Cú stood on a mountain ridge, with his muscular arm outstretched, gripping a wooden spear that poured itself into the soil. As he extended it, strange, exotic amulets adorned his wrists and forearm, the spoils of unknown, half-remembered wars. Scratches on the bronze bracelets and timeworn grooves in the leather of his warrior dress were like scars. Certainly, Cú would take more loot and seize more trinkets in future skirmishes. When the din of battle quietened, they would be mute symbols of his power, of how far he had come.
Before taking in the view from the mountain top, Cú had felt momentarily disorientated, displaced. It was as if his vision had skipped a frame. There had been a jolt and then he was himself again. In this interruptive fold, he sensed a higher power hovering behind him, one that could sometimes be seen through a glowing veil of tired eyes and standards of power covered in buttons, not jewels. Then, he was suddenly not himself again. Launching Éan, a bird that flitted and looked, a bundle of feathers and eyes, the warrior was able to see through the winged animal how the land curved luxuriously and called invitingly, much like the seductresses on the Isle of Apples, with their arched backs and red lips. There was no jolt when he saw them, just open-eyed staring, framed beauty. Éan crawed, and the sound burrowed into the rocks, making ripples in the world’s core. Was Cú always Cú? Where did his urge to jump and fire arrows into the sun come from? Why did his inner voice speak in the rattle of squares and triangles instead of words, did his ancestors speak in pictures and shapes?
There was no time to answer. What he had been waiting for arrived. Masses of appearing and disappearing entities ran across the esoteric plains, those infinite paths that, when you reached a certain point, stretched even further into the distance. Above their heads, names in white font crowned them. Strangers from foreign lands called TexasCowboy77, gun-wielding aliens under the banner of momsbasement24x56, and snipers that dispensed death under the flag of Neckbeard2000. Their flat, expressionless faces gave no indication that they were speaking to one another, uttering expletives and cursing mothers in a hail of purple-tinged plasma rounds and a tornado of maces laden with grenades. Their morse code was the rat-a-tat of gunfire, and every cracked piece of code spelt murder.
There seemed to be other worlds, but they were inaccessible to him. They seeped into his sphere, but he was held back by an invisible wall that circled his domain, impeded by the will of impish demons. No sword could be moved against them, and Cú’s anger deepened and hardened. His hate had begun with the wet spraying of futile commands and had ended in the fossilized resin of ancient hatreds.
Cú had to be that last man standing. These foes were killed but then respawned. They would have to die five times, and each time, their lifeforce ebbed away in ever-depleting circles, smiling as they became 50% of themselves, 20%, then nothing. Cú, however, had only one life, one that had started with a jolt, and which would not end on these plains, whose dry grass was made indigo from blood, under the stretching orange sky. White clouds bespeckled it, like flecks of chicken stuck to a feasting god’s mouth, like grains of dust on a TV screen. The strangers, in their helmets and googles, saw the word differently. To some, the world revealed itself smoothly. For the others, it convulsed and juddered in a way that suggested it was in the throes of being created for the very first time.
As these bastard enemies fell, they had the good grace to dissolve into nothingness, allowing Cú to loot whatever was left behind. While his iron will helped raise his weapons and soak them in blood, he was able to keep going for so long through periodically wolfing down salmon ball power-ups, which he stored in a satchel of infinite space. As the soft fish dissolved on his tongue, Cú heard music trumpet from nowhere, his body rioted as bigger muscles pushed through his skin and asserted themselves, and he roared the great roar as the seeds of promise inflated, as they blossomed into realization.
When the last of the alien waves had been dealt with, he regretted that there was no head left to mount as a trophy, no token to be left as a warning on the edges of his kingdom.
Except there was one foe left behind. Through ill winds and bad portents, the stars sometimes misaligned, and phenomena called glitches disturbed the balance of the world. In this particular instance, the dead enemy was halfway stuck into the ground, with its head grotesquely bobbing back and forth, producing no sound as it dully bounced between the ground and air above it. Even placing a red barrel near his head and blowing it up with an arrow could not make it disappear. Thus, his seat at his Otherworld’s table would stay empty, with no heroic body to fill the empty space, no presence to shape the grain of the wood. The empty chair would be repurposed by nature, evolved into an amplifier of his compatriots’ good fortune, the ones who had made it there.
What was this kingdom? There were the caves of Na nÓg, with their 8-bit drawings on the walls, splotches and dollops of form that conspired to represent something real. It was there the goatherders played their reed pipes, and these bearded men manipulated their limited range of chords to make crude symphonies. Their gnarled fingers danced over the pipe’s holes, playing gatekeeper to the wind that blew through the vessel. Play the right tune, legend said, and the rocks of those very caves would open up and let you into hidden passages and dragon’s gold. Stepping into the nether required a torch, a blazing beacon that bridged the dark interior and the curiosity in the wanderer’s eyes. The only other sources of light were glowing chests and backlit switches, on walls and the ground, that drew a person in even deeper.
Cú took no stock of underground worlds and instead wandered around the villages of his lands. They dotted the horizon, and Éan was the first sign the villagers had of the warrior’s arrival. The lotus eaters spoke in staccato, unmoving ways. Their tongues were a path and their words kept to it, never daring to set foot into an open, uninhibited conversation. Cú could sometimes penetrate their mental fog and break bread with their unpolluted beings, garnering key information for missions. But once the light was offered up, they fell back into their guttural, vacant stupor. The animal gods they worshipped had taken possession of them.
The village’s Soothsayer deigned to send Cú on meandering side quests. Cú would spit on the ground, and his pale saliva prepared that very soil for burial – the burying of rubies and beans and all things that distracted the warrior from defending against the invasion. There would be space enough in those pockets of earth for the heads of those who set against him, where the only growing thing would be his reputation for ruthlessness.
Cú’s favourite peasant was the Smith. His gnarled hands worked metal and wood with equal skill. The forest and the forge were contained within him, a heart of green and a belly of fire, born under branch and hammer. He never left his crafting station, where he made for Cú the weapons of Armageddon.
One day, underneath the bludgeonings of chance, whatever gods may be expanded Cú’s world and the threats in it. He blinded the cyclops, using his spear like a needle to thread the fabric of eternal darkness, and he calmed the waves of the angry sea god by dancing on the foaming tips of the water, becoming a translucent being navigating maritime respirations, massaging the heaving chest of rage.
And so, the threats had been vanquished, the castle recaptured, and the princess saved. Her dark pupils transmuted into two red love hearts, and her whole being pulsated in an extended ending, a moment stuck in time. Cú’s forearm welcomed another bracelet, and its straps crept up his skin, resting upon his veins, everything fixed into place.
Then, the all-conquering warrior started feeling the stirrings of another jolt. The pressing of buttons; the fading breath of a cosmic machine coming to rest, unplugged, vacant; an absent face from beyond the veil. Cú’s cycle lurching into a point, on the cusp of folding over again, a rebirth paved by loot, plasma, and one man standing tall against waves of pillaging spectres. A divot in the ground missing its spear, the orange sky unblinking in the void of a spearhead, curved like a jagged triangle.
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Categories: Poetry/Short Fiction
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