15. the Noon chorus
An enormous reptile squats on your chest and breathes into your face. Its mouth is a dog’s mouth, with dog’s breath and black-spotted gums. It barks at you, shouting words apparently at random; “SWORD! PRISONER! GOD! BIRDSFOOT!” You push at it with your hands and something tingles in your stomach, and the dog-lizard opens like a book or a pair of scaly, warm curtains, and peels away from itself and disintegrates into flower petals. In its place is your knackered old laptop. The one you sort of stole from your younger brother after he bought a new one with the proceeds from his sickeningly successful online business. You never even managed to sell your old CDs on eBay, and he’s three years younger than you and about to buy his own house.
You blink away that thought, as too bitter for… what time is it anyway? You’re lying in bed and light is creeping in through the blinds, so it might be morning. The laptop currently warming your stomach offers no help – The clock in the corner of the screen reads “G by GM.” It really shouldn’t be this hard to know what time it is. Everything feels slightly strange, but that’s probably just the dream you were having. You look around and take in the room, to reassure yourself. There are the familiar stacks of “Swordventure” books. For the first time, you wonder if perhaps they aren’t a bit silly. You pick up the nearest one – “Drake Shadowblade and the prisoner of the Thulorgons.”
It looks faintly ridiculous to your eyes, and that seems strange. Only a day or so ago, you were enjoying re-reading this for the eighteenth time.
You sigh, and drop the book, turning back to your laptop. Checking emails will give you a sense of the order of things. You open up your inbox, only to find it filled with enormous rabbits. They startle when you try to click on one, and leap right out of the screen at you. They have sharp little hooves instead of paws, which prod at you rudely, and as they go they make a hissing noise like pouring sand. You’re drowning in fur and hooves and noise, and as their frantic kicks try to gouge out your eyes you can’t seem to think of anything but that you wish you knew what time it was-
“Wake up, it’s almost noon.”
You open your eyes onto six feet of thin air above the leaf-litter below. Your hat appears to have fallen off and awaits you on the ground, but by dint of panicked, half-awake wriggling you manage to regain your position in the tree before you fall. Your carefully constructed hideout is a tangle of cloak and twigs, and the lantern has gone out, but the sun seems to be shining now, so atleast it isn’t so cold. It takes you a while to register the other thing that’s changed about the forest – something that seems almost to have seeped in from your dreams…
The noise. The Morning Forest is definitely no longer silent. It hisses, whirrs, grates against itself, whistles and purrs and laughs. Something makes a noise like a handful of water thrown onto a hot stove right above you, and you look up, startled. The tree glitters with odd, bronze-coloured birds, crawling over the uppermost twigs in a strangely un-birdlike way…
Your perception shifts, and it dawns on you that they aren’t birds, but sparrow-sized bugs. You don’t stop to investigate more, but scramble out of the tree as fast as you can. Looking into the treetops you can see the iridescence of insect-carapaces in thousands of colours. Okay. So in this particular forest, as well as giant rabbits, there are bugs that sing like birds when the sun comes out. You try to banish the sense that they are creeping all over you, an effort that meets with sudden, unexpected success as you see something to drive everything else out of your head.
Your bag of stuff seems to have fallen out of the tree. No great wonder there. What is slightly more noteworthy is that instead of scattering randomly over the leaf-litter, the book has just chanced to land neatly on top of the map of elsewhere, which is rolled back up and sitting on top of the pillowcase, where it won’t get dirt on it. The other map appears to have been blown by some freak gust of wind, and landed on a convenient rock, where four pebbles have happened to fall onto the corners in the perfect places to keep it from rolling back up, or blowing away. And maybe most coincidentally of all, the broken watch you picked up from the godmaker’s house has apparently rolled out of the pillowcase, up the side of the rock, and come to a stop resting on the centre of the compass drawn in the corner of the map. The second hand, which was so clearly broken, now points towards the M that allegedly stands for midnight. You move the watch, and the second hand wobbles, realigning itself so that it still points to the M. like a compass.
“Well, you’ve already come to the conclusion that the compass rose of Elsewhere is dictated by times of day as a clock would, so following that strand of thougth we can make fairly accurate assumptions in concerns to directions. At noon, on earth, your sun is directly overhead, correct? Who’s to say that’s not the same here? If it is the same, then where ever the sun moves after noon can be considered heading gloaming-wise, or towards the evening.”
You try and follow the reasoning of the voices, but can’t help dwelling on the fact of the map being spread out like this. Somebody did this, on purpose. Unless the giant insects here also have a fondness for cartography, it was a person. Why would they do it? Were they honestly trying to be helpful? Is it a trap? Were they just making use of the map to find their own way? You look about the area, but there’s not so much as an overturned leaf to indicate anyone passed this way.
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
Your question is answered by the buzzing of insects and the voices trying to get you to figure out where you are and get a move on. They seem to have reached a consensus that you should head for this Port Anglesheat place. The chances of actually surviving long enough to reach anywhere seem so remote you don’t see the point in arguing.
You retrieve your hat and shoes- eww. Still damp.
“Try using those god powers to build a fire. Nothing too big, just enough to dry some things. If the fire doesn’t work knot the laces and plod on bare foot with them around your neck.”
You briefly consider making a fire, but the thought of lingering doesn’t feel safe. The guards might still be chasing you, plus now you can’t shake the feeling you’re being watched… you’ll just carry your shoes. But which way? You stare at the map. If that earl-voice is right about the sun moving towards gloaming, then it’ll probably be pretty much overhead by now. You look up, squinting through trees and insects. Seems like it is. So presumably you just need to keep your shadow behind you as it moves, and you’ll be heading towards the edge of the forest. Except that right now your shadow is underneath you, and you don’t feel like waiting around till afternoon…
“Well, the only advice I can think of for now is to follow the river. These things usually flow away from mountains and towards large bodies of water, like the The Well. Mr. Irrelevant might be on to something with the compass directions. At least we agree you should head to the port of Anglesheat; you need information.”
Yeah. Okay. You can do that. You return to the stream you were following before, and, on a suggestion from one of the voices, hop over it a couple of times at a narrow point. Oh good, apparently you’re not evil. Your mark stings slightly, but then so do various other parts. You add it to the growing list of things you prefer not to think about, and start following the stream. It’s surprisingly easy to walk in bare feet, with the sun shining and the earth underfoot cool and relatively free of prickles. Grasshoppers the size of mice leap from under your feet. You swing your sword about, practising slicing the tops off of flowers as you go. Maybe it’s because you’ve finally got some rest for the first time in days, or because the sun is shining, or because nobody is actively trying to hurt you, but you get the idea that perhaps this place is capable of being quite nice.
Surely something awful is about to happen.