Dust from the last rock-slide was still coiling through the air, visible in a thin spear of light which lanced through a hole in the cavern roof some fifty feet above. Striding into the spotlight were two dessert camouflage clad soldiers carrying hefty battle-packs. One of them was tall, stocky and dark, eyes scanning from side to sides, the other short, slender and pale, brows furrowed in thought. A quick, silent flurry of hand movements passed between them, they grabbed a brisk hug and the shorter soldier stepped out of the light, disappearing into the darkness.
Dumping his pack on the ground, the tall soldier started rooting purposefully in one of its many pockets. What he pulled out looked, to the untrained eye, like a few dozen copper sycamore seeds. Hoicking up his left sleeve to fully expose his bicep, the soldier slapped one of the seeds against the flesh of his upper arm and lobbed it into the darkness. At the top of its arc the little seed started spinning with a soft whirring sound, slowing its descent until it hovered some ten feet up, then it began to glow, giving out roughly the same amount of light as a candle. It’s spinning motion and gentle drift through the air replicating the atmosphere of a flame flickering in a breeze. Again and again he did this, slapping the glow-seeds against his arm and launching them out. Rather than settling where they’d been thrown, which would have left them clustered together, the glow-seeds repelled each other, spreading out to distribute their light evenly across the cavern until every corner was lit with their flickering glow.
It was now possible to see that the short, stocky soldier had sat down just a few paces away from his comrade; cross-legged, eyes closed, apparently deep in meditation.
“My name is Echo Tango,” the tall soldier announced to the bedraggled crowd which filled the rest of the cave.
“Welcome to Thaull.”
The slide-snatch happened mid afternoon in Abbland, Thaull-side, which correlated Earth-side to the middle of the night in the USA, early morning in Britain, mid morning in South Africa or evening in Australia. The Keshans generally aimed for the English speaking nations because they found it easier to work slaves who understood them.
The sliders in front of Echo were mostly wearing business suits. About a seventy-thirty split favouring men, with an age range mostly mid twenties to mid thirties, a few older; a half-dozen he’d peg as tourists, a couple of street cleaners and some cafe staff. About thirty bodies total: a smallish snatch. If forced to place a guess at the target, Echo would have plumped for the business end of London; the Keshans had favoured tube stations recently.
The slide stupefaction was wearing off and a few heads had snapped up at the word Thaull.
“Welcome to Thaull,” he tried again. Most of them were looking now.
“My name is Echo Tango, and I’m part of the Abbland guard. We’re here to keep you out of Keshan slavers’ hands, but I need you lot to keep calm.”
A couple of the younger men in suits were struggling to shout something and making slurred mooing sound.
“Please, gather up closer so I don’t have to shout.”
The crowd of sliders looked around at each other and shuffled in nervously.
The unhappy lowing of the sliders got louder as more of them realized they were unable to talk properly.
“You lot have been sucked through a Keshan snatch portal into our dimension. You may remember a big swirly thing? But don’t you worry! Once we get you back to Abb our flocs will send you back to Earth in a jiffy. Everything will be a-okay, so please relax and enjoy your visit! ”
The mooing tailed off but they still looked terrified. Their shoulders were all cramped up around their necks and their hands balled angrily into fists.
“That trouble you’re having with speaking is a side effect of sliding here. We call it slide-scramble and it will wear off soon, so just stay patient, listen close, and we’ll get through this just dandy.”
Frustratingly, slide-scramble wears off quicker on those with less complex neural networks. Whenever they rescued a herd of sliders the densest got their voices back fastest.
Echo wasn’t surprised when one of the street cleaners piped up with, “Is dis a joke, bruv?”
“I can assure you,” Echo answered, “this is not a joke. Nor is it a hidden-camera TV show, or some kind of shared hallucination. This is happening. You are in the Thaull. The very same Thaull you’ve heard Fiona Bruce bang on about on the news.”
Echo waited while the gears turned in the street cleaner’s head. A few other sliders mooed softly, but so far he was the only one to have regained the ability to speak.
“So we’re in dat magic place?” he asked, the tiniest catch in his voice.
“We are, dear sir, as you so eloquently put it, in that magic place. Here in Thaull, it is possible for those of us blessed with a ximin to manipulate energy in ways that are impossible on Earth and could only be described as magical. Here, to us, it’s perfectly natural and simply a way of life, but we understand your Earthly astonishment and are proud to be called magicians.”
While the street cleaner took a few seconds to decipher this speech, the quicker members of the herd tried to respond, but alas, all that came out were moos. Their lone voice was apparently, by far, the dumbest. Echo waited.
“So,” Mr.Slow eventually asked, “if you can do magic, why isn’t you said a magic word to fix dis?”
He may be not be the sharpest, but Echo almost applauded him for what was actually a fairly insightful question and prepared to launch into his usual spiel.
“Let me set the record straight, OK? ‘Cos you guys are holding some stellar misconceptions about us that just ain’t helping our situation here.” Echo held his filthy palms out towards the sliders in a placating gesture.
“There’s no magic word that either Grave or I can say to get us out of this mess, and the reasons for this are threefold. Firstly, I am a passive, not a caster. I’ve trained my magic-mojo to enhance my already existing attributes. I can run fast. I can hear real good. If you cut me, I will still bleed but I’ll stop dripping the precious red stuff a lot quicker than you guys would. I’m like, a more laid back and significantly sexier version of Captain America without that god-damn goofy looking shield. I can’t do no Gandalf-Dumbledore wand-wiggling abra-ca-dabra-alakazam shenanigans. That’s just not my bag, y’know what I’m saying?”
His words weren’t exactly soothing the terrified huddle of sliders, but something in Echo’s nonchalant tone and posture was getting through. Their hands and jaws were beginning to unclench, and as his eyes swept from face to face Echo could tell that the hardest part was past. He just had to keep them distracted and calm long enough for Grave to figure out a fix.
“Now my amigo here, sitting cross-legged on the floor behind me like a blend between Frodo Baggins and Gautama Buddha, goes by the handle of Grave, as in Silent As The. Now this cat is a caster, and a finer flinger of spells you’re not likely to ever encounter. He’s a battle mage. He’s hardcore. He’s a mother-****ing, daughter-****ing, whoever-the-hell-he-wants-to-be-****ing Hero in these here parts. You people didn’t know that, so you look around you and you’re scared. I get that. But I’ve seen what Grave can do, so I’m calm. I’m also very pretty but we’ll get into that later.”
Echo snapped off a quick wink at a cute young slider in the front row who released some nervous energy in a high pitched moo-titter.
“I get distracted by an attractive face, but I promised you three reasons why there’s no magic word and I’ve only given up one.”
Echo started patting the many pockets of his flak jacket.
“Anyone got a lighter?” he glanced around his audience.
A middle-aged slider in a business suit gave a honking-moo and offered Echo a disposable clipper.
“That’s great my man, just great, now I don’t suppose you’ve got some cigarettes too?”
The whole group gave up a cow-like chuckle this time as Mr.Suited’n’Booted handed over a battered pack of Bensons, for which Echo rewarded him with a wide grin and bobbed nod.
“You’ve a kind heart, sir, a generous soul indeed.” Echo sparked up and sucked deep between sentences. “So. Grave here is indeed an elite caster, but still, there’s no magic word. Drum-roll please – because Grave is a deaf mute. Hence the name. He’s silent as the grave. Always has been. Always will be. Even if the magic word ‘Woo-boo-laluga’ could save our bacon when uttered by a caster, Grave would be in no position to help. So that’s explanation number two.”
Echo cast a glance over Grave, but he hadn’t moved a millimetre; the guy was granite.
“Before we roll on to our third and final reason, have any of you lovely people got your words back yet? Can I hear you say ‘Earth Rocks!’”
“Earth Rocks!” yelled the street sweeper and a thickset girl in a coffee shop uniform. The rest of the sliders looked frustrated as they mooed.
“Hello sweetheart, glad to have you re-join us word-makers,” Echo cooed at the girl, “what’s your name?”
“Kelly,” she said, “I’m from Lewisham.”
“Ricky,” piped up the street sweeper, “from Lambeth ends.”
“Great to hear you’re keeping up, Ricky. Kelly, you’ve got lovely eyes,” Echo pattered smoothly.
“The third, final and most important reason,” he said, resuming his lecture, “why there is no magic word to fix this situation is that there’s no such thing as a magic word! That’s right ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, you’ve been lied to! Lied, had, conned, deceived, fooled, scammed, hoodwinked and bamboozled! There’s no such thing as a magic word and there never has been. How could a word, in and of itself, be magic! It’s preposterous! Would a rose by any other name still not smell as sweet? Does shouting ‘booze’ or ‘boobies’ suddenly make these things appear in front of you? Of course, we all wish it worked that way and being a magician would be as easy as reading a toddler a bed time story, but the sad fact is that it doesn’t.
Casting is all about transforming and manipulating energy through a ximin’s interface with the tau-fu field which underlies all existence. The words used have no power except through the mental state they represent.
Let me break it down like this. You see my amigo here, Grave, doing his Buddha thing. Imagine you had a go at that, and discovered that if you thought about the right things, and focused in the right way, you could give yourself a hard-on like never before, the kind of stiffy you could bend metal bars around.”
This got a giggle from Kelly and Ricky.
“In your little meditation bubble, you give this mental state a name – it has to be a word you’ve never used before to avoid any potential confusion – so you call it Cocktastic. Then you come out of your trance and the solid-steel schlong goes back to normal. A few days later, you’ve got a girl into bed and your new spell jumps to mind, so you put your casting mind-set on, utter the word cocktastic and trigger the associated mental state. Et voila, one iron rod.
The word itself has no power. Saying cocktastic will grant a different caster no benefit at all because he didn’t go through the process of discovering the state and labelling it for recall. Every caster much discover and label every process, every spell, they wish to later use – and the route to that mental state is different for all of them.
Casting is a philosophy, or an art, more than a science. You can no more write a spell down in a book than you can capture the essence of creativity. There are teachings, hints, tips – but no straightforward recipe for results. That’s why hardened battle mages like Grave here are worth far more than their weight in gold.
Grave has labelled thousands of spells, but instead of making up new words, because Grave’s mute he uses a bespoke sign-language. When this man wiggles his fingers, the gods themselves get nervous. He is a nexus of power. He is the eye of the storm.”
“He’s tiny,” chirped Ricky.
“He’s tiny,” Echo agreed, “but so is the uranium in an atom bomb. Don’t let his slender frame fool you.
“Why’s he just sitting there?” asked Kelly.
“Well, we find ourselves in a tight spot here,” Echo explained, “which Grave is puzzling out. Up above us somewhere, is a squad of Keshan slavers looking for you guys. Had you slid out on the surface, it would have been a straight fire-fight to rescue you, which would have left a lot of you dead.”
The sliders got that scared look back.
“Oh yes,” Echo continued, “its all laughs and jokes and story-time down here in the cave, but don’t let that fool you. We are slap bang in the middle of a world-war front-line. We are in a cave, in the middle of no-man’s land – with enough weapons either side to blow London off the map. Getting us out of this, all still breathing, is no mean feat and sadly Grave doesn’t have the right spell handy to pull off the rack. This job needs a custom build – and that’s what he’s sitting there quietly working on.
“When’s he going to be done?” asked a newly vocal slider, one of the tourists judging by her European accent.
At that precise moment Grave opened his eyes and rose smoothly to his feet.
“Now,” finished Echo with a grin.
There was a buzz of scared, excited cow noises in the cavern, with a few scattered words from Kelly, Ricky and the new girl, Heidi.
Echo and Grave conversed in quick, silent sign-language for a minute or so, while the sliders watched them and bit at their fingernails.
What happened next happened fast. Echo asked all the sliders to crowd together into the smallest space they could. Then Echo tossed a gun to Grave. Grave walked up to the group, pressed his empty hand to the floor, wiggled those fingers, put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Rather than splattering his brains across the cave it caused a wire thin spike of rock to stab upwards, out of the ground, between Grave’s fingers, reaching about twenty feet into the air. Grave repeated this process every couple of feet, moving in a circle around the sliders until they were penned in by these thin rock columns.
Standing back, Grave wiggled both hands in the air. The air temperature in the cavern dropped fast enough to make the sliders scream. Every breath became a plume of icy vapour. The rock columns bent in unison, coming together to twine in the centre, above the sliders heads.
Echo and Grave both scampered up the bars to stand on the roof of this new cage. Echo hauled manacles out of his pack and firmly attached Grave’s ankles to the cage. While he did this, Grave pulled out a couple of grenades; tucked one into each armpit, pulled the pins and wiggled his fingers again. A burst of dust exploded out from beneath the circumference of the cage.
Casting aside the used grenades, Grave took more. Again they went under the arm-pits. This time he detonated one a second after the other, the first’s power was directed by Grave at the rooftop – blowing the hole wide enough to fit the cage through, the second at forming an invisible energy shield over the cage to protect them from falling debris.
Once the debris had finished crashing to the cave floor, they were off like a rocket, quite literally. Echo passed a tiny technological looking box to Grave, who flicked open the cover, wiggled his fingers and turned the handle. The cage launched into the air, without stuttering, lurching or wobbling. There was no sound, or heat, or vibration. The cage simply accelerated up and out of the cave, through the hole in the roof and onwards into the sky.
Some small arms fire followed them, which was returned by Echo, one arm holding him fast to the flying cage while the other let off pot-shots at the enemy on the ground. Once the propulsion died off, it was only a matter of physics before their trajectory curved off and the cage began to plunge towards the ground.
By redirecting the energy of the plummet into heating the cool air surrounding them, Grave slowed their descent and steered the cage down to a gentle landing.
Echo was on the radio before they touched down and the Abbland trucks came rolling over the hilltop before the sliders had finished examining their various bumps and bruises.
Had that been that, the sliders all sent safely home, it would’ve just been another glorious episode in the illustrious career of Echo and Grave. But as one of the sliders rescued turned out to be Sylvester Kelly, the man who became the Alchemist, it’s become permanently inscribed in the annals of Thaull history.