132. All At Sea

I was wet, which wasn’t surprising since I was in the middle of an ocean. I had no recollection of how I got here. I remembered jumping into a black, swirling void, which probably wasn’t the best idea I’d ever had.

Admittedly, the alternative was to stay where I was and wait for the spires of Fengarad to blast me into pieces. 

I remembered telling everyone to jump. Did they? Judging by the vast, empty ocean surrounding me, apparently not, although that didn’t explain what happened to Jenny, whose hand I had definitely grasped before leaping.

One moment I was hurling myself into the void, the next I was floating on the surface of large swells, white spray slapping me in the face.

I’m not the greatest of swimmers but I can keep my head above water. In a swimming pool. I’ve never been a great fan of the sea as I’ve always felt it could quite easily kill me. Every time I opened my mouth to gasp for breath, the sea rushed in. It tasted foul.

I splashed my way around to look in all directions but only saw water and more water. The undulating waves lifted me up and down making it hard to see very far for very long. When I was raised up, all I saw were waves and more waves.

There was plenty of light, although no sun to speak of. The sky was a uniform white, but with no shape. I couldn’t tell if it was a very even blanket of cloud cover or a painted ceiling.

Was this Nekromel?I had assumed the Underworld, the home of demons, would be full of fire and brimstone.  Perhaps I’d been hit by the Fengarad weapon and passed onto the afterlife? Forever treading water in an endless ocean sounded like the kind of punishment a petty God would hand out, and all gods are petty (you’re a god, why are you harassing mere mortals?).

Or perhaps this was some other world I now had to navigate my way through. Welcome to Level 2?

Out of curiosity I manipulated my fingers and created a ball of light. At least magic worked the same way here. Not that it would prevent me from drowning.

I spat the salty water out of my mouth and tried not to use up too much energy. Being rescued by a passing fishing boat didn’t seem very likely, but I knew nothing of this world so no point making assumptions.

The thought of fishermen did put one idea in my head that I rather wouldn’t have swimming around up there, especially not to the theme tune from Jaws.

Sharks might not even exist in this world for all I knew, but if this place was of a similar fantasy-bent as the last place, there were probably far more disturbing forms of aquatic life sharing the water with me. 

I lay on my back and stared up at the whiteness. If a large fin was headed in my direction, what good would it do to see it coming? Not like I could outswim it.

As I lay there, bobbing up and down, thinking about whether it would be better to be eaten alive or just let myself drown, a black dot appeared in the sky.

It rapidly grew bigger, swirling the whiteness around it. 

The swirling vortex wasn’t directly above me and I started swimming towards it—maybe it was  a portal out of this place. I stopped when I saw six small objects fall out of the hole. At least, they looked small from where I was. They were, in fact, human-sized because they were people. Or, to be more specific, it was my party. To be even more specific, it was my party including me.

I was seeing myself fall. I was far enough away to make details hard to see, but I didn’t need to be able to see faces to recognise myself and the other five members of my group.

It was an odd sensation to see myself from a distance. It was definitely me with Jenny falling beside me and the others just behind.

What I was seeing was what I would expect to have happened after I jumped, but why was I seeing it now? If I had gained a new ability that enabled me to see things from my past, I would say that was a particularly crappy power. Most people can do that—it’s called a memory. Admittedly, not many people get to see their memories acted out in front of them, but then most people don’t need it because they remember it happening.

The strange thing was, it didn’t feel like I was watching a recording, I felt like I was watching it really happen. Only, for some reason, there were two of me.

You might expect someone in my position to be all confused and take a fair amount of head-scratching to figure out what was going on, but that’s only if the person had never seen an episode of Star Trek or any number of crappy sci-fi shows.

I was seeing us fall through the vortex that had appeared in Cheng’s castle. I was seeing it from a perspective that should have been impossible.

Uncle Pete had mentioned how the weapon in the spires ‘displaced’ people. He didn’t say it split them into two. Or that it put one of them forward in time.

If it was a form of time travel, then that raised a number of questions. And if you’re familiar with time travel from tv shows and movies, you’ll know those questions all have stupid answers that make very little sense.

No one actually understands how time works, so the explanation is always convoluted bullshit. Quazak particles and geodesic paradox waves? Please go fuck yourself.  

I hate time travel. Hate, hate, hate it. Worst trope in sci-fi.

The Starship Enterprise explodes right at the beginning of the episode and what do you think? Oh no, they’ll have to cancel the show… No. You immediately know it’s going to be some kind of time-loop. Which means nothing matters. 

Whatever happens can be undone. Major characters can die, and then come back to life when the loop is reset. The whole thing is just pointless.

Even worse is when the time traveller forgets to use his ability. If Dr Who fails, he can just get in his time machine, go back and try again. If one of his friends dies, go back and save them. Spill some coffee on your white coat? Go back and don’t spill it. The savings on dry cleaning alone would make it worthwhile. 

In my case, however, if being able to see things from a different point in time gave me an advantage, I was all for abusing the hell out of it. About time I got some kind of OP ability. I just needed to figure out how to use it to my advantage. 

As I watched myself—the other one—fall, I started swimming towards me. This became increasingly difficult as the wind had picked up and the water had become more choppy. 

The swirling hole created a funnel of air which was spinning my party like Dorothy and Toto. The water surged upwards in a spout. The mountainside of water presented an insurmountable slope for me. I slid back, was dragged under, enveloped and twisted, then propelled back to the surface. I managed a single, desperate breath of air before being swallowed again.

I was caught in a whirlpool, spinning out of control, unable to tell which way was up. I kicked and clawed at the wall of water, my chest burning. 

I broke the surface, thrashing to stay on top of the black swells, expecting to be forced under again. A monstrous rolling wave decided to send me in the other direction. I rose high on its foam crest, away from the twister.

The last I saw of my party were them dropping out of sight on the other side of Mount H2O. And then the water was flat again.

It all disappeared in an instance. The mountainous wave, the tornado above it, the black hole in the sky. One moment they were there, next they weren’t. The sounds, the buffetting waves, the wild winds, all gone.

And the wave whose crest I was riding was also gone. I hung in mid-air for a moment, able to see far into the distance, able to see no signs of any other person, and then I plummetted. 

The water rushed to envelop me once more as I crashed through the surface, the impact painful on my feet and legs.

I travelled down into the depths, to where the light didn’t reach and only darkness surrounded me. I kicked and clawed again until finally my head pushed clear of the water, breath heaving from my lungs in convulsive gasps and I sucked down air in a howling gasp.

Once I calmed down and got my breathing under control, I threw up. That much salt water combined with being tossed around didn’t make for a settled tummy.

There wasn’t any food in my stomach so mostly it was retching and coughing. My eyes were full of tears, my throat was on fire and I had no strength left. I didn’t know where I was, just that I was alone. I didn’t know where the others were, except that they weren’t here.

Maybe it wasn’t time travel. Maybe I had been pushed into a different dimension, or at least part of me had, and I was just an observer. The others would carry on with their adventures with the real me, and this-me would be stuck on his own in the Twilight Zone. 

My options were fairly limited. I could swim in the direction I’d seen the others fall and hope somehow they were there, waiting for me, or I could just wait to die. Option two seemed like it would take less effort, which is always a big plus in my book. 

Even if I knew the correct direction to swim in, I didn’t think the others would be in the water. The way the vortex had popped out of existence had felt like a door closing. They were gone. 

What I really needed was a friendly mermaid to give me a hand. Take me to a tropical island where I’d train a monkey to be my butler and I’d build a car with watermelons for wheels.

I could try to summon a fish to help me, but I was just as likely as to call a passing halibut, and I wasn’t sure how much help that would be. Mind you, it would be something to eat, although if the fish screamed like they did in Flatland, then eating it alive would be a traumatising experience for us both.

Of course, what I summoned wouldn’t necessarily be harmless. But then, at least if I called the nearest predator to come get me, it would all be over fairly quickly.

Previously, when I used my fish-calling ability, I was happy for it to work on anything in the water. I never tried to summon a specific type of fish. What if I tried to call for a helpful fish?

The concept of ‘helpful fish’ is probably not that common outside of a Disney movie, but dolphins have been known to help people so if I could contact one…

It wasn’t like I had anything else to do, so I cleared my mind, took a deep breath and let myself sink under the surface. 

There was no sign of life under the water. The depths below me receded into darkness and nothing swam around within my vision. I made a ball of light and tried to send it down, but it kept trying to rise to the surface. It didn’t illuminate anything so I let it go up. 

If there was something down there, I would have to just hope it wasn’t hungry. I made  the finger movements to attract fish and tried my hardest to project a desire for help.

I fully expected it to work and call forth a leviathan of the sea to devour me whole. Maybe a giant squid.

After what was probably thirty seconds I had the sudden urge to breathe and swam back to the surface. Once I gulped down some air, I stuck my face back into brine and blinked through my stinging eyeballs.

Nothing had changed. The murk was still just as murky and nothing moved. Perhaps this sea held no life. A big tub of water for me to float around in until I grew too tired.

I dived back under and rather than letting myself drift downwards, I swam into the depths. No sound, no light. I repeated the hand signals and tried to send out a request for help. I wasn’t sure how to word it and the thought crystallised into, “Hello? Anyone there?”

The movement in the dark below me was hard to distinguish at first; black on black. I made a ball of light and did my best to keep it close to me.

The glistening eyes were the first things to take shape. Lots of eyes. I counted eight each the size of a beachball dotted along the rim of an enormous circular head, and then the claw-like mandibles around the eyes took most of my attention.

I decided to swim back to the surface. Quickly. Not that I would be any safer but at least my lungs wouldn’t burst before the rest of me

My head broke the surface and I drew several breaths, waiting for the inevitable clamping of jaws or whatever around my lower parts. 

Nothing happened.

Out of curiosity, I put my face back in the water. 

The creature was floating below me, just hanging there. It had a long body that stretched back into the darkness. It had a hard, rigid body, segmented like a lobster or crab, but no legs as far as I could see. There was the suggestion of tentacles, but the water was too dark that far down to see clearly.

I’m no filthy weeaboo, but I’ve seen enough tentacle hentai to be wary of monsters with ophidian limbs. I kept my distance.

It seemed to be staring at me, although with eight eyes it probably always seemed to be staring at something. It didn’t look like it was going to eat me, not right away at least. What did it want?

Sssstrange thing to ask. You called me.

The words appeared in my head, the sound like something you might expect to come out of the crack of a slightly open coffin lid. A chill ran through me.

Hello? I thought back. If it was capable of telepathic communication and the translator worked here, then I felt I should at least be polite. Good manners cost nothing. My name’s Colin.

Greetingsss, Colin. I am Wyndam. Did you want sssomething?

Yes, I thought. Could you tell me where I am?

You’re in the water. 

I don’t think he meant to be a smart-arse, he was just being literal.

Is there any land nearby?

Dependsss what you mean by nearby. 

How long would it take to swim there?

Dependsss how fast you can ssswim.

It was a reasonably amiable conversation, but it wasn’t getting me anywhere.

Could you give me a ride?

I don’t think ssso. I’m very busy.

The water shook as a blast of sound rose from the depths. It was like a muted trumpet played right next to your ear. It had a weird melodic quality to it.

What was that? I asked.

Uhhhh, thought Wyndam. That’s my wife mating call. I have to go before she findsss me.

Oh, do you not get on?

You know how it isss. You get tired of the sssame old sssong eventually. Nobody’sss fault.

He sounded quite depressed about it.

You sing songs? I know some songs I could teach you.

I don’t thinks ssso. I know all the sssongsss already. I love sssinging.

Have you heard this one? I sang, or rather thought-sang, ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’.

Unlike Flossie, I don’t have a very good memory for song lyrics. I can sing along when it’s on the radio, but if I try it cold with no assist, my mind suddenly goes blank. Nursery rhymes, however, are very easy to recall.

I finished the song and waited for a response. There wasn’t one. I tried to think of something a bit more catchy.

I’ve… I’ve never heard anything like it. He sounded stunned. 

Why don’t you try singing it? I suggested.

I couldn’t. I mean, it’s your sssong…

I don’t mind. Go ahead.

Wyndam sang. It wasn’t exactly the same as my version, but it was close, sort of. The water around us reverberated with the sound coming out of his beak-like mouth. Even though the words were being transmitted into my mind, the song was also being sung physically.

It was a deep and sonorous rendition that I’m sure Mozart would have been very pleased with. I mean, obviously he would shit himself, but the artist in him would appreciate the interpretation.

Thank you. I enjoyed that.

No problem. Feel free to sing it anytime you want. 

You don’t mind? I’ve never heard of anyone willing to give away one of their sssongsss.

You can have it.

Really? You’d give it to me?

All yours. I have plenty more. Perhaps you’d like to hear them? In exchange for a lift to the nearest land mass? Is it a deal? Only we’ll have to stay on the surface.

Oh, you’re one of those mouth-breathersss? I never thought your kind really  existed. Live and learn.

Wyndam rose to the surface and his true size became apparent. He could easily have been mistaken for a small island. I clambered onto his back. The carapace was hard and shell-like. Once I was on board, I felt much better, glad to be out of the water. 

Better, that is, until we started to move. The tentacles stretching out behind us pulsed and we shot forward at ridiculous speed. Water crashed over me, threatening to wash me overboard, and I grabbed something which I hoped wasn’t too personal and held on for dear life.

The good thing about telepathy is that the deafening roar of the water being pushed aside didn’t make it any harder to communicate. I entertained Wyndam with a number of nursery rhymes, each a startling discovery for the leviathan. 

It took several hours and just about every children’s ditty I could think of before I sighted land. A beach, uninhabited as far as I could tell, that led to hills beyond which I couldn’t see. I did ask Wyndam a  number of questions about what I might find on the land, but he didn’t seem to know or care.

Having given permission to Wyndam to use the songs I taught him as though they were his own—he was amazed I would give away such precious ballads as ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’ and ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’—I swam to shore and found myself back on dry land.

When I turned around I saw a solitary tentacle wave from far out at sea. 

I stripped off my clothes, which were soaked, and lay down on the sandy beach. The sky was still white, and there was no sun as far as I could tell, but there was a  warmth emanating from somewhere that dried me out and did the same for my clothing.

I didn’t have any weapons and once again I was without a spoon. I made a mental note to put the next spoon on a chain and wear it round my neck.

After about ten minutes of lying there, immobile, I sat up and looked around. I would have to find something to eat. 

I stood up and looked out to sea. I assumed the others were not out there and there was no point waiting for them. And even if they were out there, there was no guarantee they would end up here. 

They were on their own and so was I, but I still felt like leaving them a message, just in case. I found some twigs and stones lying about and formed them into an arrow pointing in the direction I planned to take. 

As I walked over the hills that bordered the beach, ahead of me there was a vast grassy plain. There were no buildings and few trees, but I did stumble across a track. It was clearly made by some kind of vehicle, the two parallel ruts suggesting wheels, but whether that meant people or beasts or something with wheels for legs, it was impossible to tell.

I was used to travelling along endless roads, not knowing where they were leading me.  I chose a direction at random and set off. The biggest piece of wood I could find was a rotten branch about the length of my arm. Not the deadliest of weapons, but it was better than nothing.

I kept an eye out for signs of life but saw nothing. Not just a lack of people, but also birds and animals. There was an empty, barren feel to the place which was a bit depressing. On the plus side, fewer critters meant fewer things trying to kill me. 

Still, I was getting quite hungry and even some berries would have been nice.

My first sight of something other than grass was a hut I spotted after about an hour of walking. Even from a distance, it’s square shape gave away that it was a constructed building of some kind. I felt both apprehensive and relieved. 

If this was Nekromel, the Underworld Uncle Pete was so scared of, chances were the inhabitants were not going to be pleased to see me. But there was no reason to believe Peter. He could be wrong and this place could be full of wonderful, warm people full of hospitality. 

On the off-chance this wasn’t the case, I approached the building in a crouch, staying low in the long grass.

The hut wasn’t very sophisticated in its construction, no more than a shack really.  There was a door and windows on the side. There was no activity, but voices drifted out of an open window.

I crawled on all fours until I was under the window and listened.

“Don’t be so upset,” said a female voice. “These things happen. Sometimes the one you think you’re meant to be with isn’t the one. Me and your father, we were lucky. We knew right away. We both felt the same, we wanted the same things.”

“I know but—” The speaker sounded like a teenage boy.

“No, no buts. If she isn’t willing, then that’s an end to it. You can’t force someone to have feelings for you. I know it hurts but it won’t forever.”

“But I love her,” the boy insisted.

“And she don’t love you. End of story.  Understand?”

There was a noise that sounded like a reluctant acceptance. It was a surprisingly normal conversation between a mother and her son, or so it seemed. I hadn’t actually seen the speakers, so they could turn out to be hideous demons. But demons with normal family issues.

“Now then,” said the female voice, “what you need to do is take your knife and find Jerala before she can tell anyone she broke it off with you. You may not belong together, but that’s no reason for everyone else to know. Kill her quick and hide the body in the old gorge.”

So much for normal family problems. These people were monsters, whatever they looked like.

“What you doing?” said a voice behind me.

I turned to find a small child, human in every way as far as I could tell, staring at me.

“Oh, hey,” I said, trying to sound friendly and unthreatening. 

The kid just stared at me. He was wearing a sleeveless leather jerkin making him look like a tiny hard man. His hair was shaved, giving him a big, round Charlie Brown head. He couldn’t have been more than four or five. He reminded me of Attica.

“My name’s Colin. What’s your name?”

“Get away from him!” the woman’s voice screeched from behind me.

I stood up and turned around. The woman was leaning out of the window with a large cleaver in her hand. She had a gaunt, stretched face, but looked like a normal human female.

“Who are you? What do you want?”

“Nothing,” I said. “I’m lost. Really, I don’t know where I am. I don’t mean you any harm.”

She eyed me suspiciously. “How long were you out here? What did you hear?”

“Nothing. I didn’t hear anything.” It didn’t sound very convincing.

A teenage boy came running around the side of the shack carrying an axe. Normally, I might try to convince them to help me, but having heard their conversation, I didn’t think there was much point. Better to get out of there as quickly as possible.

“Don’t let him get away,” said the woman. 

The teenage boy shifted the axe to an upright position and approached me. 

I raised my hands and let off a bright white light, blinding both him and the woman. I turned to run and was met by an intense pain in my midriff.

The small boy had stabbed me with a dagger. I felt it go in cold and then a burst of heat filled my body and my senses.

The kid had his jerkin open and the inside was lined with knives of various sizes.

My legs crumbled under me and I fell to my knees. Another blade sliced into my heart. The pain was excruciating. I couldn’t breathe. My vision narrowed to a thin corridor, then to a point. 

The kid drew another dagger and stabbed me again, but I didn’t feel it. 

I always thought death wouldn’t be that big a deal for me. Like going to sleep, you lose consciousness and it’s over. Sure, the manner of death was a concern, but the actual ending of life was something that was going to happen whether you liked it or not. Freaking out about it wouldn’t make a difference.

I was wrong. It was terrifying. The darkness wasn’t just closing in, it was coming for me. I wanted to scream but I had no voice. I wanted to run but I couldn’t move. From the edges of my mind came laughter. My own madness? Someone waiting for me?

Absolute blackness enveloped me.

There was a roaring sound. Then a rush of air. A warmth squeezed my hand. I opened my eyes.

Below me was a rapidly approaching ocean. I looked to the side. Jenny was beside me, her hand in mine. Over my shoulder, I saw the others looking terrified. 

I was falling, but I was alive. 

I love time travel. Love, love, love it.

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