“You really know your trade, Fuyi,” said Rukshan. “You’ve built the most exquisite and comfortable place. And I think the empty dishes speak aplenty about the quality of the food and the pleasure we took in this shared meal. Now, let us help you with the dishes,” said Rukshan.
“Ach! Don’t be so polite,” said Fuyi. “I’ll have plenty of time after yar departure tomorrow. It’s not like the inn is full. Just enjoy an evening together, discuss yar plans, and have some rest. I know that life. Take the chance when it presents itself!”
The Sinese food made by the innkeeper had been delicious and quite a first for most of them. Tak had particularly enjoyed the crunchy texture of the stir fried vegetables flavoured with the famous five spices sauce. Nesy had preferred the algae and chili dishes while Fox, who ate a red hot pepper thinking it was bell pepper, had stuffed himself with juicy pork buns to put out the fire in his mouth.
Gorrash, befuddled by the novelty, had been at a loss of labels, good or bad. He simply chose to welcome the new experiences and body reactions to flavours and textures. As for Olliver, he gave up the chopsticks when he saw how fast Fox made the food disappear from the dishes.
Now that the dishes were empty, the children and Gorrash had left the table and were playing near the fireplace. Olliver was looking at the trio with envy, split between the desire to play and enjoy the simplicity of the moment, and the desire to be taken more seriously which meant participate in the conversation with the adults.
“We have plenty to discuss, Fae,” said Kumihimo.
Fuyi looked at Olliver, recognising the conundrum. “That’s settled, then,” he said to the group. Then turning toward Olliver: “Boy! I’m sure the start of the conversation will be boring for a young mind. Let’s join the others for a story of my own. You can still come back later and they’ll fill you in on the details.”
Fuyi and Olliver moved to the fireplace. The innkeeper threw cushions on the floor and sat on a wooden rocking chair. At the mention of a story, Tak, Nesy and Gorrash couldn’t contain their exuberant joy and gathered all ears around Admirable Fuyi. As he rocked, the chair creaked. He waited until they all calmed down. And when he was satisfied he started.
“I was young and still a fresh recruit in the Sinese army,” started Fuyi. “We were stationed at the western frontier just below the high plateaus and I hadn’t participated in any battle yet. With the folly of youth I thought that our weapons and the bond we shared with my fellow soldiers were enough to defeat anything.”
Board 3, Story 2:
Sophie: “Jesus! What happened to our legs! They’re so skinny I can hardly see them!”
Barbara: “Smart, trying to outdo my beehive with a palm tree Sophie. But you’ll know who’s the boss here.”
Glor: “I got sand stuck everywhere, somebody help!”
India Louise: “Cuthbert, when you’re done with your funny hairy pajamas, you should get tested, that green blob of snot you made on the waxed floor does look terribly suspicious.”
The squirrel: “That scene’s too cute, I’m at a loss for quip.”
Berenice, still under training, was overseeing the process, daunted by the alarming number of blinking buttons from the apparatus. She tried to look composed, knowing full well her aunt Barbara wouldn’t make preferential treatment if she were to make a blunder.
“BWAAAAHA!” blurted out Gloria coming out of what appeared to have been a very lucid dream.
“I just got meself the most horrid dream Shar’, you know wot?”
“Good Lord no! WORSE even!”
“WOT now?” Sharon couldn’t help but ask, shushing with a mean eye the poor Berenice.
“NURSE TRASSIE! She was comin’ fur us!”
“Oh bloody hell. Haven’t they confined her already?” Sharon dismissed with a shrug that made the whole concrete floor vibrate like a panzer washing machine in dry mode. “Look lassies, that’s more interesting.” She nodded towards the haggard Sophie lying on one of the tables. “Brought us some competition on the looks area it seems.”
“What?” Mavis strained to hear.
“Look dammit! The poor fashion-impeded soul that landed on a waiting list for one of our spots. Gosh, that latex thingy she sports makes me all blushy! But don’t you worry. She can’t be competition to us, ladies. That cryo-treatment is already working I can tell.”
She felt the need to add and punctuate towards Berenice “And no thanks to you, young lady. You should learn from me. Never been afraid to push a button in my life!”
They walked through a labyrinth of tunnels which seemed to have been carved into a rocky mountain. The clicks and clacks of their high heels echoed in the cold silence meeting all of Sophie’s questions, leaving her wondering where they could be. Tightly held by her rompers she felt her fat mass wobbling like jelly around her skeleton. It didn’t help clear her mind which was still confused by the environment and the apparent memory loss concerning how she arrived there.
Sophie couldn’t tell how many turns they took before Barbara put her six fingers hand on a flat rock at shoulders height. The rock around the hand turned green and glowed for two seconds; then a big chunk of rock slid to the side revealing a well designed modern style room.
A little man was working at his desk. At least Sophie assumed it was his desk and that he was working. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and bermudas. The computer screen he was looking at projected a greenish tint onto his face, and it made him look just like the green man icon. Sophie cackled, a little at first.
The Doctor’s hand tensed on the mouse and his eyebrows gathered like angry caterpillars ready to fight. He must have made a wrong move because a cascade of sound ending in a flop indicated he just died a death, most certainly on one of those facegoat addictive games.
That certainly didn’t help muffle Sophie’s cackle until she felt Barbara’s six fingers seizing her shoulders as if for a Vulcan nerve pinch. Sophie expected to lose consciousness, but the hand was mostly warm, except for that extra finger which was cold and buzzing. The contact of the hand upon the latex gave off little squeaky sounds that made Sophie feel uncomfortable. She swallowed her anxiety and wished for the woman to remove her hand. But as she had noticed more than once, wishes could take time and twists before they could be fulfilled.
“Why do you have to ruin everything every time?” asked the Doctor. His face was now red and distorted.
“Every time?” said Sophie confused.
“Yes! You took your sleeper agent role too seriously. We couldn’t get any valuable intel and the whole doll operation was a fiasco. We almost lost the magpies. And now, your taste for uncharted drugs, which as a parenthesis I confess I admire your dedication to explore unknown territories for science… Anyway, you were all day locked up into your boudoir trying to contact me while I just needed you to look at computer screens and attend to meetings.”
Sophie was too shocked to believe it. How could the man be so misinformed. She never liked computers and meetings, except maybe while looking online for conspiracy theories and aliens and going to comiccons. But…
“Now you’re so addict to the drugs that you’re useless until you follow our rehab program.”
“A rehab program?” asked Sophie, her voice shaking. “But…” That certainly was the spookiest thing she had heard since she had arrived to this place, and this made her speechless, but certainly not optionless. Without thinking she tried a move she had seen in movies. She turned and threw her mass into Barbara. The two women fell on the cold floor. Sophie heard a crack before she felt the pain in her right arm. She thought she ought to have persevered in her combat training course after the first week. But life is never perfect.
“Suffice!” said the Doctor from above. “You’ll like it with the other guests, you’ll see. All you have to do is follow the protocol we’ll give you each day and read the documentation that Barbara will give you.”
Sophie tried a witty answer but the pain was too much and it ended in a desperate moan.
Mater has started a fitness regime to make sure she lives long enough to make the milestone. She said if it had all happened a couple of years ago she wouldn’t have minded whether she popped off or not, but now that she was this close, she wasn’t going to be robbed of her glory.
It was hard to see the glory in that lumpy old flesh wobbling around the front yard, or why anyone would be interested in robbing her of it still less, but she was determined, and there was no putting her off. And it’s not just the jogging. I thought we had a swarm of bees on the porch yesterday and went out to investigate and it was Mater, sitting there on the wooden floor in an awkward parody of a guru pose babbling some Om sounds and humming. And that wasn’t the worst of it either, she was wearing a fuchsia pink leotard.
It wasn’t such a bad day, thought Olliver, and it might even be a good day. The birds are singing, we saw a boar and a few deers already. Animals are getting back and they don’t seem to fear the humans so much.
Rukshan was walking first and Fox was following him with a heavy backpack. Tak and Nesy were mostly playing around and marvelling at everything their path crossed. Olliver envied their innocence, the innocence he had lost not so long ago.
Except the animals and the two guards they had to hide from, the day had mostly been uneventful and Olliver’s mind was wandering off into the mountain where he could feel useful and strong. He felt strangely blissed and suddenly had the impulse to walk toward a patch of yellow flowers.
“STOP! Pay attention where you walk,” said Rukshan. “Come back to your left two feet and walk straight. I told you to follow my every steps.”
“Okay, uncle Ruk!” said Olliver a bit ashamed to have been caught not paying attention.
“I don’t understand,” said the Fae. “Glynis’s potion doesn’t seem to work for you. The aetherical tentacles around the traps don’t seem to detect us but only you, and you also seem susceptible to their power to attract you. It’s not the first time I had to warn you.”
The Fae could see the etherical traps and especially the free flowing tentacles or the tension lines attached to trees, stones, wooden posts, anything that would cross a trail at different heights. With the potions they should be impervious to detection and affections by the traps. Olliver hadn’t thought that far. He had thought that by following them he could manage not to be caught. Right now, he feared more Rukshan’s piercing eyes than the traps. He looked at Fox involuntarily.
“It’s my fault,” said Fox looking a bit contrite. Sweat was pearling on his face. “It’s becoming too dangerous for Olli so I must confess something.” He put his heavy bag on the floor and opened it and a dwarf’s head peered timidly out.
“By the fat belly of the giants! What made you do such a stupid thing?”
“You didn’t think at all!” said the Fae. “The potions were not just for the fun of drinking something pungent and bitter with the taste and texture of yak wool.”
“Leave me out of this teleportation stuff!” said Gorrash.
“What an idea! But I already thought of that my little friend. You two are going to to back.”
“No we’re not! If you make us go back we’ll follow you from a distance.”
“Oh You, I’m sure it’s your idea,” started Rukshan.
“No, it’s mine,” said Olliver. “Uncle Fox had almost convinced Gorrash it was better to stay, but I couldn’t let him be stay behind after just being reborn. You said it once, we don’t leave our friends behind.”
“I’m sure it was under another set of circumstances,” countered the Fae.
“Anyway you see the traps, I can follow your instructions. And if there is any fever problem I can teleport Gorrash back to the cottage.”
“I do not totally agree with you but I see you have learned to make an argumentation.”
Fox felt the Fae relax. “Agreed, you come with us to the Great Lakes to meet the Graetaceans and you’ll follow what I tell you to do from now on. I’ll treat you as a responsible adult.”
“Yay! We’ll meet the Graetaceans!” said Nesy.
“Olli and Gorrash will stay with us,” said Tak jumping around his friends with such a broad smile. Rukshan thought he was growing too soft on them all, with the new generation growing he started to feel his own age.
“Adaptability and improvisation are the names of the game now,” said Liz, beaming with satisfaction. Her impulse had been a success. A quick call to the local dog shelter and the delivery of two dogs within the hour had solved the problem nicely. As anyone who’d ever had dogs knew, cleaning up spilled food was simply never a problem. “You won’t have to wash the dishes anymore now!”
“What do you mean?” Finnley asked suspiciously. “Surely you can’t mean…”
“Why, yes! Just put them all on the kitchen floor and the dogs will do it for you. They’re ever so good, they won’t miss a single morsel. Which is more than can be said for your washing up. Now don’t pout! Be glad you have one less job to do.”
Godfrey patted the black poodle’s head, which had a funny sort of spring loaded feel. “We’re keeping the dogs, then?” he asked, failing to keep the hopeful note out of his voice. He was rather taken with the funny little dog. Without waiting for an answer from Liz he said to the expectant little face peering up at him, “What shall we call you, then?”
The shadow of a frown creased Liz’s brow momentarily as she wondered if she’d done the right thing. Would she be able to stomach seeing Godfrey fawning over a poodle? Why on earth had the dogs home sent her a poodle? Did she sound like a poodle person? But then, they’d sent her a lurcher as well. Liz contemplated taking umbrage at that, did she honestly sound like a lurcher person? A lurcher poodle person? Or a poodle lurcher person?
“Are we keeping both of them, then?” asked Roberto. “What shall we call you, big boy?” he asked, addressing the dog.
“On the way back call in at the dogs home and pick two more dogs up, Finnley. We may as well have one each. I’ll ring them now.”FloveParticipant
“That’s right,” Rosamund nodded enthusiastically. “Anti-vegan vaxxer and she don’t eat nothing with no eyes either. She drives Mum bloody mental going on about how the animals have got souls while Mum’s trying to enjoy a nice baccy fry up. Mum calls her Aunt Moanie.”
Star smirked. “Other than his obvious attributes?”
“You mean the fella with the voice like a bloody angel?” asked Rosamund, spitting an olive onto Tara’s sleeve. Tara swore under her breath as the olive bounced to the floor. Fortunately there was no mark; it was a new blouse and had cost Tara an arm and a leg. Worth the investment, she had reasoned at the time. One must look the part. And clearly, her Moulin Rouge ensemble wasn’t a good look for a Professional Investigator, even with fishnets and a feather boa.
“He cancelled his appointment but he paid the, quite frankly exorbitant, deposit we asked for,” said Star. “He’s going to email us the rest of the details. Do we need to know more that that?”
“Well, I’ve been doing a search and there is nothing anywhere online about him, or his world famous melodious voice. I suggest we pay this Mr French a visit.”
“Oh bloody awesome!” Rosamund leapt to her feet and pizza boxes went flying. “Oops, sorry about that. I’ll clean it soon as we get back.”
The first thing the dwarf did was a finger of honor. “Take that darn blubbit queen!” he shouted before he crumbled butt naked down on the wooden floor surrounded by his former golden carapace. His skin was still glowing with a strange lucent light.
“What did he say?” asked Fox.
“What’s a blubbit?” asked Olliver.
Glynis put her hands on the baby snoots eyes, but there were too many of them and she only had two hands.
“Have you seen his skin?” asked Eleri.
“Well yes, he’s butt naked,” said Kumihimo.
Gorrash had had time to clear his mind and started to realise they were all looking at him.
“I mean, he HAS a skin now,” insisted Eleri. “Smooth and… all that comes with it. Not his former rocky mossy textured whatever it was before even after daylight.”
The dwarf who never had to worry about his own modesty before couldn’t quite grasp the meaning of that simple fact. “Am I still dreaming?” His stomach growled and he looked surprised at his belly. “Am I starving?” Fox laughed.
Glynis brought the dwarf a blanket, and he marvelled at the roughness of it on his new skin. They all started to talk at the same time, wanting to know about the blubbits, about the new skin, asking Kumihimo and Rukshan how it was possible.
“I don’t know,” they both said.
“Well! I don’t know about you, but now that he has skin he can certainly appreciate some champagne with us!” said Margoritt, trotting to the kitchen. She came back with a bottle and a sabre. “Who wants to crack it open?”
“How can he eat so much?” would ask Eleri later.
Norma was taking the sheets for a clean when she ran into the tall black figure of Mr August in the neatly carpeted corridors that Finnley had got freshly cleaned. Those odd people from Alabama that had brought Barron back had been all too pleased to help with the carpet cleaning, gaining a contract with the Beige House rather than a one-time reward.
August was a gentleman, and offered to help, while exchanging some innocent small talk. He was a married man after all. “Those carpets sure do look cleaner than they ever were.”
“You look distressed Norma.” he paused looking genuinely concerned. “It’s nothing to do with the sacking of June & April, is it? Or is that the stress of all that sudden responsibility falling on your shoulder? Taking care of Mr. Barron and all?”
“Oh yes, but no!” she immediately answered. “It was such an honor that Mistress Mellie Noma entrusted me with her child. The Lord will forgive me for speaking ill of them, but these two were not fit and proper to raise a child, with all that partying and …” she stopped thinking she sounded like a bitter spinster.
“Amen.” smiled August. “Not to mention all the gossiping around.” he giggled.
He rose from the floor and gave her back the folded sheet in a neat package.
“Good luck with the kid. Now he’s back, there’s no telling what goes in this head of his. I still wonder how he managed to get on this little trip. I have to go, work to do before Pres. Lump is coming back from his impricotement hearings. Seems he won once again and will be here in no time.”
“Crocuses in meadow, Flower, Flower”, was singing Eleri. Humming was more accurate, she didn’t recall much of the lyrics, but the tune was easy to follow. She was quite fond of that popular song and liked to sing it whenever she was going to town in her flower dress floating in the wind. She had thought it nice if Gorrash woke up with a festive atmosphere. It would certainly be a shock already that so much time had passed since he was last awake. She wondered if he would remember anything from his broken time. She hadn’t talked much with him before, especially about his day-slumber time.
“Chestnut in the woods”, she continued. Crack, crack made the dry twigs she walked on on purpose. It made her laugh and snort. She liked playing with her environment and made it participate in her own expression, it was like she had many voices and she could hear herself everywhere. She picked up a few chestnuts because she knew Fox was crazy about them. It was a blessing that the enchanted forest would still produce them out of season.
When she arrived in town, Eleri didn’t waste time. She wanted costumes and props for the party, so she went directly to the Jiborium’s Emporium where she was sure to find everything she needed, and more. There was a crowd blocking the entrance, but it didn’t deter her from her idea. She elbowed her way up to the door where a man in a wheelchair was complaining about having not enough room to go in. Still in a jolly mood, Eleri found it funny that the man who took so much space with his cumbersome vehicle was asking for more room.
“Move already”, she joined her voice to the man’s complaint and managed, Flove knows how to make the crowd part away enough so they could both enter the shop.
“Thanks, young lady”, said the grumpy man. “It’s a hassle sometimes you know to move in this town. People with good health they do not realise.”
“Oh! I know”, said Eleri. “My ankle just got better, but it was such a pain to move. I would have loved to have a chair like yours to move around, but alas I live in the forest most of the time and I’m not sure the chair would last long in there.”
“Oh! but it would! They have the cross-country model here, on the fourth floor. Powered by lightning battery.”
“Really?” said Eleri more to herself than for the man. Her mind was already elsewhere. “Thanks!” She kissed the grumpy man on the forehead and left, thinking of costumes and confetti. A cross-country wheelchair would be nice to bring back all of those. They might even need it for Gorrash if he needed recovery time.
Jerk had been tracking all of it. He’d done a nice map of all the location the both of them had travelled, with little animated pins for the dolls they’d collected.
It was a bit difficult to get them all to focus, and by them he didn’t mean the pins.
After Shawn-Paul and Maeve had come back home, their little lives at the building had resumed with some slight changes. For one, he’d finally realized through some fine deductive work worthy of Sherlock that Maeve was the one behind the dolls postings on his website. He was finally sure after a firewall update got her locked out of the website and she requested to get back in. Anyways, that made things easier, although they still mostly exchanged and discussed though the website despite them being front door neighbours on the same floor. But the arrangement was convenient, especially since Shawn-Paul had kind of unofficially moved in with her and Fabio.
He’d invited them in Lucinda’s apartment to do a little old fashioned slide show —Lucinda’s apartment was bigger he’d argued; and all the funny collection of paraphernalia she’d gathered on the walls and cabinets tops was always great to set the mood or do an improvised theme party. For sure, it didn’t have anything to do with the fact he wouldn’t need to clean up and push all the mess in the corners of his own apartment.
Lucinda was all excited. And not just by her new boyfriend Jasper. She wanted to make a book about their expedition, and everybody had immediately rolled their eyes. Books in this century, she must be the last one dinosaur raving about books.
The slide show started by the end. Where the dolls all ended up finally. La Isla de las Muñecas in Mexico: the Island of Dolls.
That’s when they were all appreciating the fitting finish line that the door bell rang.
“I’m here for Jasper.” he said ominously.
“I have nothing against outrageous clothes,” Liz said, feeling the unspoken murmurs of “we noticed” from the others. She smoothed down the voluminous pink satin of her floor length gown, batting her false eyelashes. “Life is one long fancy dress party, and one should dress accordingly. Today I am Barbara Tartland,” Liz flashed her long pink nails. “Otherwise known as the Pink Thing.”
Godfrey replied with some alarm, “You’re not planning on writing soppy romances are you, all with identical plots and predictable characters?”
“That’s because the characters are trying to commit suicide,” said Finnley.
Glynis noticed the fae’s hands. They were trembling. It was so faint nobody had noticed, but she had trained her eyes to that sort of things.
“Not now,” she said, looking at everyone. “He just arrived and we didn’t give him the time to rest and feel welcomed.” She turned to Rukshan. “My friend, forgive our rudeness. Come to the kitchen where I’ve made my famous chard and chicken gratin.”
Everyone could see the relief on Rukshan’s face. A burden, that they all have been unaware of, seemed to lift a bit from his shoulders and a small tear appeared at the corner of his eye.
“Maybe he can take a bath before going to the kitchen,” said Fox whose nose was wiggling. They all laugh.
“Go prepare the bath,” Glynis said, “I’ll feed him before he faints.”
“And maybe afterward he can tell us his story in the land of Giants,” said Eleri hopefully. She seemed to have forgotten her ankle.
“Of course, we’ll do all that,” said Glynis. Then she pointed at the blocks on the floor. “Our friend here have plenty of time. A few millenia. Now, chop chop! leave our guest be.”
“What are we waiting for?” asked Fox. “Let’s do it now. I’ll gather his blocks and pieces together before night falls.” He left the house before anyone could say anything and left the door open. The afternoon was near to its end and the light was dimming fast. Glynis, Rukshan and Eleri soon could hear the cyclical grating noise of the wheelbarrow and the thumping noise of the blocks being loaded.
“I don’t have all the required ingredients,” she said, “That pink clay from Sina, I used it all to lift the jinx on the loo.”
Olliver appeared at that moment. “You need my help?”
“We would if you could go somewhere you have never seen before,” said Rukshan. His panda eyes gave him a really tired look.
“Oh but I can, now,” said Olli. “If you’ve been there, I just need you to say the name and I can follow the vibration back to its origin.”
“My, What have I missed? I’ve been away far too long,” said the fae.
“You certainly have,” said Fox who was back and waiting at the door. The baby snoots, who were never far from the dwarf, had followed and their colourful glows brought an interesting set of nuances to Fox’s aura. “Can someone help me bring all those blocks into the house?”
Eleri would have helped of course, but pain you know, her ankle was so bad at the moment, she couldn’t risk making it worse. Glynis cleared a space and put a table cloth on the floor. “Don’t you make a scratch on my new wooden floor,” she warned the boys who brought the pieces together.
“Wow, the blocks are like magnets, but also different,” said Olliver, “It’s difficult to take one away because they attract each other, but if you bring them too close they repel each other. I can feel it.”
“Yes,” said Rukshan, “the Master creator told me we can’t force the process without the proper requirements.”
Once every pieces were on the table cloth, they all gathered around, even the baby snoots, and they looked at the rocks for a moment. Glynis had lit a few candles since the night had fallen and the light was painting dancing shadows on the walls. Fox’s stomach growled but his attention was all on what Rukshan would say next. They all were.
“So where is this pink clay?” asked Olli who couldn’t wait longer.
Once he’d finished to tell the story, and let the kids go back to the cottage for the night, Rukshan’s likeness started to vanish from the place, and his consciousness slowly returned to the place where his actual body was before projecting.
Being closer to the Sacred Forest enhanced his capacities, and where before he could just do sneak peeks through minutes of remote viewing, he could now somehow project a full body illusion to his friends. He’d been surprised that Fox didn’t seem to notice at all that he wasn’t truly there. His senses were probably too distracted by the smells of food and chickens.
He’d wanted to check on his friends, and make sure they were alright, but it seemed his path ahead was his own. He realized that the finishing of the loo was not his own path, and there was no point for him to wait for the return of the carpenter. That work was in more capable hands with Glynis and her magic.
His stomach made an indiscreet rumbling noise. It was not like him to be worried about food, but he’d gone for hours without much to eat. He looked at his sheepskin, and the milk in it had finally curdled. He took a sip of the whey, and found it refreshing. There wouldn’t be goats to milk in this part of the Forest, as they favored the sharp cliffs of the opposite site. This and a collection of dried roots would have to do until… the other side.
To find the entrance wasn’t too difficult, once you understood the directions offered by the old map he’d recovered.
He was on the inner side of the ringed protective enclosures, so now, all he needed was to get into the inner sanctum of the Heartwood Forest, who would surely resist and block his path in different ways.
“The Forest is a mandala of your true nature…”
He turned around. Surprised to see Kumihimo there.
“Don’t look surprised Fae, you’re not the only one who knows these parlor tricks.” She giggled like a young girl.
“of my nature?” Rukshan asked.
“Oh well, of yours, and anybody’s for that matter. It’s all One you, see. The way you see it, it represents yourself. But it would be true for anybody, there aren’t any differences really, only in the one who sees.”
She reappeared behind his back, making him turn around. “So tell me,” she said “what do you see here?”
“It’s where the oldest and strongest trees have hardened, it’s like a fence, and a… a memory?”
“Interesting.” She said “What you say is true, it’s memory, but it’s not dead like you seem to imply. It’s hardened, but very much alive. Like stone is alive. The Giants understood that. And what are you looking for?”
“An entrance, I guess. A weak spot, a crack, a wedge?”
“And why would you need that? What if the heart was the staircase itself? What if in was out and down was up?”
Rukshan had barely time to mouth “thank you” while the likeness of the Braid Seer floated away. She’d helped him figure out the entrance. He touched one of the ring of the hard charred trees. They were pressed together, all clomped in a dense and large enclosure virtually impossible to penetrate. His other memories told him the way was inside, but his old memories were misleading.
Branches were extending from the trunks, some high and inaccessible, hiding the vision of the starry sky, some low, nearly indistinguishable from old gnarled roots. If you looked closely, you could see the branches whirring around like… Archimedes Screw. A staircase?
He jumped on a branch at his level, which barely registered his weight. The branch was dense and very slick, polished by the weathering of the elements, with the feel of an old leather. He almost lost his balance and scrapped his hands between the thumb and the index.
“Down is up?”
He spun around the branch, his legs wrapped around the branch. He expected his backpack to drag him towards the floor, but strangely, even if from his upside-down perspective, it was floating above him, it was as if it was weightless.
He decided to take a chance. Slowly, he hoisted himself towards his floating bag, and instead of falling, it was as though the branch was his ground. Now instead of a spiral staircase around the trees leading to heavens, it was the other side of the staircase that spiraled downwards to the starry night.
With his sheepskin and back still hovering, he started to climb down the branches towards the Giants’ land.
There had been no communications from either Connie or Hilda for some time. Ricardo went down the usual route of worrying that something had happened to them, and then it occurred to him to try out the remote viewing he’d been practicing. It was too easy to rely solely on technological means, he reminded himself, AI (short for Abnormal Intrusions) or no AI.
Ricardo found himself in a moonlit sweeping landscape, with some dark indeterminate built structure shapes. Oh, very helpful, he snorted, and then reminded himself to simply observe. Then he saw the woman, dressed in gauzy floating white, and found himself sneering at how corny the image was, like a new age art poster woman, beautiful and ethereal in a moonlit scene.
Stranger still was the next thought to waft through his wandering mind. Maybe he inserted that corny woman to distract any remote viewing spies, and throw them off the scent? Suddenly there was a crash behind him. Another picture had fallen off the wall, he assumed. But nothing was out of place. He looked again, sure that something had fallen to the floor to make such a noise. But there was nothing to see. He shrugged.
Later, he wondered: what had made that noise?
The old ruse was still working, so I continued to use it. Only way to get a bit of time to myself, especially lately. A bit of quiet time, to think. And there was so much to think about, what with all these people around. I wasn’t put on this earth to make beds and pander to tourists, and the clues were coming in thick and fast. Oh yes, some of these new guests were thick, and some were fast. Anyway, I pretended to be inebriated again and did a pretty good imitation of a lurching drunk to throw them off the scent. They always fall for it.
After turning the key in the lock of my bedroom door, I leaned my back against it for a minute and closed my eyes. It was the bird flying in the window at the crack of dawn that got me worried. Now I’m not a superstitious person by any means, but there have been times when a bird in the house has been followed by a death, and things like that stick in your mind. The sight of Mater in that red pantsuit had etched itself on my mind as well, which was almost as worrying as the bird.
I went over to the window and pulled down the blinds. The bright sun was making my head hurt. I was thirsty, and wished I’d brought a cup of tea with me, but lurching drunks can’t be seen to be making plans for a quiet afternoon of sober contemplation. I tried valiantly to ignore my parched mouth, but it was no good. I put my ear to the door, and the coast seemed clear so I inched it open, looking up and down the hallway. I sprinted to the bathroom, unfortunately tripping over the vacuum cleaner that Finley had no doubt left there deliberately to trip me up. She was a dark horse, that one. Good at dusting, and reliable, so I suppose that was something. Hard to get hired help out here so we had no choice, really.
I smashed my nose on Mater’s doorknob and skinned my shin on the hoover. My nose hurt like hell, and quickly spurted an astonishing quantity of bright blood, similar in colour to that ghastly pantsuit. My fall made a hell of a din so I staggered quickly to the bathroom wash basin for the much needed drink of water before anyone came to investigate the crash, hoping to get back to my room before anyone appeared on the scene.
Had the water in the cold tap been cold, it might have been different, but the new water pipes were still above ground, and the cold water was scalding hot from the heat of the sun on the black pipes. I didn’t have a moment to waste, so drank some quickly, horrid though it was. The unfortunate side effect of the cold water being hot was that it encouraged and diluted the blood, making the overall effect look considerably more alarming. I was tempted to blame Mater for the whole sorry affair, for starting the red theme with that damn pantsuit. I actually said “bloody pantsuit”, which struck me as inordinately funny, and made it hard to get back to the bedroom quickly. I was still laughing hysterically, leaving red hand prints and strange red markings along the corridor wall, when Sanso appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.
“I saw cave paintings like that in Zimbabwe,” he said conversationally, taking a closer look at the bloody hand prints. “I’ve often wondered what the purpose was, the meaning.” He raised an eyebrow and smiled at me. “Have you interpreted these?”
I was momentarily speechless, as you might imagine. Then I had an impulse, and grabbed his elbow and propelled him into my room, slamming and locking the door behind him. He was almost unnaturally calm and unperturbed, albeit looking as if he was trying not to smile too broadly, which was just the kind of energy I needed. My kind of man! I gave him one of my famous coquettish looks, which made him laugh out loud, and then I caught sight of myself in the wardrobe mirror and hastily grabbed an old nightgown off the floor and spit on it to rub the blood off my face.
“My kind of girl!” he laughed. Oh, how he laughed.
Her magical senses told her she could trust this girl. Maeve herself seemed still a bit on the fence, as though she was guarding a heavy secret, but she seemed to have moments of unexplained boldness and was not shy to engage either.
“Something tells me this is familiar to you; me and my friends are looking for what it is locking away.”
Maeve initial reaction was shocked and her composure seemed to be shaken for a moment.
“Don’t worry, I’m going to relax this precious moppet.” he replied back in purring meows only Arona could understand. “I heard that’s what cats do in this dimension when they don’t sleep.”
Maeve replied “Don’t worry, I quite like animals, he seems well behaved too. And he’s so cute with his tiny boots.”
Only momentarily distracted, and mildly relaxed by the cat’s purring, Maeve asked “how did you come by this key? It was not supposed to be found. I don’t know what it’s supposed to open, I suspect it was a fail-safe for my uncle, and I hid them in my dolls for safe-keeping.”
“Them?” Arona asked, rather as a validation to herself.
“As you suspected. There are more.” purred the cat harder.
Maeve leaned in close, almost dropping her sketchbook’s coloured pencils on the floor, “I think some bad people are after it. I suspect that my Uncle sent me those tickets to Australia so I could retrieve this one before the bad people arrive to snatch it.”
She jumped a little, realizing too late. “Wait? You don’t seem to be one of them… But what about all these other guests?”FloveParticipant
But it wasn’t a window ledge. It was Godfrey, sitting cross-legged on the floor under the window ledge.
“Oops, my bad,” said Finnley, dusting his head to make up for dusting it the first time. “Didn’t realise you were meditating.”
“I’m trying to maintain my composure with all this dusting of window ledges when there are many more places which are gathering dust. Stories gathering dust, as it were,” he added cleverly.
“Precisely,” snarled Liz, hoping to make up for her previous mistake.
“Too late,” said Finnley.
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