‘Fuck, this is good…’
He moved his arm in front of him, marvelling in its fluidity, the beads of sweat hanging from hairs, caught by the setting sun and reflecting it. He swept them off, following the arc of their descent to the grass.
‘Wow.’ He turned to his companion and smiled. ‘Pretty cool, huh?’
She nodded, stunned. For her, the sword in her hand was a living thing full of venom, a serpent, a cock. It was not of her but it was still hers, still part of her identity. She swung it round, spinning it, feeling the momentum take hold and guiding it. The sword was a combination of precise, almost surgical beauty and function, balanced and proud. She took a few more swings, kebabing a series of unfortunate leaves and decapitating a small orange flower.
Sasha was her name but here, it was Flame. She wasn’t even a redhead. But she was brought alive by friction. Some can live a life of peaceful coexistence. Sasha was not one of them. She was a dramavore and she was hungry. For now, though, she made the effort. She didn’t want to be alone here.
She felt the wind blow down the mountain when she jumped and caught a low hanging branch, pulling herself into a tree. She had never felt so strong, so vital. Was this how life was supposed to feel?
She noticed she wasn’t breathing and wondered if it mattered.
Flame dropped from the tree into a crouch and rolled like a paratrooper. That felt good. She did it again, just because. She plucked a flower from the side of the river and smelt it. Everything seemed so real. She knew why but she hadn’t expected to believe it quite so much. She looked at the reflections of the sunset in the river and shivered a little. So much for natural beauty.
She started walking back to the clearing, wondered why, and swung from the tree like an orang utan. She let go at the top of her swing, somersaulted once and landed on her feet two yards from her friend.
‘Pretty cool, huh, Ken?’
She smiled, running her fingers through her hair and knocking off the hat she forgot she was wearing. She stooped to pick it up and spotted the snail.
‘Man, they think of everything.’
Ken felt his own quickness and his eyesight improve. He strained his focus, looking further and further away but never blurring. This was incredible. His eyes had always been a weak point. Not his only one, to be sure, but now! Wow! He spotted an apple in a tree a hundred yards away, and his bow was a flash into his hands, an arrow poised and fired in an instant and without conscious thought. The apple yielded to the arrow, pierced and falling. It fell.
Ken walked to retrieve his arrow and broke off the apple around it, taking a bite. Strangely, he felt a little better. Even stranger, it tasted of apple. He heard it crunch between his molars, felt the piece of skin get stuck between his teeth.
‘Shit! This is amazing.’
He looked around, saw the river and sprinted to it, performing a couple of Arab springs on the way. The strain on his back and shoulder muscles was unexpected but vindicating. He could do this. For the first time in his life, he ran into the wind and felt it buffet his face, pulling down his felt cap and feeling the peach-like fabric between thumb and forefinger. Pretty smooth, Ken. Looking good.
He looked at his legs as he ran, watching them pumping like pistons over the long grass. Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot, rinse and repeat. He watched them so closely he didn’t see the rock he tripped over, and bounced down to the river, cutting his cheek on the shingle.
He laughed. ‘That’s what I get for not paying attention.’ He felt the cut on his cheek and looked at the blood on his fingers, ruminating. He’d somehow kept hold of the apple as he fell and he absent-mindedly took a bite. He was shocked to see the blood just disappear from his hand, and when he felt his cheek, so had the cut. His skin was as smooth as his rather fetching hat.
‘This place is weird, man.’
He walked to Flame, slowly this time, and watched her practise with her sword some more.
‘Where were we supposed to meet the others?’
The woman slipped her sword back in its scabbard and looked off into the distance.
‘I think it’s south of here.’ She pointed to the sun. ‘That’s obviously sunset, so that way is west. If we face the sun and turn left, that should be south.’
‘How do you know the sun sets in the west? You can’t take anything for granted.’
Flame looked at him and wondered. Maybe he was right.
* * *
In another clearing some short distance away, three more figures came to terms with their environment, one more successfully than the others. The others were more confused than Ken and Flame and needed help.
Two of them sat on fallen logs and moved their limbs slowly and with gazes of worshipful adoration. It was like being born. Sensations new and bold took hold of them. They felt the power of their bodies for the first time.
One stood up, his leather armour visibly straining to contain his impressive pectorals. His arms were a network of criss-crossing scars, like a tube map of his history. Each told a story, and each was a violent tale of hubris and valour. Each was a memory, an experience, a training opportunity.
He looked at the grey rock at his feet, and wondered. It was approximately the size of a large badger. He knelt down to investigate it, preparing his legs for the strain and feeling them leap to his command. Blood flowed at unaccustomed speed and thrilled with purpose. Large hands attached to arms the thickness of legs of mutton reached around the stone, and with one liquid movement, picked it up, spun once and hurled it twenty feet into the field.
He ran to follow it, swung the war hammer from his back, and smashed it into seven pieces. One looked like a skull. He smiled at that and hit it again with the hammer, dismantling it into the dust that formed it. The hammer returned to his back in one fluid swing over the shoulder and he turned, casting a long shadow over the flattening grass. The wind was coming up and the sun was going down.
He flattened his hand and put it to his eyebrows, shielding his eyes from the worst of the sunset. He looked around him, taking in the mountains, the trees clinging to them, the river flowing out below. The wind rose again, sweeping through the trees with a sound like a broom on stone. The colours of Autumn sat in the trees, occasionally base jumping and spiralling, landing with an audible crunch. The dark elf heard it anyway. The ears of an elf are a marvel.
Lucretia, queen sorceress of Evernight, looked up and focussed on the sound, her night vision eyes zooming in on a leaf and carefully tracing the pattern of veins in her mind. She was new to this too. She stood up, light-headed, and sat back down again, unsure of her abilities. She felt weak. Timid. She looked at the barbarian and wondered where she fitted. She felt disconnected from anything physical.
Then she felt something, a surging, a potential. The untapped power of the cosmos. She felt the growing of something strong, something useful. She held up one finger and wondered why it was on fire. She thought of water and it went out. There were no blisters, no sign of damage.
She felt that same insistent urge, a welling up, a recharging. Her arms and hands tingled with anticipation, crackling with mischief and impatience.
She teased the power within her fingers, kindling it, feeling it throb. She wondered if this was what the vinegar strokes felt like. She turned, pointed her long fingers at a tree and visualised it on fire. A torrent of flame leapt out, the air smelt of sulphur, the dry leaves crackled and branches were caught instantly alight. She looked at the tree, smoke and particulate ash carried by the heat, and imagined glaciers and penguins, the ice in that scotch she liked. She looked at the tree and imagined it in winter, the snow decorating it, beauty making a virtue of the bleak. She pointed her finger and expelled a beam of ice, the leading edge steaming as it met the wall of flame. Under the relentless pounding of the ice, the melt-water fell from the sky. First the fire died, then the tree itself was coated and then buried in ice. When the tree looked like a ski-slope, she lowered her hand and sat down again. This was going to take some working out.
The third person present watched the barbarian and the mage with amusement. He’d been here before and knew its ways. He was a bard, and he pulled out his lyre and began to sing a song about gold.
A light tenor floated on the air, simple phrases of greed and acquisitiveness. He knew he was probably doing the dwarves a disservice but it didn’t keep him up at night.
He watched the barbarian trying to smash every rock in the field to powder and thought he’d better move things along a bit. He approached the woman, his hands up, palms out.
‘Greetings, fair sorceress. I am Barin, dwarf bard from the mines of Torrion. I know these parts. I can help you.’
Lucretia looked at him, saw no-one, looked down and felt embarrassed that she hadn’t considered that a dwarf might be shorter than her.
‘Sounds good. I don’t even know how I got here.’
Barin raised an arm to the barbarian and called him over. The large man crossed the field in a few strides and stood over him, smiling in an unfriendly way and looking down. The dwarf looked up and tried to smile in return. It wasn’t easy.
‘And what is your name?’ he asked.
‘I am Krote,’ said the man mountain. ‘I have slain many trolls and bards like you should have heard of me. You should be singing of my exploits.’
‘And were there time, I would have already started,’ said the bard smoothly. ‘But time is not something any of us have enough of.’
He craned his neck looking from one to the other.
‘Do you have games where you come from?’
‘Yes’ said Krote. ‘Our children play with toys our women carve from the skulls of the vanquished. Why do you ask?’
‘I like games,’ said Barin. ‘I make them myself. Some of them are quite… interesting. Shall I tell you what’s interesting about my game?’
‘What’s that?’ asked Lucretia, getting nervous again.
‘You’re in it,’ said Barin.
Andrew Barber is a novelist, poet, musician and systems developer. He has written three novels in The Cybermancer Chronicles, and Book Four is scheduled for Autumn 2013. His third poetry collection Et Cetera (And Other Similar Things) will be released shortly thereafter.