising, the colors going magenta, and then maroon, hazing and flickering.
At some point after what felt like ages of drifting slumber, their heads broke the surface of the sacred pool, and Stacey opened his eyes—the world looked gray, and blinking, he recognized a snow sky, and it must be close to dawn. The world about the pool was covered in an inches-thick blanket of snow. He glanced down and smiled as Emily came fully into the world, glancing about herself like a newborn child, eyes filled with wonder. They came into the world, wed, married more entirely than perhaps ever two mortals had ever been in the whole history of the world.
They coughed up the sacred waters, and Stacey moved them toward the edge of the pool, where the fire burned warmly in glowing red coals. Someone had monitored the piles of furs, shaking out the collecting snow, and there was some kind of hastily thrown-together structure covering most of their nest, what looked like a lean-to, leaning against a wall of snow pushed up to form a barrier encircling most of the furs. Their little igloo. He saw what looked like a pile of towels jutting from the corner of the fur blanket that had been his prison for so long, as he had slowly perished—that time seemed like ages in the past.
No one was about—perhaps on purpose, affording them some privacy after their nuptials—as they emerged from the pool, and Stacey helped her hobble to the furs and blankets. He retrieved the towels and dried himself, and aided her, rubbing the waters from her prickling flesh. Emily seemed clumsy with her new body, and Stacey noticed, drying her in the firelight, that she was every inch of her flesh, warm with circulating blood.
“I hardly remember the cold,” Emily said, shivering, teeth chattering, “it bites. I mean, I feel it, in my bones.”
“Our first winter in High Vale,” he said, smiling at her. She returned the smile, huddling down in the furs.
He glanced about the camp, still no one stirred. He found his shillelagh and patted it fondly, and moved it beneath the furs to the far side of their little nest, where he found his clothes folded neatly just under the edge of the blanket. He glanced up at the small lean-to they had erected sometime in the night, it kept most of the falling snow off them.
“We might have a while,” he murmured, moving into the furs with her.
“Again?” she said, making room for him, but he didn’t seem to need the room as he covered her with his body. “I just want to aid in warming you.”
“That’s nice, yes, just like that. Oh, but now you can see my bald head,” she murmured, between their kisses.
He chuckled, smoothing his free hand across the top of her head.
“Hey,” he said, “stubble.”
“Oh, thank God!” she cried, so relieved. “I was afraid it wouldn’t come back.”
“It’s kind of nice,” Stacey crooned, kissing both her eyes, all over her face, “like making love to an egg.”
“Too bad the waters didn’t do anything about your beard,” she said, rubbing her face against the rough beard, tugging his facial hair with both hands.
“I can get rid of it in the morning, if you like,” he murmured, kissing her.
“That is so very warm, just like that,” she said, purring, closing her eyes and going all limp.
“I don’t mean to interrupt,” a strange echoing voice said, from just outside the lean-to over them. “Stop that! Fine, you go first.”
“Yes, that is a good idea. I am out here with the pretender, and it is time for a reckoning, if you would be so good as to disengage yourself from the puppet,” continued the same voice, but losing its odd echo.
Stacey disengaged himself from Emily, as gently as he could, which took a small while and some real effort, and then he caught up his trousers and boots, and slipped into these before emerging from the furs and lean-to with his shillelagh in his hands. Emily scrambled into a smaller set of clothing that had been stacked there, apparently they had figured she might need clothes, although she had certainly never required them before, at least in this world.
Stacey’s naked back and chest prickled in the freezing air, and snow immediately began to collect in his sweaty hair.
“Excuse us,” said the White Pugilist as Stacey emerged.
“Excuse us, nothing,” snapped the Black Pugilist, dripping sarcasm and fury, “you certainly took your sweet time in answering our call. Did you have to fix your hair? I realize that must take time.”
Stacey almost giggled. He certainly hoped he didn’t sound that bad, when he offered up fighting words. It did remind him of when he paced before the Vikings, insulting the big man, Thor. He figured he was blushing now as he faced the two knock-off High Vale versions of himself. Still, he felt wonderful, it might be nice to whack a couple of these jokers. He burst with life and vitality. He spun his shillelagh in his hands, and it was almost like looking into two cock-eyed mirrors, as the Pugilists spun their own fighting sticks, one white and one black.
The two Pugilists seemed to have diverted somewhat, perhaps evolving into their own paths, as the White Pugilist stood ramrod straight, feet almost together, spinning his white shillelagh almost leisurely, looking very calm, and almost haughty, while the Black Pugilist paced like a ferocious lion in a cage, walking his black shillelagh around his back and waist and up over his head—it seemed that this joker had taken some initiative, mastering feats and neat little tricks with his fighting stick Stacey had never thought to try. The White Pugilist looked like a poser, too good for all this, miles above it all, while the Black Pugilist looked like a maniac, slobbering and slathering for battle.
“You might wish to put on a shirt,” the White Pugilist said, and did his voice almost sound...effete? Like a British Lord?
“Thanks for your concern,” Stacey said, grinning, flexing his muscles. He had never felt this strong. He felt twice as strong as he had ever been. He was packing some real superhero strength in these bones and muscle, in this flowing, surging blood.
“He was being sarcastic!” the Black Pugilist screamed, swinging his shillelagh over his head, slamming it mightily down into the snow.
“I was not being sarcastic,” the White Pugilist snapped, glaring at his fellow, cocking an eyebrow. It was very surreal, like seeing a snowman come to life, only this snowman looked fully human, save for being utterly white, with nary a touch of color. “I do not wish him to take a...chill, that is all.”
“Listen to him! Listen to him!” the Black Pugilist roared, shaking his shillelagh menacingly at the White Pugilist. “I could kill you—a thousand times—and it would never be enough!”
“Why don’t you calm down?” Stacey said, in his deepest growl. He might have to take them both at the same time, but right now it seemed he must deal with the Black Pugilist first.
“I AM CALM!” the Black Pugilist shrieked, shaking his shillelagh at Stacey. “DON’T TELL ME TO CALM DOWN!”
Shapes were emerging in the snow as dark heads popped up like prairie dogs.
One of the highwaymen that Stacey recognized and remembered who had kept close to him, he came now scurrying, several large dogs trotting obediently about him. This was the little man with the big nose, although Stacey did not remember his head feathers being quite so deep blue. The feathers almost glowed in the predawn light.
“Dasher, isn’t it?” Stacey queried, glancing only briefly at the little man. He did not wish to take his eyes off the pacing Black Pugilist. Emily was now emerging from the lean-to, looking fetching in tights and boots, shrugging into a fleece-lined fur coat. She hadn’t time to lace up her rumpled poet blouse, and the cleavage factor was more than a little distracting.
“Yeess, Pugilist, eet ees me, Dasher,” the little man said, drawing close to Stacey, but making sure to keep the bare-chested Pugilist between himself and the Pugilist Opposites, the Black and the White. Dasher seemed to have lost his Cockney brogue, or had it been Irish, or Scottish? The little highwaymen were ever changing their speech patterns, as apparently High Vale had not quite settled on exactly who or what they were, or were going to be, these feather-headed clones of Mars.
“DON’T CALL HIM THAT, HE’S NOT THE PUGILIST!” shrieked the Black Pugilist, taking a step toward Dasher, shaking his black shillelagh.
The large dogs gathered about Dasher, crouching down, hackles lifting, their long fangs prominent as they growled. Apparently, the dogs did not wish to draw any nearer than did their master.
“Dere ees no need to be shou-teeng,” Dasher said, sounding Bulgarian, or Hungarian, or Romanian, something slavic, or Russian. He actually sounded quite nice, almost sophisticated. “Dey haff been fighting, all de time, circling round and round de camp, neither gaining de upper hand. Quite ee-teresting to watch.”
“That is not true,” the Black Pugilist seethed, voice and body going all quiet, in a deadly whisper. “I would have destroyed this trickster, except that he keeps cheating! I would have destroyed him a thousand times, the cheater!”
“That is absurd,” the White Pugilist said, shaking his head, briefly, turning his eyes to the sky, actually looking away from the Black Pugilist, almost as if daring him to go ahead and take a sucker punch at him. He was the picture of cool—as cool as an ice statue.
Stacey saw a tall, elongated shape coming across the snow in long strides. It was Joshua, although he seemed even taller now than he did last night, and his skin seemed much darker. He looked like one of the Watusi tribe, stretched-out and handsome. The little meerkat man Michael rode high upon his shoulder, and Crood lumbered behind Joshua, the six-armed giant making the newly arrived and resurrected Joshua look almost tiny in comparison.
“Joshua, Michael, Crood,” Stacey said, nodding to them as they halted, standing on the other side of the sacred pool. He would have to snap into action soon, because he was getting cold, and probably would take a chill, unless they got down to business.
“You must hurry up, Stacey, I am starving,” Emily said, looking a bit silly with a large, round fur cap upon her bald head. “You know, I haven’t eaten anything, not really, in about four thousand years.”
“This should only take a couple of seconds,” Stacey said, stepping toward the Black Pugilist.
“Oh really! A couple of seconds,” roared the Black Pugilist, “did you hear that? This pretender, this liar—did you hear him? He thinks he can beat us in a couple of seconds!”
“Beat you in a couple of seconds, as I have no intention of fighting,” the White Pugilist said, calmly, shaking his head wearily.
“You coward!” howled the Black Pugilist, turning upon the White Pugilist, lifting his black shillelagh.
“No, don’t turn to him, you face me,” Stacey said. “You challenged me, so don’t try and get out of it by turning on him.”
The Black Pugilist turned toward Stacey, sputtering, spitting, furiously making noises without articulation, beyond comprehension, because never had he been so insulted, by such a liar, by such a cheater, by such a worthless—
—Stacey leaped forward and engaged the Black Pugilist, they snapped and spun and twirled, up and down, the Black Pugilist in deadly earnest, but he was doing all manner of elaborate spins and twirls, until Stacey stepped in close and snatched the twirling shillelagh from his hand.
The Black Pugilist lurched backward several steps, and stared at Stacey, speechless, mouth hanging slack—door ajar, and all that. He blinked stupidly, unsure of what had just occurred.
“I can’t help it,” Stacey said, “I like you. As bizarre as you are, black metal man, you are just completely lovable. Seriously. I tell you, I promise you, I love you like a brother. I love you more than a brother.”
The Black Pugilist sputtered, then began to stomp, making a deep steaming circle in the snow as he marched and furiously stomped his shiny black boots in the snow.
“This is no longer yours,” Stacey said, holding high the black shillelagh, the shiny black shillelagh—it was as light as his own, but it looked like it was made out of glistening black tungsten, or titanium, only much brighter, it seemed to glow with black light. Stacey wondered what it would look like if he could hold it up to one of those old psychedelic black-light posters? A glowing tiger? Bruce Lee? Elvis, in velvet?
The Black Pugilist was speechless, shaking his head like a lion, his entire body quivering.
“Stop,” Stacey commanded, his voice barking and deep.
The Black Pugilist came to a complete halt and stared at him.
“You probably don’t even know how to fight, do you? I mean with your hands, right?”
The Black Pugilist stared at him, dumbly. All energy seemed drained from the strange, glistening metal man.
“Pugilist means boxer, puncher, get it?” Stacey asked, bending forward, looking at the Black Pugilist through the tops of his eyes. “That is going to be your mission. Understand this, you will go out and learn how to fight, without weapons. You will not touch a weapon, of any kind. You will learn how to box, and how to wrestle. Find any teacher that you can. And in one year you find me, and I will test you. Do you understand?”
The Black Pugilist stood glowering, glaring holes through Stacey, his black eyes mysteriously alive with force and power.
“I understand,” the Black Pugilist said, finally, dropping his gaze, his shiny black shoulders slumping. He looked so sad that Stacey stepped forward and hugged him. The Black Pugilist hugged him in return. And then, wonders of wonders, the White Pugilist stepped forward and encircled them both with his arms, and they stood there like that, swaying. Three good men.
Joshua boomed laughter. He spoke softly to his companions, and they too burst into laughter.
Stacey glared back at the laughing bunch, and was matched by both the Black and White Pugilists, who mirrored his glower.
“What is so funny?” Stacey demanded, standing in the embrace of the other two Pugilists, Stacey in the middle, the White on his right and the Black on his left.
“I’m sorry, but you look so funny, almost delicious! You look like ice cream! You know, vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate!”
The gathered highwaymen bellowed laughter, although Stacey doubted that any of them understood the meaning of—ice cream. But Joshua bellowed the loudest, although Crood gave him some run for his money, chuffing away merrily.
Emily came forward bearing Stacey’s shirt, vest, and cloak, and the two Pugilists almost fell all over themselves as they aided Emily in dressing Stacey.
“From now on, you are the Night Grappler, and you will aid those in need, at night,” Stacey said to the Black Pugilist. “Learn your skills, and help those at night.”
“I will do that,” the Night Grappler said, nodding his head, seriously. “And you will test me in one year. I will find you.”
“And what is my destiny?” the White Pugilist said, just as solemnly as the Night Grappler.
“You are the Fencer, and you will aid people in need during the day,” Stacey said, looking deep into the white eyes of the Fencer.
“So, what, I am going to go about, putting up fences?” the Fencer inquired, looking truly baffled. Oh, he would do it, mind you, it just seemed a little odd, especially considering the Night Grappler’s destiny.
“No, fencing, as with the sword, you will learn the sword. Your sword is out there, waiting for you, but you will only find it when you are ready, when you have learned from every master, and in one year, you will find me, and I will test you.”
Stacey had no idea where it all was coming from. He wasn’t messing with them. It was almost as if High Vale had spoken through him, sending out its children upon the pathway of their fate. For just a few short moments, he was the High Vale prophet.
The White and the Black looked at him with joy, and reverence, and each of them knelt down and took one of his hands apiece, and kissed his knuckles. Stacey lifted them to their feet and hugged them both. The Fencer handed over his white shillelagh to Stacey, who accepted it. And without another word, the two Stacey clones turned and trotted into the night, going in opposite directions. One man made of shifting white metal, one made of glinting black metal.
“Michael, Joshua, Crood, Dasher?” Stacey called, gesturing to the sacred pool. “If any of you would like to enter the pool, there is still time, and it will change you to how you want to be.”
“I am exactly how I want to be, my friend,” Joshua said, grinning hugely, bowing. “I am who I have always wanted to be, thank you. High Vale, if you are listening, you bring it on!”
“I am well, I am right, and I do not need to enter,” Michael said, smiling shyly, sending out tiny bursts of light all about his head.
“It all good,” Crood said, touching a giant hand to his egg-shaped head. He seemed to have twinkling tears in his small, evil-looking eyes.
“Thank you, but no, I am happy as long as I can do this,” Dasher said, and turned toward the camp. “Duty!” he roared.
“Duty!” the whole camp replied in a simultaneous shout.
Stacey tossed the white shillelagh up in front of Emily, who caught the weapon. She stared at it, with trepidation. The last time she caught one of these, it laid her flat out on her back, sending ribbons of smoke up through her mouth. Now, oh but this felt fine, it felt right. Yes, indeedy-do, right as rain!
“That’s yours, Emily,” he said, giving her a quick kiss. Then he turned and vaulted the black shillelagh toward Joshua, who reached out his long hand and caught it, with hardly a thought.
But it was no longer a black shillelagh in Joshua’s hand. Now it was a much thinner pole of metal, about seven feet in height, but standing much shorter than Joshua, rising up only to just beneath his chin. It was a long black metal staff, and looked perfect in Joshua’s hands, as he leaned upon it, smiling. It was not really metal, because it was much lighter, and apparently much stronger than metal, but it certainly looked good in Joshua’s hands.
Emily twirled her white shillelagh, making it do tricks, looking even slicker than had the Black Pugilist. She spun the weapon much more lithely than Stacey could ever manage.
“I don’t know how I’m doing this,” Emily said, in wonder, as she spun the white shillelagh around her body, up over her shoulders, making it spin like a propeller, sending it high above her, and catching it when it fell from the sky.
“Don’t worry how you’re doing it, just enjoy it, Soul Mate,” he said.
As Joshua approached with Michael and Crood, Stacey glowered at the giant black man.
“I cannot believe,” he said, “that you made me the strawberry.”
Joshua bellowed laughter. It warmed their hearts, hearing that roaring moose call. It was good to have him back, even if he wasn’t a giant ram-dog with monster horns and wedges growing out of his back.
“You are rather pink,” Emily said, “although I’ve never had ice cream. It does sound delicious.”
Stacey put his arm about her and pulled her close. Dasher came up close with his dogs and Stacey reached out and grasped the little man by the back of his neck, and shook him.
“Are your people no longer highwaymen?” he asked.
“Highwaymen? Vat do you mean, like de thieves, and such? Vere deed you get such an idea? Vee haff alvays been a people of de animals! Vee heal dem, and protect dem!”
“A nomadic people of veterinarians, I love it, good show, High Vale,” he called, laughing.
“Vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate,” Joshua thundered.
“My strawberry,” Crood crooned, patting Stacey upon the back with one of his monster hands.
“Can we get some breakfast around here, we are both famished,” he said.
Dasher beckoned them toward a tent where a large fire was burning, and they could smell meat cooking. And Stacey had to admit it, that meat smelled good. He probably wouldn’t cross that line—he had been a vegetarian for such a long time, but he wouldn’t hold it against Emily, who was licking her lips in anticipation.
Stacey and Emily playfully twirled their shillelaghs, side by side, the weapons spinning neatly in synchronization, not striking the other. That felt good. It felt very good.
It tickled at the back of his mind, that despite the happiness he felt, there was Jack, somewhere, up there, on another planet, lost in the Honey Moon. Stacey had to get there, but he did not wish to broach the subject now. Let them all have a little peace. He didn’t even know how to get from one world to the next, or if it were even possible. There had been enough disruptions, at least for a little while, plus who knew what High Vale would throw at them next?
As they skirted the sacred pool it suddenly nictated, as if an inner lens covered it for but a brief moment. A thin and delicate veil, there and gone. Was it only his imagination?
High Vale was winking at them.
And then slowly, the sacred pool began to close, drawing in upon itself, leaving behind undisturbed snow.
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© 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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