"You can find the landscape of my mind somewhere down that famous 'path less travelled'..."

The trail looks far too overgrown. Somewhere, somehow you must have gone off of the path you meant to tread. But the woods seem inviting here, the afternoon sun shining in wide bars down through well-spaced trees. Each step falls softly onto moss and creepers. Birds call all around. The last wildflowers of summer co-exist with fern and mushrooms of every description. There is an invigorating, clean scent in the air. You know without being told that this is a safe and peaceful place; the deer that pause their grazing to watch as you pass, but do not run away, only serve to confirm your intuition.

As you debate the need to turn about and seek the fork in the trail that will take you back to your intended course you continue walking forward, past a little creek cascading in tiny, bubbling waterfalls down the hillside. Perhaps it is the mist from the falling water, or the rainbow quivering in it. Perhaps it is something subtle about the landscape itself, but you become disorientated for a moment and forget your intention. Even the way you had come. Walking the path becomes an end in itself and you follow it unquestioning, drinking in the beauty of the forest as you follow the little creek. Where the creek merges with another stream there is a tiny footbridge built of blocks hewn from the same dark stone lining the water. The bridge seems ancient, moss-grown to the point it is just another feature here. Somehow entirely natural and correct.

 
Path

On the other side of the bridge the path mounts up a hillside. You can see through the trees to where the trail ends at a slate-roofed log cabin. This brings you back to yourself in a rush; there isn't supposed to be anyone living way out here! But old and worn as it looks the cabin is clearly inhabited -- smoke is rising in a thin stream from the rock chimney.

Suddenly you remember your mission, remember the path intended. You should probably turn back now. On the other hand you could go up the trail and ask your way at the cabin. You must decide. But before you can sort it out in your mind your feet choose for you...

As you near the top of the path the cabin is out of sight again, hidden behind the rise. So it is that when you see it again as you crest it seems to grow out of the ground entire, like one of the mushrooms lining the way. It has the same quality as the bridge, of seeming part of the landscape. Constructed of rough-hewn cedar logs, the house is shaped like a 'T' with the flat of the crossbar aimed at the view off the rise towards the stream below. The front of the house is one long porch, supported by posts and floored in the same grey slate as the roof. The posts and rails of the porch are carved with swirling designs that seem vaguely Celtic, while each log, on its exposed end, is carved into a little weathered face. It seems as if each corner of the building is lined on two sides with faces and the eaves have a face for each roof-post. And all of them watching you!

 
Deer
 
 

This brings you to a sudden halt. You look more closely but all you see is one carved image after another, each different. Some are animals, some seem vaguely human. Some are like nothing you can describe, but all marvelously well executed. They are heavily weathered, checked and crazed with fine cracks as if shaped long ago. None of them seem evil, although some seem sad and others carry an expression of worry or fear or anger. A few seem to embody either ecstasy or extreme pain, it is hard to tell which.

However most of the visages express mirth of some sort, ranging from faint smiles, as if they know something you don't, to outright hilarity. Your own mouth draws up to a smile looking at one of the last; a round, large nosed, Santa Claus face frozen in the throes of a permanent belly laugh. You almost wish you could hear the joke yourself.

In fact you can hear the laughter; bubbling up around you like the waterfall you had passed earlier. It is the open chortle of someone totally free from pretensions. Free to sound silly in his joy. With a shock you realize it is coming from a face you had managed to miss earlier, but not one of wood! There is a bearded man on the porch who bears a considerable resemblance to the carved face you had been inspecting. He is lounging in a bentwood rocker with his feet up on a pail, his head thrown back and shaking with uncontrolled merriment. In one hand he holds a huge pipe, forgotten and smoldering.

 
Forest Falls

After a moment you join in, it is too infectious even if you are the butt of the joke! You each break into fresh gales of laughter until you are both bent over wiping tears from your eyes. While you are trying to get your breath back the man manages to speak.

"Come on up and sit down a spell." He chokes out between giggles "Give them feet a rest, I expect they are getting pretty tired."

Perhaps you should simply ask directions and go on your way, but once again your feet decide for you. Before you know it you are sitting in the second rocker on the porch and taking off your shoes as the man is suggesting. His own feet are bare, and a little furry. In fact, if not for his size, you might almost take him for a Hobbit or something. For, although normal height, he has the proportions of a Tolkien hafling or dwarf, with a big rounded belly and wide shoulders. He is dressed in rough work clothes, all muted blues and browns. His hands have strong looking, stubby fingers, but seem remarkably free of calluses considering his dress. His hair is dark and long and, like his beard, going pepper grey around the edges. His eyes a clear, honest brown beneath great furry eyebrows which fall just short of dominating his high forehead and squareish face.

His laughter having finally subsided the man puffs his large pipe back into life and begins blowing smoke rings. The pipe is yellowed old meerschaum, intricately carved with a pattern resembling a circuit board covered with IC chips. The smoke rings hang uncanny long in the still air, allowing the man to blow one through the other and yet another through the middle of the first two. The smoke smells pleasant and aromatic.

 
Stream
 
 

"Came here lookin' for something I expect." The man says, laying his pipe on the floor and taking up a guitar you hadn't noticed before. "Everyone does. Most don't expect to find what they see though." And he laughs again, but a small one this time, "Heh, heh, heh."

You nod, as the man begins to tune the guitar, which seems already in perfect pitch. You had come out this way looking for something. For someone. But somehow your original purpose had become lost in this place.

The other strums a few chords softly, somehow evoking the very landscape. If there are words to the melody you know without being told that they sing of the trees and the water and the birds that suddenly flit by the porch, adding their own songs in counterpoint to the tune. The song stops without actually ending, perhaps it cannot have an end, and the man leans the guitar on the wall and gets up. Walks to the edge of the porch and puts his hands on the railing. "Well, you might just find what you are looking for inside." He says, his back to you, waving one hand at the open doorway. "And there you will also find paths leading to paths leading to paths beyond number, for this house is but one nexus in a great web of knowing."

 
Stone Bridge

You put your shoes back on, get up and walk to the door. Inside you see bookshelves filled to overflowing. The floor is polished wood, here and there covered with rugs patterned with more Celtic or circuit board designs. There are comfortable looking chairs and a big desk covered with papers. The wall at the back, where the rest of the house would be, is filled end-to-end with doors, each with a little brass plate on it.

You try to step through the door to get a better look and are halted in your tracks. It isn't a hard, invisible wall like a force field in a Science Fiction movie, more of an inability of your legs to carry you past the doorway. You stop for a moment, confused.

The man laughs again, softly. "Sorry about that. Just a minute." He brushes past you into the house and disappears from view. In a moment he is back onto the porch. In one hand is a black cable. At the end of the cable is a flat black disk about four centimeters across. "To go in," he explains "you need to plug into the house systems. Just set the jack behind your ear like this…" And lifting the hair from the side of his head the man presses the disk just behind his right ear where it adheres. He trembles for a moment and his eyes loose focus, then he reaches up, pulls it off and hands it to you.

"Of course you have a choice, you don't have to go in. You can go back the way you came. Either way, it is up to you." The man grins at you, his eyes twinkling. "Me, I am going for a walk. See you around."

 
Log Cabin
 
 

With that he steps off the porch and walks away down a path that follows the stream along the ridgeline. You are left standing there, holding the cable and feeling a bit silly. Suddenly you realize that the enchantment of this place has left you. Your legs are fully in your own control again, the fog has cleared from your mind. You really are free to leave or to go in. You look again at the cable, it is rubber coated with white letters repeating 'AN-70 Fibre Optik \ Ono-Sendai' down its length. The disk is covered with tiny silvery hairs on its open end, waving about like the cilia of a living thing. On the other side it is stamped with a curving 'MAAS DCI4 NeuroJack -- Patent Pending'.

What to do? Do you drop the cable like a venomous snake and leave this eldritch place as quickly as possible or do you set the thing against your skull and 'jack in' to the house? You must decide now.

 

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